Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"Ruby, get the ball"

I lived in Austin, Texas for a couple years in the mid-nineties. I had many jobs over that short time, true to an alcoholic's resumé. I also packed about seven years of a normal person's life into those two and a half years, like a dog has to do.

               Over part of my term in Texas, I had two jobs at once. I had gotten a lovely girlfriend, and she decided to start up a high-end tamale business. I don't particularly like tamales, but I dove into the fledgling company, plunked my hands into it, and I even named it. It was called "Hot Damn Tamales," which came from an Elvis Presley outtake. I am in the tamale 100,000 club. I have extruded, wrapped in husk, steamed, and packaged more tamales than one person could healthily consume in a lifetime. Between my girl and I, we sold, gave away, and traded about a quarter million of those Hot-Damn things. We traveled all over midland Texas establishing our business at barbecues, fairs, and, primarily, farmers' markets. We made these tamales at home, but, to be in accordance with the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission, we also rented the kitchen at Captain Quackenbush's on "the Strip," in Austin. After we started renting their kitchen, that horrible restaurant asked if I would help them out as a cook for "a few weeks." Thus came my two sapping jobs. Captain Quack's began at 6 a.m. and ostensibly ended at 2 p.m., and from 6 p.m. to midnight, Hot Damn Tamales would, as we ought, make tamales.
                Don't get me wrong; each job was a good one. They were right in finding me to be a "character" at Captain Quack's, but they paid exceptionally low wages, and I was a tool, bespoken in no uncertain terms by the management after those first few weeks, at a staff meeting. They asked me to be their kitchen manager. Boldly, I responded, "So you want me to order your produce and your Sysco delivery, do inventory, schedule your irresponsible college student workers, work their missing shifts myself, and take the blame for whatever isn't done on time as a result. Oh, and I don't suppose I'll be getting a raise for all that, right?" They looked at each other around the table, wide-eyed, in that false, taken-aback manner and literally laughed about what I had said.
               "Yeah," said the restaurant manager, "That's about what it is."
              I laughed along, but I continued to wake up at 5 a.m.,  show up at 6 a.m., and I completed, daily, what to them was a chuckle.
               The nascent tamale company with my girl was, what? A labor of love for a product I didn't actually like to eat? At least I didn't cut into the profits. She, however, in a somewhat controlling way, was the creative one. I was the muscle, and I had to defer to many of her decisions. I worked hard at both jobs, and we took Hot Damn Tamales to many, many, farmers' markets throughout that Great State, and I enjoyed some of the finest organically grown fruits and vegetables the USA has to offer. Texas grows some of the best tomatoes in the nation, and I love "love apples," as they are known.
               I took one Saturday off from the farmers' markets in lieu, I believe, of a televised baseball game, a consistent case of manic-girlfriend-induced sleep deprivation, or both, and early that evening when she returned, I learned that I had A Third Job. She couldn't have come back with a bagful of sweet corn (although she actually might have) or Fredricksburg peaches, or wild grapes.
               She brought home a puppy.
              I am not a dog aficionado, I am an unrepentant dog lover, and this poor little thing was not yet even a dog. She (an easy call) was only about six weeks old, and I could hold her in the palms of my hands. To tell, at her pint-size, she was some sort of shepherd that any shearling lamb would easily trample, but I knew she would grow into her non-breed's height and weight. My girlfriend beamed. I asked, "Are you going to take care of this little thing? Do know what she needs to eat? Are you going to pick up her shit?"
               "No," answered my lovely date, "I thought you would. She was the last one, and nobody wanted her. Don't you like her?"
              I sure did, immediately. I believe it was that evening that we named that puppy "Ruby," and she was my favorite kind of dog; she was a mutt, and she was the runt of the litter. That makes a bitch smart and tough. She hadn't been properly weaned, so that made her smarter and tougher.
               Tiny Ruby's stomach was distended with the farm-borne worms that had filled her intestines, and on that first frightful night off the farm, I counted her six week-old respiration at around 130 times per minute. I fed Ruby homemade chicken broth (from the tamale stock) mixed with over-cooked, mashed carrots and heavily diluted green tea as a laxative, to maybe poop some of the worms out and so that she might stay awake and not over-pant herself into puppy heaven. Of that Saturday night, cradling Ruby, I could not find a veterinarian by phone. She looked up at me with barely opening eyes in the apologetic way that dogs have when they think they're going to die on you. I cupped her in my hands and kept her warm all night long, in spite of the fact that it was late August in Texas. That night, I cried unashamedly and often over that poor little shivering dog.
               I got to the vet on Sunday morning, and was told that I had done a good job keeping Ruby alive through the night. She was poked and prodded, and I got the damn worm medicine. Ruby liked the car ride home, and she seemed to understand that I had to jostle her in my lap while I operated the stick shift.
               She began to thrive, loyal, healthy... but intelligent? True to her farm-bred nature, she was a herder. She was poised and strong. We had a fine backyard, and she did not have to be paper trained. Ruby also liked to do with me just about anything that I liked to do. She ran alongside me when I rode my bicycle. If I ate celery, she wanted to do that with me. She sat, rapt, as I did push-ups. She knew how to pay attention. That is, until it came to the word, "ball."
               I don't think I have ever met a dog or a puppy who was not enthusiastic about a sphere. I have met Chihuahuas who will try for hours on end to get their jaws around a regulation NBA basketball. I have spent time with large-breed dogs who understand as many as thirty commands, look at a blue handball for the three-thousandth time like it was their first-ever experience seeing something they could go and chase, bring back, and do it all over again. When I say "ball," any dog I have ever known widens its eyes and expects me to do something with one and, if I'm not holding one in my hand, will at least make the pretense of looking for one or point me to where one might be. Not Ruby. She learned many words, and she loved to play ball, and I know she wasn't simply being obedient, but I could not, in spite of her overall intelligence, get her to pick up that word. She would tilt her head and gaze at me in wonder. This astounded me. She loved to play with a ball and knew what to do, but she just wouldn't get the darned word.
               Over the days and weeks and months, I repeated the word "ball" to her at least 10,000 times. That count may not be accurate, because it might have been more like 12,500 times. She would not understand that word. Mind you, this was a puppy who, when I said, "No potato chips for dogs," would walk away and sulk.
                "Ruby, get the BALL." "Where's that BALL, Ruby?" "Ruby, go find that BALL." "Here's the BALL, Ruby." "Do you want the BALL, Ruby?" "Here's that BALL!" "Ruby, do you like that BALL?" One hundred and fifty times a day. A guy can't do everything, and I want my dog to go find her own damn ball. I mean, why not? It's one syllable, and what a great toy! On the lawn, on the street, in the house, she gave me nothing but a longing, blank, probing stare.
               One mid-afternoon, I got off from my Captain Quackenbush shift on time, for once, and I walked home. I walked Ruby, brought her home, cracked a can of Lone Star, and I plopped down in a big easy chair. She looked up at me. Just for the hell of it, for the twelve-thousand, five hundred and first time, I asked, "Ruby, where's the ball?" She tilted her head and gave me the perplexed doe-eyes. I thought I was going crazy. How could this seemingly loyal, intelligent, energetic dog not understand the one bonding, desirable word which the most moronic mastiff would comprehend before he could even learn the word "food?" My shoulders slumped. Dejected and tired, for the hell of it, I monotoned, "Ruby, get the ball."
               She started whimpering. I didn't know what to think. She laid her head between my feet and poked her nose under my chair. I had a brief notion that I was not crazy, but that Ruby was. Ruby jiggled her tail, looked up at me, and continued whimpering. It dawned on me that this time, maybe, the ball was under the chair! My kitchen-weary knees cracked as I stooped down to look under there, and I pulled out one of her hairy, dusty, blue handballs from where Ruby couldn't get to it. We had broken through! She, on the twelve-thousand, five hundred and second time, not only knew what I was talking about, but she knew to tell me that she couldn't reach it.
               I almost cried, and I rubbed her pink belly like the first night I met her. We played ball for hours after that, and you can be sure that, upon that afternoon and evening, potato chips were for dogs too.


  1. Just spent an hour and a half reading all the posts back to the beginning - great writing and honest insight. I look forward to reading more. Cheers, Chip V.

  2. I miss you. You are a formative person from my young life. You taught me more about statistical mathematics than I could have gotten from MIT. You are also a real person. I don't kid around with statements like that.