Year of the Dog
BY NICOLE RIVAS
The newest addition to our house, a large section of which my husband has recently turned into a hospice unit for abandoned dogs no longer wanted by the families who adopted them, is a curly-haired Schnauzer with a permanently bent leg (broken and ignored years prior) and stage four liver cancer. She knows better than I do that she’s going to die, or rather, is dying. The other dogs housed here, mostly mutts with behavioral disorders, also terminal but blissfully unaware, use her as a hurdle to show off to each other in the tall weeds brimming with tiger mosquitos and black wasps. When they want to show off to me they wait until she’s sleeping in a ball on top of the couch, then set her on fire and jump through the blazing ring of her body like rabid circus performers. Symptoms of something worse. I can’t say that I’m entirely unimpressed by these extravagant displays as they’ll all be dead within months.
Since the opening of the dog hospice, the entire endeavor of which my husband absolutely insisted on without providing me any concrete explanation, the house phone has been ringing constantly. I answered it once, at the beginning, before any of the dogs in our care had actually died. A woman from the outskirts of town was pleading for us to take her German Shepard who had lost his two front legs but was in otherwise perfect health. She was simply terrified of him and couldn’t bear to be in the same room with such a grotesque deformity that caused the dog to walk upright with a drooped tail. “At night, he roams the house by himself on two legs. He makes these human sounds in the back of his throat,” she said. “He terrifies me and my daughter and watches her in her crib for hours on end.” As she spoke, I removed the battery from the phone and placed it on a nearby notepad. The phone didn’t ring for three hours. I got a lot of work done. Then my husband put the battery back in and the house started filling up with dogs, arthritis, cancer, old age, death.
Every morning, as is customary, I dress in the dark of the bedroom before taking all the dogs out to the backyard to pee. What comes out of the Schnauzer as the days progress from spring to summer is a thick stream of fluorescent urine that smells of ammonia and beef fat. She’s gone for a long time after that, somewhere in the overgrown grass and shrubbery, and I shout her name from the doorframe. Dog. Dog. She doesn’t actually have one, a name. Within minutes she emerges from the brush with a dead thing in her mouth. Something claw-like, frigid, and fragile as a bird. I’m chased around the yard with it, an act which causes me to step in two mounds of dog shit in only socks. Then the dead thing is dropped on the ground for me to see that it’s actually a baby mole. I take off my shitty socks and throw them somewhere in the ragged grass behind me. The Schnauzer takes the mole back into her wet mouth and tries to place it at my feet. I escape onto a wooden bench before she jumps up to corner me. She does all of this so that I’ll give her a bone-shaped treat made out of compressed chicken fat and pig bones, which I do, because I’m scared. The other dogs come forward now, snatch the mole away and play tug-o-war with it, trying to rip it in half at the abdomen like sadists well-adept in the art of medieval torture methods before flinging it into the weeds with a harmony of yelps. But the Schnauzer is bored by all of this and goes indoors to eat toilet paper out of the bathroom trash bin. The last I see of her is the blur of her limp and her clipped, wagging tail pointing toward the sky.
Now I’m left sitting alone on the bench with the dead baby mole, which I retrieved from the weeds with a pinched claw after the remaining dogs dispersed. As always, the phone rings faintly from inside. At first I place an empty flower pot over the mole so that I don’t have to look. Then I take the flower pot off and see that the mulch caked on the inside-bottom of the pot has fallen all over its body, the latter of which is soft and cool and the length of my palm. I remove these moist shards with my fingers and pick the baby mole up by its right paw. Heartbreaking. I can think of so many potential names for it now that it’s dead beyond dead. Moley. Mole-Baby. Molenda. Mirabel. It has a little smear of dried blood on its nose and dog saliva covering its abdomen but is otherwise in perfect post-mortem condition. I look for its tiny eyes but can’t find them. I admire its conical fuzz-snout. I study its front paws, which are large and twisted outward in a way I hadn’t anticipated. We dehydrate together in the rising sun. I feel sad. Truly sad. Then my husband comes outside in his bathrobe, rubs his eyes in the mist of morning, and looks at the mole and then at me like I’m insane, sick, destined for despair. The phone rings again, the dogs howl and scramble towards the cord, and my husband sprints for the receiver like an Olympic medalist forever in search of the finish line, muscles ripping at the seams.
Nicole Rivas is a writer from Los Angeles and the Inland Empire. Currently, she is an MFA candidate and instructor at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Her stories have appeared in Ghost Town, Kansas City Voices, Per Contra, and elsewhere. Her website is www.nicolemrivas.com.