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By Madison Smartt Bell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1986 Madison Smartt Bell
All rights reserved.
The dog was suffering, mainly from old age. She was twelve, thirteen maybe? I couldn't remember for sure. She was a Doberman, black and tan but going gray now, a brush of white hair running the ridge of her back, which was mounded with knots of muscle and some new lumps which were tumors. My dog had cancer. She was also blind in one eye, and had little taste for life left in her. A vigorous fighter and hunter in her prime, she now lay daylong in front of the stove, on the pad I'd made for her, unable to drag herself up and out, uninterested in doing that.
Once a day I could coax her out for a walk. We'd take a turn around the place, the dog limping badly from a tumor behind her left shoulder but wanting to go. The place had gone to seed too. All the fences were down, almost, but that didn't matter so much, since there was hardly anything to keep in. No more horses; that barn stood empty. In or around the second barn, about a half mile from the house down a little lane and through a couple of broken gates, I still had a few sheep and I'd take the dog with me in the evening to put out a little molasses for them, though they were half wild anyway and didn't particularly care if I showed up or not.
On one of these little outings I was in the feed room dipping a coffee can into the molasses bin, and there was a rat in there, a fat gray one — I stabbed down with the edge of the can without thinking, broke its back but didn't kill it. Now I had a paraplegic rat in the molasses bin, and I couldn't quite bring myself to hit it again, finish it off. This is what I have a dog for, I thought then. I tipped the bin and the rat fell out in the trampled mud in front of the feed room and began trying to drag itself up under the barn, using its front legs only. The dog crippled after the rat, did catch it, did kill it. Then she took it off somewhere to maul it and bury it. Probably that was the most fun she'd had in a year, but a broken-down dog catching a broken-down rat was too much for me to contemplate, and I knew I had to do something.
There were plenty of guns in the house; my father had left them there. When I got back I dug out a rifle and cleaned it and found a box of shells. The dog had stayed out with her rat and sometime after dark I heard her dragging herself up the porch steps, one step at a time. I let her in and she limped over to her pad. I built a fire in the stove for her; it was May and we didn't need it, but she liked a fire.
Do it and get it over with was what I told myself the next morning. I called the dog and she stood up shakily, looking at me and then at the rifle. Her blind eye, the left one, had swelled and turned a light marble blue, and it always seemed to be looking at something, the next world, perhaps, or something else I couldn't see. The sighted eye, a soft gold brown, looked at the gun and said no to it. The dog lay back down and wouldn't get up again, not even when I took the gun and went a little way into the yard, hoping to fool her out of the house that way.
There went another day, and the next day I got a leash on her and got her in the car and drove her off to the vet, something she hated. I parked outside the place and led her into the waiting room, where she skittered around a minute or two on the slick linoleum, legs slipping out from under her right and left, before I persuaded her to sit down. There were a couple of other dogs there with their owners, and it was a measure of her misery that she didn't offer to fight any of them. She just crouched there, trying to sit down and not touch the floor at the same time. I was glad we didn't have to wait very long.
The vet knew me and knew my dog; he'd been treating her for years, and dogs I'd had before, and dogs my family'd had. So when we took her back he didn't even bother putting her up on the table.
"You want her put down" was what he said, a statement not a question. My dog was squatting on the floor against my leg and I could feel her trembling.
"I was going to shoot her myself yesterday," I said. "She saw me pick up the gun and she wouldn't come out with me."
"Didn't use to be," I said. The vet looked at me for a long time. I'd known him most of my life and now he was getting older too, fifty or fifty-five he must have been. His hair was running back at the sides and a big blue vein had popped out of his forehead and forked over the bridge of his nose.
"This is not something I'm supposed to do," he said finally. "I could lose my license. You know that. "
"Oh, that's all right," I said. It was no news. That pernicketiness about where the drugs went was the reason I hadn't wanted to ask. "I'll figure out something." I flicked the leash and the dog got up, looking a little happier than she had been, thinking she might get out of there without anything horrible happening.
"Wait a minute," the vet said, and he left the room and shut the door behind him. It was a very average little cubicle, not much different from a doctor's examining room, with a sink and table but no chairs. There were a couple of tin cabinets on the wall and next to them a faintly humorous print featuring cats. I was looking at that when the vet came back. He had a heavy-duty syringe in his hand with what looked like about ten cc's of some lethal mauve-colored liquid.
"A big muscle's best," he said. "The hip or the shoulder."
"You sure it's okay?" I said. He looked at me; he wasn't going to answer that. I picked up the syringe, which was capped.
"Wait," the vet said. He handed me a little paper sack to carry the syringe out of the office with.
"I appreciate it," I said, and it was true. It had been a long time, I realized in the car, since I'd had a disinterested favor from anyone, though of course that might well have been my own fault.
Back at the house the dog and I went our separate ways till late in the afternoon. Then I went out to the shed beside the house and got a shovel. The dog fell in with me as I started toward the back of the place. She was moving a little better, I thought, stiff but steady, a sort of marching pace. From the lane to the sheep barn I could see the sun dropping down behind the far end of my biggest field, the field green and turgid with spring rain. In her younger days the dog had spent hours running that field, trying in splendidly idiotic wonderment to catch meadowlarks on the wing. My pleasure in the grace of her movement had been almost as great as her own, though of course that wasn't something to think about now. I threw molasses out for the sheep, with the dog sitting down to watch and panting rather heavily, though it wasn't really very hot. There was a new lamb that day, I just barely noticed. It looked like it would make it without being put up. I went through a gate at the back of the lot and into a sort of thicket that ran up the edge of the hill pasture. The dog followed along at her workmanlike trot. We broke into the open again just above the sheep lot fence and the pond, above the first of the three terraces too. The hill was steep and it had been terraced years before to keep it from washing out altogether. By the time I reached the second terrace the dog had fallen behind. At the third terrace I had to stop myself. I dropped the shovel and leaned on my knees, panting like the dog. Here in the upper reach of the pasture there were more buckbushes than grass this year. My family had reclaimed this land, and I was letting it go to ruin, but there we are. I climbed more slowly to the brow of the hill, and stopped where the ground leveled off. A few yards farther was another fence and woods ran back from it to the crest of the hill and down the other side. I stopped where I was and began to dig.
The dog was coming up more slowly, stopping now and then to rest and zigzagging across the slope to make the grade easier. She reached me before I was half done with my hole, walked past without interest, and flopped down on her side, a position which made the tumor under her shoulder more prominent. I remembered in spite of myself how fresh-turned earth had once affected her as vividly as a drug.
There'd been a lot of rain so it wasn't hard digging, and I wasn't asking a big hole of myself, just one deep enough to discourage the buzzards. It wasn't long, not really long enough, before I got it three feet deep, and I put down the shovel. The dog was sitting up now and I went and sat cross-legged on the grass beside her. After a moment I drew her head down into my lap and began to rub her ears at the base, which she loved. At the same time, with my other hand, I slipped the big vicious syringe out of my shirt front where it had been riding and jabbed it into her shoulder. The dog shivered a little and looked up at me with her live brown eye and that otherworldly blue one, but she didn't match me with the pain. I was the person that was rubbing her ears, after all. I pushed in the plunger and two seconds later I had a dead dog on my hands.
I sat there for quite some time with the dog sprawled over my lap, and while I was sitting there it got dark. There was an excellent view from the hilltop. Scrub was creeping into the pasture from both sides of the cleared field, and on the southern side the woods ran back out of sight, hiding the road which was my border there. But I was looking down to the west, over the pond with sheep gathered around it no bigger than toys, past the road that bordered two sides of the big front field. There were lights starting to come on in the new tract houses on the other side of the road, creeping toward me, it almost seemed. I looked to the north, over the abandoned horse barn to my own house, an old saltbox, dark. There was a hook of crescent moon up above it and as it got darker there were stars emerging too, out of the fading chalk blue of the sky. After some time, I couldn't have said how long, I shifted the dog's head out of my lap and let her body stretch limp on the grass beside me.
You get over your old dog by getting a new dog, but I understood, sitting there on the hilltop, that I wouldn't have the heart for that this time. I was too washed out, too numb, inert. Getting older might have had something to do with it. Forty hadn't arrived yet but it was in sight. Then you had to start thinking about the halfway point. Considering all that, I shifted the soles of my feet together and pressed my knees all the way out to the ground. Light karate workouts I'd kept up over the years made me still able to do little tricks like that, and it was some comfort when I thought of my age, which I seemed to do more and more often these days. On the other hand my left elbow was permanently wrecked with tendinitis. There'd be no cure for that or for other tribulations the years would be careful to bring my way. Also, my wife had left me five months before, though that was neither unexpected nor catastrophic; the marriage had been a bit on the technical side anyway. What was bothering me, I suppose, was the notion that not soon, but eventually, I'd be as dead as my dog was now. Then I got up and buried her and went back down the hill.
I carried my little black cloud of ennui into the house with me. Nothing had changed since my parents had moved deeper into the country a few years before. The three ground floor rooms and the enclosed porch remained exactly the same in every detail, except that I had wired an answering machine to the wall phone in the kitchen. Next to that on the butcher block counter was a fifth of George Dickel, either half empty or half full, depending on your state of mind. I had begun to associate these two articles together for some reason, perhaps because I had got very little use out of either for the past several months. There was a call on the answering machine when I came in from burying the dog, but I didn't listen to it, nor did I fix a drink.
The kitchen clock let me know it was dinner time or thereabouts, so I went into a brief cooking flurry. I chopped up an eggplant, a bell pepper, a yellow squash, tomatoes, onion and garlic, and threw all of these things into a skillet with olive oil. While it simmered I made myself a glass of ice water and turned on the TV to catch a segment of the evening mayhem, which was much the same as usual. After the local news and the national news the dish was done. I spooned some onto a plate and tasted it. It was good, but I couldn't eat it. I put the food into a plastic pot for the refrigerator and washed the plate and the skillet. It was still very early.
Some sitcom had come onto the tube. I turned it off and went on the porch, where I sat down in an armchair and switched on a light. From the reflection in the small window behind the stovepipe I could ascertain that I still resembled myself when last seen. The second volume of Either Or was lying on top of the bookcase near the chair and I picked it up and opened it to the place I'd stopped last. Kierkegaard on "The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage." I read this: "But the more freedom, the more complete the abandonment of devotion, and only he can be lavish of himself who fully possesses himself."
I liked that. But what followed seemed incomprehensibly convoluted. I sat there for five or fifteen minutes watching the letters crawl around on the page, and finally closed my eyes. It occurred to me that if I drank the rest of the bourbon I'd probably be able to cry, but I didn't get up for it. I hadn't taken a drink since Lauren had left — well, two or three days later maybe — and though it was much like locking the barn once the horse had been stolen, I was still determined not to take one.
So I decided to get up and listen to the message, click, beep, hiss: "This is Kevin calling for Tracy. Give a call back as soon as you can." He mentioned a New York number. There was a little pause. "It's work," he said, and there was another click and beep on the tape, signifying that he'd hung up. I shut off the machine and stood there with my finger on the button, thinking how eerie it was that he'd picked the perfect moment to call. Ordinarily I would have ignored it, or maybe I would have changed my number. But as it was ...
I sat down on the stool beside the counter and dialed the phone. Kevin picked up on the third ring. At the sound of his voice the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, completely of their own accord. It had been a long time since we'd talked.
"Hello. Hello? Is anybody there?"
"It's Tracy," I said finally, telling myself there was no risk in that much anyway. "Returning your call."
"Well," he said. "How've you been? Long time, no hear from, you know." Amazingly genial, he was, just like nothing had ever happened.
"About the same as usual," I said. "What about you?"
"You still like the country life?" he said.
"It goes along," I said. "It pretty much takes care of itself."
"You don't feel a little rusty? You're not stagnating way down there?"
"Not particularly," I said, though given the color of my evening this was perhaps not precisely true. "Why the sudden concern, Kevin?" I was getting back in the swing of it, fencing with Kevin on the phone. It seemed to do something for my adrenal reserves. In fact I'd always liked him quite a bit, even when I hated him.
"Oh," he said. "I thought you might like to travel."
"It's possible," I said, wondering why I'd said it. I didn't want to get involved with Kevin again, ever. Did I?
"Rome," he said.
"Why don't you start at the beginning," I said, "and finish up at the end."
"Well, it's an edit," he said, "a fine cut. You still cut film, don't you?"
"I still cut film." I reached out, picked up the bottle of bourbon by the neck, and set it down closer to me.
"It's an Italian job," Kevin said. "I'm supposed to give them an editor. They shot over here and they have to cut over there. It's the usual currency regulation bit. So. What's your schedule like?"
"I'd have to check," I said, which was a bald-faced lie. I didn't have anything booked for the next year. "What are you offering?"
Kevin mentioned money, lots of it. About double what I would have accepted.
"Nice price," I said. "Expenses?"
"Of course expenses. You'll take it?"
"What's wrong with this picture?" I said. "Let me think. I get over there, cut their film, they pay me in lire and I'm supposed to carry it out of the country in my shoe."
"No, no," Kevin said. "Nothing like that. You'll get yours at this end."
"Half in advance," I said.
"No problem. But I need an answer right now, really. I'd like you to be there at the end of the week."
Excerpted from Straight Cut by Madison Smartt Bell. Copyright © 1986 Madison Smartt Bell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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