A Boy and His Dog – Meth and One American Family
“There is something in the unselfish and self-sacrificing love of a brute, which goes directly to the heart of him who has had frequent occasion to test the paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere Man.” – Edgar Allan Poe
Scottie was a terrier mutt that my Dad had found by the side of a road – We couldn’t keep the lights on, but Dad was always bringing animals home. He couldn’t resist the unconditional love.
We lived with Scottie and the rest of our rotating menagerie of dogs, cats, mice, frogs and snakes, in a four bedroom brick bungalow in the shadow of the levee, just beyond the Mississippi. Dad moved us in after his first workers comp settlement and we felt like princes of the earth. A home without wheels was a mansion to our muddy river bottom eyes. But as with most things not earned through labor, the house was lost as easily as it was obtained, and a few months on the short side of my 12th birthday, the sheriff’s deputies pushed us out into the station wagon bought just hours before from the slim proceeds of a household appliance fire sale.
My mom’s family lived in Las Vegas, and they agreed to take us in until my folks could gain their footing. So the family, including father, mother, son, daughters, one albino mouse, and that terrier, started the drive from the green banks of the Mississippi to the burnt landscape of Las Vegas, Nevada.
The mouse, unfortunately, did not make it past the first gas station. When we filed back from the store, chips and drinks in hand, the cage was open, the mouse had vanished, and Scottie looked mighty suspect. We might have been angry, but it just made us love that dog a little more.
We arrived in Vegas and moved into a fifth wheel trailer parked in my Aunt’s driveway. Dad was going to get a job as an industrial steel painter – he was a journeyman you know, and could outwork anyone. Dad was going to get a job in the booming construction industry and we were going to buy another house, and a pontoon boat, and probably a dirt bike for me. Dad often said he was going to buy me a dirt bike. Everything was going to be great. A fresh start was just what we needed.
What happened was a bit less polished. Although Dad could outwork anyone, he seldom found the will to actually go to work – an important step, really. Dad had left the river, but the booze and the pills left with him, and from where he stood – that lowly heart-heavy place of a failed family-man – it was an incalculably small step into the new frontier of crystal meth.
Under these circumstances, it didn’t take long for our welcome to wear. My Aunt loathed my father under the best of circumstances, and a burgeoning meth habit worked poorly in her calculus. So my Aunt, doing what she could, paid the first month’s rent and deposit on a trailer, and in we moved. We stayed in that trailer for several months because my mother got a job with the park, cleaning trailers after families got evicted. She always found ways to keep us whole, but even that wasn’t enough for the long game and in the end, some woman had to clean up after us.
We slept on the couches and floors of houses with no running water or electricity. We grifted landlords and signed leases to find shelter until the first month’s rent was due. We slept under bridges. We slept in junk yard truck beds in desert ‘ranches’ with no known address. For six months, I slept in a replica tepee designed for rodeo parades while my sisters and mother slept in a tack shed on a three acre horse plot that had been hemmed in by the unstoppable Las Vegas sprawl.
We slept wherever we could, whenever we could, but we were always surrounded by tweekers, dealers, bikers, prostitutes, and drug-addled pederasts. It was hard-edged place to be helpless.
For three years my family walked this path, while crank sucked the flesh of or lives up against the bone, until my parents finally had nowhere else to go. No more meth dealers with hearts of gold. No more aging ranch hands with cold laps and unspoken expectations. No more lean-too shelters on Lake Mead, hidden from the intentions of bad men. My mother and father were dusty husks of human beings, exhausted, barely recognizable, but the family was still together, and I guess that was the only chance my folks needed.
My mother checked us into the Shade Tree battered woman’s shelter so that we could eat and sleep, while Dad tried to hustle for a few days and put hands on money. But the shelter didn’t take dogs. Our family walked for years through that bleak American wilderness, and always beside us, always on watch, was that dog. Finally he too had to be laid on the scales, and with broken souls we left him by the side of the road.
We stayed at the shelter for a week until my father returned to collect us. He did not return because he had found money or shelter or food. He returned because he missed his family. Perhaps this is love? I see now that it is a twisted sort, and though I have never been more ashamed than I was in that moment, it was our shame and we would bear it together.
Mom checked us out of the shelter and we walked the streets until finally, exhausted by the long August day, my mother, sisters, and I laid down on plastic bags in the flash flood basin by The Poker Palace. I stayed awake all night under the dim glare of its distant marquee, convincing myself that I was a man and that I had to watch over my mother and sisters. I was scared beyond understanding. I was old enough to know that our luck was fickle, if not spent.
When my father arrived early in the morning with funds enough for one motel night – a place to rest until Grandma’s wire transfer came through -- I felt the joy of a burden abandoned. We were finally going home, by way of Greyhound bus. We were going back to that beautiful, murky river that had been the daily backdrop of my fantasy life.
We climbed out of the ditch in the ephemeral purple haze of a dirty Vegas morning and started to cross the four-lane, when my joy was jolted by Scottie’s crushed body. He had tracked our path through miles and days to that ditch by The Poker Palace, and was run down within sight of where we laid to rest.
The next day we boarded the bus for home.