Author: Cornish, Rick

My Dog Phil
Mildred White, which is what we always called our aunt, my father’s sister, was always in her dark bedroom with the shades pulled down. She’d been in a sick bed since I could remember. For my entire remembered life, my aunt had been ever so slowly dying, shut in her shadowy, stuffy bedroom with the covers pulled up tight. I never asked what Mildred White’s illness was and now there’s no one left to ask. Grandmother, mother and father, aunts and uncles, sister, all gone.

It was on a Saturday morning in the summer of 1970 that my father called me from Hayward to say Mildred White was going to pass soon. “If you want to see her, you’d better come up here today.” He knew I would want to see my aunt.
She and my uncle Lloyd had lived across the street from my family, and I’d had closeness with her that came from talking, there in her darkened room, from the time I was a little, little boy until I was an adult. Most days I would go visit she and my grandma and we’d talk, never very long, but we’d always make each other laugh. Sure I wanted to see her one last time.

So Phil and I drove the 45 minutes from San Jose to Hayward. Phil was a two-year-old mostly Dalmatian mix and he went most places I went. For being barely out of puppy hood, he had very good manners and was very patient. He would sit in the front passengers seat, on his haunches, just like a fellow traveler, and every now and then he’d lean his head out the window and his big ears would flap in the wind. Phil was a very, very uncommon dog.

Mildred White looked terrible. She would surely be dying soon. My grandma, Maude, was sitting there on the edge of the bed, talking with Mildred White when Phil and I came in. They made a fuss over me when we came into the bedroom, and then over the dog.

"Oh mercy, mercy, mercy," my grandma feigned horror, "look at that beard. Oh, mercy me. If that beard doesn’t make you look the spitting image of that drunken Grant, then, little boy, I don’t know who on earth it does." My grandma always called me “little boy” and always said that about my beard; it was playful and loving but it carried its intended disapproval. My grandma hated beards and she hated Ulysses S. Grant, a contemporary of hers in the same way that Harry Truman, who died when I was just a young man, was a contemporary of mine.

Mildred White agreed weakly, almost in a whisper, “Yes, Mama, it sure is a Grant beard, and this boy is getting tall as a tree.” She’d said that to me since I was just a little boy… meant I was growing up. The two of them loved me so much—partly because they’d watched me grow from a baby to a grown man, my aunt living just across the street, my grandma living in a cottage in our back yard. But I think too it was because that of all Maude’s ten children, my dad had had the only son…..I was the only male of all the cousins, the only one who’d carry on the Cornish name.

“Hurry now,” Mildred White said, "get that moose of a spotted dog into the room and close the door.” She was afraid that Phil would upset her Pomeranians. Mildred White always had a few Pomeranians around the house and they were always getting upset about something. It used to be me and the wild animals I would bring my aunt as presents. Now it was Phil.

Once inside with the door closed I sat down opposite my grandmother on the bed and, after a small amount of sniffing (Phil was not interested in these Pomeranians) and two or three tightly walked circles, my dog lay down on the hardwood floor and went to sleep.

My grandma looked tired and drawn and very, very old, which of course she was. And I knew she’d been crying. Her daughter, her only daughter out of eleven children, would soon be gone. And Mildred White…..well, Mildred White lay in her bed, as she’d lain most of my life, but she looked different now, almost as if she were already in her casket.

But it wasn’t sad time that we spent with one another that summer morning. Not at all. We talked for a good long while, probably longer than we’d ever sat and talked. Mainly what we three did when we were together was to take turns telling stories. I remember that Saturday morning my grandma told our favorite story, one we’d heard many, many times, of the last Black Foot raid in the Nebraska Territory. How my grandma’s mama had taken she and her two sisters and brother down into the root cellar where they had stayed for three days and three nights. And how my great-grandma would sneak out each night and feed the chickens and the hog and the geese. No Black Foots ever came to their sod hut, but it was till our favorite story.

Mildred White told us about the time twenty years earlier when Uncle Cyrus had walked all the way into Hayward for a hair cut one morning and had come home that afternoon, a little more confused that usual, with a Mexican prostitute whom he said he would be marrying, “after I talk to her pappy.” And about the time my father went to buy a hog at the Russell City Auction, got drunk with his pals and returned home with a burro for my sister and I instead. I watched as my aunt choked the story out. Her eyes were sunken into her skull and the color of her skin was gray and utterly lifeless. She was coughing a lot, especially when she got to the funny parts and we were all laughing. “And Millie (my mother) said, ‘You damned fool, those kids need a donkey like they need a whole in their head. You take that damned animal back right this minute. And don’t come home without a hog.’” The three of us laughed a lot that day.

It was really quite a while before Phil let it be known that he was running out of patience. Probably an hour went by before he got up from the floor and began pacing in front of the door. I pretended not to notice and he just lay down and fell back to sleep. This was a special time for Mildred White and my grandma and me and I think somehow he knew it. It had been a few years since we three had had a chance to be with one another alone, without the rest of the family. (I’d grown up and gone away to college.) And we all knew it would be the last time.

I told Mildred White and my grandma about how I’d just won a short story writing contest at school. Of course they wanted to hear all about the story so I told them, remembering the narrative almost verbatim. They were both delighted….both were avid readers, both valued the written word and both believed that someday I would amount to something..

Phil got up again, walked over to the bed and looked me in the eyes. There was no ignoring him. “Okay,” I said sternly, “in a minute. Now go lay down.” My dog went back to the door, toenails clicking on the hard wood floor, and flopped down.

"Oh mama, tell Ricky what little Harold brought you," Mildred White said, sitting up in bed just a little and smiling, her dim eyes brightening for just a moment. Little Harold was one of a bushel of second-half cousins, not really blood related. He was a bizarre twelve year old who, in later years, would become an even more bizarre man.

"Well, he brought me a dead mouse."

"A dead mouse? Why would he....." I was laughing so hard I had to stop to catch my breath.

"Come on, let's go," Phil said.

The dog had awakened and he was now looking at the three of us. We couldn't speak. I looked at Mildred White, she looked at my grammar, and they both looked at me. 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 irritated. 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 fell silent. We sat for a full four or five minutes without a word, the humans staring at the spotted dog, the spotted dog staring back.

"Well, I'm gonna go," I sudd
Posted:  9/24/2007

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