Flash Fiction Challenge: “A Good Dog”
I’ll warn you in advance that the post below is going to get all sappy and mushy and sad and for all I know it’s going to be hard to read because three hours ago we took my dog, who I’ve had for all 13 of his goofy insane years, to be put to sleep. Still, it’s Friday, and I think that storytelling offers us great power in terms of… well, if not understanding emotion, then at least sorting through it and getting a picture of how big it is and what it means. I hesitate to call writing “therapy” because, it certainly doesn’t ever need to be, but it can be, it can be a place where you take what’s going on in your head and your heart and dump it all out like a big shoebox of LEGO bricks. Then you build. And dismantle. And build some more.
So, if you want to read all the stuff below, go for it. If you’re here only for the flash challenge, then the challenge is this: I want you to write about a good dog. It can be any kind of story you want, but a good dog should be present somewhere in the tale (“tail”). Adhere to those three words (“a good dog”) and you’re good to go. A thousand words, if you please. One week to do it (by Friday, May 6th).
Think of this as a many-author tribute to my dog, your dog, and dogs in general.
EDIT: If you want a different (and lighter) flash fiction challenge, I’m hosting a challenge over at Flash Fiction Friday blog featuring the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, so click over and check that out. And, Dan O’Shea is running a Tornado Relief Challenge (“Have You Ever Seen The Rain?”). Onto the rest of the post.
Last night, my wife dreamed we had to take Yaga to the vet. A prescient vision, it seems.
I woke up on this bright-but-rainy morning and found our Belgian shepherd sleeping in my office, which was… odd, because normally he sleeps in the hall right by our door. Even though his hips were wobbly as a stack of teacups, every night he’d still struggle his way up the steps and sleep by our door while we dreamed. We tried to block him from doing this, but those with shepherd dogs know you don’t separate the shepherd from his flock. He’d bark all night. He’d manage to knock over baby gates that even I couldn’t knock down easily. He’d always find a way. But, again, he’d sleep by the door. Never once in my office.
So, I thought that was strange, but… hey, he’s old, and dogs are weird.
But then I smelled something. Smelled like he’d gone to the bathroom which wasn’t unusual in these last weeks — he’s had a few messes, for which we procured the mightiest cleaning tool in our arsenal, the SpotBot (which itself looks like a small terrier-vacuum hybrid). I went downstairs and didn’t see anything. I came back up, still smelled it.
His tail was wagging, but he wasn’t getting up.
Then I saw. He’d gone to the bathroom where he lay. (Take of this what you will, but we’d put a few tax-related documents on the floor by the closet to be filed, and he went to the bathroom all over the tax papers. I guess he did what we all feel like doing once in a while.) I tried to get him to stand but he couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. His breathing was real shallow and he wasn’t even lifting his head much. The old boy had cancer and hip dysplasia, so I already knew his days were subject to grim accounting, and at that moment I realized that today was it for him.
It took the air right out of me, that realization. You think, “Oh, god, this is it, isn’t it? This is the day I say goodbye to a constant companion, a bearer of unconditional love, a buddy, a family member, a good dog.”
So we started calling around. Vet didn’t open for a few hours but we had some emergency numbers and thought, okay, we’ve got farms around so clearly they can send vets out to euthanize at the house. You get a horse or a bull who gets sick you don’t load him up into your pickup — the vet comes to you. But no, nobody would come out. Then you think, and it’s a horrible thought but, “Maybe I can do it.” Right? That’s how we did it on the farm. Dog got sick, Dad shot the dog. And I’m thinking, okay, I can’t shoot my own dog. I don’t have the stones for that. But crazy shit goes through your head. “Okay, I can… suffocate him with my hands. No. A bag? Maybe if I scare him, he’ll just… die. Or what if I convince him? Like, I’ll whisper in his ear, I’ll coax him to sleep, and he’ll just drift off like an angel leaning back on a comfy cloud.”
Like I said, crazy thoughts.
We knew what we had to do and where we had to go, and the big thing was getting him downstairs. He’d lost a good bit of weight but he was still 70+ pounds, and I knew that me carrying him downstairs would either a) fuck up my back or b) suffocate him since it was hard for him to draw breath already. And I sure didn’t want to drop him down the steps. The wife — who has so far kept me sane today — had a great idea which was, shower curtains. We slid two shower curtains underneath him, forming a kind of gurney for him. We pinched the ends closed and were able to get him downstairs.
He was… in and out of his oblivious kind of bliss, sometimes panting with bright-eyes and a floppy tongue, other times just sort of laying there with fast shallow breaths. Before we brought him down the wife had the idea to give him some ice, and we did that, which seemed to make him happy. He didn’t want any treats, though, refusing them. Still wouldn’t get up. Still couldn’t lift his head.
And then came this moment: his eyes rolled back in his head, and he seized up. Legs curling in. And he hitched a few times and I yelled for Michelle and I thought, okay, here it is. He’s dying. He’s dying right in front of our eyes and all we can do is be with him. And it called back to when I saw my father die because that’s how it happened there, too — he was sitting down and my uncle called for me and we were on either side of him and he just… died. And a part of me thought, “Shit, this is horrible to see and I don’t want him to suffer but this is good that it’s happening with us here and at home and…”
Then his eyes shot open, he gagged, and puked.
And then his body unclenched and his tail thumped a few times — like, “Whew, just had to do that, sorry!” — and he was slightly refreshed.
Still couldn’t get him to stand, but he was lifting his head more. And again the wife with the good idea, who sent me to the fridge to get last night’s leftover grilled chicken. He hadn’t been eating treats, but fuck, it’s grilled chicken, right? Not some bullshit Snausage made from, I dunno, polyurethane and squirrel bones. So I fed him a piece of chicken and he took it happily. Went and got more chicken, washed it, brought it to him. Again, he ate it all, relishing every bite.
It’s at this point we decided to try to get the littler dog, our chihuahua-terrier mix to, I dunno, give a shit. She has all the empathy of a tin bucket sometimes, or maybe she just didn’t know what’s going on — but those sad and precious stories of one dog lamenting another’s loss did not manifest itself so easily on this day. I had to coax her over with chicken so she’d kind of hang out near Yaga, but I don’t know that the situation really presented itself.
Then, the rain stopped and the morning cleared. The sky brightened with the sun so we moved the old dog outside and lay him on the front walkway and sat there for a while, petting him, giving him ice. Trying to shoo the ants away who apparently thought, “He’s old and slow, we can eat him!” Stupid creatures, ants.
Half-past the hour came and it was time to go. We put him in the car and he seemed happy, like, actually happy. I was pleased to have cultivated in him a love of riding in cars and even a love of going to the vet. (You know how most dogs hate getting on that metal scale? He thought it was some kind of ride.) (I’ll also note here I keep writing about him in the present tense and it’s killing me that I have to keep correcting myself and write about him in the past tense, I don’t even know why I’m writing about this right now except I just… I dunno, want to talk about it, want to write about it, is that fucked up? It’s a good thing you can’t see me right now, I look like a goddamn glazed donut.) Anyway. Him going on that last ride in the car was therefore not a fearful trip. Nor did he see the vet as anything but a beneficent place where occasionally a nice man would stick a cold thermometer up his pooper.
On the way over, 30 seconds into the drive the sun beat a hasty retreat and a few fat rain drops started to fall. Then, another two minutes into the trip, the heavens opened. It was apocalyptic, I haven’t driven in rain like that in years. Couldn’t see. Sounded like we were being hit by ball bearings. (We did not know this at the time, but we were under Tornado Warnings, which is very odd for this area. In our first house the wife and I rented, a tornado came along and sideswept our landlord’s house right next door, and twisted up a bunch of trees out back like corkscrews.) More crazy thoughts went through my head: for one, you think, okay, this is a sign, I’m not supposed to do this. I should just turn around and head home and when I open the door he’ll leap out of the car, reinvigorated as a young lamb, and all will be well. But then you think, okay, that’s nuts, but what’s totally not nuts is just how horribly perfect the weather is syncing up with the day, which further leads you to believe, okay, I’m actually the protagonist in this movie and everybody else is a weird simulacrum and this solipsistic imagining must be true because of how elegantly it all dovetails.
We get there and it’s just — you know, it’s morose city, we’re like, the mood-killers. Everybody in the vet’s office knows why you’re there. Everything collapses in these little awkward moments: an old couple at the “you need to pay us” counter won’t look you in the eye, a young woman brings in her big dog and she tries to keep him from you like maybe the dog might catch some kind of communicable sadness, the woman behind the counter has a piss-poor bedside manner but so help me god she’s trying but she can’t help but ask if we want to go ahead and pay for this now, upfront, before we’re reduced to a blubbering jelly-like mess (“And do you want a group cremation or a private cremation?”), and you see the one attendant sneak over and steal away a box of tissues and take it into a room and you think, “Shit, I know what’s going to happen in that room, don’t I? I know who those tissues are for, too.”
The vet techs came out and helped get Yaga onto a gurney. He still seemed happy. Confused, but happy. A little brighter. Still wasn’t getting up. The one vet tech, a guy, kept calling Yaga “honey” and “sweetie,” and I knew right then what was happening — our boy dog was once more mistaken for a girl. Even at the end, a beautiful lady, was he. They wheeled him in.
Took him into the room where the tissues already waited. They lowered him down on a pile of colorful Christmassy blankets. Covered half of him with a sheet and told him we had as much time as we wanted. We petted him for a while. I’d brought ice from the car, so we gave him some more of that. The doc came in, told us what to expect — he’s a very awkward, curt vet, and you can tell he really wants to be sympathetic but that it doesn’t come precisely natural to him, but he’s still as nice as he can muster. He explained that they were going to give Yaga an overdose of anesthesia, and that when he died we could expect him to spasm even after death. Then he said something that set off klaxons in my head: “Oh, he’s not breathing as heavily as I would’ve figured,” and then suddenly I’m like, holy crap, let’s hit the brakes, maybe the dog’s okay? I even asked, well, maybe it’s just his hip? But the doc pointed out that the dog has lung cancer, and it’s bad, and hip or no hip this ride only goes in one direction — you can’t stop it, you can only slow it, and at this point, so you really want to slow it just to engage deeper suffering? Still, you think, “Jesus, this dog’s been through so much, through elk attacks and Lyme disease and a whole belly full of rat poison and maybe he can escape death one more time, maybe he’s some kind of immortal beast, some pup from Cerberus’ litter,” but that’s insane, it’s not true, that while legendary he’s not immortal, and that to stall this or halt this is for me more than it’s for him and do I really want this suffering to tumble endlessly forward?
I don’t. I didn’t. So the vet shaved a spot on Yaga’s leg, then whipped out a comically large (and comically bright blue) syringe and put it in Yaga’s leg. And he went fast. Very fast. Before the syringe was a quarter gone the vet whispered, surprised, “He’s already gone.” And he was. No spasms, no shaking, just a peaceful drift, like an angel leaning back on a comfy cloud.
And that’s that. He’s gone. Immortal not in body but in perhaps the tales we will tell of him. He was a good dog. Sweet as sugar and dumb as a box of driveway gravel. Goofy enough to be happy until the end. We should all be so lucky, I guess. I miss him terribly. The house feels emptier without him. I’m sad he’ll never meet my son because he would’ve been great with kids.
Like I said, he was a good dog.
That’s your task, if you care to share it. Tell me about a good dog.