“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.