Five years ago I lost my faith in people. I was sick. When I swallowed food it felt like a million swords sliced my stomach. My weight plummeted. Extensive testing revealed no abnormalities. I was hospitalized, a feeding tube implanted in my throat because I kept throwing everything up. The ER doctor, after reviewing all my tests, said to my husband, “What do you mean you don’t have a diagnosis?” Rob told him that none of my tests showed anything. The ER doctor pointed to a sheet of paper and said, “Your wife’s endoscopy shows three small cancerous tumors in her stomach lining.” Rob read the paper and screamed. He had to be restrained. I couldn’t speak. There was nothing so helpless. The endoscopy was the first test performed by my gastroenterologist who said my results were negative and referred me to a rheumatologist. I didn’t find out until after the operation that the ER doctor had told Rob of its severe risk. Too much time had passed. The tumors were wedged too deep. That operation cured me, and there is only a slim chance this type of cancer will return. Or so they say.
At my interview for consideration of admission into veterinary school, the director asked me why I chose to pursue this particular career. I said that even when the patient can speak, they are still screwed. I said excuse my language but human beings were shit, wielding more ability to produce harm than prevent it, and I did not want to devote my medical skills to saving them. Instead I chose animals. I said I needed to save as many animals as I fucking could.
After graduation, my director’s recommendation letter got me hired by one of the best 24-hour emergency veterinary hospitals in Michigan. My first year I got the overnight shift. Six straight nights without seeing one patient. The others played cards. I read my veterinary books. The others, I could tell, wondered why I didn’t interact with them, but they got used to it. On the seventh night, a woman came in with a badly limping Chihuahua. Aggressive questioning uncovered that she had accidentally slammed the pantry door on Lucy’s leg. I told her Lucy was very lucky not to have suffered any fractures. I gave her medication for Lucy’s bruise, and on the way out I told her to watch what the fuck she was doing. Maybe asshole was uttered. The woman called the next morning and complained. My manager agreed the owner was an asshole, but I couldn’t actually call her one and must control myself or disciplinary action would be taken.
On March 17th, around ten, I was reading when Sarah phoned me in back and said, “Prepare yourself.” That wasn’t procedure. Procedure was, “Get everything ready, now!” or “Look alive, it’s time to roll!” So I didn’t understand. The young man who brought Mister Samson in was hyperventilating. One second he and his young cat were napping together, the next Mister Samson’s breathing turned odd. He kept squinting at his back legs, confused. He couldn’t stand. He could only drag himself forward with his front paws.
And then I understood. At veterinary school, I had never witnessed this condition. This kind of thrombosis occurs when a clot breaks off from the heart and saddles the point where the aorta branches into each leg, blocking up blood until the lungs congest with fluid. Often the result of advanced heart disease, which cats are too good at hiding. It can also develop from congenital heart defects. Unfortunately it can’t be prevented, stopped, reversed, or cured.
I brought the young man back, something we are not allowed to do. Mister Samson’s breathing was severely labored, his legs without pulse. When he saw his owner he meowed with excited longing and this accelerated his heart rate, which accelerated his lung congestion, and he started gagging. The owner’s left hand caressed Mister Samson’s belly and his right massaged his head, his ears, telling him he was a good good boy, the best boy anyone could hope for, that Daddy was right here, I’m right here, I’m right here, as I administered the Euthasol.
It was the three of us for I don’t know how long. He cradled Mister Samson and murmured, between loud convulsions of tears, how much he loved him.
I had never seen anyone cry like that.
He said, “Do you believe they really go to a better place?”
I told him that, yes, Mister Samson was already there, running and jumping around, probably chasing a chipmunk.
“How do you know?”
“Because that’s what he deserves.”
I answered every additional question. No, there was nothing you could have done. No, you did not cause this. Yes, he felt you. Yes, he knew you loved him. No, you’re right, this wasn’t fair.
The sun was flushed above the trees. Sarah told me she called a taxi and waited with the young man for it to arrive, helped him in, and handed the driver cash. For days his car sat in the lot. I began to fear that he would call and file a complaint against me, demanding to know why I hadn’t done more to try to save Mister Samson. I feared I would be fired.
In early April the young man walked in and asked for me. I finally entered the room, and he did not look up. He in no way acknowledged me. I thought, This was it, he would berate me and I’d be fired.
“I just wanted to thank you,” he said.
“You were very kind to me,” he said. “You helped me, in a difficult time.”
He started crying, trembling and spasming uncontrollably. And I hugged him. I don’t know how long we hugged each other, but when I came out to meet him it was very dark, and when he left, it was very bright. I watched him get arranged behind the wheel of his car, and as he pulled away he looked at me, and waved.
James Hartman’s fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions, and appears or is forthcoming in Blue Fifth Review, december, Gravel, The Airgonaut, New World Writing, and Jellyfish Review, among others. His scholarly work is featured in The Hemingway Review. He has several degrees, including a Master of Fine Arts in Creative writing, and lives in Michigan with his wife.