A Dog Named Boo
The Underdog with a Heart of Gold
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It isn't just the chocolate and the feel of mischief in the air that I've always loved about Halloween. All Hallows' Eve has always brought a welcome crispness to the air that tempers the oppressive heat and humidity lingering from overlong summers, and it always gives me a sense of beginning as the wheel of the year turns each fall. Halloween 2000 seemed no different from any other. That morning, I had no sense of what awaited me, hidden between a pizza parlor, a liquor store and a dilapidated supermarket that always smelled of bleach and mold. I had no sense of how my lifeand hundreds of others'was about to change.
Driving home from the vet's, I groaned when I realized I needed candy. I couldn't turn around and go to the nicer grocery store; the cats were eager to get home.
I hadn't had any trickor-treaters last Halloween, but at the time I'd thought it was because we'd just moved to Carmel from New York City. Just sixty miles north of the city, Carmel was a place lost in time and space. If I listened carefully to a gentle breeze, I could almost hear banjos playing the theme song from Deliverance. Now that I'd lived here for a while, I knew it was unlikely that hordes of children would be making their way up the dark, scary, quarter-mile driveway to my isolated house in the middle of the woods. I almost went straight home, but a beautiful Friday Halloween like this always brought out more kids than usual, and if one or two failed to calculate the negative cost-benefit of coming up to our house, I wanted to be prepared.
Pressed for time, I pulled into the parking lot of the nearest mall, strode determinedly toward the stinky grocery store, and was stopped in my tracks by the sign.
My legs changed course. My head and my walking stick were both powerless to stop them as they took me toward the green awning of the pet supplies store that had definitely not been there the last time I'd braved Bleach-and-Mold Mart. No, I thought to my legs, not puppies Kit Kats! My legs ignored me. My heart reminded me that the last time I'd walked into a store with a "Puppies $49.99" sign, it brought me my first dog, Atticus, and changed my life. My head reminded me that the two dogs and two cats I already had were quite enough. I just needed candy.
"HI THERE!" shouted the young clerk with long brown hair and a pierced lip, a bit too enthusiastically.
"I, ah . . . the sign says you have puppies?" I ventured.
"Poor babies," she said, leading me to the center of the store, where a makeshift cardboard pen surrounded by mountains of pet food held a litter of puppies who couldn't have been more than five or six weeks old. "They were on the doorstep this morning with a note saying they'd just started eating food. I guess somebody figured we'd find them good homes."
There were five of them, three black and two yellow. There was definitely some Labrador in the mix, but the other breeds were anybody's guess. Regardless, the puppies in front of me were adorable. Four of them were bouncing all over and chasing one another around the makeshift corral with typical puppy enthusiasm.
But it was the fifth, the smallest, who drew me in immediately. A smaller baby boy with a black velvet coat and bewildered brown eyes, he was clearly much slower than his littermates and even other puppies his age that I had worked with in puppy classes. He wandered through his siblings' roughhousing, a toddler in a roller derby. They kept knocking him over as they zoomed by, and as soon as he got up, they'd body-slam him to the ground again. When he did manage to get out of their way, he drifted aimlessly around the pen. Like the eight ball in a game of puppy pool set into motion by an invisible cue ball, he bounced uncontrollably off the sides of the box, bumping into one side and veering off, before hitting the other and bouncing off again.
He was in my hand before I knew I had reached out to pick him up.
The tufted fur on his pure-white chest reminded me of a tuxedo bib and matched the snowy spats on his two back paws. His ears were tiny, folded triangles with points that didn't quite touch his jet-black head. He wore a funny, almost distant expression, as if he were listening intently to a faraway sound only he could hear.
Usually puppies squiggle wildly when removed from play by a stranger, but this one didn't squirm at all. Instead, he lay quietly, unmoving, calm and happy to snuggle up against me as I stroked his velvety fur. I raised him just off the ground for thirty seconds to note his constitutionwas he confident? comfortable being handled? disoriented?and as suspected, he just hung there, inexplicably relaxed or confused; it was hard to tell which. I got the sense he didn't even know he wasn't on the floor.
How could I not fall in love with this sweet, helpless little guy who was gazing at me with unquestioning puppy eyes?
The fact that there could hardly be a worse time to bring a new dog into my life was probably exactly the reason the universe put him right in front of me. There were plenty of reasons to put the puppy down and walk away. There was my husband, Lawrence, who was still recovering from emergency surgery. He had gone into the hospital with what we thought was a burst appendix but turned out to be severe, undiagnosed Crohn's disease. The doctors had to remove nearly two feet of small intestines, and he came down with a near-fatal systemwide infection following the surgery. Thankfully, Lawrence was stubborn enough to hang on (part of me thinks he did so just to prove his pessimistic doctors wrong). After months of recovery, he was finally able to go back to his IT management position at a dot-com in White Plains, but he was overwhelmed by the amount of work he had to catch up on, exhausted and in pain most of the time as he struggled to come to terms with all the changes that came with a potentially life-threatening disease. The stress and trauma of it all made my usually fun-loving husband annoyed and irritable, but I was holding onto faith that I'd have my old husband back soon.
After a summer of all of this, a bouncy, playful, energetic puppy was not something either of us envisioned in our lives, not to mention that I had no time for taking care of a new dog. In addition to teaching dog-training classes part time, I commuted several days a week to my office job in New York City, where I managed a couple of literary agencies and tried in vain to sell a manuscript or two. Not only was it a morally defeating job, but it also meant that for three or four days a week, a new puppy would be on his own, confined to a crate, with no one to take care of him or take him out for midday walks (a dog walker in Putnam County was unheard of in those days). There was also the fact that we had a pretty full house of pets as it was, between the cats Merlin and Tara, the black-and-white border collie mix Atticus and our shepherd-Doberman Dante.
A new puppy was the last thing we needed right now. Yet, Atticus was ten, and a puppy might bring him some youthful energy; Dante could always use another playmate; and after the summer we'd had, perhaps a puppy was just what we really needed.
I knew I was rationalizing, but something told me this puppy needed to come home with me. On some level, I related to this little baby dog, and I couldn't bear to let him suffer if I had any control over it.
Of course, I'd never been abandoned in a cardboard box in a strip mall between a pizza parlor and a liquor store, but I knew what it felt like to be bullied. I also knew what it felt like to be abandoned, to be abused by the very people I should have been able to trust the most.
The more I watched him stumble around in the pen, getting knocked down time and time again, the more the floor gripped at my feet. It was as if I couldn't move until I'd figured out a way to help this little tuxedo-wearing furball. He'd already been abandoned once that day, and it felt horribly wrong to abandon him again.
I believe that fate leads us to the animals we need in our livesand the animals who need us in theirs. I'd had no intention of getting Atticus or Dante, but they'd both turned out to be blessings beyond compare who had each come into my life for a purpose, from circumstances that mirrored those of my childhood, circumstances I wanted to try to fix in the here and now. In Atticus, I saw an animal alone and scared. In Dante, I saw an animal lost, hungry for love and attention. In this little helpless pup, I saw an animal bullied and abandoned, an animal who just didn't fit in with the other pups, and I couldn't leave that vulnerable little puppy to fend for himself. It was all too familiar.
Bringing the other dogs into my life had worked out, so maybe this would, too.
"I am kind of fond of the little guy, here," I quietly said to the clerk.
"Yeah, I like that one, too."
"I have two dogs at home, though," I said, "and I'd like them to meet him before I decided anything. Can I bring them here and introduce them?"
She clearly wasn't ready for that question, but with a little cajoling, I was able to talk the clerk into agreeing to a visit. As I tried to leave the store, a sudden wave of whoops came over me. I had thought about the dogs and how they might like the little guy, but I was forgetting about that other person in the household: my husband. Lawrence needed to be onboard, too. I had to get him to see that the puppy needed us as much as I thought we needed him. I braced myself, and as soon as I dialed his number, the spell that was holding me in place broke.
"What?" snapped Lawrence. I could hear the stress radiating from his keyboard as he typed.
"Um . . . I'm looking at a puppy, and . . . "
"Yeah?" Type type type.
"And I think you need to come see him."
Type type type. "Why?" Type type type.
"Because I think he needs to come home with us."
No typing. "Why?"
"He doesn't fit in I can't say why. I just can't leave him here." I started to clam up as the words stuck in my chest.
It has always been difficult for me to ask for anything, even from my husband. Years of being bullied, abused and forced to fend on my own had whittled down my confidence, and the end result was a sense of worthlessness that I was trying to sculpt into something healthier but only managed to polish to a brighter sheen. Lawrence's guarded nature, a defense mechanism from his own dysfunctional upbringing, meant he never revealed much of himself. He masked things with a sardonic wit that fit mine like a glove. This became a bit of a hurdle when we were trying to discuss serious topics.
I took a breath and tried again. "He needs us. I just can't walk away. Could you leave work a little early and meet me here? Once you see him, you'll understand."
Lawrence sighed heavily, followed by an even more vigorous type type type. Finally: "If I have to."
"He's very sweet," said the clerk after I hung up, "and so soft." I opened my mouth to tell her that he really can be when he's not stressed, but then I realized she was talking about the dog, not my husband. Regardless of his tone of voice, Lawrence is the greatest champion of the underdog I have ever met. I only hoped this little puppy would charm Lawrence the way he'd managed to charm me.
As I loaded Atticus and Dante into the none-too-steady pickup truck for their trip to see the baby dog, they seemed to sense something was up, or maybe they were just reading my excitement. The truck was tricky to navigate on a regular basis and more so when the minuscule amount of space I had in the cab for shifting and steering was filled with big, bulky, excited dogs fogging up the windshield. Eventually arriving back at the pet store, I parked in the shade of the buildings and opened the windows to let in a breeze for the dogs. Waiting for Lawrence, I absentmind-edly watched the kids spilling out of the elementary school across the street, dressed as fairy princesses and super-heroes. For a moment, the familiar ache set in, and I felt that pang of longing. I always had internal conflicts about parenting. Wanting a family of my own was not enough. I needed to know that I would not be repeating my family's dysfunction and that any child of mine would be loved unconditionally by both parents. After Lawrence's upbringing, he was adamantly opposed to children, also fearing the repetition of old dysfunctional patterns, and I wasn't going to bring a child into a home where only one parent wanted him.
Eventually Lawrence pulled up next to me, looking grumpy. Even four months after his operation, it was still uncomfortable for him to drive for long periods of time, and after what sounded like a particularly stressful day, he couldn't be in too receptive a mood. I left Atticus and Dante in the well-ventilated truck while Lawrence and I went in to see the puppies.
"So, which one is the wonder dog?" he asked. Ignoring the sarcastic tone, I pointed to my tiny new buddy, who was curled up in the corner with his eyes shut, oblivious to his littermates' antics. Lawrence was not impressed. "Is he even alive?"
Momentarily scared because puppies can be so fragile, I gently touched the motionless baby, and as if on cue, little White Chest blinked, let out a tiny yawn and settled back to sleep. "See? He's just tired. Why don't you hold him?"
Lawrence had a flurry of objections: No, he didn't want to hold him; the dog didn't look very healthy, in his opinion; we had enough pets, and he didn't have the time or energy to help raise another one when just going to work was an effort; puppies are a lot of trouble and nuisance; they chewed up shoes; they cried at night; they peed and pooped all over the house.
"Let's see what the boys think," I said, and headed out to the truck.
Atticus, a fiercely loyal, one-woman dog, was as ecstatic to see me as if I'd been gone for days. Once in the store, he was ecstatic to see Lawrence, ecstatic to see the bags of dog food stacked against the walls, and especially ecstatic to sniff the display of rawhide bones. Atticus had never been particularly interested in other dogs, but he glanced at the puppies with a bit of a drive-by sniffing, then became ecstatic about other things in the store. There was no growling, no barking, no snarling, no hard staring. From Atticus, that had to be counted as approval.
I exchanged Atticus for the always ebullient Dante, who was thrilled to see me, thrilled to see Lawrence, thrilled to see the clerk and thrilled to see the puppies, all five of whommy buddy includedpressed against the side of the pen, paws up as high as they could reach, noses out as far as they could go, trying to get a better look at the dog whose tail was thumping a happy drumbeat on the metal shelving behind him.
"Yes," from Dante.
"Fine with me," from Atticus.
"Okay," said Lawrence, shrugging, "but he's going to be your dog, and I'm not driving him home." We had a consensus . . . of sorts.
Harlequin; August 2013
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Title: A Dog Named Boo
Author: Lisa J. Edwards
, or download in
Title: A Dog Named Boo
Author: Lisa J. Edwards
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