C. L. Bledsoe “Stray” [2007 revisited]

Paul waited till his fiancée was gone, ran downstairs and hopped in his car. He didn’t know exactly what he was going for, maybe ice cream, maybe that pie that you could buy two pieces of at a time, frozen. The closest place was Kroger so he went there, though the ice cream shop was just down the street. He didn’t know how long his fiancée would be gone. She was on a lunch date with a friend from her old job, so the friend would have to go back to work.

He and his fiancée both had the day off because they were getting married that weekend. That’s why they had been on the diet for the last two months. That’s why he was making a raid.

He heard an ambulance siren at the light but didn’t see anything, so he drove through and parked. Inside, he grabbed a basket and made his way to the bakery section. When he passed the pharmacy, several employees were gathered around an old man slumped in a chair. Paul thought “old”, and then immediately realized that the guy’s age was indeterminate. He might be forty, but he looked sixty or seventy. He was thin as faith, and his face was ringed by a dirty grey beard, stained yellow around the mouth. The man’s head was slumped down like he might’ve passed out. Paul’s first thought was that the man was homeless or very poor and couldn’t afford to refill his medication; that’s why he was in the pharmacy, causing a scene. His second thought was about Bill.

Bill was an old redbone hound Paul had found when he was a kid. The dog had probably belonged to their neighbor Mr. Martin, a middle-aged electrician and carpenter who lived on the next hill over from Paul’s father’s house. Paul had been playing out in the valley between their houses when he saw the dog watching him. Paul had dropped to one knee and held out a hand and the dog had come and licked it. The dog walked slow, but Paul led him home and fed him a little from the fridge. He named him Bill and when his dad came home, asked if he could keep him.

“We’ll have to ask Martin,” his Dad said. “That’s an old dog. It belongs to somebody and they’ll probably want it back.”

But it was already late, so he let Paul have the dog for the night.

It was around two, three a.m. when Paul woke. He’d heard something or felt something, he didn’t know. He went outside where Bill was sleeping in a makeshift doghouse Paul’s dad had made by leaning some plywood against the wall and stuffing it with blankets. Bill was standing, watching him like he’d been earlier. Paul went to the dog and hugged him, listening to him breathe until Paul realized he was quiet.

In the morning, Paul’s dad called Mr. Martin. “Leave him by the road, and the city will haul him off,” the man had said. Paul’s father had chatted with Mr. Martin for a few minutes before hanging up, something Paul never understood. “He’s not a bad man,” Paul’s father told him. “He just doesn’t understand why anyone would get worked up over a dog.”

Paul and his dad buried Bill out behind the house. “When they know their time is coming, sometimes things just want to go somewhere safe,” his dad had said to him that night.

Paul hadn’t thought about Bill in years. It had made him feel better, what his dad had said, cause it was like he’d helped the dog, even though all he’d done was feed him.

Paul came out of his reverie and found himself at the donut case. He grabbed a couple, without thinking, and went to pay for them.

He passed the pharmacy again. The paramedics were there. They had the man laid out on a gurney. Several employees were gathered around watching. Maybe that was it; they weren’t acting like he was some crazy homeless guy making a nuisance. They all looked like he was dying, or dead. There were a couple girls who looked like they were about to start crying, and the pharmacy manager (or a man Paul assumed to be this) was watching with his hands on his hips, helpless. The paramedics were talking soothingly as they worked. It was odd to Paul that they didn’t seem jaded and professional like the ones on TV.

Paul went to the self-checkout and dodged out of the way as the paramedics rolled the man past and out the door. No one else moved. Paul paid for his things and left, feeling oddly angry about this.

Outside, the ambulance sat parked by the door. Maybe they weren’t taking the man to the hospital because he wasn’t bad enough off. Paul walked past and went to his car, his donuts forgotten. He watched the ambulance in the rearview as he left the parking lot, and even as he moved out onto the road, waiting for it to move, or the man to walk back out, or something.