A black puppy with nun’s ears leaned against the gate of the shelter cage. She looked bored. After months of searching, I hadn’t found the dog I was looking for, my next dog. The one to replace Tomahawk, the sweet old guy who’d died from cancer nine months earlier. I didn’t want a puppy. Puppies were too much trouble. I wanted a boy dog, about a year old, with an easy personality. I wanted Tomahawk back and couldn’t find him anywhere. It didn’t matter how many shelters I visited or how many dogs I interviewed; he wasn’t to be found.
The puppy sighed, boredom incarnate. Oh, for god’s sake, I could take her out for a break. When the staff person opened the cage, the little black dog jumped a yard off the ground. She had springs for legs and was joyously, ridiculously happy. Once outside, she was a ball-chasing machine. She was fast. She was skinny. She was driven. She was inexhaustible. Delight à la tennis ball.
As if moving from pre-date phone call to coffee, I took her for a ‘getting to know you’ walk around the shelter. She didn’t know how to walk on a leash; she didn’t know her name was Hershey. Five-months-old, covered in mange, un-housebroken and clueless, she’d only lived in shelters. I brought her back to the cage and sat in the lobby thinking. A dog is a big commitment and a lot of work. It’s a long-term relationship. Ten, twelve, seventeen years if you’re lucky. Was this skinny little girl my dog? Was she the dog I would promise to take care of for the rest of her life?
I took her to another fenced-in yard. She raced around the enclosure, chasing ball after ball. Just as I was beginning to wonder if she’d be too much to handle, she quieted. I was sitting on the edge of a low wall and she leaned against me. I heard her say, “I am going to be a fantastic dog.” It sounded like a promise.
I filled out an adoption form. Do you Randall Van Nostrand take this dog, Hershey, to love and protect? I flashed on the small black rocket who’d skinned the edges of the fenced-in yard. I do.
It’s early morning and I put my face in Hershey’s ruff to inhale the sweet musty smell of her fur. I stroke her gray face and run my hands down her long back. She stretches, half opens her eyes, and puts a paw on my arm. I rub her foot. She pretends to go back to sleep. She’s fifteen and can sleep in if she wants to.
I fix breakfast and hear her grunt as she jumps off the bed. There’s a ramp to make it easier but she prefers the more athletic way down. Staring into the bathroom, Hershey huffs for me to open the toilet lid. Never mind there’s fresh water in her bowl, toilet water is better.
Her hiking days are past. Our walks have turned into standing meditations. Hershey sniffs a spot, considers it, smells the spot closer, takes a step, rinse, repeat. This morning we see Pacino, a handsome ex-guide dog. She tucks her tail and looks over her shoulder fetchingly until he pays attention. Then she tosses her head, laughs, and walks away with a spring in her step. Flirting keeps her young.
Working at my desk I hear her yawn, hear the clink of her tags, the click of her nails. She makes tiny snuffling sounds in her sleep, chasing squirrels, I think. She lays where she can see me. I twist my head to make sure she’s there. We keep tabs on each other.
I don’t know what I will do when she leaves me. Because she will. Her life is short compared to mine. At fifteen I was a giggling teenager; at fifteen she’s ancient. There is no way to fix the difference in our lifespans. There is no training I can do, no vet, no vitamin or food or amount of love that will change the facts. One day my girl will be gone leaving me with empty, silent spaces. Until then we keep our promises. Until then she gives me her paw to hold, her bumpy belly to scratch. Until then I bury my face in her fur, smell her musty-sweet dogginess. She promised to be a fantastic dog, she never promised not to leave me.
Randall Van Nostrand’s debut novel, Vanquishing the Night Horse, is in final edits. Her stories have appeared in Chantwood Magazine, Bards & Sages, and Beginnings—an anthology of women’s stories (07/20.) A former New Yorker, she’s ridiculously happy to be dwelling on the side of a mountain writing like crazy.
* This is the author’s first writing contest award.