A commotion preceded him, great squeals of joy and “He’s here! That’s Clifford!” Hugs, high-fives, pictures, everyone under the age of 10 wanted a piece of him, and why wouldn’t they? He was the Westwood Elementary Book Fair’s main event, a walking embodiment of the beloved scarlet pooch, namesake of the popular children’s book series. And of all the deliriously happy kids at the fair that day, none was more excited to see Clifford than me.
I had seen his type before; it wasn’t my first time at the rodeo, so to speak. Growing up in San Antonio, I was a regular at Sea World and no stranger to the concept of oversized furry characters. I had met Shamu, shaken hands with Dolly, even gotten Seymour and Clyde’s autographs.
But this time was different. This time, it was personal. This time, it was my dad.
He had gamely stepped in after the previous Clifford had dropped out, unable to handle the pressure of posing as such an iconic canine. Incidentally, drawn to scale, Clifford the Big Red Dog is exactly 6 feet tall and has size 12 paws, so my dad had no choice but to accept his new role when his name was helpfully thrown into the ring.
I remembered just that morning having seen the costume in the back of the car, the suit lying flaccidly in the trunk next to a disembodied head staring vacantly out the window. It now walked animatedly toward the courtyard where I stood waiting, rooted to the spot next to my sister. We had been sworn to secrecy, never to reveal who was really behind that shock of red fur.
Inquiring minds, noticing the slight outline of glasses behind the opaque pupils, assumed it was our bespectacled gym teacher Mr. Brown. “We know it’s you in there, Mr. Brown! We know it’s you!” As the crowd jostled around Clifford, I felt shocks in my spine, flutters of air in my chest, a strange mix of desperation and pride. It was all I could do to keep the words down, to keep from yelling, “You idiots! You have no idea who’s in there! That’s my dad! That’s my dad!”
That was 15 years ago; he has not reprised the role of Clifford since. The costume might be gone, maybe some hair, too, but the glasses remain, and so does that gung-ho spirit, that complete willingness to don a dog getup or maybe a tiara while playing Pretty Pretty Princess, because it makes his daughters happy.
And he didn’t for a second hesitate to load my 23-years’ worth of crap into a 10-foot Budget truck, drive 1,000 miles through corn fields and wind turbines, and lug the same crap up three flights of rickety wooden stairs, all the while griping about his heart condition, his hand condition, the metal pin in his hip and the metal plate he claims to have in his head.
With a couple hours to kill before his flight back to Denver, he spread out on the couch, not quite a full six feet anymore, and didn’t make it through two pages of his crime novel before falling asleep. He snored and groaned his way through the nap while my roommate sat somewhat uncomfortably at the other end of the coffee table.
“Yep,” I thought. “That’s my dad.”