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       Penny, p.14

           Hal Borland
 
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  “Operation complete?” the driver asked.

  Liz nodded. “We ripped them. Let’s go.”

  The bus wheeled out of the yard and down the street. Out of town, the driver pulled into a side road that led down to an old meadow beside a brook. He parked and Liz began taking things out of her long, voluminous dress—three big beefsteaks, half a dozen packets of cold cuts, a frozen pizza, a dressed chicken, two bags of potato chips, olives, pickles, a long loaf of French bread.

  That night they camped there and cooked over an open fire. Penny had her beefsteak, and the next morning she had almost completely recovered. Enough, at least, to hear them talk about Georgia and Carolina and the various camps and communes they were going to visit. But also enough to be aware for the first time of what was making her feel queasy every time she walked down the aisle of the bus. It was the smell. Not only a lived-in, people smell, but the smell of dirty feet, bare dirty feet. She decided to stay up on a seat as much as she could.

  They went on, mostly southward but varying the route from day to day, going pretty much where whim suggested, never going more than two hundred miles a day. And every day Liz and one of the other girls went into a supermarket while the others waited in the bus and came back with an assortment of food that had been liberated, as they said. You never knew what was going to happen next, where they would go, what they would eat. And nobody told Penny what to do. For the first few days she thought it was just the life she had been yearning for. Then she began to wonder why nobody cared what she did, or what anybody did. Something was missing, though she didn’t know what.

  She hadn’t found the answer when Liz got into trouble. They had parked at a supermarket and Liz and the girl called Marg had gone in. Five minutes later Marg came running out. The man at the wheel of the bus saw her coming, started the motor and was on his way out of the yard when she caught up and leaped aboard. “They got Liz!” she gasped, and the driver roared away and down the street, around two corners and down a back alley. They got away, out of town, leaving Liz behind. But at the next town the police flagged them down and took them off to jail. Penny didn’t wait to see what happened next. Off the bus, she was on her own again.

  She went on, scrounging as she went, finding a scrap in a garbage can, begging a part of a hamburger at a drive-in, finding a dish of partly eaten dog food on someone’s back step, sleeping wherever night found her.

  One evening she came to a town with a carnival, and she was drawn to the sounds of gaiety and the bright lights. She wandered down the midway, wary and wily. A youngster dropped a wad of cotton candy, and Penny thrust her tongue at it, found it a puff of sweet nothing. A small boy with a hot dog in his hand stood gaping at the merry-go-round, and Penny snatched the hot dog, bun and all, and ran. She thought she heard her name and went to the booth where they were pitching coins at a dish on a table. “Right this way!” the barker called. “Pitch ’em high or pitch ’em low! Pitch a lucky penny and win a dollar. Penny, penny, penny! Come and pitch a penny.” She waited, but nobody she knew was there, and nobody seemed to know her. She went back to the merry-go-round, where the music was a tune that Herb Alpert played, when she was with her people on the farm in Connecticut. Nobody she knew there, either. She turned, and across the way was the fat lady in the side show. She was trying to sell photographs of herself in odd and unusual poses, and had no customers. Then she saw Penny and she called, “Well, Doggy-woggy! Come to Mamma. Oh, you little darling, you!” Penny stood and stared, and the fat lady began to chuckle, a chuckle that shook her tiered chins and her bulging belly. “What are you thinking? A penny for your thoughts?” Penny had two thoughts. One, How did she know my name? Two, People pick dogs that look like them. Do I look like that?

  She turned and ran.

  Then one day she came to a trailer court. The cars and their trailers seemed to have the smell of adventure, yet the smell of home too. She went down the line and stopped at a big trailer, gleaming and scrubbed and looking luxurious. It had a side canopy, and a woman was sitting in the shade on a folding chair, reading a book. Penny went close, and the woman looked up and said, “Hello, stranger. Whose dog are you?” Penny wagged her tail and would have lain down beside her chair if she had been invited. But the woman went back to her book and Penny went on. She had learned that people who spoke that way were merely being polite.

  She came to a medium-size trailer where a man was oiling a pair of leather boots. He had an outdoors look and a smell of dog, even from ten feet away. Penny stopped and he looked up and saw her and exclaimed, “Well, hello, sweetheart!”

  There was a sound inside the trailer and a woman appeared at the door, a woman with blonde hair and wearing a tight sweater and tight slacks. “Yeah?” she said, and the man looked at her and laughed.

  “You don’t miss a trick, do you? Well, look at this!” He pointed to Penny. “Look at this sweetheart.”

  The woman looked and said, “Another dog.”

  He held out his hand and Penny went to him. He rubbed her head, felt her shoulders. “A damn fine basset, Louise. And no license.”

  The woman shook her head. “You need another dog like you need another hole in your head. Two dogs at home and four at the camp.”

  He still fondled Penny’s ear. “But, Sweetie—”

  She cut him short with a laugh. “Of course, if you want another bitch—”

  And he said, “You win,” and turned to Penny. “Sorry, babe, but I’ve got a full house.”

  Penny knew the tone. Dismissal. She went on down the line, glancing at each trailer.

  Then a boy about ten years old saw her and called, “Here, dog, here, dog!” He had longish, sun-faded reddish hair, freckles on his cheeks, and he was skinny as a willow stick. He wore only faded jeans stagged off short and raveling into an uneven fringe. He toes wriggled as he talked. Penny liked him at first sight. She went to him and he squatted down and held her, one ear in each fist, and looked her in the eyes. “My name’s Rusty. What’s yours?” She thrust out her tongue and licked his nose and squirmed with pleasure. He exclaimed, “Slobbers!” and wiped his nose with his bare forearm, then leaped to his feet, shouted, “Come on, Slobbers!” and dashed off.

  Penny ran after him. He led the way to the last trailer on the line, a medium-size one that could do with a bit of polish and looked comfortably lived in. He went to the door and shouted, “Mom! Hey, Mom, I got a dog named Slobbers!”

  Out of the trailer came a girl maybe two years older than Rusty, also in stagged-off jeans but with a man-size white T shirt on. After her came another boy of perhaps six, in bathing trunks too big for him. Then a little girl of perhaps three, in nothing but white underpants. And after them all came a woman dressed exactly like the older girl, T shirt and all, but wearing blue sneakers. She was the only one not barefoot. She had short reddish hair and freckles like Rusty, and bright blue eyes like his. “Where,” she demanded, “did you pick up that dog?”

  “I didn’t pick her up, Mom. She picked me! And look—no license tag! She isn’t anybody’s, so she belongs to me. Finders keepers!”

  “Rusty,” Mom said, in a warning tone.

  “Honest, Mom. It’s the truth. Absolutely. I was coming along, and here she comes, just like she’s looking for me.” He spread the fingers of one hand in a pleading gesture. “What could I do?”

  The littlest one was hugging Penny, saying, “Doggy, doggy, doggy.” Penny licked her face and she laughed.

  The woman tightened her lips and checked a smile. But before she could say anything, Rusty said, “I can keep her, can’t I, Mom? She won’t eat much, I bet. She can have my breakfast. I don’t like breakfast much anyway.”

  The older girl had squatted down, was rubbing Penny’s ears. She looked up at Mom with Rusty’s question in her eyes.

  Mom hesitated, then said, “You’ll have to ask—Oh, here he comes now.”

  A lean, dark-haired man came down the line, a spring in his walk, a grin on his face as he saw them all
beside the trailer. “Well,” he said, “what’s the convention about? To welcome me home?”

  “Dad!” Rusty exclaimed.

  “Dad,” said the older girl.

  “Bill,” said the woman.

  “Yes?… Ladies first, then girls, then the menfolk.” He turned to Mom, then saw Penny and exclaimed, “Well, I’ll be—! Where did that come from?”

  “Rusty found her somewhere, he says, and she doesn’t seem to have any license, so—”

  “So we need a dog? This dog?”

  “Yes!” It was a chorus.

  “So we’ve got a dog. And they gave me a ten-buck bonus when they paid me for that job at the truck garage. So tomorrow we take off again.”

  “To Florida?” the older girl asked.

  “What’s the hurry, Jen? We’ll get to Florida, one of these days.”

  “I thought we were going to Arizona this winter,” Rusty said.

  “Well, some time. California too. And Texas. Lots of places we haven’t been yet.”

  “If anybody’s hungry,” Mom said, “dinner’s ready.”

  “I’m starved,” Bill said. “Come on, kids. Come on, Dog.”

  They all went inside, and Penny was aware that the trailer smelled of feet, bare feet. But clean bare feet. It also smelled of soap and shaving cream and cooked food. She looked around and found a sweater that had slid off a chair in the corner. It smelled like Rusty, so she lay down beside it and waited. They were the kind of people who would see to it that she had her meal in due time. And she was going to show, right to start with, that she knew her manners.

  Mom looked at her and said, “Now that’s the kind of a dog I like. She’s had some upbringing. Help yourselves to the meatballs, but leave a couple for her.”

  “Her name isn’t Her,” Rusty declared. “Her name is Slobbers!”

  “That,” Jen said, wrinkling her nose, “is a disgusting name.”

  Mom said, “I’d give a pretty penny to know who she is and where she came from.”

  And Jen exclaimed, “Mom! You just named her! Let’s call her Pretty Penny.”

  Penny thumped the floor with her tail, then stretched out comfortably with her muzzle on her paws.

  Fifteen

  Those were the stories we told each other. Both were made of whole cloth, of course, and my fantasy was as sentimental as Barbara’s romance. Both had happy endings, of a sort, because, I suppose, we both wanted that exasperating little bundle of stubborn individuality to find whatever it was she was looking for. Naturally we interpreted that goal in our own terms, since we were unable to make more than a wild guess at what went on in that canine headful of instincts, emotions and thoughts.

  We talked about this from time to time in the weeks that followed. We agreed that an intelligent dog, such as Penny, could follow our human trains of thought through a considerable range, but that there were barriers that limited our ability to share a dog’s thinking. Or even to know whether a dog remembers yesterday or thinks ahead to tomorrow. I am quite sure about memory, but I have my doubts about anticipation.

  The dog undoubtedly was the first animal tamed by prehistoric man. He dwelt with man in the caves, he was man’s hunting companion in forays across the ancient plains, he was man’s beast of burden pulling a small travois laden with pots and supplies on the long migrations. The dog became so domesticated, so absorbed into man’s way of life, that he would fight his own kind to protect his master. He learned man’s moods, his temper, his tones of voice, even his language, up to a point.

  But beyond the obvious and elementary expressions, man never learned a great deal from the dog.

  I have known bright dogs and stupid dogs, and even the stupid ones eventually learned enough to live comfortably with my moods and whims. The bright ones went far enough beyond that to respond to simple conversations as though they sensed what I was trying to tell them. But never was I able to reverse that process. I never learned to read the look in a dog’s eyes as he lay staring at the fire on a winter hearth. I never knew what went on in his brain when he sat in the dooryard and watched the river, or merely sat and stared, deep in his own kind of meditation. I still wonder what goes on in that mysterious dog brain when he yips and twitches in his sleep. Pat did it often here in my study, and when I woke him with a word he would blink and look at me sheepishly, as though he had been far off in some secret Somewhere that I could not enter even if I would. I said Pat was dreaming of a rabbit chase, but that was no more than an obvious guess. When Penny growled in her sleep and her legs twitched, how could I know what dragons dwelt in her dreams?

  “Penny,” I said, “could live in our world, but we never had more than the most fleeting glimpse of her world.”

  “Perhaps that was part of the answer,” Barbara said. “We don’t know what she was looking for. Even Sybil, with all her dog knowledge, didn’t know either.”

  We agreed that Penny demanded freedom. That was obvious. The freedom to come and go at her own whim. She was asserting that freedom when she came to us, and when she left us from time to time. With Sybil, she soon made it a condition of her membership in the household. And apparently she asserted her free status everywhere she went for a meal or a brief visit. She came and went as she pleased. That is why Sybil called her a “free soul.”

  “Any dog worth remembering,” I said, “also has an innate sense of dignity, of self-respect and importance.”

  “That sounds stuffy,” Barbara said. “I want a sense of fun, too.”

  “Self-respect doesn’t rule that out. By dignity I meant—well, take the dog whose dignity is gone, whose self-respect has been totally destroyed. He is a scuttling, cringing outcast. Even his own kind despise him. Yet such an outcast can be redeemed by trust and affection. I’ve seen it happen—a few warm meals, a home, a companion who thinks his mutt is a wonderful dog, and that dog regains self-respect. On the other hand, a proud dog can be humiliated by a length of dog chain. It probably is less a matter of lost freedom than of the indignity of being made a prisoner.”

  “Penny certainly hated a chain. When you chained her up, she glared at you, her tail drooped, she was utterly dejected.”

  “Yet she didn’t mind the leash.”

  “She practically strutted when she was on the leash. She might try to pull your arm off, but not because she wanted to escape. She wasn’t a prisoner, on a leash. She was more like a drum majorette leading a parade.”

  One morning over coffee Barbara said, “I can understand why she left Carol’s and Tom’s. And even why she was restless here—things were pretty quiet here except when she made things happen. But why should she run away and not come back at Sybil’s? She had freedom, and she had what you call self-respect.”

  “I’m not sure she ran away,” I said. “In your version of what happened, she was coming back when she was kidnapped. Anyway, Sybil’s was just a kind of area headquarters. She had a bed and a meal at any one of a dozen other places whenever she wanted it. And there were all those other dogs at Sybil’s, house dogs, content to stay put. Penny was a misfit among them. She wasn’t one of the gang.”

  “Penny wasn’t a one-of-the-gang dog. I still wonder where she went.”

  “I told you my wildest guess.”

  “That she was hit by a car. But they never found her body.”

  “Of course not. The ambulance took her to the hospital, and—”

  “Yes, yes. And she went off to dog heaven on a pink cloud. I still say somebody would have found her if she’d been hit by a car.”

  “All right, so she wasn’t hit. She was kidnapped, and drugged, and escaped. And after many harrowing adventures she found a trailer family and was welcomed with open arms to life on the open road. But the truth is that you don’t know, and I don’t know. Nobody knows what happened to her. And if she was just another mutt we wouldn’t care.”

  “But we do care. Why? What was there about her that makes us remember?”

  “You tell me. I remember cows and r
oad trucks and sweepers. All that nonsense.”

  Barbara smiled. “I remember the way she looked at me that evening I let her in the first time. Her self-assurance, her confidence that she would be welcome. Her belief in a good world, a happy life. There she was, a little bit of a dog, turning to me, a total stranger, and practically saying, Hello, friend. You look like a nice person. I like you. You are going to like me.”

  “Yes,” I agreed, “that’s one thing you could count on. Penny was the equal—at least the equal—of anyone, or anything, she met. Even a highway truck.”

  Barbara shook her head. “You still—”

  “No, I don’t. I agree with you absolutely. But she did think she could stop a truck. She proved it!… Really, I remember her because she was so totally the individual, herself. And, as you say, because she loved life, believed in it.”

  The weeks became months. Snow came, and ice, and Christmas. Groundhog Day passed, and it was still winter. Now and then the red fox or his vixen, who live in a den above the old railroad right-of-way, came down near the house and barked in the night. One night they came and wakened me, they were so close. I got up to look and saw the vixen lope away, but the fox was right there in the driveway. There was a moon half past the full, and the snow made an eerie half-daylight. He stood there, watching the house, then barked, that hoarse, rasping bark we always recognize. I had a strange feeling that he was trying to say something, but I couldn’t understand. He trotted off and I went back to bed, thinking of Penny, thinking what an uproar she would make if she were here.

  Then it was March again. Spring peepers began to yelp and the redwing blackbirds were in the willows. An early spring, for a change. It was almost Barbara’s birthday.

  She came downstairs that morning, in her robe, and went to the front door and looked out, stood there several minutes before she turned away. She came into the library, then, where I was reading over my second cup of coffee, and she said, “I dreamed she came back. She didn’t, did she? She’s not here?”

 
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