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Lovita's Backyard

Jim Douglas

Since his bypass surgery two years back, his wife, Lovita, had faithfully and invidiously followed the doctor's and dietician's recommendations- no fat, no salt. And Cyrus had just as faithfully eaten what she prepared, not even cheating with a Dunkin' Donut.

And keeping his face noncommittal, Cyrus stared at the plate. Between two thin slices of whole wheat bread, Lovita had allowed a paper-thin slice of ninety-eight percent fat-free ham, one slice of a totally fat-free and absolutely tasteless orange cheese that the package claimed sharp cheddar. Accompanying the collective sixty calories of the cheese and ham were a leaf of red lettuce - it had more nutrition than iceberg - several skinny rings of red onion, thinly sliced tomato, and an insipidly fat-free mayo; Cyrus refused to call it mayonnaise. It all looked very lonely.

Cyrus took a sip of his water. At the moment, he'd give anything for a real ham and cheese sandwich: two Texas-thick slabs of white bread slathered in Hellmann's mayonnaise, honey basted ham cut thick off the bone, two slices of American cheese, the whole thing grilled with butter, potato chips on the side, dill pickle - with all its salt - and some Oreos and a glass of whole milk for dessert. Bowing his head, closing his eyes, he said, "'Lord take this food and put it to the nourishment of our bodies and forgive us where we have failed Thee. Amen." Staring at his sandwich, he picked it up. A slice of tomato slipped out and he added it to his mouth.

"When're you going to do something about those dogs?" said Lovita. At seventy-eight, she was just as beautiful, to Cyrus, as she'd been the day he met her. Last Valentine's Day, he had given her the biggest card he could find and expensive earrings. It was this huge love for her that had kept him faithful to her throughout their marriage and continued to keep him faithful to her stringent menu.

"Soon as I can." In spite of his abundant love for Lovita, he detested prattle while he ate, and she knew it. He always had. Still, after fifty-eight years, she persisted. When Cyrus was a child, food had been scarce, and he didn't want his tastebuds distracted with talk, even the vapidity of Lovita's sparse presentation for today need not be diverted. It may not be much but it was still food.

Cyrus had hoped that she would treat her fat and salt-free culinary endeavors in much the same way she had treated her numerous hobbies, tiring of them after a few months, but she had assiduously and conscientiously continued, reading food labels for fat and sodium content, cooking everything from corn bread to pinto beans with tiny amounts of olive oil. He couldn't remember the last time he had eaten anything fried.

"I'm serious, Cyrus . . . about those dogs." At five feet and four inches, Lovita might have weighed a hundred pounds, but she had always been thin.

Wordlessly, a dab of mayo spotting a patch of gray stubble his razor had missed just beneath a thin lower lip, Cyrus stared at her without really seeing her. All of his concentration went into his eating, but in the last two years Cyrus had gone from an age- diminished six-three and over two hundred to a toothpick thin one hundred and sixty-five. He shoved the last bite of sandwich in and chewed, mouth open.

Lovita scooped chunks of fresh fruit into a bowl- banana, pineapple, apple, kiwi, no sugar. "The smell's awful," she said, "but you never could smell worth a darn. I can't even hardly go into my own backyard, much less have my friends out there. And after all the work I've done."

One of Lovita's friends had turned her backyard into a garden showplace, even putting in a pond with water lilies and goldfish. Not to be outdone, Lovita had planted and planted in the ground bordering the house and fences, then filled old oak whiskey-barrel halves with store-bought dirt and planted in them. Red geraniums, thick white wax begonias, purple-leafed rex begonias, and pink Rose-of-Sharon thrived with daily watering. She convinced Cyrus to hire a carpenter to build her a redwood bench swing with a trellis woven with thick ivy over it for shade. At last count she had three birdbaths and two birdfeeders that attracted more squirrels than birds, squirrels she swore Cyrus befriended with handouts, instead of chasing them away.

She'd hired the paperboy to dig up the Bermuda sod in curving strips, then lay down long sheets of slick black Visqueen, covering that with pea gravel, edging her walkways herself with used brick from Comanche Building Supply. She and her friend Louise - not the one with the showplace yard - had started a hole for her pond, but the summer heat and drought-dry ground beat them into submission, and Cyrus paid the paperboy fifteen dollars an hour to finish the job. Then she shamed their son, Eli, into lining the hole with one huge sheet of Visqueen then layering flagstone with good mortar around the edge. Remembering Eli had built swimming pools to help put himself through college, she reckoned he ought to be able to lay some flagstone. She'd called him every day, telling him how her friend's--Ruby Dean--son had built her pond for her. After a week, Eli acquiesced and said he'd build her her damn pond. She'd acted surprised, smiling as she put the phone down.

Cyrus stood and picked up his plate to carry it into the kitchen. "The dogs," said Lovita.

"Um." Cyrus carted his dish into the kitchen and kept on going until he reached his La-Z-Boy in the den. Not even considering dogs in any form, he punched the power button on the remote, just in time to catch the beginning of a syndicated rerun of In the Heat of the Night. A fat, tiger-striped, shorthaired, black and gray cat jumped into his lap and without looking, Cyrus began stroking the soft fur.

Precisely at six in the evening, Cyrus fed the dogs, Caesar and Julius. When Lovita said that she wanted to do something with her backyard six months ago and that she couldn't because Caesar and Julius, a lumbering rottweiler and an irrepressibly hyper blue heeler mix, wouldn't stay off her, kept knocking her down, Cyrus had a dog run built. L-shaped and plenty long, it had wooden fencing at the top of the L and a cyclone fence at the fatter bottom part. Each dog had a fiberglass igloo doghouse and plenty of shade from an ancient silver leaf maple.

Caesar, the rotty, had come to them first. Tyrone, Cyrus's grandson, his daughter Darlene's son, had lived with Cyrus and Lovita six years ago because his step-father would not allow him to live with him and Darlene. The boy - he was twenty-two at the time - had saved his money and paid a lot for Caesar, bought him from a pet shop when rottweilers were all the rage. A year later, Tyrone moved out and into a house where the landlord refused pets. Promising to return to feed Caesar every day, Tyrone hugged his grandma and, before he got out the door, forgot his promise. Meanwhile, as is often the case with dogs inbred to increase supply, Caesar developed a congenital allergy that caused him to lose his hair; the medicine cost fifty dollars a month, but Cyrus didn't really mind.

Eventually, Tyrone moved into a house that did allow pets, but a friend of his - in a paranoid panic, thinking Tyrone's knocking the cops at his door - swallowed an eightball of cocaine and died from the overdose and left Tyrone with a red and blue heeler cross puppy that Tyrone renamed Julius. Six months later, Tyrone moved again and Julius found himself living with Caesar. Tyrone now lived in Oklahoma City.

"Hey, boys," said Cyrus, balancing the dogs' supper dishes on one arm, the chain-link fence clattering with the dogs' jumping- Caesar's greeting bark deep and sonorous, Julius's shrill and excited.

Patiently, Cyrus waited for them to calm, looking into the nut- brown and friendly eyes of Caesar, scratching him behind his small but floppy ears, giving Julius equal time. Cyrus had always heard that rotties were supposed to be mean, like pitbulls; Caesar didn't seem to have a mean bone in his body. The only barking he ever did was in happy greeting, whether it was the electric company's meter reader or the high-school teacher that mowed their lawn in the summers. The happy-go-lucky Julius took his cues from Caesar.

After a few minutes of petting them with his free hand, Cyrus opened the gate and placed the suppers on the ground. Sniffing his hand for evidence of the dog smell Lovita claimed, he checked the janitor's mop bucket that served as a water dish. The bottom was green with algae, but it was still full of fresh, sweet water he had added just before lunch. One more time he dragged his hand under his nostril and smelled nothing but very faint dog smell. Quietly, he watched and listened to their snarfling and chomping, Caesar's black stump of a tail and tan butt vibrating with eager joy, his meal the highlight of his day, Julius more still in his concentration on the task at hand. A bomb could drop and they wouldn't know it.

When Cyrus returned to the house, he heard Lovita on the phone, her tone argumentative. "'Tyrone's your son, and I think you bear some responsibility."

Cyrus imagined Darlene's answer because he had heard it all before. You need those dogs to protect you, Mother. And if nothing else, they give Daddy something to think about besides TV. Cyrus knew the dogs wouldn't guard the house against outlaw cats and, most of all, didn't understand the worry over his television habits. After all, he'd spent thirty-two years in the Army, worked his butt off, retired as a sergeant major. Then it was another eighteen years as the head of housekeeping for their three-thousand-member Southern Baptist Church, no small task with seven employees under him, though he'd enjoyed all the coffee drinking and gabbing. It was ten times less stressful than being in the infantry. And their church had paid him well, allowing him to tuck plenty into mutual funds and other retirement securities.

Thinking he needed to return to walking with the other seniors down at the mall - maybe it would help ease some of the joint pain - Cyrus lowered himself into his La-Z-Boy to wait for Lovita to get off the phone and fix supper. He thought he might smell pinto beans cooking but the ways Lovita fixed them these days, he couldn't be sure, not with his olfactory nerves. Romeo, the tiger-striped cat - a cat Darlene had found in the alley behind her store and just knew her parents would be glad to have - joined him.

Lovita walked into the den and sat on the studio couch, not far from Cyrus's lounger. "She's your daughter," she said.

"Um hum," said Cyrus. Lovita always said that after an argument with Darlene.

"Pay attention, Cyrus."'

Cyrus turned off the television. It was nothing but news anyway and all of it bad. "What'd she say?"

"The same, so I put my foot down and told her either she came and got them or they went to the pound."

"Nobody would ever adopt either one, not Caesar with his allergies and Julius because he's too rough."

"I don't care if you take them to the pound, to the vet, or shoot them yourself. I just want them gone."

"We don't have a weapon in the house, remember?"

"Borrow one."

"'What about Eli?"

"Eli doesn't believe in guns either." Lovita stared at the blank- green television screen.

"That's not what I meant." After an Army career of small arms expertise, Cyrus had decided guns had no place in his home.

It was getting to be time for the weather to come on, though why he wanted to watch it he didn't know. The heat and drought of this summer seemed like it might last into the next millennium. "I meant, did you ask Eli if he might be interested in taking them on?" Whenever Eli came over he always made a point of greeting the dogs, petting on them, talking to them.

"I don't think Roxanne would go for him having two more dogs." Roxanne was Eli's sweetly gentle, white German shepherd, an animal that even Lovita sincerely loved. "A couple more dogs would break her heart, not to mention he'd have to build a fence."

Cyrus considered offering to have the fence built for Eli, but the animals weren't Eli's responsibility, besides, the boy - fifty years old - had enough worries just trying to stay drug-free and sober. It had been six years now since Eli had his last drunk in the upstairs bedroom. A Vietnam vet, Eli hadn't been able to handle his war memories like his old man had, but Cyrus was proud of the way the boy had turned his life around. He had no intention of throwing any kind of kink into it.

Romeo, the cat, perked his ears, turned and looked toward the front of the house. Cyrus heard a door shut, then a few seconds later, Eli ambled into the den.

"'Hey, guys. You too, Romeo." Eli stood six-four, inordinately long-legged, lanky with thick black Indian hair, just like his father's before it had grayed, only he wore his in a single thick braid down his back. "'What are you guys up to?"

"Paying the rent," said Cyrus because his flustered mind could think of nothing else.

Inside herself, Lovita continued the argument with an outward frown.

"What's eating on you?" Looking at Lovita, Eli sat on the L- shaped studio couch, diagonal to his mother.

"Them dogs," said Cyrus. His grammar always slipped when he became upset.

"Where's Roxanne?" said Lovita.

"She didn't want to come, so I left her under the air conditioner." Eli, since before he had left for Vietnam a few weeks after his dad had retired from the military, had always had a white German shepherd.

"'She didn't want to visit her grandparents?" Even Lovita tended to anthropomorphize Roxanne. "'I can't believe it." She feigned disbelief.

"I asked her." And he had. "So what's the deal with Julius and Caesar?" Eli propped his legs on an old pine blanket box his maternal grandfather had built and his mother used for a coffee table.

"'Your mother wants to get rid of them," said Cyrus.

"Wish I could take them off your hands, but I can barely afford to feed and take Rox to the vet. Not to mention the jealousy."

"Roxanne jealous?" said Lovita facetiously.

"She'd die if I brought another dog around." For years, Eli had only known his parents through the mists of alcoholic inebriation and the fog of codeine painkillers boosted by Valium. He'd enjoyed moving back to Crooked Arrow to be with them, taking up where he'd left off as a teenager, before he had gone overseas. "'What about Darlene?"

"She said there's no way Bobby'd let her take them on," said Lovita.

"Then get hold of Tyrone's little butt and tell him he'd better come do something with them. He was the one brought them here in the first place." Romeo had jumped into his lap and Eli playfully wrestled the cat with his hand.

Eli looked at both his parents in turn. Both sat with their lips together and straight. Tyrone was their favorite grandchild; they'd practically raised him and had no intention of putting him out.

"'I don't know what the problem is," said Eli. "Since you fenced in a dog run for them, they can't tear up your new backyard."

"That's not it," said Lovita. "They're too much for your father to handle, too rambunctious. One of these days they'll knock him down and break his hip or something."

"Think so?"" said Eli. He knew that his father was getting a little tottery in his old age but since his by-pass surgery had perked somewhat. And whenever he had observed the dogs with his father, the dogs seemed to sense the old man's frailty, never jumping on him, just bouncing on the ground around him, excited to greet the man they loved, the man who fed them.

"'And it's the smell . . .And the fleas," said Lovita. "I'm afraid to take my friends back there."

"They don't smell that bad, and I'll come by tomorrow with some dip and dip them." Eli now knew the real reason his mother wanted the dogs gone. She wanted her backyard perfect, a place to impress her friends, a place unencumbered by annoying dogs.

"You will?" said Cyrus, hope in his voice.

"Sure, it's not that big of a deal. You still got that big old wash tub, Mom?,"

"You seen my latest pictures of Romeo?" said Lovita, her mouth set in a straight line aided by ill-fitting dentures. Most everybody commented on how beautiful the fat and sleek Romeo was, his stripes perfectly symmetrical and unusually distinctive, so Lovita felt compelled to photograph him. He made an exquisite household ornament, a nice conversation piece.

*****

Cyrus sat on the edge of their bed in his pajamas, scratching between his toes, Jay Leno on the television. Lovita sat up in the bed with her big-print Living Word Bible on her lap.

"'I don't want them dipped," she said. "'I want them gone."

*****

The next morning, after Lovita left for a painting class, Cyrus found the dog leashes tucked in the back of a kitchen drawer, then led the happy-to-be-going-somewhere dogs to his old Chevy Silverado and put them in the cab, one at a time.

On the highway out to the vet's, both dogs slobbering with excitement, he remembered something his Kiowa grandfather had told him just before he married Lovita. If you can't satisfy your wife or shoot your own dog, you don't deserve either one. In World War Two and the Korean Conflict, Cyrus had used an M-1 carbine to shoot people. In Vietnam, he'd carried an M-16 when he led patrols. He knew he'd killed men in all three wars, had seen them die in front of him, remembered the shocked disbelief in their eyes. Since he'd volunteered for duty at eighteen and then Pearl Harbor came along, he'd not shot at one animal, hadn't even fished, in spite of his Native American heritage. The thought of killing something that couldn't defend itself left him cold inside, cold and empty.

And he thought about executions by lethal injection. Every time the state of Oklahoma put some one to death, Cyrus would carefully read the paragraph or two in the newspaper, wondering what it would be like to face an inevitable death. Was the end itself as pain free as they claimed?

When he brought the dogs inside the clinic, spoke to the receptionist, both of them - Caesar first - anxiously defecated on the carpet. Now that they had reached their destination, they somehow knew that the jig was up.

He left the leashes with the veterinarian; the idea of bringing home empty and useless dog leashes made him even sadder.

A quarter-mile down the road from the vet's, he spotted a Circle K, checked his fuel gauge and saw he had less than half a tank. Under the penumbral shade of the awning, he put the gasoline nozzle into the side of his truck and saw at the bank next door that the temperature was a hundred and one, and it was barely even noon. As the subterraneously stored gasoline cooled the metal nozzle in his hand, he thought, about the same temperature as my heart. When he went inside to pay, he spotted the blazing red of a bag of Chewy Chips Ahoy cookies. He grabbed the bag, found a quart of whole milk in the cooler, and refused to let the clerk bag them.

By the time he restarted his truck, Cyrus had eaten four cookies. Before reaching home, he parked the truck beside a neighborhood park and ate the rest of the bag, drinking his milk, watching a couple of little girls trying to play tennis in the heat, their clothes clinging sweat to their bodies. Even with the windows rolled down and the air conditioning off, Cyrus felt cold, cold enough to shiver. The ten yard walk to the park's litter can in the high noon sun did nothing to warm him.

When he pulled into the driveway at home, Eli's Cherokee sat there, and Lovita was already back from painting classes.

Both of them sat around an old oak table in the kitchen, coffee cups in front of them, Romeo lying in an empty wooden bowl in the middle, flicking his thick multi-ringed tail. They both looked up, wordlessly. Lovita frowned but looked satisfied, not one whit of guilt in her eyes. Eli looked as anguished as Cyrus felt.

"'Just look at that cat," said Lovita. "I need to get my camera." She looked at her son. "You staying for lunch? I made a real good fat-free bean soup."

"I don't think so," said Eli.


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