Fiction
Fiction

The Goodbye Party

Jen Michalski


Alvin said he wanted to go to the goodbye party with Sam. They were on the subway coming home from Alvin’s school. Alvin wore the straps of his child-sized backpack around his ankles, the pouch part resting atop his outstretched legs. Sam had always told him not to do that, that they needed to get up and off the subway car quickly, but what Alvin said about the goodbye party stunned Sam into silence, and when the car braked at their station, he lifted Alvin over his shoulder and ferried him off, backpack hanging from Alvin’s legs.

 

Sam had not told Alvin about the goodbye parties, believing he was not ready to understand. Alvin had barely understood his mother’s death almost a year ago, although now and then he displayed such surprising resoluteness and peace about it that it had aged him, had made Sam feel like the child instead of the father, crying while making a peppered-turkey sandwich in the kitchen because he had gotten the turkey from the deli Elizabeth had loved.

 

But last Saturday, when Alvin had gotten up in the middle of the night, a bad dream, and found that Sam wasn’t home, he had asked his grandmother, who was babysitting, where his father was. Sam’s mother, not sure what answer would be acceptable to Alvin, and very annoyed at Sam for not accounting for this scenario (but only slightly so that she had not accounted for it), told Alvin to wait until his father got home.

 

It was a goodbye party for the dogs at the shelter, Sam had explained to Alvin later that morning, his eyes still wet, a burn in his left shoulder from cradling an 80-pound Rottweiler, Mugsy, whose eyes were root-beer candies, as the shelter employees had arrived. A goodbye party because they’re getting adopted.

 

Alvin, still in bed, wearing his Hulk pajamas, had patted Sam’s head where he crouched near the pillow, smelling the sweet-sour of his son’s sleep.

 

It had been enough for Alvin at the time. There had been no follow-up questions, why the goodbye party was on a Saturday night, lasted all night, why he hadn’t been informed of them before. Perhaps after his mother became an angel he believed that there was nothing left to know, or perhaps he felt that the most important question of his boyhood had been answered so unsatisfyingly that he could not trust his father for answers to anything else.

 

They arrived home from the subway station, Sam breathing a sigh of relief. They had talked on the walk back to the apartment about an art project Alvin’s class had begun that day: painting the seasons. Alvin had explained in great detail the objects he had chosen to represent summera shovel and pail for the beach, his BMX-style bicycle, his sunglasses and suntan lotion, the sun, green trees, squiggly lines that represented the Mid-Atlantic summer heat, and a dog with a long pink tongue. Because dogs pant when it’s hot, Alvin had explained.

 

But he had not asked about the goodbye party again, nor had he taken the opportunity to ask Sam whether they could get a dog, the latter because he knew the landlord’s policy of no dogs. The apartment, a cramped four rooms on the second floor of an old gingerbread Victorian that needed repainting, could not even tolerate a cat, with its hardwood floors, banister, and window panes that were drafty in the winter.

 

                                                  ***

 

It was not until the next day, at dinner, that Alvin brought it up again.

 

Can I go to the goodbye party if I can’t get a dog? He looked up at Sam from the chicken and rice and cheese scrambled on his plate to resemble a casserole.

 

I’ll think about it, Sam answered. The night before, Sam had thought about how to explain the parties. He had not even told his mother about them at first, saying instead he was going out for dinner and drinks with Jeff and Maria from college and would not be back until late. He thought she would think he was disturbed, that he needed to go back to therapy and really work through Elizabeth’s death, along with the transition to being Alvin’s primary caregiver while working full time at home, taking Alvin to the Montessori school in the morning and picking him up, remembering his vaccinations, making sure to get the right kind of frankfurter pasta for Alvin’s lunches and pediatric cough medicine while waking up every morning to the same essential truth, that he was a widower and his son would grow up without his mother. And Elizabeth, who knows what she saw from wherever she was and what she would miss?

 

He’d read about the goodbye parties during a visit to the dentist in a newsletter that the local shelter put out. He’d called the shelter to see if the parties were still held and explained his situation. He needed this, he had told them, although he did not know why. His mother would say he was sticking his finger in an open wound, the way he did when he was a little boy, poking at the pink tissue glistening with blood, feeling the mettle of his parts, amazed that he was not made of steel, or, like his sister’s Barbie dolls, a hard rubber with bolts. But he thought it was more like picking a scab, which he had also done back in those days, impatient for the healing process to complete, helping it, he thought, along.

 

                                                  ***

 

The first party had been terrible for Sam. The dogs, mostly large, dangerous-seeming breeds like Rottweilers and Pit Bulls and mutts of the former, were clear-eyed and regal, all muscle and graceful arches of back and gut, compact behinds, lively, whipped tails, and delicate paws with trimmed nails. They licked his face when he clung to them and cried. They opened their snouts and closed them, as if to say, hey, it’s our goodbye party, not yours. That morning he had waited at the station for the train to start running again, his head low, body shaking, and he understood why people killed, why people stopped feeling, why people stopped believing in God. He heard the first train of the day burrowing through the tunnel to his hub, and he thought of throwing himself on the tracks. But then he thought of Alvin, his mother, his sister, Elizabeth, and knew that giving love to the world was more important than the pain it gave you.

 

Still, he hadn’t planned on going back to the shelter to watch those dogs die. But one of the other volunteers, Tim, an AIDs survivor, had called him up to see whether he was coming. I was just like you the first time, Tim said. But it gets better. Not that it ain’t hard still.

 

                                                  ***

 

He had not asked Tim or Alicia, the volunteer coordinator, whether it would be all right if he could bring Alvin to the next goodbye party. But he thought, if Alvin asked again, he would take him. After all, Elizabeth had died and Alvin still went to first grade and painted spring, summer, fall, and winter. He looked at the free flyers from Target and Toys "R" Us that arrived in the mail and noted with glee the availability of the newest cartridge for his hand-held video game system. He loved trains, and not the preschool cartoon onesall manner of steam engines, cabooses, hopper cars, and box cars lined the shelves of his room. He had developed into a boy without his mother, who would develop into a teenager and become interested in girls and maybe skateboarding or football or sketching. He would go to college, Sam hoped. The goodbye party would not push Alvin off course, leaving him clinging to a life vest and flotsam in the sea of his development.

 

Of course, Alicia may not see it that way, may call social services. It seemed that, for a few months after Elizabeth’s death, Sam and Alvin had lived in a world of made-up rules, rules that worked for them. Macaroni for breakfast. Watching Spongebob DVDs at four in the morning. Camping in the backyard in the snow. But others had encroached on themSam’s mother when Alvin came to her house in a pajama top, jeans, and beach sandals instead of proper fall attire, and Alvin’s teachers when he brought his mother’s death certificate in for show-and-tell and talked about what happens at a funeral. After that, Sam was afraid that the next time they strayed off the path of structure and eight-o’clock bedtimes and no hooky from work/school to conquer Super Mario world, Alvin would be taken from him, whisked to a place where he paid for Elizabeth’s death over and over, with strangers and their pity, and siblings who played with him gently because they thought he would break.

 

                                                  ***

 

The Saturday afternoon before his shift at the shelter, he kept his cell phone in his hand for hours, ready to call his mother and arrange for emergency babysitting. Alvin played in the yard with a balsa wood airplane he had made in art class the day before. He had taken some of his trains outside and lined them on the ground, attacked them with the airplane. Sam tried not to read too much into it. All boys killed things with their fingers, with their cars and trucks, in their drawings. Even Sam still played first-person shooter games on his laptop.

 

But he wondered what Alvin would get from the goodbye party. Surely not the same things he hadThe feeling of being in the moment in the face of inevitable loss, of enjoying the dog thoroughly, its fur, its eyes, its teeth, the gait of its walk, its favorite toy and treat. To enjoy themselves together despite it, despite the light purple, then pink, then yellow of the dawn filling the windows of the kennels, a light that burned out the last few seconds of those dogs’ lives, exposing the film, melting the celluloid, and leaving the theater screen white.

 

He had had moments like these with Elizabeth, a book of Margaret Atwood poems he read to her at hospice, a surprise thunderstorm that they had watched from her bed, holding hands, while looking through pictures of their honeymoon in St. Petersburg, back when the journey of their life had felt long and relaxed, easy like their elbows and knees and smiles. And so had Alvin, if only because every child experiences time without a past or a future. And he hoped that Alvin still lived in this disjointed way, present after present, even after he went to the goodbye party.

 

                                                   ***

 

They had dinner, spaghetti and meatballs with extra Parmesan for Alvin, the top of his noodles looking like sawdust. Sam had a bottle of Stella Artois. They listened to an old Chet Baker record. Then, when it was time for Alvin’s bath, Sam squatted beside him, hands on Alvin’s shoulders.

 

Guess what? I’ve got a surprise for you tonight. We’re going to the goodbye party.

Alvin sat with Sam on the train, swinging his legs. Sam studied him carefully. Mostly he beamed, proud of his inclusion in a very grownup event, something that extended well past his bedtime, although something he could not talk about at show-and-tell the next week. (Sam had already made him cross his heart/double promise). But a few times, it seemed as if Alvin frowned, or looked worried, although it could have been any number of things, the way the train picked up speed and jolted to a stop between the second and third station, the fact it was past his bedtime (Sam planned to leave the goodbye party early tonight), the extra serving of meatballs in his small stomach. Sam squeezed Alvin’s hand, small and clammy, and he tried to be present with its size and heft, noting tomorrow it would be different, that it would already have grown out of tonight’s size and heft, nothing left but the memory.

 

The shelter was behind a sporting stadium. Sometimes the volunteers brought some of the dogs to the sporting events for adoption and to drum up publicity for the shelter. But mostly, people didn’t know about it. It looked like an average concrete warehouse with a nine-foot barbed wire fence surrounding the back, which was filled with dirt and balls and a few chewed-over toys.

 

Will there be cake? Alvin asked as they walked up to the doors. How come we didn’t bring any gifts?

 

We’ll be giving the dogs a gift, Sam answered. You’ll see.

 

At first, Sam was ashamed. Ashamed of the way the shelter smelled, like feces and urine and kibble, and how it looked, with beige-painted cinderblock walls that held antibacterial hand lotion carrels on every wall, the cracked concrete floor, the continual barking of dogs who were confused, lonely, irritated, and scared. But he realized that Alvin probably did not notice any of these things. He had already broken free of Sam’s hand and leaned on tip-toe to look through the glass window of the door leading to the kennels. Alicia, who was in her forties, who wore her graying hair in a loose bun and whose eyebrows seemed continually furrowed, strode up to Sam.

 

That’s my son, Alvin. Sam began first, before she could speak. He has asked me for weeks to come to the goodbye parties. He just wants to pet the dogs, play with them for a little bit, and then we’ll go home.

 

I don’t know, Sam, Alicia said, straightening her cat’s eye glasses. I’m going to have to call Ed about this. There may be liability issues.

 

Like what? No one has to know we’re here. Come on, Alicia. It’s only for a few hours.

 

Sam, don’t put me in this position…

 

Let us go in for a few minutes. You can tell them I left something here last time and I came to pick it up. Or that I couldn’t get babysitting tonight and stopped by to tell you because my phone died. I don’t know, you’re a smart lady, Alicia. You’ll figure something out and let us do this.

 

Jesus, you put me in a bad spot, Sam, Jesus…five minutes, okay? She looked at the signup clipboard in her hand. Only because it’s so hard to get volunteers…and I don’t want to lose you.

 

Thanks. He squeezed her shoulder, found that he enjoyed touching her. I owe you a coffee.

 

They walked past the kennels into another room, where five dogs sniffed around, mingling with Tim and Ly, an older Vietnamese widow who had lost her twelve-year-old Mastiff that year and could not afford the physical and financial commitment of a new dog.

 

Son? She pointed at Alvin, who had already taken an interest in a Border Collie mix that lay on its belly.

 

Yes, Sam answered. He wanted to come play with the dogs.

 

He don’t know, right? She shook her head. What happens to them?

 

No…he thinks it’s like a birthday party, Sam answered. He felt suddenly sick. At what point would he tell Alvin? He could not wait ten years, or even tell him when they got home. He should have already told him, well before tonight. He wondered if Alicia was calling child protective services as they spoke.

 

The approach had been different for Elizabeth’s illness. They’d taken Alvin to Dave and Busters. Elizabeth had already been through surgery and radiation and chemo, and walked with a cane. A wheelchair laid flat in the trunk of the Subaru for emergencies. Her hair had grown back but she was still bat-like, angled with visible ribs above her breasts and Shelly Duvall ears. After a night of basketball hoops and video games and buzzers and bleeps that created its own cloud of anesthetic gas, they’d driven home, given Alvin a bath, and after reading his favorite book at bedtime, they sat on his bed and told him about the angels that come to take people to heaven, including his mother.

 

It had taken a few days after the angel talk for the questions. Then, a week later, Alvin had become angry. Can’t we share Mommy? He had asked Sam one night in the Arby’s drive-thru. Why do the angels get to have her the whole time?

 

Because some people are so special, so important, that when the angels need them, they have to go. It’s an honor, really. Think about being so good, so important, Alvin, that you got all the gold stars in your class…every single one of them. That’s what Mommy is like to those angels. Sam thought it was a good answer, but he knew how Alvin felt, how angry, and he was afraid to tell him he was angry, too.

 

                                                  ***

 

This is the one I want, Daddy. Alvin held the Border Collie mix in a headlock. It shook its black head, salted with white, and grinned at Sam, brown eyes like wood stain, its tongue pebbled with saliva. Sam picked up a tennis ball, soggy, balding, as the dog tracked it with his eyes, all business now. Sam rolled it across the room like a bowling ball, and the dog burst out of Alvin’s grasp, its legs pistons under its thick fur, toenails scrabbling across the concrete. Alvin laughed as the dog returned, ball in mouth, and dared Sam to extract it from his death grip.

 

Sam imagined this dog in their cramped apartment. It could sleep on the sofa during the day, or even follow the panes of light across the living room floor, ending up in the kitchen. Or he could sleep at Sam’s feet while he worked. They could take a long walk at lunch, and then after dinner, with Alvin. The landlord wouldn’t have to know, or the neighbors. They could even move, if it came to that.

 

Give him a treat. Ly held the plastic barrel of dog biscuits out to Alvin, who reached his hand in like Halloween, pulling out three or four, green and tan and red ones. The dog dropped the ball and sat before him at attention. It was hard to believe this dog, a perfectly wonderful, obedient dog, was at the goodbye party. It was so hard to believe any of them were. Sam looked over at Tim, who wrestled with two dogs, one a shepherd mix, the other an indeterminate mutt. They hooked their paws over his forearms and barked, nudging their heads, little boulders, into his chest when he stopped for a breath.

 

Ly tried to get a wheat-colored pit bull with a pink eraser nose to earn a treat. Sit. She made a stern face at him. Roll over. Roll over. Sit.

 

Tim opened the door to the outside run, and all the dogs filed out into the night, their gait leisurely, sniffing the corners of the fences near the weeds. They had been outside in the run plenty of times, Sam imagined, but this was probably the first time at night. If they were superstitious at all, distrustful, they did not show it. Tomorrow, other dogs would fill the run, some of them just surrendered or found, and smell these dogs, the scent of their calling, and wonder where they were, where they had gone.

 

I like Charlie. Alvin came up to Sam where he sat at the picnic table and he whipped his arms waist high like he did when his favorite cartoon came on Saturday mornings or when they went to the zoo. The Border Collie padded over to them with the tennis ball, and Sam wrestled it from his jaws. He could smell traces of the dog shampoo they used to clean the animals when they came into the shelter. He wondered if he would smell it on his fingers later.

 

Charlie, huh? You like old Charlie? Sam craned his head, looking for Alicia, who had not come out into the run. He asked Ly to keep an eye on Alvin and went back into the shelter, where Alicia sat at a metal desk doing paperwork.

 

Thanks again for letting us come. He sat on the vinyl seat across the desk. He imagined that the adoptions also happened here, since there was a file cabinet and a shelf on which rested bundles of adoption care packages.

 

Just don’t ask again, huh? She eyed him, not moving her head from her work.

 

Listen…my boy really likes that Border Collie mix. You think we can put a hold on him?

 

Sam, you told me your apartment situation doesn’t allow pets. Alicia leaned back in her chair. It moaned between them.

 

We could move. I’ve been looking for a place closer to my mother, anyway. He rolled a pencil, green painted and chewed, by human or canine he did not know, across the desk calendar. He seems really well behaved, very gentle with the ball.

 

Sam, don’t. She reached across the desk and slid her hand over his. When he looked up at her, she pulled it away, resting her palm, fingers spread, on the pile of papers. Sam, I would love to adopt all of these dogs tonight, but I can’t. And you, if you were serious, you would have to come back tomorrow right when the shelter opens and put in an application and we would reject it because I know you lied about your living situation.

 

But it’ll keep the dog alive a little longer, won’t it? And who knows, maybe I will have signed a lease by the end of the week. Or maybe someone else will come.

 

He and Elizabeth had begun, in the end, to make plans using the date “a little longer.” If Elizabeth could hang on a little longer, they could possibly find a new trial to enter. They were always starting new trials at the NIH. Alvin’s birthday was only three months away; Sam’s five. It she held on a little longer, they might be able to celebrate Halloween.

 

Sam, you’re a good guy, said Alicia. If you could have a dog, you would already have one or two. And even though you can’t give a dog a home right now, you’re doing the best you can for these dogs, to make sure their last memory is happy.

 

Alicia, I can do this. Sam leaned in. The pencil shook, and when he dropped the pencil, his hands were shaking. I want that dog to have a happy ending.

 

Sam, let me know when your situation changes. She stood up. We’ll have a great dog for you. She walked toward the door and looked out into the run, and Sam was inclined to follow. He felt light-headed and wished there was a way someone could pick them up, his mother, anyone. He would sit in the back seat, face pressed against the brushed velour of the seat, and watch the night trees race with the moon, the car going and going until Sam fell asleep.

 

Outside, Ly and Alvin were sitting together at the picnic table, petting their dogs. She explained to Alvin, with the motion of her hand, how dogs like to be petted. Her dog licked her hand over and over, and she laughed. He wondered if she had been alone with her Mastiff when it died, how long she had waited to have it picked up, whether she tried to do it herself. Whether she lay on the bed and stroked the numb flesh and fur until her own flesh and organs had also numbed, and what she did when the numbness had begun to thaw.

 

It was good to see you and Sam tonight. Alicia turned to him slightly, arms crossed. I’ll see you next month, okay?

 

Sam walked out into the run, waved at Alvin. Alvin, we’ve got to go. Say goodbye to Charlie.

 

But I want Charlie to come home with us. Alvin’s face had begun to redden, his body overtaken by the same shaking as Sam’s.

 

Come on, Buddy. Sam enveloped him with his arms, his body, so that Alvin could see nothing but him, his plaid shirt, smell his cologne, feel the knot of chest hair that sprung from the base of his neck. You know the apartment rules.

 

Can we come see Charlie next week? Alvin asked into Sam’s shoulder. Or will he be adopted then?

 

                                                  ***

 

Sam sprung for a cab back to their apartment. Once they got there, they went to the Friendly’s at the shopping center a little ways down the road. They ordered two sundaes.

 

Alvin, we have to talk about the goodbye parties. Sam patted his hands dry with his napkin as Alvin, long spoon in his little fist, plunged it into the whipped cream of his sundae.

 

Can dogs eat sundaes? Alvin asked

 

I don’t know, he answered. I guess.

 

It’s too bad we can’t share with Charlie. I wouldn’t want a goodbye party without sundaes.

 

When Elizabeth had died, there had been no goodbye. He had woken up in the morning in the chair in her hospice room and she had not.

 

Here, Daddy. Alvin leaned over the table with a heaping of his sundae, ready to slide off his spoon. Eat it. It’s a goodbye party.

 

Sam opened his mouth. The nerves in his gums screamed, not ready for the cold.  

 

Read next: "Kosciusko Bridge" by Terese Svoboda


JOIN NOW > CONTRIBUTE >

GET OUR UPDATES

Photo by Phuong Huynh

 

Jen Michalski is author of the novel The Tide King (Black Lawrence Press, 2013), the short story collections From Here (Aqueous Books, 2013) and Close Encounters (So New, 2007) and the novella collection Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc, 2013). Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, a co-host of The 510 Readings, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown. She also is the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, which Baltimore Magazine called a "Best of Baltimore" in 2010. You can find her at jenmichalski.com and at https://twitter.com/MichalskiJen

 

This story was published in Issue 10 of The Literarian