Depending on the weather, it can be challenging for my two-wheel drive pickup to pull out of my father-in-law's steep driveway. In fact, even when the weather's fine, it can be a challenge. Because of the bushes that line the entrance and block the view, you can't get a good running start without risking a fiery collision with one of the cars or trucks that whiz down the narrow country road doing twice the legal limit. But chugging slowly up the 40-degree grade guarantees the truck's wheels will do nothing but spin and kick up rocks. If there is any snow or ice, I park on the grassy shoulder just past the house, instead. The shoulder presents its own problems, however, especially when the ground is soft and wet, the way it was on Christmas day. More than once, I've nearly slid over the shoulder's edge into the gully.
In other words, once you enter my father-in-law's world, there's no easy escape.
Idling at the top of the drive, I try to decide where to park.
"Fuck it," Deborah says. "Just pull in the driveway. Let's get this over with."
Deborah hasn't looked forward to going home for the holidays since . . . Well. . . Since ever. She didn't have a happy childhood and left home as soon as possible. Once she was out of the house, her mother threw away everything that had ever belonged to her. Ironically, Deborah's old room is now a closet filled with things once belonging to her mother that her father can't bring himself to discard. There's nothing about the house that holds any appeal to Deborah and the only real reason we make the pilgrimage is out of guilt and pity for the old man.
Deborah's mother died of cancer a few years ago, and her father, Elmer, lives alone now with one remaining dog. They had several Shih Tzus over the years. When Deborah was growing up, they had six or seven at one time. "It was hell," she says. "They kept them all downstairs in the basement. If you got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, one would start barking, and then the whole mess of them would go apeshit. Then my parents would wake up and start yelling at me, 'Why are you up. What are you doing?'" She gets stressed even talking about it. In fact, she gets stressed when she tells any story from her childhood. As a result, there's a lot I don't know. "My parents spent a fortune on those dogs," she tells me. "More than they ever spent on their kids, that's for sure."
The one remaining dog is still a barker, and it yaps as we approach the front door.
"Oh hi, hi," Elmer says nervously as he opens the door and lets us in. "Don't let the dog get out, watch the dog. Don't let the dog get out." Nearly every word or sentence out of his mouth gets repeated at least twice.
There's little chance of the dog escaping. Even if it managed to get past the front door, there's no chance of it running away. It has a tumor on its spine and is paralyzed from the waist down. As a result, the dog can't control its bladder and, as we step inside the house, it pisses all over the floor. He drags his body through the piss as he tries to follow us around. "Oh no. He does this all the time. This is how I spend my day. All day long I do this. All day, all day."
Her father gives us each a quick hug before running into the kitchen to get a paper towel to wipe the floor.
Deborah and I look at each other and mouth, "What the fuck?" The last time we came to visit, the dog was still walking. Not without a little trouble, but ambulatory nonetheless. We thought maybe he had arthritis.
"I'm glad you guys came, I'm glad you came," Elmer says, kneeling down, mopping up the pee.
"You look good, Dad," Deborah tells him.
"Thank you, thank you."
"It doesn't hurt to be on your knee?"
"Oh no. No. Not really. Well... .a little bit, a little bit."
Elmer injured his knee over the summer while mowing the grass. It was his second grass-mowing accident of the year. After the first one, Deborah found a young kid to do the mowing and had arranged to pay for his services, but Elmer fired the kid after the first day because he didn't think he was doing a good enough job. He's a perfectionist if not full on OCD. Deborah was furious when she found out. "If you have another accident, I'm not ever going to talk to you again!" she told him. But here we are.
Elmer stands up, and we make typical post-travel small talk -- what time we left, what the traffic was like, how the weather was, and so on.
"I was just about to take the dog out," Elmer interrupts to say. "Let me take him out. It's time for me to take him out. I usually take him right about now. What time is it?" He looks at his watch. "Four o'clock, that's about right. I usually take him out at four o'clock. Maybe Four fifteen. Four ten maybe, if I forget, but four o'clock is when I take him. He can't move his bowels anymore. I have to massage him like this," he said, motioning as if he was kneading bread.
"I don't want to hear it, Dad."
"Well, that's what I do. That's what I do."
He puts his coat on and leashes the dog. Although I'm curious, I can't bring myself to watch what it means to "walk" the poor, wretched dog, or what it takes to quite literally massage the shit out of it.
As soon as Elmer is out of the house, Deborah starts to scheme. "We should take the dog to be put to sleep right now," she says. "Poor thing is suffering, don't you think?"
"I don't know. I mean, he doesn't seem to be in pain or anything like that. It is disturbing, but I don't want to say that he needs to be put to sleep just because he makes me uncomfortable. I don't know, you're probably right. But, take him where? It's Christmas day."
"I know. I have to think about it."
Aside from a few new piss stains on the wood floor, the only thing different about the living room -- probably the only thing new in the last thirty years -- is that the television is now there, instead of the basement. Because of Elmer's bum knee, he can't get up and down the stairs the way he used to. Neither, of course, can the dog.
"Maybe we can watch TV later," I say. "that'll be something to do."
"Not unless you want to watch evangelical shows."
Deborah's dad returns and cleans the dog's ass with a vinegar-soaked paper towel. Although the term "full of piss and vinegar" is defined as "rowdy, boisterous, full of youthful energy," there was none of that here. Just an old man and an old dog in an old house.
"Where's the chair that Jamie and I bought you last year for Christmas," Deborah asks. We bought him a relatively expensive reclining chair last year to replace the busted up one he used to sit in when watching his religious shows or maybe Lawrence Welk.
"It's downstairs," Elmer tells us.
"Do you want us to bring it up for you?"
"Well, I don't know I don't know. I use this one now."
An upholstered chair that's been in the living room for as long as they've owned the house -- 50 years or so -- now sits in front of the TV. It's actually in pretty good shape, considering its age, but even when it was new, it probably wasn't very comfortable to sit in for very long.
Elmer can be impossible to read, and we don't know if he wants the new chair or not. Does he feel bad asking us to bring it upstairs, or is the idea of putting it in the living room -- again, a room that hasn't changed in decades -- too much of an upset?
"If you don't want it," Deborah tells him, "we'll take it for ourselves."
Deborah and I don't have room for a full-size reclining chair in our apartment, but the thought of spending all that money on a new chair for her father, only to have it rot in the musty basement, irritated her.
"Oh no no no no...I want it, I want it . . ." he assures us. "Unless you want it. That's up to you."
"You said you liked it."
"I do. I do. I want it."
"Okay then, we'll bring it upstairs for you."
"That's up to you, that's up to you."
Moving it isn't easy. We have to angle it out the basement door, then bring it around the house and in through the front door.
"Don't let the dog get out."
We place the chair in front of the TV and Elmer tries it out. "This is good, this is good. This will work. Good, good."
He grabs the dog by the collar and slides it closer to him, scratching it behind the ears and playing with its skin tags. "He has these growths, see?"
"I don't want to look," Deborah tells him.
He thinks they look like strawberries, which fuels a theory. "I think he got them from eating strawberries. That's what happened to me. I ate strawberries once, and my nose got all red and bumpy like a strawberry."
"Where'd the strawberry come from?" I ask. "Willy Wonka?"
Elmer rarely hears anything I say which is probably just as well since he doesn't understand sarcasm. I don't think I've ever heard him crack a joke since I've known him. Ever. That's not to say he isn't funny.
"Why are you feeding the dog strawberries?" Deborah wants to know.
"I don't, I don't. Just that one time, when your mother was alive. I gave him some strawberries, and I think that might be what's making these growths."
"No, dad. No."
"I don't know. I don't know."
Deborah shakes her head and rolls her eyes. "Okay, I have to start cooking. Jamie, can you help me?"
I follow Deborah into the kitchen, and we begin to organize utensils and ingredients for Christmas dinner.
"I don't know if I'm going to be able to last four days," Deborah mutters.
We always book a motel to sleep in, and this trip is no exception, but even spending just a few hours per day over four days is still a lot to ask of her. "I just want to sit in our motel room and watch Spongebob Squarepants all day."
"Try not to think about it, or you'll get overwhelmed," I tell her. "One day at a time."
Meanwhile, inside, I'm thinking the exact same thing.