Dive by Ada Wofford

She’d been working here since her daughter started grade school. She liked to keep busy plus they needed the money. Fifty-two, frail and thin. She kept her hair the same deep red it was when she was little. Glasses, a sweater, jeans. From behind you might mistake her for thirty but a life of smoking had taken its toll on her face and on her voice. She never drank and she didn’t believe in God either. She could smile when she didn’t mean it. 
The animal shelter was a stout, featureless building. It sat solitary on a hump of land that grew out the side of forty-seven. Thunder of traffic groaning persistent in the background. She pulled into the cracked and pocked parking lot and sat staring at the clear morning sky, listening to the radio talk. Some village in some country she never heard of was raped and pillaged by their own army. A victim was interviewed, her interpreter had a wooden voice, “It’s like they were possessed, possessed by the Devil. They lit a house on fire. There were women being raped in front of their children. These were the men that were supposed to be protecting us. It continued for nearly two days and when it ended no one came to help. No one’s been here but you.”
She got out of her car and thought about how awful it was, how she didn’t understand the world, and entered the shelter. Joan was already there, organizing the feeds and checking messages. For some time now, the owner had been working to transition the place from a no-kill shelter to a kill shelter. At first, they all revolted. One girl even quit. But after a while they began to understand the owner’s argument for making the change, “What do you think happens to the animals we turn away?” She asked them. “You think they just go off and live happy lives somewhere else? Well, that doesn’t happen. They go off to die somewhere. They’re left out in the streets or abandoned out in the country. At least here they can die with some dignity and without pain.”
“Mornin’,” Joan said as Flora hung her pocketbook on the hook.
“Mornin’, Joan.”
“Welp, today’s the day. And it ain’t gonna be me, I tell you.”
“No one’s stepped up yet?”
“Not yet. There’s rumors she’s just going to do it herself.”
“Well, if none of us are willing to do it I suppose she’ll have to.”
“You’re not going to do it either? I heard you were willing to do it.”
“I never said that. I said I didn’t know.”
“Well I could never do it. To look into those innocent eyes and jab a needle into them. And kill them. Uh-uh, I could never do it.”
The two got to working and kept busy through the better part of the morning. They did the feedings and took a few of the dogs out back to stretch their legs. Flora noticed a red tag on one of the cages.
“What’s this?”
“Oh, that’s right. You haven’t been here since Friday. That means he’s scheduled for today.”
“You mean he’s gonna be put down?”
“Yeah, isn’t it awful?”
“Well, Leo’s been here for what? A year?”
“So, that doesn’t mean they should kill him.”
“I’m just saying it makes sense he’d be one of the first.”
“I think it’s awful.”
“Well, let’s take him outside with the others.”
“But he’s not with this group.” Joan lowered her voice to a whisper, as if the dog might over hear, “Plus, I mean, there’s not really any point in him getting any exercise, hun.”
“But it’s his last chance.”
“Well, if we get in trouble I’m blaming you.”
They took the dogs to the yard and let them loose. Clouds were starting to gather and the air was cool. The yard wasn’t so much a yard as it was a patch of dirt surrounded by chain link fence but the dogs seemed to like it all the same. The one scheduled to die had a bum hind leg. He limped outside, maybe two steps, and laid down to rest. His black fur was ruff and ashen. He let out a big yawn and plopped his head in the dirt.
“I guess that’s why nobody wants you, hey old boy?” Flora said, petting him. He raised his eyes a second to see her and turned away. 
“Aw, how can you talk like that?” Joan said. She bent down and started talking to him like a baby, “How can they just kill you, handsome boy? Huh? Aw, I’m gonna miss you.” She put her arms around his head and hugged him, putting her cheek against his face. 
She sprang up in disgust, “He snapped at me!” She was holding her cheek. “What’s wrong with you?” She kicked the dog in the ribs. He let out a yelp and hobbled away to lie down by the fence.
“Joan! What was that for?”
“He snapped at me!” 
“He doesn’t like it when people touch his ears like that. God, how long have you worked here?”
“I didn’t kick him hard,” she went inside to wash her face. Flora followed her into the bathroom.
“You can’t do that, Joan. I don’t care if wasn’t hard.”
“Oh, what does it matter? I didn’t hurt him, Flora. God, relax. We both know what’s going to happen to him today, anyway.”
Flora stood with her arms folded, thinking.
“I just freaked out a little, ok? I’m sorry.”
“Did he break the skin?”
“What? Oh, no he didn’t even bite me,” Joan was scrubbing her cheek in the mirror. “Just got his gross slobber all over me.”
* * *
Hirah arrived shortly after noon. She wore her black hair short under her simple gray hijab. Underneath her lab coat she wore a faded tee shirt and a long brown skirt. She was twenty-some years Flora’s junior but spoke to her like it was the other way around.  
“Flora, follow me into the back,” she said without a hello. She took her to a room filled with filing cabinets. 
“What’s up?” Flora asked.
“What the hell has been going on back here?”
“Excuse me?”
“This,” Hirah gestured around the room with her arm. “I had to pull up records for a client yesterday and it took me nearly an hour to find what I needed.” She walked around violently opening the drawers. They were carelessly stuffed with manila folders—paper sticking out, others upside-down, some even torn. “The papers I needed were spread out between three different folders, in three different drawers.”
“Joan’s supposed to be in charge of this. I’m never back here.”
“I don’t want her to come back here anymore,” Hirah said with hands on her hips. “I want you to organize all of this. You don’t have to get it all done today, but get it done.”
“I don’t even know where to start.”
“You’ll figure it out. I’ll be in my office for the next few hours and then I’ll have to start the first of the euthanizing.”
“Have you found someone to help yet?”
“No, but I didn’t really expect to. It’s not a pleasant thing.”
“I think I would like to help.”
“Really? What made you change your mind?”
“It’s not a change, I was never against helping.”
“Then what made you say yes?”
“I don’t know.”
“But you’re sure?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
“Then I’ll come get you when I’m done my paperwork.”
She left Flora alone to organize the mess. Flora stood awhile thinking. She took a folder out and stared at it. Thousands of papers with millions of letters and numbers, all the information in this room is worthless until the day you need it, she thought, every other day it just sits here forgotten. We need a system, she continued, otherwise it’s just chaos; otherwise people just do whatever they want. She thought about this, staring at the cabinets. Sleek gray steel, fluorescent light glaring off of them. She realized that a rule is only successful if people agree to follow it—really anything could be right. She began taking out folders and lying them open on the ground, trying to make sense of the task. She decided she would divide the cabinets into past and current records and the drawers into cats, dogs, and other, followed by identification numbers. Sometimes they got goats, sometimes even lizards. There was a lot to keep track of. 
The work was quiet and methodical and Flora found that she almost enjoyed it. It was structure and order and black-and-white. She understood it. She went through the folders and made several piles. By the time Hirah returned for her, the room looked worse than when she left.
“Don’t tell me I made another mistake,” Hirah said.
“No, I’m just organizing everything before putting them in the cabinets. Trust me, I have a whole system worked out.”
“I’m sure Joan had a system too, doesn’t mean anything unless I understand it.”
“You will.”
“Well, it’s time to start. I need you to go grab Leo. He’s our first.”
“Leo?”
“Yeah, why? You wanna adopt him?”
“No. I can’t.”
“Then go grab him.”
* * *
Flora walked down the long hall lined with steel cages. It looked like a prison. She knew it looked like a prison. But how else would you organize this many cages, she wonder. Leo was curled up on his blanket sleeping. She stared at him thinking. She was interrupted by the loud hum of the industrial air conditioner as it kicked on. Several of the dogs perked up and a few began to bark. It’s like they never get used to the damn thing, she thought. Leo didn’t stir though, she wouldn’t be saved from having to wake him. The barking quickly died down and all Flora could hear was the humming of the AC. It began to make a pattern in her ears as she stared at the sleeping animal, a low thumping in her ears. “What did you live for?” she mouthed. 
She opened the cage. She was needlessly quiet about it. She stroked his head, “Get up, boy. C’mon, get up. Time to go.” The dog struggled to his tired feet and followed her down the hall. 
Flora took him to the examination room but Hirah wasn’t there.
“Down here,” Hirah called.
Flora followed her voice to the very back of the building where a little room hid off to the side. “I didn’t know this was back here.”
“Yeah, I used it for storage but I don’t know…”
“How come you don’t just use the examination room?”
“I said, I don’t know.”
“I suppose you prefer to keep this separate from that?”
“Sure,” she rolled her eyes.
There were no chairs or tables in the room, just a dog bed with some blankets and a medical tray on wheels. 
“Today you just watch. I’ll show you how to insert the catheter and how to do the injections. Then next time I’ll supervise while you administer.”
Flora led Leo onto the blankets and sat down alongside him stroking his head. Hirah took an electric razor off the tray and shaved off a small patch of fur. 
“You need to do this so you can put in the catheter. Then you disinfect the area,” she took the catheter and slipped it into the soft skin. “You have to get it just right,” she said fiddling with it. “Can you see that?”
“Yeah.” 
“Then you put in the sedative. This takes a few seconds to work. After that we put in the final injection, which completely stops the heart. Sometimes their muscles will twitch a bit but it doesn’t mean they’re still alive.”
Flora nodded her head. She stared at the needle in Hirah’s hands—they were shaking.
“Are you ok?”
“Yes,” Hirah sat there staring at the dog.
“You sure?”
“I’m fine!” Hirah snapped. “I’m sorry, just give me a second.”
They sat in the little room not saying anything. Several minutes passed. Then Hirah put the needle down, “Flora, I know I act tough. I have to, I’m the boss. But it doesn’t mean I like doing this.”
“No, I understand. I never thought that.”
“No, I mean it doesn’t mean I’m good at it.”
Flora paused for a moment, “But you’re a vet.”
“Look, after I graduated I got a job in this big practice. When you euthanize pets at an animal hospital you don’t do it like this. You’re not alone with the animal, the owners are there. They’re crying and petting them and talking to them. It’s awful.”
“I imagine,” she was still stroking the dog’s head.
“You’d think seeing enough of that would numb you to it but it was the opposite. It wore on me. After two years I couldn’t do it anymore. That’s why I quit,” she looked around the room as if she never saw it before. “Then I didn’t know what to do and I ended up starting this place. Over time you realize you can’t save them all.” She paused for a moment. “You know a man once tried to drop his cats off at a no-kill once and was turned away cause there was no room? I read this in the paper. He literally ran them over in the parking lot with his truck because he didn’t know what to do with them.” She looked up at Flora, “Literally threw them out of his window, backed his truck up, and ran the things over!” Hirah sat there staring at the needle. “I almost don’t blame him,” she trailed off. “I forgot how hard this was,” she forced a little laugh.
“Let me do it.”
Hirah looked up, confused.
“Let me do it. The catheter’s the hard part, right? And that’s already done. Let me do it.”
“No, you don’t have to do that. I’ll get myself together, just give me a minute.”
“I want to do it,” Flora said, climbing forward and taking the needle from her. “Let me, please.”
“Ok, just right there,” she said pointing to the opening of the catheter. “Hold that firm in your hand while gently and steadily depressing the plunger.”
“Like this?” Flora slowly injected the sedative into his leg. His eyes began to droop, his tongue hung out a little.
“Now the other. Same as before.”
Flora watched the dark cloudy solution disappear into the animal. Within seconds his heart stopped. She could see herself inverted in the reflective film of his eyes, still wet with life. She thought of how easy it was to push the plunger, how easy he slipped into death. Crossed the threshold, water spilling over the lip of a glass. There was something nice in it, she thought. She wasn’t sure what was nice about it but she was sure there was something. 
She found herself thinking of a TV show she once saw about these monks in Tibet or somewhere. Standing on a mountain in the snow, wrapped in gold and red. Praying and meditating and causing no harm. She thought they were wonderful but it’s easy to be a saint when that’s all you do, she remembered thinking, when you don’t have a job or a family or bills. When you don’t have a million responsibilities curving your spine into a horseshoe. It’s easy then, she thought. But something in it made her think of those monks. Maybe I just found peace, she thought, no it don’t work like that. Maybe I oughta go be one. Or maybe I’m who they’re praying for.
She placed her hand on the dog’s head and looked once more into his eyes. They were drying up now, two black wells with no bottom. “There’s nothing down there,” she said, “nothing down there.”
“What?” Hirah asked.
“Nothing, are we done?”
“We’re done with him but we have five more today. Are you up for it?” 
“Yes.”
Hirah removed the catheter and cleaned up the used materials. They struggled putting him into the bag. Another facility would deal with the cremation. She handled the other five with the same ease and grace as she did the first and the time passed quickly. Neither spoke till it was over and even then, it was just, see you tomorrow. 
* * *
Flora walked out into the late afternoon and got in her car. The sky was overcast and gray. It was beginning to rain. She turned the key and the radio started talking again. This time about a woman who abandoned her kids at a child services building. Well that seems like a good place to do it, she thought. As she waited to turn onto the road she could see a dog on the other side, sniffing at some garbage. “Nikia Wallace, thirty-five, mother of two, refused to take her children with her,” the reporter said. Flora stared at the dog. It was chewing at some fast food bag. “She just refused,” an employee being interviewed said, “We told her we were closing and that if she came back tomorrow, maybe we could work something out. She started yelling in the lobby. Said she rather go to jail than take her kids back.” The dog gave up on the bag and walked towards the road. It would hesitantly stick its head out and look around at the blur of traffic. It would take a step and then walk back. It repeated this ritual several times. No one else seemed to take any notice of it. “Wallace left the building and was arrested shortly after. Later she explained to officers that her eldest, age seven, had mental health issues she could no longer afford.” The dog started to step out into the street. That woman had three choices, Flora thought, none of them good. She turned off the radio, pulled out, and drove home. 

Other work by Ada Wofford on The Blue Nib

Ada Wofford is studying library science at UW-Madison.

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