End of a Light

Fiction
Dana Verdino


Photo Credit: Andrew Atkinson/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I’m nearly forty, and the days turn over with blind haste. My dog has grown older and her kidneys are failing. It is nearing the end of winter, which was a mild one. Not too cold most days, with a single dusting of snow that frightened southerners into buying up all the bread and milk at the stores. It seems as though Lucy has died already. All I can muster are moments of glee and the rest is keeping my head above the water. I spend my days teaching part time at the college to a bunch of apathetic freshmen. I come home to my husband and four children. I drink wine, smoke cigarettes, and prance around the house, ragging on my children, pretending to listen to my husband, who is talking about work. He paints houses, interiors and exteriors, and he often uses ladders. I try to pet Lucy as much as possible now. She lies on her dog bed in the living room by the window. We once were best friends—just me and my dog in the big city.

Sex is not what it once was, but nothing ever is. It isn’t that the sex is prosaic; it’s just that our parts of flesh are so familiar that duty and mere satiety have usurped desire. Making love to the same and only person year after year seems unfair, but the alternative is a malignant force in a marriage, so I’m stuck, isolated with only love without the lust. Also banal are the vegetables I cook with dinner. We are getting older and we need to eat better, plus the children should learn to find vegetables agreeable. My husband picks the vegetables out of his food, and this is not good for the children to see, but I can’t complain because they see me smoking my lungs out. One week I come down with the flu. One Sunday, my son falls off the couch and splits his cheek open good enough to get four stitches. Lucy grows weaker. My daughter loses a tooth. The dishwasher stops working. Lucy is dying more quickly.

The end of March ends in rain and it continues into the beginning of April. Lucy starts waking me up two or three times a night, summoning me from worlds away as I fumble through the maze of a dream. She comes to the side of the bed, breathing heavily, nudging my arm. She stares at me with her tongue hanging out, glossy eyes, writhing tail. I try not to wake the children, tell Lucy to shush as she shakes her collar and the metal charms clink and clank. At the top of the stairs, she sits and fidgets. I pick her up, my arms behind her hind legs and front legs, scrunching her into a loose ball. Then I follow her as she trots languidly over the wood floor on her twig legs. On the kitchen tile, her hind leg slips away from her, and she falls on her rear, but quickly gets up and makes her way to the water bowl. I pet her small head, a head too small for her Labrador body, but she isn’t all lab. She is all black, part lab, part collie, maybe. I refill her water and sit at the table, waiting for her to slurp it all up. Then, I let her outside into the backyard, although I know it is in vain, as she will go to the bathroom on the hallway rug, as she normally does.

Over the back porch light, the trees cast shadows on the clover patches in the yard, a bat swings low through the air, and I wince. The Orion is clear and I can make out the Huntsman’s torso and bottom parts, over the distant neighbor’s house. I learned how to spot Orion at work, from one of the other teachers, Mr. Poleck. He talks about constellations and swing parties. He and his wife go to parties and trade spouses; sometimes they dress up in animal costumes. He invited me to one such party, but I’m not interested in sleeping with someone that I don’t get to choose ahead of time, neither am I a fan of dressing up as a fox or bear and humping another person in a monkey or cat costume. None of that ignites my lust. So I say, “No, thank you. I’ll just enjoy listening to your stories, if that’s ok.” He had said, “There is nothing to be afraid of. It’s all so natural, like the stars in the sky.” He doesn’t believe in a God. He believes in stars.

After a while of her hobbling around out in the dark, Lucy comes to the door and I let her back inside. She drops down onto her bed in the living room, and I climb back upstairs and into my bed. I hear my two sons and my daughter breathing heavily as they sleep. My other one, the baby, sleeps in our bed in the middle. He sleeps with his delicate, tiny mouth ajar, silent breaths coming out of him. I like to watch his small face and soft mouth breathing air, by the light of the moon through the window.

There are bats living in the attic. A dog, two cats, four children, and a man also live in this house. I try to avoid having to open the trap door on the ceiling and have turned the washroom into the storage area. It is getting too full, but I’m afraid to open the attic door. My husband doesn’t care about organization and there isn’t anything he cares about in the attic, except for his old sports trophies and newspaper clippings of his sporting accomplishments. He says the bats are harmless.

Lucy used to bark when the bats made fluttering noises, which was likely them squeezing their way in through a hole behind the shutter on the attic window. She also used to bark at the mailman, the stray cats, and the occasional squirrel on the back porch. She is dying quickly now, so she doesn’t bark anymore. I ignore the bats and I ignore the death that is eating my dog. Sometimes I kiss her and whisper, light of my life, which is something I used to say all the time. When I met my husband, he became my light, and when I had children, they became my light. They became the lighthouse of my universe, and I stopped being a good friend to my dog. She became a fixture in our home, and sometimes she was even a nuisance. “I’m sorry,” I’d say to her, in those rare times we were alone. “I’m sorry I can’t do this all; I’m just so tired.”

Lucy soon stops waking me in the night and begins using the rug in the living room as her bathroom. I clean rugs and floors and spray the air. In the middle of the night, if I can’t sleep, I’ll lie next to Lucy, my body draped on the floor, my head next to hers on the dog bed. I hang one arm over her and bring her close to me. I asked my husband if I should come home early one day from work and shoot her in the backyard, before the children come home. He says he doesn’t think it’s a good idea, that I’d regret it. Then I get too busy to think about it, and as the days pass, the closer she gets to not existing anymore. In the evenings, my husband reminds me that she’s dying. “She can barely walk,” he says. “She didn’t eat anything today. She hasn’t moved from her bed.“

By mid-April, spring brings the pollen, and the air gets more sluggish. I only wake in the night to make a bottle for the baby. I pass by Lucy on her bed and I sense life. I look over at the couch as I fill water in the bottle at the kitchen sink. The television is on and a blanket lays on top of the mound that is my husband. I can barely keep my eyes open. In the morning, the children and I go downstairs. I start on pancakes and eggs for our Saturday breakfast, while the baby plays with wooden spoons on the floor and the kids watch cartoons. I don’t know where my husband is. I’m thinking he went to the dump before we all got up. Until he arrives home, closes the door lightly, and comes into the kitchen. He looks at me, then shows me a piece of paper. I glance at it and understand fully where he’s been. No wonder I couldn’t make out a head when I looked at the couch in the middle of the night. He wasn’t actually there. He was in jail all night after being arrested for a DUI.

I say, “Good for you. Want some eggs?” I wanted to skip over all the tasks of this giant inconvenience and be in a morning in the future, when everything would be forgiven and it wouldn’t hurt just to speak.

“No,” he says. “I feel sick to my stomach.”

I continue to work the eggs. The kids need breakfast, preferably with protein. I crumble the American cheese into the egg mixture and stir. My husband starts from the beginning. His words are accusatory when he talks about the rookie cop, as if the blame could even partially be placed elsewhere. I feel as though I’ve been through stories like this a million times. I roll my eyes. I don’t want to hear it because it doesn’t matter. We wake, we rear children, we eat, we sleep. Our dog is dying, and our flesh is drooping around crumbling bones. Love has become an act of distribution, and with each passing year, there is less to give. I don’t want to hear the story because I’m enervated and time is of the essence.

 

I’m groggy when I go to work the following Monday. In the tutoring center, I settle into the corner of the large table, where Mr. Poleck sits on the other side, a bag of bagels in front of him. This is where the tutoring takes place, either from teachers at the school, or other student peers. It’s a little extra money, and we get paid even if we don’t tutor during those four-hour blocks. Mr. Poleck offers me a bagel and says he got them free because they’re a day old. He shrugs his shoulders and chuckles, as if to say a world that discards day-old bagels is cruel and foolish. I secretly agree with him, even though I know people want their bagels fresh in the morning. I tell him to rip me a half of a plain one, and I gnaw on it while I start grading student papers, and Mr. Poleck talks about architecture in Chicago. It’s hard for me to concentrate, and the center is empty, so I say, “My dog is dying.” I’m not close to Mr. Poleck but he tells me things he shouldn’t about going to swing parties and dressing up in animal costumes. He is an intelligent man with a PhD in Science, and he has red streaks in his hair and wears sneakers. There is something very trustworthy about him.

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” he says. “How old is your dog?” He takes a calm sip off his coffee. We talk about my dog. Then, he says “Your Lucy is a supernova. Right now she’s spreading herself into pieces, shining brighter than any other star.” He flutters his fingers, illustrating the pieces of a star like the pieces of my dying dog.

A few nights later, on a cool night in April, we sit at the long, wooden table and eat chicken and rice and string beans. I have moved Lucy’s bed into the dining room, so I can look at her while I’m wandering about in the kitchen, as I do most evenings. My children are laughing and making noises like animals when I hear a whimper, and I look toward Lucy to find her seizing up. She is lying there, her legs sprawled out in front of her, eyes wide open. She is hardening inside, her organs icing over. I curse at my children to shut their mouths and rush over to her. I kneel down and hover my body over hers, cradling her head with one hand and holding her side with the other. The children are laughing at her. I yell at my husband, “Get them out of here right now. Just get out!” They all go into the living room and continue to make their noises there, while I tell Lucy it’s going to be okay. Her body is stiff and stretching, her head shaking against her vertebrae. “I’m sorry,” I say. “You’re going to be okay. Everything is going to be okay. I love you.” Her tongue falls out of her mouth, she lets go of a light sigh, and she is gone. Her eyes stay staring into the air at nothing at all. The children clamor in and yell, “Lucy’s dead! Look at her eyes!” I wonder how it is that it doesn’t hurt them, as if I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a child.

I cover Lucy with a sheet from the linen closet. We don’t use top sheets, just blankets, so I save the sheets for occasions like picnics, and apparently, for the death of pets. I used one just a few months prior to bury the cat. We clean up the kitchen table while the children play and Lucy rests like a boulder on sticks under the sheet. After we wash the dishes and sponge off the table, I take the baby and go upstairs to lie down. I lay there while the baby drifts off to sleep, and I listen to my husband carry my friend out to the backyard. In the light of a lantern, he buries Lucy while the children watch. They ask questions like “Why are you putting her in the ground?” and “What will happen to her now?” I lie still on my back, my hands cupped on my chest, and I watch the lantern flickering through the window. The flickers of light and Mr. Poleck’s fingers dancing like the spirit of my dying dog make me smile. I know she isn’t going to fade into blackness like a supernova. Not in my universe. I close my eyes. Light of my life, I whisper and turn on my side to rest my eyes on my baby’s silvery face.

pencil

Dana’s work has appeared in Pank, Fiction at Work, Boston Literary Magazine, Camroc Press Review and Heart Insight, the magazine of The American Heart Association. Dana is an English Instructor for Gaston College and lives in South Carolina with her husband and four children. Email: dcv206[at]nyu.edu