Photograph by Patricia Miller
RACHEL AND RUPHUS
by Scott Daughtridge
Rachel let herself into the apartment and removed her hat and gloves, hung up her coat and placed her bag and boots on the floor. She walked passed the stair case, through the living room and kitchen, down the hall toward the laundry room, where she assumed Ruphus would be sleeping. The gray hair around his face made him look like an old war veteran. Rachel stepped lightly up to him and whistled quietly. His head jerked up and he rolled over on his side to expose his stomach. After some deep rubs from Rachel, Ruphus wagged his tail and stood up on his shaky knees. His toe nails click-clacked on the hardwood floor of the hallway as he walked into the kitchen.
Issue #44 soundtrack: Pearl and the Beard "Prodigal Daughter"
Mrs. Wright had sent Rachel an email which detailed her responsibilities. On the top of the list was the schedule and procedure for giving Ruphus his various pills: Pill one should be wrapped in a slice of American cheese and fed to him at 9:30 in the morning; pill two should be dipped in peanut butter and fed to him at 2:30 in the afternoon; pill three was to be mixed into one of the refrigerated, homemade dog dinners and fed to him at 8:30 at night. This routine would have to be followed until the Wrights returned from their ski trip the following week.
At 2:30, Rachel got the medication from the cabinet above the stove and slathered one of the pills in the creamy peanut butter. She teased him with the treat, bringing it close to his nose, then lifting it high, then back down to his mouth and pulling it away. He followed her hand with great focus. After arousing his appetite she let him lick the sticky treat off of her palm. He swallowed and looked up to her for another one, then smelled the ground around him, seeking any bits that might have dropped, but there were none, so, with a thud, he laid down.
After a month of being in New York Rachel’s savings had run out. Since then she had helped people move, temped for a chemical supply company, walked dogs and house sat. House sitting was her favorite because she was paid to live other people’s lives for a short time in apartments and houses that were nicer than anything she ever hoped to live in. She especially liked working for the Wrights. They overpaid her and their brownstone in Park Slope had been featured in various Brooklyn real estate blogs and magazines. One of those places people walk by and wonder who owns it and guess what they do to afford such a nice house. The quasi-celebrity status of the building gave Rachel a lukewarm feeling of importance, like she was part of the house sitting elite, if that was actually something to be proud of.
She walked into the living room and fell into the large leather couch. She had fallen into a routine of staying awake until six in the morning, reading, writing, painting, watching movies, anything but sleeping, knowing that she could rest during the day. It was the time that she normally took a nap, so she brought her legs up and stretched out. A weight left her body as she sunk into the couch and closed her eyes.
Right when she fell asleep a gagging sound penetrated the silence in the apartment. She sat up with a jolt. In the kitchen she saw Ruphus licking a puddle of yellow vomit, in the middle of which lay the brown, jellybean-sized pill. She got close to Ruphus, but was repelled by the vitriolic smell of stomach acid.
“Stop licking that!” she yelled, but he only responded by slightly wagging his tail. She yanked him away by his collar and grabbed a roll of paper towels from the counter. After it was cleaned up Rachel could smell the sting on her hands. She washed them until she could only smell lilac soap.
It reminded her of the time in college she worked at a retirement home, where there was always someone’s body fluid mess to clean up. During her third week she had to clean up Mrs. Gronke’s bloody diarrhea. It was a task she could not bring herself to do again, so she never returned. Now, however, if she wanted to continue to get work and get good references she could not leave when things got difficult. The Wrights, with their well-to-do friends, were good references. After stringing together odd jobs for two months she knew she needed consistent pay, so she could chip away at the oppressive mountain of student loan debt that would loom on her horizon for a long time.
Instead of using peanut butter again, she folded the pill in a piece of cheese. Ruphus, showing no interest, stared at her blankly from the floor.
“Eat it!” she snarled, as if he could understand her. She grabbed his snout and pried opened his mouth. He tried to fight against it, but was too weak. His warm saliva covered Rachel’s fingers as she pushed the pill onto his tongue. Mrs. Wright had told her to do this if he refused to take the medication, though it felt like a violation of her unripe relationship with the dog.
Rachel returned to the couch, light headed, in need of sleep.
More than three hours passed and the earth spun just as it always had. Rachel, having just woken up, came to the window and watched the snow fall, covering the footprints below. The waxed hardwood floor reflected the gray afternoon light.
She called out to Ruphus, expecting to hear his tags jingle as he lifted his head. There was no sound. She called a second time. Again, no movement. The room was as silent and calm as the fallen snow.
“Ruphus,” she said in a tone that would get her in trouble in a library, and walked into the kitchen, where saw him lying on the floor.
Slowly, she reached down to pet him. His fur was soft like human hair between her fingers. He did not move. Holding her breath, she peered over to see his face. A lightning bolt of terror flashed in her veins. With a gasp she stood all the way to her toes. Her vision blurred and her knees weakened, she reached for the counter to help her stay balanced. The dead dog’s face was all she could see.
She retreated to the hallway and waited for the shock to subside. With her hands still shaking, she returned and felt for his heartbeat to confirm that he was really dead. He was.
On the other side of the door, she thought, was the sidewalk. In no time she could be on it, going the opposite direction, not having to worry about the Wright’s, their apartment or Ruphus.
A heavy feeling of sickness weighed down in her gut.
She picked up her phone and called Mrs. Wright. After five rings, to Rachel’s relief, the voicemail picked up. “Hi Mrs. Wright this is Rachel. Please call me as soon as you can.”
She wondered how the Wrights would react when they found out. Would they blame her? Would they refuse to pay her? Would they tell people that she had killed their pet?
She wanted to kick Ruphus -- kick him hard -- but she didn’t.
When she was growing up, her dad buried the family dog in the woods behind her house; the fur, skin and bones were absorbed into the earth. In the city, all concrete and witnesses, this was not an option. She realized that she would have to take the body somewhere to be taken care of. If she waited any longer, she feared, he would begin to smell, making it impossible to take him into public.
She picked up her smartphone and Googled "veterinarian dead pet Brooklyn." A list of veterinarian clinics came up. Rachel chose the third one and pressed on the hyperlinked phone number. The phone rang two times. “Man’s Best Veterinary Clinic,” the female receptionist answered in an even, dull tone.
“Hi. I’m house sitting for a family and their dog just died,” Rachel said. “I’m not sure what to do, and I need some help.”
“How did the dog die?” asked the woman.
“Uhh... I don’t know. He was asleep and now he’s dead. He was an old dog.”
“Okay, It sounds like natural causes. It wasn’t hit by a car or anything?”
“No,” said Rachel, taken aback by her question. “What should I do?”
“Well, you have a couple of options,” said the woman. “Depending on when your trash gets picked up you can put him in a marked bag on the curb for the garbage men to collect. How big is the dog?”
The image of Ruphus decomposing in a bag on the curb flashed in Rachel’s mind.
“He’s pretty big. I don’t want to do that. Anyway, the trash doesn’t get picked up until Friday.”
“The other option is bring him into our office to be cremated, but we don’t have a pick-up service, so you’ll have to bring him in.”
“Are there veterinarians that do have a pick-up service?” Rachel asked.
“Umm... ” The woman tried to think through her afternoon daze. “None that I can think of.”
“Is that a pretty common thing?”
“You mean cremation? Yes, it’s pretty common. There’s really nothing else to do when a pet dies in the city. Some people leave them to be collected with the garbage, but most people bring them in to be cremated.” The woman spoke with a ‘seen it all before’ casualness that made Rachel more comfortable.
Another image of a garbage bag filled with the lifeless dog, his mouth open and tongue hanging out, struck Rachel. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
“Okay,” Rachel said with conviction, “I’ll bring him in to your office. How should I get him there?”
“However you normally travel,” said the woman with a hint of irritation.
“Oh...” Rachel said.
“You can take a cab if you don’t have a car.”
Rachel tried to quickly think of alternative options, but could only imagine the dog’s body spilling out onto the subway floor.
“What’s your name hon’?” asked the woman, feeling some pity for Rachel. “I’ll write you into the schedule.”
“Rachel West,” she replied, recognizing and disliking the patheticism in her own voice.
“Okay, Rachel. Do you know how to get here?”
“Yes, I have the directions right here,” she said assuredly, confident that she could get the directions on her phone.
“We’ll be open until seven tonight. Will you be able to make it here by then?”
The clock on the stove showed it was 6:15. “Yes, I’ll be there,” Rachel said.
“The cost is 200 dollars. Is that okay?”
“Okay, we’ll see you soon.”
“Thanks for your help.”
She hung up and set her phone on the counter. Throughout the conversation she had been looking at Ruphus’s inert face, eyes and paws; he looked more dead then before.
She clicked on the Directions tab on the website and saw the directions for car, bus and subway, noticing the bold number forty-nine for the bus and a green circle for the G train. She decided it would be best to take a cab.
Rachel searched inside every closet and under every bed for something to carry Ruphus in. There were gym bags, handbags, backpacks and totes, but nothing useful. Behind the creaking door of the hallway closet, she found shelves of towels, blankets, sheets and, on the floor, two suitcases, one small and one large. She pulled out the large suitcase and laid it on the floor. After analyzing it for a minute she crawled in, knelt and slowly turned to lie down. With some squeezing and shifting she was able to fit into the suitcase. Everything except her head. There was only one way to know if the bag was big enough for the German Shepherd.
When she entered the kitchen she hoped that he would awaken. A miracle of sorts, a false alarm, but he was still lying there. She unzipped the bag and became paranoid that the Wright’s would walk through the door and find her folding their beloved pet into their Samsonite luggage.
Like a boxer, she circled him, picking the best way to approach. She wedged her right hand underneath his shoulder and wrapped her left arm around his back. Straddling his hind legs, she lifted the dog’s front half off the floor and shuffled two tiny steps to lift him into the silk lining of the suitcase. She moved around to the side and readjusted her grip on the limp body. His legs were still hanging out, but he had already filled the available space.
“Damn,” she said, kneeling on the white tile. She gently pushed his head down to his chest and folded his arms and legs as close to his body as possible so that he was, to Rachel’s surprise, snugly curled up inside the bag.
Mrs. Wright had once told her how they used to take Ruphus to a farm upstate and that he would instinctively herd the sheep that grazed in the fields. He would disappear into the woods and return covered in mud and smelling of manure. Rachel wondered if he would have preferred to live and die in the dirt on the farm instead of the orderly, sterile apartment.
She went to the closet and put her winter clothes back on. A shudder ran through her as she looked at Ruphus. She knelt down and zipped up the suitcase, returning it to its status of an innocuous piece of luggage. After a strained effort she stood it up on end. All of the weight sank to the floor. Rachel reached back with both hands, lunged forward and pulled her cargo behind her like a chariot horse. She put the keys in her pocket, turned the lights off, swung the door open and walked outside. The sound of the slamming door was dulled by the wind. The cold cut through her jeans and the hair sticking out from under her hat was blown into a frenzy. She went quickly to the street, expecting to see a cab.
Cabs drove around all day looking for passengers; surely one would drive passed her, she thought. Her insides tightened as she looked up and down Ninth Street and saw nothing but glowing street lights.
“Where are the cabs?” she wondered aloud. She headed north on Fourth Avenue, but then stopped and turned, thinking she heard a car engine. Still nothing. Not a car on the road.
Then, three blocks away, she heard squealing breaks and saw bright headlights come around the corner. The engine of the forty-nine bus roared as it headed straight toward her. Rachel remembered seeing the bus number on the vet’s directions page. About fifty feet away she saw the sign for the bus stop. She cautiously walked over ice and salt covered sidewalk and waited.
The driver pulled up and opened the door.
“Does this go to... ” she said, trying to remember the vet’s address. In a panic, she pulled off her glove and reached into her pocket for the piece of paper she had written the address on. “To... to...” the driver shifted in his seat and frowned, “Carroll Street!”
He nodded with a blank expression.
“Ah, thank God,” Rachel exclaimed. She grabbed the bag and, with much exertion, climbed to the top step. The driver closed the door and the bus leaped forward, making her stumble slightly. She quickly widened her stance to regain her balance, pulled out her wallet and dipped her transit card into the slot.
Rachel sat in the first seat to her left and pulled the suitcase close to her leg. The anonymity she had on the bus calmed her and she settled into the passengers’ quiet indifference.
Still unclear where Carroll Street was, Rachel leaned over and got the attention of the man sitting across from her.
“Excuse me,” she said with wide, anxious eyes.
The man looked up. In his eyes, which had seen too many battles lost, a distant strength glimmered. The interior bus lights reflected off his scalp through his thin white hair and emphasized the shadows under his recessed eyes and pasty, white cheeks.
“Do you know how many stops it is until Carroll Street?”
“Uh, yeah... ” the man looked out the front window of the bus. “Two stops.”
She looked out the front window also. “Thanks,” she replied with an obligatory smile.
“Are you going on a trip?” he asked, leaning forward, looking at the suitcase.
She sat looking at him silently, trying to think of a satisfactory response.
“No,” she finally said, “I’m just moving some things to another place.”
This answer appeased them both and they nodded pleasantly.
The bus pulled to the side of the street and a black woman with rounded features and braided hair, holding the hand of a little girl who resembled her in every way, boarded. They walked carefully down the aisle as the bus resumed its route.
Rachel imagined Ruphus turned, twisted and balled up in the bottom of the suitcase.
The man watched Rachel as she gazed at the floor and wondered what she was thinking about.
His attention then shifted to the piece of luggage. He wanted to ask her what she was carrying.
Rachel looked out the front window as they began to slow and pull to the curb, making all of the passengers sway in a synchronized motion. Before the bus stopped Rachel stood and tried to turn the suitcase around. She walked around it and pulled, but struggled to gain any headway.
It was not the man’s stop, but he stood abruptly to help her. He bent down and gave the bag a slight push to move it forward. Rachel turned and saw him assisting her and was instantly fearful. He gave her a reassuring smile.
“Oh, I’ve got it!” she said loudly.
“It’s okay, I can help.”
They came to the top stair and he took the leather handle from her hand.
“Oh, no. You really don’t have to help me,” Rachel said in a distressed tone.
“I’ve got it,” said the man, pulling the bag away from her, encouraging her to proceed down the steps. With both hands, he lifted the heavy suitcase.
Once the bag was on the ground the bus driver closed the door and pulled away. A speeding cab swerved around the bus and entered the other lane, honking its horn loudly.
“Wow,” said the man. “This bag is really heavy. What do you have in here?”
Rachel’s thoughts began to topple over one another, and again she stayed silent. A traffic jam of answers piled up as she tried to think of something heavy that she would be carrying. She looked at the streetlight above, hoping for an answer until she blurted, “stereo equipment.”
The man nodded his head, his grey-blue eyes widened.
Rachel became frustrated with the stranger’s questions and reached in her pocket for her phone so she could call the vet’s office. It was 6:55.
As she pulled her phone from her coat pocket, the man made a fast jerking motion. Before she could process the movement, his hand, balled up into a fist, was all she could see. A violent light flashed as his fist made contact just above her left eye brow. She became disoriented and stumbled backwards in the snow. He made another motion and hit her again, making her fall down in a daze, unable to get up.
He briskly walked down the street, pulling the suitcase behind him with his eyes narrowed and focused on the corner where he could disappear into the concrete oblivion. I will have to pray tonight, he thought to himself. I will have to be forgiven. Someone, something will have to forgive me.
Behind him, Rachel faded into the falling snow, which blurred the street like television static. Beside her lay her cellphone, ready to call the vet’s office, where the receptionist wrote a question mark in the margin next to Rachel’s name. The woman was ready to leave, so she turned off the lights, locked the doors and left the office for the cold New York street.
After a few minutes, Rachel sat up, still dazed, only slightly aware of what happened. Her vision was hazy and colored with spots. Her head spun as though she were waking up with an intense hangover. She realized the suitcase was gone. Dripping blood, she laid back and let the snow turn red around her. Her phone began to ring. Mrs. Wright glowed on the screen.
Scott Daughtridge is a Georgia native living in Brooklyn, New York. He is currently working on a short story collection to be released later this year. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patricia Miller was born and raised in the Dominican Republic. She first discovered her love for photography while in college, and hasn't stopped taking pictures since. View her online porfolio at photosbypati.carbonmade.com.
Pearl and the Beard is three voices, one cello, one guitar, one glockenspiel, one melodica, several drums, one accordion, ninety-six teeth, and one soul. The band's three members, Jocelyn Mackenzie, Emily Hope Price, and Jeremy Styles, met and live in New York City. "Prodigal Daughter" is the newest single from the band's 2011 release Killing the Darlings. For more, visit the band online at pearlandthebeard.com.