Sally had come into this dog search as reluctantly, probably more so than I had. She knew going in, as she does about most things in our life together, just about what would happen. I'd talk up the limitless glories of something (a vacation, a remodeling project, now a dog), and she'd end up handling the bulk of phone calls and e-mails (to hotels, plumbers, the vet), not to mention the worrying and fretting that followed. No matter how much Phoebe and I insisted otherwise, a dog was going to be one more huge responsibility of which Sally would shoulder more than her share. It wasn't fair and it wasn't right, but there it was.
It was also only part of the pattern. For all her pragmatic, work-saving reservations about adopting a dog, Sally and I both knew what else was coming with a pet. No matter what kind of dog we found, she would fall hopelessly, heedlessly in love with it. Despite her practical toiling efficiency, my wife is far more swooningly romantic than I, with all my swashbuckling pronouncements, will ever be.
Movies (both sad and funny), Springsteen power ballads, a family photo album, Olympic athletes looking solemn on the podium—they can all bring on Sally's readily flowing tears. Fifteen years into our marriage, long after I was accustomed to this trait of hers, even I was startled to witness Sally's giddy laughter turn to tears when her father, on his eightieth birthday, spontaneously sang a Pepsi- Cola jingle from his youth. She was crying for his childhood, for hers, for her mother who had died suddenly in her fifties, for the bittersweet rush of it all. A dog was going to conquer her completely.
"Has Phoebe seen her?" Sally asked, withdrawing her hand from Ecstasy's cage.
There was no point in lying outright about that, although I was tempted. "Just for a minute," I said. "She didn't really spend any time with her."
"What did she say?"
"Not much. Something about her fur being a little weird. But that's just something to get used to. Real dogs don't feel like Dakta," I said, referring to the stuffed Alaskan husky puppy Phoebe had been sleeping with every night for years.
"I know what she means," Sally said. "Her coat feels dry. You wonder how well they really take care of these animals." She looked down the row of prisonlike cages and mouthed something else I didn't catch.
"What did you say?" I asked her. As often as I genuinely don't hear what my soft-spoken, at-times-inaudible wife says, my incomprehension is sometimes a delaying tactic to gather my thoughts.
"Of course they take care of them," I said to Sally's prior remark. "They'd get shut down if they didn't."
"How do you know that?" Sally challenged, her voice ratcheting up now.
"Nobody shuts down those awful puppy mills that turn out sick dogs."
"What are you talking about? This isn't some puppy mill. We wouldn't have come back here if that's what we thought."
Just then, as if he'd been set off by the rising pitch and tension in my voice, a bulldog unleashed a fusillade of barking in one of the cages behind us. I turned around and gave him a tough look, which only increased his fury.
Soon enough some of the other dogs joined in. It got so noisy that Sally and I, mercifully, had to stop arguing. A staff member from the shelter showed up and asked us if everything was okay.
"Great," I shouted. "Everything's fine. You've got a lot of great dogs here."
He didn't respond to that and went over to calm down the bulldog.