The Literate Kerry (Vol. 8)

(The excerpt below was taken from a personal short story written by Michelle Hunever. Ms.Hunever is a novelist, as well as a restaurant critic for a local newspaper. Her novels include, Jamesland and Round Rock. This story, entitled, “Lala the Loot” is about her dog, Lala.)

We were happy in Atwater except for one thing. One major thing. We had a crazy next-door neighbor, a woman who had repeatedly been charged with being a “neighborhood nuisance.” Therese was in her late seventies and surely mentally ill; she was filled with hatreds, resentments, and frustrations–and that’s putting her pathology nicely. All my neighbors warned me about her. She called the authorities about everything, real and imagined, any infringement, no matter how small. When people, having forgotten something, pulled back in their driveways and ran into their houses, she called parking enforcement if they blocked the sidewalk. If a car was parked in one spot for over the seventy-two-hour limit, or with a bumper in the red zone, or more than eighteen inches from the curb, she call to have them ticketed.

Therese must have had a list of every petty authority and enforcer in Los Angeles County. She called the county agriculture inspector many times about my garden — when I mulched my roses with straw,(she believed mice live in straw and therefore, the day I mulched, called and told the inspector I had an infestation of vermin); and when I fertilized with steer manure (she said I’d strewn excrement on the premises). When I first moved in, she phoned my landlord every time I had a house guest or a visiting dog, and told him I had a new roomate and/or a new pet. He didn’t care, and began hanging up on her. Everyone in the neighborhood avoided and ignored her as much as possible.

Except Lala, who was happy to see old Therese as she was to see almost anybody. Also despite my endless requests to the contrary, Therese constantly fed Lala table scraps. Lala was perhaps the only living creature who ever exhibited even the slightest pleasure at the sight of this bitter, vindictive old woman. (Theres’s own husband, a timid man, would sometimes raise his voice in unmistakable agony, “Therese, you are am evil, evil person,” an assessment with which we neighbors, wincing in sympathy, unanimously agreed.) Lal had more compassion and humanity – and a greater love of table scraps –than all of us combined.

One chilly Sunday afternoon, I was watching videos in bed with my boyfriend. We were watching Prime Suspect miniseries, one episode after the other. The only problem was that the phone kept ringing. And it was never anyone I wanted to talk to more than I wanted to watch Helen Miren solve crimes. Finally, after someone called to ask how to make pot roast, my boyfriend said, “Don’t answer it anymore, okay?”

Lala was in and out of the house at her whim, sometimes joining us on the bed, sometimes patrolling the yard. The phone rang several times over the period of an hour. “God you get a lot of calls on a Sunday,” said my boyfriend.

Then someone was pounding on the door. I jumped up, pulled on a robe, and answered the door. It was Therese, with her weary, sagging face and hideoulsy swollen legs. She was eighty by then and nearer the end of her life . . .It must have been and enormous effort for her to walk all the way down my driveway. She’d been banging the door with her aluminum canes.

“A man stole Lala,” she said. “I’ve been trying to call you. He just opened the gate and stepped in and picked her up. He had white hair and a white mustache and a whole bouquet of white flowers. He probably stole those too,” she said.

My boyfriend and I moved into action. Dressed. Grabbed cell phones. We were so steeped in Prime Suspect, it seemed as if we were setting off into our own crime drama episode.

. . . We found our prime subject sitting on a cinder-block wall at the Foster’s. “Where’s my dog?” I asked him.

“Your dog? I haven’t seen your dog.” he said. And then, in the long grass behind him, I saw a familiar black-tipped tail. When he saw me spot her, he said, “I tried to call you and tell you I found her lost in the street.” . . .

And thus Lal was restored to me, again through the agency of a public enemy. We laughed about it–the high drama, the solving of a crime– but I was also keenly aware that it could have turned out very badly indeed.

I had almost sixteen happy years with Lala. As with many dogs, she was a study in unconditional love, but in her case, it was unconditional love of the most extroverted and expressive variety. She could beguile and charm even the worst of human beings, and somehow make them behave admirably on her behalf. She forced me to see the faintest spark of goodness in people. She made it impossible for me to thoroughly despise some of the most feared and disliked citizens in my community, for she brought out the best in them, brought out whatever trace of affection and responsibility slumbered within them . . .

Ah, Lala. You were a better human than I –except when it came to other dogs.

Last Updated: 08/07/2004, 10:49 pm