"Kid, I'm worried about my dog," said Karl. He was staring at his phone, his brow furrowed, and showed me a video of his chocolate lab, Ernest. He was playing with a rope bone, hurling it with his mouth, and then chasing it down and repeating the process.
Ernest was, not Karl.
Why, what's wrong with him? I asked. We were at our new favorite hamburger place, Cheesboogie Cheesboogie, enjoying their lunch special: cheeseburger, chips, and a Pepsi. For some reason though, we each ended up with two cheeseburgers. Not that I was complaining.
"Nothing, probably," said Karl. "I just realized he's getting older. Last week, we celebrated his 10th birthday, and I—"
Wait, you celebrated your dog's birthday?
No, no, I'm serious. You celebrated your dog's birthday?
So nothing, I said. I just didn't think you were prone to doing anything that—
"What, sentimental and schmalzy?"
Cute and adorable, I said.
"I am not cute and adorable!" Karl half-shouted.
"You're telling me," said our server Craig, breezing past our table. We had become regulars at Cheesboogie Cheesboogie, and Craig had gotten to know us very well.
Craig, can I get an order of fries, please? I called after him.
"Heard!" Craig called, waving his hand at us without turning around.
"Anyway, I do not do things that are cute and adorable."
You had a birthday party for a dog, I said. Of course, you're cute and adorable.
Karl stumped his forearms on the table and stared at me. He had ice-blue eyes, and his face was brown and lined like he had spent the majority of his life outside. His shock of white hair was wild and untamed like he hadn't brushed it since yesterday. His cheeks were raspy with three-day stubble that never seemed to get shorter or longer. Whenever I saw him, he had three-day stubble; even if I saw him every day that week.
He stabbed the wooden tabletop with his finger. "I. Am not. Cute and adorable."
No kidding, Sherlock. So what did you do for Ernest on his cute and adorable birthday? Throw him a paw-ty? Take him to Chuck E. Fleas? Cook him a bark-beque?
"Now who's being cute and adorable? Anyway, I bought him a new toy and cooked him a hamburger for dinner."
So you did cook him a bark-beque! I snickered. Craig set down my plate of fries, and I popped a couple into my mouth. So what's the problem?
"He's not a young dog anymore. He's got gray in his muzzle, and he doesn't jump up on the bed like he used to. He takes a second to size it up first, and then he climbs up."
Well, that's to be expected. You don't go leaping into bed yourself, do you?
"No. But at his age, Ernest is like a human in his 60s. I've been thinking about that lately." Karl cleared his throat, took a drink of his Pepsi, and cleared his throat some more. His blue eyes got a little watery, but I didn't mention it.
That's understandable, I said. I just read an article that says taking care of a pet is more stressful than a romantic relationship or being a parent.
"That's because they don't have my kid to deal with," said Karl.
That's true, I said. His daughter, Alexis, was an organic vegan activist in charge of a large nonprofit that worked to clean up the oceans. She still lived with Karl and made him do, and not do, things "for his own good." Eating at Cheesboogie Cheesboogie was not on her approved list. I wisely chose not to comment on Karl's daughter. I was not on her approved list either.
You're not alone, I said. The article said nearly two-thirds of pet owners worry about their pets getting older as much as they worry about it themselves. In fact, they worry more about their pets aging than they would losing an expensive item, losing their job, or getting a divorce.
Karl scoffed. "My divorce was the best thing that ever happened to me. You know what they say about the two best days in a boat owner's life?"
Yeah, the day you buy it, and the day you sell it.
Karl tapped the side of his nose and pointed at me. "I just want to make sure Ernest is happy and healthy and not in any real pain as he gets older."
I know he's very happy and healthy, I said. When I was at your house last week, Ernest was jumping all over and was really excited to see me. He's such a good boy, and I think he'll be around for a good long while.
I reached under my seat and handed Karl a gift bag with a bow on it.
"What's this?" Karl asked.
I forgot to bring Ernest's birthday present last week, I said. Karl reached in and pulled out a can of tennis balls.
"He'll love these," said Karl. "He loves it when I throw tennis balls for him. Thanks, Kid. That's really kind of you."
Hey, I said, it's the leash I could do.
"Muzzle it, Kid."
Photo credit: Erik Deckers (That's my dog, Zelda)
My new humor novel, Mackinac Island Nation, is finished and available from 4 Horsemen Publications. You can get the ebook and print versions here.