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Social Skills

The Dodge Dart parked on the crosswalk with its right front wheel up on the curb and the fender touching the lamppost. Doña Mercedes, sitting in the passenger seat, opened the door and let out a snort.

“Your driving is getting worse and worse, Hija. You’re really showing your age,” she said, although Felisa was eighteen years her junior.

Felisa was Doña Mercedes’s maid, cook and, when necessary, driver. Petite, somewhat hunched, with a mousy face, Felisa got out to take a look.

“It’s not that bad,” she said.

“You’re getting more foolish by the day as well. Come on, help me.”

It was help she asked for but Felisa had to do everything: open the back door, gather up poor Fosca, wrapped in her old tartan blanket, in her arms, and ring the veterinarian’s doorbell with her elbow. Fosca, without moving a muscle, let out a gentle moan. They heard footsteps inside the clinic, and the old woman grabbed the dog and gestured to Felisa to go back to the car and find a place to park.

“Hurry, she’s heavy,” she said as the door opened to reveal the shining, round face of Laura Lumbreras, the vet’s daughter.

Without giving her time to say a word, Doña Mercedes rushed into the waiting room and sat down on the sofa with the dog on her lap. The walls were decorated with photos of different breeds of dogs. Fosca, a mutt, rescued from the alley behind the house when she was just a puppy, didn’t resemble any of those dogs. Doña Mercedes covered her nose with her handkerchief and cried a little:

“My poor Fosca, poor little Fosquita . . .”

Laura, babbling incoherent phrases, ran to alert her father, who soon took charge of the situation. Lumbreras was an affected and smarmy man, who looked a bit like an ultraconservative priest. He sat down beside the old lady and rubbed the damp muzzle of the dog, who slowly closed her eyes. There was something sterile and mechanical in his consoling words that took away some of his credibility.

“My dear Mercedes, my daughter told me that you’d called... We know, don’t we: the moment eventually arrives for each of us, and for our beloved pets as well. It is a painful moment, but more for us than for them. Let’s see. Swollen glands? Yes. Lesions, too. General decline, motor difficulties... Don’t worry. She won’t feel a thing. An injection, a little sleepiness that gets deeper and deeper, and that’s it.”

The dog, as if she knew they were talking about her, opened her eyes and looked at her owner, who choked back a sob.

“My poor little Fosquita . . .” she said once more. "She knows just what’s going on.”

“I know it’s sad, but there’s nothing else to do . . .”

Doña Mercedes grew philosophical:

“Death makes us all the same. Animals, people. People get a bit like animals and animals a bit like people, don’t you think?”

The dog, with her big, limp ears and those clustered little teeth, had always been ugly, and was even more so now that she was ill.

“I think she understands what we’re saying,” the old lady went on. “If she started talking right now, it wouldn’t surprise me. Can you imagine? Can you imagine her saying: why are you doing this to me, when I’ve always been so loyal, when I’ve always loved you, with all the moments of happiness I’ve given you over the last ten years?”

“Come, come now, my dear Mercedes . . .” said the vet, picking up the dog and cradling her like a baby.

The woman shook the tartan blanket and pushed it away from her. The gesture seemed to be all she needed to pull herself together.

“And what does one do with a dead animal?” she said, stuffing her handkerchief up her sleeve. “Where do we have to take it?”

“Don’t you worry about that. We,” and here he motioned in the direction of his daughter, who nodded with a grief-stricken air, “will take care of Fosca.”

They both stood up.

“May I?” she asked, holding out the palm of her hand.

“Of course.”

Doña Mercedes slowly, very slowly stroked the dog, who emitted another groan, perhaps her last.

“Many thanks. And send me the bill,” said the old lady with a faltering voice.

Laura, folding the blanket, walked her to the door. Then she joined her father in the examination room. The dog was lying on a table beneath a strong white light. While looking through the drawers for his instruments, Lumbreras didn’t even bother to strap down the animal, who didn’t have the strength to move and seemed to have meekly accepted her fate. He placed a disposable syringe on the small aluminum auxiliary table and pulled on his latex gloves one finger at a time. Before breaking the seal of the syringe, he looked over the dog one last time.

“Fosca, Fosca . . .” he said.

He bent down over the dog’s mammary glands and observed carefully. Then, looking at the ceiling, he felt them meticulously. Laura realized her father had just made an unexpected discovery.

“What do you think?” he asked, not expecting a reply.

The girl watched attentively. Lumbreras allowed several seconds to pass before saying:

“They’re not tumors.”

Another pause. This time it was Laura who interrupted it:

“What then?”

“It’s milk.”

“Milk?”

“Galactorrhea,” the veterinarian nodded. “It tends to present in older dogs following estrum.”

“And the motor difficulties?”

“Who knows. A bit of fever, some passing illness... it could be anything.”

He nodded in the direction of the street.

“See if you can catch her. Tell her to come back.”

Having seen how upset the old lady was, the simple idea of cheering her up put him in a good mood. While he killed time patting Fosca, he caught himself humming the drinking song from La Traviata. He heard some noise behind him and shouted:

“Come in, come in!”

Doña Mercedes, escorted by Laura, approached with a hesitant expression. The veterinarian didn’t notice the fact that she did not have the tartan blanket with her.

“Come in!” he repeated.

The old lady looked shorter than she had a few minutes earlier. She stopped a few inches from the table and looked at the dog, who greeted her by weakly moving her tail and sighing almost inaudibly.

“Good news. What we have here is a pseudopregnancy. A phantom gestation, shall we say.”

The silence that followed this declaration was just that: silence.

“What do you mean?” Doña Mercedes finally said.

“These things happen: sometimes the symptoms are so similar... Anyway, it’s nothing. All better. She shouldn’t eat anything for the next twenty-four hours, and keep her from licking herself because that stimulates the glands... Otherwise she’s perfectly fine, and should live quite well for a few more years.”

Lumbreras took off his gloves, snapping them in mid-air.

“Don’t you understand, Doña Mercedes?” he went on, smugly. “We’re not going to have to put Fosca to sleep. We’ll put her back in the car right now and you can take her home.”

The old lady, unexpectedly stern, said:

“I thought we’d made things clear. I’ve already said good-bye to her. Now do what you have to do.”

She walked toward the exit, and didn’t even stop as she added:

“And don’t forget to send me the bill. Good afternoon.”

Father and daughter looked at each other and then looked at Doña Mercedes, who had left the door open on her way out.

In the street, the Dodge was double-parked. Felisa, with her seat belt buckled, had to lean over and stretch her arm to unlock the door, which she then managed to open with her fingertips. To get into her seat, the old lady held onto the edge of the door with her right hand and the top of the seat with her left. As with all elderly people, it was harder for her to get into than out of a car (and harder to go down stairs than up). The operation was carried out in several stages. In between two of them she stopped a moment to say:

“You really are useless, Hija. You couldn’t find a parking place this time either.”

Felisa puffed out her cheeks and blew a raspberry. The old lady responded by slamming the car door.

“Home, right?” said Felisa.

“Where else?”

When they arrived, the house still smelled of the lunchtime lamb chops.

“Let’s see if we can air the place out a little,” said Doña Mercedes.

“That’s up to you now. Not me.”

Felisa’s belongings were still where she’d left them that morning, piled up beside the umbrella stand in the front hall. Among them the imitation leather suitcase she’d bought thirty-four years earlier, when she was on the brink of leaving the house to marry a locksmith who turned out to be a good-for-nothing. Around the suitcase were several cardboard boxes filled with various objects. Some of them contained clothes, almost all hand-me-downs from Doña Mercedes, who never threw out a garment without offering it to Felisa first. In another was a selection of tin bas-reliefs, from back when the two women would devote rainy afternoons to handicrafts. In another were framed photographs: photos of Felisa with her family before going into service, photos of her sister’s wedding in the village church, photos of her nephews and nieces when they were babies or when they took their First Communion, a photo of the oldest swearing allegiance to the flag, another of the next oldest on honeymoon in Florence... They were photos of a possible life, and beside them were few, very few photos of her real life, her life with Doña Mercedes, always reluctant to pose in front of a camera.

“A whole life . . .” sighed Felisa, and then, to make the comment seem less serious, softly sang: “A whole life long I’ll be spoiling you . . .”

Doña Mercedes walked into the room they called the study and that, since the death of her husband, sixteen years before, had been collecting all the bits of junk that had fallen out of favor in the rest of the house. There, behind a broken sewing machine and an old stationary bicycle, was the chest of drawers in which they kept important papers. From the top drawer she took out a bankbook and a small folder. When she got back to the front hall, Felisa was coming out of the bathroom. The sound of the tank filling up came to an end, as always, with a somewhat anxious gurgle. She held out the bankbook, open to the middle page.

“This is the last entry. Everything’s in order, isn’t it?”

Felisa, like a shy little girl, looked down at the floor. Doña Mercedes handed her the folder as well.

“The car is now in your name. And the insurance, paid up till June.”

“And why would I want that gas guzzler?” whined the other woman.

She began to load her things into the trunk of the Dodge. The boxes that didn’t fit ended up on the back seat.

“And you said you’d never fit everything in . . .!” the old lady reproached her from the front step.

There was still room in the front, and Doña Mercedes ordered her to go to the kitchen and get the basket of greengages to take.

“The whole basket?”

“The whole thing. You love those plums!”

Felisa obeyed and then stood beside the Dodge not really knowing what to do.

“Do you need anything? Do you want me to leave your dinner ready?” she finally said.

Doña Mercedes shook her head and gestured toward the sky as if to say: Get going now if you want to arrive before dark. Felisa waited a few seconds more to see if her employer was thinking of giving her a hug or saying a word or two of farewell. Seeing that she didn’t make the slightest movement, she climbed in behind the wheel of the Dodge and rubbed her moist eyes.

“Call me when you get there,” the old lady said then. “I don’t like that highway one bit.”

The engine started and the car soon disappeared around the corner by the nun’s nursery school. Doña Mercedes closed the door, then went to the little parlor that overlooked the back garden and sat down in her rocking chair to wait.

“Don de gentes” © Ignacio Martínez de Pisón. By arrangement with the autor. Translation © 2013 by Anne McLean. All rights reserved.