Death Row Dog


While I was writing This is Not a Werewolf Story, Bingo was my inspiration for all things canine. He has limited use as a model for wolf-like behavior. He’s lacking that certain quality, that noble je ne sais quoi that I (mistakenly, no doubt) associate with predators. Maybe it’s just hard to romanticize an animal that eats the things I’ve seen Bingo eat. And yet I sincerely appreciate the fact that he’s the only creature in my care willing to clean up his own vomit.

Children love him. They yell “Puppy! Puppy!” when they see him and throw themselves at him with total disregard for the incredibly painful nature of skin grafts. I have good reflexes luckily. Most of the time I manage to kneel down and get between their faces and his teeth. Then I explain in my super nice teacher voice that looks are deceiving. Bingo has the appearance of a fluffy little princess dog but the personality of a cranky old man with a lot of unresolved medical issues.

When he takes me for a walk he steps out in front with his tail high and his tongue waggling out the side of his mouth until we cross paths with another human and then he lunges hard and with a vicious intent. People do scream. His arch enemy is Lucy, a three legged poodle whose owner is in a wheelchair. Man he hates wheelchairs. He’s tricky too. When he’s in the yard he likes to use my overgrown rose bushes as cover for sneak attacks on passersby. He sees them coming, way down at the end of the block. Then he hunkers down in the grass and waits. As soon as the poor slobs are within range, protected only by our low fence, he rears up and turns into the AK47 of semi-automatic barking. His favored victims are little kids just learning to walk and the elderly. I have installed a defibrillator on my porch. It’s the least I can do.

Inside the house Bingo has other forms of entertainment. When I’m cooking he likes to get between my feet without me noticing. Nothing thrills him like a barefoot woman with a dull knife stumbling around the hot stove. And then there’s the epic battles with the imaginary rats. Even though we cleared out the rodent population living under the house a few years ago, Bingo remains vigilant.  Any time anyone lets off a firecracker or a big truck booms down the road, he races from floor vent to floor vent, growling and scrabbling at the nonexistent creepy little paws poking up through the slits. Or sometimes, when he’s in a murderous frame of mind, he tries to kill us on the stairs. He nips at our feet and darts ahead so fast that we lose our balance. Sadly, he often overplays his hand, misses the last two steps himself, and crashes head first into the wall at the bottom.

Which of course leads to the vet bills. He now has better health insurance than I do. It’s like living with an accident prone drug addict. This year alone he’s had his stomach pumped twice, ten stitches put into his cheek, and every once in a while a knee cap slips and one of his legs goes right out from under him. His hygiene is questionable. He likes to roll in unmentionables. His skin is covered with warts, and if we don’t watch or cone him, he picks at them until they bleed.

Seeping warts and all, he’s the perfect dog for us. If you’re not family and you’re outside the fence, he hates your guts and wants you to die. The minute the latch is lifted and you join us, he’s thrilled that you’ve come to visit. I respect that insoluble mix of territorial hatred and total tolerance.

When I come home he jumps twice his own height off the ground to tell me how glad he is I’m here and I don’t think it’s just because I’m the one with the weird thumbs that can open the dog food and snap on the leash. He purrs like a cat when you pet him. Sometimes we sit at the window and howl together. I think it’s therapeutic for him and helps him come to terms with the losses he sustained before we found him. When I eat he moves his mouth. He chases balls but can’t be bothered to bring them back. I like that ah screw it attitude. He’s big on getting in on family hugs, and his slimy sandpaper tongue has washed away plenty of tears. And he’s grateful. He has never bitten the vet or the groomer, and I think it’s because he honestly knows they’re doing their best and just trying to help. When I do something for him, like get the gunk out of his eyes or another orifice, he pins my hand with his paw, smashes it down, and gives me a quick couple licks. It’s a thank you.

It took Bingo two years to ask for attention from us. Two years to walk up and put a paw on my leg. That’s longer than it takes most couples to meet, move in, and take a break from each other. The dog has depth.

I’m grateful to Bingo too. He has lifted a burden I have carried my whole life.

I have always lived in terror of dogs. As a little girl, all the way to a new friend’s house I would have a pit in my stomach, wondering if her family had one. It didn’t matter if it was a shih tzu or a pit bull, the fear was as deep and all-consuming. Basically if she had a dog, I didn’t go back. It’s hard to imagine if you haven’t ever had that kind of phobia. We moved a lot but wherever we lived my neighborhood was mapped out in my mind according to who owned a dog. I remember falling off my bike once, a truly catastrophic tumble, where for some reason I decided to try to stop my new ten-speed not in the traditional manner of braking, but rather by plugging my foot into the spokes of the front wheel. I flew over the handle bars, the bike flipped, and somehow landed on both wheels.  When I looked up I barely registered the profuse bleeding or the astounding fact that my bike was now going up the hill I had been coming down. All I could think of was that I had landed on the asphalt in front of the house where the Doberman lived.

My fear of dogs followed me everywhere, on bike rides and runs, on dates and all over Europe. When I had my son I tried hard to hide my fear so I wouldn’t give it to him along with my wonky teeth and rudimentary math skills. I thought the best thing would be to raise him with a dog. So we got Bingo. We meant to get a German shepherd but one day we were at a Petco and Ginger’s Pet Rescue had brought a bunch of her Death Row Dogs and set them out on long picnic tables in the parking lot. There wasn’t a German shepherd. But there was Bingo. Skinny, with a floating rib and an infected wound from a too-recent neutering. A survivor, for sure. His foster mom said he was the sweetest dog she’d ever cared for and that if she didn’t already have five, she would have kept him.

That was six years ago. I don’t even flinch when I see a dog off leash anymore. I smile. I smile because I recognize that the glint in its eyes is joy, not a homicidal rage. I know that when it barks it’s saying who the hell are you do you have treats, not I’m going to maul you. Every once in a while though, when I see a dog roaming dusky streets, I get a little pinch of that fear deep in my belly. It’s primal, it’s something I was born with. And I’m glad I still have it because it shows me how far Bingo has walked me from it.