The dog who came to dinner

Column by Nick Clooney

''Where did your dog Spags get its name?''

As it happens, Lillian Goetz of Cincinnati, your question could not be more timely. I am writing this piece Wednesday afternoon and we are preparing for an anniversary of sorts for the day Spags was christened.

There is a little set-up required. My sister Rosemary and brother-in-law Dante DiPaolo have a home here in Augusta on Riverside Drive. Any time Rosemary has work east of the Mississippi River, she heads for her house here and uses it as headquarters for quick trips to Chicago, New York, Cleveland, Nashville or wherever the job might take her in this region.

Fortunately for Nina and me, that means Rosemary and Dante spend a substantial fraction of their time in Augusta.

One of the highlights of any visit is the night Dante does the cooking.

In addition to being a world-class dancer, a dashing ornament to any social gathering and a very fine man, Dante is one heck of a cook.

He can prepare anything, but I stubbornly demand that he - at least twice per visit - prepare spaghetti and meatballs.

I do not accept the judgment of some shallow people who consider spaghetti to be pedestrian fare. They must have eaten only pedestrian spaghetti.

Dante's spicy sauce and his dense, delicious meatballs are gourmet dishes in any company. I was anticipating his speciality on a September evening in 1993. Rosemary and Dante were in town and Dante was making my favorite meal.

First, Nina and I had a few errands to run, including a trip to the bank. What we did not know was that a small drama had been playing itself out on the streets of Augusta for three days.

A small female dog - actually more hair than dog - had been put out of a car in our little town. Not an unusual occurence.

We will never know the motives of the original owners, but in their defense, it was clear the little dog had not been abused and, in fact, had been treated with affection.

Nevertheless, she was abandoned at a critical moment of her life. In most cases, the results are fatal.

She went from house to house in Augusta for at least 72 hours. She was fed by good-hearted townspeople, but no one took her in. Her long hair picked up grass, leaves, sticks and even a small piece of twisted wire. She was not lovely.

But destiny was about to take a hand. At the moment Nina and I drove down Frankfort Street on our way to the bank before heading to Rosemary and Dante's for dinner, the little dog found herself at Frankfort and Second streets. She was clearly desperate and she knew all about cars.

Long afterwards, Nina and I reconstructed what we imagined to be the little dog's thought process. ''Things don't look good. I'm in a pickle. Here comes a big four-door car with two old people in it. No kids. No dog. If this doesn't work, nothing will.'' At which point she ran full tilt with suicidal energy in the middle of the street toward our hood ornament.

Shocked and scared, I stood on the brakes, sure I had hit the bundle of fur. Stopping after a 20-foot skid, I opened the door, whereupon a very active little dog scampered into my lap, licked my face, scooted over to Nina's lap, licked her face, then settled comfortably between us, where she has been ever since.

None of which accounts for the name.

Whenever Dante was preparing spaghetti, he would call with the brief, happy announcement, ''Spags tonight!'' Since we were on our way to a ''spags'' dinner when we were adopted by the little stray, she became ''Spags.''

Just this last Wednesday, we got the call ''Spags tonight.'' The three of us jumped in the car and headed for Riverside Drive. Joined by cousins Joe and Pat Breslin of Maysville, we lifted a glass to Rosemary's impending performances in London and Dublin, her Maysville music fest in September. Most of all, we celebrated the namesake day for Spags, patron of the abandoned.

And that is story of how she got her name.