by Janalee Chmel

Chris is fine, I say to Jennifer.

We are in a coffee shop halfway between our houses. Jennifer and I meet once a week to unload on one another. So far, today it’s been my turn. Jennifer is eight months pregnant. I am telling her about my New Year’s Eve with Chris.

I mean, Chris isn’t real happy with her life these days, but she’s making do, I guess. You know Chris. She’s tough.

Jennifer waves for a refill on her coffee and nods at me. She’s the only one who might understand, so I decide to risk it.

Jennifer, Chris’s work is so tough. You wouldn’t believe what I saw her do. It brought up all kinds of memories, I say.

I study Jennifer a moment to decide if this is too much for her, or us, right now. With what we’ve been through in the last year, supporting one another has been like two kids deciding who plays invalid and who plays nurse.

But I tell her.

Well, I spend the day, that day, December thirty-first, alone in Chris’s apartment because she works from seven to noon. I drive her to the clinic at seven so I can have the Jeep all day. Not that I know anything about Phoenix to scout about on my own.

So, anyway, I drive her to the clinic and I say, Tough day ahead? I know it is. She got a call the night before while we were having beers on her living room floor. Some tech telling her she has a surgery first thing. She’s never done one of these kinds before so she wanted to get to work early to read up on it.

I didn’t sleep a fucking wink, she says as we’re driving. You know how Chris is.

Good luck, I say when she gets out of the Jeep.

I’m really nervous, she says. I’ll need a beer later.

We’re ready to bring in the new year, you know. We both hated ‘96.

Jennifer says, did anyone have a good 96? I was so glad to see that year go.

I nod and say, You and me both. So, anyway, I spend the day waiting for noon. I watch a little TV and walk her dog. I don’t do anything too exciting. I’m just happy to relax a little. Gives me time to think about all the other shit. You know, Jennifer, I never think about it. Even that day. Even when I tried.

I wonder if I should bring this all up again. Jennifer’s probably sick of me talking about it. She’s nodding at me as if it’s OK to go on.

Jennifer says, You need to learn how to think about this when you’re alone, Denise. Maybe then you’ll cry. She pauses and shrugs, then says, Maybe not. I still cry a lot and it makes me feel better. You’re different.

I wonder, does Jennifer want me to think about it alone so I stop bugging her? At eight months pregnant now, though, shouldn’t Jennifer be feeling better about the miscarriage? Yeah, right. Shouldn’t I be healed? Your mom is supposed to die before you; your child isn’t. But, I decide to go on. This has been the nature of our friendship all year.

So anyway, I try to think. Don’t think. Shower and head to the clinic at 11:30. I want to see Chris in action. You know, Dr. Chris! Our Dr. Chris! You’d love seeing her there. She’s so in-charge.

I walk in and there’s an older woman with a little, old dog on her lap, and a girl, I guess about my age, only she’s got an engagement ring. Bitch!

Jennifer smiles and I see her absently fiddle with her ring.

Just kidding, I say. Who, me? Bitter? Moi? The girl is sitting there with a puppy that’s just out-of-con-trol! I’m telling you, that dog needed less caffeine. Speaking of which, where’s our refills?

We both look up and the waitress scurries over with the pot.

So, the receptionist comes out from the back and the older woman starts to stand up, but the receptionist looks at me and this other girl and asks us into a room right off the waiting room. We, this girl and I, both laugh and say we’re not together.

I’m Denise, I say. Chris’s friend.

This woman says, Oh, like she’s all happy to see me and tells me she’s Katy and I can go in back.

I wander back. There’s this funny parrot. I say hi and he — like on cue — takes a shit! You know, maybe Chris taught him that trick.

I wouldn’t doubt it, Jennifer says laughing.

I keep walking back. There’s this fridge where they have one of those word games stuck all over the door. You know? With one word on each piece and you move the pieces around to create sentences? There’s sentences up there like

BITE ME. DOGS DO

and

I GET WET

and

DANCE WITH A MONKEY

I smile cause I know Chris definitely created a couple of those. Can’t you see her doing that? That’s so Chris. It’s kind of strange seeing the stuff back there. Like seeing the back of a stage set with all the ropes and pulleys. The main room back there — you can tell the public, the owners, don’t go back there because there’s bagels on one of the exam tables. It’s pretty big. Two of those silver metal tables about waist high. A couple of big cages stacked near a wall. And there’s a couple of rooms off this room, and a hall going back. I just wait in that main room. I feel like an intruder, you know? The table with the bagels has a book on it open to a page about neutering dogs whose balls haven’t fallen all the way. No, really! Didn’t I say that? That was the surgery Chris was all uptight about.

Seriously? Jennifer says. Oh, Chris must love that!

The diagrams in the book were hysterical! I suppose they’re not if you’re a vet, but Chris did say that ever since the asshole dumped her, she’s found quite a bit of humor in neuters. And satisfaction.

At this point, I haven’t seen Chris yet but I hear her with hyper puppy and engaged girl. Laughing. Joking. Just a check-up, I guess.

Well, I have to go to the bathroom so I wander down that back hall and find one. There’s this map of the Grand Canyon on the wall and Big Bass Fishing or some other kind of magazine on the back of the toilet. Kind of funny.

Anyway, when I’m done, I go back up the hall and there’s Chris. She’s standing next to the open exam table. That old woman’s little dog is on it but the woman isn’t there.

Hi there, Dr. Horst, I say, all chipper and happy to call her doctor, you know?

Hey you, she says, but not real up. I’m still in the doorway to the hall. She goes to a drawer between the two tables and pulls out a syringe. She sticks it in her mouth and pulls the cap off with her teeth. You know, like you see doctors do on TV. Like it’s a pen cap, or something. So natural. I smile at her and she leans back against the cabinets. She’s filling the syringe with this pink stuff — looks gooey, not watery. Like a clear lotion, or aloe. Yeah, like pink aloe gel.

I walk up to the dog. He looks a little old but he seems nice enough. I mean, he doesn’t seem aggressive. I get up close to him and I say, what’s the prognosis, doc? Even though I hate that word — prognosis. I hate the word doctor, come to think of it. Not one M. Deity could keep my mother from withering away before my eyes. They act like life is so discardable.

Jennifer jumps in quickly, like she’s heard me say that before — she has — and says, They’re not all bad, you know. You should let go of some of your anger, Denise.

I only nod. This is the crux of my story. I can’t get diverted into that topic now. I lean in toward Jennifer a little and continue.

So, anyway, I said, what’s the prognosis, doc? And Chris says to me, I’ve got to put him to sleep.

No, Jennifer says, and sits back.

I wonder if Jennifer can see it coming. I sure didn’t. I go on quickly.

I just back up. I don’t say anything. I wanted to save him, Jennifer. I wanted Chris to save him. I mean, he was alive. He was breathing. He looked at me when I walked in the room. His owner was probably just down the hall waiting for some prescription, I bet.

I wonder if I’m telling this right. Does Jennifer get it?

What determines that, Jennifer? Life. I mean, I guess to Chris it is all scientific. She can think it’s over even when a heart’s still beating.

As soon as I say that, I remember Jennifer’s words last year. Its heart just stopped beating. That’s all they can tell me.

Jennifer is looking past my shoulder, but she looks back at me knowingly. We’ve gone over and over the concept of death. I was there when cancer finally stopped Mom’s heart. Jennifer says she knows the moment her child died inside her. Those events were separated only by two weeks.

I go on.

Lungs sound like shit, Chris says to me. She tells the tech standing there that the dog collapsed twice last night.

But still, Jennifer. What is it? Chris is a scientist. She sees it all as biological systems — functioning or not functioning. But isn’t there more to life? When does death really happen? Is it a system shut-down or more? And what does that pink stuff do? Help things along or force it?

I’m not making myself clear, I say.

Jennifer says, I understand. You know I do. Life isn’t scientific.

I nod in agreement. Jennifer says, please tell me what happened.

You sure? I say.

I think so, she says.

Chris, she walks up to the dog and the tech holds his little leg out and Chris sticks that syringe in and squirts all the pink stuff in and the dog — he immediately relaxes. He just relaxes. Like my mom did when she took her last breath, Jennifer. Just like something left her. The dog was the same.

Chris goes out to talk to the woman who I suddenly hear sobbing. I am so curious to look at her. I want to see it on someone else’s face. But the tech, she’s wrapping up the dog in a towel and I can’t leave. I have to watch. I realize I don’t know what they did to Mom’s body right after. I was in the kitchen. Did I tell you about any of that? They arrived after we called and I didn’t watch. I might have been on the phone with you. I probably was.

The tech puts the dog in this plastic bag. A yellow plastic bag, and I remember the zipper. I heard a zipper that night, Jennifer. I totally forgot it until that day with the dog and then suddenly I remembered the zipper! They put her in a body bag. My mom. In a body bag.

I bring my coffee mug to my lips, but taste nothing. I’m pushing too hard. For what?

Then, Jennifer leans across and puts her hand on top of mine. There’s a tear in her eye. Why can’t I do that?

She says, you need to finish this.

I turn my hand over to hold hers and I go on.

The yellow bag, it … the tech knots the top and holds it up off the table with one hand. It’s full and round at the bottom, I say.

Like a stork carrying a baby in a blanket, Jennifer says quietly.

Yeah, but not moving, I say. Just a round lump.

We stare at each other. I finish the story.

But then, so the tech says, to the doggie freezer! and walks back down the hall.

I’m stunned. I bet they put Mom in a freezer, Jennifer. They froze Mom.

Jennifer nods knowingly. One hand rests on her sizable tummy.