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Witness to Breath

                                                                                                       Witness to Breath 

Every night on her way home she goes by Phan's Round-the-Clock Market.  Usually about three.  Different reasons; different things.  On a good night maybe cigarettes.  Maybe gum.  Bad night maybe aspirin.  Pepto Bismol.  Tonight she should stock up on Tampax.  Which is good news, really.  A few days off coming up.  But she can't go into Phan's and get them because something has gone down.

She could walk by, walk away.  But she stands with the crowd, looking, to see what went down.  Better than sitting home in the dark, in that little apartment.  Listening to sirens.  Wondering.  Watching strobe red reflect on beige walls, right through the curtains.  You're no safer behind those locked doors.  No safer at all.  That's just a joke you tell yourself when something goes down.

Crime scene tape, all around.  Yellow, with that special way of flipping in the breeze.  Twisting.  And cop cars.  People crane their necks to see.  All her neighbors, most likely, but there's nobody here she knows.  Maybe there's nobody anywhere she knows.  She used to know people, but she's not sure if that counts.  It's like a driver's license, knowing somebody.  It doesn't last forever all on its own.  

Phan's wife, crying.  Really hysterical crying.

An old man wasted on the floor.  You can see him through the open door into the market.  This bulky abandoned thing, like one of those whales that swim up on the beach.  That's what she thinks he's like.  Because he just looks like that, and because nobody really knows why that happens, either.

Around the head of the old man, a pool of blood.  Not all that big.  Half a pint, maybe.  Shiny.  Black in the fluorescent lights of Phan's Round-the-Clock Market. 

She goes in there every night.  It could have been her in there tonight.  But it wasn't.  So she goes home.

 

At home, she triple-locks the door.  Steps out of the short leather skirt, the devil heels.  All the time listening to that noise, that weird noise.  Like a person crying out loud.  No, weirder.  And louder.  Goes into the bathroom, washes off her makeup.  Slips off the rest of her clothes, dropping them on the floor.  Lies down and tries to sleep.  But that noise.

So she gets up again.  Puts on jeans, flats.  A fake fur over nothing.  And goes back downstairs to the super's apartment and pounds on his door.

"It can wait 'til morning," he yells through the door.

"Hell it can," she says, and pounds harder.

The door swings open.  "What?"  Irv in a brown corduroy robe, black hair tumbled, face unshaven, red-eyed.  Like she woke him up.

"How in god's name can you sleep through that noise?"

The look on his face develops into something.  He leans out into the hall, closer to her, like step one in a conspiracy.  "Tragic, ain't it?"

"Damn right it's tragic.  I need some sleep."

"No, I mean the dog."

"That's a dog?"

"You know whose dog, right?"

"I didn't even know it was a dog."

"Guy got popped down at Phan's.  That's whose dog that is.  He's mourning."

She waits before responding, to let the details drop in.  Thought number one to spring up out of that eddy: That old man lived right in this building.  Thought two: How can the dog be mourning?  Who told him what happened?  "So he just howls until his voice is too weak from hunger?  That's not very humane."

"I called the Animal Regulation Department.  They'll come pick him up.  But not 'til morning.  You wanta hear something weird?  Dog started howling the minute it happened.  I looked at my watch.  The Dating Game was just starting.  Ten minutes later Mrs. Greavy from 3G knocks on my door, says it happened ten minutes ago.  No reason, either.  Mrs. Phan gave the kid all her money.  He was on his way out.  Old man's just standing there.  Just standing there.  And on the way out the kid pops him.  Shoots the old man in the head.  No reason.  I tell you, this world has gone crazy.  And that same minute his dog starts to howl.  Fucking weird if you ask me.  Did you know a dog's hearing is ten times better than our own?  So he heard the shot alright.  But what I want to know is, how did he know who got it?  I mean, that makes you think.  That makes you wonder what else that dog has that's ten times better than our own.  You know?"

"Fascinating, Irv.  Any idea how I might get some sleep?"

"Unless maybe you want to take him out.  Maybe he needs to go out.  Maybe the old guy left some dog food lying around.  Maybe feed him and take him out, he might feel better.  Might sleep some.  I could let you in with my pass key."

She scans the hall ceiling.  Sighs.  Shuffles impatience.  Says, "At this point I'll try anything."

 

Irv swings the old man's apartment door wide.  "Lock up before you go."

The old man's light is on.  Like he knew he'd be back in just a minute, and it seems sad to her, how he could be so stunningly wrong.  The walls are all covered with posters of movies that stopped playing generations before she was born.  All starring Myrna Loy, whoever that is.  Was.

And the dog.

Just sitting on the floor, looking at them.  She's seen this dog before.  Three times a day, like clockwork, the old guy took him out.  Weird-looking dog.  Tan-coated.  All tall and skinny, like a wolfhound, only not a wolfhound for real, just all tall and skinny like one.  His legs are so long and skinny they look like one might snap off if you weren't careful.  The old guy must've been careful.  And a long narrow muzzle all white with age, and these big brown eyes.  So he's just sitting there, looking like the oldest dog in the world.  Looking too old and fragile to be alive.  Just looking at her.

Then he tips back his head and lets out another dose of that sound.  It makes her think of a really smooth, skillful jazz saxophonist, the kind that can hit one note and make you cry.  Now he looks at her again.  Sitting with his front paws just ever so lightly on the carpet, like the ground hurts wherever he touches it.

And she's not answering Irv, just looking back at the dog, so Irv says, "Lock up I said, okay?  Not that there's nothing to steal in here, but still."

"Wait.  Don't go away.  What am I supposed to do with him?"

"I dunno.  Feed him?  Take him out?  This was all your idea.  Maybe there's food in the kitchen." 

Irv goes in there to see.  The dog doesn't even follow him with his eyes.  Just looks at her, then lies down slowly.  Kind of dainty almost.  Reaches out with those long matchstick legs one baby step at a time until he's lying down, then crosses them one over the other.

Irv comes back.  "Here's one can of dog food.  All the old guy had.  End of the month, you know?  He gets his S.S.I. checks on the first.  Lock up when you're all done in here."

"Wait.  Did he have any family?"

"Nah.  Pretty much alone in the world."

"So, who's going to go get the dog out of the pound?"

"I dunno.  Maybe he could get adopted."

"Nobody would adopt that dog.  He's weird-looking.  And he's too old."

The dog turns his head away.  Turns it to one side, and sets his chin down, barely touching one matchstick leg.

"Yeah, he's that alright.  Oldest dog I ever seen.  Probably as old as the old guy."

"You think a dog is seventy or eighty?"

"Well, maybe in dog years."

"Go back to sleep, Irv.  I'll lock up." 

When Irv is down the hall and gone, and there's no one to hear her and think she's a fool, she addresses the dog directly.  "Sorry for what I said."  The dog raises his head and looks at her again.  Steady, calm.  Unflinching.  Guileless.  "But it's the truth, anyway.  I'm not gonna lie to you.  I'm not gonna say he's coming back, or somebody'll give you a nice home.  Why lie to a dog?"  Then she thinks, Why talk to a dog at all?  But it seemed like a right thing at the time.  "You want to go out?"

The dog stands up on those stilts like he never once did before.  There's a leash hanging on the door, so she clips it on him.  And they walk down the stairs.  Down to the street.  Out into the cold city pre-morning dark. 

Dog just stands there, looking down toward Phan's Round-the-Clock Market.  She thinks he wants to go down there but he's too polite to pull on the leash.  So they just stand.  A few minutes later he looks up at her with those big eyes.

The can of Alpo feels heavy in her coat pocket.

She breathes steam.  Dog breathes steam.  The street breathes steam, from the manhole covers.  They all stand there and breath together--young woman, old dog, cold city--just alive at the same moment like that.  Then Dog lifts his leg against nothing, way out at a right angle.  He's so tall, it's almost at the level of her waist.  He spatters the sidewalk, which also breathes steam.  Then when he's done peeing he turns to go back in.

He wants to go back to his own apartment, but she wants him to come to hers and he's too polite to argue. 

 

In the night she wakes up knowing someone is in the room with her.  She opens her eyes.  But it's only Dog, sitting next to her bed, one fragile paw raised, as if to touch her, but not quite. 

"What, Dog?" she says.  "I know you want something."

Dog picks up the paw again.  Touches the bedcovers, reaching a little further this time.

"Can't you be a little more specific?  Are you trying to tell me you want up on the bed?  Did that old guy let you up on the bed?  Shit.  Just my luck.  Okay, whatever."

She slides back a little, and Dog comes up.  Not jumps,  just steps up, one long leg at a time.  Four giant steps.  Then he circles five times before lying down.  Curls up with his head near hers, near the top of the bed.  Just in that moment before sleep, his warm, regular breath across her cheek. 

 

In the morning Irv knocks.  She leaves the dog sleeping on the bed and goes to see.

"Animal Regulation is here," he says.  "What the hell happened to the dog?"

"No idea.  Maybe family came and took him."

"Guy didn't have no family."

"Friend, then."

"Did you do something cruel?  Ditch that poor old dog out in the cold by himself?"

She opens the door wide, so Irv can look right into the bedroom.  Looks over her own shoulder, to make sure he can see.  Dog looks back over his shoulder at them.  With some kind of knowing, but what kind she's not sure.  "Nobody was gonna take that dog out of the pound, Irv, you know that."

"Right.  I guess a friend must've come by to get him, then."

"Only friend he's got now.  He have a name, that dog?"

"Hell if I know."

She closes the door and goes back to bed beside Dog.

 

When she wakes up at four p.m., she opens the can of Alpo and calls Dog to come get it.  Dog does not.  She puts it on a plate, and serves it to Dog in bed.  He reaches his skinny white muzzle out to barely touch it, slow and soft, like he did to her face in the night.  Then he sets his chin down.

"Okay, you're just upset," she says.  "I gotta get ready for work."  Not that it takes her six hours to get ready, but the inside part, she just needs more and more time for that these days.  "Don't worry, I'll take you out before I go."  She looks over her shoulder at Dog, whose eyes seem to say, Better not to go at all.  Or was that a voice in her own head?  It's hard sometimes, to know if it's a dog or your own head, telling you things.  They study each other's face.  "Look, don't judge me," she says, and he sets his chin down again. 

She's pretty sure she called that one wrong.  That was her own head.

She sweeps into the bathroom.  Thinks about Tampax.  Realizes she really won't be working tonight.  It breathes out of her, all that preparation, leaving her pounds lighter and able to smile.  She sticks her head into the bedroom and smiles at Dog.  Who else?  "Never mind.  I'll stay here with you.  But we have to walk down to Phan's."  Then she thinks, No.  He doesn't want to.  Then she knows, Yeah.  He does.

 

Dog walks slowly everywhere, but she thinks he walks even slower down to Phan's.  Now and then reaching his long neck down to almost touch his nose to the snow-dusted sidewalk.  When they reach the market door, he stops.  First she thinks, He knows something.  Then she thinks, He knows he's not allowed in.  She leads him in.  Over to the spot on the floor where the old man's blood pooled, but it's clean now.  Perfect white linoleum.  She thinks maybe it never happened.  Maybe she saw it in a dream.  She thinks she might have had a dream last night about black blood on a white linoleum beach.

Mrs. Phan runs around the counter, agitated, tiny, spewing.  "No dog, not allowed, you go out with him, I got health codes."

"I just want him to see," she says.

"See what?  Nothing here for dog to see."

"It was his dog, though.  The old man's.  I just want him to understand, you know?"  She looks down at Dog, who looks back.  Those big dark eyes.  It seems he does understand, certainly better than Mrs. Phan, maybe better than she herself.

"Nothing for dog to see.  You take him outside now.  I got health codes."

"He can smell, you know?  How the trail sort of ends here."

"All disinfected.  Nothing to smell.  All clean now.  Go."

"I need Tampax.  And dog food."

Mrs. Phan races around behind an aisle, grabs a box of Tampax, scoops three big cans of Alpo into her arms.  Dumps the whole load over to her, helping her balance everything, then turns her and pushes her from behind.  Pushes her to the door.  "On the house.  No charge.  Now go."

She tucks Alpo into her big coat pockets as they walk home together.  Together.  That seems like a funny word.  She thinks that, to Mrs. Phan, customers are known quantities.  Mrs. Phan knew what kind of Tampax, what brand of dog food.  An odd comfort, to be known, even by Mrs. Phan. 

"She seemed afraid of more than just her health codes," she tells Dog out loud.  She looks down at Dog, who looks back.  This times she tries not to read too much in.

 

Five days later, the three cans of Alpo still sit on her kitchen counter.  She takes the original one out of the refrigerator, as she does many times every day, nukes it in the microwave to take off the chill, and presents it to Dog, pretending this time he will eat.  He does not.  She offers him a dish of clean water.

He approaches it with the tip of his long muzzle.  Almost touching the still surface, but not quite.  As he does to her face every night when she's barely asleep.

It strikes her that his movements are somehow dignified.  Not that she never noticed; more that she never applied that exact word.  But that's the word, all right.  Dignified.

He reaches out his tongue and licks the surface of the water three times.  She sits down hard on the bed, knowing things she didn't let herself know before just now.  That he'll die if he doesn't eat.  That she has to take him to the vet tonight.  Which means she has to work.

She looks down at Dog for input, but his eyes are closed.

 

She tries to go to work.  But it doesn't happen right.  Oh, she walks down the boulevard.  One car slows, but she keeps walking.  Says that prayer she says every working night of her life.  Don't let this be the night I buy it.  Protect me one more time.  After tonight I'm out.  Not that she thinks God is stupid.  But if she believes it every time she says it, isn't that still sincere?

She leans on a mailbox, lights a cigarette.  Thinks, If this is the night I buy it, he's stuck in that apartment to die.  And that's wrong.  Double jeopardy wrong.  Nobody should have to go there twice.

She runs two movies in her head.  In the first, the guy's a violent wacko and she has to beg for her life.  She tells him her dog is sick at home.  Asks him if he ever had a dog, waiting.  Needing him.  And he lets her go.  Not so much out of compassion, but because she killed the mood completely talking about his dog.

In the second version he slits her throat while the words are still just a picture in her head. 

She crushes out the cigarette and goes home.  Carries Dog down to the street.  She wants him to be too heavy, but he's not.  Bones now.  Just bones.

Hails a cab.  She has money for the cab but not for the vet.

 

At the emergency vet hospital, in an examining room, she holds Dog's head, waiting alone with him until the vet comes in.  The vet is tall, and older, with a nice face.

"I don't have any money."  She was going have him look after Dog first, then tell him.  But while she was waiting she thought,  Maybe legally he could hold Dog until I pay.  Dog hasn't got that much time.  "I'm sort of between careers," she says, which is weak but true.  "I'll leave my purse if you want.  It has all my I.D. in it.  Like collateral.  Until I pay.  If you want."

The vet steadies both sides of Dog's bony head.  Looks into his eyes.  "Your dog is very old," he says.

"I will pay you.  Really."

"Sometimes you don't think, when you get a dog.  That he could become a financial liability."

"He's not even my dog.  He belonged to this old guy who got killed in a robbery the other day."

"That was nice of you to want to help him."

"Yeah, funny thing about that.  It's not the usual me.  He hasn't eaten a bite since then.  Hardly even drinks water."

The vet sighs.  "I can do all kinds of things, if you're sure you want me to.  Run expensive blood tests.  See if I can find something.  But we both know why he won't eat."

"You could force feed him or something."

"I could feed him through an I.V. drip.  Prolong his life.  But for how long?  He's elderly.  Maybe he's just ready.  Dogs know sometimes when they're ready.  I think maybe he just wants to die with dignity.  He seems like a dignified dog."

She sits down.  She hasn't eaten much either. 

First she thinks, I'll go out and work.  And he'll put Dog on an I.V. and Dog will come around and we'll do that together thing a little while longer.  But it seems wrong.  Sell out her own dignity to earn enough money to buy up the last of his.

"So, what do you do, give him a shot or something?"

"It's up to you, but I think that's probably best."  She nods.  He fills a hypodermic needle.  "You can stay if you want, or wait out front."

"I'll stay."  She holds Dog around his frail neck; he feels calm.  And she starts to cry.  "I don't know why I'm crying.  I hardly know this dog."  But then she knows why.  "Can you imagine that?  Having somebody who cares that much if you live or die, that he'd starve himself to death if you didn't come home?"

"Don't act like dogs are such a well-kept secret.  Why do you think people have them?"

"I never knew, really.  I never had one.  Never liked them.  Well.  Never knew one, I guess."

The vet is ready now, with the shot.  She talks to Dog, but not out loud.  Because she doesn't know this vet, and it's personal.  And he shouldn't hear. 

She says, I know you were here.  I'll howl tonight, because you're gone.  She says, I am your witness. 

Vet says, "There's no charge for that." 

On her way out she thanks him, and tells him her name is Estelle.  Not that she thinks he really cares.  But she cares.  She thinks somebody should know that her name is Estelle.

 

She doesn't eat for three days, in Dog's honor. 

She gives the unopened dog food back to Mrs. Phan, because that seems like the dignified thing to do.