Strip Mall Apothecaries
Tim took one last insipid suburban piss and turned to the mirror. He ran a hand through his thinning hair, plucking the white ones where he could. There were more and more of them all the time. "A few grey hairs is all," Liv would say. But that was not all.
He and Liv had signed all the documents that affluent hands had put in front of them, churned out the requisite children, and learned the language of landscaping. They'd bought cars and built equity. She seemed to have surrendered herself fully to this life long ago. She seemed, even, to relish it. Liv had developed responses that were inversely proportional to the degree of tedium that a routine activity entailed--the more banal the errand, the more delighted she seemed to be doing it. If the weekly grocery excursions were a perennial thrill, Liv's bimonthly dry cleaning day had the air of a singular millennial event. A trip to the strip mall made her tremble. Coffee at Starbucks was a look backwards in Plato's cave.
Ruffus Wainwright III stood by the door, waiting his turn. His fidgeting had given way to an anxious whine, and Tim wondered about his prostate. Ruffus was at the door more and more times each day. When this had happened to Tim, a doctor had stuck a finger in his ass to see if his prostate was the right shape and size.
"There you are, Ruff." He opened the door and the golden retriever had his golden catharsis. The vet didn't open until nine on Saturdays. He had planned to be gone by then, but he didn't believe Liv would take Ruff to the vet on her own. She didn't think there was anything wrong with him. She never thought anything was wrong.
As the morning advanced, the children, spilled like stains all over the carpet, lay still in front of a talking sponge while the meticulously manicured grass outside reached earnestly towards the rising light, a few forsaken blades drowning in diluvial gold.
Tim had spent far too much time trying to decide which vehicle he would take. The Volkswagen or the Toyota? Another one of those not-choices that seemed like a choice. Crest or Aim. Coke or Pepsi. Cheerios or Life. In the end he took the Volkswagen. The blue book value was lower, and the gas mileage was comparable. He would give Liv no extra incentives to look for him. Not even little ones.
She would be angry enough about the kids. This would scar them for sure, but then maybe it would save them from themselves before they grew up and became mesmerized by mirages, before they signed mortgages and marriage licenses. Before the doors they thought would protect them were locked from the outside.
He had thought about writing her a letter and so, in a way, had written it. But he ultimately decided that to use the terms they had tacitly agreed upon over the last seventeen years could explain nothing. He was about to change the terms. The old ones were now obsolete, and he would not pretend otherwise. She would have to navigate this change herself. He thought about telling the kids that he'd be right back, but this was an unnecessary and insulting lie. He stepped out the door into a Saturday morning that smelled faintly of Turtle Wax and dog piss.
Ray from next door had just finished his truck, an enormous compound of metal and glass that was roughly the size of a college dorm room. "Tim!"
"I'm all done here, I can do yours?" He nodded at the Volkswagen.
"No thanks, Ray."
"Easy enough for me."
"That's all right."
"We went to see Steve Miller last night. Me and the wife."
"You know, The Joker."
"You went to see Steve Miller…"
"The Gangster of Love. You sure you don't want a wax?"
Ruff lay on his back whimpering. There was blood on his fur.
He picked up Ruff with a grunt that did not go unheard. "Help you out?" Ray shouted from somewhere behind the dorm. Tim shook his head and held Ruff close against the protests of his back and the charity of his neighbor. He kissed the dog's head and put him in the hatchback that Ray had already opened.
The vet's office was in the strip mall and smelled like pizza and chloroform. The sidewalk in front of the strip mall already had Tim's day planned: drop off the dog, grab a slice, pick up aspirin and tortilla chips at the drug mart, fresh flowers and ice cream for the way home. The wide, straight sidewalk would not understand his revisions.
He cradled the dog as the receptionist took his credit card number. The vet emerged from a corridor suffused with the sounds of distressed dogs, spiteful cats, and a discombobulated parrot frantically repeating "We're going to be late!" The vet wore a white coat and a stethoscope, and Tim thought he looked like an actor playing a doctor. He wore a carefully trimmed Clark Gable, and his large brown eyes bore a diffident expression that belied his deliberate step.
"This is Ruffus? Bring him back here please."
Tim followed the vet down the corridor. "We're gonna be late!" screamed the parrot.
Tim set him down on a gleaming metallic table that dwarfed the golden retriever. Tim told the vet about the pissing and the blood, and the vet nodded calmly while he filled a syringe with something that looked like pink lemonade. "Just a sedative," the vet reassured him.
Tim watched Ruff's eyes turn to glass. The vet began to press his hands on various parts of the dog's belly, probing with his fingers. "I'm going to take an x-ray," he announced. "You can wait in the lobby."
"Actually, I was going to go down the block and pick some things up."
The vet frowned. "Okay. But come back soon. We may have to make some decisions."
"What kind of decisions?"
"We'll know more after the x-ray."
"We're going to be late!" insisted the parrot.
~ ~ ~
Tim walked past the pizza place and into the drug mart, where he was greeted by rows upon rows of chips, candy, and sodas. There was a small sign suspended from the ceiling bearing an arrow, an "Rx," and a neon-lit mortar-and-pestle. Slow and certain death in front, spurious cures in back. The things he needed were in between.
He was comparing toothbrushes when Liv appeared at the far end of the aisle. He slipped around the other end still holding two identical toothbrushes in garish packages that declared them utterly disparate.
Tim had a clear path to the door, but he couldn't make himself leave. The impulse to flee was invigorating, and he didn't want to satisfy it just yet. His skin warmed, and his breath quickened. The colors of the surrounding commodities became intensely vivid, and the fluorescent lights blazed like soft white suns. He peeked around the corner and watched his wife meander about the aisle.
He wondered what Liv was doing here. She'd told Tim that she would be at a baby shower across town. Sometimes people take detours, Tim thought, the irony escaping him just long enough to stir a laugh that he subsequently stifled. Hers appeared to be one of those last-minute gift errands that, along with twenty-dollar bills hastily inserted between the clichéd covers of greeting cards, constitute a dour index of domestic compliance. She was holding a small stuffed squirrel, "I'm nuts about Baby" embroidered on its distended belly.
She seemed spectral. The unabashedly effusive eyes Tim had for seventeen years met across cups of coffee, bags of groceries, and the heads of small children were now depthless. She was uncharmed by the objects around her, and while she studied various items with pronounced, even exaggerated, gestures, Tim could see that there was no real interest beneath the motions. He shadowed her from aisle to aisle. The Liv automaton picked up a pencil case, fondled fabric, tapped its finger on top of a pickle jar. Tim nearly missed the peroxide bottle that a suddenly sentient hand palmed into a purse while its mechanical twin swiveled a bottle of vitamins.
Tim began to feel his heart pound on the off beats. There was something vaguely portentous about the act he had just witnessed. The shoplifting was shocking enough, but peroxide? They couldn't possibly need it. He'd just bought peroxide last week, for Amy's leg. And, anyway, why steal it? They had money.
Tim suddenly wondered if Liv had other habits of which he'd never known. If she had other lovers, other bank accounts, other children. If she'd seen the Volkswagon in the parking lot. If he should stay or if he should go. A man in a blue vest came by and asked if he needed help with anything. "No," he said.
He knew what she had been doing when he saw her pilfer a package of razor blades as she feigned an abrupt and inexorable interest in a dandruff shampoo, and he was exhilarated by the epiphany.
The cut on Liv's leg. From shaving she'd said. The questions hadn't occurred to him then. How does a safety razor cut so deep? Why shave on a virtually hairless upper thigh? There were others that he had not seen: old wounds now healed, fresh ones behind the knee. She never wanted the lights on when they were making love. His fingers must have stumbled blindly through scarred tissue and ancient furrows a thousand times in dark humid rooms.
The essence of this secret, once uncovered, inverted his initial impulse. His fearful thrill became a need to protect his voyeurism, and his leaving the drug mart was no longer the satisfaction of a desire, but rather the means by which to perpetuate it. His leaving Liv was no longer the plan. Another dimension had somehow always existed in his flat-screen life, and he wanted to explore it from a hidden vantage. He slipped out the door and made his way back to the vet.
~ ~ ~
"I'm here to talk to Dr…"
"Are you Tim? He's actually about to do a surgery right now with…Rufus?"
"It's an emergency."
"Emergency? What emergency?"
"I'll call the doctor."
The vet didn't take off his surgical mask when he told Tim about the "mass" that occupied most of Ruff's abdominal cavity.
"It may be malignant, it may not, but it's interfering with his excretory functions in dangerous ways. It's probably malignant. Anyway, it needs to go sooner than later."
"I thought you said we might make some decisions."
"I prefer to think of things in terms of decisions until circumstances dictate otherwise. Though, I suspect that most things have been decided before we were ever born." The vet's eyes crinkled at the corners, but Tim knew that he was not smiling. "Regardless, I need to operate now."
"Can I be there?"
"Put one of these on," said the vet, snapping the elastic bands on his mask.
Tim followed the doctor down the hall, half-waiting for the parrot to make his prediction, but the once-sonorous hall was silent.
Tim nodded at an androgynous masked assistant who gestured like an usher towards a chair in the corner. He watched as the vet made a long incision with a scalpel. He did it fluidly, effortlessly, the blade almost entirely obscured by his deft fingertips. It looked as though he was simply unzipping a stuffed dog.
The emergence of glistening pink-gray membranes quickly belied this illusion. The vet moved the innards aside brusquely to probe delicately beneath them for the mass. "It's enormous," said the vet. "But I think I can get it all." He instructed his assistant to clamp the skin around the cut to keep it from closing, and he reached into the cavity with his blade and began to work. His eyes remained fixed on the dog's belly, and no muscles appeared to move beneath his mask. His voice seemed to address no one in particular and to come from nowhere.
"I had an intern once who insisted that the anatomy of dogs is nearly identical to that of humans. I couldn't have disagreed more. The problem was not a matter of facts but rather our means of defining them."
There was a long pause, as if no further explanation were necessary. Tim heard an unnerving squish, and he saw the vet's empty hand move quickly from one place to another.
"The two anatomies are similar in some basic structural ways, but no more similar than virtually any two other mammals. Still, the intern was intensely committed to the commonalities of the dog."
He withdrew the empty hand.
"Perhaps the intern was projecting our ancient affinity with dogs onto an empirical realm in which it does not belong, but perhaps he was not." He withdrew his blade-bearing hand from Ruff's belly and reinserted the empty one.
"The intern understood, of course, that the anatomies of dogs and humans are both similar and dissimilar, depending upon the scope of our categories. What the intern meant to say, with his eminently opposable thesis, is that we should choose to view dogs as more similar to us than not."
The vet set down the blade and plunged this hand into the dog. He pulled with both hands, and they emerged with a mucus-laden mass of knotty meat, nearly as big as a football and roughly the shape of a light bulb.
"Jesus Christ." Tim's stomach quivered, but he could not look away.
The vet held the twisted mass up to the light like some grotesque offering to an indiscriminate god. "I've seen bigger, but not by much."
"Can I hold it?" Tim was surprised by this impulse, though the vet was not.
The vet handed Tim the tumor.
"It's heavy," Tim observed.
"It's ten pounds of cells that were as entitled as any," said the vet. "Regardless, I'm pleased to tell you that your dog is going to make it. I'd better close him up now."
Tim's stomach settled some when the mass was in his hands instead of the vet's.
"He never knew what was inside him, and he'll never know that it's gone," he said pulling away the clamps. "Anatomy notwithstanding, he is not like us at all. He only knows pain and not-pain." He produced another syringe. "I can give him something for the pain."
~ ~ ~
When he pulled into the driveway, Tim saw that the Toyota sparkled preternaturally, and that Ray's empty wax container was on the corner with the rest of his garbage. He hadn't been able to help himself. The kids hadn't moved at all, still slumped about, still staring at the screen. None of them acknowledged his entrance until he produced the pizzas.
"He's staying overnight at the vet."
"He had a cut. It isn't serious, but they have to watch him for a while."
"I hate green olives."
"Try the other one."
Liv wasn't home yet. He put the fresh, cut flowers on her pillow. When she returned, he would begin. He meant to find and savor every one of her clandestine incisions. Maybe he would even faux-innocently ask about one. He could hear her cheerfully dismissive response. "Just a little cut is all," she would say. She would be right.