The night the wildfire burned to the ridgeline, Pop and the rest of the neighborhood men and older boys grabbed hoes and shovels and scrambled uphill to help fight the blaze. Our house and maybe 40 others lined a dead-end street in a narrow little valley on Santa Barbara’s West Side, surrounded by fields of wild oats and Spanish oaks. I begged Pop to let me go with him. But he told me to stay at the house and help pack up our family’s important stuff in case we had to evacuate.
Mom and I and my kid sister, Judy, dashed around, throwing crap into suitcases and bags and cramming our ’58 Studebaker so full that its rear springs barely kept it from dragging the ground.
The smoky orange moon had disappeared before Pop and the other dog-tired but grinning men returned with blackened hands and smudged faces. Pop went inside, grabbed a cold beer from the fridge, sat on the back step and watched the rest of us unload the car. When we finished, I rolled open the heavy garage door. Pop started the Studie and pulled on its lights. And there it lay, curled against the back wall, tail tucked under its body, head resting on its front paws, trembling.
“Look, Mom,” Judy said and moved toward the garage.
Mother grabbed her arm and glared at Pop. “Didn’t I tell you to keep the garage door shut? We’ll get raccoons, possums, and all sorts of vermin in there and I have ta shoo them out.”
“Rose, that’s not a ’coon, it’s a dog, a young one.”
“She looks scared,” Judy said.
“Honey, that’s a boy dog,” Mom corrected her.
I felt glad that it wasn’t a coyote or a fox, or even the field mice that invaded Pop’s workshop. I hated going into the darkness where some animal with a foaming mouth might be waiting.
Pop got out of the car, moved inside the garage slowly, and knelt next to the dog, stroked its back, scratched behind its ears, all the while talking to it in a soothing voice. The mutt struggled up and stretched, its bottlebrush tail beating the air. It looked small, not even reaching Pop’s knees. He picked it up, held it against his body, and moved toward us, talking all the while and stroking its head.
“Easy kids, this little guy’s really frightened.”
We moved forward and offered our hands for the dog to sniff. He licked our fingers with a coarse pink tongue and whined. We petted him gently. He had a short stiff coat, with a white chest and socks and a brindle-colored back surrounding a white diamond. His long snout ended in a black nose, his ears, floppy and folded over.
“Looks like a Heinz 57 to me,” Pop said and chuckled.
The dog squirmed in his arms. He set it down, but it didn’t run, sat on its haunches and stared up at all of us, waiting.
“It wants food,” Judy said. She bent and encircled the dog in her arms and headed for the house.
“I don’t want that flea-bitten thing in my —”
“Ah, come on, Rose.” Pop pleaded. “It’s just a pup. We can feed it something.”
“Well, all right,” Mom said and sighed. “But tomorrow, I want you kids to go around the neighborhood and look for his owners. Have either of you seen this dog before?”
“Nah, I’ve never seen ’im,” I replied.
Judy shook her head.
Mom fixed a plate of leftover meat scraps, filled a bowl with water, set them on the service porch, and closed the connecting door. We retired to the living room to watch a late-night movie on our flickering 17-inch Zenith. But in a few minutes a loud scratching and whining came from the porch and I got up to check. When I opened the door, the dog shot past me, through the kitchen and dining room and into the living room where it slumped next to Judy’s feet, rolled onto its side, and fell asleep.
During the following week, I fed the dog cans of Alpo and made sure to let him out to do his business — the euphemism Mom preferred — in the back lot among Pop’s prized avocado trees. My sister and I went door to door along our street, asking folks if they’d lost a dog, and spread our search to the over-the-hill neighborhoods, some of which had been scorched by the fire. During our quest, we decided to put off naming the dog, since it would be more painful to part with something that had a name. We also didn’t look too hard, and skipped the ramshackle places.
One morning, I sat in the kitchen eating my Post Toasties and contemplating what to do on that already-hot summer day. The dog scratched at the back door, wanting to be let out. I obliged him. But instead of heading for the avocado trees, he tore off down the walk toward the driveway. I hurried to catch up.
He ran down the drive, stopped at the bottom to check for cars — at least that’s how it looked — then crossed the street to the Vargases’ house. He moved with a sort of three-legged hop, like he had a dislocated knee. Looked funny. Without hesitating he scrambled onto their porch and began to whine outside their front door. I hurried to grab him up before he disturbed our new neighbors. The Vargas family had moved in about three months before. I hadn’t gotten up the nerve to talk with them, especially with their pretty daughter, Camilia, who was in some of my freshman high school classes.
I crept onto their porch and bent to grab the dog and spirit him away. The front door flew open. A barefooted Camilia wearing a bathrobe and a broad grin stared at us.
“What are you boys up to?” she asked, chuckling.
“I, er, the dog got away from me. Sorry for the … the —”
“Hey, you’re Jerry, from across the street, right?”
“Yeah, I mean, yes.”
“Why haven’t you come over before, ya know, we’re neighbors? Besides, I coulda used some help with my algebra homework, and you look smart enough.”
I felt my face burn. “Sure, I can help, if, ya know, ya need …”
The dog looked up at me, its tongue hanging out, panting. He seemed to say, What an idiot! Talk to the girl, she wants to be your friend.
“So what are ya doing today?” Camilia asked.
“I, er, haven’t really decided … maybe go to East Beach and mess around.”
The dog stepped on my feet and whined. Just ask her, stupid.
I bent and took the mutt into my arms. Camilia moved close and let it lick her perfectly manicured fingers. I stared into her glowing brown eyes and trembled.
“Ah, say, do you, ya know, ah, want to come to the beach with me?”
“Yeah, sure. That sounds like fun. I have to help my Mom this morning. Maybe after lunch?”
Only then did I realize that I still wore my pajama top with its flying ducks motif over a sagging pair of jeans with no underwear. I backed away slowly.
“Yeah, after lunch is good. I’ll come get you … we can take the bus downtown then walk from there.”
“Great. See ya, Jerry, and thanks for finally coming over.”
I crossed the street in a daze, still clutching the dog, and set it down in our backyard. He tilted his head and stared at me as if saying, Jeez, do I hafta do everything? He headed for the avocado trees and his morning business.
Every time the phone rang, Judy and I would jump, afraid that the dog’s owners had finally tracked us down and would come to reclaim their prize. And all sorts of new families seemed to be moving into the neighborhood, with vacant lots becoming homesites for three-bedroom, single-bath houses with glistening white rocks on their roofs. Judy made friends with another 9-year-old girl at the end of our street. During the last days of August, she’d walk uphill to Molly’s place to do girl stuff.
One day I was weeding the front flowerbeds when she came skipping down the hill, her cheeks covered in scarlet rouge, eyes encircled with mascara, with brilliant red lips and a beauty mark on her right cheek. I started to laugh. But the Hinton’s German shepherd stood up in their front yard. Normally, Charlie kept his beast inside or chained on their back patio. The shepherd lowered its rear end and charged toward Judy, making a ferocious sound, something between a bark and a growl.
Judy screamed and ran toward me. But before the monster could chase her, our dog charged up the street and circled the stunned attacker, snarling and snapping at its legs. The German shepherd lunged at the mutt but missed, leaving our pooch an opening to give it a quick nip on the ear. The beast howled and chased our terrier around the yard, but without success.
“What the hell’s goin’ on out here?” Charlie Hinton complained from his front porch, a can of Brew 102 in one hand and a smoking Camel in the other. The German shepherd gave a final woof then slipped through the door into the dark house.
“Keep that mutt outta my yard, Jerry. I’ll call the pound on him.”
“Yeah, well, keep that beast from chasin’ my sister, or I’ll call the cops.”
“She musta done somethin’ to make him mad.” Charlie snorted. “Too many smart-ass kids around the neighborhood … and more on the way.”
Our dog sat at my feet, trembling. I took it inside where Judy fed him doggie treats and sat petting him until he fell asleep on the sofa.
The next week, a For Sale sign appeared on the Hintons’ front lawn and a month later, the Shermans moved in, an old couple that kept to themselves, except when Mrs. Sherman baked cookies and shared them with the neighborhood kids.
When school started in September, the arguing began. Mom and Pop would wait until after Judy and I went to bed to have their discussions, as Mom called them. But the more they talked, the louder they got, until Pop stormed out and spent a few hours in his workshop, building the most god-awful furniture. I could almost recite verbatim how the arguments would go, and this time was no different.
“Look Rose, if I reenlist in the Marines, we would get free housing and medical care for all of us, buy stuff really cheap at the PX. And I could retire from cooking at the end of 20 years.”
“You really want to live in base housing again? I sure the hell don’t. And where would they ship us? Someplace where the state bird is the mosquito and most IQs are in the two-digit range?”
“But by the time I’d retire, the kids would be long gone, and we could afford to come back to the West Coast. Live in comfort.”
“And do what, stare at our belly buttons? And what about all the friends I’ve made here … and the kids in school?”
“Come on, Rose. Do you really like living paycheck to paycheck?”
“No, of course not. But I’d rather be poor here than safe in some hellhole. Besides, have you paid any attention to what’s going on in Southeast Asia? They could ship you out as some advisor. Wasn’t World War II and Korea enough?”
The sound of something metallic slamming against a wall made me jump. I peered around the doorframe into the living room. Pop had heaved a beer can, spraying the TV and our fireplace.
The howl started low and soft but slowly gained volume and rose in pitch. Our dog stood before the sofa, head tilted back, making the most mournful sounds. Mom and Pop stared at the pooch open-mouthed as the howl went on and on, climbing, dropping, then climbing again to a new height.
Judy nudged my elbow. “What’s going on?”
“They’re having a discussion, and the dog doesn’t like it.”
The dog finally quieted, crept slowly to the couch, hopped into the space between my parents and laid whimpering, tail tucked between its legs.
“Look, not even the dog likes your idea,” Mom said.
“Yeah, well, maybe he can tell us how to fix things?”
“Why ask the dog? Why not ask your wife?” Mom reached over and ran her fingers along Pop’s clenched jaw.
He grinned and sucked in a deep breath. “So, Wonder Woman, whaddaya got?”
“Well, Judy will be old enough to stay by herself in a couple-three years. In the meantime, I could work as a bookkeeper in the mornings after the kids are off to school. Pearl up the street said her husband’s plumbing company could use some help and —”
“I don’t like you working. It makes me feel … like I’m not doing enough.” Pop slouched on the couch and reached for an imaginary beer can.
“I’ll be home when the kids need me. And Jerry can help too. We can do this, just give me a chance.”
The dog seemed to whine his approval. Pop kissed Mom on the lips. I turned and shoved Judy back along the hallway to her bedroom, giving my parents privacy to finish their discussion.
I looked for four days over the Thanksgiving break, searched the neighborhood and the hills and valleys beyond, checked with the local vets, nailed lost-posters onto telephone poles, and called the police and the dog catcher. I had no luck. Judy cried every night and wouldn’t be consoled. One minute, the dog had lain in her lap as we watched TV. The next, he had disappeared.
“He probably slipped out when you went to your workshop,” I accused Pop.
“The hell he did. I woulda seen that white tail in the dark, no matter what.”
We ate a somber Sunday dinner, with Mom and Pop drinking too much wine, the reheated turkey and stuffing dry and tasteless. Afterward, we slumped into our seats as Pop checked the listing in the newspaper, then clicked on the TV and selected a channel.
“I don’t know how that man ever got a job in acting,” Mom groused.
“Who?” Pop asked.
“Richard Boone.” She pointed at the television.
“Why, what’s wrong with him?” I asked.
“Are you kidding me?” Mom smiled for the first time that day. “He’s so ugly it hurts, and here they have him wooing all those fine western ladies, a gentleman gunslinger with a business card. What nonsense.”
“I don’t think he’s ugly,” Judy piped up. “I like his mustache and those dark eyes.”
“Who cares about any of that,” Pop said. “He rides in, helps the poor out of a jam, then leaves. The perfect hero. No muss, no fuss.”
We quieted down to watch the rest of Have Gun — Will Travel. My mind drifted to an image of our dog, pushing his way across open fields and up hills with his funny three-legged hop, searching for some poor family to help. I sat there grinning. I had finally decided on a name to call him.