by Dave Gregory
I never thought my parents could lie. Sure, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy—but not a big heartbreaking lie like the one my sister Bonnie let me in on, a dozen years late.
Mum said truth kept families together. She insisted every lie we told was a wound in her side. Dad had no secrets. We always knew where he stood. He loved our mother, baseball and beer. He didn’t care what other people thought and didn’t want to be a slave to money. He hated laziness and he sure hated Dandy.
Dandy was the dog no one loved. Except me. A brown, mixed-breed mongrel, maybe the size of a full-grown spaniel, he belonged to the upstairs neighbours—the French people. They left him outside all day. In winter, he’d howl from the top of the back steps, begging to be let in. I told my parents we should do something but Dad said, ‘What do you want me to do, let it in here?’
That’s exactly what I wanted but he made it sound like the most ridiculous idea ever. And to him, I suppose it was. He never owned a dog and thought they were costly, filthy, flea-bitten beasts.
For most of 1951, Dandy followed me everywhere. I had nothing to feed him, he followed because he wanted to, because I showed him kindness and gave him attention. He became my best friend. We’d swim in the canal together. He’d dive in beside me, then bark like mad if I stayed under too long. I’d walk to school and Dandy would wait in the playground—all day, every day—with his big tongue hanging out.
He forgot about his owners and started living on our screened porch. There was a gap he could squeeze through. Every day after work, Dad stomped on the floorboards to scare the dog away but Dandy returned the minute Dad stepped inside the house.
Dandy became my bodyguard. In the schoolyard, he growled if anyone got too close. Back home, the mailman, milkman and paperboy stopped delivering because they were afraid of Dandy’s barking and snarling. I never taught him that, he did what he thought he had to do—to protect me.
The French people washed their hands of him. The mother, the only one whose accent I could understand, said I might as well take the dog because he clearly liked me better. She gave me the leash Dandy never wore, his food and water bowls, and whatever Friskie’s dog food they had left. When that was gone, Mum had to buy more. That made Dad furious.
To replace Dandy, the people upstairs got a skunk. The mother used to walk it on a leash. It didn’t matter that it had been deodorized, everyone crossed to the opposite sidewalk when they saw it coming. If Dandy spotted them, he’d chase the skunk and the mother would pick it up, to shield it, and run with Dandy yapping at her heels.
My family seldom left Port Colborne but we made a trip, every year, to the Welland County Fair. We planned it for weeks. The twenty-minute drive to the big city—at least Welland seemed big when I was thirteen—was as far as I’d ever travelled. Dad enjoyed the show horses, I liked the rides, and Bonnie loved cotton candy and meeting her friends there. The picnic was Mum’s favourite. And pie baking.
One morning in June, we loaded everything into Dad’s two-door, blue Pontiac Chieftain. Bonnie held the passenger door and collected a lunch basket from Mum. That’s when Dandy snuck in. Eager for adventure, the dog sat on picnic blankets in the middle of the back seat and wouldn’t budge. Dad flew into a rage. I begged for Dandy to be allowed to come along but Dad held the keys and stood scowling on the front step with his arms crossed, right toes tapping.
As soon as I got Dandy out, we pulled away. He ran after us. I thought the dog would stop on the corner but he kept going. There were no seat belts, so I kneeled on the back seat and watched through the rear window. Dad told me to get down but I had to see. Loyalty and desperation shone in Dandy’s eyes. Slobber flew from his tongue. He kept up through Humberstone, with all the turns and stop signs, but fell behind on open country road. I lost sight of him before Dain City and hoped he knew the way home.
I’d been at the fair half an hour, trying to win a stuffed giraffe by knocking over milk bottles with a softball, when Dandy sprinted toward me, barking with joy. I’ve no idea how he found me.
There were a thousand fun things to do at the fair, exhibits, crowds, sounds and smells, even a giant Ferris wheel, but I was happiest racing through the midway with Dandy at my heels. Girls asked to pet him.
I knew my parents wouldn’t share their picnic with Dandy, so I spent my last fifteen cents on a hamburger to get him through the day. He drank from a horse trough in the agricultural tent.
When we piled into the car to head home, Dad stopped him from climbing in. ‘If that dog got here on its own, it’s getting back on its own.’
I couldn’t believe he’d be so cruel but knew not to argue.
We got home after five, ate leftover potato salad for dinner and it was almost sunset before I heard Dandy panting on the porch. His paws were muddy and he was covered in burrs, so I knew he’d followed the canal home.
I took him to the lake and cleaned him up, then he found a big stick and wanted to play fetch in the water. Twenty times he swam out and back, shook himself off, then dropped the stick at my feet, eager for another throw—and he’d already run sixteen miles that day.
Most kids at school knew Dandy would attack whoever threatened me. In September, for a stupid joke, Johnny Ridgeway dared Bertie Nicholson to throw a fake punch at me.
I warned Bertie he was risking his life.
‘He’s a harmless mutt,’ Bertie scoffed. Since his dad was a cop, Bertie thought he could get away with anything. Frederick was the dad’s name; he’d been friends with my dad longer than I’d been alive.
‘I’m not kidding, Bertie. The dog’ll rip your arm off.’
‘Do it Bertie,’ Johnny shouted.
Bertie came at me with a raised fist and a dumb grin.
Dandy bared his teeth, got down low, then leapt. The fist was inches from my face when Dandy’s fangs sank into Bertie’s arm.
Well, the school went crazy after that—the whole town did. I got in trouble, even though I’d warned Bertie, but Dandy got it worse. Bertie’s dad came for the dog that evening. I couldn’t protest. Couldn’t say a word. We had to do what the cop said. He put the leash on Dandy—first time he ever wore it—and put him in the police cruiser’s caged back seat. The lights were flashing and Dandy looked terrified. He wondered what he’d done wrong and why I wasn’t running after the car as it drove away. When I asked where Dandy was going, Dad said we’d find out tomorrow.
The next day, Dad came home with good news: there was a farm Dandy could live on, thirty miles west along Lake Erie, past Port Maitland. There was room to run and nobody the dog could bother.
For the first week or two, I thought Dandy would follow the lake and find his way home. He never came, so I promised myself, whenever I got my driver’s licence, my first trip would be to find him. That idea faded but I never doubted Dad’s story—never had any reason to.
Bonnie married a fellow named Gordie Carter and they had three kids before the first of my three came along. Gord loved dogs, so my niece and nephews grew up with a Jack Russell named Caesar. I went to visit one night. They lived on Quaker Road, in Welland. Gord worked late shifts and the kids were already in bed, so I sat with Bonnie at her kitchen table, drinking her husband’s beer. We had one, maybe two bottles each. My sister was close to tears because the old dog was in bad shape and had an appointment with the vet the next morning. Bonnie knew the doctor would recommend putting Caesar down.
‘It’ll devastate the kids,’ Bonnie said.
‘What’ll you do?’
She sat her stubby brown bottle on the table and thought. ‘I’ll tell them Caesar will be happier on a farm—same way Dad told you Dandy went to one.’
Bonnie tilted her head and raised an eyebrow, looking at me like I was some simpleton. She did that a lot, growing up.
‘Ron, the ‘dog farm’ is a lie parents tell their kids. Caesar isn’t going to any farm and Dandy certainly never went to one.’
‘Sure he did. There was a great big yard, tall trees and a corral with horses.’
‘Did you go there? Did you ever see Dandy on the farm?’
‘No, it was too far.’
Bonnie stretched her neck toward me and raised both eyebrows in sync with her shoulders, as if saying I’d proved her point.
‘But Mum, Dad, Bertie Nicholson and his dad, they all said Dandy went to a farm.’
‘Oh, don’t tell me you didn’t know the cops destroyed Dandy the same night they took him.’
I didn’t know. I could see Dandy as clearly as if we’d just been for a walk; his big tongue and those loyal eyes. I spent years wondering what his life was like on that farm and it took another decade to learn he never made it.
Back when I found out the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus weren’t real, I felt older and wiser. But learning my parents lied about Dandy turned me into a kid again—and not in a good way. I wanted to kick and scream like I would’ve, at thirteen, if I’d been told the cops murdered my dog.
I stormed out of my sister’s house and climbed into the car, a dark green, Chevy Impala I’d bought second-hand. Once the engine started, the idea of finding Dandy rushed back. Against all reason, and without a chance of success, I headed south toward Lake Erie, turned west onto Lakeshore Road and kept driving.
Maybe I had more than two beers because the story shifted as the miles passed. In my mind, Dandy made it to the farm but escaped and was at the great lake’s edge, nose to the ground, hoping to catch my scent. I sped into the night, alone on that dark road, flying along the shoreline, past forests, cornfields, and cattle farms, looking for a lost dog, who was looking for me.
Somewhere past Port Maitland, the road curved and an animal appeared, frozen in the beam of my headlights. It wasn’t Dandy but a small deer. I swerved to miss it and drove the Chevy into the lake.
Dave Gregory is a Canadian writer who worked on cruise ships and sailed the world for nearly two decades. He is an associate editor with the Los Angeles-based Exposition Review. His work has most recently appeared in The Sunlight Press, After the Pause, and The /tƐmz/ Review. Please follow him on Twitter @CourtlandAvenue.