“Down, boy; down!” I said in a firm voice, pushing the dog’s head away from my chest.
“Loki, down,” Avery coughed softly from the recliner. The dog persisted in his attempts to climb into my lap.
“Loki—crate!” Avery’s wife yelled from the doorway, pointing to the large wire framed cage in the center of the parlor. Immediately the dog dropped his head and sulked off into the crate, where he laid down and whimpered fretfully. “That dog is so bad.”
“No, he’s not,” Avery said. “He’s got too much energy. It’s not his fault. I haven’t been able to take him out for those three hour walks in the woods since I got sick. Actually, he’s been doing quite well, all things considered.”
“I’m going to make some coffee. Would you like some?”
“Don’t put yourself out,” I said.
“It’s no trouble,” Avery’s wife said.
Loki lay in the metal cage, his head on his paws, watching Avery.
“How many dogs have you had over the years?” I asked.
“Oh, quite a few,” Avery said. “Before Loki we had three at the same time: a yellow lab, a Welsh corgi, and a black spaniel. I used to take all three of them for walks in the woods together. They never gave me any trouble. Not like Loki,” he said, eyeing the dog. “I always had to leash him. He has a car chasing fetish.”
“Was the yellow lab a pure bred?”
“No, she was a mix of some sort. Had the longest set of legs of any dog I ever saw. It was something to watch her run. She’d lope along with no effort, like a gazelle. She was strong, too. I’d lie down across her back, and she’d lift me off the floor with her body as she stood up.”
“Wow, that’s amazing! How long did she last?”
“About nine years,” Avery said. “One day she had a stroke. We took her to the vet. They kept her for a day, then let us take her home. She had another stroke a week later. After that there was nothing else to be done, so we had her put down.”
“That’s always a tough decision.”
“Usually it is. But not that time. She wasn’t the same after the first stroke. She’d go out, come in, eat, sleep—same as always. But when I looked into her eyes, I knew. It was like she wasn’t there. Something was missing; she just wasn’t the same dog.”
We sat in silence and looked at Loki, now on his side, fast asleep.
“So how have you been faring lately?” I asked Avery.
“Up until today it’s been a rough three weeks. For some reason the chemo really hit me hard this time round. I couldn’t focus—couldn’t watch TV; couldn’t read; couldn’t even eat for a while.”
“Were you in a lot of pain?”
“No, they have me on the patch for pain. It works well, but I get constipated from the medicine. Doctors seem to like treating constipation. I guess it’s gratifying for them, because they can see results right away.”
“Doctors are concrete operational people,” I said.
Avery nodded his head. I noticed the few wisps of white hair on his largely bald scalp. His beard had turned entirely grey since last I saw him three weeks ago.
“Do you have any trouble sleeping?” I asked him.
“No, not at all. As a matter of fact, I could sleep twenty-four hours a day without any problem. It’s just when I’m awake that things seem to go haywire.”
Avery’s wife brought me a cup of coffee. “Would you stay for dinner?” she asked me.
“Sure,” I said.
We had pot roast, mashed potatoes, green beans and brown gravy. Avery talked about his granddaughter at the table. “She’s usually over a couple of times a week,” he said. “Even when I’m not feeling well and can’t come to the table, it’s nice to hear her giggling in the kitchen. It takes my mind off things, what mind I have left,” he said.
I pushed some mashed potatoes and a piece of meat on my fork. “You seem to have gotten most of your strength back in your arm and leg after the stroke,” I said.
“Yeah, almost all of it. But I can’t hold a pen to sign my name anymore. My hand shakes too much.”
Avery’s wife cleared the table and put a slice of chocolate cake in front of each of us. Then she got out Avery’s pills and placed them in front of him with a glass of water. I looked out the window above the kitchen sink. The muted autumn colors were fading in the evening light.
“Show him the candles before he goes,” Avery said.
Avery’s wife put three small yellow candles into long-stemmed crystal goblets and lit them with a butane lighter. Then she carried them into the parlor and carefully set them inside a glass box. The candle flames danced inside the box, mirroring a string of infinite reflections.
“Turn out the lights,” Avery said from where he stood in the doorway with his cane.
The candles glowed in the darkness. Outside, the leaves rustled in the cold night air.
“They’ll burn like that through the night until the sun comes up,” Avery explained. “When you wake up in the middle of the night, it’s nice to see them.”