Aunt Sara and cousin Nellie live an idyllic life in Lake County, California, to the north of and formerly part of Napa County. The view out their front window last week included yellowing leaves of Viognier winding along carefully trained but graceful trellises. Beyond the vines is the oldest lake in California and beyond the lake, golden hills bordering the Mendocino National Forest.
Greeting me at the door, as usual, is the family’s beloved mutt, Frieda, a carmel-colored love machine of easy temperament who brings a shoe with a wagging tail to greet anyone. But Friday, after a long day of family and farm-related business meetings, I returned home to a different Frieda.
She had apparently been stabbed multiple times.
By a deer.
She was not wagging anything. She was standing like a coffee table, motionless.
My aunt Sara is not perturbed by much. A dog that has probably been thrown through the air by a deer … well, it has happened before. We rub antibiotic ointment into Frieda’s wounds and pet her and pet her.
In the morning, Sara discovers Moopsie, the other, larger dog, hiding under a bush shivering, blood reddening his white spots. I have known this shy, polite dog for a decade, but I see him rarely. I affectionately call him “Oopsie Doopsie Moopsie.” He knows me, ducks his head and wags his tail, no matter how long it’s been. But this morning he can’t move. He is shaking and cannot get up.
The dogs, Sara explained, are getting old but had nevertheless taken on a buck.
And by their satiated appetites, my aunt surmised, they had gotten it down, somewhere among the acres of fenced vineyard, and eaten their fill.
Sara and Nellie live in the large German-looking house in which my grandmother’s childhood memories occurred 100 years ago. I get the feeling dog stories go down here, have been going down here, for a long time.
Moopsie, though not visibly injured is clearly traumatized. Still, he allows me to pull him by the fur on his neck to a standing position. He then he skulks inside to the heater, flops down and doesn’t move for 12 hours.
My own dog back home in Virginia is from the farm down the road, from Quercus Ranch. The manager there, Dave, lost the mother and a sibling shortly after we adopted Natalie, to a speeding driver.
When I meet Dave in the orchard Monday at dusk, the fifth but not final appointment of the day, I am reminded of the six-year-old but still festering tale.
The driver threatened to sue Dave for damage to her car. The dogs shouldn’t have been in the road, the driver reasoned, there’s a leash law.
But you killed the dogs, comma, you asshole, us neighbors muttered.
Still, I think Dave paid the bill for damage to the car. I didn’t want to ask.
Justice is oblique.
His half-Chessie, half lab, Scooby, the one remaining of a 10-pup litter, is so much like my Natalie I am surprised he doesn’t know me.
For almost an hour in the chilling dusk, Dave and I share dog stories, marital ups and downs, kid-bragging, and eventually get around to our business meeting … which lasts about one minute. Then I subconsciously tell Scooby to get in Dave’s truck the same way I tell Natalie. “UP.”
Roof Dogs, Dogs on Beaches
That evening, when the tall friend, Mike, with whom I’ve been trying to connect all day in order to purchase some wine shows up, he too has a dog aboard, riding in the back of the pickup. When we go out to shuffle cases of wine after an hour of catching up, the German shepherd is on the roof of the cab, a first according to Mike.
In the morning, I head south for my two-day drive to San Diego. I stop at beaches every hour or so. The first beach, New Brighton just south of Santa Cruz has dogs on leashes. A chocolate lab on the beach barking at a seal. The seal follows, unnoticed by the human companions. (see prior post.)
I stop again at San Simeon, Gaviota, Ventura, Malibu, San Juan Capistrano and Carslbad beaches, almost all of which feature happy dogs.
But when I arrive in San Diego the dog story of the week, hell, of the century, transpires.
Kathy and Hans are the golden girl and the golden boy. The kindest, most organized, together, beautiful, (did I mention kind?) people in southern California, much less the world. My in-laws are what everyone needs for in-laws. I could go on and on about them. They had inflated mattresses for the nephews and set out towels and blankets, made beds, hauled out china, made pies, planning a Thanksgiving to make Martha Stewart green. These are the kind of people who you go to for advice on anything from etiquette and appropriate attire for any event to informing a loved one she is dying … they are just good folks. They are by all measure, with the program.
So when we go out for Mexican food, before planes start arriving bearing members of my far-flung family, I think they are staging an elaborate joke when a deceptively calm conversation occurs. Kathy turns to her husband and asks quietly if he has remembered to tell me about Tika.
Tika (Say it TEE Kah) is a sweet-looking plump dog that could be mistaken for a fox if it moved fast enough.
Hans slaps his forehead. “No” he confesses, “I forgot.”
Kathy turns to me and asks urgently, “Did you leave any dirty clothes out?”
I recalled dropping the jeans, t-shirt and underclothes I had been wearing since Tuesday morning, leaving them on the floor by my bag when I headed for the first shower in two days.
“Well,” she says, deadpan, Tika will have found them by now … unless you closed your door.”
I try to remember. I tend to leave doors open.
“She once ate the crotch out of Erika’s jeans,” Kathy goes on, smiling ever-so-slightly now.
I know she is teasing, but it is unlike Kathy to make such a vulgar reference.
“You are kidding me,” I conclude.
“No, she will have eaten your underwear by now.”
We hadn’t even ordered dinner yet.
Will we return home to find shreds of my undergarments strewn about their palatial home?
The horror deep in my stomach starts to slowly soften. Poor Kathy, she will feel so bad, I worry.
But Kathy is smiling her beautiful golden smile. She has stared down this horror before.
And I start to relax too.
Do I detect a tiny bit of craziness in my in-laws’ outwardly perfect lives? A bit of adventure in the all-too-smooth operation of my sister-in-law’s household?
I grin at Kathy.
A dog that eats the houseguests’ clothes. Dirty underwear specifically.
Nah, she has to be joking.
After some much-missed West Coast Mexican food, we head home. On the stairs I find my shampoo, the lid gone.
“She ate the lid,” Kathy assures me. She will either throw it up or it will come out the other end … and we will hear about it when it does.
Her voice is that of experience.
The bedroom door is open.
All that is left of my light violet underwear is a two-inch strip of soft cotton and the waistband. The jeans have a gaping hole where the crotch had been.
Is she kidding?
Nope. She isn’t.
UPDATE: A week later I receive a new pair of jeans from LLBean on my doorstep with a note: “Please Come Again! Love, Tika”