Before moving to the metro DC area, Raima Larter was a college chemistry professor in Indiana who secretly wrote fiction and tucked it away in a drawer. Since moving to Washington to work for the government, she has taken lots of workshops and is now sending those stories out. Her work has appeared in Gargoyle, Writers Journal and the Grace and Gravity anthology series. She’s published one short story collection, The Gate of Heaven and Other Story Worlds. She teaches yoga these days, instead of science, and is nearing completion of her MA in Writing at Johns Hopkins. RaimaLarter.com
They are both on deathwatch, she and her father—he for a horse, she for a dog. The vet says her aging black Lab could go any day. He’s not all that old, as far as dogs go, but sick and failing. The horse is ancient, in horse-years—almost thirty.
Each phone call starts with the same question. “How’s Roanie?”
“Still hangin’ in there. Strong as a horse.” He cackles into the phone, pleased with his joke.
She can’t help but laugh. He’s talking to her, at least, though not really saying anything. As usual.
They discuss real estate, a safe subject. The “For Sale” sign’s been up in her yard for months. Dad has yet to put his house on the market. “Once the horse is dead, I’ll do it. No sense jumping the gun. As they say.” He laughs again, pleased with his use of small talk, as if it means they’re actually conversing.
They don’t share much besides this deathwatch. She’s grateful for this much. Dad usually shows no interest in her life as a working mom—now empty-nester—in a leafy suburb of a large east coast city. He doesn’t understand or care about HOV lanes, yoga classes or lattes. He’s never been east of the Mississippi. Never been east of Wyoming, for that matter. When she talked to her parents, it was Mom she conversed with.
That, of course, is no longer possible.
He’d found her, still wearing her apron, her soft body curled over the zinnias, the garden hose gushing into the flower bed as her life seeped away. Dad didn’t say, until much later, that Mom’s legs and ankles and feet had been so swollen she could barely walk, much less drag a garden hose. The fluid in her tissues, accumulating for weeks, was a sign of organ failure, the doctors said.
This time, he isn’t going to miss any signs.
Every day he’s at the kitchen window, clutching the yellow princess phone attached to the wall, watching Roanie graze in the threadbare pasture beyond the fence. He can see the horse’s ribs from the kitchen. The skinny legs shake as Roanie walks from shelter to water trough, listlessly shaking his head to dislodge the flies that torment him. Once Roanie dies, Dad says, he’ll sell, move on to a new life, leave this life behind—the one that never really worked out.
She doesn’t understand much about her father, but this she gets. Once the dog dies, she and her husband will sell the house, leave life in the suburbs behind—a life that never really worked out. They might leave each other. She doesn’t know, but they’ve talked about it.
The phone rings. Even before she picks it up, she knows. “Roanie’s gone, isn’t he?”
“Yep. About an hour ago. I looked out and there he was, lying on his side in the dirt. I guess he just toppled over and died.”
She imagines the carcass on the dry grassless soil, poor Roanie’s ribs poking out through his dusty hide. “So how do you handle that? You know—the body.”
There’s a long pause. “Guess I’ll call animal control. Could bury him out beyond the fence, but that ground is too hard for me. And I can’t afford to hire someone to dig a grave.” He pauses. “I’m a senior citizen, living on a fixed income, you know.” He cackles into the phone and she laughs before she can stop herself.
Better to laugh than cry.
He’s still talking. “How about yours? Still kickin’?”
She looks down at her dog, lying on his side at her feet. His large tail thumps on the floor when he sees her looking. “Still kickin’,” she says. She wonders if the calls will stop, now that the horse is dead.
Another long pause. The distance between them, practically the entire sweep of a continent, fills with something warm and soft and light.
He sighs. “Well, I guess that’s it for me, then, ain’t it?”
She blinks back tears. “Talk to you tomorrow?”