We had been sitting there talking to Chris and his friends for about fifteen minutes when I noticed a black dog walking across the street.
“Puppy!” I said, even though it looked to be almost a year old. I began to stand up. I needed the comfort of a dog after this long day. “I’m gonna go say hi to the dog,” I told Shane, who was sitting on the concrete next to me, behind Chris and his wife. As I took a step forward, I noticed that the dog had crossed the gravel lot and was bumping noses with something much smaller that I couldn’t see over the head of the man sitting next to me.
“Look Shay!” I heard Rob’s voice as I took another step forward. “It’s the puppy I saw yesterday that I was telling you about!” I took another step toward the dogs and saw the little thing that the black dog was bumping noses with begin to take shape in the darkness. It was tiny, and skeleton-skinny, and some sort of German Shepherd mix. It looked like it was only a couple months old, and it was trotting right to me, looking over its shoulder at the black dog, who was now going back across the street.
I remember Rob mentioning this after his adventure in White Clay yesterday. He said he almost came back with a puppy, and I gave him my wide-eyed-you-better-never-do-that look. He told me that he had seen a little shepherd mix running around, and the guys had told him that someone in a minivan had just dropped him off. “They do that all the time I guess,” Rob had explained. “People just take dogs down there and drop them off, and the guys take care of them as well as they can, and then sometimes people come by and pick up the adults and adopt them. Like today, someone came and picked up the dog Carla was taking care of… you remember Oreo?” he said. Of course I remembered Oreo; she looked a lot like Zuzu and I had thought she was the prettiest one.
Pine Ridge and White Clay are full of dogs. They are running around everywhere. Most of them have a home to go to… a place where they sleep at least, but they are all too skinny and covered in fleas, ticks and mange. The people who live here are in such deep poverty themselves that they can’t raise a dog in the way that most Americans take for granted. “The puppy followed one of the guys away before I left, or I probably would have taken him. No one would have cared either way. Those dogs don’t really belong to anyone,” he had said. It’s different in White Clay. Most of the people who live there do have a house or a home somewhere, a place that they stay. But they come down to this little town to drink away their trauma. Most of these guys are veterans, and they stay down here almost every day, sleep down here entirely too often, and don’t take care of themselves. Taking care of a dog isn’t even on the radar, let alone a priority.
I reached down and scooped up the little dog, and he immediately fell asleep in my arms. I whispered in his ear, and sat down on the pavement while he slept.
“You like that puppy?” asked the guy who must have taken a liking to him. His name was Dennis. I nodded at him. “Is it yours?” I asked him. “No, but I was thinking of giving it to my daughter, Cherish. She might like it.” He said. “Not that we need another one running around by my house.”
“What’s his name?” I asked him. Dennis shrugged. “Whatever you want it to be,” he told me. The guys had all been calling him something different since he had arrived, and I knew it didn’t matter if I gave him a name or not, the guys would call him whatever they wanted.
“Do you think you could give me a ride home?” Dennis asked quickly.
I looked at Shane, who was in the middle of conversation with Chris and his wife, and then glanced at Bubba. The three of us had ridden here in the cab, and the back was full. I guess one of us could lay down in the back seat… we had done it before. But I wasn’t the one driving, and the driver decides. “You’ll have to ask one of them,” I said, not knowing which one of the boys would be driving home. I nodded at both Shane and Rob. “I’m not sure.” He caught Rob’s eye first and asked him for a ride. I watched Rob’s eyes widen as he looked at the truck. He shook his head no, but he couldn’t get the words out. “Ummmm…. I don’t think so, but I don’t know.”
Dennis sat down across from me and asked me where I was from. He was pretty drunk, and a few minutes later he started making jokes. “MMmm, that puppy is looking good. You might want to send him over this way, I’m getting kind of hungry,” he said. I squinted at him. Chris had been talking earlier about eating puppy in Vietnam. It was a gross conversation. “Whatever dude,” I said, hoping to change the subject. “No seriously!” he teased. “Those hind legs are like pork chops, and the front ones are like drumsticks. I hear it tastes like chicken.” He said. Catching himself, he turned to his friend. “I’ve never actually tried it, have you?” he asked him. His friend shook his head no and he continued. “That doesn’t mean I won’t though, send him over this way,” he waived at me with a smile.
“You’re not fooling me.” I stated.
“Foolin? I’ll show you fooling. Put him down and you’ll see me skin a dog right here.” He said.
The thought was so horrifying to me that I told myself I would never set the puppy down around this man, joking or not. But he changed the subject. A little while later his friend asked me if I had a “picture thing,” and when I didn’t answer he made the hand motions like he was taking a picture. “You and that puppy, with the moon shining behind you… beautiful.” He nodded into the cool night air, smiling at us as though he approved.
“That’s one Lucky dog,” the man next to him said matter-of-factly. “There you go! His name is Lucky!” he announced with pride. I laughed at the reference to a word I usually change to blessed, but for some reason I had included it in my journal earlier that day as though it was the only word that fit the situation.
“Jesus, God… are you trying to send me home with a puppy right now? What the hell… I don’t want a puppy. I have a dog. And we have two dogs and a cat. Just stop it.” I muttered to myself.
But a little voice whispered to my heart. “Who said it’s for you? This is Joseph’s dog.”
A peace settled over me as I buried my face in between the sleeping puppy’s ears. “That doesn’t make any sense. But okay, if that’s the truth…. “ I whispered back. We had an understanding. If this was Joseph’s dog, and I was supposed to bring him home with me, then we would be taking Dennis back home too.
For the next hour, the little puppy slept in my lap while I talked to the guys who were showing up to hang out here on this little concrete porch in the dark. I was standing in the light of the street lamp, holding the puppy and impatient to find out what would happen, when a few more guys noticed the dog. “Wow, you like that puppy?” one guy said. “You should take it with you.”
This guy doesn’t know me at all, I told myself. Why would he say that to me? I don’t want a puppy!
“Seriously,” he continued. “It’s nobody’s dog. It won’t have a good life here.”
What do you know? These dogs might not have a great physical existence, but at least they’re around people all the time and they get some love, I told myself. It’s better than being left in a kennel at home while everybody goes to work for 8 or 9 hours a day. THAT is a sucky life, if you ask me. These dogs have it made. And besides, it’s beautiful out here. They have space to run around free and chase cows and horses and stuff, I said to myself as I thought about Tuffy’s dog Missy. This is a good life.
I gave that guy a skeptical look and Chris came up around my right side. “Oh…” he muttered. “You holding that puppy huh?” he said as he put his face close to the dog and examined him in the darkness. “You should take him. He’s not gonna live if you leave him out here.” He told me.
“What? What do you mean he won’t live?” I asked. “He won’t survive the winter,” Chris explained. “Look at him. He’s already too skinny. You see that dog over there?” he pointed at the black dog that I had seen crossing the street. I nodded. “He won’t live much longer either. He’s all covered in mange. That dog right there,” he pointed at the dog in my arms. “He’s gonna die.”
I hugged the dog to my chest in defiance. No he won’t! I told myself. He won’t die. Where is all of this coming from?
“I’m telling you the truth,” Chris said. “That dog, he’s got a 50/50 chance….” Time froze in that moment. What did he just say? As if by the magic of the soul, he repeated himself and emphasized the numbers. “He’s got a FIFTY-FIFTY chance… and that dog is gonna die.”
That’s it. If you give this dog a 50/50 chance, then he’s gonna live, because I’m going to say YES.
Two seconds later, Dennis walked around to Shane. “Hey man, can I get a ride?” he asked him. Shane looked at me, looked at the truck and looked at Rob, who by now was handing out clothes from the back to a little group of women who had arrived a few minutes before. “Where do you live?” he asked.
I looked down at the puppy in my arms and kissed his forehead. Alright guy, I can already tell how this is going to go… and you are Lucky.
Ten minutes later, Shane walked up to me and asked if I would be willing to lay down in the backseat on the ride home. “We’re taking Dennis, aren’t we?” I said with a smile. Shane nodded. I nudged him with my arm and nodded at the puppy in my arms. He smiled. “You want to keep him, don’t you?” he asked. I nodded again with a sheepish smile. “For real… another dog?” he prodded, but I could tell by the smile on his face that he wasn’t going to disagree. He sighed. “All right then, get your little butt in the back of the truck.”
I waited for the guys to say goodbye with the puppy snuggled up to my chest in the backseat. Even by the pale white light of the street lamp, I could see the fleas infested in his fur. What are we doing? God, you are crazy. This is nothing like Indy. This dog doesn’t even have his first shots. I have no idea what’s wrong with him or how old he is, or what it’s going to take to get him to gain weight…
When Dennis got in the truck, he looked into the back seat and saw me holding the puppy. “Aw. Are you taking that dog?” he asked me. I nodded at him in the dark. “Good.” He said matter-of-factly. “You’ll be good to it, and it might live. No puppy soup for me,” he laughed.
After we had dropped Dennis off at home and we were headed toward Tuffy’s house, I told the guys about my encounter with the whispers of God, and about Joseph. Shane instantly agreed, and I told them that Joseph probably doesn’t even want a dog. I have no reason to believe that he does. Especially some mutt German Shepherd we picked up in Whit e Clay. “His name is Lucky,” I explained. “And Trust me, this doesn’t make any sense to me. I don’t plan on telling him until it’s about to happen… but someday we’re going to run into Joseph on the road, and I guess we’ll tell him then… ‘dude, I think we have your dog…’” I said. Rob finished my thought. “And we’ve known it since the day that we got him.”
We all smiled into the darkness as we bounced along the dirt road toward Tuffy’s house.
The screen on my cell phone revealed that I had missed a phone call from Joseph. When I called him back, he was sitting down to have lunch with my friends Greg and Julia, and I instantly felt a pang of regret for interrupting one of these precious few moments of fellowship between them. And yet, I was intrigued by the broken phrases that I could hear my friend telling me through the poor reception that I was getting in Alice’s living room.
“We’re leaving…. Heading to Oregon… around the first… next Thursday.” I heard him say through the scattered static of my cell phone. What?! I thought it would be at least another month before he was ready to move along. The next sentence came through the speaker clearly, like Joseph was sitting right next to me. “We’re gonna stop along the way and try to track down some hippie kids living in a camper somewhere in South Dakota,” he said. I laughed in my cell phone, joy welling up inside me, amazement and wonder at this unexpected piece of good news.
I told Shane and Rob about this new revelation; the impending visit of our friends, and their eyes were wide with joy and curiosity. I told them the story about their visit the best I could from what I had gathered through the static on the phone, and we all held our breath for a moment and looked at Lucky. I watched Shane’s face. “I told him that we had a surprise for him,” I said softly into the silence between us.
He smiled, and I was relieved. I knew that he had grown attached to Lucky in just the few short days that he had been sleeping next to Shane’s side of the bed. “But you didn’t tell him what it was?” he asked.
“No, I figured that should be done in person,” I answered him. “That way,” I laughed, “he doesn’t have time to think about it first.”
For days, I wondered how to tell Joseph that we had his dog. When God had whispered to me in White Clay, I had imagined giving Joseph a dog, not a puppy. I had no reason to believe that Joseph would be coming to see us so soon… I thought we would raise him a good little dog and then give it to him sometime in the next year, as our paths crossed again on these long stretches of highway between here and the great state of Oregon. Little did I know…
As my mind wandered through different scenarios and created different phrases and conversations that would offer Joseph this crazy, fuzzy little gift, I couldn’t imagine what he would say. I couldn’t picture it. I was almost sick with worry that he would say no, despite my logic that it wouldn’t matter either way. It was a full-out argument inside my head, until one day I was sitting on the porch, and I heard another whisper. “Do I ask you to do things that are not for the ultimate good?”
I knew the answer was Never. I was ashamed of myself and stared at my feet on the old weathered wood of this quiet front porch. “You are responsible for saying Yes to Me. But that’s it. Stop worrying about anyone else and their answers.”
The thought occurred to me that God might be asking me to do something else in this very moment, something else that I was missing while I was lost in my head, thinking about Joseph and his visit. I pushed my worry out of my mind and agreed to go along with whatever happened…. To go with the flow of life, and stop over-thinking things.
Suddenly, it was Thursday, and we had woken up early to start work. Rob and I climbed into Bubba and headed over the hill to help remodel an old mobile home for a local pastor, while Shane dug the post holes for a new railing along the back steps at Tuffy’s house.
Rob and I became wallpaper professionals in one afternoon, and we had finished half the kitchen by lunch time. I was hoping when we ran out of wallpaper we would call it quits for the day, but Rob was determined to finish leveling the floor in the bathroom before sunset. I figured that we had better cell phone reception on the top of the hill anyway, so I brought Rob’s phone with me and set it on the concrete blocks outside the mobile home while we worked.
We had just finished the flooring, and cleaned up the workspace when I went to grab Rob’s cell phone. A missed call lit up the screen. It was time to go meet Joseph and Greg at the gas station downtown.
The three of us sat across the bench seats in Bubba, waiting for Joseph and Greg and watching Lucky, sprawled out across my lap with his tongue hanging out. We reviewed the events of the last 9 days since we picked him up in White Clay. He had been so skinny when we got him! But after a little de-wormer and some evaporated milk, he had fattened right up. Now he had the characteristic roly-poly belly that a puppy his age should be boasting. Tuffy had mentioned that he might have mange the morning after we had brought him home, and we had rushed him to the local animal control office to have him looked at. The last thing I wanted to do was risk the health of Tuffy’s dogs. Shane and I had waited 45 minutes to meet the vet, hoping that we would be able to afford his fees. When he arrived and took a look at Lucky, he told us that he was “a good looking dog, about 12 weeks old. No mange, ticks or fleas,” he had said in surprise. We explained that we had given him a good flea bath the night that we had brought him home from White Clay. The vet offered to give him all of his first shots, including the rabies vaccine tag and a little red puppy collar, all for 5 dollars. We couldn’t believe it. We had watched him steadily gain weight and play with the other dogs around the ranch for the next week, giving him plenty of toys to chew on so that he wouldn’t destroy anything in the camper. Shane had even installed a little “puppy-gate” next to his side of the bed so that the puppy couldn’t get out and poop on the kitchen floor those first couple nights. But after getting up every time he whined at 2 or 3 or 4 in the morning, he was potty trained in less than 5 days. The first night that he didn’t wake us up until 6am was a small victory. A lot had happened in a week, and we had given the little guy a lot of Love.
Lucky stood up in my lap and crawled over Rob as Joseph appeared next to the truck. He wagged hit tail hello and I smiled at the two of them. God, you have to do this because I don’t know what to say! I thought to myself. Shane and I climbed out of the passenger seat as I could hear Joseph’s exclamations of surprise. “Well hey there, aren’t you cute! What’s your name?” he asked. “Lucky,” Rob answered as he smiled at Joseph. “Well you are Lucky to be joining this crew,” Joseph said as he pet Lucky on the head.
I was hugging Greg and laughing to myself. That’s what you think, Joseph.
We changed the subject and talked for a bit about other things. They invited us to dinner and we invited them to Tuffy and Alice’s. “But before you make a decision, I’ve got to tell you a story first,” I said. I had been hoping that the boys would tell him for me, but they kept looking at me, waiting for me to tell him about Lucky. “Uh Oh, that sounds loaded,” Greg laughed.
“So…” I wondered how to spit this out, but the words just popped out of my mouth before I could think it through. “I think this is your dog,” I told Joseph while I looked from him to Lucky and back again.
Joseph laughed out loud and took a step toward the dog. “That’s not a story, Shay” the guys all said in chorus. “I know, I know, I’ll get to that part,” I said, wondering why that sentence had come out the way it had. “That’s not a story,” Joseph said, “That’s a fairy tale.”
He had said the words with the kind of gruff dismissal that actually brought me relief. Thank God he isn’t pretending to be super happy about this news, because it would leave me concerned about the truth. I took a deep breath, and tried to explain how this had come to be.
“You know me, and you know the way things work with me. I don’t know how to explain it, but we were in White Clay, and God said… well… this is just your dog, and that’s all I know. It doesn’t make sense to me either. We’ve been babysitting him for a little over a week, and we’re willing to keep babysitting him if necessary, you know… what happens next is up to you.” The words came babbling out of my mouth in a hurried fashion, nervous about what was going to happen when I stopped talking. Rob added, “You’re free to say No, in other words,” with a little chuckle. I held my breath.
There was a silence, as Joseph reached out to pet the puppy. He blinked and I could tell he was thinking about what to say next. “You don’t have to decide right now,” I said. “Something to think about. But please come to stay tonight at Alice and Tuffy’s.”
We all agreed to go to dinner at the Pizza Hut here in Pine Ridge and talk more about it when we got there. I asked if he wanted to take the puppy in his car, and he said “he can ride with you, for now.” My ears perked up at his answer, but I dampened my hopes for a moment so that I wouldn’t read to much into it. “Besides, there’s no room,” he added. I nodded and we piled into the truck to drive the two blocks to Pizza Hut.
As our truck weaved through the crazy traffic downtown because of Pow Wow weekend, I looked at Shane. “What do you think?” I asked him. Shane smiled. “He likes him. I think he’s going to say yes.” I almost bounced out of the seat in excitement. I was no longer able to dampen my feelings. “Oh, I hope, I hope!!!” I giggled as I rubbed Lucky’s head. “I was waiting for you guys to say something, but you didn’t…” I teased Rob. “Hey, this is your thing, not ours… can’t be putting that on us.” He laughed.
We parked the truck in the lot next to the Pizza Hut, and we all held our breath as a large black dog was almost hit by traffic as it crossed the street. The reality of life for most of these dogs is kind of terrifying. I let Lucky out of the truck to go to the bathroom, and he went to the patch of grass along the road and squatted like he had been potty trained all of his life. On the way back toward the truck, he found a little corn cob and brought it along as a chew toy. I couldn’t take my eyes of him. I knew that if I did, I would give away the insane swirl of emotions going on inside me as I waited to hear what Joseph would have to say about this.
We put the puppy back in the truck, and as we walked inside, Lucky and I got our answer. Joseph said “the only reason I can say Yes is because Greg told me that he would give him a ride to Oregon.” I thought my smile was going to explode my face. I could believe it, because God is really that awesome. I put my arm around Joseph as we walked into the restaurant.
“I’ll play my part in your fairy tale,” Joseph said as he opened the door.
“I was just telling Greg that I’d never have another dog,” he said during dinner. It confirmed my suspicions as God had been whispering to me in White Clay. It was true, this had made no logical sense. But I find that God is very rarely logical, and far more often God is radical and idealistic. He can be that way, because he knows everything and his plans are the ultimate Good for everyone involved.
When Lucky, Greg and Joseph drove past the cross on the hill and out of sight the next morning, I felt like my heart was going to burst out of my chest. For a moment, as I stared off into the sunshine, the world seemed to sparkle like molecular fireworks. As if the air in front of my eyes was filled with glitter, everything in the world came alive with joy and gratitude. The awe I felt inside of me was spilling out into a wild rhythm of dance and laughter. Even my breath itself told a story… “This is obedience.”