Tale of the Spectacular Spectacles – Chapter 1
Short, Round, and Low to the Ground
The floor was cold. Not the kind of cold that comes from a winter storm or the chill of breaking twilight—but the kind that leeches into your bones and freezes your core—the kind of cold that won’t let you go.
Theodore stirred in his kennel, trying to shift the flesh of his belly away from the moist concrete upon which he lay, but that icy feeling stayed with him. Truth be told, the little dog had felt a certain frigidness settle over him the moment he’d been drug through the shelter doors. His former mistress, a disagreeable woman with an upturned nose and a chilly disposition, had made a particularly sour face at him as he fought against the leash upon their arrival. Even now, days later, he remembered the smells of dankness and rot that had struck his sensitive nose as they entered the lobby. He remembered looking up at her, his vantage point revealing little more than her pointed chin, and wondering why she spoke so calmly to the woman at the receptionist’s desk. Didn’t she smell the danger in this place? Didn’t she want to leave as desperately as he did?
Theodore had barked at this point—which was uncharacteristic for him, and for most Corgis—to alert his caretaker of their precarious circumstances, but the woman had only intensified the sternness of her expression as she fixed it on him. “BAD DOG,” she’d said, rolling her eyes at the woman across the counter from her.
“Do you see what I have to deal with?” Theodore’s mistress had moaned.
Theodore watched expectantly as his owner fixed her eyes upon a clipboard that was handed across the counter to her. She pinched her face as she read it, and the veins in her temples popped out, as they did whenever she was irritated or concentrating—which was often. Since she’d brought the new little human home, she made this expression even more frequently—and more often than not, it was aimed in Theodore’s direction. “What the heck is wrong with you? Why are you always in the way? There, you’ve gone and bumped into the baby again! And why would you bring a rock inside the house when you’ve got plenty of tennis balls? And just look at you—you’re covered in filth! You’re too short—too round—too low to the ground. You’re like a gaul-darn Swiffer with legs!”
Even as he studied her, with her upturned nose and tempered scowl, Theodore adored her. What more could a little dog want than his very own human to love and adore, and bring tennis ball-shaped rocks to?
Gazing on, the Corgi drifted back to a time when his mistress had found his puppyhood foibles endearing. She’d wipe his dirty little pawprints off the linoleum and force a look of sternness as he peeked at her from behind whatever corner he’d chosen to hide in. “Oh, Theo,” she’d moan, trying not to smile, “You’re such a clumsy thing,” and Theodore would trot out from his hiding place, trying just as hard as he could not to wag his nubby tail.
Those were the golden days—days of laughter and squeaky toys and jaunts to the pet store. Theodore recalled them vividly and, sometimes, in the lonely nighttime hours, he imagined that they might come again. But Theodore had come to know happiness as a fleeting thing, for his joyous puppyhood now seemed like it had taken place lifetimes ago, and lasted for only a second. His mistress began wearing business suits that “puppies shouldn’t trifle with,” and her comings and goings turned more hurried. Meanwhile, Theodore’s muddy pawprints grew larger and “disgusting” to her red-rimmed eyes, until she finally banished him to the garage in an effort to save herself the effort of “cleaning up another dog mess!”
And the cold, lonely garage was where Theodore stayed. Certainly, the occasional indoor invitation was extended, but the little dog found himself so overcome with joy in these instances that he struggled to contain his excitement. His portly body would transform itself into a battering ram anytime it found its way into the house, and once his mistress had added a pup of her own to the family pack, his clumsy antics proved disastrous more times than not. That soft, pink little person was so fragile. After a few over-zealous licks and ill-placed steps, it cried anytime it saw him.
* * *
She could sense him watching her. She’d barked “Quit it,” without looking down, signed her name at the bottom of the clipboard, and handed it across the desk to the receptionist.
“He’s all yours.”
A woman emerged from behind the counter moments later. She was wearing nurse’s scrubs with little cartoon dogs and cats on them. She smelled of biscuits and about a hundred other dogs, so Theodore deemed her trustworthy. She’d accepted the frightened little Corgi’s leash as his mistress handed it over and, in an instant, his caretaker was gone. He watched her backside, the sway of her ankle-length skirt as it waved goodbye to him. She didn’t even turn around as the door clapped shut behind her. And now, lying on the rough concrete that had replaced the familiar bed he’d slept in at home, Theodore thought of her, lifted his head towards the ceiling, and howled.
A dog two kennels down, a hound mix of some sort, eagerly joined in Theodore’s blues chorus, and soon several other dogs began to bay, as well. They cried and cried, for all their lost masters, until one of the kennel boys yelled “SHUT UP!” and the room fell still.
Theodore whimpered and let the floor numb his belly until sleep took him. In his dreams, he relived his beloved mistress’s departure over and over again. In his dreams, he brought her a proper tennis ball rather than a silly rock, and in his dreams her little pink pup adored him and stroked his fur with its miniature hands. In his dreams, they all returned to the pet store together, a happy pack; a family. Only in his dreams.
* * *
The tinkling of kibble hitting steel awoke Theodore with a start. Several of his kennelmates were already up and drooling for their breakfasts, but when a shiny metal bowl sailed under Theodore’s door and nearly hit his paw, he didn’t even rise to inspect it.
“Hunger strike, huh?” asked the pimple-faced boy who’d slung the bowl.
Theodore didn’t even lift his head. He could’ve been dead.
“You’ll get hungry eventually,” the boy promised, and then added, “They all do,” before vanishing just as quickly as he’d appeared. In the days to follow, Theodore would come to know the boy’s scent and schedule well. He always arrived around the nine o’clock hour—reeking of exhaust fumes and a heavy application of body spray. He uttered things like, “No breakfast again today, huh, buddy?” and “You know they’re not coming back, right?” with a sympathetic air as he made wide eyes at Theodore’s motionless body.
A week in, the boy’s compassion morphed to concern, and he pleaded, “C’mon, man, you’re gonna croak if you don’t eat something soon,” while passing select kibbles through the chain-link gate that separated the two of them. The nuggets of dog food hit the concrete floor with a dull ping, ping, ping, and bounced in every direction but Theodore’s. After the boy had honed his skills a bit, one kibble made it close enough to tag Theodore’s overlarge ear, but the dog didn’t even flinch.
The boy sighed.
“I gotta get you outta here before you starve to death.”
Theodore stayed still as a stone.
The boy rose from his crouched position, but his heavy head stayed fixed on Theodore. He stared at the forlorn dog for a few pensive seconds, and then his eyes lit. He told Theodore, “I’ve got an idea,” and then rushed away with lively steps. When he returned, he carried with him a pack of bright yellow balls. A familiar pop and the fragrant zing of virgin tennis balls filled the air. The boy grinned and withdrew one from inside its container.
“I heard you like tennis balls,” the boy baited, glancing briefly at a clipboard that hung from Theodore’s kennel door. After resuming his crouched position, he extended his hand and lobbed a single ball under Theodore’s kennel door. It rolled slowly towards the dog and stopped just inches from his long nose. Theodore didn’t move an inch.
“Ahhh, c’mon,” the boy whined.
Theodore channeled his inner slug.
The boy chewed his lip and studied the stout little dog as though he was a riddle, until a shout from the near distance called him away. The next time Theodore saw the boy, he was not alone. He arrived bright and early the following day, even before his typical hour, and a stranger shadowed his footsteps. This newcomer smelled of must and peppermint. He was taller than the boy by a foot at least, and had kind eyes that shined from behind his round spectacles. As he studied Theodore, the man’s glasses slid down the bridge of his nose, until they looked as though they may fall right off.
“Hey, little man,” the kindly stranger greeted him as he lowered himself to a crouch. He was wearing shorts, and his knobby knees shined like polished apples as they came eye-level to Theodore, but the dog didn’t seem to notice. He only languished on as the man continued, “I hear you’re not faring so well here.”
“That’s putting it mildly,” piped the boy, who stood little more than a foot behind his visitor. “He won’t eat, won’t play . . . won’t even move. Bob said they’re thinking of labeling him unadoptable.”
Theodore’s ears ticked—sensitive to the emphasis placed on this word, “unadoptable”—but he still did not rise.
“Mmmmm . . .” the kind-eyed stranger trailed, cocking his head to one side as he continued his inspection of the lifeless little dog on the other side of the chain-link. “Unadoptable, eh?”
“Yeah, but I figured he’d be just perfect for you—perfect for the bookstore,” the boy quickly retorted while scooting closer to the man’s backside, and to Theodore’s kennel door. The boy peered down at Theodore, as he had so many times before, his pimpled cheeks balling up like rising dough as he smiled at the furry lump beyond the door. He then added, “Yeah, he’d make a super . . . what did you call it . . . reading dog,” he said, and his eyes sparkled. “Heck, all he wants to do is lay around anyway.”
The man said nothing in return, but kept his attentions fixed on Theodore. Two deep lines, like craters, slowly materialized in his forehead as he stared on.
“Yeah, and he doesn’t eat much,” the boy quipped with a somber air to his lofty words. “Actually, he doesn’t eat anything.”
“Won’t eat, you say? Not at all?”
The boy shook his head. His smile faded just as a dog two kennels over let out a whimper. A few more cries joined the fray, until it was as though the whole of the shelter was mourning for Theodore’s rejected kibbles. Soon thereafter, a scraping sound joined the chorus as the curious stranger repositioned his crouch to gain access to his back, left pocket. From there, he withdrew a crumpled plastic bag with something brown inside. “I wonder—” he trailed as he fished a handful of the brown crumbles from inside the bag.
“What’s that?” the boy asked, peering over the man’s shoulder with an expression that hinted of both intrigue and tempered disgust.
The man answered back, “Corned beef jerky,” very simply, and then cast a spray of the stuff under Theodore’s kennel door. “It’s my own creation,” he explained, winking at the dog as he said it.
Theodore’s nose twitched. His wide, amber eyes, so empty just seconds before, lit, and darted towards the meat.
“Go on, give it a try,” the man softly coaxed. He leaned forward an inch or two—not too far, but just far enough—and looked on as Theodore’s head lifted from the concrete.
Overhead, the boy’s expression had morphed to one of wonderment as he studied the exchange. His mouth fell open and he leaned in closer to the man’s backside as Theodore shared a duplicate expression with the crumbles of jerky that lay just inches from his paws. A trickle of drool materialized on the dog’s left lip and began to double in girth every few seconds. It had swelled to the size of a grape by the time Theodore rose to stand.
“NO WAY!” whistled from the boy’s lips, as the air from a deflating balloon might have also, and in that instant, Theodore recoiled.
“Darn it, Nate, you’ve spooked him!” the man grumbled, swatting at the air behind him but failing to make contact with Nate, who’d already sunk backwards a foot or more.
Another dark crevice surfaced on the man’s forehead as he growled, “Just let me alone with him for a while!” and shooed the boy away. The clunky steps from Nate’s sneakers had all but died away as Sam promised, “It’s good—the jerky. Well . . . I think it is, anyhow. Everybody else thinks it’s rubbish. Guess that’s why I hafta make it myself. Not enough demand, ya’ know?”
The little dog kept his eyes towards the floor as Sam went on, “I make it in this dehydrator contraption I bought at a yard sale,” and then he chuckled to himself. “Thing probably cost ole’ Miss Stanley a hundred bucks brand new, and I got it for five!”
Theodore lifted his head and watched as his visitor’s eyes sparkled. The remnants of Sam’s laughter left him with a broad smile, and he shared it with the little dog as the two locked eyes.
“I’m Sam, by the way,” the man offered, still smirking. “I own a bookstore, just a few blocks over. Been thinkin’ for a while that it might be nice to have some company in the ole’ shop there—somethin’ for the customers to look at, aside from this ugly mug.” He smiled wider still and pointed at himself while making a goofy face. “Been seeing articles about these reading dogs, too—kinda dogs that sit with the kiddos—get ‘em to like storytime even better.”
Sam paused and glanced over his shoulder, towards the direction in which he’d banished Nate, and then returned, “Nate there—he’s been comin’ to my storytimes since . . . well . . . about the time he was big enough to pick up a copy of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Course, he’s long outgrown it now, but he still pops in every now and again.”
When Sam turned back to face Theodore’s kennel, he found the dog cautiously inching towards one of the corned beef crumbles. The Corgi kept a wary eye on his spectator as he neared the beef and, when he knelt down to inspect it, the whites of his eyes rose like identical crescent moons.
The corners of Sam’s eyes crinkled as he watched the little dog. His smile was guarded, but it grew more obvious, the closer Theodore came. Sam kept quiet for a time, but simpered with satisfaction as one, two, three crumbles vanished into the Corgi’s mouth. In seconds, the entire handful of jerky that Sam had scattered was gone, and one very eager face was staring up at him. “Like that, do you?” Sam baited, drawing another handful out of his baggie. He tossed this second helping under the kennel door, but nearer to himself, and observed as several of the crumbles sailed between Theodore’s paws and vanished beneath his belly. The dog backed up a few steps, revealing the food that had hit fur and stopped just under his belly like a hen’s nest of eggs. Sam chuckled. “Good thing you’re so short, and round, and low to the ground.”
Theodore glanced up at his visitor only briefly before gobbling up his treat. Helping number three drew the dog closer still, and the fourth and final offering was made through the edge of the door, in Sam’s cupped hand.
“Hey, he’s eating!” Nate observed as he entered the scene, gaping at the two. “He’s eating out of your hand! How’d you get him to do that?”
Sam, still crouched down, with his attention fixed squarely upon Theodore, smiled softly as the last few flecks of corned beef were licked clean from his hand by the dog’s delicate tongue. “Trade secret,” he teased, never turning around.
“Man, I think you need some more of that stuff,” Nate decided, still observing the pair with a look of awe.
“Naw,” Sam reasoned. “All I need now is a pen, and this guy’s adoption paperwork.”