My memories of Dad’s veterinary clinic are hazy yet unforgettable. The building seemed huge to me, though really, it was a small practice. Everything seems enormous when you are a child. There were giant pecan trees out front, and we’d go around collecting the nuts in the early autumn when they started to fall. I think they were my father’s favorite nut, but then again, his enthusiasm may have just been because they were free.
He had a homemade nutcracker he’d eagerly dig out at the beginning of pecan season. It was some sort of contraption made from blocks of salvaged wood, scrap metal, rubber bands, and a syringe cap. He’d somehow managed to screw down a solid block of steel into one piece of wood, but it was too heavy and kept falling over. To solve the problem, he kept nailing down more wood to various sides of the first block in order to stabilize the base. Once the wood had been cobbled together, he placed a concave piece of metal, such that you might fit a nut into, on the other side of the wood. Exactly how he made some of the parts moveable after all that, I’m not sure, but the next step required the thickest, tightest rubber band ever manufactured. He tethered the rubber band to a syringe cap that had been secured to the block of steel via methods I’d rather not consider.
When it was ready, it worked by placing the nut into the little concave piece, holding it in place with your fingers while your other hand pulled back the piece with the steel block against the tension of the rubber band. When you saw that rubber band get thin as a thread, you let it pop back and hoped to God that you got your fingers out of the way before it crushed the shit out of the nut. The sound of that steel slamming together with unreasonable force was so loud that I’d clap my hands over my ears during the whole process and probably leaked a bodily fluid or two. There were a few blackened fingernails over the years on the unlucky victims who were given little compassion but only reprimanded for not being quick enough. Dad’s shoulders shook with silent laughter at these misfortunes, yet no one ever blamed him for this because really, you had to assume a certain amount of responsibility when operating this thing.
Dad pulling out the nutcracker was a family event. We sat around the table to watch, and probably should have been wearing safety goggles. I’d wait eagerly for my turn to snatch up some crumbs of nut meat, because that’s all that was left by the time that steel block pulverized whatever happened to be in there. I mean, the meat was all embedded inside the shell, and vice versa. Just a huge mess that probably cracked a tooth or two because it was impossible to eat one without the other. Once in a blue moon, you might have managed to get an intact quarter or half of a pecan and hold up your trophy with pride to show the members of your clan, like some sort of ancient tribal sacrifice.
The pecan trees were out front, and the crematorium was out back. I refused to go out that way if I could help it. Sometimes Dad would take me out the back way to his truck, forgetting my aversion, and I would just sort of close my right eye so I wouldn’t have to see it in my peripheral vision as we walked by. While I never saw any animals being cremated, I was cursed with a vivid imagination and the very idea was more than enough.
In the front of the clinic was his waiting room, a collection of mustard yellow chairs lining the walls and an elaborate desk system in one corner. My first duty as helper was to take a can of foamy Lysol (or more likely the off-brand equivalent) to the chairs each day before wiping them down. I wasted way too much of that stuff spelling out my name and other naughty words across all the chairs, and I was soon moved on to other duties.
Through another door was his exam room, with a large table covered in gold-flecked, white formica. A row of cabinets divided the exam room from the surgery. Behind the surgery, he’d constructed a tiny office for himself. It was the one place I wasn’t allowed to venture into unless there were clients around and he wanted me out of the way.
My favorite place, of course, was the kennel room at the back of the building. I would talk to the sick animals as they recovered, and was allowed to play with the ones who were healthy enough. Sometimes I’d help the groomer, and watched in fascination as she would paint a black poodle’s toenails a bright, fluorescent pink one could only find in the mid-80’s.
While my father let me help out around the clinic, he didn’t like me to see him in action if the animal was particularly ill. In his gruff, stern way, he was protecting me from heartache but I was too young to understand that. He knew I was too sensitive and it’s true that whenever I would see an animal in severe pain, I’d cry for hours. I once read a book about a dog for school, and the dog was hit by a car several pages from the end. I started sobbing and threw the book to the other side of the room, never bothering to finish the book and whatever twisted moral there was at the end. By the way he clenched his jaw sometimes, I knew he was really just as sensitive but had years of practice in hiding it.
Most of his patients were small animals by the time I had clear memories, but I do have one vague memory of my mother and I accompanying him to birth a calf out on a Texas ranch. I only remember that it was late in the day, close to sunset. It was hot, dusty, and I was sitting in my mother’s lap in the pickup truck. While I’m sure she tried to distract me, there was no way to prevent my eyes from locking onto my dad with fascinated horror when I glanced over to see him suddenly plunge his fist into that cow’s ass. And the thing was, it just kept going in. He was up to his elbow in bovine splendor and I could not look away. The cow screamed in a way that made my scalp tighten, the eyes of its eyes bulging out from the sockets. When he pulled his arm out, he brought with him what I can only assume today was amniotic fluid from a cow in birthing distress, but all I saw was a colorful waterfall gushing out of a cow’s ass and I was just never the same after that.
Mom used to joke about my dad’s refusal to wear a wedding ring for most of their marriage, saying he was afraid he’d lose it in a cow. After seeing that, I never once questioned her hypothesis.