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Amazing Gracie: A Dog's Taleby Dan Dye
Blue is a nice word for how I felt. I must have looked like a cliche of mourning: gray late-November Sunday afternoon, me in raggedy sweats and a two-day beard, slumped down in a Sears Barca-Lounger that looked almost as good as it had the day I rescued it from a Dumpster my freshman year in college. All I needed was a half-empty bottle of whiskey, a crow on my shoulder, and an ashtray full of unfiltered cigarette stubs to finish the picture: Man Grieving Lost Loved One. It didn't make it any easier that the loved one was my childhood best friend of eighteen years-my dog, Blue. The phone could ring all day; I just sat and stared at it. I wasn't trying to avoid people. I just didn't have anything to say. Except to Blue. And she couldn't hear me anymore.
There aren't any diplomats or charm school graduates among my friends and family members, so their attempts to comfort me about Blue usually had the opposite effect. "She's probably happier now" was a favorite, along with "you can always get another one"-though nothing could top "thank God it was only a dog!" Only two people managed not to make me feel worse. One was Anne, my friend and fellow copywriter at Midwestern Company, who had lost her beloved golden retriever, Arthur, only a few months earlier. The other was Mark, my best friend, new housemate, future business partner, and generally the soul of good sense, skepticism, and bad taste.
Mark Beckloff and I had just gone in on a house together, a dilapidated "mansion" on Holmes Street in the heart of Kansas City. We planned to fix it up and sell it for a cool profit that would let us bankroll our business idea-as soon as we came up with one. For now it was our home until we did well enough to live somewhere else, or one of us pulled a Double Indemnity on the other-something I almost never considered. Blue's passing hadn't left us entirely dogless, because there were still Sarah and Dottie, aka "the girls," Mark's canine contribution to the household. He likes to think he's their human companion. Reality check: The girls are Mark's proud owners. Sarah's a two-year-old black Lab mix who's always in a good mood, especially when she's eating something Mark has to wear the next day. Dottie is an uncontrollable force of nature in the deceptive form of a year-old Dalmatian. Dottie wreaks havoc when she's in a good mood; only her spots keep people from mistaking her for a tornado.
Sarah, Dottie, Mark, and Anne gave me the most valuable gifts you can offer someone who's grieving: solitude and, occasionally, quiet company. Then one frigid morning a few weeks later, Anne added another great gift to quiet caring: distraction.
It was one of those bitter late-January days when you start wondering if a foot of snow might take the edge off the cold, and Anne, who always says her blood is too thin for Missouri winters, came into the office looking unseasonably happy. The fun-loving, energetic mom of two kids, Anne has the kind of call-'em-like-I-see-'em honesty that people associate with Harry S. Truman, who came from the same hometown. She's also a former prom queen with a way of flirting that always reminds me of a waitress in a greasy spoon-you know she doesn't mean it seriously, but it still makes you feel special. And once in a blue moon I get the eerie feeling she can read my mind.
I was a little suspicious about her good mood despite the single-digit temperature, and asked what was up. "Nothing!" she said brightly. How was her weekend? "Fine!" When I finally demanded to know what was going on, she pretended to be indignant: "Can't a gal be happy for no particular reason? Is there a law against being happy around here?" I knew better than to keep trying and went back to my work, which was just as well since we were up against a tight deadline on a new print-ad campaign for the Oh, So Delicioso! account.
They were expanding their "authentic sauces" line beyond "a bit o' Italy in every drop!" to "a bit o' Spain" and "a bit o' the Orient." Anne guessed that the company's authenticity experts must have logged grueling months of fieldwork in taco-terias and chop suey joints across the Midwest. (Market research had just told us that our leading contenders, "Oh-so es buen-o!" and "Ah, so-it's Oh-so!" didn't have the authentic foreign feel so prized by regular consumers of exotic canned goods.)
Anne left for lunch with a breezy "later, handsome!" but more than an hour later she wasn't back yet. I ran out to grab a slice at La Pizzateria Rusticana.
When I got back I found Anne crouched under her desk. I was just starting to think that the pressure of the Oh-So account had finally pushed her over the edge when she stood up, staggering under the weight of what looked like a small pony. She was beaming at the creature in her arms: a puppy. A squirmy and, for the moment, little Great Dane named Merlin.
He was a funny-looking guy, blue merle coated except for his cocoa brown eyes and the dark mask around his mouth that looked like a purple puppy version of Fred Flintstone's five o'clock shadow. His ears had just been cropped, and they were taped flat over his head with a bandage that reminded me of the bonnet on Whistler's mother. The way he was squirming around, you would have thought Anne had doused his fur with itching powder. Everything tickled him-if a puppy could laugh, Merlin had a case of the giggles. As it was Anne was doing enough giggling for the two of them, dropping barmaid lines like "baby, where ya been all my life?" in her husky alto. It was as if someone had taken my mature, wisecracking, accomplished colleague and replaced her with a wisecracking seven-year-old girl. If Merlin had been a man, I'd have worried about the spell he was casting on her, but it's hard to doubt the intentions of a puppy. Watching them, the Oh-So deadline vanished.
He wasn't even two months old and there wasn't much dog body to speak of yet, but he was bursting with puppy energy, all excited about being alive. As I cradled him in my arms, all the wonderful things I missed about Blue melded into one amazing and ineffable force I felt thrumping away in Merlin's heart-dog spirit. I wondered if I'd ever feel that force in my own life again.
Anne was transformed. Every day for the rest of the week she came in bubbling with stories and Polaroids of Merlin in action-getting a bath, wrestling with the dirty laundry, gnawing on his own tail, eating, sleeping, breathing . . . The temperature hadn't clawed its way above the twenty-degree mark in five days but Honolulu Annie hadn't even mentioned it, let alone taken personal offense the way she usually did. The reason was obviously Merlin. I could see how cute he was, and how much joy he gave her ("Yeah, yeah, yeah. Right in the middle of the rug. Adorable."), but by the end of the week I realized that I just wasn't sharing her joy. I was starting to narrow my eyes and grit my teeth whenever I saw her smiling. It was a subtle change, but she picked up on it.
"Something bothering you, hon?"
"Ha. Me, bothered? Never."
"You sure about that?"
"Maybe something you can't put into words?"
"Look," I snapped. "If something was going on in my subconscious, don't you think I'd know about it?"
"Hmm. Well, let me know if anything does bother you, okay?"
Not likely. I felt the way you do when your best friend falls in love, and suddenly the running buddy who gave you all that no-strings attention is focusing the spotlight on someone else-in this case, someone who generally has his face in a bowl of soggy kibble. Merlin was a walking reminder of everything about Blue that was gone. It seemed like everyone I knew had a dog, and they were all so darn happy about it. I couldn't even get away from it at home, since Mark had the girls, who might as well have been his shadows the way they stuck to his side. (Of course, real shadows don't shed, or beg for treats whenever you're cooking.) The girls were great in their way, especially if you have a soft spot for hyperactive narcissistic adolescent canine maniacs-which the historical record seems to suggest I do. And even though Sarah and Dottie hung out with me more and more, I could never shake the thought that they weren't Blue, and they weren't technically mine, even if we were living under the same leaky roof.
At the stroke of noon, my phone rang. "Listen, Dan, I hate to bother you..." It was Anne, calling from the other side of the office."...but I have a problem, and I really need your help."
I turned halfway around to look at her, but kept talking into the phone. "What kind of problem?"
"Well," she said, with a serious look. "It's Merlin's sister. She needs our help!"
It sounded like a call from the Justice League. I tried to swivel all the way around but ended up dropping the phone on my foot. "Oww-Merlin has a sister?"
Five minutes later we were in my car.
Excerpted from Amazing Gracie. Copyright c 2000 by Dan Dye, Mark Beckloff, and Richard Simon.
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