Issue 97, Fall 1985
Weekends I serve fried chicken to drunks who make jokes about breasts and thighs. The manager comes out about once an hour and tells me to please put my cap back on. It’s brown and orange, made of shiny thick knit, so I take it off again as soon as he’s gone. There are bugs in the shake machine too. This little guy comes in, keeps mumbling about giving me a job, looking all foreign, dark-eyed and meaningful. But I wave him away because we get that all the time.
As things get worse I start believing him. He’s a vet—the animal hospital is a few blocks away. I take my dog there when it needs shots for something.
What kind of job? I ask him. He says it’s easy—you wash instruments, help with the treatments, just do what the doctor tells you.
I think about that for a while. Then one day leaning on the counter while he eats I say Hey, I’ll take that job. He shows me the hospital on Sunday after they’ve closed.
I like going through those doors—STAFF ONLY. He shows me exam tables, wards full of animals, X-Ray, Surgery.
You’ll be working mostly with me, I hope you like. . . Vasilios says. But I don’t look at him. I look at the chrome, the bottles, hear the barking from the shelter next door. Yes,
I’d like to work here.
I get hired for Sundays but he calls me Friday night to sub for the receptionist. Luckily I can type a little. I sit at the window, hunting and pecking.
Sparky, says the person holding a pup.
No, your name.
The doctors have clinic hours—Vasilios and Dr. Kratz, the one I used to call the nice one, the one I hoped for when I brought my dog in. He’s tall and tough. I can’t type right when he stands behind me.
After eight the doors are locked. Vasilios says good night, looking sideways up at Dr. L. Kratz who asks if I’d like a tour of the hospital.
I say sure. None of it sunk in the first time.
L. Kratz isn’t like Vasilios—he doesn’t say it’s easy. I look around, wondering if I can learn all this.
This gizmo, he says, is the X-ray machine, and here, holding the door, is where we develop.
We step inside and he flicks off the light. Trust me?
What am I supposed to do—scream, quiver, faint? I have no reason not to, I tell him.
Later he said that was the first thing that impressed him.
It shouldn’t have, it wasn’t even true.
Sunday morning I’m looking at the records to see who’s in the cages. Everything is in code —HBC, frac 1 fet. Almost all the dogs are named Sheba. Vasilios comes down the hall, sings at me in Greek. Then he translates, roughly—Don’t say anything, you don’t need to say a word, your eyes say it all.
He gives me a white coat to put on, makes me sit in the office with him, says it’s too early to work. I keep getting up, want to start doing something, but he puts his feet on the desk.
Finally we start the treatments. He reads a name and a ward number, then I bring the animal and hold it on the table. He hands me pills, shows me how to stroke to get them to swallow. He takes my hand and runs it over a dog’s hard throat.
Careful, he says, when I’m almost bitten.
Later someone brings in a Doberman that’s been hit by a car. The dog lies on its side, eyes wide open, chest going up and down.
Shock, Vasilios tells me, pushing up its lip so I can see the white gums. We wheel it to the back, lower it into one of the big cages. Shouldn’t we do something?
He shakes his head, it’s going to die anyway, waste of time to bother with it.
All afternoon I keep going back to peer through the glass door of the ward, seeing the dog’s head leaning on the bars.
Finally I go in to check, kneel down. The dog is still. I open the cage gently to let the head slip slowly, put out my hand to ease it down. I know it won’t bite, it’s so hurt. But when I open the cage door the head stays stuck in the air, rigid. I run for Vasilios, but he just shrugs at me, says. See I told you.
The guy who mucks out cages helps me lift it onto the trolley.
The dog’s legs stick straight up, its head is raised as if looking at something. The guy tells me to follow him, and he pushes the cart out back.
It’s hot and bright in the courtyard, smells like rot, like garbage. He opens the door to a huge metal box, a giant refrigerator. I see a heap of fur, dogs and cats all piled inside, packed together. I can hardly tell one from the other. There’s a spoiled, meaty smell, and everywhere eyes, open eyes. He grabs the dog by the feet, swings it a few times for momentum, then tosses it up to the top. A shudder goes through the heap of bodies. I watch as he tries to close the door, leaning on it with his full weight. I hold my breath, pressing down hard.
The next week Harold, chief technician, comes in to train me.
How’d you like that freezer, he smirks.
He’s always ahead of Vasilios. Together we prep a dog for surgery. He talks fast—hold this, pull here, slide the tube in like this. He shows me the machines—oxygen this side, gas over here. I don’t want him to think I’m stupid. I nod and try to do what he does. We tie the dog to the table, on its back, tube down its throat.
Where’s Vasilios, Harold yells, banging through the surgery doors. I look at the dog. Its chest goes up and down.
At the end of the day Harold gives me a textbook. A Manual for Veterinary Assistants. Now I guess I’m trained —they say I can work Saturdays too. Saturdays are busy—L. Kratz works then. He comes to the back where I’m washing instruments. Looks down at me, not saying anything. I scrub harder, then he says, I’ve got some-thing for you.
I follow him to the laundry room. He gives me a pair of greens, a big loose tunic and big drawstring pants. He holds out his hand and I surrender the white coat.
I put the greens on in the bathroom, look at myself in the mirror. Then I wrap my service leash around my waist, twice. Better.
Why you wear this? Vasilios shrills at me when I come out.
I look at him, disgusted. It’s what we’re supposed to wear. He waves his hand at me, like he doesn’t care about the rules. If he had his way I’d wear a bathing suit, ears, and a tail. During the week I keep looking at that textbook, but the things they show are different from what I have to do. Harold’s been to school—he knows doses, does stock, even minor surgery when L. Kratz isn’t around. I keep the instruments clean,
don’t let them pile up. It’s something.
It’s hard to keep up with L. Kratz. He’s always moving my hands, correcting me. He likes to do everything himself. He doesn’t care if I understand. But I’m trying. I learn more every week.
Why did you choose me? I ask Vasilios, who by now is wondering why I’m not more grateful.
Because you are beautiful, he says.
L. Krat2 starts working in the back with me more. Some-times Harold comes in too. They watch my face as they bring in a pup clipped with sewing shears, cats with crushed legs, some with eyes knocked out. I keep my mouth shut, wait until they tell me what to do.
L. Kratz and I scrub up for bone surgery. You have to be strong to do this, he says. I hold the bone with sterile pliers while he puts in the pin. My arms want to shake but I hold myself rigid, stand that way for half an hour while he grunts and tugs.
While he’s suturing the leg, he looks at me over his mask.
Do you like motorcycles? he asks, his eyes glinting.
I watched him ride in this morning. I thought it was one-way glass.
When she says no she means yes —that’s on the radio in a song I like. But when I said yes I also meant no. The real truth is I don’t have an answer. Just because he asked me, why does that mean I have to know?
We make it a habit, riding every week after work. Most of the time I keep my eyes closed, liking the forward motion, somebody else in control. The wind on my face.
One night we have dinner—he orders, thank God, and afterwards he says. What now, home?
I don’t answer. He asks a lot of questions, a whole string of them. What’s your favorite color, what foods do you like, one after the other. I answer most of them, thinking fast. I hardly know what to say. Why bother to have favorites? I take what
I can get, that’s what I should tell him.
What about your parents? he wants to know.
My mother works nights.
And your father.?
Let’s just go, I say.
Why do I love him? Because he has flared nostrils like a statue of a horse and a hard clean jaw, big hands, shoulders. Because when he kisses me in the darkroom, his arms go around me nearly twice. He can lift me and I like it, it makes his back hurt afterwards. He never laughs when something’s funny—his eyes glint and his mouth, a long line, goes sideways, up at the corner. He burns me with his cheek at the end of the day. No, I’m not stupid. I know the difference between love and this.
A very sophisticated girl from school calls me on the phone sometimes. I’m eager to use the language I’ve read—affair, married man, my boss. Mostly it’s inaccurate. Nor an affair when it’s just Friday nights, nor my boss, though he is my superior.
What a great thing to tell your friends, she says.
Friday nights we go out, then Saturday it’s business as usual. I try to be useful but a lot of the time I’m just standing by. He wrestles dogs by himself instead of letting me help. I guess it’s supposed to be chivalrous. Sundays he’s off and I’m with Vasilios again. He sniffs at me like a puppy. Suspicious.
The other woman here is Dr. Hurry, fat as a cloud, who writes vampire novels in her spare time. She tells Vasilios about the Dark Shadows conventions, about hotel rooms and naked vampire men. Then he tells me. Who would go with her? he says, she’s crazy. Bur with me it’s just dog and car talk—she talks, I nod a lot. She asks about school sometimes, but I’m embarrassed because I told them all I’m in college. I just hope she doesn’t know about L. Kratz, though once she said he doesn’t respect women, and I said yes, I know.
And this place, this is the Lissa Flyte Memorial Hospital. It runs on the charity of ladies with a soft spot for strays. The board ladies, all Mrs. Something, come in their Sunday clothes-pink and blue suits, corsages, hats; they go around to the puppy wards baby-talking the animals. Sometimes they cry over the unclaimed strays, the ones we put down in our spare time. Mascara running down their cheeks. When they leave the doctors laugh and do imitations with high squeaky voices. I smile along, kind of glad it’s not me.
Sundays I’m dreamy, wish it were yesterday. I always want him here when he’s not. One Sunday he shows up by surprise, bringing his two girls. They’re friendly, come running back, want to see the animals. We go around to the cages. I tell them all the names and they ask to hold the kittens.
Then we hear L. calling. The girls giggle, grab my hands and pull me into the storeroom. Susan pushes the lock, and we hide behind the extra file cabinets. Light comes in through the window in the door. The girls press on me, snickering, so crafty I don’t know if I’m their hostage or their partner. We see L. through the window. He spots us immediately, tries the door.
He doesn’t waste any time. He pulls out his big bunch of keys and unlocks it. A rectangle of light unrolls on the floor.
He’s in the center, a big shadow.
Susan, Julie, come out now.
The girls get up, we all step out into the light keeping our faces down. Without looking at us he goes through the door and the girls follow silently.
I duck into X-ray, flick on the light. The faint, lonely ted light.
The kennel man brings a German shepherd. Froth around its jaws. There are no doctors around, the dog is drooping, so I get a big syringe, 15ccs of Pentabarb, and get right down on the floor. He’s holding so tight. I take his hand off the dog’s neck, put it down softly behind the ears. Just scratch.
The needle goes in and I aspirate, blood runs back. I depress the syringe and the shepherd goes limp. Then I notice the shoes behind me.
L. stands over me, looking down. He’d like to tell me I’m not allowed, it’s dangerous, but I’ve done it so well he can’t. Lucky for me it was a dog. With cats you go for the heart and that’s tricky.
He has another kid, by someone else, that he pays for in secret. Sometimes one of his ex-technicians calls him up. She sat on a kitten, was all frantic and crying, called to find out what to do. The kitten was dead, that’s all he told me. I can’t ask what he does, not when he goes home to his wife, more or less, six nights out of seven.
He was in love once, he even went to meet her parents, old as he was. But she moved away, to Colorado, I think. He wants me to be her.
He tells me that his oldest daughter is getting breasts. She’s twelve, I’m seventeen. The difference equals five. I like the bitter sound of my voice. He turns his face away.
I’m scared sometimes, that’s why.
Fear-biter huh? he says. That’s what they call the little dogs, the ones who are supposed to be gentle at home.
I still can’t say his name, at work I call him Doctor. Sometimes even in bed I call him that. To tease him.
I do an X-ray, guessing at the measurements. It comes out wrong and I do it again. Three times until I get a picture that works. I wonder how much radiation I’m getting. No one has given me a badge.
Every week we go to a different motel. One night he takes me to the one near the mall. I always noticed it when I was little, driving past with my parents. I wanted to stay here so badly—it had a pool out front.
It’s cold now, the pool is a small cement pit. The motel is called Budget, so they must have changed the name. He takes his shaving kit into the bathroom. I lie down on the bed. Friday night, five days of school over. I’m tired, and I hate looking at the room, the twin double beds, the ugly blond dresser.
I open my eyes suddenly. L. is beside me, watching my face as I sleep.
Sorry. I smile up at him. He doesn’t smile back. I start to open my blouse, but my eyes close again. I wish he would shake me, pour water on my face, bur he lies there patiently, like a father.
Sunday afternoon I mix up a bucket of feed, using more cans than I’m supposed to but I can’t give them plain dry meal. I go around to each cage, patting, soothing. Tails thump slowly on the newspaper. I talk quietly to them, hold the dish for the ones who can’t get up.
L.’s kids come running back to find me. They want to feed the pups. I give them the scoop, they take turns filling the plastic bowls. They scoop out way too much, but I let them do it their way. Then we hear him yelling for them. They jump, look at each other, about to run.
I want to comfort, they’re so happy by themselves. And they both look so much like him.
He scares me sometimes, I tell them.
Susan whispers. Us too.
But he loves you, I think at them. They run through the door toward the sound of his voice.
For two weeks in a row I call him up on Friday afternoon.
I can’t, I say into the receiver. The words travel slowly over the wires. When they get to him, he says. That’s a disappointment.
Saturday I waver a bit, watching his hands hold a pup on the steel surface. The puppy trembles, and a puddle grows beneath its belly.
Would you take care of that, he says.
I think of him all bunched up in his compact, trying to kiss my neck. Baby-talking to me, the burn marks he leaves on my legs because I’m too polite to complain.
I look at the yellow pool edging outward, while he waits for me to jump.
I’m shaking all over. I want to throw something heavy and loud, break glass. I whisper, low enough that he might not hear me.
Clean it up your own goddamn self.