Southern Gothic Memories, Canine Edition

I’m not aAgnolo-Bronzino--1503-1572-----Portrait-of-the-dwarf--Morgante%0D%0AItalia people person. For example, although I’m a teacher, I don’t especially like young people. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t dislike children the way WC Fields disliked children; I wouldn’t conk one on the head for laughs — but I don’t like them any better than I like twenty-somethings, middle-aged people, seniors, etc. If anything, as demographics go, I like very old cognizant people the best, octogenarians and above, widows and widowers, withered folk who have seen it all, suffered irredeemable losses, but who have managed to maintain twinkles in their eyes.

(By the way, these withered creatures both disgust and terrify high school students. For example, Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath Tale,” which describes the wedding night of a young knight and a very aged crone, sends viewable shivers of disgust up sophomores’ spines. If you don’t want your teenager to smoke, don’t try to scare her with lung cancer — she can’t relate to a death that far in the future — instead show her a photograph of WH Auden or Keith Richards. Explain that cigarettes break down collagen and lead to wrinkles.)

I feel the same way about dogs as I feel about people. I don’t like a dog just because it’s a dog, just because it’s a member of the species Canis familiaris, but I have loved certain individual dogs, especially ones that ended up living with me, even troubled ones, like psychopathic Jack (d. c.1990) and PTSD Saisy (d. 2014).

Jack and Sally  1986
Jack and Sally 1986

However, by far the best dog we ever owned was Bessie, an AKC-certified Golden retriever who was beautiful, loving, highly intelligent, and gentle.

To obtain Bessie, however, we had to venture into Flannery O’Connor territory, or if you prefer, a David Lynch movie, but before I start the narrative, I’d like to set a couple of things straight.

First, I’ve had the following account certified by fellow witness Judy Birdsong as basically accurate. In cases where our memories differ, I have deferred to her.

Second, I need also to stress that I have always sympathized with people with physical abnormalities. My father’s favorite work of literature was Cyrano de Bergerac, I identified with the protagonist of The Boy with Green Hair when I was a kid, and I consider Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, as one of the most admirable human beings who ever lived.

So don’t judge me goddamnit!

* * *

Once upon a time, our older ten-year-old son Harrison had been asking for a dog, so Judy decided to surprise him and younger brother Ned, seven, with a golden retriever puppy for Christmas. We were living in post-Hugo Isle of Palms, SC, in a patched-up Cap Cod house with a large dog-friendly fenced back yard, and unlike our previous dogs, the aforementioned blood-thirsty Jack and his severely overbred pin-headed mate Sally, Bessie was destined to be a house dog.

The only problem was that Judy couldn’t find any golden retrievers for sale. We’re talking pre-Internet 1994 when you had to blacken your hands flipping through newsprint to find pets for sale. And like in an old movie, the days of the calendar were fluttering in the winds of time, being ripped off one by one as Christmas approached. Each morning, Judy scoured the want-ads, but still, no golden retriever pups for sale.

Then almost right before it would be too late to have the puppy appear on Christmas Day – eureka – a well-written ad purporting expertise appeared. The ad stressed that these pups had not been overbred, a problem endemic to such a popular breed, as the ad writer put it. Six were left — but going fast — reddish-hued golden retriever pups for sale for 150 bucks a pop. The only negative was that you had to drive to rural Berkeley County somewhere in the vicinity of Macedonia, South Carolina, to check them out, and so on a Saturday, we dumped the boys off somewhere and made the trek.

Judy had, of course, called the breeder, who impressed her with his phone presence, his well-articulated knowledge of all things golden retriever. He offered details on ancestry, points of origin. She liked the idea of the pups being bred in the country. She envisioned the puppies’ mother running Lassie-like through fields of alfalfa beyond wooden-fences, a white-washed clapboard farmhouse way back from the rarely traveled road, an aproned June Lockhart in the kitchen flipping flapjacks.

* * *

wilcox-county-ga-sibbie-road-abandoned-ford-mustang-chevrolet-chevy-chevelle-green-rusted-southern-gothic-americana-pictures-photo-copyright-brian-brown-vanishing-south-georgia-usa-2010The actual domicile was a largish non-mobile mobile home on a half-acre lot. I guess its owners would call it a manufactured house, but it didn’t look like a house but like a boxy trailer. In the weedy yard, two fossilized automobiles, one with yellowed newspapers inside stacked almost to the ceiling, the other leaning to its starboard side because of flat tires.

Happily, for me, I hadn’t envisioned what the homestead of our future puppy might look like, so I didn’t suffer the cognitive dissonance Judy had to endure. No, this wasn’t the set of Lassie; it was more like some David Lynch movie set in the rural South. Or, to wax literary, the homestead of the Lucynell Craters of Flannery O’Connor’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” In other words, Judy’s would-be plantation had dysfunction written all over it.

After exchanging dubious glances, we clanged our way up the metal steps, and I knocked politely on the metal door, expecting a chorus of howling or barking or at least something.

Silence.

I knocked again, louder.

Not a peep.

I banged on the door, thinking of B drive-in movies featuring chainsaws.

And then I heard a sound a muffled voice, some clumping. Was someone coming or not? Finally the door opened.

Standing there to greet us, propped on one aluminum crutch, stood a one-legged midget* in a Billy Pilgrim tee-shirt and cut-off denim shorts. He hadn’t lost his leg, but something had gone awry in utero; it hadn’t fully formed. I remember another embryonic non-formation going on with one of his hands, but Judy nixes this memory. She assures me that his disabilities were limited to being a “little person” with half a leg.


*I realize that some consider “midget” a pejorative term, but to me it seems less patronizing than “little people.” Plus I’ve had it with the never ending process of euphemizing euphemisms. Trust me, one day “little people” will become pejorative and the politically correct term will be “differently scaled humans.”

When I think of midgets, I think of the wonderful Land of Oz and squeaky “we-are-the-lolly-pop-kids” voices; however, this cat possessed that deep regionless baritone I associate with commercial voiceovers. He sounded like a radio announcer, and the walls of the living area of his minimally furnished house were lined with banks of computers at a time when computers weren’t ubiquitous household possessions.

He was unusually articulate; no wonder Judy had been impressed. Plus, he possessed the self-confidence of Sean Connery playing James Bond. Why hide the phocomelic limb with long pants pinned over the appendage? Shame seemed alien to him. The only negative I’ll lay on him was that he a sort of know-it-all, the way certain mechanically gifted people can be know-it-alls.

Bessie the Pup
Bessie the Pup

With him were two boys in their early teens, hardy and hale. We followed dad and sons to another room where the puppies were skidding around in a waterless kiddy pool. I remember urine in the pool; Judy doesn’t. We both agree the puppies were adorable — maybe four were left — and we chose the cutest and made arrangements to return to pick her up.

Money exchanged hands, and we said our good-byes. I decided not to mention the oddness of the encounter to Judy. How small-minded it seemed to me to even mention the disability. So what if the fellow from whom we had purchased our puppy was short and malformed? So what if we had spent a half hour in Flannery O’Connor/David Lynchville?

We returned to the car, I started the ignition, and Judy said, “That guy seemed soooooo familiar. Where do we know him from?

My mind screamed “WTF? You gotta be kidding me!!! What in the hell are you talking about?” but I merely said, as calmly as I could, “I’m fairly certain that I’ve never laid eyes on him.”

“No, think,’ she said. “Didn’t we know him in Columbia? I know we know him.”

Now things were really getting surreal.

“I’m absolutely certain I don’t know him. I’m certain I would remember him. He is one of the most singular individuals I’ve ever laid eyes on. Indeed, he might be the only midget I’ve ever talked to. Plus, he had only one leg. Trust me. I’d remember that. He’s not a very forgettable fellow.”

Judy’s still not convinced. However, we did end up running into him again at an outdoor concert later that spring, and as it turned out, Bessie didn’t turn out to be exactly genetically sound herself. She was born without knee sockets and needed an operation, but you couldn’t have asked for a better dog.

And how remarkable that her breeder could be so confident, so self-possessed. In that regard he stands head and shoulders above me.

Bessie the Crone photograph by Jim Klein

Bessie the Crone photograph by Jim Klein

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