Eliot’s last day was like most he spent at the shelter. It was one of those hot July days when the sweat and heat engulf you. Small metal fans sat in the corners, forcing a stir in the hot air, but offered no balm against the heat. Beads of sweat dripping, blowing off the face of one bewildered employee to another, their sense of smell was acute, but numbed by the repetition of the daily chores. Eliot lived, breathed, and wallowed in his own odors, along with those of his fellow shelter workers and the animals. The mornings were always the worst, or perhaps the best, depending on how one looks at it. The long corridors swept the fresh scent of cat piss and dog shit throughout the halls, concocting an odor that Eliot could only compare to the nightmare of listening to polka music for eternity.
Eliot arrived first and switched on the lights down the long hallway of canines, stacked two crates tall. As the florescent lighting began to pop and hum on, the place erupted over time with a whimper, and then a thunderous barking, whining, and squealing of hysterical animals. Eliot walked down the line feeding each animal before their morning walk. By the time he finished feeding the last, the first was finished eating. The stream of volunteers and court-ordered community service workers would be in soon to assist with the walking and cleanup. Eliot had hoped this early start would help him fight off the heat of the day. Cleaning, like everything else at the shelter, was regimented and institutional and had a standard operating procedure that involved grabbing a handful of rags and sweeping out old newspapers soaked with urine and feces, then hosing out the kennel. Once clean, it was sprayed again with bleach and mopped up. A third time was added if a new dog was coming in. The biggest tragedy for any animal shelter was the spread of Bordetella, which could sweep through and kill forty dogs in the matter of a few days.
Ultimately, Eliot loved walking the dogs in the morning. The trained dogs were great; they immediately did their business and were anxious for attention. The untrained ones, who had already shit all over the cages, were just anxious to be out. These animals eagerly showed their gratitude and were just as great to be around in their own unique ways. The saddest dogs were the neglected, abused, and sickly. So scared of a beating, they held off their excitement. To Eliot, they were a salvation, and he loved all of them equally.
Eliot rarely had time during the day to ponder the darker side to his own life. His lack of direction, his outstanding debts, and his writers block melted away as he witnessed things much darker than his petty problems and insecurities. His shelter dogs became his routine and path to forgetting. To Eliot, there was nothing more heartbreaking than a dog without a friend. He looked deep into those sad eyes every morning and spoke softly and honestly to them. He offered acceptance, peace, and safety to the mistreated and abandoned dogs he walked and cleaned up after. Eliot brought a copy of the Tao Te Ching and read aloud to his canine friends
“Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.”
The days were more about hard labor than about playing with the dogs. There was a reason community service was doled out to high school pot dealers: the kids chose the animal shelter over roadside cleanup thinking they would be petting puppies all day. In reality, they were there to think about their mistakes and clean up dog shit. Eliot was also serving his time five days a week, paying back his personal debts to society in the form back breaking work, while listening to the smell of Polka music day after day, after day, after day.
After all the dogs were tucked away and all the chores of the day were done, Eliot began to look himself over completely. He was covered in dirt, shit, soap, bleach, blood, and urine, with a slight hint of tobacco from the last cigarette of the day he was smoking against the front gate. The sunset was tickling at the mountain tops, and gave an ominous look to the Blue pickup swerving down the gravel road toward the old concrete building. Eliot met the truck at the gate and looked in the eyes of the frantic shirtless redneck, clothed only in overalls.
“Let me in” he screamed, “You’uns gotta help mah dog, Lenny, mah fucking neighbor shot ‘em o’er some got-damn, chickens!” Eliot looked in the truck bed and saw a tan hound flailing around in a puddle of blood. Eliot ignored the frantic man and quickly opened the gate and threw himself in the bed with Lenny. “Drive to the back!” yelled Eliot through the open rear window. Boston, Eliot’s coworker, came running, and quickly took stock of the situation. Lenny had been shot at least twice by the neighbor’s shotgun over some lost chickens. Lenny was on the neighbor’s property, and in the Appalachian Mountains, that is enough to get your ass shot to shit.
Eliot held Lenny by the head against his own stomach. The blood ran down the grooved bed of the bright blue Nissan from what seemed a hundred tiny holes. The once golden fur was unrecognizable, save some small unstained patches. There was nothing to do, or try, and no great medical procedure to perform to save the poor dog. Everyone understood this, without saying, including the dog breathing erratically on Eliot’s stomach. Boston climbed into the bed of the truck with Eliot and sat against the side, taking an undamaged paw in his hand. “Is he ready, Eliot?” Eliot quickly replied, “No, he needs a minute.” Eliot stroked Lenny’s head and ears, softly looking into his eyes and began to speak, “Good boy, it’s OK. Good Boy. Good boy. Relax boy, the pain will stop soon.” Boston also began to talk to Lenny as he prepared to find the vein that would carry the fatal injection. Lenny looked up at Eliot for the last time, ready to take his last breath and leave this world. Eliot began whispering to Lenny, “Go chase some rabbits and chickens Lenny. Chase those chickens forever boy”
As Boston injected the needle, a tiny drop of blood dripped from his arm and seamlessly blended with the blood flowing downhill through the grooves in the truck. The men and the dog were now all stained red now and Lenny looked at Eliot for an instant before his whole body went limp and life left him. The soft eyes of the hound spoke to Eliot and would haunt him more than anything else he witnessed during his time at the shelter. Lenny’s last thoughts burned and sparked like an ember. “But we were just playing”