Gracie’s Last Walk
Carolyn pulled the battered old black Samsonite suitcase her father had given her down the stairs at the Eastern Parkway subway entrance, the wheels bumping loudly as she went. The suitcase weighed as much as she did. The contents shifted suddenly, threatening to send her tumbling down the long concrete stairway. Safely at the bottom, she was immersed in a great din—the roar of trains, footsteps echoing on concrete, garbled voices on loudspeakers. She wrestled the suitcase past the crowd and through the special gate for people with strollers or large packages that wouldn’t fit through the turnstile, and then down the long ramp and onto the platform for the Number 2, headed farther downtown in Brooklyn and then under the East River to Manhattan. When a train pulled in a few moments later, the car was packed with commuters on their way home from work, but several passengers stepped back from the door to make room for Carolyn and her luggage.
As the doors started to close, Carolyn was startled when she turned to see two police officers with a formidable-looking German shepherd come into the car. Her palms began to sweat despite the cold, causing her hands to slip momentarily from the suitcase’s handle. It wasn’t unusual for the police to make a quick scan of a subway car before stepping back off, but this time they stayed on.
The train rumbled out of the station. The officers began looking around, talking to each other. The train made one stop, then headed out again.
The officers walked to the far end of the car, then turned and headed back toward Carolyn. The shepherd was staring at her suitcase, one of the officers holding the dog as it strained against its leash, its nose down, its tail straight out. The dog began to whine.
“Oh, my God,” Carolyn said to no one in particular.
“Miss,” said one of the officers, a beefy young man in a standard-issue dark blue NYPD jacket, one thick hand on the dog’s collar. The train pulled into the next station and the doors opened. “Would you please step out of the car?”
Carolyn had known Gracie was dead as soon as she had opened the gray metal apartment door. If Gracie were still alive, she would have been at the door, tail going like a rotor blade, barking and squirming with joy. Every now and then, she would greet Carolyn with the leash in her mouth, her eyes closed in that familiar golden retriever grin that said, Let’s walk! Carolyn would drop her shoulder bag and briefcase, and head back out the door with her.
The afternoon light had been streaming through the soot-stained window, the subway grumbling far below the cramped two-room apartment. Carolyn could see her beloved dog—the graying snout, the honey blond body—curled up, as if sleeping, on her blue Orvis bed, a Christmas gift from her devoted owner two years earlier.
Though she had been expecting it, Carolyn was still paralyzed by the wrenching tableau. She had never loved anything, or anyone, the way she had loved that dog. Nor had anything ever loved her that much.
She looked around the small apartment, already a different space, like some kind of still life. The sounds outside seemed more distinct now—sirens, horns, truck engines, clanging pipes, coughing, a TV show seeping through the thin walls. Gracie’s water dish was full, kibble still in her food bowl, the day’s ration of rawhide chews and peanut butter–stuffed bones untouched.
So she had died in the morning.
Gracie’s balls and toys were in a circle near her bed. One was near her mouth; the yellow one, her favorite.
Gracie had always been obsessive about chasing and retrieving, her eyes wide and tail wagging as she brought each of her toys over to Carolyn and deposited them at her feet. Whether Carolyn was on her cell, online, or reading, she would pick up the toys and simply hand them back. There was no room to throw them, and, in any case, the neighbors would have complained about the noise they would have made. But it didn’t matter to the dog. Gracie never tired of this ritual. When Carolyn got sick of it, she’d pick up all the toys and balls and stuff them in the closet, or else the poor dog would have run back and forth until she collapsed.
Carolyn had first encountered Gracie running loose in a vacant lot near Prospect Park. When the limping, emaciated dog trotted over with a rolled-up newspaper in her mouth, Carolyn knew all she needed to know. She and the dog had walked straight to a nearby vet, Gracie carrying the two-day-old New York Times all the way. The vet said she had been starved and neglected. Six-hundred- dollars-that-Carolyn-didn’t-have later, Gracie was shiny, happy, and healthy. Carolyn put up Lost Dog posters in the neighborhood, but weeks went by, and nobody came to claim her.
From that first day on, they became constant companions. They rode out blizzards together, went to the beach, visited the dog run every day. When Carolyn worked at her computer, Gracie offered herself as a warm footrest. And like a proud mother, Carolyn put Gracie’s photo up on her Facebook page.
Whenever Carolyn went to the corner café for coffee, Gracie sat outside and waited, never taking her eyes off the door. She had many more friends in the neighborhood than Carolyn did, and their walks were punctuated by greetings from neighbors, doormen, cops on patrol, delivery people. Gracie was just one of those dogs that made people smile. She connected Carolyn to the world in a way she had never really been able to do herself.
But Gracie had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure more than a year earlier. “It could have been something much worse,” Dr. Meyer had told her, pointing to a gray shadow over the dog’s ribs on the X-ray. “She’s had nine years, a good life for a golden,” he said. Five of those years had been with Carolyn. “She’ll probably die in her sleep. There’s not much we can do.” The last-alternative surgery was invasive, painful, expensive, and doubtful. Carolyn had said no.
Now here she was, down on the floor, her face buried in Gracie’s gray cold muzzle.
Outside, the sun had already moved past the enormous buildings across the street, and the apartment was now cloaked in the late-afternoon November gloom.
It was a long time before she got up. Carolyn remembered how Gracie got her through her mother’s death, and later, Keith’s walking out on their five-year relationship. Gracie was there when Carolyn got laid off, when her sister got sick, when a date went sour, when the nights got lonely. It was Gracie who kept love alive for her whenever it was like a flickering candle, always threatening to go out.
Carolyn sat quietly on the floor, stroking the dog, as it approached dinnertime. Only then did it occur to her to wonder about Gracie’s body, what she would do with it. She was in the middle of Brooklyn, not on some farm upstate where dogs could be buried in the woods. She had no idea what people did with the bodies of dogs. The thought panicked her a little. She called Dr. Meyer’s office. He was still there, the receptionist said, and after a few minutes, he came on the phone.
“Gracie is dead,” she said, her voice unsteady but clear.
There was silence on the other end of the phone, and Carolyn thought for a second that they’d been disconnected.
The doctor sounded concerned, but also distracted. Carolyn could hear phones warbling and nervous dogs barking in the background. She wondered how many times he had to do this in a week.
“I don’t know what to do now.” She imagined putting Gracie in a garbage bag and leaving her on the curb. Did people really do that?
The vet cleared his throat. “Bring her in here if you can.”
Carolyn was startled.
“Do you have a large suitcase?” asked Dr. Meyer. “We’ll have her cremated and return the ashes to you. There’s no other way to do it in New York. No taxi will touch a dead dog. There’s an animal hearse from an animal undertaker in Queens, but it costs a lot—four or five hundred dollars.”
Carolyn took a deep breath. She thought of the vet bills, the special food and medicines. She had piled up nearly $4,000 on her VISA, most of it for Gracie. She couldn’t do another $500. It just wasn’t there. These days, Carolyn had started to feel like a character in one of O. Henry’s shop-girl stories. Some weeks, she had just enough for bread and milk.
Dr. Meyer said he had an emergency, and asked her to hold for Carmen, the bossy Venezuelan woman who ran his office. Carmen had big hair and an even bigger heart. Dripping in gold jewelry, she dressed more for a nightclub than a veterinary clinic, but Gracie had adored her, in part for the biscuits she kept in jars on her desk. Carmen knew the name of every pet the clinic saw, and ruled the anteroom with an iron fist.
“Bring her here,” Carmen echoed. “Get her into a suitcase and on the subway. Just look out for the transit cops. It’s not illegal, really, but it’s not exactly legal either. You know how they are these days with bringing things onto the trains.”
Carolyn really didn’t know how they were. She never brought anything strange onto the trains.
“I’m here till eight tonight,” said Carmen, and then she was gone.
Carolyn went to the cabinet, but the garbage bags she had were too small. She left Gracie and walked two blocks to the convenience mart. They had some fifty-gallon extra-ply bags, so she bought a box of twelve.