A Pet Shop Parable

by Kenneth C. Goldman


“How much is that doggie in the window?
The one with the waggly tail...?” — Patti Page (1953)

A Madison Avenue executive might have called it a Kodak Moment. Maybe a song lyricist would have chronicled the instant with ‘These Are The Times of Your Life.’ The boy-and-his-dog event was pure Americana, and his interaction with the coal-black terrier could have inspired a Rockwell painting.

The kid was maybe fourteen, and he had come with his father to Jonathan Somers’ animal shelter to find a pet among the dozens on display within the large inner shop. Passing cages of cockers and pugs, young shepherds and mixed breeds, he finally stopped before the screen mesh enclosure containing four tiny wire-haired pups.

One dog jumped and rolled at the sight of the young man’s interest, yelping excitedly at him through the screen. Jonathan had spent a large part of his retirement income to experience moments like these, and he found himself smiling like a department store Santa whenever they occurred.

“Made a new friend, have you?” he asked the tousle-haired kid, already knowing the answer. He winked at the youth’s father who stood in the far corner, pretending to be absorbed in a young floppy-eared mutt. “Would you like to hold him?”

The kid’s eyes told the old man all he needed to know. Jonathan unlocked the cage and scooped up the eager puppy in one motion, holding it out for him.

“This little fella isn’t purebred, but he’ll show you some fine times, I can guarantee—”

The kid looked at Somers quizzically. “No. Not that one.” He pointed back to the small cage where two other pups frolicked. A third sat shivering and alone by the far wall, a drab brown and spotted white creature of dubious lineage, unique from the others only because of its isolation from them. “That one.”

The old man thought the kid might be making a cruel joke, pulling his leg like smart-assed types sometimes did just to tease some poor animal. But the youth’s expression did not suggest anything remotely frivolous in his decision.

From the day the mongrel had been weaned, the splotched wire-hair never demonstrated the frisky behavior that most of the other kennel puppies did. Although not stricken with anything life-threatening, the mutt had been the runt of his litter and seemed to have trouble standing on all fours. There were state laws about selling such animals to the public, and a canine’s defects had to be disclosed before making a sale.

Of course, Jonathan would never stoop to deceptive behavior regardless of the humanitarian considerations that some well-meaning types might have for purchasing imperfect animals as pets. Although he believed every dog deserved his fair shake at adoption, he knew the spotted pup was an unsuitable pet for an energetic young man. The boy had a right to know that.

Somers hoped the kid’s father might intervene, but the man remained where he stood at the other end of the store. Jonathan would have to handle this delicate matter on his own.

“Look at his right rear leg, son. Can you see? That dog is lame. He won’t be able to run. Not ever. He might make a fine pet for an elderly person, one who isn’t able to play rough-and-tumble with a dog the way an active young man like yourself can. That’s why I keep him out here on display. Terriers are popular with just about everyone, and he’s got maybe half a terrier in his blood. He’ll find a home, all right, one where he’ll be happy. But I wouldn’t suggest to a boy your age—”

“Can I hold him?”

Somers’ first impulse was to refuse the kid’s request outright. He had run the shelter long enough to know when a match just didn’t feel comfortable regardless of the initial appeal. It wasn’t much different from falling in love at first sight. The lisp you once thought was so endearing later makes you want to go for your woman’s throat every time she accidentally spits into your eye. But he could see the young man had already made up his mind.

“No law against holding him, I suppose.” Somers slipped his hand past the screen mesh.

The pup looked dully at Jonathan’s open palm but made no effort to resist. Somers could not tell whether the animal was completely docile or simply too weak to do anything else but shake. The maybe-terrier struggled to its feet just before the old man lifted it from the cage.

The boy took the pup into his arms as if he held a precious gift. The dog’s shivering slackened while he stroked its muzzle and the puny tail even managed a respectable wag.

“He’s perfect.”

Jonathan hated the words he had to say. “No, son. He’s not.”

The boy’s father appeared alongside Somers so abruptly it seemed he had sneaked up behind him. Placing an arm around the youth he joined his son in stroking the puppy’s wiry fur. An amazing thing happened, a disquieting miracle that Somers had not expected. The dog licked at the boy’s face with an enthusiasm the old man had never seen the animal demonstrate.

The father saw it too and turned toward Somers. “My Nat’s looked at so many dogs today. This is the first one he’s shown any real interest in.”

Although that interest clearly went two ways, Somers believed a little diplomacy was in order. Clearly the father was not going to dissuade young Nathaniel from his selection. Jonathan had the dog’s welfare to consider also. By next week the boy could have second thoughts. A rejected animal might whine for days, often would refuse food or mistrust displays of affection toward it. People’s pity for helpless creatures created emotional blind spots, and families with the best intentions were the ones most guilty of not considering an animal’s best interests.

“Why not look at some other pups before making your decision?” Somers suggested.

Nathaniel did not hear a single word.

The father caught Jonathan’s eye. An almost imperceptible shake of his head implied that Somers should look towards the boy’s right shoe. The old man’s mouth opened as if he might speak, but he said nothing. Somehow he hadn’t noticed it before.

A leg brace peeked through the boy’s denims.

“I wouldn’t worry about the dog’s being physically challenged, Mr. Somers. Just look at the two of them. It’s like the rest of the world has gone and disappeared. The important thing is that an animal teaches a boy love and responsibility, don’t you think?

“Nathaniel is paying for his pet out of his own pocket, and I believe that’s a pretty good start. You can see how that pup makes my boy feel. Can anyone ask more of an animal?”

Jonathan smiled weakly, hoping his embarrassment didn’t show. He was happy to concede this one.

“How much do you want for this pup, Mr. Somers?” the boy asked.

Jonathan Somers didn’t believe in price fixing when it came to making a good match. He smiled at the father and leaned toward the boy as if sharing a confidence. “I manage this shelter through donations, Nathaniel. Whatever you feel is appropriate will do just fine.”

The boy rifled through his pockets and held out a crumpled ten dollar bill with some coins.

“It’s all I have.”

“More than enough,” Somers said. “You’ve selected a fine dog today, son.”

Smiles all around.

And again the kid’s eyes said it all.

* * *

Every boy should have a pet. These were the father’s thoughts while he watched his son fetch the large plastic dish from the pantry in preparation for his new companion’s first meal in their home. From the start this project was his and his alone. Nathaniel would have it no other way.

“I’m calling him Rusty, Dad. What do you think?”

“Rusty it is, then. You did a good thing today, son. I just wanted you to know.”

The boy beamed with pride as he slid off the leg brace. “I hated wearing this thing just to get a fair price from the old guy.”

“Elderly people are usually generous with their pity, and we have to cut some corners if we’re going to keep Rusty. I won’t have you stealing strays off the street, Nat. Some things just aren’t right. But there’s not a thing wrong with being a shrewd shopper. Besides, your little wiry pal here would’ve been taking the big sleep soon enough. Who’s going to buy a mutt that can’t walk a straight line? There’s that to consider, too.”

The boy nodded his agreement.

“You’ll come with me tomorrow?”

“Keep that leg brace well oiled, son. There’s kennels and pet shops just about everywhere. We’ll pay each a visit or two, maybe even take the trailer and see some of the country while we’re at it. But right now I’ll bet Rusty is one hungry animal.”

Nathaniel again nodded agreement. He picked up the large dish and placed the lame little mutt inside.

“I want to feed him myself, Dad. Okay?”

“Fine with me. I’d like to watch, if it’s all right.”

His son nodded as he carried the pup down the stairs to the large glass enclosed cage he had constructed in the basement for his new companion.

His father had been correct.

Nathaniel’s pet boa constrictor Rusty was hungry as hell.


Copyright © 2009 by Kenneth C. Goldman

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