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.
Reading this story is a lot like watching that Sarah McLaughlin ASPCA spot on a continuous loop for 20 minutes. But Tin House provided fair warning in their Introduction to the Summer Issue in which it appears: “Consider this summer reading as providing a few grains of sand in your suntan lotion, a little bit of grit to remind you of the depth and breadth of the human condition.” Welcome to an exploration of Miserabilism.
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.
I’m not so sure it’s a short story, no matter how flexible you are in your definition, or fiction, for that matter. Chuck Pahalniuk, Amy Hempel’s #1 Fan, called something by the same title an essay – twice – though he also said it was about to appear in Electric Literature back in August and October 2011 and now here it is in Summer 2012 Tin House, so it’s possible he was referring to something else. Amy Hempel does in fact volunteer in a Manhattan animal shelter. She’s listed as one of the founders of the Deja Foundation which attempts to rescue dogs on shelter kill lists. And she already wrote the haunting flash “In The Animal Shelter” which isn’t really about the animals at all but shows a familiarity with shelters that goes back.
But all that said – and I’m aware I haven’t yet addressed what the story is, at all – it’s great writing.
They knew me as one who decoded the civic boast of a “full-service” shelter, that it means the place kills animals, that the “full-service” offered is death.
The paragraphs alternate between “They know us” and “They know me” with more standard declarative sentences thrown in to keep it from getting sing-song. But that sentence structure keeps the silent, unseen subject, the dogs in the shelter, at the forefront at all times. To me it also invokes the biblical “By their works you shall know them.” There’s no plot; it’s a string of brief scenes, some uplifting, some outrageous, all heartbreaking.
The first line is from a short story, “In The Fifties” by Leonard Michaels, from his second collection, I Would Have Saved Them If I Could. It also uses the “They” construction, though much more sparingly.
They knew me as one who asked another volunteer if she would mind holding Creamsicle, a young vanilla and orange pup, while I cleaned his soiled kennel and made his bed at the end of a night. I knew that Katerina would leave the shelter in minutes for the hospital nearby where her father was about to die. She rocked the sleepy pup in her arms. She said, “You are working too fast.” She kissed the pup. She handed him to me. She said to me, “You should take your time.” We were both tired, and took turns holding the pup against our hearts. They saw this; they knew this. The ward went quiet. We took our time.
If you have your tissues and your Paypal account handy (you’ll want to make a donation to someone somewhere afterwards),
you can read it online while the Summer 2012 issue is current (addendum: too late). It’s quite short, and it is beautiful writing. And for me, knowing it isn’t really fiction only makes it better.
Addendum: I’m delighted to see this is included in the 2014 Pushcart volume. I don’t have much more to say about it, certainly not enough for an extra post, but I do find it interesting, in view of my current obsession with the theme of “truth” I see in the early stories (of which this is one, the very first fiction piece, in fact), that I initially wasn’t sure if it was fiction or non-, and concluded that it was called fiction, but was really closer to truth. This is what you do with nonfiction when you want to make little changes that improve the narrative flow, or combine events and people into more easily writeable scenes. This had the ring of truth when I originally read it, and still does.