Our Proof of Devotion

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I am not a dog person. In fact, I think the perfect pet for me might just be a raccoon — one of those animals that are able to open trash cans and get their own dinner. Despite this, I agreed to watch over my friend’s pet while she was out of town for a week. Misty is the kind of friend who doesn’t ask for a favor, instead she presents the thing she wants you to do as a unique opportunity, one you’d be foolish to turn down. She pitched the dog watching as sort of a mini vacation, one in which I would share her apartment space with Clara, a bull dog with body odor and an allergy to grass. I spent the week with the dog because Misty is also the kind of friend who would gladly assist you with digging out a sewer line.

Her work space in the cubicle we share is decorated with an assortment of stuffed bull dogs and pictures of Clara. Here is adorable Clara holding a ball in her mouth, tiny Clara as a puppy under a Christmas tree, and contemplative Clara in sepia, posed in an old fashioned wash tub. How do you tell someone that you don’t care for their dog? It’s like admitting that you don’t like sunshine, or oxygen.

“I want you to come over this evening, so Clara can get used to you”, Misty told me the week before I was scheduled to stay. When I arrived at her apartment, Misty decided that Clara and I needed some alone time together, so my friend left to do some shopping. The dog and I were supposed to play together, to bond, but we wound up spending time doing what I often did with my children when they were young — we watched television. I brushed the dog hair off to clear a spot on the couch, and sat down. Clara settled next to me and fell asleep snoring.

When Misty returned Clara greeted her happily, jumping up and panting. “Did you have a good time?” I started to answer, but then realized that Misty was asking the dog for her opinion.

“Let me show you how to walk her.” My friend brought out a special harness and a retractable leash. The leash was one of those designed to give your animal the illusion of freedom, while guaranteeing that the dog owner will find herself wrapped around a tree or light pole at some point. Attached to the leash was a container that dispensed little bright blue plastic bags. “I want you to watch when Clara poops, that way you’ll know how much to expect, and how to know when she’s finished.” I tried to picture myself staring at the dog’s back end and gauging the size of the deposits while Misty continued talking. “And don’t let her eat any acorns or she’ll upchuck on the carpet, she’s allergic.”

“How many times does she poop?” I asked. There seemed to be an awful lot of those little blue bags loaded in the holder. Misty explained that Clara went at least two or three times during each walk. She offered to let me try the bagging after the first stop, but I told her that I thought I could figure it out later.

“You’ll be walking Clara first thing in the morning, and you’ll need to be home right after work, by six at least, to walk her again. Then wait thirty minutes for her stomach to settle, feed her two cups of food, and walk her once more before bedtime.” A quick calculation on my part estimated that was 16 or 18 little bags a day. I planned on double bagging. “All right, here’s the list of instructions, don’t forget the after dinner treat for her teeth. Her allergy medicine is in the pantry, if she gets in too much grass she’ll start scratching. The medicine knocks her out, so just give it at bedtime. You can sleep in my bed if you want, and Clara will probably sleep with you. If she whines that means she wants under the covers.” As Misty handed me the page filled with notes on the care and feeding of her dog, it occurred to me that I would have gotten off easier taking care of someone’s elderly grandparent or small child.

On our first day of walking I nervously tried to steer Clara away from the acorns that she wanted to slurp up like a furry Hoover. I did allow her to eat all the dried bugs she found, as Misty had not specified that these were forbidden. We stayed on the sidewalk, avoiding the grass until it was time for scooping. I hoped that the dog wouldn’t suffer an allergic reaction, since I couldn’t imagine how I would get her to swallow the sedative. I would have to take one myself first.

The second day of my visit with Clara, she met me at the door, tongue hanging out and what passed for a dog smile on her face. On the third day, I could see her watching me from the front window as I parked my car. Her flat doggie face, pressed to the glass, reminded me of those wives of long ago ship captains, pacing along the widow’s walks and searching for signs of their loved ones to return from the sea.

We passed other dog owners on our evening strolls. They stood and watched their pets drop the by-products of digestion, and then like good citizens they stooped to pick up the mess. We smiled and nodded as we passed, recognizing in each other that common bond — love for family, pets and friends. And waving a happy goodbye, we each went on our own way, carrying the proof of our devotion with us in those little plastic bags.

*This story previously published as “Devotion” in the Texas Writers Journal Q1 January 2014 issue.

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