She sets the cardboard box on the countertop right in front of you, her fingers still fondling the Chiquita Banana logo on the box. She looks exactly how you imagined a female trucker would look: five-foot-two, stout belly, greasy hair peeking out from under a black ski cap, and Roman numerals tattooed onto her knuckles. A metal chain swung from her wallet as she walked through the glass doors of Park Hill's Animal Hospital, hugging the cardboard box. It is her red nose, rubbed raw from the used Kleenexes stuffed in the pockets of her faded black jeans, that throws you off.
The counter separates the two of you like the Plexiglas wall in bad prison movie: prisoner, visitor; receptionist, client. You hand her a clipboard with the appropriate paperwork trapped under a plastic clip. The word Rimadyl is tagged across the clipboard along with most everything else in the office, pencil cup holders, staplers—all the latest freebies from Addison Pharmaceutical Company. The trucker takes the paperwork gently, as if the mere strength of her hand would shatter the hard plastic, but, then again, she may have just been tired. Her slow scribbling lulls you to sleep until the scent of stale piss and feces seeps through the cardboard box.
"His name is Andy."
You barely understand her mucus-filled voice. Was that Sandy or Randy? No, Andy; she definitely said Andy. Her calloused fingers graze yours as she hands you the clipboard. You know her tissue will get even more of a workout once she steps out of the clinic. They always cry more once they have left the building. You lean over but the front desk—like barbed wire—stops you from patting her shoulder, from saying, "there, there," in the same patronizing tone you watched the other receptionists use. Or maybe it isn't the desk? You look down at her chicken scratch. The address portion is left blank. Only her name, Andy's name, and a phone number are written. You slip the clipboard behind the counter, shielding it from the truck driver's swollen eyes, and write, D.O.A.—Dead on Arrival.
"Would you like to say goodbye to Andy?" you ask, but she shakes her head. (You wouldn't even know she was a woman if it wasn't for her double-Ds stuffed into a sports bra covered by an oversized North Carolina t-shirt.) She only strokes the top of the box before she stumbles out the glass doors.
You take the box into the back, where technicians express anal glands, as well as other practices most people without medical degrees do not want to witness. You can peel back the flaps to investigate what is inside. The stench immediately saturates the air. You can't put your finger on it, but it is definitely something you've experienced—not the rancid smell that Parvo leaves when the dog takes his last shit, hell, it doesn't even smell like shit, but instead like a rotting sadness, the fetid stink of death, and you can't help but dip your head into the box.
At first it was simply curiosity that caused you to ignore the wretched smell and peak into the tiny coffin, but now you find yourself mesmerized by this delicate creature. Andy looks like the cat you dissected in high school except white with a patch of yellowed fur on his hind quarter. Your grandmother's cheeks were that color the night her liver gave out—marigold-flush, the Crayola crayon equivalent of jaundiced. Andy also isn't outstretched from being hung by a wire as the formaldehyde dried like your high school specimen. He looks more like your aunt's cat pleasantly sleeping by the fire in Vermont.
You treat this creature as if it were a jellyfish you found on the shore, and poke at his backside with a leftover tongue depressor, another goody from the Addison group. Once you realize this animal has a skeleton and fur and a heart, you press your palm against his chest. Coarse hairs slide through your fingers, and, as you ignore his rigor mortis, your hand slides over Andy's smooth coat. For a second he is yours, he is your baby. Growing up, you were never allowed to have any pets; your mother was allergic. Funny, how even now that you are in your twenties, away from home and working at the clinic, it never occurred to you to get one.
By the size of him, you guess that Andy was four years old, about three years post his kitten days of chasing knit balls and catnip laced-mice. He collapsed in the truck somewhere between Deltona and the East/West expressway on Interstate 4. Only your second week at Park Hill's and out of all three receptionists, you were the one to answer the trucker's call. Amidst a constant pounding of tread against asphalt, like the broken washing machine your mother had sworn was fixed, a small voice muttered, "Do you provide private cremation?" That was two hours ago.
A set of rubber soles squeaked against the newly-waxed linoleum. A chill runs down your spine just like the night Billy Kohler unzipped the back of your dress in the faculty bathroom during the ninth-grade dance and you heard the quiet steps of a size-nine Aerosole pump. Your hand against Andy's still heart, you remember: receptionists are not supposed to leave the front desk.
"Can I help you?" a small voice asks. Remembering how fast Billy Kohler zipped up your dress, you quickly replace the flaps on Andy's makeshift coffin then realize it's only Liz. Liz is about a hundred years old and given only the simplest of tasks, such as wellness exams and nail trims, because she operates about as quickly as melting snow. You turn to her (her bright-blue scrub top reflecting off her silver hair) and hand her the cardboard box as if it were a house-warming gift.
"What we got here?" She peeks in between the cracks of the cardboard box. Her lenses slope down the end of her nose. "Ah, dead cat. I've done a dozen of these. Follow me."
She pushes her glasses back onto the bridge of her nose and gestures you to follow her, and you follow her aimlessly to a room the size of a walk-in closet, as if you were four and she was your mother. Shelves holding various tin boxes line the water-stained walls. A deep freezer like the one your grandma kept icy-pops and frozen patties in takes up most of the space, leaving barely enough room for the three of you to breathe. Well, the two of you.
"Here." Liz shakes open a large plastic bag and hands it to you.
Confused, you take the empty bag.
Then, without warning, Liz picks Andy up by all fours and slides him into the bag.
Your stomach drops. The weight of this small cat pulls as if he were a Mastiff, and you dig your stubby nails into the dark plastic. Why did you take Andy into the back alone? Why did you caress his stiff coat?
The plastic slips from your sweaty fingers, and Liz catches it before it hits the ground. Her lips press tightly together, holding in any kind of reaction, and hands you a small tag with a single string like a mouse's tail. "Here, make yourself useful," she finally responds, twisting the bag closed to remove any air.
Embarrassed, you look down at the flimsy cardstock. Name. You print "Andy Jones." Date. November 10, 2004. Private Cremation / Communal Cremation. You circle Private Cremation and hand the tag to Liz. She shakes her pale head until you tie the slip around the knot on Andy's bag like a toe tag.
"Go on." She nods.
"I can't," you say.
"Go on." She is as unruly as swim coach demanding you stop being such a pussy and dive in.
The idea of placing Andy to rest in a deep freeze that should be holding icy-pops and last year's green bean casserole makes you want to spew your half-eaten peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich all over Liz's electrifying smock. You shake your head again. This time you're sure to get a little empathy. You are the receptionist, damn it; you refill coffee mugs and file files. You don't dispose of dead animals.
"You can't remain a virgin forever," she says with her hand against your shoulder. This is the empathy you receive—a pep talk and a pat on the back, a therapy session with a cheerleader.
His body thuds against the freezer's bottom even though you gingerly placed him next to the other four body bags. Liz hands you a clipboard with a small yellow pencil attached to it to record the new resident. Thursday when the man from Greenbriar Crematorium comes to pick up the bodies, he'll look at the clipboard and know who'll get the private suite and who'll get thrown into the kiln with the rest of the strays. The small pencil makes you think of miniature golf and you imagine tallying up your score at the end of the day—Liz, 12; you, 1; Andy, zip.
That evening when you open the door to your shoebox-sized apartment, a tiny red light, like an omen warning sailors land is near, flashes. You shimmy your way pass empty take-out boxes and press the play button.
"This is Mr. Jones with Jones, Edwards and Walsh; we handled your mother's estate—"
You press stop. You can't deal with him right now and instead go into the bathroom. The bathtub is the exact length of your legs, but you make do. The water heater takes its precious time, and your fingers turn pale blue as you dangle them under the faucet.
Mr. Jones was your mother's lawyer. Now he is just a pest. Your mother died three weeks ago. Breast cancer. She'd been battling for a couple of years. That's why you got the job at the veterinary clinic instead of going back to the university for your master's—someone has to help out with the stacks of outstanding medical bills (your mom's insurance company doesn't believe in a "grieving period.") Your sister is useless, and your mom's deadbeat boyfriend sure isn't doing his share; he hightailed it out of there the moment your mom quit wearing her wig.
So not only are the insurance vultures hounding you, but now Jones keeps harping on you. Apparently, you are the executor of Mom's will, whatever that meant, but all that doesn't matter now, and you slip into the warm water and close your eyes.
That night you heat up the leftover tuna casserole your aunt brought over last week. It's made with the chunk light tuna not the albacore that you prefer. You bat a green pea with the end on your fork, the way you imagine Andy batted toy mice. Later that evening, you lie on the floor and throw a tennis ball against the wall. The cable is out, and you know that Todd and Nancy from next store are in Hawaii. You've always wanted to go to Hawaii, as well as Ireland and Spain, but you've never been farther that Kissimmee, Florida, about 200 miles from the hospital where you were born. How many places had Andy traveled in the passenger seat of a big rig while his owner's tattooed knuckles grazed his neck? Did he enjoy the wind blowing through his fur?
A week passes. When you do sleep, you dream of Andy curled up in the trucker's lap, purring to the melodic ebb and flow of endless asphalt. Tuesday rolls around, and the delivery man from Greenbrier Crematorium returns with five new tins, the smallest belonging to Andy. You sign off on the delivery slip and search the file cabinet for the manila folder labeled, Andy Jones. Waves of names tumble through your mind—Bronco Jenkins, Darby Jenner, Petal Drop Jharva then finally Andy Jones. His file is thin, skeletal alongside the meaty histories of those who've been seeing the doctor for years. Andy came in only that one day, and he hadn't seen a thing.
You wait until the other receptionists are busy with their daily mundane tasks before shoving the file under your scrub shirt and slinking your way into the supplies room. You're not sure why you hid Andy's file under your top or why you're in the storage closet. All you do know is that you have to be alone to make this call. Surrounded by the protective blanket of Eukanuba and Science Diet, you dial the number. No ring, only a mechanical voice, "This phone number is no longer in service, please dial again." And so you do. "This phone number is no longer in service, please dial again." You stare at the chicken scratch on the blue sheet of paper. Maybe the four is a nine. You dial again, adjusting the numbers. This time, you call a pizza delivery joint off of Semoran Boulevard. You think about ordering a pie, but you're not hungry.
"Don't worry," you say, as you rest Andy into your lap, his tin box decorated like an Easter egg. "I won't give up."
You check your messages from the phone in the storage closet—your sister called, asking you if you heard from the lawyer, and Jones. Jones left four messages, probably an accumulation of dodged calls from the past week.
Two weeks pass, and no word from Andy's owner. You keep Andy in your cubby next to your bottled water and tuna sandwich. Every Tuesday, you take him on a walk around the property during your lunch hour. As you hug him close to your waist, you tell Andy the juiciest office gossip you can muster like how the newest technician always leaves Dr. Cohen's office with her hair disheveled and her scrub top inside-out. Some days you go into your troubles with men and how your last boyfriend claimed that Social Distortion was lame but all he ever listened to was whiny babies with acoustic guitars strapped to their chests, singing about trapped wasps. On Friday, you dial the numbers one last time. No change, so you take Andy into the small room where rows of candy-colored urns collect dust.
Cramped between the freezer and the metal shelves, you sit Indian-style in the middle of the floor. Andy is in your lap. A small envelope is taped to the top of his box. You open it. Inside, a thick card is imprinted with Rest in Peace, Andy Jones in golden calligraphy; underneath in small blocks letters the words Greenbriar Crematorium are printed. Each urn encompassing the small room has a similar envelope taped to the top of it. You rummage through dead pill bugs and layers of dust until you reach a tin large enough to hold a bag of flour, blocking a rather intricate web. Avoiding the thin gossamers and trapped insects, you grab the large oak urn and open the card. The card reads, "Bernard Taylor." Bernard was most likely a German Shepherd or Rottweiler, possibly a police dog since Dr. Cohen saw all the K-9 units in Orange County. You don't stop with Bernard. Tin after tin, you remove envelopes. You read the contents of each card, as if you were involved in some kind of morbid birthday party. Wiggles McGee—the size of matchbox—was probably a hamster. Pixie Allister-Jones was the same size as Andy, another cat or possibly a Chihuahua. Dozens of calligraphic names hide in beige envelopes, and you read all of them until you are drowning in a pool of abandoned animals. You have never felt such intimacy as you do right at this moment stuffed in a broom closet with the ashes of old companions. They are alone, just like you.
You're not sure how much time has passed, but it couldn't have been much since none of the nicotine-jonesing receptionists have sent out the bloodhounds in search of you. You stare into Andy's new home—the filthy shelves, the brightly colored tins and wooden boxes (some marked with paw prints or slots for old photographs because their owners forked over the extra hundred bucks), and you know that it has to end, and you return each urn—the Kahulas and Boomers—to their original spots. Despite the fact that placing bodies atop of bodies makes you think of concentration camps and the communal graves dug during the Civil War, you place Andy on top of Pixie. There are no assigned plots here, and you may never be able to find Andy again. You don't say goodbye; you only pull down the light switch and walk out the door.
As you return to the receptionists' desk you glare into the glass doors. Smudges from the wet nose prints of over-excited pups create a foggy film over the doors you wiped down this morning. Two weeks ago, the trucker walked through those doors and handed you a wet Chiquita banana box. You swear it was two years ago.
"You've got a message," one of your co-workers says between bites of a Mars Bar. "I left it by the phone."
You sit down and rest your hand on the telephone. You find comfort in the leftover breaths on the glass doors, proof that someone, something, had been here and been happy. You pick up the receiver and dial the numbers written on a scrap of paper, Rimadyl printed across the top. When the receptionist asks you how to transfer your call, you reply, "Mr. Jones, please."
Melanie Summers' days consist of running after her daredevil son, writing fearlessly during his nap times, and sneaking in the occasional Woody Allen flick or foreign film. She currently resides in northwest Florida and has had poems published in both The Cypress Dome and the anthology A Peace We Knew.