The Not Entirely Complete Works of Peter Schulman

©2006 Peter Schulman

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The First Silence

Cassie came into our lives a little under twelve years ago, a refugee from the SPCA. She was docile and loving.

In the beginning she didn't bark. She was afraid, though we didn't know it. Approach her too quickly and she cowered, and peed. As she became more comfortable, she asserted herself, understanding that she could bark as long and loud as she wanted and she would not be beaten. She would be disciplined, but not beaten.

For the first five years, we would warn guests: beware of the dog - she'll pee on your feet. She got scared so you couldn't yell to stop her from peeing. Yell and she crouched and gave you even more to clean up.

We slowly came to the conclusion that her original abusive owner had been a mailman.

Cassie was part Chow. They are known for being territorial and she would put up quite a fuss when anyone came to the door. We began to realize that her most vehement outbursts came when the mail was delivered.

It took four or five years before her attacks went postal, sorry. When the mailman, or woman, would come to the door to leave the mail outside, Cassie would attack the door, particularly the door knob. In the last three years she bit off two of the toggles that lock and unlock the door from the inside. Now there is just a hole.

I had to screw Plexiglass to the door to keep her from tearing it apart. That was my last line of defense.

I tried balloons because I had heard they scare the dog and would make her shy away from approaching them. She did. Until the air started to leak out.

I tried that supposedly foul-tasting stuff the pet stores sell to keep your dog from biting things, I think it was bitter apple. Cassie found it a gourmet's delight.

Three times over the years Cassie managed to get out the front door with a mailman in the vicinity. The score: Cassie 3, mailmen 0. We only had to replace one pair of pants.

After the third mailman was bitten, a policeman came around to check out our vicious canine. Cassie was out back at the time. She barked, charged the fence, stood with her paws against it, and licked him. It wasn't just a cursory lick. Cassie wasn't one to take half measures. She licked with gusto. He laughed and we made sure she never got out again.

I have an office in the basement and usually can't hear the doorbell. Cassie would bark with abandon to let me know it rang.

Sometimes I would come up and find she was telling me something else entirely.

"I saw a squirrel," Dad.

"Just wanted to let you know a car drove by."

She didn't actually say these things, I guess you suspected that already. But I have watched her often enough, perched five to seven steps up so she could see out the window in the door, as she would take particular note of the squirrels, cars and even people walking by. There were times I was sure she was just taking exception to the air she could see through the window.

Cassie had a special fascination with squirrels. She would see one in the back yard and long to chase it. I fenced in the yard so the dogs didn't have to be walked and so they could run around, chase each other and play. But Cassie especially loved to chase squirrels.

When she was six, she caught one. She walked toward me with the squirrel in her mouth and a terrified look on her face that said, "What the hell do I do with this?" I yelled for her to drop it. I doubt she understood, but she understood the demeanor. She released the squirrel, which scrambled up the fence and into a tree. Cassie had a relieved look on her face. Thanks for the help, it said.

Then she turned around and chased a squirrel.

Cassie spent many happy hours in the back yard. She loved to lie in the sun. She also liked to jump in the snow drifts. She especially loved to bark at mailmen, cars, squirrels, neighbors, kids walking by, other dogs and, occasionally, breezes.

She liked to bark too damn much. She annoyed neighbors, especially when she went out that last time at night. I had to perfect the quiet yell to get her to stop without drawing the neighbors' ire myself.

Sometimes someone would come to the front door and we would try to speak through the storm door. I'm sure we could have succeeded if only we been able to talk at 150 decibels. Barking was her birthright.

Cassie was not the alpha of our pack, but as we added new dogs, always pre-owned and never housebroken, she would take them under her wing, or in her jaws, and help teach them how things operated in our house.

No blessing comes unmixed. Along with the barking, Cassie begged for food at the table. She was the eternal optimist. We never gave her food from the table, but she always requested it enthusiastically, assuming that this was the time her luck would change. Occasionally, one of the kids would want to give her something but I always told them that would encourage her to keep begging.

"What's encouraging her now?" my wife would ask.

If you were side-saddle, Cassie would place her head on your leg and look at you doe-eyed. But seated normally at the table some guests would be shocked.

"There's something poking at my crotch."

That would be Cassie. None of the other dogs were tall enough. She would insinuate herself, moving her head from side to side if necessary. Some found she didn't always need to be so subtle. Bam! She would slam her head in all at once. Surely that's worth a treat, isn't it?

The treats we gave out were dog treats. We would always make sure they had finished dinner before giving them a treat. Invariably, Cassie was the last done. If she suspected she might get a treat, what was the point of eating the usual fare?

"Cassie, eat."

She'd go back for more and return for the treat. Not done yet.

"Cassie, finish eating."

She would wander over, look at us to be sure we were going to enforce the rules, then, reluctantly finish.

"Okay, Dad, I'm ready." She would get at least two because she was by far the biggest dog.

"You sure there aren't any more?" she would ask with her eyes.

Cassie's biggest downside, though, in our house was that she shed hair prodigiously. I'll take some of the blame on the ill will it caused. My instructions were to get a small dog that didn't shed all the time.

I compared her to a German Shepherd, Great Dane, Saint Bernard, and immediately I realized that a forty pound dog was small.

Looking at her hair compared to a Collie or German Shepherd, it wasn't that bad.

The first indication that I might have misinterpreted my instructions was that when my wife saw Cassie, she broke out in tears.

"That's a wolf." No, she's small and practically hairless, comparatively.

During her entire tenure, Cassie shed everywhere. Any time the weather warmed up, Cassie shed. My wife replaced the carpet on the stairs with a dark color. Every two weeks she would scrape the stairs to pick up Cassie's hair and come up with a ball of fur bigger than a Chihuahua, only because much of Cassie's hair was left elsewhere.

That's not such a bad problem, you say. Just brush her.

Cassie hated to be brushed. You had to trick her to get her in position and she wiggled and struggled to get out.

My granddaughter liked Cassie the best because, "She protects me." She was great with kids who poked at her and pulled her hair and stepped on her, never even snapping.

Most every morning when I came down the stairs, Cassie would be resting at the bottom. She would roll onto her back so I could scratch her belly. She knew that must be the reason I was coming down.

Guests would get her butt to scratch. She would twist around to bump them and we would tell them the meaning of that maneuver. I think she could stand there a whole day having her butt scratched. There was no activity she liked as much.

Cassie retained her sweet disposition. When she walked down the hall, our Jack Russell would jump from her left and nip at Cassie's face. Then she would do it from the other side all the way down the hall. Cassie just walked down the hall with dignity as if nothing was happening.

If the offense required action, Cassie would pin the offender with her paw, and follow up by licking when it was over to signal it's taken care of, we're good.

She would always come when you wanted affection and often when she just thought it was a good idea. If she thought you needed it, she would insinuate herself to provide it.

Each of the other dogs has something distinctive about them: a look, a behavior, an intelligence that surprises. Cassie just stayed quietly in the background loving and confident that she was loved.

Two days ago, when the mailman came to the door, she attacked with her typical fury.

Yesterday she scooted by me and ran down the steps to the basement. I found her lying on her side in her cage. I checked in on her frequently in case she showed some sign she needed the vet. The mailman came and left unmolested. She was still in her cage. I leaned in and petted her.

When my wife came home, I told her Cassie was sick and resting in her cage. She went down to see her and called up that she thought Cassie had died. I went downstairs and found she was right.

Just like the day Cassie came into our house, my wife was crying over the dog. This time, it was that Cassie was leaving, not coming.

I lost it later when I thought about how I would be letting the dogs out before putting them in their cages for the night. Cassie was not going to be with them, with me.

Today I went to do an errand and found the mail waiting when I opened the front door. The mailman had come and gone to a profound silence. It was the first silence of many to come, tangible as a plaque, a photograph or a statue.

I wish I could give Cassie another treat, even if it came from the table. I wish I had given her more treats when she asked. She was happy, but she would have been a little happier.

I hope I remember that when I'm with the rest of my family.