I had a dog named Joe and he was a son of a bitch.
Joe was a black lab: completely dark for his entire body except for a white spot on his chest and his teeth. Labradors are the quintessential family dog: friendly, exuberant, tail-whipping masses of marshmallow and love.
Joe was a pile of muscle, protectiveness, and hatred. He loved very few things in this world:
- My family
- The blood of transgressors
Before we got him – before he was Joe – he was Sarge, a junkyard dog. This life imparted unto Joe two things, neither of which I understood until much later in life. The first was that Joe despised anything and everything that would ever approach that which he decided was his. The second was that Joe was racist.
I loved Joe. Joe loved me. Only a few other kids on the street were my age and the government is not friendly to giving 7-year olds driver’s licenses, so Joe was my constant companion for as long as we had him. If I was outside, Joe was outside. If I was inside, Joe was inside. If I was at school, Joe was under my sister’s bed eating the heads off of her Barbie dolls.
My parents had our porch rebuilt at some point. Men would come and work on our house while I was at school and Joe would lay outside on the front yard, staring, still, and silent. He was as friendly as we would expect; they gave him ham, after all, and we permitted their presence in Joe’s territory. Joe had established detente.
I came home from school. I had a bike then and was weak, which meant that when said bike was stuck on another bike, my spaghetti-noodle arms couldn’t free it. The mistake of a man helping build out our porch was that he had kindness in his heart. Joe bore no such weakness.
The builder descended from his ladder, came to help me, and extended his hand. Joe’s growling shook the blood. And I, in a tone I have heard creepy children in movies use ever since, calmly informed him “You can’t come near me. Joe’s my friend.”
My parents have a pool, in which my sisters and I loved swimming. Joe hated that pool with sickly, dripping, humid, reeking loathing. From when it was opened in the spring to when it closed in the fall, any movement of the Kelleher clan within twenty feet of it would send Joe into a frenzy of snarls and barks. While we swam, he would try to grab us by our hair and lift us out. We soon learned to lock him in the cellar. Joe learned to chew through the door, and for years we had a hole in the back side of the cellar door. In memoriam.
There was once a skunk who lived in a hole in our backyard. Joe knew this skunk. He hated this skunk. One fine fall evening, as Joe stood like a sentry at our back screen door, the skunk had the incomprehensible audacity to exist within a country mile of Joe. Joe tore through the screen tore and pounded after that skunk. The skunk sprayed. Joe chased.
The skunk sprayed again. Joe snapped at its hindquarters.
The skunk sprayed again and retreated into its hole. Joe dug and growled like thunder.
The skunk sprayed again and Joe lunged in and bit. My father had torn across the yard (at the behest of my mother, the eternal armchair general) and grabbed Joe by the waist and collar and fireman carried him – snarling and squirming – back into the house. Joe’s mouth was red with skunk blood and he suffered his bath with the dignity of a soldier. For a week, our teachers hung our backpacks and jackets outside, so that the autumn cold might get rid of the damn skunk smell Joe had brought into our house.
I had a friend named Simone who – to the best of my memory – was a wonderfully intelligent, no-nonsense girl. She was also a black girl. I invited her over my house one day after school; she lived near me, though I’d never known it until then, and it seemed appropriate to demonstrate to newly-identified neighbors that I too lived in a place. And that I had a dog named Joe who was my friend.
From when we first entered Joe’s vision to when my dad – pale and red with embarrassment all at once – suggested I take Simone home and go play at her house, Joe did not stop barking. Frothing, even. I assumed Joe was just being Joe – being a child, I hadn’t identified the patterns of things that made Joe angry; everything seemed to. Years later, I learned that Joe just didn’t like black people. Imagine 13 years of unrecognized shame condensed into a single afternoon. Simone, should you ever read this, I apologize profusely on behalf of my dog.
He refused to let his own dog-sitters (who he had met, known, and ostensibly tolerated) to move anywhere beyond the front step of our house while we were on vacation. Joe barked at them for three hours until my aunt arrived (she was of the sacred few he liked) and gave him ham and petted him.
Joe was that kind of dog.
The cruelest irony is that the reason we got rid of Joe is an accusation of violence he didn’t actually commit. Of all the blood and fur that whipped around in the hurricane of Joe’s wrath, that’s what got him. I was taking Joe for a walk around our block when a neighbor (who, for this, i eternally reviled by anyone sharing my blood) said hello and moved to pat my shoulder. Joe growled and placed his mouth around the man’s arm. No blood. No teeth marks. Just a soft hold.
The neighbor shrieked, accused Joe of monstrous violence (one would think he wouldn’t have had to fabricate a story with the dead animals littering Joe’s territory), and the insurance company told us he had to go.
We gave Joe to a family in New York with a summer home in Massachussetts. Every summer for the rest of his life, Joe got to run and play on the beach in Cape Cod with his new family and generally live a much more affluent life than we did. I assume Joe found peace there. He’s dead now at any rate. Even assholes die eventually. Part of me hopes he remained as big a son of a bitch as he was when he lived with us. It seems inglorious for so strong a blaze to peter out like that.
For all his anger and two-ton balls, Joe was my dog. He slept in my bed and kept me safe. He was racist, mean, overprotective, and violent. But his tail thumped when he was happy, he liked ham, and he ate my sister’s Barbie dolls.
Joe might have been a bad pet. But he was a good boy.