The rain falls full and hard against the windshield of Joan's Caravan leaving gray, cloudy streaks like skim milk along its surface. I pull the hood up on my powder-blue hoodie and open the door to face the din. The puppies clamor to get out of their crate after their three-hour ride and I reach to find a lead while trying to block their escape. I have never considered myself athletic, but if corralling puppies were a sport I would have an Olympic medal. One, two, three, catch a pug, block a pug, slip a lead on the first, toss it to Joan; catch a pug, block a pug, slip a lead on the second, toss it to Joan; catch a pug, slip a lead on the third and out we go to the grass to see if they will pee.
The small strip of grass in the I-Hop's parking lot crouches in a sea of pavement, creating only a slim runway for the pugs to do their business. They circle and shake, each trying to slip the unfamiliar leads snaked around their necks. They are 14 weeks old and ready to go to new homes.My cellphone rings and I scurry to answer it, pushing TarBaby off my tote on the front seat of the car. I grab the phone with one hand and block TarBaby with the other, feeling the tug of the lead wrapped around my wrist as the puppy on the other end, Kensington, I think, continues his struggle to be free.
"Where are you?" I manage.
"We just pulled into the I-Hop," Bonnie, our friend from New Jersey answers.
"That's where we are," I say as I glance over my shoulder and catch sight of her blonde hair. She sports a short, black coat, which she pulls tightly around her to block the rain. Behind her, stride two men -- her friend Sylvester and the perspective owner, I guess. Joan has screened him by phone and Bonnie knows him, but we have not met him yet. Bonnie greets me with a quick hug as I push TarBaby back in the car. A plump, cool rain droplet drips off a browning, treeleaf and slides down my back."Aww, aren't they cute," Bonnie squeals, while simultaneously introducing Sylvester and Bob. Sylvester holds his own leash with three dogs on the end, two shivering Japanese chins and a Pom. They and the pugs soon huddle into a tangle of tails and noses as they sniff and circle and check each other out.
We do the same, assessing Bob, in baseball cap and navy windbreaker, his dark skin wet from the falling rain. "Have you had other dogs? Why do you want a pug?" I ask. "I used to have Boston terriers," he answers as he launches into a tale about his 88-year-old mother and her health, explaining that a pug would be better suited to remaining at home with her all day. He starts talking about puppy toys and clothes, a Halloween spider costume for Kensington and even as Joan says, "You're mighty sure of yourself aren't you? Pretty sure you're going to get a pup?" I realize that I already like him. The vibe is good. I know he will be taking Kensington home.
"I pick Kensington up. Big, black orbs stare out over the white tuft of fur at his neck. "This may be your puppy," I say, handing him to Bob. Kensington balls up in Bob's large hand, a black glob of puppy love, all head and belly.
"Do you have a name picked out," Joan says. "Don't tell me, whisper it to her." She nods in my direction. Bob leans in and does so.
"Bunja," he whispers.
"Bunja," I mime back. "What does it mean?"
"It's African royalty," he says.
"Tell Joan," I say.
Bunja. She likes it, so do I. We don't like the puppies' names to change, but this one fits. Joan could have come up with it herself. It rings unique.
We go inside and over pancakes and coffee, we tell our stories and ask our questions. They hear the oft-told tale of how Prime Minister Clement Attlee bestowed on Joan her first pug. We learn from them their doggie pedigrees. They read through our packet of information and ask questions about food and shots. We ask where the puppies will sleep. Then back into the rain, still falling hard and gray. We yearn for light and warmth and a brief reprieve for a proper goodbye to no avail. Another hand-off ensues.
I hand Margot to Bonnie with a kiss, helping to zip her into her carrier. And, then Kensington.
"Goodbye little boy," I say, handing him to Joan, who in turn kisses him and passes him to Bob.
She raises her face to the rain and tears echo full and hard down the surface of her face. I stare wide-eyed like the puppies. I have stood by Joan seeing scores of pugs off in the time that I have known her and this is the first time I have ever seen her cry. The world slows down as I watch wondering, why this pug? Why now? Her face flushes red, two rosy splotches in what has become a graying world. I reach out and pat her back. "Joan," I say with a half smile. "She never cries," I say to Bonnie and the men. "Joan?"
Salty tears mix with unforgiving rain, indistinguishable. The puppies blink, squint, and cock their heads, waiting and wondering what will happen next. They don't know they are leaving. I join them, perplexed. The world feels raw and tender and gentle like a baby's breath. Joan is feisty, strong, often unyielding. Here, she melts, offering a piece of her heart as a precious gift. Kensington, now Bunja, blinks away the rain. Joan her tears. Griffles, the puppies' mom, stares out from the crate in the car. Goodbyes are often wet and gray. Who knew that love looks the same?