“All right, muttskis,” I’d say. “We are the old-world colonial power, and that guy up there is a tiny, third-world country dipped in ham juice. Go get’im! And off they’d go a hikin’—as my Dear Old Mater, Lucille Bernice, used to say— Yodi with his grown-up bark leading the pack, Norton chugging along behind, barping, wondering what his brothers and sisters were up to at such a pace. The Nort’s right hip never worked right, and he had to throw his leg out in a wide arc to get up any steam. He also suffered a lack of balance: he’d walk along the edge of the porch and fall into the bushes. That could have been his lousy eyesight, too.
You figure an animal possesses all kinds of animal litheness and cunning and communion with nature. But nature shortchanged Norty; he was flompy and guileless. With each example I observed of nature’s gifts denied, the more I loved him. Parenthetical admission: I have a mental illness, and that could be the reason—along with love, of course—that I identified so closely with the Nort. I know what you’re thinking: “Really, Davis? You’re missing some fasteners? Geez, we sure can’t see that in your persona here.” And my response? “Oh, ha, ha.”
Norton’s brothers and sisters had received their names first, mostly from Nikki: Yoda, Coda, Bolshoi (Yes, Nik was a musician and a dancer), Walter, Custer. We learned later that she meant Custard because of his color. My enduring terror of copyright infringement prompted the change from Yoda to Yodi.
Josh named Nort after our old British motorcycle: he was Norton Commando Davis. That was his name, but you know how it goes with the names of creatures and people we love: Josh began calling him Nortskur; one of us shortened that to Skur, and it evolved to NortskurBear, SkurBear, Skurbeery.
We found good homes for Coda, Bolshoi, Walter and Custer, and Yodi found a home with the Everywhere Spirit, whom our friend Jim Petersen said must have needed a good dog over there beyond the third bank of the river.
Mo expressed his condolences about Yodi, and we knew he was sincere. But he was also glorifying in the absence of our gang of muttskis gamboling at his heels twice daily for a solid block, nipping his pant cuffs and breaking off their milk teeth in those little round holes in his shoes.
I was teaching the young Nortberry to catch biscuits when Mo walked down the sidewalk one stunning afternoon in May. Every tree and plant was budded out, and the earth was redolent, as the poet says, with the assurance of new life and continuing possibility. H.G. Wells, author of War of the Worlds, would probably have waxed lyric and referred to Nature’s profusion as eloquent, a predicate adjective with which he was never stingy. I sat on the porch couch, and Norton sat with his front paws at the toes of my boots; he always sat a few degrees off-kilter because of his bad hip. He was ringed by biscuits whole and in pieces, and a film of light brown biscuit dust accented his muzzle like nutmeg on a latte.
Mo walked up the steps and extended his hand at the moment I tossed yet another. So far, I had not motivated Nort to open his mouth, or even move his snoot, let alone catch a bisky: this one landed on his head equidistant between his ears and stayed there.
Mo and I shook hands as we always did. He looked down with heightened disdain at my poor addled Skurberry with the biscuit on his head. Norty’s little black eyes, always slightly crossed, almost seemed to acknowledge the weighty presence above them. I grabbed the biscuit, Mo sat down; then, Norty worked his way to all-fours, climbed onto the couch and lay his head in my lap. I held the biscuit under his nose; he opened his mouth and I shoved it in. He pondered a moment; then he chomped away with vigor and determination. I smiled pridefully.
“Yo,” I said, “Mo. What are you doing flouncing down my sidewalk on this beautiful Minnesota afternoon?” I knew he was headed up to campus for his night class.
He replied in his Apu voice; I knew that I and my Skurberry were in for a battle of wits and would be miserably outnumbered. “It is you who is the big flouncer, Miss Teresa Dave-Ass, here on her porch daveno with her creature of indeterminate specie.”