High Kill Shelter: A short story by Steve Passey
Every Saturday morning an autistic girl walks past the shelter wearing noise-cancelling headphones and dark sunglasses. When she comes to the crosswalk she waits for a car to come and stop to let her cross. She can’t make herself cross unless a car stops. She’ll wait for one if none are there, even though she could, in theory, cross safely. This is the visible part of the invisible sequencing error that is autism. She cannot move without a cue. She stands and waits and her particular, peculiar rhythm beats in her heart and in her head. The cars that stop for her are witnesses to this but they do not know what it is they see.
An old man brought in an old dog.
“What’s his name?” Jaime asked.
“Doesn’t matter anymore,” the old man said.
“There is a fee sir,” Jaime says. “Ninety dollars. And some forms—some things we need to know.”
The old man just walked out.
The dog, cataracts visible in his eyes, sat and looked around. His tail thumped on the floor twice before he quit trying to wag it. He could tell by the smell what’s in the shelter, in the cool concrete-walled room with the blue metal door at the back.
They bring them in one at a time mostly. Pit bull crosses from young men moving to where they can’t have them. The dog’s face and name are sometimes tattooed on their shoulders. They pay the fee. Young women come in in twos, one for moral support and the other the dog’s owner, dropping off teacup Yorkies saying they are moving to a place where they can’t have pets but it’s really because the stupid fucking thing is two years old and can’t be housetrained and they are tired of picking up dog shit and wiping up dog piss a dozen times a day. They pay the fee.
Very, very rarely do any middle-aged women bring their dogs in. Fifty year-old women keep their dogs until the dog dies at home, in their arms, or in its bed on top of two layers of soakers. These women will spend way more than ninety dollars on surgeries and injections to keep their dog alive an extra two weeks. Like Mother Theresa telling the poor to embrace their pain and love God for giving it to them they keep the blood flowing in animals in which the blood wanted to stop two years prior. You never see them at a high kill shelter. These lonely old women will chew off one of their own legs first.
Another day, another dog, until there are too many dogs and then the first brought in are euthanized to make room for the newly unwanted.
Jaime went into Maria’s office to tell her about the old man and the old dog and that he had walked away without paying the ninety dollars.
Maria was on the phone with the veterinarian and Jaime waited. Jaime had taken the job because it was available and she had thought of herself as if not exactly a “dog person” as very definitely not a “people person.” Dogs were preferable to people. She had let her hair grow out—wash and go—and people, strangers even, would sometimes ask if they could touch the expanding halo of dark brown curls. That was too much. She wore her hoodie up over her hair on public transit. The dogs were happy to be fed and groomed when she had time and she had a sense of duty, if not love. For dogs love and duty is the same thing. For people they are two different things.
Jaime waited until Maria hung up and then said “I’m leaving. I got a job at a call centre. It’s not much more money but there are benefits after three months. I need this.”
Maria nodded. Jaime was a good one, but they come and go. The shelter is not a life.
“Next Friday will be my last day” Jaime said.
Maria nodded. ‘Thank you,” she said. “Hey—I have a kid coming in next week. It’ll make your last week a little easier.”
“Where did you get this one?” Jaime asked. Jaime, as the only employee of the shelter save Maria, was used to occasional help from volunteers or employment programs. Summers were the best, high school students financed by government job creation money made everyone’s life easier.
“Court Ordered Community Service,” Maria said.
“A con?” Jaime said “Like, what did they do? Rob a bank, sell some crack? What?”
“Threw his ex-girlfriend’s Maltese/Bichon cross off of an overpass.”
“Rich kid. Rich kid love triangle. The Judge knew that any fine he levied would be paid for by the parents, and there is no room in any juvenile facility. So he gave him a suspended sentence and ordered him to work fifty hours in an animal shelter. We are that shelter. We are going to teach him empathy.”
Jaime thought a minute. “Empathy is not a teachable skill,” she said.
Maria had been running the shelter since its inception. Maria wore thick-rimmed glasses and the fat on the back of her arms moved in waves when she spoke because she spoke with her hands and when she becomes particularly excited her hands are always up over her head. Most of Maria’s day was spent on grant applications and canvassing for donations. She put her own money into the shelter more often than she should. Her husband, her third one, works for the city electrical department and makes decent money. Maria puts a lot into the dogs.
Only two bad things have ever happened to Maria. Her third husband, Gonsalves, who she always referred to by his surname, had left her once. He moved out for two weeks to live with a waitress from a bowling alley bar. The waitress left him two weeks later for a man who sold used cars. Gonsalves came back. Maria never spoke of what was said, if anything, but he came back and she took him. He had his good job with the city and she devoted herself to the shelter. He bowls in another league now, in a different bowling alley.
The tumult of that month bespoke itself of the trouble with people in general: They are restless and understand very little save that that where they are is where they will always be. They resist this. Some move and change their circumstances, but they are in the minority. Most flail about, stumble, and fall. They fall like they are falling backwards off a building, opening their eyes to the sky and wondering if they will feel what happens when they land and if it will be good or bad. Gonsalves fell hard with the waitress and landed soft at home, with Maria. The waitress fell with Gonsalves and landed with a man in short-sleeved and stiff-collared white shirts who pitched vehicle financing to the poor and unemployed on radio advertisements running four times over the lunch hour.
The other bad thing came about because of dogs. A German Shepherd “rescue” lady (“rescue” being the normative for “hoarder’) was in the habit of turning over her adult dogs to Maria. They’d spend a week in the Shelter and be put down. Adult dogs, large breeds especially, are hard to place. At one time she’d called Maria asking if Maria could take seven adults.
“I can’t,” Maria said, ‘We’re full. I could take a couple of puppies. I can always place puppies. Maybe you have some puppies?”
“I can always place puppies,” the hoarder snapped. Then she hung up.
The hoarder tried to badmouth Maria and her shelter via social media, saying it was a high-kill shelter, merciless, and had never found a home for any animal ever surrendered to it, but she was too well-known and it was understood that what she really wanted was someone to euthanize the adults at their expense and not hers. In this she was the same as anyone who ever surrendered a dog to the shelter. The hoarder’s neighbors detested her and her howling fecal miasma of a yard. The city was suspicious too. Now she is in another jurisdiction with similar problems compounding like interest.
Still, the vehemence of the attack bothered Maria, and she would not take dogs from “rescue societies” however they phrased it.
“Dog people are the worst,” she told Jaime.
The shelter has a whiteboard divided into columns and rows – the kennel numbers for the individual dogs and their names beside them. For the old man’s old dog Jaime wrote in “no name” beside his kennel number. He was put in number eleven which had previously held one of the pit bull crosses – a blue-eyed blue female named “Mary”, not spayed, who had been euthanized the week before after spending a month quietly waiting for something, anything, nothing.
At night the teacup Yorkies never sleep for more than fifteen minutes before they wake up to cry. “Hup-hup-hup” they cry, short and sharp. They were bred to be on people’s laps and are desperate for contact. They are frantic. They defecate and urinate and cry. “Hup-hup-hup.”
No one hears them.
Monday came and Jarrod, who had already met Maria, introduced himself to Jaime. His mother had brought him, driving a white SUV the value of which was not far removed from the shelter’s annual budget. He was taller than Jaime by a head, and had freckles and blue eyes and had only recently thrown a frantically wagging white dog off an overpass. He could have killed someone. He did kill the dog.
Jaime wouldn’t shake his hand. She showed him how to feed the dogs and how to clean up after them. She showed him how to work the till, the debit/credit machine and how to ask for $90 and of how to print a receipt. She told him that if anyone came in looking for a dog to let Maria talk to them.
He asked Jaime if the pit bulls ever bit anyone or fought with each other.
“No,” she told him. “These are surrendered dogs, pets, and not out on the street. The city’s Animal Control Department takes problem dogs like that and they have their own facilities and procedures.”
He asked her how long the Teacup Yorkies stayed, if they were ever in longer than a day or two. He said that they were so cute, so sharp-eyed, so begging to be held that he could not imagine them not being scooped up.
“They stay a week to three like all the others,” she said, “unless they are puppies. Puppies go right away, if we have them, same as any other dog. The adults spend their time here crying before being put to sleep. The adults we get are often not housetrained and at their age can never be housetrained and their small lower jaw is often full of infected and abscessed teeth that no one can afford the dentistry for.”
He asked her if the dogs had come from bad homes where they had been removed to save them.
“Rarely,” she said. “Mostly they just come from people that can’t afford to keep them anymore.”
He started at that. Who couldn’t afford to keep a dog or two?
“Lots of people.”
He wondered if people had ever adopted a dog, then thought better of it and brought it back.
“All the time,” she said. “All the time. In less than a week sometimes. There is no refund though. The veterinarians certificate, the shots, the microchip – all those costs are sunk.”
He asked if any dog had ever been adopted twice.
Small dogs, old dogs, sick dogs, bad dogs and badly bred dogs. Dogs for which there is no place. That’s the shelter business. It’s run on a calendar without a Christmas.
On the day the vet techs had come and put five dogs to sleep Jarrod and Jamie had put the bodies into black plastic garbage bags, tied them off, and laid them in a neat row. She told Jarrod that a man named Brian would come that afternoon in a truck to pick them up and take the bodies to a special crematorium out in the industrial park.
“Do you ever get used to this?” Jarrod asked.
Jaime told him that they don’t ever get used to it, but that they do it because it’s part of the job, and that’s what anyone who did this would tell him.
“Would you like to go for a coffee with me after we close?” he asked. “Maybe for something to eat? Maybe a movie too? Something, anything. Your call.”
Jaime told him no. She told him that she didn’t date co-workers. She told him that she didn’t date boys what, four years younger than her? Five? She told him that she didn’t date rich boys from the hills. She told him she didn’t date rich boys from the hills that throw dogs off of overpasses because they can’t control their baby tempers. She told him all of that and so, no.
“I know what you think,” Jarrod said. I know you think you know me, that you think that you know all there is. I understand. I did what I did. There is no doubt about it. But it wasn’t an ‘anger management’ thing. It wasn’t ‘temper.’ I was hurt, so hurt. I never felt like that ever before and never want to feel like that again. I wanted to hurt her like she hurt me. And then it was done. I am sorry. I am a thousand times sorry. No one gives you ‘hurt therapy.’ You’ll see. You are on your own for hurt. When I’m done here I’ll take one of these dogs. I’ll take one that no one wants. It’ll be on its last day and I’ll take it and give it the best days it ever had.”
Jaime left him in the cold room behind the blue door, the bodies of the unwanted in shiny black plastic bags lined up straight on the floor ordered, as if by providence, by size. The heaviest were closest to the door, the smallest the farthest away.
The afternoon came and Brian with it in a silver half-ton pickup truck with a topper over the box and commercial plates. Jarrod met him at the back door and they carried the bodies of the euthanized dogs out to the truck and lay them on the ground. Brian opened the topper and tailgate and Jarrod could see what he thought must be about twenty other bags lined up on the bed and in some cases stacked up one on top of the other. All of the plastic bags were the same as what they used at this shelter; all of them were tied off with a red tie. There was the faintest smell in the back of the truck, the faint odor of something dead on the road but not yet dead under hot afternoon sun. Brian got into the pickup truck and motioned for Jarrod to hand him the bags. Jarrod did this one at a time and Brian placed them on top of other bags carefully and then got out.
“Some guys will just throw them in but that’s not right” Brian said by way of introducing himself. “They weren’t born to be unwanted. They all have names.”
Jarrod nodded and Brian stepped out and closed up the truck. He wore cheap sunglasses and coveralls he’d let down to his waist and tied up using the arms as a He wore a Metallica “Master of Puppets” vintage t-shirt under the coveralls.
“Were you there when they did it?” Brian asked.
“Crazy isn’t it?’ Brian said. “Pentobarbitol. The big blue needle. Dead in ten seconds. They die with their eyes open. No pain at all though. Only relief.”
Jarrod said nothing.
“You ask Jaime out yet?” He asked Jarrod.
“Me too,” Brian said. “Don’t feel bad. She’s a tough one. Told me she didn’t date guys as old as I am. Told me she didn’t date schizophrenics, which I am. She had four or five reasons—all good. She said she didn’t mean to offend. But if you don’t ask you don’t get right? I might ask her again.”
Jarrod started to move towards the door.
“Have you ever seen a fat schizophrenic?’ Brian asked. “If you have then they are not on their meds. I take lithium. It’s old school but it works better than the new school. Go figure. It keeps my head straight, keeps me employed, but I feel sick all the time and can’t eat. I lose weight every time I’m on. Sometimes I am tempted to skip a day or two. I just want to watch a few of my old DVD’s and eat some Burger King right? I like ‘Top Gun’, ‘Conan the Barbarian’, ‘Ghostbusters’ and Ghostbusters 2.’ All the good stuff from when I was your age. I want to watch them and eat two Double Whoppers with cheese. You can have the fries. I love the burgers. I love the tomatoes and lettuce and mayo. I can just open up my mouth and let ‘em slide on down. It’s my favorite thing in the world. I don’t drink or smoke. I watch movies and I love classic American drive-thru cuisine. But the lithium keeps my thoughts straight and the rent gets paid. So I put up with being skinny. I’ll tell you what; ask Jaime if she likes Burger King and if the answer is ‘yes’ then I’m not asking for a date, I’m proposing. I love her hair. I’d love to watch her eat.”
Jarrod stood by the door and watched Brian drive away in his truck full of bags and numbers on tags in place of the names no one knew anymore.
“Crematorium,” Brian sang, his melody the chorus from Metallica’s “Welcome Home.” He was loud enough to be heard over the tires of the truck rolling on the gravel of the lot, loud enough to be heard over the reflected ambient noise from the street. “CRE-MA-TORIUM!” He stopped before exiting the little parking lot at the back and jerked his thumb toward the truck bed, shouting at Jarrod: “You would not believe how much money that fucking crematorium makes!”
Jarrod walked back in. Jaime and Maria were in Maria’s little office. Jaime asked Jarrod how Brian was today and Jarrod just shook his head. Jaime and Maria nodded to each other. They knew how Brian was today. The same as every day. He’d been picking up and dropping off for a while.
Jarrod spent the rest of the afternoon with the old dog with no name in number eleven, who seemed to appreciate the time and attention even through the grey veil of his eyes. Of men or women it can be said that often they do not know what they are missing because they are always trying to figure out what is coming. Dogs in shelters do know what they miss but no one knows if they can know what is coming.
Jaime called in sick on the Friday, her last day at the shelter. Migraine. Maria asked if she wanted to take a dog. Jaime declined, saying she no longer thought of herself as a dog person and couldn’t afford it even if she was. Maria asked if Jaime would remember anything that Maria taught her and Jaime said, “Dog people are the worst.”
Maria laughed and wished her well.
On Jaime’s first day at the shelter a homeless man brought in a feral cat. It alternately growled low and keened high. Feral cats pray to Satan. The homeless man held the wide-eyed and fearful, spitting thing by the scruff of the neck and at arm’s length. He asked Maria how much she would give him for the cat. She did not understand at first, but very quickly it became apparent that he expected to be paid something for the cat, because he was sure – he knew – they could re-sell it. He likened it to the deposit on bottles or cans. She told him that they only took in dogs and that there was a fee. The fee paid for the veterinarian, and to keep the doors open. He told her that she ought to take the cat because an animal is an animal regardless. She laughed and he cursed her. She cursed him right back and told him to leave, her hands above her head, making herself big as if she was casting a spell, and he left with the cat and set it down on the curb the moment the door closed behind him. The cat ran across the street like it had been catapulted and was immediately run over by a truck. Its body made multiple circuits around the tire, held in place by the tire treads until, with its life fled over and over and over, the body fell backwards off of the tire and lay oozing on the street. Maria walked out to look at it but it was already a dozen times dead. The truck never stopped and the homeless man, walking down the street with his rolling, jangling, glue-sniffer’s gait and his back to the shelter and Maria and the crushed remains of the cat, never saw what happened.
On Saturday morning Jarrod came with his mother in her white SUV and she paid two-hundred and seventy five dollars for Jarrod to take home the old dog with no name. The vet had cleared him of any major problems and said that he seemed to be well-cared for, only older, and that he needed cataract surgery and his teeth cleaned. Jarrod’s mother had said that she would pay for those things too, and with No-Name’s shots updated, a microchip, and a gift card for one free obedience lesson from a trainer they left the shelter. The old dog stuck his head out the window into the cool of the morning. They stopped at a crosswalk near the shelter where a young girl with headphones on and dark sunglasses waited for her cue to cross, waited for them specifically, and they stopped and let her pass hardly seeing her in the light of the sun reflected off of storefront windows. They noticed nothing of her other than her presence in their path. They missed the sequence in her process, the numbers in her steps. They saw, just barely, a child in a crosswalk and while she walked they talked of good names for dogs and of nice places to go and of things to do to make themselves happy.
About the Author:
Steve Passey is originally from Southern Alberta. He is the author of the short-story collection “Forty-Five Minutes of Unstoppable Rock” (Tortoise Books, 2017) and chapbook “The Coachella Madrigals” (Luminous Press, 2017). He is part of the Editorial Collective at The Black Dog Review.
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