Dog Gone Family

photo by K. Heslin

Editor’s note: this story was written by Kelly Heslin for NPR’s Three Minute Fiction contest. She hasn’t heard back yet, so don’t tell NPR that the story’s true or she may get disqualified…

We both knew where we would bury him, without ever having brought it up before. It would be in the meadow where we all spent that wonderful day together, a year before he died. On that gorgeous weekend afternoon we found the place at random, driving up old dirt roads, not sure what we were looking for. As soon as Poncho started rolling around in the wildflowers, I knew we had found it. He was finally himself again after his surgery. The three of us were happy, our family back to normal, basking in the summer sunlight, watching the storm clouds building to the east. We explored the ancient aspen stand, deciphered arbor-glyphs, and Poncho and I watched you climb that broken old-growth fir. I looked on as he eyed you with those bright, intelligent, ironic eyes of his, and the way he ran to you when you fell, while I laughed.

I always used to joke that Poncho sealed the deal when we first started dating. I was in awe of this dog, a muscular, scarred up beast of an animal, missing part of a jowl, who needed no commands, just to be talked to like a human. He was a gentle giant, liberal with his love and thankful for its return. I remember thinking, wow, this guy must be something, to have a dog as amazing, as unique as this. I was in love. With the dog first, I’ll admit, but you weren’t far behind in the race for my heart. Six years later and there we were, actually having to saying goodbye.

My folks came to the burial, as did two friends who loved him as much as anyone but the two of us could. There was whiskey, and beer, three piercingly perceptive dogs and all of us humans taking turns digging the grave. It was only when we were well into the process that you pointed to the trunk of the aspen we were digging under, where about six feet up we had all missed the carving. It was a common one we’d seen on many other trees, but one we somehow had missed when we picked the spot. A set of male genitals, cock and balls, right there, an old scar from a visitor long past. We all laughed.

We paid tribute the best way we knew how. Beer was spilled, and stories were told. There was the time Poncho knocked me down at new years and drank my still-upright beer. We regretted anew our failure to hang onto the x-ray taken after he swallowed the fish hook in Alaska. He never seemed to resent having the tip of his tail cut off in the car door, and we recalled fondly, and defended fiercely, the time he broke into the fridge of the hostel restaurant and ate so much food the chef cried and, not much later, quit. (He was old, and on steroids; after having been so good for so long, he deserved to cut loose).

With the last shovelful of dirt, you looked to the mark on the tree which would from now on be our guide to Poncho’s resting spot. “Well buddy, it looks like you got your balls back.” I smiled through my tears, got up, and carved a “P” in the left testicle. There is a picture of this moment, and though all I see is my eyes red with grief, my oversized sweatshirt and messy hair, you never fail to tell me I look beautiful.

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