March 7, 2012
by Martin Palazzotto (with gratitude and apologies to Drew Carey)
How can you not love March Madness? It’s college hoops on the tube 24-7 for three weeks straight. For an appetizer, there’s the conference tournaments, just to get your taste buds in game shape. Then, it’s the entrée, a three-course smorgasbord of round ball including the NCAA men, the women, and the NIT. Super Tuesday is small-time compared to March Madness. I used to love it, man. Hell, I planned my vacation time around it.
For the last fifteen years, the last three weeks of the third month of the year have found me rooted to my couch. For my wife, the last straw came three years ago, while Louisville was romping over Arizona. Just before half-time, she was standing there, hands on her hips and scowl on her face — nattering something about my lazy hoops-obsessed ass never having time for her — by the final buzzer all the closets were cleaned out and the minivan and kids were gone. I don’t know what got her panties in a bunch; I told her that it was a full time-out and she had two minutes before Pitino’s boys inbounded. Guess that wasn’t enough for her. At least she had the decency to mail me the papers, rather than park her kiester in front of my 52” plasma with seconds to go in the Final.
I’m not complaining, though. I don’t miss her nearly as much as Rex. Don’t know what I’m gonna do without him this year. I had that damned dog trained just right.
Or so I thought. Now, he’s gone and I may never think of March Madness in the same way again.
German Shepherds are supposed to be one of the brightest breeds out there, and Rex was a freakin’ genius among geniuses. It took me four years of trial, error and, most of all, patience, but I had him trained to head down to the 7-Eleven, pick out a six-pack, a jumbo bag of chipotle Doritos and a pack of bacon treats for him. He always got the receipt, the right change and paper, not plastic. Got to think of the environment, after all.
Last year, though, it all went horribly wrong. Just as well that it was a sub-par final, as I was still reeling from the shock of Rex’s betrayal, even after two weeks. I mean, Butler may not have shown up until the second half, but at least they put in an appearance. I had to go looking for Rex.
But I’m getting ahead of the story.
It was a Friday, the second day of the Sweet Sixteen, and I was runnin’ low on brew. Sticking my head out the back door, I gave a whistle. Rex had his forepaws on the fence and was barking at old Mrs Winterbottom, whose house backed up on ours.
It was all harmless fun. She was hunched over, weeding out her garden in preparation for planting her annuals, paying absolutely no mind to Rex. Bundled up in her quilted jacket and sun bonnet, you’d have thought she was as sweet and tolerant as they come. That is, if you didn’t know any better. Truth was, she had called the ASPCA five times on Rex, for jumping the fence and digging up her precious gladioli. I mean, come on, they’re only flowers and dogs will be dogs. The only reason the old bat wasn’t having a hissy fit right then was that she was as deaf as a post.
Rex turned at my call, then back to give one parting woof before scampering back to the house. I let the screen door slam behind me, and opened my wallet. Christ on a cracker! All I had was a Benjamin. The pet door slapped open and shut, and Rex jumped up and down all around me. He loved going on beer runs and my open billfold told him all he needed to know.
Still, I had a lot of doubt over handing him that much money. After all, a hundred bucks is a hundred bucks. Yet, he’d always done right by me in the past. I think it was his enthusiasm that finally won me over. So, I folded up the C-note and held it high up in the air.
“Rex, sit!” I commanded.
Immediately, he did as he was told. Like I said, he was a great dog.
“Now, listen up, Rex, this is important.” He cocked his head at the serious tone in my voice. I held the bill out for him to see and issued my instructions. “This is a hundred dollar bill, Rex. Understand? A hundred dollars.”
In reply, he issued a confident bark.
“This means you’re going to have to get a lot more change Rex. A lot more. Okay?”
Another strong bark. He was ready for the responsibility.
“Alright, then. Good boy!” I knelt and tucked the money into the special pouch I’d had made for his collar. “It’s Friday, Rex, and I’m in the mood for something imported. What about a six-pack of Boddingtons?”
Rex woofed his understanding. After four years of careful tutelage, he could discern between no less than forty-two brands of ale, lager, pilsener and stout, from thirteen countries. The Da Vinci of dogdom, I’m tellin’ you. He raced to the front door, his tail wagging to beat the band when I arrived. As soon as I had cracked open the door, he muscled his way through, and tore off down the street like a greyhound.
His enthusiasm was infectious, and I was smiling happily as I settled in front of the television, to set up the picture-in picture for the first two games. Carolina handled Marquette fairly easily, but the Ohio State/Kentucky matchup turned out to be a barnburner. I didn’t even notice the time flying by, or that Rex hadn’t returned.
In the dying seconds, the Wildcats’ point guard, Brandon Knight, walked the ball up the court, then hesitated at the top of the three-point arc, full of self-confidence as he let precious seconds slip away. Finally, with his teammates crowding the left side of the court, he broke to his right, pulling up and separating from his defender. His leap looked like a porpoise breaking the surface at Sea World, and his shot hit nothing but net. Kentucky was up two with hardly any time on the clock.
Desperate, the Buckeyes broke for the opposite end. A rushed shot rattled in and out of the rim, and the buzzer sounded. Kentucky fans went wild and me with them. It took another few minutes for my rush of adrenaline to subside and the question of what had happened to Rex to finally enter my mind.
I opened the front door and walked out to the road. No Rex. I gave a long whistle — and then another. Still no Rex. I went around back and peered over the fence. Mrs Winterbottom’s yard was empty and her garden untrammeled.
Scratching my head, I headed back into the house. Rex had one of those tags on his collar, so if anything serious had happened, I’d have received a call by now. I picked up the hall phone and heard the dial tone. Where the hell could he have gone? Damned dog.
Just then, the frenzied roar of an eager crowd called me back to the TV. The second pair of games were starting. These two were similar to the first pairing, with each going more to the extreme than its earlier counterpart. Kansas absolutely destroyed Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth and Florida State went right down to the buzzer. Still, there was a gnawing at the pit of my stomach, and I couldn’t summon the same focus or energy I had earlier. When Harrison Barnes sunk a three-pointer dropped through at the buzzer, dashing the ‘Noles hopes, all I could do was empathize with the boys from Tallahassee.
Rex still wasn’t back and I was beginning to fear the worst. Dreading what I would find, I grabbed the keys and climbed into my pickup. It was after midnight now, and the neighborhood was eerily quiet.
I drove through the empty streets, encountering no one, man or dog. The 7-Eleven was empty except for the cashier, who was throwing away the day old big bites. He hadn’t seen Rex all night, he said. Sadly, I bought the last hot dog, got back in the truck and headed downtown. As I put her in reverse, I spilled mustard on my shirt. Damned dog.
The main drag was almost as deserted as the ‘burbs. There was just a lone wino slumped against a closed shop and a pair of hookers plying their wares. At the other end of town, I pulled into the Dunkin’ Donuts and up next to a police cruiser. The officers were leaning on the hood, munching on crullers and sipping their joe. They hadn’t seen Rex, either. One of them asked me if I’d like them to issue an all points bulletin. Eagerly, I said yes before realising he was just pulling my leg. Grumbling, I got behind the wheel, put her in gear, and made another run through town.
As I passed the two ladies of the evening, I thought, out of the corner of my eye, that I saw some movement down an alley. I jammed on the brakes, ground the tranny into reverse, and pulled back level with the alley. My second look confirmed the first. There were two dogs at the far end. Gunning the engine I jumped the curb and roared towards them.
I screeched to a halt not ten feet from them and flicked on the high beams. Sure enough, one of the dogs was Rex. He was mounted on the back of a perfectly groomed poodle wearing a diamond studded collar, hips thrusting, tongue hanging out and eyes glazed. How long had he been going at it? He was humping the bejesus out of that poodle! What’s worse, the bitch had my hundred dollars gripped firmly in her teeth.
I was stunned. For a moment, I was even speechless. Then, I threw open the door and stood before them. Even with me watching, Rex couldn’t stop. Finally, I found my voice.
“Rex!” I cried. “Rex, stop that right now! Heel!”
Rex craned his neck and blinked uncomprehendingly at me, but never lost his rhythm.
“Come on, Rex, get in the truck,” I commanded. “Now, Rex!”
He just kept hammering away at the poodle bitch, who gave a short whimper.
I couldn’t believe it.
“Rex,” I implored, “what’s gotten into you? You’ve never done anything like this before.”
Finally, he focused on me. In a voice as clear as day, he said to me, “You never gave me this much money before!”
I was floored. Who knew he could talk? I always said he was a genius among geniuses. The revelation put me in a forgiving mood.
“Okay, Rex. You’ve had your fun and I understand. Everyone deserves to get their rocks off now and again. But it’s time to come home. Let’s go.”
The poodle bitch let out a plaintive whine, and Rex shook his head. “I’m not going anywhere, man. I’m in love. Thanks for all the good times, Bill, but this is the end of the road for us.”
I didn’t know what to say. I mean, who was going to fetch my beer? But it was plain as day that Rex was determined to make a new life for himself. He’d been a good friend all these years; there was no sense in being bitter. I swallowed my pride and decided to take the high road.
“Alright, Rex,” I said. “Good luck to the both of you.”
I turned back to the truck, swallowing to hold back the tears. Just as I pulled open the door, Rex called out to me. “Hey, Bill. Would you do me one last favor?”
“Sure, Rex,” I croaked. “Anything for you.”
“Say goodbye to Mrs Winterbottom for me?”
Biting The Hand That Feeds You by Martin Palazzotto is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.