On the morning Bill Somers put his dog down, I was not on my porch. Most mornings I sit with tea in hand watching as the sun crests Bolduc Hill and the cool night air takes on a warm, heavy feeling.
I might have heard his truck creeping down the drive on the way to the vet then and known.
But I was out of tea and had made a special trip to the corner store.
As the first customer of the day, the jingling of the bell that announced my arrival sounded especially sharp, as if it might wake the rest of the town. It seemed the shopkeeper Mrs. Kale and I were the only ones awake so early.
But bumping back up my gravel drive I noticed a hunched figure in the backyard with a length of rope in his hand. The rope turned into a collar as Bill came into view, and the shine on his face could not have been from the summer heat; the sun was still beneath the hill. Bill had been crying.
I’d never laid a dog to rest. Not so much a cat or a hamster. And the sorry, defeated look on Bill’s face now reminded me of my decision not to care for another life or bring one into the world. It had been a good one.
“She didn’t make it?” I asked, stepping out of my car.
“Didn’t survive the injection if that’s what you mean,” Bill said, tossing the worn collar onto his porch. It’s dull thud onto rotting wood followed the slamming of my car door. Now nothing stirred the morning still.
Bill wiped his face with the back of a hand; smoothed his wrinkled shirt fruitlessly.
“That’s that,” he said.
I offered the only thing I had to offer. Not solace or empathy. No words or advice. I offered him tea and he accepted.
Now sipping on the porch together, slow steam rising at the pace of a tangerine sun over Bolduc Hill, Bill told me about his dog. About the time it ate his leather boot. The time it ate his leather gloves. The time it ate antifreeze in the garage and had to have its stomach pumped.
“And it survived that?”
“Antifreeze is potent, but that dog was stronger.”
He had rushed the animal to the vet 30 minutes away. Paid a pretty penny to see it open amber eyes and stroke its warm, velvet ears again. I did the math in my head to see how many bags of tea and sunrises the bill might translate to for me.
I estimated in the thousands before Bill began recounting of the dog’s first day at his home.
“Brought her inside with one of those party bows around her neck. Pink. Shelly screamed.”
“Mad. Mad as all heck. ‘You don’t surprise someone with life,’ she said. ‘That’s like telling me you’re pregnant when we didn’t plan for it.’”
“I suppose buying a puppy is the equivalent of male pregnancy.”
“Close as I ever got,” Bill said with a grunt.
Then we were laughing, quietly, more distracted than amused.
My tea was cool now. Just dregs and a soggy bag left in the curve of a rounded bottom. I realized I was still cupping the porcelain as if hoping to absorb its last bit of warmth. It was fully day then.
Bill set his mug down on the wooden stump I called an end table and made to hoist himself from the rocking chair.
“Have you buried her?” I asked.
He hadn’t, but didn’t want help.
“Something I should do myself,” he explained.
I understood and I didn’t. Why not pile the earth quickly? Forget the amber eyes, the velvet ears. Go inside and have a proper breakfast.
“Appreciate the tea,” he said.
It sounded like thanks, but as I watched Bill’s back retreat from the porch toward the horizon, I thought maybe it had been advice.
A million tea bags lined store shelves in Bolduc alone. Endless flavors and strengths. For every box that emptied there were dozens more waiting to replace it.
For Bill, there was one dog. One mutt whose cool body would not warm again the next morning to the promise of a new day.
Kristine Gill is a recovering journalist living in Southwest Florida. In 2014, she founded the Naples Writers’ Workshop for local writers looking to hone their skills.