He shook the vial in front of the counter, urine sloshing along the plastic sides. Beige hairs littered his flannel shirt, so I knew he owned a dog, but we didn’t have any named Moon on file. No variations of the word, either, like Twilight or Nighttime.
I closed the log and called in the back for Janice. She was most likely on the phone with her husband, who had been mowing behind the house and nearly fell off the rider from the pain of a spider bite. His ankle had swollen to the size and color of an eggplant. Janice said no such dog existed. The man overheard and turned back to me.
“I was in here last night.” He dropped the vial on my papers and I lifted my hands. He claimed his dog jumped on the bed in the middle of the night and started wheezing. Gulping was the exact word he used. He said the dog nearly dry heaved all over his sheets, so he took her outside, and she proceeded to chomp down cedar mulch at the base of a hydrangea. The doctor last night had checked her, induced vomit, and told the man to bring back a urine sample.
I didn’t like how the man looked. His beard was patchy, as if the hairs had quit after a few days of growth, and he wore a hat with “Toke the Trout” printed across the brim. That was the type of thing I would turn over in my head again and again while I lay in bed unable to sleep next to my snoring husband. Dr. Pierson, the vet on duty last night, would never induce vomiting unless a dog had downed a shot of Clorox. I knew the guy was full of shit.
I said we would get to him in a moment. I asked him to sit down—“we have magazines on the table”—and picked up the vial with a napkin and brought it to Janice. I stood in the doorway and listened to her talk to her husband. Ian was his name, and he was bitching about the bite. I had suggested soaking his leg in water and salt but Janice waved me away. I knew what she was cooking up, talking as loud as she could about the injury so Dr. Warren would hear in the next room over.
Dr. Warren was on call every Saturday night. Rather than drive the thirty minutes here for an emergency, he stayed and slept in the clinic until midday Sunday, when he went back to Willsboro for his Sunday Lutheran service. He was eating a peanut butter sandwich on wax paper when I knocked.
“Doc, do we treat any dogs named Moon?”
“Like Moon Mulligan?”
“I think so.”
He put down the sandwich. He didn’t have anything to drink, never did, so I was always offered him a glass of orange or grape juice for the fridge. I couldn’t imagine having a mouth so dry. “Not off the top of my head.” He went back to the sandwich, chewing with his head to the left, staring at the poster of a golden retriever and a boy in a field of high grass. The retriever looked ten times the size of the boy, who had a strange smile on his face, as if somebody was doing something off camera to make him concentrate. I stared at the poster for another few seconds until I heard the man scream.
I like to read murder mysteries set in the southwest. I like when there’s red dust, antelope skulls, low Jeeps driven off road. I buy most of my books at the Beehive, a consignment shop on Poplar Drive; five paperbacks for a dollar. The last time I went was on Wednesday: I was spending the upcoming weekend at my sister’s in Burlington, across Lake Champlain, and while the rest of them went kayaking I would volunteer to watch the cabin and could get some reading done.
I’d found a few good titles and was about to leave when Paul, the guy who handles the donations, basically cornered me by the hardcovers. He stretched his arms along the shelf and asked about my work. I had to remember my usual line: I was a stewardess for Southwest and worked at Macy’s every other weekend. My mother lived in Chicago and had shingles. I was always waiting at the terminals for changeovers and needed something to keep me busy.
We exhausted the usual topics and I turned to go but he wouldn’t stop talking. He said I looked nice but the compliment was lost beneath other sentences, and I shifted a Tony Hillerman novel into my right hand and that exposed my key string: “Tri-County Animal Hospital” in white type. I said that I took my dog there but he crossed his arms and I remembered another previous lie; as a stewardess who rarely came back to the apartment, I could never own a pet. In fact, I hated animals. Every last one of them.
One night Dr. Warren smoked a cigarette behind the hospital, arms crossed, leaning against the brick wall. He practically sucked it down, stomped it on the concrete step, and then threw rocks into the woods. Janice and I watched him, rubber brooms in our hands, and laughed about his wife and her big glasses and even bigger ass. When he turned around he went back to hosing the nugget-shaped shit and curled hairs into the drain. The back room was sloped, and everything slid along the blue-painted cement and went down the pipes. Janice and I would fight over who would spray the sludge down; trust me, there I was, fighting over cleaning shit when it pained me to scrub the toilet at home. Dr. Warren came back into the room and asked why we were laughing. I looked at Janice and she wasn’t laughing, she had this look of death to her, her long nose almost stretching over her top lip. I guess he was talking about me.
After Dr. Warren calmed the man down, I gave him the newest issue of Field and Stream. I was saving it for my husband because there was a cover article on hunting pheasants after thunderstorms. The man thanked me and that was a nice gesture, a welcome change in mood. I slipped into the back and saw Dr. Warren and Janice, both of their hands on the rotary phone on the table. Janice wanted to call the police; she said the vial was full of apple juice. Dr. Warren had told her to drink it if she was so sure.
“I know. Did you see his beard?”
Both of them looked at me before continuing.
“We should let him calm down.” Dr. Warren dragged the phone to the end of the table and sat down. “Maybe he did see Dr. Pierson last night but Kathy forgot to register him.” Both of them were on duty the night before, and neither of them was answering the phone.
“I don’t feel safe here,” Janice said. “Not with the fucking mountain man and his cider piss.”
Dr. Warren told us to just wait it out. He claimed to have seen this type of behavior before: it was a way of coping with the recent death of a pet. “We’ll go talk to him, and it’ll be fine.” He turned to Janice. “And if he acts up again, I’ll call the police personally.” He stressed that final word but it did little to calm her. We walked to the front together, and the guy was still sitting down, the magazine open on his lap, but he was staring at the door. Ian was standing on the welcome mat, crutches tucked in his armpits.
I had only called Janice a bitch once. Two workers were laying down pavers across the street and one of them wore low jeans, and his ass crack was open to the world. She grabbed the binoculars from me and I said it, and I meant it even though I was smiling. I was almost waiting for a reason to say it.
She was being a bitch again. She hugged Ian at the door and put her palms on his cheeks, as if he’d just come back from war, and helped him along. She asked if Dr. Warren could check his ankle for a minute, and the second the words left her lips the crazy guy stood and the magazine fell onto the floor.
“He can fucking wait.”
Dr. Warren held out his hands. Ian started talking but I could never understand his mumbling. The guy got closer to him and Janice tried to stand between them, a sudden rush of spousal protection giving her strength, but Dr. Warren was the one who really blocked the guy’s movement. They stood toe to toe in the center of the room, their feet spread on the giant paw rugs scattered over the linoleum.
Then the guy pushed Dr. Warren, knocked him back against Ian, who screamed. He must have twisted the bad ankle. Dr. Warren was in shock, his white coat open like a cape, and I did the first thing that came to my mind. I threw the vial of piss at the guy and it opened on contact, drenching his shirt. I laughed. I looked at everybody with quick glances and laughed, hoping my laugh would start a chain that would end with apologies. I laughed, and I waited, and I was fine with that. I had nowhere to be, and the longer my husband slept the closer his snores would get to whispers.