Small Spaces

[From the vault, back when I thought I could.]

Corky, the original inspiration for this story.

Annie woke to the sweet, earthy smell of dog shit.  She sat up slowly, her back stiff from sleeping on the floor, her t-shirt sticky with sweat.  Buck didn’t stir.  He’d had a rough night and was snoring gently, his big nose tucked under his blanket.  She leaned back against the cool surface of the washing machine, drawing her knees up carefully so as not to wake him.  The laundry room was small, barely room enough for her and the old German Shepherd.

Buck was dreaming.  His front legs jerked spastically.  His closed eyes twitched and his lips curled.  A low growl came up through his sleep.

Annie smiled.  “Get him, boy,” she whispered.  “Run, Buck, run!”  Once, he’d chased rabbits for hours, never tiring of the game.  Now, he ran only in his dreams.

The dream passed and Buck returned to his low snoring.  Annie padded to the bathroom, opened the hot water tap, and let it run while she peed.  When she finished, she took a hand towel from the stack by the sink and soaked it in the warm water.  The she went back to clean Buck.

She unbuckled his diaper, which was full.  She pulled an empty Walmart bag from the laundry basket she kept filled with Buck’s supplies, placed the diaper in it, tied it off, and tossed it down the hall to the door.  She’d pick it up later.

She rolled him on his back.  The dead weight of his hind legs splayed open and she pushed them aside as she wiped.  She knew he liked the feel of the warm cloth, and she wiped him slowly, tenderly.  She finished with a dusting of Gold Bond powder before putting on a clean diaper.

He was awake by now and when she rolled him back over, he raised his head and rolled out his tongue in a long yawn.  Then he licked the air slowly, trying to ease his dry mouth.

“Good morning, sweetheart!”  Annie said.  She put her arms around his neck and nuzzled his head with hers.  His fur in her face had his familiar scent, big-dog musk, comfortable and comforting.  “How are you today?  Ok after that terrible night?”

Annie hated the Fourth of July.  Buck was terrified of fireworks and they had taken refuge here last night in the laundry room, hiding on the floor with both the washer and dryer running to drown out the noise from outside.  Annie had screamed curses and Buck had howled in fear, futilely trying to crawl away from the explosions and pops from outside.  Annie had wrapped her arms about his big head and cradled him until after midnight.

“Want some breakfast?”  Buck gave a low woof in response.  Annie bent over him and wrapped her arms about his chest.  “Ok, up-up!”  She pulled him up to a near-sitting position and then passed one arm under him.  “Come on, guy.  Help me out.  Up-up!”  She stood with a grunt, feeling the pain in her lower back as she lifted him.  She cradled his hind legs with her arm and hurriedly staggered to the kitchen.  On the way, she muttered to herself, “Next time, Annie, go for something small.   A poodle.  Or even a Chihuahua.”  In the kitchen she half-dropped him onto his bed.  She leaned against the counter to catch her breath and wait for her back pain to subside.  Not that she had chosen Buck.  She had found the young dog eight years ago, hungry and exhausted with a bloody leg trapped in the old barbed wire fence at the back of her property.  He’d never left.

She prepared his bowl, mixing rice with dry kibble to encourage his flagging appetite.  Then she opened his pill box and carefully counted out his morning dosage.  Rimadyl and glucosamine for the joint pain.  Thyroid supplement.  Benadryl for skin allergies and Baytril for the subsequent infections from scratching.  Amitriptyline and Buspirone for separation anxiety.  And a multivitamin chaser to top it off.

She knelt and held the bowl for him while he ate.  He liked the rice, eating it first.  Then he slowly munched down the dry food, raising his head between bites to look about.  He left the medicines in the bottom of the bowl and turned his head away when she urged him to finish.  Annie sighed and went to the pantry.  She took a Twinkie from the large stash there, unwrapped it and stuck the pills in it.  At the sound of the plastic wrap being opened, Buck watched her intently.  When she offered the loaded Twinkie, he gulped it down and she laughed.

She held his water bowl for him, tapping the rim with her finger so he could find it.  He drank loudly and with great splatters.  Then he began rubbing his face on the floor, his sign that the meal was a good one.

“Want to go for a walk?” she asked.  Buck put his head up and grunted his assent.  “Ok, let’s go.”  She propped the back door open and felt the Alabama heat roll in.  She struggled outside with Buck in her arms.  By the door was an oversized wagon, once red, now dusty and rusted.  It was filled with tattered blankets and two misshapen pillows.  A metal frame welded to the back served as a handle for pushing.  On the side, in crooked hand-painted white letters, it was christened ‘The BuckMobile.’  Parked beyond it was her pickup, in only slightly better condition.  She’d started calling it the BM2, but hadn’t labeled it as such yet.

She awkwardly dropped Buck in the wagon on the blankets.  He grunted when he hit the deck.  “Sorry, boy.”  She settled him on the blankets, a pillow on each side to prop him up, and positioned his back legs which had a tendency to get tangled up.

She went inside and returned with his travel bag.  It contained diapers, towels, water and collapsible bowl, oversized pre-moistened wipes, kibble, and half a case of Twinkies.  Even short trips with Buck had to be handled like major expeditions.  She burrowed inside the bag, looking for one final item, then extracted a worn blue bunny toy.  It had seen better days and was missing one ear.  Its fur was a patchwork of bare cloth and dirty fluff.  She squeaked it and Buck perked up.  She dropped it beside him and he pinned it with his feet while methodically stripping off more fur.  She fastened the bag to the handle of the wagon, closed the back door, then leaned into the handle and pushed the wagon down the drive, gravel crunching underfoot.

Across the cotton field behind her house there were rows and rows of cookie-cutter houses, close enough now that she could see in their windows and hear the screams of the children playing.  When she had found Buck, they were off on the horizon.  Now they had marched virtually to her back door.  She felt claustrophobic whenever she looked across the field.

She maneuvered Buck down the  empty road.  She technically lived in the county, despite the houses behind her and there was no traffic.  A red cascade of honeysuckle poured across the fence that followed the road.  In the morning stillness, she could hear the drone of bees among the blossoms.  The rapid blur of a hummingbird darted in and out.

Buck held his head up, sniffing the fragrant air, gulping as if he were snatching tidbits from it.  The front of the wagon was wet from his saliva.  Annie smiled.  This was one of his good days.  Some days he could barely raise his head, but today he was interested and casting about.  She knew he couldn’t see much through his clouded eyes so she kept up a running description for his benefit.

She stopped to catch her breath.  Cicadas were already singing.  She mopped her face with the hem of her shirt.  It was almost more than she could do to push him on the uneven road, and her back had a threatening knot in it.  But she believed it was important for him to get out, to get some air in his head.

Then she saw the rabbit, frozen beside the road ten yards ahead.

“What’s that, boy?” she asked.  It was a signal he had learned and he started looking about, trying to find the unknown target.  She started easing the wagon toward the rabbit.  It didn’t move.  When they were about five feet away, Buck saw it and started barking.  The rabbit bolted into the grass.  Annie pushed the wagon as quickly as she could in pursuit.  It bounced on the gravel on the shoulder of the road, at one point tilting on two wheels.  Buck was tossed about, even becoming airborne at one point.  He never stopped barking.

“Get him, boy! Go! Go! Go!”  She ran the wagon into the grass before her breath gave out.  She leaned on the handle, laughing, while Buck pointed his nose to the sky and barked non-stop.  He quit only when she wrapped her arms about his neck and murmured in his ear.  “Ok.  It’s ok.  Settle down, boy.”  She fished out his water bowl and he drank eagerly as she held it for him.  “We almost got him, didn’t we?”

Running the wagon off the road was a mistake.  She didn’t have the strength to work it back to the pavement with Buck in it.  So she had to lift him out, pull the wagon out, then reposition him on the wagon.  She headed home and was soaked with sweat when she arrived.

After showering, she opened shop and moved Buck to his bed by the register.  Annie sold candles and oil lamps, mainly by mail but some locals knew to come by.  Business wasn’t good, but it allowed her to work from home and keep Buck at her side.  And it was good for him to meet the few customers that wandered in.  He loved people and they were always drawn to the crippled dog at the back of the room.

She tried explaining degenerative myelopathy to people.  Told them it was an auto-immune disease that attacked the nerves in dogs.  She tried telling them that it was like multiple sclerosis in humans, but to herself she always bitterly added the one big difference: you don’t put people down when they start to piss on themselves.

At first, she had thought Buck was just getting clumsy, falling more often when running about.  Then he developed a hitched gate that threw his hip out to one side.  When he began dragging his foot, the medical tests began.  Eventually the diagnosis of degenerative myelopathy was made.  The key word was degenerative.  Annie hated when people asked if Buck was getting better.  She wanted to scream that he wasn’t going to get better.  That each day would be worse than before.

When his hind legs failed she bought him a wheel chair, a cart-like contraption that strapped to his chest and let him pull his now-useless rear end in a sling between two wheels.  Eventually, Buck’s front legs weakened and the BuckMobile was born.  When he lost control of his bladder and bowels, she designed diapers from adult diapers and male incontinence guards.

By now it was a struggle for Buck to move at all.  His back toes curled when he peed, and his leg stiffened slightly when he pooped.  That was all that was left.  If he fell over, he would have to lay there until Annie propped him up.  She’d learned to anticipate his needs.  When he cast about with his nose, she’d hold his water bowl for him.  If he rejected that, she would hold a toy and squeak it for him.  They used to play fetch for hours, Buck tearing across the yard after a ball.  Now she simply waved the toy in the air so he could find it, then she slowly brought it down to his open mouth.  He would growl and chew the toy for a minute, then bark at her to do it again.

There weren’t many people in her life, just a few customers.  Her main social contact was from Buck’s visits to Dr. Phillips for his shots and checkups.  She knew she was neglecting her business, but Buck took almost all her time.  Back when Buck could still walk there had been a man in her life.  Carl had liked walking Buck and was gentle with him.  He was a passionate lover, but he had become aloof as Buck’s condition deteriorated.  Finally he left, saying that he wouldn’t play second fiddle to any dog, not even Buck.

The phone rang.  It was Corinne Baxter, her mother’s neighbor.  Corinne was apologetic, but she felt that Annie needed to know about her mother.  Unhappy with the constant expense of paying to have her lawn mowed, Annie’s mother had sprayed it with kerosene.  “It’s not my place to say,” Corrine said, “but I think you should be here.”  Annie felt sick.  She promised Corinne she was on her way and hung up.

* * *

“How’s Buck?” her mother asked.  They were just finishing breakfast.  Annie had left yesterday afternoon after Corinne’s call and arrived at her mother’s house after midnight.  It had been an awkward meeting and they had quickly gone to bed.  Now, over cereal and coffee, they gingerly approached the subject of Annie’s visit.

Annie sighed and poked at her Corn Flakes.  “He’s not too good.  We had a bad night on the Fourth.  I hope he’s ok.  I had to board him at the vet.  They’re the only ones that can take care of him now.”

“I’m sorry.  I wouldn’t want to cause him any trouble.”

Annie glanced at her.  Her mother had jet black hair with a streak of white running back over her head.  Her father had called it her wild streak.  Annie had been crushed when her own hair had grown in streakless.  Looking at her now, Annie noticed that her mother’s hair was graying, as if the wild streak was spreading over all the rest.  She reached out and patted her mother’s hand.

“It’s ok.”  Annie got up and went to the window.  A limp strand of ivy hung from a Mason jar filled with dirty water.  She poked at it with her fingers.  “Might do him good to socialize a bit.  God knows I need a break.”

She lifted the plant out of the water and looked at the bare stem.  “How long have you had this in here?”

“Don’t know.  A week or so, I guess.”

“I don’t see anything happening.”

“Give it time.”

Annie looked out the window at the lawn.  Early this morning she had sneaked out to see the damage.  There were great sweeping swirls of oily, dark devastation.  Annie could imagine her mother waving the spray wand about, like she was painting some masterpiece.  The spots she’d missed were still green, but the rest was wilting fast.  She looked at her mother and jerked her thumb out the window.  “This was not a good idea.”

Her mother just rolled her eyes and looked away.

“David won’t be happy if he finds out about this,” Annie said.  Annie’s brother, David, took care of her mother’s finances but lived in San Francisco so the daily emergencies fell to Annie who, only six hours away by car, was relatively closer.

“He’ll shit a brick.”

Annie burst out laughing.  “Momma!” she said in mock surprise.  “I don’t know what’s got into you!”

“You sound like George now.”

The mention of her father sobered Annie.  “How?”

“He thought I was… a bit rough on the edges.  Whenever I said shit he’d say ‘Darlene, you have something in your mouth I wouldn’t have in my hand.’  You could tell he didn’t change diapers.”

They both smiled in silence.  “I miss him,” her mother said.

“Me too.”

Her mother toyed with her coffee, alternately swirling it back and forth with her spoon.  “Even then, you were taking care of him,” she said.  “Always at his side.”

“I remember watching him in bed.  His heart banging so hard it shook his whole body.  I thought it was going to jump out of his chest.”

“It finally did.”  Her mother had fallen to her knees, screaming, when they turned off the equipment, signaling the end.  Annie had sat silent, forgotten, in the hard chair of the emergency room as they had tried to comfort her mother.

Her mother was quiet, then continued.  “But you were always there.  Seems you’ve always been taking care of someone.  Your dad.  Buck.  Even that little black thing, what was he called?”

“Nandy.”  When she was fifteen, the neighbor’s Scotty became sick, and they were going to put it down before Annie agreed to take it.  She’d nursed it for six months before the end came.

“You had just gotten your driver’s license.  And your first trip was take him to be put down.  Wouldn’t even let us come with you.”

“He was my responsibility.”

“And now you have new responsibilities.  Including me.”

“I’m not going to cart you off to the vet to be put down.”

“Might not be a bad idea.”

Annie looked at her with alarm and her mother waved her hand in dismissal.

“I didn’t mean that, of course.  But you may have to cart me off somewhere.  Where I can’t play with kerosene.  Maybe soon.”

“Don’t be silly.  That’s a long way off.”

“I am silly, dear.”  She ran a hand through her hair, following the white streak.  Then she dropped her hand to the table with enough force to rattle the dishes.  Annie jumped.  “Probably worse.  Hell, I look at that yard and a part of me still thinks I did right.  They were charging me twenty five dollars to mow that.  Twenty five!  Over five hundred dollars a year!  And then they acted like they were doing me a favor.  Like I was some kind of charity case.  Well, for only two dollars of kerosene, and a fifteen dollar sprayer, I showed them.  I solved the problem.”

“Momma–”

“So maybe I am silly.  I don’t know.  But I do know this.  You can’t make things better by ignoring them.”  She stared at her cup, then looked up at Annie.  She had tears in her eyes.  “You’ve got problems in your life, Annie.  And I’m one of them.  And I need to know that I can count on you to do the right thing.”

Annie came and knelt at her mother’s knees.  “Not yet.”

“The day’s coming,” her mother said.

“I’ll be there.”  They looked at each other for a moment, then Annie abruptly stood and returned to look out the window.  “I don’t care what you say.  This was definitely not a good idea.”

“Shit a brick,” her mom said.  They both laughed.  “Shitabrick, shitabrick, shitabrick…”  They chanted in unison, laughing until tears came to their eyes.

Annie wiped her eyes and caught her breath.  The room grew quiet.  “I mean it.  This wasn’t a good idea.”

Her mother looked at the floor.  “I know.”

“Call me next time.”

“I will.”

* * *

“Oh, he must have drunk some water earlier.  Don’t worry, dear.  That’s normal.”

The old woman’s voice was solicitous, trying to ease Annie’s pain.  Annie watched the fluid puddle under the small black muzzle.  It was over.  So fast.  He had gone down even before the needle was removed.

“It’s for the best, dear.  I know its hard for someone so young.  But he was in a bad way.  You did right.  What was his name?”

Annie roused herself.  “Nandy,” she said.

“What a sweet name,” the vet said.  “I always loved Scotties.  Would like me to take care of him now?”

Annie nodded, not taking her eyes off the still form.  The vet waited, then draped her arm around Annie’s shoulder and steered for the door.  “Are you ok?” she asked.

Annie nodded.

“Don’t worry.  We’ll take good care of him.”

* * *

Annie spent four days with her mother, using that time to soothe the neighbors and the city officials who wanted to treat the sprayed yard like a toxic dump.  She also used the time to watch her mother, trying to peer inside to guess what was going on under that wild streak of white hair.  Last night her mother had caught Annie staring at her and threw a handful of mashed potatoes at her.  Annie was shocked.  The potatoes hit her in the chest, splattering her arm and face.  Where it touched bare skin it seemed to burn.  Her mother pointed at her and giggled.  Annie joined in uneasily.

“Girl,” her mother had said as they cleaned up, “It’s time you went home.  Another day of this and we’ll both be crazy.”

So Annie was up early the next morning, driving all day to get home before Phillips’ office closed.  She rushed into the office and waved at Marcy, the receptionist.  “Hi!  I’m here to get my baby.”  The girl hesitated.  “You know, the big guy in the diapers.  Can’t walk.”

Marcy picked up the phone and called over the intercom.  “Dr. Phillips to the front please.  Miss Baxter is here for Buck.”

“I don’t need to see the doc.  I’ll just get his things.  I know the way.”  Annie started to the back but Marcy blocked the door.

“You should wait for the doctor.”

Something in her voice, the way Marcy wouldn’t meet her eyes, made Annie’s blood freeze.  “What’s wrong?”

“If you’ll just wait–”

“Oh my God, something’s happened to Buck–”

“He’s ok.  The doctor will explain.”

“I’ve got to see him!  Let me go!”

The two struggled briefly until Phillips appeared.  He grabbed Annie by the shoulder and firmly lead her into an empty consultation room.

“Buck’s ok, Miss Baxter.  Calm down.”

“Oh my God, she scared me.  I thought something bad…”

“I just thought we might have a talk before you took Buck home.”

“Talk?  What about?  Oh my God, there is something wrong, isn’t there?”  Annie jumped to her feet but Phillips pushed her gently back into her chair.

“Buck is ok.  Trust me.  He quit eating–”

“Quit eating!”

“–so I put him on an IV to keep his fluids up.  He’s doing… ok, for now.  He’s got a little bit of loose stool.  That should clear up when he gets back on his regular diet.  You can take him home as soon as we are done here.  I just thought it would be a good idea for us to talk.”

“Talk about what?”  Annie’s voice was shaking.

“Well…”  Phillips rubbed his hands together, then leaned back against the counter.  “He’s gotten much worse since I last saw him.  Can barely use his front legs now.  Doesn’t raise his head much.  Things are going to get worse.”

“We always knew that.”

“Maybe it’s time–”

“No!”  Annie leapt to her feet.

Phillips held up his hands in defense.  “I was just thinking of what is best for Buck.”

“So am I.”  She pushed past him and started for the back.  “Where is he?  I’ll find him on my own if I have to.”

“This way, this way.”  Phillips guided her down the hall.  Annie lectured him as they walked.

“He is happy when he is with me.  And that’s all that matters.  For him to be happy.  I won’t murder my best friend just because he has become… inconvenient.”

She froze when she saw Buck.  It was as if the short visit with her mother had purged her memory of him, and now she had to rebuild his image in her mind, using the evidence of her senses in this moment, cold and objective.  He was sprawled on the floor, the IV tube running to a saline bag.  God he was thin!  Had his spine always stuck out like that?  His hair was coarse and brittle.  When he raised his head she saw, as if for the first time, the white on his muzzle and around his clouded green eyes.  His diaper bulged.  The smell was fetid, sickening.

She turned on Phillips.  “Damn you!  You’d lose your appetite too, if you had to lay in your own shit!”

“He’s been changed twice today–”

“It wasn’t enough!”

“We don’t have enough staff–”

“Get that needle out of him.  Now!”

“–to give him the attention he needs.”  Phillips  removed the needle.  Buck didn’t move.

Annie cradled Buck in her arms, gagging at his smell, and staggered to her feet.  She carried him outside, bumping doors with her shoulder.  Outside, she struggled to lower the tailgate of her pickup so she could use it as a changing station for Buck.

“I’ll get that.”  It was Phillips, who had followed her outside.  He lowered the tailgate and handed her a wet towel.  He had brought Buck’s duffel bag with the dog’s diapers and toys and sat it in the truck bed while she worked with Buck.

Annie put a new diaper on Buck, then lifted him and took him to the cab.  Phillips held the door while she positioned him on the passenger side.

“I’m sorry for upsetting you,” he said.  “I think we both want the same thing.”

She looked down at Buck, head lolling with tongue out.  She closed the door and turned to Phillips.

“I know,” she said.  “And thank you for that.  But it’s not time.  Maybe soon.  But not yet.”  She walked around the truck and climbed in behind the wheel.  “When it is, I’ll call.”

Phillips nodded and she drove off.

Buck began panting heavily and she pulled over to give him water.  He drank weakly and she rested his head in her lap as they drove off.  A few minutes later he vomited the water.  As the warm fluid ran down her thighs she cried silently and focused on her driving.

At home she carried him in and laid him on his bed in the bedroom.  Odd how their entire world had collapsed to small spaces like this, she thought.  One here, one in the kitchen, another in the store.  Each with its pillows and blankets, absorbent pads and towels, toys and treats.  Virtually all his needs were within reach of this spot.  She gave him more water, which he kept down.  She took off her wet pants and threw them across the room.  She lay down with Buck and gently fed him a Twinkie, holding the cream filling on her finger as he slowly lapped it off.  When they were finished, he nuzzled his face on the rug, let out a deep sigh, and closed his eyes.  She lay beside him through the night, listening to his steady breathing.  In the edges of her vision small dark shapes darted nervously in the shadows, black eyes watchful and noses twitching.  At dawn, Buck’s legs kicked in rhythm.  The shadows bolted away, through tall grass and across meadows under a golden summer sun, the young dog in joyous pursuit.

“Get him, boy!” she whispered.  “Run, Buck, run!”

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