by Joe Eliseon
This story is dedicated with my most sincere thanks to that great lady of Twitter, my tweeting mentor, Wilma Conley aka @WilmaConley2016. If you’re on Twitter, do yourself a favor and follow Wilma.
Everybody who’s owned dogs has dog stories. There are funny dog stories, like the one about my grand-uncle’s hunting dog. Trained pup all year to track, flush and point. Pup showed promise. Bragged about what a great hunter he’d be. Talked about coming home game-bag bursting with birds. Drove everybody crazy. Hunting season arrives. High expectations of first hunting trip with dog. Everyone excited. Dog excited. Drive out to country. Lets dog loose. Everything looks great. Dog tracks. Dog flushes. Dog points. Grand-uncle raises shotgun and fires. Birds fall to earth. Looks around. No dog. Dog never heard shotgun blast before. Ran like hell. Training oversight. Took two hours to track him down. Poor animal shit for three days straight and died. Funny stories like that.
There are weird dog stories. Take the one about my grandfather’s death. Each of the three nights before he died, his miniature Schnauzer, Mitzi, led all the dogs in the neighborhood in hour-long bouts of mournful howling. The night after he died, no dogs howled. The silence stunned us into realizing that no one had seen Mitzi all day. I finally found her in his house, under his bed, whimpering. What made this weird? My grandfather spent the last three nights of his final illness in a downtown hospital, six miles away from home.
But then there are the genius dog stories, stories about dogs that understand what you say to them, figure out what you want or need, solve problems and sometimes laugh at you. Skeptics, mostly cat owners and behavioral scientists, don’t believe dogs can do such things. I can’t blame them. Any dog that smart is smart enough not to show off in front of cat owners and behavioral scientists. It’s like Mr. Ed refusing to talk to anyone but Wilbur.
Having owned dogs since seven years of age, I find nothing unbelievable about the existence of canine Einsteins. I’ve run into a few.
Chief among them was my grandfather’s black-and-tan Airedale/God-knows-what cross, Butch. I hardly remember him. He died when I was two at the remarkable age of 18 human years. But I know him well by reputation. Tales of his exploits abound.
Butch was somewhat smaller than a standard Airedale, but very deep-chested, like a bull terrier. He was colored Airedale black-and-tan, but his coat was smooth rather than curly. He possessed an Airedale’s formidable jaw and bite.
One hesitates to say that anyone “bought” Butch. Even as a pup, he was much too self-possessed to be the subject of such a mundane transaction. Let us say, instead, that the family acquired rights to him through a process of negotiation which required his assent.
At the time Butch arrived, my mother was late in her tenth year. She named the dog and claimed that he belonged to her. Her elder sister, my aunt Francesca, disclaimed any interest in the immemorial fashion of teen-aged girls. But the sisters’ junior siblings, my uncles Vinny and Sonny, each asserted for the next fifty or sixty years that he owned Butch. Ha!
Truth was, Butch was my grandfather’s dog. They were two of a kind, both small and tough. Some kind of mystical bond existed between them. Butch might tolerate the demands or admonitions of my mother and her brothers, but only out of affection or condescension. The one human on earth you could with any confidence say he literally “obeyed” was my grandfather and, even with regard to that formidable character, the dog’s obedience could be described as somewhat grudging.
Immediately upon his arrival, Butch set about establishing his territory. Within three months, he had broken the neck of every cat and lacerated every dog in the neighborhood. My grandfather paid for the cats and veterinarians and made loud complaints about the expense. Quietly, he took pride in Butch. Cats, of course, were never seen again. Dogs who had learned submission formed Butch’s pack.
Denying it to others, Butch rigorously enforced obedience to himself. His closest canine pal, a tall German shepherd, called on him every morning. The dog would sit across the street from my grandfather’s house and bark. Butch would rouse himself, stretch, accept his morning tributes from the children’s breakfasts, then scratch at the side door. Let out, he’d trot across the street to his companion. The two dogs would circle each other, sniff each other’s butt and, their ablutions completed, wander off for an hour or two to take care of business.
One day, as Butch and the shepherd watched from my grandfather’s front porch, a man came walking up Summit Avenue with two Doberman Pinschers on a leash. Butch took up the gauntlet and charged off the porch. His friend charged after him in support. The man released his dogs. Fur flew.
After some uneven give-and-take, Butch’s pal lost heart and retreated. Butch fought on alone until he drove the interlopers off. As the man chased after his fleeing dogs, Butch turned and gave his fair-weather pal hell. He circled the shepherd, barking and growling. Butch finished by biting his erstwhile friend in the ass. The shepherd went flying.
Next morning, the shepherd sat across the street. He didn’t dare bark. He whimpered. Released from the house, Butch walked up to the sidewalk’s edge. He barked his contempt at the shepherd across the street. Then he turned his back on the humiliated dog and kicked grass and dirt at him. Dejected, the shepherd slunk away.
They repeated this penitential rite on each of the next five mornings: the whimpering, the dressing down, the kicking of dirt, each session coming to a close with the shepherd’s slinking away.
The morning of the sixth day began as usual. The shepherd arrived and whimpered. Butch came out to the sidewalk. But this morning, he did not stop at the curb’s edge. He lowered his head and crossed the street.
The shepherd cowered like a puppy. Butch circled him again and again, his low growls escalating into short, angry barks and long, threatening howls. All of sudden, Butch stopped. The tongue lashing was over. The shepherd perked up. He stood. Butch sniffed the shepherd’s behind. Tentatively, the shepherd returned the sniff. Penance was complete. Friends again, they trotted off.
Enough, in Butch’s mind, was evidently enough.
Butch was a dog of integrity, but he took nothing to extremes. He was not above the occasional bribe. While he generally disapproved of deliverymen, the milkman and the baker learned that a small piece of bacon or a sugar cookie would purchase safe passage.
But there was a limit. Some people Butch disliked so much that no amount of bribery availed. One of these unfortunates was the next-door neighbor’s brother-in-law, Gaetano.
No one knew why the dog disliked Gaetano. My mother believed the man offended Butch’s aesthetic sense: his legs were too long for his body, giving him an unnatural, awkward gait. Whatever the reason, Butch did not like him.
Gaetano’s brother-in-law and my grandfather’s next door neighbor, Mr. Filippo, didn’t like Gaetano either. Whenever his wife told him her brother was coming, Mr. Filippo would step out on his back porch and look for Butch.
The two houses stood across a common driveway. Butch took his regular afternoon siesta on the stoop of my grandfather’s side door. The door opened on the driveway. Seeing the dog sleeping on the stoop, Mr. Filippo would lean over the porch rail and call, “Butch! Vidi! Cua veni, Gaetano.” “Butch! Look! Here comes Gaetano!”
The sound of Gaetano’s name alone was enough to rouse the dog from slumber. He would stand, growl and stretch like a runner preparing for a 50-yard dash. Mr. Filippo would repeat himself minute by minute. “Butch! Vidi! Cua veni Gaetano!” At each repetition of the man’s name, the dog would get angrier and angrier.
By the time Gaetano appeared at the foot of the driveway, Mr. Filippo had stoked Butch’s fire and gotten up a white hot head of steam. The dog would take off after Gaetano and chase him around and around the Filippo house. Gaetano would, as Homer said of Hector, “ply swift knees,” all the time shouting to his sister in the house, “Maria! Apri la porta! Apri la porta!” “Open the door!”
Every lap or two, Gaetano would try to distract the dog by throwing a cookie over his shoulder. But if Butch could not catch it on the fly, he let it go. Nothing was going to break his stride. Besides, he could always pick it up later. Mr. Filippo would settle into the rocker on his back porch and watch, laughing convulsively every time man and dog ran past. It was enough to give in-laws a bad name.
Anti-Bullying Campaign, Butch-Style
In those days, children were more independent and uninhibited, more inclined to direct action. Butch fit right in and earned the respect of everyone aged 6 to 12. For one thing, he hated bullies. Today, you deal with the neighborhood bully by forming committees of adults, recruiting corporate sponsors, hiring a PR firm and launching a national ad campaign. In those days, you simply had someone like Butch take a chunk out of his ass.
For example, there was the day young Billy Flippen tried to bury my even younger uncle, Sonny, in a sandpit in the dump across the street from my grandfather’s house. Billy’s motives were unclear at the time but seem to have stemmed from the fact that Sonny was the smaller of the two. Unfortunately for Billy, before he could complete his task, Butch appeared on the scene. Sonny, struggling waist-deep in sand, uttered the powerful incantation, “Sic him, Butch!”
The tables abruptly turned. The dog flashed teeth no one had ever seen before and hurled himself at Billy.
Billy fled. Butch pursued. Sonny extricated himself from the sand pit. Eagerly, he took off after boy and dog. Billy ran for his house. Butch closed. Sonny picked up speed but trailed. Billy dashed into his front yard and slammed the gate. Butch leaped the gate. Sonny crashed through the gate. Billy raced around the house. Butch nipped at his heels. Sonny grit his teeth and poured it on. Billy clattered up the stairs to his back porch. Butch bounded up behind him but, claws clicking frantically, lost traction on the wooden planking. Sonny brought up the rear.
Billy burst through the kitchen door but couldn’t close it in time. Butch shoved his nose in and squeezed through. Sonny put his shoulder down and knocked the door aside. Billy dashed through the kitchen and into the dining room, dodging past his mother. Butch sped past her. Before she could recover, Sonny bumped into her, bounced off, recovered and carried on.
Billy tore up the stairs and into his bedroom. Butch flew up the stairs after him. Sonny panted after both of them, Mrs. Flippen hot on his heels. Billy dove under his bed. Butch, acknowledging no sanctuary, dove after him. So did Sonny. Mrs. Flippen stopped short of diving under the bed and screamed bloody murder.
For some odd reason, my grandfather felt obliged to pay for Billy’s pants and some bric-a-brac from the Flippens’ dining room and kitchen. He docked Sonny’s allowance and confined him to his room after school for a week. Butch he tied to a stake in the backyard, but not for long.
My grandfather always struggled to maintain the stern facade of anger. He had a hot temper, but his storms passed quickly. Besides, he had a soft spot for rascals, scoundrels, rogues and a good story. The story of Butch and Sonny and Billy Flippen spread up and down the town, in no small part because of the old man himself.
By his reckless but determined pursuit of Billy Flippen, by his defense of the underdog, by his pure, unflinching doggedness, Butch increased his stature among the neighborhood kids. Previously, he had inspired respect and even a certain amount of awe, but now he became the object of affection, even devotion. Butch went from being a good dog to a prince among dogs, the subject of local folklore and civic pride. Exactly how many of the good town’s young burghers had wanted to give Billy what for we shall never know. But suffice it to say that Butch had become the embodiment of the aspirations of a generation.
For that reason, Officer Gribbon’s offense became the catalyst for vendetta.
Summit Avenue, true to its name, ran straight downhill from the Old Soldier’s Home – perched rather obviously at the hill’s summit – past my grandfather’s house and on toward the center of town, terminating at a cross street and a trolley car stop. It was a tad more than a mile long and my grandfather’s house stood at its halfway point. There, it met in a “Y” intersection with Millbury Street coming from the flats to its left before continuing downhill.
Were you sitting on the few stone stairs that descended from my grandfather’s front walk to the sidewalk, uphill would be to your left, downhill to your right and the intersection with Millbury almost directly in front of you. Across Millbury, there was a wide open space leading down to the dump and the marshes lining the river and, beyond that, the town of Revere.
Officer Gribbon was a motorcycle cop, newly assigned. His patrol route took him along Millbury Street, through the intersection, past my grandfather’s house and on down Summit Ave. toward the trolley stop. To be blunt, the officer’s route cut directly through Butch’s domain.
From this point, the elements of the story come together with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy: motorcycle cops ride motorcycles; motorcycles have wheels; motorcycle wheels spin; dogs chase spinning wheels. The only action not ordained by the Fates, the only intrusion of human free will – the fatal error, if you will – was embodied by the officer’s foot, encased within his heavy black boot and delivered to the dog’s side. It sent Butch sprawling to the curb. The dog uttered a single yelp and fell silent.
He was carried from the scene on a blanket, like a Greek warrior on his shield, by a solemn honor guard composed of my uncles Vinny and Sonny and several of the neighborhood boys. A tragic chorus of neighborhood girls wailed in the background. The officer on his motorcycle disappeared down Summit Ave. without stopping, without showing the slightest concern.
The children decided that he must die.
But how was the deed to be done? Approaching the task like a darker version of the Little Rascals, the boys searched the dump and discovered a huge tractor’s wheel, a thing about five feet in diameter, about two feet across and with treads that stood out at least two inches. One boy procured his father’s stop watch. It was all a question of timing. Gravity would supply the murderous force. Teams were formed, lookouts set, landmarks and signals chosen.
First, they had to determine precisely how long it took Officer Gribbon to travel from the last stop sign on Millbury Street to the intersection with Summit Ave. They measured the time interval on five successive days with girls, whom no one ever suspects of anything, standing at strategic points and flashing hand signals to the boys, who applied their innately superior mechanical skills to the operation of the stopwatch. It was 7.5 seconds from stop sign to intersection. So much for Phase One.
Phase Two presented the question: how far up Summit Ave. must you push a five-foot tractor wheel in order for it to roll down to a predetermined point at the intersection in exactly 7.5 seconds? This was man’s work. The boys took over. The girls did the heavy watching and advising. It took a sweating crowd of them, but extensive measuring, pushing, rolling and timing at last resulted in two white chalk marks, one at the release point up Summit Ave. and one at the projected impact point within the intersection, precisely 7.5 seconds apart.
How foolhardy was Imperial Japan! In another few years, it would recklessly attack Pearl Harbor, rousing a nation where even the children had no compunction against bloody revenge. A failure of intelligence, perhaps? Sharp eyes should have seen the signs posted on ten thousand Summit Avenues from sea to shining sea. Today, between grief counseling, anger management and Ritalin,® people may find it hard to believe that young Americans could once conceive and carry out such a scheme, but facts are facts. The world was different back then and this was about Butch.
D-Day, H-Hour arrived. The kids unlimbered the tractor wheel and rolled it uphill to the release point. The lookouts manned their stations. Hand signals flashed by relays to the release team alerted them to Officer Gribbon’s arrival at the stop sign. The world held its breath for the final signal, the one that would mark the officer’s resumption of his fateful course.
A second passed; then two; then the signal came. The team released the wheel.
Slowly it started down the hill and then, as the motorcycle approached, it gained speed. The die was cast. Motorcycle and wheel converged on the impact point.
The disappointment of the ensuing moment still cast a shadow on my Uncle Sonny’s face roughly forty years later as he told me this story. “Missed the bastard by inches!”
At the last possible second, Officer Gribbon had glanced up Summit Avenue and seen the wheel bearing down on him. He swerved violently. His motorcycle went out from under him and slid across the street. He hit the ground hard and rolled over and over until, with just the right touch of poetic justice, he came to rest at approximately the same spot on the curb as had Butch a couple of weeks before.
The wheel continued rolling down Summit Ave., sending cars careening onto the sidewalks. It knocked down the stop sign at the cross street, toppled over in the middle of the road and blocked traffic. Children scattered in all directions. Mothers and store keepers flooded into the street. Horns blew. Ambulance sirens screamed. Police poured out of patrol cars.
Wheel impounded. Questions asked. Investigations made. But no one, in those closed-mouthed days long before CSI, ever found out anything.
All of the foregoing has merely served to get me to this point, to the greatest of the Butch stories: Mirabili.
Mirabili, whose name means “Miracles,” was a short man in a long, black coat that he wore through all the seasons of the year. He had dark, somewhat unkempt hair, overlong for the day but hidden under the shapeless remains of an old, battered, black fedora. His face was perpetually wreathed with an indistinct, scraggly beard that he never grew out but never seemed to shave clean. His eyes were beady; his nose big and fleshy. He smelled like the dogs he boarded in and around a rundown, wood-frame, double-decker house close by the Charlestown Navy Yard.
Mirabili was well-known to the First Naval District. As fate allots these things, he had a beautiful daughter, a girl unlike him in every conceivable way. She worked as a secretary at the Yard. Oftentimes, sailors being what they are, one or two or three or more of them would follow her home. Mirabili’s standard response was to loose the dogs. They would chase her admirers whence they came. The District Commandant would telephone Mirabili personally to request that he remove his dogs from Navy property. This happened often enough that the two men came to be on a first name basis.
For a small fee and a gratuity determined at your kind discretion, Mirabili would come to your house and shave your dog. It was my grandfather’s custom, late each spring, to have Mirabili come to the house and give Butch a shave for the summer. The year in question was no different.
On the appointed day, Mirabili got off the trolley at the stop on the corner and walked up the hill to my grandfather’s house. He carried a worn, leather doctor’s bag. He knew better than to approach the house. My grandmother, a fastidious woman who kept her home immaculate, her garden well-ordered and her chicken coop neater than any other in Chelsea, could stand neither the sight nor the smell of Mirabili.
Thus, Mirabili was obliged to walk past the house and up the driveway to the garage. Sonny and Vinny had been ordered to watch for him and prepare for his coming. The elder set up a table in the garage and opened the overhead door. The younger distracted Butch by plying him with biscotti and belly-rubs in the kitchen.
But the dog was no fool. Biscotti? He knew something was up.
Mirabili put his bag on the table. He took off his hat and coat and hung them on the back of an old wooden, ladder-back chair, the kind that sits in your garage for years and gets covered with indiscriminate drops of paint and motor oil. He opened his bag and drew out a grooming brush with a well-chewed handle and a second-hand set of electric barber shears. He laid them on the table.
Then he pulled out a long extension cord. He plugged the shears into one end. His eyes followed the exposed, silver-gray electrical conduit that ran across the ceiling to the outlet on the wall nearest the house. He walked over to the outlet and plugged the other end of the cord into it. Returning to the table, he closed the bag. Its latch clicked shut. He put the bag aside on the seat of the chair.
Mirabili took the shears in his right hand. He turned to face out the door and down the driveway toward the street. There he stood, his back just touching the table’s edge. He was ready.
Then and only then did my grandfather’s gray-spatted, black, Cuban-heeled shoes step down from upstairs. It was not unusual for him to be home. He owned a restaurant and at least two bars in those years, which meant he seldom left the house until the kids came home from school in the early afternoon. His workday lasted until the bars closed in the wee hours of morning.
As an aside, I note that my grandmother required that my grandfather return home for dinner every evening. She insisted that the family eat dinner together. To enforce this social norm, she routinely held her children’s stomachs hostage. She refused to feed them without her husband. She knew his weak spot. My grandfather couldn’t let the picciotti, the little ones, go hungry. Few were the days he could not contrive to get home.
But, on this day and at this time in the early afternoon, he was making ready to leave for work. He had changed into his gray, pin-striped suit. He had tied his usual half-Windsor knot in one of his Art Deco ties. He had buttoned his spats. He hadn’t donned his suit-jacket yet but had, instead, slipped into a navy blue cardigan sweater. In short, he was not dressed for action. He did not expect what was coming. All he expected was obedience.
My grandfather strode from the foot of the stairs down the hall to the side door. “Butch, vena cua,” he ordered as he passed the kitchen door. Butch dropped the biscotti and abandoned the belly-rub. The dog was at his side by the time he reached the outer door. Together, man and dog crossed the driveway to the garage.
As they approached, Butch eyed Mirabili and his paraphernalia with growing suspicion. Mirabili shook at the sight of the dog. He crossed himself. Through some quirk of genetics that I have as yet failed to mention, the whites of Butch’s eyes were not white. They were yellow. They gleamed menacingly whenever his blood was up, inspiring some of the more superstitious old-timers to refer to him as il diavolo, the devil. Butch had some inkling of their fears and played to his audience whenever it suited his purposes.
Like now. Butch raised his nose to sniff Mirabili. He started a low, constant growl. The man backed away from the dog. My grandfather called for young Vinny to lift the dog onto the table. The boy came running, hoisted Butch into position and disappeared, paying no more attention to the dog’s growling than he would to the sound of a furnace or a water faucet or a passing car. It was background noise, unworthy of attention. But not to Mirabili. He took the dog’s growl seriously. He stood back from the table, shears in one hand and brush in the other, hesitating.
My grandfather waved his hand. “Go ahead,” he allowed. “Shave him.”
“Certo, Don Pepino.” “Certainly.” Mirabili took a step forward, but his heart wasn’t in it. The dog lowered his head.
My grandfather stepped around the table and grabbed the dog’s collar. “Butch,” he commanded, “zittiti.” “Be quiet.” Then to Mirabili, “Shave him.”
Somewhat re-assured, Mirabili steadied himself by resting the brush against the dog’s flank. Butch, in my grandfather’s grip, did not so much as flinch. Mirabili switched on the shears with a flick of his thumb and touched them to the dog’s rump.
Butch roared and reared up, baring his teeth and swinging his jaws toward Mirabili. Surprised, my grandfather tightened his grip and forced the dog down, then stood him up. He gave the dog’s collar a shake. “Zittiti,” he commanded again. He waited a second for the dog to calm down, then nodded to Mirabili.
Mirabili sighed and stepped up to the side of the table. Once more, he reached out. His shears touched the dog’s rump. Butch roared again and lunged for Mirabili.
Ready for him this time, my grandfather threw the dog down against the tabletop and held him there. “What’s the matter with you?” he shouted at Butch. “Stop that.” The dog quieted. My grandfather stood him up one more time and gave Mirabili a curt nod. “Stop the nonsense and shave this dog.”
Mirabili took courage. “Si, Don Pepino.” He cut a swath of hair from the dog’s back.
Butch tore himself away from my grandfather’s grip and dove for Mirabili. But my grandfather had fast hands. He grabbed the dog before he could reach Mirabili and hauled him back onto the table. He struck the animal. “What are you doing?” he yelled. “Stop it!” He yanked the dog into a standing position and locked an arm around his neck. “Go ahead,” he ordered Mirabili. “Shave him.”
Mirabili did not move. “Sono uno diavolo, Don Pepino.” “He’s a devil.”
“E tu sei un’ idioto!” “And you’re an idiot! Shave him.”
Mirabili screwed up his courage. He plowed ahead with the shears. Hair went flying. The dog yelped, yowled and wrestled against my grandfather’s grip.
My grandfather slapped the dog down with one hand and pulled him up standing with the other. The dog whimpered. He whined. Mirabili ran the shears over his back again, throwing hair this way and that. The desperate dog struggled. My grandfather slapped him harder. “Down!” he shouted. “Down, I tell you!”
Butch snapped at Mirabili again and again , growling, flinging his neck and head back, bucking, throwing saliva over both men. My grandfather struck him with his closed fist. He began to think the dog mad.
Men and dog raged on for another few but interminable minutes. Finally, the job was done. The dog was shaved.
Butch’s hair lay scattered over the table and his tormentors. He lay on his side, tongue sticking out, exhausted, shaven and scratched to the skin, beaten and barely breathing.
Vinny and Sonny had been watching in silence from the house. My grandfather signaled them. Tears in their eyes, they gathered Butch from the table, pulled his scattered parts together and carried him into the house. The dog hung limply from their arms.
Mirabili, himself exhausted, fell onto the chair, on top of his doctor’s bag. My grandfather leaned on the table, cursing under his breath. His knuckles hurt. But the pain was nothing. He had never known Butch to defy him before. The dog had become uncontrollable. Was it safe to leave him around children? Would he need to put the dog down?
Preoccupied with these thoughts, my grandfather’s hand wandered to his pocket. He took out a wad of bills, peeled off twice what he owed Mirabili, and offered it to the man. “Here,” he said, “for your trouble.”
Mirabili pocketed the money like a chipmunk stuffing his cheeks. “Grazie, Don Pepino. Mille grazie.” “A thousand thanks.” He dropped the brush into the bag and, without thinking to unplug it, began to roll up shear’s cord. His hand brushed against the shaving head. “Aiyee!” he yelled and dropped the shears.
My grandfather’s head snapped around. “What is it?! What’s wrong?!”
Mirabili shook his hand in pain. “Niente, Don Pepino.” “Nothing.”
My grandfather knew it wasn’t nothing. He snatched the shears up from the floor. He swept one finger over the shaving head. Sparks flew. An electric shock! He glared at Mirabili.
Mirabili cowered and spluttered apologies. My grandfather yanked the plug out of the wall and threw the shears at him. “Take your junk. Get out of here!”
Mirabili nodded. “Si,” he stammered, “si, Don Pepino.”
My grandfather simmered as he watched Mirabili shove the shears and cords into his bag. He hurled Mirabili’s long coat at him, stuffed his hat on his head, and dragged him to the end of the driveway. “Don’t come back!”
“Si, si, no,” answered Mirabili, too confused to know whether he should be agreeing or disagreeing. He stumbled onto the sidewalk and hurried down the hill.
My grandfather shouted after him. “In twenty minutes, I’m letting that dog out!”
“No, Don Pepino!” shrieked Mirabili. He broke into an anxious canter and headed for the trolley stop.
My grandfather growled at himself. Disgusted, he walked up onto the front porch and into the house.
Butch lay at the foot of the stairs in the front hall. Vinny and Sonny had summoned my mother for her healing arts. She had sent Vinny on an errand to the store. Sonny had become bored and drifted away. Alone now, my mother cradled the dog’s head in her lap. She tried to make him drink from a bowl of water. Butch’s tongue hung out, but he wouldn’t drink.
My grandfather told her to be careful and not let the dog out. Twenty minutes was plenty of time for Mirabili to catch the trolley. Still, he thought, if it were late, safer to keep the dog in the house. My mother was his reliable, obedient child. He knew she would do what her father said. Mirabili would be safe, but let him sweat. And so my grandfather stepped around his daughter and his dog, walked up the stairs and out of this story.
My mother nursed Butch for another fifteen minutes or so. The dog drank a little, then seemed to sleep. It was the best thing for him, she thought. She laid his head on the floor and carried the water bowl back into the kitchen.
But Butch was not asleep. He was faking, his eye fixed on the front door, watching for his chance.
It came mere minutes later. Little Sonny, although told a million times not to come in and out of the house through the front door, threw it open to come in for his millionth-and-first time.
Butch leaped up and bolted past him. The dog dashed down the walk, stopped, looked left up the hill, then right down the hill. Interviewed by the author many years later, Sonny described it as if, when Butch looked downhill, he exclaimed to himself, “Aha!” The dog bared his fangs and broke into a dead run.
Half a mile down the slope of Summit Avenue, Mirabili still stood at the trolley stop at the corner, waiting. The trolley was late coming. The little man’s quick descent of the hill had winded him. He felt an instant’s relief when he saw the trolley lumbering toward him at last. But then the hairs of his neck pricked up.
Something told him to look up Summit Avenue. He did and froze in open-mouthed panic. A flickering of black–and-tan bounded down the hill directly at him. “Diavolo!” he cried. He jumped up and down, waving his arms and his bag, urging the trolley on. But Butch had closed to within a quarter mile and was coming on strong.
Pedaling his bicycle up the hill from the store, Vinny saw Butch speeding toward him, jaws agape and salivating. He called to the dog, but Butch flashed past him. Vinny stopped the bike, looked behind him and sized up the situation. He whipped the bike around, spilling his groceries out of the handlebar basket, and took off after the dog, calling “Butch! Butch!” .
Meantime, Mirabili was yelling for the trolley to hurry. It was only fifty yards away, but it was slow. Butch was a hundred yards away, fast and getting faster. Mirabili dared not move from the trolley stop. The trolley wouldn’t pick him up away from the stop. Left on foot, the dog would overtake him. He pulled off his hat, jumped up and down, waved it in the air with one hand and waved his bag with the other.
Twenty-five yards away, the trolley driver waved back. The trolley came on no faster.
Butch, fifty yards away and accelerating, smelled Mirabili’s fear. He loosed a fearsome howl.
Vinny pedaled with all his might.
Now the trolley approached the far corner of Summit Avenue. Mirabili jumped again and again. He begged for it to cross the street. He prayed for it to cross.
At breakneck speed, Butch dove across the final cross street. He was on the same block and closing.
To Mirabili, the dog looked like a hell hound, all pumping legs and sharpened claws and wicked teeth.
The trolley rolled the last few excruciating feet to the stop. Mirabili, mad with fear, threw his hat and bag into the air. Only the width of two house lots separated him from Butch. He could feel the animal’s demon-hot breath. He jumped again in sheer terror.
The trolley’s air brakes sighed as it settled to a stop. Mirabili pounded on its doors but, unimpressed, they folded open leisurely. Mirabili forced himself at their narrow opening. Butch leaped for him.
The doors closed. The dog crashed into them with a sickening thud and bounced off. The trolley trundled off toward its next stop.
Stunned, Butch roused himself from the sidewalk. The trolley had gone. But the dog knew its roundabout route. He shook himself, dashed across the street and plunged across a vacant lot, a shortcut to the next stop.
Too late to grab Butch, Vinny pedaled across the street and bounced through the lot after him.
Moments later, a little black-and-tan dog with murder in his heart sat at a trolley stop, waiting. The trolley pulled up. Its doors opened, front and back. Butch charged into the front.
Growls! Screams! Shouts of “Mad dog!” Sounds of tearing fabric! All the passengers piled out of the trolley’s back door. Well, almost all.
Exhausted, Vinny dropped his bicycle on the sidewalk and scrambled aboard.
The police arrived, drew pistols, boarded the vehicle. Strips of dark cloth lay scattered around the car. Overhead, a short man, his pant-legs in shreds, had wedged himself between the trolley’s ceiling and the chromed, horizontal poles from which hung the hanging straps. Beneath him, a young boy struggled to hold a dog that leaped and leaped again, snapping at the man’s dangling, naked legs.
“Please,” the boy pleaded, “don’t shoot him. He’s my dog. He’s a good dog. Don’t shoot him. Please.”
They didn’t shoot Butch. But they did get a net and throw it over him. The animal officer carried him away. It took lawyers and a lot of fancy footwork and the purchase of more than a hundred tickets to the policeman’s ball, but my grandfather got Butch out of stir and back home.
Much as my grandfather loved Butch, he had to do something about the dog. Butch had become a nuisance and a damned expense. It wasn’t only Mirabili. There was Mrs. Brinegar’s fur coat – thank God it turned out to be rabbit – and the time Butch chased the cat through the butcher’s shop.
But my grandfather was nothing if not innovative. After considering the problem for some days, he had a brainstorm. He called his insurance agent. After some negotiation, he insured Butch for the princely sum of five thousand dollars. My grandfather boasted to his business friends that, the next time the dog got into mischief, he was covered.
Strangely, the policy had a wholly unexpected effect. It acted as the seal upon Butch’s career of mayhem. The dog seemed satisfied to have his achievements recognized by both the neighborhood and the world, as represented by the Commonwealth Life & Casualty Insurance Company. Once the policy went into effect, Butch settled down and led a more placid, gentlemanly life. He never so much as barked at a squirrel in anger again.
His complete change of temperament often tempted my grandfather to cancel the policy. But when the time came to write each month’s premium check, Butch, genius dog that he was, seemed to sense the thoughts of false economy going through his master’s mind. He would then stroll over to my grandfather’s desk, look up at him, wag his tail and come as close to grinning as could any animal lacking cheeks.
My grandfather recognized the look in his devil dog’s eyes. “You son of a bitch,” he’d mutter and, with a flourish, sign the check.
(c) 2016 by the Author. All rights reserved.