Worlds away in a Paris pet shop, true love awaits

 

 

The phone buzzed in its foreign French way, buzz-buzz, buzz-buzz.

“Allô?”

“I had to put Terrence down.” It was my brother George, calling from San Francisco. The pain in his voice, the disbelief, traveled all the way to Paris. “Just this morning. It was time.” A 14-year-old wirehaired fox terrier, Terrence was George’s constant companion, his treasured friend. I was so sorry.

“Come to Paris!” I said. “Come now, this minute.” And because he was so dazed by the loss, he did. George arrived, hollow-eyed and pale. He looked sad to his soul and insisted he would be for eons.

“You know what people are saying?” He was incredulous, offended. “They are telling me to get a new dog right away. To help me get over it.” He didn’t fight his tears. “There is no way.” George wasn’t ready and, given the wretched look of his thinner-than-usual self, it wouldn’t be time for awhile.

The mystery of kismet. The magic of fate. I believe all this, of course. When the Divine moves its mountains or parts its seas, when Providence or the Universe or God, whichever you like, makes its miracles, I am first to rave, Amazing. So when the miracle of Pierre appeared – poof! – before my eyes, I wasn’t all that surprised. An unwanted puppy marooned for months in a gritty Paris pet shop that turned out to be, to my mind, a gift of grace meant especially for my brother. I thought it quite great that, you know, God works in mysterious ways. But to witness first-hand the crazy-amazing sleight-of-hand that takes place when synchronicity sees to it that a miracle in the works will happen, dammit,…well, the meeting of George and Pierre left me in awe.

Theirs is a love story, really. And like all man and dog romances that end in happily ever after, I never tire of hearing it told. Tell it again, tell it again! The fairy tale fan in me loves to grow weepy with joy when recounting how Pierre the Paris terrier was rescued by my brother, an act that naturally begged the question: who really in the end rescued whom?

The animaleries that, squeezed side-by-side, line the quai that borders the Seine are pet shops popular with tourists. They may look out upon grandeur of Nôtre Dame, or the beauty of Sainte Chappelle, but inside each is a mad menagerie of creatures, great and small – purebred kittens to squawking macaws to rare, exotic chickens. The shops are often packed with visitors and in summer, stuffy and hot. There are litters of baby Beagles and small packs of Pekingese. Pens English Setters, German Shepherds and, snuggled together in straw, sleeping piles of Bichon Frises Ne Touchez Pas, reads a frequent sign forbidding visitors from even touching the glass, never mind opening the cage to pet, say, the yipping Yorkie desperate for love and attention. These dogs, deprived of walks or romps or even cuddles, are locked behind glass until the day they are adopted.

On a stunning September afternoon, George and I strolled into one such shop. It looked upon the Seine near Pont Neuf, Paris’s oldest bridge, and, given our good moods après a foray to the Ile Saint-Louis for pear sorbet at Berthillon, it looked inviting. What harm in checking out the exotic chickens, in watching the enthralling aquarium fish, in taking a peek at the Burmese kittens?

“Let’s look. Just to look,” I said. George was game; his face betrayed not a hint that this would be difficult given his desperate missing of Terrence.

We entered Le Merle Blanc (“the white blackbird”) to a cacophony of greeting. Canaries peeped, African Grey parrots squawked, and puppies erupted into barking, leaping, tail-wagging expressions of heart. Come love me! Taking a tour of the cages, we strolled by weeks-old West Highland Terriers and Maltese so petite they fit in a purse. There were French Bulldogs that whirled in little circles of excitement and Papillons at play with their Papillon littermates. We walked by the cage of tiny pugs and, under our gaze, each of the dozen wiggled itself silly. I passed each cage in that awful longing and ache particular to pet shop visits. I want to adopt them all. George, however, appeared unmoved. Neither Chihuahua nor Chow Chow found him murmuring more than the occasional, Hi there. No pair of King Charles Spaniels, no half-dozen Havanese saw him say more than, You’re so cute. Then we walked past a cage that, unlike the others, held a single dog: a wirehaired fox terrier, like Terrence.

“Oh, no!” George yelped. The fuzzy puppy with the inquisitive face looked at us expectantly, as if begging to be held. Something about him, however, was off.

“He looks so much bigger than the others puppies,” I said. “As in older.”

Locked behind glass, living in straw, the terrier would not be let out, we were told by the shop patron, who noticed our stop and approached, unless we were serious about adopting. I looked at George and before I could utter a word, he blurted, “Absolutely not. No way can I take him home. It’s too soon, I’m not ready. Forget it!” Yes, forget it.

“He looks like a Pierre, though, don’t you think?” My naming the terrier then and there only made George more eager to leave, and quickly. So, without a second look we escaped Le Merle Blanc to get on with our day at the Musée d’Orsay.

Eight days later George flew home to San Francisco and the puppy Pierre was forgotten. One day, however, I was walking the Seine and shopping the bouquinistes for that perfect antique print, and saw the sign, Le Merle Blanc. Why not? It had been a whole week. I wanted to see that Pierre had been adopted.

I entered the shop to a repeat cacophony of peeps and squawks in greeting. Again I strolled by furry heaps of kittens asleep, and gazed through glass at Dachshunds, Dobermans, and one very French, extremely handsome young Dogue de Bordeaux. Happily, I noticed that most of the animals were a new collection merely weeks old that replaced the pets George and I had seen, those surely sold to hopefully loving homes. Yet when I came to the cage that had held Pierre, my breath stopped. Pierre himself stood there. Even bigger than before, hence older, he was not yet adopted and worse, his price was marked down – a bargain.

“What happens to the puppies that go unwanted?” I asked the patron. “That is my concern, Madame,” he said, “not yours.” But I was concerned, and could not help but email George.

“Pierre is still there!” I knew my news would do no good, for it was unlikely George’s grief was so soon gone over the loss of his dearest friend Terrence. The short, sharp reply my brother sent was expected. “I don’t want to know,” George wrote. “That’s the worst news ever! But what can we do?”

Week after week, I could not help myself. I stopped in at the shop to check on Pierre’s adoption. Surely he would be wanted by now! Week after week, he was not. I emailed George with each unhappy update and, while I could tell he was troubled by the terrier’s plight, he made it clear he would not get involved.

“Please don’t think I’d like a new puppy for Christmas,” he said as the holiday approached. On Thanksgiving Day, I again stopped into the shop and saw that Pierre was now half-price. What’s more, he was losing his tiny, new puppy appeal by growing into an older dog typically less desirable to potential adopters. Come Christmas Eve, Pierre – still there – did not leave Le Merle Blanc in the arms of a Parisian papa or maman eager to make him Santa’s wonderful surprise for their overjoyed child.

“How merry a Christmas is this?” I telephoned my brother. It had been weeks and weeks – months – that Pierre had gone unwanted, so now I was wracked with worry. What would happen if he went unadopted for even longer? What was the pet shop’s policy for puppies left in their cages too long? What would become of Pierre if he never found a home, ever? My voice did not disguise my upset.  “Pierre is still there!”  Over the line I heard only George’s silence.

New Year’s Day came, and New Year’s Day went. Pierre remained alone in his cage. By now Le Merle Blanc had discounted the purebred puppy’s originally high price so severely that the shop was almost giving him away. Still, no takers. The Welsh Springer spaniel, the Standard Schnauser, even the rare and pretty Puli – all found homes. But Pierre stayed put. His wiry white coat was slowly matting, his eyes were crusting and weepy. And week after week he was growing. In the middle of January, however, in a Paris frigid and soaked by winter storms, I was surprised by a startling email.

“I’m on my way,” George wrote. My heart leapt. He’s coming to get Pierre! But before I could finish the thrilling thought that my brother had a change of heart, that he rerouted his New York business trip via Paris solely to adopt the unwanted dog, I was proved wrong.  “If that puppy is still in the shop these five months later, my trip will be ruined,” he said. “But I can’t. There is still no way I can take him. It’s too soon. I’m not ready. Okay?”

Okay.

George arrived in Paris without the least desire to rest after his exhausting overnight flight. He dropped his bags at the apartment, stood in the foyer looking exactly as wretched as he had after Terrence’s death months earlier, and announced: “Let’s go see Pierre.”

There is no way? Are you sure?

We hopped the Métro to rue de Rivoli and on the ride George was somber. When again above ground we were soaked by big, sloppy drops of rain as we raced to Le Merle Blanc. We entered the shop and it was just as we feared. Pierre was still there. His right paw had grown a sore; he suffered from kennel cough.

“Why is this terrier not wanted?” George asked the patron, who hovered. Today, however, he wore a name tag, his last name something or other, his first name, Pierre. What a coincidence, I thought, still oblivious to the machinations of fate playing out. Tiny minor miracles were moving George and Pierre into place, and we were concerned for the puppy, yes, but actually utterly clueless “Je ne sais pas.” The patron shrugged. “Perhaps the terrier is not so much in fashion these days, you know?”

Pierre not chic? Pierre fashion challenged? The shock of this shallowness did not wear off, for later George and I lunched in a sidewalk café  next to a hip black-clad couple who proved Pierre-the-patron wasn’t wrong. The woman held on her lap a jumpy puppy currently popular in Paris; they were everywhere, these Jack Russell terriers – in purses and parks, in shops and restaurants – and when we asked, the black-clad couple was adamant.

“Sadly, no,” said Monsieur when George wanted to know if a fox terrier with wire hair, a dog like Asta, the famous American movie star of the 1930s, was desirable to acquire. His wife agreed. “In Paris it’s bad form,” she said in excellent English, “to own a dog not branché – trendy.” And Pierre’s type of terrier, it seems, was viewed as old school, out of date, passé.

Gazing at Pierre though the glass of his cage, we didn’t see his lack of chic, his absence of style. The unwanted dog instead appeared not only lonely, living all by himself behind glass while other cages held pairs of puppies, even litters; he also was woefully deprived of love, and playtime and exercise.

“Does anyone take this dog outside for walks?” George’s question to the patron was met by a curt brush-off. “This is not your concern, Monsieur,” he said. “If you would like to adopt the dog we will take him out.” Out of the glass cage momentarily, he meant, not outdoors where dogs like Pierre belong, romping. No, no, I cannot adopt him, said George and, now depressed, we both left Le Merle Blanc to forget Pierre, for now.

But not a visit to the Louvre, nor a stroll in the Luxembourg Gardens, neither a hike to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, nor shopping at busy Printemps could alter George’s mood. As he promised, his trip was ruined.

It was late afternoon at Angelina’s on the rue de Rivoli, when over the tea salon’s famous hot chocolate my brother spoke from the depths of his funk.

“We’ve got to do something,” he said

“Like what?” I secretly hoped that George would dare to adopt Pierre. I wished he would risk it, loving again as he had loved his cherished Terrence. But he was insistent. “I’m not ready for another dog – I just can’t, I’m sorry,” he said. “But something. We have to do something.

Back at the apartment, George moped about, preoccupied. Elsewhere during dinner, silent through dessert, it was only hours later when I got a glimmer of something in him. I think it was an idea.

“What if I…,” he began after donning pajamas for bed.

“What?” Please, dear God, let him adopt this dog!

Then, like a fire was lit beneath him, George sprang to the phone and dialed his office in San Francisco; it was one minute to closing, 60 seconds before the receptionist put on her coat and went home. His call just made it, as did his request of his assistant to look up the contact info on the marketing card that “just happened” to be in the mail the day before he left for Paris. The card was from the Fox Terrier Rescue League – people who could, George thought, find a place for Pierre. This was highly unlikely. A terrier in Paris? Wouldn’t a rescue group in France be better suited to this task? George called anyway, and the League volunteer, who said, how strange, she never picked up the phone after hours, but “had a feeling” she should now, said yes. Yes, if we could get Pierre out of Paris, yes, she would find him a home. More calls followed. Yes the airline agent said: Thanks to a last-minute canine cancelation, yes, the dog would be allowed aboard George’s return flight to San Francisco. Each yes felt to me like some strange forward motion – a flow – was carrying us. Doors were opening, a way being made, and now we had our plan. We would buy Pierre and send him to America.

George, however, sensed no wonder whatsoever. Filled with apprehension, he worried.

“What if they can’t place him?” The puppy had oddly flopping ears and skimpy-haired legs. Born in a European puppy mill, his provenance was probably appalling to American fox terrier aficionados. Pierre was a markdown in every way, and George fretted over his fate.

*     *    *

The Paris day was brilliant and glittering after the rain when George and I hopped the Métro and raced to rescue Pierre. It was now seven months that he had been in his cage. Denied all the rights – and rites – of young puppyhood, Pierre’s formative weeks saw him develop not socialization skills, but rather a terror of being touched. At Le Merle Blanc the patron Pierre unlocked the terrier’s cage and George reached in to remove him – at last – from his bed of dry straw. His frightened yelps told us that seven months of growing up without walks or romps or, worst of all, an owner’s love was much too long for a dog.

George held the trembling terrier and we began the purchase transaction. It was complicated and time-consuming, a confusion of euros, purebred puppy papers, and French-U.S. requirements for a dog’s international travel. Finally, after many long minutes it was time to pay and that crazy flow still flowing us, which made all feel impossibly easy? Well, it decided to tweak us a little, all in mischievous fun.

“I’m sorry,” said the patron. “But I cannot accept your credit card.”

My brother and I exchanged looks of alarm. Don’t let there be a problem now! Panic rising, we did not have Pierre’s price in cash. Yet there was. “It is a mauvais fontionnnement,” said the patron, a malfunction, and he slapped the shop’s credit card reader in frustration. Time stopped while we waited for Pierre-the-patron to troubleshoot the kaput machine. Why now? In the delay and our dread that some small snafu like this would make it impossible to leave with the dog, we did not hear the bells that announced the pet shop door had opened. We did, however, hear her.

Oh, a fox terrier! I absolutely love fox terriers!” A fake-fur-clad blonde suddenly appeared at George’s side.

Fate came dressed in faux fur?

“Do you want him?” George blurted out as I stood stunned into silence. For the weeks, no months, I had come to Le Merle Blanc, this was the first time I heard a visitor speaking English. “We want to find him a home.”

Everything then went surreal. The blonde, named Brinn, was not just American, but out of all possible hometowns in the vast United States, she lived in ours. To my mind even more woo-woo, it was our own first cousin Jim, who introduced her to her husband – the very husband she wanted to call this minute to tell him she has found the perfect puppy with which to surprise their three children when she steps off the plane after a girlfriends’ week in Paris. She needed his okay, she said, she wants to be sure. Such an impulsive decision! So crazy – wanting to adopt a dog in an instant!

Struck dumb, both George and I just stared as Brinn took Pierre into her arms and, though still trembling, he tentatively licked her kissy lips. “I love you I love you I love you sooooooo much,” she cooed.

“Was it some kind of love at first sight?” I ask later when we go over this wonder again and again in amazement. “How could Brinn, on a whim, walk into a pet shop and in less than a minute decide that that doggie in the arms of my matchmaker’s first cousin is mine?” What’s more, we went over, what were the chances that, the moment we committed to plucking Pierre from an uncertain future that did not look good, the puppy’s happy home would appear – abracadabra! – before our eyes like a rabbit out of a hat, like a clever trick of magic?

“I certainly did not come to Paris to adopt a dog,” said Pierre’s potential new mom while the patron continued to troubleshoot  his card reader and George and I, giddy with our good luck, continued to marvel at the sudden appearance of Brinn. How could she possibly have entered the shop at the precise moment we were there, collecting Pierre? “I just had to!” she said. “I was on my way to lunch in the Marais and I saw all those kittens in the window. I stopped and something just called me. And look! It was you.” She gave Pierre a loving squeeze and beamed in joy and excitement. But then, party over.

“The only problem is…,” Brinn began and told us she could not take the dog with her now. Her husband had not given the go-ahead, her flight the next day might not allow him, and more, we knew: Pierre did not yet have his veterinarian-issued papers for international puppy travel.

What to do, what to do? George knew what to do. “Why don’t I take Pierre for the next 10 days and bring him to you as soon as I’m home,” he said. It was the perfect plan for the perfect miracle, and the only stall was, how to pay the patron for Pierre when at present our credit was no good and cash…. “I have plenty of money,” offered Brinn. Her trade, a pile of euros for the puppy Pierre, was the happiest transaction she had made, she said, in decades.

*     *    *

They had ten entire days. George and Pierre, together in Paris. What better place for a love affair than the most romantic city of the world? At the time, George would never admit that that’s what it was. As a favor to Brinn, he was simply dog-sitting, and instructing Pierre in the most rudimentary manners he’d need in his new life with a busy family. As a pupil, Pierre was sadly backward. Because his most formative months were spent alone behind glass, he didn’t even know, for instance, how to relieve himself on anything but dry straw. The lawns of the Tuileries confused him; a leash, a dog bed, a bath – all were new and novel and Pierre did not take to them without feisty terrier resistance. Every day for George was an exercise in patience, persistence and play that left him exhausted yet, it certainly looked to me, happy.

“I can’t remember ever being so tired!” he said one night before he and Pierre fell into bed. “The Bois has done me in.”  The Bois de Boulogne, the Champs de Mars, the Luxembourg Gardens, the Jardin des Plantes. The places he took Pierre for walks and training became his entire vacation. Forget the Monets at the Musée Marmatton. Never mind lingering over lunch in a St. Germain café. A visit to Versailles? Not this time. George’s Paris escape was consumed by Brinn’s new puppy.

Oh, that’s right: Brinn. “I keep forgetting that Pierre is her dog,” he said the evening he appeared to be high on something like love after a day of ball-throwing and fun. Seeing George’s joy, a worry occurred to me. “Will you be able to give him up?” Despite my doubts I knew he would. A promise is a promise and even if George were head-over-heels, he would honor his word to the woman whose family – three children! – awaited Pierre’s arrival. Or did they? We had not heard from Brinn in days. “Even if Brinn backs out,” George said by way of avoiding the question. “There is the rescue league to make sure it all works out. Pierre for sure will have a home.”

Just then, in its foreign French way: buzz-buzz, buzz-buzz.

“My husband’s all for it!” Brinn’s excitement traveled all the way to Paris. “We are counting the days until you and Pierre arrive.” Brinn and her family had Pierre’s new home ready, she said, with a monogrammed doggy bed, and a dinner bowl labeled “Pierre,” scripted in gold. Waiting for him was a handsome designer collar, a chic matching leash, and even his own personal trainer at an exclusive obedience school. It was going to be a very good home. “Hurry back!” Brinn said. “The kids can’t wait to meet Pierre.”

The next day George and I took the terrier to the vet, where he was pronounced fit to fly, and in four more days he was ready. Housebroken, leash-trained, and fluffy as only a fresh, clean puppy can be after grooming at Chez Louis, George and Pierre flew from Paris, together.

A rendezvous at Brinn’s home had been arranged, but that time came and went – twice. The moment the plane landed in San Francisco, George felt it wouldn’t hurt to introduce Pierre to America first. So they raced straightaway to the park. Jet lag was no issue for the Parisian puppy; he instantly adapted his frisky French self to the grassy fields full of California sun. And for the next three days it was thus: They ran; they romped; George threw the ball, the Frisbee, the Kong and Pierre, home at last, returned it to him and no one else.

The next week, Brinn called. “Well?”  She knew the truth, but amazingly, graciously,  let it be.

“Well, I…uh,” George began. He was unable to say what his heart had known from that coup de foudre, as the French say of instant love, months ago. Pierre was George’s and George was Pierre’s.

“I had a feeling this would happen.” Brinn’s voice was soft in understanding. “You two belong together.” And rather than express her disappointment or her children’s upset, she cheered George’s and Pierre’s new friendship and offered a wonderful gift in celebration: the monogrammed doggy bed and “Pierre” dinner bowl, scripted in gold.

“Brinn, I simply….” But she would have none of his regrets. Not when that same day George’s call to the rescue league resulted in Logan, the fox terrier Brinn’s family happily did adopt to become, in the end, Pierre’s favorite new dog friend.

*     *    *

The mystery of kismet. The magic of fate. How can I not be convinced it exists when, in that miraculous instant at the pet shop in Paris, appears the woman – the angel – to gently nudge George past his grief? Had she not, had Brinn walked by Le Merle Blanc without a thought, the story of George and Pierre might have ended there, with a broken credit card reader and the ill-fated future of an older, marked-down, bargain – the French fox terrier nobody wanted.

Today, George likes to think Pierre went unadopted so long because he was waiting for him. Brinn likes to think she was at the right place at the right time only to ease George beyond a terror of new-terrier commitment.

 

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