by Aramis Calderon
The old man was staring at my scabs like he’s never seen them on a woman’s knees before.
The hat on his head said he was a Vietnam veteran, and looked like a fat John Wayne. The belt buckle he rested his hands on had a brass stamp of Texas and was about the size of both his hands. He said, “I’m sorry ma’am, but there are no pets allowed in the VFW.”
“He’s not a pet. He’s a service dog, and I’m pretty sure that means I can walk in here.” I pointed to the black vest on Chance, the dark contrast standing out from the fur of a yellow Labrador. His purpose was spelled out in bold white letters.
Fat John Wayne took a closer look at Chance and made some kind of muffler sound. He said, “He looks mighty skinny. Are you a member?”
“No. I’ll sign up right now.”
He rocked his heels, spiffy cowboy boots that looked about as old as him. He said, “Ladies Auxiliary meets on Wednesdays. You can come back tomorrow and speak to Beatrice.”
“I’m a Marine.”
He tipped his hat and looked me up and down. He said, “You got proof of service?”
I didn’t bring my DD-214 or VA card. I could show him my eagle, globe, and anchor tattoo on my arm but I didn’t want to roll up my sleeves for this jerk. I was told males looked more veteran on average, whatever that means, and a tall blonde in a ponytail is more likely to be into Yoga than close quarters combat. He probably thinks Marines can’t possibly look this feminine and with freckles. I was about to turn back when a woman’s voice cut through the stale cigarette smoke from behind the bar.
She said, “Let her in Dale.” The woman was tall and looked like a Mexican version of Bea Arthur, even had the same raspy speech.
Dale gestured his arm towards the bar and said, “Apologies, can’t be too careful around here. Marine.”
He wasn’t wrong. This VFW post was in the rougher part of Dallas and was the only place the cops would quickly respond to in the neighborhood. I led Chance to the bar woman and he sat down on the scuffed floor. He was panting hard. I took my phone out from my bra strap and set it on the bar. I settled comfortably on my elbows and leaned.
The VFW was empty, it being a Tuesday afternoon and the only members who come here are probably playing Bingo at the assisted living facility. The air smelled like a chain smokers’ den. Some local country music was playing from a jukebox behind a pool table that had coasters under one of the legs.
She said, “Don’t mention it. I’ll take any woman’s word who says she’s a Marine. Name’s Michelle, but everyone just calls me El.”
“Ok, thanks El. Name’s Caitlyn, but I like to go by Val.”
El said, “Yeah most crack hos try and get cheap booze in here. They say they were Air Force or something. They never say they were Jarheads. Not that you look like a crack ho or anything,”
“How do you know I’m not a crack ho?”
She placed some napkins by my forearms. “They usually wear a lot of make-up and you don’t.”
I liked her. She was genuine. “Were you in?”
El laughed. “I was married to a Marine. He used to run the place. Passed away a few years ago. Don’t bother with condolences, he was an asshole. But he was mine.” She looked down to the plain wedding band on her hand.
I looked down at Chance. His tongue was out and he was wagging his tail slowly. His vest was looking too loose and it tightened my chest.
“Can I possibly get water for my dog?”
El hurried to get a bowl. “Absolutely honey. What’s his name?”
She passed me a plastic Tupperware full of water that looked like it was originally for lunch meat. “What about you honey?”
I thought about this for a while. Before El could repeat the question, I answered, “Garrison Brothers. On the rocks.” I dropped a ten-dollar bill on the bar and she went to go get the whiskey.
I set the water near Chance and he lapped up a few tongue-fulls before resting his head on the floor. El took the ten and set red Solo cup in front of me.
I looked for some meaning in the golden liquid, some portent in the way the ice cracked and let the liquor in while melting. My hand was around it before I knew it and I smelled the memories held in the cheap plastic. El was watching me.
She said, “It’s good stuff.”
“It was.” I poured my first drink in two years down my throat and let it burn my insides. I put an empty cup full of ice back down on the counter and fished around in my shorts for a twenty.
El poured more in my cup. “So, what’d you do in the Corps Val?”
I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. “I was a three-zero-forty-three, supply clerk. Box kicker.”
El said, “Ever deploy?”
She asked, “Afghanistan?”
“Should have just glassed those goddamn ragheads,” Dale said and sat beside me. Chance perked his head up and moved between our stools. He stared at him.
“Watch your mouth, Dale,” El said.
Dale put a twenty on the bar and said, “Next round is on me, Caitlyn.” He was looking at me and smiling. His teeth were stained with nicotine and age.
I was starting to get the glow of alcohol in my head. “I’ll take your money and nothing more, Dale.”
He laughed at that. Guys always enjoy a chase.
El said to Dale, “Hey, remember your wife said to pick up cat food before the store closes.”
Dale sighed and said, “Drinks are still on me. Thank you for your service. Night y’all.” He walked off to the exit. Chance watched him go the entire way before resting again.
El said, “He’s a piece of shit.”
“But he’s your piece of shit.”
We both laughed. She had a knowing smile about men and I saw only briefly through my buzz she was very pretty once.
El said, “So you work around here?”
“No, I work at a horse rescue. It’s at the edge of town, a ranch actually.”
“I’m jealous.” El smiled.
“It’s hard work. I mostly do the handyman tasks, but sometimes I get to clean ‘em and take them on walks. Not many can ride anymore.”
Chance shifted a bit and looked at me from the floor. I’ve not gone on trails since he’s been like this.
“Well I’m glad you stopped by. You really should join the VFW. They do all sorts of things for y’all. And the alcohol is cheap.” She winked.
“I don’t usually go to VFWs. I’m just in the neighborhood to meet a friend.”
She wiped the countertop. “You know, your generation don’t seem to like us too much.”
I thought about this for a moment. I know I feel better with veterans. More secure, sure of myself, and understood. But not in places like this, not where there’s no Wi-Fi, and its cash-only transactions. It’s like going to your bitch of a grandma’s house.
“I don’t feel welcomed here. Present company excluded.”
Her lips were compressed into a thin line of understanding. She finished wiping and grabbed a thick folder from under the register. El pointed to herself with her thumb, “I’ve got one cook on the clock, if you’re hungry I can fix you something.”
“No thanks.” I was slowing down and taking my time with drink number three.
El said, “Alright, but if you change your mind I’ll be in the back paying some bills. Holler if you need anything.”
I looked at my phone. It was fourteen hundred and I looked at Chance. He kept laying down.
“Just a little more time buddy. Then we’ll go.”
My face felt hot and numb. After being clean and sober for so long, my tolerance for alcohol had gone to hell. I was feeling drunk enough now to take a seat. My phone buzzed. The message said he’d be here soon.
She came out from the back holding a wad of receipts. “Yeah honey?”
“One more from Dale’s money. Keep the change.”
She nodded, brought me a new plastic cup with ice cubes. She looked over the bar. “Say, if you don’t mind me saying, your dog looks like he needs a vet.”
“Cancer. He’s got a tumor in his stomach and he can’t eat on account of him feeling full all the time.”
“That’s horrible.” She put a hand on my forearm. I put my hand over hers and started to cry. I wiped away the tears and felt callouses scratch my eyelids.
She said, “Can they do something?”
I shook my head. She came around the bar and pet Chance. He wagged his tail and moved his foreleg to show El where to scratch.
“Poor boy,” El said.
The vet at the rescue offered to put Chance down for me. But I wasn’t ready for that. I didn’t want him to go. Not yet.
My phone buzzed again.
“I gotta go.”
El nodded and gave me a hug. It was the most human embrace I’ve had all month. She went back to the task of saving the dying bar, and I went outside to meet my ex.
He lifted the brown leather veterinary kit in his hand like a kind of wave and said, “Hey Cait.” He’d changed his wardrobe since last I saw him, replacing his cargo shorts and t-shirt, for a sports coat and dress slacks. His dark hair was shorter and even his tan had lightened up. He looked more professional. It was a good look for him.
I stepped close to hug him. “Thanks for doing this.”
He put his free arm around me and looked down on the cracked pavement. “You’re drunk.”
My fluttering heart stopped and sunk to my stomach.
“Need your sponsor instead of me?” Carlos said.
“I don’t need you. I need your help so I can do this on my own.”
Sirens wailed three or four blocks away. Chance lay the sidewalk, too exhausted to look towards the noise and stress about my anxiety.
“How’ve you been?”
His hand reached into his pocket and proudly hung his grey NA key tag. “Got it last month.”
“I’m happy for you.”
He pocketed his keys and sat on his heels next to Chance. Stroked his head with his ringed hand and showed his bright silver watch. “Hey buddy.”
I squatted down and lifted Chance. He was deadly light. I’d let this cancer go on for too long and he’d suffered for it. The guilt I carried was heavier than the life that had brought me so much joy.
Carlos opened his bag and pulled out two prepared syringes. He stood and handed them to me, lingering on the moment our hands touched.
“Carlos. Give me a minute. I’m going to go around to the alley.”
He said, “Need a ride back to the ranch after? Or coffee?”
I shook my head. He understood and walked across the street to where he’d parked his car. Carlos pulled away and waved good bye. I was sure he was going to call my sponsor, Charlene, as soon as he turned the corner. I’ll call her tomorrow. I had to do this one day at a time, like she had taught me.
The alley around the VFW was full of trash and smelled of city puddles. I walked towards the dented blue dumpster. The black lids were down, but would be full of bottles and unfinished meals by the end of next weekend. That’s how I had remembered it before.
I sat behind it, against the wall of the bar and out of sight from the street. I took the service jacket off Chance and placed it next to me. I put two full syringes on the jacket. I rubbed his furry chest, feeling all his ribs, and letting him lick my tears.
That’s how I met Chance five years ago. He was an abandoned puppy wandering this alley. I was just kicked out of the VFW by the bartender, El’s dead husband. The puppy was hungry and I was strung out. My veins were punctured. My cheeks hollow. My make-up ran down my face. Chance had licked away my tears.
Things changed after I met him. I got sober and he got service dog training. I found purpose rescuing thrown away animals, and held a job longer than I was ever able to after I left the Corps.
With my left arm I cradled Chance. My firing hand, the kill hand, I reached for the first syringe. I give quick glance at the label to make sure it’s Xylazine. The cap tasted of the snot from my nose. I spit the plastic and squeezed him close. I slid the needle into his atrophied rear hind muscle and felt him go limp after a slight twitch. He was breathing steadied out and he looked relaxed.
The last syringe was the barbiturates. Chance was too skinny to have this administered intravenously. I followed his ribs to find the right spot to get to his heart and recited the Serenity Prayer, drunk with grief and alcohol. I repeated it until the syringe was deep enough and I pushed all the poisonous relief into his heart. He stopped breathing.
I carried him to my car and drove to his favorite lake.