Sunday, March 8, 2015

Schmoozer: Nemesis

“A man with no enemies is a man without character.”
- Paul Newman

He howled. Howled right in Schmoo’s face for what seemed like an hour straight – longer and louder than what could be deemed acceptable in the kingdoms of man or animal. All this time, Schmoo just stood and stared – Duke’s grizzled, old hound face burning more and more into the portions of his brain reserved for hate with each obnoxious bellow. In that first meeting, the relationship of these two dogs was set – their minds made up. Duke had his opinions and Schmoo had his, which I believe could be summed up simply as “fuck this guy”.

This introduction of Schmoo to my parents’ dogs was necessary and one I was looking forward to. This was my first official dog meeting the dogs I'd grown up with. How everything would go down was arranged according to my Mother’s advanced animal acumen. He was introduced slowly and met by cordial-enough greetings from Loomis, a wolfy-mutt with her own behavioral quirks and Peewee, the mush-brained puggle no one had to worry about. Schmoo had showed signs of dog-aggression, so I was more worried about how he’d react to this motley pack than how they'd react to him, but I think he was taken off-guard by Duke’s actions, which I’m sure were embarrassing to all the animals and humans present that day.

Duke was my family’s beagle, a ridiculous animal deserving on his own collection of tales. When he passed away in early 2013, I remarked that he wasn’t the kind of dog you mourned with sadness, but more appropriately with an Irish Wake or Viking Funeral. He was a bastard – loud, misbehaved, foolhardy – but damned if he wasn’t entertaining.

When my family adopted him, he was just a pup, with vibrant hound coloring and a sweet little face. He looked like a young beagle should. As he grew older, he grew into something less-so. His colors faded to gray early in life (to almost exclusively white in his later years), his frame became large and bulky and his ears hung far past the breed standard.

One of Duke’s most frustrating tendencies was to rush out the door when unsuspecting visitors entered our home and to chase around the subdivision howling at nothing for hours (and sometimes days) at a time. His transformation over the years was such that we joked that our sweet Duke had run away for good during some misadventure and some beastly stray has returned in his stead.  

Though he certainly didn’t have to, Duke lived much of his life hard and on the edge, which is sort of commendable. During one of the many times I was tasked with hunting him down, I watched on in horror as he came within a few short moments of being run over on the busy road that ran behind my parents’ property (to his indifference). When I eventually caught him, with no leash in my possession, I was forced to sling him over my shoulders, where he fought, fussed and wailed the whole walk home. 

Another time, he returned home from a brief sojourn in the woods with a small hole in his haunch. What could have caused this injury is up for debate, but, judging from the size, a BB was the likely culprit. I wouldn’t have put it past some of our more “rural” neighbors to take a shot at him. While I’m sure he was fun and worthy target-practice, I doubt he even felt the pellet land while in the throes of his smell-driven fit. No mere BB (or box of BB’s) was ever going to take that dog down.

By the time Schmoo came into the picture, Duke was getting old and surly. It’s too bad about first impressions because I think the two could have been friends if history had unfolded differently. I can imagine Duke uttering the hackneyed go-to of the action-movie antagonist “we’re not so different, you and I” during one of their private moments. Both were particular dogs, with big personalities and untold but vaguely decipherable codes of conduct. Both were food motivated, fond of human comforts and prone to grumbling. Both were strong-willed, stubborn survivors who out-foxed their respective illnesses longer than they were meant to.

It’s the above-mentioned codes of conduct that seemed to stir trouble between the two more often than not. Schmoo had what we liked to call his “Corgi Rules”. What those rules were only Schmoo knew, but they consisted of outlawing behaviors that he deemed obnoxious or untoward. Being too obvious while begging during human-dinner time? – Inappropriate! Trying to lick the plates and kitchenware while the masters loaded the dishwasher? – Unacceptable! Groaning and writhing on the coach in an effort to soothe one's aching old bones? – How undignified! Such behaviors, which Duke was prone to, often resulted in reprimands from Schmoo – a sharp bark and whale-eyed stare. Occasionally, Duke responded in kind with a “fuck off” bark of his own coupled with a crazy “go for it” gaze through his cataract-ridden eyes.  Despite the animus, such altercations never came to blows.

Until one day, they did.

Duke had had enough. While congregating in the kitchen, sniffing for scraps and pestering my Mother, Schmoo scolded Duke as he turned a corner – probably for the crime of being a sour sonofabitch who was undoubtedly up to no good. This was the straw that broke the old hound's back. Duke lunged at him and the snapping and howling began.  

When those unmistakable wails rang out, I ran in from the other room to help break it up. Those who’ve witnessed such altercations know how awful they can be, even with smaller breeds. There’s very little calculation to a dog fight – chess it is not - just an explosion of teeth, snapping jaws and bad intentions propelled by instinct and ancestral ghosts. Due to our intervention, the bout only lasted a few moments, but, to my surprise, Schmoo seemed to have gotten the better of things, for it was his jaw that needed to be removed from Duke’s fleshy throat.

I gathered up my dog and hurried him into the living room to cool down. I was shaken up by the incident, but when everything calmed down and it became apparent that no one was injured, I couldn’t help but laugh a little. I was proud of Schmoo – not for fighting, but for holding his own once the fighting started and for taking it to the bigger dog. He’d proven, as he continued to prove for the remaining years of his life, that the frailty I’d used as an excuse to coddle him was an illusion.

Even though Duke’s death came at the end of long stretch of failing health, it was a tough one to take. The bigger a dog’s personality, the bigger the hole they leave in your life once they’re gone. Besides Schmoo, I’d say there was no greater dog I’d ever known.

I wouldn’t say Schmoo enjoyed Duke’s absence during the visits of his final years. I wonder if he noticed. I think I would be underestimating him (and the species as a whole) if I said he didn’t. I know I’m ascribing a human spin to their relationship, but there’s something poetic and eternal to the idea of the rivalry – Magic-Bird, Ali-Frazier, Duke-Schmoo - these stories are for the ages. These men and dogs made each other better, alternating between whetstone and blade to make each stronger, sharper. Schmoo was stimulated by Duke’s presence; his “Corgi Rules” written in antipathy to the behaviors of the beast who greeted him so rudely; his confidence bolstered by the time they went mano a mano. Without Duke, Schmoo's life wouldn’t have been quite as full.

This past July Julie, Schmoo and I moved back to the Midwest from Colorado. While spending some time at my parent’s house, Schmoo did something very out-of-character. He wasn’t the type of dog to run off, so I took him out for a brief jaunt in their backyard without a leash. However, down on the edge of the woods lining their property he spotted a rabbit and took off into the overgrowth to find it. Without proper footwear I couldn't follow, so I had to wait for my Mom to bring me my hiking shoes. In the time that elapsed, he’d disappeared. I ran after him, chasing back and forth around the woods like a madman, crying out for him to come back. His hearing was mostly shot at this point and he’d never been in these winding thickets before, so I was deeply concerned about the possibilities. More troubling than the thought that he might be found injured or killed was the thought that I might never see him again or know his fate – a reality I would have probably met with a nervous breakdown.

As it turned out, all my fear and frantic energy was for nothing. While we were all out searching for any sign of him, he’d wound his way through the rough terrain and back up the hill to my parent’s backyard. He was hot and probably a bit tired, but no worse for wear. He’d thrown caution to the wind and chased the rabbit into the woods – Duke’s woods. That day he traveled the same road as his nemesis, smelling the same permanent smells of the land, crossing the same trees and avoiding the same dangers – their adventurous spirits another common ground they failed to stand on in life.

Though this was an isolated incident for Schmoo and a regular occurrence for Duke, I’ll still think of them both and their exploits whenever I look upon those trees and tangled brambles. While they were not friends in life, in my memory they can haunt the land and its rabbits together. 

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