Sing to It by Amy Hempel – Excerpt

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    arthur peace


    Sing to It

    At the end, he said, No metaphors! Nothing is like anything else. Except he said to me before he said that, Make your hands a hammock for me. So there was one.

    He said, Not even the rain—he quoted the poet—not even the rain has such small hands. So there was another.

    At the end, I wanted to comfort him. But what I said was, Sing to it. The Arab proverb: When danger approaches, sing to it.

    Except I said to him before I said that, No metaphors! No one is like anyone else. And he said, Please.

    So—at the end, I made my hands a hammock for him.

    My arms the trees.

    The Orphan Lamb

    He carved the coat off the dead winter lamb, wiped her blood on his pants to keep a grip, circling first the hooves and cutting straight up each leg, then punching the skin loose from muscle and bone.

    He tied the skin with twine over the body of the orphan lamb so the grieving ewe would know the scent and let the orphan lamb nurse.

    Or so he said.

    This was seduction. This was the story he told, of all the farm boy stories he might have told. He chose the one where brutality saves a life. He wanted me to feel, when he fitted his body over mine, that this was how I would go on, this was how I would be known.

    A Full-Service Shelter

    They knew me as one who shot reeking crap out of cages with a hose.

    —Leonard Michaels, In the Fifties

    They knew me as one who shot reeking crap out of cages with a hose—and liked it. And would rather do that than go to a movie or have dinner with a friend. They knew me as one who came two nights a week, who came at four and stayed till after ten, and knew it was not enough, because there was no such thing as enough at the animal shelter in Spanish Harlem that was run by the city, which kept cutting the funds.

    They knew us as the ones who checked the day’s euth list for the names of the dogs scheduled to be killed the next morning, who came to take the death-row dogs, who were mostly pit bulls, for a last long walk, brought them good dinners, cleaned out their kennels, and made their beds with beach towels and bath mats and Scooby-Doo fleece blankets still warm from industrial dryers. They knew me as one who made their beds less neatly over the course of a difficult evening, who thought of the artist whose young daughter came to visit his studio, pointed to the painting she liked, and asked, “Why didn’t you make them all good?”

    They knew us as the ones who put pigs’ ears on their pillows, like chocolates in a good hotel. They knew us as vocal vegetarians who brought them cooked meat—roast turkey, rare roast beef, and honey-glazed ham—to top off the canned food we supplied, which was still better than what they were fed there. They knew us as the ones who fed them when they were awake, instead of waking them at 2:00 A.M. for feeding, the way the overnight staff had been ordered by a director who felt they did not have enough to do.

    They knew me as one who spoke no Spanish, who could say only Sí, sí when someone said about a dog I was walking, Que lindo! And when a thuggish guy approached too fast, then said, That’s a handsome dude, look how we exploded another stereotype in a neighborhood recovering from itself.

    They knew us as the ones who had no time for the argument that caring about animals means you don’t also care about people; one of us did! Evelyne, a pediatrician who treated abused children.

    They knew us as the ones who got tetanus shots and rabies shots—the latter still a series but no longer in the stomach—and who closed the bites and gashes on our arms with Krazy Glue—not the medical grade, but the kind you find at hardware stores, instead of going for stitches to the ER, where we would have had to report the dog, who would then be put to death.

    They knew us as the ones who argued the names assigned at intake, saying, Who will adopt a dog named Nixon?And when Nixon’s name was changed—changed to Dahmer—we ragged on them again, then just let it go when the final name assigned was O.G., Original Gangster. There was always a Baby on one of the wards so that staff could write on the kennel card, No one puts Baby in the corner, and they finally stopped using Precious after a senior kennel worker said of a noble, aged rottie, I fucking hate this name, but this is a good dog. (Though often they got it right; they named the cowboy-colored pocket pit who thought he was a big stud Man Man.)

    They knew me as one who did not bother wearing latex gloves or gauzy scrubs to handle the dogs in the sick ward, who wore gloves only when a dog had swallowed his rabies tag, and I had to feel for it in feces. They knew me as one who gave a pit bull a rawhide chew stick swirled in peanut butter, then, after he spit it up and wanted it back, cleaned it off and gave it to him so he could have . . . closure.

    They knew us as the ones who put our fingers in mouths to retrieve a watch, a cell phone, a red bicycle reflector that a dog sucked on like a lozenge. They knew me as one who shot reeking crap out of cages with a hose, who scoured metal walls and perforated metal floors with Trifectant, the syrupy, yellow chemical wash that foamed into the mess, and then towel-dried the kennel and liked the tangible improvement—like mowing a lawn or ironing a shirt—that reduced their anxiety by even that much.

    They knew me as one who, early on, went to tell a vet tech the good news that three dogs had been rescued from that morning’s list of twelve, to which the tech said, “That blows—I already filled twelve syringes.”

    They knew us as the ones who repeatedly thanked the other vet tech, the one who was reprimanded for refusing to kill Charlie, the pit bull adopted less than twenty-four hours later by a family who sent us photos of their five-year-old daughter asleep atop Charlie, the whole story like a children’s book, or maybe a German children’s book. And we kept thanking the vet tech, until he was fired for killing two of the wrong dogs, their six-digit ID numbers one digit off. He didn’t catch the mistake, but neither had the kennel worker who brought him the wrong dogs, and who still had his job.

    They knew us as those who found them magnificent with their wide-spaced eyes and powerfully muscled bodies, their sense of humor and spirit, the way they were first to the dance and last to leave, even in a House of Horrors, the way stillness would take them over as they pushed their heads into our stomachs while sitting in our laps. They knew us as those whose enthusiasm for them was palpable, Rebecca falling in love with them at first sight, second sight, third sight, and Yolanda tending to them with broken fingers still in a cast, and Joy and the rest with their surpassing competence and compassion. They knew us as those who would sometimes need to take out a Chihuahua—like walking an ant, Laurie said—for a break. They knew us as those who didn’t mind when they backwashed our coffee, when they licked the paper cup the moment we looked away. They knew us as the ones who worked for free, who felt that an hour stroking a blanket-wrapped dog whose head never left your lap and who was killed the next morning was time well spent.

    They knew me as the least knowledgeable one there, whose mistakes were witnessed by those who knew better.

    They knew me as one who liked to apply the phrase the ideal version of—as in Cure Chanel’s mange and you’ll see the ideal version of herself—but did not like the term comfort zone, and thought one should try to move beyond it.

    They knew me as one who was unsure of small dogs, having grown up with large breeds and knowing how to read them, but still


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