639: In Dog We Trust
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Heather and her girlfriend live with a cat named Sid. The girlfriend was always inventing these cute little affectionate nicknames for Sid, but never did that for Heather. She was always praising Sid and asking Heather to praise Sid, but never gave that kind of approval to Heather. If anything, she was kind of detached when it came to Heather. So, even though Sid was just a cat, against her will, against her better judgment, Heather started to get jealous.
I remember that I would sort of wake up in the morning, and I would hear her saying things like, you are so beautiful. You are a princess. Look at you. And, you know, as I opened my eyes, I realized that she was talking not to me, but to the cat.
You felt like the third wheel.
Mm-hmm. You know, I know if there had been another woman, I would have compared myself to her physically, sort of, what does she look like? What kinds of things is my girlfriend attracted to that I could aspire to? You know, what personality traits. Is she funny? You know, but there was just-- I didn't know what it was about Sid. I mean, I could see that she was attractive as a cat, and I could see that she had this nonchalance that was beautiful. You know, she didn't seem to care, really, that she was loved. So those were things that I did think about really-- cultivating, even. But--
You thought that cultivating a nonchalance, and--
You know, that I was this concerned about it shows you that it would have been a, you know, a fake. But, yeah, I mean, I thought about cultivating it like that.
Since our pets win our love, they can also activate all the other feelings that can go with love-- jealousy, and anger, and dependence, and just everything else. And as soon as any one of those feelings kicks in, all the complicated dynamics that happen between any people, in any household, any family, all of those also inevitably kick in. And that's what happened with Heather and Sid the cat.
I felt sort of the same way I felt-- you know how when you have a crush on someone, and then you're friends with their significant other, and all the awkwardness as you pretend that, you know, you sort of don't have the feelings that you do for this other person. I sort of felt like Sid was the significant other of the person, you know, for whom I had feelings.
And so I felt awkward around Sid, and I felt like I had to-- I don't know. I felt like they were together before I was around, and I was an interloper. You know, all the awkwardness surrounding that.
And so what's it like to be in a love triangle with another woman and a cat?
Well, it was pretty, you know, diminishing. I mean, it was a beautiful cat.
From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, "In Dog We Trust," stories of dogs and cats and other pets, and how they get caught up in our family dynamics as non-speaking members of our households. Our program today in three acts. Act 1, "The Youth in Asia," in which writer David Sedaris describes how a Great Dane-- and not a very smart one-- was able to completely replace him and his sisters when they grew up and moved out of their parents' house.
Act 2, "Polly Wants So Much More Than a Cracker." Three small children who love their mom, but do not love their mom's pet bird.
Act 3, "Resurrection." What it means in a family when a pet armadillo dies, and what it means when it doesn't die. Stay with us.
Act One: The Youth In Asia
Act 1, "The Youth In Asia." So when a pet dies, to what degree can it be replaced by another pet? And to what degree can pets replace people in our lives?
Well, David Sedaris has this story.
In the early 1960s, during what my mother referred to as the tail end of the Lassie years, my parents were given two collies, which they named Rastus and Duchess. We were living, then, in New York State, out in the country, and the dogs were free to race through the forest. They napped in meadows, and stood knee-deep in frigid streams, co-stars in their own private dog food commercial.
Late one January evening, while lying on a blanket in the garage, Duchess gave birth to a litter of slick, potato-sized puppies. When it looked as though one of them had died, our mother placed the creature in a casserole dish and popped it into the oven like the witch in Hansel and Gretel.
Oh, keep your shirts on, she said. It's only set on 150. I'm not baking anyone. This is just to keep it warm. The heat revived the sick puppy, and left us believing that our mother was capable of resurrecting the dead.
Faced with the responsibilities of fatherhood, Rastus took off. The puppies were given away, and we moved south, where the heat and humidity worked against the best interests of a collie. Duchess's once beautiful coat now hung in ragged patches.
When finally, full of worms, she collapsed in the ravine beside our house, we re-evaluated our mother's healing powers. The entire animal kingdom was beyond her scope. She could only resurrect the cute dead.
The oven trick was performed on half a dozen dazed and chubby hamsters, but failed to work on my first guinea pig, who died after eating four cigarettes and an entire pack of matches. Don't take it too hard, my mother said, removing her oven mitts. The world is full of guinea pigs. You can get another one tomorrow.
Eulogies tended to be brief, our motto being there's always more where this one came from. A short time after Duchess died, our father came home with a German shepherd puppy.
For reasons that were never fully explained, the privilege of naming the dog went to a friend of my older sister's, a 14-year-old girl named Cindy. She was studying German at the time. And after carefully examining the puppy, and weighing it with her hands, she announced that it would be called Madchen, which apparently meant girl in what she referred to as Deutsch.
When she was six months old, Madchen was hit and killed by a car. Her food was still in the bowl when our father brought home an identical German shepherd. The same Cindy christened as Madchen II.
This tag team progression was disconcerting, especially for the new dog, who was expected to possess both the knowledge and the personality of her predecessor. Madchen I would never have wet on the floor like that, my father would scold, and the dog would sigh, knowing she was the canine equivalent of a rebound.
Madchen II never accompanied us to the beach, and rarely posed in any of the family photographs. Once her puppyhood was spent, we more or less lost interest. We ought to get a dog, we'd sometimes say, completely forgetting that we already had one.
During the era of the Madchens, we had a succession of drowsy, secretive cats who seemed to share a unique bond with our mother. It's because I open their cans, she said. Though we all knew it ran deeper than that. What they had in common were their claws. That, and a deep-seated need to destroy my father's golf bags.
The first cat passed into a disagreeable old age, and died hissing at the kitten who had prematurely arrived to replace her. When, at the age of nine, the second cat was diagnosed with feline leukemia, my mother was devastated. I'm going to have Sadie put to sleep, she said. It's for her own good, and I don't want to hear a word about it from any of you. This is hard enough as it is.
The cat was put down, and then came the anonymous postcards and phone calls orchestrated by my sisters and I. The cards announced a miraculous new cure for feline leukemia, while the callers identified themselves as representatives of Cat Fancy magazine. We'd like to use Sadie as our cover story, and we're hoping to schedule a photo shoot. Is tomorrow possible?
After spending a petless year with only one child still living at home, my parents visited a breeder, and returned with a Great Dane they named Melina. They loved this dog in proportion to its size, and soon their hearts had no room for anyone else. In terms of family, their six children had been nothing more than a failed experiment. Melina was the real thing. The dog was their first true common interest, and they loved it equally, each in their own way.
Our mother's love tended towards the horizontal, a pet being little more than a napping companion, something she could look at and say, that looks like a good idea. Scoot over, why don't you. A stranger peeking through the window might think that the two of them had entered a suicide pact. She and the dog sprawled like corpses, their limbs arranged into an eternal embrace.
My father loved the Great Dane for its size, and frequently took her on long, aimless drives, during which she'd stick her heavy, anvil-sized head out the window and leak great quantities of foamy saliva . Other drivers pointed and stared, rolling down their windows to shout, hey, you got a saddle for that thing?
When out for a walk, there was the inevitable are you walking her, or is it the other way around? Our father always laughed as if this were the first time he'd heard it. The attention was addictive, and he enjoyed a pride of accomplishment he'd never felt with any of us. It was as if he were somehow responsible for her size and stature, as if he'd personally designed her spots, and trained her to grow to the size of a pony.
When out with the dog, he carried a leash in one hand and a shovel in the other. Just in case, he said. Just in case, what, she dies and you need to bury her? I didn't get it. No, he'd say. It's for-- you know, it's for her business. My father was retired, but the dog had business.
I was living in Chicago when they first got Melina, and every time I came home, the animal was bigger. Every time, there were more Marmaduke cartooms displayed upon the refrigerator. And every time my voice grew louder as I asked myself, who are these people?
Down, girl, my parents would chuckle as the puppy jumped up, panting for my attention. Her great padded paws reached my waist, then my chest and shoulders, until, eventually, her arms wrapped around my neck and her head towering above my own, she came to resemble a dance partner scouting the room for a better offer. That's just her way of saying hello, my mother would say, handing me the towel used to wipe up the dog's bubbling seepage. Here, you missed a spot on the back of your head.
The dog's growth was monitored on a daily basis, and every small accomplishment was documented for later generations. One can find two pictures of my sister Tiffany, while Melina has entire volumes devoted to her Terrible Twos.
Hit me, my mother said on one of my returns home from Chicago. No, wait, let me go get my camera. She left the room and returned a few moments later. OK, she said, now hit me. Better yet, why don't you just pretend to hit me.
I raised my hand, and my mother cried out in pain. Ow, she yelled, somebody help me. This stranger is trying to hurt me, and I don't know why. I caught an advancing blur moving in from the left, and the next thing I knew, I was down on the ground, the Great Dane tearing holes in the neck of my sweater. The camera flashed, and my mother squealed with delight. God, I love that trick. I rolled over to protect my face. This isn't a trick. My mother snapped another picture. Oh, don't be so critical. It's close enough.
With us grown and out of the house, my sisters and I foolishly expected our parents' lives to stand still. They were supposed to stagnate and live in the past, but instead, they constructed a new we, consisting of Melina and the founding members of her fan club.
Someone who obviously didn't know her too well had given my mother a cheerful stuffed bear with a calico heart stitched onto its chest. According to the manufacturer, the bear's name was Mumbles, and all it needed in order to thrive were two AA batteries and a regular diet of hugs.
Where's Mumbles, my mother would ask, and the dog would jump up and snatch the bear from its hiding place on top of the refrigerator, yanking it this way and that in hopes of breaking its neck. That's my girl, my mother would say. We don't like Mumbles, do we?
I learned that we liked Morley Safer, but not Mike Wallace, that we didn't like Mumbles or thunder, but we're crazy about Stan Getz records and the Iranian couple who'd moved in up the street. It was difficult to keep straight, but having known these people all my life, I didn't want to be left out of the we.
During the final years of Madchen II and the first half of the Melina epoch, I lived with a female cat named Neil. My mother looked after the cat when I moved from Raleigh, and flew her to Chicago once I'd found a place and settled in. Neil was old when she moved to Chicago, and then she got older.
She started leaving teeth in her bowl, and developed the sort of breath that could remove paint. When she stopped cleaning herself, I took to bathing her in the sink, and she'd stand still, too weak to resist the humiliation of shampoo. Soaking wet, I could see just how thin and brittle she really was, almost comic, like one of those cartoon cats checking her fur coat at the cloakroom of the seafood restaurant.
Her kidneys shrank to the size of raisins, and though I loved her very much, I assumed the vet was joking when he suggested dialysis. I took her for a second opinion. Vet number two tested her blood, and phoned me at home, saying, perhaps you should think about euthanasia.
I hadn't heard that word in a while, and pictured scores of happy Japanese children spilling from the front door of their elementary school. Are you thinking about it, he asked? Yes, I said, as a matter of fact I am.
In the end, I returned to the animal hospital, and had her put to sleep. When the vet injected the sodium phenobarbital, Neil fluttered her eyes, assumed a apt position, and died.
A week after putting her to sleep, I received Neil's ashes in a forest green can. She'd never expressed any great interest in the outdoors, so I scattered her remains on the carpet-- --and then vacuumed her back up.
The cat's death struck me as the end of an era. It was, of course, the end of her era. But with the death of a pet, there's always that urge to crowd the parentheses and string black crape over an entire 10- or 20-year period. The end of my safe college life, the last of my 30-inch waist, my faltering relationship with my first real boyfriend. I cried for it all, and spent the next several months wondering why so few songs were written about cats.
My mother sent a consoling letter, along with a check to cover the cost of the cremation. In the left-hand corner, under the heading marked, memo, she'd written, pet burning. I had it coming.
When my mother died, Melina took over her side of the bed. Due to their size, Great Danes generally don't live very long. My father massaged her arthritic legs, carried her up the stairs, and lifted her into bed. He treated her the way that men in movies treat their ailing wives, the way he would have treated my mother had she allowed such naked displays of affection. Melina's parentheses contained the final 10 years of his married life. She'd attended my father's retirement, lived through my sister's wedding, and knew who everyone was talking about when they mentioned the M words-- Mom, Mumbles, and Morley Safer.
Regardless of her pain, my father could not bear to let her go. The youth in Asia begged him to end her life. [JAPANESE], they said. [JAPANESE] But he held out until the last minute.
A month after Melina died, my father returned to the breeder, and came home with another Great Dane, a female like Melina, gray spots like Melina, only this one is named Sophie. He tries to love her, but readily admits that he may have made a mistake. She's a nice enough dog, but the timing is off.
When walking the puppy through the neighborhood, my father feels not unlike the foolish widower stumbling behind his energetic young bride. Her stamina embarrasses him, as does her interest in younger men. The passing drivers slow to a stop and roll down their windows. Hey, they yell, are you walking her, or is it the other way around?
Their words remind him of happier times, of milder forces straining against the well-worn leash. He still gets the attention. But now, in response, he just lifts his shovel and groans.
David Sedaris. This story "The Youth in Asia" is in his book Me Talk Pretty One Day. A version of the story also appeared in Esquire magazine. You can catch David on tour all over the country starting in April. Details at DavidSedarisBooks.com/tour.
Act Two: Polly Wants More Than A Cracker
Act 2, "Polly Wants So Much More Than a Cracker."
When Veronica tells this story, it's a story about love. When she was 17, she saw a bird in a pet store, a macaw, which is kind of a big parrot-- brightly colored, with a three-foot wingspan.
And I fell in love with her immediately. And, you know, I was still in high school. I had no money whatsoever.
How expensive was she?
Well, the price tag on the cage said $1,400, which was an inordinate amount of money.
So how long did it take you to pay off the bird?
It took me about five years to pay her off, working part-time jobs, babysitting.
And what did you love about her? What was the thing that drew you to her?
I find it hard to say, exactly, why I was drawn to her. I thought she was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. It's hard to describe how it feels to love an animal. But as soon as I saw her face, I just thought she was the most beautiful thing, and I had to have her, and I wanted to see that face every day, and I wanted to care for her. And I didn't know anything about bringing up parrots, or feeding them, or caring for them. I just wanted to take her home like a big-- like a treasure.
OK. Fast-forward 23 years.
When we first broadcast this story, Veronica was 40 years old, married with two twin boys, Kyle and Cameron, aged five, and another boy, Daniel, who was eight. One of the things she didn't know about parrots when she first saw her macaw is that they can live for 80 years-- 80. So every morning, she would take the bird, whose name is Gideon, out of her cage so she could freely wander the house.
And get into things she shouldn't get into, like a baby-- climbing into laundry baskets and ripping up clothes, and taking the kids' Pokemon cards and ripping them to shreds, and pulling newspapers out of boxes.
And so at breakfast, you've got three little kids there.
The kids will interact with each other. And Gideon will scream as loud as she can over their heads.
Now let's play a recording of Gideon for people at home.
It sounds really loud.
It's intolerable. It's a sound that you don't want to hear.
It sounds very dinosaur-like.
The word you just used was intolerable?
It's the most unpleasant sound I think I have ever heard.
But you've lived with this sound for 23 years.
I've lived with that sound for 23 years. It's in my dreams. It's wherever I go. It's in the kitchen. It's in the dining room. It's in my bedroom. And the kids have grown up with her. So they won't really notice it at first. But after about the fourth or fifth scream, they will start covering their ears and shouting back at the bird.
You stop it please?
Mommy, will you take me and put her in the tree?
Now you tape little interviews with your kids about Gideon. Here's Cameron, who's five.
Do you like having Gideon in the family?
Would you rather that she went somewhere else?
Yeah. All the way to Sco-- to England. Because I don't want her to scream when we're watching TV.
Would you rather have a different kind of pet than Gideon?
Yeah. A dog that is really nice and doesn't bite and doesn't bark.
But do you understand why mommy loves Gideon?
This is Kyle, the other twin, also five.
One time she just almost bited off my thumb. That kind of scared me.
They're terrified of Gideon. If they're approached by her, they'll immediately scream and run away. They won't go near her now.
And is that because Gideon is, in fact, a little dangerous? They're right to be a little scared?
Well, Gideon's primary objective in life is to be my mate. And so every other person or creature that comes near me is a threat to our relationship. And my children are a very big threat to our relationship because we have physical contact with each other. She sees me carrying them and cooking for them and touching them and picking them up. And so she has a desire to kill them, basically. I mean, in the bird world, she would kill another predator or some intrusive love interest.
Now after your kids were born and you saw how Gideon reacted to your children, and you saw how your children reacted to Gideon-- they were scared, that Gideon bit Kyle-- did it change your feelings about Gideon?
I don't think anything can change my feelings about Gideon.
But if I had a dog that I loved, and then I had a new baby in the house, and the dog was hostile towards the baby, I wouldn't feel the same way about the dog. I would feel protective of my kid, which I'm sure you did.
Well, I do feel protective of the children, and I take certain steps to protect them from her, but I can't stop loving her because of her natural tendency to want to drive away competition.
As I said, this is a love story, and that Veronica knows Gideon is driving everybody else who she loves crazy. She loves the bird. The same monogamous feelings that make Gideon mean to everyone else make Gideon fantastically sweet to Veronica. Gideon watches her every move, cuddles with her, blushes. Gideon actually blushes when they play together. She is all that Gideon lives for, and it's hard to turn away from that.
Thank you, Gideon. Veronica also worries that if she gave the bird away, the bird would die. They mate so fiercely that sometimes when their mate vanishes, that can happen.
I know, Gideon, it's upsetting.
And then there's this story. When Veronica was 18 and barely owned Gideon for a year, she took Gideon outside like she did every day. And Gideon flew away. Veronica hadn't been careful enough clipping her feathers. She was wrecked. Every night, Veronica cried herself to sleep. Every day she sat on the roof, watching the skies. After six days, a kid on his way to school spotted the bird.
And I quickly ran to where he said she was. And I saw her in probably the tallest tree and immediately scaled the tree, got all the way to the top. I was up about 50 feet. She was on the end of the branch, all the way out. And so I inched my way out.
And about 3/4 of the way out-- I was only a foot away from her-- the branch snapped. And I fell straight down without hitting anything on the way. And just fell 50 feet and landed on my feet on hard ground. And I suffered a multiple compression fracture of my spine and I had a collapsed lung. I should have died, according to the orthopedic surgeon.
Do you think the fact that you nearly died trying to save Gideon is one of the things that makes it impossible for you to give Gideon up?
That's something I've thought about. Yeah, it's quite possible. I feel like it's brought us closer. It's not a pleasant thing that happened, but I feel like she would have died out there.
You say that it brought us closer, but you're the only one who actually understands that you went out and you got injured trying to save Gideon. Gideon doesn't understand that.
No, she doesn't understand that, but I know she understands something. She's very bonded to me. She became so close to me at one point that her hormones produced an egg. And that's something that happens only between couples. So I know she feels something. I don't really need to know much more than that.
In the end, I think this is only partly a story about Veronica's love for Gideon. It's also a story about her family's love for her, that they put up with the bird. We all want to believe that the people who love us will at least accept the parts of us that are not so appealing. And in Veronica's case, the unappealing part just happens to have physical form and be a bird. Every day that her kids and her husband put up with that, they prove to her just how much they love her.
I just don't know why you had to buy her. How much bucks was she?
She cost a lot of money.
Like how much money?
She cost like $1,400.
Whoa, just for a parrot? Why would they do that? Hi.
The most remarkable thing, I think, about the phrase "I love you" is how rarely it's used literally to mean I love you, that I have a feeling of love for you. It's used much more often, I think, to mean 100 other things. Tell me that you love me. Or I need to get off the phone now. Or things are fine between us, right? Or yes, it's fine that we keep the parrot.
Coming up, one of the best known stories from the bible, re-enacted with an armadillo, sort of. And what animal takes a licking and keeps on ticking? Answers in a minute, when our program continues.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, "In Dog We Trust"-- stories of pets and the ways they function as actual members of our families and affect family dynamics. We first broadcast this show years ago. We have arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, "Resurrection."
Act Four: Resurrection
So earlier in today's show, David Sedaris talked about animals that his mom could and could not bring back to life. This is another story about what it is that animals can take the place of in our lives and in our homes. It's a piece of fiction from writer Brady Udall.
It was three days after our old man died that my brother, Donald, accomplished the most spectacular deed of his life. I wish I could have been there to see it. Donald taking the Greyhound down to Nogales all by himself, buying the baby armadillo for 800 pesos from a pie-faced Indian woman at the [INAUDIBLE] market, tucking the little thing under his arm like a football, and running the length of the pedestrian border station-- past the heat-struck tourists in their sombreros and loud socks, and the guards with their sidearms and walkie-talkies, pushing through the last steel-toothed turnstile, and sprinting like a madman into the heart of the Nogales slums.
It was his proudest moment, though it did take him the rest of the day and half the night of wandering among the hookers and street corner punks to find a bus that would bring him back to Aho, where we lived. There he was, after I came home from hours of frantic searching, sitting stiff-backed on the couch, beaming. The little armadillo was rooting at the crotch of his pants, and Donald's pink sweating face had screwed itself up with such a grin of utter self-satisfaction.
Donald ended up giving the armadillo to me. A present, he said, something to make me feel better. I thanked him, took the armadillo which clawed at my T-shirt like a cat, and gave it a little squeeze. What else could I do?
My father had worked as a janitor for 21 years. But he was also a reader of books, a scholar, if it is possible to be both a scholar and a sixth grade dropout. And one of his favorite subjects was zoology. He could bore you into a coma with what he knew about the great horned owl or the common mealworm or the laughing hyenas of Africa.
But of all the beasts of the animal kingdom, he loved and admired the humble armadillo most. Nope, not the smartest or the prettiest, he would say when one of them scattered across the highway in front of our old LeMans. But the hardiest, you see what I'm saying, the most resourceful.
He often promised he would get us an armadillo for a pet, but he died before he could come through-- an end-all heart attack standing in line at the grocery store. I was 17, Donald 19. Our mother, a Guatemalan migrant worker who had married my father under the impression he would one day be a rich man who could buy her a Cadillac and a house with a swimming pool, had run off when we were babies. So it was just the two of us now.
It took me about a week to get over the shock, and then I did what I had to. I dropped out of school, started working full time pouring concrete for Hasenpfeffer's and moved Donald and me to a cheaper apartment near the [? McComb ?] and Sons wrecking yard, where Donald could watch the cars getting pulverized from our window. We got money from the state that paid for Donald's medication, but the rest was up to me.
Donald was really something else. What could be done with a guy who ate his own earwax, who carried a maroon mini bible in the band of his underpants, and read random scriptures out loud at inappropriate times? Who could be sashaying about the room one minute, doing a dead-on impression of Sammy Davis, Jr., and the next be downstairs in the closet grunting like a pig and trying to tear his hair out?
From a distance, you wouldn't have been able to tell him from any other teenager. He had relatively good hygiene, did not usually talk to himself in public, and was something of a handsome devil, with his dark hair hanging down over pale green eyes. Sometimes I would take him to a party or a dance with me and the girls would flock around us. He could be as charming as Hugh Hefner in short bursts before he'd have to run off and hide in the bathroom.
I remember once when I was nine or 10, and we were playing in the back yard. He kept pestering me, saying, I am the Indian. You are the cowboy. OK? I told him to shut his trap. I was busy building a cave for my army men. He wouldn't give up. Me Indian, you cowboy. Okey-dokey? Over and over.
Damn it, Donald, you freak, I hollered. Do whatever you want, but just shut up for a second. I'm not a freak, he said, sticking his chin out. All right then, I said. The next time I looked up, Donald was on top of the doghouse with a bow and arrow set my father had bought for him at a garage sale. He had the arrow notched and pulled back to his ear, just like the Indians we saw on TV.
I hadn't noticed before, but now I saw that he had taken off his shirt and tucked it in the elastic of his shorts so it looked like he was wearing a loincloth, and had used a little blood from the scab on his elbow to make fiendish red streaks across his face. He was doing it perfect, really, just like a TV Indian.
I didn't believe he would really shoot me, so I just sat there like a jackass, my hands full of dirt. I didn't see him let go of the bowstring, but I certainly did hear the fop the arrow made when it hit me in the chest dead center. More from the surprise than anything, I fell flat on my back. It was only a target arrow, but it pierced my sternum just enough to stand up right from my chest, waving around sluggishly like a reed in a river.
I lay in the grass and stared up at the neon yellow fletching of the arrow. My hands were still full of dirt. Donald jumped down from the doghouse and stood over me. He was smiling an odd, satisfied smile, as if he was expecting to be congratulated on his marksmanship. He looked down at me for a long time before he gently put his hand around the shaft of the arrow without pulling it out. He said, right smack dab in the heart, white man.
I told Donald I wanted him to name the armadillo. After several days of deliberation, he decided to name it after Otis, the happy drunk on The Andy Griffith Show, who our father had resembled in almost eerie detail. I'd gotten used to taking care of Donald alone. I had no choice. But Otis was a different story.
First of all, Otis smelled. He gave off a musky odor that intensified whenever he was nervous or hungry. And no matter if we scrubbed him raw with industrial soap and water, the smell would come back in an hour or so.
And then there was the furniture. Armadillos are burrowing animals. This is something I learned from my father. And in the confines of our small apartment, Otis didn't have many opportunities to burrow.
Instead, he would march through the house like a tiny gray tank and move the furniture around. He'd waddle into the living room, put his blunt forehead against one of the legs of the coffee table and bear down, inching it around the room, his little squirrel claws scrabbling on the wood floor. At least once a week, he would crawl between the mattress and box springs of my bed and take a dump.
My father was right about armadillos. They are hardy, they are resourceful-- and if Otis is typical, they're as dumb as donkey crap. Sometimes in the course of his incessant apartment wandering, Otis would find himself trapped in a corner and would spend the rest of the evening attempting to claw his way out.
Otis was technically my pet. But Donald cared for him, worried over and tormented and teased him, then made up with tearful professions of regret and affection. While I was away at work, they would do things together. Donald would carry Otis around outside, conversing with him, rooting in the weeds in the vacant lot, searching for earthworms or crickets for Otis's dinner.
Sometimes Donald would hide behind the recliner, and when Otis passed by would jump out and shout in a high soprano wail, "Look out, Otis!" Poor Otis would spring two feet into the air like a startled cat, his leathery body twisting, his claws clutching at nothing. And once he'd landed, he'd scurry into the hallway looking back over his shoulder, embarrassment in those little piggy eyes.
This kind of living arrangement was no boost to my social life, I can tell you. If I ever wanted to bring a girl home, I figured I'd have some difficulty explaining why the apartment smelled like a bear's den, why the furniture was strewn around, and why my brother was naked and hiding behind the couch, waiting to scare the daylights out of an armadillo.
It took five years before I found someone I loved enough to bring home. Allison was good about everything, told me I was a saint and a Christian to be taking care of Donald. She was so wonderful and beautiful and good-smelling, I could barely stand it. Eventually, I proposed to her, after which I went home to talk to Donald.
It was springtime in the desert, the smell of cactus blossoms everywhere. And I was so full of love and desire I could barely see straight. Allison and I had decided that we would get an apartment nearby. With my new promotion at Hasenpfeffer's and Allison's job at the county courthouse, we could afford our own place-- and with the help of the government's support, Donald.
Donald would be all right as long as we checked on him daily, made sure he was taking his medication, and occasionally washed down the place with ammonia so the smell wouldn't bother the neighbors. I have to admit, the thought of escaping from Donald and Otis and that cave of an apartment was almost as enticing as the thought of being together with Allison.
At home, when I sat Donald down to explain things to him, I could barely get a word out. I stuttered and stammered, kept wiping my mouth. When I finally made things clear, Donald whipped out his mini bible and frantically paged through it, but couldn't seem to come up with anything-- the first time I'd ever seen him at a loss for a scripture. He yanked at his hair and ground his teeth together until they squeaked.
Finally without saying anything, he snatched up Otis who had been napping under one of the couch cushions and went into the laundry room, slamming the door behind him. I felt like kicking that door down and wringing his neck. Couldn't you at least try to be happy for me, to think of somebody other than himself for one minute? I wanted only to be with Allison, and I hated Donald for making it so difficult-- hated him for years of responsibility and obligation and lost opportunities-- hated him in the way only a brother can hate a brother.
I took a few steps toward the stairwell to leave. I didn't care. I was going to stay at Allison's, my first night ever away from Donald, when I heard a splashing noise from inside the apartment. The laundry room door was locked and I shouted Donald's name, but got no response.
I tried to kick in the door, which was made of something like cardboard. My foot went right through it. Once I had my leg free, I looked through the splintered hole and could see Donald hunched over the overflowing utility sink, both arms submerged up to his biceps. The back of his neck was purple and pulsing, full of angry blood. And it took me only a moment to understand. He was trying to drown Otis.
I unlocked the door and grabbed him from behind, but he resisted me, grunting and plunging Otis deeper into the water. I wrestled him out into the living room, where we fell sideways against the couch. Donald twisted away from me and stood up, the water dripping off his elbows, forming a puddle around his shoes.
Otis was curled up in a ball, just like when he slept. And Donald began to shiver so badly that he lost his grip, and let Otis' body slide out of his hands and hit the floor with a wet slap. Donald's face twisted into a mask of concentrated grief. See, he wept, see what I did?
Looking at my brother, I felt all the parts of me that had been opening up since I had met Allison collapse on each other like so many empty rooms. It would have to be me and Donald, brothers, inseparable, no one else allowed. I don't remember if I looked away or if it was as sudden as it seemed, but one moment Otis was a sad, wet corpse, as dead as an armadillo could be. And the next, he was huffing and twitching and scrabbling to his feet.
Donald let out an arching shriek, which sent Otis zigzagging into the kitchen where a mad chase ensued-- Donald slipping and flailing, knocking over chairs and pulling down the drapes, still choking and sobbing, now with relief. He finally herded Otis under the table. And once he had pulled him out, he held him up, his fingers locked in a death grip around his little body, and cried, "Otis is resurrected. Otis is resurrected."
A fair trade. Donald got his armadillo back and I got to marry Allison. Never again did Donald show any sign of jealousy or resentment. He was the best man at our wedding, read a long section from Zephaniah at the reception, and even bought us a gift-- a book called Hot Sex for Cold Fish.
Things went well those first few years. We saved up enough to buy the concrete business from old Hasenpfeffer, who retired to ride his Harley around the continent. And Donald and Otis seemed to thrive together. We stopped in to visit as often as we could. Allison cooked dinner for them on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And we paid a house cleaning service to scrub the apartment down every week, put the furniture back in place, and steamed the carpets.
Donald had his first episode one night while I was in Phoenix at a heavy equipment auction. They found him digging up the lawn in front of the city First Bank, blabbering about how difficult it was to find high grade earthworms on the south end of town. When the cops tried to approach him, he pelted them with dirt clods and threatened to eat a fist full of worms if they got any closer. He spent most of the night in the holding tank before Sheriff Brasky figured out who he was and gave me a call.
A few months later, Donald climbed an old elm at the city park, which branched out over a sidewalk. He managed to pee on a few passersby before the groundskeeper knocked him off a branch with a well-thrown rake. We took him to a doctor, who adjusted his medication and suggested that Donald be put in a home where he could get the care and attention he needed, where he could socialize with somebody besides an armadillo.
I brought up the subject with Donald, but he told me he would rather die than give up Otis and go live in a house with a bunch of half-wits and knuckleheads. The only other option, we knew, was taking in Donald and Otis ourselves. Allison was eight months pregnant with our second baby. The business was really starting to take off. It just wasn't a good time, we told ourselves. We might be able to work something out in a few months when things had settled down. By the end of the summer, Donald was dead.
The call came in the middle of the night like they always do. Sheriff Brasky told me that Donald had been hit by a car on 87 near the refinery. He had run through traffic completely naked, dodging cars and sprinting down the median until an old couple in a minivan clipped him with their bumper, knocking him over a temporary still divider and onto a concrete platform where he was partially impaled by a jutting piece of rebar. He bled to death before the ambulance arrived.
After I went to the hospital to identify his body, I drove out to the accident site. For half an hour, I combed both sides of the highway without a flashlight until I found Otis cowering under a piece of discarded plywood. His left foreleg was mangled, nearly torn from his body. And he was bleeding from the soft flesh of his belly.
I drove him over to the only veterinarian in town, Larry Oleander, and pounded on the door until he answered. Larry was an old retired cowboy with a glass eyeball and a dent in his head where a mule had kicked him. Jesus, Geronimo, Christ, he said. It was 4 o'clock in the morning.
I held Otis out to him and he said, what you have there is an armadillo. Fix him up, I said. Son, he said, I don't know what you think-- Do it. Larry Oleander peered up at me. He sighed and held the screen door open. Come the hell on in.
Larry amputated Otis' leg, stitched up the wound on his underside, and bandaged him until he looked like one big wad of gauze. When I tried to pay him, he waved his hand in front of my face, took a slug off a bottle of vodka he kept under the operating table. Jesus, Richard, just promise me you'll never make a peep about this to anybody.
I took Otis home, and he has been part of our family ever since. Over the last few years, I've added on a wing to the house just for him. He has a room with a skylight and two bay windows, his own pillow bed to sleep under, and a bunch of old furniture to push around. As far as I'm aware, he is the only three-legged armadillo on Earth with his own personal wading pool.
Allison is not thrilled about having an armadillo in her home, never has been. But she knows it's important to me. The kids-- we have four of them now-- can't stand Otis either. They want another pet, some kind of happy, slobbering dog or an albino snake to impress their friends.
Otis is not only real, real, dumb, they argue, but also smells like doodoo. They're not sure which is worse. I tell them they are correct. They'll get no disagreement from me, but Otis is our pet and we're going to love him no matter what.
I try not to let myself forget how blessed I am-- my beautiful family, my dream house up in the hills, a successful business that pretty much runs without me. I am happy and satisfied most of the time. But every once in a while, maybe once or twice a year, something will come over me-- a dark mood that I can't shake, usually at night when everyone is asleep and the house is quiet. And I'll get Otis out from under his pillow bed and take him upstairs.
I run a bath, sitting on the lip of the tub, holding him close to my chest the way he likes it. Usually I just let him paddle around, but sometimes when the tub is almost overflowing, I take him firmly in both hands and plunge him into the water. There's not a clock in the bathroom, so I count one alligator, two alligator, three alligator. This is how I count off the seconds. Otis struggles like a tiny lion for the first two or three minutes, writhing and spasming wildly, sending up a boiling foam of bubbles, fighting and scratching with everything he's got, and I hate myself for what I'm doing to him.
Usually between the fourth and fifth minute is when he starts to lose his will and his thrashing weakens, as he gradually curls up on himself like a flower dying, and goes utterly still. This is always the hardest part for me. The urge to pull him out is almost unbearable, but I go five or 10 seconds longer than the last time. One alligator, two alligator, three alligator, four alligator, five alligator-- until I can't stand it anymore.
I lift him out and he lies there in my hands like a deflated soccer ball. And I'm sick with dread knowing that this time, I've taken it too far. I've killed him. I stare down at him and wait, hardly blinking, wait for that first twitch or jerk, for his nostrils to flare with life. And usually there's an almost imperceptible shudder from under his hard shell, a stirring. And his tail will begin to vibrate like a piano wire. And he slowly, hesitantly, opens up and stretches himself, clawing the air and coughing like a newborn.
Sitting on the edge of the bathtub with Otis wet and dripping in my arms, I'm always overcome with the same vision-- Donald clutching a newly revived Otis, his face slick with tears, transformed from a man twisted inside out with grief to someone awestruck at the realization that our worst mistakes can be retrieved-- that death can be traded in for life, that what has been destroyed can be made whole again.
With a sudden surge, Otis struggles to get out of my lap. He is an armadillo and there is exploring to do. I let him down and watch him slide around on the linoleum and try to push the toilet off its base, and I feel a small, bitter joy lodge in my heart. Otis is resurrected, I whisper.
I carry him to his room and make sure he is comfortable under his pillow bed. And only then will I be able to walk peacefully through the dark, quiet halls of my home, kiss each of my children good night, and lie down next to my wife to sleep.
Brady Udall. His short story "Otis Is Resurrected" was first published in Story Magazine. It is a work of fiction. No armadillos were harmed in the making of this radio story.
Our program was produced today by Alex Blumberg and myself, and Susan Burton, Blue Chevigny, and Julie Snyder. Our technical director is Matt Tierney, production help from Alvin Melathe. In the years since we first broadcast our story in Act Two about Veronica Chater's macaw, she has published a memoir, which includes "Life with a Macaw." It's called Waiting for the Apocalypse.
Special thanks today to the student staff of WWVU in Morgantown in West Virginia, to Mary Zimmerman, to Larry Josephson, to Deborah and Stephen Diggs. Our website, ThisAmericanLife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.
Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, it's weird. We've known each other for years, but every time I try to give him a hug, he starts yelling
Somebody help me. This stranger is trying to hurt me and I don't know why.
I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.