My grandmother, Nana, was afraid of dogs. One of her younger brothers had been bitten by a dog when she was a girl back in the old country. The poor little boy died in agony from lockjaw. She blamed the entire canine race.
My grandfather, Papa, loved dogs, all dogs. He’d owned a fabulous dog named “Lupo,” when he was a boy, tending his father’s flocks in the high pastures southeast of Palermo. Lupo would herd sheep in and out of the sheepfold, up or down the mountainside depending on the season, find strays, stand off wolves, tell animal or human friend from foe, and get Papa out of all the scrapes that youthful inexperience got him into. Till the end of his life, Papa’s view of dogs was tinted by the roseate afterglow of Lupo.
Dodging Nana’s objections and misgivings, Papa always contrived to own a dog. I’ve spoken of his most memorable canine, Butch, in another story. Here, I’ll focus on some lesser lights.
Going back before Butch takes us all the way to the first half of the 1930s, when my mother was a little girl, which I note only because, indulgent father that he was, Papa allowed my mother to name most of his dogs. “Brownie” was the first name she chose because the dog was, not surprisingly, brown. Of indeterminate bloodlines, Brownie had a snout like a German Shepherd, but was built smaller and lower to the ground.
Other than that, there isn’t much to say about Brownie, except for one odd thing: he frequented a certain cemetery. One afternoon, Brownie disappeared from the house and its environs. A search of the neighborhood by the distaff side of the household (Nana, my mother, and her elder sister) failed to discover the dog’s whereabouts.
The following morning, Papa (who worked nights) received a telephone call from the caretaker of a cemetery in the next town. Brownie had been found on the grounds upon opening, taking his leisure, and evincing no desire to leave.
This became a recurring phenomenon: Brownie would disappear overnight, Papa would get a morning call from the same cemetery, and then he would drive across town to retrieve his dog. The routine went on for months and years, but followed no precise schedule. It’s not as though it happened every Tuesday or Wednesday or on days when the moon was full. Some weeks, or even months, it didn’t happen at all. Then the dog would decide to visit the cemetery every night for a week.
The only behavior that changed significantly over time was Papa’s. At some point, he stopped waiting for the cemetery to call him. The morning following one of Brownie’s disappearances, he’d pick up the phone and call the cemetery himself.
Brains were wracked to determine the cause of Brownie’s excursions. But no link between the dog and the cemetery could be discerned. Brownie wasn’t visiting any particular grave and appeared indifferent to whichever particular caretaker happened to be on duty. Nobody on the cemetery staff was feeding him. The dog had never lived in the cemetery’s neighborhood and Papa was his only owner since his whelping.
Was it merely canine whim? We’ll never know. The mystery remained unsolved until Brownie met his untimely end, run over by a fruit truck one afternoon while on his way to the cemetery.
After Butch, and after I was born, came Butch II, also named by my mother, her creativity temporarily exhausted by my production. Butch II was the purebred wire-haired fox terrier successor to the part-Airedale mongrel original. Butch II was highly-strung and yappy. He completely lacked the air of calm menace radiated by his namesake. But Butch I had come with a mongrel’s price-tag, two-bits or so. Butch II cost Papa real purebred money, $100. In the 1950s, that warn’t hay, prompting my Uncle Joe to dub the dog, “C-Note.”
And “C-Note” was the name that stuck with the younger generation, his official moniker, “Butch II,” falling by the wayside. Papa didn’t want Nana to know how much money he’d spent for the dog. But every time she heard someone call the animal by his irreverent nickname, she would turn to Papa and ask, “Ma, Joe, chi e chistu ‘See-Notte’?” [“But, Joe, what is this ‘C-Note’?”]
For years, he avoided the question, changing the subject, commenting on some flattering detail of her appearance, predicting rain, saying anything he could think of to get her mind off C-Note. I don’t know if she ever found out about the small fortune squandered on the little wire-haired dog.
What’s more, I don’t remember what became of C-Note. I think he was given away. Strangely, while I have a fleeting memory of the original Butch as an ancient dog who could hardly walk, I have no independent recollection of C-Note at all. But, wherever the hundred dollar dog went, he was quickly succeeded by…
This dog, I remember well. I used him as the model for the fictional “Duke” in “The Molasses Man,” a story in my collection, Kid Stuff: The Reincarnation of Lou Gehrig and Other Stories. Duke was the Rocky Marciano of boxer dogs: stocky, broad-shouldered, and deep-chested beyond the breed’s standard, with a wide, black muzzle that constantly dripped drool. As a toddler, I regarded Duke as a beast of burden, climbing onto his back to hitch a ride whenever I could get away with it. He’d put up with my childish presumption for a minute or two; then, just as I was settling into the saddle, he’d sit suddenly and send me rolling down his back and over the stub of his clipped tail. He was patient with me, but there were limits.
Like the Brockton Bomber, Duke could take a lot of punishment, not merely in the form of my petty assaults upon his doggish dignity, but as much as Nana could dish out with both hands, and her hands could dish out a lot. Duke had a habit of annoying her – on purpose, I think – by stretching out and sleeping in front of her refrigerator, his thick body as wide as two sandbags and harder to move. There he lay, a broad reef blocking the sea lanes of her kitchen, posing a menace to navigation.
Nana’s typical counter was to poke him with her broom, then to jab him with her toe, then finally to lean over and yell at him. He’d ignore her at first, then roll over and grumble at her through his flapping muzzle, then rise up on his front legs and sway from side to side, barking in answer to each of her increasingly angry shouts. The big boxer would so upset her that, forgetting her fear of dogs, Nana would rear back and deliver a mighty slap to the side of his muzzle, sending a spray of boxer slobber across the room. But Duke’s skull was so thick and heavy, the blow would hardly move his head, and produced no more than a pause in his barking. Frustrated, Nana would pull back her other hand and deliver a hearty slap to the other side of his muzzle, spraying slobber in the opposite direction. Undaunted, Duke would bark his defiance, the cycle repeating until Papa at last walked in and led the dog away, leaving Nana in possession of her kitchen, free to mutter curses against Duke and soothe her sore hands in a bath of Palmolive Liquid.
Unlike the original Butch, who displayed flashes of canine genius with lighthouse regularity, Duke’s strengths tended toward the prosaic and the stolid. He was built to endure, not to amaze. But the one thing that could rouse him to fury was a spinning wheel, whose rotary motion he considered an affront to the order of the universe. He held it his brief to bring to a halt all spinning things: tops, yo-yos, hula hoops, frisbees, etc. He would bite them, seize them, wrestle them down, sit on them, stop them by whatever means necessary or convenient.
Especially, Duke took umbrage at the spinning wheels of automobiles, and he chased passing cars with reckless if futile abandon. Futile, that is, until one Saturday afternoon at Papa’s summer cottage on Cape Cod. I was sitting on the front stairs, under a giant, spreading oak tree, looking across our shaded front lawn at the sun-swept macadam road that ran past the cottage. Because I was an eyewitness to the following event, if you’ve ever asked yourself what happens should a dog actually catch a passing vehicle, I can tell you.
A hefty dump truck came lumbering down the road from the left, bouncing and banging along at no great speed. In a storm of barks, Duke bounded at full tilt from the side yard, cutting at a diagonal across the front. He tore through the grass and the pebbles that lined the roadway, catching up to the truck as it slowed then sped up through the intersection at the far corner of our lot. He sunk his teeth into the spinning rubber of the truck’s rear tire, enjoying – if only for the most fleeting moment – a sense of triumph. He then, before my horrified eyes, tumbled around two complete revolutions of the wheel and was hurled, still spinning, ten or fifteen feet into the air, landing with an awful thud on a neighbor’s lawn.
Papa and my Dad came running at my cries for help. Duke lay in a crumpled heap that oozed like thick syrup through the arms that tried to pick him up. The two men half-carried, half-dragged the broken dog to Papa’s big, green Chrysler and poured him into the back seat, then set out in search of a veterinarian open for business on a sunny, summer, Saturday afternoon.
Dad told me later that they stopped at every vet’s office along the road to Boston, a stretch of more than forty miles. No doors were opened or no one was home, until late in the day they came to a veterinarian in Braintree, who agreed to look at Duke for twice his normal fee, but only after he’d finished eating dinner. While they were waiting for the vet, Duke revived. He needed only a couple of stitches for cuts and a few bandages for bruises. No broken bones, not a single one to make the trip and its expense worthwhile.
Papa and Nana built a new house a few years later. While they were waiting for its construction to be completed, they sold their old house and moved in with one of my aunts. There was no room for Duke. So Papa made a gift of him to an old friend who owned a farm. There, Duke lived to a ripe, old age, bedeviling livestock as the spirit moved him. Last I heard, he had leaped unscathed through a plate glass picture window in pursuit of a passing rabbit. Possibly, it had been driving a dump truck.
One day, some years after Duke’s departure, Papa called me to his house. I walked into his kitchen. He was sitting at the table, wearing a knit cardigan sweater. He stood and told me to look in his pocket, turning so I couldn’t mistake which pocket he meant. Something squirmed beneath the folds of cloth. I looked inside.
I saw a little ball of gray fuzz sporting a black nose. Taking a hint from the twinkle in his eye, I reached in and lifted out a puppy tiny enough to fit in the palm of my hand. “Her name is ‘Mitzi,'” Papa said. Across the room, Nana huffed, as if another dog was the last thing they needed. But Mitzi, a miniature Schnauzer, turned out to be exactly what the doctor ordered.
Dogs raised with children tend to be rambunctious and gregarious. Mitzi was neither. Raised in the home of an elderly couple, she could be crotchety, territorial, averse to unexpected visitors, possessive, downright stingy. One didn’t sit in her chair, come too close to her bed, or fool with her toys. She would complain, even nip.
But she became the constant if jealous companion of Papa’s declining years, sticking to his side like the burrs that cling to your pants’ legs when you go striding through the bushes. She went everywhere with him, to the butcher’s, the baker’s, the candle-stick maker’s. She was nothing if not portable.
One fine day, Papa, Mitzi and I stopped by the baker’s to pick up a loaf of Italian bread. Something put the dog’s nose out of joint and she began pulling at her leash, making odd, impatient noises, in general being her ornery self. Papa expected both dogs and children to behave themselves in public. Standing at the counter, he gave the leash a yank and commanded, “Mitzi, stay still and stop making noise!” Beside him, a matronly woman wearing a blue coat and a blue hat adorned with an array of artificial flowers turned to him aghast. “Mitzi?!” she said in a scandalized tone. “My name is Mitzi.”
Up to that point in my life, Papa had always served as an example of the most impeccable manners, at least where women were concerned. But something about this particular woman struck him as funny. I saw his face. He started to say something polite in reply, but he couldn’t help himself. He burst out laughing. He laughed so hard, he had to hold himself up by the counter. The woman clenched her paper shopping bag of bread and stormed out of the bakery, setting the little bell over the door ringing for emphasis. Papa couldn’t stop laughing. He could hardly fumble the coins out of his pocket to pay the baker. He laughed all the way home.
I suppose age always brings a certain easing of discipline. Unlike the dogs of his younger days, Papa pampered Mitzi. He indulged her, feeding her whatever he ate. As a result, she would eat anything. Pasta, fruit, nuts, Nana’s favorite cherries soaked in brandy; I saw the dog eat a pickle once. It was tough going, but she got it down.
Then came the chocolates.
Nana was a serious chocoholic. So serious, she secreted chocolate-covered ice cream bars in her freezer, behind the spareribs, out of the knowledge of Papa and the reach of us grandchildren. Such subterfuges were necessary for Nana in the kitchen, where Papa’s generosity was boundless and anything edible was fair game. The dining room, however, was another matter entirely.
During normal, non-holiday times, the most severe imprecations secured the dining room and its contents from our grubby, grabby fingers. Within the room’s impenetrable confines, atop the massive, mahogany dining table, centered on the white lace filigree tablecloth, reposed its holiest of holies, one of Nana’s treasures: a beautiful, gleaming, Waterford cut-crystal candy dish. Within the sanctuary of the dish’s sparkling walls, Nana had deposited her most precious, imported Perugia chocolates, individually wrapped in silver and gold foil. If one of us summoned the temerity to ask for a Perugina, Nana brusquely shooed the miscreant onto the back porch and threw him a cellophane bag of Hershey’s Kisses. American sweets were good enough for us, but a Perugina? Never.
Imagine Nana’s consternation on her return to the house on that certain afternoon. Earlier, after lunch, Papa had announced his intention to take a nap. After he had settled down in the bedroom, Nana tip-toed out to visit her daughter next door. She was only gone a little over an hour. She unlocked the back door and re-entered the kitchen. The house was quiet. She knew, by that sixth sense wives acquire, that her husband was still asleep. Yet, by the operation of that same sense, she knew something was wrong, something was dreadfully amiss.
She could feel it. No, it wasn’t feminine intuition. She could really feel it, palpably feel it. It was underfoot. She was stepping on it, or them, little, rolled-up, chewed-up bits of foil paper all over the kitchen floor and into the dining room. She followed their trail. Someone had left one of the dining table’s chairs angled slightly away from the table’s edge. The lace tablecloth had been pulled off-kilter above its seat. And the Waterford candy dish was empty!
The quick, tell-tale clicking of miniature Schnauzer toenails sounded across the kitchen’s linoleum. Mitzi’s bed against the wall had been recently and abruptly abandoned. The jig was up. Nana traced the dog into the bedroom, woke Papa, and they found Mitzi under the bed, chocolate on her breath and whiskers, a shard of gold foil stuck between her teeth.
Evidently, the little gray opportunist had found that the angled chair had created a convenient route to the dining table’s top. She had climbed up to the candy dish, taken the foil-wrapped candies in her mouth, squeezed the chocolate out, then spit out the wrappers, an almost perfect crime, save for the trail of incriminating evidence left behind. Alas, a dog can’t think of everything.
Suffice it to say that this last escapade landed Mitzi in Nana’s doghouse. But not for long. She had endearing qualities she could count on to restore her to her mistress’s good graces. For one thing, she appreciated good music.
Papa and Nana enjoyed singing stornelli, old, two-part, Sicilian folk songs in which, usually, a pair of lovers alternate calling to each other in an affectionate, bantering dialogue. Their new house lent itself to the practice. It was a large, ranch-style home, with the main bathroom at the north end and the kitchen about fifty feet down a long central hallway at the south end. The bedrooms and a sitting room occupied the east side and the front foyer, formal living and dining rooms the west. These last three communicated, so you could walk the length of the house through them, step into the central hall and walk all the way back.
Many mornings, I stepped unheralded into the house through the kitchen door, to hear my grandmother singing her part as she stood at the stove and then my grandfather answering lyrically while shaving in the bathroom. These musical interludes excited Mitzi no end. The dog would rear up on her hind legs by the bathroom door and howl her head off. I don’t know if she was trying to participate or put a stop to the whole thing. But I do know that, on occasion, she became so excited that she dashed into the bathroom behind Papa, seized the loose end of the toilet paper roll in her mouth, and dashed the length of the hall, into the kitchen and back through the dining room, living room and foyer, unraveling the roll behind her and wrapping the entire house in toilet paper.
Mitzi outlived both Nana and Papa. Nana passed first, Papa three years later. One of my uncles, who owned her son, Fritzi, took Mitzi in. But the companionship of her offspring provided little tonic. Mitzi grew increasingly listless and unresponsive, solitary, hiding in corners and behind the furniture. Within months, her little, gray, sausage-shaped body was discovered lifeless under a bed. The vet attributed her demise to a heart attack.
Was it grief? Had my grandparents’ deaths deprived Mitzi of the will to live? I suppose the grander question is “Do dogs love us?” Do they regard us as something more than a source of food and shelter? Want the science? Try this report by science YouTuber Anton Petrov or this TED talk by Dr. Gregory Berns.
But I don’t need no stinking science. All I need to know is what I’ve seen and heard. One bit of science I’ve heard from PBS is that dogs are the only animals that will actually follow a human’s eyes. I didn’t need PBS to tell me so, but it’s good that they noticed. I know that when I look into a dog’s eyes, there’s somebody looking back.
I refuse to become overly sentimental about it. It’s an animal somebody, not a human. Dogs aren’t human, they’re not close to human, and they don’t have immortal souls. There’s a gulf between us, but there’s a legend about that.
When Adam and Eve sinned, they broke away from their Creator and ruptured the unity of His creation. A rift opened up in the soil of Eden, severing man from the rest of living creatures. As the rift widened, the only animal upset was the dog, who ran back and forth along the edge, whining and yelping. Adam saw the dog’s distress and, before the rift had grown too wide, commanded, “Come!” Obedient, the dog leaped, and struck the edge by Adam’s feet. Adam lifted the dog up. Ever since, the dog has stood by the side of man.
Loyalty should be rewarded. Like I said, I don’t believe our canine friends have immortal souls. But what was made once can be made again. After the end of all things, there’s supposed to be a new heaven and a new earth. That new earth will need to be filled. If I’m there to see it, I’m going to ask for my dogs back.
© Joe Eliseon 2020. All rights reserved.
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