Danita Berg is an assistant professor of writing at Oklahoma City University, where she chairs the annual Creative Writing Festival and directs the new Red Earth Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing. She’s published or has upcoming creative works in journals such as Redivider, Southern Women’s Review, Sugar Mule, Quay: A Journal for the Arts, and The Houston Literary Review, among others, as well as the non-fiction collections Press Pause Moments: Essays about Life Transitions by Women Writers and Ain’t Nobody That Can Sing Like Me: An Oklahoma Writing Anthology. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Goddard College and Ph.D. in English at the University of South Florida.
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The Dogs Who Rescued Me
Oliver is in a pen with several other critters, all barking for attention from the passersby at the local pet adoption event. I poke my friend in the ribs. “There he is,” I said. “A pug. Can you believe he’s still here?”
I’d just moved to Oklahoma. I was starting over, again, at age 37, freshly divorced, in a new job, and in need of the friends and family I’d just left behind in Florida. My friend Randy had helped me move but was about to drive home to Texas, more than eight hours away. I needed a local. The adoption event had been advertised online.
I approach one of the animal rescue volunteers. “Has someone already spoken for the pug?” I ask.
“No,” she says. “Would you like to meet him?”
“Why, yes. Yes, I would.”
We move to a quieter space for a meet-n-greet. Oliver chases his tail in glee. He is chosen. My self-importance swells; I am going to give this little guy a new home, a second chance at life, just like me, just by paying his adoption fee. He doesn’t seem to mind when I accidentally drop him on his head while shopping for his travel crate.
When Randy leaves, I try to settle into my new house with its unfamiliar night noises. I lie in bed with my eyes open, listening to the roof creak. I change my mind about the no-pets-in bed policy and call to Oliver. He sleeps with his Wonder Bread body pressed up against mine, snoring like a fat grandfather. Now I can sleep too.
I wake up mid-winter to find Chloe, my 17-year-old Pomeranian who saw me through five moves, marriage, and divorce, lying on her rug in the kitchen. She can’t lift her head. I pick her up. Her head lolls. She tries to look at me out of the corners of her eyes. I pretend this is not happening and take her outside where Oliver frolics happily in the snow. I kick a bare spot into the ground and set Chloe in it, silently pleading with her to do her business as normal. She flounders then lies quietly in the snow, resigned. Oliver runs over, gives her a lick, and runs off again. I pick up Chloe and rest her head against my chest so I don’t have to acknowledge that she can no longer hold it up herself.
“Let’s say goodbye to the trees, sweetheart,” I tell her, walking through the frozen backyard. I don’t want to believe she had a stroke until she begins crying softly, then more loudly, until I realize I’m not going to be able to ignore this. While waiting for the vet to come to the house, I discover that you can cry hard enough to create a puddle on the floor.
When an old shih tzu with a lame leg and crooked grin arrives at the local Humane Society, I’m asked to foster her. Her nipples are elongated from overbreeding; her eyes are dim from age. I can’t resist. I name her Zoey, a rhyming reminder of Chloe. Zoey likes to warm my feet.
The people at the Humane Society recognize a sucker when they see one. They call about a Pekingese puppy. Can I just foster him until he finds a new home?
It has been eight months since my move. I am two weeks from flying back to Florida to defend my dissertation. I am knee deep in revision, my coffee table is a library of reference books and student papers I need to grade. “Sure,” I say.
At the shelter I hear high-pitched barking coming from the back room. “Tell me that’s not my foster,” I say. The volunteers look at one another guiltily.
“This is only temporary,” I say. I am led to the back, where the barking gets even louder. One of the volunteers procures the wall-eyed puppy from a crate. His frightened barks reach a fever pitch. I hold him close. He wraps his front legs around my neck, buries his head in my neck, and whimpers.
“Dammit,” I say. I do not need a third dog. This is only temporary.
At home Oliver and the puppy greet each other like long-lost brothers, fall asleep nose to nose. Zoey watches from her corner of the couch and harrumphs. “Dammit,” I say. I name him Murphy.
I can’t keep the latest one. He’s sleeping pressed against my arm, his arm over mine as though he can hold me here. The others are camped out around me on the couch, jockeying for position.
I’ll give this one up for adoption next week. He was also picked from the shelter where dozens of scared dogs whined, scratched at the cage doors, and turned cute circles, hoping to get my attention. They seem to know their fate. This one, a poodle with long legs he’s not quite sure what to do with, leapt in the air when I looped the leash around his neck. He’s been chosen; he’s lucky. “C’mon buddy, let’s go home and get spoiled,” I told him at the shelter. He’s in.
He’ll hang with my pets for two weeks while I assess him and make sure he’s a good dog. He will sleep on my bed with the other pets, eat alongside them, learn his place in the pack. He’ll decide Murphy is his new best friend. He’ll wonder what he’s done when I pack him up at the end of his two-week quarantine and take him to the Humane Society, where he will again wait to find another home.
I will try to explain to him that he’s done nothing wrong, that soon someone else will pick him. I will plug my ears when he paws at the door in the adoption center room where he will wait for someone else’s turn to offer him kindness. I will miss him when someone else offers him that kindness, the kind that continues to warm and break my heart.
Next week, an essay by Elise Allen.