The Pet-Store Puppy That Became My Best Pal

By

WHEN we first met, she weighed less than two pounds and could easily fit in the hollow of my cupped hands. That was 10 years ago.

It was a typical Wisconsin midwinter day: cold and cloudy, with the expectation of snow. Christmas was two days past, and the winter break was nearly over. The following Monday, when classes would resume, I would be halfway through my 22nd year as a high school teacher.

I stacked the Chinese history term papers on the kitchen table and counted how many remained to be corrected. ''Too many,'' I mumbled to myself as I set them aside.

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I glanced at my watch. It was nearly 2 p.m. I didn't have to be at the ice arena to supervise the school's hockey game until 4. This would be a good time for me to purchase some stationery supplies I needed.

I slipped on my winter coat, went out the back door, and walked across the driveway to the parking lot of our condominium complex.

After a few minutes of warming up the car, I drove out of the lot and turned left. The shopping mall was only a mile away.

***

Today, the building is occupied by a bicycle shop. Back then, it was a pet store. With its multitude of finned, feathered, and furry ''friends,'' it was a very special place for me -- and I often went there just to look at all the creatures.

I put my package of stationery supplies in the car and briskly walked across the parking lot to the entrance of Pet World, struggling against the frigid wind. I had a few minutes to spare. Why not spend a moment or two looking at the salt-water fish or the parrots? And a quick walk past the dog cages perhaps!

The distinctive pet-store odor -- pungent, but not unpleasant -- overwhelmed me as I entered. The shelves containing pet toys, treats, and supplies were on the left. Beyond, there were several long rows of fish tanks stretching out to the far end of the building. Birds of all species and sizes were perched and caged to the right. Their raucous chirping and cawing could be heard throughout the store. And straight ahead, the reptiles slithered about in their confined spaces.

I strolled down the fish-tank aisle, but my heart was elsewhere. Retracing my steps, I quickly walked past to where I knew I would find the cats and dogs.

A cocker spaniel puppy rose up and began to whine expectantly as I approached. Next to her, a young Samoyed acknowledged my presence with a loud string of ''woofs.''

And then in a cage next to the Samoyed, I saw a small, tan-and-black fuzzy head resting on tiny forepaws. Two large, almond-shaped eyes fixed their pleading gaze on me. The bonding had begun.

She struggled to her feet, her precious little body trembling with excitement as she twirled around and around. She punctuated her frenetic movement with rapid, high-pitched yelps.

The young clerk knew just what to do to make a sale. Within seconds, she was unobtrusively standing beside me. ''This sweet Yorkie is on sale, an 'after-Christmas special,' '' she said softly.

By now, the little bundle was nearly beside herself with anticipation. Fighting to maintain her balance, she leapt up and down -- repeatedly throwing herself against the cold steel bars of the cage door.

''Would you like to hold her?'' the clerk asked, enticingly.

''Yes, please,'' I muttered hoarsely. My throat was dry, and my heart was pounding. ''What are you doing?'' a voice within me sternly asked. ''You did not come here to buy a dog! You're not an impulsive shopper, especially when it comes to animals.''

But I could not help myself.

The young lady reached across the railing and opened the cage. In an instant, the puppy -- barking with joy -- awkwardly scrambled out into the clerk's waiting grasp.

I backed away a few steps and sat down, cross-legged on the carpeted floor. The clerk went down to her knees, holding the dog in her arms.

''How old is she?'' I asked.

''Three and a half months.''

For a few seconds, which seemed like an eternity, I fondly stared at the adorable dog. She had a tan face with brown-black eyes, a black nose, and tiny, pointed ears. Her black coat was highlighted with tan on her paws, chest, and hindquarters. And the tips of the hair on her flanks were also flecked with tan.

It was easy to see at least one reason why she was not ''show dog'' quality. Her lower jaw was slightly askew, revealing her lower front teeth and upper left fang -- even when her mouth was closed. But that did not bother me. In fact, it gave her face a unique, rather comically defiant look that struck me as quite appealing.

The clerk released the dog, and without hesitation, the animated ''dust mop'' headed for me as fast as her unsteady legs could move -- tail wagging and ears tucked back against her head. Without stopping, she tumbled into my lap. Curling up and heaving a sigh, she knew she was ''home.''

She accepted my gentle strokes with silent pleasure. ''Please give her a bath and prepare the papers. I will be back between 8 and 9 o'clock this evening to pick her up,'' I said.

It was nearly dark as I trudged back to my car. A light snow had begun to fall, and I instinctively pulled my knit cap down over my ears. But I wasn't thinking about the cold, or the hockey game, or even the uncorrected Chinese history papers. My mind was on Molly.

***

Since then, we have been through so much together: 10 years of walks, playful romps, trips to the bank for treats, and lots of ''lap time.''

Some pet-store puppies don't end up with good homes. But the bond we share blesses both of us with boundless joy and comfort.

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