Charley and Me is one of the essays from my book From My Vintage which is a collection of sixteen creative essays, ruminations on love, life and loss. I hope you enjoy it. If you like this essay, please buy my book From My Vintage from Amazon.
Charley and Me
I never had a dog when I was a child, and except for a neighbor who harbored a huge growling monster that patrolled his yard to keep us kids out, neither did anyone I knew own a dog. I don’t think dogs were in fashion then, or it may have been the depression and maintaining a dog was an expense one could ill afford. In any event, it never occurred to me to ask for a dog. I had goldfish and my brother, Bob, had 2 Gerbils.
Years later when I married, moved to the suburbs and had children, having a dog was an important part of the suburban scene. Everyone within the cul de sac of our twelve houses had a dog, so we bought Jolie and joined the community. Jolie was a black toy poodle and the only small animal in the area, although on one acre of property it seemed more fitting to have a boxer, a Dalmatian, or a collie. But never having had any canine experience, the big ones intimidated me, and my husband only tolerated the idea of a dog if it were small—hence Jolie, a three pound French poodle, moved in.
The reason for us to have a dog was for the children to grow up with an animal. It was so long ago that I don’t recall if the children were attached to her or not, but I think I was fond of Jolie. She was no trouble, we just opened the back door and she went out or came in. She was a sweet and gentle dog, but I didn’t think about her personality then. She was merely an adjunct to the household.
Many years later when the children went away to school and I was divorced and embarking on a new career, I moved to an apartment in the city and Jolie joined me. I found a job and Jolie was alone until I came home in the evening. Her only company during the day was the doorman who walked her at noon. I was overwhelmed by my life, couldn’t handle the schedule of a walk before going to work in the morning, getting home to feed her before I went out for the evening, and a late night walk when I came home.
I think she was nine or ten years old when she became incontinent and I was forced to put her to sleep. Only now, when I see a small poodle on the street, do I feel a pang of guilt, and writing this forty years later, I feel tears welling up.
For over two decades after Jolie was gone, I never thought about a dog. I lived alone, but I lived as a friend once said, “As if you have a household of six people.” At that point in my life I worked from home and, up until I reached the vintage year of seventy-five, four or six guests for dinner was a weekly event. I was too busy, my life was too full for a dog. But by eighty I had slowed down. I worked much less, most of my clients had passed the age of collecting art, and whatever business I did consisted of selling work they had acquired from me years before. I no longer had more than two or three guests to dinner and they weren’t weekly events. I attended fewer art openings, and generally cut down on my activities. Still, a dog in my life?
Then one day, I casually voiced to my friend, Shary, who adored her collie, that I thought I’d like a dog. Why I even breathed it aloud I don’t know; I must have seen some movie on television with a dog in it. I wasn’t lonely; it was just an airy idea. Shary said she knew a breeder in Pennsylvania who bred poodles, and she gave me the number of the Dichters. I phoned but they had no poodles at the time and said they would call me when the next litter was born.
"Fine”, I said “I’m in no hurry. Call me when you have a black toy, a female.” I preferred a female, because she wouldn’t lift her leg on my Queen Anne chair or my sofa. After I hung up the phone, I had trepidations about having made the call, but within a month I forgot about it and went about my life. More than a year went by, and I well past my impulse to have a dog when a call came.
“Mrs. Frank, we have a dog for you, actually two, you have a choice. My husband and I will be in on Saturday and we’ll bring both of them along for you to see.” I was tongue-tied; I didn’t know what to say. The urge to have a dog had been a momentary aberration and the desire had dissipated long ago. But the woman sounded so pleased for me, I didn’t know how to say “No.
For the rest of the week, I asked myself ‘Do I want a dog?’ What the hell was I thinking about; walking a dog in the rain on a day I’ve had my hair done, training a dog? I must be crazy, but, I don’t have to take one, maybe neither of them will appeal to me.
Saturday finally came and so did Mr. and Mrs. Dichter, each carrying a dog about the size of a wind-up toy. They put them on the floor to show off. Two adorable ten-week old puppies – one brown, the other black. The puppies felt quite at home, so much so they promptly peed on the carpet. The Dichters apologized, laughing, as if this was part of the dogs’ charm. I brought paper towels. The Dichters reminded me of a couple in the movie “Babe”. Mrs. Dichter was small and chubby with round, healthy, ruddy cheeks. Her husband was tall, wiry and the only thing missing was his pipe.
My niece Toni was visiting for the weekend and for some kind of support I asked my friend Sylvia to be here. I didn’t know how I was going to tell the Dichters I had decided having a dog was more responsibility than I was ready for. I served them coffee and cookies in the living room while Toni and Syl carried the dogs into the library. I followed them, slumped into my chair and whispered, “What do I do? How do I get out of this?”
Toni and Syl placed the dogs on the floor, sat themselves on the sofa, smiled at me and didn’t say a word. I could have killed both of them. I gave the puppies, who could barely walk, a cursory glance, then the little black poodle toddled over to me and we happened to made eye contact. His huge brown eyes that looked too big for his little head said “take-me” and I simply could not turn away. Without further thought I called to the Dichters in the living room - “I’ll take him.”
And so Charley was born. I figured since he was French, we needed a Pierre, ‘Charley Pierre Frank.’ Born July 16th, 1994. I bought a house for him to sleep in, two china bowls, one for water, the other for his food, a bone and two squeak toys. Once he had his shots I took him out every hour, figuring in no time he’d know why we were out for a walk. But no, he couldn’t wait to come home to pee on the paper. Eventually he caught on. Whenever I put him in his house he barked and continued barking until he was exhausted and fell asleep. I endured his suffering and barking for two weeks. Then I went out and bought him an oversized pillow where he slept until he learned to jump up on my bed and reserved the pillow next to mine for himself.
Charley is 9 pounds of energy, love, and hubris. Sometimes I want to hug him until it hurts, but he is not affectionate or clingy unless he hurts himself and then he comes to me to be picked up and held. Charley is intelligent, and whatever he wants to say to me he says it with a look. More often than not, the expression narrowed at me is a command. He has his own agenda. When we’re walking on the right side of the street he pulls to cross to the left. If I say “No” and pull him back, he stops still and looks straight ahead, waiting for me to obey him. And I do. Sometimes I wonder if that isn’t the way I handle my own personal relationships when decisions have to be made.
I never did teach Charley to sit up, beg or jump through a hoop. He grew up like Topsy, free and independent. It never occurred to me to buy a book on how to raise a dog. Consequently it can be no surprise to anyone reading this that he became head of the household before he was a year old. There are times now I’m sorry I didn’t raise Charley differently. Had I taken a course in dog training I might have taught him to sit on my lap when I’m reading or watching television like the photographs I see in magazines.
When Charley and I were younger we were both energetic and adventurous. We traveled to Florida in the winter, visited friends in the Hamptons during the summer, and spent weekends in Massachusetts sailing with my son, Tom. But unlike John Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley,” Charley and I no longer travel. He never did like being scrunched up in a bag under my seat in a plane, and when I went overseas to work he stayed at home with friends of mine from Florida who considered a week’s vacation in New York, with no expenses and the privilege of caring for Charley, a treat.
Other than my trip to Paris with my niece, for the past five or six years I haven’t been away from home for longer than a weekend. Now that Charley’s twelve and I’m eighty neither of us is comfortable sleeping in any bed other than our own. Charley and I have been together for a long time, and when we’re alone I talk to him. Hearing myself talking aloud often helps me to make a decision and he does react. His tail wags, his ears perk up and we connect. I wonder how my friends who live alone can bear to be without a living, breathing presence. Most of them look at me amused or with something that resembles resigned tolerance when I relate something funny or clever Charley has done. But fair is fair - I listen to their grandmother stories. I have learned, though, that people who don’t have a pet just don’t get it.
When Charley goes to his hairdresser I rather like being alone, but after a few hours have passed, I feel an unnatural silence around me. Twelve years is a long time to live with another being, human or otherwise.
It’s been a free ride I’ve taken for granted. Recently, when I was lying on my bed watching television, I watched Charley try to jump up on the bed but he couldn’t make it. When I picked him up, he growled at me to put him back on the floor.
I don’t know if he was humiliated because he couldn’t make it on his own, or he was afraid of how he’d get off the bed. I can almost feel his pain and his fear. I find it strange that I feel as deeply as I do about him. I try to equate my feelings for Charley to relationships I have with people, but I can’t. With human beings there can be some equality. With my dog, I am the sole protector. A human response is qualified; an animal’s response is instinctive, intuitive, unedited.
Two months ago, I noticed Charley was drinking enormous quantities of water. I took him to the veterinarian who, after a myriad of tests, told me Charley had the early stages of diabetes but that with a correct diet (protein, no carbohydrates) he may not need insulin injections. Somehow I didn’t think of the ramifications of diabetes and insulin injections, and with my usual tendency to live in a state of denial concerning an unpleasantness, I assumed the diet would take care of it all and Charley would be fine. We tried a diet but the sugar count didn’t come down and now I give him an injection of insulin twice a day.
While I take care of Charley, he is also aware of my needs and accommodates me when I take a short nap each afternoon by lying on his bed and not making a sound until I awaken. Years ago whenever he chose he’d bring me a ball and nag at me until I gave in and tossed it over and over until he was tired. Now he knows the games are over.
On our morning walks we used to stroll up the hill on 84th Street and fast trot over to the Great Lawn in Central Park. But today the walk is too long for both of us and my knees find the hill too steep. Instead, we just meander for two or three blocks.
It seems to me that Charley ages each day. He’s begun to lose weight and when I hold him I can feel his bones and sometimes I just want to cry. He’s pretty much lost his appetite, and when I gave him the food the doctor prescribed, he looked at me as if to say, “I’ll starve first,” so I doctor the dog food with chicken or hamburger. But it takes him no time as he diligently digs out the pieces of chicken or hamburger. It also took him no time to discover my ruse. He may be twelve and not in great health, but he hasn’t lost his hubris or his ability to manipulate everyone with his charm.
Because of the diabetes Charley drinks gallons of water so I find myself getting more exercise than usual walking him, but with all the water in his tiny bladder he can’t always control himself.
Only recently have I asked myself. “What if I outlive Charley?” When my friend Sylvia asked me if I’d get another dog I told her I don’t think about it, but of course I do. The reality is I’m eighty and beyond training a puppy. Even now in the winter or in bad weather I find it difficult worrying about ice or snow. I’m careful when I take Charley out at night; I have glaucoma and my sight is limited. Like anyone my age, my greatest fear is falling over a pothole.
Since he’s been ill I catch myself babbling to him, trying to explain why, on his new diet, there are no more tastes from my plate, no more forbidden treats. Trying to translate the “no” to him, “it isn’t good for you,” is futile. It isn’t easy for me at my age when the doctor says “Jeanne, I know you like steak but your cholesterol is high.” Now at eighty who likes to hear the word “No.” It sounds like a door closing.
And I am tempted to give Charley what he wants, to make him happy with whatever time is left. Today when I look into his tired eyes, I sense that he is talking to me, telling me, “It’s OK – I’ve had enough,” and I’m beginning to understand his language - it’s not unlike mine.