Rufus and Rastus
I’m not sure how old I was, but I was too young to attend school when my father bought two beagle hounds he named Rufus and Rastus. From the very beginning I liked Rufus. His name was easier for me to say and no matter how I tried when the pups first arrived I’d say: “Rufus and Rassiss.”
My mother would sing the lyrics of a zany tune to make me learn the pronunciation. “Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown. Oh watcha gonna do when the rent comes round?”
It took practice, but when I finally got the names right, I could not have imagined how attached I would become to both dogs. Nor could I have foreseen the impact of joy and sorrow those two pups would have on me when I first saw them.
I was sure an artist painted their coats. Finger-like oceans of brown fur separated contrasts of black and white islands into a seascape of color. Both puppies were so much alike, though different enough to distinguish one from the other.
When they drank, their ears drooped long and thin well beyond their noses, and I’d fret as the velvety lobes dipped into their water bowls. I’d pick up the pups to dry their ears and laugh as they nipped at my fingers and bit their ear-tips instead.
My father built the best coop and run any dog could have. The pen was secure enough to keep the hounds in, but not efficient enough to keep me out. I could never leave the pups alone and I’d get scolded nearly every day.
“Figlio mio,” My grandmother would shout. “Pleasa. No go in-a doga house.”
I‘d come out of the dog run when she called, but the next day I’d sneak into the pen again. I loved the pups’ soft, wet licking of my face and neck and I liked cuddling them both until they fell asleep in my arms.
I played with Rufus and Rastus all through the summer. They were my best companions; they were my only companions; they were the catalysts for my love affair with dogs.
* * *
One November evening while my mother was giving me a bath, I heard my father’s repeated shouting for the dogs.
“Mommy, why is Daddy calling Rufus and Rastus?”
“He went out to feed them,” she told me.
Usually when my father went to their pen I’d hear them yipping and barking their excitement. When I didn’t, I became afraid.
“Did they get loose?”
My mother shook her head. “Maybe Daddy just let them out for a run.”
I could barely stand still long enough for her to towel my hair dry and make me put my pajamas on. Barefoot, I slipped and nearly tumbled down the stairs. I ran into the kitchen where my father stood clutching the dog bowls to his chest. The expression on his face was as difficult to see, as it was to answer his question. “Russell, did you unlock the dog pen today?”
I knew I had, but I couldn’t answer.
“They’re gone. Rufus and Rastus are gone,” he said.
It was the worst news I’d ever heard. I began to cry, and I recall that night as being one of the longest of my young life. Sleep would not muffle my hearing as I listened for their barks. Fatigue could not stop repeated trips to my bedroom window as I looked through the darkness at an empty dog pen.
For several days my father drove around looking for the dogs. One time he let me go with him. As we rode through the Ridge neighborhood and drove along wooded areas I’d try calling through the open car window, but my voice would get stuck in my throat and I found it easier just to cry. It was the last time we searched for my two best friends.
* * *
Days that seemed more like weeks passed and I began to dread the oncoming winter. “If it snows what will happen to the dogs?” I asked my mother.
Not even she was able to console. “Mousy, maybe they’ll come home before it snows. It’s not your fault that they ran away.”
Even my father tried to comfort me. “Russ, I think someone stole them, or they’d have come back by now.”
Then, a few days later, early one morning my grandmother had gone out to get our milk delivery and found Rastus licking at the cone of cream that had risen up through the neck of a frozen milk bottle.
I hugged Rastus so hard it must have been difficult for him to breathe, and I kept looking over his shoulder expecting Rufus to appear. My father kneeled down to pet Rastus and saw the dog’s paw pads worn from black to pink, and that his neck was nearly rubbed raw.
“Look, Russ,” my father said smoothing the hair under the dog’s neck, “the person who stole him had him tied up.”
He may have said it to make me feel better, but I still had the sting of guilt hurting inside my chest. “Do you think Rufus will come back?”
He shook his head without answering. Rufus never came home.
* * *
The frigid cold of winter made me beg my parents to allow Rastus to live in our house. It was against my father’s wishes. Dad felt that a hound should be kept outdoors if it was to become a hunting dog, but he gave up on training him. I think my father was as sad as I about the loss of Rufus, so he let Rastus be my family pet rather than train him to go afield.
Spring arrived and with it came a stronger attachment to Rastus. Though at first I felt a closer connection to Rufus – if only because I could pronounce his name – I adored Rastus.
It was in early May, on a day that songbirds and daffodils beckoned us outdoors. I was wrestling with Rastus in our front yard when two ladies walking a dog on the other side of Montauk Highway distracted him.
I have nightmares of the scene. As he bolted across the heavily trafficked thoroughfare I can still hear the sickening thud. The speeding, black car never braked or swerved in attempt to avoid killing Rastus.
It was the first time I encountered death. For a boy who was not old enough to attend school it was an experience he should not have had to suffer. That incident cut short a love affair between a dog and me. It left me convinced I’d be oblivious to any hurt I would ever know, but I could not have been more wrong.