It was the third month of winter, light was scarce, and the nurses began to nickname each other: Skip, Scruffy, Tiny. They said things over the public announcement system that you shouldn’t say. But it was still the nursing home, and people kept dying just the same. Melody sat at her post behind the reception counter. Nobody gave her a nickname because they didn’t know her that way and no one liked her well enough.
From her seat, Melody admired her colleague, Eliza Duncan, as she walked to and fro. Eliza was long-limbed and active, with a vulgar smile like a man’s, and she walked in a purposeful, bounding way, as if she were shouldering invisible people aside. Her walk was hopeful, almost moving upward instead of forward, teleological, as if it encompassed the human endeavor itself. On Melody’s desk was a framed photo of the staff in which Eliza Duncan seemed to be the principal object of the photographer, mesmerizing for her confidence, and even her face—the exaggerated inclination of her shaven head and her bright, skeptical eyes, like a cruel bird’s. The woman next to her was blowsy, with a great snarl of hair, and beside Eliza Duncan she looked crazy and irrelevant. It was a beautiful photograph.
That month Eliza Duncan was the Good Egg again. Eliza was given the ceremonial basket and a speech about how everyone liked her and admired her for her good qualities. You couldn’t eat the egg. It was made of imitation marble and stayed in the basket with the crimped ribbons of gold paper. The rest of the basket bulged with gifts and tokens that were not allowed to exceed twenty dollars in combined worth. Eliza would be the one, at Friday’s department meeting, to name the new Good Egg and pass along the basket, filled with new treats. Eliza usually named Lisa Chaffee, and Lisa Chaffee named Marie Baker or Joann Clark, then Marie or Joann named Eliza Duncan. The ceremony of the Good Egg had been created by their manager to improve staff morale at the nursing home. While the Egg circulated among Eliza, Lisa, Marie and Joann, improving everyone’s morale, Melody thought of ways to campaign for herself. She was not undeserving. She was not a monster. She held Elmer, the nursing-home dog, in her lap and thought about it.
Eliza Duncan stopped at Melody’s desk and asked her to get a signature on a Care of the Deceased form, because someone died again. “The family are Mennonites,” Eliza said. “They’ve been singing German folk songs with the body.” She said with the body as if the body were also singing German folk songs, and for a moment Melody was afraid. When she went into the room, the smell of excrement choked her. The dead woman lay tucked in bed under a white sheet. She was yellow as a songbird and bald, her face round and jowled and unlined. She was a little wrong, just like every dead body Melody had seen. It was like pouring liquid into a candy mold, and when the candy came out it looked waxy and it had gone wrong around the edges.
There was a daughter, long and thin, who wept behind a curtain of dark hair. When the daughter’s husband rushed in, Melody was surprised by his appearance—a short man with a dense beard – and by the way the daughter held him for comfort, his littleness pressed against her tall body, his head in both of her long-fingered hands like she was cradling her own baby. The husband of the dead woman, returning to the room just afterward, dipped his red face toward the body when he bent over it. He said, “Aw, honey, no.”
There wasn’t much more you could want when you died. Melody wanted people like these to stand on the ground where she lay buried. They would give her a eulogy and say that everyone liked her and admired her for her good qualities, so she hadn’t lived for nothing. Above her, in black leather shoes, someone would say, Aw, honey, no.
Melody went back to her chair at the reception counter. Maybe everyone felt this way. Maybe this was normal. Maybe everyone thought about their own death several times a day. She wondered where Eliza Duncan kept the basket and Egg. Glancing out the window, Melody saw a family of three deer on the lawn. She sat up hard and almost called out, but there was nobody to tell.
The next day was Tuesday, and Elmer had grown an extra toe on his hind leg. “I’m taking him to the vet,” Melody said.
“You’re coddling him,” said Eliza Duncan. “He’s no one’s dog.”
“He’s the facility dog,” said Melody. “He’s everyone’s.”
The vet said it was a tumor, not a toe. It was non-cancerous, but they needed to remove it anyway, and the concern was that the tumor had poor margins, like a bad financial report. There was hardly flesh on either side of it to pinch closed after they cut it out. But Elmer was a young dog, and they could do it. Melody scheduled the surgery for Friday and paid for the visit with her own credit card.
Elmer rode in the passenger seat of Melody’s car on their way back to the nursing home. He looked different now that he had a tumor and not an extra toe. His left eye looked morbidly human and his fur, the variable colors of the moon, seemed particularly vulnerable to burrs and northern winds. Melody pulled the car over on the snowy road and dressed Elmer in a warm-up jacket that said “No. 1 Dog.”
Melody loved dogs. There was an adoption event a few months before at the local pet store, and she’d found a little dog, snouty and impudent, pacing behind the bars of its kennel. The volunteer placed the dog in her arms, and Melody cradled him and asked about adoption. The woman in charge of the event asked if Melody ever owned a dog before. “Terriers are smart, and they can be willful,” she said. She talked about ‘pack order’ and asked if Melody were good at being in charge. “Are you comfortable with basic commands?”
“I prefer consensus-building,” Melody said. “To be honest. I mean, not exclusively. I’m also comfortable following commands. Ha ha.”
She didn’t get the dog. Someone else got him who answered the questions better. The volunteer woman suggested Melody start with a cat, but she’d wanted the snouty dog. He had coarse white hair like a goat’s and two tufts of fur at the crown of his head for horns; she was going to name him Dionysus and revel with him under the full moon. The neighbor would complain that Dionysus tried to mate with her purebred. “You horny old goat,” Melody would say to Dionysus, and then she’d wink, and the scene would close with a wipe-cut in the shape of a telescoping heart, like in a Porky Pig cartoon. It was imaginary and then it was nothing. But Melody had Elmer, and they loved each other.
As a girl, Melody had lived in a series of foster homes, which were more or less adequate. She had tried not to be a bother, and anyway she disliked being the center of attention. In the moments when people did focus on her, she had longed to disappear into the wall, into the screen of the TV—not to pass through it to the other side, but really to disappear into it, a sort of transubstantiation. In each home, she arranged her clothes by color in the dresser drawer assigned to her. It was not that color particularly mattered, but she already understood that you had to choose something and act as if it mattered, some organizing principle or scruple, or else the whole project would be lost, and you might as well not get out of bed in the morning. Her last foster home was also the one where she lived longest. There, she saved up her money and once a week, she bought her foster mother a carnation from the corner store on her way home from school—carnations were their budget flower—because Melody had chosen the foster mother, not yet understanding that the mother did not choose her back.
Melody didn’t know much about her birth mother, except that she had died by suicide. Knowing this made her feel like she would live her whole life under a curse, like a character in a fairy tale who’s offended a witch. But in fairy tales a curse could be undone on the seventh day of the seventh month, under a waning gibbous moon or at the site of an enchanted pond, while in real life, there was no enchanted pond or reversal spell; instead one had only Paxil and motivational podcasts. Melody did know something of her birth father, had tried to maintain a spotty acquaintance with him for some years. Her father was a handsome, stuttering man whose essential nature had been knocked off course somehow, stripped of hopes, and now it merely drifted as if in outer space, compelled neither toward one thing nor another. He charmed by quoting Cicero and Shakespeare. He told a great many jokes—penis length, anti-Church, talking dog in a bar—and beneath all of that warmth was nothing. Nothing! Only his nihilistic moods, his indifference to his own comfort, and the feeling that he had stopped while she went on and on, alone. It was almost worse than not knowing him, and now, at age twenty, Melody no longer called or sent holiday cards.
On Wednesday, Melody visited Eliza Duncan in the nurses’ pen and pointed out the work she’d been doing. “I’ve got all those extra forms filed. I mean, I’ve never seen my desk so clean. I’ve had to search for extra work to do.”
“Well, look at you,” said Eliza Duncan. “You’re going ninety-nine miles an hour.”
“Anyway, have you thought about Friday’s meeting? Does it drive you nuts, having to pick the new Egg?”
“That damn egg,” said Eliza. “I’m gonna blow it up with dynamite.”
“Ha ha,” said Melody. “Ha ha ha.” But she was afraid for the Egg.
“I’ll give it to Lisa. She’s always fun to shop for, even if the Egg is a booby prize.”
Melody stared. She wasn’t even being considered for the Egg. That couldn’t be true. She went back to her desk and cuddled Elmer, who was just as he’d always been. “Big day tomorrow, Elmer,” she told him.
On Friday morning, Melody picked Elmer up early and drove him to the animal hospital for pre-surgery. There was barely light to see by on the frozen road. The car glided, as if it were dreaming and it dreamed of Melody and Elmer sailing down Cook Road, the foothills on the right snow-capped and bristling with the conical heads of blue and lavender trees. They slid by the churches, the farms, and then churches again, the Church of Christ no more than a shed with a crooked cross, taller than any person, embedded in the lawn, the words “King of Jews” hand-carved into the horizontal plank. In spite of the hour, Melody was greeted by smiling veterinary technicians with high, glossy ponytails. They took Elmer into the back, as Melody waved after him.
At the staff meeting, Melody sat beside Lisa Chaffee. She thought about what to do with her face if she were announced as the winner of the Egg. But Lisa Chaffee won the Egg again. Melody sat there, the contents of her stomach turned caustic, and a dull but insistent pain intruded below her ribs. For the rest of the day, she looked across the room at Lisa’s desk, where Lisa left the basket untouched.
Melody waited until everyone else had left for the evening, then took the basket from Lisa’s desk. She would have it back in its place first thing in the morning, before Lisa arrived. The basket was pleasingly heavy and was wrapped in cellophane to keep its prizes inside. Peeking, she saw a pair of wax lips, a whistle, and a ceramic dog that looked something like Elmer. The Egg sat tilted in the middle, a monument, offerings strewn around its base. It was not a very bad thing to have borrowed it. She carried it out to her car, shielding it beneath her coat.
When she picked up Elmer from the animal hospital, a veterinary tech placed him in Melody’s arms. The wound on his hind leg was closed with purple thread. “The bad margins didn’t matter at all. It’s going to heal just great,” the tech said.
“He doesn’t know me,” Melody said. Elmer’s eyes were dull, and he didn’t look at her or wag his tail. “He must feel so strange.”
“He’s still coming out of the anesthesia,” the tech said. “He’ll be groggy for a while. Our only concern is his low temperature. Take him home and put an electric heating pad in his bedding.”
Melody carried Elmer into her apartment. He was lolling sideways, his neck limp, he was going cattywampus, a thing insensate, its mind breezy and dark. She searched the kitchen drawers, but there was no heating pad. It was night already and snowing again, wind sobbing at the windows. Melody climbed into bed with Elmer in her arms and swaddled him in blankets. He flopped here and there as if his paws didn’t belong to him. His skull was triangular and the curls on his head were soaked with her tears. She should have stopped to buy a heating pad. She pulled off her sweater and gathered Elmer against her chest, then pulled her sweater back on over both of them to warm him with her body heat. She sang him a song by Peter, Paul and Mary. The song was corny and had to do with trains and made her cry more. She sang him “Thirsty Boots.” He still wasn’t him. As she sang, the songs got older and folksier and more often had to do with trains, until finally they became Irish traditionals, which made everything worse. Then Melody was on a sunny farm with Elmer, and his eyes broke and fell out and chickens hatched in his head and crawled out through the cavities in his face. She wanted to console him but it was impossible. He had no language and no concept of himself, so he couldn’t be consoled, which made him monstrous.
Melody looked around then in the absolute dark of her bedroom. Elmer was still sleeping inside her sweater, but he wasn’t warmer. He was still not-Elmer. Melody collected him in her arms and carried him back out to the car.
At the animal hospital, Melody lay across two orange plastic chairs in the waiting room. A veterinarian came out, not the technician, stiffly bearing Elmer before him like a Thanksgiving turkey. They had removed his collar. This was a different vet, someone she’d never seen before. He had the face of a baby, an old man’s hairline, and the slight, bashful figure of a girl shy about the new gifts of puberty. Melody looked at him perplexed, wondering which voice would come out of him.
“You’re his owner?”
It was the baby’s voice, high and blameless and good.
The vet told her something about unexpected complications and cardiac arrest. Behind him, the heavy mechanical doors to the lobby cracked open, with a two-syllable blast like your own head splitting, then cleaving apart. The vet asked Melody about cremation options: a private furnace versus a shared furnace, so the ashes could be Elmer’s alone, or else a sampler, like a can of mixed nuts. Perhaps they laid the animals out side by side in the shared furnace, or instead stacked them like a pyramid of cheerleaders. She imagined an albino kitten named Hamish, and a talking bird, Corky, who could place a ball in a cup. She didn’t answer, and then the vet said some people preferred to take their pet home and bury it privately on their property.
“Yes, that’s what I want,” Melody said, and she took Elmer back from the vet. He didn’t look like the bodies of people she’d seen. He wasn’t waxy or wrong around the edges; he was sleeping. Melody placed him on the passenger seat of her car after telling the vet she would bury him in the yard.
But Melody didn’t have a yard. She lived in an apartment building. When she drove, she didn’t know where she was going, and she clutched the steering wheel until the fine bones in her wrists hurt. Moving slowly in the light snow, she turned and drove to a 24-hour SuperGoods. In the parking lot, she apologized to Elmer for leaving him in the car.
The bright shelves of SuperGoods groaned with their stock, the tile floors blurred by the reflections of fluorescent panels above. Melody didn’t see another customer; it was almost midnight. She tried not to hear the song coming over the speakers. This happened sometimes, often in the grocery store, when there was a bad song playing while Melody shopped. It was like she was in a movie, and the song was the soundtrack that accompanied the movie of her life, adding inflection and meaning to her choices. When the song was bad, when it was hackneyed or profane or embarrassing, then so was the movie of Melody shopping. And so was her life. The song in the SuperGoods said, Oh oh oh! Heart goes pitty-pow! Popcorn girl, you’ve done it now! It was a terrible song, trivial and brash, sung in piping falsetto, with a harassing, repetitive chorus like the knocking of a ball-peen hammer. And now it was the song of Melody and Elmer when Elmer died and Melody looked for a shovel. It was all wrong. Oh oh oh! Hot popcorn girl! Melody began to run to the outdoor-goods aisle. She paused by the lone cashier’s station to say, “Can’t you change this song?”
“Only the manager can change the station. I don’t have access.”
“But it’s horrible, and I only want to buy a shovel,” said Melody. “I have to bury my dog. Well, he’s not my dog.”
The cashier stared at her. He was just a boy. “It’s not your dog?”
“I’m going to scream,” Melody said. It was true: she could feel the shape of it, rising inside her. Her head was buckling. With one hand she clutched her abdomen, where it felt as if her guts were being massaged into a pasta strainer and extruded through the holes.
The cashier switched off the radio. Grateful, Melody bought a spade shovel, a pair of gloves, and a scarf.
The cashier leaned toward her with an expression of sudden generosity and said, “Do you want something to make a cross for the grave?”
“A cross? No. I think he was a secular humanist.”
“I meant you might want to mark the grave, so you can find it again without a hassle.”
“I think I’ve got it handled. But thank you.”
Back in the car, Melody drove along the length of Cook Road, then pulled over at last by a farm. After dressing in the scarf and gloves, she took the shovel and walked onto the new snow. When she stabbed the ground, it wouldn’t give. Melody tried jumping on the shovel. She thrust the point of it at the ground and sprang on it with both feet like a little cat, until she fell off. Finally it gave.
Melody sat in her car by the side of Cook Road with Elmer in the passenger seat. She was used to praising him and wanted to praise him now. He was doing a good job of being dead. He was making a go of it. His continued presence beside her was like a terrible puzzle, one of enduring and not enduring, being and not-being.
Melody gathered Elmer up in his blanket. She stripped the cellophane from the ceremonial Egg basket, a beloved object for the beloved, the better to be loved, and placed Elmer inside the basket. She arranged the wax lips and the bird-shaped whistle next to him and put the ceramic Elmer-shaped dog on her dashboard. There were other things she hadn’t gotten to before – a plastic first-place trophy the length of her pinky finger, a miniature bag of chocolate-covered espresso beans, and the figure of a garden gnome wearing its underpants on the outside of its clothes. She arranged these around Elmer’s form and brought the basket out. Down the hole Elmer went. Melody refilled the hole, then placed the Egg itself in the snow at the head of the grave.
After that, she felt like she should say something, but what was there to say? It was preposterous that Elmer should have died like this. She had the feeling something had arrived for her that she had long eluded, something awful yet still somehow ordinary, like a weather phenomenon, the storm you could see approaching on the horizon but could still outpace if you just kept driving west.
Over the years, Melody would have the same dream a hundred times: She’s gone away for the weekend, and she suddenly realizes she didn’t leave any food out for Elmer. In fact, she hasn’t fed him in several years. Years! How desolate he must be. And she is so, so sorry, for all that matters now. She’s driving home to him, down a winding road, but she knows it’s already too late—she can feel him vanishing from her at every moment, always to the accompaniment of the same dumb, unforgivable song, always the same moonlight, the same self-made hole.
Maggie Goss is a clinical social worker and artist currently residing in the Pacific Northwest. She has previously published her short fiction in The Carolina Quarterly.