Cal Freeman was born and raised in West Detroit. He received his BA in Literature from University of Detroit Mercy and his MFA in poetry writing from Bowling Green State University. In 2004 Terrance Hayes selected him for the Devine Poetry Fellowship. His poems have appeared in such journals as Nimrod, Ninth Letter, Folio, Commonweal, The Journal, Drunken Boat, among others. He currently lives in Dearborn, MI with his wife, Sarah, and his stepson, Ethan. He teaches poetry and creative writing at University of Detroit Mercy.
Bandito Benny: a Horation Alger Tale
I have known dogs to beg for table scraps, and who hasn’t? Depending on your sensibility, this can be cute or obnoxious. In the presence of adults and children deemed too big to bully, a scale carefully defined in his mind, our Jack Russel Terrier ignores human food. When our family sits down to eat, he’ll simply wander over to his bowl and listlessly sort dry dog food with his nose, occasionally pecking at a few kernels of kibble to avoid suspicion of food envy. Begging dogs do not qualify as cute for my wife, Sarah.
This is not to exonerate the little cur, though. He is not above seizing an opportunity to pilfer human food. Nor is he above preying upon the smallest and most innocent among us. Once Benny identifies his mark, he goes about mugging the child with a stealth Dickens’ Fagan, that pickpocket orphan boy, would even envy.
The first little girl he victimized was my friend Justin’s three-year-old daughter, Kelly. Justin and his wife stopped by one summer evening for drinks and dinner. We heated up some pizza for Kelly and set her up downstairs with a DVD of Dora the Explorer. We were already a couple shots deep, so nobody noticed when Benny followed her.
I was enjoying some tapenade and crackers, pulling from a bottle of Strohs, when I heard Kelly squeak, “No, bad!” Next was some sort of skirmish and the sound of a dropped plate. Kelly came up the stairs in her pink corduroys and Spongebob shirt to announce, “Your dog’s crazy.” Luckily there was still some pizza left. Justin fixed her another plate and sat her with us at our high top kitchen table where she felt assured Benny could not get to her food.
That is crazy,” I remember Sarah saying as she brought up Kelly’s tippy cup full of pop. “It’s like he knew he could steal food from her because she’s so small.”
Socio-pathology in canines inevitably surprises us. After all, our language tells us that the creature is inchoate. Just howling at the moon, barking up the wrong tree, the same euphemisms we use, incidentally, to characterize human folly.
Dogs are not keen enough to play the right angle, we’re taught to think, yet our dogs train us all the time. If the incentive runs the right way and a treat is involved, they will shake, roll over, and perform various vampire tricks that will leave the owner beaming with pride, possibly throwing out an adage to the admiring guest like, “A dog gives what one puts in,” all the while missing the irony in the phrase.
In all fairness to Benny, though, he does also hunt honestly for his meals. He will chase after squirrels (nabbing an average of two a year in the time we have known him), chipmunks (catching one a couple summers ago by tearing the downspout off our house until the befuddled little creature fell out, too stunned to skitter away). He eats what he can and leaves them on the back lawn, necks broken, brains shaken beyond thought. Imagine being hungover in the hot sun and trying to fit a squirrel carcass into a grocery store bag while flies leave maggots in its eyeholes.
I have seen him swallow a mouse whole as I shouted “Drop!” but his real taste is for rabbits. Last summer he definitely had himself a feast.
Our neighbor Jerry is a retired Teamster driver and a big fan of Benny. Each morning he leaves two dog biscuits in the branches of the blue spruce in our yard and spies while Benny pirouettes on his hind legs until his sniffer tells him just where the dog cookies have grown. He never goes out in the yard without checking this cookie tree.
Jerry and I were sharing a Budweiser in his garage, covering the typical topics, how there hasn’t been a good politician since Kennedy, the size of the Michigan Lotto jackpot, how “if it aint bud it aint beer and if it aint country it aint music,” and how the sons of bitches two doors down from him had been in a booze and pot-fueled row again last night, when the dog darted beneath the back deck. I heard a short growl and something shaking like a maraca. When I glanced through the board slats, Benny was gorging on the rabbit. I had been warned before that rabbit meat in summer was especially bad news, but when I yelled, the dog wouldn’t come. This is no surprise: the incentives, after all, ran the wrong way. After a few minutes of my ineffectual shouting, Jerry grabbed the garden hose and zapped Benny until he scampered out.
The next day the dump he took on our walk was pure liquid. Fearing another $200 vet. bill, I told myself he just needed to work it out of his system, but two days later when his nose was dry, his crap still watery, and his hind legs were beginning to buckle, I knew I’d be reading between the lines of the essentials and non-essentials at the veterinary clinic and ultimately getting soaked.
Our vet. gave Benny a shot of fluids and two different sorts of pills that I was to grind into spoonfuls of peanut butter twice a day. It worked, yet he learned no lesson. The next week he was again hauling out after anything that came into our yard, narrowly missing squirrels and rabbits with his jaw snaps.
Incorrigible, opportunistic, and remorseless, Benny is too cagey to beg for food. If he hungers, he pulls himself up by the collar and chases after small game. If he thirsts he is not above supping from the downspout runnel during rain, and if a kind old man on a fixed income leaves him treats, he will give no thanks; he’ll simply assume that cookies grow on trees.