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. Did I fall back asleep for a minute and miss it? 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 Sister 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 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’s 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.. Does the vet open at 8:00 or 8:30?
I consider going as is, soft blue jammies, black hoodie, red Crocs. No. I really should get dressed. Put on a bra and undies at least.
All of a sudden, my chest stutters 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, scalpeled 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 caught 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. Watched 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 speed bump 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. I look 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 are 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 at her age, I don’t think—“
I wipe 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. Blinks 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 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 cover 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. Finally, he nods.
No one comes for the longest time. In the next room, someone burps. 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 make her a skate board contraption to get around on? Build 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 beautiful paw.”
I’m pretty sure my head might explode. From sinus pressure. Grief. Guilt.
I lay my hands over 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 Pai-nt.”
My voice sounds broken. It stumbles. Stops. Starts. She lays her head between her paws. I speak but it seems like the words come from behind 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. Grit falls to the gurney. Paint’s eyes are at half mast now. My teeth clench and I pull a long inhale through them. Let it out through my nose. I line up my cheek with hers.
“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 removes Paint’s collar. Shines the bone-shaped name tag. I massage the fur ruff around L’il Paint’s neck one last time. Lift my hands to my face, sniff, then kiss them. Husband holds his hand out to help me up. We walk past the MASS sign. I pause 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.”