We were at our third animal shelter on a Saturday afternoon when we saw her, black and glossy and roughly the size of a fat baked potato, standing up against the bars of the cage intending to be noticed. She was only weeks old but, in that packed shelter, already marked half-price.
My husband was reluctant to adopt a dog, in part, I believe, due to a particularly obnoxious cat I brought into the marriage. But at first sight, he had no question on the (50 percent off) puppy: This would be our dog.
We called her Fitz because we liked the Irish sound of it. She was unmistakably Labrador retriever — deceptively sweet face, liquid brown eyes — though clearly there was something else in the mix, breed-wise. When people inquired as to the provenance of the puppy bouncing at the end of the leash, my husband would say: half Lab, half monkey.
They warned us about chewing, and yes, there were a couple of incidents involving a TV remote and a first-edition hardback. Mostly, though, she turned out to be a felon.
She became an accomplished sock thief — the minute one hit the floor she was on it, shaking it ferociously at you, taunting you, running so you would chase her. Sometimes we discovered a sock collection hidden under her blanket. She loved nothing more than to romp into the center of a party to show everyone whatever article of clothing she'd managed to steal. Houseguests learned to put unmentionables up high.
She kept a very brief list of dogs she liked but had virtually no standards for people, loving them all without judgment or discretion. Almost anyone who came to the door or passed in the park clearly was there to see her, and she was overjoyed; she had been waiting for them forever. A lot of people loved her back.
The exception was the mailman. I witnessed the routine one lunchtime: the dog, rousing from her morning nap, having a stretch, ambling to the window, nosing the curtain aside and peering down the street. Within minutes, the mailman hit the porch. The dog started barking, full volume and ferocious, until he clunked the letters in the box and went back down the steps.
She watched him go — probably to make sure he wouldn't double back and cause more trouble — yawned, stretched, and went back to sleep, her work done here. I half expected her to punch a timecard.
She had the unerring ability to pick the one person at the table most likely to drop a roll or slip her a snack and would plant herself discreetly at their feet. We made the mistake of buying her a McDonald's cheeseburger (no onions) in a drive-through, and forever after she believed any drive-through meant she was about to get something really good, even when you were in the one at the bank. One morning she was in the car with me at Krispy Kreme, a trip she usually took with my husband, and started barking as I ordered. The voice in the loudspeaker said, "Fitzy?" Turned out this was her regular stop for doughnut holes.
You got home from work and unfailingly she was Melly running to meet Ashley just back from the war: You were finally, finally here! She thought you were dead! No matter what kind of day you had, you made someone incredibly happy just by showing up.
People who don't like dogs (or never met the right one) don't get to know this: how you can truly love a dog and how a dog will love you back, how you have this connection that is equal parts friendship, understanding and utter lack of judging stretching between you, unbreakable. They can't know how a dog is family.
She was a pound dog, not a purebred, who turned out to be funny and hearty and sweet. She was close to the age of 16, and then she was gone. Not a half-price bargain, as it turns out, but a gift.