By Matt Gordon
The world is upside down. Madness, I tell you—we’ve gone mad. I’m a stranger in a strange land. Although, if I’m honest, that undersells it. Here is what I mean: I don’t want to lure and imprison a creature against its will. And that used to make me a moral, upstanding human—someone to be admired. “You should run for office,” bystanders would remark, bearing witness to my sterling character and boy-next-door looks.
Nowadays, though, I’m some freak, some cur, some heartless villain.
Let me just come right out and say it: I don’t like pets. I don’t like things that defecate on my floors and walls. I also don’t like having to take said thing out-of-doors, tying a rope round its neck to prevent impending escape, and then walking along in all weather (but usually rain) waiting for the animal to poop so that I can collect it in a little baggie (like a putrid leftover) or leave the fecal souvenir in my neighbor’s lawn and collect, instead, years of judgment.
Cats are no better. I visit my parents’ home and we have to slam the door with dogged vigilance. The reason? Of course, the cat wants to escape. It is a captive! A prisoner of peace—maybe a war is in order though? An uprising where the beasts unite and shed (fur) and themselves of their human oppressors?
Pets always can sense that I’m a liberator, too. I go within a country mile of a dog or cat and they sniff me out, their keen animalistic instincts drawn to a human with a modicum of reason. They know I will not detain them or make them wear a hot dog suit on Halloween—that I’m against the whole practice—and so they thank me by rubbing their bodies and tongues all over me. They jump on me, walk on me; my wife’s family used to have a dog who would mount me. Yes, you read that right. He would do this with no one else. If I so much as bent down to pick up a dollar, the dog was up on my haunches thanking me for my service. I began to suspect Duke the dog had been the one who placed the dollar on the ground in the first place. Sexually or not, your pet, sensing my hate, will love me with everything they’ve got. Especially my feet. I now refrain from wearing open-toed footwear for the terror of having my ticklish feet accosted by the admiring tongues of local packs of domesticated hounds. At night, I used to have to deep-clean the saliva from the crevices of my fleshy foot-popsicles while questioning the meaning of life.
It isn’t enough for pet people to be pet people and let the rest of us be. No, they have to offer me the opportunity to hold their Maltese. They say things like, “Yeah, I used to not be a pet person either but then George Benard Awwww changed all that.” They imply that I just haven’t found the right dog, the one that makes me want to put sweaters and center my existence on. And maybe they are right? If they find me a dog that is hairless, does not shed or bark, costs no money, nor defecates or needs my attention—I’d be all in. Only I already have that in my coffee mug and pen and ottoman. Yes, I have an Ottoman Shepherd, it is delightful. I even offer her my feet.
“Wait till you have kids,” these pet proselytizers will petronize me.
Well, I have three. How many more you think it will take before I want a bunch of hair in my throat? Four? Six?
“If you’d grown up with pets, you’d understand,” they claim.
I did grow up with pets. We had Tooley who got hit by cars a bunch and died. And then Frosty who got hit by cars a bunch, was bit by a snake, and then died. We had Macey who my sister dutifully promised to care for and then neglected the rest of her yapping life. Then she died. We had Pokey. Pokey was particularly foul. She used our television as a litter box. She acquired pets of her own, little worms that lived in her vomit, which she took especial care to display when we had guests over. I can still hear her cacophonous coughing, cuing the entire house that a fresh round of worm-vomit was on its way—it was a like a lawn mower engine revving up, trying to turn over. One time my friend Blake yelled at me, panicked, from upstairs. I ran up to find Pokey’s tail in his hand.
“What did you do?” I asked, horrified.
“I just pet her and her tail came off in my hand!”
I took the tail and put it in a large Ziploc bag and placed it in the fridge, as if I were putting a damaged tooth in a cup of milk or something, like we could preserve and save the thing. Perhaps if not that, maybe we could make a coonskin cap of it? A catskin?
Pokey got cat herpes and died.
All of these pets lived against their wills in our homes, cost a whole bunch of money, and left not fond memories behind, but the aroma of urine and tails in our fridge.
Yet the pet evangelists will not acquiesce. They think a way to win me is through my kids. My mother is one of these. She takes my children to the pet store. This would be like taking the children of diabetic dentists to the candy shop. “Here children is a roomful of wonders you cannot have or touch. Wonderful, right?”
And, of course, wouldn’t you know it, my five-year-old fell in love.
“Dada, there is one cat,” he told me the night following one of these fanciful forays to the pet shop. “It wanted to climb through the glass to get to me.”
I explained to him that this is called escape and that that cat was being held and sold against its will. “He did not want you, son. He wanted to escape. He wanted freedom.”
“We could name him Freedom?” he countered, missing the point and the irony of imprisoning a cat and calling him freedom.
I explained to him how much work goes into having a pet—all the care and money, plus the impending loss, for pets, I reasoned kindly, do not live forever. “They’re all gonna die a cold, wrenching death, son,” I think is how I worded it.
But he ferreted on, something else he likely learned at the pet shop. He made promises and deals, anything to have a precious cat or dog or hamster or, God forbid, a bird.
“How about a Nintendo Switch game instead?” I countered. This was strong. We don’t buy our kids a bunch of stuff, and he loves Nintendo more than he loves me; it isn’t really even that close. Materialism would surely purchase our path out of this conversation.
“I’d rather have a pet,” he said.
I was disgusted at his conviction, his passion. He must have gotten that from his mother. Finally, I gave in: “How about a fish? We can even name it ‘Cat’ if you want, so then you can tell people you got a cat.”
He made me write this promise down—smart kid. Not smart enough to read, however, so I wrote this: WE WILL GET A FISH AFTER CHRISTMAS (UNLESS WE CHANGE OUR MIND AND GET A VIDEO GAME INSTEAD).
We did not change our minds. No amount of trickery or strategy could deliver us from this sloping road to perdition.
At the pet store, we purchased a tank, some rocks, some grass, a little castle, three fish, and a snail. It cost around $9,000. They named the creatures Greeny, Bluey, Shiny Girl, and Mizzou Tiger. I named the process Futility.
We got it all set up, and then they excitedly took over the feeding of the fish. Turning on and off the aquarium light, too. They were diligent in their task—for one night. After that, the fish became less than an afterthought—they were basically non-existent. I should have returned them and just put some gummy worms or something in the tank. The ruse would have worked, I’m certain.
Occasionally, I’d watch them swim before turning out their light for the night, wondering what open waters they dreamed of. They’d dart in and out of their castle, rulers of nothing beyond this three gallons of murk. I felt for them and longed for their (and my) liberty. For a second, Shiny Girl glanced toward my feet, probably wanting an obligatory lick for freedom’s sake.
Over this past weekend, I carried the fish tank into the woods behind our home to dispose of the bodies. The fish had died a cold, wrenching death. We didn’t do some big funeral. My heathen children had no time for such—they were busy destroying other parts of my house. I asked if any of them wanted to offer a word of remembrance or prayer for the departed. The five-year-old said, “Why?”
That pretty much says it all. Why, indeed.
I took kitchen tongs out there to the woods with me, and I’m glad I did, as Greeny got lodged between the edge of the tank and the filter and I didn’t want to touch his bloated corpse.
After I fished him out—finally giving him the freedom I couldn’t in life—I looked at his bright green body against the equally dead leaves. I had two thoughts in that moment. The first was that we all will someday lay still, with some caretaker looking over us. I hope that when that day comes for me, I will have had more noble treatment and love than poor Greeny did. And then I thought about some poor scientist in a million years who will be really elated and probably base a theory of a million-year-old lake that was in this spot when really it had just been dead pets the whole time.
Alone, I went back to my house. My son greeted me there, “Want to play Switch?”
We took the controllers in our hands, this boy and his dad, freed momentarily from the duties of pet ownership. One day he will stand over my lifeless corpse. I kissed his head, whispered, “I love you,” and we entered the freedom of made-up worlds, a love unfading that swims on eternal.
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