IT WAS EARLY ON A SATURDAY summer morning when my mother and father stopped arguing and Papa walked away. He is a teacher of literature at the college, so he could have said words when he left. He didn’t. And this time he didn’t slam the door. He shut it with a small, soft sound that made me jump.
“Click,” said my four-year-old sister, Elinor, looking up from her coloring book. I stared at the door. I could feel my heart thump. And I could feel tears coming.
Later, when I went into my bedroom, I found two notes from Papa—one for me and one for Elinor.
I’ve gone off to do some writing. I will call you. And I’ll be back to see you soon. I’m sorry for this.
I love you,
I read Elinor’s note to her. It was like mine, but he had drawn a picture of Elinor in her long dress.
Elinor took the note but didn’t say anything.
Suddenly Mama was in the doorway. She beckoned to me.
“Let’s go, William,” she said. “Get your sweater, Elinor.”
I stood up and tore my letter into small pieces.
“What’s that?” Mama asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “Go where?”
I followed Mama out to the car.
She strapped Elinor into her car seat.
“We’re going to get a dog,” she said firmly.
I sat next to Mama in the front seat.
“Papa never wanted a dog,” I said.
“That’s true,” said Mama. “Your father is a flawed man. Everyone should have a dog.”
“What is ‘flawed’?” asked Elinor from the backseat.
“It means stupid,” said Mama with feeling.
“Stupid is a bad word,” Elinor announced. She pronounced “word” as wood.
“Yes,” said Mama. “He is a stupid bad wood.”
Elinor had a list of “bad woods,” forbidden by Mama who thought words like “fat” and “stupid” were cruel to call anyone.
Mama began to cry then, very quietly, so that Elinor couldn’t see. I couldn’t say anything. Mama’s crying scared me. All I could do was hate Papa for this. For causing Mama to cry right in front of me.
A driver cut off Mama, and she slammed on the brakes.
“Go to your house, lady!” yelled Elinor at the driver. “Read a book or watch a movie!”
Mama started to laugh, and so did I. Those words coming out of Elinor’s mouth; that face surrounded by messy blond hair. Words that must have been Mama’s at one time.
“What kind of dog are we getting?” I asked.
“Whatever they have,” said Mama.
“Can we get a cat?” asked Elinor from the back.
“Yes,” said Mama.
For a moment I thought about asking for a horse, but I didn’t think Mama’s mood about animals would last that long.
Mama turned into the long driveway at the animal shelter.
As we walked to the front door, Mama took my hand. “I shouldn’t have said that about your father, William,” she said.
“Will he come back?” I asked.
He had gone before and come back happily after a while as if nothing had happened.
“Probably. I’m mad at him, Will. But that doesn’t make him bad.” She paused. “Sometimes your papa doesn’t know what he wants.”
I didn’t answer Mama. He had gone before, but he had never left notes for Elinor and me. Somehow that seemed more final, that note. It was something to be read, saved, or torn up. Maybe Papa felt that leaving a note made going away all right.
Thinking about it would wait for later. In fact, when we went inside I forgot all about my father for just a little while because Mama surprised me more.
The shelter was small, and a woman with spiky hair invited us in. Her name tag said JULIA.
“I’m glad you brought your children. We don’t let families adopt dogs without the children present.”
We walked through a door to a room where the dogs were. She turned to us.
“We have four dogs right now. There is a little description and history of each dog. When you see one you’re interested in, let me know. You can spend time with him or her to see if you’re a fit. I assure you that they are all friendly. Call me when you’re ready.”
The first dog’s name was Bryn.
Mama read about Bryn.
“Bryn’s owner has gone to a nursing home and can’t take the dog with her.”
Bryn was sturdy and brown, with a sharp nose, long velvet ears, and a line of raised hair along her back. She sat up and curled her lip at us, showing her teeth. Friendly?
“Shark,” announced Elinor.
“Hello, Bryn,” she said. “You’re a pretty girl.”
Bryn wagged her tail. Her face changed when she heard Mama’s voice.
Bitty, the next dog, was small, with a terrier face and body.
I read out loud to Elinor. “Bitty is high energy. Too much for his family.” And Bitty, as if he had heard me, jumped straight up in the air.
In the next pen there was a greyhound, tall, standing still like a statue. Her name was Grace.
“Grace,” I told Elinor. “She is very shy but friendly. She had a life of racing, but unlike many racing greyhounds, she is gentle with small animals. She needs a home with peaceful people.”
“We are peaceful,” said Elinor.