All of our dogs instinctively come to attention at the sound of the refrigerator door opening – they never know when a human might eye a leftover, reject it, and then split it three ways, and none of them wants to miss the moment, however rare.
Why, though, does our young male hound fairly fly to my side at the sound of ice cubes popping from the tray? What could be colder, more tasteless, or less satiating than ice to a canine fond of a bit of warm gravy over his evening kibble? Still, Allie insists on a cube of his own to crunch whenever we cool our drinks.
Our refrigerator is an older model purchased at auction for a mere $5. It is, surprisingly, a wholly reliable appliance. That it lacks an automatic icemaker goes without saying. That we can do without may also be taken for granted. In fact, Charlie and I generally make do with a single ice tray, refilled at the tap daily. (When we entertain, friends know what to bring.)
Once Allie became a member of our household, that one tray began to be shared three ways ... then four, and finally five as our other two dogs, who had never before looked twice at ice, demanded to receive a cube as a matter of principle.
And so this is how it goes – we cool our water or sodas with a few cubes each and toss one to Allie, standing agog with expectation at the old Sears Coldspot.
As he shatters the cube with unbridled enthusiasm, our black Lab ambles to the scene. Susie sits stoically to receive her fair share, which she (equally stoically) crunches and ingests. Her pained visage shows that this is a burden to be borne for protocol's sake. She seems to believe that if one dog gets something that the others don't share in, all privileges could disappear down the slippery slope to favoritism.
Oscar, the eldest of the three and a border collie mix, stares expectantly from a throw rug, unwilling to move an inch toward such unrewarding largess – but clearly invested in his due share.
Completely helpless before my animals' manipulations, I actually bring an ice cube to Oscar's rug, laying it by his side. He is satisfied as he jealously guards its melting.
The whole scene suddenly brought to mind one of my favorite literary passages – from Betty Smith's classic novel, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," about an impoverished couple and their two children.
It begins, "There was a special Nolan idea about the coffee. It was their one great luxury." The text continues to describe how Mama Nolan makes one great pot of coffee in the morning to which her children are always welcome, although milk can be added only three times a day.
The boy, Neeley, merely sips at his coffee, and then spreads and enjoys his allotment of condensed milk on bread.
The novel's heroine, Francie, never drinks a bit of coffee. She simply pours her share luxuriantly down the drain – the single wasteful act of a resource-constricted, yet emotionally rich childhood in early 20th-century Brooklyn, N.Y.
As Mama Nolan explains, "Francie is entitled to one cup each meal like the rest. If it makes her feel better to throw it away than to drink it, all right."
This "queer point of view" is severely criticized by thrifty Nolan relatives, but it satisfies both Francie and her mother. And who else really mattered?
Our rituals with the ice seem trivial against the Nolan's poverty, not to mention the inequities of the world today. Yet I can't get away from the idea that some kernel of a solution to larger problems could lie in the way scant resources come to be fairly apportioned and appreciated at the household level – even ice among canines.