tagGay MaleFor the Love of Pete

For the Love of Pete

bysr71plt©

Rick didn't like dogs. If he did he would have paid some attention to whether his apartment house accepted dogs before signing a year's lease and painting the living room wall hunter green in anticipation of an even longer tenancy.

His dad knew he didn't like dogs. And he probably had taken the time to discover that there was a "no dogs" clause in Rick's apartment lease.

So, why, Rick wondered, did his dad use the most vulnerable moment of their long and stormy relationship to saddle his son with Pete—or with tremendous guilt if Rick had refused to take him.

"One last thing, Rick," he had said, as Rick dipped his head low to hear what had to be the eleventh last request—none of which had a thing to do with either Rick or his sister, Rachel.

"Sure thing, Dad," Rick had whispered, being quite sure that his dad would come out of this like he'd done several times before and probably would go on ignoring both Rachel and Rick as he had dutifully done since the day their mother had betrayed him and died of cancer.

"Promise me this last thing. I can't go until I know it's taken care of."

"Yes, I promise," Rick said. But the son had no idea what the father was going to say—that he be buried out at the sheep ranch he had loved so much and so hard, certainly more than he'd ever loved another human being, and that had been hard to him in return? Or maybe have his old Jeep bronzed and used as his casket? Rick didn't really care which. His dad had been little more than an inconvenience and nagging guilt of opportunity lost and relationships gone sour for no reason Rick could fathom for more than a decade. And the son's only comforting thought on that failure to bond was that Rick knew he had given it more thought and been more concerned about it than his father ever had.

The father loved his dog more than he loved Rick—or Rachel—or even his wife when she was still alive, Rick would have been willing to bet.

"I want you to promise to take Pete. Not to put him down or send him to a kennel. I want you to promise to give him a home and see that he is taken care of—personally."

That certainly was a bolt out of hell. Rick's dad knew his son's circumstance, in a small inner-city apartment. Rick's experience with his dad's dog, Pete, was that the hound didn't even like Rick. Hell, he growled at Rick and kept his body between the son and the father whenever Rick had checked in on his dad—giving Rick the impression that the dog thought him capable of patricide. Which, at the moment, if his dad weren't already dying, seemed a viable choice to Rick.

"Why, Dad? Why not Rachel? She lives on a big spread. It would be what Pete is used to. He'd adjust so much better . . ."

"He can't stand Rachel. He'd die out of spite," the dad answered. His voice was weak, though. Rick had to lower his head even farther to catch his words.

Why didn't I know this about Rachel and the pooch, Rick mused to himself. And how could Pete like Rachel any less than he liked me? How could anyone have told? Did he put Rachel in the hospital? Rick realized at that moment that he had almost as nothing of a relation with his older sister as he had with his dad. They hadn't spoken in years—not really spoken, not about anything serious.

That was a depressing thought. Not as depressing and panic edged as the thought of taking his dad's sheep dog in, though.

"Sure, Dad, I'll do that. But there's no reason to be talking about it now. You'll be fine. The doctors said you'll recover just fine."

But the dad wasn't fine. He died no more than an hour later, defying the doctors to the last. On three previous hospitalizations, the doctors had agreed he couldn't possibly survive, but he had. And the one time they said his chances were quite good, he died. Rick decided his dad was perverse that way. He'd been spiting Rick like that for years. And he had died without saying another thing. His last thoughts weren't about the woman he'd lived with for over thirty years or either one of his children—they were about an old sheep dog named Pete.

* * * *

"You can't keep that dog here. You signed a 'no dogs' lease."

"Suits me," Rick answered. "As soon as I get my dad buried, I'll be finding a new home for his dog. Won't be more than a couple of days. Neither the dog nor I can take this arrangement long, so don't worry about him being here next week."

Rick was inching by the apartment super, a stretched muscle-shirt kind of middle aged guy named Calvin, who was standing out in the middle of the hall in front of the entry door. The door to his first-floor apartment was ajar, revealing a bare room looking more like a gym than a living room and with the TV blaring a professional football game. Calvin was a Neanderthal, who divided his life between ignoring calls to do repairs in the building, using his gym equipment to keep his muscles popping out, and chasing the younger male tenants. He'd been trying to corner Rick, whose apartment was cattycorner at the back of the first-floor hallway from Calvin's, ever since Rick moved in.

"Besides," Rick turned and said after he'd gotten past Calvin and was sliding down the narrow hallway at the side of the stairs to the upper floors, "the guy in 3B has a yap yap dog that's been going crazy ever since I moved in."

"Yeah, well, that guy is friendly," Calvin said with a grin that more resembled a leer. "He makes it worth my while to have his dog here. If you was to . . ."

"That's OK, Pete here will be out before the 15th. I just need to get my dad buried first."

Rick felt like shooting himself for having given Calvin that opening. The best thing to do with the super was to say as little as possible—certainly not get smart-assed with him as Rick had just done—and stay out of his way to the extent possible. Rick did know what Calvin wanted, and although Rick didn't exactly shy away from getting it on with another guy, he feared Calvin. He was sure the guy had a mean streak—that he could break Rick in two if he wanted to and that he might just look on that as fun. Rick much preferred the corporate types. The ones stepping out on their wives but wanting to keep up appearances. The private little weekends at mountain cabins. And the nice presents.

None of that was going to happen, of course, until Rick could unload Pete.

Rick felt a little guilty about doing it, especially as his dad wasn't even buried yet and he had made a promise. But the way Rick looked at it, the request had been just one last jab in a combative, mean-spirited life. His dad had thrown him out on his tail the minute Rick had mentioned the gay word and had barely spoken to him in the six years that followed.

Rick had had to pull himself up by himself and get his own education and find his own job and establish his own life in the city—rejecting the rural life on the sheep ranch that his dad had relished and that had killed his mother, worn her down with long years of worry on living and prospering to the next year and pulling her full share in keeping the ranch going.

Rick didn't feel all that forgiving toward his father for that.

Still, he would have felt more guilty if Pete wasn't such a burden. The dog hadn't done anything but whine and snuffle at the door, waiting for his master to arrive and rescue him. And turning on Rick and growling at every move he made. It was a battle just getting him leashed and out into the park to relieve himself a couple of times a day. It was a good thing that Rick's work was within a short walk and he could come home for lunch and to struggle Pete out for a walk, or he'd have to clean up a mess each evening when he came home. Several times a day, he remembered his dad saying that the dog didn't like Rachel and he laughed at the suggestion that the dog liked him better.

The inconvenience—and the ingratitude of the dog—were already crimping Rick's style, and Pete had only been here three days. And there was Calvin to worry about. Rick didn't like Calvin having anything over his head. Not at all.

When he gave it thought, Rick didn't blame the dog, really—or not much. And he maybe would have blamed and resented him less if he didn't sense that the dog blamed and resented him even more.

The dog was no dummy. He was a purebred Sheltie—related to a border collie. And Rick's dad had paid big bucks for him to have a dog to do exactly what Shelties were good for—herding sheep on an open-range ranch. Until he was retired when Rick's dad retired, the dog had been purely an outdoor, open-range work dog, living in the barn and facing up to his routine of sending the sheep out onto the range in the morning, keeping track of them throughout the day, and nipping their heels back to the corral at night. That Sheltie and Rick's dad were more of a devoted couple than his parents had ever been. And Rick's dad paid more attention to Pete, who had to be more than twelve years old and thus in his dotage now, than Rick and Rachel had ever gotten from the sour-tongued, mean-spirited old coot.

Rick couldn't deny, however, that Pete had loved his father unconditionally. Rick wasn't even sure that Pete would outlive his father for long. The dog sat by the door, perking up his ears whenever he heard footsteps out in the vestibule, but quickly realizing it wasn't his master and sadly lowering his muzzle onto his front legs again and, giving a whine, returning to softly crying his grief.

Through some sixth sense the dog had—Rick continuing realizing that Pete was quite intelligent—Rick was sure that the dog intellectually knew his dad was gone. The dog had probably been fully aware of the old man's deteriorating health over the years, and the few times Rick had visited the ranch in the past two years—now just a collection of rotting sheds and bereft of its livestock and not even belonging to Rick's family anymore—he had noticed that the dog increasingly had taken on itself the burden of fetching and carrying for the old man and nudging him when it was time for the old man to eat. Rick had gotten the impression that it was truly the old man that the dog was trying to keep going, not prompting him in panic to have the dog's own needs met.

On the day of the funeral, Pete looked like he was steeped in grief, Rick heard howling start up from his apartment as soon as he opened the front door to the busy street.

Rick knew Calvin would be waiting for him in the hallway, fish-eyed and nasty, when Rick returned from the funeral. But there wasn't anything else Rick could do. He couldn't be everywhere at once, and this was one chore he had to do himself. When he had called Rachel, she asked, with a sigh, how much of a check she needed to send to help cover the final arrangements, and he could almost feel her relax into relief when Rick said there had been enough insurance to cover that.

"So, if you can give me some sort of idea when you can make it East, I'll settle on a burial date."

The silence on the phone line was palpable.

"I won't be coming," Rachel said at last. "I know that sounds awful. But there it is. I see no reason to be hypocritical about it." Rachel, the practical one. The hard one. But then Rick didn't really blame her. She'd had to build a shell to survive the life that had been dealt her. And she'd done all right for herself. The two of them didn't see much of each other, certainly. But Rick knew that this was mostly because of the rough life they'd shared under their father's roof. Whenever they met, any chance that they could have enjoyed the visit was wiped out by the memories that crowded in—the wounds threatening to open again. Wounds that they both had worked so hard to close. Things that needed to be said that but couldn't be said.

"That's OK," Rick had answered. "If I wasn't already here, I wouldn't be coming either."

The ceremony was short. Rick's father had no friends—certainly not here in the city. Less than a 100 miles from the ranch, but the ranch and the city might as well have been on separate planets as far as Rick's father was concerned.

Rick had a priest friend, and he was happy enough to come out and say a few words over the grave, especially when, upon going through the desk out at the ranch, Rick had found that his father was a practicing Catholic. But other than Rick, standing off from the grave as it was being filled in, and the pitiful little spray of roses he'd remembered to stop and pick up at the last minute, there was no other evidence that Rick's father had ever lived or had left any sort of positive mark on the world. Rick felt evil, but he gave a little laugh when, standing there, watching the roses get buried under the clods of dirt, he remembered that his father hated roses.

Rick could hear the howling from a block away when he trudged back from the internment. And sure enough, Calvin was waiting for him in the front hall, wearing athletic shorts and a tight tank top and a scowl going from ear to ear.

"I told you about the dog."

"I know. I just buried my dad. I'll work on getting rid of the dog now."

Something in the way Rick said it, a sudden hardness to his voice, made Calvin shut his jaw on the next comment he was going to make and back into his apartment and shut the door.

It was the door that Rick noticed first when he entered the apartment. He might have thought that Pete had rabies from the way the dog was flopping all over the living room. Rick had heard the scratching over the howls while he was opening the door, and when he entered the apartment and turned and looked down, he saw that Pete was well on his way to digging through the wood of the door and escaping. Another unpleasant confrontation down the road with Calvin. And all the dog's doing.

"Stop that, you mutt," Rick yelled in exasperation.

But Pete kept on howling and flinging himself around the room and returning to dig at the door.

"OK, OK, I'll take you out to the park," Rick answered, angry and beside himself. He couldn't get rid of this burden fast enough.

When he'd gotten Pete leashed and followed him out the front door, barely able to keep him under control, Rick was surprised that Pete didn't head for the park a block over, which was the only place besides the apartment that Pete knew in this new and strange—and oppressive—environment. Pete was pulling Rick down the street, north rather than south, where the park was located.

It took Rick a few moments to catch on, and even then it was only a hunch. The dog couldn't be that smart, Rick thought. but smart or not, the dog was trying to drag Rick in the direction of the cemetery that Rick had just left.

Resigned, and curious about his hunch, and needing to get Pete out of ear range of Calvin long enough to think about what he'd do with him, how he'd get rid of a dog this old, knowing that he was on the verge of being tossed out on the street himself, Rick pulled Pete over to his car and pushed him into the backseat. The dog seemed less agitated now that something was happening, no doubt, Rick thought, believing that this clod who had kidnapped him had finally gotten the idea that he needed to take Pete home—to his master, who needed him.

While Rick drove, he also began to get calmer—and to formulate and accept the plan of just taking Pete to an animal shelter on the way home. Admitting defeat and bowing to the inevitable. Failing his father once again in the old man's eyes—but, what the hell. What had his father ever done for him?

When they reached the cemetery, Pete bounded out of the car before Rick could get the leash on him and raced straight for the newly interred grave. Rick stood there, in awe, as he watched Pete stretch out full on top of the freshly laid sod on his father's grave and bury his muzzle into the loose soil in a seam in the sod roll.

Rick heard the dog whimpering, but this wasn't anything like the frenzy the dog had gone into in the apartment.

Time dragged on. Rick had no idea how long they were out there—Pete flattened against the grave and Rick standing at the car. Waiting. At length Rick heard stifled sobbing and assumed it was the dog. But he was surprised and perplexed to realize that the sobs were his own. He had let his mind wander. He had thought of the dog, Pete, and the depth of emotion that the animal obviously felt for his father. And he began to think that his father must have had a vein of something lovable in him for a dog to mourn him like this. And then his thoughts went to what he'd found in the desk—discoveries that he had steeled himself against until now, had pretended didn't exist because he didn't want them to exist. Not just the discovery that his father had been a practicing Catholic, but evidence as well that he cared for people—had contributed to charities. Had paid for gifts for both Rick and Rachel that they had convinced themselves had come only from their mother. Had paid tuition bills for Rick that he hadn't even realized he had owed. And the packet of letters. The love letters between his parents, his father's words so poetic and loving.

Rick was crying full bore now, grieving belatedly, but grieving still. Not his father's son in that regard. Still able to grieve and to mourn opportunities lost. Not stone-hearted.

He took a handkerchief out of his pocket and was using it to blot the tears in his eyes. Closing his eyes. Wanting to shut the world out; somehow embarrassed that he was standing out here bawling—even though this was the one place where anyone could be forgiven such a lowering of defenses.

He felt a cold wetness at the other hand that had been dangling at his side, and he jerked the hand to the side. But the cold wetness followed the hand, and Rick opened his eyes in time to see Pete nudge his muzzle into the palm of the hand. Rick knelt down and hugged the dog close—the first time Pete had let him anywhere near—and the dog responded by burrowing his nose into the crook of Rick's elbow.

After several minutes, Rick stood up and opened the door to the backseat of the car and whispered, "Come on, boy. Let's go home."

Pete jumped into the backseat and turned and sat down like a potentate awaiting the start of the parade, and Rick sighed and climbed into the front seat.

* * * *

The transformation in Pete was dramatic. Rick don't know if the Sheltie only needed to assure himself that his father, indeed, was gone or whether he was moved by the son's breakdown at the car in the cemetery and saw something in Rick of his father—or had seen for the first time some affection in the son for the father the dog loved so much. Whatever it was, from the time they drove away from the cemetery, Pete wouldn't leave Rick's side and seemed almost to be wooing him.

Rick and Pete mercifully avoided a meeting with Calvin in the front hall of the apartment building when they returned from the cemetery, but Rick knew it was just a case of putting off the inevitable. But then, at that moment he still intended on finding Pete a new home. Rick just hadn't been able to carry through with his intent on dropping him off at the SPCA on the way home from the cemetery. The man and the dog had bonded in some way there, and Rick couldn't bring himself to be so hardhearted toward Pete with his dad still warm in the grave. He'd give it a few days.

Rick's dad. There was something inevitable in all of this. Rick was thinking more of his dad when he was dead than he had ever thought of his dad when he was alive. And Rick was thinking of him in more than one dimension. Maybe there had been something more than perversity in his foisting of Pete off on his son. Rick could imagine him—still—liking the thought of causing his son concern and making him squirm. But Rick couldn't think of his father doing that to Pete. Rick hadn't been exaggerating when he thought of Pete as the love of his father's life. And thinking on the flip side of the issue—thinking of what was good for Pete as opposed to what was mean-spirited toward his son, Rick had to think that perhaps his dad's final request was intentional. Perhaps he was giving his son a gift rather than a burden. And perhaps he was entrusting Rick with the one thing he loved best. And, just perhaps, he thought, in his last act on earth, he was giving his son something he needed.

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