THE BUSINESS OF BODIES
by Gwendolyn Edward
Late on the fourth of July, my friends arrived home to find it had caught on fire, everything blackened and damp from fire hoses, their two dogs and cat perished amid the scorched remnants of their house. Early the next day a mutual friend called me. We don’t know what to do, Anna told me over the phone, about the bodies.
She’d called me specifically because I’d worked in the veterinary industry for years. Everyone had heard about the time I had to decapitate a cat we feared might have rabies. She assumed, I think, that I’d be one who might know what to do. But I’d never dealt with a situation like this either. When I called an emergency vet I was told they would charge at least two-hundred dollars an animal for disposal: an impossible immediate expenditure for our community of still-struggling ex-college students.
I’ll go get them, I told her, and keep them until tomorrow, a Monday when the regular clinics would be open again and we could dispose of the bodies at a more reasonable price. No one else, wants to, you know, Anna said. What she meant was no one wanted to look at broken and burned bodies of pets we knew. No one wanted to house those bodies, dead pets in the garage. I asked if we knew anyone with a deep freezer, but no one wanted to share their space for food with corpses.
Years ago when I had to decapitate the cat I learned a bruising lesson about practicality and death. We needed to send its head to the veterinary school at Texas A & M for rabies testing; it seemed awfully inhumane to cut off an animal’s head off, wrap it in plastic and put it in a cooler, but that’s the way things are done.
The clinic I was working in was new and didn’t have all the equipment we needed. A scalpel, no matter how sharp, would most likely only cut through skin and muscle, not bone. I was sent to the grocery store for gloves, heavy yellow ones used for washing dishes, and I also bought a large cleaver. In the clinic, we hacked at the spinal column, and when the head finally came loose, I thought its neck looked like a Christmas ham and afterwards was so sick with the imagery that I dry-heaved in the bathroom while other employees packed the head for shipping. We wrapped its body in paper towels and plastic Kroger bags and put it in the top section of our refrigerator next to microwave our meals; we didn’t have the money to buy a deep freezer then, either.
I think it’s common, when shedding our skins, to not even know it’s happened until afterward. When Anna called me, I thought about how in the days following the decapitation I pulled my food from the freezer—meatloaf and mashed potatoes, rigatoni, lasagna—right out from beside the cat’s body, and I ate it in the break room during lunch. The animal had become a thing, reduced to an inquiry, just as ear mites under a microscope are so foreign they can’t possibly be alive, just as a preserved dog’s heart, erupting with heartworms, never belonged to someone’s pet.
My friend’s brother did the dirty work at the burned house—dislodged the pets’ bodies and brought them to my home in boxes where we stacked them in the garage. They’re… charred… you know, he said, and I replied I suspected as much. I felt the need to explain to him why I didn’t mind keeping them when no one else would. I felt like I had to explain to him that the business of pets dying was something I was used to and that someone had to be detached. But I didn’t say anything because he fidgeted with his keys, looking over his shoulder at his car. It was clear that I was the only one who felt the need to say more.
Overnight I was awakened by my dog whining at the bedroom door: he needed to go outside. It was still dark and I refused to look at the clock. I lay on the sofa next to the backdoor and waited for him to paw the glass, signaling that he wanted to come in. With my eyes closed and my head on the sofa cushion I smelled something vaguely revolting, a smell like steamed broccoli left in a pot on the stove too many days after cooking. When I awoke the next morning, I realized the smell was from the dead pets, the odor in the garage sucked up into the attic and distributed around the house via the air-conditioner. At first I was disgusted. Then I was annoyed. I turned off the AC and spent the morning with my the ceiling fans turned to high-speed, irritated that the temperature was rising—summer in Texas—and that moving air was not the same as cold air.
Anna had arranged for cremation, and when a man from the service came, he said he was sorry for my loss. I explained what had happened—it wasn’t my loss exactly—and together we opened the garage to remove the boxes. In the frank language of death and with my “I used to work in veterinary clinics” preface his initial somberness dissipated. I haven’t seen them, I said, my hand on top of the smallest box, for the cat, and I don’t know how much is left. I think they were charred pretty bad. If there’s fur left, the black dog is Buffalo. I’m sorry the boxes aren’t labeled.
I didn’t have to over-explain or pretend with the man who shared this private world. This was his business, our business, the business of death and pragmatism. It was the business of moving bodies and signing paperwork and being unmoved.
At one of my first hospitals I watched one of our clients, a massive ex-rodeo champion, curse God with a cracked voice and tears on his cheeks when we discovered his cat had a tumor in his brain. Once, a mother made her nine-year-old son stay in the room while we put down their cat; he couldn’t look and faced the wall while his pet spasmed in my hands and when the boy began to cry the mother didn’t even touch him. For a long time I would cry with these patients, and sometimes I would cry even after they left, holed up in the back room with the deep freezer and checking my reflection in a compact to see when my puffy face looked normal again. I have assisted in the euthanasia of eighty-six animals, but somewhere along the line—Lord knows I wish I could remember when exactly—I stopped crying.
I can’t imagine anyone ever enjoying pulling plastic around the body, that final frozen nothingness look of an animal’s face before the bag is tied off in a harsh knot; but that’s the way it is. Dogs and cats went into heavy black plastic bags and were placed in a deep freezer, methodically almost. The pet ceased to be a pet. It became a thing: an it. Even the language we used in the clinic was a reduction when the names of pets were replaced with the words “pick-up” and “body”.
Let me be clear. I am used to and now comfortable with the act of putting an animal to sleep. I am also comfortable disposing of bodies. It isn’t either of these that bothers me now. It’s knowing that something in my understanding and actions towards animals and people shifts right after death.
It wasn’t until the man had taken out the smallest box with the cat to his truck, after we dropped the mourning language, that I realized what it was about my interactions with death that disturbed me. It was knowing, finally, that empathy had become a stranger to me: only sympathy remained, and then when the business of bodies occurred, that too disintegrated into strict efficiency, leaving me without the ability to feel anything. And with my friends’ pets in the garage, the empathy-to-sympathy-to-business process had also now become about me, not them, some malformed narcissism that comes—and this is how I rationalize it—when one starts to feel inconvenienced by death.
And while I filled out paperwork, carbon-copied onto duplicates against the garage door, it clicked again. It’s also some form of guilt, I suppose, that I don’t hold on and that I’m not affected the way I think I should be. Guilt that I couldn’t cry for my friends who treated their pets like children and guilt too for regretting, wishing on and off for a few hours, that I didn’t take the bodies into my garage, the stench of them heavy in my nose and the back of my throat. And later as I received texts from friends thanking me for what I’d done, I felt more guilt for knowing it didn’t mean as much to me as it did to them. Perhaps utility is its own form of giving, but it’s not the form I want. I want to remember what it feels like to still possess this small node of compassion and to feel, without guilt, that I haven’t lost an essential quality of my humanity.
When the man was leaving there was a brief awkwardness. I was not the owner of these pets, and the way I spoke had aligned me like him. What were we to say to each other in a business where one of us was supposed to be grieving, but neither was? He was about to say I’m sorry again, I could tell by the way he nodded, returning to a more formal posturing, the smile sliding from his face, holding his hand out to shake mine, but in the end he didn’t say anything. I went inside my house to my dog, sitting by the window, his ears perked with interest at the man getting in the truck, and I sat next to him while we watched it drive away.
Gwendolyn Edward is a Pushcart-nominated writer of non-fiction, poetry, and fiction. Her work has been accepted by Crab Orchard Review, Fourth River, Bourbon Penn, Crack the Spine, and others. She holds a MA in Creative Writing from the University of North Texas where she worked with American Literary Review, and she is currently pursuing a MFA at Bennington. She works with Fifth Wednesday Journal as an assistant non-fiction editor and also teaches creative writing.
Image credit: Skott Яeader on Flickr