From the day Sam was born, I was the one who raised him, but by the time he was a month old he loved Marlene, and in his mind he was her dog, not mine. Even as a puppy his greatest pleasure was stretching out on the shag rug in the den, resting his chin on his front paws and fixing his eyes on her while she read a magazine or listened to the radio. He was totally fascinated, and I began to think the little mutt was a reincarnation of one of Marlene’s old boyfriends. She had exhausted a good supply of boyfriends, but I knew of one good candidate who might have assumed Sam’s body — a biker from Alabama who died in a traffic accident. Sometimes I even wondered how the biker might feel about spending his afterlife as Marlene’s dog. Was it his reward, or a bizarre form of punishment?
Whichever it was, Marlene ignored him. She didn’t like dogs.
She didn’t like me either, and eventually I concluded she had married me because I had a steady day job and spent most of my spare time with my friend John Bee, so she had freedom to polish her nails, do her hair, and watch soaps — whenever she pleased. When she finally left us, I had the consoling company of dear old John, while Sam had only me, and that wasn’t much comfort at all.
He took her absence far harder than I did, spending fitful nights under her empty bed and long days of watching the front door, obviously in hopes it would swing open and she’d be there. But I knew that was never going to happen, and in order to make the transition as easy as possible, John Bee and I went on the longest continual party we had ever thrown. However, the celebration soon turned into a wake, and one evening, while John was taking a sabbatical in the cabinet and I was semi-conscious before the TV, I found that I was scratching Sam’s ears. And for the first time since Marlene left, Sam made a friendly overture to me. He licked my hand and wagged his tail.
I squinted suspiciously at him and said, “So now all of a sudden you’re my dog, is that it?” He looked back with his head cocked to one side and curiosity in his eyes, as if waiting to hear something a bit more profound, and I said the only thing that seemed to be an actual truth: “Well, we got to face facts, Sam. She’s gone now, and it’s my fault.”
He made a sound from deep in his throat that sounded very much like, “Yeah.”
“I guess she had a right to be mad,” I said. “She did warn me. She told me, ‘Harold Fletcher, if you ever put your hands on me like that again, I’m leaving you.’ Those were her exact words. And the whole thing was about nothing — just that she spent a little money at a jewelry party, and for that I shoved her into a wall.” I patted his head. “You remember, don’t you?”
Sam’s only outward response was to lower his head, but I had the eerie feeling that he was re-imaging the whole scene start to finish. He’d seen it all, watched me push her roughly back against the den wall and then stalk away to find my old pal John. And only two weeks later, on a night when I couldn’t find John in his usual hangout, I accused her of holding him prisoner in solitary confinement and demanded his immediate release. She laughed at me, and I felt my face grow hot, and I shoved her again, harder this time. What’s worse, I balled up a fist and shook it at her.
“Go ahead, Harold!” she screamed. “Hit me, you bum!”
I did not hit her, or at least I don’t think I did, but in the morning she was gone, silent as a cat, but I wouldn’t have heard her anyway because it was Saturday and I was sleeping it off. She took the ’68 Pontiac and all her clothes, withdrew half the money in the bank account and left Sam and me to grow old together.
The older we got, the more we came to depend on each other. Sam had a dubious pedigree, to put it kindly, but after a couple of years I knew that he was by far the most obedient and affectionate dog I’d ever had, and much better company than John Bee. And I knew, too, that he was smart, and not just dog-smart. He showed some very human qualities, like his innate sense of knowing when I was sick, or lonely, or disgusted, all of which seemed to happen more often since Marlene and I parted company. Sam would come to where I sat, place his chin on my knee and simply look at me as if to say, Buck up, Harold. It’ll get better. He was right, too, about things getting better, although there were plenty of days when I thought I wouldn’t make it.
Then, during the first week of autumn 1985, while thermometers still showed in the high 80s, I noticed a swelling on Sam’s left hind leg, and at first I figured he had an infected insect bite, a tick maybe, and I wasn’t much concerned until a few days later when he began to limp. I set up a makeshift pen on the back porch, and I picked him up and placed him on an old quilt inside the pen. He yelped in pain as I put him down, and right away I could tell that the swelling on the leg hadn’t receded; it had moved a good two inches upward toward his hip.
In my usual bumbling way, I tried doctoring him myself. I kept him corralled in the pen and applied hot and cold compresses twice a day for a week. He’d had minor ailments before, and he recovered under my care, but this was different. The ugly bulge grew larger, and Sam began giving me plaintive looks as if asking, What’s happening here, Harold?
Finally, for only the second time in his life, I decided to take Sam to the vet, which wasn’t an easy decision for me, because I could still hear the voice of my long-dead old man ranting about vet bills. He had grown up in the Depression when money was almost non-existent, and any spending on a sick or injured dog deprived the family. But I could never abide seeing an animal suffer, Sam especially, and while Doc Sanders’ Veterinary Clinic was only a couple of miles down the road, I had taken Sam there only once, five years ago, and we hadn’t been back. And in my mind we never would be.
There wasn’t any question about Doc Sanders’ skill. He was and is a good vet. The truth is that, at that time, and very publicly, I’d been confronted with all my shortcomings, and I knew I must give up my friend John Bee or die, and I favored neither prospect. It simply seemed that I never got a break, and I became a bad-tempered, self-pitying grump. Sam was about the only creature on Earth who could tolerate me.
Read all six winning stories from The 2016 Great American Fiction Contest
The first time I took Sam to the vet, he was in a lot of pain with a bloated belly, and Doc Sanders handled it in less than an hour. He syringed off the fluid in Sam’s gut and told me to feed my dog more dog food and fewer table scraps. When we left in the truck to go home, Sam rode with his head out the window, his ears flapping in the wind. He was right as rain.
Then the disagreement with Doc started a few weeks later when I got his bill. Of course I knew that Doc couldn’t lowball a fee just to accommodate somebody’s poverty, but I still argued for an adjustment on moral grounds. Doc stood firm on the facts alone and prevailed in the end. The only satisfaction I received was taking nearly a year to pay off the bill.
Now I’m 71 years old, and I carry the unhappy incident with Doc Sanders as an embarrassment in my memory. Sam and I are in the waiting room of the vet’s office, and snippets of that first visit still cycle through my head. But I’m hoping that Doc has forgotten about it altogether. One thing for certain: I know I will never bring it up again.
Sam lies curled on the tile floor, his head on my shoe. Now and then he whines in pain, turning one way and then another in an effort to find relief, and all I can do is reach down and pat his head. He licks my hand, and that display of affection despite his pain touches some old and distant memories of my other dogs. I have had several, and the one I think of now is Penny, Sam’s mother. She lost two of the three pups in her last litter and then died herself a month later, leaving Sam an orphan, and I am mulling over the irony that Sam is the nearest thing to a child Marlene and I had together. Then, as Sam whimpers again, the door to the examination room opens and Doc Sanders, older and balder, emerges. He doesn’t smile as he approaches me, but his voice is quietly sympathetic.
“Let’s take him to the back, Mr. Fletcher,” Doc says. “Can you manage him?”
“I can carry him okay. It hurts him, though.”
Doc casts an unhappy look at the swelling on Sam’s leg. “I’m sure it does.”
Sam yelps as I lift him from the floor, and then again as he is eased lengthwise onto the plastic-covered pad of the examining table. “He’s in a bad way, Doc,” I say. “Can you help him?”
“I don’t know.” The vet rubs Sam gently on the shoulder. “I can help his pain, but I won’t lie to you. It may be serious.”
I stand with my hand on Sam’s back and wait as Doc Sanders scrubs. He tosses the paper towel into a waste basket and picks up some latex gloves.
“How old is Sam now?” he asks.
“He’s 12. No, 13.”
He nods. “Well, that’s a long life for a dog. Before he got sick, was he eating okay?”
“Not like he used to. Especially the last couple of months.”
“Okay,” says Doc, rubbing his chin. “I’m going to give him a shot for his pain. You take a seat in the waiting room while I check him out. I’ll come out to see you as quick as I can.”
“Whatever you say, Doc.”
Inwardly I wince a little, wondering if the jaunty reply suggests that I just handed Doc a blank check. But he seems not to have noticed what I said. He is at the cabinet carefully filling a syringe.
I wait outside for another half-hour. A few other pet owners, all women, have gathered in the waiting room while I was in with Sam, and they look up hopefully as the inner door opens and Doc waves for me to come back into the office. On the way, as we pass the examining room, I see that Sam is still on the table, lying stretched out on his side.
“He ain’t dead, is he, Doc?”
“No,” he says. “He’s sleeping from the shot I gave him.” He points to a chair beside his desk and says, “Take a seat, Mr. Fletcher.” I sit down, and Doc leans forward on his desk, his hands clasped together.
“I examined him,” he says, “and I’m 99 percent sure your dog has cancer.” He grimaces, adding, “In fact, I’m a hundred percent sure. We’ve seen a lot of it lately in dogs Sam’s age.” Doc Sanders pauses, looking closely at me as if gauging my reaction to what I am about to hear, and then adds quietly, “There’s nothing to be done, Mr. Fletcher. It’s best to just go ahead and put him down.”
Doc’s words produce a moment of shock during which I have a ridiculous thought: If a dog dies while under a vet’s care, does that eliminate the bill? But instantly I’m ashamed for having such a thought, and I wonder what kind of ridiculous old man I’ve become. “I never thought it would be that bad,” I say. “I thought it was probably something you could fix.”
“It’s nothing like what he had before, Mr. Fletcher,” the vet says, and I know for certain now he still remembers Sam’s first visit. “This is going to kill him.”
The words sting, and suddenly I’m holding back an old man’s tears, and when I can look again at Doc, I see that he is genuinely sorry about Sam, and that is comforting. Finally I ask him, “How long do you reckon he’s got?”
Doc considers for a few seconds. “Maybe three weeks. But he’ll be in terrible pain the whole time.”
“Couldn’t you keep him doped up?”
Doc shakes his head. “That’s just delaying the inevitable. And soon the drugs won’t work anymore.” He leans forward, looking earnestly at me. “Believe me, Mr. Fletcher, it’s the best thing you can do for him.”
I remain silent, but I’m thinking Doc is right, and I can tell he doesn’t want Sam to suffer. But it suddenly seems to me that if I approve the dog’s euthanasia here and now, I will have short-changed Sam and lost something valuable in my own life. I can’t explain it, but my feeling is that something important in the situation isn’t being considered, and in that moment at least, I can’t bring myself to give Doc the okay.
The office door is open, and I can see Sam on the table in the examination room, sleeping peacefully. As I watch, one of Sam’s ears flicks as if a horsefly had landed there, and I feel myself smiling. I think: Old Sam’s dreaming.
“How long will he stay asleep?” I ask Doc.
“Several hours. He’ll probably sleep through the night, and the residual effect of the drug should work through the morning. But by tomorrow evening he’ll be in more pain than ever.”
“Could I take him home for one last day and bring him back tomorrow?”
Doc looks thoughtful. “If that’s what you want to do,” he says, and after a quick pause adds with a nod, “Maybe that’s a good idea. He won’t have much pain, at least for a while. He’ll probably enjoy being home.” He stands up, reaches across the desk, and shakes my hand firmly. “I’m sorry about your dog, Mr. Fletcher. I wish there was something more we could do.”
“It’s okay,” I say. “Things happen.”
“If you’re interested in adoption, I know several prospects.”
I shake my head. “No, thanks, Doc.”
“All right. Be sure to bring Sam back here tomorrow before five.”
Doc helps me get Sam cradled into my arms and then shows us out through the clinic’s back door. The dog weighs a good 30 pounds, maybe more, and it’s a struggle to ease him onto the passenger side of the truck’s bench seat. When he’s settled I haul myself up behind the steering wheel and sit there looking at him. He is breathing quietly, and I begin to think about other dogs I’ve had. I’d lost them one at a time, and each loss produced a little siege of sorrow. But Sam is a different story.
He’s smart — really too smart to be a reincarnated Harley driver with GO TIDE tattooed along the length of his forearm. Sam had shown how smart he was after that first trip to Doc’s, but I was so stupid then I hadn’t recognized it. And it was also the time when I was told, without tact, sympathy, or respect for my feelings, that I must stay away from John Bee forever or be subjected to long-term unhappiness. In simpler terms, just as I was finally getting over Marlene, and just as Sam was showing a little affection for me, I was ordered to stay completely away from booze. As it turned out, it was easy enough to stay away. And it was also very hard.
I had to spend the next 30 days in jail.
Back at home now, I fold an old down comforter to make a pallet in a corner of the bedroom, and Sam never moves when I place him on it. I wash and fill Sam’s water bowl, then open a can of dog food and spoon half of it into his food bowl. Sam has very nearly stopped eating at all, but the food will be there in case he wakes up hungry.
I stand for a moment watching him sleep and wondering why I feel so connected to him. Maybe it’s because Sam is the end of the line, without a doubt the last dog I will ever have. Raising a dog requires time, money, and patience, and I am lacking in all three now.
After a few minutes I tiptoe to the living room and turn on the TV, snooze through an old John Wayne movie, then go back to the bedroom and ease into bed. I lie listening to Sam’s breathing, and once during the night I awake to listen again and he is snoring softly. Then in the morning the first thing I see is Sam waiting at my bedside, his smart dog stare riveted on my face. He seems to be saying, Harold, old boy, you are sleeping away the morning.
I lever myself up on one elbow and say, “Well, look at you. Doing better, huh?” But it’s a ridiculous thing to say because I know it’s the shot’s residual effect and the improvement won’t last for long. Sam doesn’t seem inclined to move, but he watches intently as I get slowly out of bed and start to dress, and he gives a weak wag of his tail as I sit down on the bed to put on my shoes. All the time I am watching him out of the corner of my eye, and I see in his rapt expression a behavior I’ve seen many times, although now there is no excited barking or tail chasing as there was before. Still I can see in Sam’s eyes what he wants.
“Old dog,” I say, “do you want to take a ride? Just get in the truck and go like we used to?” At the word truck Sam’s body gives a quick jerk and his tail switches twice, but still he doesn’t move. I finish tying my shoes and reach over to pat him and he gives me a lick in return.
“You remember,” I say, smoothing the fur on his back, “I’m driving, and you’ve got your head stuck through the window. I never knew why dogs like that, but it seemed to suit you just fine.”
Sam whines, looking up at me. His eyes are rimmed in bright red, and I’m thinking: If this is your last day, old dog, you should do whatever you please.
“How about it?” I ask him. “Take a little ride in the truck?”
Sam lifts his head and looks at the door in the kitchen that opens onto the concrete pad where the truck is parked. Then he pulls himself carefully onto his three functioning legs and begins limping awkwardly toward it. When he reaches the door, he stops and looks back at me.
With a shrug I say, “You want to go right now? Okay. We’ll go right now.”
Sam turns his eyes from me and fixes them on the doorknob, waiting patiently as I button my cardigan sweater. It is the kind of early fall morning when the air starts out cool but by afternoon it is summer again. The coolness, when I open the door, seems to energize the dog, and he moves in a lurching walk across the back porch to the steps and there he stops. He looks up at me again.
“Okay,” I say. “I got you.” Again I lift him as gently as I can and negotiate the three steps to the concrete and put him down. He didn’t yelp when I picked him up, which tells me the pain shot is still working, and that’s a good thing.
Sam limps his way toward the truck, and I follow. I open the passenger door and lift him to the seat, waiting until he settles himself, and then I crank the window partly down and close the door. Sam lifts his head, but only to watch the driver’s door until I get behind the wheel. As I start the engine, he lets his chin fall to rest on his paws.
“You ready?” I say to him. “Okay, let’s go.”
We pulled out slowly onto the main road through town, stopping only to get five gallons of gas and a sausage biscuit at the Gulf station. Back on the road I offer Sam a bit of the sausage and he takes it so quickly that it surprises me, and with unwise generosity I give him the whole patty. As he eats it, I think, Maybe his appetite’s coming back, and we can call it off for a while.
“What about a run out to Logan’s Lake?” I say. “Maybe you can’t chase ducks like you used to, but we can walk out on the dock. What do you think?”
Sam’s tail thumps the seat a couple of times. “I’ll take that as a yes,” I say.
It only takes 20 minutes down a side road to reach Logan’s Lake, which is little more than a pond at the edge of the state park. In better days Sam always enjoyed going there, and now he lifts his head higher to look at the water as I pull into the parking area near the dock. I step from the running board onto the ground and circle around to open Sam’s door.
“Come on, dog,” I say. “Let’s go look for ducks.”
I pick Sam up again and carry him down the slope to the lakeshore and onto the dock, and when we reach the wide platform at the end, I set him gently down onto the planking. He whimpers a little as I release him, and then he drops his chin onto his forepaws and lies quietly looking out at the water.
I can tell he’s starting to hurt again.
We wait on the dock for nearly 10 minutes before three of the resident greenheads come swimming toward us, and to my surprise Sam comes instantly alert, head quickly lifting and his eyes suddenly bright and alive and fixed on the ducks, all his instincts awake. I see the old dog’s body twitch with excitement, and I know his launch mechanism is wound tight and ready to propel him like a slingshot if those ducks come out of the water. But in the end Sam never moves. The ducks come close to the dock and tarry, dabbling and quacking, but when no food is thrown, they lose interest and swim back the way they came.
If a dog can show disappointment, I see it in Sam’s eyes as he looks at me, and I say, “Listen, dog, if you weren’t sick, you’d give ’em a good run for their money and they know it.” We both look out at the water for a few more minutes, and I feel the sun beginning to heat the plank floor, so I ask, “You want to go back to the truck now?”
The word truck again touches a nerve in Sam, and the muscles of his body make a tiny ripple along his back. He pushes himself up on his front legs, but can only go so far, and he looks again at me. “All right,” I say. “I got you.”
I settle Sam again on the truck’s seat, and we drive back toward the highway. He makes no effort to lift his head to see through the windshield, and I am sure now that the painkiller has worn off completely. I reach over and pat his head again, but there is no reaction, as if he cannot feel my hand. For a dreadful moment, because his eyes are closed, I think he is already dead. But when I place my hand on his side I can feel that he’s still breathing.
I say to him, “I hate this, old dog. You deserve better than you got. I am sorry.”
He still doesn’t respond to my voice. Then when I stop at the highway intersection, I say to him, “I’d better take you to see Doc now.”
He does react to the word Doc. His eyes open and his head swings upward as though he’s making an effort to get to his feet. His tail twitches once, and then he lies still again.
“That’ll be a mercy, won’t it, Sam?”
Sam doesn’t make a sound. But he turns his eyes to the windshield, steadily looking at it, and to me he’s clearly saying: Drive, Harold.
The clinic is 30 minutes away. Sam lies very still on the bench seat, and as I keep a glancing eye on him, I think: Mercy’s a short commodity anymore. My old drunk of a father never showed mercy to anyone. And look at me now: I hurt my wife, and she hurt me in return, and neither of us had any thought about mercy for the other.
I remember also Doc’s advice in his office about putting Sam down, and the feeling I had of missing something important, and finally it comes to me. Yesterday I wasn’t sure, and I couldn’t make a decision without knowing what Sam wanted. But on this little trip, which I realize was for my benefit, not Sam’s, he has informed me. He wants a merciful end to the agony, something only Doc can deliver, and my part of the process is simply to get him there because he can’t go by himself now. It’s as if he’s saying: It was a nice ride, Harold, but it’s over now.
Then in my mind it is five years ago, right after the time Doc drained the fluid from Sam. Marlene has gone, and John Bee and I are still exploring the concept of permanent inebriation when a trooper pulls me over simply for weaving on the road and being unable to walk a straight line. I serve the 30-day minimum sentence, and Sam survives on whatever leftovers the neighbors bring him.
After they release me, I go straight home, find John Bee still in the cabinet, and drink myself into a semi-stupor. Then the telephone rings, and when I finally find it, a woman’s voice says, “Oh, Mr. Fletcher, I’m glad I reached you. This is Dr. Sander’s office. Your dog is here.”
“Your dog, Sam. The doctor drained the fluid off his tummy again. Did you want pick him up?”
“It’s a mistake,” I say. “Sam’s out back somewhere.”
She says something else just as I hang up, and then the phone rings again, and this time it’s Doc himself.
“Rita wasn’t mistaken, Mr. Fletcher. Sam has come in by himself three times in the last month. His belly’s still swelling and giving him pain, so he barks at the back door until somebody lets him in, and then he goes straight to the OR and jumps on the table; I drain off the fluid, and he gets down and heads for the door. We’ve been trying to reach you.”
I listen, but so far nothing Doc says makes sense.
He gives a little laugh. “That’s some smart dog you’ve got. He knows what to do when he needs help. Don’t think I ever saw one with that much initiative.”
There’s a silence. Doc says, “Are you there, Mr. Fletcher?”
Even I can tell my words are slurred. “I’ve been pretty sick, Doc.”
“Oh? I’m sorry,” he says. “I guess that’s why the dog came in by himself. We’ve got Sam’s fluid problems settled now, but watch his diet, okay? I’ll send you a bill for the treatments. Do you want me to let him go home on his own?”
“Sure,” I mumble. “That’ll be fine.”
I park near the back door of Doc’s clinic and help Sam carefully to the ground. To my surprise he heads straight for the door, literally dragging his leg now, but moving faster than at any time that day, even lurching up two steps to the porch landing where he stops and stares at the door. He doesn’t bark, but he doesn’t need to. A well-dressed woman holding a toy poodle opens the door and steps out, and Sam slips quickly past her and disappears inside.
Startled, the woman gasps, “Well, for heaven’s sake.” Then she spies me standing by the truck. “Was that your dog that just went in?”
She is obviously miffed. “Can’t you control him?” she asks. “He seems to have a mind of his own.”
“Yes, ma’am. He does for a fact.”
I wait in the hallway outside the OR. I see Sam standing by the table, waiting for help. He looks at me over his shoulder, but I can tell I’m not the person he wants to see. He turns away, and I mutter softly, “So long, Sam,” just as Doc appears, nods to me and says, “This takes only a few minutes, Mr. Fletcher. Would you like to come in?”
I shake my head.
Doc goes into the OR and closes the door.
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