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The dog who came to stay.., p.16
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       The Dog Who Came to Stay: A Memoir, p.16

           Hal Borland
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  The next night I went out to look before I took Pat out. The skunk was at the compost heap again, and he still was in bad temper. I stayed my distance, but he backed around and warned me off, and his eyes glowed like orange-red coals in the light. Finally he left and I came around the woodshed. And there was another skunk, half again as big as the first one. I was within twenty feet of him before I saw him. But he was almost amiable. I focused the light on him and he sat up like a squirrel and folded his forepaws on his chest, and stared into the light. After a few minutes he got down on all fours and resumed his hunting. He wasn’t a compost scavenger. He was after mice, and he caught two in the grass during the fifteen minutes I watched him.

  For a week I watched the skunks with the flashlight. One night there were four of them, all within a hundred yards of the house. None of them really feared the light, though that bad-tempered fellow made his threatening gestures every night. I have heard that skunk spray is luminous in the dark, though I am skeptical. Chemically the stuff is n-butyl mercaptan, which is not normally luminous. It contains the hydrogen-sulphur compound which makes rotten eggs smell the way they do. I was tempted to toss a few sticks at the grumpy skunk and see if his spray did glow in the darkness. But somehow the experiment didn’t seem worth while. I remembered the time when I, as a small boy, caught a skunk with a lariat. I thought the rope was plenty long, but it wasn’t. And the skunk was very angry. Those who say a skunk can send a jet only ten feet or so have been misinformed. I don’t know just how far a skunk can spray, but I know my mother made me bury my clothes, and she probably wished she could bury me for a few days, too. Anyway, I still don’t know whether a skunk’s spray is luminous or not.

  I watched those skunks every night, and we became quite well acquainted. I didn’t lose my respect for them, but I got careless. One evening I failed to put the leash on Pat before I let him out to go to his house. I opened the door for him, and he sniffed at his pan and took off like a cat with its tail on fire. A skunk had been at his leftovers only a few minutes before.

  I ran after Pat, but he was around the woodshed in two jumps, barking like mad. Then he yelped in anger. And an instant later I knew what had happened, or thought I did. The clean, cool night air became tainted. Another breath and it became rank. Still another and it was neither clean nor cool but a thick cloud of sulphurous skunk spray. I didn’t notice whether it glowed as I swung the flashlight beam here and there. All I saw was that Pat was over under the big apple tree, barking furiously, and that out in the edge of the pasture, fifty feet away, was a skunk, tail high, mincing along, taking his time and looking back repeatedly. His eyes were like points of angry fire.

  I began to cough, and smothered the cough and shouted at Pat. He didn’t need my warning. He stayed where he was, but he kept on barking threats and insults at the retreating skunk.

  The air was heavy, rancid. A skunk has twin jets or nozzles at the base of its tail, each with its own scent gland. Each gland contains enough fluid for four or five charges. The jets can be discharged separately or together. That skunk must have fired both at once and emptied both glands.

  I hurried out of the area of maximum contamination, calling Pat. He finally came to me, still bristling, still barking threats. Strangely, he didn’t seem to smell any worse than the surrounding air. I put the light on him and looked at his eyes. They were no more than usually bloodshot. He hadn’t taken the charge in the face. If he had he would still be rolling in the grass, writhing in agony, for skunk spray burns like fire and can cause temporary blindness. Somehow, Pat had provoked that skunk into using its weapons and still had avoided the direct blast.

  I congratulated myself, and I congratulated Pat.

  Then I heard the back door open. Barbara shouted, “Hal! There’s a skunk!” And immediately the door slammed shut again.

  I laughed. Her statement wasn’t absurd; it was a gross understatement. Then I realized that the polluted air must already have begun to filter into the house. I ran to the door and opened it and called to her, “Don’t open any windows! It’ll be worse if you do.” And she, from the kitchen, cried, “Close the door! Please!”

  I went back to Pat. It didn’t seem to me that he smelled too bad, certainly not bad enough to demand a bath that night. After all, the temperature was below freezing. So I took Pat to his house, let him in and latched the door.

  I went back to the house, not realizing that my nose was virtually paralyzed by then. I went in the back door and into the kitchen. Barbara gasped. I knew, before she said a word, that I wasn’t welcome. She gasped and gagged, and she managed to say, “You—you got skunked!”

  I didn’t try to explain. I went back outdoors. I reeked, and I knew it. Every stitch of clothes I had on was polluted. There was nothing to do but strip. I stripped, left all my clothes in a heap on the grass, and went in again.

  Barbara had retreated to the bedroom upstairs. I went to the bathroom and tubbed myself with the strongest soap in the house. That helped, but it didn’t really cleanse me. Barbara deserved a citation for heroism, and herewith gets it, for staying in the same room with me that night. That bedroom is on the river side of the house, away from the woodshed and the site of worst contamination, so we opened the windows wide. That sort of evened things off. The night air, even there, was still heavily tainted, and in a way it compensated for the odor that still clung to me.

  It wasn’t a good night for sleep. By morning, however, we had both made a kind of olfactory accommodation. The scent was still there, but we were less aware of it. Indoors, at least. Outdoors, in the back yard, even my insensitive nose recognized an unhealthy situation.

  I went to Pat’s house and opened the door. A wave of the skunk odor hit me in the face. Pat dashed outside, stinking to high heaven. Last night I couldn’t smell him at all. This morning I couldn’t have ignored him fifty yards away. He dashed happily to the apple tree and to the area where the skunk had let loose its charge. Even Pat recoiled there. He turned and walked away, bristling. He went to the back door, expecting to be let in.

  I didn’t even argue. I said, “No!” And I came inside, changed into the oldest clothes I owned, got a pail of warm water, put a handful of strong detergent in it, and got a big can of tomato juice. I went back out, cornered Pat, worked the tomato juice into every inch of his thick hair, then scrubbed him with the detergent and finally rinsed him twice with clean water. He shivered and I shook, for the temperature was down to twenty. I got an old bedspread from the woodshed and after he had shaken and rolled himself several times I dried him the best I could. Then we went in the house. Neither of us smelled like a rose, and Pat was a pink and black dog; but we were almost socially acceptable again. Almost.

  It snowed that afternoon, thanks to merciful providence, and buried the skunk spray there in the back yard beneath a clean, white cover. But it was days before the house smelled normal. Or Pat either. Two months later we had guests in for dinner, and afterward, sitting in the living room before the open fire, someone began to sniff. “I’ll bet,” he said, “there’s a skunk around here somewhere.”

  Barbara looked at me, and I looked at Pat, basking in front of the fire. I called him and sent him upstairs to my study. And we had to tell the guests the whole unhappy story.

  It was during that time that we began to call Pat “Stinky.” He seemed to recognize the name from the start, even to know something of what it connoted. At first he looked away in chagrin when we called him that, but in time he merely looked annoyed. We still call him Stinky on occasion, but now he knows that it either means he is to leave the room or that he is going to get a bath. He accepts the name with an air of resignation, much as he accepts the name “Dog.” When I call him Dog he knows it means that he is not quite in disgrace but in something less than high favor. But all the names we call him vary in meaning with the inflection. He knows that even Stinky can have a humorous flavor. He almost smiles when it is spoken in the right tone. And he knows that I am kidding him if I
call him Dog without an edge to my voice. Even his real name has variations. “Patso” is a fond name, and he almost preens at the sound of it. “Patrick” is a sternly formal name that goes with a firm order. “Patrick, go lie down! … Patrick, come here!”

  After the Night When Pat Chased the Skunk I watched to see that no leftovers remained in Pat’s pan. And we made sure that few edible meat scraps went into the compost. By removing the bait, we lured fewer skunks. And when the snows came and began to pile up we seemed to be rid of them entirely. But a few weeks later I noticed that Pat went, almost every day, to sniff at a gap in the lattice around the base of the front porch. I went and looked, but could see nothing important. I did think I caught a faint smell of skunk somewhere in that vicinity, but the skunk smell still persisted here and there about the place. After the first two snows I watched for tracks leading to or from that gap in the lattice and found none. I dismissed the matter from my mind.

  Then, one January day, with a foot of snow on the ground and a snowstorm in full blast, Barbara looked out the window and exclaimed, “What’s that?”

  I came and looked and began to laugh. There in the snow in the side yard was a skunk, wallowing his way toward the pear tree beside the vegetable garden. He was having a hard time of it in the deep snow, his white-tipped tail waving from side to side like Pat’s white tail-tip when he was swimming. He was plowing a furrow through the snow that all but hid him.

  “A skunk?” Barbara asked.

  “It certainly is!”

  “What’s he after?”

  “Something to eat, probably.”

  In the winter we hang a cylindrical bird-feeder from one limb of the pear tree and keep it stocked with mixed seed. That year we had also hung a wire-mesh suet basket there. The suet basket hung a good five feet from the ground, but the skunk must have smelled it. He wallowed his way to the foot of the tree and sat up and looked at it, hungrily.

  Suddenly the thought struck me. The skunk had come from the house! I went out on the front porch and looked. Sure enough, the trail in the deep snow led from that gap in the lattice to the sidewalk, that comes around the house, down the walk to the cellar door, then directly across the yard to the pear tree. Pat had been right all the time. We had a winter guest. That skunk had taken up cold-weather quarters under the porch.

  Pat had sensed the excitement. He had been lying at the head of the stairs when I went out on the porch. Now I heard the storm door slam and turned and saw him there on the porch, about to bolt down the steps and into the yard. He saw me and hesitated just long enough for me to collar him. I hauled him back into the house and closed the inside door. Pat whined with excitement, clattered to the kitchen window with me.

  The skunk had heard the door slam. He was wallowing back along his furrow in the snow, watching the house with anxious eyes. I went to the fishing closet, got down the shotgun from its pegs, thrust two shells into the breech. Pat began to bark, beside himself as always at the sight of a gun. I ordered him to go lie down, and I hurried out onto the porch again, closing the inner door behind me.

  I went to the end of the porch. The skunk was still trying to hurry through the deep snow, back toward his haven. Then he was beside the cellar window on that side of the house, and he must have seen his own reflection in the glass. He sat back on his haunches and stared at it, baring his teeth. I shot him right there. He twitched, then lay still, and the stench of his spray, released in that final convulsion, began to fill the air.

  I came back indoors. Pat was dancing and barking with excitement, demanding to be let outside, to get at the beast, whatever it was. He hadn’t seen it. I managed to close the door and keep him inside, and I put the gun back on its rack.

  Barbara said, “You got it?”

  I said, “Yes. I’ll let things settle out there a little while, then dispose of the carcass. He fired a farewell salute.”

  Barbara sniffed. “So I smell.”

  There was a faint taint in the air.

  Then I heard the furnace go on. The house is heated by oil with forced-draft hot air, and the cold air I had let in with my trips to the porch had set off the thermostat. The furnace went on, and a few minutes later the blower went into action. The skunk smell became stronger. I went into the living rom. It was even stronger there. I went into the front hall and Pat, who had been sitting beside the hot-air register at the foot of the stairs looked at me accusingly and went upstairs.

  Barbara called, “Are you sure you killed that skunk? It’s getting worse!”

  “Of course I killed it,” I said. But I went to the basement door and opened it. A blast of skunk struck me in the face. I closed the door and went downstairs. The basement reeked.

  Then I knew what had happened. I had shot the skunk just outside the south window to the basement. Its parting salute must have sprayed that window. The odor had seeped in around the window frame, and when the blower went on it sucked the odor right into the basement. Now it was blowing the stench all through the house.

  I pulled a switch and stopped both the burner and the blower, and I went upstairs and told Barbara what had happened. She had begun opening windows, was struggling with storm sash. I put on a coat and went outside, got a shovel and took the dead skunk out into the pasture and buried it in the snow. Then I came back into the house. The fresh air was sweeping through, but the odor of skunk was everywhere. And the temperature indoors was swiftly sagging toward the outdoor level, which was around ten above zero.

  I opened the door to the basement. It still reeked. Barbara found a spray-can of room deodorizer. I squirted it down the stairway. It helped a little, but not enough. I went down and squirted it all around that south window. Then I turned on the furnace and the blower again. Barbara shouted, “Turn it off! Quick! It’s terrible up here when you turn it on!”

  I went back upstairs. “The stuff must have saturated the air filters in the blower,” I said.

  “Can’t you take them out?”

  “I can, but—” I went over a list in my mind: vinegar, tomato juice, catsup. Then I asked, “Where’s that awful Christmas perfume?” Someone full of good intentions had given Barbara a big bottle of synthetic gardenia perfume. Barbara loves gardenias, but there’s something about gardenia perfume, especially the synthetic kind, that doesn’t exactly delight our nostrils. This must have been double strength. Barbara had opened it, sniffed once, and put it far back on a high shelf in the bathroom closet.

  “No!” she exclaimed. “Not that!”

  “Would you rather have the place reek of skunk, or of gardenias?”

  She got the bottle. I took it to the basement, removed the cover from the blower compartment, and drenched the air filters. I took the open bottle and splashed it all around the south window. I spattered it on the floor here and there. Then I turned on the switch once more. The furnace roared. The blower blew.

  Barbara, at the head of the stairs, called down, “Still skunk!”

  “Still blowing out the ducts,” I said. “Give it another minute or two.”

  We waited. I poured the last of the perfume on the filters and replaced the cover on the blower.

  “Here it comes!” Barbara finally shouted.

  I went upstairs.

  Did you ever smell the mingled fragrance of skunk and gardenia, both raised to the nth power? Then be thankful. It is like no other odor in this world, at once cloying and nauseating. But it is considerably better than the odor of skunk alone, particularly if the skunk odor is concentrated, heated, and blown at you in a blast from a hot-air furnace.

  The furnace continued to roar and the blower blew, and we stood at an open window and breathed the clean, cold air and waited. And finally, after no more than twenty minutes, the perfume began to dominate. Half an hour and we closed all but two north windows.

  “Did you use all that perfume?”

  “Every drop.”

  “I was afraid so.” She shook her head. “Well, we can have fried onions for supper.”

  “Onions? No, please, not onions!”

  “No, I guess not. But something strong. Cabbage?”

  “Let’s try cabbage.”

  I heard Pat coming downstairs. He came into the living room and looked around, sniffing. He looked pleased. He sniffed, stood there a minute, then went into the front hallway and lay down, facing the hot-air register. I went to see what was going on. He had his nose within six inches of the register, and his nose was wriggling with pleasure. He breathed deeply, sighed, closed his eyes and went to sleep, an almost blissful look on his face.

  I called Barbara. She came and looked. “That dog!” she exclaimed. “He loves gardenia perfume, and we never knew it!” Then she said, “Let’s have sauerkraut instead of cabbage.”

  It wasn’t the non sequitur it might appear. Pat also loves sauerkraut, though it took us a long time to find it out. For months we wondered why he came and stared hungrily into the kitchen every time Barbara cooked kraut. And why, when we had kraut for dinner he looked moodily at me when I gave him his routine dogfood dinner and then picked at it in obvious disappointment. We thought it was the smell of smoked meat, ham or hocks, that Barbara cooked with the kraut. He always got the bones and gnawed them happily, but he always seemed to be asking for something more. And finally I said, “Do you suppose he wants some of the sauerkraut juice?” Barbara said, “He’s a most peculiar dog. He likes green beans and he eats spinach, sometimes. Maybe he likes sauerkraut juice.”

  I poured a cupful into his pan, and he lapped it eagerly and asked for more. I gave him the rest of the juice and the leftover kraut, and he licked up every drop and strand of it. Sauerkraut was one of his special treats. After that Barbara cooked an extra helping every time we had it, just for Pat.

  His tastes are strange, and he still surprises us from time to time. Lobster, for instance. It seemed incredible that he should like lobster, but every time we boiled lobster he licked his chops and waited expectantly for a hand-out. He never got one. Lobster is no fare for a dog. We ate our lobster and put the empty shells with the trash in the woodshed to take to the dump. Then one day I left the woodshed door ajar and half an hour later I found Pat in the side yard with a litter of lobster shells around him. He had pushed the door open, salvaged the shells and was licking them clean. He looked at me guiltily, knowing he wasn’t supposed to raid the trash. But ever since then he has had the privilege of licking out the lobster shells when we are through with them.

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