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Hatful of Pain
Hatful of Pain   Chapter 10


Heaven was a snow bank and an ice-encrusted maple tree. Looking out the windshield I gazed up at a shimmering guitar, dangling like ripe fruit from a low branch.

An angelic creature tugged at my arm.

Corky. I shook my head to clear it, but I might as well have been trying to finish a jigsaw puzzle by shaking the box. Gripping my arm, Corky pulled herself upright, taking me back down to earth at the same time. Although still dizzy, I now understood that the guitar-bearing-tree was only some sort of prank, or perhaps an advertisement that (like most others) I did not understand.

"You okay?" I asked, as a headache began to crack down the center of my forehead.

"Next time, I drive," my sister said. "Not that I don't just love the inside of your glove compartment."

I twisted around. Ann was rubbing her eyes.

"What happened?"

"Someone tried to kill us," Dudley said. "If Clark hadn't kept us on the road till we passed that ravine--"

"You all right?" I asked Ann.

"What about you?" She touched my forehead. "It's bleeding."

"Who the hell was that?" Bill was looking out the windows. "Is he still around?"

Corky climbed out into the blackness. I followed. Steam hissed from under the van, and a car sloshed by up on the road; no flashlight searched for us, no Celica lurked. Snow was blowing in on the rising wind, closing our footprints like dents in dough.

A smothered whimper cleared my dizziness instantly.

"Hoover!"

I stumbled to the rear of the van. The doors hung open. Papers, boxes, and a spare tire littered the snow. I groped from one dark shape to another until I spotted him, facedown and motionless under a broken amplifier. I tossed it aside with a strength I'd never before had, unprepared to deal with the loss of another friend.

His blood stained the snow. I thought I saw his rib cage move, but it could've just been the wind. I put my hand on his neck and could feel, weak and irregular, a heartbeat.

His body convulsed.

"Please Hoover, hold on."

I fumbled in my pockets for the keys, then realized they would still be in the ignition. I forced myself to breathe, got seated and cranked the engine.

Everyone strained, rocking the van, trying to loosen it from the trench it had carved in the snow.

Bill shouted, "Hoover lifted his head."

My shaking slowed. I cranked again. The engine turned over but didn't start.

Corky stuck her head through an open window. "You and I can hitchhike to the last town we passed. The others can dig the van out. If they free the van before we get a ride, they can pick us up." She was taking charge. It felt right.

When I approached Hoover, he tried to wag his tail.

I took off my jacket, wrapped it around him, positioned my hand under his furry body and lifted him into the crook of my arm. Although he didn't resist me, he made a pained sound.

"Easy." Cradling him tightly, I said, "Corky and I are hitchhiking to a vet."

Dudley looked at the buried van.

"Look for us in half-an-hour."

Ann touched Corky's shoulder. "I know where Dr. Dean lives. I'll go."

"Good," Corky said. "I'll help here. Watch for that car to return."

I'd seen a white Toyota driving around near Terrig Corporation the night Kristin died. Maybe he hadn't been lost. Maybe Kristin's death wasn't an accident.

Dudley came up behind me and wrapped his nylon jacket over my shoulders.

"Thanks."

Ann and I worked our way up the embankment. A ribbon of blood matted the fur by Hoover's nose. I tried not to jostle him. He turned a panting mouth and a confused expression up to me as if expecting me to stop the pain. I wished I could explain to him that not even a big dog like me could do that.

We reached the shoulder of the highway and started walking. My wet clothes began to stiffen. Minutes passed. I hugged Hoover, who was getting colder and heavier.

The sound of an engine cut through the swooshing wind. Ann turned and stuck out her thumb. I stroked Hoover's side but couldn't feel any warmth or movement. Is he alive? It was a prayer.

A Cadillac Narcissus whuffed by without even slowing down. It nearly hit us. Its driver scowled like we'd been stationed on the side of the highway just to annoy him. Angered, I shouted in his wake, "May your hemorrhoids win prizes at county fairs!"

The next car was moving slower, more deliberately. Ann put her thumb out again and the car slid to a stop just past us. Rusty and dented, it reminded me of the Dumpster behind Chez Beagle. Clutching Hoover's dead weight to my chest, I ran after Ann, who opened the rear door, jumped in, and held the door open for me.

I handed Hoover to her, got in, then took him back. He stirred. He's alive. A warm glow flowed through me.

The driver twisted and leaned over the seat. She was wearing what looked like a nightgown, but was apparently an evening gown. Sheer, black, with layers of ruffles down the front.

"Hi. I'm Joy."

Ann introduced us, and I thanked Joy as much as I could, short of saying I loved her, which might have been misconstrued.

"You the accident back there?"

"'Fraid so."

She touched Hoover's shoulder.

"Is he okay?"

"We need to get him to a vet."

"Hang on." Joy eased back onto the icy highway, punched the accelerator and we took off. The headlights made an empty tunnel into the darkness ahead of us. By the light of the occasional street lamp I saw blood trickling from Hoover's muzzle. I held him tightly.

The dashboard clock said 8:45 when we hit downtown Plymouth, which was brightly lit but mostly empty, like a movie set. Ann told Joy the address. We were passing through a residential area when Joy suddenly turned into a driveway. "Here we are." She pointed to a modest wooden sign, ROBERT B. DEAN AND SON, VETERINARIANS. "Take care."

"We will," Ann said. "Bye-bye. And thanks."

As I slid out with Hoover, I smeared blood on the upholstery.

"Sorry."

"Get in there," she said, looking like one of those big-eyed, dark-haired children with the sad expressions you see painted on velvet. She gave me a little wave as she drove off. I waved back. Somehow it seemed sad that she would never know how anything turned out.

Ann rang the front doorbell. The porch light came on, the door opened, and Dr. Dean stood before us in a faded tan bathrobe. Without saying a word he gently took Hoover and marched down a hallway. Ann and I followed him through a door at the end of the hall.

He lay Hoover on an examining table. Ann held her hand out to me, and when I let my hand slip into hers, she pulled me gently away. Dr. Dean listened to Hoover's heart and lungs with a stethoscope, palpated his abdomen, and examined his wounds. Hoover lay stiffly on his side, as if paralyzed. The only signs he clung to life were his ragged breathing and faint whimpers.

Dr. Dean went to a cabinet and took out a needle. I knew what that meant. I must have gasped because he glanced up. "It's only a painkiller. For now. The next several hours will be critical."

Hoover remained stiff, tongue lolling, muscles tense. With agonizing slowness, Dr. Dean inserted the needle. Hoover didn't move, but as the plunger went down his muscles began to relax.

I wouldn't let another loved one die without saying good-bye. I put my lips close to his ear.

"Good-bye, Hoover."

He lifted his head suspiciously. Was I finally going to betray him? his expression asked.

"You're a good dog." I had trouble keeping my voice steady. "I love you very, very much."

Hoover whined softly. He knew that. He knew some things very clearly. He knew Love. He knew Friend. But he didn't understand Good-bye. No pack animal does, not even for a minute.

"See you when you wake up."

Dr. Dean set down the needle and directed us into his kitchen. Ann sat on the edge of a chair, and I performed a caged-lion imitation.

"When I was fifteen," she said, "my collie, Topper, got out of the back yard."

I stopped pacing.

"I combed the streets for days," she said. "Then a clerk at an animal shelter told me they'd gotten a collie but kept him only six hours. She described the collie and I was sure he was my Topper. But she wouldn't break regulations and tell me who took him--until I started crying. He'd been turned over to a laboratory for animal experimentation--only ten blocks away."

Her eyes flickered as she seemed to look inward. "I ran all ten blocks to the lab. While I was screaming bloody murder at the receptionist, Topper began barking from behind a locked door. I pried the door open, but two security guards dragged me out.

"I cried for weeks, certain it had been a terrible mistake. Years later I found out that pound-seizure laws force animal shelters to turn over lost cats and dogs to experimentation--more than 200,000 a year. So I joined the A.L.F. and went to law school to learn how to fight the bastards who make laws like that."

Her hair sagged on her head, her head sagged on her shoulders. "Time has gone by so fast." She sat in a sort of limp, crumpled way, as if she'd been hurled onto her chair from a passing train. "So little has changed."

Time had gotten away from both of us. I thought about what Dad had missed by dying in 1980. What would he have thought of personal computers, Rubik's Cube, Baby Fae, MTV, and Lake Wobegon?

Pacing in front of the kitchen window, I stared out at the darkness. All those changes and nothing prepares you for how much it hurts when someone you love dies.

Hatful of Pain 11

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