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  • What’s the Matter with Houdini?
  • Deborah Thompson (bio)

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Photograph by Ryan Johnson

[End Page 54]

Houdini will eat himself to death. He consumes pens, pencils, electric cords, bandages, pill bottles, photograph albums, even my treasured copy of The Sexual Politics of Meat, whose carcass he left strewn around the living room floor. Recently, as I pried a bit of freshly snatched gauze out of his gums, I remembered that it was the thirteenth anniversary of my father’s fatal stroke. Why did that realization emerge along with the whiff of canine saliva? [End Page 55] As Houdini made a second grab for the damp wad now cradled in my palm, the spittle-soaked dressing served as my American madeleine.

This is the story of how I and, in a roundabout way, my country, became responsible for an inbred cocker spaniel with a death wish.

The last thing my father did before his stroke was visit a pet store in the mall. I wonder if he already sensed the fatal clot dislodging and moving to his brain and if intimations of death impelled him toward new life.

Here’s how I replay the scene: my mom, a fragile and graying Nancy Reagan figure, and my dad, a sturdier Ronald Reagan build with the ex-president’s flawless head of dark hair, walking hand in hand in the Parmatown Mall, rejoicing in the good news they’d just gotten from the cardiologist: the drugs were working, Dad’s blood pressure was down, his arteries less constricted. His heart sounded good. At sixty-three years old, he was finally free to breathe. It seemed like an occasion to celebrate, and because he was now on retirement—a new enough state that he had to keep reminding himself it was so—my dad had the luxury of going to the mall on the way home so that he could pet some puppies.

Peering into the cages full of animals with expectant eyes, pink tongues and downy fur, he chose the floppiest puppy of all, a cocker spaniel, dog of his youth.

Soon after my father’s death, my own dog pangs began. Something hormonal took over me, a thirty-three-year-old woman who’d never had any urge to procreate, so my partner and I got first a cocker–border collie mix, Pretzel; then Chaplin, a cocker-Pomeranian-poodle mix, both from the Humane Society. We were a happy family, we two humans, three cats and two dogs. But in 2002 I bought a purebred cocker—and from a pet store, the worst sin.

My visit to the pet store, like my father’s, occurred in death’s vicinity. Rajiv, my life partner of thirteen years, had just finished his third ineffectual round of chemo for end-stage colon cancer. Doctors advised him to take regular walks in order to preserve his muscle mass, but it was too cold outdoors, especially since his latest chemo had made his skin hypersensitive to temperature, so we went to the mall, as my father had done six years earlier. Rajiv had begun calling himself “dead man walking” and did in truth walk like a B-movie zombie, his eyes failing to register the stimuli around him. In another week he’d be diagnosed with metastases in his spine. [End Page 56]

The mall offered benches strategically placed every yard or so for the old folks to rest, and at thirty-seven and thirty-eight, we thought we’d become the old folks now. When we found ourselves at a bench outside Pet City, we had to go inside. A little cocker pranced and squirmed in his aquarium, just as Pretzel, now six years old and aging, must have done as a puppy. When Rajiv asked to hold the “little tyke,” it was the one time in days that he’d expressed desire for anything, and when he held the puppy, he smiled for the first time in weeks. A few days later he went back and asked for the same puppy, the one with dumb curiosity and an endearing obsession to pull on our shoelaces. Again the Rajiv...


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