"I don't want her," I said too softly for the woman holding the leash to hear.
"Her" was a fat, mud-colored American Water Spaniel badly in need of a session at the groomer's.
"Her name's Keesha. Do you think you'll keep that name?"
Keep the name? I didn't want to keep the dog. And yet I took the leash.
"Sure. I'll keep the name," I said.
I already had a dog, a diminutive sheltie-terrier-maybe-something-else-thrown-into-the-mix. I didn't want a second dog, let alone one that was well over forty pounds. And yet I tugged Keesha toward my aging pickup.
A friend who collects cats had brought the dog to my attention. She knew Keesha's owners and said they wanted desperately to get rid of her, preferably to a good home. But so far they'd found no takers and were casting their eyes toward the local shelter.
"Dark colored dogs go last," a Humane Society worker once told me. If they go at all, if they are not put down.
Maybe it was that phrase ringing in my ears. Maybe I felt the need to do a good deed. I really don't know what possessed me, but shortly before Thanksgiving I agreed to stop by for a look at Keesha.
At two-and-a-half she had never been inside a house. She'd been relegated to the backyard, on a short chain affixed to a doghouse that was far too small for her to fit inside. The owner confided that she'd wanted a "teacup" dog, and instead her husband had purchased Keesha . . . who had grown larger than expected for her breed. She handed me the AKC papers and the bill-of-sale from the breeder. I wondered why they'd spent so much on a dog-a puppy, they'd gotten Keesha when she was seven weeks old-only to chain her to a too-small doghouse for the next two and a half years. The owner continued to ramble that she didn't want Keesha to spend another Wisconsin winter out in the cold. She said she felt sorry for the dog and intended to replace her with a "teacup" puppy that she would allow inside her house.
"I just don't want Keesha," she said.
I didn't want Keesha either. But I vowed to get the dog out of there and to find her the good home she deserved. My husband had said someone at work was looking for another dog and would take Keesha if I'd housebreak her first.
On the way home, Keesha was clearly terrified, shaking like that proverbial leaf and barking shrilly at every car that passed us-American Water Spaniels have an odd, yodel-like bark, and it set my teeth to aching. She probably hadn't been for a ride since they'd brought her home from the breeder, and the windshield wipers-it was raining hard that day-terrified her. Keesha's fright-fest continued when I took her into my kitchen-she'd never seen the inside of a house. She trembled nonstop, and things got worse when my little dog bounded over and attempted to play. She cowered in a corner and peed.
A groomer friend gave Keesha a bath and a shave, getting rid of the musty, fusty funk-of-an-odor that had clung to her matted curls. She cut her nails, too-her long, curving "bear claws." At the end of the very tiring day Keesha was silky soft to the touch and smelled like flowers. And when I brushed her late that night, she did something new . . . she wagged her tail.
It took only three days to housebreak her, my little dog proving an able mentor and assisting in the training. I was ready to pass Keesha along to my husband's co-worker. But my husband said we should keep her.
"I do not want the dog," I said, but apparently not loud enough so he could hear.
While we were out at a movie Keesha discovered how to open the lazy-Susan cabinets in the kitchen, devouring bags of marshmallows and nuts, scattering cartons of spaghetti and rice, and wolfing down a sack of cookies and an entire loaf of bread (she thoughtfully left the wrapper and twist-tie for us to pick up).
She barked too much in her yodel-voice when the UPS man dropped packages at the front door.
She swiped all of my other dog's toys.
She regularly tipped over wastebaskets to see if there might be something worth nibbling on inside, gleefully shredding used tissues and
such across the floor like confetti left behind from a big parade.
She lost weight as she romped inside our fenced yard . . . no more chains and too-small doghouses for her.
She learned how to fetch.
She discovered the joy of snoozing on the couch, wading in my goldfish pond in the spring and summer, and slipping into the garden to gulp down red, juicy tomatoes at the onset of fall.
She curled up by the fireplace in the winter, and she leaped at the snowflakes when I let her outside.
She slept at the foot of our bed at night and occupied the niche under my desk when I worked during the day.
She attached herself to my soul, and she became my constant shadow.
Always, she rested with her head on my foot.
More than ten years have passed since I picked up the dog I said I didn't want. Keesha's nearly thirteen now, and her vision is no longer keen; her left eye is as milky white as the snow that covers my yard. The average lifespan of an American Water Spaniel is twelve to fourteen years, so I'm more than a little worried.
She had a stroke a few months past, and another just days ago. I sprinkle "supplements" I got from the veterinarian on her food and give her a pill for dizziness, and I help her up onto the bed at night. She sleeps a lot, but she has these wondrous, occasional bursts of energy and will romp with another rescued dog I acquired, this a big moose-of-a-mutt who steals all of Keesha's toys and cuddles with her at night.
I sometimes spy Keesha still prowling through my garden in search of ripe tomatoes, taking a dip in the goldfish pond, shredding the tissues in the wastebasket, and most recently leaping at snowflakes . . . but she doesn't leap nearly as high anymore.
She's resting with her head on my foot as I write this.
"I don't want her," I remember saying those many years ago.