"And in that town a dog was found.
As many dogs there be,
Both mongrel, puppy, whelp, and hound,
And curs of low degree."
- Oliver Goldschmidt
"You want me to take yer dog where to do what?" the man on the other end of the line yelled so loudly that everyone in Mrs. P.K. Tucker's crowded little living room could hear quite clearly. At the time, Mrs. P.K. Tucker had the only phone on the block, and she enjoyed the notoriety and the company the heavy black instrument afforded her.
"Don't make me say it, please, again," my mother appealed to the voice.
. . . . .
Some kind person somewhere in my mother's life had let her choose any pup she wanted from his dog Big Sugar's litter of pure-bred mongrels. Mother enjoyed scratching and petting and cooing with Big Sugar so much that she decided she had to have the pup that most resembled her. Big Sugar, that is, not Mother. And just to carry on the tradition and to better ensure the same pleasing personality as the bitch's, "Big Sugar's", that is, the puppy was named Baby Sugar.
Mother spoiled Baby Sugar the way a Pennsylvania Dutch woman couldn't chance spoiling her own children. Joe and I were much too valuable to be allowed third helpings of smearcase (cottage cheese) with pineapple chunks or late bedtimes or sassing. Mother had to prepare us for futures and careers and responsibilities later in life, but Baby Sugar was just Baby Sugar. Any indulgence was not just acceptable, it was encouraged, and the little dog quickly became the spoiled child Mother would never have and Dad would never have wanted.
When we moved from Ohio, Mother carried her shaggy, aging canine on her lap all the way down to Miami, even when it was her turn to drive The Old Chevy. We tended to name things we loved, like The Old Chevy. For the record, with Baby Sugar behind the wheel, Joe and I counted more than thirty carloads of people out on the highway who did double takes, thinking there was a dog behind the wheel. And every time they stared, Joe and I whooped with glee.
"For Pete's sake, Isabel, my father would plead when Mother and Baby Sugar drove, "put that dog in the back with the kids while I try to get some shuteye. She'll be fine back there." But Baby Sugar liked driving or riding shotgun, or reading the map, not sitting in the back like some know-nothing kid, and she retained her front-seat rights all day, every day. The nights, however, presented a problem.
"Excuse me, sir," Mother would begin to the owner when we stopped at an auto court and the sign read NO PETS, "but we have this little pup who will be so afraid if she can't come into our room tonight. I don't suppose you could make an exception for a well-trained pure bred, could you?" Baby Sugar would look up, trying to look like the well-trained pure bred she wasn't. Knowing there was no such animal in our party, I also would look up, just to see the owner's reaction, and noticed the owners generally were more interested in Mother than in the dog.
No slip into dialect to detract from the practiced phrase. A dazzling smile and bright blue eyes, Mother's not Baby Sugar's, helped the case more than a little, so one night I decided to try the flirtatiousness-for-gain method myself.
"Excuse me, Sir, do you have a playground set for us?" I interjected. Dazzling smile. Bright blue eyes. No response, nothing. Except for Joe, who noted every detail of the exchange and reenacted my pathetic attempt to anyone and everyone he encountered in the free world for at least a year following the trip.
Horridly embarrassed over Mother's fuss about the dog, Dad would keep as far away from the scene as possible. We could hear him coughing and shuffling and getting into the trunk and struggling with suitcases, trying to appear much too busy to deal with registering the family for the night. I sometimes wondered if Dad was more than a little jealous of the huge amount of Mother's sugar that Baby Sugar cheated him out of, but I knew better than to mention the slight foot assistance that Dad regularly offered Baby Sugar's rear end when she, Baby Sugar, that is, not Mother, walked by.
"You know we have a AAA rating, ma'am," a typical auto court owner would explain, "and we don't want to jeopardize that, but I guess we can make an exception for a well-trained, pure-bred, uh, miniature sheepdog, or is she a cocker spaniel?"
"Oh, thank you!" Mother would gush and smile, ignoring the question about doggy heritage.
You've probably known women like my mother who spoil their little dogs, but I doubt any of them were Pennsylvania Dutch women, the women who spent most of their lives cleaning their houses, hanging and ironing laundry, cooking dishes from the old country, and shunning people they were mad at. Such an extreme demonstration of affection, especially toward a germ-carrying, hair-losing, mouth-slobbering, add-nothing-to-the-income pet, was more than unusual.
When we finally arrived in Miami, there were two criteria for a rental house. The first criterion, of course, was that it had to be a certified, Pennsylvania Dutch-approved, sanitized, sterilized, and ideally Sanforized dwelling. The second criterion was acceptance of a small dog. A sugar dog. But our landlord had no problem with a pet in the house. In fact, he bragged that he had even raised a bottle-fed goat in his bathroom for a whole month until she got a good start in life. I knew this to be true since I'd already seen a large nanny goat tied out back with a toilet seat around her neck.
"My wife likes goat milk," the landlord explained, "and old Pansy Sue, the goat, that is, not the missus, tries to turn around and butt me when I milk her. The toilet seat keeps her from doin' that."
We rented the little cottage and settled in to our first years in Miami, Mother finding delight in the ceaseless sunshine where she could hang wash outside winter and summer. No more cold trips to a frosty basement and hoisting half-frozen clothes back upstairs. No more mud and slush tracked into the kitchen by children needing to warm up by the furnace. Baby Sugar spent most of her days out of doors, celebrating her new freedom in the cheerful glow of the back yard, where there were new holes to dig in a new yard and a goat next door to torment. She only came in at night, unless, of course, she felt the need to be with her mistress. Baby Sugar, that is, not Mother.
But idyllic times, even for sugar dogs, have ways of evolving into glory and self importance and hubris, and, of course, ending in tragedy. The loss of Baby Sugar was a disrupting time in our household, and we later found ourselves marking time in relation to the day Baby Sugar drove off, just like other folks marked time from Pearl Harbor or the day President Roosevelt died.
"It was the April after Baby Sugar drove off."
"About a year before Baby Sugar drove off, no, more like a year and a half."
"We had just celebrated the dog's ninth birthday when she began having some most disturbing symptoms. Incidentally, Joe was also having some most disturbing symptoms. Baby Sugar coughed, wouldn't eat, and slept a lot. Joe coughed, sneezed, slept a lot, and dabbed at his watering eyes with one of Dad's huge white handkerchiefs. Mother knew Baby Sugar needed to see a veterinarian, a totally unheard of luxury in our days of thrift and saving and sacrifice, and after several weeks of observation, it was finally decided that Baby Sugar looked and acted so sick that the veterinarian money would just have to come out of the budget. Then we'd see about Joe's unusual health status. First things first.
Early the next morning Mother dressed in one of her most plain housedresses, hid her diamond engagement ring and gold watch under the mattress, instructed us to put on some older play clothes, forego our sandals, and leave our hair a little struwli (uncombed) in the back. This shabby appearance was supposed to convince the veterinarian that we were among the dirt poor of South Florida, and ideally he'd go easy on the bill. As we drove to the South Dade Small Animal Hospital, Baby Sugar was so sick that she had to be held up in her standard front seat position by the coughing, sneezing, watering Joe.
The waiting room of the South Dade Small Animal Hospital was full of howling and hissing, slipping and sliding house pets being restrained by owners of varying degrees of patience. If this is the South Dade Small Animal, I wondered, what would the cut-off be? Would a Great Dane be denied service here? An alligator? A Peacock? Also, would they move the darkest-colored animals to a back waiting room like they did at our own doctor's office? I hoped not. That practice seemed to upset Mother, and it wasn't a good day to get her more riled up.
I was jolted back into reality when a nurse called out, "Baby Sugar Malone." Joe and I followed Mother as she carried her dog to the examining room and put her on the stainless steel table. The veterinarian gave her a good going over. Baby Sugar, that is, not Mother. The diagnosis: Baby Sugar had many problems, mostly associated with aging. He felt it best to "put her down," as he phrased it.
"And, by the way," the veterinarian mentioned, "your boy may be allergic to animals, with all that sneezing and watering. Maybe you should have him tested."
"First things first," Mother replied. She paid the bill of two dollars. The nurse had mentioned five dollars was the usual fee, so I knew our disguise had worked, and I knew the discount visit would help Mother's mood a little. I wondered if I could pull off this same shabbiness-for-greed hoax when I next needed a wrapped marshmallow cookie from Mr. Potter's corner store, but remembering my disastrous encounter with the auto court owner put the thought out of my head.
After a lengthy discussion with my father, one which included the possibility of Joe's having an allergy to dogs, it was decided that Baby Sugar would go to doggy heaven. The problem was, no one was willing to take her back to the veterinarian for the final rites.
"I can't take her," Mother whispered.
"I can't take her," Dad responded, probably feeling guilty about his rear-end assists.
"I can't take her," the landlord explained, "I'm just too soft hearted."
"I can't take her," the landlord's wife added, "I don't drive."
"I can't take her," Mr. P.K. Tucker told us. "You'd never look at me the same again."
I felt it wise not to mention that it might be a good thing if we didn't look at Mr. P. K. Tucker the same again, what with that stubby little sixth finger on his left hand.
"I can't take her," Mrs. P.K. Tucker whimpered, "but you can use my phone to make the arrangements."
"What arrangements?" Mother asked. "The veterinarian said just drop her off. We don't need an appointment."
"Well, I was thinkin'," Mrs. P.K. Tucker explained, "why don't you jus' send her in a taxi cab?" You know how she likes to ride up front of a car."
"Have the cab driver, do you mean, just take her to the vet and leave her?" Mother was digesting the concept. "That's just too peculiar," she responded.
"And it would cost money," Joe reminded her as he finished a ten-in-a-row sneezing fit. I complimented him on his new record, and he appreciated the acknowledgment.
"Well, jus' call and see how much it would cost," Mrs. P.K. Tucker suggested.
Which is what I mentioned earlier. The man at the cab company yelled into the phone, "You want me to take yer dog where to do what?"
"Don't make me say it, please, again," Mother appealed to the man on the other end. "How much it would cost to, down to the South Dade Small Animal Hospital, take her. One way trip."
"Let's see, ma'am, if I understand what you said, you want me to take yer dog to the South Dade Small Animal Hospital and leave 'er there. That'd be one dollar and fifty-five cents."
Mother covered the mouthpiece of the phone and repeated what the cab man said. Joe did a quick arithmetic, arriving at three dollars and fifty-five cents for the entire procedure, including vet bill.
"Please send a cab over as soon as possible, Sir," she whispered.
Mother's Pennsylvania Dutch frugality snapped in again, and she fretted over which old blanket should be used for Baby Sugar. It was silly to waste a perfectly good blanket that was only fifteen or twenty years old on a dog, but Mother eventually found one bad enough to justify the loss from our aging linen stock, and wrapped Baby Sugar in it. We all cooed our good-byes. It was easy to let a sick animal stop suffering. Even Mother agreed with that.
When the taxi arrived, Mother explained to the driver that Baby Sugar liked to sit up front and help drive. Silently, the bewildered driver opened the front door. By this time, nothing seemed to surprise him, and he climbed back into the cab and sat behind the wheel. Mother positioned Baby Sugar next to him, propping her up in the blanket and positioning a piece from a torn road map up on the dash where she could help navigate. Dad, struggling to compute the tip on the grotesque taxi trip, finally handed the drive four dollars to cover everything and to buy himself a beer to help forget the whole incident.
The last time we saw Baby Sugar, she was happily driving down SW 42nd Terrace, looking like the magnificent, map-reading, car-driving, well-trained, pure-bred mongrel she was.
"Come on back to the Tucker's house," Dad called out to everyone. "We have to make an appointment for Joe to see the doctor. First things first."