The Christmas Puppy

I didn’t know anybody the first time I stepped onto the athletic field cradling

Lucas, my 9-week old wire coat Jack Russell Terrier. It was a defacto dog park in the Los Angeles neighborhood made famous by the murder of O.J. Simpson’s ex-wife. Two baseball diamonds and three contiguous soccer fields occupied in the early mornings and evenings by neighborhood dog owners.

As we carefully traversed the faint chalk lines on the green grass, it felt like Lucas and I were marching out in a police line-up. I stole quick glances of people’s faces while looking for a safe space to set him down. There were dogs everywhere and their owners happily chatted with one another in a very familiar way. I saw what looked like a quieter space just beyond what would have the first base bag. Lucas clung to me like a toddler on his first day of preschool as I set him down onto the grass in his matching red harness and leash. He stared up at me with great trust in his eyes as I unclipped him. It was as if he knew the leash was the umbilical cord that bound us together.

“He’ll be okay Mom.” I looked over and saw a handsome salt and pepper haired woman in a black North Face vest smiling at me. She had an authoritative stance and just below her knees were two Italian Greyhounds in reversible quilted coats.

One of them was larger and sturdier than the other and had cloudy, blue hued eyes. The smaller framed Greyhound trembled. I resisted my urge to pick Lucas back up. After a minute he tentatively stretched his neck out and sniffed the blind dog.

“That’s Mookie. And this is Tanner.”

I looked down at Tanner who vibrated with anxiety. “Is he okay?”

“Yeah, he’s fine. ” The woman gazed down at her trembling dog. “He’s just a worrier, aren’t you Tanner?” Tanner looked like a tiny prehistoric creature as he craned his neck and lifted his head upward. He made eye contact with his owner and seemed to nod in agreement that he was indeed a worrier.

Twenty feet away, a red Golden Retriever puppy lay on her back with her hind quarters splayed open. An older woman with a stiff dome of brown hair and hands that looked like marbleized cake, cackled.

“My dog’s a slut! A slut I tell you.”

The dog’s submissive position gave Lucas confidence. He wandered over to sniff her. It was a little awkward. We were strangers after all.

I had lived in Brentwood for six years. I inadvertently landed on the Westside of Los Angeles after living in different parts of the city post college graduation. I fell in love with the area’s greenery and scarlet blooming coral trees that lined San Vicente Avenue and led to the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It wasn’t long after moving to the area that I learned just how many Angelenos despised the area for its homogeny and confluence of wealth and power.

Even though I was living in a run down 1960s apartment building, in what I jokingly called the “Brentwood Barrio,” my decision to settle there in the rows of apartment buildings and condominiums elicited a strong reaction from friends. It was anathema to my co-worker Will, an aspiring filmmaker from New York City.

“That would be like me graduating from NYU and moving to the Upper East Side and living in a building with a door man.”

The bourgeois culture where the only other Latinos were the housekeepers, nannies and gardeners was still new to me. I had grown in up in Los Angeles’ suburban San Fernando Valley, “over the hill” as we said, in a solidly middle class yet ethnically diverse neighborhood. In our little cul-de-sac, our neighbors were Japanese American, Chinese American, Armenian American, Cuban American and Italian American.

My parents were blue collar entrepreneurial immigrants and risk takers who had come to United States from Mexico and achieved the American Dream through hard work and toil. Despite his success, my father had resisted moving to a more affluent neighborhood where he would have to keep up with the Jones’ or the Sapersteins as it were. Instead, when my parents bought their dream home it was a horse property in the northeast corner of the valley with a driveway long enough for the mariachi bands to waltz up at their big Mexican barbecues.

Though Lucas only weighed about twelve pounds, he was bold and adventurous. It didn’t take him long to get comfortable at the park. My face hurt from smiling as he sprinted the perimeter of the park with Sasha, a senior black Standard Poodle good naturedly chasing on his heels. Watching Lucas was nothing short of magical. It was hard to believe I had almost returned him just days after bringing him home.

Lucas had been an impulse buy at a pet store in Santa Monica. He was a Christmas puppy in a pen that hadn’t sold. A week or so after I had buried my nine-year-old Bichon Frise, Henry, after his untimely death in my mother’s care, I decided adopting a cat would be a good solution to the absence of life in my apartment.

I had never owned a cat before but it seemed like a low maintenance pet option. It would be a bonus if I could adopt an older cat. I had seen a sign up at a pet store on Wilshire Boulevard, not far from where I lived advertising cat adoptions. One afternoon, I got into my car and drove to the store.

The store was dark inside. Birds squawked and chirped amidst the pet store elixir of sawdust, brine and the musky scent of the animals. Rodents rustled in their nests, heating lamps hummed. A sales clerk in a khaki safari style vest sat behind the counter. Across from him was a lone, coltish puppy in a pen. The puppy had short, wiry white hair and black around his eyes like a raccoon. I had only known one other Jack Russell and he was mean. This one was strangely calm and quiet, intently focused on a feeder cricket who had managed to climb out of one of the glass tanks.

I could not resist the urge to scoop him up. I cradled him in my arms and looked into his dark brown eyes, his precious face. I ran my thumb over his pouty black lower lip and his over pronounced underbite. I clutched his baby smooth paw in my hand. I was instantly in love but aware of the fact I should not buy a dog from the pet store.

“He’s so cute. I don’t know why nobody bought him. He’s been here since before Christmas.”

I looked up at the store clerk who reminded me of a Mike Judge character. Above him was a chalkboard listing the prices of all the animals in the store. There was only one puppy remaining on the black board: Tricolor Jack Russell Terrier $1800. A line had been drawn through his price more than once. With January coming to a close, he had been reduced to half off.

It was not the right time to get a dog and when I did, this is not how I wanted to do it. I didn’t want a puppy from a pet store. As much as I hated to do it, I lowered him back into his empty pen.

I drove home thinking about the puppy and about my dog Henry, his mysterious death in my mother’s rustic back yard. I would never know if it had been a venomous snake or a poisonous insect that had left the bloody bite mark on his chest. All I knew was that my mother had not, as she had promised she would, brought Henry into the house at sundown. It was only once she had found him dead, his legs stiff, that she had carefully wrapped him in a baby blanket and put him under a heating lamp in the garage to keep him comfortable until I could leave the set where I had been working all day.

It was too soon to get another dog and with my work schedule, I had no business getting one. When I got home from the pet store, I was overwhelmed by the quiet in my apartment. I called my mother.

“I just saw a really cute puppy at a pet store.”

“Did you get him?”

“No. I don’t want another dog plus I don’t want to buy a puppy from a pet store. They come from puppy mills. It’s so weird, he’s been there for weeks and he’s so cute.”

“Well, he needs a home too.”

I couldn’t argue with that. I looked around my empty apartment. It was too soon. I was still crying and feeling guilty over Henry. The sound of the shovel scraping the earth the night I buried him in the rain was still alive in my ears. It haunted me at night as I struggled to fall asleep.

“Go get him. I’ll pay for him.”

My mind raced. What if I got booked on a job? More than this, it felt like I was replacing Henry. I couldn’t emotionally commit to the idea of another dog and yet I couldn’t stop thinking about the puppy at the pet store.

I had six crisp one hundred dollar bills hidden in my sock drawer. It was birthday money I had stashed away. My heart fluttered as I purposefully dug them out. I could feel the conflict inside myself as I climbed back into my Honda Accord and drove the mile and a half back to the pet store.

There he still was in his little pen. I reached down and stroked his bare neck then scooped him up and carried him over to the counter. I laid the bills on the counter. It was two hundred dollars less than they were asking for him but I knew there would be no negotiation over a Christmas puppy that hadn’t sold.

I had always loved the name Lucas. It had been the name of a college friend’s goofy Great Dane and felt perfectly suited to this curious, wire haired creature who squinted in the sunlight as we walked to the car.

I gently placed him in the front passenger seat and closed the door. On the short drive home, Lucas curiously stared out at the world and sniffed the air that seeped in through the open windows. His first steps in our apartment were tentative and after only a few of them, he crouched into a track start position and promptly peed on the carpet. I stared at him with wonder as he explored his new home, bringing new life into every room as he wandered through. My heart was bursting with love but I also felt like I was drowning in waves of grief. I wasn’t sure how could I be filled with so many emotions at once.

Lucas followed me all around the apartment. In the kitchen, he looked up at me and placed his front paws on my bare foot. Later when we lay on the couch to watch television, he snuggled up on my chest and put his neck on my neck. My heart pounded as we lay there intertwined. Every breath I drew was love layered with guilt. Tears streamed down my face when I realized I could not keep him.

The next day, my friend Joe stopped by to meet him. I fought back my tears as I confessed that I would have to return the puppy to the pet store. It was too soon for another dog. Purchasing him had been a mistake.

“You can’t take him back. Look how much he already loves you.”

It was true and I already loved Lucas more than I could have possibly imagined but one day he would die and I could not bare that thought. What Joe didn’t know was that I had already enlisted another friend to call the pet store and inquire about their return policy. Lucas had sat in my lap as Jennifer dialed the number. We both listened intently as she spoke to the owner and explained the circumstances of Henry’s untimely death and my fragile state of mind.

The store owner reluctantly agreed to take Lucas back. We planned to meet around noon after my morning acupuncture appointment. I hadn’t seen my acupuncturist since the days immediately following Henry’s death. I had embarrassed myself hysterically wailing in the room. Amir, my acupuncuturist, had been so kind and comforting even holding my hands as I struggled to stop sobbing.

When I left for the acupuncture office that morning, Lucas had followed me to the front door. He looked at me expectantly. In the last thirty-six hours, we hadn’t been apart. I felt guilty as I looked down at his soulful eyes knowing that when I returned, we would take a one-way trip to the pet store.

Laying face down on the acupuncture table with my face in the cradle, I drifted off into the powerful deep relaxation brought on by the acupuncture needles. From my state of half consciousness, I heard the dull sound of a cupboard door opening. The small cupboard which was tucked away in the corner of the room was where they stored gowns, boxes of tissue and rolls of medical exam table paper. I opened my eyes and shifted them in the face cradle. There was Lucas in my peripheral vision, playing with a roll of the flimsy exam table paper. It crackled as he loped around the room in his halting little gait. I lifted my head out of the face cradle and saw the room was in complete disarray. Lucas had strewn the paper from one end of the room to another as he playfully pranced around.

I had no recollection of bringing him to acupuncture with me and I couldn’t figure out how he had gotten into the room. The heating lamp timer bell rang as I tried sliding off the table with the needles dangling from my skin. I needed to get a hold of Lucas before Amir came in and saw him.

Just as I finally got myself upright, Amir walked in and turned on the overhead lights. I apologized profusely for bringing Lucas and for the mess he had made of the room. Amir stared at me in confusion. I looked around the room. Lucas was nowhere to be seen and his mess had disappeared. I hadn’t mentioned to Amir that I had bought a puppy. He had no idea who Lucas was or what I was talking about.

“I must have been dreaming. It was so real. Lucas was here. He was running around.”

I suddenly felt as if I were at a fortune teller’s office instead of an acupuncture clinic. A swell of emotion rose up inside me. I struggled to speak.

“I got a puppy. I was going to take him back to the pet store when I left here.”

Amir smiled kindly.

“Sounds like he doesn’t want to go.”

He patted my hand.

“In my culture, when someone is trying to communicate with you sometimes they do it through your dreams.”

I pictured Lucas’s innocent face, his sweet eyes. My whole body heaved with the release of emotion. I knew I couldn’t take Lucas back.

I dressed as quickly as I could and raced home to my puppy. Lucas greeted me at the door, crying with excitement when I came in. I collapsed onto my knees and swept him up into my arms. He whined as he licked my hands, my face and my eyes. His sweet little soul was mine to look after and my heart was his forever.