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       Penny, p.5

           Hal Borland
 
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  Carol was talking to Barbara, who had asked what they fed Penny. “We tried just about everything,” Carol said. “But she kept getting sick and throwing up. It seemed she couldn’t keep anything on her stomach but bread and milk. Sometimes she would eat half a loaf of bread.”

  And Barbara said that she had eaten almost everything here.

  “And didn’t throw up?” Carol asked.

  “Not once.… We’ve got quite a lot of dog food that you’d just as well take. Canned food, mostly. Oh, she didn’t care for kibbled food, the dry stuff, unless we tried it on the birds first!” And Barbara told them about Penny and the bird feeders and the secondhand kibbled bits that she thought were wonderful after the birds had kicked them out of the feeders.

  And finally I said to Tom, “Well, she’s yours. No doubt about that. I licensed her here in Salisbury, for her own protection. And I put a new collar on her. Keep the collar, but take the tag off and get her licensed in your own town.”

  Tom hesitated. But for only a long moment. Then he said, “All right, Pokey, you’re going home with us.” Then to me, “We’ll be glad to have her back. But if she doesn’t stay, if she runs off again, she’s yours.”

  Barbara had gone to the kitchen with Carol, to get half a dozen cans of dog food. I told Tom which brand we had been using, which she seemed to prefer, and he said they’d never tried that one.

  And then they were out on the front porch, all of them, and going down the front walk, Pokey-Penny in the lead, just as though she was leading an Easter parade. She went down the walk and turned up the road, as though she were going for a walk. She had got past the garage when Tom called to her. “Pokey! Come on, Pokey. Get in the car. We’re going home.” And she turned back, hesitated an instant, then hurried to the car and climbed in while Tom held the door open. Carol got in, with the baby, and Tom started the motor. He backed out and turned down the road, and a moment later they were gone.

  We came back in, and Willis and Bobbie said they wouldn’t have missed it for anything. “The look on that dog’s face,” Willis said, “when they came in, was unbelievable. It was almost as though she was seeing ghosts. And then she was torn between you.”

  We discussed the meeting and the departure a few minutes, and they left. And Barbara said, “Well, she is gone. It was a happy experience. I’m glad we had her. And I’m glad she is gone, since she really did belong to them. There wasn’t any doubt about that, was there?”

  “None in the world.”

  We got lunch and ate. I showed Barbara the clipping from the Waterbury paper that was headed, “Another Dog Who Came to Stay at the Borlands?” It told about the basset hound that had adopted us, and it told the bare outline of the Pat story.

  Barbara laughed. “So that’s why Lila wanted all the details.”

  “It’s a good story, and she handled it just right.”

  After lunch we went for a ride in the car, down to our lake place fifteen minutes from the farm. But there still was too much snow in the driveway to get beyond the entrance. We went on foot to the brow of the hill and looked down and saw that the lake was still iced in. It would be the end of May or early June before Barbara could swim. We came home, telling ourselves that we were lucky, at that. No dog to tie us down, to worry about if we went away for the day.

  We came home and I got a carton and we put all the rest of the dog food in it, and the dog dish, the dog brush and the leash. I took them down cellar. Barbara handed me the old Navy blanket. “Hang it on the line. Let it air a few days before we even send it to the cleaner.”

  All right, so she might be back on our doorstep tomorrow morning. Well, not tomorrow, because they would certainly keep close watch the first few days. But within a week she might be back. We weren’t betting either way, but we were saying we were glad we had known that particular dog, and now we were saying good-bye, farewell and that’s that. It was a pleasant story, and now it had a happy ending.

  The next day I got up and automatically started to the porch door to say good morning to Penny. Opened the door, looked, shook my head and went back to the library with my first cup of coffee. Habit is hard to break. But that day I did succeed in breaking the logjam in a book I was writing. The chapter that had been stubbornly impossible to write fell into line at last, and I had that one licked. And Barbara was at her desk, at work. At lunch we agreed that we missed Penny—“No use lying about it”—but it was better this way. And when we went for a long walk that afternoon we saw that the ice on the river was almost all broken up. At long last. We saw two mergansers, the first of the season.

  Then it was the day of the vernal equinox. It should have at least looked a bit like spring. But there was still a foot of snow on the ground and before the day was out it snowed again, another six inches. It seemed ridiculous to have to plow snow on the twenty-first of March. Some years we had been out plowing ground on the day of the equinox, though I admit there was frost in the ground and Albert didn’t plow more than a couple of acres that day.

  Another week and I phoned Tom, asked him to take the license tag off the dog and mail it to me. I told him I had canceled it at the clerk’s office and that he had better license her in his own name. He said he would get to it. He had been busy. But Pokey, he said, was staying at home “pretty good. She was gone all one night, and we thought she had gone back to your place. But she was home next morning and has been home ever since.” I asked if she was eating, and he said yes, she ate a good deal.

  “Does she still get sick and throw up?”

  No, he said. “She hasn’t been sick once since we brought her home. I guess it was all that bread she was getting.”

  But he didn’t mail me the tag. It didn’t come, and I didn’t press him.

  Slowly the season progressed. The snow melted in the pastures. By the end of the month the migrant robins were back and the willows were on the verge of bursting bud. And then, the last day of the month, a phone call came and Barbara took it, and a voice strange to her said, “Mrs. Borland, your dog is here.” I heard her exclaim, “What!” and then she asked me to take the phone. It was a man I had known several years before when he was a butcher, and now he was working for the lime company about five miles from here. “Your dog is here,” he said to me. “The basset hound. She’s got a tag, and I traced the number at the town clerk’s office.”

  I said, “Keep her there, Bob. Tie her up or something. We’ll be right over.”

  We got in the car and started to the lime company’s plant, debating what to do, to bring the dog home or take her back to Carol and Tom. We still hadn’t decided when we got to the office. I parked in the white-dusted driveway and went into the white-dusty little office building with windows covered with fine white limedust. My friend Bob was at a desk, and the moment I walked in here came Penny, herself looking pale and grizzled with the all-pervading lime. But it was Penny, all right. Penny-Pokey. I thanked Bob, who said she simply wandered in a couple of hours before, made herself at home and got acquainted with everybody. He saw the tag on her collar, made the phone call to Lila and then called our house. I thanked him again and opened the door. Penny went out ahead of me, jaunty and self-confident, went right to the car, waited to be let in. Barbara greeted her coldly, made her ride in the back seat and wouldn’t even pat her once. But she said to me, “Let’s take her home first. She looks starved.”

  So we went home, and the moment Penny was let out of the car she went up the front walk and waited at the door for us. Inside, she went through the living room and to the kitchen, stopped at the refrigerator and plainly indicated that she was ready to eat. I went downstairs and brought back a handful of puppy biscuits. She would have nothing to do with regular dog biscuits, but those half-size puppy biscuits were like candy to her. We fed her half a dozen of them, and Barbara said, “We’d better take her back. Anyway, I want to see where they keep her.”

  So I called and Carol answered. She didn’t even know that Pokey-Penny was gone. She had been t
here the last time Carol looked. Which must have been around noon, since she had been at the lime plant a couple of hours and it was three o’clock when we got her. Yes, Carol said, of course they would like to have her back. Should she come and get her? No, I said, we would bring her. If Carol would give me directions to find the house.

  It was a neat, relatively new house with a big lot, at least half an acre, on a gentle hillside in a cluster of maybe a dozen houses on similar lots. Six or eight children, none of them as much as ten years old, were playing nearby. There were two dogs in sight, both small tan mongrels. Children and dogs both watched as we pulled into the driveway. Inside the two-car garage was a conventional doghouse, and a long chain with a snap on the end was fastened to the corner of the garage.

  We drew up and Carol came to the door facing the garage. We got out, and Penny looked at Carol, seemed to duck her head and look away, then went in the open door. Carol looked down at her as she passed and said, “Pokey, aren’t you ashamed?” Then looked up at us, smiled, asked us in.

  We went through a clean, neat kitchen to a conventional living room with its sofa and two side chairs, its television set and coffee table. Penny-Pokey had taken her place in the corner back of the big upholstered armchair, her special corner, we learned. The baby was asleep in the other armchair, still small enough to lie flat in it.

  We had just sat down when a car drew into the driveway and Carol said, “It’s Tom. He gets off at four on Wednesdays.”

  A moment later Tom came in the back door, saw us and said, “I wondered if it wasn’t you.” Then he saw Pokey-Penny in her corner, said, “What did you do, Pokey? Run away again?” She came out to him, all apology and appeal, and he rubbed her ears, talking softly to her. Meanwhile the baby woke up, cried for attention, and Carol went and picked her up, brought her back to where Tom was still communing with Pokey-Penny. “Oh, hello,” Tom said, turning to the baby. “How has she been today?”

  “A little fretful.” To us Carol said, “She’s cutting teeth.”

  Tom turned to Pokey-Penny again. “Go lie down now.” She went back of the chair and he shook his head. “I don’t know what to do with her. She just won’t stay home if I’m not here. Weekends she’s with me, won’t leave me. But I guess she gets lonely. And Carol’s busy with the baby, so she wanders off. Why don’t you take her and keep her?”

  But Barbara said no. Then she asked Carol, “You like her, don’t you? And she’s good around the baby?”

  “I love her!” Carol exclaimed, and she obviously meant it. Pokey-Penny wasn’t being mistreated. She had a good home.

  Tom was saying, “But if she won’t stay here, if she keeps running off, going over to your place—”

  “She didn’t come to our place today,” I said, and I told him about the phone call from the lime plant, how we went down there and got her.

  “Oh. Clear down there. She never went down there before.”

  I said, “I canceled her license in Salisbury, so I think we’d better take the Salisbury tag off.”

  “Yeah,” Tom said. “Yeah. I’ve been meaning to get her a license over here, but—well, you know, you put things off.” He got a pair of pliers and took the tag off Penny’s collar and handed it to me. “Tomorrow. I’ll try to get the license tomorrow. If you’re sure you don’t want her now.”

  “No,” I said. “She’s yours, and your wife says she loves her, and you obviously do.” I laughed. “She’s your problem child.”

  “That’s for sure,” Tom said, shaking his head.

  We started to the door.

  Carol, the baby in her arms, said it was good to have seen us and she thanked us for bringing Pokey home, was sorry we’d been put to that trouble.

  Tom said, “Yeah, much obliged. I hope it won’t happen again.”

  The two of them were at the door as we left. Penny nowhere in sight. The youngsters were still playing Indian, or whatever called for all that war whooping, on the vacant lot down at the corner, and the two tan mongrels were playing coyote. I drove back to the main road and we came home.

  Six

  The chilly weather persisted. Flickers didn’t come back till the first week in April. Daffodils came up but didn’t show buds till mid-April. And we didn’t hear the spring peepers till April 14, a good two weeks later than usual. By then we were so hungry for spring that when I came home and told Barbara I had heard them she said, “Come on! I want to hear them too!” So we drove to the little bog a mile up the road and sat and listened to the peepers and the redwing blackbirds for half an hour. It sounded like spring, at last. When we got home the temperature was 62. But it dropped into the 20s that night.

  The next day was opening day for trout fishing. Morris stopped in that evening. He is a fisherman, one of the best, but he seldom goes out on opening day. He waits till the first-day folk have come and gone, then goes to his favorite holes up the brooks and comes back with his limit. We talked fishing and weather and wondered why it seems always to rain or sleet or snow on opening day. We decided it was a plot but couldn’t decide who to pin it on. But we didn’t really care.

  Finally Morris asked, “Where’s the basset?”

  We told him, and he said, “I’ll bet you miss her. She was a nice little dog.”

  “We miss her,” Barbara said, “like a headache!”

  Morris laughed at her, remembering how she felt about Pat and how she treats his dogs when he brings them over. She practically cried when Lady, his gallant old foxhound, was lost on the mountain most of one afternoon, and she took her in, fed her, comforted and cozied her when she finally came limping down here to the house. She even likes Smoke, the big black Newfoundland that comes with him occasionally. Morris is the only man I ever knew who hunts with a Newfoundland. Incredible, but he hunts partridges with Smoke. She has a good nose, she stays close by, she puts up birds without pointing and she is a pretty good retriever. They have a lot of fun, up on the mountain in bird season.

  Morris laughed at Barbara, but I knew what she meant. She didn’t want to miss Penny, who aggravated her and annoyed her and was an insinuating nuisance. Yet she couldn’t deny Penny’s winning ways. To her, Penny was a delight and an absolute exasperation. Yes, she missed her—like a headache, as she said.

  I said, “Good riddance,” and I switched the conversation to foxes. Morris loves to run them with his hound and listen. I don’t think he has shot a fox since I have known him, close to twenty years, but he keep a foxhound and he knows more about foxes than anyone else I know. Get him on foxes and he will talk for an hour.

  We had a fine fox evening.

  Three days later Barbara and I had to go down to New London for a meeting and a speech, and we were thankful all the way that we hadn’t had to take Penny to a kennel and remember her woeful complaints. Pat always seemed to think he was being abandoned when we left him at a kennel. He was being abandoned and we were going somewhere that would be exciting and full of wonderful scents and ripe bones and other dogs. And he made us feel like heels for going. Then we had the chore of apologizing when we got home, after we had gone and got him from the kennel and taken him home and assured him that we still preferred him to any other dog in the whole world.

  We went to New London with a clear conscience and no dog complaint ringing in our ears, and we saw friends the next day, and we took our time about coming home.

  Home, we found three daffodils in bloom on the river-bank. It was April 22. And two days later it snowed again, a couple of inches of snow that turned to rain and washed away. But it had been snow, and I resent snow after mid-April, I bitterly resent it.

  In spite of the snow, there were mallards on the river and poking along the brushy banks, obviously looking for nesting places. And the next morning there were two deer in the home pasture, just back of the woodshed. They were very tame, or very hungry for grass, or both. But when a car came along the road they didn’t linger. They were at the far fence in a dozen long bounds, and up and over and out of sig
ht in the brush at the foot of the mountain. They were does heavy with fawn.

  Then it was April 28 and a brown thrasher was loudly ecstatic in the tallest apple tree in the back yard. Maybe that was what turned the trick, that brown thrasher. He summoned change. On May Day the temperature got up to 74, the box elders showed first leaf tips and the sugar maples in front of the house began to leaf out. We went down to the lake place and found columbines in fat bud and tall meadow rue shooting up like weeds. It seemed strange to see so many hepaticas still in bloom that late, but they made the glades beside the lake lavender with their color. No swimming, though. The lake’s water was only up to 56, and there was a gusty wind that whipped the water into frothy rollers that practically boomed against the rocky shore.

  The next few days signaled spring, at last. Bloodroot was in bloom, and early saxifrage, and a few violets. The big popple just up the road was in catkin, long, dark reddish-brown catkins big around as a lead pencil. And then, on May 6, it snowed again, on a day when the peepers were particularly loud. Only about an inch, and it was gone by evening, but snow just the same and an insult to spring. I decided to have nothing more to say about the weather in my journal until the Fourth of July.

  Two days later Penny arrived again.

  I had gone to the village to mail some urgent letters, and when I came home I saw two dogs coming down the road. One looked familiar. Sure enough, it was Penny-Pokey, looking sleek and self-satisfied and thoroughly independent. With her was a nondescript white mongrel, one of those skittish dogs that are constantly on the dodge, expecting a kick or a thrown stone. They came past the garage just as I stopped at the mailbox, and Penny hesitated, looked at me, wagged her tail, obviously wanted to be greeted and welcomed. I ignored her, took the mail on into the house, then went back to put the car away. The dogs had vanished, absolutely vanished as though they had disappeared into thin air.

 
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