by Owen Zabel
Sometimes a pet is like a member of the family. Other times, well…
Let me say this right away, so there’s no confusion: Mr. Perkins was a dog, not a person. Well, actually Mr. Perkins was two dogs. But before that he was a person. Wait, let’s start over.
My name is Kevin. When I was a kid we got a puppy. He was an Irish wolfhound and he puked all the time, so we named him Barfy, like the dog in Family Circus. But when he grew up he became very big and rangy, and he had this kind of morose, mopey expression, and a long beard-like growth on his chin. He reminded Betheny of her Algebra teacher, Mr. Perkins. Eventually no one called him Barfy any more, it just wasn’t dignified enough. Mr. Perkins was like the dog that some old Welsh poet would’ve had, walking out on the moors, staring through the mist at the heather. He always seemed out of place in the suburbs of Fort Worth.
He couldn’t catch a Frisbee or anything, and he didn’t know any tricks (unless you count “lie down”) but he was still a great dog. He rarely barked or made a fuss, and he almost never made a mess on the rug or chewed up anything. He had lots of long, scraggly hair in several shades of grey which he shed everywhere, but you can’t blame him for that. He was just a good, good dog. I guess. He was our dog.
I was four when we got Mr. Perkins, and we grew up together, so he was special to me. Plus, the neighborhood kids thought he was the toughest dog around, probably because he was kind of scary-looking and real big. He was huge, all right, but I don’t remember him ever getting in a fight. And that time the house got robbed, apparently Mr. Perkins just watched calmly as the thieves stole our TV, our stereo, the microwave… Well, anyway, he was still a really good dog. Honest.
So when he died it was very traumatic for me. I’d never experienced death before (unless you count the “accidental” death of Mr. Turtle). And since Mr. Perkins was only five years old when he died, it was kind of tragic, and the vet couldn’t explain it. She was a horsey girl with freckles and a red ponytail. There were stables outside and all kinds of horse magazines on the waiting room tables. I wondered if we were even in the right place, but figured we were, since my dad always calls around trying to figure out who’s cheapest. The vet looked more grief stricken than any of us. “Some dogs, they just age more quickly. And this breed, they don’t always get very old.”
“Oh come on,” said dad. “He was five.”
She tried to smile. “Yes, but when you brought him in I was surprised at how old he looked. White hair, milky eyes, that stiff way of walking that old dogs have…”
He didn’t have a reply to this. She was right.
“But if you want, we can do an autopsy.”
“How much?” asked dad.
“Ted…” Mom whispered something to him.
“No, I’m not throwing money at a dead dog.”
Then Betheny started crying. She’s older than me, but she’s a girl so it was ok for her to cry. We all shuffled out into the blinding sunshine and back into the car. I remember on the way home I was picking little tufts of Mr. Perkins’ hair our of the car seat. I saved them in my pocket.
A few years later the first “PetLab” opened in the Fort Worth area. My school bus went by the place every afternoon. It was down in the old strip mall where everything had closed except for MasterLube. The big, red and white “PetLab” sign was all shiny and new. Giant posters of a dachshund puppy and a little white kitten filled two of the windows. The slogan was hung on a banner over the door: “Where Love Comes Back to Life”. There were usually lots of cars out front, and it looked pretty busy. It was a growing company.
One day I got up the nerve to ask dad if we could go to PetLab.
“What?” He put down the sports page, snorted, and lifted it up again. “No way. I’m not spending a fortune to clone a dog that wasn’t worth a dime to begin with.”
He lowered the sports page again. “And what about you, Kevin? Should we clone you too?”
“Correctamundo. And cloning cats and dogs should be illegal too. The whole thing gives me the creeps. Case closed.” He went back to his sports page, and I went to ask mom.
Of course she said we couldn’t afford it. “And maybe it’s wrong to do that kind of thing,” she said. “We should just let sleeping dogs lie.” I swear she really said that. “Besides, we don’t have Mr. Perkins’ blood sample.”
“But we’ve got lots of his hair,” I said.
“Hair? They can’t do it with just hair…” She furrowed her brow. “Can they?”
“Duh, mom. Hair is just as good as anything else.”
She sure can be out of it. She probably thought clones were still made using test tubes or something. She’s like a lot of parents that way. People get to a certain age and they slow down, and any new development in science takes ten years or so to register.
I got Betheny to join my cause. If you ever left her do something on her own you’d be waiting forever, but she was a great follower. I used her on many occasions: she could be easily swayed to any side of any argument and then back again. She also had that wild, teary way of going hysterical which can really break down parental resolve. Her white, pale cheeks and neck would get all flushed and her face would puff up like a baby’s, almost as red as her hair. She cried pitifully enough to melt the hardest heart. I played her like a cheap ukulele.
At dinner I teased the subject back to life, and pushed the right buttons at the right times, and pretty soon Betheny was wailing and dad was fuming and mom was quietly “reasoning” with him. And I was sitting there, all stupefied by the hubbub. Sometimes I’m ashamed of myself, but what else could I do? They make it so easy.
The next day we went down to PetLab and gave them some of Mr. Perkins’ hair. The girl behind the counter was a little spaced out, and she had a creepy cold sore on her lip. I was worried she would lose the hair, or label it wrong, but luckily one of the lab techs took over. Dad was quiet. I knew he was biting his tongue the whole time, but it was too late. We were doing it.
Seven months later we went to pick up the new Mr. Perkins. You never saw a more adorable puppy: tiny and fuzzy with shiny black eyes like obsidian. He was no bigger than a cat. It was hard to believe this scrawny puppy would grow to be an enormous Irish wolfhound. I couldn’t remember the original Mr. Perkins as a puppy- to me he’d always been big. But mom said that he’d started just like this so I had to take her word for it. I said we should call him “P2″ but that was vetoed right away. Everyone wanted to call him “Mr. Perkins”, just like the first one. How boring is that?
We took him home and right away I began to remember pieces of my childhood. Like the time I put a clothespin on his tail and watched him flail about, trying to get it off. Or the time I put PopRocks in his food. Or the time I chased him around the yard, shooting bottle rockets- there’s still marks on the back door frame where he tried to chew his way in, to escape me. Maybe I should send some money to the ASPCA, to buy off my sins. I guess it’s kind of embarrassing, the things little boys do.
But now I was sure that I’d treat this Mr. Perkins a lot nicer. I gave him his puppy food and water whenever he needed it and changed his newspaper daily. We kept him in the guest bathroom at night, for the first few months, while mom attempted to house-train him.
But almost from the beginning we could see that this puppy was not quite an exact match for the first Mr. Perkins. Oh sure, they looked the same, and their DNA was supposedly identical, but this new version, well… At night he would howl and yap, something the original never did. The sound of his caterwauling in that little tiled bathroom kept all of us up. And he didn’t get housebroken like the old Mr. Perkins. No matter what mom tried, he still relieved himself any old place, usually where you would least want him to. After a month or so we thought that maybe there had been a mistake, so we revisited the nice folks at PetLab.
Dad had to convince the girl at the front desk that we needed to see someone more important than her. Finally she relented and made a call to the back room.
Dr. Scofeld was a young, sporty genetic engineer. He had a tan and a hairstyle and a metallic green Jaguar with a license plate that read “COPYCAT”. He came out into the waiting room in a spotless white lab coat. “What seems to be the trouble?”
“I’ll tell you what’s the trouble,” said dad. “I broke into little Kevin’s college money to pay for this clone dog, and you guys botched it.”
“Whoa there,” Dr. Scofeld smiled and held up his hands. “We don’t make mistakes at PetLab, only happy memories.”
Dad was momentarily stunned. I could almost see those old, sticky cogs turning in his mind as he tried to decide whether or not the doctor was kidding. “Oh yeah?” He put the carrier containing Mr. Perkins up on the counter. “This dog is nothing like the original.”
Dr. Scofeld peered into the cage. “Impossible. You brought us hair from an Irish wolfhound. This is an Irish wolfhound puppy. It’s the only clone of this breed that we’ve ever done.”
“Yeah? Well, somebody messed up something.”
Mom leaned in and whispered apologetically, “He just doesn’t behave like the first Mr. Perkins did. He yaps and howls all night.”
“And he chews up my boots,” said Betheny.
“And he took a dump on my skateboard,” said I.
“Kevin!” said mom.
Dad grunted. “Well, it’s true. This puppy squats any old place it wants to. The first one was housebroken, never yapped, and didn’t chew anything. And watch this.” Dad stuck two fingers through the mesh of the cage. Mr. Perkins eagerly licked them, his tail flailing happily as he made puppy-dog eyes. “Huh. Usually he bites the hell out of me.”
“Hm…” Dr. Scofeld was trying hard to be interested but just like a real doctor he couldn’t disguise his boredom. He had that typical drowsy delivery, very deliberate and slow. He opened the carrier door and Mr. Perkins came bounding out, a wiggly, joyful, adorable bundle of puppy energy. Scofeld held him down and turned him on his back. He poked at the hair on his belly, pushing the tufts around, looking for something. “Aha, here it is. Sixteen, twenty seven, forty four. Yes, that’s the right number.”
“He has a number on him?”
“Yes, all our pets have a number tattooed there. This is definitely the dog we made for you. And you say he’s different?”
“Absolutely. Not the same at all,” said dad.
“Are you sure it was the right dog hair?”
“Of course. How many Irish wolfhounds do you think we have?”
“He wouldn’t know that, dear,” said mom quietly.
Dad frowned. “OK, he sure looks like Mr. Perkins did as a puppy. The photos we have are an exact match. But it’s the personality that’s different.”
“Well, that’s not very likely,” said Dr. Scofeld. The puppy was now licking his hand. “You see, disposition has been proven to be determined by the genes, just as surely as hair color or size. Personality is at least eighty-nine percent inherited. It’s almost impossible that he’d have a different personality.”
“But he does!” whined Betheny. “This dog is… it isn’t as nice.”
“Perhaps you don’t remember the first dog’s puppyhood quite as clearly as you think. Time passes, and we tend to sentimentalize things. He may have been more trouble than you’d care to recall. It’s only natural to dwell on the good things while forgetting the bad.” Scofeld stroked him behind the ear. Mr. Perkins wiggled all over and tossed his big, floppy ears around. He rolled on his back and licked Scofeld’s fingers. He even tolerated a rectal thermometer which made my belly tighten up just to watch. Aren’t kids not supposed to see stuff like that?
“Was he ever dropped as a puppy?”
“No!” said Betheny.
“Ever in any kind of accident, or trauma?”
“Nope, nothing like that,” said dad.
“Did he ever eat anything unusual, like paint, or get into any other kinds of toxic chemicals? Was he ever exposed to strong fumes of some kind? No? Well, then, I suppose we could do a cat-scan. Though I suppose in this case we should call it a ‘dog-scan’.” He laughed.
Dad asked him how much it would cost. Dr. Scofeld told him. Dad snorted, laughed, muttered something, rubbed his eyes and stood up. “Alright, let’s go.”
“But daddy,” whined Betheny, “what about Mr. Perkins?”
“He’s coming home with us, and he’s not getting any doggie-scan, either. We’re keeping this evil clone dog as is, for better or worse, and that’s all there is to it.”
“But daddy…” Betheny hadn’t given up quite yet. She was dawdling just inside the door to the office. The rest of us had filed out into the hallway, looking at the pictures on the wall of happy families and little old ladies, holding their adorable cats and dogs. “Maybe they can give Mr. Perkins a pill,” said Betheny, “to make him mellow out. You can do that, right doctor?”
Scofeld had the good sense not to take the bait. “I think your father’s made up his mind.”
She stomped out, pouting, and glowered all the way home. Mr. Perkins, meanwhile, leered at us from the back of the station wagon, a long string of drool dangling from his jaw.
About ten months later “Mr. P”, as dad called him, had become a much bigger problem. That tiny puppy was now the size of a small pony. He had shot up alarmingly, eating way more than his predecessor, and achieving a size and weight that easily surpassed the original. And he developed some new habits: he buried books and clothes in the back yard, he hid the car keys under a rug or in a plant, he dropped cell phones in the toilet, etc, etc.
Betheny said we should take him to PetLab again, but dad held firm. It was just as well. I don’t think Dr. Scofeld would have cared about our problems. I’d seen him a few times at the country club where I cleaned the pool on weekends, and it was like he was a different person. He was always with a new blonde, and he wore mirrored sunglasses, and his hair was bigger. “Hey guy, how’s your cat?” he asked once.
“Whatever.” He and the blonde laughed and twirled their tennis rackets, walking down the pathway between the lilac bushes.
We learned, over time, to put up with Mr. P. His little outrages became more commonplace, and although dad occasionally suggested we should give him away or something, this was always vetoed by mom and Betheny. Then came the cat incident.
Our neighbors two houses down, the Shumways, have always had a bunch of Persian cats. I don’t know if they breed Persians or what, but there’s always been mobs of them around their house for as long as I can remember. Every one of them has an ugly little squished-in face. Sometimes they have brown slime dribbling down from the corners of their eyes.
Mrs. Shumway was in her front yard picking up the newspaper when Mr. Perkins dashed by. Without breaking stride he scooped up one of the cats in his mighty jaws. The woman screamed bloody murder, out in the middle of the street. She really drew a crowd. She was a fat, pink-faced broad in a yellow bathrobe and galoshes, and she was absolutely wailing like a banshee. Naturally no one wanted to get too close. Me and my friend Tony were on our bikes, watching this phenomenon from a distance. When I figured out it was my dog she was yelling about, I beat it out of there pretty quick.
About twenty minutes later Mr. Perkins came back to pay another visit to the Shumways. This time both Mr. and Mrs. Shumway were in their living room, comforting each other, when they saw Mr. Perkins coming up the driveway. Mr. Shumway went to grab his baseball bat and Mrs. Shumway went to the door. She opened it just in time to see Mr. Perkins barfing on their welcome mat. Mr. Shumway was about to charge out with the bat, but the big pile of puke froze him in his tracks.
“Oh my God,” said Mrs. Shumway. “It’s Five.” (Some of their cats didn’t have names, just numbers).
Mr. Shumway looked down at the mess as Mr. Perkins trotted merrily away. Yes, there was no denying it: this was the remains of Five. Most of it was unidentifiable but it was all held together by that long, clumpy, white hair.
The way the Shumways carried on you’d think this was the last cat on earth. I mean, they had a couple dozen more. What’s the difference if one gets eaten? They made a complaint to the city and insisted that Mr. Perkins be destroyed. They also filed a lawsuit, which we settled out of court (one of dad’s college buddies is a hot-shot lawyer). We had to buy them a fancy Persian kitten, and dad had to buy a heavier chain for Mr. Perkins, along with a new, thicker collar.
It seemed so mean keeping him chained up in the back yard the way we did, but we had no choice: He was a menace to the neighborhood. He wore a circular path around the tree, tugging the chain as far as it would go. He would run one way, then turn around and run the other way, on the edge of his circle of misery. I always figured he’d eventually wrap himself around the tree, and I’d need to help him unravel. But he never did. He always surprised me that way. He may have been destructive and a nuisance, but he wasn’t dumb.
He sure did scare the neighbors, though, and not just the Shumways. Everyone figured Mr. Perkins was a mad dog, capable of anything. The neighborhood kids were especially wary of him. Except for Jimmy Connelly. He’s the rich kid of the block. His dad owns a couple of Toyota dealerships, and they live in the big mansion at the end of the cul-de-sac. Jimmy goes to the same school as me, Atwood Advanced Placement Preparatory Academy, even though he’s dumb as dirt. Everyone says his dad made some kind of huge contribution to the alumni fund to get him in. They’re so much richer than anyone else in the neighborhood that it’s kind of a mystery why they even live here.
Jimmy liked to torment Mr. Perkins. Once I saw him across the fence, throwing little rocks. Mr. Perkins moved as far away as his chain would allow, and was rarely hit, but a few still found their mark. When I went out and yelled at Jimmy he flipped me off and smiled. He had real big, white teeth, just like his dad. Then he got on his zillion dollar mountain bike and rode off.
There must have been other times that Jimmy threw stuff at Mr. Perkins, too. We used to find lots of rocks and sticks in the back yard, and once there were a whole bunch of little red crabapples back there. The Connellys are the only ones with a crabapple tree, and I know for a fact that Jimmy likes to shoot them from his wrist-rocket. They’re more aerodynamic than rocks, you see, because they’re round. It’s easier to hit what you’re aiming at. I doubt if Mr. Perkins could have dodged many of those. So when he finally got the chance to bite Jimmy Connelly, he did it with gusto. It didn’t surprise anyone, either. That schmuck had it coming.
It happened when I was walking Mr. P after school. Actually he was towing me on my skateboard, our daily around the block ritual. Jimmy was on the sidewalk with his bike upside down, checking the gears or something. He must have heard me coming on my skateboard, but he didn’t turn around and see Mr. Perkins until it was too late. When he did, I swear his hair stood up, just like someone in a cartoon. He turned to run, but Mr. Perkins lunged forward and chomped on one of his buttocks. His jaws were so big, it was like he had half of Jimmy’s butt in his mouth. Jimmy screamed like a girl and ran into the street, with Mr. Perkins still clamped to his caboose. I was tugged off my skateboard and did a face-plant in the gravel by a mailbox. While I cursed and picked bits of rock out of my palms, Jimmy Connelly did a few awkward pirouettes in the street, howling and trying frantically to get those jaws off his rear.
I stood and watched for a while. When I saw a few people coming, I grabbed the leash and tugged him away. “No! Bad dog!”
He wheeled and bared his teeth at me, growling, eyes full of hate. I was totally taken by surprise- I felt sure he was about to attack me. He gradually calmed down, but there was still the remnants of a growl in his throat as he eyed me.
Jimmy was hobbling around crying, holding his butt. Old Mrs. Huber came and comforted him, while shooting dirty looks at me and Mr. Perkins. “Let me see, dear,” she said to Jimmy. “Let me see where he bit you.”
“No!” He turned away from her several times, and they went around and around just like when Mr. Perkins was attached to him.
Jimmy kept crying, and I didn’t know what to do. “I’m real sorry Jimmy. He’s never bit anyone before. Not too much, anyway… Uh, I guess I’ll take him home now.”
Naturally, Jimmy’s parents sued the crap out of us, and they also tried to get the judge to order that Mr. Perkins be destroyed. Dad got his old college buddy back again, but this time his services weren’t free. And I was part of it too, since I’d been there. More importantly, I testified that Jimmy had routinely taunted Mr. Perkins. Although I’d only actually caught him doing it twice, our lawyer thought it was pretty important. The Connellys’ lawyer must have thought so too, because he became fixated on the subject. He grilled me up there on the witness stand, especially regarding crabapples: what did they look like, how big were they, how did I know they were crabapples? He was real old and had totally white hair. I figured he was a family friend of the Connellys, and it seemed like he was a little nervous. Maybe he usually dealt with business law or something. The whole time, I kept staring at his left eye. It seemed like the pupil was off-center. Maybe he had a glass eye. Somewhere in there I gave an answer that cracked up everyone in the courtroom. I still don’t know what I said. Finally he let me go.
We had to pay for Jimmy’s stitches, and Mr. Perkins was confined to the house and yard by court order; no more walks around the block. But I think we got off easy. Thank God the Connellys had such a cruddy lawyer. And I got the bonus of getting to watch Jimmy sitting very gingerly at his desk in home-room for the next week or so.
The confinement was hard on Mr. Perkins. He ran himself ragged, going back and forth, back and forth around the big oak tree, his tongue hanging out, his eyes wild. Sometimes I wondered if he really was a mad dog. But hell, any living creature would go a little nuts being chained like that. I tried to get him to play fetch- I’d throw a stick or a ball, but Mr. Perkins wouldn’t even break stride in his steady pacing. Sometimes I swear he gave me a mocking glance. And when we let him in the house it wasn’t much better- he’d pace by the front door, or worse, stand like a statue and stare at you.
In early June dad announced that we were going to get an RV, a Concord WindCaptain, and go sightseeing for a few weeks. The first thing I asked about was Mr. Perkins. None of the neighbors would feed him, and kennels were too expensive. “To hell with it,” said dad. “We’ll take the dog. Maybe it’ll learn some manners. Come here, dog.” Mr. Perkins promptly ignored him. “He’ll guard the motor home when we’re gone, and he’ll be… fun to have around.”
I nodded but it was obvious that dad just wanted to save the expense of a kennel. Mr. Perkins was going to come with us on our odyssey, for better or worse.
On the first day, when we hadn’t even gotten a hundred miles out of town, Mr. P lifted his leg and went on the arm of the sofa. This was kind of a bummer because there aren’t a whole lot of sofas in an RV. So dad locked him up in the tiny little bathroom, where he howled like the hound of the Baskervilles as we drove across sunbaked west Texas.
That night we tied him outside, at the campground we’d found in sleepy little town just across the New Mexico border. We had to be really careful because there were no dogs allowed. Luckily Mr. Perkins wasn’t in a barking mood that night. I guess he’d already howled himself out. He promptly went under the WindCaptain, as far as his chain would allow, and went to sleep. We climbed back on board to do the same.
I awoke briefly at one point when I heard something. It was a kind of scraping, grating noise. I figured it was the wind, pushing a branch against the side of the camper or something. I went back to sleep.
The next day started off much better. Mr. Perkins was very well behaved as we got back on the highway. He even appeared to be smiling, in that way that dogs have.
We drove up into the Rocky Mountains and had lunch at the Rio Grande gorge bridge. The bridge itself was amazing: When you looked down at the river, way below, it was like peering down one of those cliffs that the coyote falls off in cartoons. Me and Betheny had a good time tossing paper airplanes until mom scolded us for littering. Later we visited some tiny little Spanish towns way up in the mountains and mom made a big deal about taking pictures of all the tiny little churches. Whatever. Then, towards sunset, as we drove back down towards the interstate, things got interesting.
“Damn.” The word came out of nowhere, during a quiet stretch when we were all dozing or looking at the scenery.
“What’s wrong, hon?” asked mom. I could see immediately what it was by peeking over his shoulder. A red light was glowing in the dashboard.
“Something with the brakes,” he muttered. “Maybe it’s just a faulty indicator.” The WindCaptain picked up speed as we descended the winding mountain road. Dad pushed on the brakes. “Damn.”
“Can we stop, dear?” asked mom.
“Of course. I’ll just have to pump the brakes a bit.” He pushed the pedal several times. There was a muffled pop and a “ssshhh” sound. The camper gave a little shudder and continued to pick up speed.
“Daaad,” said Betheny, “can’t you stop?”
“Of course I can stop. I’ll just have to use the emergency brake. Everyone buckle up.” By now we were going pretty fast. The scrubby little trees by the roadside were really whizzing by. “Okay, here we go.” Dad pulled up on the emergency brake handle, and the WindCaptain began to slow down.
There was a loud snap, and a deep twanging noise. “Now what the hell…”
Mr. Perkins barked twice. I looked at him, and in his eyes I saw that crazy shine. His teeth were exposed in a hair-raising canine grin.
Dad pulled up harder on the brake lever, as we began to pick up speed again. The tires crunched on the gravel shoulder.
“What’s wrong dear? Look out!” A deep ditch was suddenly very close on our right. At that same moment a huge eighteen wheeler roared by on our left, deafening us with its air horn and rocking the camper back and forth with a blast of air. Dad said a word that I won’t repeat here as he wrestled with the steering wheel and Mr. Perkins began to bark frantically. “Shut that dog up!” yelled dad as he jerked us back onto the highway. “I’ll just… downshift. Yeah, that’s right.” He shifted into first, making the transmission scream, but it barely slowed us down. “All right everyone, hang on tight. I’m going to throw it into park. It could be a heck of a jolt.”
“Daddy, wait! What about Mr. P?”
“To hell with the dog! Okay, here we go.” He wrenched the gear lever up and over. The camper made a sickening grinding noise, shuddered, and lurched back like it had hit a tree. Mr. Perkins was sent sprawling into the front where he ended up tangled in dad’s lap, struggling and thrashing around. Dad grunted a curse and shoved him off.
A car flew by, blaring its horn. There was more traffic from the other direction, and we were in the middle of the road, almost at a dead stop. A blast from behind made us all look back at once: another eighteen-wheeler was coming fast, and this time there was no shoulder, just a scrubby, rocky drop-off down the mountainside.
Dad put it back in gear and stepped on the gas. We began moving again, down the mountain, as the big-rig came roaring and bellowing up behind us. The cars coming from below made it impossible for the big-rig to pass, and it was bearing down so suddenly that it couldn’t slow down enough to avoid rear-ending us.
“Come on, come on…” Dad muttered and rocked back and forth at the wheel, the accelerator pushed all the way to the floor. I looked back again and the truck was growing bigger and bigger, much too fast. Then it was right behind us, so close I could see the bugs in its radiator grill. I braced myself for impact- I was sure it was going to hit us. But somehow, miraculously, dad found a little extra speed in that WindCaptain engine, and we stayed just inches ahead of the truck.
“Omigod, omigod.” Betheny was trembling and hugging Mr. Perkins.
Dad was gritting his teeth at the wheel, grim and furious. “That S.O.B. better pass us. We still don’t have any brakes.” He rolled down the window and motioned for the truck to pass. Its horn bellowed furiously in reply. “This is no good. He doesn’t know we don’t have brakes. And we’re coming to a town pretty soon. Wait a minute…” Dad’s attention was focused on a road sign.
“That’s it! That’s how we’ll stop!”
“What? How?” asked mom.
“That sign back there said there’s a truck ramp in one mile. It’s like a steep road that goes up from the main highway. They’re for the big trucks that lose their brakes on downgrades like this. It’ll stop us easy as pie.”
“Are you sure?”
“You got a better idea?”
I looked back at the huge truck which was still only a car length behind. Then I returned my attention to the road, peering ahead for the ramp. There was now no drop-off to the right, but the beginnings of some low hills.
“Is that it? That there?” asked Betheny, pointing.
“No, pumpkin, we haven’t even gone half a mile yet, but it’s coming soon. And this time, hold on to the dog.”
We stared grimly ahead, looking for the sign. Finally we saw it: “Speed Ramp”, with an arrow. Just beyond was a vague, rocky trench cut into the mountain.
“Is this it?” asked mom. “This can’t be it.”
“This is it!” yelled dad. “Everyone hang on!” He turned sharply, decisively to the right, and we blasted onto the speed ramp. The WindCaptain gave a terrific jolt and bucked like a stallion, bouncing off big rocks and shrubs and ancient-looking ruts. We were now suddenly going uphill, but it felt twice as fast as before, with the camper hammering up and down and side to side. The left wheels dipped into a trench that looked like it had been dug by run-off from Noah’s flood and we tipped over perilously. Betheny screamed just like when we were on the Texas Cyclone at HowdyLand. Dad kept the wheels pointed straight ahead- there was nothing else he could do, nowhere to the left or right for us to go. Then, just when I was certain we were about to tip over, the trench flattened out again.
At last we seemed to be slowing. There was a frying pan in my lap, and books, socks, boxes of beans and whatnot everywhere else. The camper gave one or two more lurches and rolled to a stop, then slowly began to roll backward.
Betheny screamed again. “Stop! Stop!”
Dad fumbled with the gear shift, finally ramming it into Park. The camper gave one final spasm and was still. A huge cloud of dust settled around us.
Mr. Perkins barked twice, really loud, making me jump.
“I am going to kill that dog,” said dad. “I’m going to kill it with a shovel.”
Mom called Triple-A while dad prowled around outside, inspecting the damage. Me and Betheny tidied up as best we could. The worst mess was inside the fridge, where the milk, mustard and olives were all swimming together.
We eventually got towed down to the city. We spent the night at your standard chain hotel, and I got to show off on the diving board for some local girls. When we went to pick up the RV the next day the mechanic had some interesting things to say. “It looks like a critter chewed through your brake hoses,” he said. “Got ‘em tore open so the fluid leaked out.” He smiled in an unsettling, not really friendly way. He had a pudgy, young, baby face but his hair was gray and thin like an old man’s. There were grease stains on his arms and in the wrinkles of his eyes. “The same thing that chewed up them hoses also bit through your emergency brake cable.”
I thought back to the first night of the trip, when I heard that scraping one night and thought it was a branch.
“That’s absolutely it,” said dad. “The dog is going to the shelter. No argument. That’s all there is to it.”
“But daddy,” said Betheny, “we don’t know if it was Mr. Perky.”
“It could have been some other kind of animal,” she said.
“Such as?” Dad was mad. The mechanic kept grinning bigger all the time.
“What if it was a squirrel?” said Betheny.
Dad snorted. “A squirrel, of course.”
“Or it could have been a coyote, or a rabbit.”
“Maybe it was a beaver,” I said. “They have good teeth.” Judging by the look he shot me, dad was not amused. I kept my mouth shut for the rest of the conversation. Betheny and dad did most of the talking, with the occasional soft cooing of mom trying to get a word in. Betheny got those hysterical juices flowing and eventually Mr. Perkins won another reprieve. During this exchange he sat in the shade of a soda machine, panting happily, his eyes squinting until they were nearly closed. It was weird how happy he looked. In fact, for the whole trip, he’d either been a psycho nutcase, or a blissed-out, happy pooch. No in-between.
Then he opened one eye a little and looked at me, and the look in that eye was pure… Well, it gave me the creeps. It was a mean look, and not like a dog’s eye at all. Not like a person’s either.
So we all got back on board and continued on our merry way, one big, happy family and the family dog, traveling across the high desert hills and through the Rocky Mountains, taking pictures to put in the photo album when we got back. Mom made us stop at lots of churches and dad took us to about a million different pueblos. I was bored out of my skull. Whenever we stopped somewhere I would try to find a video game, or at least a magazine stand. Anything to escape the mind-crushing monotony.
Finally we got somewhere that I wanted to see: the Grand Canyon. When we arrived and walked up to the canyon’s edge it was even more awesome than I’d imagined. We got there just at sunset, when the colors are glowing. I could have stared for hours at all the endless scenery but the sun went down and it was time for dinner.
The next morning we took a ‘hike’ along the canyon’s edge. It was the basic tourist trail, paved and marked with zillions of little signs. Twice we were stopped by Japanese tourists who asked us to take their picture. Then we encountered what looked like an inner-city street gang. I thought we were going to get mugged for a second, but I guess the biggest, scariest one was their chaperone, and they let us pass. I bet it was a rehabilitation thing. Then a troop of Boy Scouts passed us, and after that a herd of pale, waddling freaks that was either a church group or a weight-loss camp.
I wanted to take off, leave the trail and go right to the edge and peek over. I wanted to find a place, a rock or something, where I could sit by myself and enjoy the view. So I complained to dad. “This is too crowded. I feel like I’m on a city sidewalk. Can’t we go to some other part of the canyon?”
“Stay on the trail, Kevin. Maybe for lunch we’ll go somewhere less crowded. I’ll have a look at those maps they gave us.”
He actually did look at them. I guess he was as sick of the tourist throng as I was. Finally he plopped the maps on the floor and announced that we would be traveling to bla bla lookout on bla bla road.
It turned out that we had to drive over two hours, because the place was on the other side of the canyon. Much of the drive was on a dusty washboard road, and then a narrow lane full of rocks. But when we got there it was worth it: we were the only people on an isolated, narrow peninsula with an incredible view of the canyon.
Dad parked and we all got out to stretch our legs. It felt great to escape the camper. The only one who stayed was Mr. Perkins. He refused to budge. We strolled down a little slope and out onto the finger of rock that stuck way out into space, with staggering drop-offs on either side. I gazed down at the tiny thread of the Colorado river, and could see hawks soaring far below. Mom scolded me for being too close to the edge, and made me go get the picnic supplies.
As I was getting the stuff from the camper I made one last attempt to rouse Mr. Perkins. “Come on, boy!” I slapped my knees. “Come on outside and pee!” He gave me that one-eyed look again. I left him alone.
We set ourselves up just like a family having a picnic in the comics: a red and white checkered cloth on the ground, a wicker basket like the one Dorothy carried Toto in, plates with pickles and things on them, and even a trail of hungry ants. Mom really knows how to do that Hallmark card kind of stuff. We munched and crunched and swallowed fizzy soda and rubbed sun screen on our pasty suburban foreheads. Then Dad got out his old camera and the tripod.
“I’m going to get one of all of us together,” he announced. “This is going to be a great picture.”
Betheny groaned. “Oh God, is this going to take about five hours, like all our other ‘spontaneous’ pictures?”
Dad ignored her, whistling tunelessly as he fumbled with the tripod. We continued eating. Of course Betheny was right, this was going to take a while. When he finally had the camera on the tripod and pointing in the right direction, he pressed a button and then came rushing over with a silly, excited look on his face. “Quick! Quick! Everybody smile!” I crossed my eyes and did my best Alfred E. Neuman. It’s hard to hold that pose for long, so after a while I let it go.
“Isn’t a little light supposed to blink or something?”
“Hmmm…” He got up and marched over to the camera and fiddled with it some more. I couldn’t really be upset with him. I was enjoying this moment too much. It was as if our little trip had finally become what it was supposed to be. I felt so peaceful and relaxed, munching on a kosher pickle spear, gazing out at the canyon. I was thinking that maybe this wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
Dad came rushing back. “It’s working!” he shouted. “It’s blinking! Everybody smile!” He slid like A-Rod coming into second base and turned to the camera, wearing a big, hideous grin. But just as quickly the grin disappeared. “What’s that?”
We looked up the slope, beyond the camera. Something was appearing over the edge of the little rise. The WindCaptain was rolling towards us, its tires crunching in the rocky soil.
Dad jumped up. “Quick! Uh…” The camper crested the ridge and picked up speed. It was too late to try to jump in and step on the brake.
“Daddy!” screamed Betheny, but he was petrified like the rest of us. We couldn’t go forward- we’d just get run over. And to go backwards meant jumping off the cliff. At that final moment of truth, as the WindCaptain came barreling right down on top of us, I saw Mr. Perkins, hunched forward in the driver’s seat. I swear he had his paws on the steering wheel. His eyes blazed with pure, murderous bloodlust.
What happened next is a blur. Somehow I dodged or tripped or fell out of the way just as the giant RV rumbled by. And even more miraculously, mom and dad and even Betheny managed to get out of the way. How we did it without going over the edge on either side is a mystery- looking at that narrow peninsula afterwards, I just couldn’t believe there had been enough room for us to escape.
The camper hurtled off the cliff and turned slowly, end over end, until it smashed and tumbled against the rocks far below. There was no dramatic explosion, like in the movies, but the deafening impact echoed back and forth off the canyon walls. The picnic blanket was still laid out perfectly, as if nothing had happened. The RV had gone right over the top of it, leaving tire tracks on either side. The flies settled back down onto the cupcakes and soda cans.
Eventually we gathered our wits, and when it was confirmed that everyone was alright, we began swapping our different versions of what had just happened. I discovered that I was the only one who had seen Mr. Perkins at the wheel, and none of the others believed me. This did, however, have the effect of making Betheny get hysterical. “Boo hoo, poor little Perky,” and so on. Me and dad peeked over the edge at the wreckage way down below.
And that’s how Mr. Perkins bit the dust. What an exit, the dog from hell going out with a bang and almost taking us with him. At first the park officials were going to give dad a big fine: They said he was negligent in how he’d parked, that he hadn’t set the parking brake, etc. But with a little help from his overworked lawyer buddy they finally agreed that it was just a freak accident. Maybe the dog bumped into the brake release mechanism, or the previous repair job had been botched somehow. In any case, it was impossible to tell for sure- the rig was now just a scattered trail of mangled wreckage.
The park rangers did return a few thing to us: some clothes, a few books, pots and pans, a mysteriously intact bottle of catsup… They even found dad’s old camera. It was ruined, of course, but Mom was still able to get the last batch of pictures printed, and when they were ready she put most of them in our vacation photo album. But there was one she threw away, and it was only by dumb luck that I spotted it in the kitchen trash. It was a little bit stained with coffee grounds, but otherwise OK.
Of course I’m talking about the last picture, the one taken by the automatic timer. The colors alone are totally amazing. There we are, surrounded by all these rich earth tones: the golden-brown sandy soil, the deep orange of the canyon walls, the pale blue of the desert sky… And then there’s Betheny with her pink and yellow striped tank top, mom with her fuchsia pants, and dad with his neon green and orange Hawaiian shirt. I was the only one dressed normal.
But the best part is the expressions on our faces. The shutter must have clicked just at the exact moment that we saw the WindCaptain. We’re sitting there like the Brady Bunch, but our faces are all freaked-out. It’s like Norman Rockwell had painted everything but our expressions, and then Edvard Munch took over. Naturally I’ve saved this picture. I’ve even shown it to a few friends at school. You just can’t keep something that good to yourself.
And speaking of Betheny, she’s at it again. She has some of Mr. Perkins’ hair from an old doggie brush, and she’s put it in a Ziploc bag which she keeps waving in dad’s face. So far he’s stood his ground, but she’s getting a little more hysterical every time, and I think she’s wearing him down. The other day he even offered to buy her a pony, but Betheny just screeched louder. I think we’ll be making another visit to PetLab pretty soon.