women. writers.

Creative Non-Fiction: "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the Old Man" by Christina Fulton

“YOU don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter.  That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.  There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.  That is nothing.  I never seen anybody but lied one time or another…”
I find that starting with these lines is appropriate for three reasons. First, the day I selected the eldest of my two current dogs there was something so Twainian about him that I had to bestow upon him this literary rascal’s famous nomenclature. Second, I started with these lines, in particular, because I have written about my father’s unique relationship with animals before in an essay called “Cats and Drag Queens” published in The Gravel, so the familiarity that resonates in the young narrator’s tone will mesh nicely. Finally, Twain’s Huck has some rather loose notions about human nature and the “truth” that I feel I may be guilty of.  
My mother always said not telling the whole story and neglecting certain details is tantamount to lying. In my last pet essay, at least in my mother’s eyes, I was being deceitful. I did not include my father’s relationship with one of my current canines in residence, Huckleberry Finn. I did it on purpose. There is no excuse. I was so revolted by my father’s life and death that I didn’t want any of it to remain karmically attached in print to any of my dogs that are not currently residing in a decorative urn. I thought that would be inviting in all sorts of canine misfortune, and a part of me is still a little fearful, but as Twain once said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”   
When my mother bought Huck from Pet Land I was in some very precarious predicaments from both a familial standpoint and academically speaking. I had somehow managed to change my master’s degree from an MA in Literature to an MFA in Fiction. It took a lot of sacrificial paperwork, writing sample offerings, and kneeling before Zod-like department heads to let this transmogrification occur. Even though I got in, I could tell it was under much scrutiny. I would have to prove myself worthy of the degree, and that I wasn’t just some MA who washed out and washed up on their prestigious shores. No pressure there.  
At the same time, my father was in the final act of his life and tail spinning brilliantly into a fade-to-black scenario. When my grandmother, his mother and psychological anchor, died, my father believed he was above reproach, the law, and common sense. He had stopped hiding his mistress and his money. Both were out and proud, and he didn’t care about the damage it would do to me, my mother, and his bank accountants. He was investing in everything from a marina at Atlantic City, a movie that promised to be the next High School Musical, and he even installed a recording studio in his big, new expensive home, you know, just so his “band” would be enticed to “hang out” with him. He was in his fifties, by the way.  
Yes, Huck arrived at quite a calamitous period in my life. If you were expecting him to ease my anxiety you couldn’t be more wrong. From the moment I picked him up, he was nothing but a whirling dervish of running, nipping, and hurting himself. After my toy poodle, The Late, Great Sherlock Holmes, died due to heart complications my mother decided that my life was too complicated not to have a furry/lovable presence in it. And, yes, I was living at home during graduate school. But, before you judge, so was practically the rest of The Great Recession Undergraduate Class of 2008.
I had researched alternative small breeds because I just couldn’t look at a poodle without crying. I came across the Boston terrier and thought the breed would be a refreshing change; website after website had nothing but positive things to say about them. We called some local pet stores and pounds, but only one place had a Boston pup. When I first saw him, I was shocked to discover that the breed came in other color variations besides the classic black tuxedo suit. He was brown, and I imagined him wearing an academic tweed instead. Also, his juniper colored eyes took up a large portion of his face.
“Um, are you sure you want… this one?” My mother asked, watching him chew on everything but his toys. He wouldn’t let anyone pet him without salutation nips. I really don’t know why I wanted him. There was something about this dog that seemed to match my current diet of disillusionment with the world.
“Yes, I think I love him,” I sighed while engaging in our first snuggle. He bit my ear, as a way to seal our pact of love in the pandemonium.
Huck was two times the size of a normal Boston terrier puppy for his age range. When I took him to his first vet visit every one of the vets in the office came in to get a look at what they were calling “the mutant.”
“He is going to be a seriously big boy,” the older vet laughed.
“Let me guess, his papers say that he’s a purebred,” another younger one added.
“Yeah, that’s right,” I replied.
“The problem with these brownies is that sometimes the breeders will ‘accidently’ let cousins make dozens in order to get the rare and pricey coloring,” the older one added with a chuckle.     
“You mean he could be a product of incest?”
“Perhaps. That would explain his unusual size and googly eyes,” the younger one hypothesized.
At that point, I was mad, but not at the pet store or the creepy and greedy breeders; I was mad at the vets. Both of these men sounded like my father whenever he would pick on me for my pedantic ways and say, “You won’t last one minute out in the real world.”   
“Isn’t that what studying is for? Preparing you for the real world?” This was my usual retort.
He would laugh and reply, “There are some things you just can’t learn from books! You need real life experience.”
Then he would go on to try and persuade me to go to more parties and break up with my longtime boyfriend because I was too young, and, I am quoting him here, “to have it on lock.”   
“Right. Is there anything I should look out for?” I asked the vet.
“Well, we’ll just have to wait and see,” he said, as Huck peed on the exam table. On the way out, the receptionist cried, “Oh, what a cute Boston terrorist!”
“My mother loves them! That’s what her vet calls them because they can be little terrors.” I didn’t say anything as I paid her. After that, I just picked him up, let him nip at my nose, and walked to the car.
Over the next two years, not-so-little Huck watched as my mother and I adjusted to living in her new condo. After my grandmother’s funeral, my mother couldn’t look at our old house without seeing my father’s mistress introducing herself to everyone as his girlfriend at the wake.  The scene played out in the couch that he picked, the color scheme that was to his liking, and all the furniture that he had bought her as “birthday gifts.” I came home from my senior year in college to find my mother curled up in the kitten position, crying into the crevices of the bathroom tile. My father wouldn’t consent to a divorce that didn't involve every lawyer and threat he could make or pay for, but he did see that my mother needed her own living space and time away from him or she would turn into the woman trapped inside Charlotte Gilman’s urine-colored nightmare.
And speaking of urine, Huck tried to paint her new wallpaper with steamy streams of that same nefarious yellow hue, along with masterfully masticating all her new furniture. But my mother wasn’t mad because this dog was just a puppy, and the other one in her life was supposed to be housebroken by now.
The first time I took Huck to meet my father at our old house he bit him. This wasn’t symbolic or anything; Huck bit everyone. His teething stage was so intense we would just sit for hours and hold a bone for him while he gnawed and cried. We never found any of his puppy teeth like we did our previous dogs. My mother thinks Huck ate them. The ground was his proverbial buffet. His favorite things were bird poop and my shoes. As an overworked graduate student, I thought he was trying to tell me to eat shit, keep on walking, and learn to fly.   
“Wow, he’s not going to chew up the furniture, is he?” my father said as Huck took another bite of his hand.
“No, I brought plenty of chewy bones and his crate.” Although I secretly hoped that he would chew up everything, but I promised my mother I wouldn’t use Huck in any of my revenge tactics, like the time my father's mistress left all her stuff on the boat and a few of her items mysteriously ended up at the bottom of the ocean. Like any woman except a mermaid really needs five different types of waterproof mascara anyway. You’re welcome, Ariel!
My father quickly found out that Huck was capable of way more than just chewing, like farting in your face, peeing everywhere but outside and then licking it up, and sneaking up behind you and biting you in the ass. All life lessons that I thought my father could use.
By the end of their first encounter, something quite curious had happened. My OCD daddy and my Chaos Theory terrier were now buddies. I found this out after returning home from graduate school one evening and discovering his crate empty and the back door open. I had strictly instructed my father not to let Huck out, except for designated pee times on a leash, while I was gone. Of course, my father and Huck had matching short attention spans so I only had myself to blame. I ran out into the backyard screaming for Huck. I almost jumped into the intercostal waterway, fully prepared to smell like salty garbage for my pup. It certainly couldn’t have been any more uncomfortable than a fiction workshop where the whole class didn’t see the point of your piece, and you just sat there wondering if everything in your life was just as pointless.
I saw my father meticulously cleaning his boat otherwise known as “my little brother” and I screamed frantically at him,        
“Where the fuck is Huck? I told you not to let him out without a leash. He could be dead!”
“He’s fine!” My father laughed pointing to the corner of the yard where Huck was hiding behind a bush and contemplating whether or not to pee outside, just to see if it was as fun as peeing on the furniture.
“He could have gotten out of the yard and hit by car or jumped into the water and drowned! The last time he got away from me he ran for two blocks before I could catch him.”
“Relax, Chris, he’s fine. I took him out around five with a leash, like you said, but your little Huckleberry Hound Dog was having so much fun I just let him roam the range where the deer and the antelope play,” he said in a sing-song manner.
“Well, dad, here are some discouraging words. One, did you even check to see if he could fit under the front fence? I did when I first arrived and the answer is yes he can. Second, his name is Huckleberry Finn. I didn’t name him after one of Hanna and Barbera’s folksy cartoon love children and—”
“Relax. Every time he went over there I just squirted him with the hose,” my dad interrupted, spraying me. “You see…just like that.”
“Nice. I’m sure that will have no psychological repercussions come his next bath time,” I snapped. I looked back over to find Huck gorging himself on a dead gecko.
“No, no, no, nooooooooooooo,” I screamed, running over to him, plunging my fingers into his mouth, and sweeping the drool-covered carcass out. “God, only knows what he’s eaten today. He’s so going to have the green apple splatters tomorrow,” I said, glaring at my father.
My father wasn’t there to witness all the times we had rushed Huck to the vet as he vomited up flecks and flakes of blood, or the time my boyfriend was walking him and he jumped up, did a mid-air barrel roll, and detonated doggie liquids, ever so gracefully, out of both ends. It took three vets to figure out that he had severe food allergies.
My mom found the whole thing to be extremely ironic because as a child I had to be rushed off for emergency care almost on a bi-monthly basis. She became a pro at NASCAR level speeding and the hospital hundred-yard dash, all while balancing a screaming child and purse. I put her through two broken arms, near-drowning, stitches, multiple bouts of various illnesses, and, of course, severe food allergies. Besides our inability to stomach certain foods, Huck and I shared another sad medical commonality: a lack of fatherly involvement.   
“Relax, Chris, one of my buddy's dogs ate a cement brick and was fine. Plus, just look at how happy he is. A few rocks and lizards are worth that smile. It will all come out fine in the end,” he laughed, squirting Huck in the rectum.
“That’s not funny!” I said picking Huck up and heading inside. That night, Huck found my favorite plastic heart bracelet, and by found I mean he tore a hole in my bag and stole it. Before I could get it out of his mouth, I could have sworn I saw him swallow one of the yellow hearts. I immediately started to go into full-blown helicopter mom mode and hover and fly in panic-driven circles. My father came into the room just I was looking up 24-hour emergency vet clinics on my laptop.   
“What’s going on? I heard you screaming from outside.”
“Huck swallowed one of the hearts on this bracelet, and I have to get him to the vet!” My father took the bracelet from me and examined it carefully.
“How do you know? I don’t see any missing.”
“I saw him swallow it,” I shrieked.
“Relax! I think you’re overreacting. We’ll just keep an eye on him. Back in my day, we didn’t take a pet to the vet unless it was bleeding, birthing, or about to lose his or her fun bits.” After about a half-hour of arguing, I conceded. Huck’s recent vet bills had slipped into the thousands range, and I called my mother and she concurred with my father's “wait and see” methodology.
“Why do you believe her when she says it?” My father growled.
“Because she has a stronger track record in parenting and more experience than you.”
“You heard me,” I said, leaving the room to grab Huck’s kennel. I stayed up all night just watching him sleep and cut little dreamy farts.
A month later, as I was stressing over a Queer Theory paper on the paranormal homosexual peccadillos prowling around in Late Victorian Gothic literature, Huck predicted the future in quite the literal fashion. He shit out my heart. I screamed and my mother came running into the living room of her condo.
“Holy crap, he really did eat your heart!” She laughed.
“Should we take him to the vet? Who knows what kind of damage it has done to his gastrointestinal system,” I cried. She looked at his butt and pet him gently. She stood up and then delivered her medical opinion.  
“He hasn’t had any diarrhea or vomiting. Plus, he doesn’t have a temperature. Has he been acting strange lately?”
“Beside his refusal to accept the fact that a closed sliding glass door is not a magical portal to the outside, then no,” I replied, holding him close to my chest.
In the end, my mother delivered the same holding pattern advice. A few days passed and nothing happened. I wrote a poem about the whole event that was met with just as much splendid disgust and celebratory anxiety in a poetry workshop. Even after all the mixed feedback, I couldn’t help but question if Huck wasn’t just delivering surreal imagery, like my professor had said, but very real and frightening foreshadowing.
My question was answered when my father was indicted by the IRS and suddenly facing prison time. As a result, he quickly sold our old house and neutral meeting place in an effort to financially appease and please them. My mother informed me that my father would be staying at the condo when he visited.
“He’s not going to sleep in your room, is he?”
“No, that part of our lives is long over. Even though we are separated, a part of me will always love him, and he will always be your father. But he will be sleeping with Huck in the living room.”
“The couch is too good for him. Why does he have to come down here at all? He’s been MIA for the past few months,” I hissed.
“Chris, I think he’s coming because he needs to escape all the legal chaos up north, and even though you guys have had your differences, I think you might be an emotional tether for him now.” I wasn’t as trusting as her. Back then, I suspected he was somehow using us as another possible roll towards a literal Get Out Of Jail Free Card; however, the only bonus was that my dog piece would have a new shoe to chew on, and my father's battleship broad up north was probably throwing a blitzkrieg level fit over him sharing a roof with my mother again.  
When my father came to visit us, I noticed that he was starting to revert emotionally back to a preadolescent stage. He had always acted like a teenager, but this regression was more severe. He started to cry at everything, like sentimental commercials featuring fathers actually being fathers, and we could forget watching anything about prison because that would lead to major squirt works. He would go on to ramble about how this was all President Obama’s fault and if D.C. wasn’t so full of dirty democrats and libs the IRS wouldn’t have been so hard on him.
“This would have never happened if McCain was in the White House,” he would snap whenever a conversation dared drift into his legal danger zone, a place we were never really privy to in the first place, either out of shame or to prevent us from testifying.  
“So you’re blaming your crimes on someone else. What are you, ten?” I would calmly reply.
“No, I’m just saying that there are people who have done way worse than me and are not facing as much time and ridiculous fines as I am. And if you checked their wallets 5 to 1 they’re card carrying members of the Jackass Party.”
“Again, this is the type of argument a ten year old would make. You got caught breaking the rules and now you’re throwing a tantrum on the way to time out.” I would chuckle and then go back to focusing on my latest fiction piece.  
Besides the emotional tilt-a-whirl of tantrums, there was something else that had him looking more like a child as his trial date grew closer in the early months of 2011. His relationship with Huck had become a slice of stale Americana. He was now just a boy who loved a dog. His relationships with our previous dogs were more immature and pubescent, but this felt more genuine and in a raw sense desperate.   
I would wake up in the morning to find that during the night my father had released Huck from his kennel and they were sleeping Big Spoon/Little Spoon Style on the couch. I never had to walk Huck when my dad came to visit. My father would eagerly volunteer, like a little kid who just grew old enough to hold the leash and wipe himself.
One day he returned from one of their walks puzzled and asked, “Every time I take Huckleberry Hound out he always tries to turn right when we get out of the garage. Why is that?”
“Well, I always take him that way,” I replied.
“Yeah, why?”
“Well, that’s just boring! No wonder he was so excited when I took him outside the gates of the condo complex.”
“You took him outside onto the main roads? He could have gotten away from you and hit by a car.”
“Nah, I wouldn’t let that happen to my Huckleberry Hound. Plus, he liked it. New things to piss on, new scents, and even a few new butts to sniff.  He got to experience life!”
“For the last time, his name is Huckleberry Finn! And next time, stay inside the complex.”
Of course, my father gave me the usual “okay mom” look, and continued to take Huck on adventures all around the outside neighborhoods when I was away at graduate school. It's only now that I realize why those walks outside the walls with Huck were so important to him. Like all animals, my father needed to feel that the outside world would always be waiting for him every time a cage closed or a door locked. Unfortunately, his time wandering the suburban wilderness with Huck wouldn’t be enough for him. It would never be enough him. And I think he knew that without his financial and physical freedom, and precious sense of control, he wouldn’t know how to keep breathing and blinking.
At the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn the titular character says his farewell in a manner that resonates with the way my father did:
“I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it.”
Twain’s Huck couldn’t endure the loss of his freedom and neither could my father; however, while Twain's character went west, my character went as far south as a person could possibly go.
“He killed himself,” I said, out loud for the first time. It was after we returned home from the funeral in New Jersey and I was picking up my Huckleberry Finn from the boarding facility. I don’t know why I told him. Then I asked him something just as equally confusing because 1) he’s a dog and cannot speak, and 2) if he could, would he have told me the truth that day?
“Did dad ever tell you he was planning to do this?” Huck just looked at me with those googly green eyes and then proceeded to chew on the back of my seat. I think that was the best answer the universe and Huck were willing to give me.
It has been five years since my father committed suicide. My Huckleberry Finn is now eight years old and Twain’s is 103.  I somehow managed to get through my thesis defense, which was two weeks after my father’s death, and every one of the characters my panel liked had different coats of my father mixed in with cruel poetic glitter. I let Huckleberry tear up one of my graduation invitations and I never tried to train or harness him in any way. It just didn’t feel right. And now that we have his younger brother Tom Sawyer my father’s death has a new sense of finality to it. Because Tom will always come back to me if he gets off his leash, while Huckleberry Finn will keep on running, just like the old man.  
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