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D.W. Davis is a native of rural Illinois. His work has appeared in various online and print journals. You can find him at, or @dan_davis86 on X/Twitter.


"T“Things have progressed for the worse,” the doctor says. “You can see here and here that it has spread outward.” They follow the indicting red dot of his laser pointer. “I’m afraid the outlook isn’t good, but we will do our absolute best to arrest further growth.”

He shuffles some papers. Reads off a few more statistics. Then he clears his throat and names a price.

“That’s an estimate,” he clarifies. The implication is it’s a conservative estimate.

Ron blinks.

“It’s a dog,” he says.

Mel looks at him.

The doctor ignores him, which is perhaps for the best. He aims his laser pointer at a generalized portrait of a dog that in no way resembles their dog except you can look at it and say, Yes, that is a dog.

“We’ll go in through here”—the laser pointer dips a little—“and start to remove it in pieces here. We’ll have to do it in pieces, of course. That is perfectly normal.”

It is not perfectly normal, Ron thinks, still stuck on the number. Mel asks her questions; she always has questions. Ron sometimes loves that about her, as she often thinks of scenarios and possibilities he cannot. Sometimes he hates it, as she often thinks of scenarios and possibilities he does not want to. Today he is indifferent. It’s a very large conservative estimate for a dog that probably only has a couple of years left even with a successful procedure. He is not being cruel, he is being financially practical. He’s up for tenure review, and he’s fairly convinced he won’t make it because, one, the department chair is a Grade A Defcon 4 prick, and two, none of the rest of the faculty seem to care much if he’s there or not. That’s his fault, perhaps, but it doesn’t affect his teaching, which he feels should be the primary concern at hand.

Every so often, as Mel’s question comes to an end and before the doctor can respond, Sandy huffs from the floor, as if emphasizing the importance of the question. Ron doesn’t have to look to know that Mel is reaching down and absently rubbing Sandy’s head. Sandy has always enjoyed head rubs, and they have always enjoyed giving them. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Ron loves Sandy. She is as much a part of their family as their daughter, currently being babysat by Ron’s mother-in-law and her latest boyfriend. Ron likes the boyfriend more than he likes the in-law. The man makes a mean cocktail and hates drinking alone. Plus he used to drag race semi-pro, traveled the circuit in the Midwest, got into a few nasty crashes. He once showed Ron a massive scar on his left bicep. The car burst into flames on that one. He said it with pride. They toasted to the flaming wreckage of yesteryear.

But Ron also knows that there comes a time. For everything. There comes a time. And Sandy’s time is now. It saddens him; he hasn’t cried in front of his wife, but he has cried. He will cry some more, he feels. He just doesn’t see the point in spending that much money to delay the inevitable. The doctor isn’t very convincing. Ron can’t even remember the man’s name. And is a veterinarian even a real doctor? They have degrees, but do they count the same as medical degrees? Part of him wants to ask, but he refrains. Not for the sake of propriety, but for the sake of avoiding Mel’s anger later, once they’re alone.

“We will do our absolute best,” the doctor says again. There is a conclusory note in his voice. Ron watches the man’s face for a moment. The doctor seems taken aback by Mel’s questions. Good.

They pay for the consultation to tell them approximately how much they will have to pay later, then head to pick up Sarah. Mel keeps reaching around the passenger seat to pet Sandy, a brown and gold mix of who knows what, who’s sitting patiently in the footwell behind the seat.

Mel says, “You weren’t nice in there.”

Ron says, “It’s a lot of money.”

“She’s worth it.”

“I know. But money is tight.”

“You’d do it for Sarah.”

“Sarah’s got another ninety years in her,” Ron says, then adds without prompting, “You know what I mean.”

Mel faces forward. Sandy whimpers once, but doesn’t make any further demands.

“I was joking.”

“You don’t have to joke all the time.”

“I don’t. I’m usually not very funny.”

“I’m aware.”

They pick up Sarah. Ron’s mother-in-law is polite, but in the sort of way that suggests she’s thinking nasty thoughts and wants you to know but doesn’t want to break the sense of decorum instilled in her by her own parents, who were probably part of the Klan or something. Her boyfriend offers them drinks. Mel declines for the both of them. On the way home, Sarah asks if Sandy is going to be okay.

“Of course,” Mel says. The choke in her voice does something to Ron’s mind. The road blurs a little until he blinks it clear again.

“You betcha,” he adds, and Mel places a hand on his thigh. Out of gratitude or comfort, it doesn’t matter.

It’s a beautiful July day, and by that Ron thinks, it is sweltering and humid and the air-conditioning is costing them more and more every second. Yet he loves this weather. He stands on the ladder, spade in hand, bucket semi-strategically placed on the ground below. Behind him, Mel and Sarah splash and play in the kiddie pool. Or rather Sarah splashes inside, and Mel gets splashed outside. Ron stops and takes a moment to think of how amazing his wife looks in her two-piece. If Sarah grows up to resemble her mother more than him, Ron just might have to buy a gun.

Sandy lies off to the side, watching. Once, she would have participated. She was already two years old when they adopted her, but she’s remained rambunctious for most of their lives together. Now she is content to let others have the fun. There is a matriarchal aspect to the dog that Ron finds admirable. If he were a dog, he would not be able to restrain himself. He would carry his creaky joints, his disease-ridden body, over there and try to act half his age, like a middle-aged man in a college bar. He would embarrass himself and not realize it until much later. He would make a terrible dog.

From his vantage point, Ron can see into the yards of his neighbors. The Smiths on the right, Jack and Joan, a couple far more exciting than their unfortunate names suggest. Their yard is currently empty. She is an office assistant somewhere and he manages a restaurant; they don’t get the summer off. On the left, the Gay Couple, as they are referred to, Tony and Theodore. Ron does not like that they are referred to as the Gay Couple and likes it even less that he thinks of them as the Gay Couple, but they have embraced it. Their yard is immaculate. Their house is perfect. Walking through it, one would think a photographer was coming any second. Ron wonders, if he were gay, would he do that? Would he perpetuate the stereotypes, embrace them, make them his own? Or would he let the weeds in his lawn grow, put a car up on blocks, punch a few holes in the drywall, leave empty pizza boxes on the floor, let pet hair accumulate until a gentle breeze through an open window created an indoor black blizzard? Which is more rebellious, in a practical, pragmatic sense? He can’t tell.   

Ron doesn’t know the neighbors behind them. They moved in four weeks ago and he has made no attempts to greet them. The wooden fence, which reaches the crown of Ron’s head, has something to do with that. His lack of caring, also. They fight sometimes. One of them, the man, is home now. Ron can see him through the glass patio doors, on a couch, staring at something that is probably a television. They have a kid who shrieks for fun. Ron thinks it’s a boy.

Ron is not handy, but he likes to get up on his ladder and pretend he knows what he’s doing. He likes to observe his neighbors in their natural habitats. Often, they don’t know they’re being observed. Ron finds it more interesting when they do know, but don’t change. People, he has found, feel more comfortable on their own property, even when there is still public observation. Ron doesn’t know what he gains from his voyeurism. Probably nothing. Maybe he is comparing his life to others’, wondering if he’s doing something wrong, or maybe they are. How does one determine the trajectory of one’s own life? Ron often lies awake at night thinking of this. He knows he’ll never have the answer. Hence, his observations.

Today, he’s cleaning the gutters. He can clean gutters. They have two large maple trees in their backyard, and a third tree in their front. He doesn’t know what it is; he knows it isn’t maple or oak. The trees shed, like giant pets that no one asked for. One of the trees in the back has a swing hanging from it. Ron hung it himself, and coasted on that accomplishment for far longer than he should have. Even Mel had been impressed, which soured his joy some. After all, it was just a swing. His delight had come from knowing he’d done something that most people could do that he hadn’t thought he could. He didn’t like having his inadequacy acknowledged, even in the form of praise.

He digs the spade into the gutter, pulling out clumps of leaves, twigs, unintelligible bits of debris, a few squirming beetles of various sizes, some so small he can barely see them. The wind kicks up, blowing some of it back in his face. He wonders if you can catch something that way. Probably. The world is a dirty place. Filthy, really. He’s always known that; parenthood had confirmed it. For a time, his life had been shit and snot and little else. Things haven’t improved all that much since. The source of the dirt changed, that’s all.

Ron dumps the debris down into the bucket. Around the bucket. Another scoop, and another. The yard below gets dirtier, but that is a problem for another day. He takes a break from the taxing labor to watch his wife and daughter smiling and laughing at each other, wet and happy. The dog, a few feet away, passively attentive. As if sensing him, Sandy cocks her head towards him. Ron is happy for some reason, so he waves with his spade hand, in the process sifting some of the gutter filth onto his shirt. The dog looks away.

Ron dips the spade back into the gutter. Dirty work is sometimes the best work. As refreshing as a warm shower, in fact. Sweat and dirt mingling on the skin. The sense of accomplishment at having actually done something, with physical results of your efforts. No abstractions here. These gutters will be nearly spotless by the time he is done. No one except him will know, and Mel after he tells her. But that doesn’t matter. It’s an achievement. Ron tries to think of a metaphor involving grains of sand, then realizes it is too self-evident.

The spade comes up from the gutter and Ron is about to dump it before he realizes there is something new here. He stops. There, in the center of the spade, is a cylindrical black shape, mostly solid, though he can tell if he were to touch it, it might crumble. He does not want to touch it. There is something inherently disgusting about it, like a cocoon or excrement. Except this looks dead. Dead and wet, yet dry at the same time. Ron’s mind reels. Part of him has to know what this is. Part of him doesn’t want to know this, this thing, this disgusting thing he found atop his own house, where his family sleeps, where he’s responsible for protecting them and keeping them safe from things exactly like this.

He recalls something he read long ago, maybe as a kid. It’s an owl pellet. The phrase comes to him first. Then he remembers: it is the undigested part of an owl’s meal. Owl vomit. An owl hairball. A featherball. It is the parts of mice and insects and birds and whatever the owl has eaten that could not pass through its digestive system. It is still disgusting—possibly, Ron acknowledges, even more disgusting—but knowing what it is brings some comfort. Not much. But some.

He stares at it a moment longer, then drops it down, hoping at least this one hits the bucket. He can’t see from his height. He goes to put the spade back into the gutter, tentatively, then stops. He glances up at the trees around him. These trees he’s never really thought of, except that time he hung the swing. He squints, trying to see through the limbs and leaves. Is something up there? Something wondrously beautiful? Something wondrously beautiful that can create something so hideously disgusting?

“Who,” he says, softly.

Then, a little louder: “Who?”

From the corner of his eye, he sees Mel watching him, her head cocked almost like the dog’s. Ron stares back at her a moment, then lifts his spade hand and gives a soft wave, spreading more filth on his clothes.

Mel waves back, then laughs. Mel points, and Sarah waves and says, “Daddy!” and Ron waves back even more enthusiastically. Who indeed.

The surgery did not work. That is the long and short and thick and thin and everything of it. Ron had not thought it would and he was right and he did not say he was right, and still Mel said, “Don’t you say it,” and Ron continued to not say it. He did not mention the price, which yes was a few numbers off the estimate, and he did not mention the pain Sandy must have been in before and after, and he did not mention how apologetic the doctor did not look, and he did not mention the hard talk they would have to have with their daughter, and he did not mention the hollow emptiness he felt in the pit of his stomach that threatened to spill out of his throat in a primal yell at how the world just did not make sense sometimes. He mentioned none of these things. They did not need mentioning.

Ron is in their car, Sandy laid across the backseat. She has whimpered twice. Once, Ron pulled over to comfort her. He owes her that. He owes her more than that. He is driving her to an appointment that he had made. I can’t, Mel told him, you have to do it. Then when the day came, she repeated, I can’t, you have to do it. She delayed their departure. She cried. They sent Sarah into the backyard to play. It was just the three of them, the original amigos, and for the first time in a long time, Ron cried in front of his wife. Not open weeping; he would have, if capable, but for some reason he couldn’t. Perhaps it was the sense of inevitability. Perhaps it just wasn’t the time for it. A time for everything.

So Ron drives across town. He drives absently. He is taking the long way. He is delaying something he previously rebelled against delaying. Does this make him a hypocrite? Does this make him less than he had thought himself? Or perhaps more? Is this how other people react to situations like this? Do other people have situations like this? His observations of his neighbors are, naturally, limited. One does not go out to the backyard to discuss the death of a family member. That is an interior discussion. Ron doesn’t know much about interior discussions, except they aren’t easy.

He passes the building that used to be a video rental store. He remembers taking Sarah there to rent cartoons. It is now abandoned; no one else has moved in. Near the end, they tried to increase revenue by selling merchandise that wasn’t for marijuana usage but was probably for marijuana usage. A desperate grasp to remain relevant, to avoid extinction. No longer a video rental store, more a please help us we’ll sell you anything store. That was somehow sadder than the boarded windows Ron sees now. At least the boards have been decorated by teenage graffiti. Jeremy Luvs SuzRichie can sux it. FUK THE POLEECE. The errors seem intentional, which gives Ron some measure of hope for today’s youth. There is also, inexplicably, a glazed donut. The glaze is pink. There are sprinkles. It is quite beautiful.

The town is dying. That is hard to remember in the neighborhood where he lives, the neighborhood where he is fortunate to live. The town is slowly receding into obscurity. He glances in the rearview mirror, at the dog splayed across the backseat, shaking, confused but not wanting to make much of a fuss. Ron mourns the passing of both, and in this moment cannot tell which he will miss more. He doesn’t think it matters, though perhaps it should. Two once-beautiful things, soon to be gone from this world. Beauty is fleeting. Someone said that once, probably someone famous. Ron thinks that person should be and probably is rotting in hell.

Sandy had peed everywhere at first. The shelter told them she was housetrained, but she wasn’t, and they’d spent weeks trying to clean up, then trying to mask, the smell of dog urine all over the rental they’d had at the time. It had brought them closer together, oddly, the three of them. Bonded by piss. Eventually, they’d settled into that routine that families do, especially when one of them has four legs and a child has yet to make an appearance. They’d grown together. Sandy even attended the wedding, sitting patiently off to the side, as though she knew exactly what was expected of her. And who’s to say she hadn’t? Throughout their time together, they’d all had a mutual understanding. Even the arrival of a screaming infant, an infant that kept the entire household, even the roaches and mice, up at all hours of the day and night, hadn’t changed that. It is, Ron thinks, one of the most solid relationships of his entire life. One of the few he understands, without understanding how he understands.

“I know,” he says aloud, perhaps to the dog, maybe to himself. “I know.”

He makes a turn. More businesses that have changed. These have been successfully replaced, though successful depends upon your definition. Perhaps he is just getting old. Perhaps this is all a midlife crisis come a little early. Maybe it’s the way of the world. Sandy whines again in the backseat.

Ahead, Ron sees a homeless man leaning against a former salon, now shuttered. The man appears resigned to his fate. Accepting of it. Ron wonders if he should be. Ron thinks maybe this man should raise a fist to the sky and declare that he will not be homeless. But then, Ron has never been homeless. He doesn’t know how that works. Probably not that way.

He drives past, the man holds up a cardboard sign. Conscripted, Not Enlisted, it reads in sloppy black font, crudely drawn with a Sharpie marker by someone with an unsure hand. The man looks at the passing car without really seeing it. Ron looks at the man and doesn’t really see him. But he sees the sign. He sees the sign, and he thinks of the dog in the backseat, and he thinks of this particular hand he has been dealt in this particular moment, and he thinks, Me, too.

For a moment, as the sign and the man recede into the rearview, Ron feels a pang of guilt. No, it’s not the same, and he tries to pull the thought back before it can escape into the consciousness of an overwhelming universe. Then he thinks, isn’t it, and he lets the thought go free as he makes another turn, and the only thing in the rearview mirror he cares about is a tether to a past he wishes he could relive. He doesn’t want to be here, but he is here. That, perhaps, is doing something right. The correct, if uncomfortable, trajectory of his life. It is something to grasp onto, and he does.


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