I wrote this story the day before Christmas in 2008. It had been roving around in my head for so long, that when I finally sat down to put it “on paper”, it just flowed. I hope you enjoy it and that you will share it with those you care about.
Jack heaved a sigh as he high-stepped off the tracks and plunged through the snow drifts. It wasn’t a sigh of relief or of regret. It was a just a sigh of resignation. His home town wouldn’t be the same, he knew that. And it sure wouldn’t offer the same kind of exhilaration he experienced on his travels with Old Ed. But Ed was gone now. The boys under the bridge had given him a proper send-off, and then Jack was on his own.
Those were the days. Traveling by track, by train. Always somebody new to meet. Always food to be found and warmth to sleep by. Old Ed sure was good to me, Jack thought. Old Ed shared everything with Jack and never complained. They had some great times. Some great laughs and a few tears. But that was then. Now, Jack was home again.
The city park looked the same with the exception of a new bandstand and some fancy ironwork fencing. The whole place was covered with snow. Unadulterated at this early hour, Jack thought it was pretty nice. So he just stood and took it in. Sniffed the air. Quiet. Okay. Let’s check out downtown, Jack thought. He shook himself a couple of times and headed toward the business district.
Clementine’s Bakery had been a staple in Jack’s life before Old Ed. Augustus Clementine offered the freshest, the most delectable baked goods in the entire county. He never sold anything that hadn’t been baked just that day, which meant the dumpster behind the bakery was always a great place to catch a quick breakfast roll or an afternoon croissant snack. Auggie liked Jack, so Jack was often treated to a freshly baked bagel if he showed up at the right time of a morning.
Ah. Here’s something new, Jack observed, as he breathed deep the heady aroma of cinnamon chocolate. By following his nose, he beheld a stout but small brick building. Whatever kind of place it was, it was doing a brisk business already. From his vantage point across the street, Jack watched as people trudged through the snow and up the front steps. They all smelled very happy. Jack remembered that smell coming from Old Ed whenever he came across an especially valuable find like a heavy wool blanket or an apple tree loaded with fruit.
Time for a bite! Jack decided when his stomach let out a rather large and loud rumble. As he rounded the corner of the alley to see what delicious morsel he might scrounge from Auggie’s garbage, Jack heard shouts and was momentarily caught off guard as a small boy entered the other end of the alleyway.
“Bowser! Here, Bowser Boy!” the boy yelled. “Come here, boy! Look, I brought your favorite toy for you! Bowser, pleaaase Bowser! Please come home!” Tears choked the little boy’s voice as he gave in to a very heavy sorrow. Jack knew that smell too, the smell of sorrow. From his hiding place behind the dumpster, Jack watched a man and a woman run up to the little boy. They wrapped the little boy in their arms. “Clancy, honey. Bowser will be ok. You know he hasn’t been feeling himself lately. He’ll be alright. Come on, Clanc. Let’s go get a hot chocolate! Wouldn’t that be nice?” the lady suggested hopefully. The little boy just shrugged and allowed himself to be led off down the alley. As they walked away holding hands, Jack heard the man say: “Hey, Clancy. Why don’t we go to the pet store after and look at the new Christmas puppies? You might see one that you would like to take home with you. How would that be?”
Jack’s jaw dropped open. Then he clenched it shut. A fierce look came over his face.
A Christmas puppy? No! No, no, no! Jack had heard too many stories about the cute little puppies found under countless Christmas trees by starry-eyed boys and girls. And he had met some of those puppies when they had grown old and tired after escaping a life of nothingness at the end of a chain. Their stories were not for the faint of heart. And those Christmas puppies grew up to be jaded, angry mongrels with no family, no love, and no home. It was a fate worse than death, although that also came to too many Christmas pups. And Jack would not stand for it. Could not.
A moth-eaten tennis ball lay across the alley where the little boy had dropped it after his feeble attempt to bring his beloved pet home. Jack dashed out from his hiding place, grabbed the ball, and ran pell-mell back to the park.
Once there, he rolled in the snow for as long as he could stand the cold. He could smell himself, and it wasn’t pretty. The roll helped the smell and soothed his itchy skin a bit. So he shook himself off as best he could from nose to tail, picked up the bedraggled ball again and headed back downtown. As he passed the bank, he noticed his reflection in the big glass double doors. Hmmm. A little rough around the edges, and damp. Need some fluffing, he thought. As he stood before the doors (the bank was closed at this hour), he studied his face. It was a good face: strong, noble. His eyes were bright and full of what he hoped was wisdom. He tried a smile. Nope, that was too scary. Fewer teeth. There, that’s about right, he thought, as he gave his reflection a small grin with a bit of tongue hanging out. Perfect! They’ll love me! Now to the drying and fluffing bit. Jack navigated his way through town to the laundromat. Suds ‘N Stuff was the perfect place to get warm and dry, so he staked out a spot right in front of one of the dryer exhaust vents. Ahhhh! Heaven! He twisted this way and that so that each hair could get full benefit of the warm steam. A good shake or two and Jack figured he was ready as he would ever be.
Following his nose, he made his way (rather regally) back to the brick building that smelled of cinnamon. Yes! There they were, the man, lady, and little boy just coming down the steps. The little boy was holding the man’s hand and the man and the lady were laughing. “Let’s run home and get the car so we can get over to the pet store and see those puppies!” the man said. The threesome started down the street, and Jack started off after them, keeping a good distance and staying invisible, but always with them in sight.
After six blocks, the man and lady and the little boy turned up a short sidewalk and climbed some steps to a covered porch. A glittering wreath hung on the door. The man took a key from his coat pocket, and opened the door, ushering the lady and little boy inside. The door closed behind them with a solid thud.
Jack froze. This was a pretty big step he was about to take. What if they didn’t like him? What if the little boy took one look at him and started crying? What if the man called the police? Well, I’ll just run, Jack thought. He was a pretty good runner, fast and sure. Old Ed had taught him well, what to avoid and what to appreciate. Okay — now or never.
Jack slowly advanced up the sidewalk, holding the tennis ball firmly in his jaws. Up the steps. In front of the door. Jack stopped. He sat down. He laid the tennis ball down carefully between his paws and then he lifted his right and softly patted the door. Once. Twice. He waited. Nothing from inside. Okay, again. This time he used a couple of well-worn nails to add a tap to the pat. Tap scritch pat. Tap scritch pat. Tap tap. Scritch. Scritch. He stopped. Listened. Footsteps! If he could sweat, Jack knew he would be sweating buckets now. As it was, he sat tall and put on his best grin. The door opened and it was the little boy staring at Jack.
“Clancy? Who’s at the door, honey?” Jack heard the lady call. “Clancy?”
“Um. Nobody, Mom. It’s just an old dog.”
“Well shut the door for goodness sake! You’re letting in all the cold air!”
“But, Mom. He looks cold too!”
Jack maintained his composure. He remained seated with the tennis ball between his paws. He wasn’t grinning now. He was giving the little boy his best soulful look with his bright, wise eyes.
The lady suddenly appeared behind the little boy. “Look, Clancy,” she said. “Isn’t that Bowser’s ball?” As she pointed to the worn tennis ball, the little boy stooped to pick it up, cautiously eying Jack all the while. “It is, Mom! It is Bowser’s old ball. Where did you find this, boy?” the little boy asked Jack. Jack gave him his best head cock and pricked ears as if to say, Who cares? I’m here now, and you don’t need a Christmas puppy.
“Mom, can’t he come in? He looks really cold and hungry. Maybe we can play ball in my bedroom?” Jack rose to his feet with hope in his eyes. He gave his tail a conservative wag. The lady was obviously melting under his gaze. “Sure, honey. He doesn’t look mean. Goodness, I hope he doesn’t have fleas! I guess it will be okay. But just for a little while because your dad wants to get to the pet store before it closes, okay?” At that, Jack gave up all his reservations and trotted into the house as if he owned it.
After a hearty dinner of kibbles and a bit of cheese for dessert, Jack and Clancy settled down to a rousing round of ball bounce and fetch in Clancy’s bedroom. Meanwhile, the man and the lady were downstairs having a heart-to-heart talk.
“Joyce, I really think he needs to have a dog in his life. I’m truly sorry that we had to put Bowser down, you know that. But you also know what the vet said. Bowser wouldn’t have lasted until Christmas, and that’s a memory none of us would want to live with.”
“But David, we promised ourselves that there would never be another after Bowser. It’s just too much responsibility. And now that Clanc is getting older, I don’t think a puppy is a very good idea. Clancy will have way too many other things to do than take care of a puppy that needs constant attention.”
“Well. Let’s think about it — wanna run upstairs and see what’s going on with the visiting dog?”
As they quietly climbed the stairs to Clancy’s room, they heard: “I’m going to call you Kris. That’s short for Kris Kringle, which will be your real name, ’cause you found me at Christmas just like Santa finds kids all over the world. Kris Kringle Kelly. How’s that sound, boy?”
Jack pricked up his ears, gave Clancy his no-teeth smile, and planted a sloppy lick right on Clancy’s nose. And when Clancy gave him a bear hug around his neck, Jack didn’t even move. He just closed his eyes and sighed. A big dog sigh of pure happiness and thanksgiving. Merry Christmas, Old Ed, Jack thought.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night! C