Our first post-honeymoon purchase was a puppy. After persuasive presentations of the relative merits of the German Shepherd Dog (he) and the Siberian Husky (me), the discussion ended with my new husband wisely deciding to please — placate — his bride. We knew enough to bypass the pet stores in favor of a breeder; we didn’t realize that anyone advertising puppies for sale in the newspaper might not be our best bet. There was an ad . . . and we were had. The kennel we visited had a few faded show ribbons on the wall. That’s all I needed. I was sold! So too, now, was the only black-and-white, blue-eyed male in the litter. Imagine – blue eyes on a dog! In 1970, most people thought this was a rare, exotic feature.
He was adorable as a puppy. Coal-black, except for a striking white fleur-de-lis mask on his face which framed those icy orbs. His legs, the tip of his tail, and the insides of his ears were also white. His appearance evoked images of the barren frozen tundra, dancing northern lights, and primitive Eskimos in their finely-chiseled snow igloos. His tiny shoulders carried the weight of the working sled dog heritage. One day he would fulfill his destiny and also pull in harness.
“We don’t allow dogs here.” Richard and I didn’t know about the anti-canine sentiments of the lord and lady of the manor – let’s call them Henry and Helen Hart – until after we’d already handed over a sizeable check for our dog. But within the two weeks between pay-for and pickup, that fact was made abundantly clear to us. By then, it was too late. You might have thought, given their aversion to canine company, that we were moving into luxury digs. But the tiny abode we called our own was not much more than a shack. We didn’t see it that way, though, caught up in the romance of starting a new life together. To us, it had charm and character.
We brought Misha (named for figure skater John Misha Petkevich) home to a little caretaker’s cottage on a large tobacco farm in Western Massachusetts. It sat several hundred yards behind the main house and was visible from the back windows. This made all the more challenging the fact that we were bringing him into a no-doggy domicile. Several weeks of artful dodging would pass before we learned that, as a child, Mrs. Hart had been badly bitten.
Misha was small enough to smuggle in through the front door initially; from then on we had him do his business out back, where he couldn’t be seen. We studied our landlords’ routines religiously, and arranged any outing necessitating a walk to the car around their absences. Fortunately, it was some time before his call-of-the-wild instinct, and urgent need to respond to it with drawn-out, mournful howls of undulating pitch, would kick in. For the moment he was, thankfully, calm and quiet. We were quite smug about having pulled off this deception.
Misha was quite smug as he sat at attention one afternoon, with an impressive strip of carpet dangling from his chops, and eyed the new grocery bags on the kitchen table. He had that “What’s in it for me?” expression, even as we told him, “You’re in for it now!” Of course we couldn’t correct him, as the damage had already been done. We spotted a large notebook-sized bald patch right in front of the bedroom door and, fortunately, found a small roll of rug remnant on the closet shelf. We filled in the blank and managed to keep the damage, and the dog, secret.
But others on the property who had secrets to hide were not so careful about laying low. Late one evening, after we’d turned out the last light for the night, we realized that it was still awfully bright in the kitchen. The illumination was directed at us from somewhere outside. Except then it wasn’t. No, there it was again! We didn’t have any neighbors behind us — only acre after acre of tobacco. Richard opened the door to the sounds of staccato Spanish and screaming, souped-up sedans. Several local migrant workers were holding auto races beneath the netting. They slid around some rows and screeched to a stop at the end of others in a kind of chicken game: who was going to die first – the plants or the people?
It was fun initially, having front-row seats to this novel form of entertainment. Then a sudden crunch-and-crack, with sagging fabric flapping in the wind, told us the integrity of the plant coverings was in jeopardy. Someone had hit an end-pole at high speed. Were there injuries? If not human, certainly plant life was at stake as the stakes shattered, one after another. We were beginning to think our little house held secrets of its own.
“9-1-1.What is your emergency?” Calmly, Richard reported: “Um, some people are racing their cars through the tobacco fields behind our house.” The dispatcher paused a moment, then hung up. A second attempt resulted in a lecture about drunks tying up the emergency line and another hang-up. As I had connections to the Springfield court, which covered this particular town, I called the city’s Police Department. After identifying myself and explaining the situation, I elicited a promise that they’d intervene – but not before I also took a good-natured “You live on West Street, not Tobacco Road” wisecrack. Eventually the town’s patrol car did show up, and the officers cleared the racetrack of its roaring revelers. All was quiet once again.
For a while. Over the winter months, Misha found his maleness and began advertising, fortissimo, for a mate. Thanks to closed windows at either end of the great divide between our homes, this fact was not immediately apparent to the Harts. During this time we gathered gadgets, accumulated accessories, and finessed furniture from parents and other sympathetic souls willing to help us feather our love nest with their finery. Then, without fair warning or due process, the land owner opened his windows to welcome the first gentle breezes of spring. They carried the mournful cries of Misha who, despite his best efforts, succeeded in attracting only the attention of Hateful Henry, who promptly evicted us. “Be gone in two weeks!” he barked. Misha woofed back in ineffective protest. It was hard to tell what made Henry madder – the presence of the dog or our success in hiding him. Either way, we were out. We packed up our pup and other possessions and prepared to vacate the premises.
Near bedtime one night we sat, surrounded by boxes and bags, exhausted from the day’s dismantling and enjoying the soothing sounds of the driving rain outside. Misha began antsing around the back door – his way of letting us know he needed to go out. Richard, approaching him with the leash, stopped in mid-stride and stared at the floor. Misha danced, impatiently and unnoticed. “Honey?” I interrupted the reverie. “Look at this!” exploded from my beloved’s lips. Squeezing in under the door were short, stout, squirming white worms. Maybe thirty or forty of them. He shot Misha out the door as I rushed for all the cleaning supplies we’d left within reach for last minute, pre-move touch-ups. I poured Clorox over the maggots; I sprayed them with Lysol. Thankfully, they shriveled up. I got the vacuum ready for the cleanup once my boys were back inside.
Richard stormed back through the door and held it open. “There’s more out here!” he shouted. Indeed, there were. On the concrete stoop were maybe a hundred more larvae, all waiting their turn to get in to our warm, dry haven. He attacked them with the first weapon he could grab — a sponge mop. His firm, back-and-forth sweeping only succeeded in grinding some parts of them into the cement, and other chunks up into the sponge. Meanwhile, the ones inside that I’d already killed were mysteriously coming back to life. They’d only been momentarily stunned. We strongly suspected that this was a parting gift from the Harts, as it had never happened during any other rainstorms, but we had no proof.
Richard – my hero – began boiling pots of water, which we poured over all the critters inside and out. Finally, mercifully, they were dead. Truly dead. Long-term dead. I vacuumed their little carcasses in a victory sweep, and we went to bed.
A few days later we awoke early, each doing a see-how-fast-I-can-slap-myself comedy routine almost in unison. The air was thick with black bodies in flight; the humming noise louder than the crop dusters that had buzzed our home (oh, yes) in the spring as they made their approach to drop loathsome chemicals onto the fledgling tobacco plants. After a few days the dead had not only risen, but they’d progressed to the next stage of their development. We had flies everywhere. They’d hatched in the vacuum cleaner and whizzed their way right up the hose to freedom.
If we’d had any reluctance about leaving our honeymoon home after the fiasco under the nets, it was gone now. Moving day mercifully arrived, a Saturday morning, and with it family and friends to help with our relocation to a new, dog-friendly apartment. We spotted Mr. Intolerant running down the hill toward us as Misha romped among our guests. What was he going to do – evict us again?
“Hello there!” Henry boomed as he approached. “Please, feel free to drive your cars onto the grass. You needn’t park so far from the door.” What? He continued, “Is there anything I can do to help? Helen should be down in a moment.” “With a plate of brownies, I’m sure,” I muttered to those closest to me. To be polite, I initiated a round of introductions. The Harts went white as they greeted my father. It didn’t escape my notice, but I couldn’t understand why. Although within the context of his profession he was addressed as “Your Honor,” in ordinary conversations I simply referred to him as “my dad.” They recovered quickly and worked, side-by-side with the rest of us, until the little cottage was empty. They shook our hands. “Best of luck in the future,” Henry exclaimed. “We’ve enjoyed having you as tenants. Nice little dog you’ve got there.” Wait a minute. We piled into our cars, puzzled, and drove away.
On Monday morning, the Clerk of Courts approached the presiding Justice with the docket of cases for the day. “Judge,” he began. “Didn’t your daughter live in Feeding Hills? On West Street?” My dad confirmed that we did. “And wasn’t there some trouble with the landlord? Was his name Hart?” Yes. The Clerk smirked. Dad was sufficiently intrigued to stop what he was doing and glance at the document. The fourth person due to be arraigned that day, for breaking and entering, was Henry Hart, Jr.