By Michele Coppola
My ex-husband died and left me his dog. It wasn’t an official bequest, but since all of his friends claimed to love her to death, really, but just couldn’t take her in, I drove five hours south to pick up the rickety Staffordshire terrier named Ginger who we had rescued together ten years prior.
“It’s wonderful what you’re doing,” said my ex-sister-in-law when she called me. “I’m sure Marty is smiling down on you.”
Not likely. The first time he’d gone to the hospital in liver failure, I’d texted him and asked if he wanted me to come down and get Ginger—but the only response I got was second hand from a mutual friend. He said that even though Marty knew he wasn’t able to care for the dog properly, he’d be damned if he was going to let me take her away.
“Alcohol is what’s taking his dog away,” I’d said angrily. “The same thing that’s taken everything away.”
Ginger had been our first foster dog when I brought her home from the shelter a decade ago, her hopeful eyes looking up from a skinny, dun-colored body dangling with exhausted nipples. Confiscated from a home where she’d already been bred twice, the last go-round resulted in nine puppies who’d drained her completely. It hadn’t been hard to do since she’d barely been fed and had nothing to drink save a puddle of muddy Oregon rainwater. Marty and I were in love then—with each other, and with the idea of turning our three-acres-and-a-trailer into an unofficial dog rescue.
After several weeks of fattening her up and teaching her a few commands, we re-homed Ginger with an affable long-haul driver, who took her on cross-country adventures and fed her truck-stop meatloaf. It was a fine life for a sweet dog. But a year later, a bad accident on the interstate took the trucker off the road for good and brought Ginger back to us, also for good. Once she was again curled up on our couch, Marty and I found we couldn’t part with her.
“Animals were also close to McGuire’s heart,” read the article about my ex-husband’s death. At one time he’d been a popular DJ in the small town where he’d lived most of his life, and his passing made the front page. He was indeed an animal lover, poetic and soulful, with a malleable heart that never seemed to recover from the blows and dings that come with daily life. We were immeasurably compatible, and when we moved in together, we didn’t spend the weekend unpacking; instead, we used our rent money to take a road trip through Northern California, pulling off at scenic overlooks to make out and licking fast-food barbeque sauce off each other’s fingers. Tunes from an old Allman Brothers’ CD completed the new love movie montage.
Eight years later, he refused to look at me as we sat in our second marriage counselor’s dim office. “I’m not giving up alcohol for her,” he said. I felt my face flush red—not with anger, but with embarrassment. How lousy a spouse was I that my husband wouldn’t even consider sacrificing a half rack of Milwaukee’s Best to keep me? I remember wanting to protest that I’d cooked all of his favorite meals whenever I had the time and that when my face wasn’t mottled and puffy with crying, I wasn’t half-bad looking. But I didn’t. Instead, I moved into the other bedroom and told him I wanted a divorce.
That memory still cuts me as I reach over to the passenger seat in my car, where Ginger is now coiled into a petrified ball. My hands smell like french fries and old socks after I pet her—just like the house where Marty had been living. It’s been seven years since I tearfully agreed to take our three other dogs to Portland with me and let my ex have the member of our canine family most likely to never leave his side. Ginger is fourteen now. When I tried to put the leash on her back at Marty’s house a couple of hours before, she hid behind his roommate. Finally I got her to come to me and I stroked her ears, something I remember she always liked. Still, her expressive brow was wrinkled with worry.
I’m a little worried myself. My current husband Bryon isn’t happy about having a third dog, but I have promised him that I will find Ginger another home quickly, something I already know will be nearly impossible. He and I squabble frequently; you can smell the dependability and routine on him like a nose-burning aftershave, and sometimes his rigidity is beyond exasperating. While he likes animals, he certainly didn’t want a house full of them. But he did want me, and I come with canines that bark when a squirrel sneezes and a cat who sleeps on his head. He never swats her down in frustration, though. He gently lifts her from his face and places her, carefully curled in the same position, at the foot of the bed.
We argued about Ginger the night before I went to get her. “I don’t mind you going to get the dog. I understand that,” he said. “What I don’t like is all the baggage that comes with her.”
“What baggage?” I asked, wiping away yet another large, infuriating tear from my clammy cheek.
“Yeah, what baggage,” he said, turning back to his laptop. “Go. Do whatever you need to do.”
I hate like hell that nearly every emotion I have comes out in tears. I don’t miss my ex-husband; during our marriage I slowly realized that this was how it would end for him and it’s why I left. And yet … there is something so profoundly sad about the way Marty slowly deteriorated in the last few years, like watching a fragile sandcastle that took a whole afternoon to build get washed away in the tide. But I still wasn’t prepared for his death when it happened, and now Bryon looks at my downcast eyes and thinks I’m hiding remnants of an old love. What I’m actually trying to conceal is the fact that I am beyond angry that after all of this time my husband thinks I could still be carrying a torch for my ex, and also furious that Marty was in such deliberate denial about his condition he wouldn’t make arrangements for Ginger, the companion he swore he loved more than anything in the world.
Back on the road, I stop for a sandwich at a drive-thru outside of Roseburg. I tear off a meaty corner and offer it to Ginger, who sniffs it warily, then buries her nose back in the dirty crocheted blanket that had been on Marty’s bed back at his house. I took it so that the old girl would have a familiar smell to comfort her, and also because I recognized it as one I had made for my ex many Christmases ago. Just one more thing from the past I’m dragging into the present that my husband and I will absorb because it’s what we do. We are boring and stable and responsible.
And yet, I am immensely appreciative of the fact that I have a working vehicle and the gas money to come rescue Ginger and a comfortable home where, until I find her a permanent situation, she can spend her days snoring contentedly on the couch. These resources are at my disposal in no small part because of Bryon, the man who has already called me twice to make sure I’m doing okay on the slick mountain passes. I feel reasonably sure that if the situation had been reversed—that I died and Marty were called on to come get a dog we’d owned together—he would have been both unable and unwilling to help. Not that he wouldn’t have regretted his impotency; in fact, my guess is it would have taken at least an entire bottle of booze before he didn’t feel bad about it anymore.
The sky is a watery blue-gray when I pull into the driveway of my house, the sun resigned to another day behind clouds. Ginger sits up in the passenger seat and shivers. I can barely breathe when I think about having to convince some reluctant person to take her in and then leaving her there to curl up in the dark corner of a strange-smelling place, leaving her to wonder why the man she loved so much didn’t want her anymore.
“So we have a third dog now, right?” says Bryon, who is sitting on the bed smirking and rubbing Ginger’s belly. It’s been two weeks since I brought her home, and in that time we’ve discovered that in addition to being somewhat deaf, my ex’s dog is a bit incontinent, requiring potty breaks every two hours. Unfortunately, she is also petrified of the doggy flap, so we must get up and let her out several times a night. My husband doesn’t complain about it; he just rolls out of bed and stumbles to the back door with a sigh. I’d be happy to do potty duty, but Ginger wakes him up when she’s got to go; she sleeps on the floor by his side of the bed and follows him to the kitchen, where he feeds her bits of the flatulence-inducing cheese that she loves.
“Well, no, I’m still working on it. I posted her picture on Petfinder,” I say halfheartedly.
“Oh come on. Who’s gonna want her? She’s old, deaf, has to pee all the time. But she’s such a good guuuurl,” he purrs into her floppy ear. Ginger rolls over on to her back and snuggles her grey muzzle into his lap. She attached herself to him immediately when I brought her home, and if I’m being honest, I felt a twinge of resentment. Dogs live in the moment, so it’s entirely possible she didn’t remember me at all—but apparently she knew instinctively that Bryon, with his understanding eyes and strong, warm hands, was someone to be trusted.
I get up and wrap my arms around him. “Thank you,” I whisper. I love him so much for this, for the absolute conviction that society will start to unravel if he doesn’t step up, for believing that dismissing this dog to become someone else’s problem is just wrong. That is what Bryon does—even when it’s exhausting, even when I tease him unmercifully about his Eagle-scout code of honor and wish he could just relax, already. What I didn’t realize is that it’s hard to lighten up when you’re made of such sturdy stuff.
Perhaps Ginger knows what I am just learning: that in the end, love is really about showing up, again and again and again. I was there for her. Bryon is there for me. No matter where I step in this marriage, even out to the edges of his tolerance and my good sense, the floor is sound; there are no soft spots, no decay. It will hold me up, even with the added weight of my ex-husband’s elderly, incontinent dog.
MICHELE COPPOLA is a veteran radio personality, copywriter, and freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Oregonian and Spot Magazine as well as the literary journals So To Speak, Melusine, and Short Story America. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she shares a bed with her husband, two dogs, and two cats. Ginger passed away a little over a year ago in Bryon’s lap.