By Myles Alexander
Where does one bury a dog in the city?
My favorite sweatshirt sits crumpled in the corner, looking like frozen ripples on a pond. It bears my college insignia, but that’s not what makes it important. If you picked it up, you’d think it garbage: the tattered, moth-bitten sleeves; the clumps of black dog hair sprinkled in patches, clinging tight like dust mites; the giant stain across the belly, once tomato red, now the maroon of weathered bricks. I lift it by the collar, and it folds in on itself like a broken umbrella. Feeling the fabric on my fingertips, even for a moment, is far too difficult. I let it go, and it parachutes back down to the carpet.
His eyes were jelly, clouded over with milky cataracts; it was impossible to see the brownness of his pupils, so I couldn’t imagine what he saw looking out. He had long since given up on my basement bedroom, on his favorite napping spot beneath the air conditioner, as stairs now terrified him, his depth perception a trait lost with puppyhood. Fluid discharged from that film over his eyes, perpetual tears drying as they fell, splitting the perfectly groomed fur on either side of his muzzle to the arid flaking skin beneath—twin tributaries that dried on the desert of his face.
His coat, once jet black and majestic, had become matted and grey. When he could muster the energy to shake, patches of hair would release and float skyward, dancing like dandelion spores. He was exhausting to look at; between his poor eyesight and his arthritic paws, he hobbled like a drunk at closing time, heavy footsteps padding the floor in slow motion. Standing and sitting took effort, and I often found myself holding my breath as he attempted each maneuver. He’d long been a resolute guard dog, but I was now surprised whenever he heard me enter the house, given his hearing loss. Usually, I’d have to seek him out, and he’d look up at me, dopey and confused, as if to ask, “Hey, who let you in?”
His disposition hardly changed despite his battery of ailments. He still grinned constantly, revealing blackened gums glistening with saliva, pink tongue flapping like a sail. He still nudged his way onto my lap, scouting for crumbs as I snacked. He still struggled through contortions, angling and twisting, presenting himself like a prom night prize, so I knew where to scratch.
I heard a joke once. Pavlov walks into a bar, sits down. The bartender asks what he wants, but before the physiologist can answer, the phone rings. “Damn,” Pavlov says, climbing back to his feet. “I forgot to feed the dogs.”
I was so conditioned by him. I knew when to feed him, when to walk him, when to take him to the vet. Now that he’s gone, I don’t keep to a schedule anymore. I rarely answer the phone. One word texts are my communications to the outside world, my flares of acknowledgement to fend off the search party. I forget to eat, forget to bathe, forget to sleep.
It’s not like I hadn’t known the end was coming. He was fourteen, we’d grown up together. But still, that day, when I was petting his head, scratching behind his ears, his dog chin resting on my knee…
I hadn’t realized the stain on my sweatshirt was blood for a full minute. I’d wondered if I had spilled my wine, and had I really drunk that much already? His wheezing snapped me to, the heavy way his head settled on my lap. I searched those murky eyes, which hooked me with their urgency, their fear. I scooped him into my arms, all seventy pounds, as if he was a pup again, and we raced out to the truck. He gave a soft whine when I lowered him onto the back seats, when I sundered physical contact. Out of pain or confusion, I do not know. This sound was his only protestation. He sat at attention, back arched and rigid. He never broke his gaze and tracked my movements, afraid maybe that he would lose me to the abstract shapes that probably swam before his eyes. As a pup, he used to perch in the passenger seat, head out the window, tail thrumming a beat into the polyester, ears bouncing as he snapped playfully at wind gusts. When the engine hummed to life, he relaxed, dropping his head to the seat.
He was brave to the end. His tongue still lolled playfully, despite the blood that caked his whiskers, the fatigue that furrowed his brow. I held his paw as the vet injected him with a lethal dose of Phenobarbital, watched as his cloudy eyes drifted closed and his labored breathing slowed. I expected a moment of panic, of pain, before the end—maybe fleeting distrust in those eyes that loved me unconditionally all those years. But he was ready to go, even if I would never be ready for him to leave. On my way out, I thanked the doctor, though I don’t know why. He offered me a tee shirt, reminded me of the blood. I shook my head, again thanking this man, this man who just killed my best friend, and I left.
I can feel his presence, still; a thin layer of his discarded fur pollinates every surface of my house. Every now and then, I get a whiff of his old scent: a mix of moist topsoil and stale corn chips. I catch myself as I tiptoe through the house as I did when he was still here, scared to pull him from the rare peace sleep provided him. That sweatshirt still sits in the corner, wrinkled like his forehead at the end. And I still sit in the dark, waiting for the bell to ring.