Stay Keeper's Story

Page 7

He was carrying a dripping wet photograph; while I watched, he took it over near the window and examined it in the bright light there. He whistled. Startled by the sound, I jumped a bit from the folded blanket in the corner that had been designated my space. Ordinarily when a human whistles, it means that a dog is being summoned.

But this wasn't a shrill, dog-calling sound. It was a low, extended whistle of admiration. Self-admiration, actually, since he was whistling at one of his own photographs.

I could forgive him a little self-congratulation, since I am prone to it myself. I understand the feeling of ecstasy and pride when one has accomplished something. For me it is most often a particularly fine pose, perhaps on a windy day when my fur ripples and my glorious tail is extended with its ornamental fringe parted in waves and I know that I am a magnificent sight. If I could whistle then, I would. But a dog's mouth is not configured for whistles, and so most often I simply emit a low groan of pleasure, unintelligible to humans.

"Look!" he said excitedly, and knelt beside me with the wet photograph in his hands. On his part, it was simply a gesture, since he did not truly expect me to look, or to admire his work. Humans believe (wrongly) that a dog's thoughts extend no further than the basic needs of food, shelter, and reproduction.

If they only knew what complex creatures we really are, and how deeply aesthetic our tastes!

But I was touched by his gesture, and in fact, when he thought I was simply nuzzling his hand in search of tidbits, I was actually studying the photograph very carefully.

It was one that he had taken on the day of our meeting, only three days before. I stood beside the boy, who was grinning in that supercilious way, with his hands in his pockets, displaying his baggy trousers, enormous sneakers, and macaroon-like cap, pretending that he was in love with his clothes.

My look was one of disdain. Disdain for the boy, for his clothes, for his smile, for the entire surrounding world. My lip was ever so slightly curled, my eyes half closed in boredom, my ears limp with ennui.

It was, I have to admit, a marvelously sophisticated look, one that said attitude. I admired it. I admired myself for creating it. Unconsciously, sitting there on my frayed blanket, the photo in front of me, I created it again on the spot, lowering my eyelids, raising my lip a micromillimeter, turning my neck an infinitesimal bit to the left.

The photographer leapt to his feet and shouted in exhilaration. Once, at the back door of Toujours Cuisine, I heard a cry of that sort. A Grand Marnier soufflé had just emerged from the oven, and the chef, overwhelmed by its height and fragrance, had cried out in the same way.

"Pal!" the photographer shouted, almost delirious with pleasure. "You did it again! Can you do it on command?" he asked.

Of course I could. I could do it whenever I wished. But command? Pardonez-moi? A self-respecting dog does not do things on command. On request, perhaps.

"What shall I call it? What command can I give?" He was talking to himself but watching me.

"I know, I know!" He knelt in front of me, looked me firmly in the eye, and said in a deep, commanding voice, "Sneer."

I yawned, turned around in a carefully thought-out circle, lay down on my blanket, and placed my head, my face impassive, on my crossed front paws. The photographer's face fell.

He sighed and stroked me behind my ear.

Finally he murmured, "Pal? Please. For me? Sneer."

That was more like it. A humble request carries a lot more weight than a shouted command, at least with me.

I raised my head, looked at the photographer, and sneered.

In his joy, he actually turned a somersault. It was an embarrassing display, and I am glad we were the only two beings in the room. I chuckled to myself, aware of how little training it takes to make a human perform tricks of surprising idiocy.

He hugged me. He ran to the refrigerator, brought out a cold frankfurter, dangled it before my nose, and said, "Sneer."

Again I yawned. Bribery? Mon dieu.

Abashed but learning, he returned the bribe to the refrigerator, stood in front of me, and asked politely once again. "Pal? Please? Sneer?"

So I sneered for him one more time; he flew into one more paroxysm of joy; and finally I licked his hand, acknowledging that we were partners and friends.

Thus my career began.

Stay!: Keeper's Story

Stay!: Keeper's Story

Chapter 8

THE PHOTOGRAPH OF ME AND THE BOY in the collapsed muffin hat appeared publicly the next week, in a Sunday supplement called "Fashions of the Times." Both of us, the photographer and I, admired it extensively. He left the publication on the coffee table, open to that page, just in case any neighbors dropped by.

Late that morning I was lying on the floor, eating some leftover lasagna while the photographer, wearing his fuzzy bathrobe, worked on the crossword puzzle and sipped coffee. The telephone rang.

"Yes," I heard him say, "he's my own dog. What breed?" He glanced over at me.

I tossed my head and yawned. What breed. As if it made the slightest difference. It is a shallow human indeed who actually believes that the flowing, silky hair and disdainful face of an Afghan make it a more aristocratic dog than, say, a tricolored shepherd fathered in the Outback by a roaming herding dog with a few minutes to dally. The distinction of a dog lies entirely in its innate character and intelligence, coupled with the early training of a diligent mother. I would match my wits and virtue against a best-of-show anytime. And my tail, too.

Fortunately the photographer appeared to share my view. He winked at me, an odd human habit that I have learned to appreciate but have never truly understood. Then he shrugged, and said into the receiver, "Mixed. He's a unique mix."

Unique. A pleasant word. In my mind, I coupled it with others like physique and sleek.

A second caller asked my name and age. "Pal," the photographer replied. "His name is Pal. And he's, ah, young." He looked at me and raised an eyebrow. I raised an eyebrow back. I had no idea how old I was. Almost two, perhaps? Dogs' ages are measured strangely, anyway. I think I was sort of a teenager. But young sounded acceptable to me.

Some of the calls were inquiring about my fee.

Fee? Dogs are not accustomed to being paid. Watchdogs generally do it for nothing more than the satisfaction of guarding turf, or for the sheer arrogant gratification that comes from terrorizing humans. Although I felt no territorial urge and had no wish to frighten anyone, I had been a sort of watchdog in the nights with Jack. I had been a protector, and would be so again for anyone I loved. But I would ask no pay for simply following the instincts of my heart.

Guide dogs are not paid. Their motives are completely benevolent, and they find joy in shepherding their humans across busy streets, avoiding honking traffic. I had taken great pride in guiding Jack during those last weeks, when his frailty had made him needy. There is no fee for such devotion.

Hunting dogs ask no compensation for pointing to a grouse concealed in foliage. The admiration they receive for the nobility and precision of their pose is compensation enough.

And simple house pets find their complete reward in simply lying at someone's feet, being scratched, ruffled, and fed, chasing a ball from time to time and looking adoringly at a human. Money can't replace that kind of contentment.

I viewed myself as something of a combination of the various categories. Though never trained as a watchdog, I had guarded Jack's turf with authority, I felt; and though untrained as a guide, I had steered and directed him in his last weeks with patience and gentleness. I had little interest in hunting as a sport or game as a meal, but I could say of myself that I was adroit at the pose, and that my glorious tail would, if called upon, lend itself to the kind of vigilant stance that looks fine on a fall morning in the woods. Certainly, more than anything, I enjoyed being a pet.

But not for pay.

Curious, I listened to the photographer say that my fee was high. "Pricey," he said to the callers who were inquiring. "I'm afraid he's a pricey model."

That seemed to pique their interest, and they asked about my availability.

"Next Thursday?" I heard him say. "Well, I'll check my calendar..."

I woofed politely from my blanket and licked a bit of tomato sauce from my Up.

"I mean, his calendar," the photographer amended. "He's very much in demand."

Of course I wasn't, not then. I had posed once, sneered once, appeared in a newspaper supplement once, and that was all.

But before long I was in demand. Everyone who called wanted to book me for what they referred to as a "shoot."

I didn't like the sound of it. But the photographer, sensing my discomfort, stroked me behind my left ear and explained that it had nothing to do with firearms; it was a photo shoot.

"All you have to do is stand there and sneer," he explained, "and I'll get rich."

I raised my eyebrow at him.

"We," he corrected. "We'll get rich. Famous, too," he added cheerfully.

He closed up the newspaper, leaving the crossword puzzle undone, rinsed his coffee cup, and looked thoughtfully at me.

"Know what, Pal?" he said. "I'm going to have to give you a bath."

There are, I suppose, various and unique ways to ruin a Sunday afternoon. But this proved to be the worst. Never in my entire existence had I had a bath. My mother, when I was a pup, licked me clean often enough, sometimes quite roughly. Once I had played in a mud puddle near our alley home, and although I shook myself ferociously afterward, sending dirty water flying everywhere, my mother had nonetheless cleaned me endlessly, scolding all the while and warning my brothers and sister about the obvious damage a puddle could do to one's appearance.

Then I had lived for a long time with Jack. Jack and I did not take baths. The river, our only water source, was coated with yellow foam and did not lend itself to missions of personal hygiene. And it was a kind of badge of honor, I think, for Jack and me, that even encrusted with grime as we were, we maintained our dignity at all times.

Jack had confided once, chuckling, that one damp morning he had found a mushroom growing out of his shoe, at the place where the sole separated from the upper leather and had mildewed.

I was sorry that our language barrier prevented me from describing the mushroom to the photographer that morning. Fond as he was of Italian sauces on his pastas, I thought perhaps the possibility of homegrown mushrooms might have steered him away from his determined course toward a bath.

When I heard him filling the bathtub, I tiptoed silently into the bedroom and flattened my body until I was able, though uncomfortably, to slither under the bed.

"Pal?" I heard him calling. But I stayed silent and hidden.

"Pal?" He called again, and he was using a kind of falsely sweet tone, a pseudo-friendly voice. I disregarded it. O silently, stealthily, safe in my lair!

If only—

As happens so often, I had not completed my couplet because I was searching for the perfect concluding rhyme. I was toying with the word debonair, or perhaps even the wonderful phrase devil-may-care, and how it could apply. But my usual problem—lack of awareness of my tail's whereabouts—betrayed me.

"Gotcha!" the photographer exclaimed. He grabbed the tip of my tail where it extended from the underside of the bed. From there it was just a brief and painful moment of tugging, and I was caught.

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