Copyright 2004, Michael LaRocca
I met Lisa when I was 21 years old. She was 15. Her father took us to their house. Meeting the family cats may not sound like a big deal to you, but it was to Lisa's family. One cat was Siamese. Her name was Dusty.
Here's what I knew about Dusty.
When Lisa was a baby, crying in her crib, Dusty tried to shut her up by biting her. This was an ancient family pet, full of pride and dignity, greatly loved by all.
Here's what I didn't know about Dusty.
She hated people. Lisa's mother was her best friend in the world. Lisa and her father were tolerated. Lisa's older brother and sister were glared at from a distance. All others were attacked on sight.
I walked into the house and sat on the sofa. Dusty entered the room and breaths were held. She crept toward me, eyeing me suspiciously. She stealthily approached like a leopard stalking an impala. She sniffed my leg. She pounced upon my lap and then she...
She lay on my leg and purred. I rubbed her head. The spectators' fears gave way to total shock. Then they told me how hateful Dusty was.
I saw Dusty approach many visitors after that day. Without exception, she viciously attacked them. And yet, she didn't attack me. She loved me.
"Animals are excellent judges of character," I explained.
Dusty died several years after Lisa and I married and moved to Watha, North Carolina. Dusty was well over 20 years old.
We hadn't been in our new house for very long before Lisa visited the local Humane Society. She saw a female Siamese cat who was the spitting image of a young Dusty, and we all know how this story ends. Lisa named the new cat Witchie.
Witchie had two rather nasty scabs wrapped around her neck, courtesy of a dog. Guess what waited for Witchie at her new home? My new puppy, Spooky. As in, he who spooks at everything. He was such a harmless little wimp, but Witchie still lived atop the highest cupboards for about a week before warming up to the little mutt. Then, well, he died. Breaking my heart and setting the stage for the real story here.
"Free puppies, Dalmatian mix." That's what I saw in the newspaper. I went to the house and saw six positively adorable black puppies, all fat and energetic, wrestling vigorously beneath a heat lamp in a garage.
"We had to take them from their mom because she kept trying to bite everyone who wanted one. She's on the porch. Her name's Molly."
I looked to the fenced-in porch, where the barking had been non-stop since my arrival. I saw a healthy, gorgeous, angry Dalmatian.
I wanted a girl. In theory, less likely to wander out onto the highway. The biggest puppy in the litter leaped at my face and bit my nose. I checked, and she was a she. I took her home and named her Dixie.
As a pudgy little puppy, Dixie burrowed to the bottom of any bowl of canned food without stopping for air, then raised her head and sent food flying. Then she emptied the bowl, cleaned the floor, and licked the food from her face.
Dixie slept with me on every day except one, which comes later. When the alarm clock rang on that first morning, Dixie growled at it. I hit the snooze button. When it rang again, she growled again. She did this every time it rang, every day of her life. How can you not love a dog like that?
Witchie descended from the top of the kitchen cabinets to beat the pure crap out of that pudgy puppy. Well, she tried to. When Dixie got larger, Witchie returned to the kitchen cabinets for a month or so. As I watched how fast this puppy grew, finally losing her fat belly to sheer length and muscularity, I wondered when she'd stop. I'd unknowingly brought home a monster.
As an adult, Dixie weighed seventy pounds. She was built like a Rottweiler. I tried to put my shirts on her, which she did enjoy, but I could never button them around her massive neck. Her chest stretched my T-shirts more than mine did.
I thought of her as a Dalmatian wearing a tuxedo. All four paws were white. A long strip of white began on her muzzle, ran down her chin and neck, spread out across her massive chest, and ran all the way down her stomach. All her white fur was freckled with black like a Dalmatian. The rest of her was a deep, dark black.
I've never seen such a happy dog. She was utterly full of life and energy at all times except the early morning. Her favorite game was to run up behind me and slam her shoulders into the back of my knees, then laugh when I landed on my butt.
And yes, a dog can laugh. No sound, but I challenge you to look at that face and tell me it's not a laugh.
One morning, I saw her walking toward my coffee cup. I thought that would be only too perfect, a dog who growls at the alarm clock and drinks coffee in the morning. So I let her do it.
The coffee was black with two Sweet'N'Lows, and hot. Dixie took a big lap of it, then made the funniest spitting noise I've ever heard. Then she looked at me and laughed, as if to say, "Okay, Daddy, you got me that time."
Dixie never walked anywhere. She ran outside, she ran around the yard, and she ran back inside and chased Witchie full steam ahead. She ran up and down the stairs to be with her daddy, or to eat, or to bark at whatever was making noises outside.
She was a fantastic guard dog, with a deep mean bark and the body to back up every word. Deliverymen always parked in the driveway and honked the horn. Baptist ministers gave up on converting us. Once Dixie slipped outside, and a woman promptly leaped onto the hood of her car. Dixie wasn't just a dog. She was a DAWG.
When Dixie saw the strange dog in her yard, a large boxer, she was not content to simply chase him away. She slammed her shoulders into his chest, then backed away and let him get up. When he ran again, she knocked him down again, four or five times. He never came back after that. I think she missed him.
I remember when I bought my first chainsaw. I had lots of dead pine trees in the yard, which often broke in heavy storms. I was cutting down a few, and I wasn't very good at it. Dixie watched in shock as a tall pine tree fell slowly toward her plastic kennel, which was shaped like an igloo. We both knew where it would land. The igloo exploded, and she looked at me with such a pitiful, betrayed expression.
"Daddy, how could you?"
The next day, I brought home a new plastic igloo.
I remember the weekend that my cousin Clint and I moved a huge pile of dirt from the back yard to the front, with two shovels and a wheelbarrow. It solved the problem of the yard flooding, but it was hard work. His only payment was some steak and Budweiser, which I helped him eat and drink. He even cooked the steaks.
Dixie was watching us work. One of her hobbies. And, naturally, running around the yard. When she saw the bicycle pass in front of the house, way up front along the street, she took off like a shot. She didn't bark, though. She didn't want to scare it away.
I think that bicycle moved faster than my old truck. Clint and I fell on the ground laughing. It was all I could do to catch enough breath to whistle. One single whistle was all it ever took. Dixie came back, smiling and wagging her tail.
Meanwhile, I think of the woman on the bicycle. She was a large woman, what folks down south would call a "corn-fed woman," simply out for a bit of exercise. She had to pass my house again to get home, since there were no other roads leading that way. I don't know how she got home, but it wasn't by bicycling along that road. Maybe she called someone to pick her up.
Not much of a story in the telling, perhaps, but it was hilarious to see.
After Clint and I finished our work, I turned the remains of that dirt pile out back into a garden. It was common for Dixie to run into the garden, pull out a white radish, and eat it leaves and all. She never damaged the other vegetables, though, and I'd grown far too many radishes, so that was fine with me.
I had a lot of gum trees, and she loved to eat the spiny balls that fell from them. I told a co-worker about it, and she replied, "Oh, and I'll bet she chews tin foil too." As a matter of fact, she did.
A few months after I adopted her, I picked up Dixie from the veterinarian after she was spayed. She was so full of drugs that she threw up in the car and passed out on the way home with a loud thump. I carried her, seventy pounds of dead weight, into the house and laid her on the floor.
At the sight of her, Witchie ran like heck toward the kitchen. Same as always. Then she realized she wasn't being chased, and checked on Dixie to make sure she was all right. It was very touching, as well as surprising. A few hours later, Dixie woke up and growled at me. This was the one night she didn't sleep with me. She didn't want to climb the stairs and she was too cranky for me to bother carrying. The next night, Dixie slept with me again as if nothing had happened.
At some point, Lisa decided that Witchie and Dixie weren't enough. She wanted another Siamese cat. I didn't mind at all. I love animals. We wanted a boy this time, knowing that owning two female Siamese simply isn't possible. For Christmas, we visited a Siamese breeder.
As we looked at the kittens, we agreed that we needed the meanest, toughest little monster they had. Witchie would hate him at first, and Dixie's reaction was anybody's guess. The whole litter looked pretty aggressive, fighting and wrestling and scratching and biting. But one kitten always ended up on top -- the smallest one. It was a boy. We took him home.
When Witchie saw the new kitten, she let out a mighty howl and charged at him with fire in her eyes. Dixie quickly ran over to them. One swat of a massive paw sent Witchie reeling. While Witchie looked on in rage and utter confusion, Dixie licked the tiny kitten. He wasn't much larger than her tongue.
Imagine a seventy-pound dog sitting on the floor. Facing her, an undersized eight-week-old kitten is standing on a coffee table. They are batting each other's faces, him aggressively and her like a gentle giant. They're biting, mewing and growling. Her tail is wagging. She opens her massive jaws and seems to swallow most of the kitten. Like a cartoon, the only part sticking out of her mouth is his tail. He wraps his claws around her tongue and bites down into it. Her mouth opens, and the batting and biting resume.
The kitten quickly became known as Taz. He loved to run up and down the stairs making weird wild noises like the Tasmanian Devil cartoon. Dixie was his mom, protecting him from that evil Witchie. Taz slept on my chest every night, surrounded by a big black dog paw.
Witchie wasn't completely evil, though. Once in a while, she sniffed my hair and bit it, then climbed into my lap and purred contently. Much like Dusty, she preferred me to Lisa.
The only other person she ever purred for, and this surprised me, was Cousin Clint. She did that on his first visit. Okay, so maybe animals aren't such excellent judges of character. (I hope Clint's reading this.)
When Taz first arrived, the house contained several large plants. Some were two or three feet tall. Within three days, they were gone. The leaves were food and the soil provided a lovely natural litter box. By the time I discovered the effectiveness of a squirt gun, it was too late.
We quickly decided that, as long as we owned Taz, all plants would remain on the porch. As Taz is still alive and well, we obviously never kept plants in the house.
Taz also loved fish. When I say this, I'm not referring to food. I'm talking about aquariums.
Beta fish, also called Siamese fighting fish, are known for being tough, able to survive anything, so mean that you can't put them with any other fish or else they'll kill them. But alas, a Siamese fish is no match for a Siamese cat.
Fish Number One lived in a small tank shaped like half a sphere, mounted high on a wall between two windows. After a week or so of careful planning, Taz ran up the blinds and grabbed the fish. Then, unsure how to cope with success, he watched it flop around on the carpet. He was staring at the corpse when I got home from work.
Fish Number Two lived in an identical tank. It was mounted high up the wall on the landing between the first and second floors. Taz spent hours perched on the railing, staring at it, wondering. He never found out how to catch that fish. I found it floating in the tank, dead. I assume it died from the stress.
Taz spent hours staring at aquariums, trying to devise a way to capture the fish. Years later, I took great joy in building a tall scratching post, complete with caves, and positioning it so that he had a fine view of the fish that he could never quite reach.
Most intriguing to him was the large albino Oscar. Oscars are meat-eaters, and Taz especially loved watching my Oscar at feeding time. When the Oscar grew too large for the twenty-gallon tank, I moved it to a fifty-gallon tank. Taz sat in the empty tank daily until I finally sold it.
When Lisa and I separated, she took Taz and Witchie to Florida. At age seven or eight, Taz still looked and acted like a crazed kitten. I presume he always will. He has a special place in his heart for black dogs, because that's what his Mom was. Big Dixie. Woof!
About the Author
Michael publishes a free weekly newsletter, WHO MOVED MY RICE?, which is dedicated to proving that you can't eat grits with chopsticks. http://www.chinarice.org