About a Dog: Part One

July 31, 2015

My favorite uncle Johnny–“Wild Uncle Johnny” as my sister and I called him– came late to canine ownership. By the time he got his first dog, he’d gone through many hardships; more hardships that most of us can think of in a lifetime. Two failed marriages, many years of alcoholism and rehabilitation, a floundering career as an entrepreneur, the acknowledgement and subsequent courage to come out as gay in a time when it wasn’t widely acceptable, bouts of crushing depression. That would take any of us to the brink of something drastic, wouldn’t it? In uncle Johnny’s case, it brought him to dog ownership.

I have to give it to uncle Johnny–he didn’t do anything half-assed. His first dog wasn’t a terrier or a cocker spaniel or even a retriever. Nope. His first dog was Zillah, a gi-normous bull mastiff that, when I visited him one summer when I was 23, weighed twenty-plus more pounds than I did.

Zillah was friendly but she scared the shit out of me. She was fervent in her affection, knocking me to the floor and mauling me with her gooey, drooly, enormous mouth. She farted constantly and then immediately tried to sit on my lap. She’d assault my face with her playful paws, sized like salad plates and bearing sharp nails.

Also, I was wildly allergic to Zillah.

“Jesus! Get off!” I’d hiss at her, pushing her away, my skin already angry and raw. I’m allergic to many living things–dogs, cats, horses, you name it–but Zillah took the cake.

Uncle Johnny was crazy in love with that behemoth dog. He ordered her freeze-dried pig ears from China (in my opinion, the source of her constant flatulence), he took her to work with him at his custom stationery store, where she’d hold court from a red velvet divan, juicy bone in her jaws. She slept in his bed, even though she was prone to fleas and hogged the bed.

When uncle Johnny announced that it was my job to walk Zillah in the afternoons, I was less than thrilled. His lake house was in a fairly remote area with no paved roads or even clearly marked trails to speak of.

“I’m afraid I’ll get lost,” I protested. “I have no idea where I’m going or where we are, really. There’s nothing around here.”

“Bah,” he scoffed, waving a hand. “Zillah-girl knows exactly where she is going. Even if you get off track, she will know the way home.” He slapped me genially on the back. “Have fun. I’m going to take a nap.”

“Okay…” I said weakly. “Where’s the leash?”

“Leash?” he snorted. “We’re in the lake country. She doesn’t need a leash. Plus, Zillah-girl is a good dog. She won’t leave your side.”


Zillah and I set out for our first afternoon walk. It’s Texas, folks. Mid-day. In the summer. Muggy and buggy and hotter than the bowels of Hades. I have a thick layer of mosquito repellant on but the way I’m sweating, I know it’s only a matter of time before I’m a meal.

Ten minutes into the walk, Zillah spies a rabbit or some kind of critter and takes off into the woody marsh, pell-mell and adrenaline-charged.

“Come on! Seriously? &*^%$#!”

She’s gone.

I run and run through marshy, nasty bug-infested turf and finally find her, panting and spread-eagled on a patch of dirt.

“Let’s go, Zillah.”

She looks at me like: Fuck Off.

“No, Zillah, get up!” I pull at her collar but she won’t budge. I pull again and fall down, butt landing in dirt.

“Get up, dammit!” I’m crying now, tugging at this dog who gives zero shits about doing my bidding.

She refuses to move and I give up and cry some more and we sit for almost two hours in the unforgiving Texas blaze, until a ratty green truck finally rambles down the dirt road and stops.

“Aww, it’s Zillah-girl,” the woman in the truck says. “She looks plumb tuckered out, poor thing.” She tsks sympathetically.  “Who are you?”


The last day of my visit that summer, we’re sitting on the porch, drinking iced tea and swatting mosquitoes and listening to the persistent crack of a rifle from across the lake.

“Who keeps shooting and why?” I ask irritably. “It’s annoying.”  In retrospect, this question says a lot about what I did not know about the state of Texas, particularly rural Texas.

“It’s the boy across the way,” he says. “He’s addled in the head. Just not right.”

“What do you mean, ‘addled?'” I say, uneasy. “Is he crazy? Why does he have a gun if he’s crazy?”  I begin mentally calculating the distance across the lake.

Uncle Johnny chuckles. “Nah, he’s not crazy. Well, kind of, but mostly stupid. He’s got the mind of a third grader. He sits out there and shoots at the nutria for hours.”

My eyes must have been rolling around in my head because uncle Johnny starts laughing in earnest and gives me a pat on the leg. “It’s okay. Nutria are big old water rats. They’re a menace and I think a lot of people who don’t have two pots to piss in eat them in a pinch.” He takes a long drink of iced tea. “The river’s big enough that he won’t hit you. Plus, he’s a lousy shot.”

“You’re not scared of him. Seriously? He’s a mental midget with a shotgun. Even if you’re a lousy shot, that’s just…”

“He can’t hurt us a lick,” Johnny says. “I mean, we have Zillah-girl here, right?” Zillah hears her name and lumbers over, settling herself at my uncle’s feet. He reaches down and strokes her reverently. “Zillah-girl,” he coos. “Nobody can take us down, right?”

Sure, Mister, I think. If dog farts are weapons, you two are bulletproof.

The next morning, the morning of my departure, I wake to a snort, a sneeze, and a shot of hot phlegm delivered straight to the face.

“Garrrr!” I holler leaping back in the bed.

Zillah looks earnestly at me, jaws dripping. Her tail wags twice, but I’m pretty sure she is handing me my walking papers. There isn’t enough room for two girls in that summer house, and she knows who the Alpha Dog is.

When my parents pick me up at the airport, I throw my suitcase into the backseat and tuck myself into a corner like a trauma victim.

“How was it?” Mama asks.

“Look.” I hold up a weak hand. “I can’t talk about it right now. We’ll talk in the morning.” I bury my nose in my hoodie and sneeze violently. Then I scratch my scalp, wondering if I’ve contracted fleas. Fleas. That would be the perfect capper to this little trip.

I see my mother, studying me worriedly in the rearview mirror.

“Mom, it’s okay,” I reassure her. “I’ll just say this: I will never, ever, own a dog.”



{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

elizabeth August 2, 2015 at 11:48 am

In all fairness, Zillah sounds more like a horse rather than a dog, and I don’t think I could handle all of that slobbering either. (And I love dogs!) Now I’m very curious to see how you went from anti-dog to Mozz-man, of course…


Papa Guy August 2, 2015 at 9:38 pm

and then there was Moz…..


Tiffany August 8, 2015 at 5:44 am

Hahahahahahaha!! Love this story!! And how you ended up totally gaga over Mozzman!


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