The Literate Kerry (Vol. 7)

Cleo for Short

(The excerpt taken from “Cleo for Short,” recounts Brooks Atkinson’s relationship with his dog Cleo. Justin Brooks Atkinson, 1894–1984, was an American journalist and an editor for the New York Times. He became its drama critic in 1925 and held that position until 1960. Atkinson’s books include Henry Thoreau, the Cosmic Yankee (1927), Broadway Scrapbook (1947), and Broadway (1970). An ardent naturalist and conservationist, he wrote This Bright Land: A Personal View (1972).)

“Like man, like dog,” was her motto. Her determination not to be discriminated against amounted to an obsession. She insisted on being in the bedroom when we slept and in the dining room when we ate. If we went swimming, so did she, ruining peaceful enjoyment. If we shut her in the next room when friends dropped in for an evening she threw herself impatiently against the door until, for the sake of quiet, we released her. Fair enough: that was all she wanted. After politely greeting every guest in turn she would then lie quietly in a corner. “You’re a pest,” I used to say, generally patting her at the same time. “Go and read a good book,” my wife would say with vexation. “What this dog needs is discipline,” my mother used to say with tolerant disapproval. To be candid about it, the discipline was easy. Excepting for the essentials, there was none. Cleo could be trusted to do nothing treacherous or mean. . .

. . . She stood well and held her tail primly. Her vanity was one of the most disarming things about her. Praise her mawkishly and she fairly melted with gratitude. She was an insufferable poseur. When I came home from work late at night and lounged a few moments before going to bed, she would sit up erect on the couch, throw out her chest grandly, and draw her breath in short gasps to attract attention. When everyone in the room was praising her–although with tongue in cheek–she would alternate the profile with the full face to display all her glory. “The duchess,” we used to call her when she was posing regally in the back seat of the open car. But she was no fool. She knew just how much irony we were mixing with the praise and she did not like to be laughed at. If she felt that the laughter was against her, she would crowd herself into a corner some distance away and stare at us with polite disapproval.

Not that my regard for her was based exclusively on her beauty and amusing personality. She had more than that to contribute; she had a positive value in the sphere of human relations. To give Cleo the proper exercise and a little fun, it was necessary to find a place where she could run. . .

On Saturdays and Sundays we explored deeper territory down to the Battery and around South Street, where barges tie up for the winter, or across the river to Hoboken, where ocean vessels dock. When Cleo trotted ahead as a sign of friendly intentions, I discovered that even in these distant quarters I, too, was cordially received, and we had great times together. On weekends we were thus in close touch with important affairs. Hardly a ship could dock or sail without our assistance. Sometimes when we were off our regular beat a tugboat we knew would toot us a greeting as she steamed by. “Hello, Cleo,” the skipper would bellow pleasantly from the wheelhouse. A man, as well as a dog, could hold up his head on an occasion like that. Thus Cleo opened up a new life for me, and it was vastly enjoyable for both of us.

There is no moral to be drawn from this tale of Cleo. Although the misanthrope says that the more he sees of man the better he likes dogs, the circumstances are unequal. If Cleo never did a mean thing in her life, there was no reason why she should. Her requirements in life were simple and continuously fulfilled. She was as secure as any dog could be. But men live insecure lives; food and shelter are necessities they work for with considerable anxiety. In a complicated existence, which cannot be wholly understood, they have to use not only their instincts but their minds, and make frequent decisions. They have to acquire knowledge by persistent industry. Their family associations are not casual, but based on standards of permanence that result in an elaborate system of responsibilities. It takes varying degrees of heroism to meet all these problems squarely and live a noble life. Living a life honorable in an adult world is not a passive but a creative job.

For Cleo it was much simpler. As far as I could see, there was nothing creative about it. The food was good; it appeared in the kitchen on time. The house was warm, dry, and comfortable. Her winter and summer clothes came without effort. Her associations were agreeable, including three dogs–all male–of whom she was especially fond. It was easy to maintain a sunny disposition in circumstances like that. But it would be unfair to deny Cleo her personal sweetness and patience. Whether her life was simple or not, she did represent a standard of good conduct. Her instincts were fine. She was loyal and forgiving. She loved everyone in the home. Beyond that, she was joyous and beautiful and a constant symbol of happiness. Although she obviously emulated us, sometimes I wonder. Shouldn’t I have emulated her?

Last Updated: 07/21/2004, 12:41 pm