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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dog Years 4

Part Four:  A Move, A Sister, and Queenie

     Just before I began school, my parents presented me with another puppy.  This dog was more appropriate for life on the farm.  She was half collie, half German shepherd.  We named her Queenie.  She was a gem; smart, loyal, and beautiful, marked like a collie with shorter hair like a shepherd.  When Queenie was about a year old, I learned I was going to have a brother or sister.  This seemed unnecessary and arbitrary.  I was six and the only child and grandchild to date, but the days were accomplished and she was delivered.  Mary Beth, small, red, and useless.  While she was being born, I was suffering, quarantined with the red measles, in a dark bedroom.  I couldn’t approach her or my mother until I was spot free.  Understandably, I was not thrilled with this situation.  I remember standing in the doorway of the bedroom while the family at large was introduced to the newest member.  My dad passed her piggybank and everyone dropped in coins.  I lobbed my plastic pig into the room from the bedroom door, but no one had any coins left.  My grandpa saved the day by stuffing a dollar in the slot in my piggy’s back.
     This was just the beginning.  Soon it became obvious that my parents valued MB more than my dog.  I got a spanking for taking Queenie for a ride in the new baby carriage.  There were shoutings about germs, hair, and fleas, but this was a huge injustice.  My dog was surely better looking and certainly more intelligent than that squalling brat.
     Other than the small matter of the sister, life in Plymouth was kid heaven.  There was a tire swing in the elm tree, a cedar with conveniently arranged branches for climbing, and a muddy, forbidden creek a half mile away for frog catching and bullhead fishing.  My friend, Nona, (a year younger and a head taller) lived less than a mile down the gravel road.  We built forts and camps in the hedgerow behind her house, which her older brother Jerry destroyed as fast as we constructed.  We played “Roy Rogers” endlessly.  Our biggest arguments were about “who had to be Dale Evans.”  Her dog, Friday, and my Queenie accompanied us everywhere.  He was a collie-type too and a valuable member of a working farm.  He brought the cows in for milking every morning and evening.  Nona’s dad, Albert, cried for days when deaf old Friday didn’t hear the tractor start, and Jerry accidentally backed over him.  
     Nona’s mother Mary and my mom had been friends since childhood.  The two of them belonged to Eastern Star, but could not afford formal dresses for one of the events, so they put an ad in the Emporia Gazette.  My dad and Albert and an anonymous accomplice called them with directions to a house in town that was brimming with just the right sort of used formalwear.  The residence, just south of the tracks on State Street, was infamous as the local whore house. 
     Time for another move, again without consulting me this time we moved to Emporia to a white colonial on Peyton Street at the edge of town near the soybean plant.  There was a huge yard complete with fish pond and a lovely arbor with a hammock and Paul Scarlet roses.  MB and I each had our own rooms upstairs.  Queenie had ten acres to roam and a barn and chicken house to keep free of rats.  But problems with the sister just got worse.  She became mobile and demanded to follow Queenie and me on all our adventures.  My mother would always respond to her begging by saying, “Take her along.”  One day I had enough.  I had made it to the edge of the pasture when she came to the gate.  “Take me,” she wailed.  “Go home, or I’ll throw this rock,” I threatened.  She didn’t, and I did, and for the first time in history, I hit what I aimed at.  It was a small rock and it made a small slit right at her hairline, dead center.  Blood promptly oozed down her turned up nose.  Screaming ensued as did another flaking.  I was heart sore and angry at the unfairness of it all.  As usual, Queenie sympathized entirely.
     Unlike Spike, she did not kill farm animals or molest persons in uniform.  Her only peccadillo was to roll in anything fetid and then go upstairs for a nap on my bed.  I forgave her for fouling my sheets, and she forgave me for frequent baths.  She learned to bring in my horse, catch escaped chickens without hurting them, jump a stick, sit up, roll over, speak on command, retrieve anything thrown, shake hands.  She loved to ride in the wagon (or the baby carriage), hunt rabbits and mice, kill snakes, and generally do whatever you asked her to do.  This was a problem the day MB directed her to jump a picket fence in the back yard.  She missed and impaled herself on one of the pickets.  The vet patched her up in short order, but it took me years to forgive my poor, contrite sister.  I can still see the puddled tears in her big brown eyes. 
     Nevertheless, coldhearted, I set about getting even.  I filled out her baby book.  She often pouted because hers was empty while mine was crammed with pictures, cards, notes, family trees, snipped hair, finger and foot prints, lists of “firsts,” cute sayings, and the beaded bracelet from the hospital with my last name.  I began with a National Geographic article about a baby albino gorilla.  This supplied most of the baby pictures.  Queenie and an inkpad provided the footprint.  In the “first haircut” spot went a hank of calf tail hair complete with a bit of manure.  First word:  “duh.”  Favorite food:  “boogers.”  The result: another flaking from my mother.
     The climax of all this animosity came when she was six and I was twelve.  Our parents had gone out and left me in charge.  I suggested we play amusement park and Mary was all for it.  We took all the cushions off the chairs and couch and piled them at the bottom of the staircase.  Then I put her in a cardboard box and shoved her down the stairs.  “Whee!”  She loved it.  Do it again.  “Whee!”  But this time the box tipped over and she hit her head on the newel post at the bottom of the stairs.  I thought she was dead.  If I got a spanking for unlawful use of a baby carriage, pegging her with a rock, and filling out the baby book, what would happen if I had killed her?  By the time I rushed to the bottom of the stairs, she was sitting up and blinking.  There was a good sized lump behind her ear, but no sign of death.  She didn’t even cry.  Moreover, she didn’t tell on me.  This was a huge turning point in our relationship.  I realized I loved her and didn’t want her to die.  I saw that she valued my good opinion and wanted my approval.  The fussing stopped and we have henceforth been buddies.  She is a great person and I love her even though everything in her house matches and there is nothing in her garage but a car.  Queenie and I both forgave her for the fence fiasco.
     I began to notice that my little sister was becoming a character.  When I look back at the old 8mm movies my dad took, I notice how goofy all of us were.  Why would a group of reasonably intelligent people line up in rows and smile at the camera for a motion picture?  The only one in motion was MB.  She was that blur that streaked by in front of the group.  To this day, it is hard to get her to hold still.  One day she crossed the road to visit Mr. Purttle.  “Charlie,” she warned, “I’m going to lock you in the shed.”  He laughed, silly man.  She did.  He was locked in most of the afternoon.  His wife had to take the door off the hinges because MB threw the key in the fish pond.
    We lived in the white house on Peyton Street until I was in high school.  Just about every summer, Mary and I would travel by train to LA to visit my dad’s sisters. We had passes because dad was a switchman for the Santa Fe.   We came home from one of these trips to find we had moved again.  Big surprise.  The house on Garfield never quite felt like home. Queenie and I both missed the space and freedom, and I never really liked living in town.
     Queenie lived for twelve years.  She walked me to my first day of first grade at the old Plymouth School.  I wore new jeans with stovepipe-sized cuff rolls, a plaid cowboy shirt, saddle shoes, and a green plastic raincoat that still fit when I started junior high.  My mother was always expecting me to grow, and I never did.   I don’t think any of my kid clothes ever fit before they wore out.  (Mom made most of my clothes on her Singer Featherweight, bless her.  And bless me because I wore them without complaint.  I’ll never forget the gauzy prom dress with orange roses.)  Twelve years later, Queenie walked me to college.  Our house at 1214 Garfield was directly behind the College of Emporia campus.  A scholarship and work study (fifty cents an hour) allowed me a fine liberal arts education at a bargain price. By then Queenie’s joints were stiff and her eyes milky from cataracts.  She became incontinent and was in obvious pain.  The day we decided she should be put down, I led her to the back yard and took some pictures of her sweet face.  The family mourned and for months missed stepping over her sleeping form when we went out the back door.

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