In Twenty-Four Hours

Christopher Thomas Schmidt

© Copyright 20054 by Christopher Thomas Schmidt


Photo by A.Groth.

 Can something that enters your life suddenly and unexpectedly, only to leave it just as suddenly a mere twenty-four hours later, leave any kind of deep and lasting impression? It can when that something is forty ounces of barking, drooling, desperately cute, snapping stray puppy.

 Driving home late one evening, from nowhere in particular, I receive one of those disorienting adrenaline shots as a tiny brown speck of eminent road kill darts recklessly through my headlights. It’s a dog. Worse, it’s a puppy. I experience that sharp, spontaneous pain, familiar to all animal lovers in the presence of a stray. The dreadful feeling increases as I note there is no one nearby carrying a leash, and in fact no one around at all that could possibly claim this animal. Slowing, I can see that the thing is tiny; probably only a couple months old, and appears to have no collar—meaning no tags—thus no immediate hope of being reunited with its owner. From where I have stopped, and now sit idling in the middle of the road, I watch with heightened dismay as the heedless canine bolts back into the street. I own a dog. Despite training, bribes and group therapy, she doesn’t get along terribly well with other dogs. I own three cats. They don’t get on particularly well with other dogs either. They will likely be upset with me if I arrive home with a new roommate. These are not my immediate thoughts, however, as there is a lost puppy in my midst that is running too freely up and down this habitually busy street, and I know, before I’ve even had a chance to consider it properly, he will be coming home with me.

 Climbing out of my car I am nearly upended as the puppy flashes back across the road and through my legs to cower behind my front tire. It is surely just a matter of time before he attempts a similar and fatal action beneath a moving vehicle, and I am thankful I had the good sense to pull over. Several uncertain minutes are required to persuade my new friend that I am indeed a well-meaning savior of wayward puppies, and he eventually makes his trembling way out from under my car. Somewhere between the wheel and fender he becomes convinced of my good intentions and springs into my arms. Reentering my car with the new burden is rather an adventure as he is desperate to simultaneously lick, bite and scratch every square inch of my face in a bizarre dance of thanks. So adamant and necessary is this apparent display of gratitude that I cannot even put the little guy down for the purposes of safe driving. I am instantly smitten.

 The average amount of time that elapses between when an animal lover finds a stray and when they make up their mind to keep it is about two seconds. The time can increase if the stray is particularly large, particularly unfriendly or—and please pardon my insensitivity—particularly ugly, but two seconds is about the norm. In less than half that time I resolve that I will be adopting this dog; a dog that I absolutely cannot keep. I currently live with my parents and the aforementioned quartet of unsociable house pets; all of which my parents have been forced to adopt for various indisputably sound reasons. Though not adult enough to not live with my parents, I am begrudgingly responsible enough to realize that I cannot bring another animal into the house. Adopting this puppy simply isn’t possible. Holding the quivering bundle in my arms, looking into his pleading, lost-puppy-dog eyes, it occurs to me that letting him go is likely to prove equally difficult.

 On the short drive home I ponder half-a-dozen scenarios by which it may be possible to successfully keep and care for one more pet. Then it occurs to me that somewhere, probably nearby, probably just up the road, there is a family, perhaps a family with children that is even now desperately missing their new puppy. Missing him as I would if I had lost him. It has taken no time at all for me to become hopelessly attached to this creature, it pains me to imagine how his true owners must feel.

Despite the hour, I call the local shelter—which is closed—then set out to make inquiries of my neighbors, in what I now admit was a halfhearted attempt to locate the owners. I walk the neighborhood, with the puppy trying to simultaneously climb into my shirt and onto my head with equal enthusiasm, and in my mind I review the questions to which I must receive satisfactory answers before anyone gets this dog back:

 “So, how do you suppose he got out?”

 “How have you allowed something so unbelievably precious to leave your sight long enough to become lost?”

 “What steps have you taken to ensure it doesn’t happen again?”

 “Are you prepared to enter a counseling program so that you better understand how to care for the life of such a wonderful animal?”

 “Do you think you deserve to get him back after what you have done?”

 “Will you let me visit him on weekends?”

 “Can you provide me with three character references who will attest to this being a simple behavioral lapse, rather than the revelation of a major and habitual flaw? No relatives.”

The initial search for the owner reveals nothing and I call it off as it becomes too late to continue blindly knocking on doors. We have a fairly aggressive neighborhood-watch in these parts, and I believe that if a stranger comes calling after dark, it is actually legal to answer the door with gunfire.

 Returning home I observe how the little voice nagging me about how I can’t keep this puppy is not nearly as convincing as the little three-pound morsel that won’t stop biting my ear. In serious danger of becoming a new puppy owner at this point, I force myself to think rationally about the situation. I will certainly fail if I do not follow a few simple rules: (1) Do not name him—nothing will make parting more heart wrenching or impossible than giving him a name; (2) Do no play with him—start playing with a puppy and you may as well buy it a food dish and put its name on your mailbox; and (3) If you are foolish enough to take it home with you, DO NOT let it sleep in your room Get a box, lay a blanket in it and put it in the laundry room, or suffer the new-puppy-owning consequences.

 Of the above, I only managed to adhere to Rule #1. I fought diligently against giving him a name, though as for the other rules, I failed quite thoroughly. You just can’t have a puppy-sized ball of energy in the house and not play with it, any more than you can make it sleep in the garage. Merely offended when I brought the puppy through the door, my dog had an aneurism when I started playing with it. And when the puppy snatched up one of her toys, Kiera—my dog’s name is Kiera—assumed a look of outrage that was more human than canine. The whole incident is years behind us now, though I occasionally catch Kiera giving me a semblance of that look, and I suspect she has not totally forgiven me. The cats, in that way cats have, seemed to sense that there was a foreign mongrel in the house, and simply disappeared for two days.

 I blew the third rule too, but I really didn’t have any choice. Not that I even tried to shut a helpless puppy in the laundry room for the night, but since he started howling every time he lost sight of me, the sleeping in separate rooms thing would never have worked. Not that the sleeping in the same room thing was a tremendous success, either. That dog didn’t so much sleep as roll and kick and whine and bark and bite and slobber and scramble from one end of the bed to the other and to the floor and back on the bed then scratch on the door as though he wanted to be let out and then when I opened the door he piddled on the floor anyway. I liken the experience to those I hear about from my friends who have restless infant children. I liken my enthusiasm for puppy ownership, at that point, to that of my friends who swear they are done having infant children.

 Emerging from my room the next morning with the puppy in my arms, I am greeted by another purely human look of incredulity from Kiera that seems to indicate that she believed/hoped the whole puppy incident was simply a bad dream. I don’t know if looks can kill, but I’m pretty sure my dog can, so I wasted little time getting the two of us out of the house.

 Back in the car we made a circuit of the neighborhood, putting up a flier I made reporting a “FOUND BLACK PUPPY,” with my telephone number. Feeling good about myself for going to this trouble, I soon became angry at the notable absence of “LOST BLACK PUPPY” fliers. If this were my dog I believe I would have instantly rallied the National Guard to help me recover it, and at the very least I would have papered the county in LOST BLACK PUPPY fliers. To be honest, what I inferred as a lack of effort by the puppy’s owner made the trip to the animal shelter considerably easier. That said, the trip to the animal shelter was one of the most difficult and distressing experiences of which I have ever been a part.

 It went much the same as our original trip in the car, with the puppy refusing to stay anywhere but right in my lap—right in my face, to be completely accurate. Jumping, wriggling, clawing, snapping, having the time of his life, as a child on its way to Disneyland. Despite the assurances I received from the shelter, when I called earlier that morning, that they did not euthanize and that one-hundred percent of all healthy puppies get adopted within the first couple days, the guilt I feel is excruciating. Here is this angel of an animal that already loves me (at least that is my interpretation), that already trusts me with its life, and even as it stands in my lap struggling to get at and lick my face, I speed resolutely toward the pound where I can abandon it. I tell myself that he will go to a better home, that he will get adopted by someone with fewer cats and fewer homicidally jealous dogs, that there is a family out there that can care for him better than I. With a bundle of such incurable cuteness in my lap, none of this is terribly helpful. Nor is the unscheduled stop we make to play in some stranger’s yard. Thought one last romp would serve as some sort of closure, but I just want to keep him that much more. Sigh.

 At the shelter, I leave the puppy in the car (with the windows cracked, of course), electing to go solo into the office to find out what I am to do. Most of my body is now grazed to the point of bleeding, so I am not in a hurry to carry the little guy into this strange building where his is sure to get excited and renew his scratching efforts. More to the point, I am a really big sissy and I know that I don’t have the emotional wherewithal to personally deliver the puppy to these people who are going to take him away from me forever.

 While filling out some paperwork, it is explained to me that the puppy will be held in quarantine for four days for medical reasons, and to give the rightful owner a chance to reclaim their lost pet. The clerk seems to sense my unrest, or is just an old pro, and assures me that most puppies develop a waiting list of prospective owners during the waiting period, and run little risk of going unclaimed. Mildly reassured I make her promise to call me if this dog spends one unclaimed minute in this place after the four days are up.

 Mercifully, at this point a ranger shows up and agrees to accompany me to my car to retrieve their new tenant (must remember not to name it; extremely important). Two steps out of the office the puppy spots me and is sent into paroxysms of renewed delight. Watching him turn summersaults in my front seat—trying not to notice he is turning my front seats inside out—my knees go weak and I get a thickening sensation in my head as before one starts bawling like an injured child.

 I manage to hold myself together through what must have been a two mile walk back to my car. I am determined not to start blubbering in front of a complete stranger wearing khaki shorts and a ranger hat. Still maintaining my composure, I stand back as the ranger leans in for the puppy. I bite my lip in half, trying not to look at it, trying not to listen to it whine, trying to fool myself that I don’t want to snatch him back and take him home, that I don’t want to keep him more than anything in the world. With the puppy cradled in his arms, the ranger thanks me and begins to walk away. Don’t look. Don’t look. You can handle this, just don’t look. My head feels as though it is submerged below several meters of water. Get back in your car. Don’t look. Despite myself my nose has started to run and my vision has gone fuzzy. Start the car, drive away, don’t look.

 Everything is moving in slow motion, and when I look (dammit), they aren’t even halfway across the parking lot. In an act that I can only describe as cruelty, the puppy has scrambled onto the ranger’s shoulder and is staring back at me. I fall apart. I lose control of myself emotionally in a way I would not previously have believed, or admitted. I cannot see for the emotion, but I can’t turn away. Slowly, painfully they move across the lot. The puppy continues to stare; his look is almost pleading.

 I need to stop looking. I need to drive away. I cannot. They are still some distance from the office, from passing mercifully out of sight. The puppy lets out a yelp. I am paralyzed.

 Time has lost all meaning. Locked in that gaze, I don’t see them reach the office, but finally the door swings shut, and he is gone. The spell is broken, though for sometime I am unable to move. Eventually I lift my head from the steering wheel and, in an absolute fog, I drive the eight-hundred miles back home.

 Therapy comes in the form of taking Kiera for a long walk. Every time she looks over her shoulder I recoil with guilt, believing that she knows what I am thinking about. That puppy was mine for a day. I wonder how long it takes to forget.

 Someone else’s lost dog comes into my life completely at random, is part of it for a mere twenty-four hours and then is gone. I will never see him again, but every time I glance at the bite marks he left on my laundry basket, whenever I think about the pair of shoes he devoured, as I ponder the missing DVD that I suspect he had a hand in, it is with effort that I keep from weeping. Someone else’s dog. I still miss him.

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