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.
“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 dog who isn’t carrying a plastic bag. Since Flaco is an indoor dog, I walk him no fewer than three times a day: one long walk in the morning, after we eat breakfast; a shorter one after lunch; and then another longer one before we go to bed. Our routine changes only if it happens to be raining and I have to wait until Flaco’s willing to go outside and get his paws wet. My favorite time to walk is in the early morning, when the sun is still coming up and, except for a few squirrels, Flaco and I are the only ones moving about in the neighborhood. Once, we were out for a walk and an older lady came out on her porch, smiling. She was wearing a long terry cloth robe and holding a steaming mug of what looked like her first coffee of the day. I thought she was going to say good morning, but instead she said, “You got bags?”
After we get back from our walk, Flaco spends most of his time on a multistriped dog bed I bought for him at Pottery Barn. During the day the bed stays near the front window, where he can nap until the mailman comes around. Then in the evening I drag the dog bed into my room. There was a time when Flaco slept on my bed, but this was before he got his own.
The last time I took Flaco to the vet’s office it was for his annual shots, but afterward, the vet asked if I wanted him to clean my dog’s teeth. He’d noticed some plaque and felt it’d be better to take care of this before it led to something more serious, like gingivitis. The procedure involves the dog fasting the night before—no water, either—arriving at the vet’s office early the next morning, anesthetizing the dog for twenty to thirty minutes, thoroughly cleaning the dog’s teeth, and then the dog fasting again that evening, just to avoid any risk of choking due to the side effects of the anesthesia. The price for the procedure is $208. When I told the vet I wanted to think about it, he looked disappointed, as if I’d told him I didn’t want a tumor removed after all.
He may have thought the price was an issue, though over the years I’ve opened my wallet just as wide, and even wider, for other visits to his office that weren’t life threatening. Maybe he considered me a negligent pet owner for not at the very least buying the special dog toothpaste and brush that he recommended. From what he’d said, the cleaning seemed like a sensible thing to do, but something still kept me from going along with the procedure. I thought about it the whole way home. There didn’t seem to be any limit to what I was expected to do if I wanted a healthy and happy dog. I’d never heard of most of these things until I moved to Austin. I wondered what any of it had to do with a dog actually being a dog. And then I remembered this one time we took Mingo to get his shots.
My father had read in the newspaper that the city, in an effort to get more people to vaccinate their dogs, was sending a veterinarian into our neighborhood to administer rabies shots. For my father this meant that it would be a lot easier to get the dog registered; for Mingo it meant that he didn’t have to take his usual ride inside the trunk. The city would be setting up a table outside the elementary school close to our house, within walking distance.
The vaccinations started at five, but it was nearly six before my father showed up from work. He tied an old rope around Mingo’s collar, and we headed out. We walked the two blocks to the school, which was the longest distance Mingo had ever been on a leash. He kept his nose to the ground, jerking me along as he followed the scent of the rest of the neighborhood dogs.
We had to watch our step the closer we got to the table and the place where the other dogs had been waiting in line. My father finally took the rope from me because Mingo kept stopping for a whiff.
There were two dogs ahead of us, both chow mixes, one of which had an extension cord for a leash. The vet was an older man with thick forearms, freckled and with tufts of brown hair that bristled out of his white smock. It was almost dark now and probably later than the man was used to working most days. He seemed eager to finish with these last three dogs so he could go home. Once his assistant had filled out the necessary paperwork, she asked my father to place the dog on the table. My father bent down and then quickly scooped Mingo up with his arms around all four legs, as I’d seen him do once out in the country with a stray calf.
When the vet finally came around, he gave Mingo the same cursory exam he’d given the other two dogs, looking at the dog’s eyes, then his teeth, and finally inside one of his ears. He peered into the other one and shook his head.
“Wouldn’t hurt to clean those ears,” he said.
A second later he stuck Mingo with the syringe. My father paid the small fee to the assistant, and she gave us our new rabies tags.
“Do you think we should clean his ears?” I asked on the way home.
My father thought about this for a moment and then nodded.
“That sounds like a good idea,” he said. “And after we clean the dog’s ears, maybe he can brush his teeth.”
Then he laughed and shook his head. I imagined Mingo brushing his teeth in our bathroom, rinsing his mouth out with the smelly Listerine that my father used, and it did seem kind of funny, so I laughed too.
I was holding the rope, and Mingo seemed more excited when we came up to our street.
“Here, let me see that,” my father said. Then he pulled out his Buck knife and cut the rope off Mingo’s collar, letting him take off with the rest of the dogs that were running in the street.