The Furry Friends League was a historical relic of the Colfax County Bottling Works, the building’s original inhabitant. The company folded during World War I and the Great Depression, but the solid brick building stood as one of the last vestiges of the bygone era. Today the worn pine flooring creaked and moaned under Stella’s chef clogs as she bounced from one foot to the other. The air was redolent with the smell of the strong herbal tea wafting from the dainty teacup on the large oak reception desk.
A middle aged woman fully engulfed in a heavy, gray cardigan glared at Stella without a smile or even a greeting. Her eyes narrowed as she scanned Stella from her kitchen shoes to her chopped short hair. “Help you?” the lady asked with a tone of annoyance.
“I’m thinking about getting a cat,” Stella said. She tried to drop her shoulders to lessen her anxiety and appear to possess the confidence she couldn’t muster.
“How committed are you?”
While Stella respected the woman’s desire to protect and care for the animals under her charge, she resented the question of her resolve. The snide question had solidified her decision. “I want a cat.”
“This isn’t a reaction to some man.” Stella believed the words as she thought them, but knew they were a lie as they crossed her lips. The inspiration for adopting a pet did come from a man–or rather her negative thoughts about that son of a bitch–but it had morphed into a true desire to share her blessings with a living being. She needed to balance the scales after so many hateful thoughts–to feel some love and give something good to the world.
“We don’t have any kittens right now. Only cats.”
Stella nodded as she adjusted her mental image from a tiny ball of kitten fluff to a sassy, grown cat.
The woman looked her up and down, then nodded her approval like a banker granting a loan. She opened the double doors and led Stella into the inner sanctum. They walked down a long make-shift hallway between kennels constructed of chain link fencing, strolled by two rabbits, a shelf of small cages and aquariums of rodents. Stella expected it to be loud and chaotic like a circus or third rate zoo, but this woman with her zen presence created calm–like a good kindergarten teacher in control of her classroom and beloved by her students.
Most of the dogs sat at attention toward the front of their kennel. The tails wagged the happy animals and pink tongues lolled in delighted grins. The woman hummed and sang a little ditty that was all repeated syllables that seemed to keep the dogs calm. They danced around and offered soft yowls without barking. Past the dogs, removed from the canine energy were smaller, quiet cages. Stella peered into each cage: a calico, a gray tabby, and a runty siamese. She spent several minutes looking at each one of the cats, but felt nothing. She was looking for a spark or an ah-ha moment that said, “This is the one.”
Stella turned back to the woman, her mouth agape with an apology, when she spotted a smaller kennel set apart from the rest. A dog, a golden retriever mix of some sort, was curled into a tight ball at the back of the kennel with her nose pressed to the wall and eyes shut tight against the overhead fluorescent lighting. Her flanks rippled as her muscles were on edge and ready to pounce. Despite the dog’s athletic build and musculature, ribs were prominent along with several long scars that ran down her flank.
“What’s with that guy?” Stella asked and pointed at the dog.
The woman’s slender shoulders sagged under her thick sweater. “Found her wandering the fields near Granum. Been abused. Won’t eat. Not sure she’s gonna make it.” The woman shook her head and gazed down at her bright sneakers.
Stella was familiar with the dog’s defeated posture as she’d been curled into a ball and hiding in her home for too many months, not leaving her bed, cowering in fear and immobilized by self-pity. Stella plopped down to the cold, tiled floor next to the kennel, but faced the exposed brick wall. She looked down to her lap and began humming and softly singing. From the corner of her eye, she could see the dog’s eyes were open and searching.
“Do you euthanize?” Stella asked in a low sing-song whisper like it was the next lyric.
“No, but I’m afraid this girl’s gonna starve herself.” The woman wrapped her cardigan tighter around her small frame and sat down on a rolling stool across the open room.
The dog turned around in the kennel, but backed her butt into the corner with her head still lowered, big brown eyes watching everything like a gunslinger watching over the saloon from a corner table. Other than needing a good bath, the dog’s coat was stunning: golden coat with dark brindle markings with a white chest plate and dark muzzle, but the long floppy ears of a labrador. White paws in the front like she was wearing go-go boots. Stella gave a mock yawn and laid down next to the chain link fencing, pressing her backside against the wire.
Being a chef had taught her that the best things took time: Sunday roast, Thanksgiving turkey, a succulent baked ham. She could wait. Stella continued to hum her favorite Grateful Dead tune, but watched the woman’s face for any change. She’d made it through “Friend of the Devil” twice before she heard the faintest sniffing noises behind her. She felt the fabric of her tee-shirt move and the chain link clattered against the crossbar. The dog had laid down with her back pressed against Stella.
“I’ll be damned,” the woman said and her face brightened.