I could tell that something was on Smut’s mind. He was slouched in his easy chair and uncharacteristically, he had let his Cuban cigar burn out and go unsmoked. Characteristically, though, he was deep into my bottle of good Scotch whisky, I observed with regret. When he saw me come into his presence, he gave me a doleful look.
Smut is my old black Labrador retriever. In certain ways he is a remarkably intelligent dog, even by human standards. He has contributed a great many ideas and discoveries to the world of particle physics, and he’s one of the best scientific thinkers alive. In other ways, though, he is just an annoying old dog. While he has excellent taste in Scotch whisky, he drinks it to excess as my bank balance proves. He favors the most expensive cigars, and constantly begs me to take him to the tobacco store and buy him more of them.
He is a bit of a fop. He likes silk, and he coaxed me into getting several smoking jackets tailored for him from good silk cloth. Most dogs don’t like hats. My other black Lab, Mischief, will shake off a hat in seconds if you can get one on her in the first place. But inside the house and in warm weather, Smut likes to wear a fez decorated with fine needlework. In cold weather he wears a tarboosh.
Smut likes to take me on long walks through the fields and woods while talking to me about dog things: How a raccoon’s bones crunch when he catches one by the neck and shakes it to death, how to differentiate among the scat of various animals, and how exhilarating it is to smell a bitch in heat.
But I’m digressing. Something was wrong with the old Lab. “Smut, you old mongrel,” I said fondly, “you look a little down in the dumps, and a bit drunk. What’s wrong?” I could tell, though, that whatever was wrong, it wasn’t wrong enough that he put down the glass of whisky.
After a long swallow of my whisky, he looked at me with a pained expression and hesitated before answering. “We need to have a talk about the future,” he said. “I’m getting old, and have lived much longer than all my friends of the same age. Why, my best friend, Dale, Jr., was only a couple of years older, and he’s been gone for over five years now. So I know I don’t have much time left.”
“Aw, Smut,” I replied, “you’re going to live forever, you old dog. Don’t think about that; it’s depressing you.”
“I’m not depressed,” he said. “I’m thinking about you. I’m afraid you won’t be able to deal with my demise, and I want to plan for the time that I’m not with you anymore.”
“Now you’re making me feel sad, Smut,” I told him.
“Good. I’ve been thinking about what to do when the time comes to put me down” He settled back in his chair and took a small sip of the whisky. “I’m going to tell you my plans now, but I’ve written them so you won’t forget anything. Your lawyer has a copy of my request and will give it to you when appropriate.”
“What? You’ve written a last request? You gave it to my lawyer?”
“Yes, so you won’t forget, that’s all.”
I thought he probably wants me to bury him with his favorite toys, and maybe put his name on a grave marker. “Okay, tell me what you want, Smut.”
“I want a proper memorial service. Going out is a big thing. First, save one of my legs to be cremated in the normal way. Then build a raft, pile it with kindling and other combustibles and tie it to the end of the pier. Invite all my friends, and even Mischief, I suppose, to gather on the end of the pier. You be careful not to slip! Lay my body on the raft, say some mumbo-jumbo words you humans say at this kind of event, set it afire, and push it out into the Neuse River. As I’m floating to Valhalla, I’m sure you’ll all be pretty choked up because of how great a loss to the world my death will be. But you can survive!”
“You’re not a Viking, Smut! This is just silly, you over-dramatic old cur! And why do you want one of your legs to be cremated?”
Another swallow of whisky! “Well, I like Viking culture and pageantry. Please honor my wishes! Oh, by the way, I’ve written a news release about my death that I want you to send to all the particle-physics journals. I know you would think of that, but I wanted to be sure it’s accurate. Sometimes you don’t get the facts right, you know. Not criticizing; just sayin’!”
After that insulting statement from the old canine, I was determined to rattle him a bit. “I was just going to bury you in the backyard, like most people do when their dogs die. Maybe put a plastic hot dog or a dead raccoon on a stick as a grave marker.”
Smut’s feelings clearly were hurt. “That is so thoughtless,” he said tearfully. “I thought we were close friends. A friend would honor his friend’s last wishes.”
I felt a little bad about saying that. “I guess it was thoughtless; I wasn’t thinking. Okay, I’ll feel pretty foolish, but I will do what you want.” Once he’s gone he won’t know that I didn’t do all the crazy stuff he’s telling me.
“I’m glad to hear you say that, because I want you to carry out the rest of my request.”
“And what’s that, old dog?”
“Well, when you have my leg cremated, please have the ashes put into an urn shaped and decorated like my favorite fez. Seal it well, because it’s going to get shaken about in its travels, and I don’t want my ashes to fall out.”
“Do you have any idea what that will cost, you silly mutt?”
“But you said that you will do what I want!” He looked so pitiful, I had to make him feel good.
“Okay, okay. I will. Sorry. But what do you mean about the urn getting shaken while traveling? Where is it going?”
“Well, with you, of course!”
“What? I don’t understand.”
“We’re such good friends and so close, that I know you can’t bear to be apart from me, even when I’m gone. So to make you feel better about your loss, I want you to carry my urn with you wherever you go.
“You know how I like to ride in the car, so you can sit me in the front passenger seat whenever you travel somewhere — don’t forget to use the seatbelt — and hold my urn out the window occasionally so I can feel the wind. You can imagine my ears flopping around; that will cheer you!
“You can keep me in your briefcase when you’re at meetings, or show my urn to your friends and colleagues. That will be a good conversation starter! At home, every night you can put my best smoking jacket around my urn and set it in my favorite chair, pour a glass of Scotch for me and light a cigar. I know that will comfort you immensely!”
Yeah, I thought, I’m going to show the urn to my friends and colleagues. If that kind of conversation starts, it will end with me being committed. That dog had better live until I’m senile, because senility is the only thing that will make me carry a dog’s ashes around with me. “Have you gone to la la land, dog? I’m not going to do that!”
“But you promised, and I know you will keep your promise! And one last thing: Each night when we go to bed, place my urn on the soft pillow next to yours, and pull the covers up around it. Don’t let me get cold!”
We go to bed? We? Only in your dreams, Smut. Now if I can just get that image out of my mind. Maybe a big glass of Scotch whisky will do it. If there’s any left.