Step 1: Be friendly and engaging.
I really didn't plan to keep her.
When I found a beautiful yellow Lab mix sitting outside my fitness club one morning, I already had four other dogs and two cats, and this dog obviously belonged to someone. She had a collar, a thick red strip of nylon. No tag, but a collar nonetheless.
For two straight weeks, she had appeared each morning and stood vigil at the entrance, like a Walmart greeter. And then that morning on his way to work, one of the trainers had watched her cross a busy four-lane highway.
"She was almost run over several times," he told me.
"I'll just take her home and see if I can find the owner," I said.
"Come on, girl!" I called to the dog.
She followed me to the parking lot. Then I opened my van door, and she jumped in.
It was that easy.
Step 2: Be noncommittal.
When I arrived home with the dog, no one other than my Jack Russell seemed particularly surprised.
"This is temporary," I told my husband. "Just until I find the owners."
My husband looked around. Animals were splayed about on every available surface -- chair arms, the coffee table, the mantle, the top of the television, my computer keyboard.
"Right," my husband said.
"No, really, if I can't find the owners, I'll find her another home."
"Right," he said again.
Step 3 : Implicate your family members in the crime.
"So what are we going to name her?" I asked my kids after we had been searching for the dog's owners for several days without success.
"I thought we weren't keeping her," my younger son said.
He was in middle school, such a know-it-all, so holier than thou. My two older children were in high school, and together, the three of them were a formidable team of finely tuned bullshit detectors.
"Just temporarily," I said. "I mean, we have to call her something."
Right, they all said. Sure.
And then my daughter had a suggestion. She was all edginess and gloom back then. She was reading The Scarlet Letter for English class, and Hawthorne, it seemed, appealed to her darkness.
"Hester," she said. "We should call her Hester after Hester Prynne."
"Okay," I said. "Fine. Hester it is."
Step 4: Do your research.
A week or so later, I was still calling around to see if anyone was searching for an errant Lab. Finally, I reached the manager of a local animal rescue organization.
"Wait. That dog sounds familiar. Hold on," the woman told me.
She was gone a few minutes and then came back.
"Is she a really beautiful yellow with golden eyes?"
"Yes," I said.
"And a really big, pink nose?"
"We had that dog," she said. "I've got her folder right here."
Apparently, the family that had adopted Hester from this rescue group -- before Hester actually became Hester -- lived in a neighborhood that had a reputation for being particularly rough on dogs. There were lots of dog fights, lots of run-over dogs, lots of dogs poisoned or shot when they went on the wrong piece of property. The neighborhood bordered the highway Hester had been seen crossing.
"That's the dog," the woman told me. "I'm sure of it. She's a year old. The owners may come looking for her eventually, but if they do, I wouldn't give her back after the way they've let her wander. I mean, it's up to you, but I wouldn't."
I wasn't worried. We had had Hester for weeks with no word from anyone.
Step 5 : Be morally flexible.
And then one day, just after our Jack Russell had just stopped lunging at Hester's throat and after our cats had reached a sort of truce with her, skirting her prone, sleeping body by several feet but no longer actively trying to claw her eyes out, the phone rang.
"I'm calling about the dog you found," a woman said.
"Dog?" I said.
"Yes, the one you placed an ad about? On the cable channel?"
"Oh," I said. "Yes. What did your dog look like?"
"Like you described, " she said. "Sort of like a yellow Lab, only bigger."
"Did she have a collar?" I asked.
"Yes, a red one."
"Huh," I said. "Well, did your dog have any other markings?"
"Well, she had some white on her tail. And it was really fluffy, not like a Lab tail at all."
Hester was sitting beside me -- on me, really -- her back paw smashing my foot, her white, fluffy tail brushing my calf.
The night before, she had eaten $50 worth of pastries off the kitchen counter. And her fur...it was constantly, incessantly floating off her body like fluffy yellow clouds. Still, she had those lovely honey eyes and that perfect pink nose, and she exuded a certain anxious, neurotic neediness that I somehow related to.
What I said next, therefore, was not the result of rational thinking, of a well-considered decision. It just slipped easily out, almost as easily if it had been the truth.
"This isn't her then," I said.
"But the ad says a yellow Lab mix," the woman said. "A young female."
"Yes, but this one isn't really yellow, more white," I said. "And her collar is..." I looked over at a stack of avocados on the kitchen counter "green. It's green."
"Oh," the woman said. "I thought for sure it was her."
"Well, it's not," I said. "I'm sorry."
Step 6: Be prepared to temper your judgments.
Oh, I was full of judgment then, back before I realized this dog could scale a six foot fence, before one day, years after I got her, a stranger called to tell me she had found Hester standing in the middle of an even busier four-lane highway than the one near my old fitness club.
This was after we had given up on fences, after we had moved to a cabin on 53 wooded acres, and we occasionally let our dogs outside for short romps around the property. The highway wasn't far, but it was over a mountain and through dense brush, and I assumed Hester had grown, well, more sensible with age. That morning, Hester had only been outside ten or fifteen minutes.
As soon as I got the call, I jumped in my van and tore out of my driveway. By the time I got to the main road, the woman had coaxed Hester into a parking lot, where Hester was sprawled on her back. The woman crouched beside her, a death-grip on her collar.
"Thank you so much," I said over and over. "Thank you."
The woman stroked Hester's belly and glared at me.
"She's such a beautiful dog," she said.
Normally when people said this, I said thanks, like they were somehow complimenting me. But this time the words had a distinctly non-complimentary tone.
"She could easily have been killed," the woman said.
"I know," I said. "I mean, she's never done this before."
By which I meant that she had never done this exact thing on this exact road.
"Well, you really should keep her up," the woman said.
"I will," I promised.
But even after I had opened the van door and Hester had bolted into the car, the woman stood watching me, sizing me up. Finally, she got in her car and drove away.
"What the hell?" I asked Hester once we were alone. "What the hell did you think you were doing?"
She wagged, flashed her honey eyes at me, a little guilty and a little pleased all at once. Then she turned and looked longingly out the window. Like her namesake, she was full of passion, this one, a lover with a wandering heart.