The Hard Part

6 May

Last Saturday was another run with the dogs. This time, I volunteered to not only run with one of the pups, but also transport a canine to and from the shelter. It was gray and cloudy when I arrived in the morning, but the rain was still holding off thankfully. I pressed a finger to the buzzer and a shelter employee cracked open the door, looking at me carefully.

“I’m here to pick up one of the dogs for the PACK run,” I babbled to the woman in excitement.

“Which one?” she asked, her brow creasing.

“Oh,” I said, panicking a little. “I don’t know. They didn’t say which one specifically. The email just said that Smitty, Peach, Maxwell and Mimi are running today. It didn’t say which one I had to pick up, it just said that Smitty and Peach and…” I would have just kept repeating myself, but the woman cut me off.

“Okay,” she said, “why don’t you take Mr. Smitty, he’s in the front office upstairs. The leashes are by the door. I usually use the red one.”

I followed her up the old stairway. The shelter is a narrow space tucked among other storefronts. If you weren’t looking for it, you would probably miss it; it looks more suited a space to be a family-owned hardware store rather than a place to house and train homeless and surrendered animals.

In the front office there were two kennels on the floor, and a wall lined with more. The wall kennels were full of kittens, the two on the floor each holding a dog. A new addition was in the kennel in the corner, a toy poodle, and in the other, Mr. Smitty. He looked at us expectantly and stood up as I undid the locks. I reached for the leash and he wiggled excitedly.

“I usually make him sit before I put his leash on,” the woman told me. She had patted Smitty and greeted him cheerily as he romped a bit outside of his kennel, and from the tone in her voice I could tell that she adored him immensely. This was the third run I was attending, the third time I’d met Smitty, and I could understand.

Smitty happily hopped into the back seat of my car and off we drove to Rock Creek Park. After checking the sights out the back passenger window, then the back driver’s side window, then back again, Smitty delicately hopped across the middle console and into the front seat where he sat nicely and navigated for me out the front window.

When we arrived at the park, I thought the toughest part would be surviving the run. Smitty was a bundle of energy, running up to the bigger dogs, and then quickly backing away, letting out a few raspy barks to let them know, “I’m here. I’m totally scared of you, but I’m here. And don’t you forget it.” I, however, had not been running in about two weeks, had done no exercise more strenuous than putting on my socks in about a week. But as he wiggled around as we gathered up with the rest of the dogs and the humans, I gave myself a hearty mental slap and told myself this wasn’t about me. It would be awful for me to be lame now when this is the only time Smitty will have to get out and run like the wind on his little legs for the next two weeks.

So we ran. We stopped for a couple of water breaks, but we ran the entire almost-4-mile run. Other dogs weren’t a distraction for Smitty, he didn’t bark, he didn’t tug at his leash, he just pushed his ears flat and skittered his little paws across the pavement. And at the end of it, he sat. He snuffled a few times at the grass and took interest in the other dogs again, but without as much force as before. We chatted and visited with the other dogs and humans, then bid our goodbyes.

In the car on the way back, I ignored the wet paw prints on my tan seats, smiling at Smitty as he stood perched in the middle, looking out the front windshield. Confident that I knew where I was going, he sighed and curled up into a ball on the back seat, exhausted from our adventure.

The shelter isn’t very far from where we ran, and our car ride took seemingly no time at all. And too quickly we were buzzed back into the shelter, scampering up the stairs, Smitty sitting nicely so I could take him off his leash. The toy poodle in the corner whimpered excitedly new bodies in the room, and I crouched down in front of Smitty.

“Thank you for running with me,” I said, sighing. “I’ll see you in a couple weeks.” I gave him a kiss on top of his head, then scooted him gently into his kennel. As I pushed the flap locks into  place, Smitty stood there looking at me curiously.

“Oh, we’re done?” he seemed to ask. “I liked that a lot. Will you come back? I like to go running. You’re not staying?”

And behind me I could hear kittens mewing and nibbling on their food, and the toy poodle in the corner was positively working itself into a frenzy, and Smitty just looked up at me with his buggy eyes and his wrinkled underbite, wondering why I was leaving, where I was going, was I coming back.

I don’t know if I’ll be volunteering to be a transporter anymore.

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One Response to “The Hard Part”

  1. Cassie May 11, 2009 at 10:45 AM #

    That is almost as sad as Bill Simmon’s story about The Dooze (http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=simmons/090122). WARNING: Do not read that unless you are prepared to cry. Seriously. I’m tearing up just thinking about it.

    I think you should adopt Smitty and move back to Chicago. Smitty would like Chicago.

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