Margaret Lisle: A Double Whammy
A thousand years ago, or so it seems to me now, when I was a skinny girl of seven, living on welfare with my mother, brother and sister, on the Southwest side of Chicago, I made the mistake of falling in love with a stray dog.
I saw him for the first time about two blocks from my house on California Avenue as I walked home from Morrill Park. At first he ignored my friendly overtures as I trailed a few feet behind him, but eventually he allowed me to approach and scratch his ears.
When he realized I had nothing more to offer, he trotted away without a backward glance, picking up his pace to a run when he reached the corner of 59th Street. There he turned, and I lost sight of him.
He was a funny looking dog with multi-colored markings and a silly corkscrew tail. In spite of his questionable ancestry, he had class, or perhaps attitude would best describe him. He didn’t walk, he swaggered, holding his head at a cocky angle, except when stopping to sniff out a tree or fire hydrant. Impressed with his regal bearing and independent air, I decided to call him King.
I saw him again several times that Spring, and each time he briefly responded to my offered friendship, once even sitting down to accept some petting and my repeated crooning of "Good Boy, Good Boy."
I began carrying bits and pieces of food smuggled from my breakfast or lunch, dry pieces of cereal and toast or whatever I could sneak off my plate and conceal in my pockets. He would take all that was offered, lick my hand profusely, and nose at my pockets looking for more.
I worried about what he must be scavenging in the alleys where he foraged, and after much serious deliberation, decided to risk bringing him home. It would not be easy to convince my mother to let him stay; times were tough.
The Great Depression was sweeping the country and every penny of our welfare check was spent before it arrived in the mail. But I had to try.
Somehow I cajoled the reluctant King into my yard and up the porch stairs. Inside the kitchen screen door, he stood inquisitively, looking up at my mother, his brown eyes friendly but indifferent, as I stated my case. Mother, of course, had no sympathy for King’s plight. “Don’t I have enough mouths to feed?” she yelled, throwing her arms up in the air, as if expecting an answer to fall from Heaven. “He can’t stay here, Jenny. Take him back to wherever you found him. NOW!”
“But he won’t be any trouble,” I tried once more. “He doesn’t eat much, really, and I’ll share my meals with him. Please, Ma, please!” My tearful protestations fell on deaf ears, so hardened had her heart become to my pleadings for anything not absolutely basic to my survival during those lean days.
“Jenny, what did I say?” Her face screwed up into its final disapproving expression I knew so well, and I admitted defeat. King was on his own. But the object of my deep concern and affection could have cared less. He had already nosed his way out the screen door at the first sign of trouble and was on the run.
Our friendship resumed and progressed into summer. Eventually, he allowed me to spend the whole day with him. He would hang around the outskirts of the empty lot where I played Piggy-Move-Up or Red Rover with my friends, and meet up with me when the game was over.
Mostly we just walked around, staying within the three block boundary lines imposed on me by my mother. Soon, you rarely saw one of us without the other. The neighbors came to believe he was my dog. “That’s King,” I heard Mrs. Wright inform her toddler as we walked past them. “He’s Jenny’s dog. He’s a nice dog. He won’t hurt you.”
But in truth, King did not belong to me or anyone. Every now and then he would remind me of that when he disappeared for a day or two, while I frantically searched for him, worried he my have been run over by a car or sickened by something he retrieved from a garbage can. He would reappear as suddenly as he left, unrepentant, with his independence firmly in place.
He reminded me of my father, whose comings and goings were of a similar nature. My parents separated and reconciled several times during my early childhood. Dad would suddenly leave, chasing down one dream or another with copious bottles of cheap wine, returning when he was ready, assuming all would be forgiven.
When he broke my mother’s heart for the last time, we moved into her spinster sister’s small house on California Avenue, rent-free. So, you can see, I already learned to forgive much and often at my mother’s knee.
I never found out where King went on those days away from me, but I never worried about him crossing the busy intersection of 59th Street and California Avenue, because he crossed with the traffic lights.
Mr. Wrobel, who owned the pharmacy on the southwest corner of that intersection, swore this to be true and told anyone who would listen that he often saw “that skinny dog that’s always with that skinny little girl with the pigtails, come to a stop at the curb and wait for the light to turn green before he crossed over.” There was no doubt in his mind the dog knew when to stop and go, and he would smile and shake his head in disbelief.
King was smart all right and resourceful. Throughout that summer and fall, he managed to find food and water on his own, with only meager offerings from me. Perhaps there were other kids who fell in love with him, kids he visited on those times away from me, because he was surviving and appeared healthy other than the pronounced outline of his ribs.
Worried about the approach of winter, I began devising a way to build a shelter for him. It couldn’t be in my yard, due to my mother’s steadfast refusal to acknowledge his existence. Where, then? I settled on the empty lot at the corner of 59th and Fairfield, a block from my house. I began collecting cardboard boxes and fruit crates from the alley behind the Royal Blue grocery store.
I planned to dig a deep hole and line it with newspapers and leaves and stuff to keep out the moisture of the damp earth. I would set the little makeshift house fashioned from the boxes into the hole. I hoped it would work. It had to work or King would get sick and die. I needn’t have worried; King solved the problem for me. He disappeared, and just like my father, he never returned.
Now, these thousand years later, I still wonder what happened to them. Did King forget to cross with the lights somewhere? Did my father lose his way back to us when we moved to California Avenue? Did either of them ever want to return to me? Desertion and rejection, two hard lessons in love learned early in my life. A double whammy, from a man and man’s best friend. DSS
Margaret Lisle, of Beverly Shores, Indiana, is a retired Administrative Assistant to a Cook County politician. Her short stories have appeared in several anthologies published by Outrider Press and other literary journals.
A dog, a dad -- well men can be dogs....This story about 1930s Chicago has an interesting twist. To keep these good stories coming, donate here to Downstate Story.