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"Originally written as an exercise for people watching week at a writer's group."
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Earl Powell pushed a shopping cart filled with two huge bags of dog food up to the counter. He also had three pouches of bacon-flavored treats, several packages of flea treatments, and boxes and boxes of little blue bags. There was very little in the cart for his own use; just a can of beans, a loaf of bread, and a jar of peanut butter. His needs were pretty simple, but he had a lot of canine mouths to feed, and that was a responsibility he took seriously.

As the cashier rang up his purchases, Earl rubbed a neck that was sunburnt and lined with deep crevices. His weathered face was framed with thinning hair falling over his shoulders in various stages of yellow-grey. He didn’t mind being called a redneck. He knew it wasn’t meant as a compliment, but still felt somehow that he’d earned it. His dogs didn’t care about things like that, anyway. He led their pack, and they loved him, calloused hands, greasy hair, and all.

Arriving home, he greeted his throng and sat down next to poor old Rosie. She was arthritic, and her eyes were glazed with a grey sheen. She could barely see him, but she laid her head in his lap and raised a lazy eyebrow in his direction, thumping her tail. Rosie was a good dog, and loyal. Earl patted her scruffy head, cooed softly at her, and thought back to a time before she was in his life, when he was still married to Margaret.

Earl had met his ex-wife in the summer of ’77, when he’d had more hair on his head and fewer lines on his face. She was a free-spirited woman with an easy laugh and sweet nature. The courtship was short, only five months, and being a stubborn man, he’d married her despite a bothersome little feeling that it wouldn’t work. They were in love, and this was a time when people still believed that love was all you needed.

As the years passed, Earl watched the light dim in Margaret’s eyes until he could hardly see it anymore. It seemed every effort he made fell short of what she wanted, and he knew she felt invisible at times. Still, it hurt like nails when she left.

Margaret had been allergic to dogs, and Earl got Rosie out of spite the day he realized she wasn’t coming back. He’d plopped the puppy right beside him on her side of the bed, and that’s where Rosie slept from that day on. His new furry friend made him happier than he’d been in months. Soon he got another dog, and another one, and so on, until he looked up one day to realize his house was full of dogs, and these animals had become his entire life.

Earl’s schedule didn’t leave much room for socializing. Every morning, he rose early to walk Rosie first, then the others. After that, he herded everyone into the utility room and fed them before making a trip to the dump on his way to work, not wanting all those little blue bags to accumulate and fester. After sweating it out on a roof all day, he headed back home and repeated the morning routine.

Once a week, on Saturdays, Earl did his best to wash and check and treat each dog for fleas or whatever else might be troubling them, before heading to the store for more supplies. And Sundays were for going to the park, a few at a time, just like their walks…with one special trip just for Rosie.

All of this left no time for making friends, or going to church, or grabbing a beer with the guys after work, and as Earl became more and more isolated, the dogs filled a hole in his heart that had grown so big he didn’t know what else to put in it. They had given him warmth and acceptance, and he was damn sure going to give them the best care he could.

It was when Rosie’s health began rapidly deteriorating that Earl was forced to take a good hard look at his situation. She went from being a little slow and a little frail to having a difficult time walking, and refusing her food. A sense of dread seized him as he fretted over her, wondering what he was going to do when she was gone.

And then he began to realize that the others were sure to soon follow. He looked around at Mac and Charlie, Smokey and Sarge, Jake and all the rest, and knew that he was eventually going to have to say goodbye to each one of them. Overwhelmed with a sadness he’d been avoiding for years, he really wanted to call someone, but there was no one to call, and for a moment he entertained the idea of getting another puppy as soon as Rosie passed.

But as Earl listened to her breath grow shallow, he understood that it was time for the tradition to end. He was tired, and lonely, and he needed to find his way back to humanity. The night Rosie closed her eyes for good, he would have to let her go.

He would have to let them both go.

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