(I’ve always absolutely adored alliteration.)
Careful what you wish for, goes the saying. While we slow-cooked our tenderloins in the stifling heat and humidity of the Mexican coast, where swimming pools and the sea were only a few degrees lower than our body temperature, we dreamed of just a few hours’ reprieve. Well, we got it, and more. In the cool of the Central Mexican mountains life revolves around fleece, flannel, fog and fire. Here in Erongaricuaro, on the other side of the lake from Patzcuaro, we don fleece jackets to walk the dogs in the morning, sleep in flannel pajamas under flannel sheets in the evening, and build fires in the huge stone fireplace to chase the chill at sundown. Because it’s adobe, the house stays cool, even when we’d rather it didn’t. In fact, we go outside to warm up and inside to cool down. Most mornings, a cold grey fog rolls in off the lake and creeps up to the town and settles in our bones. We shiver until noon, when it burns off, leaving the rest of the day sunny, warm and dry. Perfecto.
Before they left on their European vacation, Jon and Phyllis gave us the rundown on the routine: Tia Maria sleeps on her cushion on the bedroom floor; Jack sleeps on a blanket atop a hope chest at the end of the bed; cats curl up wherever they fancy. Oh, and their day starts at 6:30 a.m. We smile and nod politely, thinking, “That ain’t gonna happen.” We’re not normally morning people, but with these pet-sitting gigs, we’re fine with getting up early to ensure routines are uninterrupted. But 6:30?? It’s still dark at 7:30, for crying out loud! Roosters are still snoring, stars are still twinkling, church bells are unrung. It just seems rude to the sun to rise before it does, so we aim for what we consider to be a reasonable 8 a.m. Ha-ha. We quickly learn it’s a luxury to stay snuggled under all that flannel until 7:30.
The first night, we all troop to the bedroom. Tia Maria settles nicely into her cushion, Jack takes the end of the bed, the cats are out prowling, as cats are apt to do. All is proceeding as described. An hour after lights out, the wind is knocked out of me. Without warning, Maria has cannon-balled onto the bed and landed with a heavy thud on my stomach. As I’m gasping for breath, Jack clambers up and squishes his wet nose into my forehead. Then, under the covers at the foot of the bed, a lump starts moving stealthily toward us. Think Cato from The Pink Panther movies. It’s the Brat, and he’s hell-bent on staying undercover. The only one missing is Greta Garbo and, well, she just wants to be alone. Thank god for small mercies. We assume it’s first-night jitters, and decide to relent just this once. We try to get comfortable in the middle of this circus, but it’s just not working. Who can sleep with a 60-pound Lab on your gut and dog breath in your face? And that furry thing making its way up my bare leg better be the cat. Finally, with considerable persuasion and bribing, we manage to shoo everyone out. But they’re not happy about it. The dogs paw on the door and the cat squeezes through the slats in the French doors leading in from the living room. We awake — before the sun — bleary-eyed and cranky. We need a new plan. Meanwhile, the beasts are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and revved up for breakfast.
Also before they left, Jon and Phyllis instructed us on the feeding ritual, which turns out to be more of a feeding frenzy. What they didn’t enlighten us about is that the animals all appear to have eating disorders. Jack and Maria, we were told, are to take their morning repast outside, but you have to keep them well apart from one another, as Maria, half-way through gobbling her food, will attempt to scarf Jack’s. In fact, keep the dogs’ and the cats’ dining locations far apart or there will be a food fight of epic proportions. To all outward appearances, Maria has accepted Jack into the fold, but in reality she harbours some deep-seated resentment toward the terrier that manifests itself in meal dominance. Also, we were advised, under no circumstances attempt to take Jack’s food from him in the middle of eating. He’ll chase his kibble down with your finger if you dare. Got it. As for the feline contingent, you have to divide a can of soft food between the Brat and Greta, but make sure you tamp down the Brat’s so it takes longer to eat, otherwise he will inhale his and wolf Greta’s before she’s swallowed her first bite. Well, that was the theory…
These guys knew they had a couple of newbs on their hands, and they were going to take full advantage. Almost immediately, Maria launched a sneak attack on Jack’s dish. Surprisingly, he didn’t even put up a fight; just cowered and skulked away. Ditto the Brat and Greta. Sigh. This was going to take more than space and timing. This was going to take the precision planning and execution of a military special forces op. We determined we would be well-rested and in fighting form at 0-700-hours to better wrangle these wiseacres. Two days before the end of our sit, we had it down pat.
Then there’s the walk. Jon had shown us a couple of options, lovely strolls along dusty roads through a bucolic countryside of ranches and farmland. No leashes required, he assured us, since you’ll rarely encounter anyone and the dogs love to roam, so there will be no problems. Five steps outside the door and we’re breaking up a vicious dog fight. In one corner, Jack. In the other, a snarling, slathering German shepherd. The two went at each other immediately upon locking eyes. It was as if they had an old score to settle. The growls, the barks, the bites, the dust. We envisioned having to break it to Jon and Phyllis that, on the very first day, their dog was mauled to death in front of our eyes. I vowed that would not happen on my watch. I snapped and started screaming at the dog’s owner: “Get your f@#*ing dog under control!!! Call off your f*&^#ing dog!!! Do you think this is f%^&ing funny?!!” Because the guy, unbelievably, was laughing. Why he found the sight of his dog ripping apart another, much smaller dog amusing was beyond us. Maybe there was some history here we didn’t know about. Maybe he was just as deranged as his dog. When the shepherd had Jack by the throat and pinned to the ground, Rick, who had been trying to get between the two (ill-advised, we know), threw a swift, hard kick to its ribs. The shepherd yelped, dropped Jack and leapt away. We grabbed Jack by the collar and pulled him down the road, while still shouting at the owner, who by now was herding his dog back in the yard, chuckling to himself as if we’d just told him a joke. In fact, to his Mexican ears, all my shouting probably just sounded like “mwah-mwah-mwah-blah-blah-fuddy-duddy.” When we were a safe enough distance away, we sat Jack down and examined him. Miraculously, he had no cuts, no blood, nothing to indicate injury. The only thing damaged was his rep. We would soon learn he’s a scrapper who backs down to no one. He takes on big dogs, little dogs, cows, horses, people, trucks, you name it. Jack’s a jerk, basically, when he’s on the road. Conversely, at home, he’s as mild-mannered as a Bassett. As a matter of fact, when the light hits him a certain way, and his hair is all wild and curly around his head, he looks remarkably like the adorable Zuzu from It’s a Wonderful Life. All he needs are petals.
From that point on, we avoided the road and started our walks from the pasture next door. The only obstacle there is a herd of cows, but they simply regard the little yapper with bored eyes and full mouths. Because they don’t present a challenge, Jack ignores them. Once on our route, he shimmies under barbed-wire fences to yip-yap at a pair of yellow dogs, a mother German shepherd, another pair of German shepherds (there are, mysteriously, a lot of German shepherds in this town), various mutts and mongrels minding their own business, the occasional horse and mule. We’re constantly apologizing to people, shrugging and shaking our heads, as if this behaviour is sudden and likely due to an undiagnosed illness. I’ve begun keeping a stash of treats in my pocket to give the dogs he’s harassed as a peace offering.
When he’s not busy terrorizing the neighbourhood, Jack will bound into tall grass, bushes, fields and foliage, emerging mud-spattered and bramble-infested. One day we spent two hours plucking burrs from his wiry, tangled fur. As for the mud, well, Jack doesn’t take kindly to a washing, so we make him run around the dew-covered pasture to get most of it off. Maria, for the most part, ignores him like a teen would a retarded little brother: she looks at passersby as if to say, “Him? No, he’s not with me; don’t know him.” The only time she takes him on is when he beats her to a particularly ripe meadow muffin. The two of them love to snack on cow paddies along the way, and only the most fetid and foul will do. It can’t be fresh out of the cow’s bowel, either; it has to have sat baking in the sun for a day or two to reach that perfect al dente texture. It should preferably be fly-covered, oozing an odour so putrid it knocks you back a step. And they don’t stop at cow poop. It can be horse or mule dung, they’re not fussy. In fact, if they can get away with it, they’ll snag a log from the kitty litter box. Dogs are animals.
Back home, the final part of the routine is to administer meds to Maria. The poor gal suffers from hip dysplasia, common with purebred Labs, and requires a shot of pain-killer once a day. Fortunately, the shot is a syringe that shoots liquid into her mouth, so it’s trauma-free and she’s very accommodating. (We wouldn’t get away that easy, however. A vet arrived a week before our departure with heavy-duty meds, to be injected twice a week via actual needle. To our relief, it was between her shoulders, and she didn’t feel a thing.) Before settling into their mid-morning nap, there’s The Jack and the Brat Fight Club. The Brat may be small and fluffy and adorable, but in reality he’s a mean, lean fighting machine. He’s convinced he’s a dog, and throws down like one. He’ll kick, lunge and bite with the ferocity of a pit bull. He’ll pin like a WWF wrestler. He’ll punch like a heavyweight champ. Many times he’s gotten the better of Jack, who comes up for air and trots away, on the pretence of getting a drink of water. The Brat will then lean back on his elbow, self-satisfied, and sneer as he watches him go.
After walks, feeding and fighting, the rest of the day is pretty much ours. We tidy up or do some work or just soak up the sun in the garden, as butterflies and hummingbirds flit amongst the flowers and massive black bees hum heavily overhead. Sometimes we’ll pull out the cards, play a rousing game of Scrabble or a new addictive game we’ve discovered called Quiddler, which is essentially Scrabble with cards. Two days a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, a maid comes. She, naturally, speaks Spanish. We, naturally, do not. This does not, however, deter her attempts at communication. She’ll chatter away about god knows what, we’ll respond, as usual, with “Lo siento, no hablo espanol.” She’ll stop for a second, blink, then continue chattering. We sigh, smile and nod. Soon we make a point of walking into town on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We’ll pull up a chair outside Testerelli’s and order tortas and cappuccino, killing time while watching life on the plaza. Three doors down is the cop shop, where policia wander in and out in their Kevlar vests. Even in a town this size law enforcement dress for excess.
On Tuesdays, it’s market day, when vendors from the surrounding towns bring their produce, trinkets, bling, crafts and clothes to Eronga. Two or three streets are blocked off so they can set up their stalls. After lunch, we’ll head back home through the market, stopping to pick up some fruit and veggies. Six days a week, and for six hours a day, a gardener mills about the foliage clipping this, digging up that, transplanting those. (The Brat will follow close behind, snapping this, re-digging up that, pooping on those.) He rides in on his bike just after 9 a.m., hollers a “buenas dias!” then heads to the shed, hauls out a radio, cranks it so the folks on the other side of the lake can hear and gets to work. Above the din of the radio, we hear his coughs, horks and spits. Finally, just after 3, he bellows an “Adios!” and all is quiet.
In the afternoons, Maria dozes in the sun, the cats loll on the dog beds inside, and Jack patrols the perimeter. For the longest time we couldn’t figure out what he was doing. In the middle of a deep sleep, he’d suddenly leap to his feet and charge up the garden path and along the wall, barking at what only he could hear and see. Then he’d stand there, staring fixedly at one spot in the wall, for upwards of an hour. He does this several times a day and no amount of distraction will snap him out of it. It wasn’t until weeks later we discovered the object of his obsession: a sprightly little squirrel that hops across the top of the wall, sending Jack into fits of barks and bounces as he feverishly tries to get at it. The squirrel just stops and stares down at him, silently taunting and tormenting him. Like his autoeroticism, it was just another thing we had to get used to.
On our second night, we decided we’d leave the canines outside to play for an hour or so, just to get them good and tired so they’d agree to sleep on the couch. They seemed fine with it; out they went, everything was going well, all was quiet. In the middle of high-fiving each other for this brilliant idea, a burst of wild barking sprung us from our chairs and out the door. The dogs had cornered a possum. The critter was snarling and spitting, clearly not interested in playing pig in the middle. After we pulled them away and the possum made a break for it, we herded Jack and Maria inside. That night, relegated to the living room, they were at first chagrined. They scratched and whined at the door, but we held firm. Within a half hour all was quiet. Well, quiet being a relative term. Each night we’re lulled into a fitful sleep to the accompaniment of a chorus of barking neighbourhood dogs, firecrackers, loud music and the occasional insomniac rooster. At daybreak, we’re dragged further from sleep by roosters, cows, sheep, church bells, loudspeakers (the gas man is back!), more fireworks, more barking dogs and muffler-free cars. We may be in the countryside, but it’s far from peaceful. We’re lucky to string together five minutes of silence.
The cats are much less vocal. Greta, as mentioned, is very private; she spends her days hiding out in the bedroom and her nights running from the Brat. She rarely ventures outside. We think that, like her reclusive namesake, she’s agoraphobic. Occasionally, she’ll stand in the doorway to the garden, marveling at all that the outside world has to offer, but then the Brat comes flying out of nowhere, fangs and claws fully extracted, and chases her under a desk. When they brawl, the dogs come running to the Brat’s defense, snarling at Greta. No wonder she wants to be alone. She’s under siege from all corners. We finally offer her our bed as refuge for the night. This results in even less sleep, as I’m kept awake fearing I’ll roll over and crush her.
When Garbo talks, she squeaks. She can’t quite summon a full-on meow. Sometimes she opens her mouth and nothing at all comes out, like she’s got laryngitis. The Brat, on the other hand, is as demanding as a toddler. He yowls when he’s peckish, which is all day long, despite a full cat dish. He yowls when he wants you to play with him. He yowls when he’s bored. The only time he’s quiet is when he’s on a kill. We’ll be sitting watching TV or reading, and we’ll hear a slight scuffle. We look over and the Brat’s hovering over something in a corner. That something can be a moth, a butterfly, spider, a beetle, a grasshopper, a grub, a lizard or a centipede the size of a small snake. Once or twice he’s snagged a bird and a mouse. Anything that walks, crawls, hops, slithers or flies is fair game. Then the chase is on to save the creepy-crawly, and that ain’t easy. The Brat thinks you’re just as interested in his play things and you want to keep them for yourself, so he guards them with the ferocity of a lion. Much to his annoyance, there are several lucky lizards who crawl the earth today thanks to us. They may not have their tails, but they have their lives. What’s worse than finding a lizard on the floor? Finding a half a lizard on the floor…
One night I went outside to check on the dreaded scuffle and saw another possum. This one appeared to be quite dead: he was lying on his back, his mouth pulled back in a grimace, his paws curved into his body. Blood oozed out of his side. The Brat was pacing around it, the dogs just stood and stared at it. If it wasn’t moving, what fun was it? As Rick was casting about for a way to remove the creature, I was lamenting its demise, likely at the hands of one of our own. He was unmoved, and said, “Ah, he’s likely playing possum.” Say what? I’d never heard the term before. Finally, Rick swept the ghastly beast into a basket and carried him to the pasture. As he turned to unload the vermin, the door slammed shut behind him. He spent the next 15 minutes in a dark field of tall grass in his slippers, with a dull flashlight, cows and god knows what else lurking behind him, hollering at me to open the door. This house, however, has two-foot thick adobe walls and the mud-brick wall encircling it is almost as dense. I heard nothing. I finally went out looking for him when he didn’t come back right away, fearing the beast that played dead had now come to life and cornered my husband. That turned out to be half true. The next morning, I had an education in possum-play. The damned thing was gone.