A thought experiment courtesy of the Stoics. If you are tired of everything you possess, imagine that you have lost all these things.
– Jenny Offill,
A man makes a coat out of an old piece of cloth.
When the coat is in tatters, he makes a vest from the coat.
When the vest is in tatters, he makes a scarf from the vest.
When the scarf is in tatters, he makes a cap from the scarf.
When the cap is in tatters, he makes a button from the cap.
From the button the man makes nothing at all.
And then from the nothing at all he makes this song.
– Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days
I’d been putting off returning to the veterinary office to pick up a replacement memorial certificate and name plate for our dog (they reversed his name, Scotch, with our surname on the original materials). It’s a final administrative gesture. Perhaps that finality had me dragging my feet. A phone call reminder prompted me to just get on with it. Twelve minutes in the car, I pulled into the parking lot, took a deep breath to prepare for that sympathetic look with which the well-intentioned staff would smother me, and strode up to the door. It was locked. I just spoke with them 20 minutes ago—how could this be? The sign on the door: “Closed for lunch 1:30-2:00pm.” The time was 1:38pm. Do I wait? Do I try to maximize my time? Do I… ?
“Just take a walk.” An impatient voice in my head directs me. There’s a park across the street. The weather is overcast and edging on more rain. Strange utility poles jut up high into the grey skies. I’ll try and take some interesting photos. I’ll just pause and enjoy being outside. Like the dog would have. Explore. Sniff some things.
I cross Good Luck Road. In my head, I’m hearing that edging-on-lunacy laugh that erupts from Arya’s character in Game of Thrones when she arrives at her aunt’s castle hoping to find some family and safety after a long, dangerous escape only to be informed that her aunt died three days ago. I skipped lunch, which means every partially introspective or maudlin thought turns into a depressive, the-world-is-ending mental digression. I miss my dog. I wish he was here to piss on things. To talk to.
I seem to be expecting some sort of comfort in nature. A respite in this park. It’s a rough, gravel parking lot. Trash shrewn around the periphery. Locked gates prevent access to the grassy playing fields. The outdoors made uninviting. I take some photos of an electrical structure—a towering pole topped off with rectangular panels like a Brutalist/Cubist sculptural mash-up. I wander along the edge of the woods. My throat constricts as I come across a deer carcass. The head is turned back at close to an unnatural angle. The area where a white tail once was now devoured leaving a meaty window into the beast’s insides. Life is brutal. Or, rather, death prevails. Everything is wet, leafless, and steps away from winter. Solace. There is no solace. Am I being mocked by nature itself or has my blood sugar just dropped enough to turn everything into some sort of melancholic sign? I clench my jaw as if to bite down while swallowing the message: He’s gone.
I leave the park and walk along the shoulder of the busy road. It’s an unwelcoming road for a stroll. The shoulder is ample, but it’s not the type of road pedestrians frequent (no sidewalks). A single lane in each direction with cars whizzing by at 40 mph or so. Mostly, or so. I pass under a bridge. I considered the dog one of my closest friends. A good listener. Always curious. Excited upon my every return. A companion in the late hours of the night. A constant adversary in the struggle for territory in the “big bed.” I think about how Scotch approached the world. Enjoying the simple things: a meal, a nap, a walk. I’m taking myself for a walk. I explore with my eyes the way he would have explored with his nose. Fast food wrappers, barren shrubbery, a used condom. No solace. I should take myself for walks more often, I think to myself. I wish I had taken Scotch for more walks. I think about how I have no “bucket list.” There are endless things I want to do and experience, but nothing that makes me feel my life will not have been full or fulfilling should I miss it. It feels like I’ve been out here for at least an hour, but a glance at my phone when I get back to the parking lot reveals a mere 20 minutes passed.
The front door opens. A kind, familiar face greets me and I wait behind one other customer, a man trying to get an instant appointment for a friend’s sick cat who is minutes away from arriving separately. I ask for the memorial certificate—I look it over together with the woman at the front desk. All is correct. It means nothing to me, but I’m glad it’s correct. That it’s over. I’ll slide the envelope under the decorative box holding his cremated remains at home. I’ll try to live a little more like a dog. In the moment. But moments without him.
To maintain existing conditions. To improve existing conditions. To regain once-existing conditions. Could not all human activity and effort on the individual level be reduced to these three categories? Such were Jeeter’s thoughts as he washed the few remaining dishes. A sense of possibility buoyed him. Anticipatory excitement. Of not knowing exactly what came next, but a faith that the odds were in his favor. That he would be improving existing conditions. The hot water felt good on his hands and as he scrubbed the grease from the pan he used to make breakfast he thought a little further about his insights into the human condition… If one lived in the present, the now, then there were only two—not three—essential human efforts: To maintain or improve existing conditions. He smirked at this. Yes, let’s leave the past in the past. Trying to regain once-existing conditions was no different than trying to improve existing conditions, no? Yes! And he placed the last utensil in the drying rack with a little touch of pride. He wiped down the counters, drew the blinds shut, and checked that all windows and doors were locked. It had been beyond generous of Marlene to let him use her place for the past week. He had been able to gather all his paintings from storage, a year or more’s worth of potential income—and not just enough to get by on, but enough of which to theoretically enjoy life. He left her key under the heavy potted tree as agreed and nearly skipped like a schoolgirl down to the parking lot where the small rental moving truck awaited.
Smoke filled the sky above the parking lot in dark billowing puffs like an angry storm cloud defying gravity, ever expanding as it gained in height. He did not see any flames, but the instant it took him to locate the source was frozen in time. His thoughts were like falling dominoes in slow motion: smoke –> fire –> truck –> my paintings! As he was sprinting across the lot, a fire truck roared around the corner. A full inhalation of smoke knocked him to his knees as violent coughs jerked his entire body. His eyes stung and tears flowed. At some point, he was vaguely aware of being dragged away by unseen hands. It was over in mere minutes. Or not. Jeeter was no longer fully there. A littler later, he heard phrases like: “Lucky no one was hurt.” “Could have been much worse if the gas tank had caught.” “Looks like it was started by a cigarette butt…”
This last one stuck in his mind. Had he flicked his cigarette inside the truck just as he was finishing up? Surely, he had stamped it out with his shoe. It was practically second nature. He thought he might have remembered a sharp distracting sound—the clang of a tire iron being dropped as a driver tried to change his own flat not far from the parking lot.
He sat in the stairwell uncertain what to do next. His shoulders were slumped. His eyes and chest still ached. It felt like the smoke in his head was still clearing. He couldn’t quite bring himself to smirk as the first thought emerged: To improve existing conditions.