My grandmother smells like death. The stench of the rotting flesh of her sizable carcass permeates the morning air when I rise to use the washroom after her. I plug my nose and hold my breath, pee as quickly as possible before flushing and exiting the washroom to exhale.
My grandmother comes for another free summer holiday in Canada when I am twelve. My Auntie Colette accompanies my gran, as does a female cousin. Cousin Fiona is the same age as I, and she and I get along very well. That is a good thing because theirs is to be another extended summer stay. They come toting boxes of Mars bars and Fry’s chocolate creams, a dark chocolate peppermint bar that my father favours, upon which I regularly gorge myself when no one is around.
We take them to Florida and Disney World for two weeks. My mother has found a condo to rent in Orlando. We set out in mid-July in our powder-blue station wagon with my father behind the wheel. We are nine in number -my family of five and the three Scottish relatives who have come to stay, and our family dog, Nöel. Fiona and I chat, sing or sleep along the way. We stop in Day’s Inn Motel hotels en route where we always have two rooms. I stay with my granny, auntie and cousin, and my family occupies another room connected to ours by an adjoining door.
The condo in Florida has lime green shag carpeting throughout, three bedrooms and two stories. I love the stairs. I think the stairs to be very elegant in contrast to our plain, one-story bungalow, and vow to have a home with a staircase one day. When my cousin and I go to explore our room I see a huge cockroach fall from the draperies. I scream and point at it. Fiona screams too and together we hop up on the bed. My mother runs into the room to see what all the shrieking is about and I point to the enormous beastie now climbing the mint-green sheer draperies as we remain marooned on the bed. My mother grabs a shoe and smashes the cockroach until it was dead. Thump! Thump! Thump! Whack!
We set out to explore the beach but Cissy wants to remain at the condo swimming pool. The swimming pool is filled with salt water, which doesn’t appeal to me so Fiona and Lil come with me and together we continue on to the beach, which is within walking distance of the condo. Once next to the water, we run into the crashing waves, screaming with glee. I spy a huge crab scuttling across the surf and go about capturing it in my beach towel. I leave it out of the water baking on its back in the sun for several hours while we play at the beach. I leave it until I am certain it is dead. I return to the condo with my crab cradled in my towel and fill the downstairs toilet sink with water to let my crab sit in the water to clean the sand from it. A short time later I hear the blood chilling screams of my auntie who is using the toilet when the crab snaps to life and clamors from the sink towards her.
“Ahhhhh! Angela! Angela! You wee bugger!” my auntie screams.
I know I am in for it. My mother, once she realizes what I have done, is furious.
“Angela! I’ll bloody kill ye, lassie Take that bloody crab back doon tae the beach and let it go!”
I ask my father to catch and release it for me, but he refuses. “Make sure it doesnee tear aff yer fingers or yer toes way its claws, lass,” my dad says.
I throw my towel over the retorting crab, pick it up and run as fast as I can towards the beach terrified that it will tear off my fingers and toes. As I get close to the beach I panic and throw it down the ravine rather than carry it all the way to the water’s edge. I feel terribly guilty for doing so and hope then that it will not die, but I am too afraid to go collect it again to carry it to the surf.
“Ahhhhhhhhhhh!” I scream.
I run away from the crab who by then must be furious with its captor, and flee back to the condo as fast as I can, screaming in terror, petrified that it will chase me and take my fingers as toes in an act of crustacean vengeance.
We go to Disney World the next day. My auntie is a good sport and comes on the fast rides with Fiona and me since no one else will. We take her up Space Mountain a half dozen times, and she white knuckles it the entire time but never lets on to us that she is frightened. When she refuses to go on a seventh time we rejoin my mother, father, sisters and grandmother.
My mother is running the hot tarmac at Disney World screaming. When we are close enough to hear what she is saying, we realize that Lil is lost. She is seven years old, and wandering Disney World unaccompanied.
“Let’s all split up,” my mother says. “Break off into twos and find her.”
Fiona and I partner up, but not realizing the magnitude of the situation choose not to look for Lil but instead ride the Grand Prix. We each get our own bumper race car and speed about the track trying to bump one another off as we race. We are to reconvene in two hours’ time and reassemble where we departed from my family. That means we are able to race around the track several more times. When we meet up with my family again, we pretend that we have been searching for Lil the entire time.
Of course, Lil is there. She has been found. My mother discovered her in a commune of hippies by the park’s front gates. She saw Lil’s red hair and ran to the group snatching Lil away from them. I am sure the hippies were well-meaning and had intended to return Lil to her parents, but my mother is convinced they were intending to kidnap her.
On the day we leave Florida, my mother wants us to have a huge breakfast at the Pancake House before hitting the road. I don’t want to leave the dog alone in the car but my mother forces me to eat with the rest of the family.
“Ye’ll be hungry later and we’re no stoapping alang th’ road fer you!” my mother spews. My mother is always in a furious mood when her mother visits and I wonder why she subjects herself and the rest of us to three months of sheer hell every year when she brings her old bitch of a mother across the pond for yet another visit.
I eat my pancakes as fast as I can and return to the car to keep Nöel company. Our family pet lies listless. I run back inside the International House of Pancakes and tell my father that Nöel is ill.
“Och. She’s fine,” my mother spits, her cheeks bulging with food. “See the way ye exaggerate, lassie. She’s a bloody wee liar that wan,” my mother announces to the table. “She has quite the imagination, so she has, oor Angela.”
My father ignores my mother and comes with me to the car to find Nöel as I had described her. She is laying limp in the car. It is early morning but already too hot in Florida to leave a dog unattended in a vehicle. Nöel is a hyper dog, and she has worked herself into a state being left alone in the hot car, which has literally cooked her insides.
“Och. She’ll be fine,” my mother says when she sees her. “We’ll drive and she’ll be fine.”
We drive out of Florida. Nöel sits next to my mother, and I stand perched between my parents, hanging over the front seat from the seat behind them. When we stop on the road to let her pee Nöel drags her hind legs as she crawls using her front paws to pull her tiny body forward. My mother and dad put the dog on the grass between them and my dad calls Nöel to him, but she cannot move. She tries to make it to my father, but can’t. She is also passing blood. The stench of her blood is sickening in the unforgiving heat of the American south. We stop for the night in a Tennessee Day’s Inn, which is right in the middle of the Smokey Mountains so-called because of the rings of smoke that surround the mountain peaks. I leave the room I share with the Scottish relatives and go out by myself at night to swim in the pool. I love being alone and having the pool to myself. I look up at the rings of smoke around the mountains and weep. I weep for my dog who I know is dying. She never really loved me but I love her and I am devastated that she is leaving me. I go back to the hotel room and try to get Nöel to move. Cissy screams at me to leave her alone.
“You always want attention! Stop bugging her to get attention!” Cissy shrieks and I am crestfallen. I had just wanted to see if I could get Nöel to walk.
We drive into Georgia the next day, which is a Sunday. My mother wraps Nöel in an old beach towel holds the dying dog on her lap. The smell of death fills the hot car.
“Let’s stop and see if we can get a vet,” my mother finally says.
My father obediently pulls off the highway, and doubles back to Macon, Georgia – the last town we drove past – and we look for a vet. He calls one from a pay phone and we drive to the clinic where the vet agrees to meet us though the clinic is closed on Sundays.
My father tells us to walk across the field to a fast food restaurant and wait there for him. My sisters and I sit with my cousin, and auntie waiting for my dad. I keep watching the field that separates the fast food restaurant from the vet clinic for my dad, and at last he appears. He has on dark sunglasses and walks towards us with his hands in his pockets and his head hanging down. I watch him through the large glass windows of the fast food restaurant. He lifts his head and withdraws his hands from his pockets and crosses his left hand over his right before him as an umpire might do when he says a man is safe on his base. But as he makes that baseball sign with his hands he shakes his head ‘no’ and tears slip from behind his sunglasses and stream down his face. A line of spittle slips from the side of his mouth and he lifts his right hand to wipe it away.
We run to our father and embrace him. We are all crying, even my cousin and auntie weep and cling to our backs in a sobbing, huddled mass. We waed back the car with our arms wrapped around our dad, and drive out of Georgia leaving Nöel to be buried in its red clay earth. Our dog is dead and our hearts are broken.
We get back to London, Ontario on August 17th. We play in the streets with the MacKirdie’s and the other kids on the block but I don’t feel like playing so I sit on the curb with Shirley MacKirdie instead. It’s dark and we sit there in front of the MacKirdies’ house. Shirley tries to comfort me over the loss of our family pet but I am inconsolable. Suddenly, Lenny Wallowell bursts through from his front door.
“The King is dead!” he proclaims.
“What?” we ask.
“Elvis Presley is dead. He died in his home in Tennessee. Graceland.”
We were just there, I think. Our dog was dying there. Now both Elvis Presley and our dog, Nöel, are dead a state apart.
My granny, auntie and cousin leave after another week or so, and my granny gives me and my sisters each twenty-five dollars to buy a new dog. I find an ad for brown poodles in the newspaper, and tell my dad. He calls the breeder who lives out in Tillsonburg, and sets up a time to meet. By the time we get to the farm in Tillsonburg there is only one little puppy left. She isn’t brown like Nöel, but apricot. Nor is she responsive to us. We buy her anyway for seventy-five dollars. As we drive back to London from Tillsonburg, the new puppy makes it clear that she wants to be alone in the back of the station wagon so we let her go there. As my dad turns corners the puppy falls about the back of the blue station wagon and Lil and I giggle at her. Then we watch her pee back there.
“Dad! She peed!” I shout.
“Och. She’s nervous.”
My mother is disappointed with the new puppy. “She’s no chocolate brown like oor Nöel,” she says. “Ye shouldnee have taken her. Wee mutt. She has bad eyes. What should we call her then?” my mother asks.
I want to call her Tilly since we got her in Tillsonburg, but no one is keen on that idea. “What about Peanuts then?” I say. “Nöel died in Georgia and peanuts is their main corp. President Jimmy Carter is from there and he is a peanut farmer.”
Everyone likes that idea.
“Aye. She looks like a wee peanut,” my mother says. “But she’s the colour of shite.”
Peanuts, I soon discover, is not right in the head. She has come from a puppy mill though we don’t know that or even know what a puppy mill is at the time. She and I go on to battle throughout her lifetime. I want to her to love me, and she wants nothing to do with me. She instinctively knows that I am the lowest dog in the Griffin pack and she seeks to dominate me to claim a place one higher than the lowly spot I occupy in family hierarchy. She bites me, growls at me and even pees on my pillow every time my bedroom door is left open just wide enough for her to get into my room when I am not around.