Tough Guy

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By Sean Dietrich

Thelma Lou sleeps on my lap. She is 70 pounds of bloodhound. She is wearing a handkerchief around her neck.
Tomorrow is a special day for her.
The handkerchief is red. We call this her “blanky” because she carries it wherever she goes. It used to be my everyday handkerchief. Now it’s hers.
I know what you’re thinking: “Oh, boy. Here we go again. Not another sentimental dog story.”
No. That’s not what this is. The last thing I would ever write is a sentimental dog story. Those are dumb.
I’m writing an adventure. It’s about a tough guy named John.
John emailed me. He told me a story. John was a wayward young man, with a criminal record, and a knack for falling in with the wrong crowd.
John worked at the liquor store. Late one night, after closing shop, he was taking out the trash. He heard noise. He saw someone digging in the dumpster next door.
“Who’s there?” he hollered.
John heard quick footsteps. He saw silhouettes leap into a vehicle. He heard the engine roar. He saw a car drive away.
Then, whimpering came from the dumpster behind the supermarket.
He peeked inside.
A trash bag. It was covered in stale bread, rotting vegetables, and shredded paper.
John removed the bag. It was lumpy. And squirming. He opened it with a pocket knife. And, as John puts it: “Those puppies were no bigger than your hand.”
Newborns. Nine. Only eight were living. One puppy was not. They were black and white. They had pig-like faces. They made squeaking noises.
“Those guys left them to die,” says John. “I mean, the puppies were living, and those guys willingly wanted to change that.”
John took the puppies home. He washed the deceased puppy with dish soap—she was covered in stink and urine. He gave her the name “Mary,” then buried her behind his apartment.
John wasn’t allowed to have animals in his building, so he told nobody about the puppies. He covered his closet floor in plastic.
He bought heat lamps. He fed them canine milk replacement liquid.
“I didn’t think they’d survive,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was doing, I’d never owned a dog, and there was no YouTube back then, you know?”
So, he held them.
He read somewhere that holding orphan newborn puppies was important. The sounds of human lungs, body warmth, a thumping. These remind newborns of their mother. So, he held them.
“It sounds ridiculous,” he says. “But they were my kids. You know, sometimes instinct just takes over.”
They looked more like hamsters than puppies. But in only seven days, they doubled in size. In another seven days, their eyes opened and they were walking. And making noise.
The landlord threatened to kick him out if he didn’t get rid of the animals.
“I couldn’t,” John says. “They weren’t ready. I was the only mom they knew.”
So. The tough guy moved in with his sister, in Columbus. He raised them until they were a few months old, he vaccinated them, he sang to them. He loved them.
He took out an ad in the classifieds. He even turned down a few applicants who didn’t seem like good fits.
It took a week to find eight owners for the puppies. And the animals disappeared from John’s life.
A few weeks ago, a young woman messaged John. The young woman told him she had been six years old when she got a puppy from him. She’s 21 now.
The girl was calling to tell John the last of the litter had died.
The dog was 15 years old when he passed. The girl thought John would want to know.
John says, “I started crying, ‘cause I still remember those little guys running around my apartment, and how much they meant to me. I guess I’m not such a tough guy anymore.”
I guess not.
Anyway, I told you I wasn’t going to write another sentimental dog story.
Oh, well. You can’t win them all.
Happy six-month birthday, Thelma Lou.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, and novelist, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, the Tallahassee Democrat, Southern Magazine, Yellowhammer News, the Bitter Southerner, the Mobile Press Register and he has authored seven books.

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