Episode 1.1 – The Ballad of Zeke & Tall Guy

“All this happened, more or less.” – Kurt Vonnegut

I had just finished walking the dog when my phone rang. It was my wife.

“The kids and I are at the SPCA. You should come over.”

“We’re not getting another dog”, I said.

We already had a dog. She was a year-and-a-half old Border Collie/Blue Heeler mix, and her name was Spotty Dog because she had spots and was a dog. We also had a cat named Dexter Butterknife. I wasn’t interested in more vet bills, I wasn’t interested in spending more money on pet food, and I especially wasn’t interested in picking up twice as much dog poop. Besides, Spotty Dog was a good friend. She was more than capable of providing all the dogness I needed.

“There’s a yellow Lab here. You should see him…”

Jane knew that I’d always wanted a yellow Lab. I’d talked about getting one every now and then, most recently right before we’d adopted Spotty. I’d plead my case that although $800 was a lot of money for a dog, a yellow Lab would certainly be worth it. Labs are beautiful, intelligent, and gentle dogs, perfect for a family with young children. Some people have a dream house or a dream car. I had a dream dog.

My brain repeated “We’re not getting another dog”, but my mouth said, “I’ll be right over”.

I loaded Spotty Dog into the car and left right away. The SPCA was close to our house, so in 15 minutes I was standing in the cacophony of the dog orphanage. There must have been 60 or 70 dogs, and all of them were barking their displeasure with their situation. It sounded like they were saying, “LET. ME. OUT! LEMMEOUT!”

I followed Jane and the kids to the back corner, where there was a concrete enclosure with a chain link fence for a front wall. Inside was a defeated-looking dog. He had a cut on the top of his nose where he’d been poking it out under the chain link, apparently thinking he could force his way back to freedom if he could just push a little harder. He was so skinny that you could see his spine and ribs and hips. He looked at me like he had something important to tell me, but he wanted to say it in private, not here in front of all the other dogs. He glanced at the door and tilted his head a little, like a friend does at a party when he wants to get you alone outside for a minute to tell you something important about the girl you’re chatting up.

“We’re not getting another dog”, I repeated, “but since I drove all the way over here, we might as well see if he wants to go for a walk or something.”

There was a big open yard out back where the dogs could be taken for some exercise. The lady at the front desk had a name tag that identified her as “Alice”. I asked her if it would be OK if we took the dog in stall number 17 for a little bit of play time.

Alice said “Of course. He’s only been here since yesterday. You’re the third family to take him out. If you’re interested in adopting him, I wouldn’t wait. He’s popular. Labs always are. Especially yellow Labs.”

“We’re not getting another dog.”

When we got outside, the dog immediately perked up and romped with the kids. Our daughter, Eliza, was 11 years old and fully in love with all animals, as girls of that age often are. Our son, David, was 7. He was mostly interested in seeing if the dog could beat him in a race.

I kept thinking to myself, “He’s perfect. He’s the perfect friend…but I can’t let Jane do this. I can’t let her manipulate me…but look at him…”

Jane told me later that was the moment when she knew for sure that the yellow Lab would be coming home with us. The kids adored him, and she could see a look of deep affection on my face that I wasn’t aware I had.

“I bet Spotty Dog needs to go for a pee. We’ll go get her”, she said. And with that she rounded up Eliza and David and herded them – complaining all the way – out of the yard, leaving me alone with the yellow Lab.

As soon as they were out of earshot, the dog ambled over to me and sat down.

“You’re tall”, he said.

“Yeah”, I said. “I know. You’re yellow.”

“I’m grey”. After a brief pause, the dog said “I like those short peoples. They’re nice. I like running with them.”

“They’re good kids.”

“I will make them happy. I’m a good listener and I have a soft head for them to pat.”

“Maybe”, I said. “Do you have a name?”

“At the place where I used to live, they yelled a lot of things at me. I think some of the words were a name, but I’m not sure. I was scared mostly. It was hard for me to think.”

I looked at him. He was staring at a bird in a nearby tree. I was enamoured of the dog’s innate trust in me, and his honesty.

“We have a dog in our family already.”

“I know. I can smell her. You need two dogs, though.”

“I’ve never had two dogs before.”

“I’ve never lived with a tall guy.”

We both paused for a moment.

“Do you have squeaky toys at your house? I like squeakies.”

“We don’t. Spotty Dog keeps chewing the squeakers out of them. It’s kind of irritating, but it’s funny to listen to her go poop.”

“Oh…would you make some squeakies for me?”

“I don’t know how to make them, but I’d BUY some for you.”

“Make…buy…if the result is the same, then the words are the same. What I want to know is if I come live with you, will squeakies be provided?”

“Yes…no…we’re not getting another dog.”

At that moment, Jane and the kids appeared. They had Spotty Dog with them. The yellow lab sprinted off to greet her, the negotiation over squeaky toys instantly forgotten.

I excused myself and went to the front desk to ask Alice where the men’s room was, then asked, “How much does it cost to adopt a dog…if I were to be interested in taking that yellow Lab home…which I’m not, because we’re not getting another dog.”

“$200, and that includes neutering, a full check up, and an ear tattoo.”

I thanked Alice and headed towards the men’s room, with a quick detour to the car to grab my money.

On my way back to the yard, I stopped at the front desk again.

“If I were to give you $200 for that yellow Lab right now, would I be able to get my money back later after I talk my wife and kids out of bringing him home?”

Alice said, “I could give you a couple of days to think about it”

I paused for only a second, then started counting out the money; seven $20’s, four $10’s, three $5’s, and $5 worth of quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies. I’d been saving every spare cent to buy myself a new guitar, and that was all the money I had. I’d been keeping it in an old cookie tin which I’d grabbed on the way out of the house to go look at a dog I wasn’t going to buy.

When I returned to the yard, the dogs were laying in the shade under the big spruce trees, panting. Eliza and David were squatting beside them, stroking their heads and scratching their ears. They’d been sitting on the grass only seconds earlier until Jane had said, “I wonder how many dogs have peed there?”

I stood beside Jane in silence for a few seconds and then said, “I used my guitar money to buy the dog.”

“I know”, said Jane.

“I think the kids would be really disappointed if we didn’t adopt him. I mean…look at them. Spotty seems to like him too.”

“Uh huh,” said Jane.

I could have stuck to my guns and continued to say, “we’re not getting another dog.” Jane hadn’t forced me to come to the SPCA, and she hadn’t suggested that I bring my tin of guitar money along. Truth be told, Jane had simply and skillfully helped me to fulfil a life goal.

We called the kids over to let them know that the yellow Lab would be coming home with us. They reacted with squeals and Kermit flails, which Spotty Dog and the yellow Lab happily participated in. Jane just smiled. She loved it when a plan came together. Especially a plan that made her family happy.

We had to leave the yellow dog at the SPCA for a few days while his neutering was undertaken, but we were back bright and early on Saturday morning to pick him up. When the staff brought him out, he was wearing a cone on his head to prevent him from licking the incision on his scrotum. I noticed him whisper to Spotty, “I know we just met, but I have a favour to ask…”. She appeared ready to oblige, so I casually placed myself in between the two dogs. They both looked up at me, mildly irritated. I could tell they were thinking, “Humans are so strange about so many things.”

The conversation in the car for the entire ride home was about what the new dog’s name would be. David and Jane favoured more traditional pet names like Buddy or Duke.

Eliza and I preferred something less traditional. I didn’t see any reason to name him something that you wouldn’t name a person, so I suggested Brad or Murray or Richard. Eliza liked something a little more esoteric; Bonkers, Gym Socks, and Pickle Train were a few of her ideas. The last one made me laugh out loud, and I lobbied alongside Eliza for the new dog to be named Pickle Train. Jane vetoed the idea for the same reason I loved it; because of how it would sound when it was yelled at the dog park…”PICKLE TRAIN! C’MERE BOY! C’MON PICKLE TRAIN!”

The naming debate went on for the rest of the morning and into the early afternoon until somebody – nobody could remember who – came up with “Zeke”. It had been mentioned, put on the “maybe” list, and left to simmer for a while until Jane came back to it later. She was bored with the name game and wanted it to be over.

“Who suggested Zeke?” she asked.

“I’m not sure”, David said, “but as soon as you said that, he looked at you. Dad, try it out. See if he looks at you when you say it.”

“Hey Zeke!” I said, and sure enough, the dog looked right at me without hesitation.

“I guess his name is Zeke.”

Eliza was still pushing for something more unique and said “He’s the colour of pancakes when mum makes them. How about Zeke Pancakes?”

“If he was a black Lab, he’d look like pancakes when dad makes them,” said David. I let that slide by without comment because it was true and it was funny.

“It doesn’t flow”, I said, “It needs to be more musical. It needs more beats. Maybe Zeke Pancakes Jr., or Senator Zeke Pancakes.”

“What’s grandpa’s name?” asked Eliza.

“Andrew”, I said.

“Zeke Andrew Pancakes”, she said.

Everyone knew immediately that that was the yellow dog’s name. It felt right. I didn’t think he’d been listening, but he nodded his approval to me.

And so the skinny yellow Lab with the scabby nose and the cone on his head was now Zeke Andrew Pancakes. Everyone just called him Zeke though, unless he was in trouble. Then we used his full name like your mother did when you broke the lamp; “Zeke Andrew Pancakes! Who ate all the Kit Kat bars that were on the kitchen counter?”

It took almost no time for him to blend into our family. I expected a few days of transition during which he’d have a few accidents inside the house or perhaps some complaints about the food and lodgings, but no; he just fit right in, right from day one. It was meant to be.

He wasn’t very happy about there being a cat in the house.

“Cats are creepy. Like spiders and that vet who stuck his finger in my bum,” he said.

Other than that he seemed very happy. He was a very literal and straightforward dog. Almost immediately he started calling me “Tall Guy”. David became “Small Tall Guy”, Eliza became “The Girl”, Jane “The Mommy”.

Everybody thinks they have the best dog in the world, and everybody is right…but Zeke Andrew Pancakes was the best dog in the world. He was one of the family dogs, but he was my dog and I was his human. He taught me things about myself that nobody else could have. He was kind of weird, but so am I. We were a team.

I’m glad we got another dog.

That’s how our story begins, and I suppose it’s how a lot of family dog stories begin. With the simple act of adopting an animal that’s down on its luck and looking for some people to love, and who will love him back.

There’s a lot more to come. Nearly 15 years worth of stories and adventures, told a little at a time.