Dog Day Afternoon
Nancy Lynn Dietrich
This is no longer our dog.
We are burying RC Cola—a Dalmatian cross I rescued eight years prior that Rick grew to love as one would love a child, loved in certain ways more than me—under a circle of pines and the ever-shedding Eucalyptus tree, to protect her forever from the Arizona sun. But there are roots, and they are making the process difficult—close to impossible. We are taking turns in the desert heat of early May, but we are getting nowhere. A hundred degrees and the humidity of recent irrigation make us feel like we are laboring under water. As we work, our remaining dogs, SodaPop and Ginger Ale, are getting worked up. Ginger is running fast and furious around the makeshift gravesite. A five month-old brindle and white pit bull, she already outweighs RC. She runs aimlessly through the trees, tossing her toys and then chasing them down, stopping only occasionally to sniff her still companion. Ginger is not confused, because she is not aware. She is, however, panting heavily, and I worry about her overdoing it in this heat. I don’t call her over, though, because I don’t need her bothering Rick for games and finding only a hot temper.
Soda has stopped running and has settled her slight figure next to where I stand waiting for my turn to dig. She is trembling as she sits awkwardly on her stilt-like legs, and looks as though she might take flight any moment. Her gaze moves rapidly between Rick, me, and the body of her dead friend. She needs reassurance and there is no one available to give it. I have always anthropomorphized my Italian Greyhound mix and, as a result, I can’t even bear to look down and see the expression I know is on her face. I reach deeper in my pockets for tissues I know I’ve already used up. I am trying to imagine how I can withstand the death of this dog on top of the pain of my dying marriage. It is unimaginable.
As RC lies patiently next to us, the old shovel Rick is using against the thick roots of the 50-foot pine snaps violently in his hands. “Son of a…” He throws the handle across the yard. It crashes into the wire fence and bounces back several feet. I am too tired—or too accustomed to flying tools—to cringe. Ginger pauses for a moment before resuming her circles. “I’m going to Bill’s.”
Our neighbor Bill has a tool for everything—he’s the only man we know with a more diverse set of equipment than Rick. He’s been building and rebuilding his farm for twenty-odd years, and a man raising children and draft horses can accumulate a lot of useful equipment in that amount of time. As Rick walks to his truck, I wipe the sweat from my face and neck with my shirt and start removing the dirt with my hands from between the roots that criss-cross RC’s final resting place. That clear spot outside the yard under the sprawling cactus would have been far easier, but I lost that argument when I watched Rick carry her lifeless body back to the pines some hundred feet away. I was still breathing hard from carrying her out to that cactus, and irritated that I couldn’t decide the resting spot for a dog I took in two months before even meeting Rick. It changed nothing. I went back out to help.
Bill’s place is only three acres away, and I can hear metal hit metal when Rick finds what he needs and throws it in the bed of his truck. No sign of Bill or his black lab, Dora. Rick will be relieved not to have to share his current mental state with him. Knowing Bill, he would have followed Rick back, and what couldn’t possibly become more awkward would have. Rick is on his way home—he is backing slowly all the way since the irrigation canals leave no room for Y-turns with a Ford F350—when my cell phone rings. I don’t know why I pull it out to check the number, but I do. It is my sister, Sarah, calling from Wisconsin, probably with a funny story to tell. The pain is too much to carry alone, and I answer it. My voice is low and my nose is stuffed up from crying, so she knows immediately something is wrong.
“RC died today.” I hear her gasp and feel guilty instantly for dumping this on her.
“I came home from work and saw that Rick hadn’t opened the dog door yet to let the girls in. He was sitting in his office in a haze of blue smoke. I went out on the back porch and there she was, just lying on the floor.”
I hear Sarah say something unintelligible. She is crying. It has been less than a month since she has thrown a ball for RC. The stuffed snake she bought her at Sky Harbor Airport is still in the backyard. “I assume it was a heart attack. I don’t know.”
RC had been coughing a congestive heart failure type of cough for months now, and stopped being able to bear anything more than a twenty minute walk a few weeks back. I had mistakenly and naively figured she probably only had a few years left, and grew saddened at the thought. Last week, she grew uncharacteristically clingy, wanting to be the lap dog she used to be. Rick was irritated by her repeatedly jumping into his lap as he sat recovering from welding pipe all day. We couldn’t figure out why at the time, but it made sense now. When I found her that afternoon, she lay stretched out on her right side on the warm cement. I felt sick that she died on concrete and not on carpet, or grass, or her blanket, which was hanging on a line in the backyard to dry from being washed the night before. Her tongue was lavender in color, and spilled onto the floor like some caricature of a dead dog. She was slightly warm, but only from the heat of a desert shade. Judging from her stiffness I figured she had died around lunchtime.
I don’t tell Sarah about the coughing, the lavender tongue, the stiffness. She is crying hard now. We are both useless. Rick’s truck pulls back in to the drive. “I have to go. Rick needs my help.” I have ruined her evening.
I am still crying as Rick brings over what I think is called a maul, but decide against asking. Judging by the tension in his jaw, anger has fully possessed him, and I’m jealous he’s found a way to not feel the pain, if just for a moment. His anger shuts my grief out entirely and I realize that, though we started our relationship with RC together, we would be ending it alone, separately. There is nothing left between us to unite our emotions. He starts to attack the buried tree limbs with renewed energy, and I find myself surprised that he has not asked the identity of the caller. He was walking towards me as I closed the phone, wiped the dirt from it and put it back in my pocket. It is second nature to both of us that I should be quizzed on who would be calling me. He is ever convinced that I am being pursued by someone, anyone, who will treat me better than he can. Reassuring him that this is not the case is a full-time job. I find his lack of curiosity so unusual I tell him without his asking that Sarah called, and we were both crying so badly we had to hang up. He continues to work in silence, the occasional dry sob escaping him. I wonder briefly if I am speaking out loud, or if I have disappeared completely.
It is now very warm, I’m-going-to-be-sick-and-pass-out warm, and I struggle to keep up with Rick, as if I ever could. Used to working outside all day, every day, even he is exhausted, and sweat covers his face, neck and chest. He shed his shirt long ago. He keeps resting on the handle of the maul as if he’s short of breath. Seeing him tire is unnerving because it is so rare, and I have to pull the tool from his hands—and his resentful eyes—to get him to release it to me. I can feel his impatience as I make ridiculously little progress, and let him take possession of the tool after only a few minutes. It is very clear now that he wants to be alone with her, with our dog, but I will not leave her until the last rock is laid on her grave. Judging by the hate in his eyes, I may very well join her in it. I am not to blame, but I am dangerously convenient.
After roughly thirty minutes, we have made it about three feet down. I am worried it is not enough, but he says it is, and I defer to his assumed previous burying experience. I also know better than to argue with a deeply grieving, unstable man holding a 20 pound piece of iron. We both look at RC and try to accept what we are about to do. He initially tries to shake me off when I reach for her at the same time, but relents and lets my arms join his under her body. His forearms are solid, cold and wet.
Lowering her into the cool bed we have created for her is excruciating, and my eyes close rather than risk meeting Rick’s above her as we hold her together. I fear falling into his grief and never finding my way out. It is at this point I become aware that I am not able to feel my own grief because I am so overwhelmed by his. In some way this seems unfair to RC, and I briefly find the energy to be angry with Rick.
Just as we lay her to rest SodaPop emits a brief, high-pitched howl and flies into the hole. Now her imagined grief washes over me too, and I am undone. Rick turns away. In my mind Soda has figured out what we intend to do, and she is horrified. Whatever her true thoughts, she is indisputably distressed. I pull her into my arms and hold her as she scratches to be let down, still whimpering. I set her on the edge of the grave and tell her to stay, and she does, switching her gaze from my face back to RC’s body. Her face is a tragic question. I can’t breathe when I look at her. Rick and I gather RC’s favorite toys from the yard to bury them with her, and Ginger perks up when she sees us picking them up. Wisely, she retreats at Rick’s warning look. I am reaching for the broken shovel when Rick says, rather frantically, “Wait. She needs a tennis ball.”
I hold my breath and wait for him to find one. He does, and sets it inside a purple rubber heart I bought only days before. Now all I feel is the desire to get this over with before he finds anything more symbolic. I am witnessing the death of a rare friendship—maybe his only true friendship. RC was the only creature he hadn’t completely alienated with his periodic outbursts of rage. She didn’t care about Borderline Personality Disorder. She was fifty pounds of love and forgiveness. The rest of us gave Rick a wide berth, but she always gave him another chance.
Unable to put it off any longer, Rick and I begin to fill the hole we worked so hard to create. When we have returned all the dirt, we start collecting rocks to lay them on the mound. We have spent years clearing rocks from the property, yet now we cannot find enough to hold down the pain we just planted. While Rick searches the back of the property, I go around to the front of the house, to my flower garden. It is not a garden now—the heat, the gophers and my depressed indifference have killed its beauty weeks before. It is nothing more than a crescent-shaped piece of earth surrounded by heavy and variegated stones I have put there over the course of the previous months.
One by one, I move them to the backyard for RC. We pile the stones to keep her safe from anything that would dare disturb the peace she has earned from her eleven years on this earth. I feel I could kill a coyote with my bare hands should I catch one defiling her final bed. SodaPop has gone back to playing with Ginger now, seemingly reconciled to her loss, and I envy her. The same cannot be said for Rick. He asks to be left alone with RC, his first words in an hour not uttered between clenched teeth, so I retreat. I stay occupied with the chores I have yet to complete. The horse, the guinea pigs, the dogs still need to be fed. I don’t bother making anything for Rick. He won’t eat in this state. I throw together a sandwich for myself, knowing I will need something in my stomach to face the rest of the evening with him and his grief.
A few hours pass and darkness falls. After leaving her grave, Rick drinks interminably in his office, multiple Natural Lights lined up in front of him to save him the hassle of getting up and down every few minutes. He easily downs nine or ten in the first 90 minutes. His warm but empty hash pipe sits in among the cans. I know he is desperate for something stronger to numb the pain, and I wish I had it to give him. He is deathly quiet, and I wait.
On edge from his drinking but unable to stand the sight of him bearing this alone, I go and sit with him in his office. A few moments after I join him, he sets his beer down before him. He does not raise his eyes.
“Who really called today?”
I am caught completely off-guard, which in and of itself catches me completely off-guard. I am astounded that his fear has percolated through the pain of this loss to aim for me in this way. Why should I have been surprised? We did not experience emotion even remotely the same. This had sent him God knows where, and I had lost his trail in our combined grief.
“I told you while we were outside.” Was he really questioning my honesty while burying my own dog? I could not believe that. Not even from Rick. There had to be some mistake. “Sarah called while you were at Bill’s, and I hung up when you got back.”
“There is no record of her call on your cell phone.”
This cannot be happening. This cannot be happening on top of the death of my dog. I have wandered the house and yard for hours, trying to find my own pain, and trying even harder to find a place for his, and he has found time in his mourning to double-check the record of incoming calls on my phone.
That damn phone. I should have handed the phone to Rick while Sarah was still on the line. I shouldn’t have answered at all. How many times had I wished I had left it lying in the weeds when he threw it out of the RV in Idaho during a drunken rage years ago? It had brought me nothing but hell. It was a monitoring device he may as well have buckled around my neck the day I got it. Just the sound of it ringing—and I initially typed “wringing”—was enough to double my heart rate, anticipating his next tirade; or worse, fearing a wrong number that would lead to an endless, meaningless interrogation when the phone bill—with all its errantly damning numbers—came in the mail. These thoughts occupy the space of a second. Within two I am out of my chair in search of my phone, unwilling to stand falsely accused by a technical glitch.
“Sit down,” he says, exhausted. “It doesn’t matter.”
It matters. I wish fervently that I had dropped it in the ground with RC before we heaped the dirt back upon her. Or that I had jumped in with her, instead of Soda. I could see now that she was not the only thing we buried that evening. As if I had been slapped awake, suddenly my feelings for him—my grief, my sympathy, my never-ending willingness to explain away his abusive behavior—lay permanently buried under three feet of Arizona dirt and stones.
One last time, Rick taught me that just when I was convinced there was no room inside of me for any more grief, there still was. I leave his office and go to RC. I cry in relief now. Just weeks ago, I told a friend I couldn’t leave Rick because moving home, back to Wisconsin, would be too much stress for RC’s heart to take. She had told me that when I buried RC, I would be free to go. It sounded callous at the time, but now I understand. She knew everything I would lay to rest with RC, and that it would free the rest of us. RC hadn’t left me alone, she had left me so we could all, finally, be safe. Silent now, Soda crawls into my lap in the darkness, and I hold her through my tears.