The day my father called to ask if I could help him bury Casey, his golden retriever, I said no, and maybe if I had answered differently this story would be over, but instead he still steps out of his garage with a shovel to dig the hole alone. He trudges across the front lawn, and there at the window stands Donna, his newest wife, still in her sixties, not so old yet but older than he is and too small, too weak to turn over firm earth. He stops under the shade of a maple, near one of the boulders that first attracted him to this property he can’t really afford. This’ll be the spot, then.
Mark rolls his right shoulder forward, then back, and it doesn’t hurt so bad. But the moment the shovel’s pointed blade strikes earth—a current of pain sizzles all the way to his fingers, which unclench as if on command. He closes his eyes, squeezes the hurt gone. And he doesn’t even know how or when he injured himself. Carrying Casey from the car, where his body would have baked, to the shade at the side of the house, where he lies, stiffening, within a bedsheet—that definitely didn’t help, but his shoulder had already been barking for weeks.
He glances across the yard to the wrapped mound of Casey and worries that some opportunistic animal might creep from the surrounding woods to nose its way through the sheet and nibble on his best friend’s carcass, exact a revenge for all of those days Casey chased gophers and crows and squirrels. Better work fast. Help isn’t coming, and critters might.
Blade, ground, heel, push, scoop. Turns out the toss hurts most.
The dirt piles, his shoulder pulses.
Sweat beads on his brow and the bridge of his nose. Early June, hot even in the shade, and Brad hadn’t so much as made an excuse either, not really. Just said he couldn’t come. But he’s home from college—Mark knows that much—living with his mom. Maybe his youngest has a summer job keeping him from making the hour’s drive from Connecticut? But then call out. Tell your boss you’re sick. Food poisoning. Whatever. This is Casey we’re talking about.
All the boys loved him. Mark could count on that much when they visited. He once had his three sons spend an afternoon walking the neat rows of parked cars at a shopping plaza in Milford—or was it Port Jefferson? He was definitely still married to Liz—slipping flyers for some new restaurant under windshield wipers to help him bring in a little extra cash on the weekend, but at the end of that long day—hotter even than this one, the sun reflecting off the pavement, glaring off of hoods and fenders—they had at least returned to Casey, buried their faces in his golden fur, arms groping, grabbing, and the old fella never so much as flinched.
He was always there, always ready to—to offer—oh, Jesus.
Blade, ground, heel, tears, push, scoop, toss.
The high-pitched electric hum of the vacuum reaches him from inside the house. He was the one who asked Donna to clean—he had imagined finding Casey’s shed fur in the coming days, and each time it breaking him again—but now he wishes she would stop. It’s too much to lose him all at once. Better to leave a trace, some reminder. Nothing sadder than being forgotten.
Again he presses his weight—his doctor keeps telling him he needs to exercise more, but not like this—onto the shovel’s step and the blade sinks into the small pit of exposed dirt. He bends, scoops, tosses, and even he doesn’t know if it’s the lightning quick pain that drops him, or if it’s the thought—Who will remember him?—but he’s on the ground all the same.
And goddamn. Can this day, can all of this please just be over?
The vacuum goes silent—and Donna will die first, won’t she? She will, she will—just as a squirrel begins to investigate Casey’s sheeted lump. A burst of tiny steps in one direction, stop, a burst in another direction. Tail high in the air. But Mark doesn’t get up to chase the thing away.
How much bigger would this hole have to be to fit his own body instead?
Just climb in while Donna, at least, is here to remember him. One brother, two ex-wives, three kids of his own, three ex-step-children—and all of them too good for him now. That’s why he has always loved his dogs so much. He can count on them. He could count on Casey.
“Hey,” he yells across the yard, as he gets back on his feet. “Get out of here. Scram.” But the squirrel only looks at him, as if deciding, no, Mark is not someone it needs to take seriously.
He grabs a small stone from the pile of upturned dirt, and maybe he’s too sad, too lonely, too angry—all of it, probably—but he forgets that his shoulder is killing him, and he brings his arm back, hurls the rock toward the squirrel, which cocks its dumb head; a shiver runs up its bushy tail as the rock skitters by in the grass to its left. Mark is the one who looks like he’s been struck. His torso folds in, he grabs his shoulder in pain, cringing pain, cursing, his eyes pinched shut, and he’s sorry, Casey, he’s so sorry, but this hole is just not getting dug today.
That night, with Casey’s body dragged on the sheet into the garage, he will lie awake, smelling his own Scotch breath, and think of his father’s funeral. As a kid he’d read of his father in the newspapers, the great Connecticut airman, a renowned pilot, but the truth was he’d hardly known the man himself. He’ll remember how, decades after his father moved to California, all those people, all those strangers still turned up to cry over his dad’s death. And Mark won’t want to be thinking about his father or the past, all those choices, those moments, his life—none of it—but the absence of Casey’s soft snore at the foot of their bed will keep him up, his mind looping, racing in a way it hardly ever does, and will it occur to him in those small hours, I still wonder, that I said no when he needed me so that he would know how it feels?