When he gets home from Chevron the Clerk finds his dog lying dead on the couch. It must have died cozy and warm while looking out the window of the trailer at the desert. Old age, he figures. Maybe dog cancer.
The Late Night Gas Station Clerk feels more relieved than sad. He loved the dog, cared for it every day, but lately had felt that it was suffering and overall the universe would be a better place if that suffering finally ended. The dog had been a barker. An angry, hellish existence. Whenever it wasn’t sleeping or eating the dog had paced and yipped by the window so flushed with negative emotion that sometimes its body would physically vibrate in rage. The Clerk had done the best he could but the dog had never figured things out.
After he checks and is satisfied that the dog is really dead and not just sleeping or unconscious the Clerk calls the vet to see if they will take it away. The Receptionist says she feels sorry for his loss. That they would dispose of the dog’s body for a small fee.
“What happens to the dog?” he asks.
“Cremation,” the Receptionist says. “I scatter the ashes out in the yard before I go home at night. There’s a little ceremony. You can attend if you’d like – sometimes I read the poem of the day.”
“What’s the fee?”
“Two hundred dollars.”
The Clerk thinks it over. It seems cruel to scatter an introverted dog in such a densely packed, communal space. He decides to just bury it out in the desert instead.
“OK. Thank you. I’ll make other arrangements.”
It couldn’t be done nearby. Sal wouldn’t let the residents bury anything on the property and the Clerk knows for a fact that Sal keeps watch: the dude had been burned before by the dealers and the prosties and had recently installed cameras, hired security guards, and contracted lawyers to ensure everybody stuck to their leasing agreements. Besides, the trailer park is mostly gravel. Not a good place to be buried, even for an animal.
The Clerk decides to bury the dog in the national park. The view will be nicer: Joshua Trees and vistas and white boulders like teeth growing up the sides of the mountains. Federally protected land. He’ll have to get around the rangers, of course, but figures it’ll be easier than dealing with Sal.
He opens himself a tallboy, calls up a buddy, and wraps the dog in a blanket. For the next few hours he drinks on the couch looking out the back window as orange light floods the trailer. Some rabbits are digging by the fence but otherwise the desert is quiet and still.
The Clerk’s buddy shows up mid-afternoon with his shovel and a pickup truck. They decide to keep drinking. They sit on the front porch and watch the Clerk’s neighbors have a fight about whose turn it is to empty out the garbage.
“You think we’ll get away with it?” the Clerk asks.
“Sure,” his buddy says. “Nobody really gives a shit as long as we don’t make a big scene.”
The fight across the driveway gets worse. Not just the tone and volume of the words but also the core message of what is being said: he is a lazy father, she is an addict, her uncle killed a man behind a bar and never got caught. Soon they will divorce. By New Year’s Eve at the latest.
“Is Lara sick? I didn’t see her at the Chevron today.”
“She went back east to visit some friends.”
“For a while.”
Lara had worked the afternoon shift and the Clerk had worked the late. They had planned on getting their schedules changed in the spring so they could be together but she had decided to go back to New Orleans instead.
“Sorry, man. I know you liked her.”
“It was bound to happen eventually.”
“Also I’m sorry about the dog.”
“I guess that was bound to happen too.”
“It’s been a shitty week.”
The beer is some lukewarm domestic the Clerk forgot to put in the fridge. It is good. A few hours before sunset they stop drinking and load the dead dog into the back of the truck. His buddy drives and the Clerk sits in the passenger seat looking out the open window at the desert.
People are starting to put up their Christmas decorations: wire reindeer standing on rocks and blinking LED lights draped over cacti. There’s a traffic jam at the entrance to the park. A bunch of Germans over on holiday collided with a busload of retirees out of Palm Springs. The Clerk pays the fee and his buddy drives them through the gate without any problems.
“So where we gonna go to do it?” the Clerk asks.
“I know the perfect spot,” his buddy says. “It’s out by some barrel cactuses on one of the trails. Not too far.”
They park at the trailhead and drink some more of the beer. The Clerk carries the dog in his backpack as they walk along the dirt path to the spot. There are beige triangular rocks and then a barrel cactus patch and then they are there. It isn’t anything special or particular but it does seem empty. An anonymous, quiet nook.
“You come out here much?” the Clerk’s buddy asks.
“To the park?”
“Nah,” the Clerk says. “Maybe once or twice a year is all. When I have folks over from out of town.”
They only have one shovel so the Clerk digs the hole while his buddy watches over the body. Already the crows have come. Maybe they could smell it, somehow. Silent, not cawing, curious about what was in the blanket. Watching with impatient beaks.
The ground’s hard so it takes a while. The Clerk’s buddy explains that the hole has to be at least two feet deep or the coyotes will come and dig up the body in the night. While the Clerk digs his buddy chases away the crows but soon the hawks arrive too. They circle above the gravesite without flapping, rising on the thermals and gliding back down in slow spirals.
When the hole is deep enough they put the dog inside and push some of the leftover dirt on top. They get some more beers and sit down on the rocks to drink while watching the hawks float in stubborn circles above the mound until all of the light is gone and the desert is cold.
As they walk back to the truck the Clerk’s buddy explains that animals in the real world always died afraid. Usually while being eaten. Maybe they could have pleasant lives but they could never have pleasant deaths.
“Even the predators. They get eaten too. The last thing an old wolf feels is a beak plucking out its eyes. It’s a miserable world out there. Full of suffering.”
“Yeah,” the Clerk says. “I guess so.”
“So anyway at least you kept your dog safe. It didn’t die afraid. That’s something to be proud of.”
They return to the truck. All of the carrion birds have flown back to the mountains. The stars are out. A billion ugly balls of gas. His buddy drops him off at the trailer.
The Late Night Gas Station Clerk throws the dead dog’s bowls into the garbage, rinses the dishes, and vacuums the carpet. When he arranges the pillows on the couch a pack of cigarettes falls out from between the cushions. He doesn’t smoke but had bought them for Lara. She liked the dog but not the desert and so she had gone back to New Orleans to work at a convenience store on Bourbon Street. If anyone was going to smoke them it would have to be him.
He picks up the cigarettes and sits down on his porch to listen to the desert. The multicolored lights of the trailer park at night blink on and off in a slow, steady rhythm. Red, green, and white.
The coyotes are out. They came for the trash and water but also for the fresh meat in the yards. When you fattened them up you only got repaid in song. Tonight the coyotes aren’t celebrating, though. No yips or cackles. Just long, awful howls that won’t let up until sunrise.
— James Reinebold lives in Southern California. His short stories have been published in Nature and The Los Angeles Review.