Of course, it was raining.
It couldn’t be a sunny day. His idea of Allie running across the farm with a backdrop of painfully green Kentucky grass blurred away. Joseph dressed in jeans and a t-shirt that featured Allie’s Girl Scout troop number and pulled on a fleece sweater. Geese honked as they flew over the small pond behind their house. The sound was a welcome comfort.
Allie was already in the middle of her bedroom floor, Polly Pockets set out in a sprawling city plan around her. Each Polly Pocket had a different name, history, and belongings. Joseph had once tried to introduce a storyline of Megan driving over to Kenzie’s house to make dinner, but Allie was quick to inform him that the car belonged to Bethany, and Megan would need to take the bus. There was no Polly Pocket toy bus, so Allie had concocted its existence in her head. He envied her imagination — there were only her self-imposed limits and rules. Allie was already dressed in a “Little Mermaid” t-shirt, with Ariel smiling at him, and jeans. Her tennis shoes and socks laid were out at the end of her already-made bed.
“Someone’s ready to roll,” he said as she looked up, holding one Polly Pocket in each hand.
“You said we had to go make a decision today,” she said, sitting up and glancing at her shoes, like he was about to see them and take the adventure away from her. Allie might be afraid of losing things her entire life: starting with this — the happy home she had known these seven years on earth — seeping into a fear of losing future boyfriends, future jobs, future homes.
“We are!” he said and a smile cracked across her sweet face. “I need your help.”
Allie was a serious child. She had always been quiet, but the last month of closed-door conversations – as Joseph and his wife went from salvageable to disintegrated – had sent her even further into her own world. It was a quiet retreat of Polly Pockets and Barbie dolls with their own ecosystem of drama that she could control. He wondered when “divorce” or “separation” would enter her universe of plotlines.
A dog wouldn’t fix everything. He knew that. But maybe getting one would make the situation a little less harsh, a little softer. Allie didn’t deserve what was happening to her. He knew that the actions of her parents would shape who she became. He was half of that pair, that set, the one none of us has a choice in: parents. He was her dad, only 50 percent of her DNA, only half responsible for her big blue eyes. He was part of her upbringing, but this was not his choice. It was happening to him too, and he was only responding.
A dog was a new family member that would require his time and brain space, of which he had too much. A dog was some semblance of control. Buy the dog food. Potty train him. Take him for walks. Teach him to sit and stay. The dog wouldn’t replace his wife — soon to be ex, once the courthouse confirmed they had received their signed papers — but he didn’t want more silent nights alone. His daughter needed a companion, yes – but so did he.
“Okay, we just need to do my hair,” Allie said, standing up and heading toward the bathroom that was overwhelmingly blue: a pale blue tub, sink, countertop, and a deeper blue carpet. Allie pulled herself onto the countertop as usual, facing the mirror and indicating the brush and ponytail holder she had laid out next to the sink. The hair tie was red like Ariel’s lips on her Disney shirt, a detail her mother would have considered too.
He cleared his throat dramatically and, as was their routine, said in a deeper voice than his own that featured an unidentifiable accent, “HEAD BAAACK!”
Allie grinned and lifted her chin, dropping her head back and making it easier for him — a dad who had never put his daughter’s hair in a ponytail until two months ago — to secure her thick brown hair in a style she could wear to school and church without garnering sympathetic looks from moms and grandmas who had completed hundreds of perfectly smooth ponytails. Learning the art of an acceptable ponytail was one of the most important skills he had acquired as a single dad.
He had set out to do things right: to be a faithful husband, a respectable father. For nine years, he was both. He worked a reliable job as a sales representative. He would make it home before seven o’clock and spend evenings and weekends with his wife and daughter. They went to church every Sunday morning and Bible study every Wednesday night.
He would watch their daughter while his wife went to theatre rehearsal. He arranged a babysitter so he could see his wife’s plays on opening night as she worked behind the stage, sliding props around and dropping the curtain on cue. She volunteered at the local theatre, building and painting sets for their plays. In one month, it had all changed.
Well, he considered, it was only a month for him. For his wife, it had been changing for many months now. Asking her if everything was alright one night after she came home late turned into two weeks of slowly escalating conversations. She sat in his black faux-leather office chair in their small computer room while he sat in a wooden fold-up chair. His back ached every morning. He fought for the truth like an archaeologist afraid of disturbing the artifacts. Now, she was renting an apartment down the road, where surely her boyfriend from the theatre stayed over. She had left. She had left their home, their daughter, and him.
Back in the blue bathroom, Joseph completed his hairspray routine, which involved a lot of false sprays and acting like the can didn’t work. Allie patted the top of her head, made eye contact with her dad in the mirror, and they nodded their approval together. He helped her off the counter by lifting under her arms, and Allie trotted back to her room to finish getting dressed.
“Al, honey, you’re going to want to put on your ole tennies,” he said as he headed back to his bedroom to do the same. “It’s raining.”
He didn’t get a response, but a few moments later Allie appeared in his doorway with a greyed pair of sneakers on. “Are we going to be outside?” she asked.
He shrugged as he finished the knot on his right shoe. “Let’s do this, kiddo!”
Down the dark carpeted hall, past the church family portrait he hadn’t brought himself to take down yet. A hope still fluttered in him that she would come back, and he wanted the shiny photograph to be there to let her know she was doing the right thing. Through the open living room with a tall stack of Disney and Nickelodeon VHS tapes, past the kitchen, into the garage, and into the front seats of his beige Honda Civic. They both buckled up and Allie looked around the car as though for a clue as to where they were going.
A couple of weeks after the separation was official, Mrs. Ashwood from church had mentioned that her daughter and son-in-law had a small farm where they kept chickens, sheep, and a few horses. They’d just had a litter of puppies, which Mrs. Ashwood told him about as they shook hands during the greeting time at the beginning of the service.
“They can hardly keep up with half the animals they have now,” she said, squeezing his hand with surprising strength, her necklace of layered beads jangling. “Don’t know why in the Lord’s name they needed to breed more creatures. You ought to take one off their hands, give you something to do Joseph, you look more bored than Mr. Johansen during Pastor Greg’s sermon.”
“That might actually be good for Allie,” he said as Mrs. Ashwood straightened her necklace.
“Allie? Good Lord, she’s fine, smart little thing. It’s you I’m worried about.” She plucked his cheek. “I know it’s tough, your lady up and leaving you like that, but you gotta buck up. Stop by the farm on Saturday, I’ll let Tracy know you’re coming.”
He smiled at the simplicity of this advice. What would it be like to make statements about what would happen next? No, we’re not getting a divorce. We’re going to work this out. You’re wrong about us.
Normally thorough with any big decision, he felt as though this idea had been floating toward them and was now ready to land. There was a certain freedom in not having to consult anyone but yourself. His wife had taken the two cats they had adopted together to her new apartment. Allie had asked when she would see them again.
After the sermon, he picked Allie up from children’s church and told her he’d need her help with an important decision this weekend. When she asked with what, he told her it was a surprise and he saw the delight spread through her.
In the Civic that Saturday, Joseph secretly slid his left hand into the door’s small cubby where he kept the garage door opener and pressed the big white button while he said in a deep voice unlike his own, “OPEN, DOOR!” Allie still believed he could open the garage door with his mind, but had entered a stage where she no longer took his claims at face value; she wanted an explanation for how everything worked.
“But how do you do it?” she asked, as she did every time.
He tapped his temple, as he did every time, and rolled backward out of the driveway, turning to look through the rainy rear windshield. Allie sighed and switched her focus. “Where are we going?” It was the first time she had actually asked him that question which, gauging by the behavior of her classmates he caught when picked her up from school, was a patient approach for a seven-year-old.
“You’ll see soon, I promise, kiddo. And remember, I’m gonna need your help once we get there.”
He saw Allie’s nod out of the corner of his eye as he put the car in drive and began the trip to the farm on the edge of town.
A sudden wave of concern hit him: what if she wasn’t excited about choosing a dog to bring home with them? Their last dog, Simon, had passed of old age at 14 a few years back. He was a collie mix, constantly herding the geese out back, and circling Allie as she rode her training-wheel bike up and down their dead-end street. Allie had giggled at this and would later curl up with Simon on their living room floor. He was so gentle with her and she seemed to love him just as much, hanging onto his neck and sometimes falling asleep next to him in his dog bed. Until now, it hadn’t occurred to him that she might have just been young then, that she might not even like dogs, that she might be disappointed by the task he had built to be a grand adventure.
The rain slid across the windshield, the wipers ticked back and forth. They were starting to squeal every few swipes; he needed to get them changed.
Allie looked ahead with the intensity of a pilot watching for rogue birds, taking in every detail she could through the watery windshield, trying to determine where they were headed and what her task would be. They passed the grocery store where they used to take trips as a family on Sunday nights. Lately, it was just the two of them, and they mostly stuck to macaroni and cheese and canned chicken and dumplings. Allie never complained. He should figure out some simple meals he could cook for them.
They passed a road that led to Allie’s friend Madeline’s house, where she had stayed the night successfully only once. The other two times, Allie had called to come home. She hadn’t been crying; she had said that she simply preferred her own bed.
They passed what had been his — and Allie’s mom’s — high school, and what would be Allie’s high school in a number of years that he could count on two hands. That future seemed impossible — he was trying to get through today. How could there be so many days ahead in this life that they added up to his daughter entering high school?
They passed the entrance to their church, and he saw Allie turn toward the familiar pavement, checking another option off her list of possible destinations.
They went slowly through the rest of their community, Joseph taking extra precautions with the rain. As they drove on, the distance between houses expanded and horses and cows began appearing. Allie was out of options. She leaned back in her seat and glanced at him, but didn’t ask again.
Following the directions of Mrs. Ashwood was harder in the rain: “Just past the brown house, before the gas station, you’ll see the sign for fresh eggs,” she had told him. He slowed down and confirmed that this was indeed Macon Street before turning right. Allie perked up as they drove the mile or so back to the property’s entrance. Another right turn and there was a long driveaway, all surrounded by expanses of grass which seemed to be growing greener, deeper, as the rain came down.
They passed a small house on the right, framed by a chicken coop and a large barn. There were horses inside the barn, cows lying down under trees.
“A cat!” Allie said, pointing to a lounging calico under the house’s covered patio. An ideal afternoon nap spot, protected from the gentle rain.
Mrs. Ashwood’s daughter Tracy had heard their tires on the gravel and was waving from inside the garage attached to the house. She came from inside the hood of the car and wiped her oily hands on a greying towel. Tracy, her husband, and their two kids came to church, where Joseph had met them before, with Mrs. Ashwood on Easter and Christmas. Mrs. Ashwood spent a great deal of her time complaining about them not joining her for the rest of the year.
Joseph parked near the garage and darted out into the rain and around the car to open Allie’s door. They ran toward the garage together with their hands covering their heads.
“Hey, Joseph!” Tracy called, offering the towel she had just used to wipe her hands but neither of them moved to take it. “You probably don’t remember me — I’m Tracy,” she said to Allie. “I met you and your — you when you were even smaller,” she said, indicating a height low to the ground. Joseph was sure she had almost mentioned Allie’s mom and embarrassment settled on all of them. Allie didn’t miss much.
The smile Tracy gave him was one where the corners of her mouth were actually turned down. He had been seeing this smile a lot.
“Well anyway,” she said, “grab an umbrella. They’re just back in the barn.” She gestured to a pile of mismatched umbrellas, which he bet various family members had been using throughout the day. Her husband, out early to milk the cows. Her sons, setting out feed for the pigs. Tracy led them out of the garage as she opened her own blue-striped umbrella.
He chose a red umbrella, and Allie looked at up him with big eyes. She still didn’t know what was waiting for them. He put his arm around Allie’s shoulder, and they took off following Tracy, mud splashing as they reached the entrance of the barn.
Allie kept half jogging, then falling back when she left the circumference of the umbrella and raindrops reached her head. The barn was brown, with scattered flecks of darkened red paint holding on. From the entrance, he saw three horses in their stalls shifted and shook their manes. Raindrops merged on the edge of the roof and dropped heavily to earth.
He kept his eyes on Allie as four golden retriever puppies and their mom came into her view. She glanced back at him, her eyes swelling as if she needed him to confirm that what she saw was indeed real. The smell of wet soil and damp fur drifted to them. He inclined his head toward the puppies. Allie squealed, sending a few of the dogs into a chorus of chirping barks. She ran toward them, halted by the temporary metal pen that had been set up.
Relief coursed through him: she loved dogs, she loved all animals, and he was ashamed that he thought she might have outgrown them. To see her exhibit such excitement, he thought, was why he was here. To see his little girl overflow with delight.
Allie slid her small hands through the pen’s metal holes, allowing the dogs, who were standing up on their hind legs, to lick her. The mom, who had deep gold shaggy fur, sniffed Allie’s hand and licked her approval all the way up her arm.
“The three of ‘em jumpin’ are girls, and there’s one boy. I’ll leave y’all to it,” Tracy said, smiling at the joy flooding from Allie. “Just stop off at the garage and holler with which one you pick before you head out.” Her rain boots crunched the wet gravel as she left.
“Thank you,” he said, his eyes still on Allie, her ponytail shaking with laughter.
There were three puppies vying for her attention, and as he moved closer he saw that Allie was looking at a fourth puppy that was sitting back from the commotion — the boy — his dark black nose contrasting with his light reddish-brown fur. Even with both of their eyes on him, the puppy was rooted to the spot, as if someone invisible were telling him to sit and stay. The fur down the center of his back was darker and thicker. She turned to her dad, one arm still through the metal links being licked by the girls, and pointed to the still, quiet puppy.
Joseph walked around, reached into the pen, and pulled him out, his chunky body squirming for safety as he lifted the puppy into the air and handed him to Allie.
He stayed still in Allie’s arms, his fur rolling over her hands, his black eyes looking up at her. Though he was small, he looked huge in Allie’s arms, nearly the same size as her torso. He sniffed her cheek and Allie said, “This one.”
She had chosen the quiet, calm one — like her, like him. He didn’t need to fill a void. He needed to be enough for Allie. They were enough together: a team of two. He squatted down next to them, supporting the fuzzy little guy under his bottom.
“His name’s Amos,” she said.
He had no idea where she had heard that name, which came from the Bible, and his eyes filled.
“Amos,” he said, patting his head.
[Check out Katie Knecht's back porch interview]