Authors: Lindsey Grant
At the pet store, I'd been paid minimum wage to show up at six o'clock in the morning and clean each puppy cubby, flushing pounds and pounds of dog shit down an industrial disposal. Once all of the cages had been sanitized, first with bleach and then with a highly concentrated pink solution to protect against parvo, the dogs could be restored to their now-habitable display cases, and we could open the store to the clamoring hordes. During the day, it was my job to keep the trays clean of any leavings and leap into action if any of the dogs started rolling inâor worse, eatingâtheir turds. My colleagues working the floorâ“Pet Counselors,” their nametags declaredâwould rap on the kennel door and call “retriever” or “Dalmatian,” and I'd scurry down the line to deal with it. Beyond that, I fed, medicated, groomed, laundered, and generally kept things clean and running smoothly behind the scenes.
Disgusting a job as it could prove at times, I loved those animals. The grand equalizer was the time I spent walking or brushing or snuggling them. I worried when one of my favorites was quarantined with a cold, and I missed each and every dog or cat that went home with a customer. For those few years, I was the den mother and they were my cubs.
Getting paid (and so well, by my Georgia minimum-wage standards) to simply love and look after the neighbors' dogs, all while being housed for two weeks, felt like the best kind of good luck. I took it as an omen that this move would work out just fine.
My charges were Blondie, an energetic blond terrier mix, and Buster, an ancient black Lab mix. Their owners were both successful interior designers and the kind of people made infinitely more attractive by their abundant warmth and welcoming nature. I liked them immediately and pledged to take better care of their dogs than anyone ever had.
For someone feeling displaced and homesick, as I was, the enthusiastic and unconditional adoration of these two dogs was a balm for my aching heart. I couldn't remember ever meeting two such faithful and affectionate animals, other thanâof courseâBiscuit, who was officially The Best Dog in the World.
Biscuit was a big fluffy white mutt, descended from a neighborhood retriever and her erstwhile poodle mate and brought into our family when I was still a toddler. We grew up together, Biscuit and I. She was my number one sidekick when it came to playing make-believe, dress-up, tag, and let's-sleep-in-the-yard-on-a-big-blanket. My older sister and I were raised Quaker, and part of that upbringing was an hour of quiet time a day, in which we had to play separately and quietly in our respective bedrooms or outside. She would host a tea party for her stuffed animals, or play schoolteacher to her doll students in her bedroom. Outside, I would put headbands and scarves on the ever-tolerant dog and dance about her, singing her special song that I'd composed: “Queen Biscuit, Queen Biscuit. Queeeeeeen of the Wooooorrrrrlllld!” When I played my Madonna cassette tapes, I'd lift her paws onto my shoulders in an approximation of dancing. Often, she just sat quietly by my side while I worked on the stories and poems I loved to write in any one of my many collected journals and notebooks. She was undoubtedly my best friend right up until her sudden death when she was ten and I was twelve.
Sweet and affectionate as they were, these dogs also had an
impressively detailed health history, Buster in particular, and I had plenty of instructions to follow for their daily care. Buster was going blind from cataracts, had to take antidepressants for separation anxiety, and was on a strict regimen of Glucosamine and Chondroitin for his advanced arthritis. He was also completely deaf. He and Blondie were both on a diet of boiled chicken and rice; Blondie because she had a tender stomach, and Buster because he deserved the good stuff in his twilight years. Their water came from the Brita pitcher on the counter.
Biscuit had shared her Alpo with the rats that ventured out of our heavily wooded backyard, and her water came from the garden hose. The only medication she took staved off heartworms, which was standard for outdoor dogs. We hid the foul-smelling pill in cheddar cheese, which she gobbled with enthusiasm. Beyond her daily dog bone, she didn't enjoy many luxuries. She'd always seemed perfectly content with her lot in life as an exclusively outdoor dog. In fact, she wouldn't come inside the house even when invited. I can't account for why she was so averse to being indoorsâshe'd been that way for as long as I could remember. According to my mom, she'd come home to an unlocked front door soon after we got the dog. She bodily dragged a reluctant Biscuit over the threshold, saying, “Come on, Butch, go get 'em,” in an effort to scare any home intruders that might be lurking within. The minute she released her grip on Biscuit's collar, the dog dashed for the door, eager to get out of the house and back to the yard, where she was happiest. Nothing about Biscuit suggested that she'd ever be a guard dog, an indoor dog, or butch in any way at all.
Though I'd long been passionate about animals and preferred their company to that of my own kind, I hadn't pursued an education that would lead to a career in animal care. I'd attended one of the top veterinary universities in the country, but I wasn't at all scientifically
or mathematically minded, and I didn't have the stomach for the grislier side of veterinary sciences, zoology, or other related vocations. So I went with a clean and completely cerebral literature major, relegating my interest in animals to the extracurricular.
Now that I'd matriculated and was seeking employment in the real world, so far beyond the borders of my college town, I felt sure that my enthusiasm for animals coupled with my three years at the pet store more than qualified me to be the lady in scrubs who ferried animals from waiting room to private exam room, to weigh the pets and take their temperatures. Without overthinking my resolution too much, I applied for vet tech positions at twenty-five or so local animal hospitals.
I got one interview.
It was far away, at least by my intown Atlanta standards where everythingâeverythingâis only a five-minute drive, except the airport, which takes fifteen. The thirty-minute drive to Hayward brought me to an unremarkable cement building along a suburban thoroughfare, where I met with an endearingly overweight guy named Andy. He left me in a sterile white seating area to fill out some paperwork, and, within a few minutes, it was abundantly clear that I was nowhere near qualified for the job.
Had I administered subcutaneous medications? Declawed cats? Neutered animals? Performed any anesthetizations? Diagnosed any illnesses?
I tried to glamorize my skill setâwhich was woefully limited to deworming (dumping the writhing masses into the disposal), administering medication (shoving pills down slimy, gagging dog and cat gullets), light medical attentions (applying shiny blue or pink plastic cat-claw tips; holding down a rabbit while my boss drained an abscess), experience with exotic animals (watching in horror as a monitor lizard took a rat by the testicles and slammed
him to death against the cage wall)âcarefully sidestepping the fact that I'd been less of a technician and more of a lackey.
Andy let me down easy, saying he'd be in touch. I knew better than to expect a call back. Three years' experience as a pet store cave troll does not a rÃ©sumÃ© make, and I had enough sense to spot the rejection between the lines.
While I was away from the dogs during the day, I was supposed to leave the jazz station playing on the stereo. This allegedly calmed Buster's separation anxiety, though I couldn't understand how that reconciled with his deafness. If he couldn't hear the music, was it the vibration of the jazz that he benefited from?
Buster's combination of ailments made him clingy in a very dear way. He kept me in sight at all times, even shuffling after me when I went into the bathroom. It felt good to be minded, to be needed. When I left the house, I took very seriously the owners' routine for reassuring him that I'd return. At the front door, I'd get down on face level with him andâbecause he couldn't hear meâI smiled and nodded exaggeratedly, petting him and kissing him, and then repeating the smile, nod, pet.
The smooth jazz was quietly thrumming when I returned from my failed interview, and I gratefully submitted myself to a session of pet therapy on the floor of the living room. Their slobbery approval was the perfect antidote to my slightly stung pride and growing anxiety over my lack of a professional Plan B. Somehow, Buster's gift of his stuffed squirrel deposited in my lap, followed by a sincere and thorough licking of my hands and arms, made it all feel less scary and uncertain.
That night and every night, I strapped Buster into a hunter green fleece-lined harness and hauled him up the stairs to the master bedroom, his limbs flailing and his toenails scrabbling helplessly for
purchase. The idea was that I'd hoist him vertically, taking enough weight off his aged joints that he could go through the motions of mounting the steps. Only after we'd made it to the second floor, both pantingâand, I imagined, equally relieved that the ordeal was overâwould Blondie bound up the stairs to join us.
In the kennel, I frequently had to retrieve or deposit large dogsâsome in excess of fifty poundsâto and from their fluorescently lit cubbies for walks or playtime with an interested customer. We ran an adoption program for local shelter dogs, and many of these were full-grown and slightly overweight, like Chester the resident Shar-Pei. He was adorable, but hoisting him or any of the other bigger dogs from the cage, and always holding tight to keep them from bolting for the exits until I could get them leashed, was a struggle. The squirmy dogs, so excited to be released from their claustrophobic enclosures, left me with back twinges that lasted for days.
But that was nothing compared to heaving the dead weight of an overweight arthritic Lab up a flight of stairs. Waiting for me in the bedroom, though, was a Sleep Number bed: the perfect place to collapse after my exertions. One side was extra firm, the other moderately so. I had written down the respective numbers on a bit of paper to be sure I could restore the mattress to its original settings at the end of my stay. Until then, I was bound and determined to find my personal number. I had been working my way through the thirties and was feeling almost close to perfect at thirty-nine.
Buster slept between the dressers, his toenails scratching erratically against the hardwood floor as he dreamed. Blondie's spot was right next to the bed, her satisfied-sounding exhalations the last thing I heard as I drifted to sleep.
After following up on all of my applications and accepting that the vet tech path was not to be, I started looking for openings at
local pet supply stores. If I couldn't be the vet tech waiting room lady, I certainly had the chops to wash dogs and offer their owners advice on accessories.
True, working the sales floor at the pet store peddling merchandiseâand pets, of courseâhad never been my strong suit. The pet counselors worked on commission, and they were ruthless, using every trick in the book to make a sale. This meant pitching all manner of questionably useful accessories (The pooper-scooper with ergonomically angled claw! Frilly underwear and pads for when your bitch is in estrus!) and upselling customers on industrial-sized bags of dog food, cat litter, aquarium pebbles, and so on. It also meant that many an $800 dog went home with the wrong family. And many of those dogs got returned within a week or a month when the first-time owner realized what they'd gotten themselves into.
We had one customer who kept his Siberian husky in the cab of his big rig while he drove around the country. I have never seen a more neurotic animal, or one more badly in need of exercise. The overwrought dog couldn't come into the store, which he and his owner visited anytime they were in the area, without chaos erupting. Within moments of the dog rearing his way through the cheerfully jangling door, displays were upended, toys and treats scattered across the industrial carpet, ferrets terrorized, the top layer of pig ears in the bin test-licked, and all other customers with or without their pets in tow hastened to the exit.
I didn't have the ambition to wheel and deal like the others, convincing new or expecting parents that a Lab puppy was a good choice, or that the twice-as-expensive memory foam dog bed was that much better than the regular and reasonably priced one. I was far more comfortable trimming toenails and chatting with customers about the consistency of their dog's barf than trying to convince them they
needed a $150 tartan cushion to go with those nail clippers. Hence my permanent position back in the kennel with the animals.
Though working at PetSmart, Petco, Pet Food Express, or any other area chain felt like a big step down from being a vet tech, in both pay and prestige, I still preferred the access to the cute and furry that the job would provide over being, say, a barista or finding a desk job. I'd so much rather spend my days interacting with animals and their accessories than serving coffee to undercaffeinated customers or staring at a computer screen.
On my last day with Blondie and Buster, I was still without a job, or even a likely prospect. I was grateful that I at least had a place to stay, as Annie had invited me to use their spare attic bedroom indefinitely. We had worked out an agreement in which I would help ferry her boys to and from school, kung fu, tutoring, and so on, as well as do some light shopping and cooking in exchange for room and board. They rarely used their old Volvo, a car they'd been meaning to trade in for months, and essentially handed over the keys. Even with the question of employment still looming, at least I could check “roof over my head,” and, for the time being at least, “set of wheels,” off the list of required components for my West-Coast attempt at adulthood.