I can remember he said we couldn’t tell them her name. If she was ours, he explained, they could charge us. “But if she’s a stray, we can take her in for free.”
Silence had poured from me in response; the ‘silent treatment’––my go-to move at the time, whenever I was angry. Honestly, it sometimes still is, even now. That might seem childish, perhaps, especially in my old age, although I suppose the act was somewhat justifiable then––I was a child then. A petulant, petty, jaded child; maybe that was justifiable then, too.
Whenever I give someone the ‘silent treatment,’ my commitment is absolute, and this was true even in my youth. I remember my father gently cleared his throat, transparently cueing me to respond, but my lips remained sealed; the silence weighed heavily in the cab of his truck, broken only by the tires bumping along the road… and the soft whines coming from the crate in the truck bed. To my father’s credit, he didn’t press me when I remained quiet; the situation was tough for me, he knew that, and I had the right to feel upset. Not that feeling upset changed anything; it never had before––it never has, still. It took me a lot longer to reach that realization than it should have; I’d already been given countless chances to learn that lesson before.
Remember when they gave my cat away after it shredded the toilet paper and peed in the plants for the hundredth time? I was only eight then––maybe nine? Honestly, I actually can somewhat understand my parents’ response then; we were fairly poor at the time––I mean, weren’t we always?––and love for a pet, however strong that love may’ve been, wasn’t a legal tender at any of the stores my parents shopped at. But… Sometimes I wonder if that instance was easier to rationalize simply because it was the first.
I still think of that cat, every so often; I had named him Chubs, the fat little rascal. How many meals did I consume that were bought with my broken heart?
My tire-track eel; with whom could fault possibly lay regarding that tragedy? The eel, depressed and overwhelmed in his new environment, had clearly chosen death as the better option. Admittedly, my sister and I had picked his fellow marine inhabitants based on cuteness alone; maybe eels aren’t fond of their more adorable relatives. Simply put, there was no one to blame for my eel “jumping through the hole in the aquarium lid in the middle of the night”; obviously, it's the more likely scenario than my parents killing him, what with his expensive feeding routine and all. No, they would’ve… No, they wouldn’t have done that––not that, of course not… Of course not.
I had called him Slytherin; it’s a pretty cool name for an eel, right? I certainly thought so. I can still picture him laying on the napkin as my parents told me what happened; he’d been so stiff, so… withered, on the damp fabric.
They had told me the truth then, my parents… Right?
Maybe there were signs, even then, that said otherwise; the divorce and constant fighting, the drained college funds––free and reduced school lunches, and microwave dinners. At the time, those all seemed to be such easy targets to hit, yet I had always felt like it was my back the daggers ultimately pierced––now I just wonder if I was being melodramatic. I thought of my parents then as parents but now… Now I know they were just kids with kids.
I remember watching the trees as my father drove, still waiting for my silence to end. The woods were becoming sparse, which meant we were nearing the empty field next to the dog pound, as if Nature herself was warning us to leave hope there and then; maybe she’d only been speaking to me. I turned in my seat and looked at Ripley in her crate, hoping to silently reassure her, but her back was to me as she happily licked her hindquarters––as far as she knew, everything was fine.
My dad wasn’t as oblivious, and he saw me looking at her. He told me they’d get another dog for me someday; he probably thought that would somehow console me. I turned back in my seat and continued my silent vigil out the window. He sighed, but he still didn’t press me to speak; lately, I’ve wondered if that car ride had been even more difficult for him than it was for me.
As I stared out the window, the woods finally gave way to the barren field. Construction trucks loomed in a gravelly area; their purpose to me was unknown then––like I know anything about construction trucks now––but the several, large mounds of loosened, rocky terrain scattered throughout the field indicated they were used for digging; to dig for––or to––something. At the time, I didn’t know if this was one of fate’s cruel, ironic jests my expense––truthfully, at thirteen years old, I wasn’t even really sure what ‘ironic’ meant––but I was nonetheless stung by the alleged mockery of the events leading to that moment; Ripley’s forfeiture had been brought on by her incessant digging. And yet here was proof––irrefutable proof!––that digging is a natural part of life, a commanding and irrevocable instinct that not even humans can deny; how could someone fault a dog for digging?!
Ok, true; she had burrowed into the neighbor’s yard on enough occasions for our neighbor to assume my family had formally declared war––but did no one else find her feat impressive? She had even managed to tunnel underneath the railroad ties my father had recently added to dissuade her! That such a small creature had not only created trenches, but had also taught her tactics to my sister’s dog––who had heretofore been the most obedient and innocuous animal known to existence––was plainly a sign of incredible intelligence; why was no one else as amazed and humbled by that as I was?!
As I’ve aged, I’ve… Well, I’ve learned a lot of truths. Maybe not truths, really, that’s too knowledgeable a word, even if I do still call them ‘truths’; if anything, the closest thing I’ve actually learned to a ‘truth’ is learning that I don’t really know anything. All the wisdom I’ve heard, the advice and lessons I’ve received; they sounded nice at the time––well, some of them, anyway––and maybe they helped me, in some way, but… A lot of them were just words; nothing more. Ultimately, in this world, the world created for us––and left behind for us––the world we helped create simply by accepting it, a bitter truth we all come to learn of is its innate love of money.
Oh, money––you sweet demon, you; there’s so much we’d do to have you… but we love nothing more than giving you away. But what of happiness––is there not some underlying truth regarding that subject?
Of course, but I’m not a philosophy book; pet a cat, eat some berries––I don’t know.
But I have had my own lessons regarding ‘happiness,’ my own share of metaphorical classrooms and teachers, although the harshest––and most dominant––truth I’ve learned is that money and happiness enjoy a rather cloying dance; I’m not sure if they even truly enjoy it. The pursuit of one seems to require access to the other, yet each demands one’s full attention––and somehow, defying all logic, a deficiency with either equals a deficiency in both; it was this very shortfall that influenced my parents’ decision regarding Ripley. Miserable and drained from their poverty––financially and emotionally––they could neither afford to keep repairing the damage Ripley did to the fence and ground, nor spend the necessary energy to perform said repairs. The answer was simple: keep my sister’s dog, who could relearn to behave, and remove the dog that was clearly a bad influence––Ripley, the problem dog.
When we reached the dog pound, my father pulled onto the slightly inclined driveway then slowly drove along the dirt road leading to the dreaded facility; in her crate, Ripley resumed her quiet whining. I looked at her again, but her eyes were fixed on the chain link fence surrounding the yard, and the yips and yelps coming from somewhere in the building––she flinched at each one.
“Remember,” my father calmly reminded me, “you can’t say she’s yours when we get in there. If they ask for her name–”
He seemed stunned by the sudden respite from my silence––perhaps he detected the hostility in my response; in any case, he didn’t say anything else. We reached the parking lot, and he parked in a spot close to the entrance. We both exited the vehicle, and left Ripley in her crate while we walked towards the building; the windows were much too dark for me to see through––to see her––but I still looked at my father’s truck anyway as we walked.
When we stepped inside, I remember being shocked at how busy it seemed; there was a constant flow of technicians in blue or green scrubs, darting to and fro with paperwork in hand, chattering with their colleagues. My father weaved through the aquamarine current, and approached the desk of a bubbly receptionist; he asked if it was true that strays were free to bring in. Flashes of her fluorescent-pink gum were visible as she affirmed so in between smacks of chewing; her accent was somewhere between Texan and Lutheran.
My father thanked her with a polite smile, then told me to stay in the lobby, and left to get Ripley. I watched the bustling flow of employees in the pound, wondering which one of them I hated most. My father quickly returned with Ripley, and led her to the counter. I tried my hardest to appear nonchalant as I stared at her and sent telepathic commands begging her to look at me, but her attention was on all the barking coming from behind a door. My father signed the necessary paperwork, and then handed the leash to an approaching technician.
It was at that moment I finally realized it was really happening––they were really giving my dog away. And I was just letting them do it; I hadn’t even said goodbye to her yet.
I hadn’t said goodbye!
As Ripley was led towards the room with all the barking––and the rest of her life without me––I suddenly realized that was why I’d kept looking at her in the truck, why I kept wanting her to look at me. Of course it was, it was so obvious––so why hadn’t I said goodbye?! Maybe it was just a coincidence, or maybe it was fate––I still don’t know which one I want it to be––but I believe Ripley realized it at that exact moment, too; she began to desperately look for me. But it was so busy, there were so many damned technicians walking about––she never saw me. I can remember her eyes searching for mine, the worry and doubt in them clear as day.
Then she disappeared behind the door and I never saw her again.
I don’t want to say that day shaped me, or turned me into the man I am––the old man I’ve become––but I… Well, that’s something I don’t know either; really, how could I? I can only imagine what that truth would’ve looked like had Ripley stayed in my life… or if I’d at least said goodbye…
My parents did eventually apologize to me. In fairness, they apologized to me then, my mother and my father, shortly after we returned home, but sometimes… Sometimes actions are easier to evaluate in hindsight, and guilt has a tendency to marinate and season for some time.
While I was in my twenties––a whole life ago, it feels like––I can remember my mother and my father tearfully telling me they’d finally realized how much that event had hurt me. They said they knew at the time how traumatic it must’ve been, but as they’d aged, they came to regret certain parts of their parenting methods; sobbing, they said they understood how scarred I probably was from that day, and from my upbringing in general.
I wasn’t quite sure how they knew any of that, since I’d never really discussed the matter with them; I honestly still haven’t, even in my old age. I love them, but sometimes it’s… it’s a little hard for me to speak with them. It’s…
Anyway––their confession seemed to provide them some level of comfort, so I let it continue, if only for their sake. Frankly, I’d long since given up the desire for an apology; I don’t need one now––what use does an old man have with an apology?––but I didn’t need one then, in my twenties, either; I didn’t really even need one when I was twelve, when they gave Ripley away.
Bitterness is a creature in a crate, desiring to be kept and nourished, yet one best given away; it’s another truth I’ve learned along the way, one I knew then and one I still hold to now. I’d like to think bitterness can be replaced with hope––like the hope I had that Ripley found happiness with another family––but ultimately, replacing one emotion for another has never been my goal. Life is whatever life is––whatever that means––and it does whatever it wants; what use did it do to be bitter about it? Feeling upset never changed anything, and never will.
Sure, I could feel sad, it was fine to feel sad about something––oh, how I’ve wallowed in sadness––but I can’t spend my life trying to switch that sadness out for something else, something better. No. No, it was better to give that beast away, too.
My parents never replaced Ripley, despite their promises to do so; somehow, I still managed to retain hope without letting bitterness take command––though, I still wouldn’t classify it as replacing one for the other. To this day, I still haven’t replaced Ripley on my own; when my sister’s dog died, seven years after we’d given Ripley away––after they’d given Ripley away––I decided at that moment I’d never own another dog. It was a promise I half-expected I’d eventually break, maybe when I had children of my own, but I never did; I never had children. After my own childhood, I’d also decided I didn’t want to be another kid with a kid, and I’d have one when I was a man, but… Well… I spent too long being a kid.
I don’t know why I’m even bringing all this up; it was probably that dog I saw going by a little while ago. For a moment, I’d almost thought it was… But then I remembered that was impossible; then I remembered a lot. But I remembered it all too late. Well, maybe, I don’t know––another thing I don’t know.
The sting of a missed farewell never fully fades; I know that, at least. I’d been too late to tell Ripley goodbye, too late for so much of life, but I… I still take comfort in the memories of what little time she and I had together. I still have hope. It’s been so many years now––so many decades––I know Ripley has long since passed, and either it was in the arms of a loving family, or in a cold cage in the dog pound, but I keep that hope for her––hope that wherever she is now, she’s free. And that she found the comfort she’d sought from me––but never received––as they’d led her away forever.
I don’t know any of that, of course, but I hope for it anyway; it comes from another truth I’ve learned along the way: happiness is wonderful, but it’s being content I’ve come to desire. I’ve found it has fewer creatures in crates, waiting to be given away.
If anything, if there’s one thing I know––one thing I truly know––then perhaps it’d be this: sometimes, contentment is as simple as believing that hope exists where one wants it to, and even if given away, it’ll always find its way back.
Do with that what you will… but do it before it’s too late.
I hope I see you again––someday.