“What am I going to tell him, Sarah? What the hell am I going to tell him?”
Sarah reaches for the radio and turns up the volume.
“Sssh. Not so loud. He’ll hear you.” She plops into a chair beside me and leans on the kitchen table. “Bobby will be crushed, but we can’t keep Lady. We’re lucky we found a small apartment. I don’t care about that . . . you know that, don’t you? I’ve told you a thousand times I’d live in a garage to be with you and Bobby. But we have to do something about Lady. The apartment building doesn’t allow pets. And we have to move . . . soon.”
“Jesus, Sarah . . . ”
She jumps up. Plants her hands on the table and leans in so that her face is two inches from mine. Spits the words. “Don’t ‘Jesus, Sarah’ me. You have to get your act together. You promised to stop drinking. You promised. I can support you through whatever it takes to get you sober, Justin. And I don’t give a damn about all the stuff we had to sell. We will do just fine without the big TV and fancy furniture.” She drops her head, then lifts it again. Tears stream down her face. “Look . . . it kills me to give up Lady.” She chokes back a sob. “But we have to . . . and we have to do it right away. You know damn well the leasing company will repossess the Lexus any day. You need to take care of this while we still have the car. Call the breeder, Justin. Explain things. You have to take Lady now. And you have to tell Bobby. Man up, Justin.”
I let out a moan.
Sarah sighs and sits. She turns down the radio. Takes a deep breath.
“It’s Saturday, so I’m taking Bobby out for the day. You take care of Lady. You’ll think of something to tell him, Justin.” She stands and walks away.
A few minutes later, Bobby barrels into the kitchen.
“Me and Mommy cleaned the aquarium, Daddy. I took out the castle and now I can’t find it. Mom says we have to sell the aquarium. But I want to keep the castle. Did you take it?”
I stare at my eight-year-old. I want to keep the castle, too, son. I shake my head.
Bobby shrugs. “I’ll look for it later. Mom and I are going out . . . shopping for school stuff. We’re taking the bus. Isn’t that cool?”
“Later, Daddy!” He runs out.
I hear both of them at the front door. Chattering, gathering shoes and jackets. Then the door opens and closes.
She hurries to me, tail wagging. Looks up, brown eyes shining, and places a paw on my arm.
I cringe. “Oh, God.” I extend my hand to pet her, but instantly recoil. Can’t be too nice to her. Not now.
Using the table for support, I push myself up, shuffle toward the kitchen cabinets and pull open drawers, one after another. Empty. Empty. Empty. Damn. Yellow Pages. Where are the freaking Yellow Pages?
I finally spot the book in a drawer, yank it out, and flip to dog breeders. There it is. I reach for the phone and start to punch in the number. I stop. How the hell am I going to explain this? Must be an easier way. I flip the pages of the phone book again until I find the SPCA. No mention of hours. I try to read the phone number but it keeps jumping on the page so I plant one finger under it and lean closer until it becomes legible. I repeat it over and over, like a mantra, until it registers in my brain. I say it again while I am pushing the numbers on the phone. Someone picks up immediately. My heart races. What am I going to say? Wait, it’s just a voice message. A sigh of relief gushes from me. I listen to the recording until I hear what I want. “Noon to five on Saturdays.” I hang up.
Only 9:30 now. What am I going to do for the next couple of hours? I drop my gaze to Lady who is following my every footstep. She is just standing there, brown eyes shining, waiting for instruction. What do we do next, Dad? Her tail sways, stops, sways again. Jesus. I look away. Can’t play with her, too painful to play with her, but want to do something nice, maybe something to prove I’m not evil. Huh. She needs a bath. Maybe the SPCA people won’t think so badly of me if I see that she is well-groomed before I drop her off.
Maybe that makes no sense, but I have to do something. Prefer to sit and drink, but I promised Sarah. Make a lot of promises these days. Never seem to be able to keep them.
Not about to groom Lady myself—couldn’t stand all that one-to-one. Not when I’m about to give her up. I open my wallet and check my cash. Not enough. So I go to Sarah’s hiding place, behind the door in the walk-in closet, where she stashed all the money from recent garage sales. She thinks I don’t know. Huh. I open a pink shoe box and remove fifty dollars.
Then I leash Lady, take her to the car, and put her into the front seat. This is not the usual arrangement, but Lady seems very pleased. She has always loved to look out the window, and the front seat gives her maximum view. I don’t really want her there beside me, so close that I feel her every breath or see every strand of escaped fur float in front of me like dandelions on a breeze. But today, I have no choice. I need the trunk and back seat for her kennel and dog food. So Lady must sit in the front.
When I’m sure I have everything, I get behind the wheel and, without an appointment, drive to the Pet Smart store which is about twenty minutes away. Know for sure that they groom dogs. Not a chance I’m going to a local groomer today—might see, or worse, be seen by, someone I know.
Lucky for me, it’s a slow day in the grooming department at this particular Pet Smart. An eager woman smiles as she records my information, takes my money, and reaches for my dog. With ease, I relinquish the leash to her and watch as she escorts Lady to a step-up tub. Lady doesn’t look back; she knows this woman will do her no harm. She trusts me. Lady trusts me. An arctic shiver sifts through my body and tears spring to my eyes. I gulp and turn away. My feet stumble as I head toward the exit.
Once outside, I look around. I need a refuge, a waiting place. Nearby, there is a coffee shop. Good. I hurry toward it, push open the door, go to the front counter and place my order.
While the clerk moves to the coffee machine, my eyes travel the room. I spy an empty table in a far corner and, as soon as money and coffee have changed hands, I rush to it . . . have to move quickly before anyone else spots it. Putting the cup onto the table, I sit facing the counter, and shove my hands into my pockets. While my right hand is twisting off the cap of an airplane-sized vodka bottle in my coat pocket, I again look all around. No one will notice, I tell myself. The bottle, completely covered by my hand, emerges. With a deft motion, I add vodka to coffee and return the bottle to its hiding place. Smiling, I lift my coffee cup. Steam rises and the aroma of coffee, just coffee, permeates my nostrils. My smile widens. Vodka is deceptive. Secretive. Like me.
No need to guzzle this drink. Just knowing it’s there eases my anxiety. I clutch the cup and blow on the coffee to cool it. Little ripples travel across the surface of the liquid. I blow again. And again. And then I gulp. Once, twice, three times. I let out a sigh as my body eases into the effects of the mixed drink. Great combination, caffeine and alcohol. One kicks, the other calms. Yep, great combination. Right now, it’s perfect for me.
It’s a tough thing that I’m going to do today. Damn tough. Not fair that I have to be the one to do this, Sarah. Not fair at all. I need a drink, just to take the edge off. So, for about forty-five minutes, I sit there, taking the edge off. Sipping my way through one mixed drink. Ordering a coffee refill. Adding more vodka. Sipping my way through that. After I have emptied the second cup, I raise it to my nose and sniff. Just to be sure. Can’t smell anything. Even if I could, no one would know it was me. Would anyone even care? I doubt it. I take my cup to the disposal area and place it on the tray with the rest of the dirty dishes.
My bladder complains so I head to the washroom and empty it. Then I stand at the sink, staring into the mirror. I snort in contempt at the man who stares back. Pumping the soap container, I turn on the faucet and wash my hands. When I look back at the mirror, the man is still there, the son of a bitch. I wash my hands again, lathering twice. This time I don’t look at the mirror; I keep my head low as I go to the paper towel rack, yank off a sheet and rub vigorously. Time to go back to Pet Smart, to Lady.
It’s 11:15 when I see Lady. She looks beautiful, so clean and shiny. When she shakes, her long fur floats around her like the hair on a wind-blown runway model. She wags her tail furiously when she sees me. I pay the bill and claim her. Lady jumps up with excitement. I forget, for just a minute. I forget and I drop to my knees so I can hug her and stroke her and whisper sweet things to her. But then I remember and tears cloud my eyes. I blink them back as I stand.
“You have a beautiful dog,” says the groomer.
“Yes, yes, I do,” I reply.
All the way to the car, I keep my head low. I open the passenger door. “Up, Lady.”
Lady jumps in. I close the door behind her, walk around the front of the Lexus, and get behind the wheel.
It’s early when we arrive at the SPCA. Not surprising as it’s only a fifteen minute drive. I have no intention of waiting around. I park across the street, get out and remove the dog crate from the back. I’m a robot now as I go to the passenger side, pick up Lady’s leash, and pull her out. I slam the car door shut with my foot. Lady jumps.
With the leash in one hand and the crate in the other, I stand beside the car, checking both directions for oncoming traffic. Safe. I glance down at Lady who is sitting by my side, just waiting for my next move. She raises her head and our eyes meet. God, I love her. Goddamn, how I love her. Maybe I can turn back. Maybe I can find a way out of this. Maybe we can keep her. A car whizzes by, jolting me back into reality, and I know it’s too late for maybes. I lift my head. No more looking at Lady. I check the traffic flow once again and march forward until I am standing near the SPCA entrance. I look all around. I’m getting good at this . . . looking, lurking, skulking. My life is a series of secrets. As soon as I am sure no one is watching, I drop the crate onto the ground, bend, and unlatch the wire door.
“Go to your room, Lady.” A harsh command. Damn it all, I have to look at her.
Lady tilts her head. Question marks in her eyes. Her tail droops. Her body trembles.
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