Holiday Break: New Old Dog

by: Ruby Jones

Editor’s Note: You can donate to the Sebastian County Humane Society at this link.

Karen wept as her son filled in the grave. It was cold, so cold her breath came out in clouds as she choked back the sobs that hit her throat in relentless waves of grief. Beside her, her oldest granddaughter cried, too. Emma was just eleven, in the throes of modern tweendom and generally more concerned with whether or not she’d be allowed to wear eyeliner when she started middle school. Yet there she stood, the dark hair falling around her face wet with tears. The death had hit her hard, Karen noted. Emma hadn’t even cried this much over the death of her grandfather the previous year.

Karen, who was otherwise miserable between her grief and the biting cold that seemed to run right through her joints in icy daggers, was comforted by Danny and by the warmth of Emma’s hand wrapped around her own. She thought longingly of her daughters, one in Texas and one in Missouri, and wished they’d come early for Christmas. It had been too long since she’d seen the other children.

“Nana?” Emma’s voice sounded small in the cold, a reminder of when she had been a toddler pulling on Karen’s apron.

“Yes, Em?”

“Will you get another dog? Christmas is in two weeks, and I’m thinking we should get you a puppy.”

“I had Bo a long time, little love. Since your daddy was a boy.” Karen leaned down to tuck a piece of hair behind Emma’s ear. “I don’t know if I’ll be ready. Anyway, I don’t think I’d want a puppy. I don’t think I could raise one at my age.”

“I don’t like you being out here alone, Mama. At least with Bo around you weren’t completely on your own. I wish you’d think about coming to live with us. We have the space.” Donny wrapped his arm around his mother’s slim shoulders.

“I’m still thinking about it,” Karen replied.

“You always say you’re still thinking about it,” Emma said.

“It’s a big decision, Em. I don’t know how to leave this place.”

Emma nodded and wiped the tears from her face as Danny patted down the earth where the big, handsome Australian Shepherd was now buried. Karen wiped her tears too, and they went inside for hot chocolate and cookies.

Four days later, Karen awoke and, after a few moments, felt the loneliness of the big house where she’d raised her children reverberate around her. There was a second after waking, still, even after a year of hoping it would be different, when she expected to smell her husband’s aftershave. Now that expectation and its ensuing grief combined with the expectation of feeling Bo behind her knees, where he’d slept for the last seventeen years. The moment when she remembered they were both gone nearly held her captive on her bed. She realized then that there were days when the dog was the only reason she’d gotten up at all. Caring for Bo, having him need her, was something she had needed, but had never known until that moment how much she had needed it. The grief was hard, compounded into a fog of despair so thick she could barely see through it. She moved the stairs Dennis had built for Bo to the corner of her bedroom.

After her morning coffee, she slipped into her loose jeans and drove to the local Humane Society.

“What can I help you with?” The young volunteer asked.

“I’m here to look at your big dogs,” Karen mumbled as she made her way through the small room and into the huge one full of kennels. Noise and pungent smells seemed to compress the air around her. She breathed through her mouth and looked into the kennels.

Most of the dogs were too young, too full of nervous energy. She remembered when Bo had been a puppy. He was a terrible puppy, hard to potty-train and so full of anxious need, with a set of destructive tendencies so vexing that she had wanted to take him back to the Walmart parking lot where they’d found him. She told her husband that he was the worst dog she’d ever seen. Dennis had replied, “He’ll grow into himself.” And eventually, he did. In Karen’s eyes, Bo was the best dog they’d ever had.

Karen stopped in front of a row of kennels that seemed curiously quiet in comparison to the others. SENIOR DOGS the sign read, just above a missive that said ASK ME ABOUT MY HEALTH BEFORE YOU ADOPT ME.

Karen didn’t read the notes attached to the chain link, but she did pause to look at every dog, to imagine each one on the nice bed they’d put in the living room for Bo. None of them seemed right to her. When she came to the middle of the row, she stopped as she saw what seemed like a familiar face looking patiently up at her.

Her sign said her name was Sasha and she was twelve years old, an Australian Shepherd mix. Her face was beginning to go gray, but she had soft brown eyes set against that blue merle coat. Her coat wasn’t shiny like Bo’s had been, and she had a long tail and longer legs than a purebred Aussie would, but her face was so like Bo’s it was breathtaking. She was so beautiful and so familiar that Karen nearly hit her knees. She turned and left the shelter without speaking to anyone, ashamed of the tears she felt filling her eyes.

In the next week, Karen made candy and wrapped presents for all seven of her grandchildren. She kept to a schedule, to make the work easier, but also to make sure she had something to do. After she had checked off each day’s tasks, she headed to the shelter to see Sasha. On the third day, she had the old dog brought around to the play room and they sat staring at each other. Sasha climbed up into Karen’s lap, and it was a great comfort. On the Friday before Christmas, she brought Emma with her to the shelter.

Emma’s eyes were as big as saucers when she asked if her grandmother was going to take the dog home.

“I’m still thinking about it,” Karen said.

Emma rolled her eyes and replied, “You’re always still thinking about it,” before she pulled her phone out of her pocket and drifted away from the moment.

The following afternoon, when Karen returned to the shelter for the last time before they closed for Christmas, Sasha was gone. Even the paperwork attached to her kennel had completely disappeared. Karen didn’t look at the other dogs, she simply drove back home and made more cookies.

The Eversoles had celebrated the holiday on the evening of Christmas Eve since Karen’s oldest daughter had married and moved off to Dallas. On Christmas Eve morning, Karen opened her eyes and forgot again about her loneliness for that long moment after waking. Instead of staying in bed when the sense of loss settled in, she smiled and rose to head to the kitchen in her housecoat to make the hot rolls. Her whole family would arrive at four p.m., and they’d expect homemade hot rolls.

At around two in the afternoon, when the ham was looking nice and the potato salad was safely in the refrigerator, she slipped on a holiday dress and went to sit in the living room, in Dennis’s big chair. This is what she was doing when Emma came through the door.

“First of all, I don’t want you to be mad at me,” Emma said.

Karen considered her granddaughter’s face for a moment then said, “You surely would not be grinning like that if you’d done something wrong.”

“I don’t think I can say yet. I’ll just have to show you,” Emma replied, and walked back to the door, which she opened and spoke through, “Daddy, you can come in now.”

It wasn’t Danny who came through the door first. It was Sasha. Sasha, on her too-tall legs with her long tail wagging. Karen had never seen the dog move so easily. Sasha jumped up in the chair where Karen sat as if she were still a puppy and licked Karen, just once, on the cheek.

“Mom,” Danny began, “this is just an interview. We took her to the vet yesterday and discovered that on top of the diabetes the shelter knew about, she also has arthritis in her back legs and cataracts in one of her eyes. We got her all fixed up and bought some medicine while we were there, but she needs special care. The vet said she’s got some years left, but it will be work. We know you’ll have to think about it.”

“There’s something else,” Emma said. “But I don’t know if you want to hear it.”

“Child, you know I’d rather hear it than worry about it.”

“Okay,” Emma said, “So I was looking at her and she looks so much like Bo that I started to wonder about it. I asked Daddy some questions to get me started. And then it turned out there was a picture of her on the Lost and Found Pets page from two years ago. I found that out by typing her name and Australian Shepherd mix because they told us she was an owner surrender due to a death and I thought that might mean somebody loved her. It turned out that she belonged to Phillip Robinson.”

“You remember the Robinsons, Mama? It was their female we bred Bo to way back before he was neutered.”

“Yes, I remember. Bo was just a pup and we were scheduled to have him neutered. Phil wouldn’t let up until we let him borrow Bo for a couple of days. Damn gadfly that man was, God rest his soul. He was generous too, though. He gave us two hundred dollars after all the puppies came out blue merle. Y’all had a good Christmas that year,” Karen replied as she stroked Sasha’s coat.

“Anyway, there’s a girl in my class named Tessa Robinson and I remembered a few months ago she missed school because her granddad died. So I asked her if Phillip was her granddad and said hey, what happened to his dog. Then I got her to give her aunt Daddy’s phone number. . . .and . . . ”

“And it turns out Sasha is one of Bo’s descendants,” Danny finished.

“What?” Karen replied, looking up from the dog for the first time.

Danny pushed his glasses further up on his face. “You know the Robinsons kept good records. Obsessed with dogs, those people. It turns out he liked Bo’s pups so much he kept some of the females. And Sasha’s mama dog got out and tangled with a neighbor mutt. The old man had Sasha spayed and kept her because her face was so pretty.”

“How is this even possible?” Karen asked. But as she stared into Sasha’s face, she knew it was possible. She looked at her son and her granddaughter and said, “I’m not thinking about it anymore. I’ve decided. Danny, can you go move Bo’s stairs back to my bed?” She turned her attention back to Sasha, “Arthritis makes it hard to get out of bed, don’t it, old girl?”

After the house was empty again and all her children and grandchildren had gone back home, Karen woke up on Christmas morning with a warm dog behind her knees. She didn’t worry about the memory of aftershave that hung around her. Nor did she think about how this warm place was not the dog who had been her companion for nearly two decades. Sasha stretched and used the stairs to make it to the floor from the tall bed. Karen stretched too, and rose slowly, patting her new old dog on the head before she went to make their breakfast.