The year my father moved to Oregon, I asked Santa to bring me a puppy. When he didn’t deliver, I began my lobbying campaign.
I had the perfect dog in mind—a Scottish terrier I’d call Blackie—and I drew pictures of me and Jenny Yamaguchi walking him around our old neighborhood together with Lucky, the fluffy white Westie she got for Christmas. I stressed to everyone involved that I preferred a Scottie, but I wasn’t picky. I’d take whatever mutt needed rescuing from the pound.
“Our apartment is too small,” Mom said, to which my older brother added, “I’m not cleaning up dog crap.”
Grandma hung my drawings on her refrigerator, the only note of disorder in her otherwise immaculate kitchen, but Grandpa followed up with a resounding no when I suggested keeping a dog at their house. “You’re only here on holidays,” he said. “Who’s going to take care of a puppy the rest of the year?”
Then there was Dad, on the phone from Ashland, Oregon. He’d gotten a big break. He’d be playing Tom Snout in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which meant we’d have to postpone my summer visitation until at least Christmas.
“And then we can get a dog?” I said.
“I had a dog once, Rosie. A Golden Retriever named Parnassus,” he said. “Oh, the adventures we had! Me and that dog…we set out one day to climb to the top of Resurrection Hill, and, sure enough, we got lost. The sun set, and I knew my folks would be sore worried. But wouldn’t you know, the moon shone full that night, and the stars as bright as icicle. We had to ford a stream—twice!—but old Parnassus found our way home. My mother, God rest her soul, was half crazy with worry. She saw my wet shoes and clothes and started hollering. She raised her arm to whip my sorry butt, but Parnassus stepped between us, nosed Mother’s hand out of the way.
“Lovebug, that dog truly was man’s best friend.”
That was the great thing about my dad. He knew what it was to want something with your whole heart. He knew how to turn wishes into reality.
“Poor Parnassus.” Dad cleared his throat twice. “There was a fight with a raccoon, and she ended up getting rabies. In the end, there was nothing the vet could do.”
I could hear him sniffling.
“A child never gets over losing their dog,” Dad said. “I don’t want to see you go through that, sweetheart. I couldn’t bear to watch your heart break.”
My ninth birthday arrived on September 5. My grandparents gave me a tartan skirt and red sweater with a black dog knitted onto the chest, and Grandma baked an angel-food cake. After dessert, Mom was in Grandpa’s office for a long while.
“Rosie, come talk to Daddy.” Mom’s voice was bright and loud. “He called to wish you a happy birthday.”
I hadn’t heard the phone ring. The receiver was warm from my mother’s ear.
“I didn’t get a puppy,” I told my father. “And Mom says I can’t buy one with the money you sent.”
“Thanks, Daddy. The card was really nice, too.”
“Read it to me.”
“You picked it out.”
“I had so much trouble deciding this time,” Dad said. “I was standing there in the store, and it was five minutes before closing time, and nothing seemed just right. So I closed my eyes and spun around and pointed to one card. Sometimes, Rosie, you have to leave things to fate.”
“Can you do your lines again?”
“Show’s over, Kiddo.”
“Please, Dad. In this same interlude it doth befall that I, one Snout by name, —”
“We shouldn’t run up your Grandma’s phone bill.”
“Ok. I’ll send you a letter soon. I love you.”
In October, I brought Mr. Bigwig home from school with me. He was a fat brown rabbit with white feet and a white patch over one eye. I told my mother that he was on loan from Mrs. Cortez, my fourth grade teacher, that each of the kids got to take him home for two weeks. The truth was, Ross Claypool had developed an allergy and his parents’ attorney sent a letter to the principal threatening to sue the Berkeley Unified School District if Mr. Bigwig and his friend Fiver didn’t disappear.
Half the class volunteered to provide new homes, and Mrs. Cortez drew names from a jar. I really wanted the tiny Fiver who raced around the classroom when let out of his cage, begging for treats from our lunchboxes, but he went to Linh Vo, who lived in the building across the street from ours.
“That’s not fair,” Mike A. said. “She’s just going to eat it for dinner.”
“Tastes just like dog,” Mike S. said.
“Boys, enough!” Mrs. Cortez wrote Mike S on the chalkboard. Mike A’s name was already there. Mrs. Cortez gave him another checkmark, which meant detention. Linh and I smiled at each other across the room. Every day that the Mikes had detention was a day we could walk home in peace.
The next day, Linh arranged for her aunt to drive us home. Mrs. Cortez gave us the rabbits’ wire cages and water bottles, divided the bag of pellets and the wood shavings for the bottom of the cages.
Linh helped me carry Mr. Bigwig and his things upstairs. I had never invited her inside before. I wasn’t supposed to have anyone over while my mother was at school.
“Your apartment is huge,” she said. “I can’t believe only three people live here.”
Alan and I had our own small rooms, but our mother slept in the living room on a foldout couch. “You should have seen my old house,” I said. “It had two bathrooms and a backyard big enough for two dogs.”
Mr. Bigwig sat on my lap each afternoon while I read, burrowing into my comforter, and eating carrots out of my hand. He was a docile roommate, except in the early mornings and evenings, when he’d jump up onto my bed and run laps around my bedroom (or the living room when my mother wasn’t home). He had a way of switching directions mid-air, twisting his body and wriggling his butt, jumping for sheer joy. Sometimes I detected a hint of attitude—I’ve got a tail and you don’t—and sometimes he paused and nudged my leg or foot as if he wanted me to leap with him. Sometimes he flopped next to me, out of breath and heart beating as fast as hummingbird wings. Sometimes, and I would think of this move years later when I took yoga classes, Mr. Bigwig would stretched his whole spine, planting his front paws in the carpet and uncoiling each vertebrae like a wave.
Linh and I compared notes. Fiver did the same thing, always at the same time of day. It made her uncles crazy.
Mrs. Cortez told us that rabbits are crepuscular, and she offered extra credit if we would write a report.
Crepuscular animals play and eat during twilight hours. Twilight includes the early morning, before dawn. (I’d always thought it was evening, when I turned on all the lights in the apartment and checked the lock on the door, counted the minutes until my mother or Alan came home.) The crepuscular trait evolved to prevent rabbits from becoming prey to larger animals like coyotes and hawks.
Like me, Linh liked dictionary words. She liked reading, too, and I loaned her my Narnia books and Anne of Green Gables, which came back with nibble marks on the corners.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Fiver did it. I’ll get you a new one.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “Biggie ate half the cover of Ballet Shoes. Have you read that yet?”
In addition to books, Mr. Bigwig chewed through the shoelaces on Alan’s sneakers and gnawed on the leg of the coffee table. Once, I found him behind my bedroom door, tearing out strands of shag carpet with his teeth and front paws. It was all a small price for the nose nudging my face in the morning, urging me to wake up, for the feel of warm soft fur under my fingertips while I read or watched television.
On Thursdays, my mother had class until 9 p.m., and I spent the afternoons alone reading until my eyes crossed and my stomach rumbled, at which point I would heat up a TV dinner. Alan was usually off on his bike with his crowd of skinny boys.
I walked home from school with Linh, and she told me she’d taught Fiver to sit on his hind legs and beg for a vegetable scrap. “He eats rice out of my hand. Now when my grandma cooks, he comes running and begs,” she said. “It’s so cute.”
“Do you want to come over?” I asked her.
“I have to go to Catechism,” she said. “Maybe another day. I can bring Fiver, too.”
I climbed the two flights of stairs, waved to Mrs. Holmes who was watching television with her front door open. I unlocked the door. The guy next door was playing the Eagles—Tequila Sunrise—so loud that I could hear them singing after I closed the door.
I left my library books on the coffee table and got a carrot out of the refrigerator. At my bedroom door, I paused with my hand on the knob and positioned my body in the doorjamb, ready to block Mr. Bigwig with my foot if he tried to escape.
I heard no scurrying, just the hollow swoosh of the door scraping the shag carpet. I didn’t see Mr. Bigwig until I closed the door. He was lying on his side in the corner where he had harvested the carpet strands.
I dropped the carrot and knelt beside him. “Mr. Bigwig, hey Biggie.” I spoke in the cooing voice I used when we played. “Biggie-boy, are you awake?”
I stretched my hand toward him, jerked it away, then forced my index finger to the tip of the fur on his side. Even at his sleepiest, any touch, even the hovering hint of a touch, launched Mr. Bigwig into activity (or sent him to running to hide under my bed).
I stared at his white chest and belly. A rabbit’s heart can beat 130 to 325 times in a single minute. In that same sixty seconds, it breathes 30 to 60 times. Mrs. Cortez had us fill out a chart comparing the respiration rates of different species. She taught us to place our index and middle fingers across the inside of our wrists or over the carotid artery beneath our jaws and count our own heartbeats while the second hand of the wall clock swept forward ten seconds. Sometimes when Mr. Bigwig flopped next to me after racing back and forth, showing how he could jump over my legs, I would rest my hand on his back, feeling his rapid flutter racing against the slower pulse in my wrist.
Now, I didn’t check Mr. Bigwig’s pulse. I didn’t need to.
I wondered how long he had been lying alone. I whispered, “I’m sorry.”
I looked at the clock. 3:50. Five hours before Mom was home. I had time to take care of this before she found out.
I picked up my old blankie from the end of my bed and held it to my face. It was threadbare in places, the satin edging worn through and frayed, and Mr. Bigwig had nibbled a hole in one corner. Grandma kept threatening to throw it away. I smelled the years on the blanket, then draped it over Mr. Bigwig’s body before I could change my mind. I got a shopping bag with handles from underneath the kitchen sink, used the edge of a cookie sheet to slide Mr. Bigwig into the bag.
Two blocks from our apartment was a vacant lot, several acres in size, waiting to be developed. Old-timers like Mrs. Holmes said there had once been a Victorian mansion on the property, and in places, traces of the brick foundation remained. At the back of the lot, was a cluster of eucalyptus trees, the entrance to a culvert, and a small creek. It was the same creek that ran through the neighborhood, bisecting backyards and twisting through tunnels underneath parking lots and sidewalks. Sometimes after a rainstorm, Linh and I could hear its water rushing underground as we walked home from school or the library.
I’d been down to the empty lot with my brother and his friends, but never alone. It was a deserted place, and we’d seen squirrels and raccoons there, and once, a small wild rabbit. It would be the perfect spot to bury Mr. Bigwig.
We didn’t have a shovel, so I took the metal spoon Mom used to stir soup and Alan’s Swiss Army knife. I tucked my copy of The Velveteen Rabbit in the bag next to Mr. Bigwig’s body. I had this idea that I would cover him with dirt and leaves and read the ending where the stuffed rabbit becomes real, before saying goodbye. I knew Watership Down would have been more fitting, but I didn’t own a copy, and there wasn’t time to make it to the library before dark.
At the eucalyptus trees, I walked in a slow circle, testing the ground with the toe of my sneaker. I found a soft muddy spot, looped the bag over my shoulder, and knelt to poke at the dirt.
I heard splashing in the shallow creek, a sharp bark, then a flash of brown and white and black at my feet. A dog sniffed and jumped up on me, putting muddy paws on my thighs.
“Down, boy. Go home.” I shoved at him with both hands.
One of the twine handles broke on the shopping bag, and the dog lunged at it.
“Scram! Go away!” I twisted away from him, holding the bag—and Mr. Bigwig—close to my chest.
A second dog appeared, growling, and jumped at my back. Both of their snouts and front paws knocked at the bag and my torso. I saw teeth, wet eyes, and I froze.
The bag hit the ground. The metal spoon and the book slid out. I could see Mr. Bigwig’s hind foot from beneath my yellow blanket. The dogs saw him too, or smelled him. They lunged forward, shoving me aside and ripping into the package.
My tennis shoes stuck in the soft ground like it was concrete. I saw blood and fur, heard voices, the rough tones of men or teenage boys, yelling and calling names.
“Duke, Lucky, get back here.”
The smaller dog looked at me and let out a low grrr, then bounded toward the voices. I felt my feet unglue and I ran, behind the trees and around the perimeter of the lot, trying to stay out of sight.
It was uphill to our apartment, and I ran the whole way, empty-handed. The denim of my jeans chafed my thighs. I touched the inside of my pant leg and discovered that somewhere in the tumble of paws and teeth, my bladder had let go.
I washed up at the bathroom sink and put Neosporin on the scrapes on my arms. Dirty clothes went into a garbage bag, along with the washcloth and everything Mr. Bigwig had touched. Water bottle, food bowl, the toilet paper rolls he liked to play with, an empty Kleenex box—I dragged it all down to the dumpster behind our building, came back with his cage and left it next to a broken television set.
Upstairs, I wrapped myself in my old sleeping bag and watched television until my brother came home. I forgot to eat dinner, and Alan didn’t ask. He went in his room and played guitar for half an hour with the door closed.
When he emerged, he glanced at my open door. “Shouldn’t you be in bed?”
“I’m not tired.”
“You don’t have the bun out here, do you? Mom will be pissed if there’s rabbit shit in the couch again.”
“He’s gone.” My voice caught, and I swallowed hard. “My turn was up. I had to take him back to school.”
“I was just getting used to the little turd.” He fake-punched my arm, then knocked my feet off the couch. “Make some room, dipshit.”
He pretended to grab my sleeping bag. I tugged back, then shoved his thighs with my feet.
“Don’t hog it, assface,” I said.
“It’s all yours.” Alan squeezed my bare foot. We stayed up watching Hill Street Blues until the news came on and we heard Mom’s footsteps on the breezeway.
“Run and get in bed,” Alan said. “I’m not getting busted for letting you stay up.”
Over Christmas break, Alan had a basketball tournament he couldn’t miss, so I flew to Oregon alone. Dad met my plane in Portland, and there was a young woman with him—Alison—who had feathered hair and a swath of beetle-green shadow on each eyelid. She pulled me into a quick hug and I could feel the round swell of her belly beneath her corduroy jumper.
It was over an hour to Dad’s new house, and on the way there, Dad drove past a two-story beige building. “That’s the place, Kiddo,” he said. “Can you believe it? Go in to renew your car insurance, meet the love of your life, and find a new career.”
They were getting married on New Year’s Eve. I was to be the flower girl.
“Does Mom know?” I asked.
“I asked her not to tell you. We wanted to wait till you were here.”
Dad’s right hand was on the gearshift, and Alison placed hers on top of it. “We wanted to tell you in person,” she said.
Their new house was as square and beige as the office building, with a flat roof and a carport, but no garage.
“Three bedrooms,” Dad said. “Plans are to add another bathroom soon.”
At the front door, he gave the keys to Alison and covered my eyes with his hands. “Santa came early,” he said.
I heard a tinny bark, toenails skittering on wood, Dad saying, “Down, boy,” and “Surprise” as paws and wet nose bounced against my shins.
“Falstaff, down, be good now,” Alison said.
“He’s a Jack Russell, smart as a whip,” Dad said.
The dog whirled and yipped around me, jumped up and begged for attention, his nails scratching my bare legs. I stood like a statue, felt my father watching me, felt my eyes go hot and body turn cold.
“He’s cute,” I said pushing the words past the tears in my throat.
Dad grinned and Alison grabbed my wrist and pulled me closer to the yapping dog. “He wants to play with you, Rosie. Let him sniff your hand. He needs to get used to you.”
She talked baby talk to the dog while she held the stiff rod of my arm in a strong grip, her fingers around my wrist forcing my hand to splay wide. I could feel each hot and sandpapery lick.
“Nice doggy. There’s a sweet doggy.” I worked to fill my voice with delight. “Thank you, Daddy. He’s what I’ve always wanted.”
After my father married Alison, cards arrived a week before my birthday and holidays too, postmarked and with a ten-dollar bill inside. The first one came on Valentine’s Day, and I taped it on my wall next to the picture of me and Dad that Alison had taken before their courthouse wedding.
That summer, I had a new baby brother (and another the next summer), but Falstaff was gone. Mrs. Cortez had given us a list of books—Recommended Reading for Fifth Grade—before we left for summer vacation, and I was allowed to walk to the library by myself, to read quietly while the baby was napping. I read every book on the list, even Old Yeller, although I was thinking about Mr. Bigwig when I got to the sad parts.
I left the book lying about the house, on the coffee table and in the dining room. I sat on the couch and pretended to read it while Dad watched a baseball game.
“Did Falstaff get rabies, too?” I finally asked.
“What gave you that idea?” Dad said. “I told you, Rosie, we took him out to the country, to live on a farm.”
“Is it like Grandpa’s farm?” I asked.
“Bigger,” Dad said. “There are acres and acres where he can run and play. Cows and sheep, oak trees, too. A pond he can swim in. Jackrabbits he can chase.”
I didn’t ask if we could visit.
As for Linh Vo, she was the only one I told about Mr. Bigwig, but only that he had passed, not the details of the attempted burial or his final disposition. I went to her apartment after school, and we fed Fiver slices of apple and carrot, and she came to mine, and I showed her the picture of Dad and Alison. She told me her father was in Thailand waiting to move to America.
She showed me the tadpoles her cousins had caught in the creek. They swam in an old mayonnaise jar, turning into frogs, one leg at a time. “We should catch some before they’re gone,” Linh said.
“I don’t want to run into the Mikes. They hang out there all the time.”
We walked to the library instead and checked out Beverly Cleary books.
In the summer, while I was visiting Dad or my grandparents, Linh moved away. That was the way of our neighborhood. Families moved in and out, even in the middle of the school year, sometimes in the middle of the night.
Years later, I spotted Linh and my old friend Jenny Yamaguchi at Freshman Orientation for Presentation High School. They lived two blocks from each other, Linh’s aunt and uncle having bought a house in the neighborhood where I’d lived before my parents’ divorce.
Linh didn’t have Fiver anymore. Her aunt hadn’t wanted pets in the new house.
“I wanted to leave him with you, but you weren’t home,” Linh told me. “So I took him down to the vacant lot and set him free.”
“We saw him once.” I’d never gone back to the vacant lot, but I continued my story. “He was hopping across the grass, then he ran under some bushes. I told my brother, ‘that rabbit looks just like Linh’s little Fiver.’ There were other bunnies with him, maybe two or three. They seemed so happy.”