Karen Russell
Photo: © Michael Lionstar
For two and a half years, I worked as a technician and receptionist at a veterinary clinic on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Each weekday morning on the way to work, I'd stop at the aspirationally named Famous Deli down the block, then emerge with my coffee and my half-eaten eggwich onto a scene of biblical pathos. Pet carriers stood lined up on the street outside the locked clinic, a chorus of inhuman lamentation pouring forth from the airholes: barking, chirping, mewling, hissing, thumping. Large dogs howled, and small dogs yipped in circles.

And that was just the animals. The humans made their own riotous cries. A typical crowd on the sidewalk might contain, say, two schoolgirls in lavender uniforms embracing the neck of their Great Dane, the stoic Sir Barksalot, slated for a 4:30 p.m. neuter; a Columbia law professor whispering soothing Spanish to her demonically yowling cat; a tall, red-eyed policeman carrying a pug in a towel. (Once, a middle-aged clown wearing what appeared to be, I swear, a yellow parachute cinched at the waist dropped off his diabetic rabbit, Party Boy Bunny, with me, but our clients were usually en route to more conventional jobs.)

These were the a.m. drop-offs: dogs, cats and rabbits that were scheduled for surgeries, mostly routine—spays, neuters, sonograms, dental work, the kinds of low-risk operations that were almost guaranteed successes. The owners would return to collect them at closing time—7 p.m.—after the anesthesia had worn off.

Of course, once I had opened the doors to the clinic and invited everybody inside, no one had any way to communicate this time frame to the animals. That didn't stop us from trying.

"Don't worry, Mama will be back!" the owners promised.

"Papa's waiting for you!"

"Elmo, the silver lining is you are going to feel much better after Doctor B removes your bladder stones."

Then the dog or cat would cock its head as if to say, "I am a dog or cat. The sounds of your mouth mystify me."

The owners reassured their pets, and I did my best to reassure the owners—a tricky undertaking, even with access to a common language. More than one person moaned, "If I could just tell her, in English, why we have to do this!"

I felt compassion for these people, even as I wished mightily that I had finished my eggwich back in the deli. Nobody wanted to leave an animal with me. Something about the smell of the clinic seemed to hit the dogs with a black, premonitory force, and the humans, who knew exactly what had to happen, were often even more affected than their pets. Grown men teared up. "Thank you for Miss Frisky's chewball and special blankie," I'd say, as politely as possible while physically fighting them for the leash. "No, I'm afraid we don't accept Discover."
By 7:15 a.m., it was just me and the pre-op patients. Even the most obedient, optimistic pets tended to panic at this point. "Okay," their bewildered eyes seemed to say, "I am trying to be a good sport. I haven't eaten in over 12 hours, so, true, I'm a little grumpy, and this morning my water dish was empty. Fine, I thought, these things happen, but when, in lieu of taking me to the park for our walk, my owner, the human who I love and trust absolutely, left me here with you, a short woman-stranger who smells like an eggwich and keeps mispronouncing my name, well, I cop to getting a little blue about that development, and, wow, now it seems I am being held captive in a 15-by-24-foot kennel, still no water I see, in a backroom of Lysol smells and eerie howls. Well, that's just excellent. My life as I know it has ended."

Surely this must have seemed like hell to the animals.

Of course I'm anthropomorphizing pretty egregiously here. But I don't think anyone can mistake a dog or cat's very real confusion and fear. Some pets were wry and morose; others became hysterical (I'm thinking of one Hungarian vizsla in particular, an incontinent freak-out artist. You know who you are, girl; I had to throw out those pants.) And a few patients' reactions were truly haunting. The entire staff of the clinic was emotionally rent by Waffles, a sweet, seven-month-old beagle scheduled for a dental extraction, who stared at us through the cage bars with an expression of baffled innocence straight out of Kafka's The Trial.

"Look," his brown eyes mutely protested, "those allegations that I poop on the rug, they are true, and once I did indeed eat 54 frozen Eggo waffles from a grocery bag that I think the devil must have left on the love seat to tempt me, but overall I promise you, I am a good dog. I am not guilty of these charges, whatever they might be. I don't belong here!"

I hated leaving those animals in the hospital cages. Like their owners, I couldn't resist the nutty impulse to offer English explanations. I'd watch a dog or cat emerging from the fog of anesthesia, groggy and scared, and catch myself thinking, "If only they could understand what has changed for them over the course of this nightmarish day and why the nightmare was necessary." Because then the surgery and all its spooky exigencies (the empty water dish, the bloodwork, the cages, the syringes, the gloved hands of strangers) would fit into a panoramic framework that makes sense.

The veterinarian I worked for was an indisputable miracle worker. She cut out cancerous growths, treated bite wounds, once successfully removed a deflated basketball from a dachshund's stomach. Afterward she sent these patients home with their owners, where they would enjoy food and water and, in some extraordinary cases, a doubled lifespan.

But try telling this to Waffles. "Why?" always seemed like a uniquely human plaint to me until I was confronted with that beagle and his look of uncomprehending sadness. I recognized it. I had felt similarly about certain events in my own life and the lives of my friends and family members.
Years after I stopped working at the vet, I still find myself thinking about that look. It makes me wonder what must be escaping me in my own bounded life at every instant, occurring beyond the scope of my understanding and the range of my senses. Based on Waffle's experience, when things appear to be tanking in our lives, when we are left behind or leaving someone, when a job disappears or a parent's health fails, or when we feel lost and bereft, trapped in a black place, howling questions at a seemingly deaf universe, are we supposed to conclude...what? Somewhere angels or extraterrestrials are removing basketballs from our stomachs? Or, God forbid, actually spaying all of us? In some figurative sense?

Oh, no! At least, I sure hope that's not what I'm suggesting. I'd hate to present some weird, furry allegory whose moral punch line is "Everything, ultimately, can be understood." Just opening the newspaper, there are stories I can still only greet with dumb, animal incomprehension. Sometimes it can feel like the whole globe is spinning with irredeemable losses, capricious natural disasters and crimes so outrageously evil they dismantle any attempt to solve or explain them.

But I guess what the vet experience did reinforce for me was a growing suspicion, humbling and reassuring, that I might not have the right language or vantage to correctly judge the mystifying events in my life, or anybody else's. Like Waffles, I live low to the ground. Given the brevity of our time here, it does seem likely that our species, too, must have at best a blinkered understanding of the shape of things, the import of certain events and what distinguishes "good" from "bad" luck. Let's hope our darkest moments might not be as nonsensical and endless as we believe them to be while they are occurring—and that there might be not just 7 a.m. but also a 7 p.m.

This was the hour of the evening when the waiting room once again filled with the lavender schoolgirls and their parents, the teachers and the lawyers, the clown who belonged to that convalescing rabbit. It was pick-up time, my favorite part of working at the vet. I brought their pets out to them, one by one, and watched as a tremendous happiness rumbled out of everyone—elation and relief on the part of the humans and the purest shock from the animals. It's YOU. You're BACK. For the second time each day, an interspecies Babel shook our clinic walls, but its tenor was totally transformed—these were Joy-to-the-World cries and howls.

Karen Russell's new book is Swamplandia! (Knopf)

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