Shortly after I started writing Urban Legends, I received a query from a California reader about a story I call "The Crushed Dog." Feeling sure that I would see the story again before long, I filed the letter under "Animals - Miscellaneous."
But it wasn't until 15 months later - a few days ago, in fact - that I found two similar stories. I still can't say for sure whether "The Crushed Dog" is a legend. But I'm beginning to feel sure that it is.The Californian remembered hearing the story told about a friend of a friend 10 or 15 years ago. Its plot is an unusual one for a legend: Instead of a single memorable incident, there are two episodes separated by a time gap.
The first episode describes a young man, new in town, who is invited to a party at an expensive home. He falls asleep after drinking heavily, and awakens in a dark room. While fumbling for the light switch, he accidentally sticks his fingers into an open inkwell and leaves stains and fingerprints all over the room.
Embarrassed by the damage he has done, the young man slips away unnoticed. The next day he decides to return and apologize.
The conclusion of the Californian's story is what sounded like a legend to me: "He was admitted by a servant, who led him to a dim library to await his host or hostess. He entered the library, and sank into the nearest comfortable chair, only to hear and feel a mind-boggling CRUNCH! The young man leapt to his feet to discover that he had crushed a delicate Chihuahua to death. He fled again, and never returned."
Sometimes a story like this haunts me for months - even years - before I discover whether it is an urban legend, a true incident or a literary invention. I usually assume that such a bizarre but believable story just has to be a legend, but I need some evidence - other versions that reveal an oral tradition and plot variations. And although I have lots of suffering-pet legends on file, I lacked another version of this one.
Then, a few weeks ago, I read Tom Robbins' novel "Still Life with Woodpecker" - and there I found my story!
Early on, there's a scene in which a nervous suitor calls on his beloved's parents. The young woman's mother has a cherished pet Chihuahua. Here's what happens to the suitor: ". . . He went into the music room and took a seat on the couch. As he sat, he felt something warm and heard a soft dry snap/crackle/pop, like a singular over-sized Rice Krispy being bitten into by a crocodile. He stood up slowly. . . . Beneath him was the beloved Chihuahua. He had sat on it. And broken its neck."
The young man put the dog into the piano, placed the roses he had brought on top, and left quickly.
Robbins must have heard a version of "The Crushed Dog" and adapted it for his novel. And the book, which was a bestseller in 1980, helped to spread the story to a large audience. But does the story really have an oral tradition?
As I pondered this question, an English acquaintance of mine who now lives in the States called to ask me about a story concerning a Scottish lad.
It seems that the lad was invited somewhere and accidentally sat on the host's Pekingese, crushing it to death. Embarrassed, he hid the body in a coal scuttle and fled.
When I asked my acquaintance to repeat the story so I could take notes, she said, "Wait, there's more!" She wasn't absolutely sure about the details, but she remembered something about him coming back to apologize and accidentally upsetting an open inkwell.
Now I know I'm on to something! Or is that a poor choice of words for a legend called "The Crushed Dog"?
(C) 1988 United Feature Syndicate Inc.