A yellow Labrador's nose for home

Sam, the neighbor’s dog, nudged his way into our life with a big grin and a high-speed wag.

Yellow lab puppies.

I needed something to wear to work, something to have for supper, something in my savings account. What I didn’t need was another dog. But Sam had other ideas.

Sam is a yellow Labrador, but he isn’t elegant like a lot of large dogs, with a noble head and sleek coat. His underbite hides the fact that he has top teeth, and his tongue is a mottled pink-and-black affair. When we first saw him, his ribs were barrel hoops, stretching his skin like a vacuum-packed hoop skirt. Instead of yellow, his fur is more the color of dried broom straw, as though it has seen too much time in the summer sun. And he always wears a crazy, lopsided grin.

Sam was a “free dog,” given to a neighbor who was impressed by the fact that he had papers. The neighbor was rarely home, but even when he did spend time around the house he was too busy to pay much attention to a pair of warm brown eyes and a tail that swung back and forth like a lumberjack’s ax. During the parched Southern summer months our sons would slip next door to make sure the dog had cool water to drink. Through it all, Sam always greeted us with a big smile and that high-speed wag of his tail, as if he knew a happy secret that he’d share with us one day.

He didn’t get enough to eat. He didn’t get enough to drink. He should have been named Houdini because he had a mystical way of breaking out of captivity and, like magic, escaping from the pen on the muddy hill in the backyard that was his home. That done, he raced up and down the driveway like a doggy dynamo, joy and freedom and wonder shining in his eyes, his tongue lopped out of one side of his mouth in an outlandish full-of-life grin. Through it all, Sam smiled.

Sam soon initiated a friendship with our dog, a black Labrador-Dalmatian mix named Bo. They spent summer evenings playing chase and King of the Hill, and we’d make sure Sam stayed for dinner before he went home.

The thought of taking Sam into our home was beyond impossible. First, he belonged to someone else, and even though it was not the home I would choose for him, there were no signs of outright abuse. Sam looked at his owner with the same happy grin he gave us, jumping and twirling for attention. He always looked like the happiest dog in the world.

Another setback was the size of our home, a tiny duplex apartment. We had two teenage boys. We already had a big dog, a dachshund, and a cat that wouldn’t take kindly to newly inducted family members. Our paychecks barely covered the household expenses already.

There are always reasons not to help.

But we invited him over to play. We sneaked him extra dinners. And we scratched his ears and watched as Sam, the dynamo, stood absolutely still, smiling as if the world was made of liver treats.

One day, activity next door let us know the neighbor was moving out. We were in a panic. My husband and I went back and forth with every argument from “he can’t stay with us” to “who will make sure he gets enough to eat?” It was the worst kind of crisis – one that was completely out of our control. We’d never spoken to the neighbor much and it didn’t seem right to ask for his dog. That’s what happens when you think with your head and leave your heart out of it.

The last day of packing, the neighbor drove away. But he didn’t take Sam. Without a word, he left Sam standing alone, smiling in the driveway.

“He’s coming back tomorrow for him,” I told my husband, who shook his head and looked off into the distance as if he could see behind the trees and over the hill where the truck disappeared.

But that tomorrow never came.

Now Sam spends his evenings stretched out beside my chair. Or curled up on his blanket by the couch. Somehow our little house doesn’t seem too full. Sam follows my younger son around like a dancing shadow. And Ryan, who at 21 is too old to let on that his heart has been captured, calls his name and reaches down to scratch an ear.

And Sam smiles.

He did have a secret after all. He knew right where he belonged.


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