Once upon a time, back in my teaching days at Minnesota State University in Mankato, the Chair of the Agronomy Department, Dr. Mohammed Azad, lived in the modest white stucco house clinging to the James Avenue hillside like the American middleclass clutching by its bloody fingernails to its disintegrating economic status. Mo had two PhDs—agronomy and hydrology—so I called him Dr. Dr. I often queried him in the words of Harry Nilsson: “Doctor, Doctor, ain’t there nothin’ I can take, Doctor, Doctor, to relieve this belly ache?”
I’m an atheist; Mo was a Bangladeshi recovering Muslim. He’d come whistling down the sidewalk on his way to catch the bus, swinging the old-fashioned leather briefcase his father had bought in London when he was a student and given to Mo when Mo moved to the States. I’d be sitting on the porch reading, and I’d holler, “Yo, Mo!”
Mo would stop and poke his head through a thin spot in our hedge and reply, “Is that Teresa Dave-Ass on his porch daveno reee-ding like one little girrr-l?”
In a moment of weakness induced by Mo’s post-Simpsons martinis, I had revealed how the kids in elementary school teased me about my name.
Before you call me a bigot and admonish me for not allowing this man the dignity of his name, let me say that we grew to be friends watching The Simpsons. He didn’t specify the show when he invited me over to meet his favorite TV character. He told me he’d blend me up one chutney squishie. I didn’t know what chutney was, let alone something called a chutney squishie. When I wasn’t reading student work, all I watched on TV were the animal shows. Mo’s favorite character was Apu, the Indian from India, who runs the Kwik-E-Mart.
I know what you’re thinking: “How is it that a cultivated fellow like Dr. Mo Azad, a guy with two PhDs, would tolerate— let alone enjoy—a cultural stereotype like Apu?” The answer is that Mo didn’t have a gram of pretense or political correctness in him. I suppose the answer could also be that Mo was Muslim and Apu is Hindu. Yes, Mo was in recovery, but the residue of any monotheist delusion is tough to shed. I prefer to believe that Mo’s expansive heart had room for a good laugh on anybody.
What Mo’s heart did not have, however, was room for dogs. This was the only character flaw I observed Mo to suffer; it clung as tenaciously as a devout dingleberry. So, of course, I went right for it.
This was a golden time for Beck and me and the kids, who were still in high school. One February, our dog Snickers gave birth to six pups in a big cardboard box in the dining room. As the trees filled out and the cattails grew so high we couldn’t see the marsh across Stoltsman Road, we did get to see the momma ducks lead their ducklings across the road, creating traffic back-ups that were fine with everybody. (It’s hard to find a duckling-hater anywhere.)
The pups were now knee-high and ready to give away, except for Norton the runt, who—at that stage of his evolution— looked more like a possum than a dog and barked like a seal. We decided that Norty’s utterance wasn’t a bark at all; we called it a barp. Norty barped like a seal forever; years later, at a gas pump east of Sturgis, South Dakota, a few days before the legendary Harley-Davidson rally, his barp aroused the attention of the famous actor Peter Fonda, who walked over to the old Ford with me, peered into the cab at Norton considering what he might be, and refused to acknowledge that my Dear Nort was a dog at all. It was Fonda’s contention that Norty might be the infamous Chupacabra. Gawd, I hated it when people said that.
Snickers was a Siberian Husky-Golden Retriever mix, and the puppies’ father was a Golden; the pups themselves were beautiful, wonderful American mutts, except our beloved, oxygen-deprived, always-last-to-the-tit mutant Norton, with whom I identified most closely, and who seldom left my side for 12 years rich to overflowing with love as true as a dear friend of any species.
I would gather my attack pups around me on the porch and wait for Mo. I’d hear his door open and close, then the leather soles of his wingtips on the sidewalk.
“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.”
“I abide no blaspheming of My Dear Skurberry,” I replied. I rubbed Norton under his ear. He chomped away. A drool spot the diameter of a soup bowl had appeared on the crotch of my overalls. Biscuit chunks adorned it like mini-croutons. “I have come to reveal to you the origin of this … ” Mo looked down at Norton as though my happily chomping Skurbear were something floating by in the yearly Ganges f lood. “ … this dog,” he said in Jack Nicholson’s voice as Nicholson refers to Greg Kinnear’s little pooch in As Good As It Gets. He then gave me a viciously knowing look and told me I couldn’t handle the truth. Then he switched back to Apu: “After which I am offering to blend you up one aubergine squishie.”
I allowed him to glory in what he assumed was my ignorance of the word. Aubergine is—of course—the French word for eggplant. And I don’t even have one PhD. Ha! “Reveal away, Doctor, Doctor,” I replied. I gave Nort another bisky and settled back.
“When God made Adam,” Mo said, “the devil was furious because God looked upon Adam as His finest creation. God had made the devil of fire, and Adam of earth. The devil claimed that fire was a superior material, and that he was, therefore, superior to Adam. The harder the devil pressed his claim, the more his hatred for Adam grew. One day, the devil and Adam were arguing, and he spit on Adam, right in the center of his belly. God was outraged to see the best of his handiwork defaced in this way. He reached down, pinched away the piece of flesh and threw it on the ground. An indentation remained in Adam’s belly and in the bellies of all of Adam’s offspring where God removed the flesh the devil had defiled. It looks like a little button.”
I nodded. I appreciate a good belly-button myth as much as the next guy. “I thought you said this was a dog story.” Mo stood. He glanced down at Norty and didn’t crack a smile. Then he turned his eyes back to me. “God looked at the little piece of flesh on the ground and did not want even one such small piece to go to waste,” Mo said. “And so out of this profaned scrap of flesh, God made the dog, whose duty it would be to clean up scraps forever.”
He turned and walked down the steps. He didn’t turn back when he spoke in his Apu voice: “Come visit the Kwik-EMart later, and I am blending you up one mongoose squishie and one road-kill squishie in a to-go cup for your friend.”
“We’ll be there!” I yelled after him.
Wonderful, I thought. Brilliant. All my poor Skurberry needs is a vicious dose of anti-dog myth to squash his selfesteem forever. I looked down: Nort’s narrow black eyes perched over his dry and cracking parody of a dog nose like an out-of-office response that said no one home … ever. How could I tell if my dear Skurbear had been undone by this attack of species bigotry? The only time Norty had ever taken on a different expression was when he had a baby raccoon in his mouth, and then he looked prim. He was awake, which was all you could ever discern of his relationship to his environment. My dear friend Norton was a vessel of indeterminate content in whom I invested more love than I knew I possessed. I rubbed under his ear and told him the true story of how his ancestors came to be.
“Skurbear,” I said, “everybody thinks Adam was full of confidence because he was God’s favorite creation. But he wasn’t as confident as everybody thinks. The truth is that Adam was lonely in the enormous new world all around him. Plus, the devil picked on him all the time. And plus again, the devil glowed ferocious with flames and brilliant shiny shimmers of heat because he was made of fire, and Adam was made of the brown earth. The truth was that even though the devil was bad, he was beautiful, and Adam didn’t feel beautiful.
“Once the devil saw that Adam felt inferior, his hatred for him grew. One day he was bullying Adam and his contempt boiled over. He spit on Adam—as all the stories tell—right in the center of his belly.
“But here’s where all the stories get it wrong.
“The devil’s spit was volcanic, and it burned that hole in Adam’s belly. Why didn’t God blow on it to cool it off? Because God wasn’t around right then, that’s why. And the devil knew it. That’s something else the other stories get wrong: God isn’t always around.
“When God came back, he found Adam sitting on a smooth, round rock staring into the fiery sunset. Adam was feeling that everything in the world was brighter and stronger than he was. This wasn’t true, but that’s how Adam felt. God looked into Adam’s heart and saw all of this.
“God walked with Adam far from the devil’s radiance and roar. God reached into Adam’s heart and excised a little piece. He pointed to a patch of earth where flecks of gold lay on the surface like tiny leaves. ‘My son,’ God said, ‘I am going to make a new creature who will always love you.’ God scraped up a palmful of earth and mixed it with the piece of Adam’s heart. He wrung his hands together and molded the heart-earth into a ball the color of caramel. He rolled the ball out on the ground. It sprouted four legs; a tail; pointed ears; a bright, curious face radiant with love; and a noble snoot. The dog ran up to Adam and licked his foot where Adam had stepped in something nasty. It tickled, and in a few licks, Adam’s foot was clean. Adam smiled. The dog smiled. God smiled. And Adam had a friend forever.”
I thumbed the switch on the thrift-store floor lamp that stood beside the couch, grabbed the stack of student stories from off the milk crate we used for an end table, and set to the work I loved and that allowed me to feel of use in the world. Becky and Snickers got home from their run then. Snickers took a long drink from the dishpan of water there on the porch, then climbed up and curled beside Norty. Beck went in for her shower, but she popped out later with the giant comforter we all snuggled under when we watched TV; we called it our comfort mountain. It was, of course, layered with dog hair. She covered the three of us, then went back in to read her papers. I was comfy as could be under the comfort mountain with Norton and his mom in that beautiful evening in that golden time.
I was still reading when Mo came walking up the sidewalk. I set the stories on the milk crate, clipped ropes on Snicker and Norty’s collars, covered them with my part of the comforter and tucked the edges under them.
“Doctor, Doctor!” I called to Mo. “Doctor, Doctor, I need one eggplant squishie.” I hustled out to the sidewalk and caught up to him. “And one road-kill squishie to go.”
Where Mo got the old Spike Jones line, I’ll never know. YouTube, maybe. The good Doctor, Doctor was a YouTube monster. I swear this is what he said: “Yes, we have no eggplant, we have no eggplant tonight. All we are having is the aubergine squishie.” I admit it: the squishies that Mo and I pounded ’til after midnight were concocted of gin, vermouth and jumbo green olives, as always. I remember our handshake that night, as I remember that golden time with the dense weight of years welded with regret.
I tottered down the sidewalk to that wonderful big old house with the covered porch at the dead end of James Avenue. Snickers and Nort and the comfort mountain were inside when I got back, and Becky, Nikki and Josh were in bed. Anissa was starting high school in Spokane with her mom, and Pascal was in his last year of prep school with his mom in Paris. It was like waking up from anesthesia when I looked around one day 12 years later and everybody but Norty was gone.
I never cried as much in my life as I did when Beck and I stood beside the table and held Norty as the vet slipped the needle in the big vein in his leg with a gentleness that still touches me all these years later. As great as the vet’s generosity of heart was Becky’s act of friendship in taking Norty in with me. We weren’t about to let our dear Norty spend one more minute in pain from his cancer.
I can’t spend any amount of time behind the wheel of my rusty old Ford F250 without feeling Norty’s head on my thigh. How I laugh remembering the time he fell through the passenger side floor. It was the look on his face, of course, that was so funny. Good thing we weren’t going down the road.