by Charles C. Cole
Not long ago, early into my typically uneventful morning commute, I struck a dog with my car. We were both surprised. The animal died before I got out. The gut punch, which I feel still, was akin to watching a child’s hand-made Christmas ornament shatter against the sidewalk.
I had been “one” with my daily routine, catching up on the news while rehearsing under my breath a career-defining presentation on the importance of standardized work, when a high-strung hound appeared in traffic, leashless, passionately escorting a human to the bus stop.
The dazed owner, Alfie I later learned, stood with his friends’ arms around his shoulders. He shook his head.
“I’m so sorry!” I gushed, genuinely unsettled. “I didn’t see him until it was too late.”
“He shouldn’t have followed you, Alfie,” explained a companion. “You told him to go home. What’d he think was gonna happen? They’d let him on the bus?”
Alfie hurt his own way: “Dumb dog was always spazzy, even as a puppy. No fair.”
“Amazing he made it this long, dude.”
“I guess he wanted to see me off.”
“Your dad’s going to kill you, bro,” opined another teen. “Why do Mondays always have to suck?”
“I can put him in the back,” I offered. “I’ve got cardboard and towels. We can take him home. Is there anybody there?”
“Everybody’s at work already. That’s why I’m supposed to let him out, last thing, you know? But then he didn’t want to go back in. How was I supposed to know he’d leave the yard? He always acted too old to go for a walk, then Mom insisted on acupuncture! Like catnip for old dogs! Crap! Who knew? I’ve got to get to school. I can’t be late, not again. I’ve got a make-up test first-thing.”
“That’s today?” asked someone. “Maybe you can get a postponement because your dog, you know, died.”
“My house would have to go up in smoke, my dad fall in a wood chipper, and zombies take over the playground.”
“What’s your address?” I asked. “I’ll drop him off. Least I can do.”
“Sure. Here comes the bus. The garage should be unlocked. Just leave him there. Dad’ll know what to do. The red house over there.”
“I’m really sorry.”
“He was a good dog. Used to sleep in my bed when he was little. He had a full life. It wasn’t your fault.”
“It kinda was, though,” countered his peer.
“Did he have a name?” I asked.
“We named him Osric, but Dad always called him Gomer after some goofy guy on TV when he was a kid.”
“Gomer’s a goner, man,” somebody said, with genuine shock.
I was emotionally crushed, even wounded. So much so that, after I dropped off Gomer, gently covering him with a light blue lawn tarp, I circled home and called out sick. I had never before killed anyone’s pet, an extension to someone’s family. I trembled under a patchwork quilt my grandmother had made, while rocking in the squeaky porch swing for over an hour. When the phone rang, I let it go to the answering machine; I would have choked up.
I was a lifelong vegetarian. My parents had been reluctantly supportive of their non-traditional boy. I’d even successfully objected to dissecting a worm and a cow’s eye in 8th grade. I would have been a veterinarian, but I didn’t make the cut, being of average grades. My last three birthdays before my adulthood, my parents had generously donated to the local animal shelter in my name. Because my father was severely allergic to animal dander, I’d “raised” fish and hermit crabs and, later, a tarantula.
I loathed suddenly being forced into violent circumstances beyond my control. The tragic event need not have happened. I took a hot shower and a long nap.
Later I met, Bert, the father of the teen at their house. To my relief, he wasn’t angry with me. He blamed his son, who should have shut the dog in, but who had been myopically focused on an exam and, as it turned out, a girl he’d been texting. The dog had been, at least on that final morning, one responsibility too many and had paid the consequences.
These mitigating circumstances helped me accept my part in the tragic events, but I still felt like a childhood killer. There was no doubt fur and blood on my fender. A pivotal chapter in a Maine coming-of-age young-adult novel had ended by my hand. I did not want to be a cold convenient foil, a blundering and insensitive adult, who had stereotypically forgotten what it was like to be a teen when man’s first best friend was often his pet.
I leaned against the back of the garage while Bert, a free-lance carpenter, dug a hole near the bushes at the edge of the yard. I was quietly weeping.
“Want a beer?” he asked, pausing his efforts. “Looks like it hit you hardest of all.”
“Respectfully, why isn’t Alfie here?” I asked.
“He was in a car accident about ten years ago. It was rough. Missed a whole year of school. That’s when we got Gomer. Gomer got him through. They were inseparable. Then Gomer got old and, at the same time, my son leapt into puberty, left us all behind. My wife and I have each other, but ol’ Gomer lost his purpose.”
“I guess their partnership had run its course. And, hopefully, when Alfie’s got kids of his own, he’ll remember his childhood pal and appreciate those tender days with Gomer. I think he will.”
I went home and cried. I also took another route to work from then on. And I started volunteering at the local animal shelter, walking the dogs and cleaning out the horse stalls. Maybe my efforts look like an act of penance or community service to some, but I look forward to the visit every week, and hanging out with my friends.
Copyright © 2021 by Charles C. Cole