ONE SUMMER SATURDAY when I was eight, my mom decided she wanted to spend the afternoon visiting with her friend, Mary, who lived about a mile from our house. We lived on a winding country lane, with houses far apart, separated by large tracts of land. My dad was on the road.
“It’s Saturday! Can I just stay here?” I said. Normally, I would spend most of Saturday with Charles, but he was at the beach.
“I’m not leaving you here alone all afternoon. You and Robbie go put on your shoes.”
“I don’t want to!”
“I don’t care if you don’t want to. . . . You two go pick out a couple of games to take with you. You can watch TV.”
As we were getting ready to leave, our Chihuahua, Señor Perro, came running up to us, tail wagging, mouth panting and yapping. Any collective movement within the household would set him off. Mom bent over and vigorously rubbed the dog along both flanks. As was her habit, she started babbling in baby talk. (She had another habit, more unusual – if Señor Perro misbehaved, she would inexplicably translate the dog’s name into English – Mister Dog! Bad Mister Dog! – even though, I suppose, that would have negated any effectiveness of yelling at a Mexican dog.) Although technically belonging to me and Robbie, Señor Perro was most loved by our mom. He, true to his nature, had a tendency to snap at us if we got too rough, which we, true to our natures, usually did.
Robbie and I selected the games we wanted. I chose Monopoly because it took the longest to play. Robbie chose one of his silly kid games called Horsefeathers!, which involved putting strange animal body parts together to create even more unusual creatures.
Mary was an older woman who lived alone, and there wasn’t anything in her house for a kid to get excited about. Robbie and I spent an hour playing Monopoly, arguing incessantly about dice rolls, how to count money, which was the best railroad to land on, what did Water Works mean. At one point Robbie threw all the Community Chest cards at me, and the game was stopped peremptorily by Mom when I lunged at Robbie, grabbed his neck, and tried to make him eat a hotel.
Robbie had a more sedentary disposition than I and seemed satisfied to spend the rest of the afternoon lying on Mary’s living room carpet watching cartoons. But soon after the Monopoly debacle I was desperate to be outside.
My persistent badgering finally paid off.
“Alright, Tommy,” my mom relented. “I’m going to leave in a few minutes anyway. I guess you’ll be okay at home by yourself for a little while. . . . You can go on two conditions. Number one, don’t walk in the road. Stay on the grass. Do you hear me?”
“Repeat what I just said.”
“Okay. And when you get home, stay in the yard. Don’t go into the woods. . . . Now what did I just say?”
“Stayoutofthewoods. Stayoutofthewoods. CanIgonow? CanIgonow?”
Even though Mom had to drive over, it was easy for me to run back home. I stayed on the road all the way. The idea of running on the grass was ridiculous. The ground was uneven and rutted in places; I was much more likely to fall and hurt myself if I followed my mom’s instructions.
The reason I was so eager to leave Mary’s house was because I was excited about practicing my pitching. Dad, a few months ago, had put up a tire swing in the backyard. It didn’t take me long to figure out the swing was also the perfect device to improve my pitching. The tire’s inside circumference was an excellent approximation of the Little League strike zone, and its height off the ground matched the height of most batters my age. Making this development even more exciting, I had finally been able to convince my dad to “ruin” the backyard by building a pretty convincing pitcher’s mound. So far, I had collected five baseballs from various places, which I carried in a toy bucket brought home from the beach. After throwing my five pitches, I would run to the chain-link fence to retrieve them. It was a perfect set-up, though I did wish I had more than five balls to pitch.
When I got back home, after a nearly mile-long sprint, I wasn’t even breathing very hard. I walked around to the side of the house, to where the spare door key was hidden, and let myself in.
Señor Perro was at the door to greet me. In my haste to get my glove and bucket of balls, I ignored the Chihuahua. I tended to ignore the dog anyway, though there were certainly times when both of us were in playful moods and I would wrestle Señor Perro and roll him on the floor – but more often than not this roughhousing would come to an abrupt end when Mister Dog would emerge, turn nasty and snap at me. I had not yet developed a habit of cursing, but would damn the dog in my own little-boy way.
Back outside, I ran to my pitcher’s mound in the backyard. My windup featured a very high left-leg-kick, which allowed me to balance on my right foot and lean the right side of my body backward to the point where I felt almost in danger of toppling over. In this way, I assumed, I would be giving myself the greatest amount of forward momentum possible as I threw the ball toward home plate. My pitches usually made it through the center hole of the tire, although sometimes a ball would ricochet off the inside rubber of the tire before being called a strike by the imaginary umpire.
After a half hour of pitch practice and ball retrieval, I heard Señor Perro barking from inside the house. Señor Perro was impatient and inconsistent when he needed to go outside, so I knew I needed to postpone my fun for a few minutes, if I wanted to prevent Señor Perro from being transformed into bad Mister Dog when Mom returned.
The dog ran outside immediately and scampered into the backyard. We had a high concrete deck with steps leading into the backyard. This side of the deck, facing the back yard, was a formidable concrete wall. And against this wall, which was about as high as I was tall, was Señor Perro’s favorite spot to cock his leg – which he did.
Having done my duty, I was in no mood to play with the dog. I wanted to pick it up and carry it back into the house so I could continue to pitch and to see how many consecutive strikes I could throw. Señor Perro, however, was in no mood to cooperate with me. He ran away when I tried to pick him up. He ran over the top of my pitcher’s mound, under the tire swing and then began running along the perimeter of the fence – with me in full chase. After two laps around the backyard, Mister Dog ran once again under the swing and came to a sudden stop on top of my pitcher’s mound. It was here that the dog started doing the unthinkable. Furious and not believing my eyes, I ran to the dog and picked it up, even though the animal was in full squat, with a long segmented turd hanging halfway to the ground. Señor Perro growled furiously and snapped his jaws at my arms, which were stretched out to full length, as the dog continued to defecate. In my anger, I threw the dog to the ground. Señor Perro once again took off running, this time toward the front of the house.
I wanted to forget about the dog and return to my soiled pitcher’s mound, which would require a bit of excavation before play could resume. But I knew how fearful Mom was about her dog being in the front yard, where there was no protective fence making it safe from traffic. So once again I was forced to postpone my fun in order to be a good son. Señor Perro, however, did not run up the short bank to the front yard. He stopped once more at the bottom of the concrete deck-wall and once more cocked his leg. I took this opportunity to seize the little bandit, and this time I was not going to let go. Still angry at him for desecrating my pitcher’s mound and for taking up so much of my fun-time, I started to squeeze Señor Perro tightly, holding it the way a running back holds a football. The more I squeezed the dog the harder I wanted to squeeze. I felt my arms squeezing tighter and tighter. Tighter still, as my teeth clenched and my arms started to tremble. The dog yelped loudly and struggled to free itself. I was holding it so tightly it could not move its head from side to side in order to bite. Its helpless yelping was muffled beneath my arms.
My anger slowly subsided and I loosened my grip on the dog. Reflexively, Señor Perro snapped viciously at me, grazing my arm with his fangs. I yelled out in pain and all of my anger returned in full force. Señor Perro leaped from my arms, but before the dog could escape, I jumped on it, picked it up with both hands, and with all of my strength hurled the dog toward the concrete wall. Señor Perro howled when he hit the wall and started yelping as he hit the ground. Señor Perro’s pathetic yelps were continuous, metronomic and piercing. Panicked, I could see I had broken the dog’s leg badly. I had no idea what to do. Señor Perro’s yelping was incessant. I reached down toward the dog, but it snapped again, with foam flecking from its mouth. I started running aimlessly around the yard. The dog’s yelping only seemed to be intensifying. I reached the fence at the far end of the yard and reached my fingers through the chain links and began to shake and rattle the fence, to what purpose I don’t remember, except perhaps to drown out the noise of the dog. As I stood shaking the fence, I suddenly thought about Mom and became terrified that she had heard Señor Perro from Mary’s house. I became sure of it. Even more panicked now, I started crying. I released the fence and started walking slowly back toward the dog, which continued to yelp steadily. As I gazed around the yard, I saw a shovel lying against the back of the house – the shovel my dad had used to build my pitcher’s mound. I grabbed the shovel and continued walking toward the dog.
When I got to within a few feet of Señor Perro, his yelping was unbearably loud.
The dog continued its crazed yelping.
“Shut up! Shut up!”
I raised the heavy shovel about shoulder-high and brought it down on the dog’s head. There was a metallic clang against the skull, but the dog continued to yelp, now with an even faster cadence.
I raised the shovel again, this time to a full height above my head, and slammed it once again against the dog’s head.
The yelping immediately ceased. Once again I was struck dumb with indecision and fright. I stared down at the dog and threw the shovel behind me; perhaps I was trying to disassociate myself from what I had done. I sat on the ground, cross-legged, still staring at Señor Perro, who lay motionless, a small spot of blood visible on his brown scalp, his hind leg angled grotesquely away from the other three.
I suddenly jumped to my feet and picked up the shovel, as a passing car reminded me Mom would be home soon.
The Chihuahua fit almost perfectly into the blade of the shovel, with only his front leg dangling. It was surprisingly heavy as I carried it across the yard. I slowly lay the shovel aside before I lifted the latch on the gate. When I picked the shovel up again I was careful to keep all the weight properly balanced – especially as I carried the dog along uncertain footing up into the woods. I trudged deeper, deeper, across a soft bed of pine needles, not knowing when to stop – perhaps not wanting to stop, wishing I could continue on forever into a never-ending forest.
Eventually, however, I did stop and slowly began digging through the moist undergrowth until I hit solid dirt. The soil was rocky and the digging became difficult. The grave wasn’t very large, but Señor Perro fit well enough. He would be hidden well by the leaves and needles. Before beginning to cover the dog, I bowed my head and asked God forgiveness. I had stopped crying.
As I finished my short prayer, I was startled to hear my mom shouting my name. The voice was too close to be carrying from the back deck of our house. Once again, I was helpless about what I should do. Mom continued to shout my name, her voice coming closer. I doubted I could finish burying the dog before Mom discovered me. I heard my name called once again, much closer now. I wanted to run away, deeper into the woods, but I must have realized how futile that would have been. Instead, I reached down and picked up the limp body of the dog and began walking slowly toward the sound of my mom’s voice.
As soon as she saw me, and what I was carrying, she ran to me.
“Oh my God.”
I didn’t say anything. She quickly took the dog into her arms.
“Let’s go, Tommy. We’re gonna have to run. We have to get him to the vet.”
“He’s dead, Mama.”
We were running, sticks crunching underfoot.
“No, baby, he’s not dead. He’s not dead. I can feel his heartbeat.”
Robbie started bawling immediately when he saw Señor Perro. On the way to the vet, Señor Perro started to regain consciousness.
“What happened, Tommy?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you leave the gate open?”
“I’ve told you repeatedly to make sure that gate stays closed.”
“I’m sorry, mama.”
“Well, I know, son, but as soon as we get back you have to be punished for this.”
“Is Señor Perro gonna be okay?” Robbie asked, his tears dried now that the dog’s eyes were open again. Señor Perro was, I imagine, in shock, strangely silent considering the agony he had been in.
“He’ll be fine, sweetie. The vet will fix his leg.”
“What happened to him?”
“I don’t know, sweetie. He must have fallen down a hill or into a hole. Tommy, where was he when you picked him up?”
“In a hole.”
Which was the only true statement I have ever made about the incident.