The cellphone conversation with my daughter is brief.
“Elyse, I need your help.”
“Oh, now you need my help,” she says.
“Elyse, it’s Rugby. I barely got him in the car by myself. Dr. Burton’s shut down the whole week for the holidays. But this is the end we knew was coming. He’s in so much pain. We have to stop the …”
“Okay, okay, slow down,” she says. “Where’s Mom?”
“She’s home.” Ana is a cat person. Rugby has always been Elyse’s and mine. “Where are you?”
“I’m a mile away.”
I’m a million miles away. I’ve never been to the duplex my 23-year-old daughter has been living in for the past 18 months, but I know the address because of the envelopes stuffed with $20 bills I’ve sent whenever I feel guilty. Ana and I are in the middle of taking a stand that we will not let her erratic life decisions destroy us, but for me, it is a stand staked in quicksand.
I suddenly feel the heat of a long, laboring breath on my forearm. I reach back and rest my hand on Rugby’s chest, waiting for the rise of another breath. He is wedged on the floor, his body arched by the transmission well. Up … down.
As I turn the corner, Elyse is already in the street. Adorned in a long white coat, she stands like a pillar in the center of the road. Her hands are deep in her pockets, hiding from the cold, but as I near she wildly waves her arms over her head as if I might not recognize her. The act almost makes me smile until I see the scowl on her face, a reminder that I don’t know what Elyse I’m getting. The smell of smoke from her last cigarette beats her into the car, and she twists her body around to Rugby before she even closes the door. She finds his face, grasps it with both hands and says softly, “Okay, boy, I’m here. I’m here.”
“You really can’t get Dr. B.? Did you try to get that associate of his we went to that one time?”
I explain to her I tried every alternative. “His office manager, that Angeline lady, reminded me the most important thing is not to wait, especially since he’s not eating at all.” I hand Elyse the crumpled paper with the name and directions to the facility that Angeline had directed us to.
“Animal Control?” Elyse says. “That’s the place people dump unwanted pets in the middle of the night. We can’t take Rugby there.”
“Angeline said it’s not like you’d think.”
“Enough with the Angeline. How far out on Dixon is it?” she says, un-crumpling the directions.
She raises the window, leans forward and begins silently rubbing her hands together in front of the car heater vents as if it is a log fire.
I’m speeding now. In the past, I’ve done these horrible chores with such trepidation, but now I want it over. I want Rugby’s suffering over. I want to go home. I want to take Elyse back to wherever she needs to be. She’s so frail, always has been. She had to sit in the back seat of the car until almost 14 because she was too light to activate the air bag. We had kidded her that she might have to take her driver’s license road test from the back seat. But then the kidding stopped, and what took its place was a blur of drugs, stealing, starving, cutting, episodes of violence that have never truly ended, except for brief periods when she is the same beautifully awkward girl who excelled at ballet and lacrosse, many times on the same weekend.
But here we are.
Only a week ago today, she called late at night to plead, “I think I better come home. Like you always say, fresh start.” At the time, I gave her nothing but silence, and after a moment she simply uttered, “Okay, whatever.”
The second I hung up I wanted to call her back, but Ana was in my ear. “She knows people are vulnerable around the holidays. She’s trying to manipulate you.”
Early on, I would always tell Elyse she could turn this around. Pick a day to put all this crap behind us, shed it away and start fresh. As if it could be as easy as a card trick. After about 20 minutes, Dixon Road starts to wind, and every mile becomes more rural — big farmhouses on expansive stretches of land, all the inflatables that look as though they have risen from the frozen earth. There’s a giant snow globe with fat, swirling flakes highlighting a majestic winter scene.
“It’s like putting a condom on Christmas,” Elyse says.
We gently coax Rugby toward the electric doors, inch by inch. “Come on, Rugby. Come on, you big moose,” Elyse says. He is a moose. When we inherited Rugby, as a 1-year-old from a couple who were moving overseas, they told us he was part Bernese mountain dog and “part something else.” Inside it is arcade loud, and the waiting area is overly decorated with a metal contraption in the front that is shaped like a tree and smothered with ornaments. Children are scrambling in every direction, and all the workers are camouflaged by mismatched holiday gear. “Run Rudolph Run” is blasting over the PA system.
No one seems to see our struggle as we weave to the front of the reception area, where a round-faced young woman wearing a glitter-soaked Santa hat embroidered with the name KYLA greets us with a huge, exhausted grin and says, “Name? Have you already filled out the background check online?”
“Our dog is ill and ...”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Kyla says. “I thought …”
She informs us that this is the week all the parents give in at the last minute and get a new puppy or kitten for the kids. “It gets crazy,” she says.
Elyse steps up and does the talking as Kyla types in our information. A woman in her mid-30s abruptly steps between us and asks Kyla, “How does it work, again? Can both my daughters pick an ornament off the tree?”
“One per family,” she says.
Kyla explains that everyone who takes home a new pet today gets to pick an ornament off the big tree. “To commemorate the animal’s first Christmas in their new home.”
Elyse widens her eyes at me, as if to say, “Who knew Animal Control had traditions?”
Orange plastic seats border the large room, all occupied except for a single one between two families. Elyse sits down on the floor beside Rugby in front of the empty seat, so I forgo the chair, too, and as the joyous bedlam swirls around us we settle into our own world.
She says the seats remind her of her elementary school. “Remember when I was in second grade and you had that job where you hardly worked? And you came to eat lunch with me in the cafeteria?”
I tell her I do.
As we gently stroke Rugby, our hands brush against each other, and I realize, shamefully, how long it’s been since we were this physically close. “You were lame up there,” Elyse says to me.
“You are always going to need me for things like this,” she says. She turns from me and whispers to Rugby, “You were there for me, boy. All those long walks. You were there for me.”
When things became unbearable at home, Elyse would always leash up Rugby and disappear down Ridgeway Road for hours. “Rugby has always had such deep, soul-searching eyes. Like he’s searching inside us,” Elyse says, looking up at me with her own big dark eyes. “Like he’s saying, ‘I’m just a hound lapping up life, but what the heck’s going on in that head of yours?’ I always spilled my guts when I walked him by myself.”
I know she is still young, but Ana and I have already been through so many false starts that when I wake up with my mind racing over so many possibilities, it takes a while to remember that there very well may be no end to this. In the middle of the night, I do the math, 23 to 33 to 43. Will she ever be able to function in this world?
From our grounded vantage point, Elyse and I can view the mini-celebrations. Workers fold up cardboard cat carriers for the kittens and hand out thin, airline-style red blankets that I assume are supposed to keep the dogs warm on the ride home, but they keep getting discarded and ending up on the floor.
“What’s the matter with your dog?” a young girl sucking on a candy cane asks.
“He doesn’t feel good,” Elyse says.
The girl pets Rugby with one finger and turns away.
Most of the dogs that are being adopted don’t seem to be puppies, just smaller breeds, but the children don’t seem to mind. A curly haired boy clumsily sits down in the single chair behind us, tells us his new pet’s name is Cody, and begins trying to tie a red blanket around this tiny, rat-faced dog with a wet pink nose.
“Oh, let me help you,” Elyse says and leans over. Without standing up, she snaps the red blanket in the air until it completely unfurls, scoops up the mangy little thing and, with what looks like 100 lightning-quick tucks and folds, has the rat-faced dog wrapped like a cross between a mummy and a burrito.
“All swaddled up,” Elyse says, handing Cody back to the boy. “I learned that in nursing school. It’s the only thing I learned.” She laughs.
When I see her like this, so buoyant and playful and caring, I cannot comprehend the contradictions, how they translate to where we are now.
A stocky woman wearing a long black scrub top and green tights strides into the scene with a clipboard and says, “Rugby?”
“Yes, that’s us,” Elyse says. And it really is. We are Rugby.
“Just so you’re aware, you’re not permitted past the unit entrance like you would be at a veterinarian’s office, so you’ll have to say your goodbyes out here, okay?”
“No, that’s not okay,” Elyse says. “I have to be with him. That’s why I’m here.”
“I understand,” the worker counters. “But we can’t. I wish. ... It’s state law.”
Elyse stiffens, but she does not fight. She settles back to the floor.
Elyse is crumpled over Rugby, her face resting on his torso, her ear pressed to his chest, as if she’s listening for his heart to stop. She says, “Remember that night when Mom was so angry with me and said to you, ‘All we can do is love her now.’ That’s all we can do for Rugby now.”
It was one week after Elyse’s high school graduation, after midnight, when Ana opened a closeted jewelry box and realized nearly all of her mother’s and grandmother’s jewelry was gone. Little by little, Elyse had pilfered it, hocked it all and spent the money on drugs and parts for a car for some three-month no-name boyfriend. “Are you a sociopath?” Ana screamed before running out of the house in a crazed state, still wearing fuzzy pajama bottoms and lace-less sneakers. She spent the remainder of the night driving up and down Martin Boulevard, finding herself getting buzzed into pawn shops at 2 in the morning and standing, bleary-eyed, in front of severely lighted glass cases, describing each item to disinterested clerks: It was that night that finally broke us to pieces. When Ana returned, exhausted, she stood in the dark hallway outside Elyse’s room, and, not knowing whether she was listening or not, quietly stated those words. “All we can do is love her now.”
“Okay, we’re ready,” the woman in green tights says. “Let’s try to get him up. Come on, Rugby.”
Rugby springs up as if oddly energized by all the boisterous action surrounding him, but immediately buckles. I try to lift him, but he’s so heavy and I am so weak. “Oh, I know what we can do,” the woman says, pivots and turns away, leaving us on our knees beside Rugby.
She’s back in an instant, and a big man wearing what appears to be a green elf vest over a brown custodial uniform is trailing behind her pulling a large, industrial flatbed cart. The handle is wrapped in blue and green garland, and the metal cart’s border is smothered in duct-taped plastic poinsettia blooms. Everything is happening too fast. The husky guy is all business, his mitts around Rugby’s belly, and I nudge him aside as Elyse and I find the strength to gently place him on the flat.
“We’ll take it from here,” the guy says.
As soon as the wheels start rolling, Rugby sits up, sphinx-like, on a ceremonious float. The movement slows to a crawl as the custodian carefully avoids mowing anyone down. The gallery planted in the orange chairs looks up as Rugby passes by, appearing magnificently regal, in perfect contradiction to what a long, goofy life he led. Elyse takes a few quick steps as if she is going to follow but then stops, and we both watch Rugby disappear around the bend.
I exhale. I know what we both are thinking: Dr. B never could have given Rugby a sendoff as grand and fitting as this one. Still, I am shaking.
Elyse makes the first move. She takes my hand, tightly intertwining her fingers with mine, and leads me toward the exit. The electric doors open, but she breaks off, leaving me standing in the wind, neither inside nor out.
She beelines back toward the tree, plucks an ornament from the highest branches, balls it up in her fist and returns to lead me through the door.
The sun has dropped, and it is freezing. As soon as we get inside the car, Elyse holds out the ornament and hangs it from the mirror. It is a two-inch moose in a ceramic hot-air balloon. His head is hanging over the side, and a tiny string of Christmas lights is wrapped around his antlers.
“For Rugby,” she says.
T.M. Shine is the author of “Nothing Happens Until It Happens to You: A Novel Without Pay, Perks, or Privileges.” He lives in Lantana, Fla.
Related stories: Fiction by Alice McDermott; fiction by Edwidge Danticat; Writing Ernestly: How eight novelists scored when run through the Hemingway app; Crunched: Top-shelf writers with Washington connections.
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