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It's Nelly's World

Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

alec vanderboom


Tomorrow I leave on summer vacation. I use that term loosely. For we are going to Ohio. This is not most people's idea of a satisfactory summer holiday objective. Winter, fall, or spring, either. I alone know the charms and hidden beauties of this heartland nowheresville. You guessed the punch line: I grew up there.

But it took having a dog to discover its urban wilds, the parks clinging to the precipitous banks of the rivers that made northeast Ohio the hotspot of a new industrial age. The dog I'm not referring to is the childhood bichon, Tarara Bheumdier (my mother has a finely tuned sense of humor, as evinced by her name for this poor small creature), for whom I will always carry a heavy load of guilt and simple love intermixed. Most dog owners today also carry similar burdens for their inadvertently maltreated childhood dogs. See, she was never off-leash in her entire life. That should be a punishable crime, by the way: if you never let your dog off-leash you should be made to forfeit, oh, I don't know, cigarettes after sex, or the new HBO series you would decline your best friend's wedding in order not to miss.

It was Mercy that made us discover Akron's great parklands. She was the cartographer of the most important places: wherever we went, we would stare at maps until they revealed all their largest green blots, indicating parks uncut by roads. Because Mercy demanded her wide off-leash runs--she was a terror without them--and because of her style, which meant that most of the time we had no idea where she was, just that she was assiduously tracking us. We would lose her someplace behind us, and she would eventually bound out onto the path far ahead of us, having drawn a great circle in the woods. Satisfied, she would disappear again.

But on this trip, Nelly will not be able to explore the trails at the great Oak Hill, in the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, or the Metroparks that hug the banks of waterways that sometimes smell highly suspicious. My favorite of these alas has dual perils: a police firing range across the street--not well situated for a dog who at the classic age of three developed a sound sensitivity that appears to be worsening--and prime rabbit habitat in the thicket of brambles by the edge of the Little Cuyahoga. It's a beautiful walk. But I don't walk without dogs anymore.

No, Nelly will stay here, first with one posse--Jolanta, with Juni and Izzy--followed by another, Janet, with Dixie and Willy. That's because of a Boston terrier.

When we had had Nelly for only a month or so, a little puppy who could fit into your palm, who slept next to my face except for the twelve times a night she woke, my father became gravely ill. We all rushed to Ohio, and we would have been sunk were it not for the fact that my sister had fully suburbanized. She had twelve-foot-high solid picket fence around the backyard, ready to repel invading armies (squirrels with two-inch muskets? boys wielding slingshots, trying to figure out how to get back to the 1935 Sunday comics?). While we spent ten-hour days at the hospital, Nelly and her "cousin," Monty the Boston terrier, spent their raucous days in the yard, chasing each other from one end to the other. I could tell by how far Monty's choked snorts of breathing carried through the bugless utopian air how much fun he was having. (Remind me to regale you with my unsolicited opinion on the ethics of breeding dogs who can't breathe properly, cope with normal extremes of temperature, or deliver their own young.)

The next time we visited, six months or a year later, Nelly was growling and lunging at her beloved cuz for such crimes as looking at a toy from across the room, or walking through the kitchen while Nelly manned her fortifications under the dining table.

The third time we visited--Merry Christmas, all the bells are ringing--we had apparently brought Cujo. When she spotted Monty through the glass door (and mind you, she was in his house while he was outdoors), her fangs were positively dripping. But whose dog was this?

That put an end to sweet cute Nelly, my darling Jelly Belly, my kind-hearted Little Lulu, being welcome in upper-middle-class Akron. But why can't we all just get along? Nelly is keeping her own counsel on this matter, and will sleep with a succession of friends here in firmly middle-class New York State for the next eleven days.

Perhaps her change of heart partakes of the same twist that visited my odd and echoing brain the other day when I paged past a newspaper ad for the movie "Hairspray." The banner quote read, "So joyful, so full of enthusiasm!" or so says A.O. Scott of the Times. What I saw read, "So joyful, so full of euthanasia." Like mother, like daughter.