Friday, March 25, 2011

Killing Her Softly

I don’t want to get out of bed. I’m afraid to actually.  If I get up, I’ll have to look out the window.  Then I’ll know.  If my dog is alive or not. 

“If she’s dead in the morning,” husband had said, “I’ll put her in the Honda and take her to work.  So you all don’t have to . . . You know . . .”

The thing is, I never heard a car, mine or his, start and leave.  What if he’s down there right now?  Trying to get her sixty pounds out the back door without the other dog getting loose?  I know I should help.  Put my slippers and hoodie on and go downstairs.  Instead, I pull his pillow parallel to me and draw it against my hollow parts.

At 7:30 I wake again.  Get up, coward!  I throw back the flannel sheets and two ton down comforter.  Put my feet on the berber.  Shiver.  Stand.  Rearrange my jammie britches.  I realize I’m holding my breath when I get to the window.  Silver leaf SUV?  Gone.  I exhale and my lips flap.

Down two flights of stairs.  Pause outside the kitchen.  Please be alive.  And better.  Back legs healed.  In the name of Jesus.  I bend at the waist and peek.  The white dog is in a nose-tucked knot by the door.  Brown dog’s flopped on her side, the way I left her last night.  I smell, then see, the streak of pee on the floor back by her tail.

I approach and crouch.  “Hi, baby.  How’s my Painty Lou?” 

The power tail does not pound per usual.  Instead, a long quavery moan starts in her belly, works its way up.

My brow furrows.  “I know, sweetie.  I know.”

I get a  shallow condiment bowl off the dish drainer.  Run water in it.  Lap, lap, lap.  I hold her food dish in front of her nose.  She closes her eyes.

“But there’s grated cheese on it.  You sure you don’t . . .”

I sigh.  Get a rag and soak it with warm water.  I pull her away from her accident.  Wipe her back end and then the floor.  Daisy May, the white dog, does a jig near the door. 

“I’ll be right back,” I tell Paint.  “Let me put Daisy out.”

When I return, she’s by the door.  Dragged herself there using her front legs.

“You want out too?” I say.  “Do you have to do business?  Number two?”

I ponder how this will be accomplished.  I’ll carry her outside then support her by her rib cage while she--.  First things first.  I get a plastic table cloth and a towel.  Arrange them in the back yard, on the area with the most grass, least mud.  I slide out the gizmo that holds the screen door open.  Then I hoist the girl who weighs almost half of me.  Dear Jesus, please protect my back. 

It’s a difficult burden—half living and active, the rest almost-dead-weight.  Off the porch, into the grass, onto the makeshift bed.

“Baby, you can lay down now.  Relax.”

Instead, she’s caught in a sit pose.  Upright only because she landed that way.  She seems happy though, to be anything but flat and not likely to go anywhere soon.  I take a seat nearby and enjoy her accomplishment with her.  But then her front legs, stiff with determination, start to tremble.  Aftershocks from Japan maybe?  No, fatigue.  Her front paws slide across the vinyl.  She looks like an ill-fated swing set, anchored in quicksand instead of certainty.  I catch her around the chest, ease her to the ground.  Glance at my watch—7:51 a.m..  The vet’ll probably open at 8:00 or 8:30.

I consider going as is, soft blue jammies, black hoodie, red Crocs.  No, really should get dressed.  Put on a bra and undies at least. 

All of a sudden, my chest staggers with a fear breath.  The Dobie Brothers and Sergeant Oz, a Pit Bull, live next door!  What if they come out to pee and see her?  Smell compromised canine?  Surely they’ll come over the fence and have at her.  Especially Ricco.  Even though he squats to pee instead of hiking a leg, I know he’s vicious.  His ears, cut and docked into tiny triangles, make him look like a devil dog.  I’ve seen him hang onto his red, suspended-from-a-tree rubber donut for five minutes or more, thrashing, attempting to kill what is not alive.

I lift Painty Lou’s ear and whisper.  “Count to 60 and I’ll be back, girl.  I promise.”

As I drive down big Grand it occurs to me I haven’t cried yet.  Not  even when husband carried Paint into the kitchen last night, all mud and poo striped, almost black against his oxi-white IronMan running shirt.

I watched from inside the house.  “Why are you—“

“’Cause she can’t move her back end, that’s why.  Now open the dang door!”

I spent the next three hours beside her.  After I gave her a sponge bath, I spooned water into her mouth.  Begged her to eat her cheesed kibble.  I covered her with a towel and a blanket because shivs and little electrical currents seemed to be holding races under her fur.  I read parts of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! out loud.

“A red baby alligator.  Isn’t that interesting, Painty Lou?  I think it needs a name, don’t you?  I’d call it Ruby Slipper Bigtree if I were Ava.”

At 10 I made my way upstairs.  Husband was watching basketball highlights.

“I left a light on—“

He looked up.  “I know.  I’ll check on her, before I come to bed.”

He grabbed my hand before I went 'round the corner and upstairs to our attic bedroom.  I turned and waited.  In the end, he didn’t speak.  What do you say when something very bad is close at hand and you know, ‘It’ll be okay,’ is a lie?

I dreamed of my favorite aunt—Aunt Lo.  Saw her faded copper beehive hairdo.  Heard her happy machine gun laugh—eh, eh, eh, eh, eh.  Saw her Revlon "Cherries in the Snow” lips turn up.  I knew why she’d come.  To tell me to do something.  The thing I didn’t do when—

“Be with her when she dies.  No one should go from here to there alone.”

I licked my lips and nodded.  “Yes, ma’am.  I will.  And . . . I’m sorry.  That I—“

“Hush now.  Go back to sleep.”

The tears begin their serious work on the second speedbump in the middle of the flat part of Grand Street.  I keep my left hand on the steering wheel and bat around for the glove compartment latch with my right.  Click.  I pinch at the contents.  Score a Dairy Queen napkin.  Soak it with one nose blow.  I turn up the radio.  "Blessed be your name, on the road marked with suffering--"  

I hiss at the windshield.  “This road.  Rename it.  Call it
Suffering Street."

After I park at Pawprints, I glance in the rearview mirror.  My face looks like I’ve been bobbing for something in thinned out ketchup.  Hope maybe?  Pity all I got was desperation.  My eyes look and feel as if I swam all night in an over-chlorinated pool.

I run inside.  “My dog—L’il Paint—you all know her, she can’t move her back half.”

After a brief exam, the young vet comes back up to Painty Lou’s head.  She holds out her knuckles for Paint to sniff. 

“How old is she?”

“She’ll be 14 on April Fool’s Day.”

The woman focuses on the print of a sunflower field that hangs over my head. 

“There’s so many things this might be.  Cancer, a herniated disc, a blood clot.  I could recommend an MRI or back surgery.  But with her having no deep pain response, and with her age, I don’t think—“

I rub my nose with my palm and nod.  “So we should . . . you know . . .”  I mouth the rest.  “Put her to sleep?”

“This is so hard,” the young woman says.  “Telling someone to—“

I put my pointer finger to my lips.  “Shhhh.  Whisper.”

She fondles Paint’s ears. 

“Can I call my husband?  See what—“

“Oh, gosh!  Of course.  I’ll leave you alone.  You can call whoever.”

I hear him before I see him.  I put my fingers under the door and wiggle them.  I’m in here. See my hand?  Look down.

The minute she sees him, she tries to get up.  She gives him her paw again and again.  The one with the catheter that will deliver her . . .   Her strawberry Laffy Taffy tongue lolls out the side of her mouth.  Her glossy black rickrack gums swing up in a smile.  Husband’s eyes get a skim of water.

He puts his face next to hers.  Closes his eyes when her tongue gets close.

“Hi, girl.  Who’s my girl?  Who’s my girly goo?”

The door cracks open.  The jolly blonde vet tech that helped me get her out of the car peeks in. 

“Take all the time you need, hon.  Just open the door when you’re ready, okay?”

I nod.  When we’re ready.  When will we ever be ready?  Right before she disappears, I see it.  The sign in the plexi-glass pocket on the door.  MASS.  I squint.  What?  Do they think we’re having church in here?  Then I get it.  Not church MASS.  Mass cremation MASS.  A pet funeral pyre.  My insides compress like a tin foil ball.  Squeeze.  Crush.  Compact.  I close my eyes.  Try to not see the visions.  I look away from the metal shed with smoke coming out a little rusted chimney pipe.  I grimace at the plate of pancake-looking pets, piled high.  Open your eyes!  So you won’t see! 

My hands are over L’il Paint’s ears again.  It’s getting to be a habit.  I’d held them shut when the jolly tech and I had the aftercare talk.  Hum inside your head, Paint.  Sing ‘How much is that doggy in the window?’

I take my face off Painty Lou’s neck.  Look over at husband.

“Should I--  Should we . . . open the door now?”

He winces.  Shakes his head, shrugs, and nods.

No one comes for the longest time.  Someone burps in  the next room.  Excuses himself.  A girl collects lunch orders and money.  A machine buzzes.  Is it a nail grinder or a tooth polisher?  Or maybe a bone saw.  Please don’t come.  Ever.

I have a thought.  What if we build her a skate board contraption to get around on?  Put a ramp down the back porch steps.  Put puppy pads on her to collect pee.  Rig her with a poo pouch, like the carriage tour horses have in Charleston, South Carolina?  That could work, couldn’t it?  And at night . . .  No.  No.  That’s no good.  It’s not right.  It’s only me patching together another week, one more month.  Trying to keep her alive.  For me.  I’d just be postponing this . . . this . . . 

The tiny, gentle vet comes back in the room.   Cups the weapon of MASS destruction in her small hand. 

“You’re fine.  Don’t get up.  I’ll just squeeze in here.  Keep loving her.”

She sits on the floor between us.  “Oh, yes, girl.  That is your paw. It’s a very pretty paw.”

My head feels like it might explode.  From sinus pressure. Grief.  Guilt.

I cover Paint’s ears and speak to my lap.  “It seems so wrong,” I say.  “To do this, when her top half’s just fine.”

The vet purses her lips and nods.  She pushes the plunger on the hypodermic needle a tiny bit.  Squirt.

I rub L’il Paint’s ears like a rosary.  Not that I’ve ever had one, but hey, this is MASS, right?  I put my forehead against hers.  Stop shaking, dang it!  Don’t let her see, or know, what’s about to—

The girl vet puts the needle into its starting gate.  I sing into Paint’s ear.

“Go to sleep.  Go to sleep.  Go to sleep, Little Paint.” 

My voice sounds broken.  It chugs.  Stops.  Starts.  She lays her head between her paws.  I speak but it seems like the words come from the ceiling instead of me.

“It’s so weird, doing this on purpose.”  I wonder if everyone wants me to shut up.  It’s like I have Tourrette’s.  Or diarrhea of the mouth.  Logorrhea. That was one of my word-of-the-day words once.

I scratch at a piece of dried mud on her neck.  The grit falls to the gurney.  Paint’s eyes are half closed now.  My teeth clench and I pull a long inhale through my nose.  Let it out.  I put my mouth next to her ear again. 

“I love you.  I love you.  I’m so sorry.”

Husband strokes the ridge of stand-up fur on her snout.  Closes her left eye, then the right.

I whimper.  “Is she gone?”

The vet fiddles with her stethoscope.  Inserts the ear buds.  Listens to Painty Lou’s side.

“The heartbeat is very faint now.”

I put my ear on Paint too.  To see if I can hear the last of her—

The girl straightens up, pulls off the stethoscope.  “And, she’s, gone.”

I moan and turn away.  The vet gets up.  Rests her hand on my shoulder blade.  Moves around me.

“Take all the time you need.  When you’re ready, I’ll show you the back door.”

Husband takes Paint’s collar off.  Rubs at the bone-shaped name tag.  Holds his hand out to help me up.  I massage the fur ruff around L’il Paint’s neck one last time.  Lift my hands to my face, to sniff, then kiss them.  We walk past the MASS sign.  I stop  and look back at her.  Her, and yet, not her.  Not any more.  I roll my fingers.

"Sleep tight, baby.  Don't let the bedbugs bite."

We step out into the parking lot.  Husband makes a noise deep in his throat. 

“Well, that about sucked.”

“Big time,” I say.  I blot my face with my eighth soggy tissue.  “Know what?”

He keeps walking.  “What?”

“That wasn’t really us putting her to sleep.  It was us killing her softly.”

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Biggest Loser

My son raised his hand at the kitchen table.

“This isn’t school, sweetie,” I said.  “What?”

“Why’d you give me a shot glass with my smoothie?”

I waited ‘til he took a swig.  “Um . . . I seem to have lost something.”

His eyes bulged.  His cheeks puffed.

“Like what?”

I busied myself wiping the stove.  “Don’t talk with your mouth full,” I said.  “Like the mango pit.  The shot glass is for the pit pieces.”

I turned when I heard him gag.  A peach-colored smoothie stream filled the tiny glass.

“Sorry,” he said as he pushed the big and little glasses across the table.  “I can’t.”

“Aw, c’mon.  It tastes way better than the time I lost the plastic measuring spoon.  And the extra fiber, it’ll . . .”

He made his lips disappear.  Shook his head violently.

I sighed.  “Got a quarter?”

One of his eyes got smaller.  “Yeah.  Why?”

“Let’s make a bet.  Do you think Daddy’ll figure it out or not?”

“He totally will,” my son said.  “It’s like there’s sunflower seed shells in there.”

My little guy and I tried to keep our faces straight while my husband sucked down his shake. He wiped the corners of his mouth with the back of his hand then kissed me on the cheek.

“That hit the spot,” he said.  “I’m going for a run.  See ya later.”

I waited ‘til I heard the front door catch, then I stuck my hand, palm up, in front of my son. 

“You owe me twenty five cents.”

“Gambling’s evil,” he said.  “You know that, right?”


I searched everywhere for the receipt.  To figure out how much the watch cost.  The gift he got me for our twentieth wedding anniversary.  I found the paperwork in the bill pay dumping drawer.  I scootched my reading glasses up the bridge of my nose.  Used my pencil eraser to go line by line.  Found the store name.  Followed the dots over to the right.  My palms, underarms, and the divot under my nose felt suddenly damp.

“Did you find it yet?” my husband said when he came home from work. 

I shook my head and held my hand out for his lunch bag.  He went through the mail pile, slicing the top of each envelope with an old butter knife. 

“It’s probably gone forever, you know.”

I peered under the settee at a dust bunny.  “I don’t think so,” I said.  I squatted and picked up the dust fluff in a pincer grip.  “I’m pretty sure I’ll find it when I change my closet over.  It’s probably in a pair of shorts.  I bet I took it off to wash dishes one night.”

The next week I was at my desk.  Writing, editing, checking Facebook.  Same thing.  I heard a voice.  Well, I didn’t hear it really.  Not out loud or anything.  But it was definitely there, inside my head.

Lift up the printer.

There it was.  A small hill of silver links and a barely blue pearlescent face.  My throat felt tight.  I blinked a couple times to keep my eyes from spilling over.

I fished my cell out of my back pocket.  Slid it open.  Typed a text.

“Guess what I just found?”

“No way.”


I closed my phone.  Leaned back in my chair.  Gazed up at the ceiling.

“Thank you, sir.  Voice inside me, sir.”


I held the phone with my shoulder as I washed dishes. 

“Hello, Sunshine,” my husband said.

“Um, we have a problem.”

I heard his breath hiss out through his nose.  “What now?”

I rinsed my favorite pottery mug.  It’s pale aqua, celadon actually, with a ditch for my thumb and a dragonfly impression beneath the handle.

“I kinda, sorta  . . . misplaced the—“

Another angry nose noise.  “What did you lose now?”

I put the cup on the drying rack.  Petted the dragonfly with my Playtex rubber-gloved finger.

“The tax return,” I said.  “I stamped it.  Took it to the post office and everything.”

Huff.  “You’re kidding.  Tell me you’re teasing.  Wait a minute.  Is it April first?”

I shook my head, even though he couldn’t see me.  “No.  It’s not April Fool’s Day.  No such luck.”

“Dang it!  We’re getting back, like, $2,000.”

I pushed my lower lip out.  Pinched the bridge of my nose ‘cause it felt all prickly.

“Did you call anybody?”

I straightened and nodded.

“I did.  The High Street post office lady.  The one who always wears a Pittsburgh Steeler jersey on Fridays.  She said maybe someone’ll find it, be nice, and put it in the outgoing mail.”

Snort.  “Yeah, right.”

I grinned and paced as I waited for my husband to answer his phone.

“Guess what?” I said.

“What?”  His voice was still flat.  Even though the missing tax return debacle was a week old. 

“Please don’t be grumpy,” I said.  “I have good tidings.  She has it!  The Pittsburgh Steeler post office lady has our tax envelope.  The guy who changes the rugs every week found it this morning.  It was under the runner in front of the outgoing mail slot.”

“Thank God!  And . . .  sorry.  I was--”

“I did.  I know.”



I slung my jean jacket on the settee in the foyer before I answered the phone.


It was my friend, Diana, from home group.  We’d just said goodbye, not even five minutes ago.  At the school, down the hill.

“You missing something?”

I tilted my head.  “I don’t think so,” I said.  “Like what?”

“Uh, like your son?”

My mouth fell open.  I put my hand over my heart.  Pound, pound.

“My little guy?”

I spun in a circle.  Pointed at people.  Oldest daughter, husband, middle child, her best friend.  No son.  No man boy of mine.

“You left him down here,” Diana said.  “At the school.  After the show.”

I bonked my forehead with my palm.  “Dang it!” I said.  “I’m such a bad mom.  I counted heads.  Got the right number, but the wrong kid.”

I grabbed my keys and jean jacket.  My husband stepped between me and the door. 

"I'm gonna get him.  You stay here with the others."

I whimpered but moved aside.  Watched him flip through the keys on the fish-shaped key rack.  Then he put his hands deep in his pockets--pants and coat.  All the while I heard his mutters.  Words like loser and responsibility and grown up

I followed him into the kitchen.  He dumped out his lunch bag on the counter.  Smacked the containers this way and that.  He went over to the key rack by the back door.  Sorted through each peg.  That's when I got it.  And grinned.

I walked into the dining room, to my secret hiding place.  Where I stash really important stuff--extra front door, back door, and car keys, and my debit card, when I remember to put it there.

I returned to my husband.  Held out a key to his car.


He enclosed it with his fist.  It took him a second to lift his eyes to mine. 

"Oh.  Thanks.  And . . . I'm--"

"You're welcome, and . . . I know."

Friday, March 11, 2011

What Have I Done?

I’m an expert at going against the flow.  I will not be one of them.  Every other girl at my high school has long, straightened hair.  When they walk by, you can smell the crispy, burnt ends.  Sort of like a campfire.  Not really.  Campfires smell good.

I embraced my curls.  My mom bought me Herbal Essence Tousle Me Softly shampoo and conditioner by the gallon.  Bad hair day?  No prob.  I’d sweep my bra strap-length jumble into a messy, hair-banded bun.  Pull out strategic tendrils to frame my face, accent my Kraft Caramel eyes.

Last semester in biology lab, some girl felt sick.  We had to open windows to let the Formaldehyde fumes escape.  Icy, Appalachian air rushed the room.  I liberated my hair, to warm my neck and shoulders.

“What is that smell?

“Is it flowers?”

“Naw.  I think it’s apples.”

I surveyed the guys around me—hotties, creepers, athletes.  They all had their noses in the air.  They closed in, sniffing.  A blonde wrestler boy pointed at me.

“It’s her,” he said.  He stuck his face in my curls and inhaled.  “It’s her hair.  Holy crap!  It smells amazing!”
I shoved him, pretended offense.  But really?  That’s my favorite high school moment to date.


“What have I done?” I practically shouted into my mother’s anxious face.

On my daybed, she clasped her hands, her pointer fingers steeples. 

“It’s darling, sweetheart.  Really it is.”

She reached out to stroke a long, random piece.  It looked like an accident, a hairdresser’s lack of expertise.  I dragged my hands over the choppy darkness.
“Did you see this coming?  Did you?”
Mom stood and fluffed my pillows.  She glanced in the mirror over my dresser.  Used her pinkies to get lipstick out of the corners of her mouth.
“Tami and I both told you there was no telling what your hair would do short.  She said you’d have to blow dry, straighten, and use product to make your hair look like that picture.”
I threw my comb at the mirror.  “When?  When did she say that?”
Mom started to count on her fingers.  I crumpled to the floor.
“What am I going to do?  Tomorrow’s school. They’ll call me skate rat and boy.  If I wear my leather jacket, they’ll call me dyke on a bike.  Dyke!  I hate that word.”
Mom joined me on the rug.  Tossed my Converse high tops toward the closet.  She surrounded me with her legs, parentheses of love.  No, protection. Well, both.
“Oh, sweet pea,” she said.  “You’re gorgeous.  No one would ever think you’re a boy.”
She tweaked some wild, stick out hairs.  Tried to smooth them.  Epic failed.  I fell against her, my hands fists between us. 
“I lied, Mama,” I whispered against her neck.  She smelled familiar.  Fruity.  Flowery.  “I told myself I didn’t care what anyone thought, but that’s not true.”
Her breath warmed my ears.  Made them moist. 
“I want to be beautiful,” I said.  “More than anything.  I told everyone I wanted to be different, but I thought I’d look classy, elegant.  Like Audrey Hepburn.”
Mom’s breathing stuttered.  Is she crying too?  She turned my face toward the mirror beside my bed, pointed at us. 
“Baby, look who you’re talking to.  I’m addicted to my eyelash curler.  I won’t go to the grocery store without makeup on.  For crying out loud, I’m a Sephora Very Important Buyer.  I know.  I know what it’s like to want to be pretty, sweetie.  Me of all people?  I know.”
I laid my cheek against hers and our tears swam together.  I played with her rings.  Made them all face up.
“I kept thinking, even if I’m ugly, some little bald girl can be beautiful with a wig made from my hair.  But now?  That’s not enough.”  I turned to look Mom in the eye.  “Does that make me a bad person?”
She clasped her hands around my ribs and rocked me.  Shushed and there-thered me.
“I never thought I’d be ugly, Mama.  Never.”  My voice sounded as if I’d inhaled helium. 
A heaving suck of air escaped my mouth.  I felt my face start to implode.  She cupped my cheek and gazed at our reflection. 
“But you’re not, sweetheart.  There’s no—“     
I snorted snot.  “I know.  I mean--   My face is still pretty.  But you don’t know high schoolers.  They’re mean, Mama.  So, so mean.”  Flesh caught in zippers mean.
Mom rested her chin on my shoulder.  “I’ll pray for you tomorrow.  I promise.  I won’t stop.  Not for a second.”
I nodded and smiled.  Tried to anyway.  “I know you will.  Thanks.”
I stood.  Walked to my dresser.  Got a purple eyeliner out of the mug I made in eighth-grade art class.  I stepped in front of the full-length mirror on my closet door.  Wrote in cursive on the glass.  “I am beautiful.”  I made a kissy face, then I underlined the sentence.  Over and over.


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