Chapter One: Househunting
Mike sat in his usual place at the Marigold, a small bar near his home on a cold and windy afternoon in early November. It was a day when the wind was beginning to mature from autumn frostiness to winter bitterness. He ordered his burger and a beer from Kathy, the bartender; a good friend of his since he’d been coming to this bar for the past few years. Mike is from Wisconsin – the land of cheese and brews, and this bar reminded him of his hometown. He moved here to the Tri-State four years ago, and had missed Milwaukee every day of those four years. Marigold felt like a familiar place to Mike, like an old pair of jeans that fit in all the right places – a link to his past while still being in the present. Out of all the things he hated about living here; the lack of jobs, the lack of anything to do but sit, eat, and get fat; this bar gave him something familiar and comforting to remind him of the home he left and was now trying to return. Mike was planning his next move to go back home; sell the house, load up the Ford Explorer and a U-Haul and head back up North.
Stories abound in places like these; bars are full of people with stories to tell. Rich and beautiful, or sad and tragic; and sometimes they are all of these things. Today Mike is going to hear one of those stories. Like all good stories, they get carried along by word of mouth, translated and convoluted, spun around… but that’s what makes them good – makes them worth telling.
As Mike waited for his food and sipped his Coor’s Light, a man walked into the bar and said hello to Kathy. He sat down next to Mike and asked Kathy if she was still looking for a place to rent. Kathy was planning to sell her mobile home and move out, but hadn’t found a prospective buyer. She immediately pointed to Mike – “No, but this guy’s lookin’ for a place ta rent ‘til his house sells. Why don’t ya talk to him?” Hearing this, Mike turned around on the bar stool and saw a tall, rather muscular youngish looking guy with short blond hair wearing a brown bomber jacket and a red shirt and slacks. Mike reached out to shake this newcomers’ hand. “Hey Mike! My name is Brandon Stevens, how ya doin?”
“I’m doing good when Kathy here isn’t tryin’ to get me drunk,” in his deep Yankee voice. Brandon laughed at the good natured poke at the bartender. Kathy just rolled her eyes and chuckled. “So, Brandon, sit down here and have a drink with me and tell me about this house you got for rent.”
“Well, it’s a two bedroom, one bathroom single floor house on Kathleen Avenue. It’s small; only 816 square feet, but has a chain link fence around the entire yard with a one car garage and off street parking. “It sounds nice. When can I come by and see it?” Mike asked “Well, how about this Sunday?”
“I think that’s gonna work for me. Is the property vacant?” Brandon told Mike that it would be by the end of the month; he was hoping to get it rented for at least the winter. He bought the house next door to him as an investment property when he was married. Mike noticed Brandon had a strange look come over his face as he mentioned that he had been married. The story that came next was a story of betrayal and heartache, but also of renewal and acceptance; and it all started with a reluctant adoption of a dog.
Chapter Two: Cuckolded
Two and a half years ago, Brandon was sitting in his divorce attorney’s office, signing the final papers that would end his marriage to Gayle. The finality of his last signature on the paperwork seeped into Brandon’s bones and muscles, temporarily robbing him of his ability to speak or move. Only the glitter of tears that wouldn’t fall betrayed his emotions. His lawyer said, “Brandon, that’s all I need from you. It’s over. Do you have any other questions for me?” a barely audible “No.” slipped from his mouth as he slowly rose from his chair; he dared not to stand too fast. His body was shaking internally. This shiver had nothing at all to with the temperature of the office; the end of his marriage was the cauterizing of a wound to his soul – wounds like this usually required the kind of amputation a divorce provided.
His heart felt like the filament in a light bulb about to break from the heat of her betrayal. Divorce was the only way to stop the burn. Gayle moved out eight months ago – taking her child with her. It was awful, those words. “HER child. Not mine”. He was a father eight months ago. That was until he found out she had been cheating on him for most of their marriage; she had gotten pregnant with another man’s baby; she had led him to believe he was the father. “How am I going to recover from this? Where would I go on from here, now that I am no longer a husband or a father? How could I have been so blind??” Irreconcilable differences do not begin to cover how he felt leaving the attorney’s office and his old life behind.
No answers came as he slowly walked out of the attorney’s fifth floor office towards the elevator that would take him to the parking garage. All that was left for him was to go back to his empty house. The house he no longer shared with anyone; all that was left to keep him company at his house were the questions; questions that had no grand answers, no great epiphanies, just tremendous loss.
Chapter Three: Dad to the Rescue
“You know what you need, son?” Brandon’s father, Glenn offered. “You need a dog. You need something to keep you company. It’s time there was some life in this house again.” Glenn had been worried about his youngest child since the divorce was finalized six months ago; his wife, June had died ten years ago. They’d been man and wife for 35 years until she was killed in a car crash out on Highway 109; a patch of black ice caused her to lose control of her 1992 Toyota Corolla and smash into a guard rail. He was working out in the shop when the police came to the house and told him the news his world had ended. No words made any sense for weeks afterward, but he had to keep going for their children’s sake. Brandon and his sister Mary had lost their mother; they needed their father now more than ever. It was his kids that kept him from sinking into despair… and he knew his son was wading out into that same swamp more and more every day. Brandon had lost his spark, his lust for life after his divorce from Gayle was finalized. He couldn’t bear to see him like this. A father is a father no matter how old his kids get. He knew from what he went through losing his wife that a man needs something or someone to care for, to come home to.
“I don’t WANT a dog! Dad, I work all the time… when would I have time to take care of it? No way… No dog! It’s out of the question!” Brandon absolutely was adamant in this… it just seemed way too much responsibility and time he didn’t have to spend on a dog. It had been six months since the divorce became final; he was trying to bury his past with work. Being a firefighter meant long hours away from the house… no, a dog would be an awful injustice for both him and any dog he’d get.
In spite of Brandon’s protests, Dad had a dog already in mind for him. His co-worker at the machine shop had a litter of mixed breed Australian Shepherd/Alaskan Husky pups that would be ready for good homes in a few weeks. He was going to have a dog, whether he wanted one or not. Sometimes fathers really do know best. The hard part was going to be convincing his son of this fact.
Chapter Four: “Meet me in 15 minutes at your house”
Glenn picked up his son at the firehouse a week later to take him out for dinner. He was trying to reach out to Brandon; he wanted to find a way to help him out of his depression in the gentlest way possible. But before stopping at the restaurant, Glenn told Brandon he had to make a quick stop at his friend Sal’s place to check on something. “Aw c’mon dad, I’m starving. Can’t it wait?” “Nope! Hold your water kiddo, this won’t take long.” As they pulled up into the driveway a large dog came barking along the fence that was adjacent to Sal’s three car garage. Brandon hadn’t pieced it together yet, but this dog was the sire of what was soon to be his new puppy. Glenn turned the engine off. “Hey, come with me please? You can help me with something.” Brandon gave him a sideways glance but said nothing.
As they walked up the drive, the male Australian Shepherd named Bongo was bounding along the fence; barking and yipping at them in a friendly, good natured manner. Bongo never knew a stranger, and had energy for days. Glenn typed a code into the garage door keypad, causing it to open. Inside the garage closest to the house by the door leading to the interior of the house was an extra-large dog crate with an Alaskan Husky named Misty. She looked at the two men with gentle white-blue eyes; her fur was white and grey with tufts of black fur making its appearance along the ears and neck. Misty had five pups in the crate with her. The door was off the crate to allow her to drink some water and catch a break from nursing her brood. Misty didn’t get up to approach the men, and wasn’t aggressive in the least. Brandon heard the mewling cries of the nearly weaned pups; at that moment the light bulb clicked on in his head, and the reason for the delay in dinner was revealed. He was none too pleased.
“Dad! I told you, NO, I don’t want a dog!” Brandon Immediately started to walk back towards the truck. Glenn wasn’t having that. “Son, please don’t be that way. Sal needed me to come by here today to check on lil’ mama here; he’s got to take his wife to a doctor’s appointment outta town. Is this so bad?” Brandon still was apprehensive. He knew his father was trying to convince him he needed to get a dog. But that wasn’t going to happen, dad. Nope. No way. And he had no intention of changing his mind. That’s when Dad pulled the next trick out of his bag.
“Ok… I know you said you don’t want a dog. But… if there was one you liked for a pet, which one would you get?” Brandon sighed; a look of exasperation crossed his face. “Really, dad? Why are you doing this?” “Come on… which one would you get? A boy dog? A girl dog? One that looked like the mother one that looked like Bongo out there? These aren’t tough questions, and besides… you can’t have these pups anyway; they aren’t fully weaned yet and they’ve already been sold.” This was a tiny white lie wrapped in a big truth; he had already cleared it with Sal to pick one out if he could get his son to commit. We just had to wait one more week til they were ready to leave mom. But Brandon didn’t know that.
“Well, if I were to get one of these dogs… I would go with a girl with eyes like her mom.” “There!” His father Glenn thought to himself, “This is going better than I’d hoped.” “Ok… what else?” Brandon began to look in earnest at the litter lying in the crate. There were two mottled pups that were marked like Bongo. One of the pups had a whitish grey coat with a black patch over the left eye and right flank; and the next one was solid white. The smallest of the bunch had mottled grey fur but tan and white flecks all over. The pups were crawling around the crate with their noses and paws poking through the grates; the runt of the litter’s eyes opened and looked straight at Brandon. Her tongue lolled out of her mouth with a big dog smile and she put her left paw up as if she was high fiving him. He pointed at the smallest one – “That one. She looks like she’d be the life of the party.” “Hmm. She looks awful small. You think that one’s healthy?”
Brandon’s face puckered up in frustration. “Dad. You’ve had your fun. But this isn’t going to work, you know. I’m going to the car now.” And without another word, he spun on his heels and left the garage. “Shit.” Glenn thought. “Well, that went better than I thought. At least I was able to get him to look at them.” Glenn then fed and watered the little family for his friend and closed up the garage. “I know now which one I’m getting him, I just have to get his mind right.”
The next few weeks passed and it was time to get the pup from Sal, who was happy to help his friend. Glenn went back to Sal’s and picked the runt of the litter. He stopped by PetSmart to get some supplies and food for the little bugger. He took her in with him to get her fitted with a collar and to show off the new addition to his son’s family. He settled on a pink collar and leash combination, some stuffed toys and some puppy kibble; all his son would need to buy now was a crate. As he was checking out his stuff, the cashier oohed and ahhhed at the little pup in his arms as he unloaded the cart. “Awww! What a pretty puppy! What’s her name?” “Uhh, I haven’t gotten that far yet. It’s a she, but it’s a gift for my son. He’s been through a rough patch and I wanted to give him something to keep him going.” Glenn saw the name on the cashier’s nametag… Gabrielle. “How about… Gabby? Does she look like a Gabby to you?”
Gabrielle’s eyes lit up at this suggestion. “That’s a perfect name for her!! She looks just like a Gabby; I should know.” “Gabby it is, then.” If Brandon didn’t like it he could always change it; but Glenn thought the name fit this pup perfectly. “Come on Gabby, let’s get you over to your new home, little girl.” “Good-bye sir! Good-bye Gabby!” the cashier exclaimed as they left the store.
When he got to Brandon’s place, he saw his son hadn’t made it home yet. He grabbed his cell out of his pocket and called. “Hi son. Where are you?”
Brandon had decided to stay over and clean the kitchen at the firehouse. He did this a lot. He’d hang over after his shift to give him something to do other than go back to his house. He just couldn’t bear to be there alone more than it was necessary. Too many ghosts, too many memories crept up haunting him; it was hard living in the house they’d shared. Maybe he should sell – it’d crossed his mind more and more here lately. But the “investment property”, as his ex-wife called it, was next door and it was easier to keep an eye on his tenants. So he allowed his own personal inertia to keep him in the house that was less and less a home by the day. For now, he just avoided staying there for any length of time; it seemed like the best idea.
Brandon’s IPhone rang while he was emptying the garbage; he saw his dad’s wedding picture flash on the screen and answered the call. “Hi dad! What’s up?” Glenn replied, “Where are you, kiddo?” “I’m still at work just taking care of some stuff. What’s going on?”
“Meet me at your house in fifteen minutes. I’ll be waiting. Hurry up, son. I love you.” “Ok dad; I love you too.” Brandon was alarmed as he hung up the phone; his dad sounded weird. He hadn’t sounded that odd since… oh no. God, don’t let it be bad news. He shuddered at the thought of losing anybody else. He just couldn’t take another loss right now. He jumped into his truck and sped off to his house, dreading what news he was going towards, this cryptic message pulling him to a new day.
Glenn had a smile creeping under his nose. He knew this was a little underhanded, but he knew that this was going to work out; it had to. Gabby was looking at him from the passenger seat; tongue hanging out and her eyes with budding intelligence. “Ok Gabby, time to meet your new owner. I hope you can work your magic on him. He’s gonna need a little softening at first but I think you’re gonna make all the difference.”
Chapter Five: Gabby Goes for a Ride
Gabby’s nose was rooting around the carrier on the short trip from the pet store to her new home, and about to meet her new master. Glenn was looking over at the puppy periodically as he would stop at the stop signs and stop lights to get to his son’s house. They were about two blocks from Brandon’s home when Gabby started noticing her new surroundings and Glenn was beginning to notice the intelligence of this runt of the litter. She was pawing at the door of her carrier, whining to be let out. “Do you need to go potty, little girl?” Glenn cooed. “We aren’t far from your new home.” Gabby responded by getting more agitated, so Glenn opened the door of the carrier and out she came. She trotted up to Glenn and started licking his hand. He reached over and picked up the new addition to the family; Gabby made no bones about her feelings about being in the carrier…. She much preferred being catered to and handled than as a captive audience.
“You’re gonna go on so many car rides Gabby… I know it. My son might act tough, but he doesn’t stand a chance with a cutie like you. He really needs you; but I’ll let you figure out how best to handle him. He took his mom’s death hard and now his ex-wife has him on his back. I’ve been so worried about him, but I know you will bring him around.” Glenn stroked the nape of Gabby’s neck as they had their moment on the corner, the moment of destiny almost upon them both. “Ok, Gabby… let’s get you to your new home.”
Glenn couldn’t know just how Brandon was going to take this surprise; but it was time for Brandon to meet his new dog, and Gabby to work her magic. He’s always heard that Dog is God spelled backwards – he just hoped this little pup can work some miracles in the lonely house on the corner up ahead.
Chapter Six: Gabby and Brandon
Brandon pulled in behind his father’s Bronco in his driveway outside his house. Both men got out of their respective vehicles at the same time. Dad had a plastic box of some kind… was it a toolbox? Then he saw the fur and the tongue and the eyes. “Oh no He didn’t! He didn’t get me that dog.” Brandon thought as he exhaled in irritation. Glenn had a wide smile plastered on his face, holding the carrier up as if to say, “Look what I got!” He motioned to go inside the house, and Brandon rolled his eyes. As they went inside the door, Glenn patted his son on the back and said, “Surprise!”
“Surprise, Hell! I told you I didn’t want a damned dog!! Why don’t you listen? Why are you doing this??” Brandon was both furious with his dad and glad the news wasn’t something awful. This was just irritating. No telling what he paid for this dog, only to send it back. Glenn wasn’t having any of it. “Hey. Listen to me. I’m still your father. Son, you’ve been out to lunch for a good bit now, and I know you’ve been through hell. But it’s time to rejoin the land of the living now, son. Look at this place!! It looks like a morgue. What single man has white carpeting this clean? It looks like it’s been staged to sell. You need this dog, and she needs you! Gabby is just what the doctor ordered. Now stop all this crap. It’s high time you realized Gayle’s not coming back! You have to move on son. She made her choice and you made yours. Now it’s time to get back into the swing of life.”
Brandon froze when he mentioned his ex-wife. His eyes swam in tears as the emotion threatened to overwhelm him. He started hitching a sob, then a dam burst. He fell to his knees and allowed himself to feel all the sorrow he’d been fighting against all this time. No words fell from his lips, the heels of his palms buried into his eyes as he bawled in front of his father. Glenn grabbed his son and held him like he did when his mother died; petting his hair and telling him it was going to be alright. “Shh, shh, it’s ok son. Let it out. It’s time you let it out. I’ve got you. I’m here. Daddy’s here.” Two grown men kneeling on white carpeting grieving over what had been, and what ultimately never had been. All the while, Gabby looked on at these two men in silence. As if on cue, Gabby then let out a shrill little yip sound to let them know she was still there. She wanted out of the carrier, pawing at the grated door.
“You need this son. You need something to care about again.” Glenn said as he wiped both his and his son’s tears from their eyes. He reached over and let Gabby out of the crate. Gabby trotted over to Brandon and Glen to see what all the fuss was. This was the beginning of their life together; Brandon was still skeptical about this dog situation. This release of emotion softened his heart enough to allow a little space for Gabby to occupy. For puppies, this small space is all they need.
Over the next few months, Brandon and the little pup named Gabby had a strange relationship. He would take the dog for short walks, but talked to it like it was a guest and not a family member – no baby talk, no real intimate or kind moments passed between them. It was hard for Brandon to relax for some reason. He couldn’t put his finger on what it was, so he based it solely on the new addition to the family. But as he became more skilled at caring for a dog he realized that maybe dad knew something he didn’t. He still didn’t let the dog have free reign over the house; in fact, he rarely would keep it in the same room with him. A baby gate kept Gabby confined to the kitchen and the mud room, which was not a large room to begin with. Add to that a dog crate and food bowls, and Gabby was confined to a small corner of the house, always looking at Brandon through the gate as he was watching TV or reading. What was to happen next would change the dynamic of their bizarre living arrangement forever.
Final Chapter: Gabby and the Rubber Tree
“Wow. That’s an amazing story. Did you end up keeping Gabby?” Michael asked. Thinking of his own dogs, Jack, Molly and Dave; he couldn’t imagine anybody getting rid of his or her dog. It would be like getting rid of an arm or leg, or selling off a child; totally unthinkable.
Brandon smiled. “Oh no; at first we would look at each other across the room and wonder, “What’s next?” I hadn’t had a dog before. I knew I had to learn how to take care of her. That wasn’t so hard. But the real test happened one day was when I left her in the house while I was at work. I must’ve left the crate unlatched or something because she had gotten out. When I got home later that night I found Gabby rolling in dirt and the 6 foot rubber tree that my ex had sitting in the corner shredded all over the white carpeting. I swear there was black dirt everywhere in the living room. She was still only about five months old. She did about three thousand dollars’ worth of damage to the carpeting with her little stunt. It was what my ex-wife had picked out – I hadn’t thought about it; but I realized as I tied Gabby out in the back yard on her run line so I could clean up the mess that I had unthinkingly held on to my ex-wife though home décor. I hadn’t changed a thing in that house. I had left the decorating up to her; so the ghost of her, her fingerprints were all over, keeping me trapped in the past.”
“Well, Gabby and her “redecorating” fit made me realize that I had to change my surroundings, not just lie with the bones of my past. After I cleaned up the biggest part of the mess, I went out to Gabby and brought her into the house and I cooked us both a steak, I cracked open a beer and saluted Gabby for making me see that this was our house now. I always hated that carpet anyway; who has white carpet these days? It took me about three weeks to completely redecorate the house, but it was worth every penny.”
Mike said with a smile, “I guess Gabby was glad you didn’t get rid of her, then.” Brandon looked at Mike and said with great conviction, “Gabby brought me back to life, just as dad said she would. I was frozen inside. I just couldn’t open up my heart to love again. It took Gabby and her special kind of love to make me feel something other than being alone and miserable, just existing. I don’t know what I’d do without her now. She goes everywhere with me. In fact, she’s in the truck right now. She gets a Marigold burger whenever I come here; in fact Kathy should be bringing it out any minute. She knows Gabby’s out there waiting for it. Would you like to see her?” “Of course!” Mike said; dog lovers can’t resist meeting a new dog.
They exited the bar with the burger in hand. Parked outside was Brandon’s truck with Gabby standing up in the bed of the truck, panting at the smell coming from the bag with her treat inside. Gabby was beautiful; her fur was mottled and flecked with grey and tan with shocks of white and black throughout… but she had her mother’s white blue Husky eyes. She was brilliantly intelligent and Mike could tell by just looking at her that she was a pure light disguised as a mutt. “Hey, Gabby! Look what I got ya!” Brandon couldn’t contain his joy at giving his Gabby the food. He tore it up for her on the tailgate of his Ford f-350. Gabby elegantly devoured the food in short order.
Brandon said this to Mike before Mike had to leave to go and pick up his husband Noah from school – something that he wouldn’t forget and would tell every time he would tell this story.
“Gabby was a gift from my dad. She came in on little puppy feet into my house and turned it into a home again, where love lives. She gave me back my heart, which I hadn’t even realized I’d lost; it was that bleak. I had even considered suicide;” Brandon said with tears flowing down, unashamed. “Gabby’s gift was her love. I have the best dog in the world. Not bad in exchange for some dog food and a burger every now and again. You know, once I redecorated the house, Gabby never tore up another thing. No accidents, not one. “Imagine that,” Mike said. “I guess there was only room for one bitch in that house, and Gabby won out.” Brandon laughed heartily at that, and said, “The house is yours if you want it. Come by and take a look at it and see if it will work for you and this Noah of yours. Who knows, maybe your dogs can meet Gabby. So are we on for Sunday, say, 2:30 in the afternoon?” “Sounds good, Brandon. See you both this Sunday. I can’t wait to tell Noah this story; he’ll get a big kick out of it.” Mike got into his Explorer and drove off leaving Brandon and Gabby in the gravel parking lot, Gabby finishing off her food as the Explorer took off up Weinbach Avenue.