My friend, Leblien, was going on vacation and the family needed someone to watch their pets. I lived two doors down and Leblien didn’t have any other friends, so I was an easy pick.
His dad was rich, I think. He wore a tie to work everyday, was taking a family of four on a week’s vacation up the mountains and he was gonna pay my sorry ass a hundred bucks to keep his pets on the verge of diabetes. This family owned things. A dog with a pedigree, a garage with an automatic opener and a brand new Dodge minivan with power windows.
My mom had a hand me down Dodge Dart from the seventies. And we got our dog, Jenny, a mutt, from a friend with too many puppies. A hundred bucks would fund all the baseball cards and trips to Wawa my mom said no to, so I agreed to walk Gus the Rottweiler, change the cats’ litter, and feed all three of them.
* * *
The first day Leblien's family was gone, I went ahead with my duties. Wet food all around; one small tin for each cat, Snickerdoodle and Perry, and a large can of cheap and sloppy for the big, fat dog.
When I went into the basement, I felt hoodwinked. I'd been told to clean the litter boxes everyday but the whole basement reeked of ammonia and cat shit and the family must not have done it for weeks. I decided it couldn't get any worse down there so I’d only clean the litter box once: the day before they came back. This gig would be easy.
I woke the next day and followed my usual seventh grade summer routine: hit play on the VCR to start Prince of Thieves and pour a bowl of Golden Grahams. Once the part where Will Scarlet got kidnapped, I was over it. Robin Hood was who people like Leblien wanted to be. Not me. Will was a poor bastard everyone overlooked until they couldn’t. The Lebliens of the world—the Robin Hoods—wanted to hang out with poor people and act like they knew struggle. They paid people like Will Scarlett to feed their animals.
* * *
I went over to crack open some gruel for Gus and the gang.
“Gus, when’s the last time anyone played fetch with you, you old fucker?”
I knew the answer. They never played with him, never walked him. The only exercise he ever got was winking his butthole while cutting a giant turd loose in the backyard. They’d feed him, let him out, then herd him back inside to sleep. That cycle repeated for years. Gus had lost his shine and I was gonna try to get some of it back.
* * *
I grabbed an old tennis ball from my house and took Gus to the high school football field around the corner. Since they were rich, they had one of those fancy retractable dog leashes. I pulled the whole thing out and held the button so he’d at least feel free to trot around. When I threw the crusty tennis ball, he brought it back like he had done this before. Holy shit, he remembered it. Basic training was gonna be a breeze. I was ready to Richard Simmons the shit outta Gus for the next seven days. It made me happy to think of this old dog having fun again.
“Good boy! Now, sit … good boy, drop it.”
I wiped the slobbery ball on the grass then held it up and faked a throw. He fell for it. Ha ha, dumbass. Gus was all excited when he saw I still had the ball. He lowered his barrel chest and slapped the ground with his paws in a playful growl. I shook the ball, he got up and I held it away from him.
I held it above my head, “C’mon, get it … Get it, Gus.” I was really working him up for the big second throw.
He reared all 160 lbs on to his back legs and did a little crow-hop. A solid two inches of maximum air time. He landed on his hind legs and there was a deep crack that sounded like when Carter went yard off Mitch Williams in the ‘93 world series. It gave me the same oh shit feeling in my stomach like it was the end of something special.
Gus was wailing in the same painful desperation a chaplain might hear when he reveals to a parent they’ve been gold-starred. I wanted to run away and hide under the bleachers. I couldn’t. I was in charge of this disaster and all I could think about was breathing in and out real fast into a brown paper bag. How it never made sense when I saw it in the movies, but it did in that moment.
I was looking for blood but there was none. Then my mother’s boyfriend came running down the street. Six foot four, 240 lbs of red-faced panic, lumbering toward me. I didn’t know Brett could run. Gus' cries were so loud and from a place of such wild panic and agony, Brett had heard them from our house a block away. If he had a gun in his pocket I’m positive he would have put Gus down on the spot.
There was no gun.
He picked the injured dog off the ground and cradled him all the way back to Leblien’s house. I went to the fridge and the phone number hanging behind a magnet for where they were vacationing. In case of emergency. I wondered out loud if they considered Gus’ injury an emergency. Brett told me the dog didn’t need a vet for healing, but for mercy. I wondered to myself if Leblien’s dad would consider Gus’ life an emergency.
On their second day of vacation, the Leblien family hurried home to finish off what was left of Gus. I only threw the ball once, I told them.
When they offered the money, I refused. When they insisted, I took it. I never even had the chance to clean the litter box.