Miss Briggs died quietly just before Christmas, slumped at her kitchen table with the last of eight dozens of freshly cookies packed into Tupperware beside her. After some discussion, it was decided the cookies (chocolate chip, oatmeal, little sugar trees and wreaths) should not be wasted; the other women at the Cookie Party Club justified their munching by saying that Miss Briggs would not have wanted her work to go unappreciated. Everyone agreed they were the best cookies she’d ever baked. “She left this Earth at the top of her game,” said Ruth Conley.
A few days into the New Year, an Akron niece arrived then departed, taking with her a few small possessions and leaving behind the rest for a couple of guys from the City Mission, who backed a dump truck into Miss Briggs’ yard and began the ugly task of eliminating all record of her from the planet.
As Big John, my roommate, and I looked on, out through the kitchen door came furniture, clothing, wall hangings, books, garden tools and dishes, some in boxes, others carried by handfuls. It was disrespectful, yes. Had we known she was alone, we each promised, we surely would have been friendlier toward our ancient neighbor.
One of the truck crew stood inside the dump bed, carefully arranging the mismatched furniture to achieve the optimum load. This was not the first dead person’s home he’d emptied and it wouldn’t be the last, but that didn’t make the job any easier. He realized the more he could pack in, the fewer return trips he’d have to make, so he stood, assembling a jigsaw puzzle with the lonely possessions of a dead woman. However, no matter how he pushed and pulled, piled and prodded, he could not fit it all in one trip. They’d have to come back.
The truck pulled away, leaving a small pile of assorted belongings sitting in the snow in the back yard.
Standing at a dignified and respectful distance, staring on from across the street, we weren’t sure if what we were seeing was true. There, standing next to a table lamp and a vacuum cleaner, appeared to be a German Shepard.
He sat at attention, eyes fixed on something in the distance. And as we walked closer, Big John and I each realized the unmoving dog had been dead for a long, long time.
Miss Briggs had a dog.
Miss Briggs had a stuffed dog.
Miss Briggs had stuffed her dog and her niece from Akron had no interest.
And that’s how Big John came in possession of Stuffy.
Had we known she was not alone, but living with a stuffed dead dog, we each promised, we surely would have been friendlier toward our ancient neighbor.
“Stuffy!” called Big John. “Stay! Good boy!” He walked into the yard, and, circling the taxidermist’s creation, made the decision that many boys had made before him. Big John was going to get a dog. He was going to get this dog. He was going to take this dog home. He turned to me and, placing a hand on my shoulder, pretended to plead. “Can I keep him? I promise! I’ll take care of him!”
All jokes get old.
Try as he might, Big John could not rid himself of the dusty Shepard. He once fitted the big stiff dog carcass into a giant garbage bag and dragged him to the front door, but it never got farther than that. He asked all his friends to take the dog. Most of us had dogs; most of them were the live variety. Each of us said, “No.”
Big John once carried Stuffy down to our apartment building’s incinerator, but could not go through with the act.
Stuffy was his.
Or, at least, for a long while.
Many years later, during another Christmas, the mailman knocked. He had a big package for me, downstairs, with no return address, he explained. Could I help him carry it?
I know of only one person who has consistently had no return address through the years. I moved from town to town, radio job to radio job. Big John? No one kinows.
Stuffy came wrapped in Christmas paper - a pattern of dogs and dog bones along with Christmas trees and elves. I imagined John going to a pet store and buying the paper. All told, the shipping ran him more than forty dollars.
“Happy DogMas!” read the card around Stuffy’s neck.
I often wonder whether our ancient neighbor looks down from some other place and smiles at the thought of her stuffed pet living on.
Happy DogMas, Miss Briggs.