The Time We Lost Gigi
My husband was always very close to his Uncle Bud, an unmarried man who kept a dog. In looks, Uncle Bud was the most grotesque person I had ever seen in my life. The first time I saw him, I gagged back vomit, the kind that comes up spontaneously at the sight and smell of something so repulsive you react in that literally gut-wrenching way.
The baby of a family of six kids, Uncle Bud was easy-going and relaxed with a teasing sense of humor. When he was in high school or so the story went, Uncle Bud got a bad fever and was sick for many months. He couldn't eat or move, and suffered sweats, chills and tremors. His mother nursed him through it, but they almost lost him several times during some very bad nights.
When he got better and was able to sit up and eat and such, small pimples and lumps appeared all over his body. Some of them grew as large as golf balls. They looked like gray round masses with red veins, and they hung from all over his head, face and neck. You could see similar lumps under his shirt and pants, and when he took his shoes off, they hung from his ankles and feet.
The condition came from the same disease the Elephant Man had. It had something to do with nerve endings, and nothing could be done about it. He went from doctor to doctor for years and years. I guess it is hard to clean tumors because Uncle Bud smelled rank, even though I knew he showered every day. The smell was like perspiration mixed with dead skin cells, and it was part of the Cross he bore in this life, as his sisters referred to it.
My husband, who is a kind man brought up among nuns, loved Uncle Bud more than any of his relatives. They were quite close. My husband Bob is as high-strung as Uncle Bud is relaxed, so as a young boy he liked to go over to his Grandpa's house where he would hang out with him and Uncle Bud, a respite from the strict German Catholic discipline of his youth.
Grandpa and Uncle Bud had a dog of indeterminate breed named Wimpy, who liked to get in fights and run away, sometimes for weeks on end. No one cared: the house ran loosely. Dinner would be peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, followed by an evening of watching Friday night boxing in front of the television set Bob's mom would not have in her house. Naturally, Bob loved it over there.
After Grandpa and Wimpy died, Uncle Bud moved in with his older spinster sister and her miniature French poodle, Gigi. Gigi fell in love with Uncle Bud, moved into his room, and slept in his bed.
By the time Gigi was eighteen years old, she was blind, deaf and incontinent, and her pretty apricot fur had fallen out except for a few dorky tufts. She also sprouted little tumors all over her body.
Uncle Bud spent most of his day taking care of Gigi. Every morning he'd clean her ears with a Q-tip, wipe her teeth with a clean cloth, and wash her gently with baby soap. He fed her little morsels of homemade food by hand after she lost all her teeth. Because she had no teeth, her tongue always dangled out of her mouth all the time like a limp flag hanging out a window on a windless day.
Uncle Bud kept Gigi in his arms so often that her body had an indented conclave from nestling in there. She would often roll her blind eyes with inbred French coquetry. Sometimes he'd ask in his funky Art Carney voice, "Do you think it's possible to have a love affair with a dog?"
All his tactile longings so cut off since the days of his fearful illness seemed sweetly fulfilled by the touch and unconditional love of that tiny old poodle. So yes, Uncle Bud, anything is possible to my way of thinking, including such love affairs with dogs. And by the way, in my next life I want to come back as your poodle.
Sometimes Gigi would get up and stand in the middle of a room for a few demented moments as if she didn't know where she was. We'd worry that she'd collapse, which she often did. Other times she'd run around the room in circles, in what the vet called "old age seizures." Bud's sister, who was practical and rich, thought he should put Gigi to sleep.
Bob and I were quite young when we bought our first house in a small university town in southern Ohio. Jimmy Carter was in the White House and interest rates were over fifteen percent, but we didn't much care. We charged the down payment on Master Card, and moved into the little wooden house which by any standards was a dump. However, we were confident that our first overnight guest would like it. By bachelor norms, our house was quite okay.
My husband drove up from Oxford to get Uncle Bud in Cleveland because Uncle Bud didn't drive. I think he and Gigi liked to get away from time to time. Although she was a wonderful woman, a former nun who even today gives her life to the Church Capital C, Bud's sister was always picking on him for being sloppy and lazy. And we all know what she thought should be done about Gigi.
On the way down from Cleveland, Gigi had more than her usual number of seizures. Bob confided that he thought one might have been a heart attack because she seemed to stop breathing. Oh Lord, he said to me and God in bed that night, please don't let Gigi die in Oxford. Since Bob doesn't talk to God very often, his plea impressed me.
The first day of Uncle Bud's visit the three of us walked into town to the Ace Hardware Store to buy nails to reinforce Gigi's travel box. We had actually gone there the year before to buy the same supplies for the same travel box.
The cheerful store manager belonged in 1950s Mayberry USA and now he greeted Uncle Bud with a big smile. "You were here last year!" he said.
"Now see, Mary Jane, how nice it is in these little towns! People even remember faces even a year later!" Uncle Bud exclaimed.
Bob and I had been married long enough to communicate by look and leer. His look told me: "How naive can he get?" Once you see Uncle Bud, you just don't forget him.
The owner kept bravely beaming. "What can I do you for?" he asked.
"This little princess needs her travel box fixed." Uncle Bud said. "She's such a feisty little brat, it's all come loose."
They putzed around with ten-cent screws with intricate designations like 102C/14G until they found just the right ones. The owner placed them in a paper bag small enough for a Lilliputian lunch and said it was thirty cents.
Uncle Bud pulled out coins from a leather star-shaped change purse.
"You all come back next year!" the manager said. 'And take care of your little girlfriend there."
"People are so nice in little towns." Uncle Bud reminded us.
We walked over to the best restaurant in Oxford to make dinner reservations for that night. Everywhere we walked people would either look and then look away, or look and become unable to control an impulse to stare. Every now and then some little kid would see at Uncle Bud, scream, and run away in fright.
Since he wore eyeglasses as thick as hockey pucks, I used to think he did not see most of it. But as I got to know him better, I realized his spacey demeanor was an act. He definitely took in people's reactions, but he had decided not to return bad for bad, not even in his thoughts.
The restaurant was, of course, completely booked that night and forever. That was okay: it was always better to go in person with Uncle Bud instead of making a reservation, dressing up, anticipating a good dinner, and then being turned away at the door.
Uncle Bud told us he'd prefer staying home that night anyway because there was a Charley Brown Special on TV. He loved Charley Brown and had them on all tape, even the Great Pumpkin one that would air tonight. "Mary Jane, do you like Charley Brown?" Well, of course I do, Uncle Bud. I can hardly wait.
We watched Snoopy dance and sing on his twinkle toes like a little circus dog, happy in his secret world of biplanes and German barons. In the middle of the Charley Brown Special, Gigi jumped off the couch. She ran in big circles around the perimeter of our fake Oriental rug from Home Depot. After four or five laps she collapsed in a heap on the red medallion in the middle of the rug.
"There's life in the old girl yet." Bob said. Uncle Bud scooped her up. "She was quite a looker in her girlie days."
Then he gave an inventory of her beauty.
"She had sparkle in her eyes, fluffy pink fur, dainty little feet, etc."
"Please dear God, don't let her die here." Bob whispered to me under his breath.
Gigi looked exhausted from her latest exertion. Her tongue hung down lower than ever, like a limp hose after a terrible fire.
"They say you can own a dog or you can have a poodle." Uncle Bud said.
The jumpy little piano tune played as the Charley Brown Special ended. All was well with the world because the Great Pumpkin appeared. Gigi's respiration seemed non-existent. She was as limp as a cadaver.
The next day we went to Wendy's for lunch. Uncle Bud was not into food, but he did like Frosties. Since his sister did not approve of Wendy's Frosties, he could only get them when he was away from her critical eyes. He decided the treat was worth leaving Gigi alone in the backyard.
Our yard was tiny but enclosed with a heavy wooden fence, and there was absolutely nothing bad out there like predators, garbage or poisonous plants to endanger Gigi.
When we got back from the Frosties outing, Gigi was missing.
My first thought was she had keeled over and dropped dead. We would find her body hidden in autumn leaves, waiting for the Great Pumpkin to take her to heaven. We searched the yard with our bare hands and did not find her. There didn't seem to be any way that she could have gotten out. My husband guessed that a college student might have stolen her.
Then Uncle Bud started shaking. He was only 58 years old but his general bad health coupled with his Cross in life had long ago taken its toll. I could not look at his face, so sensitive and loving, even in spite of the hideous tumors dangling from his neck, cheeks and skull.
My husband was beside himself with anxiety. He figured it was all his fault because it was happening at our house. "
If someone took her," I suggested, "maybe we could pay them to get her back. Like a ransom."
Uncle Bud, never steady on his feet because of his bad eyesight, now looked as if he would fall because he was still trembling so hard. I knew that whenever he fell, his tumors broke open and blood and matter spilled from them.
Bob ran his hands along the fence, looking for a loose board where Gigi may have escaped. I knew he was trying to find her body in case she had impaled herself under the fence. Neither of these proved true .
Bob stood up and looked at me for the first time. I saw that he was crying, the first time I'd seen him cry in the nine years we'd been together.
Uncle Bud sat at our picnic bench under our apple tree, which dripped rotten brown shriveled-up fruits that we'd never bothered to pick. In our two-career world, it was easy to overlook ripe apples, deaf dogs, and lonely old men, but now - there we were.
Bob cleared his throat and said he'd search the neighborhood. But how far could Gigi roam? A few steps and she'd collapse, we all knew that.
I stayed back with Uncle Bud on the picnic bench, not knowing what to say. Uncle Bud's shoulders shook in grief, and I was afraid this would be the end of him. In some cockeyed but unconsciously agreed-upon way, I believed that Uncle Bud could not live without Gigi. He could never replace the love of his life, and if there is a heaven, he would go there to be with Gigi.
I lit a cigarette, one of the few times I smoked in front of Bob's relatives. Uncle Bud asked if I had any Scotch. We sat at that picnic table until it got dark, counting time in intervals of cigarettes and swigs of Scotch.
When Bob came back, I knew by his strained face, bent posture and defeated eyes that he had not found Gigi. He simply shook his head, and took a big swallow of Scotch. Then he led Uncle Bud by the crook of his arm back into the dark silent house.
The old man was completely hooched so his step was more hesitant and unsure than ever. I placed an inner bet with myself he'd fall and break open tumors, and then we'd spend the night in ER. It had been that kind of day.
We sat in silence on the couch as if we were at Gigi's wake. Bob was angry, I was in denial that she was really lost forever, and Uncle Bud was in a drunken haze. He was one who accepted everything that had ever happened to him: a promising childhood, adolescent years of sickness, becoming a freak people run away from, developing an inner beauty only those who love him could see, and falling madly in love with a little French poodle that Reality was cruel enough to snatch from him. It was all too terrible to fathom, especially the thought that Gigi had suffered before she died.
We sat forever, too nervous to eat. I thought I saw a police car with its Christmas-y flashing lights, and I definitely heard a man's boots on the steps of our porch.
The doorbell rang.
The cop was tall and young and serious in his black visor hat, black pants and shirt with its black soberness broken up only by the silver glitter of badge, buckle and braid. He was carrying Gigi in his arms.
"Officer of the Law here." he said. "Is this your dog, lady?"
I could hear Uncle Bud's heart beating as he staggered to his feet. My husband's mouth dropped open in surprise and awe at God's mercy.
The policeman could not see either of them and continued to scold me in his officer-of-the-law voice. "I found this old dog in the middle of Main Street. It posed a real traffic hazard. One of them college students could have been killed, ma'am. Trying to avoid hitting her."
Who cares? I thought. There's so damn many college students in this town. We can afford to lose one or two. It was an awful thought that nonetheless made me giggle the same nervous giggle I get at funerals.
"Is something funny, ma'am? Why is that? There's nothing funny about loose dogs in traffic."
"No, sir, there isn't." I managed.
"It's against the law. Leash laws. There's fines for loose dogs."
Uncle Bud stepped forward to claim Gigi.
"I'll pay any fine." he said tearfully.
The officer was young enough to still have a human heart. When he saw Uncle Bud, he turned into a human being.
"That's all right, sir." he said. "Just keep a better watch on her."
"You bet," Uncle Bud said.
"I'm a dog lover myself," the policeman acknowledged.
Gigi snuggled into her familiar position in Uncle Bud's arms while he used his free hand to pull out his wallet.
"That won't be necessary." the cop said. "Have a good night. Take care of your girlfriend there."
'Thank you, sir.' Uncle Bud extended his hand, a hand covered with blood tumors. The policeman shook it, and I loved him for touching Uncle Bud.
Uncle Bud spent the evening examining Gigi for injury, ticks or other problems. We ground up pot roast for her, and replaced her pink ear ribbons. Gigi's Grande Adventure ended happily. Tomorrow they would go home. Nobody would tell Bud's sister a thing.
Later I found out that Uncle Bud had put our address inside Gigi's rhinestone collar, and that's how the officer had found us. Uncle Bud and Gigi kept many such secrets between them. She and he lived a long time maybe on account of such secrets, and he remains the best person I have ever known.