Jo Ann Beard and Sheba
Photo: Courtesy of Jo Ann Beard
Something happened to her while she was eating, or right afterward. She began turning in circles and couldn't stop. In my kitchen, in my car, and then in an examining room at the vet's office. I sat on the floor with her while the vet stood leaning against the wall, watching us. I was crying, but he ignored that.

"You indicated once," he said, looking through the file, "that we should let you know when it might be time."

It wasn't time.

"It looks like a brain abnormality, something that's grown, or shifted. We might wait a day or so to see what happens. But if this doesn't stop..." He paused.

"Sheba, stop," I said, and held her. She looked like Lady from Lady and the Tramp, only old; she was 15.

It was like putting your hand on a spinning top; as soon as I let go, she began turning again. We used to call her Top Dog, because she liked to sleep stretched out on our old black Lab, her head settled on his head, both of their eyes closed. Once, many years ago, the Lab had gotten carefully to his feet, made his way to the kitchen where my husband was cooking, and accepted a treat, all without disturbing the sleeping puppy draped over his neck. The Lab lived to be 15, too. The marriage, 14.

I took my hands away to button my jacket, and she turned blindly for a moment on the gleaming linoleum, then bumped into the single leg of the examining table.

"It might be time," the vet said, putting his foot out to stop her. Except for those neon running shoes, he was completely nondescript, like an actor you aren't sure why is in the movie until the very end, when he turns out to be the killer.

At home, it didn't get any better or any worse, Sheba following herself, nose to tail, around and around in a circle while I tried to keep her steady. My neighbor came over for a few minutes and watched, her eyes round and nervous. "This doesn't look hopeful," the neighbor finally said.

It was dark by then, and I was kneeling on my living room floor in lamplight, holding her and then letting her turn, holding her and then letting her turn. It was winter, but the neighbor was wearing flip-flops.

"Aren't your feet cold?" I asked her.

"Yes," she said, and went home.

We were used to being alone. Our house was small and dark, set into a hillside, but we had a stone fireplace and built-in bookshelves and a screened porch overlooking a blue lake, our own dock, certain seabirds that didn't seem like they belonged there, so we chased them away each morning, or rather one of us did, while the other stood on a giant ornate piece of driftwood and drank coffee in her sunglasses, even though nobody needed sunglasses in Ithaca.

We had brought more or less nothing from our previous life—a few pictures, some ceramic bowls, a Turkish rug that we hardly noticed in our old, big Iowa house but that became in the new house a focal point, the last remnant of what used to be. Sheba began urinating on it sometime around midnight, in a series of dark rings overlapping and intersecting one another. By 1 o'clock it was my turn, and I ran to the bathroom and came back to find her spun into a corner and stuck there, bumping against the baseboard.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre.

"Sheba," I said.

The falcon cannot hear the falconer.

"Sheba," I said, holding her face in my hands. She looked back blindly and I saw suddenly that the vet was right, something had grown or shifted, blocking her in there all alone.

I always knew I'd have to live without her someday, I just didn't know it would be tomorrow. Things fall apart. Here in the safe silence of Ithaca, I had forgotten that.

So we stayed awake all of her last night, waiting for the vet's office to open, in the living room on the Turkish rug, in the kitchen next to her food bowl, and finally on the bed, pushed into the corner, my body between her and the edge. At some point I couldn't help it and let my eyes close, and when I did, it felt like I was turning, too, our lives unraveling like a skein of yarn stretched from Ithaca back to Iowa. I see my husband patting his chest and holding out his arms, Sheba jumping into them. I see the Lab, wearing her like a bonnet on his head. I see her running under the seabirds as they fly along the shore. Don't leave yet, I say to my husband, who leaves. "Don't leave yet," I say aloud in the darkness of the bedroom.

She used to sleep at the foot of the bed, and at first light, first twitch, would crawl sleepily up to my pillow, so that when I opened my eyes she was what I saw. The aging dog-actress face: still the dark eyes, still the long glamorous ears. Don't leave yet. If I let go of her she moves in wider and wider circles, getting close to the edge. Come back, little Sheba. We're both close to the edge now, peering over it into the great metaphorical beyond.

And then dawn arrives, and then it's 8, and I begin to move forward, into it, without thinking. I carry her down to the water and let her stand on the shore, the birds wheeling and making their noises. In Iowa she ran into a cornfield once and didn't come out for a long time, and when she did she seemed thoughtful. The Lab once went on a garbage run and afterward threw up what looked like a whole birthday cake, candles and all. I carry her back up the hill and the neighbor runs out of her house, half dressed for work, and opens the car door for me.

"Is it time?" she asks me.

"Not yet," I tell her.

All the way across town, driving and holding her in the passenger seat with one hand, I think to myself, Don't think. All the way from Iowa to Ithaca, 800 miles, she stood in the backseat on the rolled-up rug, her chin on my shoulder, and watched the landscape roll by. I feel her humming against my hand, trying to turn and then we're turning, we're in the parking lot, we're here.

It's time.

Jo Ann Beard has just completed a novel. 



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