I don’t really remember much about when I was little. We lived in a big house south of Byrd Road in the Gables. Dad’s seldom home. It’s just me. I remember never seeing colors. Everything is just grey. The first color I remember is when Dad’s girlfriend brings home a black lab puppy. I’m in first grade. I don’t remember her name. She feels sorry for me, being home alone all the time. Dad throws a fit.
“Who’s gonna clean up after a dog? That puppy is too young to be house-broken.”
The puppy runs into my open arms, licking my face furiously as I lay on the carpet with him. He gets so excited, he pees all over me.
“See,” Dad points at me. “I won’t have this house turned into a dog kennel.”
“Please, Daddy?” I never beg him for anything. “I promise to clean up after him. Can we keep him, please?”
“Com’n, Jim,” his girlfriend takes my side. “Don’t be so selfish. The boy needs a dog; he’s so lonely.”
“It’s gotta stay out in the garage. I won’t have my house wrecked by some dumb animal.”
“Thanks, Daddy,” I run to him. He picks me up and tosses me in the air, barely catching me. I must’ve been really little then. His girlfriend puts her arms around Dad. It’s the first time I feel a real family moment. The puppy is running around the three of us.
“Take that dog to the garage and change your shirt. You smell like piss,” Dad orders. He leads his girlfriend toward the bedroom. I know that means private time. I wish she stayed with Dad. She was nice.
I put the puppy in a box with an old blanket to keep him warm. I sit with him rubbing his ears and belly until he goes to sleep. I come back after changing my shirt. The puppy is awake and puts his paws up trying to get out of the box.
“Woof,” he barks just once. He is so cute. I sit and scratch him behind the ears. I swear I’ll keep him in his box until he is trained not to pee inside. I hate the idea of house-breaking him. I’ll always keep him in the garage.
Dad’s girlfriend makes dinner and I’m allowed to eat with them.
“Thank you for the puppy,” I smile as best I can.
“What are you going to name him?” she asks.
“We’ll call him Max, after Peter Max, the Beatles artist,” Daddy decides for me.
He runs a graphics shop that works with television and print advertisers. It must have been 1966. I’m seven then.
“Max,” I speak to him. He looks at me. “Max.” I say it again. My puppy stands up in his box and starts licking my face. I scratch his belly as he rolls over.
“Very good, James,” Dad compliments me. I feel all warm and cozy. My little family – Daddy, girlfriend, me, and now Max.
I’m not allowed to have friends. I have to come straight home from school. No one is allowed in the house but me (and now, Max). Dad warns me to never let anyone know I’m home alone. He gives me a door key which I keep on a string around my neck. Dad says they’ll take me away and put me in prison if anyone finds out I’m home alone.
Now I’m not alone. I have Max. The next day at school, I miss him so much. I run all the way home. He is so excited to see me, jumping up in his box. He starts pissing from the excitement. I know to start training him so he doesn’t need to be broken in the house. We go outside and sit on the lawn. Max takes a poop. I’m so happy he is learning so fast. I get a shovel and put the poop in the garbage can. Other kids from school are walking home by my house now. Several girls see Max and run over.
“Oh, Max. What a cutie,” they praise him.
Max is nervous and runs over to me, hiding behind my legs.
“That is so cute,” the girls giggle. “He really is your dog.”
“I got him last night,” I brag.
Some older boys come into my yard. “I’ll get him,” one says, trying to grab Max from behind me, pushing me down.
“Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof,” Max barks at the older boys, trying to protect me. I grab him and hold him in my arms.
The boys try to take Max away. The girls scream as I rolled up into a ball.
“Gimme that dog,” the biggest boy grabs and shakes me.
Suddenly two other boys I know from first grade, run up and push the biggest boy away from me. He falls down. His friends look shocked.
A parent comes over. “What’s going on here?”
“These bullies are trying to steal our friend’s puppy,” the blond boy states.
The older boys run away. I start to cry. Max is licking away my tears. The girls are crying, too. I know I’m in big trouble. I pick up Max and run into the house. I can’t let anyone know I’m home alone. I don’t want to go to prison.
The next day in school, I shyly walk over to the two boys who rescued me.
“Thanks,” I stammer.
“Yeah. You just ran off. I’m Michael,” the dark-haired one says.
“I’m Robby,” the blond adds. “We protect our friends.”
“We’re friends?” I’m surprised.
“Of course. Why not?”
“I’m James A Conning,” I had never told anyone my real name.
“Well, James A C, you need to shorten that. How’s Jace for short?”
“What’s your puppy’s name?” Michael asks.
“He’s Max,” proud that I have a friend even if he’s only a dog.
“Can we come over and play with Max after school?”
My face falls and I look down. I can’t let anyone know I’m home alone.
“That’s okay,” Michael knows something is up and lets it drop.
The rest of recess and lunch I hang around my new (and first) friends. But the next day they pretty much ignore me. I still have Max. Maybe they think I didn’t want to share him. They do let me sit with them at lunch, but Robby always takes my dessert. Lunch is the only real meal I get. Dad is seldom at home for dinner and never up in time to make me breakfast.
“Give me that jello,” Robby will say. “I can tell you’re on a diet and jello isn’t on it.”
They like to make jokes at my expense, but they’re my only friends. Sort of. I soon see they get into lots of trouble. Our friendship will have to wait for a few years, for me to be a brave as they are.
In third grade my teacher takes a sudden interest in my well-being. She stops Robby from taking my desserts, although I sneak him the jello when she isn’t looking.
“It’s not on my diet,” I tell Michael and Robby.
The teacher, Miss Rosenblum, notices I wear the same clothes for many days.
“Doesn’t your mother dress you?” she asks.
I really don’t know what a mother is, so I assume my dad’s current girlfriend is my mother. Since Dad has several girlfriends, I give conflicting answers to Miss Rosenblum’s questions. Occasionally a girlfriend takes a real interest in me, thinking Dad will be pleased. Those girlfriends seldom stick around. Dad’s opinion is he isn’t going to ‘make that mistake again.’ He prefers girlfriends who don’t like kids. I never see the lady who gave me Max again.
Since I don’t have friends, I never see a real mom in action. Robby says he lives with a witch and I believe him. They even have a black cat named Rocky. Robby said she keeps snakes in the house. I never want to go there. Michael lets me come into his house, which is bigger than my dad’s. But his younger sisters bug him, wanting to play with me. I never go back. They always have some adventure going on. It’s too scary for me to tag along. At the end of the school year, Michael comes to class with half his hair burned away. Robby has a black eye. They stop’ talking to each other for about a week. I don’t dare ask them what happened.
Max is my real friend. He soon learns to ‘go’ outside. We even have our own language. One ‘woof’ means he wants something. Two ‘woofs’ means he really wants something. If he whines, it means he’s upset and wants attention. Mostly he’s just happy to see me and we rough-house a lot. I never let him out on the front lawn again. His favorite place to ‘go’ is in the backyard. I always clean it right up, so Dad can’t complain. By then, Max is pretty big. Since I’m so light, he lets me ride him like he’s a horse. I just sling my arms around his neck and lay on his back. When he gets tired, he just shrugs me off. He’s not allowed in the house, even though he’s well trained. We just stay out in the garage. He’s too big for his box, so I arrange blankets into a larger bed. Don’t tell anyone, but I always sleep with him in the garage.
Maybe my clothes smell like Max. Miss Rosenblum keeps asking more questions about my ‘mother.’ I try to answer them but it’s confusing as Dad keeps changing girlfriends. My answer one week is different the next. She tells me she has to do a ‘home visit’ and gives me a note for my ‘Mother.’ I just throw it away, afraid to tell Dad. She comes after school. Since I’m told to never answer the door, she leaves. That evening, Dad yells for me to come in from the garage.
“Why is your teacher here,” he demands. Miss Rosenblum is standing red-faced next to him.
“I need to see that Jace is being properly cared for. He’s underweight and never changes his clothes.”
Even Miss Rosenblum calls me Jace, after Robby and Michael tell everyone to call me that.
“But why come at night? I’m going out soon.”
“I sent home several notes but his mother never called me to set a time.”
“His mother is long gone,” Dad shocks me with this news. What about all the girlfriends. Weren’t they my mother?
“He always says his mother is here, telling me what she has done for him.”
“I guess he’s embarrassed. His mother did drugs and abandoned us. My girlfriend doesn’t really like kids.”
“Well, what about his older brother, Max?”
“Max is his dog,” Dad laughs. “You’ve got to realize that James was a mistake. Does he get into trouble at school?”
“He’s a quiet boy. I just worry he isn’t cared for.”
“Well, he’s a mistake I have to pay for the rest of my life. I have a business to run. It requires a lot of entertaining.”
“He cannot be left alone at home. Someone needs to feed him and make sure he is properly dressed.”
“Oh, god. I’ll hire someone. Is that what you want?”
“It’s what you should want. He’s your son.” Miss Rosenblum is flustered. I’m so upset, I wet my pants. She hurriedly stands up to leave. Dad just glares at me.
“Now, see what you’ve done,” he frowns at her.
I run out of the room into the garage. Max whines, knowing something is wrong. He tries licking up the dampness in the front of my jeans. I bury my head into his shoulders. We go outside and Max lets me rub his belly in the corner of the yard. Dad doesn’t comes out to punish me.
The next day I make sure to wear clean clothes after I wash all my clothes, including the pants I soiled. I’m too shy to look at Miss Rosenblum directly. She comes by my desk and pats me on the back. Of course, Robby notices and calls me out.
“Brown-nosing old Miss Rosiebutt, Jace?” he asks me at recess.
I can’t answer his taunt, so I just look at the ground.
“Don’t worry, Jace,” Michael takes my side. “She’s way too old for you.”
That makes us laugh, typical 3rd grade bathroom humor. Robby and Michael start wrestling after arguing who should rape poor Miss Rosenblum. People yell ‘Fight’ and circle the two of them. Of course, it’s Miss Rosenblum who comes over and breaks it up.
“What is going on here?” she demands.
“Just arguing about our teachers’ sex lives,” Robby never lets up.
Off to the Office he goes, Miss Rosenblum dragging him by the ear.
Michael wins that fight.
“Old Rosiebutt’s gonna rape him now,” Michael crows.
“Ew,” the crowd exclaims.
A few weeks later, nothing much has changed. Dad never hires a housekeeper to mind me. I still sleep with Max in the garage. I’m more careful about changing my clothes. Dad yells at me for overloading the soap powder in the washing machine when it overflows. At least I don’t wet myself again. One night, he’s home and calls me into the house for a meeting. I’m trembling after he sits me down in his home office. He just glares at me.
“Has that teacher been bothering you again.”
“No, Daddy. I’ve been changing my clothes every day. I’ve been good.”
“Well, we’ve got to do something about supervising you.”
“I’m fine, Daddy.”
“Well, I can’t have you supervising yourself. I’ve asked Edith (his girlfriend) to move in here. She has two boys your age. You won’t be able to cause trouble anymore about being unsupervised.”
My eyes get real big. I’ve always lived alone. Would they keep me from sleeping with Max?
The next few days are hectic. Edith has little patience for me. Sleeping in the garage is forbidden. Max remains ‘an outdoor dog.’ He whines at night until Edith takes a broom and beats him. When I ran in front of her, she beats me. I don’t care. Max growls at her.
“We’re getting rid that dog,” she tells Dad. “He tried to bite me.”
“We’re not getting rid of anything. She was a gift from Susie,” Dad stands up for Max. Edith looks jealous.
I run to the bathroom before I wet my pants. At night, I slip out of bed and sleep with Max in the garage, coming back to bed before John, my new roommate, wakes up.
I’m too shy to speak with Edith’s sons. John is two years younger than me and sleeps in the spare bed in my room. Jeff is four years older and already in junior high school. He has his own room, but it doesn’t keep him from coming into our room when he wants.
“Keep your mouth shut, or you’re next,” he glares at John.
Once he leaves, I go out to the garage to be with Max. John follows me, so I introduce him to Max by showing him how to scratch him behind the ears. We take Max outside to do his thing, clean it up and roll around on the grass with the happy dog. I show John how to ride Max. John is even lighter than me.
“Let’s check out the neighborhood,” John suggests. “Where’s Max’s leash?”
“Daddy says he’s not allowed out. We don’t have a leash.”
John goes into the garage and finds a rope. He loops it around Max’s neck.
“Where’s his collar?” John asked. “He needs to have dog tags in case he gets lost.” John seems real knowledgeable about dog rules.
“He never goes out of the yard. How can he get lost?”
“Wait until springtime. Them female dogs make males go crazy chasing after ’em.”
“’Cause of the heat. Makes male dogs crazy.”
“You know a lot about dogs. Did you have one?”
“Yeah, until Mom got rid of it. She don’t like dogs.”
“You gots alotta questions, don’tcha?”
“S’kay. Ya gots friends we can visit.”
John seems really adventurous. I think we can go to Michael’s. I had been there once. Robby’s house with the witch is still too scary to visit.
We walk to Michael’s and knock on the door. His little sisters answer.
“Is Michael home?” I ask.
“Michael,” she shouts. “You got visitors.”
“Send them into the music room,” he shouts back.
I’m feeling apprehensive that it’s a mistake to visit without permission. John winks at the sisters after they show us into the house. They giggle.
“They’re hot,” he whispers as they leave us with Michael.
“Who are you?” Michael stares at John, “and why are you whispering?”
“This is John,” I take the lead. “He’s my new roommate.”
“You get roommates in college, dude,” Michael laughs.
Max is hiding behind me, unsure if he is allowed in a house. He looks around my legs.
“You brought your dog,” Michael gets down on all fours and scratches Max’s ears. “We rescued him when he was a puppy. A bully tried to steal him from old Jace,” Michael tells John.
“His name is Max,” I’m proud that he likes my dog. Max is licking his face.
“Let me finish my piano lesson. See if you know this song. It’s my favorite.”
“That’s the Monkees,” John knows the song. “They’re on TV.
Michael plays the song again. John and I sing the words. I know the song from TV. Max adds his rhythm bark.
“You like cats, Max,” Michael challenges him
“Grrr,” he growls.
“This is great. He needs to meet Rocky,” he suggests. “We got to go to Robby’s.”
“Oh, no. The witch lives there. She has snakes.”
“Don’t be foolish. Robby’s mom isn’t a witch. She’s just really old. Don’t believe everything Robby tells you.”
We go along with him. Max is excited, pulling on his leash.
“How old are you?” Michael asked John.
“Seven. But I got an older brother. He toughens me up.”
Michael pops him on the arm, and John pops him back. Then they look at me. I cringe. They laugh.
“Jace needs a little bit of toughening,” Michael decides.
They both grab me and we wrestle on the lawn. I try to fight back, but Michael holds me down and John gives me a pink belly. I’m able to tickle John with a free arm. He goes into spasms trying to get away. Then John and I attack Michael, who gives in too easily and lets us tickle him, except he isn’t ticklish. Max is running around barking, unsure who to protect. Michael’s sisters run out to see what the commotion is all about. John keeps smiling at them until Michael grabs him and we run away. I forgot about Max’s leash. John gives it to me.
“We need to get dog tags for Max,” he decides.
“Pushy little bugger, ain’t he,” Michael decides.
When we get to Robby’s, it’s more than chaotic. Michael eggs Max into chasing Robby’s cat, Rocky. They tear through the house until the witch comes out of her lair. The cat swipes Max on the nose. He howls and runs behind me. We all run out of the house. Everyone including Robby walks Max to Michael’s.
“And who are you?” Robby ask John.
“I’m Jace’s roommate,” John confirms my description of him.
“He and his older brother just moved in.”
“Does that mean we can finally come over to your house?” Michael asks.
I didn’t know what to say. John steps up.
“You can visit me.”
“Listen pipsqueak. You’re in second grade. We have our standards,” Michael laughs.
“Yeah. I’m in fifth grade,” Robby brags.
“Maybe forever,” Michael exposes Robby’s anti-academic attitude.
“You all can visit me, I guess,” I agree. “I just couldn’t have anyone over before.”
“We knew that, but why?”
I think about it, the why behind my dad saying no visitors.
“I don’t have a mom,” I confess.
“Where is she? She don’t like you?” Robby has to put me down.
“I don’t know. I always thought my dad’s girlfriends were my mom.”
“That’s my mom,” John points out.
“Let’s go meet her,” Robby is on a mission of perversion.
We walk to my house and sit in the garage. Max lays in his bed. Robby notices my space in the bed. “You sleep out here?” he asks both of us.
“No,” John speaks up. “We share a bedroom in the house.”
“I sleep with Max sometimes. He isn’t allowed in the house.”
“Then, can I have the bedroom to myself?” John is quick to seize the space.
“No one can know I sleep out here.”
“Now we all know,” Michael observes.
“You’re my friends. Please don’t tell. They’ll take Max away.”
“Okay. Okay. Jace’s secret life isn’t turning out to be too exciting. He just wants to be a dog.”
“Come here, Fido,” Robby mocks me.
Jeff opens the house door and yells at us. “What’s all the racket about, you kids?”
“Bothering your beauty sleep?” Robby mocks him. “Don’t bother, it’s not working.”
Jeff makes a quick movement towards us. We scream and run into the back yard. Max follows us, finds his spot and takes a dump. After I scoop it up, Robby grabs the shovel and runs toward Jeff who is watching from the garage door. He quickly goes inside. Robby splatters the garage door with dog poop. I run for the hose and wash down the side of the garage.
“What a good boy you are,” Michael comes over and takes the hose.
He immediately sprays Robby, who grabs the hose and tries to get back at Michael. Instead, John and I are soaked from getting in the way. Michael gets the hose back and the two of them chase John and me around the yard. I finally find the hose outlet and turn it off.
“You’re no fun,” Robby complains, attacking me from behind and falling with me into a mud puddle. We look at each other, covered in mud, and attack Michael and John. We all look like Puerto Ricans with permanent mud tans.
“Fine. If that’s how you feel about us, we’re out of here,” Michael and Robby leave, dripping mud behind them.
I take the hose and wash down John, who does the same for me. Then we wash down Max, who shakes muddy water all over us. We wash each other down again, strip off the mud clothes, and throw them in the washer. I notice Jeff watching us suspiciously from behind a window. We take a shower and change into clean clothes. I’ve never changed twice in one day. We go into the garage and dry off Max, sneaking the dirty towels into the washer with our clothes. John says he wants to sleep in the garage too.
“Best to wait a few days, so we don’t get caught.” Life is suddenly full of adventures.
I keep waiting for Dad’s girlfriend Edith to start supervising me, whatever that means. Nothing really changes except John and Jeff are now living with me. John treats me like an older brother. We walk to school together and sit together for lunch. Michael and Robby ‘put up’ with John. We put up with the friends he makes in second grade, although they never sit with us. At home it’s different. I can tell that John is afraid of his older brother. Jeff mostly ignores us; we are beneath his junior high contempt. Any encounters with Jeff usually means a smack for one or both of us. I’m proud to be a better brother to John than Jeff is. I figure it’s just the way junior high kids act. We stay out of his way by being in the garage all the time we’re home. We sleep there as well. Nobody says anything. Dad and Edith are seldom home, often eating out and going to Miami Beach nightclubs together. Jeff doesn’t seem to have any friends. I feel sorry for him, now that I have three friends. I occasionally see him watching us from inside the house. Maybe he’s trying to catch us doing something wrong. Anytime Jeff comes into the garage, Max growls at him, jumping up on all four legs. Max is our protector. Jeff stays out of the garage.