Author: Cornish, Rick

Phil the Dog, the Conclusion

(Editor’s Note—Today’s Welcome column presents the conclusion of the talking dog story begun here on Tuesday. In case you missed Part One, you can catch up by clicking here..)

“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. I was here first, I opened the door and he went flying right past me. And, I don’t know, but he, well, he just…it was the damnedest thing…that dog…”

“Spoke to you?” Claudia asked simply.

The fireman didn’t answer. He looked down at his clipboard, pretending to read his notes.

“Did our dog speak to you,” my wife asked again.

“Umm, he…Yes, he did.”

“What did he say?”

“He said, and these were his exact words. Phil said, ‘You took your sweet time getting here.’” The fireman said these last words almost in a whisper.

The fire in our apartment was a very big deal. Although it was extinguished quickly, no doubt because the fire station was less than a block away, and although there was really very little damage, smoke from our flat billowed up into the unit directly above us where a young Hispanic and her infant child lived. The woman panicked and not realizing she could have just simply walked down a flight of stairs and out of the house, she jumped from the second floor with her baby in her arms. And what’s worse was that, for whatever reason, she chose to land on her butt instead of breaking her fall with her legs. The baby was unharmed but the mother broke her pelvis. Claudia and I were interviewed again the next day, this time by a San Jose Fire Department Inspector. The following week we received the official report. The fireman we’d spoken with the night of the fire walked the half block to our house and hand delivered it.

“I’m sorry,” he said as I opened the vanilla envelope, “my captain, he told me that I was duty-bound to tell the truth about what I found and about what I thought it meant. There’s just no doubt in my mind—Phil meant to start that fire. He dragged that blanket through two rooms and put it right on the hot furnace register where he couldn’t possibly have curled up on it. He didn’t drag it there to sleep on. He dragged it there to burn.”

“You didn’t say anything about the dog, ah, you know…about what happened when you opened the door and…”

“Hell no,” he said. “I wouldn’t be wearing this badge right now if I had.”

Claudia and I had already reached the conclusion that the fire had not been an accident. For whatever reason, Phil hated to be left alone at night and he started the blaze because he knew the firemen, his buddies, would come and break the door down. If you’d known Phil, you’d just have to have had reached that conclusion. The woman with the broken pelvis found an attorney even before she was out of the hospital and we received a registered letter in the mail saying that we were being sued. Luckily a guy I’d been doing some freelance writing for, an estate planner up in Oakland, put me in touch with an attorney who didn’t even bother to have us come in for a consultation.

“No-brainer,” he said over the phone, “I’ll write ‘em a letter letting ‘em know that you and the Mrs. accept one hundred percent of the responsibility. It was all your fault, get it?. You left the heater on and that damned dog of yours pulled a flammable onto it. You understand what I’m saying? You’re guilty. You and only you. Case closed.”

“No, I don’t get it. That solves our problem how?”

“Okay, so if you’re Mrs. Mendoza, who would you rather see blamed? A--Two young college kids with no pot to piss in and in hock up to their eyeballs with student loans; or B--the landlord who owns that fire trap you live in and fifteen others just like it?”

The Oakland attorney was, of course, right, and the whole affair ended up costing us nothing; my freelance writing client paid whatever it cost for the letter to be written and sent.

The night before Phil ran away from home and we lost him forever he was sitting up late with Claudia watching her sew, which, like watching people play chess or cars speed up South Third Street, was something he clearly enjoyed very much. At one point he looked up at Claudia and catching and holding her glance told her he would be leaving the next morning…for good. This was so real and so disturbing to her that my wife nearly came into the bedroom to awaken me, but then thought better of it. For my part, that night I dreamt of elephants; they were off in the distance trumpeting as though in distress.

When I awoke the next morning our Dalmatian was not in his regular spot on the floor next to our bed and instantly a dark foreboding swept over me. While Claudia slept I threw on some clothes and went out looking for Phillip. I half walked-half ran two blocks north on South Third, checking each car I passed, looking down driveways and into back yards, then crossed the street and doubled back. Half way back to the house, in the middle lane of the street, I saw, in what could only be described as dumb amazement, a giant pile of elephant shit still steaming in the morning chill. (How do you instantaneously recognize elephant shit if you’ve never seen it before? You just do.) So I hadn’t dreamt it after all; there had been elephants on South Third Street. And suddenly it struck me—the day was Sunday, May 5th, Cinco de Mayo, the day celebrated each year with a parade through downtown San Jose. South Third Street, the part we lived on, had been used as the staging area. Phil joined the parade, and there was no trace of doubt in my mind.

For the entire day Claudia and I and three or four firemen from the forestation up the street scoured the neighborhood, making larger and larger concentric circles, but it was no use. The first thing next morning we went out again, this time with posters we’d made and had printed at Kinko’s. (Somehow Claudia had even managed to convince the college’s student radio station to put the word out on our missing dog.) We hadn’t been back home ten minutes after hanging the posters before the telephone started ringing. Yes, one woman said, she’d seen a black and white ‘fire dog’ marching with a brass band; a man called to say he’d seen Phil riding on a float; Phil was spotted in the midst of a precision marching team, trotting between the legs of an elephant, riding high atop a fire truck, (not the one from our neighborhood unfortunately), accompanying a search and rescue posse on horseback and so on. Thinking back, I realize that almost without exception the people who called seemed somehow pleased or proud or, I don’t know, grateful that they’d seen the black and white firedog on the poster. All expressed their concern for our loss of course, but in the description of their sighting each caller betrayed some degree of delight in having seen the dog. Many asked questions about Phil. Was he, I remember one woman asking, some kind of a special dog? The calls continued to come in for the better part of a week and then they trailed off. True to his word, Phil had left us, and he wouldn’t be back.

Four years later Claudia and I had the first of our two sons who, it had long been agreed, would be named Phillip.
Posted:  7/18/2013

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