I had to take Oscar (our illustrious Shih Tzu) to a vaccination clinic yesterday. As I began observing the many…interesting people I found there. The descriptions were writing themselves in my head, so I came home and scribbled them down. What began as a writing exercise in describing people emerged as almost a story. I slapped an ending on it just to give it a stopping point, and because I was feeling a bit ironic.
This is an unedited first pass. I enjoyed writing it, but your mileage may vary.
* * *
When they arrived, there were already dozens of people. Some were milling about outside in the cold, each tethered to a dog, sometimes two, all of them waiting for their chance to step into the back of a mysterious white van parked at the curb. The van itself was a Dodge Sprinter, awkwardly tall and cavernous, and through the tinted windows he could darkly see figures moving within.
Chewie had finally stopped shaking. He had been trembling the entire trip there, vibrating at a frequency Rob was pretty sure was biologically impossible. He was excited, pulling at his leash, making his way toward the store. Rob made his way to the back of the misshapen huddle of people, wondering if the light hoodie he’d worn was going to keep him warm enough. The weather had been erratic lately, and despite spring-like temperatures earlier in the week, today it was cold. Rumor had it there might even be snow.
A middle-aged woman with an eighties perm and denim jacket smiled at him. Her eyes were like slits in her face, squinty, but with no visible eyelids until she blinked.
“You filled out your paperwork yet?” She asked.
“Me? No.” He said. “I wasn’t really sure how that worked.”
With a motion of her head, she gestured toward the store, winding the leash she was holding around her hand an extra time.
“Inside.” She said. “There are two lines in there. The first one you see, the long one? That’s for people paying. The second line is farther in, by the pets and reptiles. That one is where you fill out your paperwork before you come out here.”
“Thanks,” he said, and turned to walk toward the door.
“I just didn’t want you to find out after you’d already waited on this line.” She said helpfully.
“I appreciate it.” He said.
He made his way inside. She hadn’t been kidding about the line. It was at least 20 people deep, each of them strapped up to an animal of various shapes and sizes, mostly dogs, but a few cats, too. The animals looked out of place inside the store, but he supposed that pet stores like this didn’t exactly have conventional rules about such things. After all, they were probably of the mind that “pets are people too.”
He made his way past the line of people shifting from foot to foot on the hard, department store tile, waiting their turn to shell out big bucks for their pets’ annual vaccinations. It was cheaper doing it this way than it was to just go to the vet, which was why so many people were here giving up their Saturday mornings to stand there and have a turn. He passed a gigantic Saint Bernard that appeared absolutely iconic, and he checked himself as he began instinctually to look for a little whiskey barrel around its massive neck. Chewie was roughly the size of the big dog’s head.
The girl signing people up for paperwork looked the part somehow. Late teens, maybe early twenties, she wore a gray and black striped long-sleeve tee under a teal polo shirt. She had a caution yellow stocking cap on her head, and it held back stringy blonde hair that framed an unremarkable face devoid of even a hint of makeup. Her khakis were dirty, and they were tucked into a pair of fur-lined gum boots. He thought she looked like an eco-terrorist.
A woman in a dark green apron sporting a pin that said “Nature’s Best,” which he assumed must have been a brand of pet food, approached Chewie and began petting him.
“He’s so cute!” She said.
“Thanks.” He said. Please don’t ask me what breed he is. I know nothing about dogs.
“What kind of dog is he?” She asked.
“He’s a Shih Tzu.” He said.
“Reaaaaalllly?” She asked, drawing it out into one big, long, sing-songy syllable. “That’s so unusual because he’s so…”
“Brown?” He asked. “Yeah, I don’t know, I heard that the other puppies in his litter were all…”
“White and black?” She finished.
“Yep.” He said.
“And he doesn’t have the streaky eyes,” she said, drawing lines on her face from the corners of her own eyes to her cheeks, “and the stains.”
“I know!” He said. He hoped it sounded conversational.
“Can you fill out your paperwork please?” The girl in the yellow hat said, cutting in, thrusting a clipboard in front of him. “I need your name here, your county in the blank space at the top right, and your dog’s information over here,” pointing, “on the left. Please don’t fill out any of the stuff down here.” She made a circling motion with her hand over the bottom of the page. The woman with the green apron was still trailing off, but he grabbed a pen and used it as an excuse for not listening. He filled in all the blanks, taking secret, childish satisfaction every time his letters crossed over the boundary lines between the boxes set out for each character. What’s the point of those anyway? Do they run these through a Scantron or something? He handed it back to her.
“I think I got everything.” He said.
“Um, I need all your information.” She said. “You need to fill out your address and stuff.”
“Oh, sorry.” He said, feeling his smugness slip away beneath rising embarrassment. It was so much harder to quietly judge people when you made obvious mistakes. He quickly filled in his address, phone number, and email. He handed the clipboard back.
“So what do you need done?” She asked, looking at him expectantly.
“I dunno, the works, I think.” He said. “My wife usually does this. He had his rabies shot last year, but I think maybe he needs another one. My wife said there’s like a ‘SuperDog Pack’ or something…?”
“Do you have your paperwork from last time?”
“Yeah,” He said, fumbling with the blue folder under his arm. Chewie lurched to smell the behind of a passing dog, and the folder came loose, spilling papers onto the floor. He switched the folder and leash to his other hand, then bent down to collect them. He came up with a pink sheet of carbon paper, and handed it to the girl.
“Hmmm,” she said, looking it over, “Yeah…it looks like he’s due. OK.”
“Yeah, so, the works.” He repeated.
“How much does he weigh?” She asked.
Do people honestly know how much their dogs weigh? I don’t even know how much my kids weigh.
“Um, no idea.” He said. She stooped down to take him.
“Is he friendly?” She asked. He hesitated. That really all depended on some instinctual, mystical process that only a dog like Chewie could understand. How the hell was he supposed to answer that?
“Usually.” He settled on that, because it seemed the most likely response. Chewie turned away from her hand, and, slinking low to the floor, tried something that looked comically like a commando crawl in the opposite direction.
“You want a treat?” She asked, holding a pellet of something unappetizing in front of him.
Rob picked up the small dog and handed him to the girl. “He’ll be fine.” He assured her. She took him and stood with the dog in her arms on a beat up bathroom scale she had apparently brought along for just this purpose.
“Ten pounds on the dot.” She said, and handed him back. That was a relief. Rob had overheard her telling someone else that any dog under 10 pounds couldn’t get the whole series of shots in one day. Too much medicine for their wittle selves. He couldn’t imagine the joy of having to come back to do this a second time.
“Kay, so, we can do the shots and booster, are you also getting him tested for heartworm?” He was prepared for this question. Lisa had briefed him.
“Yes. Definitely want him checked for that. Is there some kind of preventative, too?”
Wrong question. She whipped out a chart, and started rattling off information about the various medicines, in pill form, one could give to a dog to ward off heartworm, hookworm, roundworm, whipworm, fleas, and so on.
“Does it work on Jehovah’s Witnesses?” It came out of his mouth before he had time to think about it. She just stared at him blankly for a few seconds, then went back to her sales pitch. He, too, pretended it had never happened.
“So what does this cost?” He asked.
“Well, we recommend the Trifexis.” She said. “It’s expensive, but it covers so many things, it really saves you money.” Her finger was hovering over text in what must have been size eight font on a paper the same color as her hat. He peered at it and thought that it looked way too much like $191.00 for his liking. “If you had to buy all these treatments separately,” she was saying, “You’d have to spend…I don’t know, how much would you have to spend, Rachel?”
Another young woman had come limping up behind her. She had coke bottle glasses, bad complexion, dark orange hair pulled back in a ponytail, and a crutch. When she spoke, he noticed that one of her front teeth was missing a big u-shaped chunk out of the bottom.
“You basically save eighty dollars.” She said, grinning. He could tell they both thought it was a fantastic deal to spend hundreds of dollars on medicine that was supposed to protect your annoying dog from all manner of invisible pests.
“Tell you what,” he said. “I can get that later right?”
“As long as you have the test, sure.” Yellow hat girl said.
“Then that’s what I’ll do.” He said. She put away her charts, and handed him a pamphlet. He took it and stuffed it into his blue folder.
“Did you want do anything about Lyme disease?” She asked.
“Like cure it?” He asked. Blank stare. His brand of humor clearly wasn’t playing well.
“What can I do about that?” He asked.
“Well, we can test for it when we test for heartworm.” She said. “And then you can get a vaccine for it too.”
“Let’s test for it.” He said. “What about the vaccine.”
“Oh, he can’t get that today. Not the same day as all the other shots.”
“OK.” He waited. “Thanks.” He said.
“OK, you’re all set to go.” She said. She handed him his paperwork.
He turned to make his way back to the front of the store.
“Hey, did you see this?” It was the Nature’s Best lady. She was petting a small ball of wispy fluff in the arms of a young, dark-skinned girl. “Her momma was a Shih Tzu.” She said, shaking her head and grinning. “Her daddy was a Pomeranian. But do you see what I mean?” She asked.
“Yeah.” He lied. “Interesting, huh?”
He moved again. This time he was intercepted by a very round man with a jovial face, big smile, and wireframe glasses. He had a flat top haircut that reminded Rob of one he had gotten back in the sixth grade. The guy wore a pastel-yellow shirt of the short-sleeve button-down variety – a style Rob was pretty sure should have been a capital offense in a more fashion-conscious time. He wore a pin that said, “Jim – General Manager.”
“He’s so well behaved!” Jim said. “Amazing, right?” Big grin. Lots of teeth.
“Yeah, Amazing is right.” Rob said.
“It’s like mine. I brought my two dogs in first thing this morning to get their shots. Got ‘em all squared away, now they’re in my office, and every now and then I keep hearing a yelp or a bang at the door.” He stood back, surveying the lines of customers here for the vaccination clinic, and shook his head. He turned and looked back at Rob, cocking a knowing eyebrow. “I feel like the principle of an elementary school, you know? I can get everyone else’s kids to behave but my own.”
Rob nodded his assent, then pretended to get a phone call so he could slip away.
Pet people are so weird.
At last he made his way back to the front, past the line of animals and their people. The Saint Bernard was now at least several feet further into the line. Waiting in that was going to be fun.
As he made it outside, he noticed that the scrum of people waiting for their chance to jump in the back of the creepy van had vanished. A couple kids were milling about with dogs, but he asked both of them, and neither were waiting in line. Suddenly, the back door of the van flung open, and he saw some people he recognized from the paperwork line jump out.
Once more into the breach. Chewie did not want anything to do with the van. He managed to do an impersonation of a melted candle, spreading out in every conceivable direction in order to increase his surface area in contact with the ground. He was just a big hairy lump on the pavement. Rob bent down and scooped him up, just as a smiling African man held the door for him.
“He does not want to go in there.” Rob said cheerfully. The African kept smiling.
“Of course not!” He said jovially. His accent was thick and musical. Rob stepped in, and the man closed the van door behind him. The inside was dimly lit, the only brightness coming from the overcast day outside through tinted windows. In the middle of the space was a steel operating table, which Rob instinctively hoisted Chewy onto, and which Chewy, just as instinctively, tried to escape from as soon as he found himself there. Rob gripped him firmly. It looked like the kind of place where a guy could get kidnapped off the street, shoved inside, hit with a roofie, and wake up in a tub full of ice without a kidney.
Sorry buddy. No escape.
An Asian woman with an accent of her own, but equally thick, was bent over an array of syringes, making small talk. She took the paperwork and began preparing doses. One by one, she handed them to the African, who would rub an area of Chewie’s skin back and forth before surreptitiously jabbing the spot with a needle. Finally, he sprayed something directly into Chewie’s nostrils from a small plunger, an indignity which Chewie was not even the tiniest bit fond of.
“That was a nose one!” The African laughed, as if it were some great joke.
“Yes. Yes it was.” Rob replied, and removed Chewie from the table. They were out the door and back in the store in no time, and dutifully waited in line. They found themselves behind the woman in denim, with the eighties hair.
“You in the right line now?” She asked cheerfully.
“Yep. Thanks for your help with that.”
“Doesn’t make sense, really.” She said. “Usually the long line is the one for people waiting to get the vaccines, not the one for people trying to pay. You’d think they could run a few credit card machines at the same time.”
A guy with flame-red hair and a pointy goatee of the same color was hunched over a mobile credit card reader, waiting for it to spit out a receipt. He looked frustrated, and Rob just knew it was going to be a while. He pulled out his Kindle, and started reading. He was in the middle of a bunch of books, and he really wanted to start working his way through them. Three spots ahead in line, a woman started going on about something in a loud voice. She had a very large torso that perched precariously on strangely skinny legs. She was wearing pink stretch pants, and her gray bangs were curled in a perfect semi-circle in front of her square forehead. It reminded Rob of the curl of a wave, just before it broke. He had never surfed, but he was willing to bet there were a lot of surfers out there who’d kill to ride a barrel like that one. Her beady eyes were the same color as her hair, and she was staring intently at the man behind her as she talked at him, forcefully, about her cat.
“She was crazy.” She said, unblinking. “She tore a hole right down my arm. She wanted to murder me. The doctor in the emergency room said, ‘My cat is crazy, but I ain’t never seen anything like that.’”
The man who was on the receiving end of her monologue had the posture of someone who was defeated. His drooping jeans seemed to match the slump in his spine. He had not one, but two dogs – one roughly double the size of the other, but neither small – and they were each strapped into some sort of complex harness, the ropes thick enough to hang a tire swing from.
Rob fished his earbuds out of his pocket, and thanked the gods of technology that they were noise cancelling. He pulled up a playlist of ambient music from one of the apps on his phone and pressed the stud on his Kindle. It glowed to life. He was in the middle of a short story about music as an expression of mathematical theory and the way the main character was using it to decode alien language. It was interesting, but he always got interrupted. It looked like he’d have some time.
The playlist wouldn’t load. He checked his phone, and it said it was “buffering.” He closed the program, opened it again, closed it again. Opened it one more time, noticed that he had almost no cell signal, gave up on streaming music, then settled for Bach’s violin concertos, which he had stored on his phone.
He made it a couple of pages. Then he felt Chewie tugging at the leash. He looked down and saw that a young girl was sitting there petting him. He found it odd. This was at least the third person today that had simply started petting him without so much as asking if he was rabid or if he would bite. He supposed that since he was in the payment line, people must have just assumed that the dog had been vaccinated against rabies already. Maybe they didn’t care if he bit.
After another half hour, he finally made it to the payment table. Fire-haired goatee man was looking pretty frazzled. Dude looked like he knew his way around a joint, and could use a puff on one right about then. Next to him sat a strangely simian woman. She was heavy set and short. Her face was distinctive, with a strong, protruding chin. Her lips were big, and uncommonly full. She had a large, round nose, and blue eyes ringed with dark makeup beneath a heavy brow. Her hair was died an auburn color that, when matched with the shape and general features of her face, caused him to be reminded rather uncannily of a orangutan.
He sat down.
“How are you paying?”
“Credit card.” He said.
“I was afraid you were going to say that.” He buried his face in his hands. “My machine is on the blink. I think it’s because I can’t hardly get any cell phone signal in here.” He made a show of moving it around above his head, like some modern-day dowser looking to unearth the digital flow hidden in the atmosphere. “Do you have a check or anything?”
“Nope.” Rob said. Good. Maybe this one will be free. Yeah. Right.
“Well, let me see your card. We’ll try it.” He ran the card. Three times. It didn’t work. He tried another card. No joy. A man still in line piped up.
“I haven’t been able to get any cell phone signal for the last half hour.” Others chimed in that they had the same problem. “Maybe a tower is down.” There were murmurs of agreement.
“There’s a Bank of America over there,” the orangutan lady pointed out the window, and Rob was relieved to see that she didn’t have abnormally elongated fingers, or lack opposable thumbs. “You can get cash and come back. We’ll hold your paperwork for you.”
“I won’t have to wait in line again will I?”
“No, just come up to the side here.”
He did as he was told. He wrestled Chewie into the car and headed through the parking lot. Saturday shoppers and half-ignored stop signs made it feel like a cross between a death race and demolition derby, but he managed to avoid any impacts. There were a few sharp stops, however.
He pulled $80 out of the ATM. He only had to make it back across the parking lot, but he was bored. He turned on the radio. Mostly static. He flipped through his preset channels. Static, static, static, and more static.
“That’s weird.” He said to Chewie. Chewie had his head down on the seat. He rolled his eyes over to Rob mournfully and whimpered.
“You think so too, huh?” He pulled out his phone to call Lisa. The Bluetooth wouldn’t connect with the car. He put it to his ear. No signal.
“Is there a solar flare today or something?”
Chewie didn’t answer.
Rob parked, left Chewie in the car, and went back inside. He paid with cash, got his paperwork and tags, and made it back out. Lisa had an afternoon hair appointment, and he was not going to be responsible for making her late.
He and Chewie listened to U2 on the way home. He couldn’t tell for sure, but he decided that the dog may have actually agreed that Achtung Baby was their best album, to hell with people who thought it was The Joshua Tree.
At a red light, he looked at the pamphlet sitting on top of the blue folder. The list of parasites it could fend off was pretty impressive. He looked over at Chewie and ruffled the dog’s shaggy head.
“Sounds like this stuff will be worth it.” He said. “It’ll protect you from just about anything.”
Chewie barked, looking past Rob out the driver’s side window. Rob turned and looked up. In the sky there was a brilliant yellow glow, even brighter than the paperwork girl’s hat. Which was, by itself, pretty impressive.
“Except maybe that.” Rob said. The meteor was beautiful as much as it was terrifying. As it streaked across the sky, burning up atmosphere, he had to admit it was a fantastic show. He looked down at his phone. Still no signal. Damn thing must have been electromagnetic. He knew, with absolute certainty, that when that thing hit there would be nothing else. No heartworm treatments, no crazy cat ladies, no Lyme disease tests, nothing. He thought of Lisa, and wished that he could be with her right now, but there was nothing to be done about it. The light turned green. He didn’t go. People behind him started honking, clearly unaware of their impending destruction. They had probably been texting.
He felt sad for them.
He turned to Chewie, patted him on the head, and said, “Well, as long as I was going to spend my last Saturday on Earth doing something, I’m glad it was so meaningful.”
Chewie wagged his tail. Rob sighed.
Dogs never got sarcasm.