God Has One, Too
by Edna C. Horning
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3,
4, 5, 6, 7, 8
Cricket, age 17, lives with her Aunt Lucy and Uncle Sulo to finish high school while her parents are on an extended trip abroad. Cricket is devastated when she learns that her aunt and uncle intend to do away with her beloved dog, Smidge. She and Smidge set out on foot to seek refuge with her Aunt Vera, who lives a hundred miles away. Smidge will have an influence and effect that no one could have expected.
Another lazy Sunday, the two were resting: Vera in her chair and Sonny beside her on the grass, after an especially vigorous round of tetherball. With eyes closed, Vera tilted her head back and dropped a casual hand to lightly scratch Sonny’s head, and that’s when she felt it: a thickening on the left side of his muzzle.
Immediately she sat forward and proceeded to move a finger gently around the inside of his mouth and gums to find that the thickening extended all along his lower lip. She figured it to be an infection easily treated with antibiotics, but better safe than sorry.
In a matter of minutes, she and Sonny arrived at the office of the vet, an ambitious man who had recently expanded his practice from more conventional hours to twenty-four/seven service complete with animal ambulance and a phalanx of young interns hired straight from veterinary school. Without an appointment and Sunday to boot, Vera would have to pay emergency rates but accorded it no importance. This was Sonny.
The doctor they drew that day was not, however, one of the rookies but Dr. Gritter, an experienced, no-nonsense sort who had attended Sonny before and whose competence and judgment Vera respected. Vera briefed the doctor and watched with folded arms as she also ran a finger around Sonny’s chops and, aided by a flashlight, peered into the dog’s mouth and throat.
Having rather expected a lengthier examination, Vera was surprised when Dr. Gritter turned off the flashlight and stood, brow furrowed, eyes downward, and one hand on her hip. Eschewing the attenuated approach, she said, “It’s probably either amelanotic carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma, the two most common oral cancers in dogs. But, whichever, there’s not much to be done. They always come back. No matter how much surgery or radiation or chemo you throw at them, they return.” She cleared her throat. “Sorry.”
Vera blinked. “Couldn’t it be an infection?”
“It’s possible, but a biopsy is necessary to say for sure.”
The results from the biopsy, which Vera insisted on, diagnosed amelanotic cancer. And so for six months Vera had to watch as the hideous tumor pushed itself farther and farther out, deforming his face and draining his life.
Previously she had fed him a high grade of commercial dog kibble mixed with canned food and leftovers from her refrigerator but, fearful that the kibble was too hard for his mouth now, she kept a ten-pound sack of rice in the pantry and cooked a portion to combine with the rest at every feeding.
Because Sonny nurtured an aversion to pills and had an unsurpassed aptitude for nosing them out no matter how high a pile of loose food they were buried in — there they’d be, lying on the bottom, untouched, pristine, the rest of the bowl licked clean as a whistle — Vera now inserted two prescriptions, a painkiller and a steroid, into half a frankfurter she fed him separately every morning and every evening to insure their ingestion.
Prior to Sonny’s diagnosis, Vera would have categorized herself as too old and far too sensible to equate the death of a pet with that of a person. Now she wasn’t so sure.
Cancer, the slow killer, also re-opened another ancient dilemma: is sudden death better or worse than the prolonged variety? No doubt the former was infinitely easier on the victim, but what about their survivors?
Ank had dropped stone cold dead in the men’s room at Home Depot, a regrettably inelegant venue for anyone’s demise. Tired, Vera had gone to the car to wait and, when he did not come out, she re-entered the store to find distracted-looking employees scurrying here and there.
Vera’s shock and grief for Ank had been genuine, but she felt a degree of consolation because he hadn’t suffered. “He was dead as soon as he hit the floor,” had been the doctor’s surmise.
Sonny’s condition placed the onus on her. “How will I know?” she had asked the vets.
“You’ll see it in his eyes,” they advised, which Vera considered an evasive answer.
Evasive or not, it nonetheless proved true. One morning at breakfast, he gave her a look that said, “Please let me go.” Without delay, she phoned to inform the vet they were on their way. She brought Sonny’s body home, hired a local boy to dig his grave and, the next day, temporarily unable to see clearly, drove the truck into a ditch while coming from town. It had been the only traffic mishap of her life.
* * *
Truth to tell, Vera was — or had been — an ardent and lifelong reductionist / determinist / materialist, a sister of sorts to Spoon River’s “Village Atheist” although, with her limited formal education, she might not have expressed it in those terms. Shortly before they married, so there’d be no misunderstanding, she had told Ank, “I was born atheist.”
As Vera saw it, there was no God, no soul or spirit, certainly no afterlife, no reality save blind, deaf, impersonal, indifferent matter, and the existence of the complex and admittedly impressive forms matter could take — planets, people, and all in between — resulted from chance, cosmic accidents.
Her husband was the only person she’d ever shared her perspective with in any detail and, when he died, she was once again, having buried her most sympathetic confidant on the topic, thrown back on her own resources. But that was fine with her. Her persuasion had been more of practice than preaching. Those who loved her didn’t care what her views were, and those who didn’t had long since stopped trying to change her. Even the Assembly of God preacher in Vincent had thrown in the towel.
And then Sonofabitch came along. Where everyone else had failed, he succeeded just by being himself.
After Sonny’s demise, a normally non-sentimental Vera had, in grief second only to Ank’s death, carefully retained a number of his belongings as mementos, one of which was his collar, and this she hung on an expandable hat rack resting flat against the wall.
Exactly one month after Sonny’s death, she was returning to the house from errands and stopped in her tracks as soon as she saw it: Sonny’s collar dangling from a peg. A different peg. Vera knew with unalloyed certainty that when she’d departed, the collar was in its usual place on the extreme right. Now it was on the extreme left.
In a previous existence, Vera, rational and non-superstitious to a fault, would have swiftly left the house for fear that an intruder had been and might still be there. But not in this one. After a bemused twinkling, she tapped the braided leather circle once or twice with a finger as though to test its physical reality but soon went on about her business, if more slowly than usual.
And there was that conversation with the letter carrier. Vera had never been much for naps and was famous among family and friends for her ability to fall asleep virtually the moment her head hit the pillow and to remain so till morning. But as with Ank, Sonny’s illness and death had compromised this advantage, and now she found herself obliged to rest some afternoons whether or not she actually fell asleep.
One such afternoon, Vera was on the verge when the doorbell rang. Reflexively she responded “I’m coming,” while knowing full well she couldn’t be heard from that distance. There was a package to be signed for and, as she scribbled her name on the designated line, the letter carrier, a man subbing for the woman who more commonly delivered Vera’s mail, smiled and shook his head.
“Miz DeShazo, that dog of yours is a caution,” he said.
Vera was momentarily perplexed but decided to play along. “Oh? And how so?”
“I realize he doesn’t see me as much as the other lady, Miz, uh, Miz” -
“Isbell,” Vera prompted.
“Miz Isbell, right. Couldn’t quite think of the name. He used to chase up and down the fence at the side yard, barking at me for all he was worth. Like he wanted to eat me alive.”
Vera began, “That’s because he—” but got no further.
Refusing to be deflected, he pressed on. “But recently he’s gotten real friendly.”
If Vera had been minimally attentive before, she instantaneously was brought fully awake. After searching his face and detecting not the slightest suggestion of deceit or derangement, she asked, “And when did he start being so... friendly?”
He gave her question frowning consideration and opined, “Three or four weeks ago, I’d say. Hasn’t barked once since. Like today. He sat there grinning and wagging his tail. I guess he’s gotten to know me.”
After he left, Vera stood motionless for several minutes, stunned more than she had been about the collar. Slowly she made her way down the steps and into the yard, but when she looked along the fence line, all she saw was a tail disappearing around the corner of the house. A brown and white tail.
Last but certainly not least was the tetherball incident.
Vera had juiced a large paper sack full of lemons given to her by a friend recently returned from Florida, and her hands ached. After straining and freezing the liquid, she sought recovery on the same spot and in the same Adirondack chair from which she had previously been audience to Sonny. The morning had been balmy if a little windy, but the afternoon was pervasively still and quiet. Not a leaf stirred, not a bird chirped, and the sun was oddly dull for such a cloudless day.
She was a few paragraphs into an article applauding the growing popularity of direct farm-to-school lunch programs when the ball began to arc gently back and forth in pendulum fashion. Abruptly, it changed direction and began a vigorous bouncing that lasted several minutes. Its movements reproduced Sonny’s style precisely, with distinct bopping noises at each sally. The momentum gradually lessened until all activity ceased, and the blue ball once again hung at perfect rest.
Vera remained equally motionless for minutes and then said aloud, “All right, Sonny. I get it.”
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Edna C. Horning