“I’ve always had big ones,” Marian said.
“But that’s over.”
The volunteer glanced up from her clipboard. “Why?”
“You don’t seem —”
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Marian broke in. “Last one was a Rottweiler.” She clenched her teeth to head off tears. “He needed lifting, toward the end. You need to be strong for that. Young. By the time the new one needs that, I’ll be pushing 80.”
The volunteer nodded.
“And don’t tell me to get an older one, or even a middleaged one, so that its time will come before I get decrepit, because I’ve done that before, and won’t do it again now, at my age, and go through the whole death thing again in just a few years. Don’t try to steer me. I know what I want.”
Marian could hear herself, and could hear what the volunteer was thinking about her — Whoa, what a witch — but she just set her jaw in a harder square.
“Give me something small. Fifteen pounds max. No more than two years old. I don’t care if it sheds. Or if it’s not perfectly behaved. I know how to train.”
Another silent communiqué via the volunteer’s arched eyebrow: I bet you do.
Years ago Marian had been turned down by this same shelter, because she didn’t lie on the adoption application as most people undoubtedly did. She had admitted that her fence was only four feet tall instead of the required six.
Rules were rules. That was understandable. But the dog she had selected, the one she had visited for six hours over three consecutive days, might not have understood why she left him behind.
This time, if they were going to turn her down, she wanted to know up-front.
“I’m sorry, but right now we don’t have any dogs of that size.”
Ha, just as she’d expected. A polite way to say Get out.
Marian shook her head. “I find that hard to believe.”
“The smaller ones go quickly, in general. Many people think they’re easier to care for, so — ”
“I don’t think they’re easier to care for,” said Marian. “I know they are. It’s common sense.”
While Marian foraged for sarcasm in the reply, the girl went on. “We’ll give you a list of small-dog rescue groups. You might even find a purebred through the breed-specialty rescues.”
“I don’t care about purebred. I’ve told you what I want.”
“Yes,” the volunteer said. “You have. I’ll walk you to the front desk so they can help you.”
Help, thought Marian, was nothing but a word at this place.
Ordinarily she would have walked out and not bothered with any more of these people’s double-talk. But while Karl was ill, she had developed a bladder infection. The doctor said because of the stress, but what did he know? It had more to do with neglecting to drink enough water, she was sure. In any case, even after a week of antibiotics she still had to visit the restroom constantly.
“It won’t be so bad,” someone murmured as Marian walked in. “It’ll work out fine.” Sobbing followed. Then the sound of panting. Marian stepped back and checked the sign on the door. It was indeed the ladies’ room. A whine escaped one of the stalls.
“Shh,” said the voice. “It’ll be fine, baby. Everything will be OK.” Whoever it was blew her nose. Marian bent down and saw, under the stall door, two feet and four paws. Large paws. She entered a stall. While she sat there, the feet and the large paws walked by and left.
Karl’s paws had been the biggest most people had ever seen. It was one of the things she enjoyed about him — his size and the ability of that to fool everybody into thinking he was dangerous. Rottweilers could be dangerous, of course. So could Chihuahuas. She had always felt that she herself would have been more dangerous than Karl, had the need ever arisen. He trusted people.
Once, she had come home from work and found him snoozing in a patch of sun on the patio, at the feet of a tall, white-haired man who stood very still. It took her several minutes to recognize the man as Joel, her second husband, someone she hadn’t seen in over a decade and Karl had never met.
Technically, Karl could have ripped her ex limb from limb — with some justification, since Joel had come to ask for money. Joel had recognized this, but too late, after he’d trespassed into her backyard without having noticed the Rottweiler in it. Luckily for him, aggression wasn’t that dog’s forte.
Karl had other skills. He sat quietly while she strapped on his safety harness in the car. He excavated tunnels three feet deep in pursuit of gophers, but never in the lawn or among her beloved camellias. When in the mood, he fetched the newspaper from just inside the front gate, which, despite frequent complaints, was as far as the delivery boy’s arm could throw. And every evening Karl curled his giant frame into a tidy ball to nap on the ottoman, leaving just enough room for Marian’s feet, keeping them warm while she read in the chair.
Marian smiled. Then her eyes stung. She yanked a length of toilet paper off the roll and swabbed at them.
While washing her hands, she saw that her eyeliner had run, leaving streaks down each cheek. It took forever to clean them off with the shelter’s cheap paper towels. Couldn’t they spring for stronger ones? You’d think they would, given that probably all animal shelter restrooms doubled as crying rooms.
She came out just wanting to go home. As she reached the front door of the shelter, she heard a whine, and looked back.
A large dog was there, at the counter. He sat next to a girl of no more than 18 or 19. Same feet, same paws from the restroom.
“Breed?” asked the woman behind the counter.
The girl said, “Irish Wolfhound mix, I think.”
“Reason for surrender?”
For a long moment the girl didn’t answer.
“Sorry, but I need to write something here.”
The girl nodded. “Money.”
“Financial hardship,” the counter clerk edited. “Age?”
“He’s eight, maybe. I’m not sure. When I found him, the vet said he was probably six, and that was a couple of … a couple of years — ” Her voice broke.
“Let’s go into an office,” the clerk said softly, and stepped around the counter to touch the girl’s arm, “where it’s more — ”
“No. I can’t stay. I just… He won’t be…” The girl shut her eyes, then looked straight at the clerk. “You won’t put him down, right?”
“As long as Buzz is adoptable, we’ll keep looking to find him a home.” The girl nodded. She looked at the dog. “I have to go now, Buzz. I have to go.” She knelt. The dog melted into her arms, a spot he must have filled a thousand times before. His colossal shaggy head rested on her shoulder. His mouth opened in a panting grin. Marian noticed how white his teeth looked, not bad for an eight-year-old.
The girl stood up and fished something from her shoulder bag. “His toothbrush. His teeth were bad when I found him. As long as I keep them clean — brush every night — he does great.”
She set the toothbrush on the counter, then walked out.
The clerk, the dog and Marian watched her go. Then the clerk stroked Buzz’s head, took up the leash and led him away.
Marian saw a donation jar half full of coins on the counter. “Small Change,” said the sappy pink handmade sign over it, “comes from Big Hearts.”
Her heart wasn’t feeling big. It had been attacked, she felt, by all of this — the girl, the dog, this whole place. She had to get out.
In her laundry room, Marian folded a basket of towels, then the last of the blankets from Karl’s bed. He’d gone through two changes of them almost every day for those last months. Carrying him outside umpteen times a day, with the towel wrapped around his belly, hadn’t always prevented accidents. Her back still ached.
If that volunteer couldn’t understand that older people had to be careful about what kind of dog they got, she was an idiot. Or maybe people these days didn’t nurse old dogs. They just dumped them, like that girl and her big Wolfhound cross.
Suddenly, without the slightest warning, Marian’s throat caught. She couldn’t breathe. Her chest felt ready to burst. What were the symptoms of a heart attack? She tried to remember. A few weeks ago, while Karl was ill, she called the doctor about a fainting spell. Stress, he said, and asked her how much sleep she was getting. That was his answer for everything — stress.
But she didn’t have the pains in the arms or jaw or any of the other things the doctor had listed, just the awful fullness in the chest. With nothing more than that for warning, she exploded into tears. She stood there over the dryer, unable to stop.
Was this about Karl? There had been a good deal of crying about him already.
No. Now it wasn’t about him. She felt shock, along with a sharp stab of guilt. Disloyalty. It wasn’t about Karl at all. This was about that dog. The one at the shelter. The first impulsive thing Marian had ever done was marry Brian, lead singer in a band called The Needles, at age 18, and that had turned out so poorly that it had also been her last impulsive move. She sat in her car, waiting for a break in the rain, wondering if something was happening to her. Maybe she really had had a small stroke while caring for Karl, or a heart attack that morning in the laundry room with the shortness of breath and the crying. At her age she was not too young for dementia, either.
Otherwise, why would she be here, back at the shelter?
Inside, she wore her sunglasses and kept the hood of her jacket up, in case she ran into the volunteer from yesterday. The chaos in the kennels made her head spin. Bark after bark banged against her ears. Dogs flung themselves at the bars, yelling all manner of things at her: Let me out! When are my people coming back? Do you have any food? And at each other: If not for these bars I’d kill you! Do you want to play? Hey, are you in heat?
Maybe she should get a cat.
It seemed somewhat storybook, when she thought about it later, that the one she had come for would be at the very end of the kennels. That she almost turned around and left just before she got to that last run. That he would be silent. That he would be in a corner, despondent, and wouldn’t look at her when she whispered his name.
That’s how these things went, in storybooks, at the beginning.
She squatted. Pain shot through one of her knees, so she hauled herself back up, grabbing onto the bars. When she looked up again he was there in front of her.
No wag. No grin. Just a tentatively sniffing nose — cautious interest. And he was bigger than she remembered. Maybe it wasn’t the same dog.
But he had the same outsized head and amber eyes. Same well-groomed, shaggy gray coat, same stub of a tail. And his name printed on the run’s card.
The day after she’d adopted Karl, from a neighbor who was moving, she’d gotten her handyman to add two feet of mesh to the top of her fence, figuring there must be good reasons why the shelter demanded that height. Now she could honestly answer the adoption questionnaire with that fact, plus the fact that she had no children under the age of five, or of any age, and that her dogs always lived indoors. But maybe, since she’d last seen that application over a decade ago, they’d added more questions.
She bent over, ignoring the ache in her back, and said the dog’s name again. His plate-sized ears perked up.
The light color of his eyes made his gaze eerie, but she liked that. It would scare people.
He sat, which caused his head to lift, making him look even taller.
He kept that intense yellow gaze on her.
“On the thin side, but that’s healthier for you larger fellows, isn’t it?”
The head a little beyond proportion, but from the neck down, what magnificent lines. A broad chest tapering to a narrow, athletic waist and muscular hips. He wore his age well.
“Are you a good boy?” she asked.
That, finally, brought a small wag of the stub.
“Well, I’m glad to hear it.”
Suddenly Buzz jumped up, making Marian take a startled stumble backward. He planted his mammoth paws on the bars, almost above her head, and let out the smallest, silliest, most frustrated yip.
Marian laughed. “All right then. Should I go see what can be done about getting you out of here?”
In line at the counter, Marian felt a sense of unreality, as if she were someone else there waiting to adopt that dog. Exactly the kind of dog she had not wanted. Things seemed disjointed — the man in front of her scribbling a grocery list, the yowling of a cat in a carrier atop a desk — all like a TV show you were only half-watching while you balanced your checkbook.
She imagined herself walking with Buzz. A cold, foggy morning. The kind when she hated to exercise, being uncomfortable about the things she couldn’t see, but feeling safe with Buzz. As she had with Karl.
Herself and Buzz on the ferry to Montauk, where she and Karl spent a month every summer in a little cabin. Now that she’d retired from the phone company, they could go for the whole summer.
A volunteer — a different one than yesterday’s — gave her the interview, and in a matter of minutes, she sat in a small outdoor enclosure.
Although the rain had stopped, the ground remained soaked. Buzz seemed careful about getting his paws wet. A good sign. The girl must have kept him indoors. He nosed around, made his mark on a fence post, then came to her.
“Hello again,” she said.
He sat. She held out her palm. He sniffed, then laid his cheek on it, and slid it up to his ears.
“Oh, so you like your ears rubbed?” Marian obliged.
She noticed then how white his muzzle was, and his prominent spine, and the slight milky glaze over his eyes.
There were his eight years, after all. Maybe more.
At Montauk, he could swim, if he wanted to, though Karl never did. It was good exercise for older dogs, she had read.
Buzz’s head whipped up. Marian followed his gaze. Behind her, just outside the fence, stood a girl. His girl.
In less than a second, he was pawing at the gate. The girl opened it, and Buzz flew to her, nearly knocking her flat.
A volunteer hurried over. “You OK?”
Buzz had sat the girl on the ground to wash her face. “I’m here,” she said, laughing and crying simultaneously, “to get my dog.”
Married to Brian, Marian had lost a fair amount of hearing. This came from attending all his concerts in a futile effort to prevent him from picking up groupies. Later, married to Joel, the losses had been less permanent — her savings, her credit, the jewelry he’d pawned. Over the years, she had recovered those and more.
Most losses, in fact, could be recovered. Even the hearing she had somewhat restored by developing the ability to read minds. Not telepathy, just observation. Expressions. Gestures. The smallest things could say a lot.
While the girl and the shelter manager spoke, Marian sat outside the office, listening to their faces. The manager felt the girl was lying about having found a job overnight. And about how she could afford to pay the fee that the shelter would require, out of her savings. The girl in fact was lying. She needed the dog. With Buzz, she would find a way to make it. It had been a panicky mistake to give him up.
In the confusion earlier, someone had handed Buzz’s leash to Marian. Beside her now, he quivered. He panted in short, anxious bursts. Everything in him attuned to the girl, waiting. The manager studied the girl, too. Then she looked at Marian.
Some losses, you couldn’t recover. Not love. Too delicate. Prone to all manner of injury.
Not deaths. Those were permanent. There would never be another Karl. And he, Marian decided, would be her last big dog.
At the front door of the shelter, Marian watched Buzz’s mincing steps through the rain and the parking lot puddles. He wouldn’t have wanted to swim at Montauk.
He leaped into the girl’s battered sedan. The girl dried him with a towel, then used it on herself, and got in beside him.
The rain kept up. Dogs came and went — volunteers exercising them, filling the lobby with the smell of damp fur. None of them small. But some not very big. One put a warm muzzle in her palm and wet paws on her knee.
After the girl drove away, Marian found a chair. She opened her purse.
To fit her check into the jar under that sappy sign, she had to fold it up. The slot wasn’t big enough, having been made only for small change.