By Victoria Patterson
My brother and I grew up in a family prone to tragic holidays, but now with families of our own and growing kids, we’re trying our best to change the course. “No drama,” my brother said, in our pre-Christmas Day strategy phone conversation. “No more drama in our lives,” I agreed, quoting Mary J. Blige.
Traffic wasn’t as bad as usual on Christmas Day morning, though it still took us more than two hours to get from South Pasadena to my mom’s house in Pauma Valley: me, my husband Chris, our sons Cole, who was fourteen, and Ry, twelve, in the minivan, and also our beloved lemon-colored Bassett hound, Lucky Gus.
All during the drive, I prayed, gave myself pep talks, practiced breathing, and checked my pulse.
We loved our dog like crazy. Arthritic at eleven-years-old, Lucky loved us more than we thought possible, and he’d grown up with Cole and Ry.
The boys had been one and three years old when we’d found a puppy wandering the streets. When we’d returned Lucky to the address on his tags, the woman who owned him seemed to be ambivalent about having him back.
“If you don’t want your dog,” I said, emboldened, “we’ll take him.” She was in the midst of a divorce, had three children in diapers, and so she took our name and number. A month later she called, saying, “Do you still want him?”
She’d always wanted a Bassett, she explained, since she’d grown up with one. But Lucky was too much: he chewed everything, ran away every day, and her other dog hated him.
“I saw how you and your boys looked at him, and the way that he looked at you,” she said. “He belongs with you.”
Lucky’s pedigree papers, which she’d also given me, showed that he’d been born to a breeder in North Carolina, and that his ancestors had names like Sir Napoleon Woodrow and Lady Natalie Tootee.
Lucky slept with my boys, rotating beds each night to be equal. They called him their brother. He was their brother.
When we arrived at my mom’s on Christmas Day, I watched Lucky jump out of our minivan and run—his happy trot—not to the tree or to the grass or to anywhere else, but straight to me, and I got my usual jolt of pure joy.
My mom’s husband Robert stood and hovered by a large trashcan while we opened our gifts, picking up the wrapping paper and throwing it away. Lot of gag-gifts: Glow in the dark toilet paper, Superman socks. My mom gave me a box of Chanel No. 5 perfume samples she got free with her purchases at Saks.
Robert made a big production of one final gift to Chris, my brother, and me. “Genuine leather Armani jackets,” he said, bringing them out from the garage on hangers. “So exclusive,” he claimed, “they aren’t on the market yet and won’t be for over a year. These jackets are worth a lot of money.”
We thanked him, as I fought my suspicions, thinking, “Really?”
The dogs got presents. My brother’s dog Sugar—an Australian shepherd found on the meridian of a busy freeway—ran around the house in a San Diego Chargers jersey, a little snug, her hair puffing out. Lucky got a squeak bone toy reading “Fifty Shades of Fur.” He sat under the coffee table, mildly interested in the toy, holding it in his mouth, his tail thumping softly.
Everyone went outside for football before our Christmas dinner—our traditional game. The boys love to play, especially Craig, my nephew, who was born with Spina bifida and is wheelchair bound.
I looked around. There was Sugar but no Lucky.
“Where’s Lucky?” I asked.
I followed my mom to her small wading pool in the patio area, and she said, “Why’s the pool cover collapsed?” It had folded up at the center, and I said, “Don’t worry, I’ll fix it.”
I went to pull the cover straight and I saw him floating—slanted upward—his back legs like he was running.
I looked away and screamed and didn’t look again. But I kept seeing and reliving that instant, especially at night when I tried to sleep, every day for weeks.
Someone pulled Lucky out of the water and attempts were made at reviving him. I watched as my son Ry threw up his fists to curse the sky, asking, “Why? Why, God, why?” I left him alone, sensing that he wasn’t ready to be comforted.
We wrapped Lucky in a Hefty garbage bag and loaded him into the minivan. We hugged and said our goodbyes, ready to start for home, but a few blocks away, Ry remembered where he’d forgotten his cell phone by a tree, when he’d taken it out to play football, so we went back. Standing by the car as Ry collected his phone, Robert brought up the Armani jackets again. “Don’t sell them on EBay,” he said. “They’re worth over $1,300 each, very exclusive. That’s why I bought them for you.”
Back in the minivan, Ry said, “What’s with Robert? Why’d he talk about money and those jackets?” and I said that I had no idea. “Actually,” I added, “it’s because he’s an asshole.”
It didn’t take long for us to notice an awful smell in the minivan.
“Is that from Lucky?” I whispered to Chris.
“No,” he said. “I think it’s those jackets.”
A long drive, traffic, lots of weeping, and intermittent discussions about Lucky, and what we needed to do with his body, and more weeping.
The best dog ever, we all agreed. No dog like him, ever, ever, ever.
“He loved everybody,” Ry said.
Chris called him the Ambassador of Love.
I phoned the emergency vet hospital near our home, and we brought Lucky. A woman buzzed us inside. Short dark hair, piercings all up one ear, she was somber and kind as she greeted us, and then she helped us put Lucky in an examination room. She’d already called the cremation place, she explained. He’d be picked up the following day.
Chris uncovered Lucky so that we could see his neck and part of his head. He still looked so beautiful, except for his tongue, which hung from his mouth, a pink-gray color.
The woman let the boys make hot chocolate in the waiting area before we left, but they just poured it out when we got to our car.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. Though we’d stashed them in the laundry room, the whole house had begun to smell of the jackets, a rancid gasoline stink. I got up and went to Google the tag name—Emporio Collezione—and saw proof of what I suspected: Fakes, selling on EBay for around forty bucks. All over the Internet, warnings and tales of Italian men scamming people in Walmart and Costco parking lots, pretending to be on their way back to Italy with extra inventory, this one great opportunity! This once in a lifetime chance to own Armani!
Infuriated, I called my brother the next morning to tell him. “Don’t tell Mom,” he said. “They’re not that bad, and the smell will fade. It’s Christmas—isn’t it the thought that counts?”
“But why’d he have to bring it up in the garage in front of Ry? We had our dead dog in the car! What kind of a person says something like that in front of a kid who has just lost his dog?”
“He’s weird,” my brother affirmed, for about the thousandth time.
I didn’t tell my mom, and I gave my jacket away. I began to troll the humane society and rescue sites, staring at the puppies and dogs.
We all missed Lucky.
Sometime late in January, I found a black Pug from the humane society and adopted her. In order to function in the world, I realized, I needed a dog. The first thing Rosita did when I brought her home was pee on the carpet. She had ear infections, eye infections, and mange.
Now she’s healthy and happy and peeing outdoors, a very loving dog.
A good dog, my boys say. No Lucky Gus, that’s impossible, but a really good dog.
Then on toward spring, my mom came home from playing a tennis match to find Robert’s things packed and gone, a note on the dining room table. He’d left her for another woman, the friend she’d been paying to help around the house.
A few months later, he begged my mom to take him back, which she did.
Not more than three months passed before Robert packed up and was gone again. So after fifteen years of marriage, my mom is divorcing him.
When I finally told her about Robert’s fake Armani jackets, she wasn’t surprised.
Someone in the Bank of America parking lot, she told me, bumped into Robert’s car. It was some Italian guy and rather than paying the claim through his insurance, the man talked Robert into taking those jackets, though none was big enough to fit him. My mom refused to wear the one that he tried to pawn off on her and eventually gave to me, probably because of the smell.
There’s something fitting about Lucky leaving us on Christmas Day, we’ve decided, gone off to walk the Star Path. He’d been born, after all, at the same time that my sons’ great-grandfather passed away, and we’d always joked that our dog was like a reincarnated undemonstrative, suffering, and difficult Grandpa brought back as Pure Love.
We can turn the narrative, I’ve learned, we can bend the tradition of the tragic holiday to hope. So this coming Christmas and each one after, no matter where they happen to be or who they’re with—and I like to imagine adventures and travels and truly intimate friends—my sons have vowed to toast Lucky Gus, Ambassador of Love.