by George August Meier
When it comes to pets, there are two types of people: those who love dogs, and those who prefer cats. I don’t think there’s any middle ground. I, for instance, am a dog lover, as was my 75-year-old next-door neighbor, Charlie. So when he asked me for a favor involving a dog named Bookner, I knew there was going to be a problem. Especially because my wife, Laura, preferred cats, or a third option, no pet at all. She always said cats are self-sufficient and dogs require a lot of work.
It was one of those days when no amount of sweat or iced tea was enough to cool you off when Charlie broached the subject of Bookner. We were leaning on the fence between our yards, taking “a well-deserved break” from yard work, and sharing combat stories about a common enemy: weeds.
Charlie awkwardly changed the subject. “I need your help,” he began. His eyes dropped and he messed with a hangnail, avoiding eye contact. “I promised to foster a lab puppy for eighteen months, after which he would be trained as a service dog.”
Charlie ran his wiry, suntanned hand through his platinum hair. I could tell he was struggling with this. I assumed it was because he was a self-reliant man and not used to asking for favors. He was a retired marine colonel, a man who all of his life probably believed he was capable of doing anything.
I tried to make it easier. “Charlie, what is it? We’re old friends.”
“I can’t keep my word,” Charlie said. “Emma’s taken a turn for the worse, and we just can’t take on a dog right now. Wives come first.”
He finally looked up, and I saw sadness with a hint of embarrassment in his blue-gray eyes.
“Charlie, it’s no problem at all. Laura and I have been sort of looking for a dog for a while,” I lied.
“It’s only until he goes off to training in eighteen months,” Charlie said, some of his usual vibrancy returning.
I must have been distracted with a vision of the inevitable showdown with Laura as Charlie said, “I’ll bring Bookner over after lunch.” Because while walking into my house, it hit me: He already has him? He’s bringing him today?!
Our twins, Matt and Maddy, were now seven. It’s unfair, I thought, for children to grow up without having a pet, and in my opinion, cats just aren’t legitimate pets. They’re too independent, aloof, and sneaky. Besides, Laura was allergic to cats. Thank God! I guess I was rehearsing my debate with Laura concerning Bookner.
I smelled fresh oil paint and smiled. Laura was in her in-home studio, painting. I liked that she hadn’t given in to the temptations of the electronic age and switched to computer software to create her images. Many of her artist friends had. They touted their ability to “undo” mistakes with a simple keystroke. Her paint strokes, on the other hand, always carried the risk of a mistake, of failure, or worse, of mediocrity, but that is what made her paintings so special, so mystical.
That day, she was painting a portrait of our mayor. He had decided it would be a nice tradition to display a portrait of each mayor in city hall, starting with himself.
I looked over her shoulder at the easel to see the mayor sitting on a white horse. “I know—the horse,” Laura said, without taking an eye off the canvas. “He insisted.”
“Honey,” I said.
She threw a hand in the air and continued to paint with the other and said, “That word. In that tone. You want something. What is it?”
In that instant, I changed tactics, abandoned the “kids” argument, and decided to use the potent combination of guilt and social conscience. “Good ole Charlie next door is in a bind. He’s got a chocolate lab puppy that needs a temporary home, for just eighteen months, until it can be trained to be a service dog for the blind.”
For Laura, this was a dilemma. I could almost see her anti-dog sentiment wrestling with her conscience. She’d been an early feminist and antiwar activist in college and had always been inclined toward self-sacrifice for others. Not for me, mind you, but that is a subject for another time. I saw the answer in her face before she spoke. “OK. Eighteen months, but that’s it,” she said.
On that basis, Bookner came to live with us. From the beginning, Laura tried to ignore him and often reminded me that he was my responsibility. Yet, when the kids or I forgot to feed Bookner, I noticed that someone did. I think Bookner sensed her hesitation toward him. On cold evenings, he’d settle at her feet with his body warming her toes. She acted annoyed yet never got him to move. And more than anyone else, he followed her commands.
At the end of the eighteen months, the kids and I broke the first rule of fostering—we didn’t want to see him go. But he was off to training school, and upon graduation he’d be placed as a service dog.
Although he was on a course to serve mankind, I was secretly hoping Bookner would flunk out. If that happened he was free to rejoin our family. I knew I was being selfish, but I simply couldn’t overcome my affection for that dog. Years later I did my penance by fostering a succession of puppies for the same training program.
The rigorous training had a fairly high failure rate. I was pretty sure Bookner wouldn’t be class valedictorian. He was certainly smart enough, but he tended to do things on his own timetable. While I’m no dog whisperer, growing up I trained my share of family dogs. But when I gave Bookner commands, he occasionally gave me what I’ve described as “the Bookner stare,” which I interpreted as, “Do I have to do that right now?”
If he could return to us, I would now argue to Laura that he should “for the sake of the kids.” And if that didn’t work, I planned to use cheap, underhanded, guerilla warfare and tell the kids Bookner could come back “if Mom said it was OK.”
I got the call six weeks into the eight-week course. “We’re so sorry, but the dog you fostered for service training is being dropped from the program,” the woman said. While her somber tone signaled she was delivering bad news, I could hardly contain myself from kissing her over the phone and ordering her a fruit basket. I needed no explanation, but I guess she felt compelled to soften the disappointment with, “Bookner’s a very smart dog, but he does things on his own schedule.”
“Really?” I said, my voice squeaking slightly.
“Have you ever noticed how he stares at you sometimes when you give him a command?” the caller asked.
“No,” I replied.
Our beloved Bookner was coming home—maybe.
After relentless begging by the kids, and me, Laura agreed Bookner could return. I had the feeling she was feigning resistance. Maybe this was the beginning of a cat to dog conversion.
Bookner returned home in a yellow school bus. He trotted in the door, tail wagging. I gave him a big hug. The kids did the same. Laura gave him a couple of pats on the head. Sometimes you wonder what a dog is thinking, but it appeared to me he was enjoying his homecoming.
What this dog lacked in obedience, he made up for with charm. He was downright endearing. When he entered a room, his “doggie smile” proclaimed, “I’m here, let’s party.” He greeted everyone with a poke of his nose, sometimes embarrassingly for his owners, right in the crotch.
One bright morning about six months later, I was on the back porch in my usual Saturday mode, legs kicked up on a wicker stool, hazelnut coffee and a newspaper in hand. I read about a contest where dogs run an obstacle course. I knew if Bookner could be coaxed to perform, he was a superstar at such things, known as agility. The grand prize was a year’s supply of dog food and, strangely, a hot tub. I wanted one of those.
I could tell Laura was enthusiastic about the idea when she said, “Bookner in a race? You must be crazy.”
“It’ll be fun,” I responded, with cheery eyebrows lifted.
Bookner just sat there and didn’t say anything. But I sensed he was on board.
Charlie suggested “we” build a training course in my backyard. A photograph from the contest ad could be used as our template. Charlie had been pretty handy with tools when I first met him, but his failing eyesight prevented him from helping much on this project. He resorted to his commanding officer days and issued orders from the sidelines.
Bookner learned the course with ease. The only issue was he decided when he would run it. When he did, he weaved through the cones, jumped the sawhorses, and crawled through the bottomless barrels like an elite athlete vying for an endorsement. But other times, I got the Bookner stare.
The evening before the contest, I got a call from my boss. The news wasn’t good. I walked in the studio, where Laura was working on a family portrait. She did that on and off when business was slow. It was about half done. Inspecting her progress, I noticed my likeness was missing a head and looked a bit pudgy.
I knew not to use “Honey,” so I tried, “Darling…”
Up went the hand. “What do you need?”
“I have to leave on business tomorrow, and you’ve got to take Bookner to the competition.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” she said. “This is your deal. Why not ask Charlie? He helped in the training.”
“I asked him, but he can’t see well enough to do it,” I replied. “Don’t you want to win a hot tub?” I said to encourage her. “Besides, you know how Bookner listens to you better than me.”
“Oh, please. He doesn’t listen to anybody,” she said, shaking her head.
Laura finally consented, but she nearly backed out when she learned the contest was being broadcast live on local television.
When the big day arrived, I was in Dallas. But the kids recorded the broadcast. Laura refused to give me the results on the phone. She insisted I wait to see “the performance,” as she called it, on the recording. I was afraid “the performance” might be Bookner and Laura as a staring duet. If so, I would have to endure Laura’s up close and personal stare. A chilling thought.
After dinner my first night back, we settled into the living room to watch the video. Charlie was invited even though he had attended the event. Laura withheld all information about it and had sworn the kids and Charlie to secrecy.
I started the recording with a mixture of anticipation and dread, with the latter dominant. I watched as the first three dogs didn’t even finish the course. The fourth completed it with a time of fifty-seven seconds. And then a border collie went through flawlessly in thirty-one seconds. The live audience cheered. Laura looked at me. “We’re next.”
I tried to gauge her voice. Was that a sarcastic tone? Not sure. Bookner entered the living room as though he knew to come in at that moment to watch his run. I thought that was a good sign. He wouldn’t join us to watch himself lose, would he? I then re-embraced reality and thought, “Stop it. He’s just a dog.”
The show’s host introduced Laura and Bookner. Bookner seemed to be smiling. Laura was not.
On the screen, Laura positioned Bookner at the start of the course. I silently congratulated myself, because the course was remarkably similar to the one Charlie and I built.
Laura looked at the host, raised a hand, and was about to give Bookner the “go” command. “Here we go,” I thought. “Please don’t let me see ‘the stare.’” I nervously slid off the couch and crawled closer to the television. Despite knowing the results, Charlie joined me.
Laura got a signal from the show host and yelled, “Go!” Bookner sprung forward like a racing greyhound. He was a swishing brown blur as he weaved through the cones. He was a gazelle jumping three hurdles. He scooted through barrels to raucous applause. An astute crowd, I thought.
I turned and looked at Laura watching the television. She was beaming. And, call it my imagination, so was Bookner.
I heard the host say, “Wow, that was only twenty-nine seconds.”
“We won!” I screamed, as Charlie and I both jumped to our feet. I grabbed Laura and gave her a hug. Bookner came over to get in on the action and nestled his snout between us.
“Not so fast,” Laura said. “There’s one more contestant.”
Charlie and I resumed our positions on the floor.
The last contestant, a whippet, was lean and muscular—a speed machine. My anxiousness was refreshed. But Charlie slipped me a wink.
When the owner said, “Go,” the dog gave him “the stare.” The whippet then took off like a shot—in the wrong direction.
On screen, Laura was smiling like a lottery winner. But the smile morphed to a grimace when the host asked Laura if she would mind having the winner run the course again. Any chance of denial was squelched by the audience chanting, “Bookner, Bookner, Bookner…”
Laura breathed in deeply as she positioned Bookner for a second time. Bookner raced through the course like a rabbit on speed, and he was timed at twenty-seven seconds. My hero.
I punched the air and screamed, “A new course record!” And then sheepishly added, “Well, at least on the show.”
A week later, the hot tub arrived. I bought champagne for the first soak that evening.
“This is the life,” I said, as Laura and I submerged to the neck in the warm bubbly water. She lit some candles and poured us each a glass of the ceremonial drink. I raised my glass. “I propose a toast.” I then bellowed, “Here’s to our amazing, world-famous, champion, one and only, miracle dog, the magnificent Bookner.”
When Bookner heard his name, he alerted, jumped to his feet, and galloped toward us. I choked, trying to quickly swallow and yell “stop.” But it was too late. He had already launched. I watched his ninety-pound hulk rise and arc over the edge of the hot tub and plunge into the water.
We instinctively raised our glasses high as a tsunami crested our shoulders. Water burst in all directions. Our eyes and the candles were doused. When my vision cleared, there was Bookner sitting between us, his husky head and shoulders protruding out of the water. His brown fur was matted in splotches and water dripped from his nose. His mouth hung open and his pink tongue glistened. He made no attempt to get out or even move. He just sat there like he belonged. And maybe he did. After all, it was he who won the tub. By silent assent, we allowed him to sit and relax with us as we finished our drinks. He never seemed so content. Unfortunately, the “wet dog smell” and hair in the jets prevented us from ever inviting him back.
For several years Laura and I enjoyed that tub. Whenever we got in, Bookner would lay down next to it. I wondered if he remembered the day he got a chance to share it with us.
On a cloudy fall day, we received some bad news. Emma, Charlie’s wife of over fifty years, had passed away. Charlie and Emma had depended on each other, especially on account of Charlie’s deteriorating vision. So our family sort of adopted Charlie and helped him out whenever we could. Every morning, Charlie and Emma had walked the neighborhood. I decided Charlie needed some continuity in his post-Emma life, and so I invited him to join Bookner and me on our daily walks.
One day, Charlie asked if he could do the honors of walking Bookner. I passed him the lead. At the next crosswalk, Bookner stopped, checked for traffic, and then led Charlie across the road. On account of his poor eyesight, Charlie probably missed the amazement that must have been evident on my face. Bookner may have been a dropout, but it sure looked like he knew what he was doing. Charlie related this to Laura, who gave Bookner a hug.
Over the years, Laura seemed to soften a bit toward dogs, or perhaps it was just toward Bookner. He was special. Maybe he was somehow that middle ground, the no-man’s-land in between those who like cats and those who love dogs.
Every morning after that, we’d take Bookner for a walk—Laura and Charlie and I. Charlie shared with us things about his life he’d never mentioned before. And he smiled broadly when Laura or I talked about our early years together. As for Bookner, he protected us from traffic, never again gave us the stare, and was the driving force that brought us all together on those wonderful walks.
Laura finished the family portrait. I finally had a head but was still overweight. And sitting among us, as part of the family, was a big brown dog. The conversion was complete.
George August Meier‘s stories have won three first place awards in contests sponsored by a national writer’s journal and have been published in Amarillo Bay, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Forge, The Write Room, and Writers’ Journal. He has been named one of Florida’s “Elite Lawyers” by Florida Trend Magazine, and a “Top Lawyer” by Orlando Home & Leisure Magazine. He and his wife reside on a gator-infested lake in Winter Springs, Florida.