What do you say to someone you love when he or she comes home with a pair of Bantam chicks? I said, “Gumbo.” It was the wrong thing to say. In the two and a half hours since he’d bought the birds at a yard sale in Como, Rob had become irrevocably attached to them. He pointed out how sweet and helpless they were. I thought aloud about what my Daddy would have said if he knew I’d have chickens in a duplex. Rob pondered aloud about what my Daddy would have said if he knew I’d have him in the bed. I had to concede that point, even though it hardly justified keeping chickens in a laundry basket on top of the washing machine.
We argued over those animals until they matured into a little hen and a little rooster. The hen, Vivian, was plump and docile, a pretty little dappled bird Hopkins would have praised. The rooster was a work of art, too, a noble-looking little cock with a hood of flaming russet red, a body of glowing bronze, and a tail of such rich green hues as to make a peacock blush with envy. Unfortunately, the rooster, Rusty by name, became the terror of the neighborhood, chasing cats and dogs twice to four times his size, spurring folks of all ages and crowing at all hours of the day, which for him started at 3 am. He was lord of his quarter-acre. He and Viv had free range of the yard. Together they made vast dusty nests beneath my vintage peppers, pecked my oh-so-carefully-nurtured marigold blossoms to pieces and copulated noisily in front of the neighborhood children. (“Look, Momma, the chickens are playing leapfrog!”) When the hen started laying, I collected and pickled the eggs forthwith. I had no doubt that they were fertile, and was not going to take any chances on their hatching. Two chickens were bane enough for my existence.
Though a few of our friends professed some degree of sympathy for my plight, most of them took Rob’s side in the matter. They all liked Rob. Rob’s got his sweet and innocent act down pat, and I don’t. I’ve had no few of my acquaintances to deem me a “curmudgeon-in-training” (which I took as a compliment). In addition, I suspect a lot of them enjoyed having friends who kept chickens in the city limits and let them roost in a laundry basket. They’re the kind of people who appreciate such obvious signs of eccentricity. I thought Momma would be aghast, but she thought it was “cute.” (I hate cute.) And Grandmomma loved to call up on the phone and give me all kinds of advice on chicken keeping and how they used to do it when she was a child; I never tired of her telling me how they would wring one’s neck. Even my bartender liked Viv and Rusty. “What do you mean, they accidentally got in the dryer?” he’d ask, frowning. I asked him if he’d never been tipped by a chicken.
Eventually The Powers That Be came down on my side. The Year of the Chicken ended when the rooster died of a heat stroke, and the hen found her way into a raccoon two days later. Rob was just heartbroken. I comforted him as best I could and kept my damn mouth shut. Then he comes up with this dog: a starving puppy, no less, shivering in the cold from a culvert in Batesville, an admittedly miserable situation. To my credit, I held out for four days. But that fourth night Rob played upon my sympathies like he was Yo-Yo Ma and I was a bull fiddle, so in a moment of weakness I told him he could bring the puppy home. At least that’s what he said I said.
Puppies aren’t supposed to be ugly, but even this one’s formative stages bore evidence of future unsightliness: he looked like a major rat. “Imagine how you’d look if you’ve been living in a culvert for a week!” Rob said. I pointed out that I’d paid rent in Oxford on worse places than a culvert in Batesville for months at a time, and I looked just fine, thank you. He just looked down his nose at me and cuddled the dog. He even offered to let me name it. I suggested Nemesis. He thought that was too long, so he called it Rusty. Same thing, I said. I knew better than to think anyone would begrudge Rob having a dog, but I found a singular ally in the cat. Grace knew better than to mess with a rooster, but she would ambush the puppy from atop the three-legged end table. Rusty thrived on a diet of shoes and baseball caps, pillows and cushions. He once chewed clear through a wing-back chair. Rob defended him by telling me he once had a dog that ate his way through a living room sofa. (Rob’s justifications tend to rely upon worse case scenarios.) And the dog got uglier. He turned the color of a bad carpet, his nose got pointy and his head outgrew his ears. Eventually the dog grew big enough to try to take the cat head-on one good time. Cat won, but Rusty got some space.
In the meantime, I lost my job, found myself with a lot of time on my hands and not so much company anymore. I was at home a lot, just me and the dog. Up until then, Rusty ignored me, but eventually he took to following me around the house and slumbering at my feet while I worked on any number of hopelessly doomed projects. I discovered that there’s nothing like a dog to keep your feet warm. I also I found out he liked this dog food that costs fifty cents a can and wouldn’t let Rob feed him that cheap stuff. He also liked to have his ears scratched; funny how you don’t mind doing that for a dog. I was once embarrassed to take him outside with me, but Rusty and I got to where we went on walks together. I figured a dog that ugly made even me look good. And as long as he wasn’t ashamed, I began to believe I shouldn’t be either.