Short story from Rachel Stewart Johnson

 

Errands

 

The veterinarian’s office had a noxious odor every time Angie Pell stepped inside. The odor was so strong that Angie found it hard to continue without a frown, and the frown would involve both the gray scoops below her eyes and the muscles that lined the back of her neck. She wanted to cover her mouth, and she wanted to provide commentary – good Lord, she wanted to say, before telegraphing her near-nausea via the sustained parting of her lips. She had never thought to worry about what caused such a foul smell. Her six-year-old daughter, Katie, introduced this concern.

“Why does it smell like throw-up in here?” the little girl wondered, not fifteen seconds in.

“Oh I think maybe that’s just medicine it smells like.”

“It smells like a baby died.”

Angie scowled. “Oh, Katie, please. Yuck. Come on,” she said. Angie looked at the only other patron in the waiting room, a woman whose likely age advanced the longer Angie studied her. She had passed fifty when the phone rang.

“Front Range Veterinary Clinic. Good morning,” the receptionist behind the front desk answered. Angie rolled her eyes. The receptionist was silent, the phone to her ear. Angie had to look away. “Hello?” the receptionist tried again. “Front Range Veterinary Clinic. Hello?” Angie rubbed her temples and spoke to her daughter.

“So are you excited to go to first grade soon?” she asked.

Katie shrugged. “It’s stinky pooey in here.”

“That’s enough, I said.” These first two minutes had not gone well. Angie began to wonder about the wellbeing of Spuds, their family dog, whom they had come to retrieve after a procedure to mend a torn dew claw. He had finally reached his full size, or so she chose to believe last year when the veterinarian assured her the mutt was done growing. The teenage employee at Sunshine Pets had referred to the card on the dog’s cage – “Husky-Collie” – and said, “He’s, like, a mix, and he’ll be like middle size.”

“We want a house dog,” Angie had reminded her husband and daughter.

Neither had acknowledged Angie’s words. The puppy was happy, galloping open-mouthed from Katie to Dan, Angie’s husband. Angie saw that even Dan had a loose grin as the dog shook with joy. It was Dan who named him, unimpressed with Katie’s suggestions of Stickers, Fluffy or Nemo.

“Let’s name ’im Spuds,” he said. Here he snickered and looked to his wife for conspiratorial laughter.

“Spuds Mackenzie,” she murmured. Their daughter was talked into it.

Angie picked up a section of the newspaper that lay on an end table. She studied a photo of an elderly woman whose hand rested against her cheek. The old woman was once pretty, her eyelashes still long, her lips thick with lipstick. Angie looked at the woman’s mottled hands. Her nail polish was chipped. She had not always been like this, Angie guessed. Look at your nails, she wanted to tell her. She could hear the ancient pitch of the old woman’s keys dangling. The woman would clatter, all earring and lanyard and keychain and broach, and she would operate loosely, once smooth arms now slack, adorned in polyester blend blouses. Angie knew everything there was to know about her.

Angie had not yet acclimated to the smell. She searched for a clock on the wall. The square footage of the room seemed to diminish as they sat there. Angie brought her feet under her chair and returned to the newspaper. She reviewed the regions where the old woman in the photograph had been betrayed by her nail polish. She tracked the beveled borders, like bits of wallpaper peeled in haste.

Angie looked at the woman seated across from them. She was surprised to note that the woman’s previous aging had begun to reverse, refunding seven years, or twelve, or four. Is she forty? Angie was careful to keep her head down and break her gaze frequently. Forty-five? She looked unlike anyone Angie had ever been stuck with like this, her face wide and manufactured, like a replacement part with a mismatched tint. Angie was glad when the veterinarian’s assistant entered the room.

“Carol Lee,” the assistant said. Carol Lee’s lips looked punched in when she heard this. It was a new register of unhappiness that Angie had not seen before. This is how this woman copes, she guessed. Carol Lee stood up and followed the assistant through a doorway.

Angie sighed. “When’s Spuds coming out?” Katie asked before she pushed her bottom lip forward. “I’m hungry.”

“You just ate.”

“I’m hungry.”

“Soon.” Angie wondered about the name Carol Lee. Was it Carolee? Was it Carol-Lee-Something or just Carol Lee? Then she stood up quickly. “Let’s ask.”

This pleased the little girl, who trotted to the desk. Angie approached but said nothing. Katie was just tall enough to see across the counter and let her lips kiss the edge. “Don’t,” her mother said. Angie might have missed what happened next if she had not just wondered about Carol Lee. She saw the door from the exam rooms open and Carol Lee emerge alone, her face now further distorted, caving in as before but now also wet. Angie looked at Katie, whose lips still threatened the counter; the child had not paid attention to Carol Lee’s return.

“Who’ere you here for?” the receptionist asked. Minutes later, they exited with Spuds. Outside, Carol Lee stood in front of the building.

“Whoops. Excuse us,” Angie said. She noted that Carol Lee’s face was still flushed and urgent and she had been crying. Carol Lee said nothing, only waved them off with a fat arm. None of them – not Angie, not Katie, not Spuds – complied. They all stared at her.

“Are you alright?” Angie asked.

“Mommy,” Katie began, but Angie shushed her.

Yes, I am fine, Angie believed she would say. This is how it was supposed to go. Are you alright is followed by oh yes I’m fine is followed by okay.

“No,” Carol Lee answered.

“Oh. Did you—.”

Carol Lee began to speak then, her voice vaguely foreign, its timbre deep in a way that Angie found uncomfortably pleasing. “I have a daughter too,” Carol Lee began, “and she was just like you,” she said, motioning toward Katie. “Asking stuff all day and stuff.”

Angie forced a smile. She leaned over and began to forcefully pet Spuds. “Mmm good dog,” she murmured. Her daughter did not mimic her. Katie only squinted at Carol Lee and grasped her thumbs.

“She stopped liking school when she’s, oh, maybe thirteen, and that’s when she started, you know. It was in her blood, I guess. Her name’s Hayley.”

Katie’s eyes remained fixed upon Carol Lee. Belatedly, Angie offered up this: “Oh I have a friend with a daughter with that name, she’s older than my–.” Carol Lee interrupted her.

“How old’s your girl?”

When a question like this was posed, Angie often deferred to her daughter, who was eager to converse with anyone, child or adult. But Katie only stared at Carol Lee’s hair. “How—she’s six,” Angie said. Carol Lee’s face showed no signs of recovery. They all stood then, the temperature in the parking lot behind them rising. Spuds panted. Angie added, “Going into first grade.”

“Hayley’s sixteen.”

“Oh.”

“She was still fifteen when she had her baby. New Year’s Day.”

Angie struggled to maintain the width of her eyes, neither widening nor narrowing them. The effort kept her occupied. The four of them fell into silence again. Spuds dropped to his belly and lay in the shade. Angie looked down at him. “Spuds,” she said. She said nothing further. When she noted that Carol Lee had begun to wipe away fresh tears, she decided to try a false cough. She hid her nose behind her hand. “Are you okay?” Angie asked.

“My dog—didn’t make it,” Carol Lee said. Angie spied Katie to see if she was listening. Death, she imagined telling her later. Sometimes things die. Her dog was probably old. So old.

Oh that’s too bad,” Angie told them. She would discuss the life cycle, the births and deaths, the butterfly. It was not bad to learn about the way things die.

“I left the baby with the dog.”

Angie raised her tongue inside her mouth.

“Dog weighs a hundred, hundred fifteen pounds.”

“That’s—.” Angie stopped.

“Hayley, she’s not really ready. For the baby.”

“Oh.”

“Dog was a hundred pounds or probably more’n that. Didn’t like the baby.”

“Oh.” Angie breathed out hard from her nose.

They probably were going to put the dog down anyway. Once you bite—there’s nothing to save.”

What. Is the baby—?”

Carol Lee might have nodded, or she might have raised her eyes to be burned by the sun that rose further overhead as they stood there, or she might have smoothed her mousy hair. Her behavior was unnoted by Angie, who had fled and was no longer outside the Front Range Veterinary Clinic. She had traveled away to somewhere distant, to the prettiest island in the world, protected by ten fingers with ten perfect manicures. Carol Lee spoke to her through the pleasant breeze from the island’s windward side.

Bite on her arm.” Carol Lee touched her own forearm. “They put stitches in. She’s all, y’know, bandaged up. She’s okay.” Angie pretended she’d heard something she cared about in the opposite direction, and paused to look. Next she squinted at the sunlight. She peered back toward the clinic. Carol Lee spoke again. “He got him, my husband Tim got my dog, you know, off the baby, and then he got him with a stick, you know. It was this big—stick.” She gestured a striking motion.

“Oh my.” Angie let her frown deepen.

“People feel bad. For me. But.”

Angie remembered her island. She squatted beside Spuds and again stroked his head so firmly that his eyes widened each time. “Good dog”, she said, loud enough for them all to hear. “That’s a very sad story,” she finally concluded, but she did not look at Carol Lee. A crow, invisible in a nearby tree, began to caw in sets of threes. Katie imitated the bird.

“Cah cah cah,” she called. “Cah cah cah.”

Meanwhile Carol Lee dropped her hand inside a large canvas bag that hung on her shoulder. Before Angie finished quieting her daughter — okay that’s enough — Carol Lee’s hand reappeared, holding an empty and unmarked glass bottle. Then there was a sound, one they’d all heard before, the disaster of breaking glass. Angie was led by an instinct to protect her eyes and recoiled. She looked to see what had fallen: the bottle, its disembodied top still intact among the shards.

Sorry,” Carol Lee said, her face flat.

God. What.” Angie stared at the stranger near her.

I jus—,” Carol Lee explained. They all stood among at least two dozen shards large enough to grasp. Angie looked at Carol Lee’s hands. If she puts her hand in that bag again, Angie told herself, I’ll just scream. I’ll cover Katie and I’ll scream.

Spuds led their escape. He had darted four feet behind them when the glass fell. Angie expected to see him limp, a jewel of glass embedded in a paw. He barked, belatedly, only once. “Wait,” Angie said, grasping Katie by the hand. “S’way,” she continued, and tugged her daughter. “Go,” she said, brushing the air forward with a hand. “Are you okay?” she thought to ask her daughter then, bending until her ear was near the top of Katie’s head. Katie only nodded.

Mommy?” she spoke finally, her voice preparing.

You’re okay we’re okay.” Angie was still bent low but looked away from her child. She saw that Carol Lee still stood unmoving at the far lip of the accident, looking down, her shoulders slumped. “C’mon,” Angie said. She tugged on Spuds’ leash and they crossed to where their car waited.

Angie opened the car door. Katie hesitated, but Spuds shot inside. “Let’s go,” Angie said. She was disappointed when she looked up and saw that Carol Lee had not moved; her inaction became more grave as the seconds passed. Past time now.

“Let’s go,” she repeated. Finally Katie climbed into the car and sat, silent. When Angie situated herself in the driver’s seat, she too said nothing. Spuds relaxed with the start of the car’s hum. As they drove past the clinic, Angie peered again at Carol Lee, who had lowered her shoulders further. As Angie feared she might, Carol Lee finally raised her eyes, but their movement was only like the thoughtless reflex of a protective eyelid. Angie looked away and told herself to focus on the driveway before her. She lowered her head just as Carol Lee had done moments earlier, and she imitated the woman’s stoic gaze. She turned on the radio. “Spuds,” she murmured. Then, to Katie, she sighed, “Well.” In the rear-view mirror she noted her daughter’s look of worry. “Uh, they might, they probably,” she told her child. “Um. Have like a sweep, I mean a broom.” She brushed the air twice. Then she drove the car out of the parking lot and accelerated north to their next errand, eager to begin the work of forgetting Carol Lee.