The Pet Shelter. And Children. An almost overwhelming combination. Almost.
Written May 2019. Fiction. ~3000 words.
I knew I was doomed from the start. The wide pleading eyes looking up at me. The little voice saying, “Please, Daddy?” But I also knew that I had to put up some kind of fight. Fishermen wouldn’t enjoy catching bass as much if they just let you reel them in, though I can’t ascribe that kind of cunning to a four year old boy. Never mind. I just…couldn’t…give in… right away.
“Well, we’ll see,” I said. There. I had drawn my firm line in the sand. My Maginot Line that couldn’t be breached.
But the Germans had gone around the Maginot line. And my kids went around mine. The boy’s older brother was quickly recruited. I think it was his extra four years of learning how to manipulate adults that pushed them over the top. Together they proposed all sorts of reasonable, logical arguments for having a pet. At least they must have…I certainly would not have agreed to take them to the shelter without sound logic and a plan. Nope. Never.
So here we are at the shelter. Well, to be more specific, here I was approaching the shelter. The moment we got within visual range, the two of them started running and yelling. I walked faster but I did not run. I have my standards. I’m in charge here and I set the speed. The walking faster was my decision but I did not run.
Shelters must be used to kids running in yelling. When I walked in, the boys were plastered up against the white windowed wall of cats. The cats were looking bored, and ignored the boys tapping on the windows.
I could see the clerk helping someone over by the fish section. He wasn’t a bored teenager like in some stores, but was a young man who gave off an air of actually knowing something. He glanced over at the kids, then at me, and gave me a nod. He didn’t seem disturbed by the kids.
This was one of those newer shelters that didn’t look all dreary and smell like urine. That smell was still there, but very faintly. I had read that the mall was funding it because it attracted visitors. The place looked more like a pet store and not just an animal warehouse. It had racks of leashes, toys, and other pet accessories. It even had a fish section.
I walked over to where the kids were. There were about a dozen cats in the lower windows. They were immobile, looking like pieces of furniture or as if they were posing for a painting. A couple of kittens were wrestling together in one of the upper windows the kids hadn’t seen yet. Putting the kittens up at the level of the one with the wallet is devious.
The kids entertained themselves talking about all the differences between the cats. Color, size, eyes. Each cat got a complete verbal rundown. Each cat was their favorite. Since we certainly were not going to get a pet on this trip, I let them entertain themselves. They didn’t even get into an argument.
When they had gone through all the cats — fortunately, they still hadn’t seen the kittens — the conversation started lagging. I suggested looking at the puppies, and they reacted as if I had just told them about an amazing world of infinite cake and presents. The yelling and the running started again. The running was all of thirty feet to the wall of dogs and therefore stopped quickly. The yelling didn’t stop but segued into analyzing the dogs as they had with the cats..
There was more variety in the dogs with fur, ears, and noses added to the conversation. A few puppies were at their level, so that added an entire order of magnitude to the discussion. In my reasoned arguments about needing to be thoughtful about getting a pet, I had talked about puppies peeing and pooping in the house, and I was glad to see that they had remembered that. Well, one of them mentioned it in passing.
I looked over again at the clerk. The young couple he was helping was buying a fish setup with an aquarium and all the paraphernalia. They were at the checkout with an impressive pile of stuff. He saw me looking over and nodded again. Nice…he wants to make sure that I know that he remembers that I am still here. Good customer service.
The kids had seen all the dogs and had moved on to discussing the relative merits of cats versus dogs. I knew how this part went because they already discussed it several times. The older one had heard that dogs were always happy to see you and you could play fetch with them. The younger one was a fan of the cats’ “sitting on laps” feature. With all the variants in front of them, the boys were dangerously close to the “small dog” solution to both their interests. I intervened with an observation about how this dog had interesting ears, and the conversation was off in a different direction. Satisfied with my redirection, I stepped back a few feet to let the kids continue.
The couple had finished up and the clerk walked over to me. Good. He came to me instead of the kids; clearly he knows who’s the decision maker. His name tag said “Roger”. Not a common name for one so young, but maybe it was an indicator of maturity beyond his years.
“Kids get pretty excited about this, don’t they?” He stood next to me watching them.
“Yes, they do. Fortunately, they know that we are just looking today. Learning about all the differences will help them when we discuss getting a pet later.” I cross my arms, still watching the kids as they chattered on.
Roger turned and looked at me for a moment, a bit longer than I expected, and I eventually turned to look back at him. He said, “Do you think they are ready for a pet?”
Surprised by the question, I said, “Yes, I think so. We have talked about the responsibility of taking care of a living creature and all that entails. Feeding, cleaning up, training.”
Roger continued looking at me. “Do they know how long they live?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “We talked about that, but they don’t understand timeframes that long.”
“Do you?” Roger turned back towards the kids.
“Yeah. I had both cats and dogs growing up,” I said.
We watched the kids in silence for a few more seconds. Roger leaned a little closer and asked in a quieter voice, “Can I get one of them out for the kids to hold and look at?”
I wasn’t so sure about that. But they had played with cats over at their cousin’s house, and a couple of the neighbors had dogs, so it wasn’t going to be a new experience. And since they knew they weren’t getting anything today, I wasn’t too worried.
I nodded, “Sure,” and started walking towards the kids to let them know.
But Roger beat me to it. “Who wants to hold a puppy?” His voice was that excited voice adults use to try and jumpstart a kid’s enthusiasm. It wasn’t necessary here – I think a bored seventh grader could have uttered the same words in the middle of reading the ingredient list for Bran Flakes and the kid’s enthusiasm would have been off the charts. Starting with the excited voice meant Roger had given them a Space-X booster rocket, and their enthusiasm was launched. They were jumping up and down yelling, “Me! Me! I do! I do!”.
Roger put his finger over his lips and crouched down in front of them. Immediately, they silenced. “Now, I need you to stay calm or else you will scare the puppies. Do you want to scare the puppies?”
Both heads shook vehemently back and forth. “I need the two of you to sit quietly on the floor before I bring one out.” The sound of their butts hitting the floor was immediate — and louder than I expected for carpeting.
Roger went into the back. There was silence for a few seconds, and then an arm appeared from above and carefully picked up one of the puppies. Butts stayed firmly on the floor, but it was a close thing.
Remember back in science class where they talked about potential energy? If you lifted something up into the air, then it had the potential energy of the mass times the height. Or some such formula, I don’t really remember. My point is that nothing compares to the potential energy of two small boys, sitting on the floor in a pet shelter waiting for the clerk to bring out a puppy. Trembling doesn’t quite catch the right level. Quivering might get close as a word. A grenade with the pin pulled probably best captures the possibilities.
The arm disappeared, and after a few seconds, Roger came out from the back room. He walked over to the boys, holding his hand out in front of him, indicating to the boys to stay seated. Then he put his finger over his mouth to remind them to be quiet. Roger was a conductor, directing an orchestra of two. The puppy was a squirming brown and white ball in his arms looking at all of us, head swiveling in all directions. He let out a happy yip.
Roger sat down on the floor and the boys quickly formed a triangle. He looked up at me, pointedly slid over a bit, and tipped his head in the direction of the open space. I walked over and sat down. The boys didn’t give me a second glance.
Roger set the puppy in front of him but gently held him in one place, petting him slowly. “Now, we need to be very gentle with him. I’m going to..”
“”What’s his name?” The older one blurted out. The puppy startled and turned to look at him.
Roger smiled. “He doesn’t have a name. Whoever takes him home gets to name him. Ok now, listen carefully. I’m going to let him go where he wants. He can’t go to both of you at the same time, so you need to wait until he does. Do not reach out and grab him. Let him come to you. Ok?”
Heads nodded. Hands were folded tightly in laps.
Roger lifted his hand that had been corralling the puppy. The puppy looked around for a few seconds and then started moving. Towards me. The kids later told me that I had a big grin on my face but I’m sure they were exaggerating. Sure, I was smiling, but, no, I was not ‘grinning’.
The puppy tumbled over against my legs and I petted his short soft fur. He looked up at me with his brown eyes. Pausing for a split second, he looked like a much older dog staring me in the eyes. I got the sense he was asking me something. But that was silly. Then he was back to all puppy and bounded over to the youngest, who was sitting next to me.
The kid was in heaven. The puppy rolled and jumped around, trying to lick his face. Surprisingly gentle hands petted the puppy and gave soft hugs. After a bit, the puppy tumbled over to the older boy, who was just as gentle. The younger one did not try to hold the puppy back. I was impressed.
Roger spoke. “I talked to your dad and I think that he knows how to take care of animals. He takes good care of you, doesn’t he?”
“Yes, except he makes us go to bed too early. And we can’t have Captain Crunch. I had it once at a friend’s house. It’s awesome!” The older one never took his eyes off the puppy as he spoke.
Roger reached out and gave a gentle pet to the puppy. “Why do you think he does that? Roger’s touch had gotten the puppy’s attention and he flop-staggered over to him.
The oldest’s eyes moved from the puppy to Roger. Thoughtfully, he said, “Because he wants to take good care of us?” Hmm, maybe they had been listening after all.
“Exactly,” said Roger. “When your dad takes care of you, he has to sometimes do things you won’t like but are the best for you. And sometimes you will need to do things that the puppy won’t like in order to do what’s best for him.”
“Like what?” the younger one chimed in.
“Well, dogs need special food that is different from what you eat. Feeding them your food isn’t a good idea. A puppy will want to eat what’s on your plate, and you will want to give it to him. But it might make the puppy sick so you shouldn’t do it.”
Roger went on, “He also might want to chew on things that might make him sick or that you don’t want destroyed.”
The older one nodded. “Our neighbor’s dog chewed up their laptop. They had to take ‘em to the vet.”
“Right. That’s why you will need to train your dog to listen to you and obey you.” He looked over at me when I said this.
I nodded. “How do we do that?”
“There are lots of classes here and at other places. Find someone that has a well behaved dog and see what they have done. The boys need to be part of it also.”
I nodded and looked back at the puppy. The puppy smell in our little floor party had finally pushed away the rest of the pet shelter smell.
Roger then took a few minutes to teach the kids about taking care of the dog. He didn’t explain the details but got them to memorize a few phrases. “Clean up the poop!” “Fresh water every day!” “Brush the dog once a week!” and a few others that the boys memorized quickly. But my thoughts had drifted off.
I realized that we had moved a little too far towards the “buying” and too far away from the “investigating.” I looked at Roger as he was talking and realized that he wasn’t necessarily on my side. Maybe he just wanted to make a sale. And he was good. Damn good.
The worst part was that I wanted to buy the puppy today. I’m not sure when during the conversation it had happened. But it had. I had fond memories of our dog growing up and I had wanted the kids to get a pet someday. But I hadn’t planned on today. I had planned on it not being today.
Roger started to stand up, bringing me back to the moment. “Boys, lets go over here for a minute.” He took the puppy and started walking to the back of the store. There was a wire cage setup, about eight feet in diameter with some dog toys in it. He set the puppy into the cage and helped the boys get through the gate. “Stay down at his level and remember to be gentle with him.”
He watched them for a bit and turned to me. He nodded his head back to the other part of the store and started walking. We walked about twenty feet and stood by the fish tanks. The boys were totally focused on the dogs.
“So what do you think?”
I paused for a bit. “I wasn’t planning on buying a dog today.” My mouth kept moving, as if I was going to say more, but I didn’t. Finally closing my mouth, I turned to look back at the kids.
“You know that the kids will be of no help with the dog most of the time. At their age, they can promise all day, but when push comes to shove, they will not want to pick up the poop or do other less fun parts of owning a dog.”
I looked down. “Yes, I have been told how much help I wasn’t when I was a kid. But I also remember how much I loved that dog. And they’re good kids and may surprise us.”
We stood silently for a bit.
“Well, no one should be pressured into getting a pet. You seem to know that it is a big responsibility. You didn’t come here to buy a dog today and I won’t try to talk you into it. Returning a dog is bad for everyone.”
“That’s probably for the best,” I mumbled.
Roger headed over to the kids. “Ok, boys. The puppy needs to go back into his window. They tire easily and he needs a nap. Maybe you can come back and visit him again.” There were a few groans but not as many as I expected. They gave the puppy a few last pets and scratches and then stood up to leave.
As we walked out of the store, the boys talked about the puppy. I asked them about the things Roger had told them about taking care of a puppy and they still had them memorized. They hadn’t asked if we could get the dog, so maybe our conversations about “just looking” had sunk in.
We stopped at a place in the mall for lunch. The conversation was the typical wide ranging rambling that kids do, but the puppy came up a couple of times. They did ask if we were going to go back to the pet shelter someday, and I said “Yes.” That seemed to satisfy them. Then someone in a Pikachu t-shirt walked by and the conversation veered over to Pokemon.
We finished our lunch, cleaned up our trays, and headed back out to the restaurant’s entrance. I stopped in thought, watching the kids catch up. It had been a good visit. As planned, we hadn’t bought anything. I had stayed strong, and not allowed their excitement, and the memory of my dog, to cloud my judgement. I had not been swayed by the thought of the wagging tail greeting us whenever we got home, or the feel of my childhood dog curled up next to me on the floor for hours at a time while I read. We had just come to look and we had not made an impulse buy on the first visit.
Our car was parked to the right. We turned left and headed back towards the pet shelter. “This is the second visit,” I told myself. I almost believed it.