Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Three Bad Choices: Max, My Dog, is Gone!…by Robert M. Katzman

Three Bad Choices: Max, My Dog, Is Gone

by Robert M. Katzman © August 5, 2019

This story is part of a larger one, currently being written, and titled: Seeking a Second Sunrise.

This chapter was unplanned, unintended and unwanted. Aside from the introduction, you will soon see why I feel this way, and exactly what happened. There are no heroes in my story. If there were, it wouldn’t be me.

My father, Israel, used to quote his father, Jacob, in Yiddish saying: “Man plans and God laughs”.

Which is exactly what happened.

I used to travel a great deal, all over the USA, Europe, Israel, Jordan and when younger, camping everywhere in North America.  I became quite self-sufficient and learned to strip down what I brought with me to whatever was necessary to be ready and to be safe. No one can plan for everything, but experiences taught me what was likely to go wrong. So, deciding what to take with me involves assumptions of probabilities.

The last form of math I ever learned to use effectively was percentages, in sixth grade, in 1962. After that, I failed to grasp the necessity of algebra and geometry, failing both subjects in high school, but they let me graduate anyway. At eighteen, I had a business, a wooden newsstand which I built myself, later incorporated, had several employees, a 1962 Buick Electric, a lawyer and an accountant. None of this involved geometry.

The school knew about this, and evidently assumed I knew enough 6thgrade math to take care of myself. Paying off (1) neighborhood politicians, (2) giving away free newspapers to cops and (3) stopping the newspaper truck drivers from stealing newspapers from the heavy bundles tied tightly with wire which they threw off the back end of their trucks also involved playing the percentages.

  • Staying on a corrupt small-time Chicago pol’s good side was a smart investment. 

A steady controlled cost. Once established, no other pol tried to cut in on another’s territory.

  • Small price to pay, a dime, for frequent appearances of armed men in uniform kept robberies away.
  • I could never catch all of them, all of the time. But since they knew that I knew that they attempted to do this theft habitually, like drug addicts, it minimized my losses. They’d steal more from the next newsstand owner, someone blind or old or in a wheelchair. Morality had no slot on a newspaper truck driver’s conscious.

Travel was very much like this circumstance. The newsstand was six feet by eight feet with a slanted to roof to let the rain run off and make the snow fall off. My Ford and Chevy vans in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties were about six feet wide and twelve feet long. Their roofs were all flat, but I couldn’t help that. 

So, as an example, for protection, besides having a hammer, for a while I had a gun, an automatic. Not twenty-five guns, just one. The newsstand wasn’t the Alamo, and more guns wouldn’t make me safer.

In a van, when driving across a desert, I wouldn’t take ten gallons of water, when two were enough. Room was limited, many items were needed, especially if a wife or children were coming with me, and I had to choose what was most likely to happen, based on experience and assumptions. Playing the percentages.

For a long time, I always brought an extra spare tire, reasoning that once a spare tire was used and no place yet existed to repair or replace the damaged tire, I no longer had a spare tire with me.  This seemed logical and wise. But when I rented the 2019 Chevy Caravan, I was informed that not only could I not have an extra tire, but also there was no spare at all, anymore. Horrified, eventually I accepted that now that cell phones did exist, if I ran into trouble, the rental company would bring me another car. This reassurance was never tested, but I did take the chance. I do own an old Suburban van too frail for long trips. It does have two spare tires. 

Some items I brought with me were never used, not in fifty years of travel across America or Canada. There used to be a sign both in the north and south on Interstates 40 and 90: No services for 100 miles. Maybe still.

Once I first saw those two signs, after that, I always brought an extra fan belt and hoses to circulate coolant in case some god-forsaken mechanic’s shop my van limped into in the middle of nowhere didn’t happen to have my model’s sizes in stock. 

Never happened, never needed them, but that also meant I never broke down mechanically in half a century, so the expense was tiny compared to actually needing those parts as spares in an emergency. Still, I always had them with me because there was some tiny chance they would save the day, and also my family, in the event they were needed. What experienced did teach me was take care of my van like it was my external metal body so the chances of a breakdown were minimized. Oil changes four times a year, regardless of miles driven. Lubricate everything and, ok obviously, always ask the mechanics to check on my hoses and fan belts for wear.

I used to fantasize bringing a small scooter with me attached to the back of the van so if I ran into trouble or out of gas, I still had a way of seeking help, decades before cell phones existed. But I never did that; maybe decided it was overkill, extra weight and might get stolen off the back of the van one dark night. And I was wrong, once.

Trouble was, in 1969 when I was nineteen, I did become trapped in the soft slippery sand of the West Texas Chihuahuan Desert twenty-six miles east of El Paso, Texas in the middle of a scorching summer day when it hit 120 degrees.

No scooter, big danger and my friend and I had minimal water. But that terrifying experience I had as a teenager had a powerful effect on my idea about what to do and what not to do to avoid ever letting that happen again for the rest of my life.

My friend and I decided to split up, after agreeing that I appeared to look less like hippy than he did. So he stayed inside the van—the only shade anywhere–and I went walking down an empty highway hoping to flag down help from someone, anyone. But when the Texas Rangers finally did appear a couple of hours later, they were initially a bigger threat to me than my situation, because of their strong opinion that I was a deserter or AWOL from a Texas Air Force Academy. I wrote about that in a story called “Lost in Texas”, but it remains unpublished. 

This was during the Viet Nam War, and possible deserters/protesters were despised by the cops everywhere. I was nineteen, looked younger and had a hell of a time convincing those angry Texas Rangers that I was who I said I was, meaning from Chicago and not in anyone’s army. 

So when I traveled by myself between July 22 and August 4th, 2019 in a rented van—all the kids are grown up and my wife is now dead—I brought a miniaturized medical kit in a plastic container. Band-Aids of many sizes, antibiotic creams, surgical tape, many kinds of foot repair items, medicine for scrapes, itching, or burning, my six prescriptions, extra glasses of both types, AD ointment for healing, drops for eyes, sharp scissors, clippers, tweezers, thin needles for removing slivers, matches, cue-tips, “liquid bandage” for repairing cracked fingers, medicine for indigestion and nausea and so on. Everything that experience has taught me to bring because the chances I might need them were high. Most used, twice in Israel, Iceland and recently in Wyoming and also in many other places were foot-related products to prevent pain, abrasion and to repair existing damage. All of this fits in a flat plastic container and there isn’t a single extra item that isn’t considered necessary. 

I’ve had food poisoning in San Antonio at a book fair, and also in New York City gift show, and in both cases I was alone and severely ill. Too ill to stand up and get help for three days, each time. In Uppsala Sweden, I had a sudden allergic reaction to a feather pillow and had to improvise a medical solution out of odds and ends I had with me. This also happened after dinner at an Italian restaurant in the historic part of Montreal, but Joy was with me that time, and my medical kit was more advanced by then. The cause that time was oregano. 

One time, in 1995 on a mountaintop in Washington State, Joy fell on loose gravel and slashed one knee terribly.  I had my kit with me and did the best I could for her with gauze pads, antibiotic cream, bandages to cover that and then surgical tape to keep the gauze in place and Ibuprophen for her extreme pain. Coming down from the mountaintop, I found a drug store and immediately changed her dressing, after buying a box of much bigger bandages, which worked well that day, and I have included in my med-kit since then.

Recently, in Bavaria, Germany, I discovered that my Hay Fever medications were useless when I encountered what is probably collectively the world’s largest crop of Hops, essential in brewing beer. I couldn’t breath, my eyes were dripping and my skin was covered with rashes. And I don’t drink beer, either.

But when I walked into a neighborhood pharmacy, called an Apotheke there, in the tiny town I was staying in, the druggist asked what I was taking, went to look for something and came back with a white box which he said would be much more effective, no prescription needed. Cost: 10 Euros, They worked, and fast too. I still carry some with me, in case Wisconsin decides to suddenly drop cheese for Hops as a local industry.

I wear the best boots I could find, because the support is vastly better than everyday sneakers for extended hiking. A crushable hat with a wide brim to protect the skin on my face and neck, which have been susceptible to skin cancer. I wore my hat in Israel for a month.

I brought a couple of lanterns with LED bulbs that preserve their batteries a long time. I brought a bag with wide candles in case I broke down in the total darkness of a desert at night, because with the windows closed, I would not only have light to alert a passing patrol, but the candles would heat the interior of the van. It gets very cold at night in the desert.

A box of miscellaneous tools for whatever might come up, a spool of flexible wire which has infinite uses to a resourceful person, a hunting knife with a six-inch blade in a sheath and a web belt if I wanted to walk where having it might make me feel better. What the hell, man. Ya gotta have something to defend yourself. I found it reasonably priced at the Elkhorn Flea market in Wisconsin.

Enough shirts, underwear & socks to last 35 days, my intended time to be on the road, wherever it took me. A rubber raincoat if I was caught outside in a cloudburst. In the outer countryside, the icy rainwater falls from the sky in sheets. On this trip. the radio, when it worked, frequently mentioned flash floods were possible in the ten states I was travelling through.

I slept on an inflated air mattress, 6-feet long, which I bought at a yard sale for $10. Over that, a Coleman sleeping bag, a very good one, found at another flea market for $10. A thin blanket over that, so I had choices depending on the weather.

And, importantly, to stave off the loneliness that motivated the trip in the first place, I brought my tiny hound, Max. He has been the hero of my sometimes fantasy comic strips on Facebook site under: Bob Katzman. Max and I were in tune with each other, and are about the same age, late sixties. I brought his tiny brown bear he loved to play with, and other things for him, too. I named him: “Max, the Noir Dog! Ten Pounds of Terror!” in my fantasy stories featuring him. Max was comfortable with me, and me with him. We played, we walked, we slept.

Besides all these things, I brought six gallons of water in half-gallon old milk containers. Forty days worth of Max’s favorite two types of dog food. Two comfy, cushy circular beds so Max could sit next to me on the passenger side, of if the sun was too hot on his side, his other bed was in the shadows behind his seat, near his always available bowl of cool water. When he stretched out on the passenger seat, overlapping his round bed so his head was laying on the stack of CDs next to him to keep me awake on the long drive, I placed a towel over them for his comfort, because all he wanted was for me to scratch his little head, or rub under his chin, or most of all, rub his belly. Max was the size of a loaf of bread, so this was not much work. But it sure pleased him. He was sitting next to me because he, Max, chose to do that. 

I really wanted another warm woman in my life, but Fate, curiously indifferent, has failed to produce one for me, so Max, yet another old guy now on his own, was very good company and we liked each other.

The plan, loosely, was to slowly drive through Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, Minnesota and back through Wisconsin. I went West mostly on I-80, and back East mostly on I-90.  I would explore small towns, randomly, take photos, look up at the black skies at night to see real stars, cuddle up with Max and try to figure out what to do next. We left Racine, Wisconsin early on Monday July 22, 2019.

But a bad burn on my right hand from when I touched the super hot metal housing of the lawnmower after refilling the gas tank, and then trying to wipe the excess liquid away, was getting worse. As independent and worldly as I want to view myself, by late Wednesday night in Boise, Idaho, 1,800 miles later in three days, now in great pain, I found a 24-hour Walgreens, asked the druggist his opinion, and he recoiled at the burn, saying that it was a second or third degree burn and I should get myself over to a local ER as fast as possible before infection took hold. He told me where, and I took off.

The closest ER was a friendly laidback place, a totally different vibe than in the many urban ones I’ve been in. I’m not sure if grass, or weed, whatever, is legal in Idaho, but the people there were very mellow, very cool.

When the ER’s smiling main doctor strolled in, eventually, as Max slept in the car outside waiting for me, he said that I did indeed take excellent care of my wound, as he called it. I’d kept AD ointment on it every waking minute, leaving it open to the air to heal, and bandaged it at night. He felt it was doing ok, that the skin was spontaneously granulating and would soon heal if the surface were protected and I took the prescription he ordered for me of an antibiotic he prescribed: forty capsules of Cephalexin which would last me ten days. 

I thanked him, was happy my Medicare insurance was accepted—nobody asked me for any money—and went back to the van and to Max, returning to the Walgreens. The ER doctor also told me to take two common painkillers three times a day, three pills each time, but to stop as soon as the pain eased up. I did all that, taking the last big red capsule last night, and the wound is now bright red, but no pain, and maybe no scar. 

But two days later, Friday, after Max quit eating and was displaying strange behavior, I asked strangers where the nearest animal hospital was located, and shot over there. Max was in pain, and I won’t describe his ailment other than to say I wouldn’t want it. In a body as small and thin as his, he must have been in hell.

It happens that I not only carry a five-page copy of my own bizarre surgical life, but also everything about Max, whatever shots he has received, and what medicine I give him for heartworms or ticks. The women at this pretty large animal hospital, and it seemed only women worked there, was surprised that a guy of all people, would be that meticulous about his pet dog, and treated me as warmly as everybody else seemed to do on this long road West. She took Max from my arms and carried him someplace to be checked out, telling me to get comfortable and take a nap.

Two hours later, the top woman there, a surgeon, came out to talk with me after examining Max. She told me she would be frank with me and tell me what my two options were. She said I had a choice.  Max had something wrong with him inside, and she had given him some medicine to see if that helped, and did some physical things to relieve his distress, too. She told me the costs, so far, perhaps deciding by my dusty disheveled appearance that this would matter to me. She told me they were flexible, at this point. I told her that if I actually had any money, I wouldn’t be sleeping in the back of a van. Still, I made her an offer for the current charges and she accepted it.

But then with a sober expression on her kind face, she told me that if nothing improved, Max would need an x-ray and for certain surgery, and that cost could be beyond my reach. Max’s life was on the brink, but he didn’t know it. She said if surgery was not possible for me, then they would be willing to put him to sleep on the spot, or else Max would die in great pain on the road to Montana. Those were my two bad choices.

She told me to take Max with me and see if he improved the next day, giving me a can of dog food she felt he would like. She told me she was doubtful, but sometimes miracles do occur and she wished that for Max, and for me, too.

This is where I tell you about Smokey.

When I was five in 1955, living on the far South Side of Chicago, my neighbor was Agnes O’Malley, along with her thin brother Jim, who were from Ireland. She was about seventy, and their house was an actual shanty, seemingly barely standing. She knew me because I ran errands for her and she would give me a dime. Her grandson Billy lived with her and he was now leaving to join the US Navy. That meant his young dog, Smokey, would be left behind. She asked me if I wanted Smokey for my pet. He was small, a mutt, thick black curly hair all over with a white stripe on his chest. His long pink tongue perpetually hung out of the side of his mouth and I adored him. 

I ran home to ask my mother if I could take him, but she said no. Dogs were dirty and there would be hair all over. Period.

I ran back to Mrs. O’Malley to tell her the terrible news, but she suggested that Smokey could live in a little room in the back of her shack atop some rags, and I could play with him before and after school everyday. I agreed. We became inseparable. Running in her big long yard, rolling around and wrestling. He’d stand on my thin chest and lick my face and I would laugh and loved him.

Soon, I discovered something. One time I offered Smokey an Oreo cookie if he would jump up the two-foot distance between his yard and my higher one. Then he’d climb three concrete steps and be on my kitchen stoop.

We did this every day all summer, until I started school, first grade, and disappeared from his day. 

But then the school bell rang at noon, I’d run home, give him his cookie when he jumped up on the stoop, then make my own lunch and run back to school.  It only took Smokey a few days to associate the school’s loud bell and the cookie he’d receive if he climbed up on the stoop and waited for me. Other adults noticed this routine and told me how smart my dog was. Yes, he was. My dog Smokey was smart.

Years went by, I grew older and Smokey gradually walked farther down in his yard where the jump up to my home’s property was shorter, so that he could get his cookie. By the time I was fourteen, he walked all the way around his property to where it met ours at a level spot, and then slowly walk up my sidewalk to the steps and stoop. But every single day, even weekends, Smokey received his cookie because the bell was set to a timer and it rang loudly on weekends, too. After nearly ten years, Smokey was programmed to get his cookie, too. We didn’t play so much anymore, I was getting busier, and Smokey seemed too frail to wrestle with anymore.

While all this was happening, since 1955 I’d been beaten just about every day by my mentally ill mother, with her fists, rubber hoses, belt buckles, leather straps and whatever was handy to her. No one knew anything about this. My father had moved out long ago. I was terrified by this horrible life, tried running away twice, was caught by the police and brought back both times. But the third time, two weeks before graduating grammar school, I was hellbent on escaping and I did in the middle of the night, moving to Hyde Park, where I moved in with my father and later would go to high school.

I stayed away for months, but my parents agreed I could see my mother—should see her—at Thanksgiving time, in November, five months after I left that cursed house. I’d never been back in all that time. 

On Thanksgiving Day morning when my father dropped me off at my mother’s house, I suddenly remembered my old dog Smokey who I had to leave behind. I ran into Mrs. O’Malley’s yard to her rickety shanty to see my dog. But there was no Mrs. O’Malley. Jim saw me, stood up from his old chair, much taller than I was, so sickly and thin, maybe eighty years old by then. 

When he saw me, he began to speak, and his words remain in my mind, fifty-five years later:

“Oh, Bobby, my sister Agnes died a while ago and now I live here alone. I am so lonely. You know your dog, Smokey? Well, every day after you left, whenever that lunchtime school bell rang, he’d drag his worn old body from this house all the way around to the sidewalk up to your kitchen stoop, where he’d kept climbing up those steps. His legs would shake. Then he’d sit there looking at the door, waiting for his cookie.

“When the second bell rang letting the kids back in school after lunch, he’d drop his head, slowly climb down those three steps, walk all the way around back to his little place where he slept. He didn’t eat very much. After about a month of lunchtime school bells and him going back up to your stoop for the cookie that never came, he just gave up. 

“That old dog sure missed you. He seemed so sad. About a month ago in October I hadn’t seen him for a couple of days, so I went back to check on him, and Bobby, Smokey was dead.  I think he died of a broken heart.”

I was standing in front of him frozen as a statue as he told me the story, about how my neglect killed my old dog. 

I fell back on a chair of some sort that seemed to swallow me up, and the tears came, and kept coming. I was a terrible selfish person and because of me, Smokey had died. After all, I was fourteen. How could I let this happen? I was numb with grief and guilt.

I stood up, shook Jim’s hand and left the shanty. It didn’t occur to me to ask where Smokey was buried. 

I think that would have been something I wouldn’t want to know, thinking about that time now, in 2019.

I have never forgiven myself for Smokey’s death. My father tried to convince me that there was nothing I could have done, that I lived miles away, went to a new school…but nothing could cure the guilt and it has remained within me, even now when I’m 69. I have been in Smokey’s Debt, as I came to call it, all of my life.

So, the next day, when I took Max back to the hospital and he was worse, not better, the doctor was out, but her nurse was there, Annabelle, a dark-haired nice woman whom I’d met before. She knew about Max. There were only employees there at that moment, no other customers with their sick pets. There was a somber air in the room, because now I had to make one of my two choices, and the all women working there seemed to know about it. 

So, put Max asleep now, Annabelle softy asked me, or take him with me and let him die in Montana, in pain. These were my choices?

“No,” I responded to Annabelle, holding Max tightly to my chest, “There is a third choice. I choose life. Max must live.”

This was unexpected and some of the women moved closer. They seemed mystified by this strange response from me. But I had thought about this all night.

“Annabelle, everywhere I go in Boise, people smile at Max. He has something beautiful in him that strangers respond to. Just because I can’t pay for his surgery is no reason for his life to end. So, here’s what I want you to do…”

And now there were too many tears to count, all of theirs and the crazy old man’s with his doomed dog.

“You all know lots of people, people with money, people with children who would love to have a dog like Max. I bet you could call someone and tell them if they pay for Max’s surgery, they can adopt him, too. That’s my choice. Then Max could live, but with somebody else.”

I couldn’t speak anymore, and then a strange…ok…a stranger thing happened.

Annabelle, a substantial young woman suddenly put her arms around me, me and Max who was crushed between us. She held onto me tightly, until I responded and gently put my arms around her, too. I didn’t know what to do, what was happening. 

Annabelle told me to go to this little room with soft couches where people normally say goodbye to their pets who are about to be put to sleep, and I should spend some time with Max, talking to him. She looked into my sad brown eyes, and I into her pretty blue eyes, and she told me she would try, really try to find someone.

She gave me some paper to write down all about Max, what he liked, what his toys were, his food, how he played, and then I drew a little sketch of how when Max wanted to go outside to pee and I was sitting in my kitchen, he would stand up and put his paws on my thigh, silently telling me he wanted to go out. I wrote how Max loved to swing on swings and most of all, Max loved to have his belly rubbed. 

Max was all black with thick curly hair and a white streak down his chest, almost a twin for someone else from long ago.

About two hours later, Annabelle came into the little room, with a big smile on her pretty face, telling me she found someone, someone with children, who was willing to pay for the surgery in exchange for keeping the dog. Max would live. 

Live, yes, but with someone else.

I embraced Annabelle myself this time, without Max between us. He was sitting on the couch, watching all of this unfold. Then I went out and brought back in Max’s two round beds, and all of his forty days of food.  Annabelle was holding Max to her soft chest while I did this. She didn’t say anything. Then I looked around the interior of the van to see if I missed anything. I did. I saw the tiny brown bear, the toy Max loved and that we played fetch with. It was a stab in my heat, but I grabbed it, because it was his, not mine, not anymore.

I went up to both of them, held out the bear to Max, who immediately grabbed it with his tiny teeth and shook it. Annabelle handed me a release form to sign giving up my ownership of him. I had already filled a page with everything Max’s new owner should know about him, but this was the official part. It was hard to do, but I signed it.

I kissed Max goodbye and he licked my nose twice with his tiny pink tongue, like he always did. To me, the essence of friendship–and Max was my friend–is being there when you’re needed. Even if Max couldn’t comprehend it, I gave him the only thing I could give him: his life and a better chance with a new family.

I hugged him for a last time, knowing he had no idea I was to be gone forever.  

Then I walked out and drove away, north toward Montana.

So, three bad choices, all meant my losing Max, but one of them meant saving his life. 

But something within me was different, lighter, like being released from something very heavy and very old.

I decided that I had finally paid my debt to Smokey, dead all these years, by making sure a dog who was almost his twin would live on instead of dying, like Smokey did, likely feeling alone and forgotten after I left my home in 1964.

Now there was no dog across the way for me to scratch for the next thousands of miles. I decided to cancel my “adventure” and just go home.

But I was having a problem driving, because it seemed like it was raining, except only inside of my van, and I had a lot of trouble seeing the road.

Ahhh, Jesus Christ and goddamnit!

Fuck Fate and what it’s doing to me!!

Goodbye, Max.

And I drove north to Montana, alone.

8 Comments »

Comment by Brad Dechter

August 5, 2019 @ 3:56 pm

Being an animal lover myself, I cried.
Hugs.

Comment by Arleen Winkler

August 5, 2019 @ 4:35 pm

A beautiful story and I can’t wait to read more.

Comment by Donald Larson

August 5, 2019 @ 4:40 pm

Hi Bob,

You did the right thing for Max and for whoever took him. Smokey would understand, I’m sure.

Great story. Send it to AAA for syndication.

Don

Comment by Wendy Blake

August 5, 2019 @ 5:47 pm

Heartbreaking, and yet, something healing about coming full circle.

Comment by Pat Jacobs

August 5, 2019 @ 5:50 pm

Bob: a beautiful story and beautifully told. I’m probably not the only reader who can relate to your past with Smokey. Very emotional.

Comment by Beverly Baker

August 7, 2019 @ 9:41 am

Bob, what a gifted writer you are. Great timing and pacing, lovely descriptions, heartwarmin, gripping, gutwrenching…..so very very human.Thank you so much. And there is another buddy out there waiting for you. Please dont make him wait too long.

Comment by Paul Eisenbacher

August 8, 2019 @ 1:43 pm

Bob
What a beautiful love story. Both love stories. One of your best I have read. All have been so informative about the life of Bob Katzman but this is so well written because of its genuine humanity. There was rain falling on my face as well. Stay well and happy and as alwags true to your zelf. Paul

Comment by David Griesemer

August 12, 2019 @ 1:06 pm

Smokey’s story is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to read. Collateral damage from Bob’s childhood nightmare.
I can’t bear these images for very long.
Israel was right. There’s nothing Bob could have done. The sorrow inescapable.
This time, with Max, again there is sorrow. But for Max, there is mercy. He will go on to love and be loved.
And for Bob, there is a counter-weight to his guilt. Smokey died for something.

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