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Home: The Toast

Previously by Vanessa Willoughby: Writing While Black and Female.

The summer we lost the dog was the summer that we lost Joey. It seems somewhat misleading, even crude to say that we lost the dog because to lose something implies that you noticed when it was gone and to say that I lost Joey would be simplification, an attempt to beautify a carrion. We lost the dog that summer because my father was tired of looking out for another life. We lost Joey because the whiteness of the suburbs was driving us crazy, monochromatic ignorance like a drill that just keep tearing and tearing through boards until its spiraling head hit air.


Unlike Joey’s father, who was the only other black father in our little corner of the neighborhood, my father was always waiting for the other shoe to drop. He could tolerate few people and few people could tolerate him, which hardly bruised his ego. He had a special knack for preserving his wounds so that they were always bubblegum pink and fresh and throbbing. My father carried his regrets like an elephant. He had been born in North Carolina during a spring that was heavy with the perfume of honeysuckle. He lived there until his mother died at the age of thirty-five and his father started playing Russian Roulette with his Smith and Wesson. The mean-looking gun had been the consolation prize won during a boozy game of poker with a group of ruffians with cigars attached to their wet bottom lips. His father taught himself how to shoot, later reenacting these self-taught methods with his son.

Stand still, legs apart, and god damn it, Richard, don’t flinch every time you pull the goddamn trigger, my grandfather would say.


When he was a child, my father loved the black and white Westerns on television. He liked the Lone Ranger and Wanted: Dead or Alive with Steve McQueen. It didn’t matter that these shows rarely (if ever) cast an actor that was not white. These men were his heroes, his confidantes, roughed-up demi-gods, slick celluloid dreams of moral absolutism. These fictional rebels were better role models than his own father because these men could be counted upon to be selfless. Part of being a hero was being reliable. My grandfather was only reliable in the sense that he was stubborn. He joined the Marines when he was sixteen and coughed up some phony papers. I never really knew him, but I like to think he was sort of like Jay Gatsby, addicted to the illusion of his green light. In the pictures that my father kept, my grandfather was always wearing a fitted Yankees cap and an uncanny smile reserved only for those who knew how to suppress secrets.

When his wife died of breast cancer, my grandfather moved up North with his son, so that the lonely duo would be closer to their (estranged) family. Apparently, my grandfather had not been keeping his ear to the family grapevine. The local matriarchs and patriarchs had long abdicated their crowns. Some had moved into the stale, grey, bleach-scented, locked-down wards of nursing homes or were growing cold in the ground. My grandfather had marooned his family in a section of New Haven, Connecticut where color lines were not laws but institutionalized animosity, a mixture of discriminatory housing practices and unspoken tradition. Fortunately, my grandfather was able to buy a three-bedroom house with a backyard. He eventually bought a dog because he knew that it would give his son a sense of responsibility. In a way, a dog could be a second parent. Distracted by the needs of a dog, my grandfather would be free of his son’s needs.

My grandfather was horrified about the idea of talking to his son about his life, about his own father who had vanished into thin air, only to be found five days later swinging from a tree, swaying, a black body in the breeze, scared to recall his experiences as a World War II veteran, to relive the horror of bodies blown to chunks of bone and meat, sometimes as big as the portions of meat that you’d feed a lion at the zoo. My grandfather could hardly bear to dissect his grief and would not allow his son to play psychiatrist. The dog would have to do.

My grandfather bought his son a black puppy with a long tail and drooping jowls perpetually decorated with ropes of saliva. The puppy was a pit bull and they named him Zeus because they both agreed that Zeus sounded like a strong, intimidating name. Although he did not live up to the ominous ferocity of his namesake, Zeus the dog lived until he was twenty. By then, my father was on his way to flunking out of the state university. The dog, in his final years, had developed a friendship with my grandfather. When he died, my father internalized the death of Zeus as though it were the collapse of Babylon, the fall of a mother empire. It was another death, another disappointment.

Life passed by and history repeated itself. After my mother died, my father bought a pit bull. He named the dog Zeus and Zeus became my undisputed obligation. Unlike Zeus the Elder, my Zeus did not live until he was twenty. We lost Zeus the summer before I went to college, before I turned seventeen. It was the beginning of July. We lost Joey the following month to a drug deal gone wrong.

Looking back, I would classify each death as a violent disturbance of faith, like I’d been floating against the ceiling and watching my paralyzed body on the operating table, doped up on government-issue, high-quality drugs.


When I told Joey I had to walk Zeus, he didn’t leave. I was surprised because Joey never really liked Zeus, couldn’t stand the way the dog needed his attention, the way “it” would lick his hand and then deliver a sloppy kiss to Joey’s mouth. Joey was never allowed to have dogs or cats because his mother was painfully allergic to animals. She had the sort of allergies that were not so much sensitive as they were freakishly inexplainable.

Most of the time, Joey and I had the same skin tone but in the summer he’d get darker, so dark that his own mother told him to start using sunscreen because she didn’t want her son looking “too burnt.” That day, he was wearing a striped tank-top that showed off his stubby T-Rex arms.

“Let’s go get ice cream,” Joey suggested.

This was usually code for: let’s go to Dairy Queen and see if we (I) wanted to scope out potential hook-ups. It was a muggy day, so oppressive that it felt like our lungs were constricting. I needed to take Zeus for a walk. My father was nowhere to be found and Zeus was scampering up the walls. Joey waited in the hallway while I got the leash. I could hear Joey’s sneakers tapping against the wood of the main hall. He was always tense when he stepped into our house because he was afraid of my father. He would never admit it, but I could feel his anxiety. It made me anxious to the point that Joey and I never spent too much time in my house. All of my childhood memories involving Joey don’t include a setting that involves my bedroom, let alone my house. We were the kind of psychically-connected allies that never broke bravado. Besides being “token minorities,” we had found common ground based upon the pursuit of hooking up or listening to music or both.

Without Joey, I would not have discovered Common or Outkast or Mos Def or Wu-Tang. I would not have truly discovered my pride and passion for hip-hop. I would not have spent nights sitting with a pair of headphones on my ears nestled next to the quaking bass of someone’s stereo, high on whatever weed someone (years later and it’s always someone else, some unknown face, the transparent projection of a person) had happened to scrounge together.

At that time, the only way I could release pain was by means of someone else’s words, someone else’s voice.


The Dairy Queen was located on a side street off the main strip. It had a large parking lot and the lights were always dim, so it became an unofficial spot to conduct any sort of drug-related business transactions. More than once, Joey had used the Dairy Queen as his meeting spot for customers. Zeus studied the crowd with indifference. Joey got in line with our orders. We never deviated from the usual: for me, a vanilla and chocolate twist in a cone with sprinkles and for Joey, a Reese’s Pieces Blizzard. I sat on a paint-peeling bench by the side of the building, wrapping the leash around my wrist. I spotted a few of my classmates and they pretended that they hadn’t seen me. Most of my classmates didn’t know what to think of a nerdy, introverted black girl who read Jane Austen for fun. I defied the label of “exotic” and was just downright eccentric, a violation of “authentic black identity.”

I must have been drifting in and out of a clawing daydream because I didn’t notice the woman until she was aggressively tousling Zeus’s fur. She had coffee-stained front teeth, brown like the remnants of a cold tea bag, and sported the standard regulation outfit for a middle-class Soccer Mom with frayed patience: sensible shoes, expensive black yoga pants, and a zip-up Nike hoodie.

“OH! What a lovely dog you have,” she cooed. She hunched down, sticking her face near his snout.

Soccer Mom began patting the top of his head as though he were a slow child that had finally figured out how to count past ten. Zeus let out a rough bark.

“He doesn’t like to be touched like that,” I said. The woman continued to manhandle Zeus, ignoring the twang of annoyance in my voice.

“Well, well, aren’t you just the cutest doggy? Do you like ice cream? I bet you doooo.” The syrup dripping from her voice let me know that she hadn’t recognized my warning nor did she really care. I was invisible.

Zeus barked again and I tugged on his leash. The Soccer Mom’s glamour-shot-ready smile faltered as she realized that the dog was a pit bull and not one of her daughter’s cutesy china dolls.

“You’re not shy at all, are you honey?” she replied, still attempting to continue her one-sided conversation. She reached down and before I could react, Zeus let loose a growl and then clamped his teeth into the center of her right hand.

“Zeus! Stop it!” I yelled.

The Soccer Mom was screaming, shrieking, hollering as though her entire body had burst into flames, like she was a vampire and sunlight was splitting her apart, holes like moon craters blossoming in her head.

“Zeus! Please!” I begged.

Zeus wouldn’t let go. I started praying to myself, frantic prayers that were akin to desperate babbling. I didn’t notice the hordes of curious bystanders that were forming a circle around us, some of the younger ones taking out their iPhones to film the scene, too preoccupied with the spectacle of the thing to offer any useful solutions or compassion.

Finally, finally, finally I got Zeus to release his grip. I yanked on his leash with shaky hands. Zeus kept his gaze trained on Soccer Mom, baring his canines. For a moment, I felt as though he weren’t my dog at all.

The wail of the cop car.

Then there was a beefy police officer elbowing his way through the audience, riled up with the privilege of authority, a vein like a fat caterpillar on the right side of his neck. Joey stood near the back of the crowd, ice cream in hand.

“What’s going on?” the cop asked.

“This DEMON just bit me!” Soccer Mom replied. She clutched her hand, which had begun to bleed.

The police officer reached out to grab the leash.

“I’ve got him under control,” I replied. Zeus barked and began to walk in circles.

The police officer made a move to take Zeus. Zeus noticed and a struggle ensued. Zeus snapped his jaws at the police officer, darting forward, eager to injure his perceived assailant. I tried to untangle myself from the thick leash and it slipped out of my hands. The police officer pulled out his gun as though he were Dirty Harry and delivered two shots to Zeus: one .45 caliber bullet to the shoulder and one .45 caliber bullet to the chest. Zeus whimpered, his aggression swiftly extinguished. Soccer Mom had disappeared, having been whisked off to the hospital.

“We’re gonna need to give this dog over to animal control and then we’re gonna need a statement from you, Miss,” the police officer informed. He looked at me as though I had orchestrated the entire ordeal, like I had something to hide.

I nodded and located Joey, who was still standing towards the back of the crowd. My ice cream cone was dripping all over his fingers and had splattered on the parking lot concrete, soup-like spots dotting the ground like the spray of blood on a white wall.


No one went to jail. Zeus got doctored up at the vet and I had to go down to the police station and explain what happened. The police officer that Zeus had bit saw the situation as more of an inconvenience than a punishable offense. However, he did tell me that if he were me, he’d “tell my father that the dog should be put down before something like this happens again.” After all, he added, “pit bulls are vicious.” I wanted to tell him that vicious was a word I would never use to describe Zeus. This was the same dog that slept next to me in my bed and snored, the same dog that could tell when I was deeply unhappy, the same dog who liked to frequently prove his loyalty and affection with kisses.

“This goddamn dog. Causing more trouble than I need. You know that these white people will be looking for any chance to call the cops or the dog warden on us now that this happened. People already hate pit bulls. Goddamn stupid dog,” my dad muttered.

We were driving back from the vet. Zeus was in the backseat of my father’s SUV. His head was sticking out of the open window, his tongue wagging.

“It wasn’t his fault,” I said.

“Who cares? It doesn’t matter. It’s too late. He ruined it for himself. Once the neighbors hear about this, they’all convince themselves that the dog is some rabid killer,” my dad sharply replied.

When we finally arrived home, my dad went to find his gun. He said that he was going to do some target practice. When he commanded Zeus to tag along with him, I didn’t think much of it. At that point in my life, I didn’t bother to question my father’s behavior or his kill-or-be-killed mentality. He had his shortcomings and his flaws, but my father was my fiercest protector, my militant supporter, even when the cruelty of the world brought him to his knees. I didn’t bother to question the fact that he brought along his flask for the occasion or the way Zeus seemed to limp after my father, as though he were an unwilling Roman gladiator being dragged into the heart of the dusty coliseum.


My dad claimed that Zeus had run off. They were in the woods and he had let him off the leash, thinking that Zeus would stay in his line of vision. Surprisingly, Zeus had taken this opportunity to flee, never to return. I didn’t let my father see me cry because he always got uncomfortable when I cried. I held a funeral for Zeus in our backyard, fashioned a DIY headstone out of a piece of wood and some magic markers. Wherever he was, I wanted to affirm my everlasting allegiance and my love, construct public proof of my faith in his goodness.


Years later, after I made an exodus to the South and attended a historically black college, my father confessed.

“I put him out of his misery,” he explained.

He said that he’d buried the dog’s body in the woods and then he’d felt so depressed that he’d emptied his flask into his dry mouth and then hit up one of the local bars. Zeus had never been his best friend, he admitted, but he was certain that the incident at the Dairy Queen had made our pet a marked target, a convenient scapegoat, and it was only a matter of time before the dog’s undeserved reputation caused trouble again.

Of course, after the “attack” had been printed in the local newspaper, (naturally peppered with eyewitness quotes that implied I was an irresponsible idiot for even bringing the dog with me), our neighbors were just as paranoid as my father predicted, sometimes leaving anonymous tips on the animal control hotline, thinking that any sort of loud barking emitting from our yard meant that Zeus was on the loose and ready to wield destruction like a fire-spewing Godzilla.

“I had to do it. It was the only way to make sure nobody did anything to him. He died by my hand and because I loved him, it wasn’t a killing. It wasn’t. I was protecting him. I loved that goddamn dog, I did.”

His eyes teared up and his mouth split into a familiar smile, a sly parting of the lips that my grandfather had perfected in his photos.

“You don’t understand what I did. But I saved him. I saved him.”

Vanessa Willoughby is an editor and a writer. Her work has been featured on Thought Catalog, The Toast, The Hairpin, Literally, Darling, and Bitch Media. She is a Prose Editor for Winter Tangerine Review and writes at www.my-strangefruit.tumblr.com.

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