Storyglossia Issue 41, November 2010.

The Good Death

by Douglas Silver


The syringe was knotted to the vial with a rubber band and sealed in a plastic bag on the coffee table. It sat beside a black and white photography book about skyscrapers and another Past Due notice from the veterinarian. Lena was filling Milo's bowl at the sink when Jett walked in from the backyard, guiding Milo by the collar to his plush dog bed. Milo sniffed the bed, pawing it as if it might give out.

Jett sat in the bed. "It's okay, buddy, come here. Lay down." He made a clicking sound with his tongue and slid his hand down Milo's withered back, buckling his bowlegged haunches until Milo toppled onto his side. Jett curled up beside him, stroking the coarse short hairs above Milo's sutured belly. The last surgery was the third in two years. Dr. Madden wouldn't swear she had removed all the tumors, or that they wouldn't grow back.

Jett never thought they'd get to this point. Milo wasn't even four. He'd been sick before, on and off the last two years, but he'd always bounced back. Compassion was the word Lena liked to use. "It's the only way we can show him compassion," she'd said. They had gone through the checklist, What is your dog's quality of life? It was true that Milo's condition was gradually worsening. Is your dog able to enjoy most of the activities he once had? He wasn't responding to therapy or medication, though Jett believed that that would come with time, as the steroids built up in his system. Is your dog suffering in his present condition? It wasn't a yes or no. Some days were better than others. On bad days Milo moaned with pain; he'd hobble around the house, squatting in the corner as if he thought he was in the backyard. On good days he was playful, even mischievous, and responded to Jett's call.

Jett couldn't think about Milo's checklist without contemplating his own: What is the true quality of your relationship? Are you still able to enjoy activities together? Are you suffering in your present condition? How will you deal with the loss? He often wondered if Lena was wrestling with similar questions. He feared she had already made peace with her decision.

Jett didn't get up from the floor, folding his torso around Milo's drawn back. Milo looked so small, balled up in his bed. They had once measured him at 6'1, his front paws balancing on Lena's shoulders as the two danced around the living room. Jett couldn't remember the last time they all danced. He couldn't remember their last weekend away or their last picnic in the park. It pained Jett to think their last time had been their last time. He looked at the table. From his angle, the plastic bag cut off the side of the photography book so that the cover read crapers.

"How was he today?" Lena asked.

"Ate half his lunch. Barked like hell at the UPS guy."

She came over and began stroking Milo's nose. "No kidding?"

"A good minute or two. I barely signed for the package before the guy hauled ass back to his truck."

"Guess he's all better then." She tore a bead of crusted mucus from under Milo's eye. "Just wish I saw a delivery package."

Jett smirked. He pressed his ear to Milo's ribs. There was an undertone of congestion, a phelmy current blurring each breath. Lena moved her fingers in soft, even lines along the ridge of Milo's nose.

"I'll order something tonight. Express mail. You can stay home tomorrow and watch."

Lena shook her head, her hand steady over Milo's still face. "I'm already staying home tomorrow."

"We're not doing it."

"Jett, don't start."

"He's better than he was over the weekend. We're not there yet."

Lena ran her hand over Milo's head and onto Jett's fingers. "You speak to your mother?"

"Couldn't get a hold of her."

Lena took a bottle of antiseptic cream from the table by the couch. "Couldn't get a hold of her, or you couldn't get her to write us a check?"

"If I can show her that we can come up with half every month, I think she'll come 'round. I know she feels bad about it already. Your brother call back?"

"Nope. And even if he did, you know what he'd say."

"I'm not throwing away good money on some lame bitch." Jett said, mimicking her brother's flutey tone.

"Sounds about right," Lena said.

"After marrying so many of 'em . . . " Jett said.

Lena smiled. "Yeah, you'd think nostalgia alone would be all the reason he needed." She rubbed the cream along the sutures on Milo's hairless belly, the sharp, medicinal scent overpowering Milo's earthy coat.

A silence followed, and Jett wondered what he could say to either further his argument or table it for another day. The vet bills were 120 days past due. Lena had become too ashamed to call Dr. Madden, even if it was an emergency. Instead, she'd dial and hand the phone to Jett, sitting beside him and listening to the doctor's suggestions to deal with whatever strange sound or stuttered motion Milo was exhibiting. Their friends had fallen away over the past months, guilt-ridden that they'd be put in the awkward position of denying a loan.

Milo's steroids would run out by Friday, and Jett was sure that the refill would max out his credit card. He had taken the week off to, as his mother had put it, "realize the difference between the butcher and the beef." His mother had made it clear that if this were her dying grandchild, she'd mortgage her house and sell her soul. "But it's not your goddamn blood. You gave him a nice life, but a dog isn't something you let blow your career and credit. Even a good dog is just a dog."

But Milo was never just a dog. He had entered their lives with a degree of celebrity. Jett and Lena were in bed watching TV when they saw the news report about a high school gym teacher two towns away arrested for running a puppy mill in his basement. Police hauled malnourished puppies from a ramshackle house; their emaciated faces pressed through the metal squares of the tiny transport cages and made Lena cringe. The news anchor gave a phone number for anyone interested in adopting a rescued dog, and Jett said he'd love to give one of them a home. He didn't mean that he planned to do it. He'd said it in the same way he would talk about joining a gym or volunteering at the church soup kitchen. Something he thought should be done, but was better left to other people.

Lena cried. She kissed Jett and told him it was the sweetest thing she'd ever heard. Jett wanted to clarify what he meant, but there was something so palpable in her effusion, so reassuring it gave him pause. It was the first time he knew she was impressed by him, that he didn't feel she considered herself slumming it with a mechanic until something real came along. They had been dating only a few months. At the point, as his mother put it, where you shit or get off the pot. They went to the animal shelter the next day. Most of the rescued dogs had died or been put to sleep. Dr. Madden explained this as she interviewed them to make sure they understood the responsibilities of dog ownership.

"Even well-bred dogs require a great deal of time. Now dogs like this one, that have been deprived of proper nutrition and nurturing, it's going to take that much more attention."

It was that attention that Jett now considered. Where would Lena focus her attention once Milo was gone? He always worried that she'd grow tired of him, bored by his simplicity. She was the first woman he'd referred to as a serious relationship. Even after three years together, part of him couldn't get over the fact that a college-educated, beautiful woman would want to be with man who reeked of motor oil whenever he came home from work.

Milo had relieved so much pressure. Adopting him, raising him, watching him grow, brought with it a shared intimacy. It was an experience they could tell their friends about, but only they themselves fully understood. No one else could truly grasp the shock that shot through them the first time Milo jumped onto bed while they were having sex, howling in synch with their moaning, and then their laughter. Or how clever Milo was that time at the beach when he squatted in the wet sand as if it were a toilet, and let his business wash away with the tide.

"What is it, in the bag?" Jett asked.

"Phenobarbital. Like we talked about."

"What if Dr. Madden finds out?"

"What's she going to do?" Lena said.

"Could call the police. She could fire that nurse, what's her name, Jill?"

"Jaclyn. No one's calling the police. And so what if someone finds out. At the end of the day, is that what you really care about, if Jaclyn has a job?"

Jett sat up. "Hell's that supposed to mean? I don't want anyone getting fired. I don't want to put Milo down just because we can't cover his medicine."

"It's not just about that and you know it!"

Milo lifted his gaunt face off the pillow, the veins in his neck straining like old elevator cables. Lena petted him until he dropped his head and closed his eyes. She lowered her voice. "How long have we been having this conversation? I didn't think he should have had the last surgery, but I paid for it out of pocket. Because I love him." Lena looked ready to cry. It was the first time she distinguished out of whose bank account a bill was paid.

"You don't think it's cruel to put him down because of money?"

"Not as cruel as it is to keep him alive because we'll miss him. This isn't just about money. He's in pain." She ducked her eyes. Not quite looking away, but not looking at Jett or Milo. It was the same look Jett had noticed at Lena's faculty parties when he tried to engage one of the other teachers about politics or books. Like he was out of his depth, and it was easier for her to look past it then own up her embarrassment. Jett feared that look, resented it, but it had always been fleeting, drowned out in the greater happiness of their every day. But over the last month he'd had to steel himself to that expression, ever since Lena had come home to find Milo trapped in the sunken den, circling a watery pile of his own vomit. She had tried to lift him, but couldn't. She had called Jett at work. He came home to find them both crying. He carried Milo up the steps, but Milo just hovered on the landing, panting and hesitant.

That's when Lena first spoke to Jett about compassion. About doing right by Milo and themselves, her eyes dimming into that willfully lost gaze. The next morning she called Dr. Madden for advice, but instead was put through to her nurse, Jaclyn, who'd been there the day they took Milo home and didn't want Milo to suffer any more than he already had.

Jett got up and went into the kitchen. He filled Milo's bowl with two scoops of dry food, then drowned it in chicken broth to soften the hard pellets.

"He's not going to eat it," Lena said.

"Sure he will. Picked up a secret ingredient this afternoon." Jett took two frozen hamburger patties from the freezer and put them in the microwave. Lena lay down in the bed, kissing Milo's floppy ears. She whispered something to him. Jett tried to read her lips, but half her face was buried in Milo's coat. The microwave timer beeped. Jett mashed up the patties and dumped them into the bowl of dry food.

Jett set the food down beside the water bowl. He wasn't sure if Lena was still whispering to Milo or kissing his face. At the table, Jett unsealed the plastic bag. The syringe was thinner than he'd imagined, the barrel nearly covered with black graduation marks. It had a bright orange cap and plunger that reminded Jett of parking cones. The vial was tiny, disappearing in his fist. The liquid inside it was clear. If it didn't have a label, Jett would have thought it was water or gin. He remembered when Dr. Madden plopped Milo atop her desk. A squirming, blue worm that reminded Jett of the Instant Grow Sponge Figures he played with as a child. Lena gushed. At that point they had tuned out Dr. Madden, too entranced by the curious blue face to listen to her warn of the increased health risks of dogs rescued from mills.

Milo was tiny, all paws and snout. His coat was so exaggerated it looked dyed, and in those first months, before it darkened to silver, they could see him in the pitch black of Lena's backyard. They called him Handful until they could agree on a name. Lena had suggested Milo, saying that the way he stretched when he slept reminded her Milo of Croton, a painting she loved in college. Jett liked it, remembering that Milo was the name of Jim Carrey's dog in The Mask. On paper he belonged to Jett, but soon he and Lena began spending more nights together, either in the converted garage apartment Jett rented from his uncle, or at Lena's condo in town.

Looking back over his relationship was like looking back over Milo's life. Housebreaking. Obedience school. Introducing Lena and Milo to Jett's mother. Late night walks when they'd pass the family colonials and muse about having a bigger yard. Meeting Lena's parents. One year anniversary. Joining the doggy park. Picnic in Rhode Island. First birthday. Moving in together. Second anniversary. Hip dysplasia. Surgery. Weekends in the Berkshires. The cape. Milo running away. Fighting for two days, nearly breaking up on the third. Milo coming home, and all the pain falling away. Diarrhea. Medication. Second birthday. Vomiting. Medication. Stomach tumors. Surgery. Engagement. Addison's diagnosis. Surgery.

Three years and Handful had grown to 110 pounds and eaten away their savings. Milo was the face of their heartiest laughter. The source of their greatest prides and fiercest arguments. It had always seemed to Jett as if Lena slept a little closer to him when Milo was in bed. He couldn't remember the last night he had slept alone.

Jett watched them lying together now, Lena overlapping Milo, and felt short of breath.

Lena sat up. "We'll wait until he's sleeping." Her voice was slow and thick, as if she was fighting back tears. She looked so sure, as if she had left the house this morning with no doubt about how the day would end. "I'll do it if you can't."

Jett uncapped the syringe. "No," he said. He stared at the needle; the hole in the tip wasn't visible. Months ago, Lena had told him that euthanasia was derived from the Greek words "eu" and "thanatos." Good and death. He thought she had told him this as if to say, Look how long people have been doing this. So long it's taught at colleges. Smart people understand it. It's a practice so old it's almost natural. Inevitable.

He plugged the cap back on and dropped the needle and vial into the bag.


"Let him eat first." He carried the bowl over to the bed, sliding it under Milo's nose.

"He's not going to eat anything."

"Just give a minute." Jett kneeled, his hands full with Milo's face. "After he eats, after dinner, it'll be time."

Jett rubbed and scratched all the sweet spots under Milo's neck and ears, those tiny pockets of skin that he'd learned through years of trial and error. Lena sat up, her eyes fixed on Milo. She began grazing his stomach, her fingertips following the thin trails between his sutures. Jett watched her hand, its delicate path inching toward Milo's chest, and he rubbed furiously, his fingers growing hot from friction. Milo opened his eyes, and Jett pulled his neck toward the bowl, sure that Milo would at least try it, sure that if he ate one bite, he'd eat it all.

Copyright©2010 Douglas Silver

Douglas Silver's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, The Briar Cliff Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Our Stories, Trans-Lit, and elsewhere. He has been a finalist in competitions by Narrative Magazine and Glimmer Train.