"Where's Phoebe?" Sally asked. "I thought she was with you." Now her voice had an edge. We took off in opposite directions.
I found Phoebe by the bulletin board in the lobby. She was studying, as she had on our previous visits, the snapshots of families with the pets they had adopted. Everyone in the photographs—even the dogs and cats and an occasional rabbit this shelter doled out—seemed to be smiling.
"That'll be us someday, sweetie. I promise."
She looked up at me. Her hazel eyes were wet and ready to spill over. "Why were you and Mommy yelling?" she asked me.
"We weren't yelling. Did you hear us?"
She went back to looking at the bulletin board. Sally slipped in beside her and put a hand on our daughter's head and stroked her fine-filament blond hair. It was one of those moments when I realize how much my wife and daughter resemble each other— their fair hair and sea green eyes, slim shoulders, soft voices, upright posture, and an uncanny way of expressing defiance, uncertainty, or tenderness with the slightest shift of their chins.
"What kind of dog is that one?" Sally asked Phoebe, who had made a study of breeds from the books she'd gotten for Christmas and birthdays over the years.
"I'm not sure," she said. "It might be part Portuguese cattle dog. Or maybe a laika." And then, still looking at the bulletin board, she said in a softer voice, "I don't want that dog, Daddy.
Estasy." She pronounced it without the hard c, so it came out "Ess-tuh-see." It was like the sound of air slowly hissing out of a party balloon.
I knew how hard it must have been for Phoebe to tell me that. She was passing, once again, on a chance to have a dog.
She didn't really know what she didn't like about this one. She didn't know when, if ever, the right dog would come along.
And she felt bad about disappointing me. She was trying very hard not to cry. I was both terribly proud of her and miserable about what she and all of us were going through. Sally and I exchanged a short, helpless look over our daughter's head.
"Let's get out of here," I said. "Who wants ice cream on the way home?"
"I do, I do," Sally said. We often did this when our daughter, an only child, turned somber. We acted like children ourselves in an attempt to jolly her out of moods that frightened us a little with their black totality.
Phoebe walked behind us to the car and then positioned herself in the backseat right where I couldn't catch her face in the rearview mirror.
We stood outside the ice cream store with our cones and dishes and watched the airplanes slant down over the bay to the San Francisco International Airport. "That was us a few weeks back," I said, recalling our flight home from a visit to my relatives in Missouri. No response. "This is pretty good," I tried again, motioning at my Caramel Pecan Swirl with a plastic spoon. "But it's no Winstead's malt."
"Why do we always have to go there?" Phoebe asked, of Kansas City's famous "steakburger" joint.
"Like you mind," I said. "I never hear you complain about the French fries." "The onion rings are really where it's at," Sally put in.
"That's so wrong," Phoebe answered.