08 Sep Congratulations to the talented winner of the Pen to Pandemic Short Story Competition
A story by
Barbara Lea Kirsh
Florida, June, 2020
Howie used a small towel to open the car door. A blast of hot air rushed out at him.
“I can’t even get in to turn the air on. Why don’t we have a decent parking space? This spot’s only shaded in the morning. Why didn’t you park in Joan’s spot, she’s up North where it’s livable in summer? What’s the matter with you, we have to do this today?” He spread the towel on the seat so he could sit down.
Lois stood patiently drooping in the carport’s shade. Howie wore each day of the pandemic as an itchy sweater designed to torment him. Sooner or later he would stop bitching. She knew him well after 42 years. The confinement together, the lack of Mah Jongg games, men’s lunches, lectures and movies forced just too much togetherness. After so many years together their marriage was fraying. A TV news feature had commented on the value of pets in this time of isolation. Lois and Howie agreed on this. Fostering a puppy might be just what they needed. Their HOA (Home Owners Association) allowed pets less than 20 pounds as long as responsible pet ownership practices were followed.
A much loved purebred Cocker Spaniel had been raised with their children and it had been followed by a terrier mutt who graced their home as the children gradually left. There had been no new pets since retirement to Florida and the freedom to travel more often. Fostering a puppy would be a good thing to do as long as this shut down went on. It looked as if there would be plenty of time before they would board another cruise ship or plane. They could make a permanent decision about keeping a pet then.
They drove in silence to the Delray Beach Safe Care Animal Rescue just a few miles away. The shelter was calm and quiet, the reception desk empty. A pretty young woman rushed in from a side door, fiddling to get her mask placed.
“I’m sorry you made the trip here without calling. It’s very quiet here today. People have been wonderful in taking our animals. Would you consider a cat?”
“No cat!” Howie said.
“Well, there’s been another storm in Texas and we are expecting a transport tomorrow so if you call later in the week we may have some adoptable pups.”
“We would consider an adult dog.” Lois said, “We’re here to foster a dog so show us the dogs that are available.”
“Please fill out the application form first and then we can discuss a suitable match. There are requirements for fostering.” she paused, “You know references are required?”
Howie took the clipboard and started filling it in. He had no doubt about their ability to provide a good home. They tried to walk even on the hottest days and their former pets had never lacked for care. The young woman scanned their application.
“We have one animal that may work for you. She’s a small, mature, retired Greyhound with a very sweet, affectionate nature.”
“House trained?” Lois asked.
“Oh yes, she’s a very clean animal. Oh, wait, never mind, I’m afraid she’s over 20 pounds, she weighs at least 40, more than double the requirement for your complex.”
“I’m on the board.” Howie said trying not to be boastful, “I think the rules can be stretched because of the circumstances. May we see her?”
The cement hallway was cool and smelled of newspaper. They passed a few cats and a rabbit. Halfway down the hall they saw her, nose pressed through the bars, scrabbling for attention. She was a velvety grey with huge intelligent eyes.
“She has an earmark as she’s a former racing dog but we’ve haven’t been able to follow up at this time. There’s no answer from the number listed. We named her Vita. She was found roaming Pineapple Grove, raiding garbage cans. No one recognized her.”
“Will she be very active?” Lois asked as she rubbed the top of Vita’s nose. “You are a beauty.” she murmured to the dog.
The young woman smiled, “Actually not, Greyhounds have a reputation as couch potatoes. They sleep a lot. The only time you have to be careful is if they see something to chase, a cat or frog or something. Then hold on tight because they can really pull.”
Howie smiled, a big grin lighting up his face. “Great, we are very interested.” He could see Lois was already in love with Vita.
While the shelter reviewed their application they prepared their home for a small greyhound. No wee wee pads for her but a good amount of the recommended food, dog bowls, a smart leash and harness as well as a grooming brush would be ordered on Amazon as soon as they were approved. Their old quilt was set up for her bed. It had been a few months since Lois and Howie had looked forward to anything at all. They giggled over comic food and water bowl selections and debated about a proper leash color, Lois suggesting fluorescent pink and Howie voting for turquoise. They acquiesced on purple, a compliment to her soft grey coat.
Finally they were approved. Howie presented a letter from his HOA board that gave permission for a pet that exceeded the weight requirements for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency. The young lady reviewed the rules for fostering an animal and took a cell phone photo of Vita with her new family. Vita was a lot bigger than they remembered but she was a perfect lady in the car and her coat almost matched the leather seats of their Lexus. When they arrived she made herself right at home, immediately curling up in the sunny spot in front of the patio door.
A shelter volunteer had assured them that Vita must have been socialized by her former owner for she adapted well to walking on a leash. They were told to stop and stand still or change direction if she started to pull strongly.
“Let me do all the walking till we get a better idea of her manners.” he asked Lois that evening, although it was not a question.
“Gladly, it’s just too hot out now. I’ll go with you another time but you can walk and do the poop cleanup. I bet it’s bigger than you think. She gulped down two cups of kibble before I could blink and I was told that’s more than enough.” Lois handed him some poop baggies which he stuffed in his pocket.
Howie and Vita strode out in tandem. He found if he took a slightly longer and faster stride he could keep her leash soft. She trotted along neatly, stopping to explore and sniff every 20 yards or so which gave him a chance to catch his breath. As he neared the group of dog walkers which congregated, masked and socially distanced, in front of the quiet Clubhouse, he reluctantly put his mask back on. It was tough walking Vita and breathing in the humid air wearing a mask, but he was eager to introduce Vita at the development’s daily dog walker’s convention. They made their rounds early in the day and just before dark when the sun was at its weakest. He thought most of the breeds he saw a laughable bunch. Shi-poos, Cocker-poos, Malti-poos, all small and whitish with dirty eyes and yippy barks, socialized with an overweight Chihuahua and an aged beagle that must have been grandfathered into the group.
“Glad to see you, Howie. That’s some beast you have.” Joanne picked up her Chihuahua as Vita neared.
“Ya rescued her. What a really great thing to do!” Ed remarked. “I agreed when our board approved it.”
Howie smiled sincerely, “She needed a home and we love animals.” He stroked Vita and tried to get her to sit at his side but she was happily pushing her long nose at all the available rumps. The other dogs either shivered or returned the gesture.
Elissa said, “Tell Lois mazel tov on the new addition to your family. You did a mitzvah.”
Julie and Leon nodded their agreement. Leon stroked Vita’s head saying, “I had a Greyhound once. They need a strong owner but they’re great pets. Congratulations!”
Howie trotted home filled with satisfaction at the reception he had been given. Pride of ownership outweighed his dislike of scooping poop.
Lois and Howie had attended many of the art and craft fairs in downtown Delray Beach. While she browsed he would follow her admiring the families that pushed strollers and controlled leashes pulled by a Golden Retriever or a handsome black Labrador. He had been envious of the tall, tanned young man with the large Wheaten Terrier although he wondered how such a furry dog dealt with the Florida heat. When the world would open again he would put on his straw hat and show off his dog on Atlantic Avenue. His Vita seemed to enjoy hot weather.
The following weeks were happy ones. Howie took up jogging again and lost a few pounds. His walks with Vita became easy jogs and energized him in spite of oppressive humidity. His standing with the dog walkers was uncontested. Lois spent her days quietly knitting or chatting on Zoom with friends and family, Vita curled at her feet. Vita would settle wherever Lois was only awaking from her naps when Lois entered the kitchen. She went where the food was.
Still, they watched the news and railed against the poor leadership of their state. They sent a check to Rosa, who hadn’t been in to clean their home in months, they gave generous tips to anyone who helped by delivering groceries or dinners and they donated to causes that were feeding others. They were very aware of how lucky they were. Though not young they were strong and healthy and had a retirement income. They knew people were dying, but in their home at this time, contentment reigned.
“The kids loved the new photos I posted.” Lois said slipping off her shoes and settling on the sectional next to Howie. As usual Vita squeezed in between them, wiggling a little and licking Howie’s cheek and then Lois’s toes
“Did you include the one of her wearing my reading glasses?” Howie asked.
“Of course, and the ones of her in the sweater I made. She’ll need it when this is over and we can visit the kids. Maybe in October.”
“Oh, God, I hope so. Are you up for watching A Dog’s Life again? She really gets excited when she sees all the dogs.”
“Not tonight, Howie, I need to see the news. I heard the numbers are finally going down.” He put his book down and turned on the TV. They watched in silence until Howie’s cell phone started vibrating and playing Elvis’ Hound Dog. It displayed DBSCAR and a local number. He wondered but took the call.
“Hello, I’m Ted, a volunteer from the Delray Beach Safe Care Animal Rescue. Hope you are …”
“Where we got Vita.” Howie interrupted. “Sure I’ll give a donation.”
“No, no, that’s not why I’m calling. I’m calling about Vita.” Ted said. “It’s about her owner. She has an earmark for identification. We followed up on it when she arrived here and there was no response. As part of our responsibility we’ve routinely followed up on it. We finally found her owner. “
“You want her back!” Howie growled.
“Sir, please don’t shout at me. You must realize you were fostering her. She is not your dog!”
“Now she is!” Howie growled again. He knew he was wrong but how could he and Lois give Vita up?
Ted from the shelter, had steel in his voice. “We know how difficult this is but she is someone else’s property. We would like you to bring her back tomorrow.”
Howie caught his breath. He looked at Lois who was listening, alert and frozen. His chest started to throb and perspiration formed on his forehead and the palms of his hands.
“Wait a minute.” he stammered. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand then growled again, “Okay, okay. I don’t know how I’ll tell my wife. Can we have till next Monday though? I can’t come in till then.”
“Sure thing, Monday it is.” Ted responded.
Howie slammed his phone down.
“I’d sooner give you up than Vita.” Lois said kissing him with vigor.
The world was an awful place right now but the three of them had found peace. They packed, loaded up the car and drove away from Delray Beach to start their life as outlaws. Perhaps someday they could return, maybe pay a huge fine. They doubted they would be arrested. For today they would continue the pursuit of happiness in the pandemic, on the run with their hot dog.
Author Bio: Barbara Lea Kirsh
For many years, Barbara’s column, “Living Off Peak” was read in Local Luxuries, published on the South Shore of Long Island. She has been a member of the Delray Beach Writers’ Studio for the last four years and is currently revising her first novel Russ and Rose featuring the famed singer Russ Columbo. Barbara is also known for her Abstract Impressionist paintings. Her career encompasses many years directing summer camps for children and adults with special needs as well as teaching art. Her family includes beloved children, grandchildren and their pets. Spending winter and spring in Delray Beach each year with her husband, David, is her joy even in a pandemic.
About the competition: The Pen to Pandemic Short Story Competition was sponsored by the Delray Writers Studio, Delray Beach Historical Society, and Delray Beach Public Library. Stories had to be 1,500 to 3,000 words, be original works of fiction, and take place in Delray Beach during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Join us for a live reading and meet the writers on Zoom at 7 pm, Tuesday, December 8. It’s free, but please register HERE to receive the Zoom credentials.