by Ted Lietz
I pull dresses and pants, jackets and blouses from the closet and stuff them into plastic trash bags. Given the pandemic, I couldn’t find a charity to take Pearl’s clothes even though, for all the COVID patients she treated, she never got the virus. Pearl even tested negative the very day that she took her own—
Price races into the room, pushes inside one of the bags, and begins rolling around as if he’d gone to Poodle Paradise. Maybe he mistook Pearl’s lingering scent as a sign she’d returned.
“Leave it!” Price ignores me.
I pick him up, set him in the hall, and shut the door. “Pearl’s not coming back,” I shout above his frantic scratching and whimpering. “Move on!”
I feel bad right away, losing patience with a dog’s grieving process. Price misses Pearl as much as I do.
When she was due back from her shift at the hospital, he’d plant himself expectantly near the door. When Pearl got home, Price would wax ecstatic, jumping and yapping and whining to remind her it was his feeding time. And Pearl — Even during days when her meds weren’t working very well, Pearl still managed a smile for Price. Rubbed between his ears. Called him her baby as she filled his dish with kibble.
Then the double shifts began. Pearl still paid attention to the dog, but seemed to take no joy in him. Or me. Or anything else.
I Facetimed about funeral arrangements with a priest who, for his sermon, asked me to tell him about Pearl.
“Once, she burst into tears when I asked how her day had been. Could I have posed a stupider question? Sixteen hours of doctoring COVID patients, most of whom couldn’t be helped. How did I think a day — days and weeks like that — would go? Once, I said that maybe her meds needed adjusting. Pearl put up a hand and said, ‘Stop. Just please stop.’ I did stop, but maybe if I hadn’t… Maybe if I’d insisted—”
“What about the good times?” the priest said. “Stories, maybe?”
I talked for a long time about thirty-two years of peace and joy and just plain fun. What interested the priest most was the story of Price, and how Pearl came to name him.
The dog had been abandoned and, just before the pandemic hit, Pearl insisted on rescuing him. She named Price in honor of my complaints about the expense of treating his half-dozen conditions and the drugs to keep him well.
During the week between Pearl’s passing and the funeral, one of her work friends sent me daily texts about her search for the sweater Pearl had worn to the hospital on her last day. The morning of the service, as I made my way into the church, she texted again: “Still looking. Haven’t given up!”
The priest and I were masked-up as the service began. Other mourners attended virtually. So many co-workers and friends and neighbors, most dressed as if they were attending a funeral in person.
During the sermon the priest, voice ricocheting off stone columns and plaster statues, used the story of Price’s naming as a segue to the parable of a man who finds a pearl of great price and sells everything he has to make it his. I vaguely remember him talking about the Pearls of the world, the priceless value of their contributions.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about the parable, itself. How the man in that story had gained. How I had lost.
I finish bagging Pearl’s clothes. Trash pickup is tomorrow and it’s late enough that I could take the bags to the curb.
A loud whine from Price. The same sound he used to make to remind Pearl it was time for his dinner. But he’s never before whined that way for me. In the kitchen, filling his bowl with kibble I say, “Good boy. Maybe you’re finally moving on.”
The bell rings and Price races to the front door, barking and pawing and scratching. I see a man in a dark-blue jumpsuit, sprinting away toward a delivery truck. I wipe down the package he’s left on the porch and bring it into the house.
Inside the box, a handwritten note from Pearl’s friend at the hospital. “Here it is!!! I found Pearl’s sweater!! Quarantined for seventy-two hours on my back porch. Then I gloved-up to put it in this box. So all safe!”
As I pull the sweater out of the box Price leaps into the air and snatches it with his teeth. As he runs toward the bedroom I shout, “Price! C’mon. Fella. I’ve told you before. Pearl’s not here. It’s only her scent. She’s not — she’s not coming back.”
In the bedroom, Price is arranging the sweater on the plush pad he uses for a bed. I consider taking the sweater away from him.
I let Price doze peacefully as I close the bags of other clothes with twist-ties, wipe them down and take them to the curb.
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
A slightly different version of this story was originally published by Every Day Fiction.
© Ted Lietz 2020. All rights reserved.