Fiction · 03/30/2011

Are You Ready?

Give me a dog that likes to go the vet and I will give you one sad sack of a pet owner. These are the individuals that show up on the 6 o’clock news with something like fifty or sixty mongrels tied outside on chains or worse, are the type that make Captain or Miss Nibbs do the Best in Show circuit. In that situation, who in their right mind wouldn’t jump into the fire?

As we — my dog Walter and myself — were driving to the clinic, his snout had made a royal mess of the windshield; twice he had nudged the gearshift sending us into reverse. Granted, old Walt had the wherewithal to do this at a stoplight and a stop sign saving me from having to replace the transmission of my well traveled Saab 900 beater. He’s wise like that. This is standard MO. So perhaps I had done right by him all these years. If love is confusion and terror turned outward, maybe I was ok in his book. He didn’t want to go the doc and I certainly didn’t want to have to take him there.

But the fact of the matter was I didn’t really want to get home all that quick either. Earlier there was a fight. It began the day before and lasted through the evening into sunrise, up until now. See there was a snowstorm and instead of taking the dog out for a walk after dinner Alice insisted on putting him on the runner instead. It was my duty to bring him in — once Walt was done with his business. Somewhere between cigarette number one and cigarette number more than one, Walt had gnawed through his leash and taken for higher ground.

“Have you read the warnings,” Alice said while we drove up and down our cul-de-sac looking for Walt. “I mean really. Have you spent any actual time reading what they have to say on those things? If I was the Surgeon General I’d have a few more to add. Cancer? Emphysema? Phooey. How about smoking loses dogs.”

This hurt. This scraped deep. A soul rattling ouch to the solar plexus that lifted me off the driver’s seat and put my foot close to the brake.

“What they should do is have them on the front cover like they do in Europe.”

“Don’t they smoke more there?” I said. “In Europe?”

“You’re missing the point.”

With fresh powder making a whiteout of the neighborhood, I hit the horn and held Walt’s favorite bacon treats outside the window, hoping his scent was what it once was when he was young, back when he had a better nose for things. Back when he had eyes that worked. I could see Richards out in his driveway with his blower. Richards was a former POW, but nonetheless, a real son of bitch. Last year he called me out for not cutting my grass, in May. Seems the yard was a bit of an eyesore.

“So?” I said.

“So what?” Alice said.

“Statements. You mentioned statements. What are those other statements you’d add?”

I asked not wanting to know but more to let off steam. I was upset. No. Seething at this woman (a woman I had been dating for three years whom I had entrusted with my dog) for no other reason than she had the audacity to call me on my weakness, my lack of consideration. Smoking was just the tip of the iceberg. Was I guilty of neglecting Walt, too? Did she really think this? I knew enough that I hadn’t when he was healthy, that wasn’t the case. What it came down to, and what I didn’t want to have told to me, was when to put him down. There on Walt’s ribcage was a baseball of a tumor that the vet said was inoperable and should be dealt with according to his suffering. So maybe this was about Alice.

“Warnings,” she corrected me. “They put warnings on cigarettes, Maddox.”

“Right. That’s what I said.”

“No. You called them statements.”

“Statements. Warnings. Whatever.”

“There’s a difference. You know better. You teach English. There’s some slide there, professor.”

At this point we were at the end of the street, in the circle. It was our sixth or seventh time around here, circling. All along Alice had a high power flashlight — like the ones they use on the police shows on Fox TV — and she was shining it out her open window. When she did, shrubs lit up like wedding dresses. When she passed over tree branches and made them come alive, I righted her to the landscape below. We had each other down, so she seemed to indicate. She told me that it was important to keep the car in high gear because Walt’s hearing was going, too, and if we put it in normal he might not run out.

As if.

I stopped the car. “Get out.”

Without saying anything, Alice opened the passenger door and moved calmly to the front of the car. In the headlights I could see her face. She had her arms out in a What are you going to do about it, sport pose. But that face. Blank. Between the weather outside and the glass, she was dug in.

“Put it in drive,” she said.

“What?”

“Do it,” she said.

“Do what?” I asked.

“Put the car in drive.”

This thought never occurred to me. However, when she said this, it did.

“I’ve changed my mind.” I said.

“Tough breaks.”

“Alice. Come on, come back.”

She just stood there.

“Come back to the car, Alice.”

“Give her some juice,” she said. “Do it. Let’s see the money shot.”

She had done this before. Alice was a champion of danger. It was last fall when we had an exchange about the furniture. She wanted furnishings, and I couldn’t care less. Give me a house and I see a couch, a television, a chair or two, and a kitchen table — that about covers the works. It was not long before she told me I was lacking in the home skills department. One thing led to another and that’s when she took me by my arm down the hall to the guest room. “Don’t make me,” she cautioned. This roomful of moving boxes, duffle bags, car parts, and camping gear were relics in her eyes. Former student stories and essays — not guest room material. Before I could say hold up she was there with a lighter, threatening to burn my past life.

“Warnings,” I said, turning the Saab’s defrost to high. “Give me one.”

Again, she just stood there.

“What are the warnings Alice?”

By now, her face was covered in snow. Now she was only eyes and mouth.

“Give me one. Give me one and we can get on our way. Will you do that? We need to find Walt. Just one.”

“Fine,” she said. “Smoking kills fathers. You promised me you’d quit.”

__________

Just about the time I eventually found Walt lying in the snow outside our bedroom window was when Alice caught me in the garage. I had a space heater on Walt with water and dry food nearby. He was a wreck.

“Go,” she said.

“Can you give us a moment?”

“I’ll deal with his things. They need to be put away.”

There in the vet’s office, in the strangeness of a room without windows, the doctor arrived to see Walt. He was in a lab coat and wore clogs that a cook would wear and spoke like he was the captain of an impressive ship. He told me his name was Jim.

“Heard we had quite a night,” he said, rubbing Walt’s snout.

“Jim, he knows only the half of it.”

Jim nodded

After, I told him the other half.

“Can’t help you there buddy. But I got this end covered.”

He instructed me to cradle the dog’s head and massage near his tail area. “This is comforting,” he said. “Walt needs to be comforted.”

There are two things I swore never to tell. One was my first time with a girl. I blew that the day my older brother Conrad cornered me in our basement having found me with the babysitter’s telephone number written on my hand and a weird look on my face. The other was about Alice, and what I thought of having a child of our own. She had asked me when we were driving up to Burlington to see her sister’s new house, not long ago. Alice’s sister has two kids; her life has gone to plan. What I didn’t want to tell Alice was how undeniably scared I was that she was three weeks late, and she’s never late.

Around exit 10, I had to pull over to let her drive. She knew the score. Alice probably heard what I heard inside my head. Ok. Right? Ok.

The following week was when the storm hit.

And here was Walt, unsettled. Not much to look at except the hump on his side. When I finally got to touch him — it — the mass, it didn’t move.

As Jim did up his needle works I was back to last night — back to the fight that began and ended with Walt’s sudden and perhaps necessary disappearance. I was back to Alice standing outside the car in the snowstorm. Right before the two of us cut for the house, Alice fingered our initials into the hood of the car then put a question mark next to us.

I took Walt in the crook of my arm, scratched his tail.

“Now,” Jim said. “Start talking.”

“What?”

“Talk to Walt.”

“What’s to say, Jim?”

“For starters, tell him what you told me. Tell him about last night.”

I did what Jim said. This was comforting. It felt good knowing he knew what to do in this situation.

“Are you ready?” he said.

+++

Stace Budzko is published or forthcoming in Versal, Prime Number, Hint Fiction: Norton Anthology of Stories, Press 53, PANK, Hobart, elimae, The Los Angeles Review, Night Train, The Collagist, Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, Flash Fiction Forward, Brevity & Echo, Quick Fiction, Southeast Review and elsewhere. The screen adaptation of his story, “How to Set a House on Fire” was recently awarded Best in Show/Best Overall/Best Drama at Spotlight Film Festival, Chicago International Film Festival, Westport Film Festival respectively. At present, he is a writing instructor at Emmanuel College as well as writer-in-residence at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.