Miss Ellie never met a bowl of red beans or a skillet of cornbread she didn’t love; neither did her beagle, Penny. Both of them had a hard time walking to the front door of our veterinary eye practice, a matter of a few steps if Ellie found parking in front of our clinic, otherwise a mere quarter of a block. Either way, both arrived panting. As Ellie plopped heavily into a chair, Penny waited and watched, her one good eye following every move her owner made. Once Penny made sure Ellie was situated, she dropped to the cool tile floor and onto her side.
Beagles start their lives as one of the cutest puppies on the planet; but I don’t think they age well, especially if their owners don’t manage their food intake. I have a particular fondness for beagles, having grown up with two of them. Cinda and Cleo flanked my dad’s sides as he sat in his lounge chair, a bowl of popcorn in his lap, pretending not to notice that his dogs were snatching kernels faster than he was. Some dogs, like people, live to eat. Ours thought as soon as one meal finished another ought to begin. By the looks of Penny, sprawled on the floor, she was no different from the two I’d grown up with.
Miss Ellie often described the meals she cooked for herself and her Penny. Chicken marinated in her secret herbs that spent the night in the refrigerator to be fried the next morning. Whipped sweet potatoes with brown sugar, butter and cinnamon. My favorite: collards with bacon and a smoky ham hock, “cooked low and slow.” Her talk of food took me back to the days Doc and I lived in North Carolina where I searched for the best soul food I could find. Those sojourns landed me in some country diners where I chowed down as eagerly as I imagine Penny did. The more I listened to Ellie talk, the more my salivary glands watered, and the salad I had eaten for lunch felt mighty unsatisfying.
“Penny eating the same thing as you, Ellie?” I asked, hoping it wasn’t true for Penny, secretly wishing it was true for me.
“Oh yes, Miss Jenny.” She called me Miss Jenny and since I couldn’t get her to stop, I called her Miss Ellie.
She always drew out the oh yes and rubbed Penny’s belly with the toe of her shoe. A big smile crinkled the corners of her eyes, the only wrinkles in an otherwise wrinkle free eighty-year-old face. Penny would do a slow roll onto her back, all fours in the air, the dark spots on her belly hazy through the white fur on her stomach. A polka dot belly, I thought.
“She loves my chicken and dumplings. I swear if Penny could praise the Lord she’d shout it after every bite. Wouldn’t you, Penny?”
“Looks like she’s wearing those chicken and dumplings around her middle, Miss Ellie,” I teased. “Has she ever tasted dog food?”
“Oh yes, Miss Jenny. She looked at me like I was trying to poison her, crawled under my bed— pouted for three hours. The only way I could get her out was with a piece of sweet potato pie.”
“Does she take her pie with whipped cream?” I asked, recalling the subtle flavor of the filling, and the crisp snap of a good crust.
“You got that right. I’ve tried serving it to her without the cream. Them eyes get my guilt going, begging for Reddi-wip. She loves that spray stuff—lick the tip if I let her. Don’t tell Doc, but sometimes I spray the cream straight onto her tongue—looks so funny, whipped cream gushing out between her lips. She looks the way my Leon did (God rest his soul) when he’d shave in the morning. Lather up his face with shaving cream, hum ‘Amazing Grace.’ He never could sing, Miss Jenny, but that didn’t stop him.” She’d be quiet for a while as a memory or two of her Leon grabbed her attention.
“Miss Ellie, you know what Doc told you about dog food being the best food for Penny. How well balanced it is; how simple it is to pour a cup of food into Penny’s bowl; how much easier it is on your arthritis not to have to stand at the stove and fix a meal.”
“Yeah, Miss Jenny. You ever smell that stuff? If I had to eat it I’d crawl under the bed just like Penny did. Closest we get to dry dog food is popcorn. Just me and Penny. We cuddle-up, watch TV, share a bowl most every night.”
I’d like to think Penny lifted her head when she heard her name; more likely she lifted her head when she heard the word popcorn. When I was a kid, we took to spelling p-o-p-c-o-r-n so our beagles wouldn’t go crazy howling for the stuff. I noticed that since the last time we’d seen Penny her black nose and rust colored ears were fading with age.
“Tell me it doesn’t have butter and salt on top, Miss Ellie?” She eyed me suspiciously.
“No other way to eat it—far as I know, Miss Jenny.” She surveyed my body from head to toe. “You don’t mind me saying so, but you gotta get some meat on them bones. Miss Ellie cook you up some fried catfish and hush puppies.”
“Geez, Miss Ellie, you’re killing me. Crispy hush puppies, not too big, not too small, hot enough they have to sit on your plate for a while so you don’t burn the roof of your mouth. Maybe a little honey butter for dipping.”
“Secret to good hush puppies, Miss Jenny— fresh oil every time you fry them. What’s wrong with you, you don’t cook the food you love. Doc don’t want you to cook proper?”
“No, it’s not Doc, it’s—well—it’s me, I worry about my weight. I worry about how I look.”
“Lordy, Lordy Miss Jenny, you white girls, you worry too much about your size.”
It didn’t matter what any of us thought or how many times we pleaded for her to stop stuffing her Penny with people food. The satisfaction she got feeding that dog-child her best cooking could be harshly judged, but why? Before me sat an elderly woman who had worked hard all her life, didn’t get out much anymore, lived alone with a beagle nearly as old as she was. Ellie and Penny fit together like baking powder biscuits and chicken gravy taste together. Honestly, it was refreshing to be around Miss Ellie who enjoyed cooking and eating without weighing, measuring and worrying about every morsel she swallowed, the way I did. Was it good for Penny’s health? For Miss Ellie’s health? Of course not. Was it good for their relationship? You bet!
Kristin, our technician, appeared. I watched as she walked and Penny waddled to the scale. I saw the grimace on Kristin’s face as she wrote down the new number, up another pound since Penny’s last visit. I helped Miss Ellie to the exam room and helped Kristin lift Penny onto the exam table. Doc entered the room.
“Eye lashes growing the wrong way again, Miss Ellie?”
Penny stiffened on the exam room table except for her tail that moved in an easy sideways wag. Doc turned off the lights and picked up the lighted opthalmoscope for an in-depth look at her lids.
“There it is. Right next to the one I plucked last time. Too bad they don’t show up all at once—these things never cooperate like that. Kristin and I are gonna take Penny to the treatment area to pluck this one out. Hopefully this is the end of it so Penny doesn’t have to go through this anymore.”
Doc picked up Penny, pretending he could barely lift her. “You’re not missing many meals old girl.” Penny gave him a sloppy lick on his nose. A squeeze of topical anesthetic on Penny’s cornea and eyelid allowed for a painless removal of the rogue eyelash. Penny was returned to Miss Ellie holding both big brown eyes wide open.
“You have any of that antibiotic ointment left, Miss Ellie?” Doc asked.
“Treat her three times a day for a week. Once the topical anesthetic wears off she may hold that eye partly closed for a few days. By the third day that eye should be wide open. If it isn’t, call me.”
I’ll never know what possessed him to do what he did next. He put both hands around Penny’s middle and drew her onto his lap. Slowly he turned her oversized body upside down; the fat around her middle looked like a round sofa pillow. With a crooked smile on his face he strummed that polka dot belly like a banjo, and sang: “Well—I come from Alabama with a beagle on my knee…”
Miss Ellie let go of a held breath and rocked side to side with laughter. Kristin turned beet red. I reached for Kleenex, dabbing at tears of laughter streaming down my face.
Ellie came to the front desk to check out. Still chuckling she leaned in towards me and whispered, “That Doc—don’t tell him I said so, but he don’t sing any better than my Leon.”
Miss Ellie didn’t need to leash Penny for the return walk to her car. Penny wouldn’t be reacting to the squirrels in the trees or the traffic noises; she was already anticipating dinner.
“Penny,” I heard Miss Ellie say, “macaroni and cheese sitting on the stove. I’ll bake it till the top is golden, just the way you like it.”
Jenny Clover has been a schoolteacher, a health educator, a gemologist and jewelry designer, a bookseller, a veterinary hospital manager, and a professional salesperson. Her commitment to writing is the reason she gets out of bed in the morning. She writes short stories, personal essays, and is working on a novel and a collection of stories based on her fourteen years managing the front office of a veterinary eye practice. “Beagle On My Knee” is from her book of veterinary stories, Front Desk.