I’m writing a novel entitled “Mr. Lake.” The main character, Joe Marino, and his dog, Ginger, are semi-autobiographical.
In point of fact, as a boy, I owned a dog named Ginger. She was a terrier mutt, my companion, my accomplice and, at times, my protector. The novel abbreviates the story of how we got together. Here, in the tone of the story, is a fuller account.
It’s almost true.
I was a little kid, only eight years old, when I got Ginger. I’d been asking for a dog forever, but Dad never got around to it. Mom never got around to it, either. I went so far as to start asking them in front of my grandfather. He was always good for at least one, “Why don’t you get the kid a dog?” I figured I needed all the help I could get.
But what I didn’t figure on was that he’d take the bit in his teeth himself. One Saturday, I was playing with my Tonka® trucks in the front yard. Papa pulls up to the curb in his big, green Chrysler New Yorker. He leaves the motor running and pushes the passenger door open from the inside. He yells out to my mother, “I’m taking the kid!” To me, he says, “Get in the car.”
My grandfather wasn’t the kind of guy you argue with, not that it would have entered my mind in any case. So, I get in the car. He slams down the gas pedal and off we go.
We bombed through town. Papa regarded stop signs and red lights as personal insults and he cursed them out if he paid them any attention at all. We swerved onto the on-ramp and bolted up to the highway. I loved the press-down-on-your-chest acceleration rush I always got when he was behind the wheel.
If my mother had been in the car, she’d be whining about Papa’s lead foot. For the longest time, I thought she meant he’d hurt his foot and shouldn’t press down on it. Then I realized she was complaining about how fast he was going. But I never said anything. I believed in Papa. He knew what he was doing. Besides, if you complained, he’d only drive faster.
After a half-hour or so, we were out in the country, passing by the alfalfa and pig farm in Wakefield. You could see it from the highway, a big, red barn with huge white wooden letters standing on top of the roof’s ridge line: “ALFALFA.” It didn’t say anything about pigs. It didn’t need to, pigs being pigs. Compared to them, alfalfa has practically no smell at all.
The farm was the high point of the trip, as far as I was concerned. I didn’t know what was coming. I entertained myself by fingering the rectangular chrome buttons on the car’s radio. I loved the buttons’ feel, smooth and cool, with a pleasant push-back when you pressed them.
“Don’t touch that.”
I stopped. “How come?” I asked.
Papa told me, “We don’t want noise in the car.”
“No. We want to hear the car; we want to hear the road; we want to hear what’s going on around us. We want to be aware of everything, all the time. We can’t do that if we let noise blind us.”
“Hmmm,” I considered, listening to the hum of the tires. I stored his piece of wisdom away with, “Always sit with your back to a corner.”
Papa turned the New Yorker onto an exit ramp.
“Where we going?”
He didn’t show the grin on his face, but it was in his voice. “We’re going to get your dog.”
That was exciting news. I could hardly hold it in. I bit back the smile. I think it made him proud of me, for a few minutes. Then I had to poke my head out the window and smile at everything.
We were far out in the country now: woods, open fields, more woods, until the green of the leaves and the grass felt cool and wet on my face. We turned onto a dirt road. Papa slowed the New Yorker. Its tires crunched on the gravel, flinging it off the road. I could hear the little stones hit against the tree trunks.
We came to a sign, “University Testing Laboratory,” marking off a narrower dirt road. Papa turned onto it. It was so narrow, the branches scraped against the New Yorker’s sides now and again.
A hundred yards or so in, we came to a clearing and, in it, a one-story wood-frame building, with concrete extensions sticking out from either side. The concrete walls had little windows in them, high up, like your cellar windows. Everything, wood and concrete, had been painted a deep, rust-red, but the paint was faded and flaking. It could’ve used a touch-up.
Chain-link fences stretched out beyond the concrete walls, closing in big yards. I saw chain-link kennels inside the yards. Past the chain-link, behind the building, I saw other buildings, garages or barns, maybe.
Papa parked and got out of the New Yorker. I followed. He took my hand and led me toward the building. I could hear dogs barking and howling.
Papa rang the door bell. A gray-haired man in a white smock opened the door. He called Papa by name and they shook hands. They knew each other. They kibbutzed a bit, then Papa got down to business. He pushed me forward, introduced me, and said I wanted a dog.
“He can have any dog he likes,” the white-smock guy said. “Let’s take a look in the holding pen.”
We followed him down a hallway, past pairs of doors with thick, safety-glass windows, the kind that’s got wires criss-crossing inside it. The windows were too high-up for me to see through. Finally, we came to a pair of doors he liked. He pushed them open and we walked in.
It was a big room with concrete walls and those little windows on three sides. On either side of the doors going all the way to the far wall was floor-to-ceiling chain-link, making too big pens opposite each other, each one filled with dogs, all types of dogs: big ones, small ones, hairy ones, not-so hairy ones. They were all making noise. I couldn’t hear myself think.
Mr. White-Smock opened the gate into the right-hand pen and waved to us. “Come in. Take a look. Pick out the one you want.”
It was like heaven. I had dogs all around me, barking, sniffing, jumping on me. I knew my mother wanted a wire-haired terrier and I figured it’d be easier for her to stomach a dog if it was something she wanted, so I looked around for a terrier. I saw a red-and-black halfway terrier-looking dog in the back of the crowd.
“How about that one?” I pointed.
White-Smock waded through all the fur and tails to get the red-and-black. He pushed it toward me. “This one?”
I reached out to pat the dog’s head. It snapped at me. White-Smock pushed it away. It looked like a good dog, but I couldn’t take a snappy animal home. I had a little brother to watch out for. I looked for something else.
The more I looked, the more I realized the pickings were pretty slim. There were a lot of dogs for sure, but not too many terriers or dogs that even looked like terriers.
Then I saw the white dog.
I don’t know how I missed her. She was all white, except for a brown splotch on her rump and one ginger-brown ear. Best of all, she looked more like a terrier than anything else there. I pointed at her. “Is that a terrier?”
Mr. White-Smock took a look at her. “Could be.”
“Is it a boy or a girl?”
He picked up one of the white dog’s legs and looked at her underside. “Could be a girl.”
“Can’t you tell?”
“Some of them are fixed. But you want a girl, it’s a girl.”
“I just want to know what I’m buying.”
White-Smock laughed and said to Papa, “Joe, you bring ’em up right.”
That made Papa smile.
I asked, “Papa, can I have this white one?”
“It’s up to you. It’s your dog.”
“I’ll take her.”
The deal was done, but I think we got her free.
Mr. White-Smock pulled a length of rope out his pocket and pulled my dog out of the pen. When we were all out, he handed me the rope.
I took it. As soon as I touched it, I felt three times my regular size.
After we got out of the building, White-Smock asked my grandfather, “Joe, you and the boy want to see something?”
“What is it?” Papa asked.
“Come over here.” White-Smock took us to the chain-linked-in yard off to the left of the building. A big, brown, hairy, four-hoofed animal stood in there. The man opened the gate and went in and patted the thing’s big head. He waved to me. “Young Joe, come in and see him.”
“Go ahead,” Papa said, “I’ll hold the dog.”
I handed him the rope. I felt braver holding it, but I couldn’t let that stop me, not with Papa watching. I went in through the gate.
White-Smock said. “You ever see a pony before?”
It was pretty hairy, like a sheep-dog. I couldn’t see its eyes. “This is a pony?”
“It’s a forty year-old pony, can you believe that? Here,” he reached into a pocket of his smock, “let me show you something.” He pulled out an unopened soft-pack of Winstons. “Watch this. He eats cigarettes.”
White-Smock offered the pony the whole pack. The pony took it in his mouth and chewed. White-Smock held his hand underneath its mouth. The pony spit the cellophane wrapper into his hand. He showed it to me. “See? He unwraps it himself.”
For some reason, my grandfather laughed all the way home. I sat in the New Yorker’s back-seat with my dog. All she did was lay her head in my lap and lick my hand, non-stop.
When we got home, I was feeling pretty proud of myself. Papa parked at the curb by my back-door and I walked the dog into the kitchen. Papa called out that we were back and I heard my mother answer, “Did you get the dog?”
I brought my white beauty front-and-center and announced, “Here she is.”
My mother took one look at her and cried.
Women are so emotional.
When she got her breath back, my mother sat down at the table and asked me, “What do you call it?”
I hadn’t picked out a name yet, but I had an idea. “Why don’t we call her, ‘Princess’?”
My mother didn’t think much of it. “She doesn’t look like a princess. I don’t want the neighbors to hear me calling, ‘Princess, Princess’ and have that thing run up.” She gave the dog another going over. “What if we called her, ‘Ginger,’ after her ginger-colored ear?”
“Princess” had no chance. I gave up. ‘Ginger’ she was.
The following weekend, we planned to go down to Papa’s house on the Cape. I was looking forward to showing Ginger the place. The Cape house had a huge side yard. Papa had bought the lot next door so nobody could move in too close. You could play ball on it.
But we had a scary moment just before we packed up the car to leave. My little brother came down from upstairs wearing his new white pants. Ginger took one look at him and ran behind a chair, whining and yelping. It took me fifteen minutes to coax her out. She hadn’t acted that way toward my little brother before and she hasn’t since. I don’t know what got into her.
That’s about the whole story, except for one last thing that shows how smart Ginger was. We rode down the Cape in Dad’s Rambler. It was a great day and my little brother and me were having a great time with Ginger in the back-seat. We finally got to the house and parked in the driveway.
All I did was open the car’s door. That’s all. I didn’t expect it. Ginger bolted out and ran off. We chased her across the yard, but she was fast as a bullet. We lost sight of her. I lost my dog!
I was hollering and my little brother was bawling and Dad had us all pile back into the car. He said we should drive around the beach and we’d find her. We tried.
Our neighborhood sat on a neck that stuck out into the harbor off Buzzard’s Bay. The main road went in a circle along the beach all around the neck. We drove it twice. Then we criss-crossed the neck, up and down every street, it seemed a dozen times, but no Ginger.
We all felt sick as Dad drove us back to the house. Dad said we’d look for her some more, but I didn’t think we’d find her. She’d never been there before. She didn’t know her way around. She’d gone off somewhere and maybe drowned or something worse.
We’re all pretty low as we pull into the driveway again. But who’s sitting behind the back door, happy as a clam to see us, wagging her tail with a look on her furry face as if to say, “Where’ve you been?” Ginger, that’s who.
As long as a dog’s got a nose, don’t worry. She can find her way home faster than you can.