By Phebe Jewell
Dad always said you know a person by how they treat a dog. Not that he cared much for them. Nasty mouths on legs, he often grumbled.
He was full of little life proverbs. Measure twice before you cut. Don’t shit where you eat. Look before you leap. When Dad got going, me and Jake would roll our eyes and snicker. He couldn’t say one without running them all together in a single breath. We would mix them up behind his back: don’t shit before you cut, measure where you leap, eat twice before you look. Overhearing us one Sunday morning, he barged into our room, his lean frame barely filling the doorway.
“You boys need to listen to your old man before it’s too late. Someday, I’ll be gone.”
The dog proverb was the litmus test against which he measured anyone’s worth. Every time we spotted the Robinson’s Range Rover heading to their vacation home down the road, we counted the seconds before he repeated it for the hundredth time.
The Robinsons were Weekend People. Come Memorial Day or Thanksgiving, they’d drive by our house, loaded up with snacks, booze, snooty daughters, and Loulou, their sad-faced labradoodle.
Loulou was a howler. She couldn’t stand being alone, even for a minute. As soon as they unpacked, the Robinsons would leave her in the pen out back and drive into town for dinner at the one nice restaurant on the island, a fancy French bistro famous for its farm-to-table fare.
One Fourth of July, the Robinsons arrived and immediately took off. It didn’t take more than half an hour before Loulou’s high-pitched yowl broke Dad’s spirit.
“That’s it, fellas,” Dad said, clicking off the tv, “we’ve got to free that poor thing.”
“But Dad,” Jake looked up from his controller, “isn’t that illegal?”
“Cam?” Dad turned to me.
I waited to see what Jake would say next.
“C’mon, boys. It’s good karma.” Dad stood in front of the screen.
Dad talked about karma like it was a member of the family. Helping out a neighbor was good karma. Laughing when a kid got bullied at school was bad karma. Bad karma could get you into big trouble. Good karma sweetened the pot. But more than a system of rewards and punishments, it was Dad’s way of helping us navigate the world ever since Mom died.
Jake put down the controller. “Okay. But I’m doing this under protest.”
Dad was already heading downstairs. “We don’t have much time.”
A hundred yards from the Robinson’s, we slowed to an amble as if we were just out for an afternoon walk. People were already shooting off bottle rockets and cherry bombs, getting ready for the fireworks show over the inlet. I could hear Loulou’s cries over all the pops.
She was leaning against the chain-link fence as if her weight could bust it open. For a pup that must have cost a thousand bucks, she didn’t look so good. Muddy paws and matted hair. It’d been a while since a brush had combed through her curls.
As soon as she caught sight of us, Loulou slunk to the gate, tail low to the ground. Whimpering, she pushed her nose against the locked latch.
“What the…?” Dad shook his head. “Why do they have to lock the dog in? We’re out in the middle of nowhere, forchrissakes.”
“How are we going to get her?” Jake looked around the yard.
“I could climb over the fence,” I offered, hoping one of them would think of a better suggestion.
Dad walked up to the gate, thrust his hand at Loulou. Scared, she growled at him.
“Damn dog,” Dad pulled his hand away.
“Let’s get out of here,” Jake took a step back.
“No boys, we’ve gotta figure this out,” Dad said, raking his fingers his beard.
“We’ve done the good karma thing. We tried.” Jake turned away from the fence.
“Maybe you can unlock it from inside, Cam,” Dad nodded at me.
I started climbing the fence, one foot squeezed through the narrow chain-link at a time. Excited, Loulou barked.
“It’s okay, Loulou,” I tried to sound calm. “I won’t hurt you.”
Loulou backed away, watching my every move.
I was just about to throw a leg over the top of the fence when I spotted the Robinson’s Rover heading down the road toward their house.
The car was moving fast.
“Hurry up,” Jake called over his shoulder as he headed up the driveway.
I was still scrambling off the fence when the Robinsons arrived. No sooner had the engine switched off than Mr. Robinson was out of the car and running toward us.
“What are you doing on my property?” he pulled out his cell phone. “I’m calling the sheriff.”
“Sir, we were just liberating your poor dog.” Dad straightened up to his full height. “You shouldn’t have a dog if you don’t know how to care for one.”
Mr. Robinson punched numbers on his phone. Looking us up and down, he took in our raggedy jeans, Dad’s long, unkempt hair, his faded Grateful Dead t-shirt. Islanders.
“You really should think about the way you’re raising these boys, you know. What kind of behavior are you modeling for them?” Mr. Robinson shook his head.
Jake came over and stood next to me and Dad.
“Look before you leap,” he declared.
“Measure twice before you cut,” I added.
Dad smiled, “Don’t shit where you eat.”
Laughing, we started back home. Passing us on the road, Sheriff Kincaid leaned out the window and waved hello.