“Otis!” says the girl working the fast-food drive-thru window. “Gimme a kiss!”
I am in my truck, buying hamburgers. The drive-up cashier’s name is Shawnda. She is a notorious Otis lover.
Otis (alleged Labrador) crawls over the steering wheel to greet Shawnda, and his prodigious canine butt is wagging in my face. His tail is swinging like a Louisville Slugger. I think I’m going to have a black eye.
Shawnda scruffs his hair. “Can I give him some French fries?”
“Why not. He’s a growing boy.”
She gives him a single handful and says, “Gosh, I really want a dog of my own.”
I massage my sore eye. “Take mine, please.”
“You think I should finally break down and get a dog?”
I know from previous conversations that Shawnda lives with her elderly grandmother. Also, Shawnda works part-time while taking college classes.
Sadly, I am unable to answer her question because there is a pool-noodle-sized canine tail whacking me in the face, knocking off my hat.
So I change tacks. “How’s your granny doing?”
“Oh…” She sighs. “One day at a time.”
Shawnda is her grandmother’s primary caregiver. Shawnda is the one who cuts the grass, pays the bills, cooks, cleans. Hers is not a simple life.
But I see a different side of the cheerful young woman whenever Otis is around. She leans in for the full-face lick. “I love you, Otis.”
Before we leave, Otis gives Shawnda a grandiose goodbye by licking every nanometer of her hands. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure this is frowned upon in the fast-food franchise employee manual.
We pay for our food and off we go. Shawnda continues to wave farewell in my rear view.
I turn to Otis. “You have a new girlfriend.”
He says nothing.
“Hey, I get it. She’s sweet. Just promise me you won’t rush into anything.”
“So, where do you wanna eat today?”
“The dog park?”
“The boat launch?”
“The beach? You wanna go to the beach?”
THUMP! THUMP! THUMP!
Don’t listen to anyone who says dogs don’t know English.
I change lanes. I veer toward the old beach route. Otis pokes his cinderblock head out the window to air his lips.
I am a dog guy. And this is a longtime lunch tradition for me and my dogs. I have been taking lunchbreaks on Old Scenic Highway 98 since the earth cooled. Soon I am riding the old road again, having a serious nostalgia attack.
US 98 was first commissioned in 1934, and traveled from Pensacola to Apalachicola. In 1955, the western terminus was moved to Natchez, Mississippi. Today the highway runs 671 miles and is the longest US road in the Sunshine State.
This highway harkens back to a time before Destin, Florida, became Gatlinburg with jet skis.
I drive Old 98 and I find myself thinking about all the dogs I’ve loved. Like Lady, the cocker spaniel who used to accompany me to work when I was a lifeguard on these beaches.
And Ollie, who had separation anxiety which motivated him to eat Sheetrock.
I think about my former bloodhound and mentor, Ellie Mae. Whenever I turned Ellie loose she would leave no human un-slobbered, no child unloved. She took 50 percent of my heart with her when she died.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe my dogs are gone. It seems wrong that dog-kind and mankind shouldn’t live the same amount of years.
I park. I roll down windows. I kill the engine to let the Gulf serenade us.
I unwrap Otis’s lunch. “It’s your turn to say grace.”
But he ignores me. Otis destroys his cheeseburger in an explosion of grease, thereby giving my upholstery a new and improved look.
“You’re table manners are impeccable.”
He stares at me. There is mayonnaise on his nose. He stabs his eyes into my food.
He locks his focus on my uneaten burger with laser vision.
“No way. This one’s mine. You ate yours. Didn’t anyone tell you that selfishness is the origin of evil?”
He licks his lips.
“Don’t lick your lips at me.”
I can measure my life in dogs. I have always had one or two. And frankly I don’t want to know what my world would be like without hair all over my clothes.
I grew up as a lonely kid. I was quiet, a little shy, overlooked by the opposite gender, and completely unexceptional in every way. But to my dogs I was somebody. Dogs are like that. I have known a lot of dogs in my time, but I’ve never known a bad one.
I can feel myself caving in from his death glare. I’ve lost the battle.
I sigh. I unwrap my cheeseburger and watch my dog insufflate the cooked meat like oxygen. Then in a display of enthusiasm he bathes my face until I start to laugh. Which is probably one of the best feelings you will ever have this side of Beulah Land.
Yes, Shawnda. I think you ought to get a dog.
Sandi. - April 23, 2021 8:27 am
Tell us how you truly feel, Sean. Do you really like dogs?!
Leigh Amiot - April 23, 2021 9:22 am
“…to let the Gulf serenade us.”
Oh, I envy you in the nicest way living that close to the beach. Even better that you get to share it with Otis.
Bkr - April 23, 2021 10:26 am
Love love love this. I cannot remember not having at least one dog – cannot imagine not having a dog. Never have cried harder than when one of them -Allie-died. She was my soul mate. Anyway thanks for your story.
Julie Moreno - April 23, 2021 10:38 am
I have always said that my dogs are better than most family members. True dat!
Karen Holderman - April 23, 2021 11:14 am
I know what you mean. My husband and I have always had dogs. We have 4 right now. 3 are seniors and one is a year and a half. Our house is full of furry love and activity. I know they can tell time too. 6:30 is outside and then breakfast at 7. 9:30 is walk time, 3:00 is walk again and 4:00 is dinner. Our terrier, Warren is in charge of the schedule and barks at the appropriate time. He is like a clock.
MKR - April 23, 2021 11:42 am
“Before Destin, Florida, became Gatlinburg with jet skis.” Love this line! Don’t let anyone tell you you aren’t poet laureate of the South, Sean. On a more somber note, I know how you feel about loving canine family members. We had to put our own elderly alleged Labrador to sleep a few weeks ago because of cancer. I haven’t been able to move his dog bed from the foot of mine yet.
Stephanie - April 23, 2021 12:07 pm
When we moved from Pennsylvania to Wyoming in ’08, we brought our two big girls with us… Sheeba, a Burmese mix, and Remmy (who we called “Pickle” for reasons we never knew), a 95 lb. golden lab. Sheeba squeaked when she ran. And Remmy would lay on my feet every evening and let me scrub her luxurious scruffy neck with my toes. They were family, and when Sheeba died, Remmy followed her a short week later from diabetes and a broken heart. Can’t say I’ve ever cried that hard before, and swore I would never, ever, never get another dog. It was just too painful. Needless to say, a year later we adopted a corgi and named her Whiskey. A year after that we adopted another corgi and named her Rye. Our clothes are covered in dog hair (along with every piece of furniture we own), and our family is complete again.
And these are the last dogs we’ll ever own. 😉
Ron - April 23, 2021 12:11 pm
Wow! Insufflate – mighty big word! Wall Street Journal worthy! Thanks. I learned my word for today.
“I unwrap my cheeseburger and watch my dog insufflate the cooked meat like oxygen.”
Tammy S. - April 23, 2021 12:19 pm
Virginia Russell - April 23, 2021 12:35 pm
A dog might be a good companion for her grandmother too. My mother had a dog until she died. Missy never failed to get a smile.
Shelton A. - April 23, 2021 12:56 pm
Shawnda…get a dog!!
kathymmonfort - April 23, 2021 1:26 pm
This touched me. I always enjoy your writing, but on this subject you mirrored my life experience and the comfort my dogs have always been. Dogs are the one area in my life where I reap what I sow. I fall in love with them and they reflect that love back one hundred-fold. The ability to love a dog and the love of a dog are true blessings.
Heidi - April 23, 2021 1:36 pm
Dogs have always been in my life, through good & bad. Family members really. They raised me. They raised my kids. They are with my husband & I now the kids have gone. I cannot imagine not having a constant loving companion.❤️
Jayne Holland - April 23, 2021 2:38 pm
I had my last dog who lived to be 19 years old. He was a Maltese who loved everyone. We moved our bedroom downstairs, when MAX became feeble and could not climb the stairs. I really really miss him. Everytime I look for another dog, I feel like I am cheating on Max.
Jan - April 23, 2021 4:16 pm
Beautiful … even to a cat person like me!
Christina - April 23, 2021 4:43 pm
Sean, I’m wondering now if all your wisdom came from these precious mentors over the years. So deeply known and loved.
Jennifer - April 23, 2021 5:01 pm
I love your dog stories! I met you last March in Birmingham right before everything shut down. I didn’t hug you because of Covid but I told you then how much I loved your dog stories. I’ve had them all my life too. I have two right now and the last I lost was two years ago. His name was Chester and he was 13 pounds of pure crazy. He’s been on my mind a lot this week, we gave him the best life we could and he will always be in our hearts.
BJean - April 23, 2021 5:06 pm
And so should I!
Linda Moon - April 23, 2021 5:09 pm
Sometimes a large tail and butt from an alleged Lab slaps my face. He weighs more than I do, but I usually manage to turn him around for a real kiss. YOU made a joke about parting with your Otis…..who DOES that?! Just kidding…you are a good dog guy. A dog of mine took 50% of my heart when he passed, and long before that my Uncle Redus from Pensacola took some of it, too. He was a preacher and knew lots about Biblical origins and Beulah Land. Thanks for giving me thoughts and memories of beloved dogs, Old 98, and Uncle Redus!
Tim House - April 23, 2021 5:16 pm
Oh, yeah… What would life be without our dogs? 🙂
Nell Thomas - April 23, 2021 5:29 pm
What would we do without our dogs and Shawndas? They make the world a better place.
CHARLA JEAN - April 23, 2021 7:34 pm
Dog moms & dads are truly the blessed ones! Shawnda definitely needs an Otis in her life!
Debbie g - April 23, 2021 9:44 pm
Could not quit smiling today Thank you!!!!! And love again to all ❤️❤️
Connie - April 23, 2021 10:00 pm
Heartwarming. I totally believe dogs expand your capacity to love. I can’t imagine my life without our babies.
Mary Bartholomew - April 23, 2021 11:45 pm
Had to look up insufflate. Thanks for expressing how my dogs eat leftovers. And for making me smile.
Bob Brenner - April 24, 2021 1:06 pm
Dogs are the best! We need more people that are like a loving dog 🐶 🐩 🐕 ❤️
Barbara Shields - April 24, 2021 1:08 pm
We had a blended dogs. Three spayed female cockers and one cocker border collie mix make. The girls never got along. The male was determined to mark every inch of hubby’s woodworking stuff. When they all died, hubs said he never wanted another animal who died before him. Yes, we had Catarina, Purrcilla and Magellan, the wandering male kitty too. All gone. I miss them all. Hubs says that, when he dies, I can get a dog. Not in a hurry, but dogs are great.
Suzi - April 24, 2021 9:56 pm
Sweet story, think I’m gonna take my Lily out for ice cream, after all, she’s my best friend 💝
Paul Moore - April 26, 2021 3:21 pm
Dogs are proof of some kind of loving God. Man and dog is too perfect to be chance luck. I have a shirt I bought from the local Humane Society. It has a picture of a hound and it reads. (. Try to be the person your dog thinks you are ).
Marie Wildes - April 30, 2021 3:13 pm
I love Dogs! They look into your very soul it seems, when you have something going on inside that you don’t want anyone to know. They know! Yes i love a dog named Rocky!