THE KIND SOUL HE IS
by Barbara Bottner
“We’re not putting Boomer down,” says Dan, rushing after his morning shower. Our chocolate lab, Boomer, as if he were fluent in Death, sidles up to him, snuggles at his feet and gets Dan to scratch his neck. Why can’t my guy see how it hurts Boomer to move? Why can’t he see how exhausted he gets? If Boom could talk, he’d say, I can’t do this. I need to rest. I’m ninety years-old. Pooped. Pooping constantly.
But Dan doesn’t see a lot of things. He doesn’t see me even if I’m planted in directly in front of him. Or if he does, I’m cast as the high school principal during after school detention. At least, that’s what I think he thinks.
Boomer stares at Dan. I think our old guy might be crying. Dan stoops down and strokes him, coos to him. He’s saying its okay, old boy. It’s okay. I’m thinking, Dan, that juicy tenderness…can I have a taste?
I turn the radio to NPR and hear people discussing their work with Gorillas, who are so famous for nurturing their young. They groom their babies, inspect them, protect them. They don’t bear an offspring and decide, that actually, they were too young at the time; it was the wrong move or maybe they’d be happier in advertising.
I have always been jealous of gorilla babies and those long hairy arms they use to encircle each other. Jealous, too, of certain women whose men stick around while they finish eating.
“Our dog’s incontinent,” I say.
“Boomer is still okay for awhile,” Dan’s picking out a shirt while I shower. “I don’t want to move to Texas either,” he says as if we’re in the middle of that conversation. His communiqués just go booing! Pop tarts that fly out of the toaster. You have to act like a plate, ready to catch them.
“How about this one?”
“I like it.”
While I dry off, Dan holds up a tie that I bought him. It’s our ritual. Easy to agree on a tie, a way to start the day that will have its own confusions, misunderstandings, disagreements. Marriage is like that. You cultivate certain rituals so that when things don’t shake out, you can at least stand at the closet and agree on the red paisley tie.
My guy and I need every close encounter we can get. Things have been testy between us since Margareta, a head hunter, obsessively has been pitching Dan a radiology gig in Texas. Laredo Texas. At first he said no. But the money is calling to him. He says the hospital has great equipment. Besides, we’d live large, have cooks, maids, drivers, and we’d learn Spanish. I say it’s not a place a Jewish woman who talks too fast, wears too much makeup and writes snarky comedy for even snarkier comedians could live. It’s rural. If you own a cow I don’t want to talk to you.
Call me intemperate. I don’t care.
“I belong in LA,” I tell him.
“Traffic,” he answers.
I plead with him to turn this job down. To consider me. But he keeps having private conversations with Margareta. I hear him joking with her; she must be a real hoot.
So there’s that hanging over us. And since Boomer’s era of incontinence, we’ve been arguing about when exactly his exit should happen.
It has to. See, Dan insists on a pristine-clean home but he doesn’t help in any way. I never signed up for months and months of cleaning up dog poop, even the poop of beloved Boomer. Before I met Dan, a doctor no less, I never saw myself as even remotely domestic. My moon is not in Venus or wherever the heck it should be when it comes to vacuuming.
Dan is oblivious about what makes a house a home. Being a Jewish Doctor and the son of a Jewish doctor and a nurse, he focuses on science and medicine: his observations about domestic life are not keen. He can’t see newspapers on the floor or dishes in the sink. To him, a house is like a self-cleaning oven. I tell him I’m not a spray-on cleaner. Or a spray-on anything. I’m not an ambient wife.
He says ‘oh, that’s so funny.’
Last week, I finally met someone who understood.
This guy with an earring, Jim, was here last week to fix the icemaker in the refrigerator. He looked as if he’d lived hard and maybe had too many days at sea with too many bottles of Scotch. He was missing a prominent tooth. But he was a talker and I liked him. While I made a salad, he told me this sad story about Francine, his girlfriend, who had just died. Right off, he told me what he loved about her.
“She was such a good cleaner, man. The best! She was fantastic. When she left a place, it was entirely fucking sterilized. See this counter, he referred to the granite island in our kitchen, she’d move this counter if she could, and clean over it and under it, man,” he said, swilling his second of Dan’s Dos Equis. “There was nobody like this girl.” Jim’s green eyes locked mine to make sure I was getting his message As if I had a choice. He almost started crying.
Francine, this lady of Jim’s. wasn’t even his wife! I do this Wife Deal. I do it way too much. Before I was a wife, I was once so not wife, you could hardly get a cup of coffee off me. I was making art, chumming around with theater people, writing grants, discussing and perfecting the Work. But the very minute I became a spouse; the Collective Unconscious drop-kicked into my brain. It was so sudden. It’s like, now I almost care about dish soap. Ask me where to find the best Romano cheese. You go up Melrose near La Cienaga…I know about red peppers, marinades, carpet cleaners; I am a fluff and folder now, I swear I am.
But I’m not a pooper scooper. No. Can’t do it.
Dan and I, we both need a Francine.
By the time I get into the kitchen, Dan’s long gone. Only the intense Gevalia coffee aroma snitches that his getaway was made merely minutes ago. My next move is to see if Boomer might have extended his life by doing his morning poop outside. I gingerly look around corners and jubilantly discover Boomer has not, shit on the white tile floor. I compliment him while I fill his bowl and I and thank my lucky stars that I don’t have to be a desperate housewife with dog shit today. But then, around the counter; on the far side of the refrigerator, I almost step on a familiar brown lump. Boomer hobbles away, embarrassed. Dog shame. My spirit falls to the floor like a damn boulder. Here I go again, searching for the paper towels, the plastic bag, the mop and bleach. How can you scold a pet that has no muscle control? Dan has made this point many times. While I finish cleaning everything up, I complain to the God who gave me a un-communicative husband and an incontinent dog.
I call Dan to give him the bad news, but he’s in the recovery room with a patient. I hold until they finally put me through.
“Okay, then put him down already!” he shouts. “Just don’t ask me about it!” Then I hear the intercom: ‘Radiology… pick up line 3.’ They don’t even bother to use Dan’s name; I know he has trouble with that. I wish he felt more appreciated at work. I was brought up to believe men wanted to conquer the world. Turns out, they mostly want someone to say ‘nice job. Thank you. Good boy.’
And they want a treat.
No wonder Dan adores dogs.
I call the vet and make an appointment, then find Boomer’s leash. With great effort he struggles to his feet, the spirit willing. I’m pretending this is our regular, occasional trot around the neighborhood. He’s having trouble, so I follow along as he stumbles. Sits. Lies down. Tries to get up. So, we just go to the end of the property. It’s refreshingly cool outside which makes my face tingle pleasantly. I love the feeling of air rushing into my lungs; it’s as if life comes towards me, inviting out.
I complain to Boomer about the smell; he licks me like the kind soul he is, as if licking is something that makes me feel better. Typical male. He wants to hear \good job,’ too. He limps, sniffs, earnestly trying to be the hearty pup he once was. Every once in awhile he barks; he can still bark. A cat, a rustle of a tree; Boomer is on duty, ruff ruff, that’s my boy.
Back at the house, he pants, splayed on the floor, I talk doggie to him, brave Boomer, always taking care of his girl, Stormy. Thank you, you old guy. He wags his tail; he’s so good-natured. We’re very close, his innocence, my guilt.
I’m shaking but I have to face the fact that I can’t live this way anymore. I can’t start my day with the pungent smell and the clean up job. I leave a message on Dan’s voice mail, requesting that he meet me at the vets after work. I cut up steak. Boomer only sniffs it, and then eyes me suspiciously which he does whenever I give him really good food. He only eats a few small pieces, and slowly. He must sense something; he never eats leisurely. But today he’s a thousand chews a bite–a macrobiotic lab.
I pet him and brush him and notice how willing he is to cherished. Then I shoot a few parting shots; Boomer is all raised eyebrows. Even through the lens, though, there’s no disguising his droopy skin and grey hair.
Now I’m all business, trying to get him inside the car. He works diligently to oblige: his hind legs are not able to hoist him up. I give him a boost. We work with each other, he wants to be spring into the seat, but he can’t and I almost fall down under his weight.
What a spectacular day, as if Boomer himself picked it: the low humidity, the clear skies and temperatures in the high sixties. How lovely it is that the weather of our last moments on earth are perfect.
I lead him to the Toyota.
His eyes swivel; cameras snapping shots, his mouth dripping saliva, his tongue licking my arm as if I were doing him a favor, which is what the car represents to him. Trips, parks, an adventure. I heave in a breath. That was the wrong thing to do—-breathe. I burst out in sobs, a river of apologies flood the car. I tell my dog how much I’ve loved him, and how I’m sorry I have to do this, and he’s such a good, good dog, such a born comedian, and he’s made us so happy. And remember the walk in the hills he loved so much, and the doggie park, and how he got the squirrel one night? And how he drank from my bidet thinking it was a doggie fountain? What about the year we dressed him up for our Christmas card; he was famous all over town. How he’d snore next to Dan and I could never make out for the life of me who snored louder. How he preferred certain lawns in the summer to roll on, and how we took him up to Oregon and he had two delirious weeks frolicking in the creeks and running thru the grass, his ears flying and how at night, he lay in front of the fire so tired and happy. What a funny little guy he used to be when we first rescued him. And then I’m pleading for his forgiveness, and soon, I can’t even see the road in front of me, my eyes can’t focus. I’m hysterical, heaving, sobbing, wailing, my heart is simply breaking open. Boomer regards me with avuncular concern as we pull off Ventura Boulevard into the vets’ lot. I take the collar and hook it up to the leash and help him stumble out of the car onto the pavement.
He’s immediately searching for life, as usual. Something interesting. His attitude is so completely positive; he doesn’t need Louise Hay tapes or CD’s of mindfulness meditations; I accept and love myself exactly the way I am.
In we go. The pretty Latina receptionist asks why we’re here until she takes a look at my miserable face; then she hands me a Kleenex, nods and disappears.
Meanwhile Boomer is interested in the other dogs; he pulls on the leash, sniffing them. My God, his last moments on earth are so friendly, so sweet. I feel the collective Sadness of Ever Saying Goodbye to Love. I’m swallowing guttural sounds, hoping I’m not noticed, hoping nobody here know my mission. My Kleenex is useless. I need extra strength.
“I’m sorry, dear,” says a frail woman with a poodle who she calls Finley. “He seems like a lovely pet.” She reaches out to Boomer and he licks her in his dumb, enthusiastic way. Her poodle and Boomer sniff each other.
“Boomer’s very last dog friend,” I blurt out.
“I can see that, on your face, dear,” she says kindly. “Finley likes him.”
I wish she wasn’t so nice. Nice hurts.
Boomer barks at Finley. Our old man wants to play. Come on, Finley, man. Play with Boom!
I continue to weep; tears plunk onto his fur. Now, Doc Rob, tall, a little furry, and possibly the most relaxed human I’ve ever met, opens the heavy door and signals me inside. I pull the leash and Boomer manages to rise. Inside we go directly to a steel and glass cubicle. Rob checks his file then explains how this is going to happen. It won’t take long, only several minutes from when he injects. Boomer will be entirely comfortable. That stings me somehow. Shouldn’t death be uncomfortable? Or maybe I’m thinking of life.
Doc Rob has an easier time getting Boomer on the table than I would have imagined. He has a talent for this. The doctor pets him and gently talks to him. Boomer only makes a few whiny sounds, but we are both so present, he must see our hearts. I try to quit my laments but it’s no use. Who wouldn’t weep? I can’t stop myself from murmuring tenderly. I can’t seem to shut up.
“This is the right thing to do,” says Dr. Rob. “Ready?” He’s not morbid or cold, just focused; there’s a job to do. This helps me, too. He hands me a big white towel. I nod okay, but I’m not.
I think: I hope my demise will go a little like this, somebody that I love witnessing, connecting when it most matters. I don’t want to be alone then. I don’t want to be with an introvert like Dan, who might be busy scratching his leg while I die. I don’t need to die insulted.
As the doctor loads the lethal stuff, I’m trying to hold on. I look into Boom’s eyes, hum, coo, and try every utterance a human can make to soothe another sentient being. At some point the needle is inserted and Boom’s eyes have begun to close. Slowly, they do fall shut. And then he is quiet. The doctor nods.
Boomer isn’t here anymore.
It seems that every loss I’ve had, or maybe even the collective loss is now anchored in my gut, my shoulders, behind my eyes. My heart contracts like a fist. I’m buried in the white towel.
“Do you want to stay in the room for a minute?” Doctor Rob asks.
I shake my head yes. Then, no. No! Then, yes, please. I keep whispering stupid metaphysical stuff he’d never understand, like does he see the light as he passed, or his mommy? I make promises about how there will be new life in a brand new body; he’ll be a fluffy, healthy, tail wagging, steak-fetching, tongue-licking pup who can run and sleep without snoring. The truth is that I’m waiting for that dog to get up off the table and come home with me. I want resurrection; not re-incarnation, which takes too long.
Then, I get up and run through the waiting room, past the doggies waiting for shots and teeth cleanings, over to the cashier. I struggle with my wallet, not able to look at her, aware my face is probably streaked with makeup.
“Why did I put on blush when it always runs? I knew where I was going,” I say as I dig for my checkbook, which I can’t find.
She says, don’t worry, we’ll mail this to you later. Do you want his ashes?
I shake my head yes, which strikes me as the wrong answer but she says they will drop them off for me in a day or so. I clear the door, dash to my car and collapse in the driver’s seat. Dan is sitting in the passenger seat staring ahead.
“Why didn’t you wait for me?” he asks testily.
I give him a disbelieving glance as I grab a tissue to try to get the thick mascara glunk off my face.
“I didn’t think you’d come!”
I can’t look him in the eyes because if he’s even a little tender, I will tear apart like an old rag. So I look at my hands. Then at Dan’s. Then at my hands gripping each other as if I squeeze them hard enough I won’t wail.
Then I notice Dan’s breathing. He’s trying not to cry too.
“Dan, Doc Rob says he deserved to stop suffering. You always told me if you had to suffer too much, you’d want to die.”
“Well, I’m a coward,” he reminds me.
There isn’t much more we can say. Dan inhales and exhales loudly. He’s digging for a tissue and snorting so he doesn’t have to blow his nose which would be, I guess, a confession of his sorrow. Finally his tears do emerge, slowly, as if even crying has to be restrained and dignified.
I adore him for this sadness—his sensitivity is probably why I married him.
“Honey….” I say tenderly.
“He was the best dog,” bleats Dan.
“He adored you, honey,” I mumble.
“Nobody will ever love me like Boomer loved me,” he says gloomily.
“You know what I mean.”
“I’m fucking devoted to you; you realize that, don’t you?”
“Sure, honey, but you’re not a dog.”
“Well, either are you a dog, Dan!”
He shrugs again.
“Okay, tell you what? I’ll take that remark that I’m not a dog as a compliment,” I say.
“I didn’t actually mean it as a compliment.”
“Well, Boomer loved me better than you do, any day, Dan.”
“How can you say that? The long hours I work.”
“I know you work long hours,” I say gruffly.
“I suppose you’d like me to lick you when I get home?”
“Yes, actually,” I admit. “Or do something friendly. Anything would be better than playing Solitaire on the computer with the focus of a Traffic Controller.”
“I can’t believe we’re fighting over this,” says Dan. “Boomer helped me relax after work.”
“Maybe I could do that,” I say. I begin crying again.
There’s a Pancake House next door to the Vet’s. We take a booth and use Maple Syrup to medicate our pain. The waitress must sense something; she talks so quietly I almost can’t hear: do we want more coffee? Maybe she’s used to people coming here for pancake therapy after dreaded vet appointments.
“Should we get another dog?” Dan asks.
This starts the tears all over again.
“You’re not making any sense,” says Dan.
“I thought dogs were supposed to teach us how to live,” I say.
“Maybe Boomer did,” he says.
“He was the perfect guy,” I agree.
“Woof, woof,” says Dan. “I could try to take his place. Then, “Where would I lick you, anyway?”
I try not to laugh. And then I’m giggling. This makes Dan reach for my hand.
We look at each other. Love syrup floats above our pancakes. We connect.
Dan’s beeper goes off. He turns away, mutters several ‘uh huhs’ then locks my eyes queerly. “The head hunter from Texas. I have to talk to her.” He points to the check, then to my handbag, shoulders the phone and waves. He manages to take one last forkful of pancake, and then bolts out of the restaurant. The door slams as Dan dashes to his Caddy. I watch it shoot out to the street, and then how it speeds crazily down Ventura Boulevard.
He calls me from the car. “I told her Texas is out of the question,” he says.
“Thank you. Does this have something to do with Boom?”
“I’m not really sure. Maybe.” Pause. “Probably. Yeah. Of course!” Long silence. “I guess want to be generous and affable. I want to be loved as much as he was.”
Once more time, our dog saves us.
I promise to make Dan pizza from scratch.
Home. For hours, I think I see my dog everywhere. Shadows, movement, flashes of his tender, rheumy brown eyes.
About the Author:
Barbara Bottner has authored over forty-five books for children, some NYTimes Bestsellers, including YA novels. She has written for the LA Weekly, The Miami Herald, reviews for the NYTimes, LATimes Book review, published short stories in COSMOPOLITAN, PLAYGIRL as well as acted with LA Mama in NY and Europe. Her animated shorts won “Best Film For TV” in the Annecy Animation Festival, Other won CINE Golden Eagles. She has had pieces performed by the Jewish Women’s Theater and also does Spoken Word in LA