by Pam Munter
I don’t know where he came from but when I got off the school bus one afternoon at the corner of my street, my mother was holding him in her arms. He was an agitated ball of black and white fluff and he looked to me like a perfect puppy. His snout was white with little black dots all over it. The rest of his body looked a little like an Oreo cookie.
“I brought you a surprise,” my mother said.
I thought my brother’s arrival less than a year earlier had been a surprise, too, but this was something else. This one was mine.
“Oh, thank you. Thank you.” I could hardly wait to go back to my second grade class the next day and tell them my wonderful news.
She handed me the puppy and asked, “What do you think we should call him? He needs a name.”
“Uh. I don’t know.” All I could think of was the names of my movie star heroes. “How about…”
“I think we should call him Sparky,” she said, as if she had already given this some thought.
“Sparky.” I liked the name as soon as I heard it. “Why Sparky?”
“Dad’s an electrical technician. It’s perfect.”
“OK. I like it. Hi, Sparky.”
It was the late 1940s. My father worked for Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica, California and my mother was a housewife. Looking back on it, I wonder why she chose this moment to adopt a dog, especially a hyperactive breed like a Springer Spaniel, so soon after giving birth. I was already a bit of a handful, myself, always out exploring the neighborhood on my bike and questioning most everything.
It wasn’t long before Sparky became a constant companion, trailing behind my bike as I toured the alphabet streets in the middle-class section of Pacific Palisades. He had become used to sleeping on my bed, too, even though I shared the room with my brother. A few years later, my father would build an addition on the house, allowing me my own bedroom and installing a dog door in the den which helped avoid accidents in the middle of the night. Sparky was excitable, we all knew that.
Though he was puppy-dog sociable, it seemed whenever I had kids over to play, Sparky would enact one of his frequent vomiting performances. A kid would call him over, start to pet him and, without even the courtesy of a warning cough, the dog would puke all over him. It was hard not to laugh, but, of course, I feigned concern and disgust. I wondered if Sparky was a mind-reader. It could have been a coincidence, of course, but it seemed to me he chose just the right kids.
The only accommodation we made to this emetic inevitability was avoiding certain scraps. For instance, it was clear after one especially egregious episode that spaghetti leftovers were best just thrown away.
These were the days when dogs were free to roam without a leash and he was out of the house as much as was inside. If he was gone too long, my mother would plaintively call for him, in the same tone she used for her children.
“Sparrrrrrky. Sparrrrrky. Come here. Sparrrrrky.”
We joked about his selective hearing. There was never any lag time between her call and his appearance at dinner time. In the afternoons, without the promise of food upon compliance, sometimes she’d just give up and leave the front door open so he could come home when he felt like it. She was far more permissive with him than she was with us.
Before much time had elapsed, Sparky became my best friend. When I was angry or sad, I knew I could go over to him, lie down next to him and bury my face in his furry nape. I’d tell him what was wrong and he’d kiss my face. He let me snuggle with him as long as I needed then would follow me into my bedroom when we were done, awaiting further disclosures.
The Palisades was a populated suburb but on some summer nights the distinctive aroma of skunk filled the air. We never saw the culprits but there was little doubt they had been there. They weren’t the only evidence of wildlife, either. One July afternoon, an intrepid neighbor killed the rattlesnake that she found in her back yard, the yard right next to ours. After that, I hardly ever went out in the backyard without first surveying the ground and never after dark. But Sparky did. He had no fear.
Though it was dark and I was asleep, I heard him scamper into my room and jump up on my bed, accompanied by great commotion. The light flipped on suddenly.
“What’s going on?”
“Don’t touch him. Don’t touch him,” my father ordered.
“Why? What’s…” One intake of breath and then I knew what it was. Skunk. “Uhhhhh.”
“Fran, get a blanket.” My mother quickly obeyed and returned with a pale blue wool blanket she often used in the living room for her naps. She wrapped Sparky up and my Dad carried him outside. I followed, if only to get the smell out of my nostrils.
He held Sparky on the ground and pointed to my mother. “You hold him while I hose him off.”
“That won’t help. Let me see how much tomato juice we have.”
I was watching this middle-of-the-night excitement like it was a suspenseful drama. My eyes were wide with anticipation. What would happen next? Would Sparky be OK? Would the smell ever go away? Would I have to go to school tomorrow?
Once again, my father picked up the dog and placed him the bathtub while my mother poured tomato juice all over him. I wondered if it were some secret rite, known only to adults. Once the deed was done, Sparky remained locked in the laundry room for the night. We all went back to bed.
I’d like to report it never happened again but such events apparently were inevitable then and could be prevented. But the next occasions were dealt with more alacrity and a ready supply of rattier blankets and tomato juice.
As Sparky aged, I dreaded the thought of losing him. His gait was slower, his adventures shorter. I no longer rode my bike much so he wasn’t getting as much exercise. One of my other’s coffee klatch buddies down the street had two children for whom I had babysat. The parents had bought the girls a Belgian Shepherd for Christmas and was named Shirley, after the oldest daughter’s favorite doll, Shirley Temple. But long-forgotten circumstances required them to give Shirley away. My parents stepped up and now Sparky had a playmate.
Shirley was little more than a pup but much bigger than Sparky. Her favorite sport was to back up to a sleeping Sparky and abruptly perch on his head. This did not go down well but the two never fought. They didn’t play much together, either, but Shirley’s presence seemed to bring Sparky back to life a bit.
But soon, there were more puke episodes, more trips to the vet, more really long naps. He no longer cared if Shirley sat on his head. When I came home from high school one afternoon, Mom greeted me at the door.
“We had to let Sparky go, honey. It was time.”
I nodded and ran into my room, crying. I knew it was time but it’s never time. Some dogs you can never just “let go.”
Pam Munter is a retired clinical psychologist, performer and former film historian, working on a deconstructed memoir and short stories based on old Hollywood. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Rumpus, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, NoiseMedium, The Creative Truth, Adelaide and Angels Flight—Literary West, among many others.