Puppies with good health and lineage are matched with waiting raisers who have the love and time to live with them for a year and help them grow into confident, serene, and friendly companion dogs.
At first I thought it was great, to meet someone who had no past. We were at the Dog Park, my new puppy and I, at the large spread of hillside on Lake Champlain where everybody let their dogs run loose, a dozen breeds, Labradors, shepherds, akitas, terriers, chasing those watermelon-slice Frisbees in the early twilight.
I had her, Beulah, on the thirty-foot soft leash called the umbilical cord that allowed her to sniff and get acquainted with the big dogs, plus with assorted fragrant car tires, blocks of granite, and scent-marked tree bark. She wasn't really my puppy, not for keeps. She was a puppy-in-training to be a companion dog to some blind person. That's what I was doing for a year up here in the state of Vermont, raising this tail-wagging creamy lab for someone else.
I hadn't set out to be somebody who did good for people. In high school, I wanted to run a competitive half-mile; instead I played good-enough basketball, because I was tall, and because Peachland, South Carolina didn't have the least interest in a girls' track team. What happened to change things, was I started working afternoons, part-time, my junior year at the pharmacy, doing whatever Mr. Sturgis, the pharmacist, wanted me to do. And that got me to see that I could do some things for the people who were ill and uncomfortable that he couldn't do.
For instance, when Mr. Grady, an elderly black man with a number of health problems, came in waving a new prescription, I could know that his doctor, Dr. Bayless, totally didn't remember that he gave Grady something last month which was going to mix with this one, about the same as giving a hemophiliac a blood thinner or a diabetic on the way to a coma a piece of divinity. This meant I'd need to call the doctor's helper, who wore white like a nurse but wasn't really a nurse, to suggest, "I believe Mr. Bayless is filling a prescription that's maybe not okay. Do you think?" And then I'd hear her tell Bayless, and him say, "Shit," and "Thank the girl," and then heave into a hacking spell of coughing. I could excuse that, knowing also that his own health had taken a turn for the worse. Or when Mrs. Runyan, the mother of the man who owned my daddy's hardware store, came in, leaning on her cane, to pick up some medicine for a bad diagnosis, and looked up at me and whispered, "I never did like gladioli," I could know it meant she was associating the flowers with funerals, and she didn't want one. And tell her not to miss a dose.
So that this spring when Curtis Prentice, my husband of five years, and steady for three more before that, ripped my heart out and stomped on it in front of every single person in town, what tore me up was that by then I'd changed. I wasn't the Janey Daniels I'd been at seventeen when he'd dropped Millie the Cheerleader and started hanging out with me, when being with him, such a hunk, was the total of what I wanted to do; I'd become a woman who'd got some sense and charity. That was what hurt the worst, that he, Curtis, dumped me in full public view when I'd got to be a better person.
And on top of trying to hold my face up in public, in private my folks wanted to talk the mess of my marriage to death. What if I'd taken Curtis's name the way I should have when we married?—that was my mom. What if I'd had myself a baby, being married five years without, that didn't look right.—that was my daddy. But they didn't argue when I told them I had to get out of town, and Mr. Sturgis didn't either, when I asked him for a sabbatical from the pharmacy. Daddy explained to the people who came into the hardware store that his Janey would be going to a cooler climate for a spell to get out of the Carolina heat; Mom told everyone at church that she had blood kin still living in Vermont who would look after her daughter in this trying time. And Mr. Sturgis, who didn't want me gone at all, generously relayed the information that I'd gone north for a spell to study up on new breakthrough drug developments.
Today, realizing my problem wasn't likely to go away with mooning around on an early June afternoon cooler than a winter day at home, I tried to get in a better frame of mind. Zipping up my new red windbreaker against the chill, I led my puppy toward the lake front where I hoped to see ducks upending themselves in the rough windblown water.
It was then I saw this person headed my way. He looked like a college boy, a Vermonter for sure, in heavy boots, shorts, a couple of worn-thin t-shirts, something tied around his forehead, scroungy face-hair. And the nervous way of a lot of boys I'd known in high school. It lifted my spirits just seeing him, the kind of boy I'd had in class but never got to know. The kind who sat in front of you and cracked their knuckles and dug out their ear wax and had to root around in the top of their socks during the teacher's demonstration of the lever and pulley, like they'd lost something down there. Who'd probably moved from somewhere else, and, naturally, aced the Physics final, the Math final, the, even, Social Studies final (because they read the newspaper and had been to Washington twice with their dad, and even knew the current names of the countries in Africa).
The point being I was glad to see him, this sort of guy I hadn't gone out with or even given too much thought to. The type I'd hear in the halls talking to his only buddy about the sort of deep and shallow stuff guys like that talked about: What is the ultimate meaning of our existence, and Do you have a rash on your ankles, or what?
I aimed a smile in his direction and waited, needy for a little conversation with somebody who didn't know a thing about me. After all, I'd driven all the way nearly to Canada to get to some place where the people I met would be strangers. Knowing that if I'd taken an apartment for a year while things cooled down, in Atlanta, say, or Asheville, or even Chattanooga, I'd have run into someone visiting a daughter-in-law or a sick mama, or someone having a reunion with her grade school friends or getting himself a loan at a bigger bank. And they'd have gossiped back home about how I looked, how poor Janey was managing, trying to put a good face on the break-up.
"Hey," the boy said, catching up with me on the path that led to the lake. He had a handsome big furry three-colored dog with him, and seemed to know how to get along with dogs. A good sign.
"Hi," I answered, noticing he didn't seem to mind that I was tall enough to be eye-level with him, which a lot of guys did, wanting you to be someone smaller than them, to come up to their shoulder. I held out a hand. "I'm Janey."
"James." He hesitated. "Martin." He located his hand, stuck it out.
I remembered Mr. Haynes, the elderly man I helped at the pharmacy back home who had a companion he called Blind Dog and how you always had to greet the dog first, and I told him, "This is Beulah," since she was looking up at the new tall person expectantly and wagging her tail.
"Hello, Beulah," he said to her in a nice tone.
"What kind of dog is yours?" I asked, watching as the husky animal which looked like a small St. Bernard snapped at the gusty wind, as if dreaming of the Alps.
"Bernese Mountain dog." He looked a bit sheepish, and fiddled with the thing tied around his forehead. "It's not actually mine. I don't even know his name. I'm walking it for one of my students. I teach high school kids who are part of a study abroad program." He seemed embarrassed. "The kids tell you, You want to meet someone, get a dog."
I smiled in friendly way, to let him know it had worked. He wasn't as young up close as I'd thought. And he had to be already out of school to have students, though he must not have a steady sort of job—to be dressed down like that in the late afternoon on a weekday. "This isn't really my dog either," I told him. "Not exactly." I explained as we walked together to the rocky lakeshore, how I'd have her for a year, get her mannerly and socialized, and then she'd go to the place in Massachusetts where they trained them to be the companions of blind people. I tried to sound confident about that, my looking after her.
The truth was that I hadn't been Beulah's person but a few weeks and still hadn't got used to having something warm and breathing around all the time. I'd never had a dog before. It seemed, growing up, that every kid but me had one, some dog that waited at home and wagged its tail and had to be taken for a run before breakfast or to the playground after school. But my mom wouldn't hear of it, griping that you'd have to clean up their poop, your kitchen would smell of Alpo and your furniture would shed dog hairs. Curtis didn't either for a minute consider us getting a dog. He'd done that once in his life, he said. Who'd bathed the mangy black-and-white mutt at his house? Not anyone else, you could bet on that. Who'd got the ticks off in the sticky, buggy, buzzing summertime, the dumb dog having run into the high weeds on some vacant lot? The son was who, he was who.
Beulah went all around the big dog, wagging her tail in imitation of him, then looking up at me to see if that was all right. I decided that of course it was when she was on the loose leash, the play-time leash. She let him sniff at her and then sniffed him, and they ran around and she looked thrilled to be with another dog so close, and I realized she must miss her litter puppies in her new life.
The teacher and I enjoyed them for a spell while he dug around in one ear and then tried to scratch an itch in the middle of his back. "I like labs," he said, as Beulah wriggled under the big mountain dog like he was a step-ladder, her ears brushing his furry stomach. "She four months?" he guessed.
"Three," I told him.
He studied her. "That sounds hard, to raise it and then, uh, give it away like that."
"I don't know," I admitted. "I haven't done this before. I'm just—visiting," I said. "I'm taking a sabbatical."
He looked as if that sounded okay. And didn't ask why or from what, which warmed me to him a lot.
We saw the wind-whipped lake make whitecaps around two kayakers and a windsurfer, and, far off almost to the New York shore, watched a pair of sailboats listing sideways. We talked about the ducks and why there weren't more, since, he said, they loved choppy water and usually traveled in groups. And I asked why it was dogs tried to take the wind in their mouths, the way his did.
After a while, he guessed he'd better return the borrowed dog to his student, hanging back a few minutes like he wasn't in a rush, retying a boot lace, standing around long enough for me to notice blue eyes, which you didn't often see with nearly black hair. Then the two of them set off at a brisk pace, taking a short-cut across a green field behind the tennis courts. Watching his back in its faded tees, I had a moment of regret that when I was young and dumb I'd fallen for a no-good stud—and let all those fidgety boys go by without giving them a glance.