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Sophie brought back a beautiful dog from her months in eastern Europe, a Polish Owczarek Nizinny Sheepdog, and she had papers to prove it. Not everybody, even among dog people, had even heard of such an animal, and among the few who had, most would live and die without ever seeing an example of the first native Polish breed recognized in America.
Cold often lonely months Sophie had spent in the east. They were months of trying to teach Chaucer and middle English to students who wanted to read William Burroughs and the Beat poets, months when she was always at least slightly hungry and never could count on an adequate supply of toilet paper. And her small triumph, bringing back a Polish Owczarek Nizinny Sheepdog puppy, known to those with small linguistic gifts as a PONS, she did not accomplish easily. As if tearing him loose from Poland had not been hard enough, his crate somehow failed to turn up at the Dane county airport with her other luggage. It had been at Kennedy all right. She had seen it there, but when she changed planes in Chicago, her dog, named Tadzio, apparently did not.
Selma met her at the airport and said of her loss, "You must be out of your mind. Bringing a dog all the way from Poland. And why would you want a PONS? I suppose this country doesn't have enough breeds to pick from? And where do you plan to keep an unlikely dog like that? You never did have the most ordinary common sense."
Sophie answered with dignity, "He isn't unlikely in Poland, although he will be rare in Wisconsin. And don't call him a PONS. He's a Polish Owczarek Nizinny Sheepdog, and I plan to keep him in the house. You can't imagine I'd bring a dog all this way and then put him out in the kennel."
"He'll upset the other inside dogs, or is that your plan? And why a PONS? They look enough like beardies to confuse potential customers," Selma said. She had some reputation as a breeder of bearded collies, and she kept inside the house the two or three she planned to show that year. Also inside were a feisty Yorkie by the name of Bridget who yapped her way into precious moments of silence with intemperate displays of jealousy, or so Sophie often complained without winning much sympathy from Selma. Also in the house was Magic, Sophie's somnolent chocolate lab.
"Tadzio won't be able to upset anyone if the airlines don't find him," Sophie said, her red tired eyes filling with tears. It had been a long trip from Krakow, and she had suffered nausea most of the way. The thought of the firm lump-free mattresses at home made a few of those tears roll down her face. To lie in her own bed again would be heaven, even with Bridget yelping hysterically at the foot, Magic lolling in the middle, and Selma at her most demanding.
Selma put a large awkward arm around her shoulder and gave her a quick hug. Sophie's small tense body relaxed a bit. Selma had always objected to public displays of affection, even the simplest hand-squeeze. "She did miss me, and she's more worried than she's admitting," Sophie thought.
The hard work in their relationship fell to her, and she only saved herself from complete domination by Selma with her threat to leave and have a baby as soon as her career turned a satisfactory corner. That threat, Selma always took seriously, in spite of the love she knew they shared.
Sophie's petite figure and perky little face regularly attracted men, and to keep her from drawing too close to any of them, Selma asserted that Sophie would have no reason to leave if she became pregnant. She swore she wanted nothing more than to have a hand in raising Sophie's baby. She had always wanted a baby herself, had thought seriously about having one, but she passed the forty mark without implementing the idea. Sophie's baby would fulfill a need in both of them.
They sometimes discussed the genetic credentials any man should have to father their baby. Intellectual, moral and physical credentials were many. And Sophie had her own problems about the chosen man. Would she have to date an eligible father-candidate more than once? Experience in college had taught that a fair number of men bummed her the second time around. One meeting would have to be enough, she said, unless the man had a truly remarkable collection of qualities. Someone who looked like Cary Grant, for starters. He appealed to her in his old movies, and Selma agreed that a man in that mold might do, although she did hope the baby would have Sophie's tiny tip-tilted nose.
Sophie kept saying she could easily find the man she needed, once she decided the time had come to need him. Selma asserted that she, certainly, had never met such a person, and that the men Sophie brought out to the kennels from time to time obviously did not meet any Cary Grant standard. Nor did that vet visiting from Poland, whom Sophie had met at the university. He did not know an ear infection from epilepsy and was too skinny on top of that.
Sophie was not as hard to please as her friend, but she did worry that, once she found an appropriate man, he might balk at having sex for her reasons. She had once--early on when she was still in graduate school--given a suitable fellow student an honest explanation for inviting him into her bed. She also had offered, when he still seemed a bit hesitant, a generous honorarium, but he had called her offer insulting, refusing flatly. Absurd and hypocritical behavior, she found that. Women were supposed to feel flattered when a man wanted to have sex just because he was feeling sexy. She had given a much better reason, and did not agree to apologize as the man demanded. She resolved to tell less of the truth to the next man, although she would draw the line at chattering about love the way some men did, with nothing more than sex on their minds.
She had not thought it necessary to chatter with Oswald, the visiting vet, now home in Krakow. He sometimes had found toilet paper for her, while she was there, and she had almost loved him. But she did not say a word to him about love. Nor did she tell him that according to the simplistic testing available in Krakow, when she left, she was seven weeks along.
She interrupted Selma's account of a mysterious rash on some of the Beardies. A man in a blue airlines uniform returned to his post, and Sophie rushed up to ask him if he had any news of her missing puppy. This man had a strong chin and a beautiful mustache, Sophie already had noted. He greeted her with a smile, proud of himself, and told her not to worry her little head further. The puppy was in Chicago. Too bad no more planes were coming from there that evening--Sophie had arrived on the last--but she would have her puppy in her arms by six-thirty the next morning. She told the smiling man she could arrange to drive down to Chicago and collect the pup that night, but he doubted if she could locate him at midnight, and it would be that or later by the time she arrived.
Selma's frown told her to stop talking nonsense. She wanted to talk about how she had had to put the beardies all on lamb and rice, and how that was costing a fortune. Sophie was too tired to fight.
"I don't see why they couldn't have put my Polish Owczarek Nizinny Sheepdog on the right plane," she said to the man in some irritation. He smiled again, his blandness unmoving, and told her workers had found her pup wandering around the field. He had thrown himself against his crate walls, and his flimsy box had fallen apart. No one on the field had had a minute to fix it up and put it on the right plane. The man said, "We're talking, aren't we, about a shaggy black and white puppy with a bob tail? One of the guys at O'Hare--a guy who knows a lot about dogs they told me--is taking care of your puppy overnight, and will put him on the first plane tomorrow. Comes in at 6.30, usually right on time. You won't be up too much before the crack of dawn anyway, will you?"
"Of course not. Come on Sophie, you know the dog's all right, and there's nothing more you can do at the moment," Selma said. Sophie, reeling with fatigue, agreed. Tomorrow morning at six-thirty, Selma would be busy with kennel chores, and she could fetch her pup by herself. She sensed that this short interval alone with Tadzio would be the last one in which she could enjoy him freely. Selma, once she saw him, would start belittling him, calling him an inferior PONS, and her a fool for bringing him all the way home.
Through a window at the airport, the next morning, she saw a man unload from the first flight a dog crate, which she recognized as her own, although pieced together with bits of unmatched wire. She had thought, back in Krakow, that this rickety box might collapse once it had a healthy dog inside, and so she had told Oswald, but she admitted this prior weakness to no one else, not even Selma. Yesterday, the man with the nice mustache had thought the airline might offer her some compensation for the crate. She would accept, with a clear conscience, what the airline offered, not because the wreck had ever been worth anything, but because the airline clearly owed her for the anguish it had caused her.
She remembered Oswald's confidence in the crate when he sold it to her (for no more than he paid, he assured her), and how he had called it, "built for the ages." She shook her head sadly, remembering Oswald's satiric smile and gentle hands. Oswald had been her one comfort in those cold Krakow months, and it had been fair to buy Tadzio from him to make up for refusing to marry him to help him obtain an American visa. She kept the issue from arising again by not even hinting to him about her pregnancy.
The battered box emerged from the black hole and began to circle unsteadily with the other luggage. A dignified looking gentleman helped her grab the clumsy load before it sailed back into the darkness from which it had come. A puppy slept inside the crate, and she sighed with relief.
She realized an instant later that this softly curled animal was not Tadzio. He was pale, almost white, but with light beige ears. He was a Yellow Lab with a perfectly shaped head and those appealing dark eyes that look like they have eyeliner sketched around them. An enchanting puppy. About three months old. Tadzio's age.
She had been sorry when Selma stopped breeding Labs, had even tried, without success, to bring her back to them.
"Labs are so suburban. People do buy them, and they're useful if you're looking for quick profit, but now that I've paid for the kennel renovation, I don't need Labs any more. Beardies are much more interesting. They also bring in twice as much for the effort, and their breeders don't have to deal with macho men or whining housewives," Selma had said.
She advised her house-mate to finish writing her dissertation and leave kennel decisions to her. Sophie did finish that job several years later, but Selma, by then, had dug so deep into Beardies, Sophie had seen no point in bringing up Labs again.
Selma respected Sophie's natural abilities with dogs and claimed she had enlarged these abilities by teaching Sophie all she knew. To the extent that an academic career left Sophie any time, Selma said her talents might have practical use applied to a breed like bearded collies, but would be wasted on easy-going labs.
Sophie had bought the Polish Owczarek Nizinny Sheepdog not only because Oswald desperately needed the money, but to try her luck with a breed notoriously more difficult to train than Labs, or even Beardies. Well bred Labs were so eager to please, training them took no special gift, Sophie said, but the Polish Owczarek Nizinny Sheepdog was clever and self-willed, the way Beardies often were, only worse.
Sophie's aim was to have Tadzio win some titles, in conformation and obedience, at big shows. This would establish her as a trainer in her own right, and expert trainers were making pots of money. She might even take Tadzio back to Krakow, mate him with Oswald's lovely bitch, and become a breeder herself. She was tired of LTE pickings at universities where no one valued her as a Chaucerian. Once people realized she was a first-class trainer, Selma would have to stop pretending she was just "helping out a little," at the kennels and would have to pay her what she was worth. Maybe take her into a partnership, before some other kennel did.
All of Sophie's plans depended on her having Tadzio in hand.
She ran to the airline company's counter, the large crate flopping against her leg, her inner voice telling her not to show hysteria even if she felt it. Some absurd mistake had been made in Chicago, and now the smiling man with the mustache would undo it. The way Cary Grant always did.
"This is not my dog," she said, not too loudly, to the person behind the counter, not the mustached man in the blue uniform, as it happened. A grinning young woman, in a blue skirt and white blouse--not official looking at all--stood in his place. She said pleasantly, "He's not my dog either, but isn't he cute? I've always wanted a darling puppy like this."
"You don't see the problem. This is my crate but someone has put some other dog in it. My valuable Polish Owczarek Nizinny Sheepdog, whom I brought from Krakow, has vanished, and all I have in exchage is some lab without papers," Sophie said, her eyes shooting the fury her voice controlled.
"That beat up crate made it here from Krakow?" the woman said.
Sophie stared wordlessly at the unofficial looking woman who did not realize what had happened and would not have cared in any case. Where was Cary Grant? Why was her luck always bad? Any teaching job anywhere--on the moon--she would have taken rather than hose down kennels for Selma year after year, but why had she been so thrilled with that crappy job in Krakow? Why had she let Oswald talk her into buying a sly stupid puppy who would not learn the simplest commands in Polish or English? Its stubbornness, combined with its looks, had reminded her insistently of Selma's Beardies. Her real vacation, the one she needed to preserve her sanity, her year in Krakow had not given her.
"Tadzio, come," she said four months after her traumatic arrival. She held up a small dog treat, and the charming little biscuit colored Lab cocked one deeply outlined eye, and ambled over to to receive his reward from her. She hugged him happily but rather clumsily because she had gained so much weight so fast. "Oh what a good Tadzio. What a wonderful Tadzio," she cried out. He slid from her embrace and ran to a corner where he had left a toy.
Selma burst into the training area waving a paper. "Greta found your dog. Didn't I say she would? She's one of the best PI's in the business. I've just had a fax from her, and she wants further instructions."
"What dog? What are you talking about?"
"Greta traced your PONS to Kansas City. She had the police impound him, and he's at the Humane Society there. In good shape but a little nervous, Greta says. We can go get him tonight." Selma gurgled with enthusiasm.
Sophie looked hurt. "You only want to be with your friend Greta, and I don't see what that has to do with me."
"You're no one to talk, and you six months pregnant. The point is, Greta has turned up that PONS. I knew she would have no trouble once I found the tattoo on your lab's leg and tracked down his source."
"She's lying if she says she's found my Polish Owczarek Nizinny Sheepdog. He's right here, and he has been all along. Tadzio, come," she said, and the little Lab came running to her as she had taught him to do.
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