Hemingway Hills in the Afternoon

We finally had to take her to the vet. Because people have limits. Ours was two months ago.

'What's the problem?' the vet asked.

'She pees every time you look at her,' Steve said.

'Now surely--' the doctor said, but it was too late.

'You looked at her, didn't you?' I said.

We backed to the wall, away from puddle. It was getting shallower and wider.

'What's her name?' the vet asked, averting his eyes.

'You can't say that either,' Steve said, 'her name.'

His limit was really when I brought her home. Gracie. Black and skinny.

'The invisible dog you can't talk about,' the vet said.

We nodded.

'Just don't say Invisible Dog too much,' I warned. 'She'll pick up that it's her.'

'What do you give her to drink?' he asked.

'She collects water molecules from the air,' Steve said. 'They bead on her individual hairs, and the hairs wick them down to her follicles. Like little mouths.'

It was true. I would have said her hairs were like thousands of tiny straws, but it was true: I had to water our house plants twice as much since Gracie. The amount of lotion we used now was ridiculous.

'Is she still here?' the vet asked.

Steve held his index finger over his lips.

Our carpet at home was a sponge. We wore flippers to go to the refrigerator at night. I imagined the kids we'd have someday--that Gracie was supposed to be a test for--growing up in hip waders. We'd buy them too big so they'd grow into them.

Her breathing filled the examination room.

'Tell us she'll grow out of it,' Steve said.

'Have you tried training?' the vet asked. We were standing together on the bench now.

'She's sensitive,' I hissed. 'Can't you tell?'

The doctor chose his words carefully. 'How much can she . . . can she . . .?'

'You looked at her again,' I told him.

'Her bladder is like those balloons clowns have at parties,' Steve said. 'Those kind that you can't pop. We suspect it starts just under her skin--'

'--but it's thicker,' I finished. 'Like when they double-bag your milk at the grocery store.'

'A water balloon,' Steve was still saying.

The vet stared at the ceiling, anywhere but down. 'Compression,' he said. 'I mean pressure. Like oxygen in a tank--'

'Balloon,' Steve said, under his breath.

The vet nodded. 'Something you can measure in pounds per square inch.'

We nodded.

It's not that we didn't love her. At least I did.

'Can it propel her?' the vet asked shyly, and you could see in his pupils Gracie, sliding along like a jet ski, her slender body a turbine . . .

'No,' I said. Flatly.

'Wait,' Steve said, leaning forward. 'I don't hear her.'

He was right: no Gracie. Usually she'd whimper for a few minutes afterwards, ashamed. Which meant she understood. Had feelings. She just didn't manage stress very well.

The vet stepped down but Steve took him gently by the forearm. We'd been here before; invisible dogs can step of nowhere. Before you can close your eyes.

Steve advanced through the examination room, galoshes shiny (we'd come prepared), fluorescent light pooled on the floor.

She was under the table. Sitting down with her back straight, front paws close together, haunches trembling. Her tail swept across the tile with the attention Steve didn't mean to give her, and the splash collected in droplets on the vet's glasses.

Steve closed his eyes in pain, apology.

I offered the vet a tissue. He rubbed his lenses with it.

'Her littermates?' he asked.

We shrugged. She'd been in a cardboard box at the mall exit. The passenger side door. She'd looked right at me.

'Gracie?' I said to her--ignoring Steve's embarrassed glare--and she came out squatting.

Each time I saw her she was a different dog. Growing up in our peripheral vision.

I opened my arms for her to come here, to come to mama--the shirt was ruined anyway--and above my head heard Steve asking the vet quietly what we could do, what could we do, would we have to--?' and I pulled her closer.

This is the story I tell Brenda at the club when she asks about my decision. Steve will never know.

Brenda puts her sunglasses back on, crosses her legs, looks away.

The lunchtime crowd all around us lean under their umbrellas, hiding from the sun they're paying to sit in.

Beyond them are the hills.

Brenda comments on them: 'Green for September, wouldn't you say?'

I smile, look with her.

A slender black form flits from tree to tree. Even the grass knows her name, can remember a woman getting out of the car on the way home from the vet, cradling her baby over the fence, swaddling her in leaves. Not saying anything on the way home, or that night, or the next day either, until the carpet cleaners plod through the house in their astronaut boots and the moisture returns to her skin. And then it's just to agree with him that yes, it was the only thing they could have done. It was for the best.

About the author:

Stephen Graham Jones has stories all over the place: Merididian, Open City, Literal Latte, Alaska Quarterly Review, Pleiades, etc. His first novel was The Fast Red Road--A Plainsong (FC@, 2000). His next, All the Beautiful Sinners (Rugged Land), is due in April. After that, it's The Bird is Gone: A Manifesto (FC2 again, fall 2003). Jones is a 2001 NEA fellow.