Stay Keeper's Story Page 10

But I continued to smell cats. It was unnerving. I glanced apprehensively around the living room. Something mounded and dark on a chair caught my attention, but on closer examination I could see that it was simply a folded sweater. Alert, my nose! Be watchful, eyes!

Don't let—

I was working on the next line, planning to use surprise as the rhyme at the end. But again Emily urged me on. She was eager for me to see everything.

"Come on," she said, and pranced toward the stairs. "I'll show you my room, and you can see Bert and Ernie. They're on my bed."

Padding up the narrow staircase behind her, I gave a little inward dog-chuckle. It is a thing that dogs have in common with human young: the love of, the need of, stuffed animals to carry about, tussle with, and sleep beside. The photographer, in what I was already beginning to think of as my previous life, had provided me with various sheepskin toys: a fleecy bone, a human form, and a ball. I had licked and worried them into dingy disrepair, but I had missed them during my days in the woods, and I missed them now.

Maybe, I thought, Emily would let me have one of hers: Bert, perhaps, or Ernie. I knew them both from television. They were goofy-faced and garishly colored, not as satisfying as the sheepskins of my past, but I knew that they would be soft and chewable. I had seen some stuffed Berts and Ernies while I was doing a Toys "R" Us commercial once.

She led me down a pleasant hallway, and I followed her trustingly when she turned into a bedroom thickly carpeted and filled with books and toys.

"Look, Bert! Look, Ernie!" she chirped. "This is our new dog! He doesn't have a name yet, but—"

I froze. The two mounds of fur heaped on her bed near the pillows froze as well. Two sets of pale, hostile eyes glittered, reminding me of my frightening nights among the hordes of rats. But even as the cats (Siamese, the absolute worst for a dog) remained motionless, they began to swell. Their bodies enlarged as Emily and I watched, and they began, in unison, to make a terrifying sound. It was a low and ominous growl. Their eyes did not leave me for an instant.

I, too, am capable of growling. But my growl would have been nothing compared to the ferocity of theirs. It would have been a pathetic joke. So I remained mute. I tried to think, through my panic, what to do.

Somehow, throughout my life to this point, I had lived under the protection of humans and had never faced grave danger. The only similar situations in my memory were the confrontations with Scar so long ago. What had saved me the first time, when I was still just a pup, was my intuitive knowledge of how to address a superior when the odds were against me. The second time, the battle in the night, I was fortified in courage by the need to protect Jack; even then, it had been not a victory but a draw, from which I emerged bleeding.

Now I was faced again with a fearful enemy—a pair, actually, of enemies—and I could draw no courage from the need to protect the little girl. She was merrily prancing about the room, unafraid, chattering to the growling creatures whose attention was entirely focused on me.

Shameful though it is to admit it, the odds were against me, even though I was fully grown and had led a successful and financially lucrative life. There were two of them, and one of me. They were cats, and I am a dog.

Carefully, moving slowly so that they didn't take my movement as a threat, I lowered my body to the floor. Then, still in slow motion, I rolled over to my back and exposed my belly to the beasts.

This is the way a dog admits defeat. It was degrading. But it was absolutely necessary in order to survive, caught as I was in a small room with two predators.

Frantically, I tried to create a conciliatory poem that I might present to them as a kind of homage, acknowledging their superiority, so that they would allow me to live. Noble felines! O beasts supreme!

I hold you in ... ah ... extreme esteem.

It wasn't good. I floundered, trying to find the words in rhyme to notify them of my clear inferiority and my desperate desire to survive. It was difficult to compose lying on my back; I had not attempted it before.

Stay!: Keeper's Story

They didn't seem to be listening anyway.

To my amazement, the child, Emily, walked over to the bed where the wild creatures lay poised for attack. I watched her, looking upside-down from my abject, humiliating posture on the rug, with my legs waving in the air and my tail a useless appendage beneath me.

"You silly old things," Emily said in her sweet voice. To my horror, she reached out her hand. She was within biting range of their alarming fangs.

"He's just a dog," she explained, stroking them one by one. Still embarrassingly upended, I watched as their fur shrank to its previous sleek size. Their eyes closed. Their growls changed in tone and became reverberating purrs of contentment.

Since no one had been listening anyway, I gave my poem some thought and presented a revised version, emphasizing my appreciation of the cats but alerting them as well to my own stature, certainly equal if not more than that. Fur so fine! Eyes agleam!

You rival me in self-esteem!

I righted my body and stood again, hoping that perhaps no one had noticed those few moments when I had prostrated myself in such a debasing way. I wiggled a bit and then rubbed my back against the side of the bed, pretending that something was caught in my fur, that I itched and therefore had briefly found it necessary to he upside-down on the rug.

"Come say hello to Bert and Ernie," Emily suggested. She was sitting beside them on the bed, still stroking their throats; they had both arched their necks in a way that looked luxurious and self-indulgent. They ignored me completely.

Warily, I leaned forward and touched my nose first to Bert, then to Ernie. Then I stood back, aloof, and yawned.

A good yawn, precisely timed, says it all, I think.

Stay!: Keeper's Story

Stay!: Keeper's Story

Chapter 12

AND SO I TOOK UP RESIDENCE in a house with cats. We coexisted. Bert and Ernie were reserved rather than unfriendly. I never heard them growl again, and realized that their apparent hostility at our meeting resulted from the surprise of it. We conversed from time to time, but their voices had an irritating nasal quality that set my teeth on edge, and they were (like all cats) boring, self-absorbed, and somewhat malicious in their remarks. For the most part I sought my amusement elsewhere.

We ate side by side, from two bowls (for they shared one) on the kitchen floor. Theirs smelled of tuna, which repelled me, so I was not tempted to sneak a taste. And mine had no appeal for them.

Frankly, it had little appeal for me, either. It was high-quality horsemeat from a can, but I had been accustomed to pasta with a variety of sauces. I made do with the new diet but tried from time to time, when Emily and her mother dined on macaroni or tortellini, to express my interest in a dietary change. I sat politely, looking wistful and needy, beside the kitchen table while they had supper. It didn't seem to work. Emily slipped me a morsel occasionally, but her mother had no such inclination.

"If he begged," her mother said, "I'd send him outdoors. I can't stand a dog who begs during meals. But it's hard to scold him when he's just sitting there like that."

I was glad to overhear her, because it prevented me from indulging in that appalling behavior: lifting my paws in a supplicating way. Despite my mother's admonitions so long ago, I had actually been considering it.

"Doesn't he have a nice face?" Emily said to her mother. "He smiles all the time."

I gulped, without changing my facial expression. Emily was correct about my smile. Since arriving at their house, I had made a conscious effort to maintain a pleasant, cheerful countenance. It wasn't difficult, because in fact it was a pleasant and cheerful household, except for that brief early encounter with the cat duo.

But the truth—the real reason for my perpetual grin—was that I didn't want them to recognize me. My previous facial expression, sneering and disdainful, had become famous; back in the city, people continually stopped me on the street when I was being walked. People magazine had published a photograph and included a brief biography of my official dog walker, an out-of-work actor originally from Madison, Wisconsin.

Emily's mother had several times commented on how familiar I looked, how she was quite certain she had seen me before somewhere. I did not under any circumstances want her to recall where. So I conscientiously worked on maintaining a serene and blissful face. Dogs can do that. You see it occasionally when a dog scratches a certain place on his own side and an inadvertent smile appears. I had only to recreate that same smile and make it into a habit.

For the first weeks I was not certain whether, in fact, Emily's mother would allow me to remain. The plaintive "Can I keep him?" from a child most often brings about a no. So I felt that my tenure was uncertain. Then there began to be hints that I might stay. The bowl, for example. For a number of days they fed me from an old baking dish. But suddenly a new bowl appeared: a heavy ceramic bowl with, I am reluctant to describe, the word FIDO on its side. Heinous though the FIDO was, still, the dish was clearly a dog bowl purchased for me, an investment in my permanent residency.

Then, of course, the acquisition of a name. One cool evening after dinner, as we sat by the fire, Emily said again, "Isn't he great?"

Her mother laughed and nodded, agreeing tacitly to my greatness. Then she said, "I guess he's a keeper."

"Hey, did you hear that, Keeper?" Emily asked in delight.

It became my new name. First I had been Lucky, then Pal. Now I was to be Keeper, it seemed. Well, there are worse dog names. I had met a dachshund named Kielbasa once.

They gave it to me, I answered to it, I came when they called me by it, and I tried to live up to it. Being named Keeper meant, I felt, that my future was secure, and I began, in my spare moments, to create a small, casual poem on the subject: Lucky I was, Pal I became!

Now, at last, Keeper...

The second line was giving me trouble. Keeper's what I'm called? Somehow it just didn't work.

Finally, the conclusive event: a license.

One evening, sitting by the fire, Emily's mother commented, "We have to get Keeper a license."

I had one already, of course. Back in the city, back in the apartment I had shared with the photographer, my small metal license tag dangled from the collar that was usually kept, along with the leash, on a hook in the kitchen. I suppose the photographer, by now, had enshrined it in some nostalgic fashion. Perhaps it was framed.

Stay!: Keeper's Story

Yes, I like to think that it was framed: encased in glass, perhaps with a small engraved label saying PAL. Perhaps there would be dates, indicating my tenure. It would no doubt hang on the wall near the piano.

Thinking about it, I confess that I choked up a bit. I visualized the photographer there in the apartment, maybe with some friends over for dinner. Afterward, during coffee, someone would move to the piano and let his fingers drift into some old show tune. Then his eye would catch the newly framed memento on the wall. The label, engraved PAL. And the small license tag (perhaps bronzed now) fastened meticulously onto a piece of velvet.

The photographer would tell my story, and the pianist would play softly in the background. There would likely be moist eyes and a moment of silence.

I might, I supposed, even become the lyrics of a song. Gentle Pal, O dog supreme—

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