“The Year of the Dog” by Andrew Stancek
The year I was seven, I moved in with my parents and they killed my dog.
My grandparents had been coddling me in their villa on the outskirts of Bratislava since I was born but I longed for something else. I wanted a father who would carry me on his shoulders, pretending to be a wild bronco. I wanted a mother who would ruffle my hair and hand me a big slab of bublanina, a cherry sponge-cake. But most of all I wanted the greatest possession of every kid in the world: a dog.
Grandmother put her foot down: “I have quite enough of other people’s cast-offs without having to put up with a mangy cur.” Grandfather shrugged. He had fights with her every day but knew he could not win that one. I did not like being called a cast-off though nobody ever said my parents would come back for me. Grandmother made desserts every day, and let me lick the remnants of milk chocolate or whipped cream from the spoon. She let me play with my minicars under the kitchen table while she cooked. She bandaged my scraped knees and wiped my tears. But when she seemed worn down by my incessant questioning about Mami and Oci, I asked about getting a dog, even a small one. She sighed and shook her head saying, “I have too much to deal with as it is.” She handed me a muffin, still hot out of the oven and sent me to play in the garden.
Grandfather cleared his throat after our nightly checkers game and I knew that he had an announcement. He’d hugged me hard when he returned from work; his play had been inattentive. “Slavko, you know how much Grandmother and I love you.” I nodded. “We will always love you, always.” His eyes were tearing up. He petted the top of my head. “We would like everything to continue the way it has been but your father is back. He was cleared and they released him. He and your mother have an apartment now in the center of town and…they are taking you to live with them.” He could no longer disguise the tears dropping on the checker board. “You will come to visit every weekend, they promised me that. We will still be together.”
I hugged him. My chest was also tightening, eyes were welling up. But then, a grin was on my face. “Maybe we’ll get a dog for the apartment? Maybe it needs to be guarded?” He blew his nose, chuckled at my persistence. Suddenly I did not think the prospect so bad.
The apartment we moved into was on the third floor of a decrepit building in the center of Bratislava. The streets were narrow and winding, most of the streetlights broken by gangs. Tattered Soviet and Czechoslovak flags fluttered from flagpoles; the everpresent banners proclaiming “With the Soviet Union Forever” were covered with graffiti. Scraps of ripped newspapers were blown around along with greasy cardboard cones and pieces of chestnut shell. The dark passageways reeked of urine; wet sand and cement dust crunched underfoot. After dark no one ventured out. People spoke in whispers of robberies, rapes and beatings of pedestrians. Policemen were seen in the daylight, directing traffic, but never at night. Grim soldiers marched in formation throughout the squares. I was frightened, not only at night, but in the daytime as well, unless I was walking with protective adults. Yet I was also happier than I had ever been. I had, surprisingly, made friends among the hundreds of kids crammed into the other apartments, in buildings just like ours. I had an Oci and a Mami. All I needed now was a dog.
My mother was not normal like my friend Jana’s. Mami loathed cooking. She would sooner enter a plane than a kitchen; to her bublanina was a foreign term. All our cooking was done by hired “aunts”. Father never carried me on his shoulders; he only ever got home after I was asleep. But on several weekends he took me into the woods, where we crept through the brush and gathered mushrooms. He carved a slingshot out of a tree branch and supervised my practice shooting. He showed me his old army gun and promised that one day he would teach me how to use it. He did not roll his eyes or laugh at me when I told him I needed a dog. He nodded.
“Of course you do,” he said.
Every night I regaled Mami with the adventures of neighborhood dogs. She took to greeting me with “Not another dog story. Not today.” I did not listen. What else was I going to tell her about, the heroic exploits of Slovak partisans in the war, that I learned about in school? “Maybe a gerbil, one day,” she finally conceded. A gerbil was a mouse as far as I was concerned. Mice were food for real pets. A big German Shepherd, that was a pet. A husky maybe. A lab. Or, a mixture of all the breeds. Being a pet owner was about a collar, a pink tongue to lick your face, a tail to wag when you walked by. I kept on with my stories.
The evening arrived when my father, for the first time in living memory, appeared before supper, whistling one of his endless Slovak folk tunes. My mother was in a foul mood. Her work had not gone well. State Radio refused to air the interview she had been refining for two weeks. “Glorifying the first violin of the State Orchestra was absolutely out of the question,” the Party commander decreed. “No single musician, even one in the State Orchestra, can be held above the others. Not in the interests of the State.” My mother had already raged at me for not getting perfect on my Slovak dictation, even before my Oci arrived, and was set to storm at him simply for being there. “What the hell do you have to whistle about, Milos?” she snapped. “There won’t be enough food for supper. You didn’t say you’d be home.” Then she noticed the basket, covered with his coat. Presents always warmed her heart. She was beginning to smile when he whipped off the coat.
It was everything I had dreamed of. Spots, wagging tail, and he licked me, licked my face. “Whroof, whroof,” the puppy yelped. Mami leaned back to hang onto the sink. “What in Christ’s name have you done now?”
“Now Blanka, before you make up your mind, let’s just talk about it.” I was already at the basket, having my face. licked Its short tail was wagging. One ear was cocked, its eyes full of hope.
“Oooh, look at those spots. Can I keep him, Mami? I can, can’t I? I can, right? Where did you get him, Oci? Can I name him? Can he be mine? Can I go show him to the guys? Isn’t he perfect, Mami? It’s exactly what I wanted.” My mother glowered.
“Could you have done anything stupider, Milos?”
“Now look at the boy, Blanka; look at him. It won’t be any trouble, you’ll see.”
“Yeah, for you, maybe. For you it will be no trouble at all. You breeze in, drop it off. Once in a blue moon you might deign to honor us with your presence. Who is going to take care of it, feed it, clean up after it?” As if on cue a whizz. My father laughed. The dog looked at him and woofed. He smelled his pee, shook his head. I cracked up laughing.
“Oh Oci, he peed, he peed in the basket; what do we do?” My mother glared at me and slammed the door.
Like nearly everyone in the big city, we had a little plot of land out in the country, about an hour’s trip by streetcar, where we grew tulips, daffodils and narcissi, and harvested pears and walnuts. Whenever we could, we slept in the two-room garden shack with its three decrepit beds and Mami looked after her beloved flowers. The dog, whom I named Napoleon, would be banished there. On the way, my father told me the story of how his friend Anton had brought the pup to work and plopped it onto Oci’s desk. “You will love it, and so will your boy. You know you both want one.” They shared two shots of slivovica, then one more for the road, and the deal was sealed. My father borrowed a discarded doghouse that I decorated with blue, red and white crepe and hand in hand the two of us dropped off my dream. “I didn’t want the damn thing in the first place,” my mother decreed. “For now, until we decide what to do with it… You arrange the feeding. You look after it. You set up the dog run on the far end of the garden. I won’t have it in the house.”
Saturday with Napoleon was blissful. We crisscrossed the garden on the run. I filled his bowl with water and when no one was looking we slurped out of it together. He grabbed my sleeve in his clenched teeth and would not let go but the rip was only a small one and I knew my mother would not notice. When he started digging holes with his front paws, I did it, too. His hole was much better, though. My father, trimming the lilacs, kept looking over, laughing. Napoleon was the best dog ever. “Isn’t he real smart, Mami, did you see how smart he is? I will teach him to fetch, I will. He is really good at digging holes, isn’t he?” My mother, on the verge of tears, could not respond. The holes we’d made had dug up bulbs, imported through connected acquaintances directly from Holland. “Yeah, real smart, real great dog,” she finally sobbed. “Let’s just go.” Leaving, I hugged my best friend and whispered into his floppy ear that I would come see him very soon.
On Sunday my aunt Zuzka was celebrating a birthday at my grandparents’ house so Mother said we could not go to the Koliba garden. My father had a good excuse. “We have a dog and someone has to go down to feed and walk him. That someone is me.” More than anything I wanted to go with him, to be with Napoleon. But missing a family celebration was not an option. “We have so few family occasions together anymore,” my grandfather had sighed more than once. “I am not getting any younger.” We had to be there. It also meant wonderful food: wienerschnitzel, potato salad, my grandma’s special Sachertorte. I was promised I would see Napoleon again next weekend. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back for supper,” my father assured us, winking at me. “I’ll just feed him, give him a good run, and be back.”
Mami and I travelled to my grandparents’ place, ate cake, and Mami, as always, had a huge fight with her mother. My grandfather, normally the most peaceful of men, actually raised his voice. “Just for once, can you not let it be?” he yelled. “Can we not have one family celebration in peace?” My grandmother waddled off into the kitchen in tears, slamming dishes, banging forks against the heavy pot in the soapy dishwater. My mother sat next to my stretched-out grandfather, brought out the Opoldekl ointment and massaged his forehead. “Has it been bad recently?” I heard her whispering. He sighed. We left soon after and came home to wait for my father.
It was a long wait. Much past our dinner time Mother finally went ahead and warmed up the meal prepared by one of the “aunts”. The smell of burnt cabbage wafted into the room where I was building a castle. In the kitchen Mami threw something against the wall. “Hnusna mrcha,” I heard her yell.
“No, you cannot stay up for him,” she said when I came in to check up on her.
“But, Mami, he has to tell me about Napoleon. He promised. You promised. Wasn’t he supposed to be back already? Are you sure nothing happened to him?”
“Stop your asking. He probably ran into some friends.” Even at seven I knew that most of my father’s friends wore skirts. “The two of us will eat without him and then you have to go to bed,” she decreed. “You have school tomorrow. God only knows when he’ll be back. I will tell him to kiss you good-night when he gets in.” I stood staring out the window, trembling, hearing the Blue Church bell outside strike seven.
We were finally sitting down to eat without him when we heard a heavy thump against the front door, followed by a creak. My father swayed against the frame, sobbing. Stinking of liquor he looked down, hit the door with his palm, shuddered.
“Dead,” he sobbed. He leaned against the door, slid down, fell over.
“Oci, Oci, what happened?” I cried.
He coughed, hiccupped, coughed again. His eyes shifted from me to my mother and back, saw no easy mercy. “I bought him a treat at the butcher’s. Enough of this prepackaged food, I figured. He is a big dog; he needs real food, real nutrition. So I went and bought a hunk of meat on a bone, good meat for a big dog. He was all excited to see me, jumping up and down. I threw him the treat. Still in midair he caught it. Then he gagged, gagged….I could not help him. I tried, I really did. I got my hand into his throat, pulled. He wheezed, wheezed, I could not do it. He just shook. It was too far down.” I approached my father, sprawled on the floor, shirt sleeve torn. “You didn’t mean to, Oci. We loved Napoleon, you and I.” He reeked of distillery, death, drunken appeal for forgiveness. He reached up to put his arm around me. I leaned back. My dog was dead. His arm fell down. “I am sorry, Slavko, I am so sorry.”
My mother snorted. “Supper is ruined, too. Get yourselves cleaned up, both of you. We’ll eat together for once, even if it’s burnt.”
Less than six months later my father was gone, too, moving out to the Koliba shack. Throughout my visits in subsequent years, the dog house in the far corner of the overgrown garden remained vacant.