“There’s Such a Thing as Joey,” New Era, Sept. 1973, 16
My mom says if I don’t write this story she will. But if anybody tells it, I should, because nobody else knows how it was to be a seven-year-old boy like me. I can still remember even though that was five years ago and most of the hurt is gone.
Getting started is the hardest. I asked Mother where the beginning of this story was, and she smiled and said, “Well, Rulon, why don’t you begin in the middle?”
That’s a little joke between us because I’m in the middle of her children. No matter which way she counts, I’m third. “My anchor man,” she calls me, “keeping your brothers and sisters from drifting off course.”
Now I can see how I’ve helped Kent who’s only eight and Maria just turned four because they’ve never thought I was a dumb kid, but I can’t see that I’ve made any difference to my big brothers. Tom is four years older than I and Scott is two years older. (Those aren’t their real names, but they’ve always said they don’t want to be in any story of mine. And you can’t blame them for that.)
If I had been tough at football and clever at the piano like Tom or smart in school and awfully handsome like Scott, this story wouldn’t have happened. Because I wouldn’t have wanted a dog so much, I don’t think. And even if I’d wanted one, I wouldn’t have asked.
Scott had asked. He had begged. When he was in first grade he’d worn out the dog pages in our encyclopedias. He’d bought books on dogs, too, and read them from cover to cover. (Scott could do that because he’d been reading since he was four.) But he never got a dog.
Daddy and Mother explained to him a dozen times maybe how dogs belonged in the country, how they were a nuisance in the city, and how it wasn’t fair to dogs or people to have dogs cooped up. “And besides,” they’d finally say, “Tom wanted a dog once, and he had to learn that a boy can’t always have everything he wants.”
Scott begged a whole yearful, but all he got was a rabbit. He kept him a few months and then gave him to Uncle George’s kids who live on a farm. But I didn’t want a rabbit. Rabbits don’t love you back the way a dog does. Scott’s rabbit hopped away without a backward glance when we turned him loose in Uncle George’s field.
“Joey’s dog would have howled his head off if he’d been turned out and left like that,” I said as the rabbit disappeared behind a haystack.
“There’s no such thing as Joey,” Scott snapped. Whenever I said anything to Tom or Scott about Joey, they’d always blurt out, “There’s no such thing as Joey.” It was a habit with them.
Then we’d argue, and they’d try to trick me with questions like, “Where does Joey live?” and “Who are Joey’s parents?” and “How come no one but you ever sees Joey?” I’d almost always have an answer for them, and if ever I didn’t I’d just say, “Daddy and Mother know there’s such a thing as Joey—so there!”
Mother knew more about Joey than anyone else in the world except me. Once when I was five years old, she and I were lying on her bed, and after she’d read me half a dozen nap-time stories I decided to tell her I had a friend named Joey. Mother thought that was just wonderful and wanted to know all about him.
I told her how one day I’d gone exploring in the hills above our house. Tom and Scott hadn’t come because they were playing kick soccer with a bunch of kids in our backyard. At first I was going to play, but when they chose up sides I was the last one to be chosen, and then there was a fight to see who had to take me on their team. So I said I didn’t want to play, but I really did, but I’m glad I didn’t. Because that was the day I met Joey. He was just my age, but smarter. Almost every day after that we’d play in the hills hunting lizards or digging in the sand. Sometimes though I’d meet him other places.
Mother was amazed at the things we’d do, so every day before my nap I’d wait until her voice sounded sleepier and sleepier while she was reading me stories, and then I’d say, “Now I’ll tell you about Joey and me.” Once in a while Mother would get up and write something down. She wrote down the lion hunt, and the time we were lost at sea, and our exploration of the new planet.
Joey was a joke to Tom and Scott, but Mother thought Joey was magnificent—that was her very word. And she said some day she would write a book about him if I didn’t. Mother was always thinking about writing, but she never got around to it much.
“You are a remarkable boy,” my mom would say to me. I wasn’t sure just what she meant by that, but it made me feel strong and warm both together. And when I finally wrote my first story I signed it, “Remarkable Rulon.”
Probably I won’t be a writer though. It’s too much trouble bringing things down to words without squeezing the life out of them. And now comes the hardest part of this story here.
You’d have to have been me that day, lying on my bunk bed, before you could feel how I wanted a dog. I’d sneaked into the house and was lying there for about an hour before Mother knew. She stood in my bedroom doorway for a minute or so before she came over and lay down beside me and asked, “What’s the matter, son?”
Sometimes you can say, “Oh, nothing,” when Mother asks that. And other times you can’t. This was one of those other times. It was as if she had her arms around me and was looking into my eyes with all her might. Only she was just lying there beside me, waiting.
So I told her all about how I’d got into a fight up at Barney’s, and Tom and Scott said if I couldn’t play fair I could just go home. So I went. Talking about it to my mom made me cry. So while I was at it I told her what the real trouble was. “All this wouldn’t have happened,” I bawled, “if I only had a dog.”
Mother didn’t ask me whether or not I’d really been playing fair and what a dog had to do with it. She just lay there very still and listened. So I said some more. I told her that I hated school and that nobody liked me. I asked her how she would like to be seven years old and dumb and ugly and awkward and have people laugh at her when she used big words. I said I didn’t fit in this world anyplace, and God must have sent me to the wrong planet. The more I talked the more things I thought of. It was as wild and wonderful as any of my stories about Joey, and I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed howling so loud and feeling so miserable. Finally, I blurted out something I hadn’t really meant to say. “Besides,” I yelled, “There’s no such thing as Joey!”
Mother’s eyes filled with tears, and I was so sorry. I stopped crying right off and said quickly, “Please don’t tell Daddy—he’d be just sick.” That was a lucky thing to say because it made Mother smile right through her tears. And it struck me that this was the time to ask about a dog.
“Mother,” I said, wiping my eyes, “I’ll do anything in all my life if you’ll only get me a dog. I’ll do housecleaning forever. I’ll practice my piano lesson night and day. I’ll never ask for any more candy. I’ll do anything!” I was trying hard not to cry again because my mom never gives us what we bawl for. “I need a dog to love,” I whispered, “and most of all I need a dog to love me back.”
Mother started to explain once more about dogs in the city, and when she got to where she says that Tom and Scott had both wanted dogs, my mind was jumping with words, and I hoped the right ones would come out. And they did. They were magic words that changed everything.
“Mother,” I said, “I’m Rulon. And I’m a different kind of boy.”
She stopped right in the middle of what she was saying, and this time she did put her arms around me and looked into my eyes with all her might. She looked for so long I could hardly breathe. Then she said quietly, “Rulon, we will get you a dog.”
We got him the next day at a pet shop—a brown and white Pomeranian puppy, round and furry, with great, dark eyes and a waggly tail. You should have seen Tom and Scott when we brought him home.
“Spoiled kid! How come Rulon gets a dog?” they said almost together.
Mother seemed baffled for an answer, so I tried the words that had worked once before.
“Because I’m a different kind of boy,” I answered.
Their mouths dropped open. And they just stood there staring at me and my pup. Then Scott said to Tom, “He can say that again.” And they both snickered. So I did say it again.
“I’m a different kind of boy,” I sang out, “and Joey is a different kind of dog. He’s really mine. All mine. But you can pet him. And maybe when you say three times, ‘There’s such a thing as Joey’ he will be your dog too.”
They weren’t snickering anymore. They were laughing a real laugh, and I laughed too all the while they were saying, “There’s such a thing as Joey. There’s such a thing as Joey. There’s such a thing as Joey.”
Boy, did they love my dog! Everybody did. Guys who didn’t like me before came to see him almost every day. Mother bragged to the neighbors about how polite Joey was, how he didn’t ask to come into the house and never barked for nothing. Tom and Scott thought Joey was the smartest thing alive. And Scott said how I ever got him for us was something he’d never figure out.
Sometimes after school we’d spend hours playing with that dog. Before long he would sit up, roll over, dance on his hind legs, and fetch a ball. And when Daddy would come home from work, Joey would run to him. And my dad would lean down and scoop him up next to his chest. “Hello, Such-a-Thing-As-Joey,” he’d boom. Then he’d scratch Joey’s ears and talk to him like he was a human.
It was as though Joey had always been part of our family. Everybody said so. He was an easy dog to share because as little as he was, there was somehow enough of him for everyone. But deep down inside, Joey and I both knew he was mine. And nobody loved him the way I did.
That’s why it hurt so much when we had to bury him. One minute he was racing across the street to meet me. And then he was in Tom’s arms, quiet and broken and looking at me with large sad eyes as if to say, “I’m sorry.” His dying didn’t take long. The car had hit him a mean whack.
“Killed by a bunch of long-haired hippies who didn’t even stop after they ran over him,” Tom sobbed when Mother came running out of the house. The boys had been long-haired all right, but I don’t think that had anything to do with it. Tom’s letting his hair grow now, and it hasn’t changed him much. I don’t think those guys meant to kill Joey, or to leave him lying there. They were scared maybe, because they came so close to hitting me.
For a long time after that, I’d go to bed at night and live it all over again. Sometimes I’d imagine that Joey didn’t get hit at all. Other times he’d only break a leg. But most of the time it would all happen the same way, except the boys wouldn’t say, “We got ’im. Let’s dig outa here.” They’d stop and say how sorry they were. And I’d say, “It’s all right fellows, I know it was an accident.”
My dad says it’s easy for kids to want to drive a car fast when school first lets out. I can see how that would be because I used to start running right from the school steps and never stop till I could see Joey with his nose poked through the hole in our fence, waiting for me. He never ran into the street even though it was hard for both of us to wait until I could hug him up again.
That day I couldn’t wait. “Here, Joey,” I yelled from the top of the street. “Come on, Joey.” He gave a leap through the fence and we both ran full speed. It seemed Joey was just a touch away when the car hit. And then he was gone forever.
Once in a while I still need to talk with someone about my dog. Like the Saturday afternoon before my twelfth birthday. Tom and Scott and I were helping my dad with yard work. Kent and Maria had been read to sleep, and I knew Mother was somewhere alone. So after I weeded the flowers over Joey’s grave, I went in to look for her. Not just to get out of yard work either.
I tiptoed in where she was resting on her bed, slipped off my shoes and lay down beside her. It had been years since I’d quit having naps, but the memory of those times covered me like a soft blanket.
“Why do you think Joey was such a good dog, Mother?” I asked. “The Smith’s dog chews everything up. And the Johnson’s dog barks at cars. Why was Joey perfect?”
Mother was silent for a long while and then she whispered, “Maybe it was because you loved him so much.”
I thought about that and decided it was true.
“It was wonderful to love a dog so much,” I sighed. “But it was risky. Same as with loving people,” I decided. “Just look at Mrs. Fielding.”
Mrs. Fielding had a grown-up son who was flying home from Vietnam when his plane crashed and burned. They never even found him.
The morning after the accident a bunch of us boys were playing basketball in our backyard. I was on Tom’s team and the score was 14 to 12, our favor, which was pretty good since Kent was half of me. “Let him play guard along side me,” I said. So that’s the way it went—with Kent giggling and getting underfoot.
When Mother came out to say that she was going to the Fieldings I asked if I could go. That’s one thing Tom still can’t figure out about me. Even though I’m not so clumsy now when it comes to sports, I can take them or leave them. That day I left them.
Mrs. Fielding was worse off than I had been when Joey died. Being there made me remember how it had been after my dad and I had buried him and Mother had tucked me into bed. “There’s no such thing as Joey,” I sobbed over and over into my pillow.
Of course, I know better than that now. Scott said he was sure that a dog as good as Joey would go straight to paradise, and that sounds reasonable to me. That’s where Mrs. Fielding’s grown-up boy is too. I told her so one day after we got to be friends.
“You are a remarkable young man,” she said, sounding just like Mother. It was summer, and we were siting out on her patio. I knew that once in a while she liked me to come to drink lemonade or play with Stormy, her big German shepherd. And I liked being there.
Sometimes she’d show me scrapbooks of when she was young and pictures of her children and grandchildren and her Mr. Fielding who had died. Sometimes I’d read her one of my stories. Then she’d laugh and fuss over me, “Oh the happy, carefree days of youth!” she’d beam, “Happy, carefree days,” she’d say again, making the day seem happier and freer than ever.
Everything she said to me seemed strong and right, maybe because I’d seen pictures of her life when she was young and then a little older and then old. Maybe it was that I knew that Mrs. Fielding had healed a hundred hurts. Anyway, to me one of her sentences was worth a dozen of somebody elses.
Before she moved away to live near her youngest daughter, I finally told her about Joey’s accident. “You’re lucky to be alive,” was all she said. Not a word about my dog.
But that one sentence zinged across my mind, clear and moving and full of sunlight. “It’s true! It’s true!” something sang to my soul. “I am lucky to be alive.” And just for a second there, I could feel myself stretching across the years. And I thought, someday I’ll be old like Mrs. Fielding. And on some summer afternoon or winter evening I’ll remember these carefree days. Then I will smile and whisper, “There’s such a thing as Joey.”