He should have been “put down” a year before I met him last March. He was a mere skeleton of his former self that I never knew, with tumors and other skin oddities hanging from his belly. He was deaf. He was blind. His walk was a painful hobble.
When we first moved into our latest big space near the beach with a pool and the requisite repulsive SoFla landlord, I welcomed the space and, finally, a pool, as much as I mourned the disassociation with my former two wonderful landlords. But the space…the pool. It was all about the pool. I could deal with the repulsive landlord whose idea of maintaining his property is to tell you to replace whatever is broken, on your dime, and he would “reimburse” you.
“No, no, no, don’t take it out of next month’s rent,” he said when we pointed out the coil-burner cooktop had only two working burners. “Get a glass top; I’ll send you a check after you buy it.” Except the glass top required venting, and all in we’d have to front $1500 out. Can we just get another coil-burner unit? we asked. NO! came his texted reply. So we continue to make do with two burners that don’t work, because we don’t have $1500 to front. And now, we kind of don’t care.
I met Junior before I met my new neighbor, his owner. Junior was out in the grassy courtyard I shared with my other three four-plex neighbors, wandering aimlessly to “go potty” as he bumped into the aloe plants and stumbled precariously close to the pool’s edge.
“I’m the one who let him and the other one out,” said one of three neighbors as I peeked our of my door. “He’s in the hospital. I hope he’ll be okay.”
So, my new neighbor with the yapping rat terrier mix and the ancient Staffordshire was older, ill. His dogs were cooped up inside, whining for their sick, absent dad. Whom I didn’t know, but I felt the angst of his pups, who had no idea where he was or what was happening.
When my new neighbor came home a week later, weak and tired, I cautiously asked him how he was doing, and how were his dogs. He answered he was tired; so were his dogs. Even the young one.
“Well, our other neighbor let them out. I guess she had a key,” I told him in that awkward countenance when you’re discussing a moment in someone’s time of crisis, and you know that someone not at all.
“Yeah, she’s great,” was all he said.
Weeks later, when my neighbor suddenly looked decades younger than the 68 years I imagined him to be, and my great guy and he struck up an impromptu conversation, we asked him to join us for happy hour at a nearby waterfront tiki bar.
We had so much fun with him. We drank just enough; we ordered food. We reconvened back on his patio next to ours when we walked home. We talked and talked. We watched Junior, then the rat terrier, push their ways out his sliding glass door that he only locked with a stick from the outside to keep them from opening the door while he was at work.
And from that moment on, we became friends. Good friends.
My great guy and I continue to work opposite hours, most of the time. But now I had a friend, a neighbor friend, for the first time in years. He was fun, he was smart, he was in the biz as a banquet captain, having done everything from owning a place to managing a dozen others in the past. He liked to dance. He liked to play backgammon. He liked to make frozen margaritas in his blender. He loved our dogs and welcomed them in his home when we were both working late, taking photos of epic dog parties in his side of the duplex and texting them to us, so we could be part of the dog mania.
So what about Junior, I would ask him about his aging grandpa of a pup.
“I wish you could have known him when,” he’d say with a smile.
“I kind of love him now,” I’d say, softly, even though I really didn’t know the dog that well, and certainly had no clue the dog even knew who I was.
“Junior needs to make it to 19 to be in the record books,” my neighbor would laugh on our now frequent neighborly get-togethers when cash was scarily tight and we pretended to covet the time we had to be at home for free on our patios. And now I knew why this tumor-ridden, deaf and blind, once-majestic Junior, the Staffordshire Terrier, hung on. Was hung onto. If you make it in the record books with the 25-something-older-than-that-year-old Russian dog from the 1950s, you actually live forever. And we will never miss you, because you’ll be right there, still alive, albeit online, forever.
When my neighbor went out of town and asked my great guy and I to watch the dogs, I worried for four days that Junior would pass on my watch. I fed that damn dog by hand because I couldn’t get him off his dedicated love seat. I brought water to his sofa-side and brushed my dripping fingers across his muzzle to get him to drink. When I finally did get him to go outside–okay, dragged him by the collar to walk with me to the courtyard–I’d stand just this side of him and down wind, so he would know I was there with him, a faint scent away to keep him in the know. To keep him safe.
But as sometimes happens, too much togetherness sometimes becomes simply too much. As it did last week, at a great concert an hour north, where too much wine and previously broken hearts of our past neighbor’s loves ramped up the emotions; when we were all just there to have a good time at a damn fine country band concert, and next thing you know, it’s no fun at all.
I apologized to my fun and handsome neighbor for yelling at him when we got home. His date with the heart broken years ago by my fun and handsome neighbor actually seemed okay with it all, even though she sparked the crisis in her own drunken stupor on the way home. But now we none of us were not talking, despite living steps away and and sharing a common wall; despite my texted “I’m an idiot” apology to my fun and handsome neighbor, for losing it toward him after we got home.
Alcohol. God love you. God hate you.
For five days, we didn’t talk. I avoided my neighbor, except a nod hello if I had no choice but to acknowledge him, and he me. For five days, I planned my escape from SoFla, gave myself a six-month deadline, and cried myself to sleep because of the time I figure I have wasted in this miasma of a seaside locale that always lets you down–the crappy jobs, the friends you never really make, the edge and ugliness of most of those around you. Well, except my great guy, who has never been a waste of time, but who certainly could ask himself if he has wasted time with this crazy and confused RG, who is too old to be this crazy and confused.
“I have to get out of here,” I told my great guy.
“When?” he asked, knowing I have no money to buy gas, much less to move.
“After my wedding season is over. By April 1,” I told him. Adding, I would spend no money on anything other than rent and food and utilities to make this happen. “And when I move, and I hope it is with you, I have to be near one or both of my kids.”
To which my great guy agreed. Because he is just that great, always.
My phone rang this morning, early, as I was drying my hair and dreading another day in hell, also known as my job. “Your phone is ringing,” yelled my great guy, his voice raspy and drugged with a deep sleep broken.
“Neighbor,” read my caller ID. At this hour?
“I think Junior is done,” came my my fun and handsome neighbor’s voice.
“What?” I asked, not sure.
“Is your great guy home?” he asked. “I need your help,” he cried, clearly distraught. Broken.
“Okay, we’ll be right there,” I said. Because that’s what neighbors say to one another, what neighbors do, when a broken voice calls you for help.
I held the rat terrier while my great guy and my fun and handsome neighbor slid Junior onto a beach towel, hoisted him, and carried him out to my fun and handsome neighbor’s rental car because his is in the shop. I opened the back door so they could place an alive, but barely, Junior, in the back seat of an unfamiliar ride.
“Do you want me to go with you?” I asked my neighbor through an open passenger window, pretty much pleaded for him to say yes, because I knew he was taking his pal of 17 years to his last goodbye.
“No, someone there will help me,” he said, maybe because he wanted to be alone, or maybe because he was still angry with my week-ago stupidity.
“Then let me say goodbye,” I said. And I bent toward Junior and told him to please say hi to my first dog Mrs. TucKer and to run with my most recent beloved pup, Angel. To tell them I love them, when he sees them. To welcome the moment when he can run free again and feel no pain, and can see and hear again, and be all that he was and will be.
And I thought about Junior and my fun and handsome neighbor all day while I worked in hell and plotted my escape from it all. I know the pain of willingly putting a sick best friend to rest. I relived it all day on my neighbor’s behalf, wishing I could have known him and old Junior better, in order to be a better friend.
God bless you, Junior. Today you know no pain. Today, you run with Mrs. Tucker and sweet Angel. Today, I wish I’d known you and your owner before. Long before.
Bon chance to you, and to us all.