It sat at the crotch, so to speak, of the spread-eagled strip mall. Out front was a cramped rhombus of fake grass tamped into a depression of concrete which – inch for inch – must’ve been one of the more pissed-upon places of the Earth.
Behind the reception desk there’d be some odorous soupy dish or goopy dip in a takeout tray, two or three half-drunk plastic cups of melted iced coffee, and several ripped sacks of scattered snacks. The receptionist was a young woman in a hoodie with unwashed hair and one perpetually red, infected eye.
The office cat was a fat gray stray with a missing leg. It sat in its basket of dirty towels next to the credit-card machine and rubbed its cold, wet nose on your hand while you signed your receipt. The cat liked to be patted firmly on the back, in the dander-powdered crook of the tail.
On the walls were garish paintings and boring photographs of pets, hung salon-style in big gaudy gold frames. Tall patrons knocked their heads against a low-slung plastic chandelier. Others sat on hot-pink padded chairs with their ill, anxious companions and spoke to them in squeaky baby voices or the booming, condescending theatrics of people performing parenthood in public.
The animals trembled and some tried to hide under the furniture. They’d been vomiting or were vomiting still. They’d been attacked by one of their kind or hit by a car. Their teeth were rotting and their hair was falling out. They had cancer and diabetes and urinary tract infections. Their hearts were full of worms. They were very old and had to be carried down the hall to the examination room and lifted onto and off the scale like sacks of tender, bruisable fruit.
When I spoke to my pet, I spoke at a volume only she could hear. But she was mostly deaf and if anything she felt it – my low, unremarkable rumble.
I went to this place once a month, twice a month – then once a week, twice a week. I bought vials of eye ointment and eye drops, ear ointment and ear drops, little pain pills and big ones, pills for inflammation, diarrhea and pulmonary hypertension, and small tubs of bacon-flavored pill putty. I kept it all arranged on a tray at home, on top of the dryer in my laundry room. I chopped up the white and blue and pink pills with a razor blade into halves, quarters, eighths and sixteenths, then wrapped them in putty or crushed them into a slurry with gravy or whipped them with yogurt or tinned ground buffalo organs.
Then – one day – I no longer needed to go there. I no longer needed the vials or putty or buffalo pâté, though I had plenty left. The little shattered pills I’d prepared in advance sat on their tray. Dust fell gently onto them.
I suddenly had so much time I felt I might fall into it, as my pet had. From this chute – which opens and shuts quickly, sneakily, like a carnivorous plant – nothing is ever recovered.
I started making trips to the grocery store when my cupboards were already packed with food. I stopped for gas with a full tank and checked my adequately pressurized tires. At Doodads Etcetera I sniffed each scented candle on offer though I hate scented candles and would never buy one.
Driving home from a dried-bean shop one afternoon, I spotted the strip mall I’d spent so much time in and made an abrupt left into the lot. Inside, the funky, familiar odor was there to greet me. The three-legged cat stood up, stretched and offered its rump for a pet. The red-eyed receptionist sucked pale coffee through a straw. She got to the bottom of the cup – then the cup was empty. She tossed it into a trash can under her desk. I’d never seen one of her coffees come to an end before now and hadn’t believed she ever actually finished them. My life is full of stupid revelations like this one and if you stick around I will tell you some more.
Artwork © Amy Key, Agnes, 2020