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THIS TALE WAGS ITSELF

By Don Kenton Henry

Alas, everyone who ever went as far as the fourth grade is familiar with the work of Mark Twain. And everyone who grew up in small town America can relate at least a little to that of which what he wrote. Twain himself grew up in a small town on a river. The “Mighty Mississippi”. I grew up on a much smaller river, The Wabash. My town―Finn’s Landing, Indiana―is even smaller than Twain’s Hannibal, Missouri today. This is only fitting since my reputation as a writer is also much smaller than Twain’s. Twain was a teller of tales. One of his, a Connecticut Yankee In King Arthurs Court, I did a humorous interpretation of in high school speech team competition with great success. Another, The Prince And The Pauper, was about a pauper who traded lives with a Prince. The entire country of sixteenth century England mistook one for the other. Like Twain, I tell tales but mine have one advantage over his. Mine are true. And I submit the circumstances described herein are proof that life imitates art more often than the reverse. Though sometimes I wish it wasn’t.

Everyone loves their pets. My favorite are dogs and I have had many. My father raised and trained bird dogs and, while he was around, that is mostly what we had. Once he left for Texas, at my age eleven, my mother let us have a German Shepherd. Later, when I was sophomore in college, I purchased a Great Dane puppy from Dan Bonfiglio, a dog trainer who had been the head of the canine corps for the US Marines during the Vietnam War and later trained animals for Walt Disney studios. He retired to acreage not far north of Finn’s Landing and taught dogs everything from basic obedience to guard and home protection. His favorite were Great Danes and he says mine grew into the most magnificent Dane he had ever seen. As with the great thoroughbred Secretariat, born in the same decade, one did not have to be a student of the breed to know that this was a specimen that came around once in a hundred years or more. Everyone who ever saw him agreed. His coat was the color of rich homemade peanut brittle and he had a mask as black as onyx. What distinguished him was, unlike most show quality Danes beginning around this time, he did not sacrifice substance for height. He was a throwback to the Danes of old―mastiffs―generally owned by nobility―that could bring down a boar or a stag. While modern Danes are so tall they appear as though you could knock them over with a feather, my dog, while tall, had a chest as broad as Mount Rushmore and just as hard as the granite mountain itself. His sculpture would have made a noble monument to “Man’s Best Friend”. When I came to  name him, I took inspiration from a dog in town known to everyone. Prince Valiant. He was owned by Mr. Jordan, husband of my sixth grade teacher and brother to our town optometrist, Dr. Jordan. Prince Valiant was a Great Dane also. Only he was black. Originally as black as onyx. However, by this time, much of his coat about his head had turned to gray. Completely obedient, Prince Valiant followed Mr. Jordan everywhere through town. No leash was needed for he never left Mr. Jordan’s side. Mr. Jordan must have been retired for the two were seemingly everywhere and inseparable. In town, where the courthouse square was the center of the universe, “Prince” (for short) was known and accepted by all the shop keepers. Even at Peter & Falk’s Drug Store soda fountain where we escaped the heat of many a summer day and where Mr. Jordan had lunch throughout the year. Prince would lie quietly sleeping at Mr. Jordan’s feet while the latter had his usual fare which consisted of a fried cheese sandwich with pickles followed by a hot fudge sundae. Prince would awaken to a maraschino cherry with some whip cream on a long soda spoon placed just under his nose. It quickly disappeared at the end of his long tongue and Prince knew that was his cue to get up and follow Mr. Jordan home. He was a noble, if now old, dog in his own right. And if he could be named after a Knight from Camelot and the Roundtable, my dog, even more magnificent, could be also. And so I named mine King Arthur, father of the Roundtable and King of Camelot. Though fictional creations―Prince Valiant in a Classic Comic strip―our dogs―like this story―are not.

In addition to a beautiful dog, I had a very pretty girlfriend by the name of Jill. She was perhaps even more proud of King (for short) than I and together we had taken him through basic obedience training with Mr. Bonfiglio and were in the midst of the advanced course. Jill resided with her family at her mother’s home in the country and late one Sunday afternoon I was there studying for a college exam when King uncharacteristically ran off from the yard. We began a frantic effort to find him. Up and down State Rd 19 we ran calling his name and searching the neighboring yards. Karl, Jill’s younger brother, had been outside and, according to him, King had not been gone long. But he was nowhere to be found. There was no trace of him along the road and, in an area where everyone knew their neighbor, King was not the kind of dog someone could simply bring in their house and hide for long. One giant dog had simply disappeared.

Nightfall came and, with broken hearts, we called off the search. The next day I went to the local radio station, WARU, and placed a radio ad for his return. By noon they were broadcasting it hourly. Back in those days, they did this kind of thing in small towns, free of charge, as a public service. By  evening, an anonymous caller contacted me and said that he had seen King not more than a quarter of a mile up the road from Jill’s in the yard of one Bill Pitts who lived just across a side road from the old, and closed, Victory School. The caller said King was barking at Mr. Pitt’s kenneled Brittany Spaniel. That was all the caller would tell me and then hung up the phone.

Now Mr. Pitts was known to Jill and her family as a cranky s.o.b. who couldn’t tolerate kids, especially those who occasionally cut through his yard after leaving what was left of the playground of the old school. He appeared somewhat nervous when Jill and I showed up at his door. After a brief introduction I told him of the anonymous caller who said he last saw King in Pitts’s yard. After looking down and shuffling in place Pitts admitted King had been in his yard barking at his penned hunting dog. He claimed he shooed him off by yelling and waving his arms. That was the last he claimed to have seen of him until that morning when he returned home at the end of the third shift at his factory job in town. He said King was dead and lying next to the road after obviously being hit by a car.

My stomach dropped. Jill put her face in her hands. We were crushed. “Where is he now? He’s obviously not still by the side of the road or we would have seen him,” I said.

“I couldn’t stand looking at a big dog like that lying there so close to my house, so I picked him up, put him in the back of my truck and took him to the landfill just south of Denver.”

“You took our dog, our beautiful dog to a dump?” said Jill, incredulously.

“He was dead. There wasn’t anything that could be done for him. I wasn’t going to dig a grave for a dog that big.”

“He had a collar on him with my number on it. You could have called me,” I said.

Pitts became increasingly nervous. One of his children who had been listening, a boy about nine years of age, ran from the room. “I didn’t see any collar,” said Pitts.

“We have to go up there and get him,” said Jill. “We can’t leave him rotting in a landfill.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t do that young lady. I’d just let it go. It’s not going to bring him back,” said Pitts.

“No. No―we have to find him. We’ve got to go,” I said. And with that we left his house.

We went straight to Jill’s garage and got a spade and a rake, put them in the back of my ’73 Chevy Vega station wagon. A steady rain began falling as we headed for the dump. It was just a few days before Thanksgiving and, in Indiana, that meant it was a cold November rain. We didn’t say a word to each other as we followed the signs to a side road and drove a short mile or two to the gates of the dump. I parked the Vega, we got out and walked up to the gates. They were bolted shut from the inside and a sign said we were to wait for an attendant. After a short while a man, who appeared to be in his mid to late thirties, attired in work clothes and boots, saw us and walked down the small hill to the gate. We stood there and explained the situation to him. “We’ve come to find our dog and take him home for a proper burial. Can you point us to him.”

The man looked between my imploring eyes and the big green eyes of Jill which were almost in tears. His face had softened and he appeared more and more pained as he listened to our story. Then he spoke.

“I am so sorry you lost your dog. But I have to tell you, no one is allowed to bring an animal carcass here except the county road crews or a licensed veterinarian. And your dog isn’t here.”

“But he has to be. Mr. Pitts said he brought him here himself―just yesterday.”

“I know Bill Pitts. Everyone here knows Bill Pitts. But no one gets in through these gates unless we let them in and Mr. Pitts hasn’t been here. Even if he had come we wouldn’t have let him drop off a dead dog.”

Three other men had come down the hill and listened sympathetically to our story and all agreed Pitts had not been there. We suggested that perhaps Mr. Pitts came in when they were distracted and begged “couldn’t you just let us look?”

Looking from Jill’s trembling lips to my hat in hand demeanor, they relented, noting it could cost them their jobs. They opened the gate and I drove my car past their work shed to the top of the hill. Mountains of trash rolled across the land forming greater and lesser heaps where, in a perfect world, fallen corn, remnants of a fall harvest just passed, or miles broadleaf timber, one time so thick the sun was a stranger to the forest bottom, should have lain. Nature was not as sympathetic as the men of the dump and the cold rain fell on us even harder as we waded into the stink and garbage filled abyss, she with the rake in hand and I with spade. We didn’t know where to begin so we just started at the edge and began working our way in. We split up with about twenty feet between us and slowly began turning over piece after piece of trash, each a record of a debit for a spent week in family’s life or the cost of a world turning. A milk carton here. A dirty diaper there. An old shirt. A broken chair. A dead raccoon. A possum. A maggot covered cat. A photo of an ex husband or boyfriend. Somebody else’s dog. Piles upon miles of bagged trash, rotting food. Rotting flesh. One can only imagine what the place would have smelled like in the July sun.

We labored for two to three hours and shivered with the cold. Occasionally we looked up and wiped the rain from our face with the sleeves of our hooded sweatshirts soaked through to our bones. I could see the county employees stop and stare at us and could see by their expressions they wanted to tell us how futile our search was. They wanted us to stop for it pained them to see a young man of twenty and a pretty girl with long blond hair and big green eyes desperately hurting and hunting in an infinite pile of human refuse for something which didn’t deserve to be there and, in actuality, in their minds, was not.

Finally, the guy who had originally greeted us at the gate came up to us once more. He brought us some hot coffee and told us we were going to catch our death of pneumonia from our effort. We accepted the coffee gratefully and told him we would keep working until they closed. At that, he made us a deal.

“Look. If your dog is in here …”

“King. His name is King―King Arthur,” said Jill.

“Look. If King is in here, he could be anywhere. There are four of us that work here. We go through this stuff all day long. We know what you’re looking for now and if anyone is going to find him, it’s going to be us. We know where you live,” he said, looking at Jill, “and, if we find him, we’ll bring him to you. You two go home now and get warm. Deal?”

I looked at Jill. She nodded and we each said, “Deal”. We shook his hand, took our rake and spade and, with heads down, trod back to the Vega and loaded up. The four guys of the dump lined up and watched us drive down the hill and out the gate.

On the way home we stopped at Bill Pitt’s door. He answered and we stood there shaking and shivering with the cold. I confronted him. “The guys at the dump say no one but the city can dump animals there. They say they know you and you weren’t there.”

“Well … Well …” he stammered, again shuffling from one foot to the next. “Yeah, well they weren’t at the gate when I got there. Maybe they were in their shed having coffee. I don’t know but I didn’t see them. I just drove in a little ways, dropped the dog off, turned around and got out of there. I had just worked a long shift and wanted to get home.”

“How did you get in the gate?” I asked.

“It wasn’t locked. It was ajar. Maybe they were expecting a city truck. I don’t know.”

I stood there staring at him. There was no way to disprove what he said. After what seemed an eternity, Jill and I turned, got in the Vega and left.

Two or three days passed and Friday night came. We were trying to move beyond our loss which anyone who has lost a dear pet knows is difficult under any conditions. All the more so when your beloved creature is supposedly disposed of in such a callous manner. But, as I said, we were trying to move forward and decided to catch a movie in Kokomo, twenty four miles away and the nearest town with multiple movies to choose from. We caught the 6 o’clock showing of whatever it was and returned to Jill’s house by around 9 that evening. After pulling in the drive, and barely exiting the car, we were greeted by Jill’s mother, Mrs. Robison. She said, “I want to prepare you kids.”

In the light of the porch we could see the look of discomfort on her face. “Just after you left, four men you met at the county dump a few days ago showed up. They explained how sorry they felt for you kids and how much they wanted to help. They said they had good news and explained they had found King and brought him here. According to them, he had been brought to the dump from Dr. Bird’s office after being put down.” We all knew Dr. Bird. He was one of only a couple vets in town and had been my family’s for all our dogs. “I took one look at him and told them I didn’t think that looked like King to me but they explained he was dead and that animals look much different dead. ‘And besides,’ they said, they don’t get Great Danes at the dump every day and this had to be him! So . . . finally, I let them carry him into the garage. He is in there in front of the car. I put a blanket over him.”

Jill and I were incredulous. At once we were happy King had been brought home for proper burial but, at the same time, distraught at the thought of seeing him in the condition of having been dead several days by this time. We stood over the blanket, hesitating until, with the greatest trepidation, I pulled it back.

We inhaled loudly in unison. “Holy crap!” I said.

“Oh, my God!” said Jill.

“Is that King?” asked Mrs. Robison from behind us.

“No!” I exclaimed. “This ain’t King but I sure as hell know who it is!”

“Whose dog is it!” begged Mrs. Robison.

“King Arthur is a fawn Great Dane. This dog is black! They’ve brought us Mr. Jordan’s dog. This is Prince Valiant! We all raised our heads and just looked at each other in disbelief.

As late as it was at this point, I went into Mrs. Robinson’s living room wall phone just outside the kitchen where I had grabbed the phone book from a drawer.

I dialed their number. “Hello. Hello, Mrs. Jordan. Is that you? . . . This is Don Henry,” I said. “You may remember me . . . Yes, ma’am. I thought so. Is Mr. Jordan in? May I speak to him? . . . It’s kind of important.”

A long moment passed and Mr. Jordan came to the phone. “Mr. Jordan, I have some bad news to tell you. Some men from the Denver dump brought a dead dog to my girlfriend’s garage thinking it was mine that I just lost. But it’s not. It’s your dog. It’s Prince Valiant.”

“What! What! Why that’s impossible! Prince was old and suffering so but I couldn’t bring myself to put him down. There must be some mistake! It’s been taken care of.”

“No sir, I’m afraid it hasn’t. I’ve got him here.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Henry. My brother had been on me for months to do so and finally he said he would take care of it and talked me into it. I told him I didn’t want Prince ending up in some landfill. I wanted him to have a proper burial. Well, my brother, Dr. Jordan, you know Dr. Jordan―everybody does―told me he was too old to be doing so and it wouldn’t be easy to find someone to volunteer to bury a dog in this frozen November ground but―if I would give him fifty dollars―he would find someone to see that Prince got a proper burial in a nice place.”

“Yes, sir. I understand. And it hurts to tell you because I know how much you loved him, just like I loved my dog, but I know Prince. I grew up watching you walk down the streets of Finn’s Landing with him and watched you hand feed him maraschino cherries and whip cream at the soda fountain and this is him. This is Prince!”

“Just where does your girlfriend live, Henry?”

Jill and I waited nervously on the sofa for Mr. Jordan to arrive. Finally, the head lights of his car shone through the plate glass of the front window and moved across the living room as he pulled in the drive. By the time he got out I was already by his car door. “He’s in the garage under a blanket, Mr. Jordan. Head down, he shuffled forward as slowly and as painfully as Prince must have in his final days. Mrs. Jordan got out of the car but stood beside it next to me. Her hair was the same brilliant silver it had been when she taught my sixth grade class. She retired not long after that. She must have been sixty-five years old and that had been ten years before. Mr. Jordan appeared even older.

“Is that him? Is that really, Prince, Don?”

“Yes, ma’am. It is.”

“Oh, my lord. This may kill him,” she said as though she truly believed it.

Then from in the garage came a long moan. Almost a wail. It was the sound you would expect from a grieving spouse at the graveside of his dearly departed. Then the words, “That son-of-a-bitch! . . . That damn son-of-a-bitch brother of mine! I’m gonna kill him!” The caustic words pierced the cold, crisp air of that last of November nights of 1974.

I went to his side. He was kneeling, stroking the head of his beloved companion of fourteen years. No maraschino cherry would awaken Prince from this sleep. “That damn brother of mine took fifty dollars from me to bury Prince and he ends up in a damn landfill. My brother’s on the board of directors of the Killarney County Humane Society for Christ’s sake! Can you believe this, Henry?”

“No, sir. It’s hard to believe.” (“At least he gets his dog back in the end,” I thought. “Mine’s still out there somewhere.”)

“Help me get him in the car, son. Can you do that?”

“Yes, sir. I’ll get him in there.” And with that I carried Prince Valiant out (not exactly on his shield). Still wrapped in Mrs. Robison’s blanket, I placed him in the trunk of Mr. Jordan’s car. Jill, Mrs. Robison and I watched as perhaps the saddest man on earth slowly drove out the drive and headed down the hill to town.

Exactly a half an hour later, after the three of us collapsed on the living room furniture and let out a collective sigh, the wall phone rang. Mrs. Robison answered.

“Don. It’s for you. It’s Dr. Jordan,” she said, holding out the phone receiver with a look of “you better be ready” on her face.

Reluctantly, I crossed the room and took the phone. “Henry!” he said. “You son-of-a-bitch!” (It was a very popular description that Thanksgiving.) You gave my goddamn brother his dead dog back. How could you do that? Now the son-of-a-bitch says he is never going to speak to me again! What were you thinking!”

“Dr. Jordan . . .” I paused, took a deep breath, then continued. “Dr. Jordan . . . first of all, I had no idea four guys from the county dump would bring me someone else’s dead dog thinking they were doing me a favor. Secondly, I had no idea such an individual existed that would cheat his own brother out of fifty dollars under the pretense of giving his dog a proper burial. It seems to me, Dr. Jordan, that neither I or your brother are the ‘sons-of-bitches’.” Mrs. Robison and Jill’s eyebrows raised in unison with that one and, after a long pause, the line went dead.

Three and a half years later I graduated from college. My mother thought it would be a could idea for me to get my eyes checked before heading off to seek my fortune. The only optometrist I had ever been to was in Finn’s Landing. Not feeling the least bit guilty and somewhat curious as to how he would react, I let my mother book the appointment.

The reception was cool as I seated myself in his examination chair. “Almost four years later and my brother still hasn’t spoken to me, Henry.” Dr. Jordan said, as he proceeded to pull a very large pair of calipers from a desk drawer.

“Imagine that,” I mumbled.

He then measured the distance between my eyes from the inner edge of one to the inner edge of the other.

“Uhhh … huh. Just as I thought. Your eyes are very far apart. You know what that suggests don’t you, Henry?”

“I know what you’re suggesting. And I suggest you measure the entire circumference of my head before you jump to conclusions. All things are proportional and I’m smart enough to know that karma is a bitch . . . Wouldn’t you agree, Dr. Jordan?”

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