I’ve had many cats, but I also had a little dog once. A Maltese named Orson. Like almost all dogs, he was happy and loyal. He died after a sudden illness on September 24, 2009.
I started writing a short story in his honor a couple of years later. It took me a few more years to finish because his death somehow got tangled up with lots of other trauma that was happening in my life. It made me look back on some hard things in my past. I picked up some of the pieces and tried to put them up on a shelf in some kind of order. I decided to use what parts I could, recasting them, changing scenes and locations. Write what you know, even if it hurts.
This version is revised from the one that appears in my book. If you’ve ever had a pet you loved and had to let go of, this might echo in you.
I titled the post “Is that you?” because so often when we confront ourselves in our memories, we have to ask, “Is that you?” Sometimes we don’t get the answer we’re expecting.
ORSON’S LAST WALK
Everything was red. Blood red. My head hurt. A dog was barking.
Wait. That’s not right.
I was in my bed. I must have been dreaming about red. I must have been dreaming about my head. The only thing that stayed when I opened my eyes was the barking dog. But my dog was dead.
Wait. This isn’t right.
The barking dog jumped into my bed, hopping up and down, licking my face.
Orson needs his morning walk.
I pulled on some clothes. This felt weird. I couldn’t remember going to bed last night, or what I did yesterday, but it would come to me. I was groggy, that was all.
I trudged into the living room, and while I put on shoes Orson danced in circles. I reached for my cap and suddenly a strange cloud floated into my brain. I looked at my Maltese. My boy. Five years my best little friend. The cloud got heavier and told me my dog had died.
I remembered he got sick, yes, he was sick and then before I knew what was wrong, he died. Visits to the vet got me no answers. He got weaker and weaker. I had gone to bed that final night, putting him next to me, and made the most terrible decision a pet owner has to make. If he’s not getting better, I’m taking him to the vet tomorrow and I will release him from his suffering.
The next morning when I woke up Orson tried to look up at me but couldn’t lift his head. I lifted it for him, holding it in my hands. He looked at me, almost as if he was saying goodbye and telling me he couldn’t hold on anymore, that he was so, so sorry and he hoped I would forgive him for not being stronger. I told him that it was okay, it was all okay, that he could go to sleep now and then I let him go and he was gone.
Wait. This isn’t right.
He’s not dead. He’s barking for his morning walk, not waiting for me to tie my shoes.
I opened the door and he sprang down the steps ready to mark his favorite spots. I followed, trying to keep up but had to stop to lock up. Orson was already at the bottom of the stairs, and I bounded down to catch up with him.
My untied shoes were my undoing. My foot stepped on a shoelace right as I took the first step, and for one brief, dream-like moment I felt gravity swirling around me. I reached fruitlessly for the handrail, saw the sky for a second, and then one of the concrete steps aimed right at my forehead.
There was a very tiny but very nuclear-like explosion as I heard something crack inside my head. That’s not a good place to hear something crack.
Then I was on the ground at the foot of the stairs. Everything was red. Blood red. My head hurt. Orson wasn’t barking. He was doing something else. Something odd.
I didn’t really feel anything. Well, no, I felt something. Something thick and warm pooled under me. I opened my eyes and looked at Orson, who was looking back at me with the strangest look, not at all excited or upset. Calm. Almost like he was getting ready to speak.
It was almost like that, yes, and even more strange, it was almost like I could guess what he was going to say. It was going to be something like, it’s okay, it’s all okay, you can go to sleep now.
I closed my eyes again, only this time, it wasn’t red.
It was black.
It was black.
And then I heard something in the black.
Something that sounded like popping, like an insistent popping, and it seemed to be around my head there in the black.
And then I wasn’t on the ground anymore. It felt like I was being carried. Yes, carried, carried in someone’s arms, and something was covering me. Some kind of coat over my head.
The sound I was hearing was rain. Rain coming down on the coat. Over my head. There in the black.
And then I remembered, and then I remembered. I was six years old, and my dad was carrying me into the house, into the house from the car, in a big rainstorm. He’d thrown his postal uniform jacket over my head to keep me from getting wet. And I wasn’t in the black at all, I was in his jacket, and I was safe, and I was safe.
I was in my dad’s arms, and everything was right in the world. He was carrying me inside where my mom and my brother and my sister would be waiting for me again, all of them alive, and in all the power of youth and life. No harm was going to come to us, ever.
But just as my dad reached the front door, I wasn’t there anymore. I was suddenly standing across the street, and I was watching him carry a small child under his jacket in the rain. It was like some occult hand had snatched me from my father’s arms. I was old again, and I was separated from my dad by the road and by years of time.
I looked down and Orson was with me. He looked up at me as if to say, this is just a replay. This is just what was. It will always be here. It will always be this moment and it will always be here.
I looked across the street and saw that my dad and his son were inside. He closed the door. I was not going to join them.
I wept. I bent down and put my hand on Orson’s head, and I could feel that he was sad that I was sad. He pulled away, trying to lead me down the street, away from home, away from my dad, away from this moment. I didn’t want to follow, but I did.
Just as I turned, the street disappeared, and somehow, I was walking into a hospital room.
No, not a hospital, a hospice. An old man was on the bed, and he was dying.
He was my grandfather.
When he was young, he was big. He had the muscles men had back then, muscles from working hard not from working out. He spent more time out in his boat on the lake fishing than he did at home with my grandmother. He had been so full of life, of loud, boisterous opinions, all of them not to be questioned. His laughter served him well, especially on those days he’d tramp up and down some parking lot with his Bible, waving it high in the air, his voice proclaiming damnation and salvation from a loving god who just wasn’t going to take our crap anymore. When he wasn’t a fisherman, he was a fire and brimstone preacher just a few years behind the times.
But now here he was, less than half of what he used to be, diminished, chewed up, the victim of time and frailty that found fertile ground in his mind. The unforgiving decay took root and grew like weeds, choking off his memories, his control, and at last his humanity.
I had not gone to see him when he was dying. To me, he was already dead, and whatever was him had long since gone. And yet, here I was now, standing beside his bed, making the appointment I missed long ago. Orson barked, so I picked him up and put him on the bed.
The shell of my grandfather opened his eyes then. He smiled at the dog. He reached out a frail hand and gently patted Orson on his head, then brushed him down his back, Orson’s tail waving happily.
Could the old man still be inside there? The last time I’d seen him before my grandmother put him into professional care, there were only tattered memories, all ripped to shreds and lying in random rags on the floor. He could barely make a sentence. But now here he was, smiling and petting my dog!
“Granddad, is that you?” I asked. “Do you know who I am? Do you remember me?”
He looked at me and I thought, at long last, I would finally have the chance to say goodbye, the chance I missed. Somehow Orson had brought me back to this room to heal a dark wound that had been in my soul for too long.
My grandfather smiled at me. His mouth opened as if to speak. My heart stopped as I waited for him to absolve me.
But he didn’t say anything. No absolution was coming. My heart sank as I realized there wasn’t anyone inside him who could offer forgiveness.
His mouth still hung open. He drooled a little. I wiped his chin.
And suddenly he said, “All those fishes.”
“What?” I asked.
“All those fishes,” he said again, a voice dryer than a desert, from some miles-deep cave in his head, where little kids would fall in and be lost in the darkness forever. “All those fishes… jumping out of the water.”
“Jumping out of the water, you remember?”
“Yes, I remember. When I was a little boy, you took me in the boat, taught me how to fish, you took me with you many times.”
He smiled again. He sighed and it smelled like death. “All those fishes, jumping out of the water… And when they went back into the water, you remember what they said? They said, ‘take me with you, take me with you, take me with you.’”
I didn’t remember, but I humored him. “Yes, they did. They said that. I remember.” I reached out and touched his face. It felt like cold dust.
Then Orson walked up the old man’s chest and licked his nose. He smiled. His last one. And then my dog looked at me as if to say, there’s no staying here, there are other places to see.
I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t ready to go, but I knew he was right. Orson had already jumped off the bed and was waddling to the door. Behind me the darkness began to settle in, all the lights fading in the room like the show was over. I followed Orson but turned one last time to say goodbye to my grandfather, but already it was too dark to see him. I could only make out a shape, a cold shape, a cold shape already dissolving, but I heard his voice one last time, and it was repeating a mantra as it too began to fade in the darkness.
And the mantra was this: “Take me with you… take me with you… take me with you…”
Then we were gone. I was covered once again in blackness. I hoped I was back under my dad’s jacket being carried inside from the rain.
But I wasn’t.
I was in the living room of a small apartment. The lights came up. Orson was in my arms this time, looking with me at the scene, like the stage of a play. A cold shame settled in my chest when I recognized the place. It was where I lived years ago when I had gotten married way too young, way too young.
Two actors appeared in the scene. One of them was a young man, his face dark and cold, looking away from the woman who was on her knees before him, crying, sobbing, trying to string out words of supplication and begging and pleading. Her world had come flying apart, like particles set free from the gravity that had suddenly ceased to be.
The young man, all self-righteous, protected in an unfeeling cocoon, had just told her that he didn’t love her anymore, and that he wanted to be with someone else, and he didn’t care, as much as his wife pleaded, he didn’t care for her anymore.
I closed my eyes tightly trying to blot out this play. “No,” I told Orson, “I don’t want to see this. It’s too hard.”
Orson had mercy on me.
I was covered in the blackness again, but I could hear the young woman crying. I heard her run out of the room, exit stage left.
Orson barked and then jumped out of my arms. I thought he was going to follow her, and I said, “You don’t need to see this either,” but when I opened my eyes again the living room set was gone. The channel had changed.
Now I was out in a field. And over me in the night sky were stars like I hadn’t seen for years because the sky was dark and lights from the town were too small to blot them out.
Railroad tracks were at my feet. And then I remembered these were the tracks that ran from my hometown to the next one over, and I was walking on them, and it was just me and Orson. A boy and his dog.
“Oh, I remember this,” I told Orson. “You would have loved it! I walked here many times! I wish I had you when I was a kid – you would have come with me!” Orson was the happiest dog in the universe, because now he was here with me, joining me in this forever moment that was and always would be, this walk I as a teenager had taken countless times.
But Orson and I weren’t alone. “What a cute dog!” I heard a girl say. I looked but could barely see a blurry figure just on the edge of the light, undefined, like a memory that just won’t come to the surface, a fish under the water, a dream dissolving when a dog licks your face awake.
Orson ran over to the blur, and the blur bent down to pick him up, and as it did, the blur took form and became a teenage girl.
My high school sweetheart. The first girl I ever loved. And just like she had done so many times, she came to me and slipped her arm around my waist, and I slipped mine around hers, and we walked together down the tracks. The only thing different this time was that she was holding in her other arm a small Maltese, the best dog who ever lived.
We walked together then like we did in the old days, all first love fever and confusion, not knowing what to do or what to say but somehow doing and saying just fine. And in all the confusion the heavens burst open like a big rainstorm with a realization: For all the fluttering feelings in my young heart, the same fluttered in hers. Somehow, we had found each other. Everything was right in the world. No harm would come to us, ever.
I could smell her perfume and feel the thrilling warmth of her arm around my waist, and the thrilling warmth of her waist against my arm. Yes, and back in those days we would walk these tracks, sometimes talking and making plans, and sometimes quiet and listening to the crickets or the sound of a faraway plane flying overhead. We would look up at the stars and wonder how many years the light had taken to reach us. We would always be here, and we would always be together.
Just a few years later I married her.
Way too young. Way too young.
But back in those hot teenage days, the future was wide open, and dressed in glittery rock star clothes, not in black foreboding robes. Back then the future wasn’t hiding knives behind its back.
She talked to me. It doesn’t matter what she was saying. They were things she talked about back then. We would stop from time to time to kiss, back when it was still new, back when it was a thing we were still perfecting.
Only this time Orson was there too, looking up from her arms. We were a little family. A little family like we never got to have.
Way too young.
Then we were quiet for a while. The lights from the town up ahead grew brighter, and so we turned back around to walk home. I would walk her to her house and then I would go on to mine. Orson would come with me, and I would get to see my dad and my mom and my sister and my brother after all. And I knew this: If I made it inside the front door, I was going to stay, I was going to hold on to life. I would not let go of this.
She stopped and put Orson down. She turned her face to me, her oval face peering up into my eyes, and she said this: “This is just a replay, isn’t it? Like a recording.”
“I think so,” I said. “It’s a moment. It will always be a moment. It will always be here.”
She smiled. “Yes, it’ll always be here.” But then she was sad. “But you have to go away, don’t you?”
Orson looked up at me as if to say, yes, you’re only visiting, and you have to say goodbye.
She pulled away from me then, and I could feel my heart slow and then cease beating. “Are you –” she started to say and then stopped.
“Am I what?” I asked.
“Is that really you? Are you –” and then she said my name, and it sounded so strange, like I hadn’t heard it in centuries. Like it was the name of a young man who’d been missing for so long people forgot him.
I opened my mouth and started to say yes, but then I knew the truth. “No, I don’t think I am. Not anymore.”
She looked away then, and her youthful features began to blur. She was quiet.
I said, “I’m not him, but I remember him, and everything he thought, and everything he felt, and everything he loved. I’m an echo, with nothing left out but life.”
“I love him,” the girl said wistfully. “We’re going to get married and we’re going to be together forever. He’ll never hurt me, and I’ll never hurt him.”
I cupped her face in my hands. I could still see her, but her features continued to blur. “No, you’ll never hurt him,” I said. “I’m just a memory of him but I can tell you this: He always regretted what he did. He always wanted to tell you how sorry he was. Please believe me.”
She seemed confused then, confused by a future that was still lying in wait behind the corner in the living room of a small apartment, way too young, way too young.
And then she dissolved. And the tracks dissolved. And the stars dissolved.
And I dissolved. And then I saw nothing but red again.
But I was safe. I was safe.
I was safe, lying there at the bottom of the stairs, the blood running from my skull, my eyes closed against the bright morning sun. Orson was by my side, having passed over before me. He was waiting, he was waiting, he was waiting for me to finish and come join him. He had come back to lead me there because he knew the way to go. He licked my face and seemed to say everything is okay, everything is okay, like it always is in the end. I swam then into the murky red, and felt a gentle lift, with no violence at all, and there was air, and soaring clouds, and jetliners filled with singing angels, and no harm would come to us, ever, and in a field, I threw tennis balls to him, and he brought them back to me, forever.
Rob Archer, Los Angeles