ON THE NAMING OF BIG DOGS
Every boy should have a dog, though not every boy should get to name it. Bob is a good name for a Boxer, for instance, and Bob the Boxer was my grandfather’s dog. My brothers and I would take Bob on walks down a dusty lane where he would yank us along like a husky, determined to drag us straight to the northern horizon as fast as he could. And of course we wanted a dog like Bob. A big yellow muscled-up dog like Bob.
I was six then, and my brothers were younger, so that’s about the right time to teach boys about responsibility. Which was our father’s rationalization when a yellow puppy appeared on our porch one night and began howling. In those days, when a dog showed up on your porch, there was nothing to do but drown it or keep it. My mother wanted to drown it, but we convinced her to let us keep it by dint of constant begging until she relented.
The cocktails we made for her helped.
We had no real idea if he would become a big yellow muscle dog, but the signs were there—the yellowness for one. Yellow dogs hardly ever became black, we reasoned. And his feet were huge for his body, which, as our father told us, meant that he would grow into them; he would become enormous. Our father also told us all the boring things parents tell their children about dogs, the long lecture about proper pet care that I don’t remember today as I forgot it instantly. We all forgot it instantly as we were all concentrating on those feet, those enormously oversized feet. My youngest brother wanted to name him Bob because we expected him to become a giant like Bob the Boxer, but I pointed out that would cause confusion. My other brother suggested Jupiter, because Jupiter was the biggest planet and this dog would be the biggest dog. Naturally we got into a competition to find the name of the biggest thing of all, and that’s how we finally came by his name, Universe.
Universe, the biggest yellow dog of all.
My mother hated us for this.
She hated going out in the backyard and calling for our yellow mutt, because, as she claimed with some merit, it made her sound like an idiot. Especially as Universe failed to get much bigger. If anything, his feet seemed to shrink to fit his body, and he became a neurotic little yellow dog of indeterminate breeding. It was even possible that his ancestors never had a breed. According to a boy across the street who seemed to know everything, Universe might have descended from Indian dogs, those wild camp followers that lived in the flickering shadows beyond the firelight. This was a cool idea, we thought, and it also justified keeping Universe outside at night and feeding him on an irregular basis. Being scavengers, camp dogs would eat and drink anything they could find, which is how Universe happened to drink a bowl of Clorox I‘d left on the porch to bleach cow teeth that my mother said I couldn’t bring in unless I sterilized them because they probably harbored germs that would kill us all. So did cow germs kill Universe, or was it the Clorox? I can’t say for sure, but he was found dead on the patio several days later, with his lips bleached white and mysterious red fluid staining his coat. This fluid was surely a clue to his death, and I invented several good if convoluted theories before my mother revealed that it was a medicated syrup that my youngest brother had poured on Universe in the mistaken belief it would bring him back to life. That syrup cost money, so my brother got whipped and learned that death was a one way trip, all in the same afternoon.
I suppose this was my greatest childhood regret, that Universe didn’t live up to his name, and decades later when I went shopping for a dog at the local animal shelter to guard the mountain cabin I’d rented, I couldn’t resist the dog at the end of the aisle. He was the biggest dog in the shelter, and yellow as new buckskin. A yellow muscle dog, already grown and ready to take home, which I did. A friend named him Baskerville, and that was a good name, I thought, like the Hound of the Baskervilles. In fact, he wasn’t a hound but more of a Great Dane. I wasn’t going to quibble, though, not after making such a massive mistake with that first dog.
I should say he wasn’t a pure Great Dane, but he definitely had a Great Dane in his background, not too many generations back. Not more than fifty, anyway. He had been quite impressive in the dark of the cage, but out in the light he showed many defects in what show people would call his conformation, and other people would call his looks. He also smelled bad, which no shampoo could cure. And worse, he moved about not with the regal air you associate with Great Danes, but with the strange stumbling gait that made you think he didn’t quite realize he had four legs. Not that he used them much. Frisbees and tennis balls would fly by him unnoticed while he stood his ground.
He had but one interest, and that was watching fish.
The cabin overlooked a pond that was full of bass, and Baskerville would stand in the shallows for hours watching fish nibble at his toes. Then he would try to drink up the pond in order to get closer to the fish he loved to watch, and great masses of white foam would fall from his lips and obscure the fish. I gave him points for the irony, and I gave him even more points for his bark, which was his finest feature. It was truly a magnificent example of resonance. And so deep that you could barely hear it. So deep that woolly mammoths would have answered if there had been mammoths on that mountain in North Carolina.
There was another dog on the mountain with a bark as deep as Baskervilles, however, and he would answer from time to time. This dog was an actual Great Dane, and he was much bigger than Baskerville. His name was Goliath, which was appropriate, for he was the biggest dog I’d ever seen. My pride in Baskerville’s size was shattered when, out for a walk up the mountain, we encountered this monster for the first time. Baskerville was happily chasing sheep around, as there was a herd of sheep up there too, and turned out that these were Goliath’s sheep. You don’t expect a Great Dane as a sheepdog, but there it was, and there was Baskerville’s head, in the mouth of Goliath. I don’t know how it got in there; it was so quick, like a shark attack. Goliath held Baskerville’s head for a few long, terrible seconds, and then let it go.
There was no damage that I could see. Nothing physical. His ears and nose were still intact, though as ugly as ever. The only loss was his bark. As we retreated down the mountain—rather more rapidly than we’d arrived—Baskerville kept glancing back and trying his best to let Goliath have it, but nothing came out. Not for fifteen minutes, and then finally, by degrees, his voice returned. His voice returned, but not his self-confidence. The deep resonance had been replaced with the awful squeal of a rusty hinge.
God, that was sad.
Before long I began calling him Basket Case, and that was the perfect name. Once, during a party, I fashioned a dunce cap out of white paper and taped it to his head, then we watched Basket wade out in the shallows of that pond to drool over his fish. Folks drank their beers and chuckled at Basket out in the water as the setting sun turned his dunce cap into a sherbet cone, and I could see the envy in their eyes. It wasn’t quite what I’d had in mind as a child, but it would do.