Phoebe crouched down and waggled her slender fingers through the fence. Sure enough, Ecstasy arose and ambled over. Her tail, which I hadn't noticed before, switched back and forth a few times as she walked. After stretching forward to sniff my daughter's hand, Ecstasy came a few steps closer and allowed her short muzzle to be stroked. Sally should be here, I thought.
She should be seeing this. Just as I was about to go off in search of her, Phoebe stood up. A recent growth spurt had added several inches to her height. Taller than some of her friends' mothers already, with a face and body that seemed to be morphing into something lovelier and more limber every day, our daughter could give me the woozy, time-spanning sense that she was already fully grown. But she was actually only twelve, still very much our soft-spoken but single-minded child.
She locked her arms at her sides and stared at the ground.
"I don't like her, Daddy," she said of Ecstasy.
"Why not? You just met her. She likes you."
"I just don't. She feels funny."
"What do you mean, she feels funny? Kristof had that weird springy fur, and you liked him."
Mentioning Kristof was a mistake. I knew it as soon as the words left my mouth. I could see it in Phoebe's face, in her narrowed eyes and the combative set of her jaw. Kristof was a dog we'd found at the SPCA in San Francisco several months back, a poodle-mix puppy that Sally and I vetoed on the grounds of house-training issues and his likely size (thirty to forty pounds) as a full-grown dog. Phoebe had been furious at the time, accusing us of denying her the one and only thing she truly wanted and not ever meaning to get a dog in the first place. Her bleak, accusatory look hadn't been easy to forget.
That was early on in our search, and we'd told her—and really thought it—that there would be plenty of other dogs. We were right about that: there were plenty of other dogs, hundreds and hundreds of them.
The problem was that almost all of them were either too manic, too menacing, too unruly, too big, too old, or too hideous to consider. And the ones that weren't any of those things were snapped up so quickly that I became convinced insider trading was a bigger problem in the California dog market than it was on Wall Street.
After promising Phoebe on her twelfth birthday that she could finally have the dog she'd been campaigning for since the time she could talk (and she was an early talker), we'd entered into our search with a blithe, even slightly smug attitude.
Think of all the terrific unwanted shelter dogs out there that would be happy to have a home with us, we told ourselves.
Just think of what we offered—a decent-size house with a small fenced garden out back, proximity to Golden Gate Park and its acres of open space, a daughter who regarded dogs as semidivine beings, and two adults whose flexible work schedules as a community college teacher (Sally) and a journalist (me) would facilitate regular walks and plenty of daytime attention. What dog wouldn't want to sign on for all that? As a karmic bonus, we'd be saving some animal from a premature demise if he or she weren't adopted.
The idea of finding a shelter dog, instead of laying down five hundred or a thousand dollars or more for one of the boutique breeds that had become so popular, added a self-anointed sheen of virtue.