All That Remains of Etta

“They do that with gas?” Mrs. Rutzel asks.

The wind has begun to stir around the two women, one standing on the inside of an open door, the other on the outside. Vit gas? she asked. Joan is mesmerized by the start of a light snow, so early, and thinks about the killing. The dog.

“No. No. They do it by injection. Not gassed, the dog wasn’t gassed. She was put down. Humanely,” says Joan, thinking of the blue streak of numbers that ran across her mother’s arm, visible only in summer when she slept in a white linen slip, and thinking that a similar row of numbers must exist on Mrs. Rutzel’s arm as well.

“I am so sorry. I didn’t know. No one said anything to me about you.” Joan picks at her cuticles, drawing a drop of bright blood just at the edge of her middle finger.

Gvalt! To kill a dog? Why? Mrs. Rutzel’s gloved hand, the one that does not hold the red leather leash, rises to her face. She holds her reddening cheek in her hand.

“If I had known…please come in, it’s so cold,” Joan says, opening the door wide, gesturing to Mrs. Rutzel to step over the threshold. Coffee, Joan suddenly thinks again. If there were coffee, something to eat, she would come inside, they’d straighten this out  what’s to straighten? The dog is gone.

Mrs. Rutzel shakes her head, and the leash dangles in the quiet of snow falling, bells for the dead.

“Mrs. Rutzel, please,” says Joan. “It was a mistake.” It was all a mistake. Standing in the white cold, a leash dangling, Joan struggles to remember some conversation, any conversation, she had with Etta in which she asked more than Do you need paper towels?

Oy! What a mistake!”

Joan whispers again, “It was a mistake.”

Mrs. Rutzel, her hand still on her cheek, her head turning slightly from side to side, says only, “That Leyke, you know, she loved the cookies from the Polish bakery. Ach! Nebekh. Poor hintele.”

Swirling skies of white snow grow heavier around the two women, and Joan’s vision is blurred by the thick downfall. Cookies for a dog, and Joan remembers her mother handing her a cookie meant for a dog but eaten instead by five-year-old Joan. She thinks about the pudding, the warmed pudding freshly made from milk — use half jar sugar, Joan dear, and some whole milk always — that her mother stirred up to take the bitter taste of the dog’s cookie away.

In Mrs. Rutzel’s gaze, her blue shining eyes, Joan feels her own disbelief at the hours spent relegating things, damn things, clothes and books and tchotchkes, and all the while it was the dog. The snowflakes have accumulated now on Mrs. Rutzel’s black hat, her black-covered shoulders, each flake so different than the next, yet with the heat of Mrs. Rutzel’s body, the flakes attach to each other and become a scarf knit in white just before they turn to droplets of water and time becomes fleeting liquid embers that burn through a mass of congested heartbreak. “I didn’t know.” I didn’t know! But she understands there is nothing more to do, as Mrs. Rutzel walks back to her car, saying into the falling snow, “No dog. No Leyke. Poor hintele.”

“Wait. Wait,” Joan yells as Mrs. Rutzel opens her car door. Joan holds her hands up to the air as if her open palms to the sky and to God as her witness can stop time. Joan runs back into the house; she yells one last “Wait, please” to Mrs. Rutzel.

In the house, Joan grabs the needlepointed pillow. Out to the car, slipping once on the wet walkway, she is breathless and crying when she reaches Mrs. Rutzel.

“For you,” she says, gasping bits of cold air, “please, for you.”

Joan hands Mrs. Rutzel the pillow and hopes she doesn’t notice the small yellow stain on its backside.

“What is this?” Mrs. Rutzel says, although to Joan it sounds like Vos is dis? And the sound of the hard v stings.

Please, Joan is thinking. Take this pillow. Forgive me the dog.

Joan bends into the car and embraces Mrs. Rutzel. She holds onto the wool of her black coat, and she whispers into her ear.

“My mother was from Zloczow.”

Inside the condo, Joan puts on her coat, her scarf, and tries to shake off the chill before she goes back outside. She turns off all of the lights. She unplugs the small floor heater. From her purse she finds a black Sharpie pen and writes in thick letters on the side of the box Take it all. When she leaves, she makes sure the door is unlocked for the Salvation Army and then she is gone without ever looking back.  

Erica W. Jamieson writes fiction and essays. She is at work on her first novel.