by Harry Parmenter
It’s been nearly three weeks since Charlie died and the void he left just seems to widen, the loss burnished by time. Charlie was our family dog, a small, fierce, loving and protective mix of Schipperke, Chihuahua and mutt. Black coat sprayed with white triangles across his throat and chest, Charlie joined us 13 years ago, shortly after we married New Year’s Day 2005. It was the beginning of the blended family experiment, both of us divorced with three kids each in tow, more Wild Bunch than Brady Bunch.
After purchasing a six bedroom, three bathroom house in Canyon Country a year prior, the rocky road to integration commenced in earnest. Four girls, two boys, aged nine to nineteen, all rolled into a house of hormones and emotions sweet and salty; the kids sometimes weekend visitors, sometimes permanent residents, lots of attitudes and adjustments for all involved, including my wife and I. Getting a dog was one unanimously popular decision.
We piled into a pair of vehicles one crisp Saturday morning, almost all the brood in tow, and sailed down the 126 and up a long dirt road somewhere in Santa Paula. Eventually we made our way to a worn, sprawling compound, a house, a barn and a couple of shacks and other small structures, the cacophony of yapping canines greeting us as we disembarked.
I can’t recall if it was four or five of the kids there with us, but I know somebody was missing. I do know the idea was not only to get a beloved pet to unite our incipient clan, but to do it especially for my 15-year-old daughter, a middle child who was struggling. Regardless, everyone was excited. There must have been at least 50 dogs at the place, some running free, others confined to half a dozen coops. A frazzled woman with brown hair, jeans and a red and black plaid shirt slammed open a screen door at the house, her voice whipping through the winter air.
“You the ones who called?”
“This morning, yes,” said my wife. “Raquel?”
“Right! Welcome!” She held the door open and a huge brown Doberman bolted out of the house past her. “Brutus!” She bellowed as the beast headed straight towards us. “BRUTUS!” My ten year old son coiled behind me as the dog neared, and I flashed on Sherlock Holmes battling the hound of the Baskervilles on a foggy moor. “BRUTUS!!!”
The dog approached and, smelling fear, bounded up into my chest, his huge frame pushing me back, excited eyes and a square, panting snout as big as a baseball mitt. The tail wagged furiously.
“Don’t worry, he doesn’t bite,” shouted Raquel as a telephone rang inside the house. Just as fast as he’d made his introduction Brutus was gone, drawn by a pair of German Shepherds loping across the parking lot. My son released his grip on my jacket.
“Help yourself, look around,” said Raquel. “I gotta grab this.” She disappeared back into the house and the phone stopped ringing. We wandered around for a while, the smell of dogs, pigs, horses and everything that goes with them wafting through the air.
We eventually homed in on a small chicken coop, padlocked, two sleeping Spaniels and a little black dog hovering in the back behind a water bowl. At first, he ignored our entreaties, and then gradually inched towards us. His eyes were filled with cautious uncertainty, his ears pulled back, but finally he put his face up to the mesh, a look of hope, fear and adoration. I had seen a similar expression on my daughter’s face when I’d picked her up at her mother’s house the night before.
“Dad, he likes us!” she cried.
Raquel told us he was somewhere between three and five years old, abused, abandoned. His name: Zeppo, just like the fourth Marx Brother. That was all I needed to hear. We took him home and rechristened him Charlie. I had never heard of a Schipperke until then—a small, Belgian dog originated in the 16th century: “Fearless, agile, independent, confident, faithful.” Talk about spot on.
Fearless: he went right at a coyote in our backyard one summer night and the creature, thrice his size, bolted. True story. Agile: he’d jump up onto the kitchen table after we left and sleep with one eye open—ever wary of intruders–only to be later seen leaping off when you pulled back into the driveway, filling the air with a big bark belying his size, then twirling in fervent circles once you unlocked the door, his tail a blur, the eyes no longer uncertain but gleaming, ecstatic. Curious: always up for a car ride or a neighborhood sniff. Independent: “Charlie, GET IN THE HOUSE!” became a household mantra. Confident: Trotting outside, marking territory—an unfortunate habit he shared with a certain living room couch—I can still see him furiously wiping his back feet on the grass, emphatically making a point I never quite grasped.
And like all dogs, of course, faithful. Charlie certainly was, an endless shadow, never wanting to be away from the action, the family, not to mention the food. Through the years, the good and the bad, the kids growing into adults, he was always there to inject happiness and good energy, be it a mundane, tense or celebratory moment. He was the black and white thread of our blended family, weaving through it all as one child after another grew up and left the nest.
In recent years he developed a heart murmur and other complications. We paid five or six bucks a day in doggie rx but it didn’t keep him from developing a dry, deep cough that wracked his little body for minutes at a time. It didn’t faze him; the tail wagged on.
One day I came home and my wife and youngest stepdaughter, who’d become the closest to Charlie of the six kids, gave me the bad news. It wasn’t a surprise but it was still a shock. He had gone out the dog door in the middle of the night like he had a thousand times before but this time died right there, eyes wide open. It was painful for us to realize that he’d been alone, not held by one of us in his final moments like he should have been, his soft neck resting in a friendly lap on the couch as it had so many times before. My wife went out of town last weekend and the house felt even emptier, soundless, her absence underscoring Charlie’s and his hard charging personality, which enlivened our home for so long. He was always there, watching, trailing, sleeping, barking, living … until he wasn’t. Somewhere I know he is furiously wiping his back paws on celestial turf and marking his territory, twirling in circles waiting for the loving members of his blended family to join him.