It was below 20 degrees in Illinois. And it was snowing. The library was closing for the night. The last of the runny-nosed schoolchildren had left the building, and all the hardbound books were fast asleep.
Elderly Martha was about to lock up when she found the cardboard Frito-Lay box beside the front door. The box was making noise. Whimpering noises.
The old woman edged in closer for a better look. She opened the flaps.
There were seven puppies inside. One of the pups was cotton white, the rest were copper red. Their tiny bodies were cold, and she wasn’t sure they were all alive. The creatures were huddled together so tightly she could barely wedge her hand between them.
Martha lifted the box into her arms, carried it inside, and she yelled for Juan, the custodian.
Enter Juan. Juan is 68 years old, with silver hair, a wizened face, and a five-foot frame. His English is weak, but his heart is extra-large. His name tag says “Jonathan,” but nobody knows why it says that.
The truth is, nobody knows much about Juan inasmuch as he only has a five-word vocabulary. Rarely does he say anything but the word “yes.”
“Help me, Juan,” said Martha. “I need your help.”
“Yes, yes, yes.”
The old man rushed to the basement and retrieved space heaters from storage. He brought several clean towels and a few pillows. Soon, Martha and Juan were tucked in the corner of the library, poised before a semicircle of heaters.
They wrapped the animals in swaddling rags, and massaged the puppies to keep them warm.
The solitary white puppy was not moving. So Juan held this one against his chest and kissed its little head. The old man closed his eyes and offered prayerful words to the ceiling.
Martha wanted to tell the old man that this would do no good, she was certain the animal was dead. But Juan continued to mutter beneath his breath.
“Padre nuestro, qué estás en el cielo, santificando sea tu nombre…”
“What’re you saying?” said Martha.
“Yes,” said Juan.
“It sounds like you’re praying.”
“Juan, do you understand anything I’m saying to you?”
“Juan, do I look exactly like Raquel Welch?”
So at least his eyes were good.
Martha watched the man with the unmoving animal. His small, leathery hands clutching the puppy against his chest. His feeble voice, speaking sincerely to the sky.
And the creature began to move.
“Juan, look. It’s alive.”
Juan wore a watery smile. “Yes, yes.”
Throughout the evening, they remained with the puppies. Two hours led to three. Three became four. Finally, Martha realized they hadn’t eaten supper and she knew her husband would be terribly worried about her.
“Juan,” she finally said, “I have to go home, and so do you.”
“Yes,” he said.
But he was not moving from his spot. Neither was he releasing the white puppy.
“No, you don’t understand, Juan.” She was speaking in fluent hand gestures now. “I go home. You go home. We all go home. Bye, bye.”
She was like a Dick and Jane book coming to life.
But Juan was not getting the picture. So Martha did what all strong, independent Illinois women would do. She texted her husband and told him to bring dinner.
In a little while, her husband appeared carrying a warm Pizza Hut box and a bottle of Pepsi.
“We’re back here!” hollered Martha when she heard the door open.
Her husband meandered through the dark library, past the fiction, the non-fiction, the books on horse racing, pastry dough, rose breeding, the Titanic, and manure composting. He found our heroes nestled near the biography section.
The small cluster of red puppies sat positioned before a flock of space heaters, all cranking full blast, like a fire marshal’s most visceral nightmare.
They all ate pizza. They took turns cuddling puppies. And although Martha could not understand most of Juan’s words, she felt a kinship with him somehow.
After supper, Martha tried to communicate to Juan that it was time to go home now. She told him she would take the puppies home with her. But Juan was obviously not going nowhere.
And so it was, the next morning, when Martha opened the library, she found Juan in the corner, head against the wall, fast asleep, with seven puppies scattered around him. The white one was still in his hands.
Later that afternoon, the local rescue shelter arrived to take the puppies, but Juan decided to keep the white one for himself.
“He never puts it down,” Martha said.
During our phone interview, I asked Martha whether she knew what Juan decided to name the white puppy.
“Well,” Martha said, “I feel very honored, but he actually named the dog after me.”
He named it Raquel, she said.