Animal Control was only a hair’s breadth from the county line. The squat cinderblock building lay in the shadow of a wooded ridge that blocked most of what should have been exquisite early morning sunlight; on the other side of the ridge was one of the worst neighborhoods in the area, now awash in that sunlight, which exposed all its warts without mercy. Lucy estimated she’d feel more comfortable prowling around alone in Manhattan’s Union Square after midnight than she would visiting this area at the same hour. The road leading in started paved, and wound its way through a covey of double-wide trailers with lifted trucks parked in yards, and plastic children’s toys and playsets in gaudy colors, strewn everywhere. Soon the pavement gave way to a gravel road that narrowed before it finally turned to dirt; a beleaguered sign marked the entrance to the shelter on the left, riddled with holes and faded graffiti the staff had scrubbed away as best they could.
Lucy pulled into a parking space of her own invention, slowed to a stop, and yanked up the hand break. She could hear all the barking inside, sitting way out here in her car. “Here we go,” she said aloud as an exercise in self-assurance.
She pulled open the glass door to the shelter with a finger, met with a blast of hot air thick with the heady aroma of pee and poop commingling with strong disinfectant. The screeching and barking were loud enough that Lucy felt inclined to cup her hands over her ears. Through a door to the right was Susanna’s office; Lucy stepped in and peeked at her friend’s desk, littered with papers and clutter; on the top of a pile was the paperwork Susanna promised. She reached across and picked it up at the precise moment she felt a presence behind her; turning, she saw Gilbert standing there in a pair of stained and tattered coveralls.
“I was just looking over the forms—” But Gilbert cut Lucy short: “Dog’s ‘is-a-way, foller me,” uttered through an impressive underbite, more impressive still than this slight man’s alarmingly thin form and filthy hands.
Lucy turned on her heel and followed obediently, down the long corridor of kennels, with every kind of mongrel dog barking, begging, pleading, through the wire gates to their enclosures. The kennels weren’t dirty so much as aged. Once they had been painted ivory, but much of the color had peeled away, leaving patches of exposed grey cinderblock. Each dog had a raised bed and a water bowl, with access to an outdoor area through a rear door. Close to the end of the long straightaway, Gilbert sat down on his haunches and offered up his knuckles to the wire gate in front of him. “She’s a good ‘ole gal, ain’t she.” Lucy first saw a pink tongue reaching for Gilbert, and then drawing closer, found the dog’s face, her eyes locking instantly with an animal who knew she was in trouble, yet somehow maintained this impossibly friendly demeanor. Noticing Gilbert had delivered a visitor to her kennel, the dog instantly began to whine, wagging her tail with such vigor her entire back end moved with it. Yes, a shepherd for sure, she guessed; one ear stood erect, and the other one comically flopped over. The erect ear was missing a tiny notch of cartilage, a hint that this girl had gotten herself into a scrape at some point. Her ribs were just showing, but not enough to suggest malnourishment; her coat, though, was mangy and scabby in places.
Gilbert rose and stepped aside and Lucy squatted down and offered her index finger to the dog. “You are one hot mess, aren’t you?” The dog wagged with more vigor and started yapping.
“Ye wont to take ‘er out on a lead and git to know ‘er a bit?”
She looked up at Gilbert directly and quipped, “No. I want to sign the papers and take my dog home.” She couldn’t get out of this place quickly enough.
Lucy cracked her car windows to ventilate the kennel stench; glancing in her rear view she saw only the one ear. Turning, she gazed into the dog’s eyes and announced, “I will call you Charley. It will confuse the hell out of everybody, because you are my girl-dog. We’ll have fun with this little bit of irony, you’ll see.” Charley yawned and glanced around, and then sprawled comfortably across the back seat of the car as Lucy bumped backwards out of her space and pointed the car to home.