This man’s best friend

I lay in the backseat of our car, seemingly sleeping, but secretly eavesdropping on my parents’ conversation in front. Back then, kids could do that, and I usually sat in the back, on my knees on the hump that runs through the middle of the car, but my head between the two front seats – if I wasn’t reading comics, that is.

We were on our way home from my aunt’s place just outside Helsinki. We didn’t visit her often, and I didn’t really know her, which made me dread those trips a little, but that one time I almost didn’t want to go home, because in the back of her yard, behind a chicken netting fence, my aunt had a half a dozen German shepherd puppies.

Riku.

Did I want a puppy? Of course I wanted a puppy, but I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it because I knew it wouldn’t help anyway. I listened to the conversation, and crossed my fingers, and just as we stopped at the traffic lights in front of the main Post Office, I heard Mom and Dad decide that, yes, it’d be a good idea to take a puppy.

They didn’t tell me about it just yet, but the next day Dad drove back to his sister’s place, and came back with a puppy. Of course, I would have to participate in the care of the dog, I was told, and I promised that I would. I’d take really good care of him. We’d be the best of friends, just like the Famous Five and Timmy. Or Lassie and the little girl.

I guess one of the rational motives Mom and Dad came up with when they held their pow-wow in the front seat that day was that he’d be good company for me, who was just starting school, but Dad has always been an animal lover so it wasn’t that hard to convince him that it’d be a good idea to have a dog in the house.

We already had a guinea pig, and before that, for maybe a couple weeks, maybe just a few days, I don’t remember, we had a bird that Dad had found hurt somewhere, and saved. It was either a crow or a magpie, and I remember it sitting in a shoebox in the back of our car, behind me, on our way to Grandma’s house. Maybe that was the trip when we let him free again.

The guinea pig’s name was Roosa, the bird’s Roope.

The puppy was named Riku.

What can I say, we always liked names that started with R.

When Dad came back, he told the story of how he had picked that particular dog out of the many, (almost) equally cute puppies.

“When I walked up to them, they all ran towards me and barked and jumped up to the fence – except this one dog, who stayed a little behind the others, and looked shy,” he told Mom and me.

“So I picked him.”

And he couldn’t have picked better.

Because he was a German shepherd, and a strong one at that, Dad wanted Riku to be trained properly so that Mom, and me – because at this point we still entertained the idea of my walking him – could control him. Riku was enrolled into a dog academy. Dad visited him a couple of times so that Riku would learn that he was his master, and by the end of the training, Dad was there all the time to make the transition smooth.

We were very proud of him. Riku, that is.

Dad then showed Mom and me how Riku should always walk on our left side, with his head next to our knee. He’d sit, lie down, and stay in place until given permission to move, on command. But he also learned to give his paw, to hold a piece of chocolate on his snout, and throw it in his mouth when we told him he could do that. And of course, he could play dead, one of Dad’s favorite tricks. I think he also could count. He couldn’t do algebra, but he did count to ten.

I fully expected Riku to talk to me when we were at home in the afternoons after school, and when he didn’t, I made up his lines in our conversations.

“Hey, Riku, I’m home.”

“About time. Wanna do something,” he’d reply, wagging his tail against the hall cabinets, so that it sounded like a big drum.

“Sure. Whaddaya wanna do? Want to play Tarzan?”

“Only if I get to be the lion.”

And he did get to be the lion – except when he was Cheetah, or an elephant, or a crocodile I’d have to wrestle with. Or maybe he was the Dog in my version of Enid Blyton’s “Five Find-Outers and Dog” called “One Find-Outer and Dog”. Unless we played soccer, and he was the goalie.

All adventures always took place inside our apartment, because, while Riku was the smartest dog in the world, who graduated summa cum laude from the training academy and who also got trained by the police – when Dad’s policeman friend joined the canine unit – there was always the chance that something would happen, and I couldn’t hold back. After all, Dad used to let Riku pull him on the snowy sidewalks of Helsinki in the winter.

Of course there were days when I found him lying in front of the balcony door, his nose pressed against the little crack between the threshold and the door, where cool air would get in, and when I got home, he’d just raise his head a little bit, as if to you say, “Oh, you” and then go back to his resting position.

We all got what we wanted. Dad got a pet, Mom got company for the nights when Dad and I were at the hockey rink, and I – as planned – got a buddy. Mom likes to tell a story about my getting a pair of new skates for Christmas, and being so, so happy that I didn’t know what to do. So what did I do? I hugged Riku and whispered the good news into his ear.

Then I grew up, and I didn’t play Tarzan (as much) with Riku, but he’d still be there for me after school, although, the days when he just lifted his head a little bit became more of the norm. But we played ball, and we talked and had each others’ backs.

By the time I was a senior in high school, Riku had grown old. At 84 (in dog years), he was a greybeard, and it wasn’t just as easy to get him excited about fetching those tennis balls anymore.

At the end of high school, seniors in Finland dress up in costumes, and then get thrown out of school in February so they can study for the national exams in March. Riku had been with me from first grade, so I thought it’d be great if he’d be there with me when I finish high school. My plan was to dress up as The Phantom, and Riku would be my “Devil”. (For all you phantomaniacs out there, I know, “Devil is not a dog, he’s a wolf”).

That winter, though, one weekend, he got very tired. He just lay on the floor, and didn’t want to get up. He whimpered a little, but mostly he just seemed to want to sleep. That wouldn’t do, so I tried to cheer him up. I teased him with a ball, and petted him, and talked to him, and he got up. Then I got him outside, and I started to throw snowballs for him to fetch. Of course, they disappeared into the snow, baffling Riku completely.

And I stood there, and threw snowballs to him, underhand, just a little behind him, so he’d have to try to twist his body in the air if he wanted to catch it. And fifteen minutes later, he was back to his usual self, the happy-go-lucky dog that he was.

I was happy to see that because I believed that it was me that had brought back his will to live. I thought that if only I could love him just a little bit more, he’d want to hang around a lot longer.

Riku died a few weeks later, when I was on a hockey trip on the west coast of Finland. Dad had found him, and wrapped him up, and carried him to the car. And then he found him a spot at a pet cemetary, and a tombstone, and for years we’d go to his grave on our way to my grandparents’ graves at Xmas.

A few weeks after Riku died, it was time for my last day of school. I wore red swimming trunks on top of my hockey one-piece underwear, Mom’s hood, Mom’s hat, Dad’s winter boots, and a plastic belt that Dad made and painted the Phantom’s skull on. On top of everything, I wore Dad’s long winter coat.

I looked at myself in the mirror, checked that the skull logo on my belt was visible, and that my face was covered by my mother’s hat. I was happy with my costume. I looked just like the Phantom. It was perfect.

If not for the empty space to my left.

How does that make you feel?