Yesterday my dog died. For eleven years Ahbhu was my closest friend. He was responsible for my writing a story about a boy and his dog that many people have read. The story was made into a successful movie. The dog in the movie looked a lot like Ahbhu. He was not a pet, he was a person. It was impossible to anthropomorphize him, he wouldn’t stand for it. But he was so much his own kind of creature, he had such a strongly formed personality, he was so determined to share his life with only those he chose, that it was also impossible to think of him as simply a dog. Apart from those canine characteristics into which he was locked by his genes, he comported himself like one of a kind.
We met when I came to him at the West Los Angeles Animal Shelter. I’d wanted a dog because I was lonely and I’d remembered when I was a little boy how my dog had been a friend when I had no other friends. One summer I went away to camp and when I returned I found a rotten old neighbor lady from up the street had had my dog picked up and gassed while my father was at work. I crept into the woman’s backyard that night and found a rug hanging on the clothesline. The rug beater was hanging from a post. I stole it and buried it.
At the Animal Shelter there was a man in line ahead of me. He had brought in a puppy only a few weeks old. A Puli, a Hungarian sheep dog; it was a sad-looking thing. He had too many in the litter and had brought in this one either to be taken by someone else or to be put to sleep. They took the dog inside and the man behind the counter called my turn. I told him I wanted a dog and he took me back inside to walk down the line of cages.
In one of the cages, the little Puli that had just been brought in was being assaulted by three larger dogs that had been earlier tenants. He was a little thing, and he was on the bottom, getting the stuffing knocked out of him. He was struggling mightily.
“Get him out of there!” I yelled. “I’ll take him, I’ll take him, get him out of there!”
He cost two dollars. It was the best two bucks I ever spent.
Driving home with him, he was lying on the other side of the front seat, staring at me. I had had a vague idea what I’d name a pet, but as I stared at him, and he stared back at me, I suddenly was put in mind of the scene in Alexander Korda’s 1939 film The Thief of Bagdad, where the evil vizier, played by Conrad Veidt, had changed Ahbhu, the little thief, played by Sabu, into a dog. The film had superimposed the human over the canine face for a moment, so there was an extraordinary look of intelligence in the face of the little dog. The little Puli was looking at me with that same expression. “Ahbhu”, I said.
He didn’t react to the name, but then he couldn’t have cared less. But that was his name, from that time on.
No one who ever came into my house was unaffected by him. When he sensed someone with good vibrations, he was right there, lying at their feet. He loved to be scratched, and despite years of admonitions he refused to stop begging for scraps at the table, because he had found most of the people who came to dinner at my house were patsies unable to escape his woebegone Jackie-Coogan-as-the-Kid look.
But he was a certain barometer of bums, as well. On any number of occasions when I found someone I liked, and Ahbhu would have nothing to do with him or her, it always turned out the person was a wrongo. I took to noting his attitude toward newcomers, and I must admit it influenced my own reactions. I was always wary of someone Ahbhu shunned.
Women with whom I had had unsatisfactory affairs would nonetheless return to the house from time to time to visit the dog. He had an intimate circle of friends, many of whom had nothing to do with me, and numbering among their company some of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood. One exquisite lady used to send her driver to pick him up for Sunday afternoon romps at the beach.
I never asked him what happened on those occasions. He didn’t talk.
Last year he started going downhill, though I didn’t realize it because he maintained the manner of a puppy almost to the end. But he began sleeping too much, and he couldn’t hold down his food – not even the Hungarian meals prepared for him by the Magyars who lived up the street. And it became apparent to me something was wrong with him when he got scared during the big Los Angeles earthquake last year. Ahbhu wasn’t afraid of anything. He attacked the Pacific Ocean and walked tall around vicious cats. But the quake terrified him and he jumped up in my bed and threw his forelegs around my neck. I was very nearly the only victim of the earthquake to die from animal strangulation.
He was in and out of the veterinarian’s shop all through the early part of this year, and the idiot always said it was his diet.
Then one Sunday when he was out in the backyard, I found him lying at the foot of the stairs, covered with mud, vomiting so heavily all he could bring up was bile. He was matted with his own refuse and he was trying desperately to dig his nose into the earth for coolness. He was barely breathing. I took him to a different vet.
At first they thought it was just old age – that they could pull him through. But finally they took X-rays and saw the cancer had taken hold in his stomach and liver.
I put off the day as much as I could. Somehow I just couldn’t conceive of a world that didn’t have him in it. But yesterday I went to the vet’s office and signed the euthanasia papers.
“I’d like to spend a little time with him, before”, I said.
They brought him in and put him on the stainless steel examination table. He had grown so thin. He’d always had a pot-belly, and it was gone. The muscles in his hind legs were weak, flaccid. He came to me and put his head into the hollow of my armpit. He was trembling violently. I lifted his head and he looked at me with that comic face I’d always thought made him look like Lawrence Talbot, the Wolf Man. He knew. Sharp as hell, right up to the end, hey old friend? He knew, and he was scared. He trembled all the way down to his spiderweb legs. This bouncing ball of hair that, when lying on a dark carpet, could be taken for a sheepskin rug, with no way to tell at which end head and which end tail. So thin. Shaking, knowing what was going to happen to him. But still a puppy.
I cried, and my eyes closed as my nose swelled with the crying, and he buried his head in my arms because we hadn’t done much crying at one another. I was ashamed of myself, not to be taking it as well as he was.
I got to, pup, because you’re in pain and you can’t eat. I got to. But he didn’t want to know that.
The vet came in, then. He was a nice guy and he asked me if I wanted to go away and just let it be done.
Then Ahbhu came up out of there and looked at me.
There is a scene in Kazan’s and Steinbeck’s Viva Zapata where a close friend of Zapata’s, Brando’s, has been condemned for conspiring with the federales. A friend that had been with Zapata since the mountains, since the revolucion had begun. And they come to the hut to take him to the firing squad, and Brando starts out, and his friend stops him with a hand on his arm, and he says to him with great friendship, “Emiliano, do it yourself.”
Ahbhu looked at me and I know he was just a dog, but if he could have spoken with human tongue he could not have said more eloquently than he did with a look, don’t leave me with strangers.
So I held him as they laid him down and the vet slipped the lanyard up around his right foreleg and drew it tight to bulge the vein, and I held his head and he turned it away from me as the needle went in. It was impossible to tell the moment he passed over from life to death. He simply laid his head on my hand, his eyes fluttered shut and he was gone.
I wrapped him in a sheet with the help of the vet and I drove home with Ahbhu on the seat beside me, just the way we had come home eleven years before. I took him out in the backyard and began digging his grave. I dug for hours, crying and mumbling to myself, talking to him in the sheet. It was a very neat, rectangular grave with smooth sides and all the loose dirt scooped out by hand.
I laid him down in the hole and he was so tiny in there for a dog who had seemed to be so big in life, so furry, so funny. And I covered him over and when the hole was packed full of dirt, I replaced the neat divot of grass I’d scalped off at the start. And that was all.
But I couldn’t send him to strangers.
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