I glanced in the rearview mirror of my twice-passed-down Chevy Suburban. Both boys strained the limits of their seatbelts with anticipation. As the leader of this mission, I kept my hands on the wheel and my enthusiasm leashed. We were only on this bumpy road to the county humane society because of innocence and the power of prayer.
“I think he should be brown,” Joseph said from the back seat.
I thought brown was a decent dog color, but as a responsible parent, I had to model open-heartedness. Who knew what choices would await us with wagging tails?
“Maybe he will be a she,” I said.
Joseph shrugged, the movement reflected in my slice of mirror. “That would be okay.”
“We should get a black dog,” Dave suggested. As the younger brother, he considered it his mission to suggest an alternative in every situation. He followed this general policy when it came to selecting cereal, agreeing to a spot on the couch, or negotiating a cartoon channel.
My son Joseph’s love for dogs began in the womb. Along with his general sweetness and desire to please, his love of canines was original equipment. Joseph had also proven himself a conscientious pet owner. He had maintained a fish tank for several years without any fish-attrition attributable to his care. Never had he overfed them or shoved army guys in the tank and risked contamination. Joseph had even taken a terrible setback and turned it into a teachable moment. When a goldfish died of whatever naturally kills goldfish, Joseph presided over a solemn funeral. Afterward, my husband and I listened as Joseph took his younger brother by the hand and sat down for a serious discussion. “Now Davey,” he had said, “when you get dead, Mommy and Daddy will flush you down the toilet.” Dave had nodded seriously at this sage proclamation garnered from the sacred duty of pet ownership.
The fish were only a band-aid in the marathon of pet yearning. Joseph wanted a dog. He had a stuffed dog from nearly every place we’d visited. He named them. Made collars for them. Took their pictures. Despite Joseph’s petitions, though, my husband Jeff and I had held the line against getting a dog for years, making all the standard arguments parents make.
But that changed last weekend after Sunday mass when the bells tolled their judgment on this long-standing negotiation. Sweetly taking my hand as we filed out of church, Joseph played a card no parent could resist.
“Mommy,” he said. “I don’t believe God hears my prayers.”
Despite the May sunshine, I stopped cold. How does an eight-year-old come to this conclusion?
I had to ask. “Why do you think God doesn’t hear your prayers?”
“Because I’ve been praying for a dog for years and we still don’t have one,” he explained.
Church bells sang out a cheerful hymn, families crowded into cars to go to lunch, my six-year-old pleaded for a quick pass at the playground next to the church and school. But I was frozen in place and time. Looking at my son’s face—without a trace of guile, just pure wonder at the mysteries of God—I knew my arguments had come to their day of reckoning.
“We’ll talk to Daddy when we get home,” I said.
My husband has learned many things the hard way. His first two marriages dissolved with a painful signature in a lawyer’s office. As wife number three, I represented the value of a fresh start. When it came to his heart, I was the third and most responsible owner. From his earlier experiences, Jeff had gleaned the power of giving a new idea a chance. And he was also schooled in the merits of remaining judiciously silent.
I presented the compelling comments from Joseph as I served up macaroni and cheese on lunch plates. Jeff had not been there in the church parking lot when Joseph questioned the power of God. He needed to know. And we needed to talk about this without perked-up prying ears. Before we called the boys in from blowing off church steam in the backyard, we had to come to parental agreement.
“Okay,” Jeff said with a one-shoulder shrug. “Just not a big dog.”
“Is that all you have to say about it?” I asked, hardly believing he would capitulate so quickly and toss me into the role of judge and jury.
Another shrug. “As long as someone else takes care of it,” he said.
I glanced out the kitchen window where the boys were swinging, their long legs driving them higher and higher until they risked a big fall if they let go. Jeff—also long-legged—set out napkins and cups as if the whole issue was either decided or out of his hands.
“So we’re going to the humane society this weekend? And we’re picking out a dog,” I said, trying to maintain a fragile hold on neutrality but failing. Someone had to commit. It appeared to be my job. But I still wanted to push him to grab his share of this decision.
“What if the boys fall in love with a big, ugly, slobbering dog?” I prodded.
My husband studied me for a moment and then carefully aligned spoons and forks alongside plates. “I think I have to work Saturday morning. Forgot to tell you. You’ll have to surprise me when I get home.”
He swung open the back porch door, creaky on its hinges from a hundred years on the job, and called the boys in from the yard. Despite its age, our century home had kept a close hold on its occupants. Passed down from its builder to a daughter, we were only the third family to set up house within the plastered walls and wavy glass window panes. In our married life, it was our third residence. The first was a tiny rental, the second an old Victorian that needed work and quickly became too small. This house had plenty of room and a fenced in yard. Evidence on the woodwork in the kitchen and back bathroom told us a large dog had tried to claw his way out of confinement at some point in the previous century. Not a fan of confinement, whatever animal I found at the county building would probably have free rein.
I found the turn-off to the humane society where a sign by the road pleaded for needed items such as dog food, cat food and kitty litter. My thoughts flashed to the upturned noses of our household felines Star and Jelly. Both of them were proof of my mother’s inability to turn away stray cats. She takes them in from whatever previous owner abandoned them and then I find myself taking them off her hands. Star and Jelly had been with us for several years and were accustomed to complete sovereignty and supremacy. I could only imagine how they would view this violation of their domain. It was a good thing they were sleeping in a patch of sunshine on the living room carpet, dreaming of birds just out of reach and blissfully unaware of the future.
“I’d be okay with a black dog,” Joseph said, demonstrating his customary compliance as I pulled in the driveway and maneuvered my Suburban between several cars. “As long as I get to teach him tricks.”
“Or her,” I added.
I barely had the car in park when I heard seatbelts slide into their holders and rear doors open. I rode herd on the boys as they tumbled up the front sidewalk and battled with the heavy glass door.
The over-heated lobby smelled like animals and newspapers. Cats in cages vied for our attention either by sticking a paw through their door or hissing at us.
“Hamsters!” Dave yelled, racing over to a glass enclosure and gazing with veneration at the cavorting creatures. The siren song of available animals held him spellbound. I pulled on the hood of his jacket, dragging him back to the fold and the enterprise at hand. Joseph looked at his little brother with only mild disapproval, understanding that his two years of greater age made him more fitted for staying on task.
As the responsible adult, I made eye contact with the twenty-something worker at the desk. Maybe I wasn’t salivating at the idea of getting a dog, but I wanted to convey my worthiness for the job.
“Our family would like to adopt a dog,” I said. Dogs barked from a place behind the building. “We’re thinking of a medium-sized brownish one.”
The girl identified as Janet by her nametag leaned to the side to check out the human embodiments of excitement bobbing behind me. I still held part of Dave’s jacket to prevent him from entering the puppy pen and rolling around with them.
A smile kicked up the corner of her mouth. “We have plenty of dogs to choose from,” she said. “Come see.”
I let Joseph lead because this was his grand adventure. Like moments in childhood that stand out like the one bright star in the sky, I hoped he would always remember the day his prayers were finally answered and we journeyed to the humane society.
We followed Janet to a door with reinforced safety glass. This was the portal to dog ownership, opening onto an outdoor maze of cages. A dozen dog-heads swiveled in our direction as if we were the nurse finally calling a patient from a long lull in the doctor’s waiting room. I took a deep breath. Vetting all these dogs could be quite a task.
To my relief, the first cage on the right offered up a seemingly perfect specimen. The sign said Charlene, age four. Despite being saddled with an unfortunate dog-name, Charlene was of medium size and several shades of brown. She passively regarded us. Pleasant, but not pushy. She was minor commitment on four legs. I liked that.
“Can we pet it?” Dave asked.
“Her,” Joseph said, showing his greater powers of literacy and perception.
“Why is she here?” I asked. For the record, I don’t judge people or animals for their past indiscretions. But I’m curious. I had taken an almost academic approach to mining information from my husband about his previous marriages, a post-mortem of detached inquisitiveness.
“The old lady who owned her went into a nursing home,” Janet said.
Poor Charlene. Adrift.
“Let’s give her a chance,” I suggested.
Janet opened the cage and snapped on a leash. “You can take her out on the grass over there.” She pointed to a patch of sunny green space.
Joseph took the leash handle with the majesty and solemnity of a knight accepting a quest. We all followed Charlene to the turf. She led like she’d been down this road before. Cooperative and polite, she submitted to petting and even responded to a command to sit.
I gauged the reaction of the boys. Their faces were flat, as if they’d been offered buttered toast at a breakfast buffet. Their expressions were the equivalent of an emotional shrug.
We tried out another dog. This one was small, yappy, and had a face that suggested he was looking for trouble. I was afraid the boys would consider this one pancakes and sausage and declare an immediate and incontestable winner.
“Why is he here?” I asked.
Janet focused on a spot on the concrete floor. “He had a misunderstanding with the mailman,” she mumbled. She brought her eyes up to meet mine. “But he likes kids.”
I wondered if he liked to eat kids, perhaps for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My vote went from maybe to no way. But I wasn’t the only member of the electorate.
Dave’s eyes were alight. He was intoxicated by the noise and energy of the vibrating little creature. But Joseph’s brow wrinkled and he handed me the leash, relinquishing his claim on the contender. I let out the breath I’d been holding as Janet nudged Snapper back into his cage.
“Any other dogs that might be kid-friendly?” I asked.
Janet frowned at her clipboard. She paged through several sheets while the boys and I stood patiently at her side. Joseph’s eyes showed determination, looking around the area like he was seeking a philosopher’s stone or the secrets of alchemy. He was not going home without a dog.
There had to be almost ten more animals who could answer Joseph’s prayers. I mustered my optimism and glanced over Janet’s shoulder at a previously unnoticed cage.
A large yellow Labrador raised his head, his soulful brown eyes maintaining contact with mine as if he could discern my role as decider. He occupied the cage just to the left of the door. We had passed right by him on our way to Charlene. His nose twitched, sniffing the air and carefully breaching the chain-link fence.
“How about that one?” I asked. I shoulder-turned both boys to face a new contestant. Joseph put out a hand and a long pink tongue slid through the cage and swiped every finger with dog love. Dave approached the dog, standing just behind his brother but raising his chin bravely.
When Joseph tore his eyes from the animal and turned them on me, I swear heavenly angels sang out his joy and answered prayers. His eyes shone, his smooth cheeks looked like he’d run inside from playing in the snow. His slobbery hands were clasped in front of his small body.
I took a closer look, stepping around Janet and her clipboard. Candidate number three was not a medium-sized dog. He had to weigh a hundred pounds. He was not a demure brown. His fur was golden and flew out like indiscriminate rays of sunshine when he stood up and shook to show his enthusiasm.
“What can you tell us about Max?” I asked, reading his name from the tag wired to the cage.
Janet looked doubtful. “Max came to us when he was only a year old.” She lowered her voice as if she was revealing the family secret. “He was a fence jumper,” she whispered.
Apparently I was supposed to think that was a great personal failure on his part. I tried to look appropriately solemn.
“He’s four years old now,” she continued. “Just dropped off by a family this week. They got divorced and sold their house.” Her tone implied there was a lot less shame in this reason for being brought in.
“Can we try him out?” my older son asked, radiating eagerness.
She opened the cage and helped Joseph snap on the leash. Max licked both boys, thoroughly enchanting them. They walked ahead of us with Max between them. On the small green lawn, he rolled over and reveled in having his belly rubbed. He sat when commanded. He dutifully chased and retrieved the ball Joseph had secreted in his coat pocket. The dog regarded my sons with pure love and wonder, much like the expression Joseph had turned on me when we left church and he revealed his awe at the mysteries of God.
Max came over to me, sat at my feet, and presented himself as a worthy suppliant. I scratched his ears and accepted his slobbery thanks. Janet stood tactfully aside, watching the trial but reserving judgment.
“So,” I said, wiping my hand on my jeans, “if we took Max home, we would be his third owner?”
Janet nodded apologetically, appearing to believe this was a check in the con column for the dog. If she only knew my history of being third in line.
I looked at the boys’ faces, other-worldly joy and uncommon agreement written on their expressions.
“We’ll take him,” I said.
Max waited next to the desk while we completed the paperwork outlining our fitness for and commitment to dog ownership. He hopped onto the back seat of the Suburban between the boys. Halfway home, I felt a warm weight on my shoulder as Max rested his chin on me and licked my ear.
“Do you think Daddy will be mad that we got a used dog?” Dave asked.
In the mirror, I saw Joseph lean forward and pet Max protectively like he would challenge anyone who questioned the product of years of prayer.
The subject of their Dad’s previous two marriages had never come up, but I had a feeling they would understand when we told them someday.
“I think Daddy will see that Max is the perfect dog for us,” I said as Max happily sighed his agreement on my shoulder.
Thanks for reading about my strange history of third-ownership. Please visit me at www.amiedenman.com
Do you have a great story about acquiring a pet? Please share!