Pain Management

Nils Blondon

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Some dogs hover beneath tables for scraps of meat, while others wag their tails at the sound of an opening cabinet. For Buick, a red and white Greyhound, hardly any coaxing can stir his sickening body–that is, until one day, he hears someone purloin his pills.

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Yolk began as an electric conversation around a picnic table in Saint Henri Square.

Our scruffy pioneer and present prose editor had previously approached each of us with an idea, a vision: We would establish our own literary magazine in Montreal. And so it was, or so it would be. After that original encounter, eight individuals devoted to the word resolved that they would gather bi-weekly, on Sundays, and bring something new into this busy, manic world—something that might slow its spin down somewhat and cause its patronage to say: “You know what, it ain’t so bad, is it, Susan?”

We are undergraduate, graduate, and graduated students of writing. Some of us learn our craft formally from accomplished authors in seminar courses, and some of us learn by looking out the window of the world and onto the streets that sing below. Some of us learn from screaming squirrels, old curtains, departed grandfathers, and bowel movements. We learn from old lovers, long winters, imperfect mothers, and from the deep internet where a musical genius remains entombed.

Yolk is cold floors on Sabbath mornings, home-brewed ginger beer in the endless afternoon, and downpours of French-pressed coffee in assorted artisanal mugs. Our first official gathering was scheduled for a duration of two hours; most of us remained for six, departing only to attend to the summons of our own beckoning realities. Together, with time suspended, we talked endlessly of contributing something to disrupt Montreal’s literary ecosystem. Something unparalleled, something true.

But what? There was nothing to discuss. There was everything to discuss.

We volunteer our time, hounding some elusive beast composed of combustible words and works. We are hopeful, truly hopeful, that we can give something new, a new way, a new light, and that if we cannot, we might at least uphold the traditions of our predecessors, cast star-wide nets to capture their echoes. We are a thousand decisions. We are a sanctuary for the orphaned word, the solitary writer, the cereal-eating artist who yearns for company, for the comfort of a like mind; we sit together with them at foggy dawn, it rains a baptism, with our arms and hands intertwined, we form an umbrella—underneath, they scribble madly, the perfect picture.

Yolk in no way presumes to be superior to its contemporaries, but its contemporaries should not presume yolk to be anything other than loud—quite, quite loud. We are yippidy jazzed to address the oh-so-technicolorful magnificence of the human experience, but we are prepared also to address the ugliness, to stare at its wet, hairy snout and into its square depth and to roar in return at the things that yearn to devour our skin, beset our ethos, and dig graves in our own backyards.

There’s so much to say, there’s so much we don’t know, but together, with you, we can placate that ignorance, render it peaceful, tolerable, and perhaps even, fucking beautiful.

And Susan says, “Amen.”

Euthanasia. 
          Its etymological meaning: good death. 
          Strange thing is, when people suffer, their cells revolt against their bodies. And their bodies, withering, signal to their owners that it’s time to go. The brutalized body is allowed no such good death
          You’d rather die than spend a decade lathered in shit? Too bad. You’re here until the professionals say it’s time, pal. And even then, you’ll have to deal with some good-natured loved one who’d rather keep you hooked up to grotesque tubes that beep and clatter through the night than let you go. This, we’re told, is what happens when you’re loved. 
          Death must be an agony, an illogical suspension hung cruelly at the tip of our noses as we sit with our hands stuck under our asses. 
          Sometimes, when the stars drain the breath and blood from the street, I envy the good deaths enjoyed by the dogs. 

***

The first sign was his reluctance. The way he perched at the top, trembling, eyeing the single flight of stairs as if staring down the headlights of an oncoming train. I coaxed him with cheese, meats, and a gentle reassurance.
          Finally, after a fall that could have been fatal, I resigned myself to carrying him up and down the stairs. Every footfall a life-or-death negotiation. His muscles and tendons twitched in my arms. Eyes and snout static, frozen between fear and affection. Collapsing together as we made it outside. Head down, heart heaving, he hopped on in search of his pissing place. A brown patch of grass killed by the poison in his bladder. 

***

Buick. Greyhound. Red and white. 37 kg. 
          Uncorking the lid, I thumbed his pills in my palm. Powerful little tablets. 
          Give two pills every six hours as needed for pain. In the case of trembling, vomiting, or sudden death, contact emergency veterinarian services IMMEDIATELY.
          I contemplated the scattergun diatribe of the vet. 
          “Sorry it took us so long to get back to you,” he had said. 
          “Sure,” I replied, adrenaline-soaked eyes on my animal. “Your assistant promised me you’d get in touch with us days ago.”
          He prattled on. “Anyways, so, the X-rays show . . . femoral head . . . metastasis . . . significant bone degeneration . . . the biopsy will show us more. . . .”
          Buick was watching me, wet lips twisted in a grimace. He raised his head, lapped up some water with his deep-pink tongue, then let out a cry he’d been holding in for many lifetimes. 
          “What can we do?” I asked the vet.
          “Well, there’s a few procedures, chemotherapy, and then surgery. It’s fairly effective. Well, no . . . not really effective, but it works sometimes. It’s about twenty-two thousand dollars. That’s a low estimate, but we try to keep our clients hopeful.” 
          “And the other options?”
          “Well . . . there’s pain management until . . . euthanasia.”

***

I slipped the pill on Buick’s tongue, watched the spasm settle and the light reignite at the edges of his eyes. Pain management. A slow warmth, spreading from pupil to cornea and beyond.
          He stood at the bottom of the steps outside, still shaky. I got into a deep squat, inserting my arms beneath his body like a forklift, then hoisted him up, resting his depleted frame against my chest. Buick sighed and coughed and breathed deeply in delight. I caught a glimpse of his reflection in the mirror above the landing. Interpreting his panting as a full-bodied smile. 
          Back inside the moaning started again. A quiet whimper, accelerating into a whine, mutated with the rapid cell growth in his bones. He stood up, got down, stood up, and spun. Something cold and hungry developed in Buick’s chest, spreading faster than the warmth provided by the pills. 
          I took the bottle from the cupboard, read the label again. 
          Two every six hours as required. 
          Was it as required or every six hours
          I pulled out some pills, held them to the face of the gray afternoon. Buick watched and began to salivate. I unscrewed the lid. Two more bounced into my palm. 
          Buick quivered to his sick legs and hopped to my side. He looked up, tongue out, drool splattering the floor. I placed the pills in his open mouth. He swallowed without chewing. I put the other pills on the table and joined him in the bedroom. Watching the slow unspooling of his pain, how the pressure left his chest. The red and browns on his coat grew deeper, brighter. 
          That night, when we were sure the street was asleep, I carried him from his bed to the quiet sidewalk. Descending the steps together like a single organism. His body flush against my chest. Head up and neck erect, in a show of strength. I lowered to a lunge on the grass and watched him sidle away in search of the brown patch of grass. 

***

          The first time, I did it with the lights off and my eyes closed. I made sure he wasn’t watching. Waiting until he was thoroughly narcotized, half-asleep. I poured a glass of warm water, plucked a pill from the bottom of his supply. Swallowed it. He struggled to his feet in the other room, letting out a sharp yelp. I closed the door. Shutting out his protests, the yelping as he clawed at the wood. Bit and groped at the handle. 
          Two every six hours as required. 
          A half-hour later, as the aches in my arms and legs settled, the sting was gradually eaten by the pills. I poured a glass of cold water and sat with my head and heart against the kitchen table. I waited for them to settle. 
          Then, I took another. 
          Buick wailed from the bedroom. He bit the doorframe and broke out, slinking from the room with his tail high. The kitchen was a lightless cave dripping in shame. 
          Take as many as wanted as required as needed as . . . 
          We stayed that way. Frozen in the kitchen. I watched until I saw the colour of the lights change. I gave him another pill to bring him to my level. The temperature dropped. The ceiling and floor moved closer together. We lay together like embryonic twins.

***

“It’s getting worse.” 
          Buick was curled into a ball. He got up, slurped some water, and stumbled from the room, hopping on three legs as he growled onto the veranda. I watched him from my study, pill bottle in hand. Outside, the clouds looked like wild dogs with bared teeth and raised cackles. 
          “Oh yeah?” the admin assistant answered. I pictured her, plastic eyelashes, half pack of gum in her mouth, choking. 
          “When can I talk to Dr. Joseph?” I snapped. 
          A car sped by blasting dance music. Dogs across the street sent dust into the air. Marking their spots with firm kicks and grunts. Hot piss flowing through dirt like spilled blood. 
          “He can barely walk anymore. The medication. It’s not strong enough or it’s not enough. We’re almost out, and we need more.” 
          “Can I place you on hold?” 
          Prerecorded messages hummed across the line. Tooth decay, rabies, discount neutering, all set to Baroque classical music. 
          Dr. Joseph pounced onto the phone. “You’re the guy with the sick dog, right?” 
          I searched for words. 
          “It’s a joke, sir,” he said. “All I talk to are people with sick dogs. Rough crowd.” I could hear the receptionist’s lips smacking over the howls and barks in the background. “How is the boy . . . Bucky, right? Anyways, have you started considering the next big step?” 
          I looked at Buick. His canine tongue is too dignified for the man. He shook his head.
          “We’re still on the pain management path,” I replied. “The only issue is, we’re out of pills. And even those, whatever they were, we’re finding that they’re not managing the pain well enough.” 
          “We’re finding, sir?”
          Swallowing a pill, I replied, “He’s finding.” 
          “Right. Well, are you interested in hearing the results of his biopsy?”

***

His head lay on my chest. There was a bottle at his feet, and one in my hand. His eyes, auburn, speckled with gold nuggets, opened and closed releasing small tears. He shook to attention, letting out a yelp, and then hobbled to the kitchen. He stood beside the cabinet, rocking on three legs. I lumbered to my feet, trudged to the kitchen, and rifled through the vitamins, canned food, tinfoil, and desiccated mouse shit. 
          “We’re out,” I said. 
          He watched with head tilted as if the room was shifting on its side. He let out a pained bark, wincing at the effort. 
          “I’ll handle it,” I said. “I’ll manage the pain.” 
          Bending over, lifting him, kissing the soft patch of fat at the crown of his head and carrying him outside. 

***

He yelped and dashed away. Tail between his legs, head hung like a dated calendar from a single dejected tack. 
          He hopped onto the deck, spun, and went inside. Found a soft spot of carpet and dug furiously. Collapsed. Muscle spasms in his shoulders, twitching legs. Fireworks blooming just beneath his skin. 
          We had one pill left. 
          With a tilt of his head, Buick signaled we could share it. I bit off my half. He did the same. I crawled into my tracksuit and crept out of the house. The night was thick with streetlights and sweaty brick. Blue lengths of shadow bridged sidewalk and street. Old lungs exhaled plinths of smoke like ancient columns. 
          I passed a store flanked by an espresso bar and thrift shop. A beggar sandwiched between two women in yoga pants, cell phones in hand, waiting on strangers to pick them up and drive them to guarded condominiums. I heard Buick yelp. The sound of his spittle landing on the ground, the way he clawed at his bed. An impotent attempt to dig up a bone of comfort. 
          Euthanasia: good death. 
          I twisted into an alley flanked by a church, then exited onto a narrow street toward an intersection watched over by low-rise buildings. A man was on the corner. Straddling a dog like an urban knight atop his horse. A body, its face swallowed by the night, slouched from a payphone fraternized by flies. Another body vanished into a corner store. Everything buzzed with the death of neon lights. 
          I pulled the bottle from my pocket, hands shaky, unsure. “You holding?” I asked the man, which is what I’d heard my father say when he’d take me on his runs.
          The man dug into the loose waistband of his pants. Probed, as if searching for a heartbeat on a corpse. Cars and brakeless bicycles and people wheeled by. The man dropped his dog’s leash. 
          Dog entered the alley. 
          Man followed the dog. 
          I followed them both. 
          “Open your hands,” he said. 
          The dog sniffed my leg, barked. His deep eyes absorbed the mood like a dehydrated cloth. I gave the man my money. The pills entered my palm. 
          “Don’t leave the alley with us,” he ordered. “Wait a minute.”
          The man and dog disappeared into pinpricks on the empty street. 
          I walked to a bench and sat and ate a pill. 
          Comfort. Stillness. 
          Pain? 
          Managed. 

***

“We’ll give him calming medication. He’ll settle. Yes, it’s painless.” 
          “What about his pain until then?”
          “What’s a few days of pain in the face of eternity of peace?” 
          “I’m sorry?”
          “It might sound insane, but with his pain, he could probably hold out for a good week, at least. We come to your home. We do it in the comfort of those surroundings. Very dignified.” 
          “So, you’re bringing death to our doorstep?”
          “Something like that, I guess.”
          I arranged the patio with his favourite trinkets and stuffed toys. A space at the back with his bed all clean. To either side, resting on pillars I found on the curb, I placed two flowers in cracked plastic pots. Their heads lowered in observance. Ready to mourn.
          It was like the excavated contents of a child pharaoh’s tomb. Assembled on our deck, waiting for the euthanizers. Buick observed my work, strafing around on three legs. 
          We stared at each other. A smell left the flowers. The smell of the colour pink. I rubbed his orange spots. Kissed the thinning fur of his neck, his head. He let out a groan that came from a hidden layer of his body. A poem he’d been saving for a moment like that. 

***

We locked eyes. Again, he spoke to me in his language.
          “All right,” I replied. Shuffling from the window, Buick an imperfect shadow spread across the floor. “Come with me. The people will be here soon.” 
          We walked from bedroom to kitchen to study to veranda. His three-legged dance grumbled through the house, unsettling old hopes and waking up the moths. Outside, he scanned the scene with a twitch of his nose. Snot and spit hung from his lips like liquid boulderers and landed in a puddle that refused to evaporate. 
          “Come on,” I whispered, ushering him to his bed. Watched by the funeral procession of stuffed animals, toys, reflections of sunlight from newborn leaves. I kissed his head and neck. Wiped the tired moisture from Buick’s eyes with my graying scruff. 
          He nodded. 
          Contented and dismayed by the scene. 
          He whined.
          They would arrive soon. 
          His pain would be eternally managed. 
          “Wait.” I massaged the old skin between his shoulders. Skin that was in desperate retreat from his body. I tiptoed inside, rummaged through the pantry, over the dry mouse shit, searching for a biscuit or a cracker or a tin of tuna. A final snack. I reached behind the half-finished chips. The weary jars and forgotten spices. Dog treats gone stale through Buick’s refusal to eat. 
          My fingers reached a baggie stuck in a pool of spilled honey. I pulled it loose. Opened it. Marveled at its contents. When I turned around, he was licking my calves with a grin. His tail a flailing whip in the hands of a lion tamer. Together, on the saliva-stained tiles, we emptied the bag and counted the stashed pills.
          “This should be enough,” I said. 
          A knock at the door as we took turns swallowing the medicine. 
          “Hello? Hello?” the euthanizers shouted through the door. 
          I bellycrawled to the bedroom window, slithering over bits of trash, staring through the yellow opening in the blinds. There were two of them. Black stretcher in hand. Canvas bags with protruding tubes and needles. Faces blanched by the coming of the light. 
          The knocking grew to a steady thud as if they were a special task force descending on a criminal’s home. I expected they’d batter through the door with their contracts and death implements, credit-card machine primed with pre-programmed fees. 
          I crawled back to the kitchen. Buick was on his stomach, tongue out, lapping up the pills. There were a few left. The euthanizers shouted. The birds sang in perfect pitch and their song drowned out the hammering chaos of the knocking. Attuned to the limp ears of my freshly drugged companion. 
          “Are these for me?” I asked, and I picked them up and ate two, and the door-pounding continued, and my dog marshalled the last of the wolf left in him and let out a howl that told me everything and nothing, and all of it was fine. 
          I stood up, but he couldn’t join me. I crouched, kissed him, pulled him from the floor and carried him to the veranda. To the softness of his bed. The gentle depth of the day. 
          The euthanizers were at the side of the house. Buick barked. “We hear you up there,” they protested. “What you’re doing is inhumane. Keeping him around for one more minute when he’s in this state is an act of cruelty!”
          Buick’s head dropped. His eyes lowered, gaze falling someplace beyond the house and the deck. I watched that space with him. Bathing in the warmth of the last living afternoon. The painlessness and isolation with our bodies intertwined. My arms around him, eyes half-open. Our legs pointed in the vague direction we were headed. 
          We took the last two pills. 

Nils Blondon is a writer and Harm Reduction Worker from Toronto, Ontario. His work explores the tragicomic nature of the human condition. He is currently seeking representation for his debut novel, The Beast Below the Boards.


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