Bad day to skip school, as it turned out.
It was nice and breezy in late May of 1967. That meant softball at recess. Worse, though, was that Dad was home. What was the point of ditching school if he didn't have the house to himself?
Tommy had stayed up late listening to his Chicago White Sox play the California Angels in a twi-night doubleheader. He buried himself in bed and tuned in on his transistor radio listening to Bob Eslton and Red Rush make the calls long after an eleven -year-old boy should have been asleep.
So he concocted a story when Mom rousted him. Something about a stomach ache. Diarreah was not easily verified. Mom had to go to work. Dad woke him a couple of hours later.
"Son, I need you to come downstairs."
The boy stepped out of bed and left the baseball cards---Gary Peters, Joe Horlen, Ron Hansen--scattered about the blanket. He stayed in his PJs and paddled down the front stairs into the foyer. He walked through the piano room to his right and into the library, a room big enough to play hockey in when Mom and Dad went out.
Dad was in his office, a sunroom with file cabinets and a desk. On the desk sat the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America and a pair of binoculars. Dad stood bent over the desk, hands on hips, staring out into the wide yard. Tommy jumped on the office chair and saw the object of Dad's concern: The Big Black Monster Dog sniffing around Dad's flower beds.
"Hey what's he doin' here?"
"I don't know," Dad said. "I tried to chase him off, but he didn't move."
"Well, who's dog is he?"
"He's not wearing tags. Might be a stray."
The appearance of a dog in the yard was unusual all by itself. By whatever method it was that dogs sort out the issue of primacy, Queenie had emerged victorious. She strolled the neighborhood all day, going into any yard that suited her fancy, but as long as anyone could remember, no other dog in the neighborhood enjoyed the same privilege in her yard.
"Well whyn't you let Queenie out?" Tommy asked. "She'll run 'im off."
"Not this one, she won't."
"Son, this dog'll tear Queenie up."
"He is pretty big. Hey, where is Queenie?"
"I put her in the basement. I was afraid she was gonna jump through a window."
Dad took Tommy by the hand and led him into the library. He sat the boy on the couch and kneeled and spoke to him eye-to-eye.
"I hate to leave you alone here, Son, but I have a business meeting for lunch. I'll be gone for a few hours. If that dog is still out there when I get back, I'll call the police. They can send an animal control unit out and take care if it."
Dad was familiar with the animal control police. He had to bail Queenie out of jail once after a neighbor complained about her knocking over their garbage cans.
Tommy ran into the basement, where Dad had fashioned a rec room of sorts. From her perch on the couch, Queenie gazed up at Tommy with that guilty dog look. She hadn't done anything wrong, but usually got sent down here when she did, like the time she ate the Easter Ham, leaving the relatives in their Sunday best to eat Dad's spaghetti. Tommy hugged her and gave her an Oreo.
"Don't worry girl, I'll sneak you stuff all day, and as soon as Dad get's back we'll make the monster dog go away, all right?"
Queenie rolled the cookie into her mouth and swallowed it whole. She didn't seem too concerned about the Monster Dog now, since there were no windows down here. And it was the one room in the house in which no one told her to get off the couch. Tommy ran upstairs and saw Dad in the kitchen getting ready to leave.
"Just checkin' on Queenie. She's sleeping."
"All right son. Don't forget you have to be responsible for her. Don't let her outside no matter what."
Tommy started to leave the kitchen, but Dad called him back.
Dad shook his finger with each word for emphasis.
"Son, no matter what."
"Oh, Queenie, right."
"No matter what. The dog stays inside."
Then, when the back door clicked shut, "Cheezee Loueezee!"
Tommy went back to his room and got dressed, then fixed himself a bowl of Frosted Flakes. He checked out the Sports Page in the newspaper, distressed that the account of the second game, a 2-1 victory, wasn't in the paper because of the late start for the West Coast game.
"What a gyp!"
He took comfort in the standings, which showed his White Sox in first place by a half-game over the Detroit Tigers.
He put his cereal bowl in the sink and went to the back closet, rooting around under shoes, coats and hats for his schoolbooks. He found "The Call of the Wild." Tommy was transfixed by Jack London's riviting account of a dog's tough life in Alaska. He was scared by the parts about men hitting the dogs, and the dogs fighting, but figgered that's just the way it was to be a dog in the wilderness. Queenie never had to fight. She just barked at the other dogs if they came into the yard and they ran away.
He headed back toward the front of the house to get comfy in the Living Room with his book, then decided he needed some more Oreo's. When he reached into the cookie jar, he heard Queenie whimpering on the other side of the basement door. He opened the door a crack and stuck a cookie through. She didn't take it, just cocked her head at him, ears up, brown eyes pleading.
"Sorry girl, you gotta stay down there today. I'll come back with some more cookies later."
With that he snicked the door shut and raced into the living room and leapt onto the couch feet first, as he did whenever Mom and Dad weren't home. Isn't that what couches were for?
"Tommie Agee heading for home, it's gonna be close, Agee slides and he's safe! The White Sox win another one!"
He gathered up his cookies and his book, then launched back into the story, barking in protest at the pages when humans did something stupid, then took it out on the dogs. It didn't feel right to be reading such a great dog story without his dog. He liked when she cuzzled up next to him, 'specially when no one else was home. Not that he as afraid to be alone, or anything. His sibs attributed her fondness for him to the endless supply of cookies that fell from his pockets, but he knew better.
He walked into the sunroom and scanned the yard. The Monster Dog was gone. He put on Dad's binoculars to make sure. He went back into the kitchen and opened the basement door. Queenie gallumphed out and headed across the floor to slurp out of her water bowl. Her color matched the black-and-white tiles on the linoleum floor, except she had spots instead of squares. She was a muttley mix of collie and dalmation, mostly black, with black spots on white in front.
She finished drinking and headed to the back door, tail wagging, and looked back at Tommy.
"Naw, can't go out, girl," he said.
The dog, of course, heard "out," and nothing else. She wagged furiously.
"C'mon, Queenie, let's go."
Tommy resumed his place on the couch and began reading. The dog soon followed and curled up on the floor next to him. Tommy figured he'd put Queenie back downstairs when he heard Dad's car pull in the driveway. Then he got to thinking. What if I don't hear the car come up the driveway? He recalled the wagging finger reminding him that the dog stays inside "no matter what." Then there was that big word, re spon si ble. You are responsible. No matter what.
He got up off the couch and walked past Dad's bar and opened the door to the screened-in porch. Queenie tried to follow, but found the glass door close on her nose. Tommy had to scout out the porch, make sure it was safe.
There was no sign of The Monster Dog. Tommy opened the screen door and walked out into the yard. He figured if The Monster Dog was out of sight somewhere, it would be aroused by his presence. So he walked with little to the front of the yard, along the crabapple trees, and checked the street and sidewalk. He turned and went back toward the house, checking the evergreen bushes along the screened-in porch.
He looked next door at the Nelson's yard, and felt relieved to see the yard man out planting flowers in the beds that got the full sun at the far end of their yard. He stepped back into the porch and made sure to hook the latch on the door. It never occurred to him that a screen door wouldn't contain a big dog.
Tommy opened the glass door into the living room. Queenie bolted out and tore right through the screen in the door. The Monster Dog was sleeping in a pathway between their house and the Nelsons'. Tommy had just read about The Dominant Primordial Beast, about how Buck rarely flashed his teeth, but the weaker Spitz always did. In this case, it was Queenie putting on a snarling display of aggression, while The MonsterDog just stood his ground.
Queenie barreled into him and wound up on top, but the snapping and clacking of teeth made Tommy's sphincter tighten. He ran down the porch steps as The Monster Dog grabbed a foreleg in its jaws and easily flipped Queenie onto her back. It struck at the jugular, ripping the spotted fur on her chest. Tommie saw white fur turn red and ran into the yard screaming. He closed in and hurled the hardcover book at The Monster Dog. It glanced off the dog's head and landed in the tulip bed. The Monster Dog turned and faced Tommy, a shock of bloody white fur in its mouth.
Queenie didn't move. Her paws flipped forward, they way they do when dogs play, or when a human scratches its belly. The gardner next door ran through the path between the two yeards, the very spot in which The Monster Dog had hidden just moments ago. He waved a hoe and shouted.
"Go on now! Go on now! Git on out!"
The Monster dog looked at the little boy, then considered the black man with the stick. It stood and circled toward the front of the yard. Considering.
"You all right, son? You get bit?"
Tommy stared at his fallen companion, the creature for whom he had been responsible "no matter what," and he screamed and cried loud enough that The Monster Dog began loping away from the scene, trotting through the crabapple trees and out of sight.
The gardener knelt next to the fallen dog and eyed its wound.
"Didn't get the jugular," he said.
Tommy knelt over Queenie.
"Oh God Queenie, you gotta be all right. You gotta be all right."
The gardener stood and looked around, not wanting to leave the boy in case the other dog came back. He spotted Mrs. Nelson on her front porch peering out from beneath a sunhat. He stepped toward the path where she could see him and shouted.
"Some trouble here Mizz Nelson. Maybe we ought to call the police."
Queenie's eyes went blank. Tommy saw her tongue fall out of her mouth and lay on the grass.
Dad made him wait in his room while the vet came by and did what he could, which was not much. Tommy climbed down the front stairs and crouched behind the bannister, as if no one could see him there through the spindles. Dad and the vet looked down at Queenie somberly. The vet told him to crush the aspirin and mix it with warm water and sugar.
Dad walked the man to the front door, then took Tommy by the hand and led him into the kitchen. Dad let him crush the aspirin and mix it in a coffee cup. Together they walked back to the dining room. Queenie lay in a corner. She was on sheets, rubber ones like Tommy had on his bed when he was little. Tommy figured it was in case the wound bled. The opening was about as wide as his hand. Just red flesh underneath. Dad had his reasons for using the rubber sheets, but kept that information to himself.
Tommy was relieved to see the dog's tongue was back in its mouth. Dad got around behind her and lifted her head. Tommy held the tablespoon with the sugar-aspirin-water. And waited.
The tongue emerged and he emptied the spoon onto it. Her eyes moved. They followed the spoon as it moved toward the cup and back to her. She took a few spoonfuls and her eyes closed. Dad laid her head down gently.
"Time for bed now, son. The doctor said she will probably be better in the morning. If she makes it through tonight, that'll probably be the worst of it. We just have to wait."
Tommy went to bed, but returned during the night to spoonfeed the dog water and aspirin. She was gone when he awoke, as were the rubber sheets. There was a blanket over him. He could hear his parents' voices in the kitchen, but couldn't make out the words. He did hear what he needed to hear, the slurping and splashing of a long tongue in the water bowl.