Rex came to us on a mild Saturday afternoon in April in the early 1950s, prancing like one of those spirited horses in a Wild West show. He was half-grown, of mixed shepherd descent, with a reddish-tan coat, gold eyes, and a speckled nose the color of terra cotta. His tail was bushy like a coyote’s, which we soon learned was, indeed, a part of the mix. That day, as he trotted by our house, a house identical to every other on our block in the suburbs of LA, he appeared not to have a care in the world—he was Disney’s roguish, “Tramp.” And like Tramp, he was without a collar. To my brother and me, two dogless kids, that meant only one thing–he was a stray and up for grabs.
He answered to “Here, Boy”. I lured him to us with my half eaten bologna sandwich. After he wolfed it down, he licked away the sticky residue of the Eskimo Pie from my face while I scratched his head and patted his rump. My brother gave up his sandwich and received the same wet reward. We’d been begging for a dog ever since the move to the suburbs, and we weren’t at all fussy.
He happily followed us through the tall gate into our fenced-in backyard where we intended to keep him until my mother came home from her double shift as a waitress. We returned to the front porch to wait for her. Minutes later my brother nudged me and pointed, “Hey, look!”
I spotted the dog halfway down the block. Impossible. The yard was enclosed with a six-foot cinderblock wall. The gate closed and locked. There was no way to get out. Yet there he was. He had leaped over the fence. With that easy, loping gait, his desire to move on, to travel untethered, was crystal clear, even to an eight-year-old.
I wanted him. I needed him. I couldn’t let him go. I ran into the house, grabbed more bologna, and raced back outside, yelling, “Here, Boy!”
When our mother’s car turned into the driveway an hour later, we both rushed to meet her, the dog bounding along happily at our sides. Words gushed from our mouths, promises spewing forth like pledges from a politician’s lips. We begged, reasoned, as we kneeled letting the dog lick our faces, all the while encouraged by her silence. Knowing her as we did, silence meant she was considering it. And that meant it was as good as done. Our mom could be talked into almost anything.
“How will we feed him?” she asked. “We barely have enough for ourselves.”
“Steak bones and scraps from the restaurant,” I said.
“He’ll make a good guard dog. Look at these teeth.” Sonny lifted the dog’s upper lip to show the strong, sharp teeth.
She walked across the lawn to the front door. “He stays in the backyard and if he causes any trouble, he’s gone,” she called out over her shoulder. “And I mean it.”
We named him Rex, which meant King.
We figured out the series of scars on his underbelly, lashes healed over from beatings he had probably suffered as a puppy, made him distrustful of adult men, particularly men in uniform. With women, children and small animals he was friendly and gentle.
The remainder of the summer he grew up, running loose at my side, enjoying the freedom he craved. Rex didn’t like to be confined, and he wasn’t. Common barricades were obstacles deftly mastered with one leap.
He became my constant companion. He shared my food, my bed and lovingly guarded me and the endless stock of chicks, ducklings, and bunnies I raised. He kept me company on the long days and nights while my single-parent mother worked the split shift for extra money. He took me in, accepted me into his life. It was never the other way around.
With the growing up, the problems began. Rex was a ladies hound. The more females the better. In those days, pets weren’t neutered and spayed as a matter of course like they are today. We scarcely had enough money for doctor visits or medication if one of us became ill. He was such a free spirit, it never occurred to anyone in our family to have it done
There was no fence he couldn’t jump. No backyard he couldn’t invade. Like a Viking on a pilgrimage, Rex came, he saw, he conquered. He became a familiar sight in the neighborhood and soon the entire community. More than once a box of red-nosed puppies found its way onto our front porch. The local dogcatcher no longer tried to chase Rex over fence after fence, from yard to yard, he merely wrote out a citation and attached it to our front door. The fines added up. I took babysitting jobs to help pay them.
We chained him to the backyard clothesline. He wriggled out of the collar and took off. We bought a harness (guaranteed escape proof) and repeated the process. At the end of the day, the harness with attached chain, dangled empty on the other side of the cinderblock wall.
More citations. They began to double, then triple. When there was no more money to pay the fines, our mother took the court’s advice to have Rex removed from our home and placed at the city pound. For a male coyote mix and escape artist, it was a death sentence.
The day the dogcatcher came to pick him up, my mother, brother and I stood in the yard hugging him, crying. Our neighbors gathered around to say goodbye. In the end, my mother relented, and the dogcatcher was sent away without his canine cargo. Rex had a reprieve.
While we were away from home, we kept him in the house. We took turns walking him, usually after dark when he could run free within sight. Things calmed down.
When Rex turned four my mother remarried and we moved to a neighboring town, seven miles away. The housing subdivision, with undeveloped landscaping and open backyards, was a paradise for our roaming Rex. Complaints from neighbors began again. The dogcatcher patrolled the streets. The first citation arrived and then another. Then one day Rex didn’t come home.
I was sick with worry. I missed my constant companion. A week later, a phone call from a friend in our old neighborhood informed me that Rex had turned up at our old house. Ecstatic with joy, I begged my flabbergasted parents to drive me there and bring him home.
Our reunion was the happiest day of my life. Although his ribs were visible through dirty, matted fur, his paws ragged and bloody, and he now favored a front leg, he yipped, whined, and knocked me down in his enthusiasm to greet me. Rex was home again.
Happiness was short-lived. Less than a week later, he disappeared for a second time.
The following days in my new home were lonely and sad. Aside from trying to adjust to a new town and school, I had to make new friends in the middle of the year when the groups and cliques were already formed and impossible to infiltrate. My longing for Rex, my best friend and companion, became unbearable. I searched for him, traversing on foot the seven miles from our new home to the old one, taking a different route back home.
In the early days of his disappearance, I dreamed of him nightly. Then, on and off for many, many years to come. I married, had children and still I dreamed of a reunion with Rex. My love for him had no conditions, no time limits. He would occupy a place in my heart forever. It never, in all those years, occurred to me he might be dead. He had disappeared in his prime and nothing could dare cut short his intense lust for life. If he couldn’t be with me, I reasoned, he had somehow made his way to those open spaces. And I would have continued to embrace that flight of fancy if not for that one day twenty years later. Looking through a family album with my mother, I saw a photo of Rex. My mother said quietly, “Honey, I guess it’s okay to tell you now—it’s been so long…”
“Tell me what?”
“Rex died shortly after we moved to the new house.”
No, don’t tell me that, please don’t tell me that, I wanted to say, but couldn’t.
“I know how much you loved him,” she went on. “But I know that deep in your heart you knew he was never going to settle down. The citations, the neighbors in the new subdivision already complaining. He was your pet, but he was too much of a hardship for your stepdad and me.”
Not to me. He could never, ever, be a hardship to me.
My silence encouraged her to continue. “Remember the first time he disappeared? We took him to the dog pound, but he escaped. Jumped that seven-foot fence topped with barbwire and ran away, back to the old house. We couldn’t believe it, and neither could the people at the pound. No dog had ever managed to scale that fence. The second time we took him to the pound we stayed there until…until–. I’m sorry, honey. We hated having to do it. He was a good dog, except for his wildness. He was too spirited to live in the city. And no matter where or how far away we took him, he’d find a way to come back to you.”
I stared off into the distance. In my mind’s eye, I saw Rex sail over that barbwire fence. Saw him run to freedom. That’s what I wanted for him. But I couldn’t hold back the image of him being forced into a cold concrete room by men in uniform, frightened, the door slamming, the sound of gas hissing around him. Rex had run out of reprieves.
I wish I could have held him in his last moments. I wish I could have comforted him and told him it would be all right. I wish he had made it to those open spaces where no one beat him, where no fences, harnesses, or rules restricted his passion for freedom, where other children loved him and let him love and protect them as he had loved and protected me.
My mother clasped my hand and squeezed, asking for understanding and forgiveness. “We had no choice. You realize that, don’t you?”
I squeezed her fingers gently and nodded.
*Rex was the role model for ‘Red Dog’ in my novel Night Passage, and again as ‘King’ in my fictionalized memoir, Secrets of a Brown Eyed Girl. He will always have a place in my heart.