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Dealing an Ace to a shuffled life

In a suddenly quiet house, the padding of paws can sound a lot like luck turning

By John Woestendiek

Sun Reporter

December 4, 2005

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Suddenly this spring, I found myself alone. Don't worry, nobody died or anything. It was just the standard spousal parting of ways, followed by the standard reclaiming of space -- painting the walls colors I liked, moving furniture where I wanted it, purging the cupboard of nutritious foods and replacing it with food as it is meant to be: processed and microwaveable.

All of which, once accomplished, was followed by the standard, "OK, what now?"Perhaps a hobby, I thought. Perhaps a program of regular exercise. Perhaps even a social life.

I pondered the possibilities for months: Woodworking, I thought to myself as I played solitaire on the computer; I always liked woodworking. A health club, I reflected as I lay on the couch in front of another episode of CSI-Somewhere; it would be good to get in shape. Volunteer work, I pondered as I sat at a bar by myself and drank beer; that would be fulfilling.

Other than work, my life was indisputably dull and clearly out of balance. My continued inaction was leading to one of two roads -- one, staying home and becoming a hermit, a puttering old man who shuffles around the house in slippers and talks to himself; the other, going out drinking and becoming a barroom regular who talks to himself, only in slurred words. The outlook was bleak.

As it turned out, though, I had an Ace in the Hole.

The Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS) -- formerly the city dog pound -- isn't really a "hole." Since turning nonprofit, it has increased its funding sources and cleaned up its act. It's still dog jail, though, and Ace, a 6-month-old shepherd mix of unknown background, ended up there as a stray.

I ended up there on an assignment. For a story about volunteers, I went to BARCS to interview some of the people who donate their time on weekends. I first saw Ace outside, where a volunteer was playing with him. I later saw him inside -- in his cage. Of the dozens of yelping dogs there, he alone, it seemed, was silent.

My interviewing done, I headed back that Saturday to my empty and quiet house, which seemed to grow emptier and quieter with each day. And as I played solitaire, watched CSI or sat alone in bars, I found myself thinking, that was a pretty fine dog.

The next weekend, I adopted him.

Before I say anything else, you need to know that, while I have had many fine dogs in my 52 human years, Ace is quite simply the cutest, most intelligent, sensitive and remarkable canine to ever grace the planet.

Though still a pup, he is unusually mellow. We have bonded, maybe a little over-bonded. After three weeks, he still follows me from one room to the other, unwilling to let me out of his sight.

I have to leave the bathroom door open when I take a shower, or he gets upset. He has barked exactly once. He is a master of that cute head tilt dogs do when they're puzzled. He sleeps in my bed at night, likes to nuzzle my dirty socks, and has limited any destructive tendencies to my bedroom slippers, which, whenever I wore them, always made me feel like a shuffling old man anyway.

He has gained 10 pounds. I have lost 5 -- likely from the two walks each day to and around Riverside Park. (Federal Hill Park is just as close, but we leave it to the purebreds.) There, he's as friendly and sociable as he can be -- never meeting a dog he hasn't liked. I'm not quite as good at unconditional liking, but I've met some nice people, too. Usually, though, I remember only their dogs' names.

I still watch a little TV. (Ace prefers the Food Network.) I still play a little solitaire while Ace sacks out on the futon and chews slippers. I still even go to bars, but not as much. Sometimes we both go. There's a place called The Idle Hour on the corner, on our way back from the park, and Ace always pulls me in there. I swear.

He is content to sit next to me, usually on the radiator cover next to the barstool by the window. He greets new customers, and, as in the park, gets conversations started -- a skill that, outside of interviewing people for work, I never bothered to hone.

I don't want to say Ace completes me -- that would be nauseating. But it does seem like he has brought to my life much of what was missing, like he restored my balance and maybe even changed my luck.

How else can you explain having only one Ace, yet a full house?

john.woestendiek@baltsun.com