Thursday, April 28, 2005

Homage to Thurber's "Dogs"

My parents went to an auction when I was in high school and brought back a box of assorted items; a nautical cap (which I promptly began to wear to all sorts of inappropriate places), a turtleneck dickey (which I also promptly began wearing under an odd grey knit shirt) and a copy of James Thurber's "Carnival", which was a compliation of his short stories, parables and cartoons from the "New Yorker" magazine. A couple of his stories had to do with the dogs he had growing up in Ohio and those always struck me, since they were an interesting mix of humor and pathos, particularly about the dog that enjoyed leaping over walls, who came home one night badly injured after a fight with another dog; it waited around until the last of Thurber's brothers came through the white picket fence gate to take its last breath.

My own experience with dogs is a bit more limited, since I've only had two in my life. Bix was a standard-sized black and tan dachshund who was in our home when I was quite small. There are pictures of him, lean and handsome, at one of my early birthday parties. Bix didn't stay lean too long, since he had a habit of mooching at the dinner table, eating his dog food in the kitchen then going out on his rounds around the neighborhood, begging at the back doors of everyone around the block. I particularly remember how Bix loved it when we had shrimp for supper. It didn't matter if the shrimp was fried or boiled, he'd sit at a corner of the dinner table and sit on his hind legs literally motionless until someone threw him the tail of a recently consumed shimp; Bix would snap it up, chomping away at the crunchy remains like it was the finest filet mignon.

Bix had the run of the neighborhood until one day, when trotting around with a bone, some kids decided it would be great fun to take the bone away from him. Bix promptly sniped at the offending brat's arm and, from then on, he had to be on a leash or behind a fence that my Dad built in the backyard. It seemed to take some of the elan away from the old guy, and he just wasn't quite the same afterwards. He started getting heartworms and then got a big tumor on his back leg. I fed him one morning in the kitchen and went to school; when I came back that afternoon, my Dad took me out on our front porch and told me that he'd had to take Bix to the vet's to be put to sleep because of his various health problems. It was probably the last time I cried in front of my father until the day in the summer of 2000 we had to tell him he had an asbestos-induced cancer.

My current dog is Emily, supposedly a border collie/Austrailian shepard mix. She's a very pretty dog that we got at the local Mega pet store a few years back. Of course, at the time she was quite young and quite small and fit on my forearm, asleep as we discussed her purchase with the rescue society. Emily was already trained to go outdoors when we got her, so one difficult rite of passage for the neophyte dog owner was finished. She cried a lot the first few weeks at night, since we had gotten a crate for her to sleep in and she simply couldn't understand why her pack was putting her off by herself. We adjusted pretty well, but one member of the family has yet to truly accept Emily; our cat. Stinker is a pretty standard black and white shorthair that came to our family over a decade ago. I'd gone outside one morning to get the newspaper after starting the coffee pot and nearly tripped over a shoebox on the driveway. I picked it up, shook it, and took it into the kitchen to try to figure out what was going on, but the quiet "meows" coming from the box soon told me that we were now the proud owners of a cat. There was a strange and oddly disturbing letter with the little black and white creature which said that her former owners had been "watching" us and had concluded that we were kind people (I've always wondered if they had gotten disoriented in the early morning hours and meant to deposit "Fluffy"--yep, that was the cat's original name--with the next door neighbor). Did I mention, by the way, that I'm allergic to cats? No? Well, yes I am, though I get used to it pretty quickly when one is around for a while, I just have to remember not to rub my eyes after a session of heavy petting, since all that dander makes my eyes puff up like a prize fighter's who's gone the distance. Anyway, Kitty (or Stinker or just plain old "Cat") took one look at Emily and, after an exploratory sniff, expressed her displeasure at the interloper with a hiss straight out of the "Bride of Frankenstein". Emily has repaid the cat over the years for the less-than-warm welcome by trying to herd her at every opportunity. The poor feline has had no peace over the years, especially when her rump is within access to Emily's cold nose, which finds itself, more often than not, pressed rather firmly into that most intimate of areas.

Dogs do have a distinct personality. Anyone who thinks there isn't a dog heaven or, even better, that God doesn't have a soft place in his heart for the canine type and will let them roam the hills of heaven with their owners, obviously has never had a dog (or worse, has only owned cats). Sure, there are dogs that'll probably go to the canine version of Hell (the place where the only word heard is "NO!" and all the demons have rolled-up newspapers), but most of the dogs I've known over the years will be in that eternal place of reward, happy to be with their pack with nary a crate in site. Emily is always happy to see me come in the door, even happier the longer I've been away. She's never held a grudge that I'm aware of, even after I've had to lambast her for some crime against the cat or for spitting up on the new carpet by the door. Life is rarely sweeter for her than to be let outside with her master or one of the three mistresses of the house, to sniff the air for familiar scents and look around for someplace to deposit landmines for the unsuspecting foot a few days later. Sure, it's a pain to take her to the vet, to pay for medicine and food, to find someplace to board her when we want to take a vacation and, even worse, to keep finding shed hairs absolutely everywhere all the time, but I wouldn't trade her. There's just something about a cold nose nuzzling your face that cannot be replaced.

No comments: