I have completed a memoir which consists of a collection of true short stories. Each story relates some aspect of a my youth as I worked my way through some trying circumstances. I write about people, situations and, yes, some of the dogs (there were many, most of which come to our house from the highway, abandoned by people who no longer wanted them. I took them all in, fed them, loved them, they became my friends. Unfortunately, most were lost to the same highway that brought them my way in the first place). The following is one of those stories. I hope you will enjoy reading Matches Made in Heaven.
Violet Downey handed me the pipsqueak of a dog with a smile that said, “Here, take this, we don’t want it.”
I grasped the critter around the body and held it up eye-level for inspection. I could not guess at the little dog’s lineage. He was mostly white with a dark streak on each flank; his hair was short but curly; his head seemed to protrude from the mass of locks with a fair amount of hair sticking to his ears and spiking from his nose. He peered at me nervously with big brown eyes. I received a welcoming “kiss” as I brought him to my shoulder for a hug.
“Where’d you git ’im?” I asked.
“He’s been hanging around town for a week or so. Mommy thinks someone dumped him off, and he found his way to town. The gas station man said some travelers lost their dog when he jumped out of their car, a week or so ago. They looked but didn’t find it. He thinks maybe this is that dog.”
“Gee, thanks. I take him home.”
I named the antsy little creature Jack and he rode around on the mule with me for the rest of the afternoon. When I should have called it a day and ridden home, I stopped in the barbershop on the way by. The shop was filled with the usual crowd, sitting around shooting the breeze and sipping moonshine. When I walked in, the men, mostly elderly friends concerned for my moral upbringing, hid the quart jars from sight. They’d take a cautious sip now and then but none of them thought it right to slug down moonshine in my presence. They all had the usual questions about where Jack came from and what kind of dog was that, anyway?
“I wonder,” opined Reg Keetering, “if that thur ain’t the same St. Bernard dog that got lost from the Swissarian Alps and wandered down this way, years ago.”
“St. Bernard’s are huge; this’un here’s a peanut,” said one of the men.
“Yessir, that’s true. As most of y’all know St. Bernard’s are big hairy dogs that patrol the Swissarian Alps with a small keg of brandy strapped to their necks, the idee being to rescue folks trapped in the snow and ice. The St. Bernard shows up, the trapped folks drink the brandy then foller the dog home, if they can,” Mr. Keetering explained, “a tried and true system, it is said.”
“Yeah, okay, so what’s that got to do with Jack? He’s too short in the legs to carry around a keg of brandy,” Ed Briscoe asked.
“Years ago,” began Mr. Keetering, at which time all the men settled into their seats to hear the old yarn spinner relate another whopper. “Thur was a miner up in the hills, named Casper Crooks. Winters up that high, and Casper lived way up yonder near the snowcapped peaks, were harsh and nary a cold season passed that at least one claim holder didn’t get buried in a hidden snow-filled ravine or caught in an avylanche. Casper hisself lost a couple of his friends that way, so he kept an eye out fer some way to rescue such unfortunates.
“Casper heard of them St. Bernard dogs, word was he seen ’em in a Sears and Roebuck catylog, and figured if he ever got snowed in anywhurs, and if he had a druther, he’d druther be rescued by a dog carrying a load of brandy than just about anything else he could think of. Try as he might he couldn’t breed any such canine from the local stock, so he sent off mail order to Switzerland and had ’em send over a dozen o’ the big, hairy critters, kegs attached, acourse.
“Well fate stepped in and ole Casper never got to see if the St. Bernard dogs ever rescued anybody. He died in an avylanche afore they arrived, or so it was said. Another rumor had that he got all-fired mad ’cuz the Swiss fellers that sent the dogs didn’t put any brandy in the kegs, and he raged right into a heart attack. Either way, there was now a dozen big dogs roamin’ the hills with no brandy to offer folks stuck in the snow.
“The dogs didn’t understand what hand fate had dealt them. They was lost in a strange and foreign land. They wandered off in all directions, looking for something to do and something to eat. Many of them wandered into the lower hills. The warmer weather caused them to shed hair and, since it wasn’t necessary to lug around a keg of brandy, they became smaller and smaller as the years went by. Along the way, nature kicked in with a few mewtations which caused the once big, hairy dogs to morph into other, different looking critters that were good at different kinds of jobs, Mother Nature’s way of saying dogs need to be good at sumpthin’. Some began to look like coyotes, some became sheep dogs, even beagle dogs and Irish setters and collies all have been showed as descendents of the St. Bernard. Yessir, and that’s the truth,” said Reg Keetering, leaning forward to remove his handkerchief from a back pocket. Removing his straw hat, he wiped the sweat from his head, replaced the hat, blew his nose and replaced the handkerchief. We all recognized this as a signal that Mr. Keetering had more story to tell. He just didn’t know what it was he wanted to say yet.
“Now, wait a minute,” I said, “You’re saying that dogs as small as Jack came from great big ole St. Bernards? Those must’ve been humdingers of mewtations.”
“Indeed they were,” said Reg Keetering, the spark returning to eyes, for there was now more story to tell. “Y’all probably know them new folks over on Cone Street have one of them Mexican Chihuahua dogs. Nobody around here ever saw one afore, so I looked into the sityation, and what I found was unbelievable.
“Apparently, from what I was able to determine, there was a number of them St. Bernard dogs, once they left the mountains, that wandered down into Mexico. The heat down thur was fierce and the big, shaggy anymals mewtated right down to the size of that thur critter over on Cone Street. I understand the Mexicans were hoping the mewtations would stop afore they went too far. They was wishin’ fer sumpthin’ big enough so’s they could tuck a tequila bottle under thur chins. That thur’s why them Mexican fellers taken up raisin’ burros. Y’all can git a nice size keg o’ tequila under a burro’s chin. And that’s the truth. Yessir, and you can sure ‘nuf look that up in the lib’ary.”
The men in the barbershop laughed, all offering congratulatory remarks to Mr. Keetering and his ability to concoct a whopper on short notice. Mr. Keetering, for his part, picked up his newspaper and resumed reading as though his accomplishment was nothing of note.
It was time I got home, so I picked up Jack and went out to mount my mule. She was, as usual, eager to return to her mate Pete and she trotted full steam ahead down the foothills road. There was little for me to do but ride and it gave me time to get to know my new friend a little better. He was quite active but seemed taken aback by being carried by this huge creature with the big ears and huddled into my armpit for the ride to the house.
I had, a few days before, acquired another dog, an elderly golden retriever I called Charlie. He was walking along the highway, tongue lolling, head hanging when I debarked the school bus and escaped the continual badgering of Curtis the Prick. Charlie walked slowly and as I watched I picked up a discernible limp; Charlie was not walking well, nor did he walk very far before more-or-less falling to the side of the road. It seemed as though his back legs gave way. As I approached I noted the clouded eyes and the graying of the whiskers and the hair around his mouth and nose. The old dog greeted me in a manner customary for the breed: a friendly look from kindly eyes and a face open in a gentle way, tail beating a rhythmic pattern on the grass; he welcomed the petting I gave him as though used to the attention. For the umpteenth time I asked myself what kind of human would dump such a nice animal alongside a strange road, knowing he was not well, hardly able to defend himself, if need be. There was no doubt Charlie came from a family of humans, and I'd bet he'd been a great pet, as the retrievers always were.
Charlie’s friendly, eager look plainly asked that I not leave him there. I coaxed him to stand, which was difficult and appeared painful. I lulled him into lying down again, done with the reluctance of an animal just abandoned. He whined when I left to retrieve by wagon and was overly gleeful for my return. Charlie endured the loading process without protest; I hoped I wasn’t hurting him but there were no complaints. The ride over the rough stones of the driveway brought a worried rumple across his brow but no verbal dissatisfaction. I pulled him around to the backyard and helped him from the wagon. He lay in the weeds beneath the maple tree and for all the world seemed to be waiting to be waited on. I complied with a bowl of bits carried from the mud room.
As might be expected, Charlie was not an active creature. I had read where a condition called hip displasia was common in some breeds of dogs, retrievers among them, and wondered if this might be the problem with Charlie. He would get up every once in a while for a short walk but soon returned to his spot under the tree, located outside my bedroom window.
I called Dr, Gray, the veterinarian, to ask about my new friend. He stopped by a day or so later and verified my diagnosis, at the same time saying there was little that could be done, other than do our best to relieve Charlie’s pain. He gave me a handful of white pills, instructing that Charlie be given two a day. I could increase the dose when he seemed unable to get comfortable.
Now, as I rode along the foothills holding Jack, I wondered how Charlie would react to sharing his space with another dog. As it turned out I doubt Charlie had time to think about it.
As soon as I introduced the two and preliminary sniffing was out of the way, Jack jumped on Charlie. No malice was intended; Jack wanted to wrestle. Charlie wasn’t into this nuisance whose joy it was to bound upon him unmercifully and chew his ears, Jack seldom giving the kindly Charlie a moment’s respite. There were times when it seemed to me, when Charlie looked my way, I could see a pleading in his eyes that said to “please get this pest out of here.” No doubt he was much relieved when Jack and I went fishing on the weekends or rode Jenny into town.
It came as something of a surprise when Mrs. H took a liking to Charlie. She seldom paid attention to any of the animals that came our way except to voice an occasional complaint about having to buy large bags of dog food. My surprise doubled when I came home from school one cold rainy day to find Charlie lounging on a blanket in front of the fireplace. Seldom were dogs allowed in the house, and to see him there was indeed a surprise. However, if he thought his admittance into the house was cause to celebrate a separation from the eternal nuisance named Jack, he was sadly mistaken. Jack was, at this time, draped across Charlie’s neck taking a nap.
I smiled at Mrs. H when she entered the living room from the kitchen, by way of saying thank you.
“I couldn’t bear to leave him out in the cold rain,” she said of Charlie, “and after I managed to walk him into the house, the little one sat outside the door and whined, until I let him in, too.”
“Yeah, they are inseparable, all right. Sometimes when Jack and I are fishing or just walking around, he’ll suddenly run off toward the house. I find him with Charlie when I get back.”
Charlie became more and more uncomfortable as time passed. He was housebroken, but on a couple of occasions he let go on the blanket. Mrs. H asked Dr. Gray to come see him one day when I was at school. The news wasn’t good. In addition to the displasia Charlie had a cancer inside, and Dr, Gray said he was dying, to not expect him to live much longer. I was upset by the news. Jack, however, was undeterred from his constant assaults on poor Charlie paws and ears. Neither of them would tolerate separation—Jack would whine all day if put outside and Charlie constantly tried to stand as if going to open the door for him. So we let them go at it. Although, as the days passed, it was obvious Charlie might prefer a more restful place to spend his last days. There came a time when Jack became content to curl up beside the older dog and simply sleep; the little dynamo may have sensed that his good friend’s tendency to sleep most of the day wasn’t a good sign.
I came home from school one day around Christmas time to find that Charlie had died sometime during the day. I sat with Jack in my lap and had a cry—I loved that old dog. After a while, Mrs. H asked that I remove him from her living room. I carried him into the mud room outside the kitchen door then went to dig a grave out by the back fence, the usual burial ground for dogs. Not many were buried there, because some were killed on the highway some distance from the house and were buried elsewhere, others simply disappeared to never be seen again.
After Charlie’s death Jack was devastated. The little dog lay around as if in a stupor. He wouldn’t eat, only occasionally sniffing his chow bowl but taking no other interest. He would not permit his removal from the spot where Charlie spent his days in front of the fireplace. Jack lay with his eyes open and recalled better days.
Time passed and there was no change in Jack. He continued his refusal to eat and ignored requests to go for a ride or a walk. He began to lose weight and before a month passed became little more than a skeleton in loose wrapping. The little creature slowly lost strength and before long found difficulty getting his feet under him.
A call to Dr. Gray revealed Jack’s lethargy very likely resulted from depression due to the loss of his companion. In most cases, he said, the suffering dogs recover and get on with their lives. Jack showed no indication of recovering.
Dr. Gray called one afternoon to ask if I would mind caring for another dog. He found a female bulldog on the highway north of the village, hobbling along with a broken leg. He’d set the leg and housed the dog overnight in his small kennel. He said she was an amiable creature and might make a therapeutic pal for the ailing Jack. I said “Sure, bring her out.” An hour later the vet delivered another friend.
She was such a sweet dog, so easy to approach, as she watched me walk toward her, as she stood in the driveway. She was thick and broad across the body and the whole works shook with apprehension at meeting an unknown human creature. I had always thought of bulldogs as ill-tempered and surly, but there was none of that in Isabelle. She allowed a petting and a scratch behind the ears will due grace; seeming to understand that this was her new home, she gimped toward the front of the house. Dr. Gray said he would return after six weeks to remove the cast but to call if any symptoms of pain developed.
Izzy spotted Jack upon first entering the living room. Jack paid her no mind; as far as he was concerned the big, bulky white animal that walked over and gave him a thorough sniffing did not exist. He continued to recline, and pine for Charlie.
Nor did the situation change for several days. During the winter I did my reading at the far end of the living room, in a huge overstuffed chair near a window. Izzy curled up beside the chair and napped, no longer interested in the dejected Jack.
A week passed before I noticed Jack watching Izzy. There had evolved an interest in her, nothing excessive or gushing, but she had become interesting to him. One evening the little fellow rose on shaking, spindly legs and tottered to his food dish and, after nosing the contents carefully, ate some of the bits, following his repast with a drink of water. Jack returned to his original position and stared at Izzy.
Similar behavior continued for a few days, then one evening Jack arose and walked toward Izzy dozing at my feet. The progress was slow, his legs still weak and shaky, but he seemed determined to visit Izzy, who, for her part, lay and watched. Jack stopped a few feet from Izzy’s nose and sniffed from afar. Receiving mute acceptance from the larger animal, Jack walked over and collapsed next to Izzy’s head. Next day the fun began—fun for Jack anyway. He began by pawing at her, then a few feeble jumps. Izzy tolerated the mild abuse with easy good humor. Her good nature became the elixir of Jack’s recovery and, before long, he was back to being Jack: a cute little pain in the butt.
The two of them, the miniature tease with the wild, crazy hair shooting from ears and nose and the massively muscled bulldog with the gentle eyes and loving nature, became inseparable friends. One never saw one without the other and, after several months, I would come to wonder why it was they left us in such different ways.
Jack disappeared for a few days; I looked in all the usual places—mostly along the highway—and couldn’t find him anywhere. One Saturday afternoon Izzy and I were walking along the lane the followed the slough, when she suddenly darted into the weeds. A moment passed before I heard a soulful moan come from her; she reappeared, looking at me with come-hither eyes. She had found Jack; the little dog was dead, likely killed by a coyote, and partially eaten. I buried his remains.
I called Izzy to leave and return to the house, but she refused to budge. Deeply saddened by the death of her pal, she took up a station next to the grave and stared into the nearby hills. I sat and talked to her, but she was immersed in grief. I sat until it became very cold before walking to the house. Izzy did not follow. She appeared in the mud room the next morning. I let her in and she immediately walked to the place in front of the fireplace where Jack used to lie, and dropped down. It would be her new bed.
Two weeks passed. Izzy moped around, always seeming to be on the prowl looking for him. She was restless and seemed possessed by the thought that if she looked hard enough and long enough, she would find him hiding somewhere. It would be just like Jack to do such a thing, the little pest that he was.
Izzy began to spend more time outside. In time, she preferred to sleep out front under the umbrella tree. She could be seen, at any time, sniffing around the alfalfa patch that was the lawn. She often refused to come when called. Was this the bulldog version of depression, I wondered?
The school bus passed the house on its way to the McGregor’s farm, next door, and turned around. My stop was first on the return trip. . Curtis the Prick, mindful of my departure, was yammering, trying to irk me and became evermore aggravated at my ignoring him. A kid sitting by the window on the passenger side of the bus, said, “Uh-oh, Freddie, come look.”
Izzy was lying motionless by the side of the road. She was the second of my dogs to die on the highway in front of the house. I bounded down the steps to the ground and ran to her, but she was dead. She lay limp and peaceful. Indeed, she seemed almost happy, a trace of what might have been a smile on her lips. I felt silly thinking Jack may have come back to greet her as life slipped away and she was happy to see him. A true match, made on Earth and continued in heaven.