by Elin Johnson
When my parents separated my mom got a house full of whatnot and my dad got our chubby little black lab. At eight, the loss of my four-legged best friend was more heart-wrenching than the family rupture. The presence of my father was limited strictly to weekends which left a dog-sized hole in my chest for the rest of the week. Mother compensated for this by dragging me out to the Butte in response to an ad found buried in the classifieds. We found ourselves on the ranch of an austere horse veterinarian who wouldn’t allow us to pass the driveway without first confirming we would purchase the energetic little dog she had drug out to greet us. He was a scruffy looking dog, but unrelentingly happy. To me he looked like he was straight out of a beloved tale I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Entirely white with dark brown spots on his ears, black “eyeliner” underneath his intensely bright eyes, and a perfectly oval ink-stain on the center of his snout. For some unspecified reason we weren’t allowed to touch him, but the woman assured us he was perfectly ready to be assimilated into a new family. In fact, he had already been adopted out once but the family had been forced to return him due to an unforeseen move. Now, at six months, the little guy was looking at a life devoid of late night cuddles and early morning belly rubs. Mom let us stand there for another minute or two before she informed the vet that we would make our decision over lunch and get back to her. I didn’t need a mediocre bowl of soup to help me determine what I already knew. That little prince was going to be mine. That afternoon we brought home a Jack Russell Terrier.
Mom had given me the responsibility of naming the tiny monster, a task I was most certainly up to. I christened him Poppy Seed Muffin, after my favorite pastry. I always wondered if living up to the name of the world’s greatest baked good caused him to act out. In the coming years we would joke that the taxing move which forced the previous family to give up our new addition was from one side of their neighborhood to the other. Any excuse would have sufficed, and we often thought up a few of our own to help pass the time. During the first couple of months we chalked up his disobedience to his youth and lack of previous training. Then one day it became too hard to find new excuses. He just was an asshole.
We moved to Kodiak when Poppy was a year old. He was restrained to his kennel stuffed on the bench seat of our crowded U-haul truck for the drive down to Homer. This form of solitary confinement seemed to prepare him for the 13 hour ferry ride it took to reach the Emerald Isle. We lived in an elongated log cabin deep in the woods for our first two years on the island. The landlady was an artist who rented out the property so she could continue to fund her whimsical adventures. She gave us a comprehensive tour of the entire house, paying special attention to the white carpeted living room and describing how much its purity meant to her. That plush white carpeting was her pride and joy. As she turned to indicate some feature out the window, Poppy took a massive shit on her precious white carpet. The sad gray stain is probably still there.
Poppy began full-on obedience training when we moved to Kodiak. Within the first couple of classes he had established himself as the class psycho. The classes were held in the gymnasium of the local Catholic school. Based off of his reaction every time we would enter the building, Poppy was no friend of the Pope. The professional trainers had a special corner of the gym reserved for us; out of the way so our dog’s objections to the training wouldn’t disrupt his diligent classmates. When we would take him out for pee breaks he would use all four paws to dig furiously at the ground — dirt and aggression spraying everywhere. The trainers would send the pet owners home with a list of commands to practice with their dogs each night. Poppy seized this opportunity to become the only dog in history to eat his own homework. When every other family received certificates for passing, we got one for participation. Poppy actually received three certificates of participation, one after each attempt. He ate all three documents.
Now, we weren’t bad pet owners, we just weren’t ready for a Jack Russell. Pet owners are advised not to keep multiple Jack Russells of the same gender in a confined space because they are known for going into killing frenzies. The animal was bred to chase after rodents or foxes. In fact, their tails are so short because they would be carried around in saddle bags only to be pulled out by their perfectly hand sized tail at a moments notice. Before Poppy we had had labs. Labs were bred to be fed. The only frenzy they go into is a loving frenzy. They’re so distinctively barrel chested because their hearts are too big for their chests. Poppy and Lucy (my father’s dog) had socialized before we had moved to Kodiak. Lucy could have sat upon him and ended his life, yet Poppy demanded to be the alpha. This was fine by Lucy because she was never bothered by testosterone-fueled politics anyways. Poppy was like this with every creature he met, big or small. He would keep a paw on guests’ knees— just to show he was in charge. Whenever he met a new dog (especially if it was bigger) he would bark and nip to show how tough he was. When we would walk him on one of the many trail systems throughout Kodiak we would frequently find ourselves diving into the woods to avoid altercations with oncoming dogs. Poppy always had to be first. He would shove us aside to race up the side of the mountain, or plow past us in the snow. His favorite place to go was the beach. We would take him out to isolated sand bars where he would race up and down chasing the wind, ears shooting out like sails. He could spend hours splashing in tide pools, obsessing over the bubbles. All of this was normal terrier nonsense. All things we could handle. But that was before the incident. Before the dive.
Looking back on it now, the whole experience was so quintessentially “us” that it’s almost comical. Each of us sliding into our roles like the mechanical bird from a cuckoo clock. Mom was working late at the office so her significant other Bob and I took Poppy for a walk at the historic Fort Abercrombie park. It was a traditional Kodiak day: blustery and cold. Rain pelting down and wind ripping the world to shreds. My favorite type of weather. We walked along the scenic cliffs listening to the waves crashing angrily and admiring all of nature’s shades of gray. Poppy’s leash was held tightly in my hand as we paused to study two birds dancing with the storm. What fools we were. The dog at our feet made a sudden lunge towards the swirling avians, his sudden movement causing the cheap clasp to snap and the little white dog to sail unburdened towards impending doom. His little form seemed to freeze like Wiley Coyote just over the cusp of the cliff, ears standing straight up and each leg tucked in like he was a bullet fired from a gun of stupid. Then he disappeared over the cliff.
Things seemed to happen all at once, and then very slowly. I felt a scream leave my throat the same way a train squeezes through a tunnel— all hot and fast with some preconceived notion of direction that wasn’t entirely apparent. Bob and I stumbled towards the cliff edge careful not to slip on the wet grass. We peered cautiously over the edge, fearing the worst. There, about 35 feet down the 50 foot drop was the naughty muffin. He grinned up at us, almost looking confused as to why we were suddenly so far up above him. Bob immediately went into hyper-active strategy mode, devising a plan to repel down the cliff and save him. I, unsurprisingly, had a better idea. Just below the ledge where Poppy had landed was a bit of beach accessible by a trail that wrapped around the cliff base. Bob and I could easily sprint through the woods, down the trail, and across the beach where Bob would then wade out to the cliff and scale it. In the pouring rain. And howling winds. No biggie. As our plan unfolded, so did our true character. The term we use is loyalty, but most think stupidity is a better option. Whatever adjective used makes no difference, Poppy was eventually retrieved from the side of the cliff. He was brought to me shivering, wrapped up inside Bob’s blue raincoat.
Despite a couple of nicks, our dog was fine. To the naked eye, at least. Our family belief is that the little beast sustained a head injury that not only resulted in his eyes pointing different directions, but a slight worsening of his behavior (or amplifying, depending on how you look at it). Since his fall, Poppy has annihilated his way through one quilt, one futon, one couch, two pillows, two chairs, three foot rests, and countless blankets. He chases reflections, growls at shadows, and barks at the breeze. For some reason, he has become terrified of kibbles and staircases. No critter large or small is immune from his terrible barking fits where he displays his wrath through a foaming mouth and unfocused eyes. The little dogvibrates non-stop, teeming with energy. Our pet is the laughingstock of all our friends with their gentle basset hounds and stoic huskies. Whenever one of us takes him for a walk we turn to the remaining family members and stage whisper a comment about Old Yeller. If there’s an emptiness in our stomachs that parallels the one in our cabinets we turn to each other and say “about time that dog had some use.” He’s a nightmare. Constant whining and unpredictable moods. But that’s family. We love the good with the bad. We take hours of crazy for two minutes of sweet. He’s our Poppy Seed Muffin, he doesn’t need to be perfect he just needs to be ours. And besides, whoever said love had anything to do with like?
Elin is a lifelong Alaskan with a passion for storytelling and everything outdoors. When she isn’t traveling or at the dance studio, you will most likely spot her between the pages of a book confused as to why she has become so tiny, or forcing her dog to watch the cinematic masterpieces of the 80s and 90s. Elin is always ready for an adventure, especially if there is a chance of karaoke, so don’t be afraid to pick her brain about favorite books or her true feelings about breakfast foods.