Dog Mahal


My mother never met a project she didn’t like. These frantic digressions frequently involve some sort of amateur carpentry. She went into labor with my sister the night she and my father finished building a room extension onto our trailer. That woman once dug a storm cellar. Her solution to most things involves a circular saw, some chicken wire, and a gleam in her eye as she crows “We could jury-rig it!”

Once we moved to a real house made out of bricks, there was a lot less damage she could do. At least to the untrained eye. She cut a hole in several doors to make catty and doggy doors. That’s how we inherited Ricky, a spare cat, but that’s another story for another time. The back yard provided a new challenge. She had been accustomed to acres and acres of land, but now — how to despoil just a few thousand square feet!

First, she erected a fence around the back yard. Not a chain link fence, that would be too typical and durable. No, some sort of wire monstrosity. Did she hire someone to do this? That would violate the fundamental principle of “never pay anyone to do something unless you are in a full body cast.” This directly violates my principle that “there are people to do those things,” but again, another story. She painstakingly sunk every post herself. How many people do YOU know who own a post-hole digger? A tamping mallet?

The fence was ostensibly to contain the dog. We had a black border collie-lab mix, named Sparkie. “-ie,” my mom insisted, “because she’s a girl.” Sparkie was a peach, with fur like a Pat Benatar hairdo, and my mom saw fit to honor her with a dog house. The best dog house in the world. This dog house could safely house two children. It was insulated!

Inside it was finished with faux-marble waferboard paneling.

It also had a removable roof. I don’t know why anyone would need (or build) a convertible dog house with a marble foyer, but some things are not meant for me to understand. The dog pretty much refused to go in it. My sister and I would sit in there now and then. It smelled of caulk and fuzzy pink insulation. It was always sweat lodge hot, due to in the insulation and the fact that we lived in the South. My mother would be so pleased when we’d come home in the pouring rain to find the dog lying in the house, mournfully hanging her head out the door to avoid asphyxiation. “Look, she’s using it!”

Big was a later dog addition, a stray who just showed up and stuck around. He looked like a St. Bernard, with the saddle markings of a German Shepherd. He would sometimes stuff himself in the dog house, Clifford style. But mainly he preferred to stay in with us, watching Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reruns, my mother’s television show of choice. She’d leave the TV on for the dogs when we weren’t around, but Big liked it best when he could climb in someone’s lap. He’d happily pin you to the chair with his 120 pound bulk, and he would growl if you attempted to move. Much in the manner of his arrival, if he chose you, you were stuck with him.

The Dog Mahal sat unused, slowly decaying. We pleaded with Mom to tear it down, and she finally gave in. Eventually Sparkie and Big passed on to Cher’s dog house in the sky. In another act of stealth euthanasia, she had the vet come to the house and put them both down at the same time. Sparkie had lung cancer, and Big was in the advanced stages of a thyroid disorder. She didn’t tell us about it until it was all over, just like she saved the news of our cats being put to sleep for when we were within a block of our house on the car ride home from school. “Oh, I had Misty/Silver put down this morning.” She buried the dogs in the footprint of the dog house, in a deep hole she dug herself.

But my mom has a new dog now. She stole it from the neighbor. It looks, as my sister puts it, like a jackyl-headed bat dog, with pointy Egyptian dog ears and murder in its eyes. Murder in its soul, to be exact. It runs around inside the rusty fence, always on the same maddening path. I see frothing, snapping jaws, my mom sees pure doggy love. It comes and goes as it pleases, through a giant hole in the door to the basement. No need for a place of its own.

It is always tough to admit defeat. Sometimes a dog will spurn the Barbie Dreamhouse of mutt accommodations. Sometimes your children won’t understand that you’re just trying to do something nice, damn it, no matter how borderline insane the gesture may be, no matter how unsightly the outcome.

My dad always used to say “Dreamers build castles in the air, psychotics live in them.” And some people just stick to the back yard.

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