By: Bob Kalkreuter
She lay on the floor beside the sofa, the old dog, white fur grizzled with yellow, drowsing where the window-heated sunlight spilled warm and familiar. Her breath came in rattles, like she was practicing for death.
Maybe she was waiting for the old man. Waiting for him to come back and take her home, as he always did when he left her with his sister. It happened more often now, but she was used to it, the old dog. Most of the time she just slept, only getting up to search for streaks of sun-warmed rug. She didn’t eat much anymore. Not the way she did when she was young, racing through the cool woods, full of energy and the urge to stretch her muscles, to feel her own speed.
Now she tired easily. When he picked her up, she still leaped into his sputtering old Buick, into her usual seat, perhaps showing off, feeling some of the old juices. At those times the old man himself smelled of medicines and tight, closed rooms, no longer the clean, black earth of her youth, of strong, rotting leaves, of endless, crisp air. Still, he never forgot to slip her a treat, ruffle her fur, breathe her name the way he always did when he was pleased. Taking care to keep a warm blue quilt on the seat. She was content.
Anybody watching would have felt sorry for her. Said she knew. That she was mourning. That she no longer had a life. But what did they know?
Her eyes were closed, flickering, hot on the trail of unseen quarry. Her nose twitched in the hunt. Pity those who thought she’d lost it all. That she was dreaming, whiling away the time between nothing and nothing, unborn and dead. Waiting for the old man to fetch her.
But she wasn’t dreaming of life. She lived in her dreams.
In the warm sunlight, she grew still, weary to the bone. The phone rang. She didn’t move. Her hearing was bad.
An old woman with loose, flushed skin shuffled into the room, thick white socks on her swollen feet, not knowing she was sighing and grunting. She sank into a beige armchair beside the phone. “Hello.”
The voice at the other end was low, guttural.
“Oh John,” she said. “The funeral’s Wednesday…” She stopped, listened, silent. “No, please come. He was your uncle. Family. Can’t you put it behind you now? It was a long time ago. You were young then, and wild. I’m sure he would have loaned you the money, but…”
“I know. He was a stubborn man. You’re so like him. I always wanted you to be friends.” She sneezed, her head stuffed with spring pollen.
The old dog, sensing movement, glanced up, moving only her head, knowing by the vibrations that it wasn’t the old man, but a curiosity, an annoyance. Snorting, she lay back down. To wait in peace. In slumber.
“No, I don’t know what to do with her,” said the old woman, lowering her voice. “I didn’t expect… Oh, I don’t know what to do. Can you take her?”
There was silence while the old woman listened again, rubbing the soles of her feet, the muscles in her face quivering. Tiny motes of dust escaped the socks, sparkling in the tunnel of sunlight. “Oh. That can’t be the only way? Surely… Somebody…”
The guttural voice kept talking.
“John, I know she’s old. But I can’t do that.” The old woman turned so she wouldn’t have to look at the dog. She nodded, sighing. But this time she knew she was sighing. “Yes, I understand. I know it can’t be helped.” She hung up, staring through tear-blurred eyes at the flowered wallpaper.
The old dog lay still, dragging air into her nose. No longer young, except in her dreams. Waiting, remembering the worn, blue quilt, its unwashed, soothing smells. And her favorite spot at the end of the bed, even though she couldn’t jump that high anymore. Dreaming of an old man who wheezed and coughed, scratching her ears. Giving her warmth and comfort. She waited for him. In her dreams.