:: How Smart I Am ::
It was Clete, my first dog, who revealed just how smart I am. It was back in the early 1970′s. I was living in a one-room apartment where the bed was tucked into an alcove, and I had made it very clear to Clete that he was not allowed on the bed while I was gone. Often when I came home, I would sit down at the head of the bed to take off my sneakers. Clete would always be just getting up from the floor when I came in, stretching, wagging, and coming over to the bed for a pat on the head. One day, I came in, sat down on the bed and placed a hand on my pillow. It was warm. About the body temperature of a dog.
I looked at Clete. He was all innocence, shaking off his nap, trotting over to say hello. I tested the other pillow. It was cool. Mine was warm. My eyes narrowed, and I vowed that the next time I came home, I would do so on tiptoe, because I was so smart. I had read Sherlock Holmes. I had the clue; now I would set the trap.
The next day, I crept down the hallway to my apartment, not making a sound. I put the key in the lock ever so slowly, turned the knob very carefully, peeked in, and there was Clete, sound asleep on my pillow. I reveled in my own cleverness. I decided to give him a shock he would never forget. I glided like a jewel thief across the floor, leaned over, put my mouth right next to his ear, and said, “CLETE!”
I knew I had him. And a second later I knew something else, something I had forgotten: In moments of fright, Clete always lost bladder control. I suppose I could have thought of this sooner. I might even have factored it into my plans. But no, I waited to remember until I had just given him a jolly good scare right on top of my pillow. It was a sound like a garden hose, that first gush onto the grass, that recalled this important fact to my memory.
Clete looked up at me with eyes wide. I patted him on the head, let out a deep sigh, and thought about just how smart I was.
:: The Confidence Dog ::
When Clete and I traveled together, we encountered many inexplicable rules. “He’s not allowed on the furniture.” “Don’t feed him off the table.”
In some cases, we worked as a team. At dinner, Clete would lie quietly next to my chair. I would cut a Clete-sized tidbit from my meat and slide the morsel to the five o’clock position on my plate. When I found myself conversing with the lady of the house, I would make eye contact and hold it, say something profound or sensitive, and while the rule-giver’s eyes were fixed on mine, put down my fork, pick up the piece of food from the edge of my plate and pass it to Clete, who ate in perfect silence while I wiped my fingers on my napkin.
It was in his solo work, however, that Clete showed his true mastery. On one trip, we found ourselves in a “not on the furniture” home on a Saturday afternoon. Everyone else went out to shop, and we decided to nap, settling onto the living room carpet, making ourselves comfortable and closing our eyes.
I was awakened by the sound of the garage door opener. I opened my eyes and Clete was no longer on the floor. He was up on the sofa, his head resting comfortably on a red, round, throw pillow. A nice touch.
As the returning car drove into the garage, Clete lifted his head, raised himself up and hopped quietly off the sofa. I am sure that 99 dogs out of 100 would have been done at this point, but Clete was a master of deception. He walked to the middle of the room, curled up on the rug, and closed his eyes. Only when the family walked in did he blink, rise, stretch, and greet them, tail wagging. I watched in awe, in the presence of genius.
:: Licking the Plates ::
When my first wife and I separated, she kept Mr. Clete, the Wonder Dog. I missed him, terribly, but my future was so uncertain, I couldn’t inflict it on him. Years later, when my first wife decided to go to Africa, I got Clete back. It was one of the happiest days of my life. At this time I was living with my girlfriend, and she grew to love Clete as well. However, the first evening after dinner, as Clete was licking the plates off before I washed them, his tags jangling against the edge of each dish, she said, “I don’t want him to lick the dishes. It just doesn’t seem sanitary. “ I had already seen one relationship crumble; I didn’t want to lose my girlfriend, so I said, “Okay, no problem”
The next evening, we finished dinner and as I cleared the table, Clete looked up at me expectantly. I said, “Sorry, Clete.” My girlfriend smiled and left the kitchen, heading off to do whatever she did after dinner. Clete wagged his tail and I crouched down next to him and said, “Clete, I’m sorry, but you can’t lick the plates anymore… with your collar on.” And I slipped off his collar, my hand wrapped around the tags, and he silently licked the plates clean.
:: Riding with the King ::
He was feeling very odd, very quiet and independent, after a week of feeling harried and uneasy, harassed and helpless… and on a terrible night for driving, the roads icy with a coating of fresh snow, he leaned over to the dog and said, “Want to go for a ride?”
The dog of course sprang right up, any activity being exciting in the uneventful life of ease he led, and the two of them went downstairs, Kihm all bundled up and Clete in the same fur coat he wore year-round, and out to the garage.
The upstairs neighbor had parked a junker at the bottom of the drive, but Kihm had dug for an hour widening the drive and now could squeeze out, glide out, slip out, slide out into the night. It was really quite late and no one was out on the roads. So out they went, defroster and radio on high, Clete sitting at attention and Kihm wearing an odd little smile and driving with one hand.
Now, you must understand this man’s driving phobias. He hates even a short drive to the grocery store. Usually. But on other nights, or sometimes for weeks at a time, nothing bothers him. And as the car rocked and swerved, wallowed like a boat and leapt like fish, he drove with his left hand on the wheel and softly petted the dog’s head with his right. The dog now laying on the seat, his eyes closing as Kihm stroked his head, his neck, his back.
And after stopping at Peter’s IGA for milk, cottage cheese, English muffins, and peach preserves so he wouldn’t use up all the jelly Laurie had given him, they set off for home, driving the same way.
And at a downhill intersection, on ice, the wheels stopped turning but the car continued on its way.
Kihm had both hands on the wheel now, and for a moment he felt fear, and the desire to stop before sliding over the crosswalk and into the intersection. Society wanted him to Stop.
But there were no cars. It was quiet, dark. He began to play with the wheel. Dancing with the car, gently pushing, no, guiding his partner through an intimate moment of rhythm, harmony, grace.
And the car glided into the intersection, and smiling he spun it ninety degrees to the left, and touched the gas, felt the car straighten and was off down Broad Street, a free man.
:: One Night with Adelaide ::
Mr. Clete, my first and best dog, once spent the night in the studio of Adelaide Alsop Robineau, the legendary ceramic artist. He slept not far from where her handmade tiles surrounded the fireplace.
I was reminded of this when I took in the “Turner to Cézanne” exhibit at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse. My favorite parts of the show were the picture frames and the photographs of the Davies sisters who collected the art. Afterward I visited the Everson’s ceramics collection, and was drawn, as always, to the Robineau pieces.
The remarkable Scarab Vase, of course, but even more so the Viking Vase and the Crab Vase, which seem to me to be alive. And then I remembered Mr. Clete’s night in Adelaide’s studio.
I was traveling, and a friend was taking care of Mr. Clete; he was the kind of polite, quiet dog you could farm out without fear of the friend saying, “Never again.” And I loved Mr. Clete too deeply to put him in a kennel. On this occasion, the designated dog sitter was my dear friend Toni, who hosted Mr. Clete at an apartment on Robineau Road on the west side of Syracuse. The apartment was in what used to be Adelaide Robineau’s studio, and there Mr. Clete communed with her spirit. Being a humble and unaffected individual, he never brought up his brush with fame. But I knew, and revered him all the more for it.