The Trouper

An American novelist of Norwegian stock, NORMAN MATSON TELLS US that he was born in the shadow of a factory in an industrial town in the Middle West and raised in a working-class district of San Francisco. After a short tour in railroading, he turned to journalism, working on California labor newspapers. He moved East from paper to paper, landing eventually in New York, where in 1926 he published his first novel, a fantasy entitled Flecker’s Magic, which was appreciatively reviewed by E. M. Forster.


MY BROTHER brought this dog from Haight Street. “He seemed to be waiting for somebody,”my brother said, “and he’d go up to every man who came out of the Gold Bar Saloon, but when I came along he followed me right to our door: he thinks I own him.”

The dog was thin and dirty; he seemed to have some sort of infection in his eyes. Most of his fuzzy face was dirty. My mother said, “Harry, we can’t have that sick dog here. He’s old, Harry.”

My brother, who was nine, looked astonished.

“Because he’s sick and lonesome we throw him out to starve to death? Is that our family?”

“We’ll feed him,”Mother said. “But I don’t want to touch him. Goodness knows what he’s been in. He’ll have to be bathed. Will you bathe him?”

“Sure, I’ll wash him,”Harry said, but he looked sick.

Not in the bathtub,”Mother said.

My mother was looking at this small dog. He was sitting down, watching Harry. Harry palled his head, stroked his filthy matted neck. He moved an inch closer.

“He was lost,”Harry said, and then he became silent, waiting because he didn’t want the sudden tears to run down his cheeks. “I think if he was clean, even though he’s ugly he would seem like a good dog. And tomorrow we could find the owner, put up a card in the Gold Bar and the Vienna Bakery, and so forth: Lost Dog so and so and so. It’s cold as the dickens outdoors, Mother, where would he sleep? He’d wait outside our front door all night long because he thinks he found me.”

So this dog was washed, in the bathtub: we three older children, myself, my brother, and my oldest sister, agreed to that because she said after we could rinse the tub out with a sterilizing “Carbolic Solution" — her scientific note somehow set things in order. And, of course. Mother did the washing, after all. Harry was so inexpert. “You’ve got soap in his eyes, poor little dog,” Mother said. “It hurts him, too. You make a great noise when you get soap in your eyes, and he’s got sore eyes, poor fellow. He’s so good!”

He wasn’t like any dog I ever saw before or since about bathing. He was not surprised or outraged: he was like, well more like an elephant — he just stood, eyes closed, and took it, not trying to get over the edge and down. But an elephant about, as big as a cat. Mother said he was starving and that nobody was to feed him between meals or he would die of sudden indigestion. So he was fed in the kitchen and Mother folded up a piece of quilt in a low box under the kitchen table for him, letting Harry put it there because it was his dog — except my father owned him, too. My father was on the night shift at this time and doesn’t really count much in this dog’s biography though he came to approve of him and even be proud of him. We were all surprised that Porto, this dog, turned out to be all white and curly. He was a small poodle, the only black on him was his nose, and his teeth were queer, broken — some were gone and some discolored.

“Poor old dog,” Mother said.

“He had some kinda accident or a sickness,” Harry said. “He isn’t old, Mother, you can see the way he goes along with me he’s kinda a young dog —and he’s a pretty dog, after all, the way I said at first.”

Mother, a small woman with black hair, kept looking at her children when they talked to her as though she were trying to realize they were there, and were hers. She heard her youngest son and gazed and laughed at him. “Harry,” she said, “you thought he was as ugly as we all thought he was. What kind of dog do you think he is? Maybe a poodle, only they are bigger, aren’t they?”

Harry said, “He’s a kind of special kind of dog. When you wash him, he lets you. When he wants water he brings his pan and lays it down in front of you. When you say no he stops, and sits. I have to be even careful not to say no to him. It makes me feel terrible.”

By that time Porto, of course, belonged to the family, and though we had inquired around and everybody along Haight Street, knew we had this dog, nobody made any claims. He was a small poodle. Some friend or some expert told us that. The eye infection went away. He didn’t smell very good, though. He had a bad breath, poor Porto, and Mother soon found out the milk and soupsoftened mixture he, and his bad teeth, liked best. Porto was our name for him from the first. I’ve forgotten why, though I’m afraid it is a mispronunciation of Sport from my youngest sister, then four years old. What Porto’s name really was we never learned.


I DON’T think dogs are “puzzled” in the sense of one of us facing a problem that is layers, some inward, some outward — but a dog, poor creature, when puzzled, is always puzzled simply, utterly; he deals only with God Almighty and never doubts Him, and when he doesn’t know what He wants he’s lost. Porto was puzzled, if that’s the word, because our family of gods, who fed him, loved him, even made loud laughing sounds, didn’t seem to have much to do. True, we were all off to school or work every day and there was housework, homework, games, but nothing, as we knew later, that could have seemed familiar or significant to Porto.

When my father got off the night shift he had lunch and supper with us and he called Porto for the first time into the dining room. Father said Porto was a typical wonderful dog. “A valuable dog,” Father said, frowning, looking like President McKinley. Father was always being an expert on worldly questions. “Whoever owned this dog,” Father said, “trained him, educated him. He is a valuable dog. He is saturated with discipline.” And Father looked around at his children, who weren’t. “He comes,” Father said, “at a finger snap,” and here he did snap his fingers. The curly white clean little dog had been sitting, his round brown eyes so alert their whiles showed from time to time as their focus followed Father’s own eyes. At the loud snap of the fingers Porto at once stood on all fours, braced himself and went over backwards, a quick, accurate back somersault. He wagged his tail. At the noise we made, including chair legs scraping as smaller people got away from them to crowd around, Porto did it again. He got the last meat ball on the platter carefully broken into small soft pieces by Mother.

“I told you he was a young dog,” my brother Harry said.

Not long after, we learned that if you raised a pencil at Porto he would, with a small groan, walk on his front legs. As for sitting up and begging, or walking on his hind legs clear around our diningroom table, that seemed as easy as anything a dog might do. He did tricks in between times, too, but nearly always at mealtime in our dining room, which had false “mission” beams across the ceiling, red wallpaper, wainscoting the painters had “grained,” and a gas-log fireplace.

Father began a fantasy about Porto. The little clean white dog was worth thousands of dollars. His owner, frantic, sweating, in his fur-lined overcoat was seeking him everywhere. Father put a dollar’s worth of classified ad in Mr. Older’s Bulletin.

My oldest sister Irene said, “ His master was old, too, and Porto was the last of his dog-act, like on the Orpheum; the others he sold off one by one to live on the proceeds, and this night he stood up at the Gold Bar and he drank whisky until he fell down on the floor with delirium tremens, so they had to take him to the Emergency, and Porto, maybe the last dog of maybe thirty dogs in the play, he waited and he waited, until Harry came along. He had been dirty and hungry for weeks and months while his master, who was a great actor, went down and down on life’s scale — ”

Father almost lost his temper at that but he didn’t smash any dishes on the table or the wall. He only warned Irene to stop reading “trash.”Harry and I and the others knew Irene’s imagination was imagination but the next moment, as often before, her words became the truth, the official, so to speak, explanation. And there was never any answer to Father’s expensive ad. The world didn’t want Porto. It was through with him. He stayed with our family and had no other life. My brother Harry through his ninth and tenth years when he was in Crocker Grammar was the boy who owned a circus dog who could dance, who could just about talk, matter of fact.

“He’s rheumatic,” Mother said. “It hurts too much for him to walk on his front feet. You must say no.”

So Harry did. The back somersault ended on a Thanksgiving Day. (The panic, Father was still out of work: we had a turkey because an aunt who seemed rich to us had quarreled with her husband and they had each gone away, one to Los Angeles, the other to Lake Tahoe.) Father, holding a dish of turkey bits to one side, snapped his fingers and Porto braced himself on all four paws, but missed and landed foolishly on his back — he tried to crawl away under the table. Mother caught him and talked to him, and talked to Father in rapid Norwegian which made Father smile in an inward way, but he passed over his saucer of meat for Porto and Mother fed him, talking all the time in Norwegian, not one word of which any of us could understand.

He was a happy dog, a “lucky dog,”after all. How could you tell if he could tell the difference from an audience of our family and some hundreds or thousands in a vaudeville theater or a circus lent? Did he miss his master? Could he tell any difference between him (and his whip) and my kid brother Harry, who brought older kids home and proved to them that he owned the greatest trick dog in the United States? I don’t know. . . . My mother often said that she didn’t like dogs, but she took care of Porto. He was by nature dirty, she said, he was useless, old — he didn’t smell good —he was a nuisance. What my mother said she could not understand was that Porto loved her so much.

“He loves me best,”Harry said, “because he’s my dog. He found me.”

Mother smiled at him in her unhurting way and then she said, “Of course he does, Harry,”and then she said, “He comes to me only because I feed him regularly.” Mot her, about to tell Harry some truth, raised her finger like a baton, and poor old Porto, with a wheezy groan, began walking on his forelegs. Mother reached down and took him in her lap.

“He’s got old rheumatic bones,”she said. Porto groaned a little and went wonderfully to sleep.

Harry moved over against. Mother. “He’s a swell dog,”Harry said. “Do you know what a swell dog he is, Mother?”

She said, “Yes, now I do.”


WE MOVED to Waller Street, near Buena Vista Park, I forgot why, a ground-floor apartment in one of those four-story wooden houses with balconies in front and a porch in back. It had a slanting-up back yard, an oblong of bare ground between high wooden fences, bare except for a young palm tree, and in one corner a couple of tall artichoke plants, a sad weedy sort of garden, especially when the cold fog blew in, as it did most every afternoon. That’s where Porto lived a good deal, the back yard, but he wasn’t alone because Mother would be busy in the summer kitchen, and anyway he never seemed to have anything to do with other dogs, only people. The night Porto got sick Mother put him in the summer kitchen, like a porch with big glass windows, and he made messes.

Harry cleaned them up. He said, “He just got a cold or something. He’s a strong dog.” An animal doctor at Argenti’s Pharmacy had looked at Porto and said he’s maybe fourteen years old — for a small dog it’s like being eighty for a man.

Harry didn’t listen. He said, “He’s a strong dog — you can tell he’s young.”

Like many dogs, Porto’s whole property was that bit of quilt Mother had given him the first night. Once or twice it had been cleaned but this disturbed Porto too much. The quilt must have smelled like Porto and, I suppose, our family; it smelled, felt like, and was home. It was reality for Porto, and he was distressed and frightened the times Mother had taken it away for a good washing. At the time we moved to this Waller Street place, from Clayton, he found his quilt in the confusion, but not his box, and went dragging his quilt along the new dark hallway, looking for his place.

I haven’t said Porto was a person everybody loved, but he was, though he was a closed-in, disciplined, gifted (if you will) little professional. We were pleased that he liked us best. Harry, his nominal owner, was thus a trick dog owner throughout two important years— his ninth and tenth years. For better or worse, Harry was never the same. Harry could not do a backward flip, nor walk on his hands, and never learned; however, he learned thus early that if somebody you directed did tricks it was almost as good as if you could do them yourself, almost.

Harry cleaned up the summer kitchen. The sick dog was put on his quilt in his box. He was restless, finally put his curly head down on his forepaws, closed his eyes, and slept a little, but struggled with his legs, and barked in the muffled nightmareway dogs sometimes do, and this has always seemed to me some indication that however limited, dogs too have an inner life, even imagination, for what in the world else could make a small old poodle bark and try to run while sound asleep ?

“Something is happening inside his mind, Mother said, “He’s a sick animal. He didn’t eat. He’s hot. And he has bad dreams.” When he woke she offered him some hot milk with a spoonful of rye whisky, but he only took a little. Some horrible infection was blazing in his meager little blood stream, relentless and avid as you might expect some such attack on a larger and more important organism, a man for instance. But in a way all life is a marvel and all living creatures can become the prey of the always lurking, murderous evils that are part of our world. That night Porto was past eating, past drinking. He tried to be clean and made faint cries at the door to be let out, but when let out he began to run, or rather trot, round and round the dismal garden, past the gray palm tree, the artichokes, and night came down and then, up like a balloon the moon, white as a clown, white as a death. Mother went out and picked up the little pale dog. She thought that as with all her six babies she could communicate by her arms, her lamp, her patience, a sense of absolute safety; but she had to hold Porto — his legs wanted to run. He was dying.

My brother came in and said, “Mother, you should go to bed. I will sit up with this dog.” Finally she persuaded him to take a later watch when he woke up. “ Then I’ll be tired,” Mother said, and Harry went off to bed, deeply worried but convinced that this was the right thing to do. And Mother sat it out in the summer kitchen while the moon rose and sank and our wonderful trick dog ran round and round, steadily, horribly, unable to stop, until he fell down dead.

Any veterinary, I suppose, could tell you what was wrong with old Porto, including the compulsion to eat nothing, drink nothing, and run and run - we didn’t know. Mother, rather sharply, corrected my wonderful oldest sister when she told people that in the last hours Porto, all by himself, did all his tricks, turned buck somersaults, walked on his forefeet, and so forth, in the white glare of the moon, which was like a spotlight in the circus. “He just trotted,” Mother said. “He was burning up. He was suffering.”

My brother Harry loved Porto, but my brother Harry was ten years old, a big strong boy who had slept only as healthy children sleep. He said somebody should have awakened him. He went out to the summer kitchen where Porto lay, rather like an oversize mop, and he came back and slowly, as was appropriate, ate some more bacon and eggs and toast, and drank another cup of the milk and strong coffee which was, in our family, a children’s drink. Suddenly Mother, who was dark-complected for a Norwegian and had small brown hands, put them over her face, and to our and to Father’s utter astonishment — he was sitting silent as usual, dreaming, his white hair standing on end, his ireblue eyes looking at nothing — she began to cry. That was the first time I had ever seen and heard her cry, though I suppose there maybe were occasions I had missed, that were concealed. Mother got up, whispering some kind of excuse, and when my oldest sister started up, Father signaled her down and himself followed Mother. It seemed right and good of him, though for several years then I’d been unable to understand how two such different people could get along together.

What she felt, I think, why she cried before us all, was that Porto was old and my brother Harry was young and that there was no communication between them. Even Harry’s insistence that Porto was a “young strong" dog was in her thought, I suspect, less true loyalty than rejection.

“He was a tired-out, old dog,” Mother said to my brother Harry. “Things come to an end.”

I don’t know that he understood a word; how much does a ten-year-old know and remember? The whole world and nothing. Does he know his own mother?