Author: Cornish, Rick

Phil the Dog

I wonder, is this a common experience in peoples’ life stories or is it a rare one? Someone who is larger than life, maybe someone who you could say is magical in some way, drops arbitrarily into your life, pretty much out of nowhere, hangs around for just a brief while, then disappears as suddenly as he materialized, leaving behind a residue that never really goes away, that finds its way into random little cracks and crevices in your brain and visits at will. I wonder, does this happen much? I have such a reoccurring visitor. His name was Phil and he was a Dalmatian.

My first wife, Claudia, and I were attending graduate school in San Jose and were living in a huge old Victorian converted into college flats. Early one morning we discovered that a puppy had been left in our tiny apartment, in a cardboard box, by a friend of a friend of a friend after a fairly raucous party. I hadn’t even seen the puppy the night before; I discovered him…well actually a pile of his shit…after climbing out of bed the next morning. When I found him, lying on top of a pile of sewing in the little alcove Claudia used for that purpose, I brought him back to bed and we three cuddled. Which was, of course, a big mistake. My wife and I spent most of that Sunday trying to track down the friend’s friend’s friend who left, (abandoned), the dog, but our hearts just weren’t in it. By that night, the puppy’s stubborn insistence on moving his bowels exclusively in the high traffic corridors of our little apartment earned him the name Fecal Phil, shortened, as he became house trained, to just Phil, or, when he required behavioral intervention, which was more often than not, PHILLIP.

Phil was white with black spots, a mid-sized dog of maybe forty-five or fifty pounds, short hair, floppy ears and was without question the most remarkable animal I have ever encountered in my life. From early puppyhood, the mostly-Dalmatian behaved in ways that made you swear he knew more than dogs were supposed to know. There was a whole lot of chess played in our neighborhood, for example, and Phil would sit and watch entire games, his eyes following each move. We had a small fenced yard in back of the old Victorian in which we lived and each morning our dog would jump off the bed before we awoke, go through the doggie-door I’d installed on the back door of the flat, then out of the latched gate and have his morning stroll through the neighborhood. Of course he was forbidden to leave the back yard so the tacit agreement was that Phil would return from his walk, close the gate door behind him, (he really did close it), run back into the house and jump back up on the bed and snuggle in before we awoke. Sometimes he’d sneak out during the day and, more often than not we’d find him in a parked car whose window had been left rolled down along the heavily-trafficked, three-lane, one-way South Third Street. He would sit rigid and alert on his haunches in the driver’s seat watching the cars go by. His gaze would lock on a single car, his head would slowly turn as the vehicle went by and then it would snap back straight ahead to lock on another. Phillip could do that for an hour.

But what made Phil truly remarkable was his ability to ‘speak’. Not with spoken words, but with words he thought and we, Claudia and I and a few others, somehow ‘heard’. Phil didn’t carry on a conversation or talk just to talk. Rather, he’d let you know that he wanted to go outside, to eat, that he liked or didn’t like someone, that he was annoyed or curious or happy or sad or…just about anything. Now, you can say that most dogs have the ability to communicate such things and this is, of course, very true. The difference was that Phil used actual words, which is to say, real words in the English language that, on more than one occasion, more than a single person heard and could confirm. And on many occasions the dog spoke to Claudia or me individually, one-on-one.

The first time I heard him speak he was still a pup, probably about eight months old. I’d taken him with me to Hayward where I was to see my aunt Mildred one last time before she died. She and my grandmother and I sat in her darkened sickroom…my aunt Mildred had been sick and bed-ridden since I could remember…and talked and talked and talked, trying to squeeze in every old family story we’d ever told into this last time together. Anyway, we’d been there a very long time when Phil, who’d been lying napping on the floor, suddenly said, "Come on, let's go." He’d awakened and he was staring straight at the three of us.

I looked at Mildred White, she looked at my grandma, and they both looked at me, our eyes locked, but we couldn't speak. Phil stood up facing the door and then looked back at us over his shoulder. If it is possible for a dog to look irritated, Phil looked it. I looked at my watch. We’d been there for three hours. Finally my grandma spoke. "Did you hear that?" she asked no one in particular. “Did you just hear that dog speak?” I nodded first, then Mildred White, after several seconds of hesitation, also nodded. The room was silent except for the tick-tock of a wind up alarm clock on the bed stand. We sat for at least two minutes, maybe more, without a word, the humans staring at the spotted dog, the spotted dog staring back.

Before I left, we three agreed that we would never tell anyone about what had happened. People, my grandmother said, would think ‘we needed help.’ I’d fully intended to keep my vow of silence, but about a month later my wife confessed, after going through great pains to extract from me a promise I would never, ever, EVER, tell a soul, that our dog had spoken to her.

“It was, I don’t know, strange,” she said, “it was strange that it…”

“Didn’t seem strange?” I finished her sentence.

“Yeah. Yes, exactly. It was strange that it didn’t seem strange or unnatural. It just seemed so, you know, normal. But how did you know what I was going to say?”

“Because it happened to me, too. And that was exactly my reaction…that Phil’s talking seemed so completely, I don’t know, just completely normal.” I shared my story about the visit to Hayward. Claudia’s experience was similar in that the dog spoke only after he’d become frustrated while waiting impatiently to have his evening dinner.

“It was just two words,” she said, but they were unmistakable, perfectly clear words. Phillip said, ‘Now, please.’ And he didn’t say the ‘please’ politely, he said it with an annoyed voice.”

“But his lips didn’t move, right?”

“No, they didn’t move. I just heard Phil’s voice in my mind.”

“Yeah, me too. You know,” I began after a long pause, “I’m thinking that maybe we shouldn’t…”

“Me, too,” my wife said, and that’s just what we did. We let it drop.

It wasn’t until late spring of that first year in graduate school that the talking dog situation came up again. One night while Claudia and I were at school a fire broke out in our flat. When we arrived home there were fire trucks and police cars and an ambulance parked in front of the South Third Street Victorian. A fireman from the station just half a block down the street from our house strode up to meet me. He had Phil on a leash he’d fashioned from his belt. The fireman knew our dog, knew him well from frequent visits.

“Do you recognize this,” he asked, handing me a bit of charred cloth. I examine it closely.

“Ah, I think it’s a piece of the blanket my dog sleeps on,” I replied.

“Where does Phil sleep?”

“On the kitchen floor. He has a bed, with his blanket, on the kitchen floor.

“He never sleeps in the little alcove between the living room and the bedroom…where the sewing machine is,” the fireman asked?

“No, never.”

The fireman made some notations on a form on his clipboard and then looked back up at me.

“Phil started this fire,” he said grimly, “he pulled the blanket from the kitchen through two rooms, into the alcove and onto the furnace’s register.

(The conclusion of the Phil the Dog story will be posted here on Thursday.)

Posted:  7/16/2013

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