Jim Dodge: “Bathing Joe: An Elegy for Bob, 1946-1994” and “Learning to Talk”

Jim Dodge, author of Fup, Not Fade Away, and Stone Junction, contributed a number of poems, short prose pieces, and essays to Wild Duck Review between 1994-2001.  “Bathing Joe” and “Learning to Talk” first appeared in Issue 16, Wild Duck Review, 1998; and, subsequently, in Rain on the River: Selected Poems and Short Prose by Jim Dodge, Grove/Atlantic Inc., 2002.  Dodge’s essay, “The Body of Metaphor: 15 Propositions About the Mechanics, Magic, and Meaning of Figurative Language,” can be found in Issue 20: End of Human Nature?; and, Part II of “Getting Real on Drugs” can be found in Issue 18: Media.


An Elegy for Bob, 1946-1994

The summer of ’94 at French Flat, on a scorching afternoon in mid-July, my brother Bob suggested we bathe his dog Joe, a sixteen year old Kelpie.  Since Bob held intractably to the notion that bathing dogs more than once a year destroys their essential skin oils, I hustled to gather the leash, towels, and doggie shampoo before he changed his mind.

Joe—112 in human years—truly needed a bath.  He suffered every affliction of elderly canines:  deaf as dirt; a few glimmers short of blind; lumpy with warts and subcutaneous cysts; a penis pointing straight down; a scrotum so saggy his testicles banged against his hocks; prone to drool; given to a seemingly constant flatulence that would be banned under the Geneva Accords; and possessed of what the genteel call “doggie odor,” which in Joe’s unfortunate case ranged between gagglingly rank and living putrefaction.  When Joe dozed by the woodheater on a winter’s eve, enjoying dinner was difficult—considering one’s watering eyes and the instinct to cover food.

So I had the leash on Joe before Bob, whose right leg had been amputated near the hip years earlier, could get up on his crutches.  With Bob herding from behind, I led Joe around back of the cabin, where we’d set up an old bathtub for starlit soaks.  We hadn’t used the bathtub lately, so I scooped out the accumulated litter of madrone leaves and pine needles before I lifted in Joe.  As I slipped off his collar, Joe grunted and sat down, settling into what we called the ODZ, or Old Dog Zone, where Joe seemed to be watching methane sunsets on Jupiter, or flights of birds invisible to human eyes.  I turned on the water, hot and cold mixing in a single hose, while Bob opened the shampoo.

I asked him, “Want me to put in the plug?”

“Jesus, no” Bob said.  “Rising water freaks Joe out bad.  In fact, better make sure that drain ain’t clogged.”

“How could it be?”  I reminded him.  “Remember when you couldn’t find the rubber plug one night and hammered in that chunk of redwood for a stopper?  Knocked out all those little cross-pieces?”

“Aw,” Bob dismissed the memory, “they were rusted all to shit anyway.  Besides, the tub drains on the ground—not like there’s a pipe to clog.”  He squirted some shampoo on his palm.  “You gonna stand there yakking or are we gonna get on it—it’s broiling out here.”

Joe returned from Jupiter when the stream of water hit him.  He bolted for safety but couldn’t get traction on the tub’s slick bottom.  Bob grabbed him around the neck and Joe slid to the front of the tub.  He held still, warbling softly as I soaked him down.

“It’s okay, Joe, you’re okay, “ Bob comforted his pooch, working the shampoo into a grey lather.  Joe struggled again, scrambling to get his back legs under him, then suddenly stopped.  His yellowish dingo eyes began to widen.

“Brain-lock,” I opined.

Bob ignored me to encourage Joe:  “Good dog, good dog.  Just keep still and we’ll be done in a few minutes.  You can’t help being old, can you?”

Joe answered in a low, trembling yowl.

“What’s he yodeling about?”  I wondered aloud.

“Hell if I know.”  Bob rubbed Joe’s neck.  “What’s the matter buddy?”

I noticed the grayish-yellow scum building in the bathtub and gratuitously advised Bob, “I wouldn’t bathe that dog without some industrial-strength, eight-ply latex gloves.  You wake up tomorrow, you might not have fingernails.”

Bob glanced at the rising scum.  “That’s the problem.  Joe’s sitting on the drain, got it blocked, and the water’s rising—thinks he’s gonna drown.  Let me scoot him back down, off the drain.”

But when Bob tried to slide him toward the middle of the tub, Joe’s yowl leaped an octave and he twisted his head free of Bob’s grasp.  He huddled against the front curve of the tub, a strong shiver passing through him from flank to nose.

I turned off the water.  “Now what?”

“Beats me, “ Bob declared, then cooed at Joe, “What’s your problem, buddy?  You’re not gonna drown.”  Bob slipped his hand underwater and felt beneath Joe.  When he withdrew his hand he gave me a funny look.  “You’re not gonna believe this,” he said solemnly, “but Joe’s got his nuts caught in the drain.”

“Impossible,” I assured him.  “The drain’s too small for his nuts to fit through.”

Bob shook his head.  “Maybe not if they were soapy and slid through one at a time.  Better take a look under there.  I’ll hold Joe.”

The tub was set about eight inches off the ground on a wooden frame, so I had to brace both legs and lift with a shoulder to rock the tub back far enough to see.  Sure enough, Joe’s testicles were dangling from the drain, side by side in his flaccid, mottled scrotum.

Bob took a break from consoling his dog to ask, “See anything?”

I eased the tub back down.  “Yeah, I see your dog’s nuts caught in the drain.  I trust you appreciate my reluctance to believe it.”

“Well,” Bob said impatiently, “try to poke them back through.  Ol’ Joe’s about to go into shock.”

Joe whimpered piteously in confirmation.

“You’re kidding,” I said.  “Try to poke them back through.  Hey bro, he’s your dog and those are his nuts—you do it.  Poking Joe’s stuck nuts is not even on my list of 25,000 things I’d do for fun or money.”

“Sweet Jesus,” Bob sighed with pained exasperation, “show class or show ass.”

I’d forgotten that Bob, with only one leg, probably couldn’t leverage the tub, so I gracefully offered, “I’ll lift the tub; you handle his nuts.”

“Ah, come on,” Bob objected, “someone’s got to hold Joe.  If he panics, he’ll either tear them off or stretch his sack so bad his balls will be bouncing along behind him the rest of his life.”  He scratched Joe’s head, murmuring, “Hang on, old pal, we’ll get you loose.”

I had an idea.  “Maybe we could take a sledgehammer to the tub—sort of break it out around him.”

“Right, good thinking, “ Bob mocked me.  “Take a 12-pound sledge to a metal bathtub.  We’d have him loose by next month easy.”  He shook his head.  “How would you like your nuts caught in the drain and some utter dimwit pounding away on the tub with a sledgehammer?”

“All right,” I said, “but it’ll cost you.”

“Why doesn’t that surprise us?” Bob asked his dog.  Then to me, “What?”

“Dishes for a week plus that little Shimano reel you hardly ever use anyway.”

Bob explained to Joe, “You’re gonna be here a long time, buddy, because my brother is a no-class, show-ass jerk.”

Swabbing sweat off my brow, too hot for prolonged negotiations, I surrendered.  “Hand me that damn bottle of shampoo.”

I lifted the tub again, sweat-blind in the heat, and awkwardly squirted some shampoo on Joe’s scrotum for lubrication.  Taking a deep breath, I began working Joes’ testicles around in his sack, trying to arrange them vertically for a push upward, all the while providing a running commentary on my feelings for Bob’s amusement and to deflect all but the essential attention from the task at hand:  “Forty-nine years I’ve been alive.  Representing the present culmination of millennia of species evolution.  Diligent study. Developing skills.  The long, excruciating refinement of sensibility.  And now I understand my whole life has been a preparation for this moment: trying to get your dog’s nuts unstuck from a bathtub drain.  And I don’t know if that’s perfect or pathetic or both or none of the above.”

“Well,” Bob offered with a dry sweetness, “for sure it’s better than something worse.”  Then to Joe, “Listen to him snivel.”

I saved my breath and, working by touch, manipulated Joe’s nuts around till they were stacked, then, using sort of a reverse milking move, squeezed his scrotum from the bottom.  The top testicle popped through, then the other.  Joe was free.  With an agility he hadn’t shown in years, he leaped from the tub and starting rolling in the dirt, moaning.

Bob smiled.  “There you go, buddy!  Happy dog!”

When I dropped the tub off my numb shoulder, the dirty water sluiced forward and slopped over the rim, drenching me.

I sniveled some more:  “Oh great, I free his worthless old nuts and what do I get—soaked with mutagenic Joe scuzz.”

Bob laughed.  “Plus you get our eternal gratitude—don’t forget that.”

I won’t.

*                        *                        *


Whenever Jason said “beeber” for “beaver”

or “skirl” for “squirrel”

I secretly loved it.

They’re better words:

The busy beeber beebing around;

the grey squirrels’ tail

like a skirl of smoke along a maple branch.

I never told him he was saying

their names “wrong,”

though I did pronounce them conventionally.

One time he noticed, and explained,

“’Beeber’ is how I say it.”

“Great,” I said, “whatever

moves you.”

But within a week

he was pronouncing both “correctly.”

I did my duty

and I’m sorry.

Farewell Beeber and Skirl.

So much beauty lost to understanding.

*                        *                        *


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