The drive to Alabama took us 13 hours. We stopped near Athens at a Country Inn. I’d made our reservation for the wrong week. It was January, a gray forecast. They had vacancies.
The dog slept between us in the bed.
In the morning we ate breakfast at an IHOP. It was walking distance from the Inn and we left the dog alone in the room for an hour. It felt wrong but we were hungry.
“Come noon,” I told Annie, “and he’ll never see us again.”
We finished our pancakes and I wrapped my sausage in a napkin. I tore off pieces in the car and fed the dog by hand. The dog stared at my fingers while I drove, waiting patiently.
The Rescue smelled of antiseptic. At each entrance Karen, the owner, replenished basins with a bleach solution. Visitors were asked to clean their shoes when coming, and to wash again when leaving. Karen’s was the only “no kill” shelter in a thousand miles that had space for what we offered. We did as we were told.
There were 49 dogs in residence, 24 housed in outside kennels, the other 25 cordoned off in separate rooms in the shelter – which doubled as Karen’s home. The rooms were organized by temperament: old dogs, shy dogs, loud dogs, sick dogs, horny dogs.
“Violent dog,” I said, passing the leash to Karen.
“Just toothy,” Karen said, blotting her knuckle with gauze. “He’ll live alone.”
I filled out paperwork while Annie – who I’d find out later had already fallen out of love with me, was preparing to leave me, was calculating how long she would have to wait after the dog was gone to break it off without her looking terribly heartless – held the leash and waited. I signed my name as Karen led the dog to a temporary kennel, removed his collar, secured the latch. The dog barked at my back, but I didn’t turn around.
I dipped my feet in antiseptic, stepped into the day’s gray light, walked down the gravel driveway toward the road until the dog’s bark was lost among the rest. I knew I’d hear that din of barking on the long drive back to Iowa. I’d hear it in the sounds of the highway, in the static on the radio, in the wind beating through the cornfields. It would follow me the rest of my life.
It would be the only thing.