In Dog We Trust
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Heather and her girlfriend lived with a cat named Sid. The girlfriend was always inventing these cute, little, affectionate nicknames for Sid, but never did that for Heather. She was always praising Sid, and asking Heather to praise Sid, but never gave that kind of approval to Heather. If anything, she was sort of detached when it came to Heather.
And so, even though Sid was just a cat, against her will, against her better judgment, Heather started to get jealous.
I remember that I would wake up in the morning and I would hear her saying things like, "You are so beautiful. You are a princess. Look at you."
And as I opened my eyes, I'd realize that she's talking not to me, but to the cat.
You felt like the third wheel.
Mm hmm. I know if there had been another woman, I would have compared myself to her physically. What does she look like? What kinds of things is my girlfriend attracted to that I could aspire to? What personality traits? Is she funny?
But I didn't know what it was about Sid. I could see that she was attractive as a cat. I could see that she had this nonchalance that was beautiful. She didn't seem to care really, that she was loved. So those were things that I did think about, really, cultivating even, but--
You thought about cultivating a nonchalance--
That I was this concerned about it shows you that it would have been a fake, but yeah, I thought about cultivating that.
Since a pet can engage our affection, it also engages all the other feelings that can go with affection, jealousy and dependence and anger and all the others. And as soon as any one feeling kicks in, all the complicated dynamics that happen between people, any household, any family, inevitably kick in, as with Heather and Sid the cat.
I felt sort of the same way I felt-- you know how when you have a crush on someone, and then you're friends with their significant other, and all the awkwardness as you pretend that you don't have the feelings that you do for this other person? I sort of felt like Sid was the significant other of the person for whom I had feelings. So I felt awkward around Sid and I felt like I had to-- I don't know. I felt like they were together before I was around, and I was an interloper. All the awkwardness surrounding that.
And so what's it like to be in a love triangle with another woman and a cat?
Well, it was pretty diminishing. I mean, it was a beautiful cat.
Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, In Dog We Trust. Stories of dogs and cats and other animals that live in our homes. Exactly how much are they caught up in our everyday family dynamics? To what degree do they actually function as non-speaking members of our families? We answer these questions today, and others, with three stories in three acts.
Act One, The Youth in Asia, in which writer David Sedaris describes how a Great Dane-- and not a very smart one-- was able to completely replace him and his sisters when they grew up and moved out of their parents' house.
Act Two, If Cats Ran Hollywood, in which we learn what it is that cats want to watch on television from the man who produced the world's best-selling video for cats. If cats ran Disney Studios, would its mascot be a mouse?
Act Three, Resurrection. What it means in a family when a pet armadillo dies, and what it means it doesn't. Stay with us.
Act One. The Youth In Asia.
Act One, The Youth in Asia. When a pet dies, to what degree can it be replaced by another pet? To what degree can pets replace people in our lives? David Sedaris has this story.
In the early 1960s, during what my mother referred to as "the tail end of the Lassie years," my parents were given two collies, which they named Rastus and Duchess. We were living then in New York State, out in the country, and the dogs were free to race through the forest. They napped in meadows and stood knee-deep in frigid streams, costars in their own private dog food commercial.
Late one January evening, while lying on a blanket in the garage, Duchess gave birth to a litter of slick, potato-sized puppies. When it looked as though one of them had died, our mother placed the creature in a casserole dish and popped it into the oven, like the witch in Hansel and Gretel.
"Oh, keep your shirts on," she said. "It's only set on 150. I'm not baking anyone. This is just to keep it warm."
The heat revived the sick puppy and left us believing that our mother was capable of resurrecting the dead. Faced with the responsibilities of fatherhood, Rastus took off. The puppies were given away, and we moved south, where the heat and humidity worked against the best interests of a collie. Duchess's once beautiful coat now hung in ragged patches. When finally, full of worms, she collapsed in the ravine beside our house, we reevaluated our mother's healing powers. The entire animal kingdom was beyond her scope. She could only resurrect the cute dead.
The oven trick was performed on half a dozen dazed and chubby hamsters, but failed to work on my first guinea pig, who died after eating four cigarettes and an entire pack of matches.
"Don't take it too hard," my mother said, removing her oven mitts. "The world is full of guinea pigs. You can get another one tomorrow."
Eulogies tended to be brief, our motto being, there's always more where this one came from.
A short time after Duchess died, our father came home with a German Shepherd puppy. For reasons that were never fully explained, the privilege of naming the dog went to a friend of my older sister's, a 14-year-old girl named Cindy. She was studying German at the time, and after carefully examining the puppy and weighing it with their hands, she announced that it would be called Maedchen, which apparently meant "girl" in what she referred to as "Deutsch."
When she was six months old, Maedchen was hit and killed by a car. Her food was still in the bowl when our father brought home an identical German Shepherd, the same Cindy christened as Maedchen Two. This tag-team progression was disconcerting, especially for the new dog, who was expected to possess both the knowledge and the personality of her predecessor. "Maedchen One would never have wet on the floor like that," my father would scold. And the dog would sigh, knowing she was the canine equivalent of a rebound.
Maedchen Two never accompanied us to the beach and rarely posed in any of the family photographs. Once her puppyhood was spent, we more or less lost interest. "We ought to get a dog," we'd sometimes say, completely forgetting that we already had one.
During the era of the Maedchens, we had a succession of drowsy, secretive cats who seemed to share a unique bond with our mother. "It's because I open their cans," she said, though we all knew it ran deeper than that. What they had in common were their claws. That and a deep-seated need to destroy my father's golf bags. The first cat passed into a disagreeable old age and died hissing at the kitten who had prematurely arrived to replace her. When, at the age of nine, the second cat was diagnosed with feline leukemia, my mother was devastated.
"I'm going to have Sadie put to sleep," she said. "It's for her own good, and I don't want to hear a word about it from any of you. This is hard enough as it is."
The cat was put down, and then came the anonymous postcards and phone calls orchestrated by my sisters and I. The cards announced a miraculous new cure for feline leukemia, while the callers identified themselves as representatives of Cat Fancy magazine. "We'd like to use Sadie as our cover story and we're hoping to schedule a photo shoot. Is tomorrow possible?"
After spending a petless year with only one child still living at home, my parents visited a breeder and returned with a Great Dane they named Melina. They loved this dog in proportion to its size, and soon their hearts had no room for anyone else. In terms of family, their six children had been nothing more than a failed experiment. Melina was the real thing. The dog was their first true common interest. And they loved it equally, each in their own way.
Our mother's love tended towards the horizontal, a pet being little more than a napping companion, something she could look at and say, "That looks like a good idea. Scoot over, why don't you." A stranger peeking through the window might think that the two of them had entered a suicide pact. She and the dog sprawled like corpses, their limbs arranged into an eternal embrace.
My father loved the Great Dane for its size, and frequently took her on long, aimless drives, during which she'd stick her heavy, anvil-sized head out the window and leak great quantities of foamy saliva. Other drivers pointed and stared, rolling down their windows to shout, "Hey, you got a saddle for that thing?" When out for a walk there was the inevitable, "Are you walking her, or is it the other way 'round?"
Our father always laughed, is if this were the first time he'd heard it. The attention was addictive, and he enjoyed a pride of accomplishment he'd never felt with any of us. It was as if he were somehow responsible for her size and stature, as if he'd personally designed her spots and trained her to grow to the size of a pony. When out with the dog, he carried a leash in one hand and a shovel in the other. "Just in case," he said.
"Just in case, what, she dies, and you need to bury her?" I didn't get it.
"No," he'd say. "It's for, you know, it's for her business."
My father was retired, but the dog had business.
I was living in Chicago when they first got Melina, and every time I came home, the animal was bigger. Every time, there were more Marmaduke cartoons displayed upon the refrigerator, and every time, my voice grew louder as I asked myself, "Who are these people?"
"Down, girl," my parents would chuckle as the puppy jumped up, panting for my attention. Her great padded paws reached my waist, then my chest and shoulders, until eventually, her arms wrapped around my neck and her head towering above my own, she came to resemble a dance partner scouting the room for a better offer.
"That's just her way of saying hello," my mother would say, handing me the towel used to wipe up the dog's bubbling seepage. "Here, you missed a spot on the back of your head."
The dog's growth was monitored on a daily basis, and every small accomplishment was documented for later generations. One can find few pictures of my sister Tiffany, while Melina has entire volumes devoted to her terrible twos.
"Hit me," my mother said on one of my returns home from Chicago. "No, wait, let me go get my camera." She left the room and returned a few moments later. "OK," she said. "Now hit me. Better yet, why don't you just pretend to hit me."
I raised my hand, and my mother cried out in pain. "Ow!" She yelled. "Somebody help me. This stranger is trying to hurt me, and I don't know why."
I caught an advancing blur moving in from the left, and the next thing I knew I was down on the ground, the Great Dane tearing holes in the neck of my sweater.
The camera flashed, and my mother squealed with delight. "God, I love that trick."
I rolled over to protect my face. "This isn't a trick."
My mother snapped another picture. "Oh, don't be so critical. It's close enough."
With us grown and out of the house, my sisters and I foolishly expected our parents' lives to stand still. They were supposed to stagnate and live in the past, but instead, they constructed a new "we," consisting of Melina and the founding members of her fan club. Someone who obviously didn't know her too well had given my mother a cheerful stuffed bear with a calico heart stitched onto its chest. According to the manufacturer, the bear's name was Mumbles, and all it needed in order to thrive were two AA batteries and a regular diet of hugs.
"Where's Mumbles?" my mother would ask, and the dog would jump up and snatch the bear from its hiding place on top of the refrigerator, yanking it this way and that in hopes of breaking its neck.
"That's my girl," my mother would say. "We don't like Mumbles, do we?" I learned that we liked Morley Safer, but not Mike Wallace, that we didn't like Mumbles or thunder, but were crazy about Stan Getz records and the Iranian couple who'd moved in up the street. It was difficult to keep straight, but having known these people all my life, I didn't want to be left out of the "we."
During the final years of Maedchen Two and the first half of the Melina epic, I lived with a female cat named Neil. My mother looked after the cat when I moved from Raleigh, and flew her to Chicago once I'd found a place and settled in.
Neil was old when she moved to Chicago, and then she got older. She started leaving teeth in her bowl and developed the sort of breath that could remove paint. When she stopped cleaning herself, I took to bathing her in the sink, and she'd stand still, too weak to resist the humiliation of shampoo. Soaking wet, I could see just how thin and brittle she really was. Almost comic, like one of those cartoon cats checking her fur coat at the cloak room of the seafood restaurant. Her kidneys shrank to the size of raisins, and though I loved her very much, I assumed the vet was joking when he suggested dialysis.
I took her for a second opinion. Vet number two tested her blood and phoned me at home, saying, "Perhaps you should think about euthanasia."
I hadn't heard that word in a while and pictured scores of happy Japanese children spilling from the front door of their elementary school. "Are you thinking about it?" he asked.
"Yes," I said. "As a matter of fact, I am."
In the end, I returned to the animal hospital and had her put to sleep. When the vet injected the sodium phenobarbital, Neil fluttered her eyes, assumed the nap position, and died.
A week after putting her to sleep, I received Neil's ashes in a forest green can. She'd never expressed any great interest in the outdoors, so I scattered her remains on the carpet and then vacuumed her back up. The cat's death struck me as the end of an era. It was, of course, the end of her era, but with the death of a pet, there's always that urge to crowd the parentheses and string black crepe over an entire 10- or 20-year period. The end of my safe college life, the last of my 30-inch waist, my faltering relationship with my first real boyfriend. I cried for it all and spent the next several months wondering why so few songs were written about cats.
My mother sent a consoling letter along with a check to cover the cost of the cremation. In the left-hand corner, under the heading marked Memo, she'd written, "Pet Burning." I had it coming.
When my mother died, Melina took over her side of the bed. Due to their size, Great Danes generally don't live very long. My father massaged her arthritic legs, carried her up the stairs, and lifted her into bed. He treated her the way that men in movies treat their ailing wives, the way he would have treated my mother had she allowed such naked displays of affection. Melina's parentheses contained the final 10 years of his married life. She'd attended my father's retirement, lived through my sister's wedding, and knew who everyone was talking about when they mentioned the "M" words, Mom, Mumbles, and Morley Safer.
Regardless of her pain, my father could not bear to let her go. The youth in Asia begged him to end her life. "Onegai desu," they said, "sugu." But he held out until the last minute.
A month after Melina died, my father returned to the breeder and came home with another Great Dane, a female like Melina, gray spots like Melina, only this one is named Sophie. He tries to love her, but readily admits that he may have made a mistake. She's a nice enough dog, but the timing is off.
When walking the puppy through the neighborhood, my father feels not unlike the foolish widower stumbling behind his energetic young bride. Her stamina embarrasses him, as does her interest in younger men. The passing drivers slow to a stop and roll down their windows, "Hey," they yell, "Are you walking her, or is it the other way 'round?" Their words remind him of happier times, of milder forces straining against the well-worn leash. He still gets the attention, but now, in response, he just lifts his shovel and groans.
David Sedaris's story "The Youth in Asia" appears in his book, Me Talk Pretty One Day. A version of this story also appeared in Esquire magazine.
Act Two. If Cats Ran Hollywood.
Act Two, If Cats Ran Hollywood. With millions of Americans treating their pets like members of the family, it was really only a matter of time before cats and dogs got what everyone else in the family has, their own TV show. At least their own videos.
In 1987, Steve Malarkey was a computer technician, and he hated his job. He wanted to do something else. And since he loved cats-- he had a Cornish Rex of his own named Stick-- he thought he might invent some cat product to sell. He tried a few things. Scratching posts. A cat warmer called The Warmeus, which heated the animal with a 60-watt light bulb. No luck. Then fate intervened, as it sometimes does these days, over the television.
I'm sitting down at the breakfast table on Sunday morning one day. And you remember that show by Charles Kuralt? Remember at the end of that show, as the credits were rolling, they would have this peaceful scene of a doe stepping through a mountain stream?
Sure, absolutely. His show, Sunday Morning, they would always end it with birds flying and stuff like that. Nature scenes.
Right. Well, when I was in Washington, DC, there was a show on directly after that in the morning. It was a local version of Charles Kuralt's show. And they had a local host, and I can't remember his name. And so at the end of their show one time, they decided to do a little nature scene also. Only since they didn't have much of a budget, they just trained a camera on the back of the studio.
You mean they just pointed it out the window of the studio?
They just pointed it out the window of the studio. And to get a little motion, they threw some birdseed back there.
It was wonderful. But at any rate, they ran the credits, and apparently, the phone lines lit up. People were calling in saying that their cats were going crazy. They were all looking at the television set and meowing. And the Sunday that I watched, the host said, "If you've got any cats, get ready because we're about ready to show this segment again, because we got a request for it from about 40 cats in the Washington, DC area."
And the segment came up, and Stick came running. I hadn't even seen Stick. I don't know where she was, but as soon as she heard the first bird chirp, she came like a shot out of nowhere and just right up to the television set and stuck her little face right in front of that TV. And her head was bobbing back and forth. And she started making these little sounds that cats make when they see a bird. It's kind of like a little chirping noise.
So I got to thinking about that. And I thought, well, maybe I can make a whole video production for the cat. Maybe that's something I can sell.
So Steve opened up the Yellow Pages and went looking for a video production company. One after another turned down him down-- literally refused to take his money-- until he found a guy who was willing to produce a video for cats. They filmed in Steve's backyard.
All I thought we really needed to do was to get as many close-ups as we could of birds and squirrels and whatever else happened to fly by at the time. He suggested that we might be better off with antics, as he put it. He suggested that if we could get birds fighting or squirrels chasing themselves around trees or something like that.
Now, you did actually end up getting some footage of birds confronting each other, like your videographer wanted. Do cats care? Have you watched cats watch the footage to see if they prefer whether the footage is more active, whether the birds are fighting with each other or in motion?
The cats don't care. They don't care one iota if they're fighting or sleeping or whatever. They really don't care at all.
And it doesn't matter if the bird's in motion or just standing there?
Well, from what we can tell, they are attracted to the actual motion of their natural prey. If you look at a bird-- a chicken, a pigeon, something like that-- when they're walking along, they have a very distinct motion. The head goes first, then followed by the body, and it's very quick. And apparently, this sets off all sorts of bells in a cat's head. And they just will stay there and stare at it until it doesn't move anymore or until it's gone.
Have you tried other things that we know that cats like, for example, the sound of crumpling paper?
No, I haven't tried the crumpling paper yet.
Have you had anybody just dangle string in a video?
No, not yet. Not yet.
Do you think it would work?
Oh, well, it would for the string cats.
Oh, I see, but not every cat is a string cat.
If you want to sell a lot of these things, you've got to give them some birds and squirrels. A little bit of chipmunks help. Now, there's other tapes. There's some out there that have nothing but fish on them.
Oh, do cats like the fish?
Some cats like the fish, but not as many. Now, some cats like to look at lizards. We've got that covered. We've got one video that's absolutely nothing but lizards on it.
But what you're saying is, birds and squirrels are pretty much your money shot in this business.
Yeah, that's the bread and butter is the birds and squirrels.
Just thinking about what it is that people like in films and videos, we don't just watch movies of food. We like to see other people in dramatic situations, difficult situations. Have you experimented with or thought about doing things like cats-- where they could see another cat in some sort of peril? Perhaps somebody is holding the cat over a bath full of water. And then it gets away at the last minute. You haven't tried that?
No, I haven't tried that. It's probably out of my budget range at any rate.
A cat and a bath?
A bath full of water and another cat?
Well, it's too easy, actually, to terrify a cat.
Is that true?
Yeah, and if they see another cat, they adopt a pose which is extremely defensive. Cats are extremely territorial. Whenever one presents itself, whether it's on video or actually out the window or wherever the cat may be, they don't like it all. And the hair stands up on the back of their back and their tail.
Steve Malarkey. His real name. It cost him $25,000 to film and edit Video Catnip. When he finished, it took three months before he made his first sale. In his first year and a half, he only sold 400 copies total. Then, after just one syndicated newspaper story about the videos, sales immediately jumped to 30,000 a year and stayed there for a decade, though Steve says that in the last year, sales have dropped to about half that. He thinks this is because people don't want their cats pawing their new, delicate, beautiful flat-screen TVs. His website, cattv.com.
When we showed Video Catnip to a North Side Chicago cat named Oscar, Oscar, I have to say, was utterly captivated by the sound, but refused to look at the TV screen, even when his owner tried to turn his body toward the TV. Some cats just prefer radio.
When you think about it, what is it about having cats in their home that makes people so crazy to buy all sorts of stuff?
I think mostly what it is is that cats have a tendency to give people a sense of failure. When people look at their cat, if their cat looks back at them, you can almost read in their face, the cat thinking something like, "Is this all there is? Isn't there anything else you can give me?"
Cats just have this sense about them that they should be worshipped.
You're saying that people buy stuff for their cat because they're trying to get on the good side of the cat?
I think so. Yeah.
Some of the things that they sell are OK, but some of them are just kind of ridiculous.
This young woman works in America's fastest-growing occupation, cashier. One of our producers was buying doggy treats in one of those big chain stores that sells pet supplies. And this cashier started railing against some of the products sold in the store, the very store in which she was standing. St. John's Wort for dogs. Stuffed animals for your real animals. In the interest of equal time, hoping for the fair expression of all points of view, we returned to her with a tape recorder.
We had these dog CDs. It's got "Sunday in the Park" and some other soothing things for your dog's stress anxiety. That's kind of retarded. But it's the truth. How would you know your dog has stress? Does his hair stand up on the back of his neck and turn gray or fall out? It's crazy.
They sell sweaters for dogs, raincoats for dogs. They sell pup pouches. It's like a backpack for a dog. What's the point? They've got these little hats, sun visor things. Come on. I mean, it's ridiculous. All these years, dogs have gone around the world, for centuries, without half of this garbage. So why do they need it now?
We have flavored bones. Strawberry, watermelon, orange, spinach, corn. Like the dog cares. I had a dog that chewed on panties. Come on, it's crazy. Why do these people go and spend all this type of money on these animals? And to me, it doesn't make any sense.
A disgruntled worker in America's burgeoning pet industrial complex.
[MUSIC - "SERENADE TO A POODLE" BY SLIM GAILLARD]
Coming up, one of the best-known stories from the Bible reenacted with an armadillo. Sort of. And what animal takes a licking and keeps on ticking? Answers in a minute, from Public Radio International when our program continues.
Act Three. Resurrection.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, In Dog We Trust. Stories of pets and the degree to which they function like any other family members. We've arrived at Act Three of our program.
Act Three, Resurrection. Earlier in today's show, David Sedaris talked about the animals that his mother could and could not bring back to life. This is another story about what it is that animals can take the place of in our lives and in our homes. From writer Brady Udall.
It was three days after our old man died that my brother, Donald, accomplished the most spectacular deed of his life. I wish I could have been there to see it, Donald taking the Greyhound down to Nogales all by himself, buying the baby armadillo for 800 pesos from a pie-faced Indian woman at the Santa Acuna market, tucking the little thing under his arm like a football, and running the length of the pedestrian border station, past the heat-struck tourists in their sombreros and loud socks and the guards with their sidearms and walkie-talkies, pushing through the last steel-toothed turnstile, and sprinting like a madman into the heart of the Nogales slums.
It was his proudest moment, though it did take him the rest of the day and half the night of wandering among the hookers and street-corner punks to find a bus that would bring him back to Ajo, where we lived. There he was after I came home from hours of frantic searching, sitting stiff-backed on the couch, beaming. The little armadillo was rooting at the crotch of his pants, and Donald's pink, sweating face had screwed itself up with such a grin of utter self-satisfaction.
Donald ended up giving the armadillo to me. "A present," he said, "something to make me feel better." I thanked him, took the armadillo, which clawed at my t-shirt like a cat, and gave it a little squeeze. What else could I do?
My father had worked as a janitor for 21 years. But he was also a reader of books, a scholar if it is possible to be both a scholar and a sixth-grade dropout. And one of his favorite subjects was zoology. He could bore you into a coma with what he knew about the great horned owl or the common mealworm or the laughing hyenas of Africa. But of all the beasts of the animal kingdom, he loved and admired the humble armadillo most.
"Nope, not the smartest or the prettiest," he would say when one of them scatted across the highway in front of our old Le Mans, "but the hardiest, you see what I'm saying, the most resourceful."
He often promised he would get us an armadillo for a pet, but he died before he could come through, an end-all heart attack standing in line at the grocery store.
I was 17, Donald 19. Our mother-- a Guatemalan migrant worker who'd married my father under the impression he would one day be a rich man who could buy her a Cadillac and a house with a swimming pool-- had run off when we were babies. So it was just the two of us now. It took me about a week to get over the shock, and then I did what I had to. I dropped out of school, started working full-time pouring concrete for Hassenpheffer's and moved Donald and me to a cheaper apartment near the McComb & Sons wrecking yard, where Donald could watch the cars getting pulverized from our window. We got money from the state that paid for Donald's medication, but the rest was up to me.
Donald was really something else. What could be done with a guy who ate his own earwax? Who carried a maroon mini-Bible in the band of his underpants and read random scriptures out loud at inappropriate times? Who could be sashaying about the room one minute, doing a dead-on impression of Sammy Davis Jr., and the next be downstairs in the closet grunting like a pig and trying to tear his hair out?
From a distance, you wouldn't have been able to tell him from any other teenager. He had relatively good hygiene, did not usually talk to himself in public, and was something of a handsome devil, with his dark hair hanging down over pale green eyes. Sometimes, I would take him to a party or a dance with me, and the girls would flock around us. He could be as charming as Hugh Hefner in short bursts before he'd have to run off and hide in the bathroom.
I remember once when I was 9 or 10 and we were playing in the backyard. He kept pestering me, saying "I am the Indian. You are the cowboy, OK?" I told him to shut his trap. I was busy building a cave for my army men. He wouldn't give up. "Me Indian, you cowboy, okeydokey?" Over and over. "Dammit, Donald, you freak!" I hollered. "Do whatever you want, but just shut up for a second."
"I'm not a freak," he said, sticking his chin out.
"All right then," I said, "You're a retard extraordinaire."
The next time I looked up, Donald was on top of a doghouse with a bow-and-arrow set my father had bought for him at a garage sale. He had the arrow notched and pulled back to his ear, just like the Indians we saw on TV. I hadn't noticed before, but now I saw that he had taken off his shirt and tucked it in the elastic of his shorts, so it looked like he was wearing a loincloth, and had used a little blood from the scab on his elbow to make fiendish red streaks across his face. He was doing it perfect, really, just like a TV Indian, an honest-to-God savage.
I didn't believe he would really shoot me, so I just sat there like a jackass, my hands full of dirt. I didn't see him let go of the bowstring, but I certainly did hear the "thop" the arrow made when it hit me in the chest, dead center. More from the surprise than anything, I fell flat on my back. It was only a target arrow, but it pierced my sternum just enough to stand upright from my chest, waving around sluggishly like a reed in a river.
I lay in the grass and stared up at the neon yellow fletching of the arrow. My hands were still full of dirt. Donald jumped down from the doghouse and stood over me. He was smiling an odd, satisfied smile, as if he was expecting to be congratulated on his marksmanship. He looked down at me for a long time before he gently put his hand around the shaft of the arrow without pulling it out.
He said, "Right smack-dab in the heart, white man."
I told Donald I wanted him to name the armadillo. After several days of deliberation, he decided to name it after Otis, the happy drunk on The Andy Griffith Show, who our father had resembled in almost eerie detail.
I had gotten used to taking care of Donald alone-- I had no choice-- but Otis was a different story. First of all, Otis smelled. He gave off a musky odor that intensified whenever he was nervous or hungry. And no matter if we scrubbed him raw with industrial soap and water, the smell would come back in an hour or so.
And then there was the furniture. Armadillos are burrowing animals. This is something I learned from my father. And in the confines of our small apartment, Otis didn't have many opportunities to burrow. Instead, he would march through the house like a tiny gray tank and move the furniture around. He'd waddle into the living room, put his blunt forehead against one of the legs of the coffee table, and bear down, inching it around the room, his little squirrel claws scrabbling on the wood floor.
At least once a week, he would crawl between the mattress and box springs of my bed and take a dump. My father was right about armadillos. They are hardy, they are resourceful, and if Otis is typical, they're as dumb as donkey crap. Sometimes, in the course of his incessant apartment wandering, Otis would find himself trapped in a corner and would spend the rest of the evening attempting to claw his way out.
Otis was technically my pet, but Donald cared for him, worried over him, tormented him, teased him, then made up with tearful professions of regret and affection. While I was away at work, they would do things together. Donald would carry Otis around outside, conversing with him, rooting in the weeds in the vacant lot, searching for earthworms or crickets for Otis's dinner. Sometimes, Donald would hide behind the recliner and, when Otis passed by, would jump out and shout in a high soprano wail, "Look out, Otis!"
Poor Otis would spring two feet into the air like a startled cat, his leathery body twisting, his claws clutching at nothing. And once he'd landed, he'd scurry into the hallway, looking back over his shoulder, embarrassment in those little piggy eyes.
This kind of living arrangement was no boost to my social life, I can tell you. If I ever wanted to bring a girl home, I figured I'd have some difficulty explaining why the apartment smelled like a bear's den, why the furniture was strewn around, and why my brother was naked and hiding behind the couch, waiting to scare the daylights out of an armadillo.
It took five years before I found someone I loved enough to bring home. Allison was good about everything, told me I was a saint and a Christian to be taking care of Donald. She was so wonderful and beautiful and good-smelling, I could barely stand it. Eventually, I proposed to her, after which I went home to talk to Donald. It was springtime in the desert, the smell of cactus blossoms everywhere, and I was so full of love and desire I could barely see straight.
Allison and I had decided that we would get an apartment nearby, that with my new promotion at Hassenpheffer's and Allison's job at the county courthouse, we could afford our own place, and, with the help of the government, support Donald. Donald would be all right as long as we checked on him daily, made sure he was taking his medication, and occasionally washed down the place with ammonia, so the smell wouldn't bother the neighbors.
I have to admit the thought of escaping from Donald and Otis and that cave of an apartment was almost as enticing as the thought of being together with Allison.
At home, when I sat Donald down to explain things to him, I could barely get a word out. I stuttered and stammered, kept wiping my mouth. When I finally made things clear, Donald whipped out his mini-Bible and frantically paged through it, but couldn't seem to come up with anything, the first time I'd ever seen him at loss for a scripture. He yanked at his hair and ground his teeth together until they squeaked. Finally, without saying anything, he snatched up Otis who had been napping under one of the couch cushions, and went into the laundry room, slamming the door behind him.
I felt like kicking that door down and wringing his neck. Couldn't he at least try to be happy for me, to think of somebody other than himself for one minute? I wanted only to be with Allison, and I hated Donald for making it so difficult, hated him for the years of responsibility and obligation and lost opportunities, hated him in the way only a brother can hate a brother.
I took a few steps toward the stairwell to leave. I didn't care, I was going to stay at Allison's, my first night ever away from Donald, when I heard a splashing noise from inside the apartment. The laundry room door was locked, and I shouted Donald's name, but got no response. I tried to kick in the door, which was made of something like cardboard. My foot went right through it. Once I had my leg free, I looked through the splintered hole and could see Donald hunched over the overflowing utility sink, both arms submerged up to his biceps. The back of his neck was purple and pulsing full of angry blood, and it took me only a moment to understand he was trying to drown Otis.
I unlocked the door and grabbed him from behind, but he resisted me, grunting and plunging Otis deeper into the water. I wrestled him out into the living room, where we fell sideways against the couch. Donald twisted away from me and stood up, the water dripping off his elbows, forming a puddle around his shoes. Otis was curled up in a ball, just like when he slept, and Donald began to shiver so badly that he lost his grip and let Otis's body slide out of his hands and hit the floor with a wet slap.
Donald's face twisted into a mask of concentrated grief. "See?" he wept. "See what I did?"
Looking at my brother, I felt all the parts of me that had been opening up since I had met Allison collapse on each other like so many empty rooms. It would have to be me and Donald, brothers, inseparable, no one else allowed.
I don't remember if I looked away, or if it was as sudden as it seemed, but one moment, Otis was a sad, wet corpse, as dead as an armadillo could be, and the next he was huffing and twitching and scrabbling to his feet.
Donald let out an arching shriek, which sent Otis zigzagging into the kitchen where a mad chase ensued, Donald slipping and flailing, knocking over chairs and pulling down the drapes, still choking and sobbing, now with relief. He finally herded Otis under the table and, once he had pulled him out, he held him up, his fingers locked in a death grip around his little body, and cried, "Otis is resurrected! Otis is resurrected!"
A fair trade. Donald got his armadillo back, and I got to marry Allison. Never again did Donald show any sign of jealousy or resentment. He was the best man at our wedding, read a long section from Zephaniah at the reception, and even bought us a gift, a book called Hot Sex for Cold Fish.
Things went well those first few years. We saved up enough to buy the concrete business from old Hassenpheffer, who retired to ride his Harley around the continent. And Donald and Otis seemed to thrive together. We stopped in to visit as often as we could. Allison cooked dinner for them on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and we paid a housecleaning service to scrub the apartment down every week, put the furniture back in place, and steam the carpets.
Donald had his first episode one night while I was in Phoenix at a heavy equipment auction. They found him digging up the lawn in front of the City First Bank, blabbering about how difficult it was to find high-grade earthworms on the south end of town. When the cops tried to approach him, he pelted them with dirt clods and threatened to eat a fistful of worms if they got any closer. He spent most of the night in the holding tank before Sheriff Brasky figured out who he was and gave me a call.
A few months later, Donald climbed an old elm at the city park which branched out over a sidewalk. He managed to pee on a few passersby before the groundskeeper knocked him off a branch with a well-thrown rake.
We took him to a doctor, who adjusted his medication and suggested that Donald be put in a home, where he could get the care and attention he needed, where he could socialize with somebody besides an armadillo. I brought up the subject with Donald, but he told me he would rather die than give up Otis and go live in a house with a bunch of half-wits and knuckleheads. The only other option we knew was taking in Donald and Otis ourselves. Allison was eight months pregnant with our second baby, the business was really starting to take off. It just wasn't a good time, we told ourselves. We might be able to work something out in a few months when things had settled down. By the end of the summer, Donald was dead.
The call came in the middle of the night, like they always do. Sheriff Brasky told me that Donald had been hit by a car on 87 near the refinery. He had run through traffic completely naked, dodging cars and sprinting down the median until an old couple in a minivan clipped him with their bumper, knocking him over a temporary steel divider and onto a concrete platform where he was partially impaled by a jutting piece of rebar. He bled to death before the ambulance arrived.
After I went to the hospital to identify his body, I drove out to the accident site. For half an hour I combed both sides of the highway without a flashlight until I found Otis, cowering under a piece of discarded plywood. His left foreleg was mangled, nearly torn from his body, and he was bleeding from the soft flesh of his belly. I drove him over to the only veterinarian in town, Larry Oleander, and pounded on the door until he answered. Larry was an old retired cowboy with a glass eyeball and a dent in his head where a mule had kicked him.
"Jesus Geronimo Christ," he said. It was 4 o'clock in the morning. I held Otis out to him, and he said, "What you have there is an armadillo."
"Fix him up," I said.
"Son," he said, "I don't know what you think--"
Larry Oleander peered up at me. He sighed and held the screen door open. "Come the hell on in."
Larry amputated Otis's leg, stitched up the wound on his underside, and bandaged him until he looked like one big wad of gauze. When I tried to pay him, he waved his hand in front of my face, took a slug off a bottle of vodka he kept under the operating table. "Jesus, Richard. Just promise me you'll never make a peep about this to anybody."
I took Otis home, and he has been part of our family ever since. Over the last few years, I have added on a wing to the house just for him. He has a room with a skylight and two bay windows, his own pillow-bed to sleep under, and a bunch of old furniture to push around. As far as I am aware, he is the only three-legged armadillo on earth with his own personal wading pool.
Allison is not thrilled about having an armadillo in her home, never has been, but she knows it's important to me. The kids-- we have four of them now-- can't stand Otis either. They want another pet, some kind of happy, slobbering dog or an albino snake to impress their friends. Otis is not only real, real dumb, they argue, but also smells like doo-doo. They're not sure which is worse. I tell them they are correct, they'll get no disagreement from me, but Otis is our pet, and we're going to love him no matter what.
I try not to let myself forget how blessed I am, my beautiful family, my dream house up in the hills, a successful business that pretty much runs without me. I am happy and satisfied most of the time. But every once in a while, maybe once or twice a year, something will come over me, a dark mood that I can't shake, usually at night when everyone is asleep and the house is quiet. And I'll get Otis out from under his pillow-bed and take him upstairs. I run a bath, sitting on the lip of the tub, holding him close to my chest the way he likes it.
Usually I just let him paddle around, but sometimes, when the tub is almost overflowing, I take him firmly in both hands and plunge him into the water. There's not a clock in the bathroom, so I count, one alligator, two alligator, three alligator. This is how I count off the seconds. Otis struggles like a tiny lion for the first two or three minutes, writhing and spasming wildly, sending up a boiling foam of bubbles, fighting and scratching with everything he's got, and I hate myself for what I'm doing to him.
Usually between the fourth and fifth minute is when he starts to lose his will. And his thrashing weakens, as he gradually curls up in on himself, like a flower dying, and goes utterly still. This is always the hardest part for me. The urge to pull him out is almost unbearable, but I go 5 or 10 seconds longer than the last time. One alligator. Two alligator. Three alligator. Four alligator. Five alligator. Until I can't stand it anymore.
I lift him out, and he lies there in my hands, like a deflated soccer ball, and I'm sick with dread knowing that this time, I've taken it too far. I've killed him. I stare down at him and wait, hardly blinking, wait for that first twitch or jerk, for his nostrils to flare with life. And usually, there's an almost imperceptible shudder from under his hard shell, a stirring, and his tail will begin to vibrate like a piano wire. And he slowly, hesitantly, opens up and stretches himself, clawing the air and coughing like a newborn.
Sitting on the edge of the bathtub with Otis wet and dripping in my arms, I'm always overcome with the same vision. Donald clutching a newly-revived Otis, his face slick with tears, transformed from a man twisted inside out with grief to someone awestruck at the realization that our worst mistakes can be retrieved, that death can be traded in for life, that what has been destroyed can be made whole again.
With a sudden surge, Otis struggles to get out of my lap. He is an armadillo, and there is exploring to do. I let him down and watch him slide around on the linoleum and try to push the toilet off its base. And I feel a small, bitter joy lodge in my heart. "Otis is resurrected," I whisper. I carry him to his room and make sure he is comfortable under his pillow-bed and only then will I be able to walk peacefully through the dark, quiet halls of my home, kiss each of my children goodnight, and lie down next to my wife to sleep.
Brady Udall. His short story "Otis Is Resurrected" was first published in Story magazine. It is a work of fiction. No armadillos were harmed in the making of this radio story.
[MUSIC - "GONNA BUY ME A DOG" BY THE MONKEES]
Well, today's program was produced by Alex Blumberg and myself with Susan Burton, Blue Chevigny, and Julie Snyder. Production help from Todd Bachmann, Eric Haverston, Seth Lind, and Bruce Wallace. Music help from Mr. John Connors.
Special shout out today to my own dog, Piney. If my plan has worked correctly, Piney right now is at home listening to my voice over a little radio in the kitchen. Piney? I'm up here in the radio. Piney, sit. I wonder if this is working.
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You've got to give them some birds and squirrels. They don't care one iota if they're fighting or sleeping or whatever.
I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.
Yeah, that's the bread and butter is the birds and squirrels.
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