Throughout my childhood, I longed for a dog. I could be a very single-hearted child when I wanted something, and this was something I very much wanted. Day after day, I followed my mother around the house making arguments in favor of dog ownership. I must have been persuasive, because despite the fact that we were clearly not a Dog Family in any way, we did in fact get a dog for a short time in 1965, when I was in the first grade. My mother’s friend Helen had a dog that my mother liked, and that dog had puppies. My mother agreed that we could have one of the puppies.
I was over the moon with excitement. We went to Helen’s house so that I could choose my new dog. Five puppies were jumping around in her basement, yipping with excitement. One in particular was trying to get all of our attention and really showing off. He looked like a much too self-confident dog for me; I instantly identified with the sixth dog, a female who was back in the corner just trying to stay out of the fray. My mom and Helen tried to talk me into taking the rambunctious and friendly boy dog, but I chose the shy girl and we brought her home.
My mother named her after my brothers’ girlfriends, Connie and Jean. Looking back, this strikes me as an odd choice. While my mother wasn’t a big fan of Jean, both of my parents were already very fond of Connie, so much so that I often wrote on tear-stained pages in my diary that they probably preferred Connie to me in the daughter category. (Clearly, I needed the adoration of a dog to boost my low self-esteem.) At the time, I didn’t think too much about the choice of name, but I do wonder now what my mother was thinking. She may have thought it was an amusing joke and all in good fun, and yet I think she would not have been pleased to have a dog named after her.
In the end, it was a moot point, because Connie Jean did not stay with us for long. My mother wanted to do right by this dog, and so she purchased a dog bed and an alarm clock. (The “How to Have a Dog” book that my mother checked out of the library advocated the clock in order to fool Connie Jean into thinking she was still with her mother. I thought Connie Jean looked far too intelligent to confuse a cold metal clock with a warm furry mommy, but the authors of the book exuded confidence, and what did we know?) Despite my mother’s best efforts, though, Connie Jean whined and cried all night every night; no doubt she was missing her dog family back at Helen’s house. After all, she had abruptly been moved from a large basement where she was surrounded by her mother and her siblings to a small bed in our dark kitchen. While the symphony of wailing, barking and whining was playing itself out every night in our kitchen, I was sound asleep in my bed, leaving my siblings and mother to deal with the dog. After a few such sleepless nights for everyone in the household except me, my mother’s vision of dog ownership crashed headlong into the actual concrete reality of Connie Jean. In less than a week, Connie Jean was on her way back to Helen’s.
I was bereft when Connie Jean left, but I was stoic about it. I could see that this dog was a very unhappy creature with sad eyes who merely looked on listlessly if I tried throwing a ball to her. She behaved as if I had taken her from the only family she had ever loved, which was actually true. I didn’t go with my mother to return Connie Jean to Helen’s house, but I heard that she perked right up when she saw her siblings romping around in Helen’s basement. I hoped even then that whoever adopted her next had a much better sense of what they were doing than any of us did.
Once Connie Jean came and then left, I knew that my odds of ever getting a dog again were not good. Even though the reality of Connie Jean had been a lot more stressful and a lot less fun than I had imagined, I still wanted a dog. I decided that Connie Jean had just been the wrong dog. My dog was still out there somewhere. I did have the good sense not to say anything about it right away, not while my mother was dismantling the dog bed, putting the alarm clock on a shelf and returning the “How to Have a Dog” book to the Wauwatosa Public Library. After a suitable period of recovery from Connie Jean, though, I began following my mother around the house again, begging for a dog. I refused to give up, but I didn’t have much hope. My sense was that the Dog Ship had sailed for me.
To my astonishment, I did get another dog five years later. Cheddar came to me as the result of the stock market and some cocktails. My dad had purchased shares of a stock called Conroy. I do not know what Conroy was, or what they made. But my father, who very much wanted to make money on Conroy, made a rash announcement: he told me that if Conroy went to 25 (I think my father bought it at around 2), he would buy me a dog and name him Conroy. Maybe he was making a bargain with the universe; I have no idea. I didn’t care how it came about; the news was that I was going to get another dog—the right dog this time.
I immediately learned how to read the stock pages of the Chicago Tribune. I am pretty sure that I was the only ten year old in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin who started her day by perusing the American Stock Exchange listings in the newspaper. Every single day for two years, I ran to get the paper in the morning, grabbed the “Business Section” and looked up Conroy. My dedication never waned, even though Conroy slid for months and months between 2 and 7. 25 did not look likely; in fact, 25 did not even look like a longshot; nonetheless, I kept watch. Unbeknownst to me, my dad had cut his losses after about a year and sold his shares in Conroy. Had I known that my father no longer had a financial stake in the ups and downs of this stock, I would have persisted anyway, since the deal he made with me depended on Conroy rising to 25; nowhere was it stipulated that my father would own it when that happened.
And then it happened. One morning about two years after my dad’s Conroy Promise, I opened up the Chicago Tribune and there it was: Conroy was at 25! Beside myself with excitement, I ran upstairs to tell my dad. I burst into my mom and dad’s bedroom and interrupted my father’s very sound sleep, waving the Tribune Business page around and crying out, “Conroy is 25! Conroy is 25!” My father was a good deal less thrilled by this news than I was.
Even with my dad’s promise in hand, I understood that my position was a precarious one; I was getting a dog only if (1) my father remembered his promise and (2)chose to honor it. When he made this promise to me, no doubt my dad imagined himself so happy with his large profit that getting me a dog would be a grand statement of largesse. Having Conroy hit 25 long after he sold it was not the scene he had pictured. I knew enough at this age to understand that when it came to my father, his promise would be kept if he wanted to keep it; if he didn’t, then nothing I could do or say was going to change that. As the months passed, I started resigning myself to the fact that absolutely no moves were being made in the direction of getting a dog.
One morning about a year after I had given up hope, my mother woke me up; she had Big News. We had a dog. When I had gone to bed the night before, I had no dog and no real hope of a dog. And then, in the space of just one night, there he was: Cheddar. Cheddar was nothing like any dog I wanted; he was already six years old; he already had a name and he was a big dog, a golden retriever. I had always wanted a small dog, a puppy who would fit on my lap and snuggle when I was reading in bed. But a dog was a dog, after all, so I went downstairs to meet him. Cheddar looked at me rather balefully as I reached out tentatively to pat his head. To my eleven-year-old self, he seemed more like a large cranky pony than a Beloved Companion.
How, I asked my mother, did I come to have this giant old dog, and why wasn’t his name Conroy? With a sort of grim humor, my mother reminded me that she and my dad had gone out the night before to have dinner with their friends Rollie and Ann Meissner. “Yee…sss,” I responded. “And…?” After all, my parents dined out with friends on many occasions and had never before come home with a dog. “Well,” my mom said, “Rollie’s son is in the middle of a divorce, and he has to move. His new landlord does not allow dogs, so he needed to find a new place for his dog.” Kindhearted as they could both be now and then, I knew that my parents were emphatically not dog-rescue people. Then my mom made everything clear. “Your father had a few cocktails with dinner, and the next thing I knew, we were putting this dog in our car.” Ah, I thought. We all knew that when my father had a few cocktails, the laws of the Maloney Universe went a bit Off the Rails, often with interesting results.
However he had come to me, I knew in my bones that it was Cheddar or nothing. I was going to have to make this giant crabby dog my dog, and I was determined to be up to the task. I could tell that my mother was not entirely pleased to be a dog owner once again; in fact, when my father woke up, her attitude was, “Well, now you’re in for it. Let’s see if you even remember that you became a dog owner last night.”
My father did not feel at all good when he work up that morning. I didn’t know the word “hangover” at the time, but I knew that on some mornings it was wise to keep a very good distance between myself and my father. This was one of those mornings. I don’t know whether my father did, indeed, recall bringing a dog home, but he put a brave face on it once he was out of bed. Together, we went to the Garden and Pet Store down the street and bought a bowl, some food, a leash and a collar. We were officially dog owners.
My dad really tried to carry off this “we have a dog” thing. Cheddar was a purebred golden retriever and my father talked at length about his vision of sitting by the hearth while a fire roared and his loyal dog sat contentedly at his feet. The reality of Cheddar, unfortunately, did not live up to my father’s expectations. Cheddar did not like his food, he barked at every person who walked down the street in front of our house, he wagged his big tail in the near vicinity of my mother’s expensive knick-knacks, and—worst of all—he focused every ounce of his attention and passion on escaping our house whenever an opportunity presented itself so that he could have inappropriate relations with every female dog within a ten mile radius of our house. I don’t know what sort of temperament Cheddar had when he came to us, but the Cheddar we knew was sneaky, deviant and very frisky. For the duration of Cheddar’s stay with us, the Maloneys were deeply unpopular with any of our neighbors who owned female dogs.
Cheddar did have his moments. He was always deliriously happy to see me when I walked in the back door, and I soaked up that affection. I was his favorite person, because I knew he hated his food and so constantly sneaked food to him that he loved—bacon, lunch meat—anything that wasn’t in pellet form. Over time, I started to feel more and more that Cheddar was my dog, and I was happy to have him.
My mom had also become a bit fond of Cheddar, and she treated him well. She used to remark at the incongruity of her cocktail hour: every night at 5 p.m. my mother sat down in the living room and had two cocktails. Cheddar would come right over to the couch the minute she sat down and put his head on her lap so that she would scratch his neck. She always did scratch his neck, but she would observe the irony—she spent all day cleaning, shopping, cooking and handling a household of six while Cheddar napped and barked at things outside. She used to tell him that HE should be scratching HER neck, not the other way around.
I had to be nagged sometimes, but I did mostly remember to feed my dog and take him for walks when he needed to go outside. Since Cheddar was a big dog and the neighbors already sort of hated him, I tended to let him poop in our side yard rather than when we were on our walks. This was the era before anyone had a single thought of following their dogs around with a big spoon and a plastic bag. Dogs did their business, and people more or less put up with it. In the interests of neighborly solidarity, though, we let Cheddar do his thing at home in our yard.
Being a big dog, when Cheddar had to “do his business” it was a sizeable bit of business that was done. It was my job to clean up after Cheddar. My mother had purchased brown waxy bags made specifically for this purpose; my job was to scoop up Cheddar’s “business,” place it in the bag, and put the bag in the trash can in the garage. This quickly became a much-dreaded task, and one that I would put off as long as possible. As the summertime heat intensified, our side yard turned into a nightmare of dog poop piled everywhere and festering in the heat, giant black flies everywhere, swarming around the poop, and a smell that was wafting over everything on our side of the block. As the weeks of summer passed, I procrastinated more and more, which meant that the piles of poop attracted clouds of flies and multiplied.
Finally, the day came when my mother ordered me to take care of the yard then and there. By that time, we were looking at about eighteen piles of smelly, hot, fly-infested poop, and I whole-heartedly did not want to clean it up. There I was, standing in the kitchen with my mother and my grandmother, crying because I didn’t want to deal with the Side Yard From Hell. My seventy-six year old grandmother finally said, “Look. I’ve had enough of this. I will personally clean up that entire yard if you will agree to get rid of this damned dog.” With this glimmering promise of reprieve, I agreed to the deal. As it turned out, my grandmother never did have to clean the yard; my mother did the dirty work, but she was more than glad to do it because it meant she was getting that dog out of her house.
As soon as the yard was pristine, the flies and the smell gone, I regretted my decision. A deal is a deal, though, as I knew, and my mother put an ad in the newspaper: “Golden Retriever, AKC purebred, six years old, free to good home.” Purebred Golden Retrievers are rarely given away for free, so we were swamped with phone calls from the moment the notice hit the streets. Unfortunately, just before the ad ran in the Milwaukee Journal, Cheddar ran away yet again, in search of yet another female dog to fulfill his impressive libido.
Cheddar running away was nothing new; what was new was that this time, we had a lot of people calling us about coming to see a dog who was not currently residing at our home. Summoning all of her people skills, my mother manned the phones and tried to keep callers interested in Cheddar without agreeing to arrange a visit, since there was no dog to see.
While my dad was out scouring the neighborhood for Cheddar and my mother was fielding phone calls, I was getting ready for my Girl Scout troop’s International Fair. Several weeks earlier, each Girl Scout troop at Christ King School chose a country; on the day of International Fair, we were supposed to show up at Christ King School dressed like the natives of our country. Not only were we responsible for researching native dress and headwear; we were also supposed to study the cuisine of our region and prepare a dish. I had known about this event for weeks; every time it was mentioned, I filed it away in the back of my mind with other Things I Will Think About Later. Now the day was here, and I had neither thought about it nor told my mother to think about it.
Between a missing dog and a potentially angry mob, we had very little time to put something together for the International Fair. Even in the best of times, no one at my house enjoyed projects like this one. Certainly this was not a day to think about national costumes and ethnic cuisines. I am not sure whether I actually managed to bring a dish to serve; it is more likely that my mother, in between phone calls from excited dog lovers, announced that there was a famine in my troop’s chosen country, and we would be most authentic by fasting and looking mournful. I draped a bedsheet around myself, in the hope that the native dress tradition of our land involved wrinkled layers of cotton imprinted with faded flowers and the words “Fieldcrest.”
Suitably sheeted and trying to look famished, I took off for Christ King School. I remember nothing of the actual International Fair, which is no doubt a mercy, but I do remember hoping that my father would not be able to find Cheddar, that the people calling my mother on the telephone would give up, and that I would be able to keep my dog despite my poop-centric betrayal of him.
My mother’s prayers must have been more powerful than mine. Someone had seen him, read the information on his collar and called us. Cheddar was a mess when we went to pick him up: wet, filthy and hungry. My mother was unusually willing to clean him up and feed him this time, though, because she knew that he was soon going to board a one-way train out of 2337 Swan Boulevard.
Out of all those enthusiastic callers, my mother chose a man with three daughters who owned a small farm outside town. A free golden retriever was a dream come true for them. My mother was more than happy to give them Cheddar, and their whole family drove over to pick him up. As they left with their new dog and his accessories, Cheddar was focused only on his dog dish and the excitement of an outing. The family was clearly thrilled, and Cheddar never looked back at us, even to say goodbye.
For weeks I cried at night in bed over the loss of Cheddar. Coming in the back door after school was a quiet and sad affair after so many months of being greeted by a dog who was deliriously happy to see me. The house was very still. I berated myself over and over again for having traded my dog for a chance to get out of doing the dirty work of caring for him. We had given Cheddar to a family named Foster, and I started calling all of the Fosters in our phone book at night, hoping to find the Fosters who had him and find out if he was happy and doing all right. I never did find the Fosters who had Cheddar, and I have no idea whatever became of him. Shortly before we bid farewell to Cheddar, my father quit drinking once and for all, and I knew that my days of having a dog turn up at my house after my parents enjoyed an evening out were over for good. As time went by, I came to realize that Cheddar was no doubt in a better place. As were we.