Joe Lucido is an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama where he teaches in the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project and is Prose Editor for the Black Warrior Review. His work appears or is forthcoming in Booth, Heavy Feather Review, Whiskey Island, Word Riot, Hobart, SmokeLong Quarterly, and others. He grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis. “The Pet Cemetery” is an excerpt from a larger project of flash fictions titled, “Animals & Enclosures.”
Without word or warning they exhume our children’s pets and don’t bother to save a single artifact of their lives. They don’t do it by hand. They bring in big orange plows and bulldozers. We try to coax our children away from the caution tape, but they won’t hear it. What are they doing? our children say. Where are they taking Toby? And the true answer is we don’t know where they’re taking Toby or Rusty or Stella or Lola, but we have a good guess it’s the dump. Our children say, Where are you taking our pets? and we say, They are just moving them to a safer resting place, and a City Worker says, We’re taking them to the dump, and our children start to cry because their dead pets, even though they are dead, are not trash. Children know the difference between the once-living and garbage better than The City. The City says, If you are going to watch us dig up these animals all of you need to wear hardhats. They pass out white hardhats that are much too big for the children and obscure their vision. The children hold their hardhats on their heads and watch earth, fur, and bones being scooped into a white dump truck. The big machinery emits black smoke, and gasoline sears the backs of our throats. Our children cough and cry under a black smog. A city worker grabs a tombstone written on by permanent marker and overhand throws it into the white dump truck. The wooden tombstone makes a metal echo and another worker gives him a high-five. You couldn’t do this at night? we say. You do this just when the children are leaving school? They say, We are just taking orders; we just do what we are told when we are told. You have to think there is not a single human bone in their bodies. You know when you give a pet to a child your child will soon learn about death, but you don’t prepare for a lesson like this. Later, we will sit our children down and say, There are people in this world—, and we’ll revise. Certain people throughout your life—Most people are—It is an unavoidable truth that—Death is—Toby didn’t feel a—Life presents us with—Categorically, as human beings, we suffer the destruction of—What rights you might think are yours—The physical body is not—What value we carry cannot by summarized through flesh, but—. Inevitably the children will say, What will happen to us when we die? which, however unanswerable, is a valid question from anyone at any point in their lives, and we will say, You will be buried next to Grandma and Grandpa and Mommy and Daddy, and the children will say, No, not where but where-where? and of course, we maybe should say, Nobody knows this, but we will inevitably say, You will be with Toby and Grandma and Grandpa and Mommy and Daddy—, and maybe there will be a quizzical pause before, God forbid, they say, But what if I die before you and Daddy? And this is a potential you actively avoid, and while the true answer is, You might, you will say, That won’t happen, and for weeks you’ll follow every sound in your house with a churning stomach. Your child will say, Why did those bad people dig up our pets, and while the truth is something about contaminated groundwater and disease, you will say, The City isn’t bad; they are people, too, who have children with pets, too. Inevitably, no matter how the conversation begins, it will end with the children asking, When we die will we be trash, too? and what we might consider the honest truth is, Someday we will all be dug up like Toby and Rusty and Stella and Lola; we will run out of space for everything, and if we aren’t dug up then we’ll be covered by suburban sprawl and maybe haunt the passages of a new house or business—and maybe even the peak of truth is, Graves are more for the living than the dead, a way to carry the weight of the unknown and the absolute promise of our demise, but you will say, Think about Grandpa’s grave with the flowers and his name and life etched in heavy stone; that is how you too will be remembered a long, long time from now, after you’ve lived a full, healthy, and happy life. And after that, when the children have processed what they are capable of processing, they will fall to hands and knees on the living room floor and say, Look I’m Toby! Bark! bark! bark! bark! bark! and they will growl and roll around. And finally, after you’ve tucked in the children and try to catch some sleep of your own, you will tackle the weight that you live in the height of assembly and organization, that there will be no trace of most children outside of this town after they have died. There will be no burial services. Nobody will remember that they ever existed or even that they were representative parts of this messy whole. You think about big brown Toby with the yellow lifejacket jumping into the town lake. You think about the children wearing the yellow lifejackets running in after him. You think about hanging your yellow lifejacket on your shoulders and tightening the straps. All but Toby complain about the yellow lifejacket’s tightness around the neck, and though you are not comfortable with the strictures that come with the cumbersome yellow lifejacket, you still swim to the middle of the lake, where you eventually forget you are even wearing it.