Landscape shifting, vision blurred, the old man crosses the threshold still wiping the tear solitaire from his cheek. Stumbling as oblique angles slide, now drifting but not quite clear, he has forgotten where he is, when he is. Only the sound, cacophonous, anguished, makes him stop, makes him remember. Barks desperately cascade and yelps writhe through his eardrums, their pleading intensity twisting until they become a single overwhelming howl. This frigid echo, resonating like the elongated wail of car tires before a collision, flows over Ronald Smith’s body, a denouement to escort this moment worst in his life, this hell.
Behind him, his Irish Setter struggles against its leash, afraid and unwilling to enter. A gentle tug, a forceful jerk promptly ends the animal’s revolt, however, and it limps slowly, obediently into the animal hospital, muscles failing, weak, tired, ears flattened against its narrow head as if aware it will never leave this place.
Eyelids drooping, barely interested, the Irish Setter yawns while its master, stooping over the kitchen table, places toys carefully into a box, pausing at each, then entombing one on top of another. Many, never touched, chewed or chased, were birthday and Christmas presents given habitually. Now, age, lost teeth, lost energy have turned them into nothing more than simple obstructions collecting dust and they make the old man swallow then choke then sob while he puts them away, silencing them forever.
Somewhere, he knows more of the playthings lie hidden: worn tennis balls lost in the back yard and its long grass, gnawed rubber bones waiting beneath furniture, misshapen leather things, unrecognizable plastic bits forgotten between cushions. He will search for them later after he has returned, alone, friendless. Presently however, twilight fading, the day has forsaken him, leaving him with nothing left to do. Panic has begun to crawl throughout his home because the clinic opens early and this night, their final one together, will undoubtedly seem unending.
Ronald Smith looks over, his dog turning its head in quizzical recognition of an old length of rope disappearing into the box, into its final resting place, into its tomb. Lethargic, too exhausted to investigate, it quickly returns to watching, head falling heavily on folded paws. The dog, uncomfortable on the floor, would rather be on the bed where for fifteen years it has curled against the old man, keeping him warm, listening for intruders between his master’s snores. Tomorrow will be the last morning it will wake him with a cold nose against the neck, waiting for a stir, a sigh, a motion to proceed on to licking the old man’s ear with a wet tongue.
Just the water and food bowls will remain, mementos needed for a final repast before the rising sun. Last concrete vestiges that, when abandoned, will be tossed into the trash bin, no longer able to haunt. Vacant stillness will serve to channel the reminders of loss, their absence permanent hollows: a head placed upon the lap while watching the game, eyes wide with expectation; panicked remonstrations before leaving; excited, circular pirouettes upon the return; joyful squeals demanding to hear how the master’s day went.
Reposing on its side, his pet stares at him accusingly, its eyes, milky-white from the cataracts, glowing in the sunset. The old man knows that the act, the desire to forget will be futile. He understands that those pieces of his life with his loyal companion will continue to show up for months and years to come, probably when he is the most maudlin and at his weakest.
Ronald Smith places a stuffed animal—a squirrel—the stuffing bleeding from gnawed appendages into the box. It was the perfect toy for a toothless, partially blind friend. It is the last one he can find, and with nothing left to put away, the old man folds the box shut and turns to the windows, his eyes pointed to where the sun will rise when his sleepless night ends.
Farcically decorated with paw prints, the heavy glass door slams behind him, succinct and final. The old man wants to back out, to leave, to return to the cold wind outside because the air in this place constricts, suffocates. Head light, clothes soaked, he grips the leash with a palsied hand while his pet sniffs the air, dense with something unfamiliar. The other office—the one he usually goes to for checkups—is never like this, never this hot, never this muggy.
Empty but for a few chairs, the waiting room is guarded by a woman sitting at a desk positioned so that entering the tall, yellow gates behind her is impossible. Talking on the phone, the woman ignores both the man and his pet, a canted, rancorous smirk on her lips, her eyes a heavy, dark brown, appearing almost black in the fluorescent lights.
Old man Smith shuffles his feet over the linoleum floor and runs his fingers over the dog’s head, the fur long, soft.
“I need some help here,” he proclaims. “I don’t have forever, you know. Jesus H. Christ, this place stinks. Do you cremate them here, too?”
Glancing up analytically through cat-eye glasses, the sentinel covers the phone with her hand. “You’re going to have to wait a bit, sir. Everyone has their turn. We’re a little busy.”
“Yeah, busy making people miserable in their time of sorrow,” the old man mumbles, caressing his friend, trying to soothe it over the yaps and barks from the back room. Again, the old man shudders, picturing his pet there alone. “It’s okay, Chase, don’t you worry.”
The dog wags his tail nervously, appealing with its moist eyes, knowing for the first time in his life the caress of his master is not comforting and something is wrong.
A cough, perhaps a cackle, makes the old man finally notice that, having hung up the phone, the receptionist is waiting.
“I’m here...I’m here for Chase,” he begins. “He’s...well, getting on in years. He isn’t seeing very well and has trouble walking. I figured it was about time...” Gazing uncomfortably at his pet, he hesitates, not believing what he is going to say while the woman twirls a pen in her fingers, waiting for him to finish, to say the words. Even over the dissonance behind her, he can hear the plastic click against her long, red-painted nails.
“I guess it’s time to...” Though he has no saliva, he gulps. “...to put him down.” Nervously needing to justify this act, he continues almost incoherently. “He’s fifteen. Yep, I bought him a few years after my wife left. The doctor said I needed something to lower my blood pressure and recommended a dog. I guess you could say he saved my life because I was headed for a heart attack. Yep. He saved my life.” He forces back another wave of tears. “He’s been the best friend in the world. I used to tell people he replaced my wife because neither one cooked and both of them did nothing all day. That’s not true though because she couldn’t hold a candle to Chase here.” Ronald Smith reaches down to his pet. “Isn’t that right, boy? You never let me down, did you? You never asked me to choose between you and my job.”
Silence, claustrophobic, resoundingly hollow, encompasses him and he sighs, annoyed, his home dark, empty, inactive. It is late. The day, though productive, has been exhausting and he expects dinner—his wife’s recipe to relieve the stress, something to help him forget the people he pursues every day: the deadbeats, the defaulters, the pathetic debtors needing to be chastised and harangued and, more often than not, humiliated.
His kitchen lacks the scent of a waiting meal though and smells instead of dust and solitude. It does not surprise him. Life, existence has been cold here at the Smith domicile. Recently, the office has been preferable to this place, that refuge where even the experienced, grizzled agents worship him, that haven where his phone projects him faceless, anonymous.
Opening the refrigerator, searching for his meal, he instantly notices something odd in the fractured sheen cast from the door’s light. The kitchen walls, walls previously decorated with his wife’s knickknacks, are barren.
Someone has broken in, he thinks, fuming at the bare walls, taken those items precious and meaningful. Instinctively he wants to turn, to call the police but finds he can only stand motionless, heart pounding, waiting to discover if the thief has left or is there watching. The seconds lengthen, encapsulating him, and it is only when he sees the glint that he realizes what has happened.
On the kitchen table, reflecting in the glare, his wife’s house keys have been placed out in a staggered line, displayed to make a statement, just as she promised, just as she threatened.
“You can’t call people up and say those horrible things! My God, Ron, it’s six a.m.!”
“She got her phone disconnected and, since her parents never returned my calls, I had no choice but to call her neighbor.”
“Neighbor? Parents? It’s Sunday morning! What’s wrong with you?”
“Hey, sometimes shaming them is the best way to get their attention. I mean it’s not like I can call her at work—not after the little chat I had with her boss last week.”
“I’m ashamed to be in the same room with you. I can’t believe this.”
Wanting to extend this unsure moment, he wanders the cold halls, the barren rooms, downcast, hoping he is wrong. The abandonment is palpable, pernicious, clinging like her scent inside the vacant drawers, closets. Pictures, once pervasive, are conspicuously absent and even the useless mementos of their life, candles, silverware, teacups are missing, removed to clutter other places.
Throughout his home, he imagines the repetitive outlines of shoe prints from the movers, tracing them with his eyes. She could not have packed everything in one day. Obviously, she must have left in small portions. His job, its long hours enjoyed, necessary for comforting solvency, keeping him oblivious as her possessions, the detritus of their marriage, his failure nonpareil disappeared in increments, surreptitiously unnoticed.
Somehow he has returned to the kitchen, the scene of the crime still illuminated by the refrigerator’s bulb. Shadows extend razor-like across the beige walls, some framing the vacant gaps where a doily once was displayed while others slash casually across the room. On the counter, another theatric reminder like the keys, the phone stands mockingly and Ronald Smith collapses to the floor, arms wrapped around his legs.
“Well I’m not ashamed, not one bit. Do you see us in debt? No. In fact, I think we’ve got a good life here.”
“Ron, it’s a life made off other people’s misery.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you knew them like I do. Frankly, I think they’re getting off easy. It’s criminal what they do: avoiding their responsibilities. Trying to get away with something. Besides, what you heard was nothing. I rarely talk to people, most of the calls I make are hang-ups. You should see the other guys from the office; they’re the real hard-asses. Hell, we’re supposed to do six hang-ups before leaving a message. I say that, if they’re all within fifteen minutes, four is more than enough to get the point across.”
“Can you hear yourself? I swear, I had no idea this is what you—”
“Whenever I start talking about it, you say you don’t want to know . . . Is this about calling from the kitchen? Oh, don’t worry about that. They don’t know who I am and if they did get our number somehow, it’d be nothing to slap them with a restraining order or maybe a lawsuit. The law. That’s all they really understand. These defaulters are scum and that’s how you treat scum. I wish we could throw them all in a cell and . . . Why are you looking at me like that?”
Eyes narrow, sharp, the receptionist frowns critically, disapprovingly. “Just so you know,” she begins, her tone bored, “There’s a processing fee before the animal is—”
“There’s a charge for this?” Continuing to avoid the woman’s eyes, the old man shuffles his feet, noticing how the paw motif from the door continues along the linoleum into the back room. He clenches his fist, whispering, “Making a buck off the misery of others. Christ, you’re worse than debtors.”
“It’s for disposal,” she explains, voice flat, cold.
“Don’t worry about that. I know a place up in the mountains where he got to run after rabbits and squirrels. That’s why Chase and I were such a good team: we knew how to find rodents. It didn’t matter where they hid.”
“The state won’t let you get rid of an animal like that.”
A wave of terror-filled yelps flares out from the back, the sounds of claws against cages rattling, banging. The Irish Setter growls, its tail stiffens, the hair behind its neck stands on end.
The old man tries to peer behind the woman. “What in God’s name is going on back there?” he asks. “Everything’s legal here, isn’t it? It’d better be. You’d better treat Chase right. I’m warning you.” Bending down and again patting the dog, he smiles. “I can make anyone’s life hell if I put my mind to it. And no one can hide from me, can they, boy? Finding people was what I did, isn’t it? I was the best collection agent in the business, huh? Ask my wife. She’ll tell you. She learned. She learned what happens when you call me a bully, a stalker. Telling me I enjoyed punishing people, harassing them, terrorizing them.” Wrapping his arms around his dog’s neck, he nods. “But she learned, didn’t she, boy? She can’t even get a job delivering newspapers, not with her credit. I showed her what happens when you humiliate a man in my position.”
Squinting, paper crushed, wadded in his hand, old man Smith turns from the large windows facing downtown and the setting sun. The office smells of something burning, probably a cigar somewhere, and he feels trapped. Unable to escape or move, he can only listen to his boss who, rarely in the office this late, sits in front of him, talking calmly.
“. . . And let’s face it. You were the best when it came to the holiday calls.” Smiling, admiring, the manager shakes his head. “Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, you always caught them right when they were eating dinner. It was amazing how you did that.”
Ronald Smith blushes obsequiously. “There’s nothing like a good dose of familial humiliation to get a defaulter’s attention.”
“You know, Ronnie, I’m going to miss that attitude of yours. You really did love this job. I wish we could keep you but look on the bright side: you’ll finally have time to train that obnoxious mongrel of yours. How old is it by the way? Ten? Twelve?”
“He’s eight,” old man Smith corrects, putting the moist, crumpled severance check in his pocket. “This isn’t right, Mr. Morgan. My retirement doesn’t kick in for another two years. What am I supposed to do?”
The manager shrugs, gazing past him, through him. “I’m sorry about that, Ronnie, but that’s the way it works sometimes. You’ve been around. You know how it is. It’s not like you’re leaving without compensation. That’s not chump change in your pocket and you’ve got this year’s vacation, plus sick pay, which I’m sure you haven’t touched. I guess it’s true about no rest for the wicked, huh?”
Swallowing, keeping his eyes on his shoes, the old man murmurs, “Well I’m thinking that maybe I should talk to a lawyer. I’m not sure this is legal.”
Surprised, impressed, the manager whistles through his teeth. “What’s got into you, Ronnie? I can’t remember the last time you showed this much spine off the phone.” The manager then opens a thick file. “If you want to talk to a lawyer, that’s your prerogative but I don’t think it’ll do any good. I was perusing through the complaints you’ve accumulated over the years. Here’s one that says you told a black guy you ‘owned his ass’ and suggested he go find a job picking cotton. Wasn’t there another one where you threatened to call immigration to see how many family members you could send back to Mexico? Then of course, there was that poor slob you said you wished you could send to Iraq. ‘Put a towel on his head and use him for target practice’ was what I think you said.” He chuckles. “That’s bad, Ronnie. Disgraceful.”
Sweat dripping, running cold down his shirt, the old man shifts. “We’ve all got complaints like that. I was only doing what it takes, what everyone else does. I remember at last year’s Christmas party when you told that clerk we were garnishing his minimum-wage job and then put him on the speakerphone when he started crying. You said the law was on our side when he complained, told him he couldn’t do a thing about it.”
“The law is on our side, Ronnie, our side, not yours.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Morgan. That wasn’t a threat. You know I’d never do anything like that, not to you or this company.” Pausing, waiting for a response, he smiles, trying to meet the manager’s eyes. Coughing, fumbling instead, he goes on, reciting the speech, the prepared imploration. “I was thinking, Mr. Morgan. Maybe you don’t have to let me completely go. I can work part-time. I—”
“Ronnie, please. We’ve had too many good years together for this. You’ve been a valuable asset here, no doubt about it. It’s just that, you know, it’s time to move on.”
“This job is all I have, Mr. Morgan. I’ve sacrificed, given this company everything; I come in early, I stay late, I take work home. My wife left because—”
“Don’t go out blubbering, Ronnie. Jesus H. Christ, be a man for once in your life.”
“The disposal fee is fifty dollars.”
Blinking, sighing, wincing at the paw prints drawn in meandered patterns that seem to spiral away, down, the old man reaches for his wallet. “It’s not going to hurt, is it? I don’t want him to feel any more pain.” Nodding, the dog tries to scratch its ear, wincing quietly. “Sometimes those debtors would say they were dead to get out of paying but I always caught them, always demanded to see the death certificate.” Avoiding his pet’s watery eyes, old man Smith frowns. “He was a good dog. Sure didn’t deserve an old debt collector like me. I tried to treat him well. I probably shouldn’t have left him alone so much and I should’ve played with him more. But it didn’t matter to him; he still loved me.” He swallows. “A good friend. Treated me better than I deserved, that’s for sure.”
Eyes unsympathetic, the receptionist stares at him. “Your pet won’t feel a thing.”
The Irish Setter sniffs the old man, watching his master hand over his credit card. “I guess fifty isn’t too much to make sure he doesn’t suffer,” the old man states, bending down to his best friend, his only friend in life. “Well, I guess this is it, boy.”
The dog licks his face, slyly, proficiently attempting to nibble the old man’s earlobe.
“Don’t do that. I don’t want to smell you when I wash up tonight.” He scratches the dog’s ears, peering into its face, searching for absolution. “You’re going to a better place. You’ll get to play in the water without getting your ears infected and you can run after squirrels and mice. Don’t worry about me, boy. We’ll be together again. I promise. When I get up there, I’ll get a big stick and throw it so far it’ll take hours to find it. They say Heaven’s a big place.”
The dog again tries to nibble on its master’s ear while the old man strokes its matted hair. “God, I’m going to miss him,” he says with a final hesitant laugh, kissing his pet on the nose. “I really don’t know what I’m going to do without him.”
Shambling to his feet, he finds the receptionist is standing before him, a cutting smile on her lips, her hand reaching out. “You can come watch if you like,” the sentinel announces. “Though most people don’t have the stomach for it.”
“That’s okay,” he whispers, his Irish Setter trying to nuzzle up to its master right until he hands over the leash. “I want to remember him on his feet.”
She slowly leads it, pulls it behind the desk and the animal starts to bark and yelp, the accusatory glare returning to its eyes.
“It’s okay, Chase,” the old man says. “She’ll take care of you. I promise.” As his dog disappears behind the gates, the old man cranes his neck in an attempt to see where they are going. “I’m never going to replace you, boy. I swear,” he mumbles, forcing the blossoming sob back down his throat. “God knows I can’t ever do this again.”
Slowly, silently, the old man opens the door, the anguished, panicked yelps of his best friend quickly engulfed in the clamor of whimpering that seems to constantly rise. Giving the tall, golden gates a final glance, he walks out, a single tear escaping down his withered cheek.
Landscape shifting, vision blurred, the old man crosses the threshold still wiping the tear solitaire from his cheek. Stumbling as oblique angles slide, now drifting but not quite clear, he has forgotten where he is, when he is. Only the sound, cacophonous, anguished, makes him stop, makes him remember. Barks desperately cascade and yelps writhe through his eardrums, their pleading intensity twisting until they become a single overwhelming howl. This frigid echo, resonating like the elongated wail of car tires before a collision, flows over Ronald Smith’s body, a denouement to escort this moment worst in his life.
was born in Colorado, and is a graduate of Metropolitan State University of Denver where he studied English and History. His work was previously published in the Metrosphere.