Read an Excerpt
Oogy The Dog Only a Family Could Love
By Levin, Larry
Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 2010 Levin, Larry
All right reserved.
When the alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m., it is still dark outside. Lying there, I take a quick mental inventory of what lies before me this morning. The boys don’t have to be at school early for a team meeting or to see any of their teachers. They don’t have to finish any homework or cram last minute for a test. As seniors in high school and already admitted to college, they are coasting to the finish line. In a way, they have already passed it. The breakfast table to raise money for the lacrosse team does not start until tomorrow, to coincide with the opening game of the season. So with both my morning and afternoon committed tomorrow, I have lots to get done today. But it also means that, right now, I have the luxury of hitting the snooze button for another ten minutes’ sleep.
The alarm seems to go off again in about fifteen seconds. I force myself to sit up. It feels as if I’m underwater, struggling to surface. I wriggle my toes and fingers, which I once read helps to keep you awake; I run my hands over my face and rub the sleep from my eyes. I nudge Jennifer, who without turning over asks for another fifteen minutes of sleep. Groggily, I push aside the comforter on my side; I swing my legs over the edge of the bed and drop to the floor. Stumbling around and over barely visible mounds of towels, sweats, T-shirts, socks, and athletic wear, I pass through the laundry room into the bathroom. There, I turn on the light, brush my teeth, and throw cold water on my face. Back in the laundry room, I pull off the T-shirt I slept in and put on a clean one from among the piles of clothing stacked up everywhere — on the built-in bench, atop the radiator cover, along both windowsills, and in front of the radiator. After a bit of a search, I pull out a pair of clean socks and sweatpants and lean against the dryer to pull them on.
I walk out of the bedroom, leaving the door halfway open behind me. From the landing on the second floor, I can see that the downstairs light is on. There are four couches on our first floor. On rare occasions, Noah and Dan will sleep on the same couch down there; sometimes they sleep in different rooms; but usually they’re both sacked out in the family room, one on the old couch, the other on the futon sofa bed, alternating each night. There’s no way to predict which one of the boys Oogy will have chosen to sleep with, but he’ll be next to one of them.
At the foot of the stairs, I first glance to my right into what used to be the living room. The doors are wide open, and no one is sleeping there. The lights in the family room, to my left, are controlled by toggle switches on the wall in the hallway; I turn up the rear bank of lights ever so slightly and peer inside. I think I see Noah stretched out on the futon opened up on the floor, wrapped in two blankets, which would mean that Dan is on the old couch adjacent to the rear glass wall. Behind Dan on the couch, stretched lengthwise, one paw draped over Dan’s shoulders, Oogy is barely distinguishable from the white comforter covering Dan. No one so much as stirs. I toggle the lights back down and click them off.
In the kitchen I put cold water into the coffeemaker, measure out coffee into the filter, and press the “on” button. The amber light comes on, the water roils, and the aroma of brewing coffee begins to waft through the air reassuringly. I turn on the radio to get a weather update that I can pass on to the boys. This radio must be at least forty years old; it used to sit in the kitchen of the home I grew up in, and I have no idea how I have it still. The reception is poor, scratchy and thin, as though the voices inside are being played from an old phonograph record.
I return to the family room and turn on both the front and rear sets of lights halfway. This time, Oogy lifts his head and looks at me. He is still somewhat distant with sleep, but welcome shines in his eyes like candles. His tail thumps softly against the back of the couch. Smiling, I walk over to him and sit on the arm of the sofa, trace my fingers against the thickness of his neck. I touch the well of power just behind there, high on his back between his shoulders. His strength never ceases to amaze me. It seems almost incompatible with his gentle nature.
“Hello, doggy boy,” I murmur. “You’re a lucky dog, you’re a good doggy. You’re a good boy. A good boy. Thank you for protecting the boys last night. I’m glad I don’t have to worry about that anymore.” I bend over him and touch my nose to a spot just behind his neck. He makes that grunting sound that signifies absolute contentment; when I lift my face from between his shoulders, he raises his head and licks my nose. In return, I nuzzle the side of his face that still has an ear.
“I’ve got to get everyone going,” I tell him. “You and I will go out later, okay?”
He cocks his head, the ear standing up at alert. I cup it with one hand and knead it gently. I have been told that there are many nerve endings in a dog’s ears and that by rubbing them, one can relax the whole dog. Because Oogy has only one ear, the task is simplified, but at the same time it raises some odd questions. Can only half of Oogy get relaxed by rubbing his remaining ear? If so, would that be his right side, the side that still has an ear? Or are dogs left-eared and right-eared the way humans are left- and right-brained, so that his right ear controls the left side of his body? Clearly, there are many things about dogs that I have yet to learn.
“Don’t get excited just yet,” I caution him. “There are things that I need to get done before we can party.” When I rise he does, too, stretching with a soft grunt. Then he reverses himself and curls up with his head next to Dan’s hip. He sighs contentedly before he closes his eyes and drifts off to sleep again.
Neither boy has moved. “Yo,” I say to them. “Time for breakfast. Who’s having what?”
There is no response.
“Breakfast time,” I repeat, a little louder. From the incoherent mumbling that rises briefly in response, I determine that the boys have lived through the night, although it is still impossible to tell whether they may have entered into permanent vegetative states.
“Breakfast orders, please,” I repeat, louder still.
“Don’t yell!” Noah moans without lifting his head from the pillow or even turning it in my direction.
“I’m not yelling,” I explain. “This would be yelling!” Oogy’s head jerks up, trying to understand whether he should be concerned about the change in timbre. I drop my voice back to normal. “I’m just trying to get your attention.” Oogy’s head goes back on the pillow, reacting to the sound of my voice as though controlled by a string. His ear flops over against the side of his head.
I manage to get the boys’ breakfast requests, then turn on the TV for them as I head out the door. Back in the kitchen, I glance out the window. The light is dim, the sky overcast and cloudy, as though freighted with rain. I put water into a pot, add some milk and a little salt, and then drop in a few raisins to fatten in the water as it boils. After securing the lid and striking a match, I ignite the gas burner; the blue flame pops up. I wrap four strips of bacon in a paper towel and place them on a plate in the microwave, then set the timer for three minutes and thirty seconds. Every brand of bacon has a different cook time for the same number of strips. Then there’s the variable of how long the bacon has been in the refrigerator since the package was opened — that too must be factored in. The fresher the bacon, the longer it takes to cook. What does it say about me that I have learned over the years that there is a kind of personality to bacon?
The pulsing of the water in the coffeemaker is accompanied by a sighing sound from inside it, as though, resignedly, it is finishing its assigned task. I hear the volume of the TV rise and make a quick foray back to the family room. Both boys are sitting up on the old couch now, facing the TV; a sports talk show is on. They are, to be generous about it, half-awake, each wrapped in a comforter, looking like refugees. Behind them, his head directly above and between where their shoulders touch, Oogy sits alert, watching me. Illuminated by the murky light behind them, the outlines of Oogy and the boys blur together; they look like one being, a three-headed mutant.
On the way out of the room, I push the light switch toggles all the way on in hopes that it will help the boys to wake up. I walk to the foot of the stairs and yell up to Jennifer, who reluctantly confirms that she is, in fact, awake. Her voice sounds muffled, as though she’s under a blanket. I return to the kitchen, where I am once again buoyed by the smell of the coffee. I pull Oogy’s food bowl from the drainer in the sink and prepare his breakfast, after which I place it on the floor by the water dish. By now, the water in the pot is boiling. I add some cinnamon and rolled oats to the pot, stirring the contents until the mixture starts to thicken, then I turn down the flame. I hit the button on the microwave to start the bacon cooking, open the toaster oven and slide two muffins inside. I am the maestro of the breakfast symphony. I put sugar on the tray for Noah’s oatmeal and some maple syrup into a glass for Dan to add to his. I pour Noah a glass of cranberry juice and a glass of nonfat milk; Dan gets some orange juice and a glass of milk as well. Each boy gets a multivitamin and, thanks to their sports injuries, two of the same joint pills I give Oogy for his aching knees.
The coffeemaker emits an electronic death rattle to signify its task is complete just as Jennifer wanders into the kitchen in pajamas and a flannel robe. We exchange morning greetings. She has an 8:30 meeting she has not yet prepared for, so she needs to get going. I assure her that everything is under control. She pours herself a cup of coffee, adds milk from a plastic quart, and heads back upstairs after stopping by the family room to check on the boys. I return the milk to the fridge and pour myself a steaming cup of coffee as well. Then I take a sip, black, unsweetened, feeling it slide down to my feet and shoot back up to my brain; it seems to resound like a hammered weight striking the gong at the top of a “Test Your Strength” game at a cartoon carnival. I am officially awake.
The microwave beeps. Before I pull out the bacon, I stir the oatmeal one last time and turn off the range. I dry the bacon in another set of paper towels and heat the maple syrup in the microwave. After I drop the paper towels in the trash, I add a few dollops of ammonia to the bag to mask the odor and deter Oogy from rooting around inside. Then I hear the soft click of toenails on the tile floor and look up to see Oogy standing by the swinging door to the kitchen. His forelegs look almost comically bowed because of the massive bunched muscles and the enormous square chest from which they stem. His feet appear oversize compared with the rest of his body; he looks as if he is wearing doggy clown shoes. I walk over to him, and he leans his head against my leg. I rub him behind his ear. I rub the little black hole where his left ear used to be, then bend over and, with my nose on his neck, rub the ropelike muscles on either side. Oogy makes “chuffing” sounds like a small steam engine. He is happy.
“You’re a good doggy,” I tell him. “You’re the best doggy.” I mean that, and he knows I mean that. “You’re in a special place. Aren’t you a lucky dog? I know that it’s weird to hear that, but you are. Plus,” I tell him, “you’ve got fat feet. Look at those silly feet.” Then I say to him, “Let me get everyone out. After that, you and I can hang.” He bends to his food bowl, snorting his pleasure, snuffling as he inhales the contents. I return to the morning routine.
By the time I have brought breakfast to the boys and returned to the kitchen, Oogy is standing by the back door. When I walk into the room, he barks once at me to let me know that he wants to go outside, as though I otherwise wouldn’t know he is there and would simply overlook eighty-five pounds of white, one-eared dog.
“Okay, okay. Here we go,” I tell him. “Let’s put the magic collar on.” I bend over him and clip the red nylon collar for the electronic fence into place alongside his regular collar, which has a little blue bone-shaped tag with his name and our telephone number on it and a red, heart-shaped rabies vaccination tag. “Be careful out there,” I tell him. I tell him the same thing every time he leaves the house to go into the yard, day or night. As parents, Jennifer and I have tried to prepare the boys for what they will encounter in the world once they’re on their own, but with Oogy it’s different. At least we have had the opportunity to try to teach the boys how to choose; I cannot prepare Oogy to weigh his options and select a safe course, and I do not want anything bad to happen to him ever again. Once he is out the door, I have no control over what he will encounter. As a result, letting him outside often feels like an act of faith.
I pull open the door and Oogy sticks his head out. His nose is in the air, nostrils twitching, reading the news on the wind. His ear is alert, as though somewhere there is a sound he does not fully understand. Then he wriggles past the screen door into the yard. I am still rinsing out his food bowl when the boys, finished with their breakfast, bring in their cereal bowls and glasses, letting them and the spoons clink noisily into the sink.
They are taller than me now. When they were toddlers, most people had a difficult time distinguishing one from the other; the kids in preschool called them by the same name, “DannyNoah,” just to be sure they had it right. Both have the same strawberry blond hair that curls when it gets long (Jenny calls it an “Izro,” an Israeli Afro). They have the same gray green eyes, the same skin tone. The major distinction between them has always been a barely noticeable variance in height and weight, which is now more pronounced than when they were younger. Noah, who has always been slightly taller than Dan, shot up this past year, adding several inches, and is now noticeably the taller of the two. Jennifer thinks that if Dan had not cut weight for the last four years during wrestling season, he would be as tall as Noah. I think she’s right.
They ask me about the weather forecast for the day and head upstairs to dress accordingly. I turn off the radio; I prefer the silence. Blue gray morning light now washes the windows. I rinse off the glasses and dishes the boys have left in the sink and put them in the dishwasher. I amble into the family room to stack pillows behind the old couch, then fold the comforters alongside the pillows. I return the futon bed back into the couch it came from and replace the pillows there. While he was still a puppy, Oogy tore out several chunks from the futon mattress, and every time the boys use it, pieces of yellow foam dot the floor like cake crumbs. I pick these up and dump them in a waste can. As I am doing this, I hear the creak of the back door opening and listen to Oogy walking down the hall.
When he appears in the doorway, I sit on the old couch and pat the open area next to me. “C’mon, puppy dog. Come up.”
He comes over to me, those large dark eyes searching for something in my face, and then clambers onto the couch. He leans his right side against the back of the couch, licks his lips several times as though he is savoring something, and, with a sigh, parks his butt on my lap as though he is recharging. I rub his ear, trace a finger over his broad sternum to his silky pink belly, where the spots are more pronounced than those covered by the short white fur on the rest of his body. The left side of his muzzle, the side of his face that has been rebuilt, twitches ever so slightly. I am amazed, as I am every day, at what he has gone through to get here and, despite it, the level of trust he has reposed in us from the start. He turns and gets that goopy look on his face he shows me at such moments, and I pull back just in time to avoid a big, sloppy kiss. I have been told that dogs lick people because they want to know what they taste like, but Oogy has known what we taste like for years and the licking has never diminished. The boys and I are convinced that his licking us is his form of kisses. With a sigh, Oogy momentarily rests his head on the top of the couch. Suddenly, his head jerks up, and he barks at something out there, only he knows what. As is often the case, I have no idea what he is barking at or whether he is just imagining something. But I never fail to thank him for protecting us. After a few more moments of intense listening, he puts his head back down.
The boys clunk downstairs, still not running on all cylinders, and head for the kitchen, where they keep their backpacks. They pull out certain books, insert others, check homework binders, and make sure they have what they need for the day. There is some discussion as to whether it is a “B” or a “C” day, which controls their class schedules. Once they have gotten organized, they come back into the family room for another ten minutes of TV. They know it is time to leave when the highlights portion of the sports show is over. They pull on their sneakers while they watch. Each boy is wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt, but in a different color; this is their unofficial uniform. Jennifer dashes by to gather her laptop and another cup of coffee. She exits the kitchen and races for the driveway with no more than a breathless “Bye!”
In the kitchen, the boys pull on sweatshirts, hitch up their backpacks, and pick up their lacrosse sticks. Dan then suddenly remembers that he has to turn in his wrestling singlets and runs upstairs, where he rifles through the laundry basket until he finds them and then returns to the kitchen. The car they usually drive to school has to go in for inspection today, so they are riding the bus. Oogy climbs off me to be with them in the kitchen, wondering if this will be the day he gets to follow them to wherever it is they go six days a week — five days of school and either practice or a game on Saturday. I follow Oogy into the kitchen. He and I watch as the boys exit the back door to begin the trek up the street to the bus stop.
“Have a good day,” I tell them. “See you after practice.” Then I ask if either one of them has any requests for dinner. Neither of them does.
“Love you,” they each say as they head out the door, and every time I hear that, I am surprised. That they can articulate it. That they direct it at me.
Shortly after the boys have left, and while Oogy and I are still in the kitchen cleaning up, the trash truck stops at the foot of the driveway. In an instant, Oogy has wedged himself through the door and dashed into the yard, barking joyously, the resonance of his barks mingling with the trundling of the can being wheeled up the driveway, the shouts of the workers out in the street, and the grinding of the truck gears. Oogy barks at the man emptying our trash cans as though seeing this is the greatest thing that could ever happen to him. The man talks to Oogy the whole time he is dumping the contents of our several small cans into the one huge canister he wheels along. Oogy says good-bye and comes back into the house.
When he sees me putting on my sneakers, he gets excited, starts dancing and barking, thinking I am going to take him somewhere.
“Calm down,” I tell him. “I’m only going out for the paper.” He either does not believe me or wants to convince me otherwise, and as soon as we go outside, he starts for the van. “This way, lumpy dog,” I call. I head down the driveway toward the front of the house. Oogy runs up alongside me, his tail cutting invisible swaths out of the air, and I stop and rub his forehead; he leans into me, and I gently slap his muscular haunch several times. “You’re one strong doggy,” I tell him. “I sure am glad you’re on our side.”
About halfway down the driveway, Oogy stops at the limit dictated by the electronic fence. His eyes follow me attentively as I walk toward the mailbox and pick up the paper off the lawn, and as soon as he sees that I am coming back up the driveway, he walks over to stand under the weeping cherry tree. He does this every morning; he clearly enjoys the way the long, thin tendrils feel against him. He emerges and accompanies me to the back door.
Although he can push open the door with his head when he wants to, and does so routinely, this time he waits for me to open it for him before he scampers inside. He will often do this with the boys as well. I think he takes this action as reassurance that he is safe and taken care of.
As I pour myself another cup of coffee, I look up to see the boys walking back to the house. They must have missed the bus. It is only a small glitch in the day’s plan and the type of thing one has to allow for with teenage boys. As they step inside, I gather my ring of keys and wallet without saying a word. Once in the kitchen they apologize, and I tell them it’s okay. Oogy is prancing around. The sound of the keys jingling in my hand tells him that we are going for a ride somewhere, and he cannot imagine that he is not going to be included. “You can go,” I tell him. He sneezes and wags his head, continues his Oogy four-step. Dan takes off the electronic collar and puts it on the table. Oogy barks once, the sound sharp and hard at the same time, reverberating in the kitchen like a piece of dropped steel.
“What’s that, Oogy?” Dan suddenly asks. He drops to one knee in front of Oogy, staring into his face, and cups him under the chin. “You say Timmy’s trapped under the hay wagon and the barn is on fire? We’d better get going, then.”
Dan rises and goes to the door, and Oogy follows, dashing past him outside. Oogy turns and waits till we catch up, and the four of us walk to the van. The boys go around to the passenger side. I open the rear door on the driver’s side for Oogy. He hesitates, afraid of getting a shock. Early on, there were several incidents, for reasons unknown to me, when the current from the electronic fence appeared to have traveled to the collar through the steel of the car frame and hit Oogy like a shovel, even though he was a safe distance away from the fence’s perimeter. As a result, he is always somewhat tentative in his approach to any vehicle. And, of course, he does not know that when the collar is off, he cannot get shocked under any circumstances. So I coax him along. He places his front legs inside and waits for me to boost up his rear end. I am not sure if Oogy does this because he knows I will or if it is because climbing into the van puts pressure on his surgically corrected rear joints. Dan, who had called, “Shotgun!” climbs into the passenger’s seat; Noah sits behind him. Oogy stands beside me with his forelegs balanced on the front-seat armrests, his rear legs braced on the floor, peering through the windshield for the ten-minute trip. After I drop off the boys, I open the passenger window halfway. Oogy climbs into the vacant seat and, front paws on the door handle, sticks the upper part of his body out of the window, his ear flapping in the wind all the way home.
Once we are back inside the house, Oogy heads for the remainder of last night’s bone and I go upstairs to shower. When I am done, I gather up all the used towels I can find from last night and this morning, toss them and some of the boys’ sweatpants into the washer, and get a cycle started. I step into the bedroom to get dressed. Oogy is already there, lying on the bed. His eyes follow me. I tell him I need to go to the office and that I feel bad about it, but it cannot be helped. I pull on the clothes I am going to wear for the day and go over to the bed. I touch my nose to Oogy’s side and run my hands down his back to the soft skin of his narrow waist. “Time for me to go,” I tell him.
As I walk into the hall, he uncoils himself and joins me on the landing, where he waits for me to start down the stairs. As soon as I take the first step, he barrels past me, rushing to the bottom of the steps before following me into the kitchen as though he’s attached to me like some white, furry sidecar.
I pour what I promise myself will be my last cup of coffee, heat it in the microwave, and amble back into the family room. Once I am seated on the couch, Oogy climbs up beside me. This is our morning ritual, a few minutes together, just the two of us. He sits while I lazily trace a finger over his massive chest. His eyes close and open, then close again. Something in the street catches his attention; he stares through the privet hedge outside our house. Then, his curiosity satisfied, he turns around several times and lies down, his head in my lap. I like the way he stretches his massive body. He feels comfortable, relaxed. He feels secure. I am glad that we have been able to do that for him.
With my index finger, I circle where his ear used to be, then run my hands down the muscle of his rib cage and back up to his neck. Lately, he has not been scratching the hole where his left ear was, which is good, because he has a history of infections there. Everything is quiet now. The cartoonlike fervor of morning rush hour has passed. I run through telephone calls I need to make at work, e-mails I must send, letters I should write. I have to mail a form for Noah’s lacrosse club; I put my keys over it last night so that I would remember to take it today. Oogy snorts softly several times and lets out a loud sigh. I place my lips just back of his ear hole and breathe into his neck. “Oo-gy pie,” I say. “Pie dog. Mr. Pie.”
I have heard that when you leave them, dogs do not know that you are coming back, so every time I leave, I try to let Oogy know that I have every intention of returning. I need to go to work, I explain. I tell him I will be back in the late afternoon to take him for a walk. It will still be light out, I say. The boys will be home while it is still light, too. Mom won’t get home until it’s dark. I feel compelled to reassure him. I think it is important. Absentmindedly, I trace the scar from the surgery that runs from the top of his skull to underneath his lower jaw.
Oogy is asleep, snoring deeply, and I am reassured by his very presence, moved by the love with which he has repaid us.
Some months after Oogy had come to live with us, Noah looked up at me from where he was lying alongside Oogy and said, “I really feel bad about what happened to Oogy, but if it hadn’t happened, he wouldn’t be here.” The worst thing that ever happened to Oogy was also the best thing. It is but one of the contradictions that have defined his experience. He was a fighting dog who would not fight, with a personality and character that led to the most horrific of experiences imaginable, then saved him.
This is Oogy’s story. It is, in the truest sense, a one-in-a-million tale. To tell it accurately necessarily intertwines other stories, those of the people who saved Oogy and all the people who love him, including my family. Part of the wonder has been how, over time, all who have come in contact with Oogy, learned his story, and experienced his genuinely gentle nature and noble bearing have been touched. And because I talk to people every day who have rescued many, many pets of their own, this is a testament to their collective efforts as well.
“You’re here now,” I tell him. “It’s okay.”
In his sleep, Oogy’s legs begin to twitch; he must be dreaming that he is running. I imagine the scene, because it is so common: It is sunny and late in the day at the dog park; the heat-dried grass scents the wind. Oogy trots across the plateau to where I sit at a picnic table, past a dozen other frolicking dogs, just so that I can touch his head. His distorted face seems to be smiling. Or maybe he really is. I touch my fingers to both sides of his head and kiss him on the nose.
“Go on, you big galoot,” I tell him.
Oogy turns to find another dog to play with a while longer.
Excerpted from Oogy by Levin, Larry Copyright © 2010 by Levin, Larry. Excerpted by permission.
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