Stephanie C. Trott
We drive up to Boston on a rainy Saturday morning, the kind where you’d usually be met with a pile-up at the I-93 split. Instead the roads are empty, the traffic absent. There are advisory signs every ten miles or so, warning that entry into Massachusetts now necessitates a fourteen-day quarantine. It is startling, as this is our first time out of the house in three weeks. My partner, Whitney, and I have been isolating in avoidance of COVID-19, but today we are traveling to pick up the two Labrador puppies that we will be fostering.
After an hour of driving, we pull up to the kennel. We were told not to get out of our car, to park in a certain area. I hold up a sign announcing who we are here for. A woman gives me a thumbs up, and a few minutes later we are driving back to New Bedford with four bags of kibble and two wide-eyed black dogs. They are ours until they are old enough be spayed, and one fusses in Whitney’s lap as the other settles into mine.
“Her teeth are so sharp,” Whitney says as her dog chews on her thumb. “They won’t lose them while they’re with us, will they?”
No, I tell her, that won’t happen for a few more months. I remember finding puppy teeth in odd places when my parents’ old dog was new, as though she’d hidden them for my mother to find later. My mom still has them in a drawer with my own baby teeth. Milk teeth, she calls them. Teeth that grow from nurturing, stability, and consistency. Teeth that are meant to be traded for ones more permanent, ones that will stay with them for the rest of their life.
Like the innumerable others who suddenly found themselves working from home, we joined these ranks of dog fosters because we unexpectedly could. I have privilege: my job turned remote, my commute disappeared, my risk is not high. We have no children, just one small dog. “We can do this,” I said to Whitney early on as we looked at dogs online. We are do-gooders. We wanted to help. And so we applied.
Once home with the puppies, we immediately give them a bath; while there’s a low risk of dogs spreading the virus to people, we decide it will at least alleviate the smell of dried urine that permeates their fur. We strip down to our underwear, and I tackle bathing each dog while Whitney dries them. They wiggle and cry, and I am amazed at how different their silky coats are from my own dog’s. Junie is a Jack Russell, a stocky fifteen-pound rescue from my days as a graduate student in North Carolina. Her hair is wiry and curly and can be found along with my own in tangled tumbleweeds throughout our house.
She does not take to the puppies right away, instead running and hiding from them when they chase her down the hall. She retreats to our bed and holds court on the unfolded pile of laundry. I set up a borrowed crate at the foot of our bed and take a step back, laughing; it is large enough to hold a Newfoundland, and on the first night it seems to swallow the puppies as we place them inside.
Early the next morning I lift the blanket off of the crate and am relieved to see their wagging tails. I am afraid that something has happened in the night and I will wake to find them dead. In the coming days I dream that their teeth fall out, that they run into the road, that they are eaten by coyotes. But each time I check, they are there chewing only at each other and making the muffled sounds of sleep.
We keep them in the kitchen during the day, where the linoleum floors become a sea of clean towels. I put a small surveillance camera on top of our refrigerator so that we can each keep an eye on them while we work. One afternoon, Whitney texts me a smiling poop emoji; she is on a call and cannot come help, so the cleanup is my responsibility. I smile and coo at the dogs as they dance at the gate, oblivious that they are dangerously close to stepping in their own excrement. The puppies think I am playing as I spray and wipe the floor, and they jump on me when I crawl beneath the kitchen table. I am reminded of how a daddy long-legs is deadly but poses no threat because its fangs are so short. The dogs’ needle teeth nip and scratch, but it is the pressure rather than the prick that hurts.
Between assignments, I stare out of the window next to the dining room table where I work. My cubicle in Cambridge is windowless, so the change is welcome. I watch as the forsythia bush buds and turns yellow, as the red-winged blackbirds swoop at the feeder I recently hung in the pear tree. One of the feral cats that lives in our barn comes to see if I have put anything out for him to eat, then darts away when I open the door to refill his dish. It sits full for the rest of the day until another cat claims it.
A wren comes by as she does every day and lands on the back of the plastic bentwood rocking chair, a piece of hay in her beak. She looks quizzically at the roofline, and I feel the warm spread of shame. Last week I dismantled her second attempt at building a nest between the roof and the retractable awning, stuffing garbage bags in the gap and taking away her home. She has built her nest here for the last few years, beginning when my grandfather was alive and still living here. When we moved in six months after his death, there were eggs in her nest and we couldn’t unroll the awning for the entire summer. We later found two fledglings on the deck, their necks twisted and eyes bulging, baked by the sun. Now their mother turns her head to question why I would render her homeless. I go back to my work telling myself she will rebuild somewhere else.
I take June for long walks each day at lunch, a luxury not afforded to me during my usual day in the city. I spy the first dandelion and two flowering magnolia trees, and at the beach the rocks are littered with periwinkles during low tide. These are all signs of spring, as is the osprey that has returned from her winter below the equator. I think of the tautog out in the bay, how their mouths are soft with youth and a hook can so easily sink into their meaty cheeks. They are ugly fish, dark gray and green with snaggled overbites. In the summer their teeth will harden and they’ll eat mussels—shell and all.
I watch June run along the shoreline and jump on each large rock. I feel a sense of pride when I think about how far she has come since her days at the shelter in Winnabow. A transport dog from Louisiana, she was left for dead in a box on the side of the road, found with ticks, mites, and a cherry eye—the likely result of blunt-force trauma. Together she and I went through her surgeries, her heartworm treatments, six weeks of carrying her up and down from my walk-up apartment, and months and months of bonding. Now she comes when she is called and sleeps as a little spoon against me. She is slow to take to other dogs, especially those bigger than she.
So is no wonder that I feel guilty for disrupting her world in the name of doing good. I have already made an obligation to one small creature who relies upon me for everything, who has had to overcome fear and trauma and learn how to trust. In bringing two more needy creatures into my home—albeit for a fixed period of time—do I jeopardize our relationship? I grew up hearing of how my parents’ parakeet died of a broken heart when they brought home another bird, and this cautionary tale now spins through my head each time my dog slinks away from me.
After work we play with the puppies, and my forearms and hands become a collection of nips and scratches. The skin is raised with red welts that will become silver scars to match my other encounters with dogs. Some sit on top of each other, others lay isolation. As soon as one heals, another appears. I wash and scrub each time I go outside, knowing the alcohol in my sanitizer will only make the scarring more apparent. My knuckles crack and the dogs lick at my bandages as though they might heal me.
I make lemon bars one night and the radio station plays a tribute to John Prine while June sleeps in an armchair and the puppies chew a new toy. They are needy and codependent, and I hate that I cannot warn them about their last morning waking up together, their last car trip together, the last time they’ll sleep under the same roof. It’s possible but not probable that their new owners will be friends who’ll set up play dates and get-togethers. The dogs look up at me and I stare back into the bottomlessness of their big eyes as John reminds us that one day this will become a forgotten dream.
Less than week after we pick them up, I get an email from the foster coordinator: the puppies have been scheduled for their spays earlier than anticipated, cutting their time with us short. We have three more days together, and my stomach drops as I read the email again. I write back with question and am told that they are older than the rescue originally thought. But this is what we signed up for, to be a temporary home and to set them each up for a successful adoption. Still I struggle with the abruptness of this change and the necessity of moving quickly in a time that has mandated we go slow. I look at my schedule for Monday and cringe under a string of meetings spread throughout the day; we determine that Whitney will take them alone.
The night before they leave, we make each dog a bag of items to take to her new home: equal shares of the kibble, some treats, a few pee pads, and a small fleece blanket. We give them each one of the stuffed mallard ducks that they have chewed and dismembered; one duck is wingless, while the other is devoid of its squeaker. My phone pings and I find an email from one dog’s new family. We talk on the phone a few minutes later and I am relieved, then worried. I email the adoption coordinator and learn that other dog, the smaller of the two, has not yet been matched with a family.
I have to trust that she is going somewhere warm and safe, and so I turn to the online foster support group to see what others have to say about goodbyes. “The first foster is the worst,” one writes. “Our hearts break a little so theirs never have to again,” says another. It does not comfort me, and I close the computer in favor of sitting with the puppies as they sleep. When they dream their bodies move wildly as though electrified: mouths gnawing, toes curling, eyes racing and rolling. They breathe quick, tiny breaths and whine along with the refrigerator.
More often than not, loss is unexpected. It is rarely announced, nor does it stick to the schedules we might anticipate it following. I am overwhelmed wondering about the smaller dog’s future and wonder when we will foster again. Our lives are so full, our schedules overflowing. Our world is more uncertain. What will it look like when we return to work? When the street teams with school-day traffic? When the lights are again on timers and our house sits in silence and June waits alone for our return? I wonder when the last time I saw my own sister was, when the last time I will ever see her might be. And that is the hard part: not knowing when goodbye will be permanent.
A storm rolls in the next day as gusts of sixty miles per hour tear off Buzzards Bay and the rain seems to fall sideways, blown up our street like a heard of stampeding horses. The dogs eat, play, sleep, and whine. It is another day for them, and when we take them out one final time, they try to run back to the house. I pick one up and carry her to Whitney’s car, kissing the top of her little wet head. I do the same for her sister. We put them in the crate and lock the door as they settle in for the trip back to Boston.
I work for the rest of the afternoon and then set to cleaning the house. I have always taken comfort in physical work, and the rhythmic motion of washing dishes and sweeping the floor and doing laundry settles me. As the sun sets, I feed Junie and drive up to the hardware store; I am tired of telling myself the wren will find another place to live, so I replace what I took with something I hope she will find acceptable. It is dark when I return with the tiny wooden house, and I work in the rain underneath a motion-activated spotlight. I try not to think about Whitney on the road, of the puppies at the animal hospital, but my mind is disobedient and wanders to curved roads and dark rooms and cold stainless steel. I remember the dogs’ soft baby cries as hammer meets nail and the southwest wind picks up.
Whitney is still not home by the time I’m through, so I heat up my dinner and eat alone. I drink tea; I wait. I call out to June, but she does not come running. I find her asleep on our bed in the dark, and with a full belly I climb in next to her. The extra-large crate remains empty at the foot of our bed, a blanket still thrown over the top. I do not have to see the little black hairs on my white flannel sheets to know that they are there, that they will stay there for many nights. The wind moans and the rain beats against the storm windows as the heat quietly clicks on. June stands, circles three times, and lies down once more.
Stephanie C. Trott lives and writes in southeastern Massachusetts. She holds an MFA in fiction from UNC Wilmington, where she was an editor at Ecotone. Her fiction appears in New South and Blood Orange Review, while her interviews and reviews may be found in the Rumpus, the Adroit Journal, Southern Humanities Review, and elsewhere.