In the Eighties When Preston Got Sick and Sophie Died

Preston looked like he’d been up half the night coughing with yellowed eyes and drooping skin. “I want to write something.” He filled the kitchen doorway with the comforter clutched around his body. He dragged half the blanket along behind him and settled into one of our godawful chairs. I don’t know how it supported him and the blanket without racing away from beneath him.

I was a little hurt. “What do you want to write about?”

“I need to write about Sophie…”

“You’re the talker. I’m the writer. You talk and I’ll write it down.” He had been sick for almost a week. “You look like shit. And you smell like it too. Maybe you could take a shower today?”

Preston smiled. “Yea, I ran into Derek in the hallway and he turned kind of pale when I passed him.”

Derek was pissed that I had let Preston crash in my room for so long. Four of us had taken the house last fall and now there were seven of us living in it. Derek was the only one not sharing a bedroom. I don’t know what Stacy or Frank did with their guests, but Preston sure as hell hadn’t offered anything toward my rent. He still had his apartment over in Somerville anyway. He’d just been crashing with me since he’d gotten sick at Sophie’s potluck memorial dinner.

“You heard from anybody else?” Preston asked the same question every morning. He wasn’t the only one sick after the potluck and some of them were lingering too.

I shrugged in response as I had every morning. I was fine, so I knew it was just bad luck. “You want some hot tea or something?”

Preston nodded. “You know I really loved Sophie.”

Honestly, I always felt a little weird about how much Preston loved Sophie. She was my dog after all. But she seemed to like him better. Sophie was how we met. Preston had family near that house in Arlington and I ran into him a couple times while walking Sophie. I liked this little cemetery in the center of town. It dated back to Revolutionary times, like just about everything else around Boston, but it was right there in my neighborhood. So, I liked taking Sophie there and Preston apparently dug spending time with the long dead when he needed a break from his family.

We got to talking and ending up hanging out some. He was even more into the Celtics than me, though McHale was his guy, while I knew the world revolved around Bird. We must have watched every game together that season, weeping together at the end- fucking Lakers.

The absolute worst thing about that loss was it happened on the same day of Sophie’s vet appointment- fucking vets. She had a tumor and they could operate, but it wasn’t going to change much other than break my bank account. My heart was going to break anyway.

The thing about dogs and cancer is that it happens fast. Or maybe we only find out when it’s so late anyway that it just seems to happen fast. Really, I just know that it happened fast with Sophie. She stopped eating a month later and a couple days later she stopped moving from her spot in the kitchen. Derek was the only one of my roommates to give me shit about it, but Preston had a word with him. By that time, Preston was stopping by every day for a few hours. In the end, he was sitting on that tiled floor with me and Sophie for a few hours every evening. She’d dig her tan and gray snout into my belly, turning my shirt dark with snot and mist. I missed enough work that I was worried about making rent, especially when I caught a cold. We tried to get Sophie to share our beer in case it would help, but she wouldn’t eat or drink anything anymore. We sat there, with Sophie wheezing and me sneezing.

That last night, Preston had gone home and I had fallen asleep beside Sophie on the floor. She was big enough to be a good pillow for me, but I was afraid to put any weight on her. I woke to her shuddering. That was it- three shakes and she was gone.

I called Preston and he had to catch a cab because his car was a piece of shit, but I hadn’t the willpower to do anything anymore. Preston cast a long shadow in the kitchen when he arrived. “What are you going to do now?”

“I don’t know,” and that was that. I started crying and making noises that I didn’t know I could make.

After I ran down a bit, Preston went to the sink, soaked a towel in cold water, and handed it to me. “Wipe your face. You know, we ought to bury her.” He crouched down beside Sophie and me. “Don’t you think?” He had this way of talking where he tilted his head back and you looked right up his nostrils. I wondered if I looked hard enough whether I might see his thoughts forming.

I nodded my agreement without fully thinking through the implications. The house didn’t have much of a yard, so I had no idea what Preston might be planning. Moreover, Preston thought we ought to have a wake. He got on the phone making calls. I couldn’t get myself off the floor or even move Sophie’s fore paws off my thigh.

“Are you ready?” Preston was back in my face, dragging a cardboard box from somewhere.

I wiped my face with the back of my hand while Preston slid Sophie off me. She weighed less than I expected. He carried the box. I don’t think that I could have taken those first steps with that burden. The setting sun blinded us as we headed west toward the cemetery. I demanded the box from Preston. Bordered by main streets, we had to cross five lanes of traffic to get to the stone wall that marked the edges of the old burial ground. I kept expecting a police car to screech to a halt beside us and demand an explanation as well as a look inside the box. The authorities did not approve of our kind hanging out anywhere back then.

The wall was irregular stone and collapsed in places. The crypts were in no better condition, some askew enough to be open. Preston had always talked about exploring one of them and he led me straight for the corner, out of sight of the street. I could see the dark maw ahead and I dragged my feet though I didn’t slow down. As we got closer, I imagined heaving the box through the hole and running back to the house in a fit of hysteria.

Except Preston stopped about eight feet away from the opening, which was too far for me to throw Sophie. “This one still has steps.” I knew what he meant, but only managed a vision of us stumbling down the stairs in a tangle of limbs and embarrassment. “We can try to close the door after we leave her.” Preston stood between me and the crypt, haloed by the setting sun, reaching out for poor, dead Sophie. I will never forget Sophie on that kitchen floor or Preston in that last glow of an unbidden day. Maybe that’s not how they want to be remembered.

I think we helped each other down the steps. As we went deeper, it smelled more and more of wet and of green. We crouched and moved slowly in the darkness. I don’t really know what touched us along the walls, as close as they were, but it was definitely old death. Even in the coolness, sweat broke out all over me.

“Are you frightened?” Asked Preston. “Don’t you see that this is a good place down here? Sophie will be all right here.” He began lowering the box and I went down with him onto that soft, moist blackness. “Goodbye, Sophie. You were a good dog.”

I had not even felt the tears start, but they came in a torrent. “Best dog ever,” I screeched from somewhere deep inside that I had not wanted touched. The mud seeped into my knees.

I followed Preston to the surface and we tried to close the crypt door, but only managed to move it an inch before we had embedded it even deeper in the ground. Preston began walking away, but I couldn’t get back on my feet. I tore handfuls of blooming dandelions from the ground cover and began tossing them into the darkness of the hole until I felt a hand on my shoulder. Preston had come back for me.

My runny nose seemed to worsen as we stumbled back to the house, but I still made the chili for the potluck. I didn’t know half the people that Preston had invited, but they came. I spent most of the night watching him from the easy chair where I was planted. People took turns comforting me until only Preston was left. He slept on the sofa beside the easy chair and woke up with that damned cough the next morning. And for six more mornings.

“So, what do you want to write about Sophie?”

“I don’t know. You write it.”

I looked at him wondering what this was about. He stared out the kitchen window, so I bent over the pad of paper.

Before I could scratch the first letter, he grabbed my hand. “Just make sure they know she had some good days and some bad days. She was a good dog.”

“Best dog ever,” I said.


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