JINGLE BALLS — A CANINE CHRISTMAS STORY featuring Phineas Warren McCool
For those of you who know about my semi-autobiographical novel in progress, Killing the Kid, you may not realize that one of the human characters, Phineas Warren McCool, began his life as a dog. An Irish Setter to be exact. I wrote Jingle Balls, A Canine Christmas Story for my weekly short short story group, Crystal Springs Creative Writers. They enjoyed it so I decided to share it on bardiblog. This photo was taken in May, 1969 when Phineas was about 5 months old. I’m holding his collar because he was a flurry of perpetual motion. My younger brothers Paul and Tom Rosman were with us, celebrating Paul’s 7th grade Confirmation at Saint Gabriel Church in the San Francisco Sunset district where we grew up. Speaking of my late brother Paul, he was the inspiration for Ross Evans, a character in Killing the Kid, as well as the central figure in my other soon-to-be-published novel by Sand Hill Review Press, Waiting for Ross.
After instantly falling in love with Phineas Warren McCool, I brought him home to live with me on Valentine’s Day, 1969. It was a brazen move but after all, I was eighteen and sublimely mature. Rather than welcoming Phineas into our family, my parents closed ranks. Mom couldn’t believe I’d pull such a stunt. Dad was fuming. Where did Phineas come from?
I played the Valentine’s Day card. My boyfriend Boris gave him to me! How could they not feel the sentimental ping of Cupid’s arrow? Easy, Dad snapped. Get rid of Phineas! I cried. An intense negotiation ensued. Sighing, Mom went to fix dinner. Dad threw up his hands and read the paper. Phineas and I won, but it was an uneasy truce.
My puppy was cute, goofy, and naughty, plus he chewed everything in his path. Two weeks in, Mom confronted me: The puppy’s legs are so long, is he a Cocker Spaniel? True confession, I lied. He’s an Irish setter. What?!? Mom deduced: Boris didn’t get this puppy for Valentine’s Day? No, I bought him. He’d been returned to the breeders for irreconcilable differences. I got him for a steal!
Fifteen weeks in, potty training was a foreign concept. One day Phin made a foul mess on the carpet so Dad threw him down the back steps. Not the brightest bulb, Phin kept peeing and pooping in the house; Dad, the enforcer, kept tossing him like a gigantic beanbag. Making tisk-tisk clicks with her tongue, Mom handed me a can of carpet cleaner.
Phineas ate anything. He grew tall enough to swipe cubes of butter and freshly baked cakes off the kitchen table. With us yelling at him, he learned to eat on the fly. Once at Pine Lake, he swallowed a stinky dead bird, plus the hook, line, and sinkers wrapped around it. The vet had never seen such a thing. I forked over $300 dollars set aside for a camera to get his stomach pumped.
I worked fulltime that summer and bought a sports car, an orange 1958 MGA with an earsplitting ’64 engine. Phineas jumped out of the noisy convertible at inopportune times, such as when we drove along a three-lane roadway. Phin loved Boris’ old Plymouth and once chased it for almost a mile while I ran after him!
Dad and Phin were wary around one another but Phin adored Mom, who fed him vanilla wafers while they watched TV together. Planting his front paws on the floor, Phineas would scooch his butt onto the couch. Balancing himself was tricky, given the vinyl couch and hardwood floor. He’d jump off when Dad appeared.
With no sense of place, Phin often got lost around the corner from our house. He’d stand in the street and howl until someone brought him home.
My dimwitted dog was gorgeous, with a silky auburn coat. As he ran along Ocean Beach, his long red “feathers” (hair) flowed with the wind. He loved chasing balls but he was a setter, not a retriever; he would never bring the balls back.
Christmastime, December 1969
We assumed Phin was housebroken, until we brought in a Christmas tree. He lifted his leg and baptized the Douglas fir. More than a few times. Fortunately, Dad never witnessed it; Phin was too big to throw anywhere.
After catching Phin with blinking light bulbs in his mouth, I relocated the wiring halfway up the tree. He chewed tinsel but Yule balls were his obsession. Did he think they were shiny quarry? He’d go into a flawless setter’s point for each ball he knocked off the tree.
Noisy jingle bells spooked him, but they were fair game. Good thing setters don’t chomp on downed wild fowl or glass balls; I couldn’t afford more vet bills.
Primal throwbacks to his forebears were cute at first. He nuzzled ornaments until they fell off the tree, then he’d freeze, with one front paw bent, his nose, spine, and tail in precise alignment signaling he’d found his mark. Yule balls were scattered all over our living room.
I moved his “quarry” three feet high from the tree base; he still reached them. I hung all the ornaments and lights four feet off the ground. That’s when my dog knocked over our Christmas tree with a crash.
We all came running. Phineas Warren McCool was sitting atop our downed fir with its tree topper held gently in his mouth. It had three large glass balls with a tapered finial. We held our breath when Dad appeared.
After an interminable silence, Dad broke out laughing. Phineas wagged his tail, carefully set down the topper, and went into a perfect point. This peace pact between man and dog was the closest thing our family ever came to a Christmas miracle.
Jingle Balls, ho, ho, ho, Jingle Balls!