Penny, p.3Hal Borland
In the bedroom, Barbara said, “Oh, I forgot to tell you. Sibyl said that as soon as Penny settles in she will be a good watchdog.”
I laughed, a jeering laugh. “Penny settled in several hours ago. Penny already thinks she owns this place. Now all she has to do is settle down.”
It snowed again that night. The snowplows were out before dawn, clearing the roads for the school buses, and Penny woke us up with her barking at them and their noise. But she soon quieted down and was asleep when I got up at five-thirty. She heard me, though, and made it clear that she wanted company, or wanted to be company. I got her a snack of breakfast and let her come into the library with me while I read the papers and had coffee. She indicated that she liked the routine around here.
When Barbara got up I sent Penny into the living room, and Penny went without complaint. Her day had been properly launched. But as soon as the morning warmed up, with a bright March sun, I put an old throw rug out on the front porch and suggested that she go out there. She went, happily, stood and watched the world for maybe five minutes, then lay down and dozed in the sun. She made no move to take off for anywhere, though she was free to go if she had wanted to.
Midmorning and Barbara called our young schoolteacher friend, Emmy Jane, whose school was closed that day. Emmy had heard about Penny and wanted to come over and see her. She came, in her jeep with the snowplow on it. Some folk, and Emmy is one of them, like to be prepared for emergencies. Penny didn’t bark once at the jeep or at Emmy. She simply got to her feet and waggled a full-length welcome when Emmy came up the front walk, just as though they had known each other for years. Emmy is a dog-cat-horse person, and I think such people have an aura that most animals are conscious of. I have heard some people say, with a sniff, that it is simply the smell of dogs or horses on them, but I can’t accept that. Some of the cruelest men I ever knew, who kicked dogs and beat horses, had on them the smell of dogs and horses that even I could smell. It is something more subtle than a mere odor. In any case, Penny told Emmy Jane that she liked her the first time they met. They came into the house together and within five minutes Emmy was sitting on the floor with Penny in her lap, the two of them talking about the state of their private world.
Before she left, Emmy offered the best theory we had heard about where Penny came from. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” she said, “if she belonged to some young couple from New York who came up this way on a skiing trip. You see lots of skiers going north every weekend. They could have stopped in Salisbury or Canaan for lunch and the dog could have got out of the car or somehow been left behind. She would be a total stranger here. That could be why nobody seems ever to have seen her before. I’ll bet that’s what happened.”
We agreed that such an event would answer many of the questions about Penny. We even tried a few skiing names on her—Ski Bum, Ski Bunny, Schuss, Slalom, even Boots. None of them made any impression on her whatever. If she came from a skiing household she didn’t share the conversation. So her name remained Penny.
When Emmy was gone, having given her blessing, we put Penny out on the front porch again, and she lay there happily while we had lunch. Later in the afternoon I went for a walk with her. Fortunately, I put the leash on her. She wanted to go down the road, and she didn’t want to dawdle along at my normal three-miles-an-hour pace. So she towed me, like a tug hauling a barge, at about five miles an hour. When we had gone half a mile down the road and I stopped for a breather she sat down and panted quite companionably. When we started back I let her carry the leash—she liked to mouth the leather loop which served for a handhold. She was content to walk beside me, at my own pace. But when we got in sight of the house I saw that Johnny had come down to plow the new snow out of the driveway, and I took hold of the leash again. Just in time, for she saw Johnny’s jeep a moment later and took off with a lunge that almost took me off my feet. So she towed me the rest of the way home at five miles an hour.
Johnny’s dog wasn’t with him, which tempered Penny’s interest somewhat. Even so, she stood in the road with me, fascinated, and watched the plowing, finally barked, just a token bark. Johnny stopped and shouted, “If she was as big as her bark you could put a saddle on her and ride her. What do you call her?”
“Most underpriced dog I ever saw!” And Johnny went on with the plowing.
We stood and watched till Johnny finished the job and left. Then we came in and Penny settled down for her afternoon nap. There was no more excitement till almost suppertime. Penny was in the living room, under her bench, when a car came past and the driver beeped the horn. It was our friend, Morris, merely signaling that he was passing, as he usually does. He went on without stopping, but Penny barked once from the living room and dashed to the front door. She barked twice more, then whined softly. Not the alarm bark; it was her greeting bark. And the whining was almost affectionate. Evidently she knew it was Morris who drove past and beeped the horn, though I had no idea how she knew. I doubt that she had ever heard that horn, and I know she didn’t see the car. It was something beyond my understanding, and still is. She wanted Morris to come back, rub her ears and talk sweet dog-talk again. It was several minutes before she accepted the fact that he wasn’t coming back that evening. Then she came into the library to be with us, and we had to be substitutes for Morris.
Another couple of days and it seemed obvious that Penny intended to stay, so we decided we’d better license her and put a tag on her collar. That would both legalize our ownership and give her an identity in case she wandered off or ran away.
I went down to the town hall and told our friend Lila that I wanted a license for a basset hound. “The same one you called me about last week?” she asked.
Lila laughed. “Another dog who came to stay?” And I said no, not another Pat, anyway. Lila reached for her record book, leafed back until she came to the stub for the last license I took out for Pat and showed it to me. Across the top she had written in red ink, “The Dog Who Came to Stay,” and across the bottom, “Deceased 12-6-62.” “Pat’s record,” she said, “is going to stay right here, in the archives of the town.”
Then she made out a new license, listing the name as Penny; sex, spayed female; owner, Barbara Borland. She gave me the brass tag. I paid the fee and Penny was a legally registered citizen of the Town of Salisbury, County of Litchfield, State of Connecticut. Then I stopped at the local hardware store, which sells almost everything except groceries and baby clothes, and bought a rawhide “bone” and a three-inch rubber ball. I thought the rawhide bone would satisfy her need to chew on things and the ball would be something to romp with and work off excess energy.
When I got home Barbara said Penny had been a problem child. Five minutes after Barbara went to her typewriter, Penny wanted out. Another five minutes and she wanted in again. She wandered about the house. She whined. She cried. She practically demanded, Where is he? Why did he go away? When is he coming back? Barbara said, “She made me feel like a heel, just as though I had chased you out and wouldn’t let you come back.”
The minute I came to the door, Penny dashed to meet me. She barked a soft greeting, accepted one pat on her back, then went to her station under the bench in the living room. She lay down and paid me no more attention, even when I went upstairs to my study. It was obvious to me that all she wanted was to know that both members of her household were here. “There isn’t any special attachment to me,” I said. And I reminded Barbara how restless and uneasy Pat used to be when I was away from the house. But Pat seemed to know when I was merely out on an errand and when I was gone for the day. If I was going to be gone more than an hour or so he was twice as truculent toward outsiders as usual. He was Barbara’s guardian and he took his responsibilities very seriously. But if I was at home alone, Barbara away, he seemed to worry. Evidently he didn’t think he had to guard me, but he was restless as a cat in a strange house, alert to every sound. He didn’t
“Maybe Penny is going to be a worrier too,” I said.
“Pat,” Barbara said, “was impossible at times, the way he fussed when you were gone. But he was a great comfort when there was a storm in the air. Remember how he reacted to a thunderstorm?”
I remembered. Pat and Barbara both hated thunderstorms, felt them approaching, were taut as fiddle strings until the storm hit. Then they relaxed. Evidently it was a response to atmospheric pressures. And both of them reacted and were annoyed that I didn’t.
“Maybe Penny will have a headache when a thunderstorm is coming,” I said. “Maybe you have a summertime pal, too.”
I opened the package from the hardware store, called Penny and gave her the rawhide bone. That was a mistake, the first one. I gave it to her right there in the living room. She gnawed it for a minute, then tossed it into the air, watched it bounce off a chair, chased it and sent an end table spinning. She flipped the rawhide bone again, tossed it onto the couch, leaped after it and scattered cushions. Barbara shouted and I grabbed at the plaything, caught it just as Penny grabbed it. We had a bit of a tussle before I convinced her that we weren’t playing games. I took the bone back, hid it in my pocket, and for some reason that didn’t make a lick of sense ten seconds after I thought of it, I thought the rubber ball would be harmless. I took it out of the package, showed it, then tossed it toward Penny. That was mistake number two, and a lollapalooza. The ball bounced and Penny lunged at it, knocked it aside, raced after it as it rolled. Under a chair, which overturned and fortunately missed the end table with a vase of flowers, past a floor lamp that rocked precariously but didn’t quite go over, and under the table with the record player on it.
It wasn’t exactly a scene of devastation, but it certainly was an endangered zone. I shouted at Penny, Barbara shouted at both of us, Penny barked and the ball rolled under the sofa. I finally caught Penny by the collar, hauled her away from the sofa where she was trying to dig a hole in the rug to get at the hidden ball. We retreated toward the hallway. Barbara was shooing both of us. “Out! Take her out of here before you wreck the place! Both of you, out!” I got Penny to the front door, opened it, thrust her out onto the porch. And after a moment I went out there too, to let things subside in the house.
Penny was both baffled and indignant. She had been given two fascinating playthings. One had been taken from her, the other had run away and hidden, and she had been banished from the living room. What, she seemed to ask in a rhetorical question to the world at large, what is a dog expected to do with a bone and a ball? Put them in a corner and sit down and watch them do nothing?
Outside, I took the rawhide bone from my pocket and tossed it to her. She nosed it a moment, watching me with a questioning if not actually a suspicious look. Then she flipped it into the air, danced after it, flipped it again. She raced after it with an elephantine thunder of feet. She looked at me. I looked at the door. Barbara didn’t appear.
Penny flipped the bone toward the steps, and it bounced down and off the porch. She lunged after it, rolled halfway down the steps, caught herself, grabbed the bone and, in the same sinuous motion, tossed it again. That time it went on down the steps and into the yard. She dug it out of the snow, and the snow seemed to cool off her exuberance a little. She brought it back to the front walk, crouched there and chewed on it for a minute or so, while she caught her breath. Then she picked it up, ran down the walk, crossed the road to the snow-covered riverbank and disappeared. I followed her as far as the road but couldn’t see where she had gone. Five minutes later she came back, her muzzle covered with snow crystals. Obviously she had taken the brand new rawhide bone down the riverbank and buried it in the snow. It may be noted here that I never did find that rawhide bone. I have no idea where she hid it, and even she never found it again. She came back to the road, sneezed and rubbed the snow off her muzzle with a forepaw, and came back to the porch with me in an almost sedate state of emotions. She lay down on her throw rug there on the front porch, and I went back indoors.
Before we let her in the house again I retrieved the rubber ball from under the sofa and hid it in the catch-all drawer in the kitchen. She didn’t get it again in the house. Two days later I gave it to her out on the porch and it rolled down the steps, was retrieved from a snowdrift, taken across the road and down the riverbank, and it too was hidden somewhere down there. And that was the end of such toys for Penny.
That evening Barbara called her friend in Monterey again. And she and Sybil talked dogs, specifically bassets, for more than half an hour. Never give a basset a ball in the house, Sybil said, unless you want all your lamps broken and your chairs overturned. And Barbara agreed, one hundred percent. A basset will eat almost anything edible, Sybil said. Vegetables are good for them. Her basset specially liked green beans. “Try vegetables on Penny. Actually bassets can digest almost anything. They seem to digest most bones except chicken bones, which should be outlawed for all dogs. Chicken bones are like broken glass, but chop bones seem to present no problem. The basset’s jaws are very powerful. A basset simply chews up a chop bone, gets it to an edible place before it swallows it.” This, Sybil warned, may violate professional advice, and maybe for some dogs it is all wrong, but that is what she had learned by experience.
And she asked, “Does Penny go upstairs?”
Barbara said, “Of course she does. Gallops up, in fact.” Sybil couldn’t believe it. Her basset simply wouldn’t go up a flight of steps. Down, but not up. And her basset, after ten years, still had to be chased off chairs now and then. Did Barbara’s Penny? No? Well, that was something? If we ever had to chase her off, or punish her for anything, a rolled-up newspaper was the best thing she had found—it made a resounding thwack and it didn’t really hurt; it was more of a surprise and a disgrace than anything else. “Bassets,” she said, “are stubborn as mules. But lovable.”
Those last two statements were gospel truth. Especially the stubbornness.
We had tried various brands of canned dog food, and she had certain preferences that I wouldn’t call acceptance and rejection—just preferences. But she had refused, absolutely refused, to eat kibbled dog food, the dry biscuit type of food that is shaped in what are sometimes called bite-size bits. We tried it on her plain dry, in milk, in water, soaked to mushy softness, barely damp, every way we could think of. She refused to eat more than one mouthful. With a bagful of the stuff, I began to feed it to the birds. I crushed it to coarse granules and put it with the grain in the feeders. The birds ate some, but they kicked a good deal more of it out of the feeders and onto the ground. And that dog loved it after it had been put in the bird feeders and kicked out! She would go out with me to burn the papers or fill the feeders and she would stand there under the feeders and gluttonize on that kibbled dog food, some of it still bone dry, some soggy with moisture. She didn’t care what state it was in, she simply gobbled it down. I tried it again in her dish, but she turned up her nose and walked away. Five minutes later she was out under the bird feeders, slurping it up.
But, of all things, she still liked an occasional bowl of cornflakes and milk, and eventually when she was hungry enough, she tried the kibbled food again, out of her bowl, and found that it was almost as good as that under the bird feeders. From time to time she would eat a whole bowl of it. But she always got her ears in the food, especially in anything with milk on it. Those long ears were a problem at mealtime. I suggested pinning them up over her head, like ear flaps on a winter cap, with clothespins. Barbara didn’t think that was a good idea. I suggested tying them up with a small scarf. She didn’t like that idea either. She called Sybil, who said to get “a long-eared dog dish.” I went to the village and found one, a simple arrangement, a rather big bowl with an inner cup to put the food in. The ears didn’t drag in it. I bought one and took it home, and Barbara said that Penny hadn’t missed me at all. Barbara had played records and Penny had listened with her, lying beside her chair. “
That evening Barbara’s friend Anna, who lives over beyond Canaan, phoned. “I hear you’ve got another dog,” she said. “A basset hound.”
“Yes,” Barbara said, “we’ve got a dog again. For a while, anyway. Who told you?”
“It was in the paper.”
“The Waterbury paper.”
“Oh. I wonder who put that in?”
Even before they had hung up, I knew who wrote that story. Lila, the town clerk. I told Barbara, and she said, “Well, at least we won’t have to advertise her now. More people will read that story than would read a lost-dog notice among the want ads.”
Two days later, after we had done the morning’s work at the typewriters, the three of us, Barbara and Penny and I, went for a walk up the road before lunch. It was a beautiful day, brilliant sun and a melting breeze, and high time too, with a foot of snow still on the ground. The road was clean and dry, though, and for the first time Penny didn’t try to haul me along like a barge. She walked almost sedately and at approximately our own pace. About a quarter of a mile and Barbara turned back, saying she wanted to get the lunch started and for me and Penny to go on and not hurry back. So we continued up the road another quarter mile or so and seemed to be on terms of complete understanding. Penny was in a rather gently playful mood, something unusual for her. When she played she usually romped and galloped. But now she pranced beside me and reached up to catch the leash in her mouth. I knew what she wanted and finally I humored her—I let her take the leather handhold of the leash, and here she was, actually leading herself. She shook it, made a musical little jingle of the chain. She continued to prance, now with a strut, beside me, matching her pace to mine.
Penny by Hal Borland / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes