Quality Of Life
By Henry S. Kivett
Touch me with creepy rubber robot arms. Scoop me up, drop me through the slot. You win a prize, take me home.
Come on, they say. We've got a birthday surprise for you.
I doubt it.
We drive for half an hour, Mom reading directions to Dad. He swears in initials when she's too slow to make the last turn. GD! MF!
We pull into the gravel driveway of a dirt farm. Shirtless guy scowls. Shirted guy waves. Sweatpanted lady smiles.
This must be the place, says Mom.
Look at these Turkeys, says Dad. Hi. Hello. Don't kill us. Hi there.
We smell the back porch from the front yard. Gulping helps me not to vomit. So does holding my breath. There are puppies under the porch, growing like mushrooms in beds of shit. There are six of them. Orange-eyed, black-and-tan German Shepherd puppies. They all scamper and play, all but one. He takes a few steps and sits down. A few more steps. Sits down.
I take a breath through my mouth. I take a pair of steps towards the sitter. He does the same towards me. I step in shit, he sits in it.
How about this one? Dad picks up the biggest puppy. It thrashes and growls. It's smaller than a football, but just barely.
Or that one, he's almost white all over. Look at him.
The sitter can't look away from me. He's the smallest. One ear up, one ear down. He looks so worried. He fits in my hand, sits in my palm. A panting potato.
On the way home, he sits in my lap, looking. He pants, then he stops. He pants, then he stops. I breathe in. Better than a car, asks Mom.
A puppy? Yeah. What am I? Eight?
We can take him back if you don't want him.
Never mind, I say. Never.
Because he falls, and because he's a little wolf, I call him Timber. Like a timberwolf. Like yelling timber. His hips are bad- bones and sockets growing fast, but at different rates. This is why he sits.
I sing fucking Celine Dion and Michael Bolton as I drive. It's that bad. A hundred pounds of Timber are folded in the back seat. He's been crying, too.
The vet says it's not his hips. But his heart sounds funny. He listens again and again. Timber and I hold our breath. I ask him why, why he holds his breath.
Dogs do that, he says. They don't breathe like we do. They'll pant for a while, see...? Then they'll stop. Their respiration isn't as constant as ours. It's nothing to worry about. He may have a heart murmur, though. How's his energy level?
He sleeps sixteen hours a day. He breathes like me. He's only four.
The lab work comes back.
Stupid little sixth grader shit, he says. He's in my face. Fuck him. He's older but shorter than me. Broad and pimpled and ugly. He smells weak. I hold his smell. I do not breathe out.
Whatcha gonna do? Cry?
He nudges me with his shoulder and slips the bookmark out of my Star Trek novel.
Lost your place. What're you readin? Dorky shit?
I haven't breathed in three minutes and he doesn't realize the danger he's in. He just doesn't know. Every breath in, everything in. Just makes me stronger. He blows everything out. Weak. He doesn't realize the strength trapped in me. I could crush him. The kids from my neighborhood watch the scene with shock. I've crushed them all. Mowed them down, football against my chest, with freakish strength. I can't be brought to my knees.
He rips the bookmark in half. Has no idea the danger he's in. No idea. The bell rings and, as suddenly as he appeared, he's gone. Like it didn't even happen.
Sam says, Man, I thought you would kill him.
Not worth it. I do not exhale.
As far as anyone knows, I feel nothing.
Maybe that's enough, taking my breath. Pulling it, forcing it out.
I'm gonna be late for work, she says, brushing blanket lint from her black tights. I can't do much but blink. I don't know what to say. I've known her for three weeks. No wait, two... and a half.
She kisses me again and I hang on to my breath this time.
People wave as we pass. He's beautiful. He could model. My chest is full. Little dogs cringe, but Timber only sniffs them. If they charged him, he'd retreat. He's a cowardly lion, scarred by his crippled youth. But the little dogs don't know that.
He stops to chew grass when his belly gets upset. It’s awkward, green blades caught between his teeth. Grinding his cud like a cashew-fanged donkey. Smack smack smack.
Fucking dog, she says.
It's spring, I say, he's blowing his undercoat. He glances at her, panting, and then back to me. We both stop breathing.
The lab work comes back.
There are numbers that I don’t understand, but Doctor LaPierre explains it all. Commonly called a heart murmur. Two of his valves don’t close properly and blood regurgitates back from whence it came.
As Doctor LaPierre explains everything, Timber rolls over, hoping for a belly rub. He is not disappointed.
There is medication, but all medication comes with consequences. Kidney damage, liver problems. It’s a gamble either way. Lifespan is limited either way. He’s fine for now, but quality of life might become an issue over time.
Carrie’s living with fucking Hammerhead and I don’t care. Timber lays in the backseat, hoping for a belly rub. He is not disappointed.
He stops to chew grass when his belly gets upset. It’s awkward, green blades stuck between his teeth. Grinding his cud like a cashew-fanged donkey. Nina smacks his butt and he leans into her, grinning through grass. Smack smack smack.
People wave as we pass. She's beautiful. She could model. My chest is full.
I breathe in. It’s difficult, I say.
What is? What’s so hard, she asks.
I breathe in. How to say that I can’t say anything? That my breath is caught, that my words are being held hostage in my lungs?
At the top of the steps, we almost collide. Timber watches, panting. Nina drops a basket of coat hangers, her face pouring open.
Holy shit, she says. What’s wrong with your face?
I can’t remember the last breath I took, but I can’t be brought to my knees. Still, I stumble a little.
I vault from my side of the bed, Nina from hers. Somebody hits the light. We’re gathered around Timber, stroking him while he spasms and shrieks. Is it his hips? Out of their sockets? Panicky sweat slicks my arms. I have no idea what to do.
Nina tells him over and over, it’s okay, it’s okay. I can’t think of anything to do but follow her lead. I ruffle his ears and stroke his muzzle. She kneads his belly and ribs.
When the squealing stops, I ease back, relieved. You okay, boy? His eyes are fixed on me.
Oh god. Nina says, I don’t think he’s breathing.
It’s really difficult, I say. It comes out as a whisper, but hurts like a scream.
What’s really difficult, she asks.
I push with all my might. Try to push out a thousand words. I feel like a chapped and broken fist. Punching. Through a crumbling brick wall, torn by sharp edges. Beaten by falling pieces, Crushed and mangled. Of the thousand words, only two survive.
That’s just the way dogs breathe, I think. Their respiration is different from ours.
But his bladder goes, and his bowels go. He jerks and locks in place.
I’m not prepared and I’m completely paralyzed. I start to fall backwards. No! Nina says. He still needs you!
Following her lead, I wrap myself around him. I love you I love you I love you, we say. And we ease Timber on to wherever. The pink insides of his ears go white and we watch him go wherever.
It’s okay, Timber, she says. In case he can still hear us. It’s okay, it’s a good boy. It’s okay. Such a good boy.
And we sob and hold him. We shudder and jerk, we convulse and sputter. We stroke his ears and run our fingertips over his muzzle.
And I’m thinking I’ll marry her, because I can’t spend the rest of my life with someone who never knew him. Because I can’t let go of this moment. I can’t let go of Timber. I can’t let go of anything.
And even without a heartbeat, even without a brain, something in Timber’s body realizes it’s been too long since he took a breath. He jerks. His mouth opens.
And the breath rushes out.
Photo "'To have a hunch 1" courtesy of Jakub Lewandowski, Poland.
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