This is a story about a dog. But not just any dog. This dog was small, gray and raggedy. His name was Jock. He smelled like poop, and often had a bit of it clinging to his hindquarters. He hated other dogs and fought with them fiercely whenever he had the opportunity. He didn't much like people, either. Except for me. Me, he loved. And I loved him back.
"Julie, I think you like that dog more than you like me," my older sister Jane once said to me. I thought for a minute, then said, "No, Jane, I like you both the same." I thought I was being diplomatic.
The funny thing was, nobody else in my family really liked Jock. "Oh my God, that dog stinks!" my haughty oldest sister Genna said, when we first got him. He rolled on his back to get his tummy rubbed, and my sister Jane watched in disgust. "Turn him over, please! He's shameless!" I sat on the floor and rubbed his tummy. "Can he do any tricks?" my brother, Champ, asked. He picked up a tennis ball and threw it down the long hallway to the kitchen. "Fetch, boy!" Jock stayed where he was, on his back with his legs spread and his private parts on display. "Useless dog," Champie said, and went to join his friends out in the neighborhood. Everyone else drifted away, too—leaving Jock all to me.
And that's the way it stayed. Me and Jock. Jock and me. I took him for walks, fed him his canned Ken-L-Ration, snuck him food from the dinner table, dressed him up in doll clothes, took him for rides in my baby buggy and cuddled with him at night in my bed. In return, he gave me his loyalty.
When my mother came in my room to wake me in the morning, Jock growled viciously at her. If she had to shake me awake, she had to do it quickly, before Jock could pounce and attack. "It's not his fault," I explained, time and time again. "He's my protector. You should be glad he keeps me safe at night." My mother soon learned to wake me from the doorway.
I've often wondered why she put up with Jock. He peed all over our house, ruining sofas and oriental carpets. He growled at people who came near me. He fought with other dogs. If you opened the front door of the house too wide, he shot through like a bullet and had to be chased all over my suburban neighborhood. "Jocko! Here, boy, boy!" I'd cry, panic rising in my throat as I ran down the street after him. Jock would stop, wag his tail, and take off again as soon as I got near. Running away was one of his favorite games.
We moved from my first home in New York to Chicago when I turned 12, the summer of 1969. "Spinning Wheel" played on the radio as most of my family squeezed into the station wagon for the long drive to the Midwest. Jock got to fly in an airplane with my oldest sister Genna, who missed out on going to Woodstock as a result. She's never forgiven my parents for that.
The Chicago years were not good to my family. My dad drank too much and worked long hours. My oldest sister dropped out of college and moved to California. My older brother dropped out of college, too, and hid in our popup camper in the driveway for a while. My grandparents got sick and moved in with us. My other sister transferred to a college nearby, which might have been nice, but neither she nor my brother got along with my dad in those days and our family gatherings were a nightmare. And while everyone was going at it at the dinner table, I usually slipped away with Jock.
Nobody cared where I went, as long as I had Jock with me. I'm not sure if they even noticed my absence. I'd walk the streets with Jock, month after month, composing letters to my teachers in my head. "Dear Ms. Brown: Julia didn't do her homework last night because her brother threw his dinner across the room and everyone was yelling. Sincerely, Mrs. Clark." Or "Dear Mr. Bogan: Julia did not complete her lab because her grandmother had a nervous breakdown and her grandfather has cancer. Sincerely, Mrs. Clark." Of course, my mother never wrote any of these letters to my teachers. I never told anyone about the strife in my house. Sometimes I just sat on the bleachers at the field with Jock on my lap. I'd pat his wiry hair until I decided it was safe to go home.
When I turned 16, my parents decided to chuck everything and move to the country in Virginia. My dad quit his big job in the city. He also quit drinking. He and my mom planted a big vegetable garden and entered their tomatoes in the county fair. I spent that first summer with my best friend, working at a camp on Fire Island. Every few days my mom called me. "You should see Jock! He can't get over the freedom! He doesn't know what to do without his leash! He also can't stop barking at the cows! I don't think he knows what they are!"
Everything was rosy. Until it wasn't. I ran up the steps of my friend's house one day to a phone call from my mother. "Oh, honey, I'm so sorry," she said. "Jock died. He just … died. I found him on the kitchen floor this morning."
"What? Why? How could he just … die?" I couldn't believe it.
"Honestly," my mom replied, "I think he just barked himself to death."
I hung up the phone, devastated. It took a few days before I started wondering. Jock barked himself to death? Just weeks after moving into our newly remodeled farmhouse, complete with new carpets and new furniture? Could it be my mother just couldn't stand the idea of Jock ruining another house? Was she tired of his barking, tired of his loathsome habits? Did Jock ever actually make it to Virginia?
I'll never really know the answer to these questions. My 91-year-old mother denies any suggestions that Jock's life may have been intentionally curtailed upon arrival in Virginia, or perhaps, even before the move. "He died a happy death, Julie," she assures me to this day. "He lived 13 happy years, and then he died. His last days on the farm were wonderful ones. You can't ask for more than that." I try to believe her, of course, because Jock Clark was the best friend I ever had.