The dog’s anxiety has escalated to self-harm. She’s not burning herself with cigarettes, although once her toes can work the lighter, all bets are off. For now, her injuries are of the indirect variety. Her daylong bouts of howling shred her throat, leaving her hoarse and coughing through the evening. Between yelps, she thrusts her head repeatedly against her crate, bending the bars and tearing strips of flesh off her snout and cheeks. We come home to bleeding gashes and hysteria.
The vet is tapering her off one prescription and starting her on another. We have the number of an animal behaviorist who specializes in unique temperaments. New approaches could take several weeks to sort out, and new behavior far longer to establish.
At the beginning of the highest pressure work month I’ve faced in five years, I’m now the proud owner of a dog that can’t be left alone.
My mother, the angel and savior who lives two miles down the road, has stepped up to pinch hit. The past two months, she’s been coming by every day to give Noodle a walk and an hour or two of company. Because panic balloons after visiting hours, Mom has now invited the pooch come squat at her house while I’m at work. This means my mother can’t run any errand more involved than a 15 minute jaunt to the supermarket. Even on those trips, she has to pack Noodle up and take her in the car. Fortunately, damage to self and vehicle is negligible (for now). Even so, we are reluctant to test the limits of her back seat self-control, to say nothing of the sub-freezing temperatures that show no signs of letting up.
Now the weekend is here. Bug and I are home. Again. We’ve already wasted too many hours on screens. We’re squirrely. The park is a field of ice. The streets are deserted and the neighbors are tucked away behind silent doors. The usual options — indoor pool, fitness center, roller skating, visiting friends — are dead ends. We simply can’t leave Noodle.
After 45 minutes with popsicle sticks and a glue gun followed by several rounds of chase-and-tickle (no glue gun), we’re at a loss. At 6:00pm, Bug collapses on the couch and begs for Minecraft.
“I’m so BORED.”
“Let’s make something,” I say.
“What?” He’s slouched on the cushions, petulant as the pubescent teen he will too soon become.
“Something we’ve never made before. Let’s cook something.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Well, we need dinner anyway, so let’s make something entirely new. What’s some meal we’ve never ever cooked ourselves before?”
He’s shooting a pokemon figure up and over, making explosion noises. He doesn’t bother responding.
“Okay,” I say. “Remember that cake we had at Cracker Barrel? The coca-cola and chocolate one?”
He cuts his eyes at me. “We’ve had that.”
I take a breath. “I know we’ve had it but we’ve never made it. Maybe think of something else we’ve — ”
“Corn dogs,” he says.
I stop. He smirks. His singsong voice is a straight up dare. “You said something we’ve never made. So, corn dogs.”
What does it even take to make a corn dog? It’s been a decade since I’ve eaten one and exactly never since I’ve cooked one. Do you bake them? What’s that outer coating even made of? For all I know, it could be akin to the lab reaction that forms Twinkies. Are we talking chemical processes? Nuclear fusion?
“Awesome,” I say. “Let’s do it.”
So now we’re looking up recipes. They all begin with something along the lines of, “In a dutch oven, heat 8 cups of vegetable oil to 375 degrees.” Oh, man. My granddaddy let me help him fry catfish in Crisco over the Coleman stove when I was about Bug’s age. Once. And I briefly worked in a cafe that had a fryolator for crisping up the herbed potatoes we served beside omelets. Those two experiences comprise the totality of my frying expertise.
Once I see the list of ingredients and check it against my larder, I’m in. We have a half pack of hot dogs in the freezer, a supply of both cornstarch and cornmeal, and a bunch of chopsticks my Mister encouraged me to keep from last week’s takeout. Buttermilk is not a staple here but it’s easy enough to make with milk and vinegar.
I refuse to let my lack of either a dutch oven or a cooking thermometer slow our momentum. Saucepan, bowls, cups, an apron. Bug slices fractions into smaller portions as we rearrange the recipe to accommodate our modestly sized family. Soon the oil is hot enough to pop the drops of water I flick into it. A coffee cup is full to the brim with batter. Bug pokes and dredges, the hot oil welcomes the concoction with an explosion of boiling noise. Within moments, the soggy slop puffs to a golden crust. Once it’s cooked all around, I pull it out and drop it on the heap of paper towels.
“How does it look?” I ask Bug. He is dipping dog #2.
He glances over and shrugs. “Good, I guess.”
“I mean, does it look like a corn dog? Does it look right?” I’m terribly impressed with the crisp, bronze orb.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I’ve never had one.”
I turn an look at him. He ignores me, spinning the chopstick in the yellow goop. “Wait a minute,” I say. “After all these years? The dining hall at camp? School lunch? You’ve never had a corn dog?”
“I tasted the bread part once.”
Amazing. Here we are destroying our kitchen for something unfamiliar and possibly unappealing to us both. At least Bug has no basis for comparison. I remind myself that this whole project is intended to kill time without us killing each other.
Once all four hot dogs are cooked and cooled, Bug breaks out the ketchup. We don’t even bother going to the table. Right there at the counter as the oil continues to brown the leftover batter into hush puppies, Bug dips a dog and takes a bite. His face opens into a grin.
“Oh, Mom, you gotta try it. This is so good.”
I do. It’s lucky I move fast. I only manage to grab one before he’s wolfed down the other three. He dances from foot to foot in his stained apron and chattering the whole time. Noodle trots around our feet, unsure what to make of this double indulgence of her pack’s proximity and a meal of homemade hush puppies.
Our little family is doing okay. Sure, every single member of it is nuts, but we groove as a trio. We have to keep feeding the source because each of us needs to plug into that synergy from time to time. For me, it’s the week ahead. If the extra logistical gymnastics don’t kick my butt, the task list looming at my office surely will.
As for Noodle, she surely needs more than her share of the collective strength right now. I don’t blame her for trying to escape her anxiety. Even if whatever is waiting on the other side of it is unknown and potentially more dangerous, being alone with fear is a reservation for one in a special room in hell.
So what do we do when all three of us are flagging and the source is running low?
We keep moving, keep adapting, keep each other company. Eventually, we admit we have no idea what we’re doing. We ask for help. We invite our circle to grow.
We make room.
We open the next door, whichever one presents itself.
We step through and say, “What can we cook up that we’ve never tried before?”
We say, “Let’s see what we have on hand.”
We say, “Let’s make this work.”
We say, “Yes.”