We had to put our dog to sleep today. Part of our family for fifteen years and the dog our boys grew up with, but what we’d been putting off for months couldn’t be put off any longer this morning. Never had to do this before; it happens very fast, and I can still see her face in those last moments. In this subdued mode all day, thoughts of the the dog I grew up with inevitably came to mind…and a story I’d written about her and me. This won’t be for everyone, but if you like short fiction, maybe give it a few paragraphs and see…
I remember the first time I saw Sheba.
Of course we didn’t call her that then. She was just the tiny, almost insignificant piece of white fur trying to balance itself in the bottom of the brown paper bag as we peered down between the two big hands which held it low enough for my little sister and me to get our faces over the edge. And I didn’t so much wonder then, but later, why the bag. Why he didn’t just carry it around like people usually carry puppies: in their arms, or peeking out from under a jacket—unless it was to make sure that he got all the way to the front door without warning parents to keep their children well away before they could produce the wailing “eeeeee” that was coming from my sister’s throat and preceded any serious begging. I suppose the proper vowel sound for such an occasion would have been an “aaahhh” or “ohhhhh,” but my sister even at that age wasn’t much for convention, so she said, “eeeeee.”
And we stood in the doorway, my sister and I, looking down at the white shape poking around at the brown paper trying to find a solid spot to stand on, and listening to the deep voice aimed well over our heads to where our parents stood quietly with sort of a tired, resigned look on their faces, as if they knew what was coming and how could he do that to them, being a fellow adult and all.
But maybe he just didn’t know about all that because he was still too close to not being an adult yet himself, and then being new on the block, having just moved in with his wife and they not having any children of their own. Anyway. he kept right on, my sister and I listening to the words sailing over our heads telling how his wife had a dog, a little mongrel named Angel which wasn’t much bigger than a puppy though it was full grown and how much she loved the dog and cried when it swallowed the fish hook and died the day before and only cried more when he brought the little white puppy home and said to take it away, she didn’t want it. And I wondered if he’d brought it to her in a paper bag also, and if not, maybe if he had, he wouldn’t be standing here with it in one now.
But anyway, he said it was all paid for and he’d just have to take it back to the pound unless maybe someone wanted it and then he wouldn’t have to, and then after his wife was better, he could get another one for her. But he didn’t have to do that either, because after his wife got better she got a baby instead and didn’t need a puppy anymore.
And my sister was just getting going good, and our parents looking more tired than ever, what with our six eyes against their tired-looking four, and two of ours being the loudest in the business; it wasn’t even fair.
We got to keep the bag too.
I got a cardboard box and we put old towels in the bottom and the bit of white fur on top of that and watched it trying to walk, but looking as if it was still in the bottom of the bag, and later, not doing much better on the tile floor, with its legs sliding out from underneath. And waking up early the next morning, we went to look in the box, and the fur was all in a small white ball in a corner until we reached in and poked at it until it got up. And Father said that it was a girl dog and what did we want to call it. We still didn’t know two days later until we saw a movie about a lady who lost her dog, and after that it was Sheba.
Sheba was a lot quieter than I thought a dog would be, and she would still be shaking long after Mother found the pale yellow puddle and stuck her nose in it and put her out with a smack. And it seemed she had just stopped shaking when the next one appeared on the tile floor and it started all over. And when the puddles stopped appearing, she’d be shivering in a corner during a storm or running from a salesman at the door or pulling hard at the leash trying to get away from another dog. And on the Fourth of July, Father had to get pills from the doctor and spend ten minutes holding her jaws apart trying to get one down her throat so she would sleep. Father said maybe she had been treated badly by someone before, but I thought maybe it was from being carried all around the neighborhood in a paper bag with all those huge faces peering down, and no idea where she was or where she was going and not even anything solid under her to stand on so that she knew she was anywhere at all.
And I wondered and stared down at her and she stared back up, not blinking or looking away for longer than I thought possible because I’d read in the Jungle Book that animals couldn’t look a human in the eye; but not Sheba, she could stare and stare.
At least she grew like other dogs; I was growing too, but she grew faster, so I could see it happen. She stopped before she even got to be medium sized, though, and then Mother said we had to take her to get fixed so she wouldn’t have puppies and I asked if it would hurt and she said no, but she would have to stay overnight at the doctor’s and my sister started to cry and Mother said it would be all right and I wondered how they did it, but I didn’t ask and Sheba just stared. And while she was at the doctor’s, a boy down the street said he knew how they did it that they just sewed up their rear ends. But that didn’t seem right to me, and I didn’t see how that would do any good anyway. And when Sheba came home with an inch of stitches in the middle of her belly, I still didn’t know how they did it, but I knew that the boy down the street didn’t either.
I wondered if Sheba felt any different, if she’d miss not having any puppies, but she just stared, and I figured I’d never know. She was even more quiet after that until the day she got out front and saw the cat and chased it, and it went under the car parked in the street, Sheba barreling right after until we heard the yelp and saw her crawling back out with the bright blood already staining the white where she’d opened up her back on the underside of the car. And I held her head in my hands while Father wrapped her up to take her to the doctor, and she just staring and staring like she wanted to know how I could let this thing happen to her. And she looked funny until the white fur grew back where the doctor shaved it to put the stitches in, and didn’t seem to want to go out front anymore after that.
You’d have thought by the time I got to high school that I would’ve been used to the routine. But every morning that alarm would grind me into consciousness, and the first thing I’d see was this old dog curled up on the bed and I would think how it must be tough being a dog, not having to get up or worry about tests and homework. Then the day would crowd in and carry me along and I’d forget all about it until I got home and she’d be at the front door as I came in whining and wiggling and putting her front paws on my thighs and I’d say hi Sheba and put her paws back on the floor without even stopping my forward motion and she’d follow me around until I’d step on her and she’d yelp and scare me half to death and I yelled for her to just get out of the way.
Then I’d hear my father asking how long it had been since I’d taken the dog for a walk, and I’d say wasn’t it supposed to be my sister’s dog anyway, and he’d say he wasn’t asking my sister, he was asking me, and he wasn’t asking at all anymore. And so I’d go and get the damn leash and call, but she wouldn’t be anywhere in sight, so I’d have to hunt all over the house and tell her she was taking a walk whether she liked it or not, and we’d walk fast, not smelling or looking at anything, and I’d bring her right back, then leave again and not get home till late.
Then there was the day she was holding her head funny, and I looked and her ear was all filled up like a water balloon. The vet called it a hematoma and had to cut it open and drain the blood and then fit her with a big plastic funnel that went over her head so she wouldn’t scratch at it, making her look like some weird order of nun, and I couldn’t bring anyone over because she looked so stupid. And not more than a few weeks after the nun’s suit came off we had a big storm and she snapped both tendons in her hind legs trying to jump into a closet or something and I couldn’t bring anyone over again with her dragging two bandaged legs around.
And I guess I really didn’t think about it until it was almost over—about how short four years were, and how long the time after that. And I felt like something was moving under my feet, giving way, and that I couldn’t see in any direction at all until the scholarship came through and I was safe again. It meant going back east, but that was okay; it was only for four years, and I guess I didn’t really think about that either until it was almost over and I was feeling that old feeling again.
Then there was a phone call for me, and I listened to the thin, scratchy, long distance voice of my mother saying how they found a nice house up north and would be moving in a couple of weeks and didn’t I think it was great for them to be getting out of the city, but only thinking of my old room and playing kickball in the street and Sheba in a brown paper bag.
When I was finished with the scholarship, there didn’t seem to be much point in staying where I was, even less in going where my parents were, so I went back and drove by the old house—the landscaping and paint were different by then and someone I’d never met was sleeping inside the walls I grew up in so I left and drove along the way I used to walk to school, then went and took the first job I was offered and the first apartment I could find, but that old feeling wouldn’t go away. Sometimes it hung back for a while, but was always there somewhere waiting to wrap itself around in soft browns and crinkly mustiness.
And my mother wanted to know what I got the diploma for, and didn’t I want to do something with my life and my father said the same thing an octave lower, and I didn’t know what to say or want because there was so much to know, to think about. People at work didn’t seem to mind all the things I wasn’t doing, but then I thought maybe it was because they were too close to being kids to know anything about being parents, or maybe they were just too far from me to know anything about what I could or couldn’t do. But what I mainly kept thinking about was how much I didn’t know about them or me or anything else.
And then there was a phone call for me, and I listened to the thin, scratchy voice saying that Sheba had a stroke and part of her was paralyzed and there wasn’t much more anyone could do, so the best thing was to put her to sleep. And I said I didn’t think it was, and the small voice said that they couldn’t keep her anymore, so the next day I was driving up north because someone was sleeping in my old room who didn’t know anything about a white dog or a brown paper bag.
And when I got there I saw the milky white film in the iris of the good eye and the crust forming around the eye that was always half open or half closed and the saliva dripping out of the side of the mouth that was also always half open or closed, and I knew she didn’t see me, but the nose was quivering and as I got closer, just the tip of the tail twitched a little, and I picked her up and we went home. I got a cardboard box and put some towels in the bottom and Sheba on top of that, and it wasn’t long before I knew that she couldn’t hear either, but that seemed all right because then the thunder and wind and doorbells wouldn’t bother her anymore. And I sat back and watched her sleep thinking how tough it was to be a dog, but wishing I could sleep like that, because it had been awhile since I’d been able to sleep at all.
After a few weeks she started to get better and when she could walk again, I put a small door for her in the back door of the apartment so she could go out on her own. She didn’t wait for me at the front door anymore when I came home, in fact it took her awhile before she even knew I was in the apartment at all, so it didn’t seem strange that night I got home late and didn’t see her right away, and it was a half hour before I knew she wasn’t inside or in the back and that someone had left the gate open. I ran out front wondering why she would do it when she couldn’t even see or hear, going up and down the street looking and calling until I remembered and stopped calling, looking quietly after that all over the neighborhood.
Then I got in the car and drove around, farther and farther until I knew she couldn’t have gotten that far and so went home and picked up the phone and called, and it was like I could hear my thin, scratchy voice coming out small on the other side, all in one breath saying Sheba was gone, and I looked everywhere and couldn’t imagine where, and how could a half-blind dog go out when it couldn’t even…and then I stopped because maybe the ear on the other side couldn’t hear all that…too far away, too remote to know about me and why and the brown paper bag, and I put the phone down and went back out looking and when I forgot, calling, then back home again looking out the window when the first drops began to fall, faster and faster until there seemed to be no space at all between them, and I said out loud what the hell did an old deaf dog think it was going to do out in the rain when it didn’t know the first thing about being outside and then I stopped again because I remembered something: didn’t animals know, didn’t they have a sense, an instinct for it, and so went off to be alone, in peace?
And I turned back and looked outside at the rain, and then it came inside, and I felt it running first hot and then cool and finally not at all, leaving only that dry, tight feeling that was part of it.
I looked out the window for a while longer then went to bed thinking about how it would be another long night and wondering what an old dog would be doing in the rain at two-thirty in the morning and what I would be doing without the lopsided mouth to put a dish out for every night after work. And maybe I did fall asleep for awhile, or maybe I was just still thinking when I heard it—like someone rattling car keys, but far out on the edge of awareness, like the alarm I’d learned to ignore even subconsciously until it burst in fully and completely, and I knew what it was jerking up to snap on the light on the nightstand.
And there was Sheba standing exactly in the center of the dim oval of light the lamp threw across the carpet, shaking off a spray of rainwater, dogtags jingling on the collar. And her name was out of my mouth much too loud for two-thirty before I could even think about it. But she didn’t notice at all, and only shook again then stood dripping with the white fur all matted and parted into little clumps and dark with mud from the belly down, hind legs trembling.
And I jumped down and took her head in my hands and stared into the dull, milky eyes and wondered where they’d been and what they’d seen, and I was still wondering after drying her off and feeding her, we were back in the bedroom, and I was thinking how it had been nine hours and where could she possibly have been and how did she know what to do when she’d never been out on her own, not once in almost eighteen years.
And she didn’t look any different or even aware of what she’d done sitting again in the center of that dim oval of light staring back at me with that peaceful dull gaze, and I knew it was useless, that I’d never know and reached over to turn off the light.
And in the instant it takes for all the light to disappear after the current is stopped, and the last remnants of vision are crumbling, resolving to black, there was an image of her left floating and ghostlike—like the after image of the sun—sitting as she had just before the light went out: on her haunches, forepaws laid flat out in front of her, head erect and staring straight ahead. And just then I thought of the Sphinx sinking with its secrets quietly into the sand. Maybe it was just the posture or maybe it was something else—something not quite reachable through a thin milky haze, but certainly through a thin, brown paper bag.
And lying back I stretched and slept straight through till morning.