By Angie Pelekidis
In my late twenties, I lived in the semi-buried basement apartment of a three-family home in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn. Residing with me was my elderly dog, Shem, who was half-German Shepherd and half Doberman. He was a handsome mutt, with the black and brown markings of a Doberman, but the stockier build of a GSD. One ear was a floppy undocked Dobie ear, while the other stood upright, which I thought softened his intimidating appearance. Except people often crossed the street when we approached, though Shem was harmless. Not long after he turned fourteen, he had to be euthanized because he could no longer walk, and had lost the spark of life in his eyes. During his long life, he was a difficult dog to own –intelligent, destructive, and needy. My father often advised me to “Get rid of him,” in his Greek-accented English, as if Shem was a non-working appliance. And yet, never during the course of our tumultuous years together did I consider abandoning him.
Typically, I came home from a long day at work to find some sort of unpleasant surprise left for me or created by Shem. At some point not long before my arrival on one particular day, he signed his liquid signature on the hardwood floor of the apartment. The meandering path of pee stretched from my front door, through the living room, and into the adjacent kitchen. There, the pale blue linoleum flooring caused the puddlets to appear green.
I walked through the living room to the kitchen, carefully avoiding the wet spots. Under the sink, I found a paper towel roll and tore off the plastic wrap of the second one I’d gone through in the past week. I unraveled the roll at one end of the trail in the kitchen all the way to my front door without bothering to break off a piece at a time. Then, I did this again in reverse.
In his thirteenth year, during a conversation with my best friend when I complained to her of Shem’s behavior, she suggested that maybe it was time to put him to sleep. It came out sounding more like a statement than a question. I was sure as she made this comment that vague recollections of all the trouble Shem had put me through over the years, including his destruction of some part of every apartment I lived in during my early to late twenties, and instances of his running away, drifted through her mind. “Who’s gonna marry you, with that dog?” my father often said, assuming that marriage was a huge concern and that my ideal prospective husband would dislike dogs as much as he did.
I ignored her suggestion because Shem had been a part of my daily existence since my father brought him to me as an eight-week old puppy. He’d showed up with him at our country house upstate, having procured from who-knows where. I’m sure he imagined Shem would be an outdoor dog who never besmirched our home’s interior. And most likely he found him to prevent me from spending money on a purebred dog, something my frugal father, who had grown up during the Great Depression and Nazi invasion of Greece, thought was a waste.
I didn’t give my friend’s suggestion a second thought. There is always so much doubt and selfishness that comes into play at the end of an old pet’s life: uncertainty over whether you’re doing the right thing by euthanizing them because you have no way of knowing how much they’re suffering, and selfishness because you can’t bear the thought of having something you are attached to severed from your existence. The abstract concept of “never” only becomes concrete when you fully realize you will never see a being you love again.
I used the tip of my shoe to move sections of the paper towel from side to side. Then, I gingerly bunched it up hoping it had absorbed all the liquid on the floor. I would have to mop again, the second time I’d done this that week. I hated that no matter how often I did, my apartment still smelled like an old dog.
I was accustomed to finding this or worse when I came home. Shem, who weighed 90 pounds and had been neutered since puppyhood, always had a problem with marking his territory indoors. As he grew older, I took him to several vets, read many dog books, and always made sure we took long and frequent daily walks, but nothing changed his behavior. Once, when we went to my sister’s for the holidays, he marked her Christmas tree. He was never invited to her house again.
On this day, he was hiding when I came home, but I knew where to find him. Once, during a thunderstorm, he burrowed a hole through the sheetrock in the back of my bedroom closet and into a two-foot square space between the closet and the wall of the house. He wedged himself into this small space almost every day after I left for work as his separation anxiety became worse with age. When he was younger, I only had to worry about storms or Fourth of July fireworks triggering it, but later, my absence set it off. Often, when I was home during a storm, I perched on the edge of the tub while Shem sat in it trembling uncontrollably. Drugs helped, but I wondered, was a virtually paralyzed dog better than a frightened one? Still, I sometimes gave them to him because sleeping at night seemed to help me do my job.
Years later, I’d learn that my reassuring him during these storms, or whenever he was afraid, reinforced his frantic behavior. If I’d known more about puppy parenting when I’d first gotten Shem, I could have created a composed dog. Clearly, young dog owners can be just as inept as the premature parents of children.
I walked through the kitchen and past the bathroom, or as I liked to call it, “the crack den.” I named it this after Shem’s demolition work during a storm, when he was home alone and somehow got stuck in the bathroom. In place of the vanity, there was only a large, irregularly shaped piece of what was left of it propping up the sink; the trim around the door and the bottom of door itself was gouged and shredded; a corner of the thick Formica countertop was also broken off, though I don’t know how Shem was able to do this with his old-dog teeth. I learned to ignore the destruction and hoped my landlord wouldn’t find out about it.
Though I didn’t know how to replace doors and bathroom vanities, I had become a carpenter of sorts myself and repaired several holes Shem put in the walls of this particular apartment. Thanks to Shem, I learned that sheetrock came in varying thicknesses and that you had to buy the same thickness as your walls in order to properly repair the holes. Then, you had to tape the seams between the replacement sheet and the surrounding wall, before mixing and applying joint compound. Afterward, when the compound had dried, you sanded it smooth and painted it. I would never become a skilled carpenter, but at least there weren’t several dog-shaped holes in my walls.
My elderly dog had become the canine equivalent of a dementia-suffering senior citizen. I frequently found him staring blankly at walls as if he was lost in the memories of his youth, chasing cars in upstate New York, where we lived for the first half of his life. His pacing and peeing during the night turned me into such a light sleeper that at the faintest sound, I would shoot up from a deep sleep yelling, “No, wait, let me walk you.” I could be found at all hours of the night in my fortunately quiet and safe neighborhood of Dyker Heights, wearing a coat over my pajamas, and walking Shem.
Yet despite all of this, how I loved that dog! The way he would roll into my lap head first, moaning and groaning in happiness to see me; his constant presence through breakups and work stress; the very sight of him with his big goofy dog grin and crazy ears. He was a character and I loved telling stories of his exploits, both bad and good. Best of all, he was mine and no one could make me get rid of him.
When I was a four, my parents moved my sister and I from Brooklyn to Riverhead, Long Island. My father briefly owned a service station there, but it didn’t prosper, and after three years, he sold it and moved us to Florida. But before this happened, he acquired a puppy from somewhere to be a guard dog, who my older sister named Blackie. My father had never trained a puppy before and he may have expected Blackie would teach himself not to defecate on the garage’s concrete floors. This didn’t happen. So Blackie was demoted from security force to house pet. My mother, equally clueless when it came to dog training, let Blackie roam free, which eventually resulted in his getting hit by a car and a broken leg. He recovered, but not long after that he disappeared, taken by my father to some undisclosed location or hopefully to a new owner.
After seven years of living in Florida, my parents’ trucking business failed, and we moved back to Brooklyn so they could recoup the family finances. My father refused to allow me to bring my cat Fifi with me. I was fourteen at the time and tried to talk my Florida friends into adopting her but in the end she was left behind. After our return to Brooklyn, we briefly lived in Staten Island, where I adopted a kitten I named Baby. When we moved back to Brooklyn six months later, I made sure to bring him with me. My mother let him out one day, though I’d intended for him to be an indoor cat, and I never saw him again. A year later, I adopted a street cat who lived at my father’s new service station in Coney Island, Brooklyn, where I worked in the evenings. Right before I moved to the house my parents bought in upstate NY, my father took Serena, who I’d planned to bring with me, and dumped her somewhere in Brooklyn. Animals in our family tended to disappear, leaving me, the imaginative kid that I was, haunted by their unknowable fates.
In my bedroom, I found a pair of my pink underwear on Shem’s dog bed. He had been stealing my underwear since he was a puppy, often jumping up to pull them off our clothesline upstate, though thankfully he kept his fetish to that and never tried to hump my leg or anyone else’s. There was something both endearing and creepy about Shem’s obsession with my underwear; I preferred to think he acquired my clothing out of a need to comfort himself with a fragment of my presence.
The closet in my bedroom didn’t have a door anymore, thanks to Shem. I pushed aside the suits hanging in there, and, after noticing they were covered with black and blonde dog hairs from Shem squeezing past them, reminded myself to buy more adhesive lint rollers. When I found him in this hole, I thought about people who told me I would be cruel to use a dog kennel or crate. By choice, Shem hid in a much smaller and less pleasant place.
When we first moved into this apartment, I bought a kennel, hoping it would become Shem’s refuge. It was a huge, metal rectangle I placed in the kitchen. After only two weeks, I came home from work to find it empty, the kitchen garbage can overturned and its contents scattered on the floor, the remains of a bag of Dove miniature chocolate bars that I thought I had hidden out of reach on a five-foot high window sill smeared all over my sheets, and Shem hiding in his hole in the wall. He had learned he could escape his prison by biting or pawing at the latch until it sprang open. Fortunately, he was fine after eating the chocolate. But the crate ended up on the curb.
Now I know I should have bought a plastic crate that better simulated the enclosed space of a wolf den or the back of a closet. But I was young when I was first given Shem, and not at all knowledgeable about dog training. No surprise, given how little my parents taught me about being a good animal owner. Still, the most important thing I did know was that pets are yours for life: to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part. Amen.
“C’mon, Shemma,” I said, to coax him out of the closet. I had to pull him by his shoulders as he crawled past my suits again. He was birthed from the closet with white sheetrock chalk on his face, looking like a ghost of himself. I leaned down and hugged him around his broad neck, before kissing him on one of the brown spots he had on the sides of his jaw, his dog dimples.
“You want to go for a walk?” I asked him in a voice higher than my normal one, to which he still responded by wagging his tail, though lately I found he was less interested in most things. He followed me slowly as I left the bedroom, and patiently stood by the front door as I clipped on his leash, which was finally, after years of dealing with his infinite energy, no longer necessary. By lifting his hips, I got him up the five steps from my walk-in basement apartment.
My neighborhood’s wide sidewalks were broken up by earthen squares where old trees emerged. Shem had a carefully worked out system of territory marking: he only went where other dogs had gone to supplant their scent with his; he refused to mark something he had already covered within 24 hours because this was a waste of good urine; and he rationed out his pee in order to cover a large territory. This last rule meant he needed to go at least seven times regardless of how far we walked so that I could be certain his bladder was empty. For every walk, I kept count and took him on different routes. As a result of Shem’s adherence to his system, and his indoor walking and peeing, I nicknamed him “The Urinator,” his motto: “I’ll pee back.”
As we walked, I wondered if there were dog nursing homes where, for a reasonable fee, I could commit him and give myself a break from the work of caring for him and cleaning up after him. I could stop by on weekends, bringing him the treats and toys he liked, petting him and reminding him of all his deeds as a young dog. Like the time he chased my car for three miles to the small town of Morley, before I saw him and had to bring him back home. Or when he tried to steal our neighbor’s Thanksgiving turkey from the kitchen sink where it was defrosting when she was pet sitting him. Once he ate the center out of a chocolate cake resting on our kitchen counter right after I baked it. Another time he ate four pounds of butter my mother had left in a metal bowl on the kitchen table to soften in order to make dozens of Greek cookies.
I imagined Shem getting even older and forgetting who I was. When this happened, I would stop visiting him, using his forgetfulness as an excuse. At some point, I would receive a phone call saying he had taken a turn for the worse. I would rush to his side and he would die peacefully in his sleep from extreme old age. This was a scenario I thought ideal, though my loyalty to him would never allow it. I’d had him since he was eight weeks old, I was responsible for the dog he was, and when he died I would miss him painfully. But maybe it was better that he exhausted me by being such a high-maintenance dog because when he died, my grief would be tempered by relief. At least with Shem, I wouldn’t be haunted, never knowing what happened to him, unlike the many pets that vanished thanks to my mother and father.
Today, when I think about my parents’ behavior toward our pets, I can almost justify it. They had grown up during World War II and had first-hand experience of the Great Famine of 1941, when the Nazi’s plundered Greece of its resources to feed Axis troops. Estimates put the death toll from malnutrition and starvation, not to mention civilian torture and massacres, at over 300,000 Greeks. Urban centers like Athens, where my father lived, were particularly vulnerable. My mother was from rural Meligala, north of the port city of Kalamata, though this didn’t prevent her from losing an infant younger sister to malnutrition. Or from being kicked out of her home by German soldiers and having to survive off of food they foraged for an entire summer.
People who experience hardships like this tend to put humans before animals. Even still, my father’s behavior showed a level of callousness toward me, his child, that I can’t excuse. He must have known how much I loved my animals, but his own preferences were always paramount. That was the only version of fatherhood he knew. Or maybe he perceived my affection for our pets as a foolish weakness that it was his job to purge so that I could be his version of strong. Regardless, the end result was that he treated our animals as though they were worn-out shoes.
During our walk, Shem peed only four times. I turned him around and as we headed slowly back home, I thought about how in his youth and middle age, he used to drag me in whatever direction he wanted to go. Now I had to coax him as he lagged behind.
“C’mon, Shemma! Good boy,” I said to him in a high voice. He wagged his tail gave me the dog grin I loved, and I thought, maybe we still had more time.
Angie Pelekidis has had her work appear in the Michigan Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Masters Review, Eleven Eleven, Bluestem, Drunken Boat, The MacGuffin, and more, and has pieces forthcoming in the North Dakota Quarterly. In 2010, Ann Beattie selected a story of hers as the first-prize winner of the New Ohio Review’s Fiction Contest. Angie received her Ph.D in English/Creative Writing from Binghamton University in 2012.