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  • My compulsion to clean, to tidy up, now that he’s dead, appears to be spent. I’ve raked the bits of kibble from the floor into a dustpan. I’ve dumped the pills that were probably prolonging his last wheezing months into the trash. I’ve packed the unopened cans of wet dog food and half-chewed bones into a box, like a holiday care package for a homeless person. As I haul away a heavy-duty garbage bag filled with Basil’s shit, a sob overtakes me. The keening and the tears grab me and I drop the bag. I think for a minute, I should just go really crazy behind this grief. I should spread his shit all over my face, all over my body and just howl at the sun, so maybe they can cart me away, so maybe they can validate this madness, so maybe they can give me the forgetting-type drugs. Only, I don’t want to forget. I don’t want to run. I don’t want to let him go. I drop the bag into the oversized can with wheels. The top goes thunk. I let myself cry, again.

    You’d think I’d want to memorialize my longtime companion, not erase all evidence of his existence, my best friend, sometimes my only friend, it feels like. I have been abandoned one more time. Death took him: he’s better off. I’m not. He was a gift, literally — a gift for both my natal birthday 13 years ago (#47) and my very first AA birthday — a gift from Richard, my dear, now-dead Richard, who had rescued me from the drugs then moved into the second bedroom of my Silver Lake apartment. The gift came in the form of a certificate from the Pasadena Humane Society. By giving me the promise of a dog, Rich was agreeing to help raise him. Such a kindness.

    I almost got a boxer, but one look at Basil’s big round English Springer Spaniel eyes, and, boy, I was a goner. He knew it too: we tell ourselves these lies, we dog-lovers. He certainly knew, as I lingered and clucked, that I was an easy mark. He wagged his big, fluffy tail back and forth double-time. He barked. He jumped up on the cage. Show dogs of the Springer breed typically have cropped tails. This guy had the whole tail, and he wagged it for all he was worth. He was pure-bred Springer, but of course, without papers, being a runaway. He was beautiful, although his liver-and-white colored coat was matted and he needed a bath. He had been picked up on Huntington Drive in San Marino the evening of July 4th — I always thought that his former owners were richies who just couldn’t cope with his high-energy ways. When the fireworks started, they let him run away.

    About the name. Basil Rathbone was the actor who played Sherlock Holmes, about the most English name I could think of — Basil for short, though people always seemed to mispronounce it. Used to piss me off, people would say: Baaaasil, with the long-A, BAAAsil, instead of the correct short A, Basil. He’s not an herb, he’s a detective! Maybe all Springers are happy, I’m not sure, I only had the one. I always said I wanted a second Springer, would have named him Nigel Bruce — the actor who played Dr. Watson, of course. Basil seemed happy, manic, really, lots of “personality,” people would say. Perfect for me, they said. Crazy. Insistently playful. People-oriented. Whatever bullshit descriptions people have of dogs, born of their child-like anthropomorphic projections.

    Basil had health problems, even as a young dog. He was an incessant foot-licker -- OCD, said the vets. I had given him 20 milligrams of Prozac every day since he was two. He had a big fatty lump on one side, benign they all said, but I was never really convinced. I spent 8 grand one year on foot operations. And he had seizures, the first one happened right after we moved to Burbank, walking along the bank of the concrete L.A. River. I refused to put him on Phenobarbital. Most importantly, and fatally, he had a heart murmur and an enlarged heart, leading to congestion and coughing when he was excited, and when he was lying down.

    “He’s falling down and bumping into things,” Mike my dog sitter said, when I returned from a trip last year. “He seems awfully needy, he won’t stop following me around” he said a few months ago. It was getting to be Basil’s time. Mike and I both knew it. At 14, Basil was ninety-something in dog year’s. He would cough up his sputum and try to swallow it. His breathing was labored. His back legs were weak and his fur was getting soiled, since he waddled funny when he shat. On Sunday I thought he needed to be cleaned up, so I tried to give him a bath. He freaked out. I thought he was going to die right then, right in the towel, but he made it through the night.

    I called the minute the vet opened this morning, and got an 11 o’clock appointment. The doc took an X-ray. He looked at the laptop image and turned to me. “He’s not going to live much longer. You need to decide what to do. You can put him down. You can let him die on his own, or we can try some other medications. But nothing we do will make his heart work right, it’s too far gone.”

    So, I took the dog out to the back and called Cheryl at her office. She was with a patient. I guess I knew I had to put him down, I just wanted to make sure somebody would be there for me. I waited for her to call back, and walked with Basil one last time. I gave him some water and petted him, handed him a last doggie snack. I started to cry and leaned over to pet him. He sniffed the pissed-up parking meters and the sidewalk leading up to the front of the vet’s building, years of dogs marking their territory. We walked and he sniffed, drawn to a hedge of fragrant pink flowers, until I pulled him away for fear that a bee might sting him. We walked and I contemplated his pending extermination. We walked as long as he could hold out, my buddy, walking at my side, until he couldn’t stand it anymore. He collapsed, he flopped onto his side, and made a choking sound, his eyes distended. And then, nothing. A woman in a pickup truck stopped and yelled, What’s happening? My dog is dying, that was all I could say as I ran, gasping to the front of the building, barging in and yelling, My dog is dying in the parking lot, I need some help.

    And the desk gal said, he’ll meet you around back, so I ran back around. A husky Latino vet tech went with me to Basil’s still shaking body. The lady was out of the truck now, the door hanging open. She wore a look of confusion and horror. A rentacop car pulled up and the guy leaned out the window. What happened? he yelled, but I ignored him, too. There were two vet techs now lifting Basil, who was still quivering, carrying him into the back of the building. They laid him out on a grate over a sink.

    I realized it was the first time I had ever been in the back of the vets office. Other pets were caged up but I couldn’t look at them. A little dog, a whitish little creature, maybe a Chihuahua, was barking. Is he dead? I asked, Make sure he’s dead. The tech felt his neck, and somebody said, Get Dr. Martin. He came in and felt Basil, and turned and said, “I’m so sorry, he’s gone. I’m not surprised, his heart just gave way. Nothing we could have done for him, really. It was just his time.” I asked could I get him cremated, and Dr. Martin said, yes, you will need to sign a card. And then he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “One more thing, I need to tell you, washing him yesterday isn’t what killed him. It was just his time.” I thought that was so kind.

    The smell of Pine-Sol permeates the air now, or maybe it’s from the chewed up parts of my fingers. I had sloshed the diluted detergent onto the deck’s surface of fake wood in my backyard, but I don’t think the piss-and-shit stains will ever go away. I call the number on the Cal Pet Crematory brochure they gave me at the vet’s. Serving California since 1947. They will be picking Basil up tomorrow. I wonder, where is he now? What about the other dogs and cats in there waiting for a shot or an operation, won’t they notice the tongue lolling out of his foamy mouth, his eyes still open against the grate where they laid him? Won’t they smell the death as they put him into a refrigerator? The voice on the phone tells me they plan to deliver Basil’s ashes on Friday. I gave her a credit card number. I wonder how many cremations they had done, and who did them. And I wonder what I will do with Basil when he comes home in a box.
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