“He says he believes God is a Yorkshire terrier.” My sister Nance’s voice hissed across the long-distance lines.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Do you want me to read you the letter?”
I didn’t want her to read me the letter. My desk drawer contained nothing but dozens of white, legal-sized envelopes addressed to me by my father. All unopened.
“Why don’t you call him if you’re worried?” I suggested.
“He’s had the telephone disconnected. When I found out I called the sheriff’s office and they checked on him. Then he wrote and told me he didn’t want to talk to anyone he couldn’t see,” she said.
“If the sheriff checked on him, why do you want me to go?” I asked. “You think something’s wrong, why don’t you go check on him?”
“Dave, come on!” The exasperation in her voice made the phone lines sing. “I’m in San Diego. You live in Tampa. You’re about twenty-eight hundred miles closer than I am!”
The line crackled as if lightning had struck nearby.
“Will you do it for me?” she asked. “Please?”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Go see him. See if he’s all right. Then call me.”
I imagined her sitting in her all-white living room. There would be crystals arranged in front of her on the glass coffee table. She would be wearing something white and flowing with crystals around her neck and crystals hanging from her ears. When we finished talking she would go and sit on a pile of cushions on her sunlit patio and stroke her crystals and meditate. Later she would have her feminist friends over for herbal tea and tell them all about her crazy father and her distant brother.
I agreed to go see him. Before we hung up, she said, “If he really thinks God’s a Yorkie, he needs help.”
I personally saw God as being more like a Rottweiler — something big that could be both gentle and fierce. I had no idea how Nance envisioned God.
I was going to visit my father for the sake of my mother’s memory. My mother had never liked small dogs, and I’m sure the Yorkie idea would have offended her even more than it did my sister.
I took Highway 19 to Chiefland instead of the interstate. I hate and avoid the interstate because it killed a lot of the Florida that I loved. All along Highway 19, the small motels and tourist traps were boarded up and abandoned. Many of those places had been owned by friends of my family. They were like relatives. On our family vacations, we would stop and visit each one.
My parents had survived better than most. My mother had known what to do when the tourists stopped coming. She had converted Dogland into a top kennel specializing in the big dogs she loved. The reptile farm and the monkey house had disappeared, and the shell shops had become convenience marts selling beer and chips to the locals. But the Dogland sign had simply been painted over and the word kennel put on.
The sign was gone when I pulled into the parking lot in front of the old ticket office. The creosote-covered posts were still there, tall and naked next to the gravel drive. Looking at the posts, I remembered the original sign. Dogland: Home To Over 200 Breeds Of Dogs, it had declared in bright green letters with dark brown shading. My father had closed the kennel after my mother’s death.
I rolled down my window and the smell surged into the car. Dogs. Hundreds of dogs. When my mother was alive the smell had been faint, moderated by the scent of the wood shavings in the runs and the wood chips on the path through them. Now only the dog odor lingered.
I walked to the fence and opened the gate. There was no sound. There was no sign of life. The fenced-in concrete runs were clean. Next to the kennels, the water and food pans were turned upside down.
The sound that used to greet me when I would come home from school was huge. As I’d open the gate, the dogs would begin to yip and bark and wag their tails. I’d stop at each run, each kennel, and say hello to everyone. It would take me forever to make it from the gate to our small house in the back.
When Nance would get home from high school, there wouldn’t be a sound. The dogs knew her, but she would never stop to say hello to any of them. When I got to high school, I found out why. Growing up with hundreds of dogs in a place called Dogland wouldn’t get you a date or a position on the football team. It would make you a freak. I think there should have been a special school for us: the Seminoles whose fathers wrestled alligators, the children who grew up with snakes and monkeys and hundreds of dogs.
A huge, gray-muzzled Great Dane came out of the shadows of one of the kennels. He barked feebly. I could hear a little wheeze in his breathing. He sniffed the air, trying to decide if he knew me or not. I remembered him. He seemed to think he recognized my scent. He came to me and licked my hand. I rubbed his huge head and scratched behind his ears.
“How are you, Augustus?” I asked.
He was an old dog, but his eyes were still clear. When we got to the front door, Augustus barked again to announce that he had found me and brought me home.
My father came to the door, larger and grayer than I remembered. With his high forehead and thick, bushy eyebrows, he appeared to be constantly scowling.
Augustus nuzzled his hand and woofed softly.
“Hi, Dad,” I said at last.
My father had covered up the windows from the outside, so the lights were on inside the house even though it was midday. Augustus went straight to the rug in front of my father’s big easy chair across from the television. There was no other furniture in the living room.
The kitchen was furnished with a table and a single chair. Everything was clean. My father handed me a cold beer he’d taken from the refrigerator.
“You’ll have to bring that chair,” he said.
I carried the wooden kitchen chair back to the living room, set it a short way from his easy chair, and sat down. The only sound was the crack of our beers opening and the slight wheeze of Augustus sleeping on the rug.
“Augustus looks pretty good,” I said. “Is he the only one around?”
“Sold the others.”
My father sipped loudly at his beer, and I took a sip of mine. I realized I was thirsty and a little tired from the drive.
“You look good, too, Dad,” I said.
He did. His face wasn’t lined, and his body looked strong. He still had all his hair, while mine was thinning on the top.
“The place is real clean,” I said.
My father leaned back in his recliner. “What brings you here, Dave?”
“Nance is worried about you,” I said.
He finished his beer, crushed the can between his hands, and tossed it into a box against the wall. “I recycle,” he said.
“Good,” I said.
Augustus shifted positions and we both watched him for a moment.
“What’s Nance worried about now?” my father asked.
“Some letter you wrote her. She said you thought God was a Yorkie. It’s got her a little concerned.”
My father’s laugh boomed out into the room, startling Augustus and me. “God is like a Yorkie,” he said. “Small and ill tempered.”
“I think of God as being more like a Rottweiler,” I said.
“Your mother would have agreed. She liked Rottweilers.”
I finished my beer and tried to crush the can, but it bent in the middle and kind of doubled over. I tossed it into the box anyway.
“So, how’s your sister?” my father asked. “What does she do now?”
“Doesn’t she write you?”
“She does,” he said, “but I quit reading them. She used to call. That’s why I had the phone taken out.”
My sister would have gone crazy had she known that. She thought of herself as the one who held the family together since Mother died. She called me twice a month, like clockwork. I often let the answering machine take her calls.
“She writes these books now,” I said. I tried to think of a way to describe them. They were novels that took male characters from popular TV shows and put them together in homosexual relationships: Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk, Starsky and Hutch. She sent me one once. I’d never read it. I’d taken one look at the cover and put it in a drawer.
“She writes books based on television shows,” I said.
“Oh,” my father said.
I wrote romance novels for a living — under a different name, of course. A friend in college had dared me. She’d said I couldn’t write a romance novel and get it published. Not only had I sold the book I’d written on the dare; I’d signed a contract for two more. I’d been writing them ever since.
“You kids get your writing talent from me,” my father said. “I write, too.”
My father went to my old bedroom. He pulled a cardboard box out of the closet and began to sift through dozens of writing tablets. Finding the one he was looking for, he handed it to me. “Read that,” he said. My father’s loose scrawl covered the page, line after line. “Read it out loud,” he said. I read:
She liked big things, she said. Big dogs, big projects, big ideas, and big men. So I knew why she chose to love me. “You were the tallest man who ever asked me out,” she said to me, “so I married you.” I was glad I was tall. She would say to me, “What do you like?” “You,” I would answer. And it was true. Everything else that came along was all right. All I ever wanted was her.
I looked at my father. “Did she really say that?” I asked.
“No, but after I showed it to her she began saying it.”
That sounded like my mother. She was never one to let something good lie unused. She took things on and made them hers.
“I’ve got lots of others,” my father said.
The box was full of tablets. “Have you ever sent these anywhere?” I asked.
“No. I just showed them to Ellie. I used to read to her at night. She liked that.”
A strange new image filled my head: my parents sitting up in bed together, my father reading to my mother, her laughing at people or things she would recognize, storing up the best parts to tell to friends. My mother had had a reputation as a storyteller. I realized now they had been my father’s stories.
I wondered when he’d written them. I didn’t remember ever seeing him write, but I knew he liked being off by himself. Sometimes he would disappear for hours. Whenever I would ask my mother where he went, she would just say, “Off with his head somewhere.” She must have known he was off writing.
My father was crying. Suddenly the room was too small, being there with him too intimate. I set the tablet on the bed and left the room.
I went to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. Inside were four beers, an orange soda, and half a dozen oranges. I took the orange soda and opened it. Augustus’s nails clicked on the linoleum. He watched me drink the soda, snorted once, and headed back down the hallway to my father.
My mother had been sick a long time. My father spent two years watching her die. When at last she let go, my father just got up and walked out of the hospital. Nance and I signed the papers and took care of the funeral arrangements. When the two of us got back to the house, there wasn’t a sign of our mother. He’d put a box of her things for each of us out by the ticket office. All the dogs in the kennel were howling. My father didn’t go to the funeral. He didn’t even ask where she was buried.
For five years I had stayed away. For five years I’d avoided seeing my father. Each year I’d sent him a birthday gift, a Christmas gift, a Father’s Day gift. I hadn’t seen any sign of those five years of gifts. I’d sent him things for the house — an electric can opener, an electric toothbrush. I stopped by the bathroom on the way back to my bedroom. There, in a glass by the sink, was a single, ordinary toothbrush.
My father had stopped crying and was pushing the box back into the closet.
“What did you do with all the gifts I sent you?” I asked him.
“What? I didn’t do anything with them.”
“Where are they?” I asked.
“In the bedroom.” He pointed down the hall.
The boxes, still wrapped in brown mailing paper, were stacked neatly on the floor of my sister’s old room. I picked up the one on top, postmarked December 19. I knew it contained a rag-wool sweater from L. L. Bean. My father appeared in the bedroom doorway. “You never opened any of my gifts,” I said.
“Didn’t need to. I knew you cared.”
“Where are Nance’s letters?” I asked.
He opened the top drawer of the dresser. There were at least a dozen letters on her fancy stationery — all unopened. The postmark on the top one was only three weeks old.
“I have all your letters in a drawer in my desk,” I said.
“When did you stop reading them?” he asked.
“About two years ago.”
“We’re a lot alike,” he said.
My father and I went back to the kitchen and took two beers out of the refrigerator.
“I drank your last orange soda,” I said.
“Doesn’t matter. I’m glad you came,” he said.
We popped the tops on the cans. Augustus settled down between us, whining and wheezing.
“Nance writes pornography,” I said.
My father raised his eyebrows. “Really?”
“She sent me one of her books once. I was too embarrassed to read it.”
“Damn.” He started to laugh.