Friday, September 10, 2010

The Dog in the Frame Shop

Hi Folks!

Thanks for stopping by! It's good to be back, and I have several critter stories that I can't wait to tell you! I want to appologize for being off the radar for so long, but I think every single animal-lover out there understands how hard it is to lose a long-time critter companion. And no matter how many times I go through it, it never gets any easier.

In any case. I don't know how many of you hail from small towns, but Whoville, where I grew up, was probably pretty typical. We didn't lock our doors at night, or if we did, most of the neighbors knew where we hid the key. It seemed like everyone knew everyone else, and even if they didn't, it still felt like it. We had two elementary schools: one on the east side of town, and one on the west. They were both named, with a certain lack of imaginative flair, after trees: Elm Street School, and Pine Street School. Both sides of town merged in junior high, which was, at that time, housed in the very same building that used to be the high school back when my mother was a girl.

Just like John Mellencamp, we all chafed at the smallness of our small town. We were quite sure that there were bigger, better things out in the world, and I'd bet that just about everyone in my high school class of '81 (with 230-some graduating seniors) dreamed of escaping the small town noose. I know I did. At the time, I figured just about anywhere else would do. What did I know?!

I did manage to get away for a time. I joined the army, saw Germany, married a guy and lived down in Georgia for a while. Divorced and moved back to Ohio. Lived in the booming metropolis of Cincinnati for a year. Remarried, moved back to Whoville. Divorced again but stuck around, and some eighteen years later, I'm still in my old hometown. It's kind of growing on me now.

It seems like the older you get, the more things change. You acquire a little wisdom. You see the bad in the world, and try to figure out how to change it, or at least avoid it! You finally realize that you're mortal, and then things take on a signifigance that escaped you when you were young, dumb and impatient, things like friendships, and family, and stopping to smell the roses once in a while. You learn to appreciate the Now, because you don't know how much more of it you'll get to enjoy. Such is middle age.

One of the things that I'm appreciating in my dotage is the unique people who color my world. I don't know how these things work in big cities - where people seem to be in such a hurry, and tend to close themselves off from the things around them - but in small towns, we have folks who are....different. Unusual. Outside the box. Not crazy, or weird, or what have you, just a little different. We call them "characters," and Laura the frame shop lady is one of them.

I've known her for years. I met her when she worked in someone else's frame store. When she opened her own shop, I took my business there. Her boss had never been terribly reliable, and I tend to like it when people keep to a schedule as promised. Now, I don't want you getting the wrong idea about Laura. She's an astute businesswoman, and a fine artist, to boot. She's got great ideas on how to make your art look even better with the right mat and frame, and she's very active at her church, too. In other words, she's an all-around good egg, even if she did put a hand-made sign in her shop window that says, "Have A Day." Laura's just cranky enough that it's too far to go to wish that folks have a NICE day!

Her frame store is located in an L-shaped strip mall. There's a wine shop next door to the left, and a bar next door to the right. Some other shops have come and gone, in the strip mall, but Laura and the booze are still there after all these years! Out in front of her shop, there's a small landscaped island around which the cars circle. The shrubs look a little unloved but I don't think anyone really cares. To be honest, there's an element of urban blight about the place, but it can't be helped: Whoville is smack in the middle of the midwestern rust-belt and a lot of jobs have been lost around here.

Laura's shop has served me well for over fifteen years, now. Early on, she made a decision that put her squarely in the outside-the-box category. She brought her cat to work. It was a long time ago, and I can't recall the cat's name, but I do remember that she was feline leukemia positive. Laura didn't want her infecting the cat at home, so she installed the cat in the frame shop and there it lived for several years. It was a friendly cat, and I gave her lots of attention every time I stopped in. Some time after the cat passed away, Laura acquired one of those football-sized dogs, and every morning, she'd bring the dog to work. Unlike the cat, this pet went home with Laura at night.

After the dog died, Laura found herself in possession of a large rescue dog of indeterminate breeding. She started bringing Maxi to work with her fairly early in their relationship, and Maxi settled into the routine very nicely. Maxi suited Laura's personality: while Laura was a tad curmudgeonly, Maxi was always cheerful; where Laura was laid back and calm, Maxi got excited about the small things, like the UPS delivery guy's arrival. They were the quintessential Frick and Frack.

They spent long hours together in that frame store. Maxi enjoyed lying in front of the plate glass window, watching the world outside, and she always let Laura know when people of interest were in the neighborhood. The moment I'd get out of my car, Maxi would spot me and start barking. She came to know that I would always pet her, and throw some toys around the shop for her. After a few minutes, when Laura and I would get down to business, Maxi would resume her post at the window. A visit from any of the delivery guys was always grounds for enthusiasm because they often brought dog biscuits for her. Seems like everyone around the strip mall knew Maxi!

That landscaped island out in front of Laura's shop came in handy as a toilet for Maxi. Laura would open the door, make sure it was traffic-free out there, then let Maxi out to do her business. Maxi was sensible enough to know that she was expected to come straight back into the shop when she was finished.

Because of all that time spent together in the shop, Laura and Maxi developed their own language. Laura always knew the difference between Maxi looking at her because someone was coming up the sidewalk, and Maxi looking at her because she needed to go out and pee. For reasons known only to Laura, she taught Maxi to run a lap around her work station before Laura would let her out. All Laura had to do was gesture with her hand, and Maxi would jog once around the station, then head toward the door. It was hilarious! Laura would be in mid-sentence, get the look from Maxi, wave her hand as she resumed talking, and the next thing you know, the dog is running a lap around the shop!

Because my framing needs are fairly modest, these days, I only get to the shop about once a year. I was there recently, and while I waited for Laura to finish a phone call, I knelt down on the floor to give Maxi some belly rubs. I noticed immediately that she'd lost weight, and I said as much when Laura got off the phone. She told me that Maxi had been sick, of late, and they were, in fact, waiting for the lab results from the vet's as we spoke. In a matter of minutes, the vet called, and told Laura that she hadn't found anything terribly alarming in the work-up, but thought Maxi might have an infection in her liver. They would treat her with antibiotics and see how it went. I left the shop assuming that everything would work out, because things always do, don't they? Or at least, they always work out in my head. Reality is another story entirely.

As I walked across the parking lot a week later, things were strangely quiet. No barking, no big cheerful dog wagging her tail in the window. Entering the shop, I asked, "Where's the muttley?"

"Retired," Laura answered quietly.

"She's GONE?" I gasped in shock.

"I put her down on Saturday," Laura replied.

The details don't really matter. Suffice to say that it wasn't an infection at all. My guess, from the sound of things, is that Maxi had a tumor that killed her - or would have, had Laura not euthanized her. There was no question but that Maxi was suffering, and Laura absolutely did the right thing. It was just so unexpected, and came on so fast, that I was momentarily speechless. There's never any time to process these things because they go from bad, to worse, to worst, in the blink of an eye. And now here we were, Laura and I, blinking over how this thing had happened, how quickly Maxi had deteriorated, how fast Laura had had to make such an agonizing decision.

Now, if this had been a big city instead of Whoville, Laura might never have brought any animals to work. If she did, folks probably wouldn't have bothered to get to know them, like I did, like the UPS guy did, like the wine shop guy next door on the left did. And Maxi's passing probably wouldn't have engendered any special notice from the customers. But here in Whoville, when you have a character like Laura who brings her beloved dog to work every day, week in and month out, year after year, you get a little attached to both of them. Which explains why I'm having difficulty maintaining my composure as I write this.

Just last Christmas, Laura - who is a curmudgeonly Christmas Grinch if ever there was one - sent out holiday photos to all of her regular customers. I opened my Christmas card to find a small color picture inside of Laura wearing a Grinch t-shirt, kneeling, with her arm around her best buddy Maxi, who was wearing fake deer antlers. It was the perfect picture of a perfect small town character, one who's loved precisely because she chooses to be a little different from everyone else.

I left the shop subdued, that day. It was hard to leave at all. Laura doesn't open up to just anyone, so I stayed for quite a while, listening, talking, choking up, hugging it out. My heart aches for Laura because I know what she's going through. And because she chose to ignore the conventional rule that says you leave your pets at home when you go to work, I grieve for what is lost: the shop, that humble frame shop in the run-down strip mall in the rust-belt town, will never be the same without Maxi.

If there is a lesson to be learned, here, apart from cherishing every day that you get with your loved ones, I think that it's this: the Gods put people like Laura in our paths to remind us that not everything is meant to be done by the book. Not everyone is meant to think inside the box, or play by the rules. And when we encounter these characters, we should take the time to get to know them - and their dogs - because that's what small towns are all about. Even if you live in a big city!

That's all for now, folks. May you all be blessed with knowing unusual people! Until next time, please be kind to all the critters!

P.S. Thanks again for stopping by! Please leave a comment so I know you were here!