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A sad Mission Beach dog story

There was a curious odor, like something gone rancid

The Clairemont family that owned it was giving it away for free.

The Clairemont family that owned it was giving it away for free.

Four young men lived together not long ago in Mission Beach. They were all unemployed and got by as best they could on their wits. Consequently, they were always on the verge of bankruptcy. But perhaps that is overstating their predicament. They were young — in their early twenties — and middle-class, so they were able to receive “allowances” from their concerned parents without undue embarrassment, and they were smart enough to finagle their way into the food-stamp program (by telling less than the whole truth). They did not use their food stamps for food, though. Rather, they sold them for cash at half the face value to students at San Diego State, and then used the money to buy beer and marijuana.

The four of them shared a two-bedroom apartment on the boardwalk near Island Court, just north of Hamel’s in Mission Beach. The old woman who owned the apartment building did not know enough to kick out her tenants in the summer, jack up the rent, and lease the apartments to vacationers from Arizona, so last summer the four boys were able to live in their beachfront flat for a relatively minor charge of $500 a month, split four ways. It was quite an idyllic existence.

Scott Rickenbacker, which is not his real name, was twenty-one, the oldest of the four and the most clever, although not many people suspected this. Actually, he was clever in certain ways, and not so clever in others. It was his idea to collect food stamps, for instance, and it also was his idea to sell the stamps for cash. And as far as really important things were concerned, like meeting girls and bringing them back to his place on the beach, he was a whiz.

Scott was not so clever, however, in that he decided to buy a dog. Like most people who own animals as pets, Scott wanted to satisfy a craving for companionship, love, and respect. He decided to get an Irish setter — one of the sloppiest and least intelligent breeds of canine known to man. Scott had a mental picture of this dog even before he bought it. It would be longhaired, handsome, noble in appearance, athletic — quite a lot like Scott himself, he fancied. The dog would become expert at catching a Frisbee; it would learn to body surf; it would walk down the boardwalk with its master and would learn to wear sunglasses and a neckerchief without balking. Man. it would be great! Da kine, bro Bitchin!

And the name ... ah. yes. the name. This was a very important aspect of having a dog. A name was a verbal coat of arms. Scott thought up some really good ones, mostly drug-related and very hip. Reefer . . . Kif . . . Maui . . . Coker . . . No. these didn't quite hit the mark. Trendy, perhaps, but they might easily go out of fashion. This would have to be a name beyond fashion. A timeless name. What about giving it a human name? Something a little goofy but still sort of cool. Like, say. George . . . Ben . . . Albert. . . Fred . . . These weren't quite right, either. Something slightly obscene that would get a laugh, maybe? Dickface? Wazoo? No. dammit. This was serious, now. It had to be something that wasn't going to wear thin. It had to be a name that literally rings out with righteousness. Something you can shout out real loud at the beach so that people are just going to know that this is a bodacious dog. Something like . . . Diablo!

That’s it! Diablo! Rolls off the tongue like an ice cube on linoleum. It was at once tough and sincere. He could picture it now — the surf crashing on the shore, a gale-force wind roaring north from a tropical storm in Baja, and Scott calling for his dog in a deep, rugged voice: “Deeeaaablooo!” And there would be the proud Irish setter, galloping through the receding waves at water’s edge, a kerchief around its neck and a Frisbee in its mouth. It would reach Scott’s feet and stand upright on its hind legs. People on the boardwalk would watch and admire, and the dog would do tricks. Scott would teach Diablo to dance, to walk backward, to smoke pot. This was going to be some dog!

Scott found his Diablo in the classified ad section of the Evening Tribune. The dog was already four months old and had no AKC papers, but the Clairemont family that owned it was giving it away for free. Great deal. Besides. Scott thought, it’s really a hassle raising a puppy. This guy can take care of himself already. Just the right age to learn tricks.

When he brought the dog home the first day, his roommates went nuts. Tremendous! During the first week, each of them volunteered several times to take the dog for a walk down the boardwalk. They knew the dog would help them meet girls, girls in bikinis, girls who would stop and say something like, “Ooooh, how sweet. What kind is he? Can I pet him? Hi, boy. Hi, fella. What’s his name?”

Diablo!

Scott had a girlfriend at the time who, in many ways, was a female human counterpart to Diablo. Her name was Kristen, and she also lived on the boardwalk, further north, toward Pacific Beach. She was an odd match for Scott. She worked full-time as a waitress at the Firehouse Deli Restaurant, and was within groping distance of her bachelor’s in psychology at State. In a word, she was serious. Scott had met her early on during the summer. They were physically attracted to one another, and began a typical summer romance — drinking beer at parties, watching lots of television while snuggled together on the couch, and sleeping over. It was a mutually satisfactory relationship. Scott liked Kristen for the same reasons he liked his dog: she gave him companionship, love, and something akin to respect.

Kristen had warned Scott against the dog when he first came up with the idea. “You guys just don’t have enough room in your apartment,” she had said. “When you start classes in the fall, what are you going to do with him? Leave him in the apartment all day? That would be cruel, Scott. I don’t think you’ve thought this thing through clearly.”

And frankly, she was right. Scott had no more idea of how to support a dog than he knew how to support himself. Kristen had said repeatedly that owning a dog was like raising a child — that it was a commitment for, if not a lifetime, at least twelve or fifteen years. And although Scott knew this was true, it was a mental burden he preferred not to carry.

The relationship with Kristen ended with the start of the fall semester at SDSU. With her job and her twelve units of course work, Kristen had little time for a partyboy lover like Scott. And as far as Scott was concerned, the end of the relationship was no loss. He, too, would be back in school, scouting out the freshman honeys who would no doubt be thrilled to come back to his little beachfront pad and barbecue steaks on the balcony and watch his dog, Diablo, run through the lapping waves with a Frisbee. There were plenty of girls like that. Plenty.

The dog became a problem during the first week of class. All four roommates were back in school, so no one was home to care for Diablo. And, man, he was getting expensive to feed. The damn dog could go through a fifty-pound sack of Purina Dog Chow in a week! That took a large chunk of Scott’s allowance right off the top. Scott tried to get his three friends to pay for a quarter of the feeding cost, each, but they weren’t having any of that sort of talk. “But you guys get as much enjoyment out of that dog as I do,” Scott implored. “It’s only fair you pay a share of his food bill.”

“Man, I ought to charge you for what that freakin’ mutt does to this apartment,” said one of the roommates. “Scott, it stinks in here. That dog does nothing but eat, sleep, and shit!”

That mutinous response was fast becoming a leitmotif among Scott’s three roommates, who were tiring of the clumsy dog. Things were crowded enough in their tiny apartment without having to put up with a hairy, smelly, slobbery, stupid hound like Diablo.

To counteract the growing sense of unease at the household, Scott began locking up Diablo in the bathroom all day while the boys were at school. This accomplished several things. First, all the dog shit was now confined to one area, and the living room and bedroom carpets were no longer gaining new stains every day. Also, the dog was no longer chewing up things he had no right to chew up, like the skeg of Scott’s almost-new Infinity surfboard for which Scott had traded a hundred dollars in food stamps and eighty-five dollars cash. This mongrel was a monster — a shitting, eating, chewing monster.

On the Monday afternoon beginning the third week of the fall semester, Scott cut his last class (“It was only archery,” he said later) and drove home on Interstate 8, eager to catch the afternoon glass-off. He parked his rusty Rambler station wagon in the alley behind the apartment and hustled up the stairs. When he walked inside, he couldn’t help but scream.

' ‘Diablo!’ ’

The young dog was lying on the sofa with one of Scott’s T-shirts in his mouth. The prized surfboard was knocked down from its place in the comer of the living room. The bathroom was covered with dog shit, as if Diablo had spitefully made the mess and squished it around, played in it. A hole was chewed in the sofa cushion, and the sack of Dog Chow in the kitchen was knocked over and the little brown kernels of dog food were spread all over the floor.

"Diablo!"

The dog knew that something was amiss and immediately made for the bedroom to hide. But Diablo was too slow. Scott took two steps toward the dog and kicked out at him. He caught Diablo with a solid boot in the gut, and then another smack in the butt. The dog yelped in pain — differently, though, from the times Scott had slapped him with a rolled newspaper. But Scott didn’t worry himself with the dog’s cries. He had to get this damn mess cleaned up before his roommate got home and threw the dog into the ocean. “You stupid mutt!” Scott shouted. “Why can’t you just mellow out, dog?”

When the three roommates arrived home that evening, Scott had cleaned most of the disaster. Even so, the rip in the sofa cushion was so big it couldn’t be hidden — not even by flipping it over — so he had to explain that the dog had escaped from the bathroom. The roommates were understanding enough. It was an old couch, anyway; stolen from a Goodwill charity box in the P.B. Safeway parking lot. But that night, when they were all in bed, their humor was lost to the incessant howling of the dog.

Diablo cried all night. He whimpered. He moaned. He yelped. Then there was a strange gagging noise. All four roommates finally climbed out of bed at about three in the morning to see what was wrong.

The dog had barfed up an evil-looking blue fluid ail over the gold shag carpet in the living room. Scott was scared. “Man, what did you do to that dog today, Scott?” asked one of the roommates.

“How hard did you kick him?” asked another.

The other three eventually returned to bed, but Scott stayed up with Diablo until sunrise. He drove to a pet hospital at about seven o’clock with Diablo lying in the back of the Rambler.

A veterinarian examined the dog for thirty minutes while Scott sat in the waiting room, wallowing in guilt. “The dog is going to hate me forever,” he thought to himself. “What did I do to that poor dumb animal?”

The vet walked out from the examining room with Diablo limping behind. When Diablo saw Scott, he hobbled up to the young man. Scott was so overjoyed that Diablo still liked him that he didn’t mind the sixty-seven-dollar bill. “Just give him these,” the pet doctor said, handing Scott a vial of pills. “Mix one up in his food every night. And don’t worry. He’ll be okay.”

When he arrived back at the apartment with Diablo, Scott saw Kristen sitting on the porch steps, waiting. It had been two weeks since they had even talked, and he wondered what she wanted. “How’s it going, Krissie?” he inquired meekly. “I’ve been meaning to drop by soon.”

“Never mind about that,” she said. “Haven’t you guys had your phone fixed yet?”

“Are you kidding?The phone company wants a hundred and thirty bucks before they’ll reconnect us.”

“Well, your mother has been calling me all morning, trying to get hold of you. She’s crying and I don’t know what she wants. She just. . .sobs, asking for you.”

They walked inside, followed by the dog. Diablo limped over to the couch and lay down. Scott told Kristen what had happened, and to her credit Kristen did not say anything resembling “I told you so.”

They tried to feed Diablo some food but he wouldn’t eat. Nor would he drink. He continued to moan lowly, though, making both Scott and Kristen feel miserable.

They left the dog in the apartment and went to Kristen’s so Scott could call his mother up in North Hollywood. “Get home right away,” was all Mrs. Rickenbacker would say. “Please, Scott. The whole family’s here. Hurry.” She broke into tears and hung up.

Scott tried calling her back right away but the line was busy. He returned to his apartment and threw some clothes into a knapsack, then wrote a note to his roommates, asking them to give Diablo his evening pill and explaining that he was called away to his parents’ house without notice.

Later, Scott told everyone what had happened. It seemed that during the morning, while Scott was taking Diablo to the veterinarian, Scott’s father, mother, and brother went to eat breakfast at a nearby Denny’s coffee shop. After they returned to their large suburban house, the father picked up the home edition of the Los Angeles Times, sat down in his easy chair, had a heart attack, and died. Just like that.

Scott’s mother was nearly hysterical, and remained so for two days after the death. Scott stayed with her for the rest of the week, went to the funeral, and drove sadly back home to Mission Beach on Saturday.

He parked behind the building, in the alley, as usual, at about four that afternoon. The waves would be glassy, he thought. It would be good to get back in the water. He hopped out of the car and stepped inside the apartment. There was a curious odor, like something gone rancid. Nobody was home. All out surfing, he thought. He walked over to the stereo and noticed a cardboard box against the wall by the records on the floor. He had never seen it before. He went over to it and looked in. Diablo was lying in the box, dead.

When the roommates returned that evening, they found Scott sitting on the sofa with the dead dog in his lap. He was mumbling something they could not understand. They even had to shake him a couple of times to bring him out of it.

They tried to explain that the dog simply died, and that there was nothing they could have done to prevent it. They put the body in the cardboard box because they weren’t sure what Scott wanted to do with it. It really couldn’t have been helped, they said. Really, man, it was just one of those things.

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