Fiction by Clare Wilson
The bartender’s t-shirt declared, Caution, Hot!
Marvin eyed the splashy script as she poured him another double of Bulleit. He downed it in one gulp, before she had reached her next customer.
Great ass. Great tits too, appropriately labeled. Waist a little on the thick side, but that was hardly a complaint. He knew all too well how a guy could get burned by a woman like her.
Marvin groaned and dropped his head into his hands. This wasn’t the time to be fantasizing about the waitress, even it had been three months since he touched a woman. That was the day his dog’s legs had given out for good. Lauren had announced that she had no intention of carrying it down two flights of stairs just to do its business. The dog had to go. Marvin had accused her of being a heartless bitch. She hadn’t cared. The next few weeks constituted the most extended case of mutual silent treatment they had ever achieved. He hated stand-offs, though, so eventually he brought home the drugs he needed to euthanize the dog. Lauren hadn’t relented. Probably she hadn’t believed he would use them. She was right: the two vials and the syringe lingered in the kitchen, untouched.
That was why he couldn’t go home tonight. The vials glared at him whenever he came home, tried to talk him into doing something extreme. Or at least, maybe they did. He was unsure whether they were whispering the dangerous ideas, or if it was just the booze. He’d been drinking a lot lately—usually at the dive a block east of work. Tonight’s locale was swankier: crystal glasses, oak bar, low lighting, the works. Jenn had invited him for drinks, using her position as his boss to make it clear the invitation wasn’t an option. He knew why she wanted to talk. He planned to resign as soon as she returned from her phone call outside, so that she wouldn’t fire him instead. He groaned again.
“Rough day?” the bartender asked. More bourbon burbled into Marvin’s glass. He wasn’t exactly sure how many doubles he’d downed, but they hadn’t hit him yet. Another would be fine.
“You could say that,” he answered.
He didn’t want to explain that every day was a rough day. Or at least, had been since Monday three weeks back, when he staggered into his apartment, exhausted by a long day at the clinic, emergency after emergency, and found it stripped bare. No furniture, no food, no Lauren. It was a shock to realize he had so little in the world: a rented apartment, a tattered La-Z-Boy, a crippled dog, and a couple lethal sedatives. Plus his huge mass of grad school loans, which meant that without Lauren’s sizeable second income, he couldn’t even justify a new bed before payday next month.
He should have taken time off, but the year’s paid vacation was used up. Instead he aimed to keep his mouth shut around his clients. Before each exam room, he closed his eyes, gripped the doorjamb, and reminded himself that a few weeks ago he would have sympathized with the concerns that now struck him as hopelessly inane. He just had to pretend to be that version of himself and everything would be fine.
This practice had been working until Eileen Steiner had arrived that afternoon—not with her insufferable cockapoo, for a change, but with her husband and his Great Dane. Marvin had diagnosed the animal’s hemangiosarcoma on sight. The dog’s pale gums and pendulous belly were unmistakable. Eileen had rummaged in her Coach bag, searching for her wallet. “How much will cremation cost on top of the euthanasia?”
Her husband had put his hand on the dog’s flank. “I’m taking him home,” he said.
Eileen’s expression had been worth a million words. Marvin recognized the language: Lauren had the same look when he’d asked her to carry the dog outside a couple times a day while he was gone. “You think because I work from home it’s my job to mother your dog?” she had asked. Marvin had translated this to mean, You’re a useless cretin and I regret marrying you.
“Frank,” Eileen had said, “I don’t want that body in my car.”
Frank’s jaw jutted. “No, we’re not leaving him. I’m burying him myself.”
Eileen’s reproaches and complaints had continued for five minutes, expounding in exhausting detail why that was the worst idea she ever heard. Her husband’s head drooped lower and lower, his shoulders hunching over his dog.
Marvin had bit his lip, but the words boiled up anyway, pushing through. “For fuck’s sake, lady,” they burst out, cutting her off mid-sentence. “Doesn’t a guy deserve a say in his own dog’s death? Just let him bury it. Or do you women have to have the last word in every single tiny fucking thing?”
Worst thing he could have said, he realized now. He tossed back the bourbon, gritted his teeth against the burn. He squinted at the bartender, and she retrieved the Bulleit. “What do you do?” she asked, filling his tumbler again.
“I’m a vet,” he said. “Rough days are standard when your job is sick animals and their stupid owners.” He shook his head. “Just like today.”
Another patron called the bartender and she held up a finger to say, hold that thought. No worries there. Marvin couldn’t escape it. The Steiners had been the last appointment of the week, so when he walked out he was treated to the sight of Eileen at the front desk, demanding to speak with the owner. He had been only slightly consoled by the fact that his tech was helping Frank carry the Great Dane’s body to Eileen’s car.
Marvin had driven home and parked, staring through the windshield at his apartment façade. He could no longer remember how to settle his shoulders after he debrided and stitched a puncture wound, how to turn silence into discretion while a grown man sobbed over an ancient pet. Monday, he would quit. He was in no state to be working. He wasn’t even sure he was in a state to be alive. He pictured the sedatives, so easy to overdose—
His phone had dinged: a text from his boss commanding him to meet her in twenty minutes at the town’s single martini bar. He amended his earlier thought; he would quit tonight.
He had locked his car and walked the three blocks to the bar. In a way he was grateful that going to his execution at least meant that he didn’t have to face the empty apartment and the dying dog. Every night, while he lay stiff in the extended recliner, the animal’s labored breathing echoed against the bare walls like the soundtrack of his failure.
The bartender was making her way back to him—a hopeful sight—until his boss appeared at her abandoned stool and wiggled herself onto it. “Sorry about that,” she said. “My husband was having trouble getting Damian to sleep. I had to coach him through.”
“No worries,” Marvin muttered. Jenn was massively pregnant, and he avoided staring at her belly as it swayed in her efforts to get comfortable. Lauren had made several derogatory comments after Jenn got pregnant for the second time in Marvin’s three years at the clinic. He laughed off suggestions that secretly he wanted a baby-making wife of his own, taking them as Lauren’s regret for her own inability to have children. He had Lauren, his dog, his clients, their pets—did he need kids too?
Lauren had stared in total silence when he said that to her once, a few months after their discovery of her genetic condition. She had been curled up in his lap after a bout of crying, demanding to know how he could bear it. He had said the best words he could find. He was not sure he had done a very good job. After that she never mentioned her condition, but her comments about the charms of fertile women were too frequent not to be fueled by jealousy.
Not that she didn’t have certain grounds for concern. Jenn was smoking hot. Marvin still found her attractive, even eight months into pregnancy. But she was exceedingly married, as the fact that she was now texting her husband made clear.
“Sorry about that,” she said. “I’ll put my phone away, I promise.” She waved at the bartender and requested tonic with lime.
Sipping from her straw, she stared at Marvin from under raised eyebrows. “What’s going on?” she asked. “I’ve been concerned for a few weeks, and today I got the complaint from Mrs. Steiner. I know I’m not imagining things, so don’t make excuses.”
Marvin rolled his empty glass on its edge, watching the last amber drops follow the crystal wall. His thoughts scattered when he tried to focus. “Sorry, Jenn,” he muttered. “I was planning to quit so you wouldn’t have any trouble.”
Jenn threw her hands into the air. “See?” she said. “That’s what I mean. Did anyone say you needed to quit? Absolutely not. You’re not acting like yourself, Marvin.”
He tapped his tumbler on the bar, and when the bartender glanced his way, he waved it at her. He needed more bourbon for this part. “My dog’s dying,” he said.
She caught her breath. “Wait, Sailor? Is that why you signed out the Telazol and Pentobarbital last month?”
“Yeah, I’m supposed to put him down, but I can’t.” He went home every day intending to do it, but whenever he walked through the front door, the dog thumped his tail and raised his ears. He had done that since puppyhood, keeping his head down to play it cool, but betraying excitement through other tells. The dog had never cared whether Marvin had a job, kids, a wife—not even furnishings for his house. Marvin knew Sailor didn’t deserve the pain; he should have put him down when Lauren first complained, but he needed the golden eyes that said he mattered. That was a validation so important he couldn’t sacrifice it for anything.
Jenn frowned. “Supposed to? What do you mean? Is Lauren pressuring you?”
He shrugged. Wasn’t it obvious? He didn’t know why Jenn had to ask so many questions.
“Have you two talked? Maybe she could bring him in so you don’t have to do it yourself.”
He let out a ragged laugh. “That won’t work.” The bartender had refilled his bourbon. He took a sip. She winked at him from the cash register.
Jenn sighed. “Marvin, you’re not giving me a lot to work with here. I don’t think all that bourbon is helping, either.” She rubbed her fingertips across her forehead. “Look, I’ll leave you alone for tonight, but promise me one thing.”
Marvin took another sip, avoided eye contact.
“Come to work on Monday.” She glared at him until he met her eyes, ducked his head in assent. “Great, that’s settled. No one’s quitting tonight.” She slid off the barstool and tugged her top over her belly. “We’ll talk Monday. Don’t get too drunk in the meantime.”
She turned away, paused and turned back. “I really am sorry about Sailor,” she said. “You know how to get in touch if you need someone to help with that job.”
The bartender slid over once Jenn had paid the tab and disappeared through the swinging door. “She your boss?”
Marvin peered at her. “Yeah. Apparently I’m not fired.”
“Hey,” she said. “Good news! I’ll drink to that with you. This one’s on me.” She poured two more doubles and clinked her glass against Marvin’s. “Bottom’s up.”
Was she flirting? Marvin was unsure. It had been years since anyone had flirted with him. Long before Lauren had laid down her ultimatum about Sailor, Marvin had feared she was only going through the motions, whether in bed or out of it. Was it because she paid for everything but the apartment? Maybe she had decided he wasn’t worth his keep. He was inclined to agree.
Still, if the bartender were stupid enough to be interested in him, he wasn’t necessarily averse to testing the warning on her shirt. He imagined stripping it over her head, seeing her breasts pop free. Talk about dousing yourself in gasoline and setting it on fire. He gave her a weak smile. Sounded like a better way out than Bulleit and Pentobarbital.
She smiled back, took a sip of her bourbon. “You said you’re a vet, right?” she said. “Do you put animals to sleep?”
Marvin should have known that’s what she would ask. Everyone did. He went to his nephew’s birthday and Lauren’s sister-in-law inquired whether he had a minute to look at her sick hamster. He dropped by a college pal’s holiday mixer, and the pal’s hot sister invited him to diagnose an old cat. During a summer pool party, he floated past some man he had never met. “Would you be able to euthanize a pot-bellied pig?” the man asked.
He wished someone would inquire about the fascinating parts of veterinary medicine—surgery, large animal practice, exotics, that sort of thing—but no, at every party he explained for the four-thousand, three-hundred and seventy-eighth time that euthanasia drugs are controlled substances; he certainly couldn’t sneak them out of the clinic to help a friend. Sometimes after a few drinks he imagined climbing onto a table. He would explain that if people actually cared, they would pay to give their pets a peaceful way out.
He glanced at the bartender’s shirt. Maybe he should get one of his own printed. It would read, No, I can’t kill your pet for free. Get a gun, or take the animal to a clinic, you cheap bastard.
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s what vet’s do. What’ve you got?”
She settled her arms on the bar, giving him a front-seat view of her cleavage, and launched into a story about her ancient cat. Apparently he was dying of kidney failure, just like his brother the year before. Marvin stared down her shirt. Was she suggesting what he thought? An exchange of services? Was he interested in this exchange?
“So, could you come over and take a look?” she finished. She watched him with wide eyes.
Marvin hesitated. The drugs were at home. It was a workable transaction. Did he need the bartender more than his dog needed an easy death? “It’s a possibility,” he said. “Give me another double, and we’ll call it a deal.”
“Done,” she said, and sloshed the bourbon into his glass.
Of course when she came to fetch him at the end of her shift, the booze hit him like a fist. He almost fell face first onto the swooping floor when he slid off his stool. She ended up shoving a shoulder under his armpit and hauling him to the parking lot. “Which one’s your car?” she asked. He stared at her, unable to solve that puzzle, so she pushed him into the passenger seat of her own car and drove off muttering to herself. The streetlights spun overhead. He had to concentrate on not vomiting, especially when she prodded him to give directions.
At his apartment building, he dragged himself up the stairs, clutching the banister like a lifeline. She passed him after three steps. “Which door is yours?” she said over her shoulder. Her thighs jiggled alluringly in front of his face, but he was unsure he could hold up his side of the bargain if this morbid barter went the way he hoped. Would she care if he had to crash for a few hours before performing any of the duties she expected?
“Number 214,” he answered, but she already stood on the landing. He fished in his pocket for his keys, gearing up to push off the railing toward his front door.
The lock was already turning when he remembered that he hadn’t cleaned up the dog’s mess in days. It seemed pointless: every morning and every evening he found Sailor dragging himself through yet another puddle of piss or shit. “Maybe we should go straight to your apartment,” he said.
She frowned at him. “But the drugs, right? Don’t you need them for my cat?”
He dropped his eyes and muttered assent. There was no hope after all. He pushed the door open. The stench was like a wall when they entered the front hallway.
“Aw geez,” he heard the bartender say, but his stomach was turning. He made it to the toilet in time, and returned more clearheaded. She stood a few feet from Sailor with her arms crossed over her chest. He scrabbled at the floor with his claws, trying to reach her for a greeting. “This your dog?” she said. Her face was blank.
Marvin nodded. “Sailor.” He paused, gulped. “He can’t walk anymore.”
As he said the words, a horrifying river of tears overflowed both eyes. The bartender stared at him. He stared back, clenched jaw wobbling shamefully. Would she leave? Would she ask him why he had been so cruel to his dog? Would she mention the stripped apartment and notice that he had been abandoned? Would she be angry if, after all, he used the drugs for Sailor instead of her cat?
“So, um, hey,” she said, shifting her weight onto one hip “I feel like we should help him.”
Marvin took a step toward her, then stopped. He probably shouldn’t ask if he could put his arms around her and lean his forehead on her shoulder. She’d probably say no. He dragged his arm across his eyes and bent to scoop his dog off the floor.
The bartender held Sailor’s head out of the water while Marvin scrubbed him with his own shampoo and rinsed him down. She pulled Marvin’s towel from the rack and wrapped it around the dog, after Marvin had dragged him out of the water onto his lap. “What now?” she said.
Marvin closed his eyes. “Can you go back to the kitchen and bring me the two bottles and the syringe on the counter?” When he heard her step through the door, he dropped his head onto Sailor’s back, soaking his hair in the process. He heard the dog’s steady heartbeat through his ribcage. His canine smell of slobber and urine had been replaced by mint and lemongrass. Sailor had arrived in his life six months before Lauren, unweaned after his mother had been killed. For five days Marvin had bottle fed the puppy on a two-hour cycle. Lauren never quite grasped how that week had turned Marvin into a veterinarian. “Sorry, old boy,” he said. “So sorry. None of this was your fault.”
He felt a hand on his shoulder. “I’ve got your stuff,” the bartender said. “What can I do now?”
Marvin took the vial of Telazol and filled the syringe. He wondered how he came to be seated on his bathroom floor, preparing to euthanize his dog, with a stranger kneeling beside him. Maybe this was a hallucination. Would Lauren have helped like this? “Just scratch his head,” he said. “I’ve got the rest.”
He wiggled out from under the dog’s body, pulled up the loose skin on his back, and emptied the syringe.
Sailor’s breath was calm, slow, slower. Marvin put his hand on the dog’s head as it sank. His eyes closed and he exhaled. Marvin touched the inner corner of his eyelid; several seconds passed before the eye twitched in response. Marvin straightened the dog’s front leg, intending to locate a vein, but something was wrong with his eyes. He knelt with his hands on his thighs, blinking to clear his vision.
He looked up. The bartender met his gaze. She said nothing, only offered him the syringe, already filled with the next sedative. He heaved in a shuddering breath, took the syringe and found the vein. He depressed the plunger, then slid down to put his ear against the dog’s chest. One minute until his heart stopped.
Marvin didn’t bother to move; once again he couldn’t see through his stinging eyes. After a moment, a hand settled on his head. He closed his eyes. Lauren was gone. Sailor was gone. Still there were so many things to do. Clean up the apartment, buy himself a bed, go back to work on Monday like Jenn said. First, though, there was the bartender. She had let him break their bargain without a word of protest. Now he had to put that to rights.
Clare Wilson is an MFA candidate in fiction at Eastern Washington University. She writes about the Inland Northwest, where she has lived for most of her life. Argos is her first published story.