Cleo for Short

SHE was not an accomplished dog. No tricks, no spectacular rescues, no brilliant achievements — nothing to confound incredulous men. But she was a beautiful and joyous German shepherd dog, and she was infectiously happy. In the course of time she came to be a vital part of our family life. Now that she is gone, our home seems partly desolated. The corners in which she used to doze, smudging the baseboards, look gray and empty; the streets and waste lots where she used to frisk in the morning look dull. When we go to the country the fields seem deserted without her. For the places she most enjoyed took on some of the radiance of her personality and reflected her eagerness and good will.

Since dogs are relatively unimportant in the adult world, it is probably foolish to grieve when they go. But people do grieve, inconsolably for a time, and feel restless, lonely, and poor. An epoch in our lives was finished when Cleo (short for Cleopatra) died. Our relationship to the world was perceptibly altered. Nothing else can give us her exultant response to the common affairs of the day. Nothing can quite replace the happy good nature that was always greeting us when we came home or that was mischievously waking us up in the morning, hurrying us out of doors after breakfast, or innocently urging us to go to the country where we all wanted to be.

The place she made for herself in our world was of her own doing. I had no active part in it, particularly in the beginning. Although I am guilty of grieving now, I was innocent of hospitality in her first days among us. One Sunday morning in June when we were living on the farm, my brother called on the telephone. ‘How would you like to have a puppy?’ he casually inquired. ‘Fine,’ I said with the heartiness of a man who had never had a dog but was willing to experiment. As an afterthought, ‘What kind?’ I asked. ‘A police pup,’ he replied. ‘She’s a stray dog. Been here a week. We don’t know what to do with her.’ ‘Bring her along,’ I said, since I was already committed. After all, there could be no harm in a puppy.

About two hours later he drove into the dooryard. A huge, wild animal bounded out of the car and jumped up on me before I could recover my breath. A puppy? Good God, she was alarming! Someone put a pan of water down for her. She lashed into it like a tiger. Someone opened a can of beef. She took the whole canful in two gulps, looking a little hungrily at the arm that fed her. To me she looked savage, and as she ran helter-skelter around the farm all afternoon — about seventy pounds of lightning — I was depressed. ‘I don’t know about this animal,’ I said mournfully. ‘After all, I’m no lion tamer.’

After her harrowing experience of being a lost dog Cleo had taken in the situation at a glance, and was eager to settle down in a country household. Our first struggle came at bedtime. Like any other civilized man, I scorned dogridden homes, and I proposed to tie her on the porch at night until I could build her a doghouse. But that was far from being her idea of the way things were to be. Even while I was tying her, half expecting her to bite me or take me by the throat, she cried with more pathos than I liked, and she bellowed like a heartbroken baby when I put out the lights and went upstairs. Well, a man cannot be mean indefinitely. After a miserable quarter of an hour I shuffled downstairs in my slippers to release her, as no doubt she knew I would. As soon as she was free she shot into the house, raced upstairs, and leaped on my bed. That settled our relationship permanently, about twelve hours after we had met. In time I was able to persuade her to sleep in the armchair near my bed or in a bed of her own, but no one ever again proposed to exclude her from any of the privileges of family.

Since we live in New York most of the year, there was, of course, one other preliminary crisis. We had seen it coming and dreaded it, and no doubt she, too, knew something was in the air. We had intended boarding her with friends and neighbors for the winter; they liked her and would have taken good care of her in the broad country where any sensible dog would want to be. But when at length we started to pack the car one morning to go back to the city, Cleo flew into the back seat and stubbornly stayed there — partly in panic, partly in determination. She could not be expelled without more of a tussle than I had the will to provide. By this time I was more than half on her side. ‘Let’s try her for a few days,’ I said with some misgivings, and our unwieldy caravan started to roll. Cleo liked the ride home. Cleo liked our apartment; she expanded as soon as she set four feet inside. She was so big and active that she appeared to occupy the whole of it. All evening she was delighted, and before we got up the next morning we heard her scampering and rushing around the living room with the clatter of a happy horse. When we finally emerged from the bedroom the sight was fairly dismaying. She had torn the stulfing out of an upholstered footstool and torn the pages out of a new novel that had been affectionately inscribed by the author. But she raised no objections to a little explanatory discipline, and during the rest of her life she never destroyed property again. Although apartment living was confining, she clearly preferred to be with us in any circumstances, and, enormous though she was, she settled down to a city existence like a lady.

Make no mistake about it: the association was intimate. Cleo curled up on her own bed or slyly creeping up on mine on cold nights; Cleo under the breakfast table; Cleo under the writing table when I was working, joggling my elbow when she concluded that I had worked long enough; Cleo impatiently batting the Sunday newspaper out of my hands when I had been reading too long at a stretch; Cleo affectionately greeting the maid in the morning, barking at all the tradesmen in turn, teasing my son or brother to take her to walk at inconvenient moments, going wild with excitement when I picked up the bag that we always took to the country — she absorbed, approved, and elaborated on every aspect of family life.

‘Like man, like dog,’ was her motto. Her determination not to be discriminated against amounted to an obsession. She insisted on being in the bedroom when we slept and in the dining room when we ate. If we went swimming, so did she, ruining peaceful enjoyment. If we shut her in the next room when friends dropped in for the evening she threw herself impatiently against the door until, for the sake of quiet, we released her. Fair enough: that was all that she wanted. After politely greeting every guest in turn she would then lie quietly in a corner. ‘You’re a pest,’ I used to say, generally patting her at the same time. ‘Go and read a good book,’ my wife would say with vexation. ‘What this dog needs is discipline,’ my mother used to say with tolerant disapproval. To be candid about it, the discipline was easy. Excepting for the essentials, there was none. Cleo could be trusted to do nothing treacherous or mean.

If she had had no personal charm, this close physical association would have been more annoying than endearing. But she was beautiful. Her head, which came up to my waist, was long and finely tapered. Her eyes were bright. Her ears were sharply pointed. By holding them proudly erect or letting them droop to one side she indicated whether she was eager or coquettish. In her best days she had a handsome coat and a patrician ruff at the neck. She stood well and held her tail trimly. Her vanity was one of the most disarming things about her. Praise her mawkishly and she fairly melted with gratitude. She was an insufferable poseur. When I came home from work late at night and lounged for a few moments before going to bed, she would sit up erect on the couch, throw out her chest grandly, and draw her breath in short gasps to attract attention. When everyone in the room was praising her — although with tongue in cheek — she would alternate the profile with the full face to display all her glory. ‘The duchess,’ we used to call her when she was posing regally in the back seat of the open car. But she was no fool. She knew just how much irony we were mixing with the praise and she did not like to be laughed at. If she felt that the laughter was against her, she would crowd herself into a corner some distance away and stare at us with polite disapproval.

Not that my regard for her was based exclusively on her beauty and amusing personality. She had more than that to contribute; she had a positive value in the sphere of human relations. As soon as she came to the city the orbit of my life widened enormously and my acquaintance also broadened. To give Cleo the proper exercise and a little fun, it was necessary to find a place where she could run loose for an hour. That is how we came to frequent the open piers along the Hudson River. Before she joined our household I had often walked there with a kind of detached enjoyment of a pungent neighborhood. No one ever so much as acknowledged my existence on the piers. But with a big, affable dog as companion, I began to acquire prestige. It was astonishing; it was even exciting. Truck drivers liked to discuss her. Some of the longshoremen warmed up. Policemen took her seriously. The crews of the tugboats took a particular fancy to her. In the course of time they came to expect us around noon, and some of them saved bones and pieces of meat for her refreshment. She was all too eager to jump aboard and trot info the galley, and that delighted them. Eventually Cleo must have had fifty friends along the waterfront, and I had five or six. It was through Cleo that I came to meet Charley, who is one of my best friends, and is always ready for a crack of conversation in the warm office where he dispatches tugboats and distributes the gossip of the river.

On Saturdays and Sundays we explored deeper territory down to the Battery and around South Street, where barges lie up for the winter, or across the river to Hoboken, where ocean vessels dock. When Cleo trotted ahead as a sign of friendly intentions, I discovered that even in these distant quarters I, too, was cordially received, and we had great times together. On week-ends we were thus in close touch with important affairs. Hardly a ship could dock or sail without our assistance. Sometimes when we were off our regular beat a tugboat we knew would toot us a greeting as she steamed by. ‘Hello, Cleo,’ the skipper would bellow pleasantly from the wheelhouse. A man, as well as a dog, could hold up his head on an occasion like that. Thus, Cleo opened up a new life for me, and it was vastly enjoyable for both of us.

There is no moral to be drawn from this tale of Cleo. Although the misanthrope says that the more he sees of men the better he likes dogs, the circumstances are unequal. If Cleo never did a mean thing in her life, there was no reason why she should. Her requirements in life were simple and continuously fulfilled. She was as secure as any dog could be. But men live insecure lives; food and shelter are necessities they work for with considerable anxiety. In a complicated existence, which cannot be wholly understood, they have to use not only their instincts but their minds, and make frequent decisions. They have to acquire knowledge by persistent industry. Their family associations are not casual, but based on standards of permanence that result in an elaborate system of responsibilities. It takes varying degrees of heroism to meet all these problems squarely and lead a noble life. Living a life honorably in the adult world is not a passive but a creative job.

For Cleo it was much simpler. As far as I could see, there was nothing creative about it. The food was good; it appeared in the kitchen on time. The house was warm, dry, and comfortable. Her winter and summer clothes came without effort. Her associations were agreeable, including three dogs — all male — of whom she was especially fond. It was easy to maintain a sunny disposition in circumstances like that. But it would be unfair to deny Cleo her personal sweetness and patience. Whether her life was simple or not, she did represent a standard of good conduct. Her instincts were fine. She was loyal and forgiving. She loved everyone in the home. She constantly lighted it with good will. Beyond that, she was joyous and beautiful and a constant symbol of happiness. Although she obviously emulated us, sometimes I wonder. Shouldn’t I have emulated her?