Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Knowing the ending doesn’t necessarily spoil a story...

     ...like, I love the story of how we got our dog, Dashiell.  See?  Just by the fact I introduce him as ‘our dog Dashiell’ means, well, that we got him.  But believe me when I say, the actual getting of him was a mission filled with genuine will-we-won’t-we-page-turning kind of tension.  So yes, obviously happy ending, we got him, but I like telling the story anyway. 
     We needed another dog…like a root canal or an IRS Audit according to my husband, but in fact we did need another dog and that’s inarguable, like gravity or the sun coming up.  No debate required.  We’d moved to coyote-mountain-lion-filled Topanga Canyon, where Phoebe, our teeny-tiny designer Maltese-Mix, was an appetizer waiting to happen.  Furry four-legged protection was the only answer.  Obviously. 
     Nothing against people that get pure-breeds, but I like a mutt (hence the designer Maltese-Mix).   I also like puppies…and fluffy dogs rather than short hair…and it had to be a boy cause Phoebe’s a girl…and bigger than a mountain lion, or at least grow to be one day…and a rescue mutt cause there’s a world of dog out there needing a home… and a whole laundry wish-list of qualities I can’t remember now, but suffice to say, I’m super picky.  And I’d been looking for a while, too long it seemed, cruising all the animal shelters—local and not-so-local, the papers, etc.  It was a lonely job.  Our kids were little, I didn’t want to get them excited till I was sure.  Till I’d found ‘him.’   But time was knocking on, coyotes howling outside, mountain lions scratching at the door, that kind of thing.  The clock was ticking, no question, I felt the pressure.  But still ‘our’ dog remained elusive. 
     Dog pounds are hard places to visit.  More than once I was tempted to just take home a deserving case.  The dog that wasn’t a puppy, or maybe not very fluffy, or it wasn’t a boy and not much bigger than Phoebe.  Or it was maimed in some way.  Did the dog really need to have FOUR legs?  I found myself asking.  But all good things come to those who wait.
     Cause one day, there he was. 
     Fluffy, a mix of browns, a pup, but with big paws he’d grow into one day.  The cutest puppy in the entire world, and that would be understating who he was.  Another un-debatable fact.   
     Problem was there was a three day hold on him.  The shelter needed to give the owner a chance to come find him.  Three days!!  Felt like a life sentence.
     I went there every day.  They let me play with him.  I think I maybe named him.  I tried to manage expectation, tried not to fall in love with him, just in case the owners turned up at the last minute (who in their right mind could’ve given this perfect dog up?  Someone had to be looking for him).  I didn’t tell my kids, just in case.  I don’t think I even told my husband (he might have rooted for the owners).  But, as the shelter closed on the third day, the people who worked there said if I came first thing in the morning and so long as the owner wasn’t there, he’d be mine.
     8 AM.  That’s when they opened.
    7 AM.  That’s when I sailed past the kid’s school.  That’s when I told them they weren’t going to school.  They were going to get the cutest puppy in the world.  That’s when shrieks of happiness reverberated from our car throughout the entire city.
     7:15 AM.  That’s when we got to the shelter… That’s when we saw the fourteen other people standing in line waiting for the shelter to open.  Fourteen other people!  In line.  Ahead of us. And that’s when shrieks of happiness became shriek of horror echoing all the way back up to Topanga Canyon.
     Fourteen.  For sure they all wanted ‘our’ dog.    
     Maybe one of them was the actual owner. 
     How did they all know to get there so early?  Why didn’t I?  What a loser!  We all stood apart.  In silence.  Glaring at one another.  Instant enemies.  Competitiveness mutilated by a feeling of inevitable disappointment, those forty-five minutes of waiting were a kind of hell.  Maybe they want the dog with no tail, the old boy with mange, I tried to lie to myself.  There are a lot of dogs in there.  We can’t all want the same one.  But of course they did.  By definition there’s only one ‘cutest puppy in all the world.’  That’s the only dog you get up early for.  Obviously.
     I’d blown it.  My kids were looking up at me with muted expressions of unspeakably crushed hope—the kind they’d be on a couch fifteen years later dumping on a therapist. 
     “Alright kids, I have a plan,” I whispered to them.   But the woman in front of us whirled around, her eyes boring into me like she knew I was Al Qaeda and I was giving last minute instructions before we all boarded the plane together.
     I didn’t have time to give them my plan anyway.  A man had emerged from the shelter—one of the workers—with instructions for us before the doors opened.  We pushed forward, group tension reaching fever pitch now, you know, the way it is before a riot breaks out.  
     “You’ll go to the cage your dog is in, and get its number,” the man said.  “Bring the number and forty dollars cash up to the front desk.  Forty dollars will pay for your dog to be either fixed or spayed.  You’ll have to pay for your dog today, but you won’t be able to take it home till tomorrow after it’s had its operation.”  With that, he opened the doors.
     “RUN!”  I commanded.  “THIS WAY!” I called back, hoping my kids were keeping up with me in the crush, but this was not the time to worry about their safety or whereabouts.  This was the time to go get the cutest puppy on the planet.  Somehow all twenty-five of us squeezed through the front door in under a minute (more had arrived after us.  Super-Losers!).  It was here that I separated myself from the herd.  “This way!”  I hissed, hoping my kids and mine alone, heard me as I peeled left from the crowd which was heading straight back to the cages while I bee-lined for the front desk. 
     “Number 10653! One-Oh-Six-Five-Three!” I yelled at the poor woman behind the desk, startling her to attention, I think she might have even flinched at the two twenties I threw at her.  But this wasn’t the time for pleasantries either.  I wanted that cutest puppy in the world, and he would be mine, oh yes he would.  Ours, I mean.  And we were first.  Because of course, I had the number memorized.  I’d been going there for three days, after all.  Eh?  Not just a pretty face, here, huh?  “Kids, one-oh-six-five-three,” I turned to them with the urgency that saves lives, like I could somehow impress the number into their brains with mind control.  “Go to that cage right now.  That’s your dog.  It’s yours.  All those other fuckers, they can just back off!”  Okay, I didn’t say that, but that was the subtext.   
     They let us play with him all morning, before it was time to say good-bye, and they took him away to be ‘fixed.’ 
     Funny thing though, the other people didn’t leave either.  No they did not.  Because they were too busy playing with their own dogs.  The ones that, I guess in their eyes, were ‘the cutest in the world.’   Unbelievably, no one had wanted our Dashiell.  Un-frickin-believable!  And the next day when we all met again to pick up our dogs we were friendly as pie.  Smiling, waving.  We petted each other’s new friends, we complimented one another’s adorable choice, said we liked the names we’d all chosen.  But there was an undeniable underlying smugness… because we all knew in our hearts we’d got the ‘best dog in the world.’
     But Dashiell really was.  Again, not open to debate.  Proof happened when my husband, so reluctant to get another dog, declared immediately upon seeing him that Dashiell was actually his dog.  And he was—his, but ours too, as I said in the beginning, for over fourteen years.
     Yesterday we had to put Dashiell to sleep.  They say he was old for a big dog.  And this past year we for sure let his old age suffering go on too long.  He was on so many meds, so nutty, so smelly and tired; he reminded me of something out of Stephen King’s Pet Cemetary.  For months we’d been saying things like ‘This is cruel,’ even as we hesitated.  It was over-due.  Even so, thing is, he was the best dog in the world, and today it hurts like I'm under-going open heart surgery to think of him, like a physical pain in my chest, like a heartache you think might never move out.
     The inevitability of saying good-bye to a pet is built into the relationship from the start—it’s amazing, really, knowing this, that we all go ahead and put ourselves through it anyway.  But as I said, I guess knowing the end of a story doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth it.