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Twice a Stray, Forever Loved

by Maria Calderoni 9 months ago in humanity

For the Love of Rags

Twice a Stray, Forever Loved
Photo by Krzysztof Hepner on Unsplash

It was the summer of 1982. We were about to be homeless and I have to admit I was more excited than scared. I felt an adventure coming on. And boy was I right. If I had only known….. I might have been less excited.

My younger brothers and I raced through the empty house yelling just to hear our voices echo, while mom gathered the last of our stuff, depositing it unceremoniously in the driveway. I could tell she was stressed by how she kept yelling at us. She paused to retighten her pony tails. This was the way she wore her hair every single day, loosely gathered and tied over each ear with a brown slip knot hair tie made out of cheap yarn. “Maria,” she called sharply, “Help me load!” I couldn't understand why she was upset. This was exciting. But I moved quickly to comply. With my dad’s tetris gene, I was usually called upon to fit more than seemed humanly possible into tiny spaces. In this case, it was a month’s worth of food and supplies for 4 humans, a cat and a dog, into a medium sized tan Chevy Impala Station Wagon!

I was 14. Dad had been out of work for ages. Prior to the lumber industry crash, we had been almost well off. My parents owned three houses and we always had enough of anything we needed. Then the sawmill closed and we lost it all. We survived by my dad’s great budgeting and mom’s resourcefulness. (You can read the story Pennies from Heaven here to learn how we miraculously bought all our groceries using pennies.)

Finally, after months of searching, dad landed a new job in a new town. It was 6 hours to the north and we had never even been there before. He found us a house, but it would not be available for another month. All of our houses had sold, so we had a whole month ahead of us to be nomads. I realized it was not the same as being truly destitute, but as a budding writer with a great imagination, I faced the next few weeks with anticipation.

When dad headed north, we headed south. Mom had the grand idea that we would stay with various friends and an occasional hotel, like a vacation of sorts. This was before the term “couch surfing” was a thing, but basically imagine couch surfing with your three kids, a dog and a cat.

I carefully placed sleeping bags behind and around the cardboard cat carrier that would be home to our black cat, Puff. He was so named for Puff the Magic Dragon, my favorite song when I was 2. We had Puff before we had my brothers. You would think he and I were pretty tight, but as cats are wont to be, he was independent and a bit aloof. And truth be told, I was the same. I loved him. His presence was integral, we just didn't hang out much.

By Ariane Frei on Unsplash

Puff had never been homeless before and did not love his new box house. “It’s ok. Kitty,” I crooned, gently stuffing sleeping bags around him, taking care not to cover the air holes in the top. Cramming the last items in, I called, “Stand back!” while simultaneously slamming the overhead hatch.

“Here, Rags,” I called to our shaggy haired Lhasa Apso mutt, patting my thigh and urging him into the back seat. “Good boy,” I patted his head, pulling back the stringy hair hanging in front of his eyes. It was a mystery how he could see, but he seemed to like it that way. Rags came to our family by accident the first time and by tremendous effort and much prayer the second time.

With a new baby, and a three and six year old, my mom always said she must have been crazy to agree to pet sit her friend’s dog. They asked us to keep their dog for a week “or so.” And what a dog he was. If you can imagine a small pile of rags sitting, no hiding, in a corner with two eyes occasionally peeking out, you know what Rags looked like. He would whimper sporadically and when no one was looking, he would relieve himself on the impeccably clean floors. It didn’t seem to matter if he was taken outside 3 or 15 times a day, my mom’s freshly cleaned floors were his preferred bathroom. Then he would slink away cowering in the corner, shaking violently if either of my parents raised their voice in dismay over the mess. My mom’s compassion for this poor terrified little dog won out over her intense need for a perfectly clean house. I don’t know what that cost her internally, but I always admired her kindness to Rags. I think she figured she could do it for a week, “or so.”

When the “or so,” had turned into three weeks and her friend Linda was no longer returning phone calls, mom seemed at her wits end. At last, Linda called back. “When are you coming to get Rags?” my mom inquired politely, trying not to sound as exasperated as she clearly felt. “I thought we were watching him for a week for you.” While I couldn’t hear Linda, my mom’s face registered something between anger, shock and panic. I sat on the royal blue carpeted stairs which descended into our sunken living room, staring at her. My hand gently and absently stroked Rags on his head and I could hear Linda talking rapidly, catching a few words here and there.

When mom got off the phone, she seemed stunned.

“What’s wrong, mom?” I asked nervously.

“They never intended to take Rags back.” she said slowly and quietly. “I guess he has been passed from home to home. They were the seventh making us the eighth.” Instinctively I stroked his little body. “So we get to keep him?” I was incredulous. This would be my dream come true. I loved Rags like he was our own dog already.

My mom continued, “It seems that no one would keep him because he has not been successfully house trained." She exhaled in a deep weary sigh. I hugged him gently.

“We can do it! Can’t we mom?”

“Oh dear,” she rubbed her head with her hand. “Let me talk to daddy, when he gets home. Oh dear.”

As it turned out, I was not the only one who had grown attached to this sweet puppy. In spite of his problem, we had all fallen prey to Linda's sinister plot, completely falling in love with Rags.

It took three months. Don’t ask me how she did it, but mom gently loved that little dog into being potty trained. No one in our house hurt him or yelled at him and as time went on we loved him into feeling safe with us too. As a crucial member of the family, my brothers never even remembered a life without Rags. Until…..

* * * * *

“It’s ok boy. We are going on a trip. Come on. Jump in.” Finally he jumped into the backseat with a melodious jingle. The tags on his collar always played a tune alerting us to his impending arrival. We referred to his collar as “his jingles,” and if they were not promptly reattached after a bath, he crept around the house looking lost or possibly embarrassed as if caught naked in a crowded room. Normally, if a trip were in the works, this sensitive canine would be sitting in the car waiting for us, anxious to not be left behind, but today, he seemed to sense the finality of this departure. Though not as timid as he used to be, Rags was still a highly perceptive and sensitive dog.

“BOYS!” I yelled the familiar moniker for the two of them. “It’s time to go!” We had said goodbye to my dad earlier as he set off with the bed of his Datsun pickup truck loaded to the hilt with our household goods. Now as the boys ran to jump into the car, I suddenly felt overcome by wistfulness. It wasn’t my first move, but saying goodbye was not my favorite. I stood for a moment gazing at the beautiful Columbia River. Our house was situated on a bend in the river and I had spent many hours on our little deck watching the water pass by, day dreaming or writing. I raised my hand in farewell to the river and then glanced quickly to make sure no one caught my sentimentality. Climbing into the front seat, I wondered where mom was. I spotted her through the windows walking slowly from room to room as if she too were saying goodbye. I filed that memory away and resolved to be more gentle with my sentimental mother.

Pleased to find us loaded and ready, mom leaned into the car. Turning her head to the backseat she asked, “Did you all use the bathroom?” She always asked this. Every. Single. Time. We nodded and she glanced at Rags. “Is Puff secure back there?” As if on cue, a plaintiff though somewhat muffled “meoowww, erupted from the far back. I raised my eyebrows and gave her a knowing grin. She seemed calmer now, resigned to the adventure ahead. “OK,” she took a deep breath and let it out slowly, positioning herself behind the wheel, “let’s go.” She smiled. That was how she was. The preparation always threw her into a frantic tizzy, as my dad called it, but when the rubber hit the road, literally, she seemed to release the stress and go back to being our more pleasant mother.

Crossing the international boundary into the United States was uneventful. Even though our car was overloaded and suspicious looking, the officer at the small crossing waved us through with barely a question. They knew us. We had crossed here many times in the past few years, especially after we started “running pennies” across the border. Arriving at our friends’ home a little late we enjoyed a short visit, then mom called us to “get back in the car.” As we waved and pulled away, an overpowering stench engulfed us. “What is that SMELL?” mom asked. No one knew. Vincent leaned over to pat Rags, who was lying on the floor at his feet. “OH no!” he gasped. “Found the smell.” And he popped his head back up with his fingers tightly closing his nose. “Rags must have found some kind of animal poop to roll in. He is covered in it.”

Mom groaned and the rest of us loudly expressed our displeasure at the smell. Poor little Rags, knew something was wrong and cowered forlornly on the floor.

Rolling down all the windows we continued heading to town where we would spend the next couple of nights at the home of our friend John and his new wife. Their home was in a somewhat rough part of town, near the county courthouse and jail. “What are we going to do?” my mom fretted over and over. “We can’t show up at someone’s house like this?” Her anxious eyes kept glancing towards me as if I could solve this catastrophe. “Can’t we just tell them what happened and give him a bath when we get there?” Mom groaned again. She was brash and bold but she had a strong sense of propriety, and showing up at a friend’s house with your dog doused in animal feces, was just uncouth.

With no options in sight, we proceeded. Passing the courthouse, my mom’s grip tightened on the steering wheel. Just 5 blocks before our intended destination mom spotted a sign in the front yard of a somewhat disheveled little house. “Dog Groomer.” Even the sign looked bedraggled, but we were desperate. Pulling over, mom got out of the car quickly. “Stay here,” she instructed us curtly. We watched her approach the front door and a small woman peeked out. She matched her house in appearance but mom must have felt confident in her ability to at least disinfect our very sad and smelly puppy. Returning to the car, she asked, “Where is Rag’s leash?” I handed it to Vincent, who gingerly clipped it on the dog’s collar trying not to touch any of the soiled hair. Opening the door, mom called kindly to Rags. “Come on, Rags. We are going to get you all cleaned up.” Watching them approach the door, I saw Rags hesitate. Mom tugged him along and the lady reached out to take the leash. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary or sinister, just run down. And to be fair, the house fit well with its neighbors.

I felt a hollow pit in my stomach as mom got back in the car and we drove the final blocks to John’s house. I was sure he would have been fine with us using the bathtub if we cleaned it really well. His new wife might have been a bit more reluctant however, and I think that is why mom made the decision she did.

* * * * * *

The sun was near the horizon when we finally headed back to get Rags. “Well,” I looked at mom, “it will be nice to have a clean dog while we are, um, travelling around for the next month.” She didn’t like it when I said we were homeless, so I substituted “travelling around.” She agreed. The lady had said 3 hours and it was just over that. As we pulled in front of the now familiar house, we were again instructed to wait. As soon as mom knocked, we could see something was wrong. “What do you mean, he ran away?” we heard her raise her voice. We all looked at each other and hopped out of the car. “I’m so sorry,” the woman echoed repeatedly from a door only open about 5 inches. “Right after you left, he just bolted out the door. I didn’t even give him his bath.” She was very distressed and continued repeating herself without opening the door any further. He had been running around this unfamiliar neighborhood saturated in poop and probably scared to death for almost three hours. He could be anywhere by now. We were distraught to say the least.

Stunned, Mom locked the car and we started walking up and down every side street, calling and calling, til we were hoarse and it was well past dark. “Rags! Here Rags!” My voice would catch slightly each time. I was not a crier. I had been taught that lesson early on, but every time I imagined our apprehensive little dog all alone in the dark unfamiliar surroundings, I felt that burning sensation behind my eyes. Mom allowed us to keep searching until well past bedtime. She left us briefly to return to John’s house and enlist their assistance in the search. It was of no use. There was no sign of him anywhere. We asked everyone we passed, describing Rags in detail. One man said he thought he had seen a dog like that walking North with “Johnny Jack.” “Who is Johnny Jack?” I asked.

“Oh he's a bad one. He …” and the man leaned in, “He’s a dealer around here.”

“Can you tell me how to find him?” I asked. I didn’t care what he was dealing. If he had Rags, we needed to find him. The man gave a vague answer pointing north. “But don’t you tell him, I told you,” he whispered, leaning too close again.

“I won’t,” I replied, taking a step back. “I don’t even know your name.”

“I’m Bobby. Bobby Jones.” He replied confidently.

“Nice to meet you Bobby. If you see our dog will you be sure to call this number?” I handed him a scrap of paper with the phone number of our friend, John. Being homeless had its disadvantages. We didn’t even have a phone for people to contact us if they found our dog.

Mom made us stop a bit before midnight. We walked all the way back to the house hoping Rags would see us and come running out from some safe hiding place. He did not. I don’t know for sure about my brothers but I may have quietly cried myself to sleep that night.

Bright and early we were up and ready to find Rags. Somehow mom found a picture of him in her massive purse. She was the most resourceful person you will ever meet, and her purse was a veritable Mary Poppins bag. Affixing the picture to a piece of paper we quickly made a poster. We made 100 black and white copies. Armed with confidence that he had to be somewhere in the vicinity, we posted his picture on nearly every power pole, mailbox and bulletin board. We also talked to everyone.

We were beginning to discover an underground community that seemed to follow their own rules and codes, but driven by a fierce love for our dog, we boldly pursued the increasingly disturbing leads. Saturday morning, just three days after Rags had supposedly run away, we found ourselves at the police precinct trying to garner information about “Johnny Jack” who also apparently went by Jake Smith, John Jackson and who knows how many other names. “You stay away from that one,” the officer told my mom. “He’s bad news.”

“But he might have our dog,” she replied having already explained the situation. Then the police officer confirmed the rumors we had been hearing from various strangers in the neighborhood.

“We are having a terrible time with stolen dogs right now,” he confided. “I doubt your dog ran away. There is a group of survivalists over in Idaho who are running a dog ring. I hate to tell you this, but they nab the small dogs to use as bait when training the fighting dogs to kill.”

Leaving the station, we returned to the groomer’s house. Pounding on the door, my mom hollered, “Hey. Anybody home? We have questions.” No one came to the door this time, or on any of our return visits. We walked miles, combing every street. We found a boarded up house, noisy with the sound of barking and whining dogs inside. When we reported this to the police they already knew but said they were just keeping an eye on it. Frustrated that he couldn’t just break in and look for Rags, we left the station again. Our hunt continued and the area of the search widened considerably. So many leads kept pointing back to Johnny Jake, but he was illusive and we were always a step or two behind him.

By Ricky Singh on Unsplash

Three weeks had passed. Weary and beleaguered I walked up Broadway Avenue, a brother on either side. Our heads drooping, we were ready to give up. “Do you think the survivalists really have Rags?” Phillip asked sorrowfully. “It sure looks like it,” I sighed. “I wish we could find that Johnny guy.” We kept walking, no one saying much.

“Hey!” Our heads all shot up at once. There in front of us was a ragged looking individual with torn jeans and way more wrinkles than one would expect on a young man. His hair was scraggly, not unlike Rags’ hair and he wore a dusty ball cap. “Hi, Bobby,” I offered morosely. “You got any news about our dog, or how to find Johnny? We still haven’t talked to him.” Our new “friends” circle was different than what I would have imagined, but maybe it sort of fit with the fact that we were technically homeless. “Yeah, I do.” He leaned in closer. “Johnny is hanging out downtown tonight. He’s at the Riverside Bar. and… everyone knows about your dog. I heard he’s been transported to Idaho. There’s this house in Hayden Lake. It’s out in the country and they only use it for dogs. Johnny knows where it is.” I was flabbergasted. Was this guy high? Was he pulling our leg? Was he hoping to get a reward? We had all stopped and were staring at him. “You’re serious?”

“Yeah but you can’t tell anybody I told you this.” I agreed.

With new energy we raced to find our mom. We were back staying at John’s house again. Tomorrow we were supposed to get a motel in a neighboring town and take a break at the lake. None of us had any real interest in swimming. We wanted to find Rags.

Rushing inside, we told mom everything Bobby had said. John was listening, “You can’t go into that bar by yourself. That’s not a good place.” This is where our mom’s confidence came in handy. “I’m not worried. They’ll be more scared of me than I am of them.” We all knew this was probably an accurate assessment. She left us there and headed straight for one of the roughest bars in town. In later retellings of this story she would mention that she also had all the cash for our trip in her giant purse. (My parents didn’t use credit cards.) Though my mom did not look scary, she carried herself with a confidence that filled a room. She was intense and purposeful and could be loud and demanding when the situation called for it. This is the same woman who pulled over a police officer for speeding one time. Apparently, she waltzed into the bar as if she was the boss, straight up to the bartender asking for Johnny. She was directed immediately to a tall very thin man with skin stretched tight and tanned by the sun. He was leathery and sullen with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. She introduced herself. “Yeah, I know about your dog,” he grunted. “Well where is he then?” She demanded pulling a copy of the now famous photo out of her pocket. Brushing it aside he reached for his cigarette. “The boys took all the dogs over to a collection house in Hayden. It’s where they keep ‘em til they’re needed.”

“And what part of this dog ring are you?” she asked, truly curious. “Ehhh I’m not. I just catch stray dogs sometimes and they pay me a couple bucks. Keeps me alive is all.”

“What do they want with little dogs?”

“You don’t know?” he looked surprised.

“I’ve heard they use them to train big dogs like Doberman pinschers to fight and kill…..” her voice trailed away.

“Yeah, that’s about the size of it.” he acknowledged. “They have these here treadmill like things and they put the little dog up front and the doberman chases it until he’s so worked up he wants to kill it. Then they release the doberman and ….” this is where mom usually stopped recounting the story. Sometimes sooner, depending who her audience was, although to be fair she never did cultivate much of a filter.

Johnny gave my mom an address which could have been a wild goose chase designed to waste more of our time. But we had nothing else to do, so the next day we moved into our new motel room, settled in the cat, and headed to the location provided by the illusive Johnny whatever his real name was. It was not a far drive. Scanning for the house number we saw a house that looked interesting. The yard was fenced and there was a large shed in the back with a very tall chain link cage surrounding it. We kept driving and discovered the next house number was too high. Yep. Suspicious looking house was our target. There were no vehicles in the driveway so we pulled in. Leaving my brothers, who were 11 and 8, to keep watch, mom and I headed to the backyard. We could see that the cage out back was full of dogs, small dogs. Too many to count. Excitedly, looking for Rags, we opened the unlocked gate into the yard. The fact that it was so easy to enter should have been our first warning. Foolishly, staring straight ahead, we made a b-line for the cage. We did not see the two guard dogs approaching silently from behind the house. Suddenly, they were upon us growling low in their throats and snapping viciously. They did not bark although the small dogs were making a ferocious racket. We turned and ran for the gate with mom batting the dogs on their heads with her hefty purse. One of the Doberman’s snapped at her heels while the other snapped at her arms and torso. I sprinted to the fence, leaping onto the top bar and lacing my fingers into the chain link on the far side. Throwing my weight forward I attempted to flip over the fence but in my haste I simply landed on my head. Jumping up, I opened the gate and mom hurried through, slamming her purse for one last time on the closest growling dog. We ran to the car and drove straight to the local police station to report the incident and ask them to get a search warrant. We were sure that Rags had to be there. Where else could he be?

“I can’t believe they didn’t bite us!” I marveled. “Either they were trained to only snap and not bite or God totally just protected us.” I looked around in awe hoping to catch a glimpse of my personal guardian angel. Mom was shaken, which was pretty hard to do. I had a big headache. Mostly, I wanted to get back there and rescue Rags. He had to be there. He just had to.

The police were well aware of the situation and said they would get a warrant and let us know if they found Rags. There was nothing else we could do at that point. We had already come a little too close to danger and even my fearless mother knew it was time to step back and let the police handle this. We were so hopeful. Realizing there was nothing else to do, we took the rest of the afternoon and almost enjoyed ourselves at the beach.

The next day, our first stop was the police station to find out if they had rescued the dogs. The sergeant greeted us immediately, “Good morning.” He was professional but he did not look happy. “We got a warrant, but by the time we got there last night, the house was deserted. They must have gotten word that we were coming and emptied the place out.” I seriously could have cried right then and there. We were so close and now we were back to square one. “I’m very sorry.” he offered. “Is there somewhere I can reach you if we find them?” Mom gave him the phone number for several local friends and the number where our dad was staying.

We had two more days before it was time to give up and head to our new home and life. We were at a loss. Even our never-give-up mom, seemed to have resigned herself to the likelihood that Rags was lost forever. She had one last ditch effort to try.

Much to our surprise, she revealed that she was going to sue the dog groomer. After completing the necessary paperwork at the courthouse, she hired someone to serve notice to the groomer. We didn’t see how this was helpful. No amount of money would ever replace this precious part of our family. Mom tried to comfort us, explaining that she didn’t really want the money, she just hoped that maybe it would get them to return the dog. We looked at her like she was crazy. We often looked at her like that though.

Heading to our new home, 8 hours to the north, we really looked the part of a homeless family now. We were dirty and bedraggled, and this was the saddest trip we had ever taken. No one talked much. We felt like we were betraying Rags. Mom insisted we had done more than almost anyone else would have to find a lost pet and that it was time to give up. Real tears did slip out of my eyes more than once as I watched the scenery race by barely noticing the beauty.

* * * * *

Dad was so excited to see us when we arrived. As we pulled up, he was running down the driveway. We had missed him terribly too, but were a bit surprised by our reserved father’s enthusiasm.

THEY FOUND HIM!” Dad yelled before he was even halfway to the car. “RAGS IS FOUND!” We tumbled out of the car, both laughing and crying. We hugged and demanded a full explanation. Weary from the long trip and the excruciating month, we kids demanded that mom get right back in the car and repeat the trip we had just finished, but in reverse. Too exhausted to drive another 8 hours today mom promised we would leave first thing in the morning.

We had pulled out of the city about 10 am. The groomer was served papers at noon. By 2 pm. Rags was miraculously turned into the Humane society and they called my dad. With no way to reach us on the road, he held that joyous news until we finally pulled in about 9 pm.

We left before dawn so as to reach the shelter before closing. We drove straight there stopping only for gas and at the border. There were no happier kids than we three that day as we hugged and kissed and held our very emaciated filthy little doggie. It was months before he healed physically from the trauma of that horrible event. And he never did get over a new terror of loud noises. But he was home and lived to the ripe old age of 19 when he was laid gently to rest wrapped in his favorite blanket.

humanity

Maria Calderoni

Born a lover of stories. I love to read, write and tell them. Tales of inspiration, resilience and struggle.

A life long learner, I enjoy nothing more than sharing interesting and useful things I have learned so far.

Please join me.

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