So far it’s not going well.
Here’s what happens: Elliot walks past the plate glass windows of the sandwich shop. I think, “Please come in, please come in, please come in.” Then I look down and see the dog he’s walking and I think, “Damn. Don’t come in, don’t come in, don’t come in.” He disappears, taking the animal to the large grassy field next to the brick building that houses the sandwich shop, the animal shelter and a nail salon. A few minutes later he reappears. Sometimes he walks past, looking up to throw me a small smile or wave or nod of the head. I nod or smile or wave back as casually as my giddy heart will allow. Once a week or so he will stop and raise his eyebrows. If I’m alone in the shop, which is often, I will motion him in. Once, regretfully, I gave him a thumbs up.
When he comes inside I’ll examine the animal more closely. Sometimes it’s a cherry-eyed basset hound or a blind poodle. Sometimes it’s a lethargic cat in a plastic carrier or a rat with a grape-sized tumor on its back.
Today it’s a golden retriever, a happy-looking dog with bright eyes and a lolling pink tongue. It looks young and spritely and I think, as I often do, that maybe this time Elliot is just here to see me. Even though that has not once happened before. He’s never even come in the shop for lunch. I thought maybe he was a vegetarian, so I mentioned I was (lie). Then I thought maybe he was poor, so I gave him coupons for free combo meals. He took them, thanked me sincerely, and never used them.
“One Last Supper, please” he says. I try not to look too disappointed, even though there’s plenty to be disappointed about.
“She looks so healthy,” I say as the dog lunges forward and buries its nose in my crotch.
Elliot does not correct the dog, but he does correct me.
“He,” he says. “His name’s Trevor.”
“Oh, sorry,” I say as I turn and pull a large tupperware container from one of the small refrigerators. I pop open the lid and dump half a day’s worth of leavings onto the counter: slices of turkey that were too thick or too thin, bits of bacon and chicken breast, the puckered end of a ham. I pile them all onto one half of a submarine sandwich bun. I’m slow and careful, making sure each piece of meat is arranged just so and after I’ve topped it with mayonnaise, brown mustard, pickles and a heap of lettuce, I place the other half of the bread on top, proud that the hodgepodge of ingredients is staying in place. I press down firmly, cut the sandwich in half and place it on a paper tray. I hand it to Elliot, who kneels down and presents it to Trevor. The dog demolishes it, tearing into my artfully prepared sub and devouring it in half the time it took me to make it. Bits of meat and toppings go flying onto the recently mopped floor and Trevor licks his mouth and nose, slurping up any trace of condiments.
I find it kind of gross. I’m not a dog person or really an animal person at all.
“What’s wrong with him?” I ask.
“Cancer,” Elliot says. “It’s everywhere. On his liver, his pancreas, his kidneys. Technically it’s treatable but it’s a long shot and the chemo would wreck him.”
I nod in sympathy, but really I’m looking at Elliot’s hands. I notice, not for the first time, how short his fingernails are and how the tips of his fingers are slightly calloused from playing the guitar (I saw the case in the backseat of his car once).
“Is he in pain right now?” I ask. Elliot shakes his head.
“He has no idea he’s sick,” he says. “But once it starts, it’ll get bad quick. We don’t want him to suffer even a little bit.”
I don’t know how I feel about this. Is this what Trevor would want? Wouldn’t he prefer every possible moment? Isn’t a life of pain better than no life at all? Or is it a wonderful gift to go out on a high note, with your tongue still tasting ham and brown mustard?
Elliot grips the leash and stands, a bittersweet smile on his face.
“Thanks,” he says.
Come back, I want to say. Come back when it’s over and I’ll comfort you the way you comfort them. You deserve it. We both do.
Instead I mirror his smile and say, “Any time.”
The two leave, Trevor’s tail wagging hard as he follows Elliot out.
I grab the broom and dustpan and sweep up the crumbs and stray dog hair and think, as I always do, of Elliot’s hands, tender in spite of the callouses, running through golden fur as they slide a needle into Trevor’s vein. I imagine him hugging the animal close to him as the breaths slow and the life slips away, whispering in his ear: I love you, I love you, I love you.
J. Lynn Oldenburg is a writer living in Memphis, Tennessee with her husband and toddler. She has two dogs, neither of whom will ever die.