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Nov 12
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Wrinkle Face

For National Pet Adoption Day, we offer this story of a shelter dog and his family

by Jessica Spencer Berdiel

unnamedOur Chinese Shar-pei didn’t have a name when we picked him out from the shelter. The staff was calling him Wrinkle Face. It suited him. A good Samaritan found him walking along the side of the road and brought him in out of the February cold. His folded skin made him look like he was draped in a brown burlap sack, and he had a nose like a hippo. He maintained a quiet dignity as he sat alone in his kennel, staring solemnly out the window that faced the highway. He was the only dog that didn’t frantically bark at the humans as they meandered down the aisle. My son Jaime fretted over the fate of the other dogs in the shelter. He asked the volunteer if ours would worry about them after he left. “Dogs don’t worry about things in the past like people do,” she told Jaime. “They are only here right now.” Jaime gave her a puzzled side-eye as he adjusted the temporary leash we got at the front desk. I don’t think he knew what that meant.

Wrinkle Face had the demeanor of a wise old man, so we decided we had to give him a wise old man’s name. We tossed Octavio around for a while before we settled on Gustavo. Gus for short. His loved ones gifted him with a few nicknames. Jaime liked to call him the Gus Bear or GB. GB blessed us with that particularly pungent canine smell that only a dog family could love. His aroma earned him the monikers “Señor Stinky” and “Captain Stink Bomb” from my father, ever the comedian. “Who set off a stink bomb in here?” he would yell whenever Gus wandered into a room, tail wagging, eager to greet whatever visitor dropped in that day. “You’re worth the stinkiness Gus,” he decidedly announced after scratching Gus’ neck and washing his hands. “Your doggy love makes up for it.”

unnamed-2Jaime, who watched Mr. Jim run with his yellow lab Max in the evenings, was elated to join the neighborhood dog club. We fitted GB with a bright red Superman leash, equipped with matching collar, and every day after school Jaime led him proudly down Wooddale Road. He waited patiently for Gus to sniff tree trunks and dried yellow leaves. Mr. Rich’s house was his favorite stop. He kept a bowl of water on the front porch between the bright red front door and the rocking chair. Gus never failed to pull off course and lead us up his front steps. Mr. Rich’s grandparents bred dogs in San Francisco when he was a little boy and he knew all about Shar-pei dogs like Gus. One afternoon over coffee he told us their history:  that they were called Tang dogs in China, and the farmers believed they protected people from evil spirits. Shar-peis and their cousins would stand on top of stone walls to guard Buddhist temples and the monks who lived high up on the cliffs. “Wow,” Jaime said, as he watched Mr. Jim and Max jog down the street. “I’m going to teach Gus to do all kinds of stuff. When he gets bigger we are going to have so much fun together.” “Gus is with you now,” Mr. Rich said, as he gave Gus his third biscuit. “Have fun with him now.”

Every summer we spent a week at the beach and Gus would come along. We found a hotel that allowed pets and made a habit of staying there, even though it was further from the water and on the shabby side. We brought Gus to the beach at night when everyone left, but he never wanted to swim in the ocean. Instead, he ran along the water’s edge, smelling all the dead crabs and getting seaweed stuck in his paws. Jaime put some seaweed on his nose, and pretended he had a green mustache. We would throw the tennis ball into the dunes, and Gus never failed to return it. He never wanted to leave the beach; he never got tired. If I could bottle that exuberance at sell it, I would be a millionaire. One night Gus rolled on a dead fish that was hidden behind some grass and a discarded cooler. He smelled so bad we had to roll the windows down on the car ride back to the hotel. “Captain Stink Bomb is living up to his name,” I told the kids as we rolled out of the parking lot. Jaime informed us on the ride home that one day he would teach Gus to swim so he could get in the water and have fun with us. “But he’s having fun now,” my husband said as he wiped the sand off his water-pruned feet. “Have fun with him right now.” Jaime said he sounded like Mr. Rich.

Summers drifted into fall. The hair around Gus’s eyes turned white. When he was a puppy he wasn’t afraid of anything; we told him that he was as brave as Superman. He would always bark at the neighbor’s dogs and the people who tried to leave flyers on our front porch. But when Gus got older, his fearlessness gave way to something else. We had to come inside early on the fourth of July because he didn’t like the loud pops from the fireworks. Our evening walks became shorter and we went slowly so he could keep up with us. He needed help to climb into the van. My husband told the kids stories about the dogs he had when he was a little boy in the country, and his voice would get shaky at the end. It slowly dawned on my youngest that something was happening. He told us over dinner that he wished Gus could be a puppy again. Grandpa told him that growing up only goes in one direction. We can cling to the past or race to the future, but we really only have right now. We be with Gus only in this moment. That much is certain.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving we were all home together — even my daughter, who was never around after she got her driver’s license. School was closed so we slept until nine and watched television while the house was quiet. In the afternoon I chopped vegetables and talked on the phone to my mother about pie crust. She never liked how it turned out when I made it; she said it was too crumbly. My husband was working from home and took a break in the afternoon so we could walk Gus to the duck pond. GB was happy to go on a walk but he didn’t chase the ducks that day. He had always liked to chase the ducks. We stopped at Mr. Rich’s as we made our way back. His house was empty, but he had filled the water dish before he left. There was a biscuit next to the welcome mat. After we got home, Gus went to lie down next to the sofa beside his worn-out rawhide bone. His eyes closed and at first we thought he was sleeping. The fireplace warmed the living room and the kitchen smelled like stuffing and pecan pie.

unnamed-1When we got back from the vet that night the house lights were on. We put them on a timer in the fall when the days got shorter. I couldn’t finish the cooking, so my sisters came over to help. My dad came with them. He brought hot chocolate and cookies, which we let the kids have even though they hadn’t eaten dinner. Dad sat on the sofa with the computer and read us the headline that was topping the news sites: “1,400 year old Ginkgo Biloba Tree Drops Leaves That Drown Buddhist Temple in a Yellow Ocean.” He turned the screen toward us so we could see the pictures. On the other side of the world, at that very moment, an ancient tree was dropping its golden yellow leaves on the grounds of a monastery in the mountains. Tourists were flocking from all over China to see the tree, a living fossil that was planted during the Tang Dynasty. It’s known as the GB Tree or the Stink Bomb Tree, because the fruit that it drops is particularly stinky. That special “everybody hold your nose” kind of stinky that’s on a level of its own. But that didn’t stop the people from coming. The sight is so beautiful that a few minutes of stinkiness is worth it. Dad got tears in his eyes but didn’t say anything.

Life is always talking to us. Every day, every minute, the leaves of the leaves of the trees and the breath of the ocean have something to say. This world gave old Wrinkle Face a send-off fit for a king.

Jaime finally broke the silence. “Be right here with him. Right now.” And we all knew exactly what he meant.

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