Pet Project

My dad taught me a lot of things about caring for a dog. Flaco should thank his lucky chew toys that I ignore every one of them.

MY FIRST DOG WAS WHITE WITH BROWN patches and floppy ears, a mutt really, though that would probably describe every dog in Brownsville when I was growing up in the seventies. My father just showed up one day with this puppy tumbling around in the back of his work truck. A friend of his who lived on a farm had given him the dog. My father decided to name him Mingo, after an Indian character he’d seen on television. So Mingo it was. In fact, a couple of years later, when someone poisoned the dog, my father brought home another dog and named him Mingo. It was easier than coming up with a new name. The truth is he named all our dogs Mingo. All four of them: Mingo, Mingo, Mingo, and Mingo. My father had grown up in the country and didn’t think we should worry too much about the animal’s name. After a while, I started thinking all dogs were named Mingo.

 It was my job to make sure the plastic bucket always had plenty of water for the dog. We fed Mingo only in the evening, and so he showed up no matter where he happened to be, whether that was under the house, sleeping in the dirt, or two houses down with the poodle that always seemed to be in heat. Some nights he ate Chief Dog Food, which came with a picture of a German shepherd on the metal can. Other nights he might eat the leftovers from that day, bones and all.

My father set up a doghouse out back, next to the water heater and under the ebony tree. He spread an old horse blanket across the wooden floor, and Mingo curled up in a tight little ball every night, especially those one or two nights a year that it froze. The tree kept the doghouse in the shade during those long South Texas summers when the temperature would stay in the high 90’s for weeks, sometimes getting up past 100 for days. The only time Mingo didn’t sleep in the doghouse was when there was a hurricane, in which case my father would put the dog inside the small room where he kept our lawn mower.

There was one afternoon it began to hail. My father and I stood on the back porch to watch the ice bounce off the roof and the chain-link fence. Mingo was sniffing the pieces of ice that at first were no bigger than marbles. But soon, when it really started coming down hard and the dog was getting pelted, he started running in larger and larger circles, trying to escape.

“Can we bring him in?” I asked.

“In where?”

“Inside the house?”

“You want to bring the animal inside the house?”

“So he doesn’t get hit.”

“He can go inside his house.”

About then a large ball of ice pegged Mingo just behind his ear, and he let out a sorry yelp.

“What if he doesn’t know he should go in there?”

“That’s why they call it a doghouse.” My father turned to look at me. “You know, for dogs?”

Mingo didn’t go inside the family car, either. My father said he’d worked too hard to have an animal going for rides in his car. Each time we had to take Mingo to the vet, my father would put him in the trunk of the Oldsmobile and then take the extra precaution of tying his collar to the spare tire; if the trunk were to pop open on the highway, he didn’t want the damn dog jumping out and causing an accident. Then, so Mingo could breathe, he used a piece of wire to hold the trunk open a few inches, enough for the dog’s snout to poke out but not his entire head.

Since I left Brownsville some twenty years ago, I’ve had only two dogs, neither of which has spent any time riding in the trunk of a car. Somewhere along the line, I crossed that great divide between keeping an animal and having a pet. I can’t say how this shift happened exactly, though I suppose some of it may have had to do with moving away from the black and white world I’d known when I was growing up and moving into the larger, grayer world I now live in. Some of the changes were improvements, and some of the changes were nothing more than changes.

Flaco, my most recent dog, I adopted from an animal shelter while I was going to school in Iowa, and later we drove back to Texas in a U-Haul. He spent most of the ride hanging his head out the window and sometimes barking at dogs passing by in other cars.

Flaco is a mix of a hound and some other breed no one’s been able to figure out other than to say that whatever it is is prone to allergies and requires a variety of shots and other medication during a good part of the year. His fur is mostly brown and black, except for his white chest and paws. In Spanish, the word flaco means “skinny,” which he was before he gained a little bit of weight, and now people, mainly those who know some Spanish, like to joke that there’s nothing flaco about that dog.

Now that I live in Austin, I’ve had to learn certain rules about owning a dog. One rule is that your dog must stay inside your property or be on a leash at all times, unless you happen to be at one of the twelve dog parks. Another rule, the one that comes up most often, is that you are always responsible for your dog. In my neighborhood, for instance, several people have made their own yard signs that read “Please pick up after your dog!!” Which is why you see dog owners carrying small plastic bags filled with you-know-what. Actually, it’s rare to see someone walking a

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