A loud knock broke Grace Leonard out of her daydream and she scattered kibble all over the floor. The dogs barking had become a background noise, the hum of her vocation, but the rapping at the door was an intrusion. Stashing the large bag of chow, she glanced up at the clock and realized it was one minute past the opening time. It wasn’t unusual for a distraught owner to arrive at the pound first thing in the morning, but they typically waited for the slow movement of bureaucracy. She unlocked the door and said “sorry for the wait.” She stepped back as the knocker entered. Grace shivered.
“Good morning, miss. I believe you have what’s mine,” the man said, looking down at her and smiling. Grace was not petite, measuring in at five foot nine, but this man had to be nearly seven feet tall. She stared up at him. He removed his wide-brimmed hat and that lessened his intimidation. “My name is Sykes and I believe my…Dog…is here.”
“Oh, yes,” she stuttered and scurried behind the counter. She definitely heard that capital “D” in dog. “Let me boot up. Sorry.” She tried to watch him from her periphery. He wore a black suit and a crisp white shirt, unbuttoned at the neck and no tie. Thick silver hair framed his face and pooled on his shoulders. While the old computer hummed, she offered another apology. “Sorry. It’s a little slow this morning.” He smiled back at her, and she found herself focusing on his mouth, on his teeth. How many canines did the normal human have?
“We’re all a little slow in the morning, wouldn’t you say?” His teeth disappeared into a full-lipped smile.
“Ah, yes, oh! Here we go.” She felt flustered, part entranced and part terrified, as if her flight-or-fight response were working overtime. She willed herself to look him in the eye. “Can you describe your…”
She finally noticed the silence. Her mind rewound, realizing that ever since this man entered the waiting area, the dogs stopped barking. She could hear a faint whimper, but the sound of thirty dogs not barking was deafening. Grace turned back to her customer. “…ah. Can you describe your dog?”
He rubbed his chin and looked toward the ceiling. “He is a beautiful dog, but temperamental. He doesn’t listen to his betters and often makes poor choices,” he gestured at the sign that read “Animal Control.” “Mainly,” he continued, “he’s got a terrible personality, but I love him just the same.”
A sharp bark and a low growl came from the holding area. The man chuckled.
Grace felt as if she was quickly losing control over this situation. “Ah, sorry. What does the dog look like?”
The man looked at his phone, swiping left and right through, what Grace assumed was a photo album. He held the screen up for her to see. “Like this.”
The photo showed two dogs sleeping, curled up together. They looked like the yin-yang symbol: a slick, brown Doberman curled up with a silvery Afghan hound. She smiled at the photo. She recognized the Doberman as a new arrival from last night, a distinctive notch in his left ear. For a moment she felt she recognized the other dog as well. She looked up at the man. He smiled his toothy smile and she pushed the thought out of her head.
“I don’t believe he is chipped, correct? You should consider getting him chipped, since he arrived without a collar or ID.”
Another bark from the end of the hall. The man ignored her comments. “I have his collar.”
Grace wavered between wanting this man out of her waiting room and wanting to look at him forever. She took the collar and leash. She fell back on her routine and handed him a form on a clipboard. “Please fill this out so we can release him,” she said. She unlocked the door between the desk and the holding area, and the aura of fear washed over her. The smaller dogs on top had shuffled into the back of their cages, staring out like little vigilant bundles of fur. The larger dogs sat or crouched, all of them turned toward the door. Not a tail wagged.
The Doberman’s cage was at the far end of the long room. Walking down the passageway, all eyes on whatever was behind her, made her feel like a maid of honor in an important wedding. As she reached the last cage and looked down at the Doberman, her first thought was, “oh, the groom.”
No matter how many dogs Grace encountered, she never failed to be surprised at how they conveyed emotion on their faces. Of course, she knew that was human projection, but the look of sheer annoyance on the Doberman’s face made her feel ashamed. He sat tall near in the front of his cage, looking in the opposite direction of the door. She’d never seen a dog give the cold shoulder before, but this one was Arctic. “Sorry,” she whispered, unlocking the cage. The report had said the dog had been docile during pick up, but she trembled reaching in to leash him. The dog sniffed and bent his head, making it easy for her. He gave her a quick lick on the hand to put her at ease and walked out of the cage, very, very slowly.
She watched the Doberman, then looked back at the man. He’d moved behind the counter and was standing at the door, blocking the light, and filling the room with his presence. He was also blocking her escape. She paused, but the Doberman kept walking forward, purposefully, she thought, not looking up at the man. Grace had facilitated many reunions and they always filled her with joy. She could see the excitement when a dog saw its owner. The Doberman showed only exasperation. The excitement she expected was all over the face of the man.
“Baron!” he cried holding out his arms. The dog sniffed again and sat down, looking away. “Aw, don’t be mad,” the man said. He squatted down and scratched the dog’s head. “I said I was sorry, didn’t I?” Grace stifled a giggle as she watched the dog’s eye move back and forth between the man’s smiling face and the wall, as if he was trying to stay mad and failing. The atmosphere of the holding area started to relax, but still the other dogs remained silent.
He stood up and gently took the leash from Grace’s hand. His fingers brushed her wrist and she felt a strange electricity shoot up her arm. “Your paperwork is on the counter,” he said. “Is there anything else you need?”
She moved quickly to put the counter between herself and them. “Yes, I’ll need a signature. One moment.” As she entered all the information into the database, the man had a very one-sided conversation.
“I don’t know why you need to make me worry. It wasn’t my fault in the first place.”
“This is what happens when you go off after drinking too much.”
“You, what, oh look what you’ve done now. Miss? Miss?”
Grace’s mind staggered between her task and the conversation. “Yes, sorry.”
“I believe my pugnacious pooch has had an…accident.” The last word was delivered with a withering look downward.
Grace leaned over the counter to see that the dog had, in fact, peed all over the man’s leg and shoe. “Let me get you…”
“Won’t be necessary. Hazards of,” he looked down again, “ownership.”
Grace watched the Doberman raise his leg again, in an obvious threat. The man called Sykes chuckled. She looked from the dog to the man and back again. Her skin broke out in goose flesh and she decided she needed them out of there as soon as possible. She pushed the outtake form in front of the man. “Here, if you sign this, you’re free to go.”
“Oh! Yes, thank you.” He signed. One name, in a flourish. “Sykes.” He smiled again at her, all canines. Her world was full of canines.
“Shall we go?” As they walked out the door, Grace heard “there are clean clothes in the back seat” before the large metal door slammed shut. A thunder of barking erupted from the holding area and for the first time in eight years, Grace could relate to the anxiety in each sound. She felt like she had thinly escaped death.
The door swung open again. A handsome man with short brown hair stood there. He wore jeans, flip-flops and a t-shirt with “Bahama Baby” printed on it.
“Thank you,” he said and immediately shut the door.
Grace Leonard stifled the urge to crawl into a cage and howl.