A story based on a recent interaction at a pet store.
I went to the pet store to get a smaller collar or harness or something for Olly. After two harnesses, he was repeatedly slipping out while on walks, much to my horror. I had to find a solution. I walked to the store with all three dogs after a walk, which I realized was a mistake of managing so many moving parts immediately after walking in the store.
One of them shit on the floor. I cleaned it up and squatted near a few harnesses, trying to find one small enough for Olly’s tiny body.
A man with a cane hobbled into my field of vision. A tote bag was falling off his arm, readying to spill pet toys onto the floor. “You have beautiful dogs,” he said. He was old, unshaved, and his shirt was unbuttoned more than I was comfortable with. Some sort of phone or device was hanging from his neck. He didn’t have any pets with him.
“Thank you,” I said, smiling in my squat. My ankles were burning as I tried to put various things around Olly’s neck. Scooter was dancing toward the man. Dottie was panting in my face.
“Can I pet them?” He held out a hand.
“Of course!” I pushed Scooter and Dottie toward him. Olly remained under my arm with two collars forced on him.
“I had a dog like this one,” he said, pointing to Dottie. “He had spots too.”
“They’re very special dogs,” I said. “Spotted dogs, that is.”
He nodded and bent over, putting his weight on the cane to reach out further to a Scooter, who was dancing on his hind legs for a pet. “They’re very sweet,” he said. He looked down the aisle before blinking widely. “And who is that?” He pointed to Olly. “You have three dogs.”
“This is Olly,” I told him. “He’s new.”
“You must love dogs.”
“I do,” I told him, embarrassed.
“You’re like me.” He smiled. “I have eight dogs.”
“Eight! That’s a lot of dogs!”
He waved a hand at me. “I’ve always loved dogs,” he laughed. “I’ve always had them, ever since I was a boy.”
“Same here,” I said, holding Olly up like a toy.
“I’ve had so many.” He pointed at Dottie. “How old is this big spotty one? A puppy.”
“She’s going to be fourteen, actually.”
He gave two big blinks. “Wow,” he said. “She’s getting up there. One of my dogs is fifteen. Doesn’t have much time left.” He looked away.
I didn’t know what to say and spat out whatever dumb thing came to mind, to fill the silence in reply: “You have to enjoy them while you have them. That’s what I say, at least.”
“That’s true,” he said. “That’s one thing I’ve learned in my 85 years. Enjoy the dogs.”
“I have so many,” he said. “They bring me so much happiness. I have this one – ” He pantomimed a horse. ” – that is seventy pounds. It’s like sleeping with my partner in bed again.”
“Of course,” he clarified. “He’s been dead for over a decade.”
I nodded, wowed, words dried on my tongue.
“We had so many dogs,” he sighed. “I’ve cremated fifteen since I lost him. All their ashes are together, with his.”
“When I go, my ashes will join them,” he said. “Me and him and our dogs. All together, we’ll be scattered in the desert.”
I stared at him. I had nothing to say. He looked back at me, at the dogs, and wiggled his free hand at us. Scooter whined.
“I better let you go,” he said. “I know how much of a handful they can be.”
I wanted to say something but, again, the words dried up.
“You have a great day,” he said, sidling down the aisle.
“You too,” I called behind him.