Yesterday's Magazette

6 – Lillybelle and Patsy

Lillybelle and Patsy

By Catherine Underhill Fitzpatrick

It took her a lifetime, but dear old Lillybelle got the last laugh.

Lillian grew up in one of the modest brick row houses that line the streets of old St. Louis. On sweltering summer evenings she and her sister, Dorothea, rolled hoops along the sidewalk until the mosquitoes came out to feast.

Dorothea grew into a stunning beauty whose heart-shaped face and dulcet disposition attracted several beaus, but it was Arthur, the bespectacled scion of a prominent St. Louis family, who won her heart. Arthur and Dorothea moved into a Tudor house filled with Jacobean furniture, original oil paintings, rugs from Persia. They dressed in the latest fashions and traveled to Spain by sea and dined each night at the captain’s table. They sunbathed in Acapulco, golfed in Palm Springs, danced the tango in swanky Havana.

Lillian’s features were strong, dominated by brown eyes set deep under dark brows. Her wardrobe was more serviceable than fashionable, navy blue suits, blouses buttoned to the collar, and lace-up shoes. Lil never saw the Alhambra or danced the tango in steamy Havana.

Lillian married and had a daughter, whom she loved beyond words. Eventually it was just she and the child in their small apartment. To make ends meet, Lil went to work as a secretary and was quite content to do so. At family get-togethers, Lillybelle sought out a corner chair and cradled an untouched cocktail in her hands. She eschewed the parry and thrust of debate we so loved, and soon nodded off behind thick cat’s-eye glasses.

Lillian lived to old age and passed away without fanfare, though her leaving was a sorrow to those nearest her. The day of the funeral dawned clear and crisp, a perfect day for bird hunting.

Dad rustled the funny papers unduly at breakfast. Patsy, his three-year-old English Pointer, flopped in her usual spot at his feet.

“I think we should take the Jeep today,” Dad said, rather too brightly.

At the far end of the table, Mother looked at him askance. Her parents, Arthur and Dorothea, would not be pleased. The Jeep was in its dotage. The tires were tired. The exterior was laminated with dried mud and the upholstery reeked of cigar. A metal grate behind the second deck of seats kept Patsy at bay during trips out to fields where man and dog can hunt quail to their hearts’ content.

Patsy was a purebred Pointer with classic liver-colored markings on her short ivory coat. Plump as a pup, she would grow up lean, swift, and smart.

The bloodlines of English Pointers are cultivated to assure the dogs are eager to find-point-flush-and retrieve in the field. But Patsy lacked the single attribute that makes an English Pointer an excellent hunter: restraint. Pointers are expected to remain at the hunter’s side as he jacks shells into the shotgun. Patsy took off like a shotgun. They should remain steady at the concussion of the gun. Patsy was all over the place. At the end of an afternoon of hunting, Patsy would be in the far distance, sniffing coneflowers and investigating rabbit holes.

The morning of Aunt Lil’s funeral, Dad had a plan: He’d put Patsy in the Jeep, install Mom in the front, and drive to the church. After the service, he’d ditch Mom with her relatives and make a beeline for quail country.

Dad secretly loaded the car with hunting gear, a thermos of hot tea, a peanut butter sandwich, and three Oreo cookies.  He held open the Jeep’s back hatch and fifty pounds of tail-wagging, liver-spotted exuberance clambered in.

At the church, Dad parked in the shade and opened his window a few inches. He and Mother barely made eye contact. When he figured the minister was about done, Dad scrooched out of the pew and headed for daylight.

Arthur was waiting for him.

“Bawb,” the older man said, his voice stentorian. “Take the lead to the cemetery, will you?”

It wasn’t a request.

Escape routes swirled in Dad’s mind. After a few blocks, I’ll peel off, he decided.

Dad had left his dog in a Jeep redolent with the aroma of hunting clothes, peanut butter, and cookies. In her hour of strife, she had passed the time plopping down and getting up, thwacking her tail against the seatback, and gnawing the plastic ceiling light. The minute Dad pushed through the church doors, Patsy let out an aggrieved wail that rocketed to the belfry.

The rest of the mourners trickled out and stopped cold. Patsy’s dog breath had fogged the Jeep’s windows, but when a splotch clarified they leaned forward eagerly. Two wet pink nostrils appeared, flattened against the glass. When the yowling resumed, the mourners huddled in small clots. The women clutched their handbags close to the chest.

“Patsy! Quiet!” Dad barked. Mother simply strode past him and got in the Jeep.

Six blocks from the church, with Patsy trampolining in the rear compartment, Dad made a sharp, swift turn. He figured the funeral vehicles would continue without him. Too late, Dad realized he’d veered into a dead-end alley, and the cortege had followed like lemmings. Patsy yowled in despair.

After remaining on the fringe of every garrulous family gathering, Lillian took center stage at the cemetery, blessed with prayers, bedecked with flowers, surrounded by loved ones. The minister cut his remarks short. It had grown cold. He suspected the mourners were anxious to go.

That morning as we left the cemetery I glanced at the sky, Dad said, drawing his story to a close. I saw a cloud in the shape of a woman wearing a navy blue suit and serviceable shoes, a lady content with what life dealt — a corner seat, and the wondrous birth of a single child. Oddly enough, she was laughing, the lady in the cloud. Why? Because a certain someone was still wailing at operatic volume, heartbroken at her passing: Patsy the bird dog.

(Catherine Underhill Fitzpatrick is a retired, award-winning newspaper journalist. An edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel containing one of her dispatches from lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, is among the front pages memorialized in Washington D.C.’s  Newseum. Since 2004, her freelance articles and essays have appeared in regional and national magazines, and in The Vocabula Literary Review. Her short story  “Birds of Paradise,” is included in the 2010 Black-and-White Anthology (Outrider Press). Her debut novel, A Matter of Happenstance, is under contract and will be published in 2010.)

Vol. 37 No. 3 – Yesterday’s Magazette – Fall – 2010

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