My father courted my mother with puppies. The first was a mixed breed called Pot, who was summarily run over. The second was a black cocker spaniel named Ughy. Ughy arrived on the scene four years before I was born, at a time when Mom and Dad were both married to other people, but clearly gearing up to bolt – you don’t give just anybody a puppy, not in my family. And Dad gave Mom two.
My mother’s childhood dog was Poochie, a terrier who spent his dogs days asleep in the sunny middle of the street in front of their house in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Unlike Pot, Poochie died in the fullness of time and of natural causes — for the dozen or so years he was on this Earth cars just edged around him. If this seems extraordinary, consider this: my grandmother never learned how to back up a car. She didn’t need to. She only went two places — her beauty salon and the grocery store — and both her hairdresser and the boy who bagged her groceries were more than happy to turn the car around for her so that she could drive herself back home. That’s the kind of town Stillwater, Oklahoma was — women could drive cars in one direction and dogs could sleep undisturbed in the middle of its streets. Of course, if you were a black man and dusk was approaching, you would have been wise not to count on the same degree of insouciance. We’re talking Oklahoma here and some things don’t change.
People assign names to dogs; their dog names emerge with time. Thus Bill’s Fancy became Mary Frances; Luv (allegedly Danish for Lion) became Lovey; Tennessee’s Waltz became Tenney, which also happened to be the name of the circle we lived on. Ughy’s given name was, improbably, Lord Ogilthorpe, thence Oggie, thence Ughy, a.k.a, Boodle Dog. My Grandfather Zant always called him, “Black Dog.” “Hi, Black Dog,” he would say. “Come here, Black Dog.” Ughy adored Grandaddy, perhaps because Grandaddy recognized his true essence. He was, after all, a black dog.
My mother told the story of how Ughy would drop his toys into my bassinet. She maintained that this indicated a desire on his part to share his toys with me. I think it’s more likely that he was actually trying to take me out from the air. Then again, he used to bring Mom mice that he had killed and how can that be interpreted other than as an act of largesse? In his seventeen years, Ughy only bit me once and that was because I stuck my face in his food dish. I would do the same to anybody who stuck their face in my food dish. Consider that fair warning.
Growing up, I was convinced that Ughy could talk; I figured he was just holding out. On weekends, my father would take me and Ughy along on various errands and, while he was in the Hostess Outlet Store or at the roadside corn stand, I would edge closer to Ughy and whisper in his silky ear, “It’s all right. He’s gone. You can talk now.” That’s when parents left kids in the car and no one thought a thing of it.
Ughy had two tricks. He could sit up on his hind legs for hours while wearing one of my Dad’s white t-shirts, and he would happily circulate amongst party guests, gag teeth clamped between his jaws, for so long as people applauded. He taught himself those tricks in his spare time, which was copious.
Ughy buried bones in the carpet. He would dig and dig and dig, creating no hole whatsoever, then deposit the bone in the no hole he had dug. There it would remain until someone glanced over at it, at which point he would promptly dig it up from the no hole and bury it in plain sight somewhere else. Once a kid on our block dared to call Ughy fat and I beat him up. He was the only person I have ever beaten up and I never felt a shred of guilt about it. Call my dog fat: you’ve crossed a red line.
Ughy was my first dog – the original dog; the archetypal dog; the Ur dog.The worst thing I could imagine, apart from the death of my mother or father, was Ughy’s demise. I would lie in bed at night and try and imagine what a world without Ughy would be like. But then I’d have to stop myself; his loss was too painful even to contemplate.
The last year of his long life, blinded by milky cataracts and wracked by cancer, Ughy was falling apart the way old dogs do: at the seams. During that sad period Dad carried him tenderly up and down the stairs as required. My husband and I can relate. For the better part of three years we hefted our aged and enormous Golden Retriever up and downstairs, hoisting him into cars and airlifting him onto beds. Recently a fit-enough looking neighbour told us he had been forced to put his Springer Spaniel down because she could no longer climb stairs. As soon as he was out of earshot, my husband and I looked at one another, aghast. “He couldn’t carry a Springer Spaniel up and down stairs?” we asked.
Every night Dad fed Ughy his green cancer pain pills, stroking his throat to make him swallow, as he sang:
“Green pills, they taste so good/
when doggies eat them like they should./
Green pills, they taste so nice./
They taste like they’re made out of sugar and spice.”
He sang this to the tune of Green Sleeves.
Then one day it happened — Ughy was gone. A chasm opened up in the earth and in we fell, only to struggle out, not twenty-four hours later, with the parti-coloured ball of fur and bad news who would become Crocapuppy – the infamous Frances of the Socks. If Ughy was a true gentleman — and he was — Frances was bitch incarnate. Life goes on and new dogs come on stream — one after another. And then they die, and you feel like you’re going to die, and then you don’t.
. . .
And then you do.