In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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My father called two weeks ago and told me that my dog’s health was declining. Ringo has been blind for more than a year and generally sits on the porch smelling the world pass by, oblivious to the flies that dance across his useless eyes. He is incontinent and has to wear diapers when he comes in the house at night; Dad won’t leave him outside because mice chew on Ringo’s nose while he sleeps.
Ringo was my dog, once. Mom and Dad bought him when I was fourteen, because they’d decided I was finally responsible enough to have a dog. Of course, by then I no longer wanted one. In the end, he became my father’s responsibility. I loved Ringo, but I didn’t really want him. Seventeen years have passed, and now my dog doesn’t know me.
I went to college without him. After graduation, I moved in with Janice, and Mom thought we would take Ringo to live with us. But Janice wanted him even less than I did, and Dad had grown attached to him, even though Mom disapproved. Once or twice a year, Dad would mention that Ringo was still my dog, and that any time Janice and I were ready we could take him. But Dad didn’t really mean it; he only said it because Mom forced him to. He was obliged to remind me, and only when he had done it could he relax. Ringo is the only source of marital discord my parents have left.
I haven’t petted Ringo in three years, haven’t taken him for a walk in seven or eight, and I don’t bring him treats. (What would I bring a toothless dog?) I have no feelings for him, other than a vague belief that our lives would be easier without him. If he were dead, my parents would have nothing more to argue about, and Janice wouldn’t think it necessary to repeat to me the reasons why we can’t take him; I know them by heart, but she likes to make her views known.
It is early Saturday morning, and the sun is crowning over the oaks in my back yard. It is nearly time to go. The appointment is in one hour.
An “appointment” is what we have this morning, Ringo and I. It sounds as innocuous as a haircut or a dental cleaning, but it carries great meaning for Ringo. It is he who should be concerned about our appointment. I am merely excising another complication from my life.
It is already warm when I step outside. There are no clouds, and no wind. Janice’s flowers can’t take many more days like this. The grass is brown and wilted. I reach my car in a sweat and silently curse my wife for not letting me take hers. Mine has no air conditioning, but its vinyl seats are better suited to withstand Ringo’s incontinence and purulent eye drainage. I sit on the broiling vinyl and sigh, then turn the key.
On the way to my father’s house, I picture Dad waiting for me at his kitchen table, facing the window that overlooks the field. He is nursing a mug of lukewarm coffee, and a cigarette is smoking itself in the ashtray near his right hand. Ringo is asleep in the corner by a pile of bundled newspapers waiting to be recycled. Dad is watching the butterflies and yellow jackets orbit and perch upon the roses that line the path to the garage. Marionette lines stem from the corners of his mouth, adding ten years to his appearance. His eyes are slowly receding into their sockets. He is thin and dark. Thirty-four years of hefting sixty-pound bags of fertilizer has curved his back and rounded his shoulders. He has labored for years and is now free to enjoy the finite stretch of retirement, filling his days with his roses and his antique cars and, until this summer, his lawn.
He called me last week to ask what I was doing today. I knew he was going to ask a favor, because he rarely calls me otherwise. The last time he called, I had to help him remove the old washer and dryer from the basement and install new ones. For an extra twenty dollars, the delivery men would have installed the new machines and removed the old, but Dad had told them he could handle it. We toiled for an hour — up and down the steps four times, sweat glistening, joints and stairs creaking. The city charged him fifteen dollars to cart the old set away.
“How is everything over on your end?” he asked when he called. His words sounded contrived, as if he were reading from cue cards.
“Pretty good,” I said. “Staying busy at work. Janice is doing well.” Janice looked at me across the dinner table and mouthed, Your father? I nodded and shrugged. “What can I do for you?”
“It’s Ringo,” he said. “He doesn’t look very good anymore. I was wondering if you could take him in next Saturday morning. I made an appointment.”
“Next Saturday?” I said. “What time?”
“Don’t they have anything later in the day?”
“No, but they have some earlier times.”
“You can’t do it?”
“I’d rather not. But I guess I can if I have to. He’s your dog, you know.”
I could feel my mother in the room with him when he said that. He did not want to take Ringo on the final car ride, and I could not blame him. Mom was pressuring him to have it done and he, in turn, was pressuring me. Take care of the problem, I told myself. Just finish it and make things easy on everyone. I told him that I would see him next Saturday, half past eight.
When I pull up to my parents’ garage, Dad is sitting at the kitchen window, as I knew he would be. He raises his right hand in a solemn wave, and I return it. The rose-lined path to the kitchen door seems too long. The flowers’ sweet, punishing aroma lingers as I climb the steps. I haven’t been here in three or four months, though our houses are less than twenty miles apart. My parents seem to enjoy their privacy, as I do mine.
Everything seems perceptibly older than the last time I stood in this kitchen. The once white linoleum has turned a slightly darker shade of sun-tinted yellow. The ceiling and walls and cupboards are a similar hue, as much from age and tobacco as from the sun. And in the center is my father, who has also aged visibly since last we faced each other. He looks small, frail, and jaundiced, like a premature infant.
“Good morning,” he says.
I find a mug and pour myself a cup of Dad’s no-frills coffee. It is too weak, and he has no bagels, just a box of supermarket doughnuts. I take one out of courtesy. Ringo is in the corner lying on an old quilt, too weak to beg. I chew the doughnut and wash it down with my father’s acrid coffee.
“How is Mom?” I ask through the stickiness.
“Pretty much the same,” he says. Then, in a hushed voice: “Driving me batshit.” He smiles, but I do not think he is entirely joking. His sad eyes drift past me to the garden. “The tomatoes are rotting on the ground this year,” he says.
“Have more than you know what to do with?”
“No, no, they didn’t do shit this year. Your mom just never got around to canning them. Other things kept coming up.” He is still looking past me, just thinking aloud.
He looks over his shoulder to make sure she isn’t coming, then nods once. One thing that remains unspoken in this house is the suggestion that Mom might be getting older, less capable of doing the things she enjoys. I drop the subject.
Dad is picking at a cigarette burn on the table top, avoiding eye contact with Ringo and me. The doughnut has impacted in my throat like a foreign object. Dad does not want me to take his dog. He is content to sit in his kitchen and drink his coffee and smoke his cigarettes while his decrepit dog slowly dies in the corner.
“You’re a little early,” he says.
I check my watch and see that I have forty minutes to get to the appointment.
“Yeah, I know. I guess Ringo will forgive me. It shouldn’t matter to him if we’re a few minutes ahead of schedule.” Ringo doesn’t look like a few days early would have mattered to him either.
“Yep. I guess you’re right,” Dad says. Then, to Ringo: “Come here, boy.” Ringo raises his head minutely at the sound of my dad’s voice, then falls asleep again. “That’s about all he does anymore.”
“It was time that you called, Dad. This is past due.” I am not going to try to make my father feel better about losing his dog; that is not why I am here. I am here as a deliverer, not a therapist. Dad neither wants nor expects me to say anything profound, which is a relief, because I have nothing to say that might make a difference. I take another swallow of coffee and check my watch again. “We should get going. . . . Or we could do it next week if that would work better,” I say, hoping he doesn’t take me up on my offer.
“No. No way. I’m ready to say goodbye today. Besides, your mom said that she didn’t want to find Ringo in her kitchen this morning when she gets up. And I promised her she wouldn’t.”
“OK. Do you have a leash or something?”
“You won’t need it. I’ll have to carry him to the car for you. He doesn’t walk much anymore.”
“I’ll carry him, Dad.” The thought of him lugging the dog to my car is absurd.
“Don’t be ridiculous. I’ve been carrying him around for the last couple of months. One more time won’t hurt.”
“Jesus, Dad! You carried that animal for two months? What were you thinking?” I am treating him like a child, and instantly regret it.
“Hey, don’t you take that tone with me,” he says. “You abandoned Ringo years ago, and I will not have you come in here and tell me how I should care for him. And don’t forget where you are. You will curb your language as long as you’re in my house.”
What can I say to this?
“Sorry,” I say, and I mean it. “Let’s just get him out to the car, OK?”
He pushes his chair back, then lets his hands fall into his lap, his face drawn into a scowl. He is angry not with me, but with the situation. He stands, and fixes his eyes on me. It is not a hard look, but neither is it filled with love. It tells me that he is ready.
He walks to the corner of the kitchen and bends over Ringo, who, perhaps catching a whiff of my dad’s nicotine-stained body, raises his geriatric head and aims it at my father’s. “Going to go for a ride, boy,” my father says gently but loudly, so that Ringo can hear him. He scoops Ringo into his thin arms and the two of them grunt simultaneously as they rise.
“You ready?” he asks me, his words short and choppy from the exertion, his face a mask of determination. He is determined to complete this last service, his final responsibility to his dog. I start to repeat my offer to carry Ringo, but my father does not want help. This is his goodbye. I will hold the doors.
He leads the way to my car, through the path lined with roses, their sickly sweet smell. He walks to the passenger door and stands there until I pull it open. Placing Ringo on the front passenger seat, he takes a deep breath and, trembling slightly, shakes Ringo’s paw and rubs the top of his head. I stand with my right hand on the car door and watch my dad walk back to the house. He has not said goodbye to me, but it doesn’t matter. I will see him again.
The towel I brought for Ringo to lie on has fallen to the floor, and his bodily fluids are already seeping into the cracks of the vinyl seat. My car will likely carry his odor for weeks, but I do not care if some part of my dog remains with me. I back out of the driveway, the towel tangling my feet.
Ringo is asleep. Or dead. I could check and possibly save myself a trip to the veterinarian, but I know this morning will not be that simple. I will have to go to the office and wait and be stared at with the rest of the people who are killing their dogs this morning. I will have to make small talk with women in curlers and lonely old men. I will have to listen to howling and barking, muffled by a closed door, and know that these are the last sounds made by animals that were domesticated and loved.
The wind rushes through the open windows, but I can still smell Ringo. He has not had a bath in months; the hair around his butt is matted with small clumps that swing gently as we bounce over bumps and potholes. His unseeing eyes are draining continuously, thick fluid streaking the hair below. His tail is curled on his stomach and has a kink in it from an old fracture. I pop a mint into my mouth and concentrate on the road.
I am driving faster than I mean to; we will be early for our appointment. It suddenly feels wrong to be early for such a thing. Rushing death, even that of a suffering dog, seems unfair. Emotions aside — and mine are not involved — I feel that I am cheating him of something precious. His last few breaths, labored though they are, should not be cut short for convenience. I lighten my foot on the gas pedal and coast, but even at the speed limit we will be ten minutes early. Have I been unconsciously rushing this? Could it be that I am so eager to get this over with that I would cheat my dog of his last few minutes? To me, ten minutes is insignificant. But for Ringo that ten minutes is eternity. It is all the time he has, and I am revoking it.
The clinic approaches on the right side of the road, but I pass it by. I make out the faces of those going in, and am happy that I am not among them. We roll onward, putting death behind us.
A few miles down the road, I pull onto the shoulder by a fallow field: wildflowers and weeds and litter and broken liquor bottles. I shut off the motor and get out. Ringo does not stir. The crisp chirrup of crickets fills my ears. I find myself breathing deeply, trying to suck in the life of this meadow, a tiny corner of the universe so filled with life — the flowers, the bees, the small rodents that scurry through the undergrowth — that it is difficult to imagine death could touch us. Death is a remote threat here, life so abundant. I sit on the hood of my car and listen to the field, to the ticking of the motor as it cools. The sun is above the tops of the maples at the far end of the field. I could run forever and not reach those trees.