Every writer should have an animal story or two in their repertoire. In fact, more than a few authors of every genre – horror, fantasy, espionage, whodunits, even vicious bloody epics full of pillage and carnage – wrote tender, heart-tugging accounts of important cats or dogs in their childhood. I never devoted an entire book to Bo, my boyhood canine companion, but he did pop up a few times in the memoir about my family and hometown that was my first book.
Bo was friendly and cheerful, a pair of adjectives not at all applicable to the protagonist in today’s story.
Once upon a time on a warmish spring late afternoon I sat comfortably on my covered patio, happy to have the crisp new issue of the Atlantic Monthly magazine that I’d just collected from the mailbox, and settling in for what promised to be a fine respite. In not very many minutes, I nodded off.
What woke me up was what sounded like a water buffalo sloshing through a stream. We had an old, arthritic cat back then who wandered up occasionally to take a few quiet sips of water from a metal bowl. But I knew immediately that the sounds behind me – of the bowl being scraped on the concrete and frantic grunting and splashing – couldn’t be the product of an elderly cat that hadn’t made much in the way of an audible sound in years.
So I turned around and got my first glimpse of the dog that had stopped in to have a drink – an average sized brown fellow of mixed peerage, what we used to call a Heinz 57 – and he got his first look at me.
What he did, in fact, was lock me into a cold stare and bark. My first impulse was to say a soothing word or two and inspect his tag to see who he belonged to. But that mean stare and bark didn’t set well, so I swooshed my magazine at him and said “Shoo!”
His initial reaction was to do nothing. Then he leaned down, his eyes never once leaving mine, and lifted up the bowl with his mouth. By the time I was half way out of my chair he was loping across my back yard like a small horse, rocking the bowl up and down like a trophy.
When I’d chased him around for a while, he dropped the bowl and shot back over to the patio, scooped up my magazine in his mouth, and darted off. I was a sweaty mess by then, but still in hot pursuit. He managed to decimate that magazine completely in the few seconds it took him to move the battle from the back yard to the front. Then, whenever I’d get close to him, he would shake the slobbery remains of my Atlantic Monthly at me and run a little further on.
Then he saw that old cat. He dropped what was left of the magazine and made a beeline for her right past me. She barely made it up a tree next to our driveway.
When my wife finally got to the window to see what all the commotion was, the dog and I were making little charges at each other, him barking and me shouting words I shouldn’t have used. She called the police and, in a few minutes, a patrolman arrived.
One look at the police car sent the dog off down the street, confirming my suspicion that he had a criminal record; he’d struck me as a shady character from the start. The policeman drove off in his direction and, not too long afterwards, pulled back up in front of my house, rolling his window down when I walked over. He pointed toward the back seat. “Is that the culprit?” he asked.
And there, sitting ramrod straight in the exact middle of the seat was Mr. Snippy himself. I know full well dogs aren’t supposed to be capable of smiling; but I swear that one was. And it was one of those smirky grins that broadcasts just who got the best of a situation. He was so smug and obviously satisfied that I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d been smoking a cigarette.
So the dog was taken off to the clink, where his owner was called and made to shell out some cash to spring him. Our old cat stayed up in that tree for the rest of the day, either because of fear or just not wanting to go through the pain of climbing back down. I took a shower and changed clothes, threw away my magazine, and mixed a martini.
After that experience, whenever I’d take my walks in the neighborhood, that dog would watch me through the chain-link fence in his yard. Sometimes he’d bark, but usually he’d just sit and send out a squinty, uninterested glare as confirmation that I wasn’t really worth the effort.
I suspect that everyone will agree that human beings can be, on occasion, absolutely dripping with attitude and smugness. But I ask you, can animals?
I ask you. But I already know the answer.
[Some of this was a Sunday morning newspaper column , probably in the dog days of some long-ago summer]