Pucci: A Personal History

Pucci in 2019

Pucci in 2019

She was a small dog, possibly a shitzu-poodle mix according to the vet who treated her when she came under our care. Some strangers who encountered her on the street disagreed. There was something else in the gene pool—terrier, perhaps. Her coat was white, with an asymmetrical blotch of black on her backside and a cap of black on top of her head that extended down her ears and across her eyes, forming a small mask that led her to resemble a cartoon cat burglar. A little tuft of white in the middle of her forehead softened the criminal look. When her coat grew, the wavy fur puffed out, and she looked plumper than she was, although there were times in her prime when she could have lost a few pounds.

We first knew her as a nuisance dog. When we moved into the house next to her owner’s in downtown Wilmington, Delaware, she was probably little more than a year old. The owner left her out most of the day, and she was confined to a small concrete alley between our adjacent row houses. There she ate bowls filled with messy table scraps, excreted anywhere and everywhere, and protected her turf by running up the alley into a narrow tunnel entrance at the front of the two houses and barking at startled passersby while she remained hidden behind a wooden door. One day not long after we moved in, I saw two girls walking by our house jump in the air and shriek when Pucci’s fierce barking burst forth from the door two feet away from them.

She also barked to be let in. She spent most of her time outside, and late in the day she would start barking and continue to bark long after it was clear she was out for the night. After an hour, she would tire, and the full-throated barks would become sporadic biffs, then she would fall asleep.

We lived up the hill from a fire station, and engines and trucks raced up the hill with sirens screaming. Pucci howled in concert with the sirens—long, sustained wails, sometimes on pitch. This was the only time she howled, and the dispatch of a firetruck was infrequent enough that it seemed novel each time we heard it. Once she was ours and we had moved away from the city, we never heard her howl again.

The small backyards of our row houses were enclosed by wooden fences with gates that opened out onto an alleyway. Pucci was able to work her way under the fence behind her house and run around the neighborhood. We would occasionally spot her trotting alone along the sidewalk. We were told by a neighbor that while out on one of these clandestine jaunts, she was picked up by a stranger and ended up a dozen miles away in Newcastle, but she was eventually returned.

Our backyard was was small—only about fifteen feet deep and twenty feet wide—but there was enough land for my wife, L, to plant a flower and vegetable garden on the left side, next to the fence. The rest of the yard was covered with grass, which took me ten minutes to mow on weekends. We enjoyed this small patch of green, and we soon started opening the gate that separated our back yard from Pucci’s alley so she could have a respite from the concrete and brick behind her house. The first time we let her in, she bolted into the green space and ran furiously in figure eights back and forth across the small yard, seeming to smile as her tongue dangled to the side. She stopped suddenly and rested on the grass on her belly, panting, with her legs extended to the front and back. She seemed happy and satisfied. It’s possible she had never experienced grass before. Letting her into the backyard became part of our routine, and she became our companion for gardening and yardwork.

A year after we moved in, our neighbor bought two copper-colored Pekingese dogs—small, low-slung, elongated beasts with flat faces and curly tails. The dogs were cute and yappy, and Pucci enjoyed wrestling them in the alley. We thought the addition of the dogs was good for Pucci, since she now had something to occupy her, things to play with. We were soon referring to the new dogs as Pucci’s “squeak toys.”

Before long it became clear that these squeak toys were privileged by the neighbor. Although Pucci had never been treated well, she now became an unloved, neglected dog—a canine Cinderella despised by her stepmother and stepsisters, left to spend nearly all her time in the alley. As I looked at her lying among her poop and table scraps, her nuzzle resting between her front paws, I imagined the squeak toys frolicking indoors, sitting in laps, and eating treats proffered by the admiring grandchildren of the owner.

The squeak toys were occasionally put out of the house to excrete and get some exercise. Since they were even smaller than Pucci, they had no trouble escaping the neighbor’s yard by slipping under the fence, and after a few disappearances, the neighbor started leashing them to a stake in the backyard. Pucci was left to roam free, perhaps because she was larger, or because the neighbor wasn’t concerned about losing her.

One April, we had an unseasonably hot day. The temperature was predicted to reach 90 degrees. L and I decided to make a trip to Home Depot, and as we were leaving, I looked out the side window into the alley and saw that the squeak toys were chained to their stake in the middle of the brick patio. It was early in the afternoon and already getting hot. We were gone for an hour or so, and when we got back, I looked through the window again. One squeak toy was panting heavily and the other was lying on its back, immobile. It was next to the stake. While moving around the backyard, it had wrapped its chain tight around the stake and had been unable to move to the shade. I left the house and knocked on the neighbor’s front door. It took a while for her to answer, and when she opened the door, her eyes squinted in the daylight. “One of your dogs isn’t moving. You might want to check on it,” I said. Her eyes got big, and she shut the door and was soon appeared in the back yard. When she picked up the dog, it was stiff.

The neighbor had a garden patch in her backyard near the fence. I dug a hole and placed the dog’s rigid little corpse in it. I filled the hole with dirt and then laid spare bricks on top. The neighbor wrote the dog’s name, Nevaeh (“heaven” spelled backwards), on a scrap of wood and placed it on top of the grave. She felt no responsibility for the dog’s death. Such things God’s will, and the dog’s time had come.

Because the table scraps that the neighbor fed Pucci were left out day and night, we started seeing rats in the alley and in our backyard. I assumed our neighbor would do nothing about the rats, and it would be up to me. I’d never dealt with a rat infestation, but traps seemed the best starting point—far better than poison, which I imagined being a terrible way for even a rat to die. The poison bait also might endanger Pucci. I bought a package of rat traps at the local supermarket. They looked like outsized mouse traps and worked the same way. I pulled the large, copper U back and carefully set it with the thin copper rod that fit under the trigger. I set the traps around the fence of our backyard, where Pucci couldn’t reach them. The next day, I found two or three rats dead in the traps, and I put everything—rats and traps—into a plastic grocery bag and threw it in the trash.

One weekend afternoon, we were out doing yard work and had our gate to the alley open. The neighbor came out, and we started talking. We watched Pucci trot to the back of the yard where a stack of firewood sat next to the fence. Her tail wagged vigorously as she stood on her hind legs and pawed at the woodpile. She repositioned herself several times and at one point had climbed on top of the wood. She plunged her head into a crevice, and when she pulled it out, there was a rat in her mouth. She jumped off the pile and walked toward us with the addled rat dizzily squirming in her jaw. Her owner, dressed in a sack-like shift, hands on hips with a lit cigarette in one hand, looked blankly at the dog as if she didn’t know why the rat was so lethargic. “Put that down!” Pucci dropped the rat, and I picked it up in a bag and threw it out. I realized the owner had put out rat poison, and over the next few days, we saw a few more slow-moving rats approaching their end. I don’t remember Pucci interacting with any of these rats, and within a week, the rats were gone, and somehow Pucci wasn’t poisoned.

Life got no easier for Pucci. As the owner’s neglect continued, another neighbor stepped in to help, and while the owner didn’t necessarily welcome the help, she didn’t hinder it. Gary was about forty years old and lived alone in one of the houses across the street. He didn’t have a job, and he sought out work from people around the neighborhood to make money. He was gentle and easy going, and he had gave Pucci companionship. On weekends, he opened the door to the tunnel between our house and the owner’s house—the door that hid Pucci as she barked at passersby—and she would be waiting for him, wagging her entire body. Gary sat down with Pucci on the neighbor’s stoop, placing the dog in his lap and a styrofoam clamshell container on his knee. The clamshell was filled with jerk chicken and rice from “the Jamaica Man,” owner of one of the Caribbean restaurants in downtown Wilmington. I suspect it was food that had been leftover at the end of the day. Gary opened up the clamshell, and Pucci feasted on the meat and gravy.

After the arrival of the squeak toys, Pucci spent more time in the alley and endured more neglect. She became infested with fleas and spent her waking hours scratching at them. The itching never stopped, and when she slept, she scratched herself with a rear leg without waking. The fleas worried Gary, and he tried a treatment he had heard about—perhaps it was a remedy suggested at the Jamaica Man’s restaurant. He poured a drizzle of motor oil along the center of Pucci’s back. This did little for the fleas, but it did turn her fur into a dark, matted mess.

Not long after the motor-oil treatment, we watched Pucci scratching in the alley. It was October and temperatures were dropping. The dog looked sick and miserable. “That dog is going to die in that alley, and I can’t bear to watch it,” L said. “You need to go over and ooze your charm. We can take care of that dog.” I can’t remember exactly what I said to the neighbor, but I remember thinking it through carefully before approaching her. I knew I should approach the topic casually and not push. I suspect I said something like, “I know with everything going on in your life, keeping up with Pucci must be a challenge. L and I were talking the other day, and if she ever becomes too much for you, we’d be able to take her in and care for her.” Whatever I said, this first conversation wasn’t successful. L remembers my reporting back that the neighbor said, “I’m OK with the arrangement we have now”—an arrangement that had us providing as much care for the dog as possible without moving it in our house. My conversation with her planted a seed, though. She started thinking about it. Within a month or so, the neighbor approached L, and L oozed her own charm, and Pucci became ours.

L was on the phone immediately to schedule an appointment at Pike Creek Animal Hospital near Newark, Delaware, and the same day, she took the flea-infested, oil-soiled dog in for an examination. Her skin was infected from the fleas, and the scratching had inflamed the infection. They gave her a bath for the fleas, and she came home with medication. She looked like a different dog.

Until we owned her, we knew her by the name the owner had given her: “Putti.” I had always liked the name. It was the plural of the Italian putto—the plump little cherubs in Renaissance art—and the “tt” between the two syllables created a nice pop. It wasn’t until we had adopted her that L learned from a couple of Spanish-speaking colleagues that “Putti” was uncomfortably similar puta (whore) and puto (f-ing). One of her colleagues said she wasn’t sure she could call the dog that name. We considered options, and L came up with “Pucci,” a play on poochie and close enough to “Putti” that the dog could recognize it, though it was never clear the dog answered to “Putti” in the first place.

Throughout her life, her focus was on food, and she would cross the boundaries of acceptable behavior in pursuit of the smallest bit of food. On the first day she lived with us, when we sat down to dinner she positioned herself on the floor between us, and not long after we’d started eating, she stood on her hind legs and pawed at L’s leg. “No,” L said firmly. She said it was important to establish rules early so the dog will learn how to behave appropriately. L ignored Pucci when we were at the table. She avoided eye contact and certainly didn’t feed her. I remember the dog’s behavior at the table improving over time, but in other contexts she was still uninhibited around food. It was impossible to sit on the couch and enjoy a bowl of popcorn as we watched a movie. I would end up holding the bowl over my head and occasionally feeding her a kernel just to keep her out of my face.

She was the only dog on our block in Wilmington, and her interactions with other dogs were limited. When we moved to Wallingford, Pennsylvania, in 2011, she was exposed to more dogs, and nearly all were kind and well-behaved. I don’t remember her showing aggression toward any dog, but the behavior of some some clearly annoyed her. If a dog sniffed her too long, she would freeze and give it a side-eye stare, and if the sniffing continued, she would curl her upper lip (the first warning) and then release a sharp bark. On the other hand, there were favored dogs—usually large, long-haired male dogs. She had a particular attraction to a golden retriever and a Russian wolfhound. Whenever they approached, she would lift her head high, wag her tail, and begin dancing on her hind legs in front of the dog.

For four years, Pucci lived alone with us and was happy having us to herself. That ended in June 2015 when L’s father died, and his dog, Cheddar, was left without a home. L probably could have found a home for the dog, but there were good reasons for L to take him. The most compelling was that Cheddar was her father’s dog, and the dog reminded her of her dad.

In June 2015, L had flown to Memphis when she learned her father had been found unconscious in his apartment and taken to a hospital. She was with him when he died a few hours after she arrived. I drove to Memphis a day or two later, and we stayed until after the funeral several days later. Before we left to return to Pennsylvania, we discussed how to introduce Cheddar into the household. Although Pucci and Cheddar had spent time together whenever we visited L’s father in Memphis, she had never dealt with him in our house—her house, her domain. We already knew from a tortured weekend stay by a neighbor’s lively but gentle dog that Pucci didn’t tolerate other dogs in her house, and we predicted trouble when we brought Cheddar home. We decided to begin by keeping the two dogs apart. We would keep Cheddar in the family room until they had become comfortable living under the same roof. Before we left Memphis, we bought child-proof gate at Home Depot to place in the doorframe of the family room and keep the two dogs apart.

When we got home, we settled Cheddar into the family room, I installed the gate, and we retrieved Pucci from the neighbor. I took a photograph of Pucci sniffing at Cheddar through the gate, her front paws resting on the stair leading into the room. Once she realized Cheddar was in the house and seemed to be staying for a while, she peed on the floor, a few feet from the gate. Keeping them segregated proved complicated, especially when we had to open and shut the child-proof gate, which seemed to be also adult proof.

Pucci and Cheddar

Pucci eyes Cheddar through the gate

We quickly abandoned the idea of keeping them in separate spaces, and they began negotiating their life together. Each grudgingly tolerated the presence of the other, but there were almost daily flareups. When L was home, Pucci sat in her lap on a couch, and Cheddar would stay close. If Pucci got too close to Cheddar, either by design or by accident, Cheddar’s upper lip would curl, and he would emit a sotto voce growl. Most of the conflict between them involved food. There were frequent barking and snapping incidents near the kitchen table, when one got too close to the other or when Pucci horned in on Cheddar’s plate.

Throughout Pucci’s life, food was the driving force, and it turned a typically passive, cuddly dog into a monstor. As soon as her bowl hit the mat, she ate with vigor until it was empty. When L and I put our plates on the floor at the end of a meal, she quickly licked hers clean and dashed over to Cheddar’s, pushed him out of the way, and finished his as he retreated to his safe space under the table. Whenever someone entered the kitchen, she was close behind, ready to sniff and, as appropriate, eat anything that accidentally fell to the floor. If meal preparation was taking too long, she began biting my houseslippers and was soon wrestling my feet. Late in her life, when she was growing blind, she would snap in the direction of a hand approaching her head for a pet, assuming it had food in it. Even late in her life, when arthritis had left her walking awkwardly, as if on stilts, and she couldn’t stand on the hardwood floors of the kitchen without her rear legs splaying outward, she would attack a plate or cutting board with gusto, her head bobbing up and down and moving from side to side as she licked every molecule off the surface. Until her last months, when one of us prepared her food bowl and moved to deliver it to her placemat in the dining room, she was either in front or close behind, leaping and dancing and occasionally tripping over objects left on the floor because her gaze was fixed on the bowl.

This compulsion to eat nearly led to her death in March 2018. L had driven to Memphis for a visit with her family and friends, and I was getting ready to take a car to the Philadelphia airport for a flight to join her. My son Tommy and his girlfriend would be flying into Memphis the next day from Oregon and staying with us for a short vacation. L had arranged for K, the teenage son of the neighbors across the street, to take care of the dogs while we were gone.

Once I had finished packing my suitcase, I brought it downstairs and set it next to the front door. I had a little time before I needed to call the car, so, to avoid having to buy something overpriced at the airport to eat for lunch during the flight, I made a turkey sandwich. I put it in a plastic bag and set it on top of the suitcase so I wouldn’t forget it. I called the car and went back upstairs to set the timers on the bedroom lights.

When I came back down, Pucci was next to the suitcase. The sandwich was gone and a few shreds of plastic bag and turkey were on the floor. I cursed the dog, cleaned up the mess, and the car arrived. On the way to the airport, I texted L:

This is just to say
Someone ate the turkey sandwich I had made,
On Dave’s multigrain bread,
And placed on top of my suitcase,
Only briefly.

It would have been so good,
So wholesome and filling.
(But I don’t don’t believe I would have eaten
The plastic bag that held it.)

L texted back:

On no. Did Pucci eat the plastic bag too? Better let K know to keep an eye on her. This could be bad.

I found this puzzling. Pucci had eaten a lot of unusual things in her life. I remember when we were in Wilmington, I gave her a pork chop bone thinking she would be chewing on it off and on for days or even weeks. After an hour, it was gone. She had eaten it.

The next day, L got a text from K’s mother, saying that Pucci wasn’t eating and didn’t seem well. When the dog got worse, K’s mother took her to the emergency room of the closest animal hospital. They said fluid had built up in her lungs—that the plastic bag had obstructed something and her lungs were filled with fluid. Operating wouldn’t be possible.

Even before Pucci got sick, L had planned to start the drive back to Philadelphia a couple of days after I’d arrived in Memphis. She made the trip in one day rather than the usual two. When she reached home, Pucci was still in a bad state. She texted me that the dog was vomiting and refusing to eat food, making it more difficult to get the medications prescribed by the vet into her. L took her to our regular vet and told me later that as she sat in the waiting room with Pucci in her lap, she started crying, convinced that Pucci would soon be dead.

But she didn’t die, and although, at fourteen, she had already lived longer than most dogs, she recovered and lived another two years. Her strength and her appetite returned, and her breathing became easier. She resumed her jaunty walks around the neighborhood and her untiring pursuit of something to eat. Her aging was gradual. The small lumps and bumps on her skin grew larger. Eventually her eyesight partially failed, and she seemed demented. She would stare blankly at nothing. Her joints and muscles stiffened and weakened, and she started having trouble standing on a bare floor. Yet she still managed to jump up against L’s chair at dinner to paw her leg. During those last months, these dinnertime calisthenics were the moments when she expended the most energy. Food continued to drive her to the end, and she her interest in it diminished, we knew she was failing.

She never became immobile, but her walking slowed, and the length of her walks shortened. At the end, she went no farther than the front yard, and although she was able to hop off the front porch to the concrete patio, she was unable to make the small jump back onto the front porch when she returned. Instead, she slowly placed one front paw on the porch, then the other, followed by one rear paw and finally the other.

Now her ashes are in a bag set in a wooden box on the mantle. It’s stained red and varnished, and a brass clasp holds the lid shut. “Pucci” is engraved on a brass plate on top. Sitting behind the box is a pen-and-ink drawing of Pucci by a college roommate of L’s who had joined us for vacation in Maine a few years ago. Beside the box is her favorite toy, a stuffed sock frog—brown body, beige face, bright red lips—that once had four legs but through rough play many years ago had lost one of them.

We had Pucci cremated because I didn’t want to dig another grave for a pet, having dug at least two for cats many years ago and one more recently for the neighbor’s squeak toy in Wilmington. It’s a difficult chore. The digging isn’t hard—the grave doesn’t need to be very deep—but the thinking, reflecting, and musing that accompany the digging are exhausting.

Eventually, we might scatter Pucci’s ashes. It’s something we’ve talked about, we feel no rush. When it happens—if it happens—I’m sure the occasion will trigger the thoughts and emotions that would have accompanied the digging of a grave, but with the passing of time they will be less intense and troubling, since the grieving will have happened in other ways. For now, I feel some comfort in lifting my eyes to the fireplace mantel and the drawing of Pucci and then letting them rest on the red-stained box with the brass clasp.


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