Sean Ironman teaches creative writing and professional writing. He earned his M.F.A. at the University of Central Florida, where he served as the design editor of The Florida Review and as an advisor to The Cypress Dome. His work can be read in The Writer’s Chronicle, Redivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others. His weekly column, “Heroes Never Rust,” can be read online at The Drunken Odyssey with John King.
Hank Canine Ironman
The stoplight went red. Was blowing it worth the risk of getting T-boned? No, but you still hesitated and calculated the delay between your light going red and the other going green. Yeah, you stopped, but by that time, half your Civic was over the line. Drivers making the left had to swing wide to avoid you. Probably thought you were some asshole kid assuming he was the only one with someplace to be. Probably glared as they passed. But you wouldn’t know. You wouldn’t look at them. You planted your elbow on the armrest, solid and firm, wiped your mouth, and stared at the stoplight as if you could change it by staring hard enough.
The pounding behind your ear returned. It reverberated around your skull to your eyes. How’d you describe it to your neurologist? A rusted ice pick fucking the back of your skull? In and out.
In. And out.
Closing your eyes, breathing deep, and rubbing against the headrest was futile. You knew it would be, but you had to do something, keep moving.
You released the brake a bit and the pads squealed, and you let yourself believe it was your cell beeping. Lifting the phone slowly from the pile of veterinary receipts near the gearshift gave more time for the call to come, but it didn’t come, so you dropped the phone into your lap.
Hankelford was dead. Yeah, you knew it. You knew it. You could practically see the brindle boxer on a steel-operating table. Catheter protruding from his paw, the white one, his single white sock. Spit pouring from his jowls. Eyes closing, and along with them, breathing ceasing. Dr. Smith throwing latex gloves in a blue garbage bag, and when her assistant grabs the phone, Dr. Smith saying, “No, it’s better in person.”
Could’ve been another reason why there was no voicemail when you finished teaching class like there had been every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for three months that said Hankelford was done and did great and was ready to pick up. Could’ve been a good reason, a simple reason. It was possible. Of course, it was possible. Maybe radiation therapy started late and Hankelford was still asleep. Or maybe with only a week of treatment left, Dr. Smith wanted to speak in person. Maybe give you good news. Maybe she gave him the MRI early and his brain tumor was gone and you did the right thing and everything worked out. Didn’t think about that, did you?
Could’ve called, found out. A few keys on the keypad, a minute of conversation. No matter what you told people later, you had the number up. All you had to do was hit the little green button. No, you wanted to punish yourself. When Hankelford got sick, really sick and could barely walk, you weren’t around. You were two thousand miles away at a beach house in San Diego, watching smiling blondes in bikini tops and bright shorts tight against their ass walk across the sand in the breeze.
Your phone beeped. It beeped, and by the time the beeping finished, it was in your hands, flipped open, and ready to be read. A text from Mara. “Want steak fajitas for dinner?”
In two years of dating, she never asked for steak fajitas—she was a vegetarian. Only a week before, she broke the news that you would be a father and she a mother and together a family, and you already had to take into account her fluctuating eating habits. For how long, though? After the second test, the one you got from Walgreens while she waited in the car, and in her words, the wrong one, the shitty one, she had you drive over to the clinic where she got brochures about options she wouldn’t name. When she returned to the car, she stared past the windshield at her reflection in the clinic’s tinted windows. You said the two of you could be loving parents, but the words must’ve come out too slow, or the pauses between words as you searched for the right one were too long, because she said to not bullshit her, that you two could barely keep yourselves alive. And you thought about that contract from the animal rescue signed two years earlier, back when Hankelford was only a month old, and how sick he was and how little control you had.
At her apartment, you mentioned making a doctor’s appointment, and she said that women had been giving birth since the beginning of the human race and that she didn’t have insurance and that there was no point anyway if she wasn’t keeping it. She said to drop it for one night, just one night, and you got ready for her friend’s Halloween party. But when you got there, she wouldn’t drink, not a drop, which made no fucking sense if she was getting rid of it. You two left early because she couldn’t stand being sober while others got drunk, but she still wanted to wait until tomorrow to talk. But neither of you wanted the responsibility of the decision, to change the other’s life so completely, and tomorrow stayed tomorrow.
Instead of texting her back like you knew you should, you put the phone down. Later, when Mara asked if you got her message, you looked at your phone as if it were broken, and said, “Shitty phone. Fuck AT&T.”
The sun-bleached Accord behind you honked because the light was green, and good thing too, got you to stop thinking, got you back to doing. You hit the I-4 ramp, and your heel dug into the mat near the gas pedal and you pushed down hard. And you were a fucking bullet hitting that highway. Well, until that white van cut you off and decided Friday rush hour was a perfect time for sightseeing and cruised ten under the limit like a fuck, and you rode their bumper and thought if your car was any shittier you’d hit them just to prove a point.
The ice pick fucked the back of your head even harder. Vomit rose in your throat, and you swallowed it deep down. Everything on the right blurred, and you raised your sunglasses and wiped your eye with the back of your hand, lying to yourself that sweat was making the world watercolors when you knew damn well the neurologist said blurred vision was a sign of near stroke, that it was just a matter of time before a full one. Thirty vials of blood, two MRIs, and a cerebral angiogram came back empty. More tests were needed, a fact hidden from Mara, but Hankelford’s vet bills had hit the five figures. Although you were told not to raise your blood pressure and workouts went from bench presses and squats to a brisk walk on the treadmill, you still went about your day. Hankelford only walked in circles. More of a stumble, really. A combination of prednisone, steroids, and nights of half a dozen seizures drained him. Dealing with those supposed “near strokes” and the migraines left behind was nothing in comparison.
You swerved left, muttered variations of fuck, hit the gas, and when you passed the van, you cut back over. Speeding through the yield sign at the end of the exit ramp and switching to the left lane, supposedly the “fast one,” was no help. Both lanes deadlocked. You smacked the wheel, and the pain in your hand and wrist was such a welcome distraction, you smacked it again and again and again.
That’s when the woman in the silver Audi beside you caught your attention. Mid-thirties, short blonde hair, crimson blouse. Nothing seemed to bother her. She could just give in, feel the air conditioning on her arms, inch up when she could, and know that eventually she’ll get to where she’s going, get home. She was like all those girls in high school who spent afternoons at the beach instead of studying because life had been made for them long ago, and you wondered how easy life would be if it was just you and Mara and downtown bars and weekend getaways to St. Augustine and no Hankelford.
That perfect fucking woman looked at you, and the look was just a few seconds too long, like she was passing judgment. Probably just paranoid, but that means something, doesn’t it? Paranoid someone judging you is just you judging yourself. You knew, and not even deep down, that you should call Mara, hash things out, that regardless of the decision, it was important to be on the same page. Instead, you took the steering wheel in both hands and flexed your biceps as if you’d tear the wheel from the car and fling it down the road.
Mara used to care about Hankelford. Even when you went to San Diego during those two months you were broken up, she watched him as he worsened. That was before you knew about the tumor. At first, the vet said, “Dogs that young don’t get brain tumors. An MRI would just be the most expensive photograph you ever bought.” What did you know? The man who skipped tenth-grade biology half the week? You knew shit about it, so of course you put your trust in a doctor with a degree and ten years’ experience. And when the vet was wrong, Mara was at your side. She even called to check when you’d arrive to get the MRI results, so you could walk in together, that not one moment you’d do alone. She caressed your hand as Caroline described the vague black and white shapes of Hankelford’s MRI and said it was no longer about survival. You asked, “What if he had the MRI sooner?” and Caroline said not to think like that, but you couldn’t help but think like that, that you fucked up.
Once Caroline offered radiation therapy as an option to make him more comfortable, Mara let go of your hand. In the parking lot, she stopped you from getting behind the wheel and said that Hankelford was her dog too because he was only five months old when they met. She said that she had watched her mother go through chemo for years and still die and that she’d never do that again, that you didn’t know what you were doing. While you never said it out loud, you didn’t see why Hankelford had to die just because her mother did. You apologized, though. For her mother. For agreeing to Hankelford’s treatment without discussing it with her. Even for wanting Hankelford to be treated. But you didn’t budge. She called you stubborn, and you said stubbornness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You asked what she would do if her three-year-old puggle, Miley, got sick like Hankelford, and she looked away and said Miley would be put down because treatment was too expensive. You asked what if she had the money, to take that out of the equation, and when she said it was pointless to think about because she would never have the money, you felt sorry for Miley because something so young shouldn’t die.
When treatment began, Mara stopped having anything to do with Hankelford, and when you were on the floor near the closet petting Hankelford in the middle of the night until his seizure faded and he could sleep, Mara was dreaming. Maybe she only came with you to the vet because she thought you would put him down. Maybe all those days she cared for him were just her making his last days comfortable. Maybe the two of you just had different definitions of what it meant to take care of something. She said that Hankelford was going to die and not to forget about yourself, that self-preservation isn’t the same as selfishness. That you shouldn’t use your savings on vet bills and instead make a down payment on a house or buy that engagement ring from the Tiffany’s catalog, to use your money on something you could build a life with, but why does building a life have to mean giving one up?
Traffic dispersed. There seemed to be no reason for it to have stopped in the first place, and you wished you’d pass a smashed car and a person on a gurney being wheeled into an ambulance so that there would be some reason for things happening the way they did.
You took that second left and went down the dirt path at the end of the white picket fence. That first time, the fence made it all seem so perfect, so safe, but maybe that was intentional. Maybe they knew most animals would die, and if everything else went to shit, at least this one thing could be perfect. Trees formed a canopy, and the vet’s sign was a beacon at the end of the shadowed tunnel. You released the gas and hoped you’d never reach the end. Until you were told Hankelford was dead, he could still be alive.
The car coasted into a spot facing away from the building, and you stared at the entrance’s reflection in the rearview mirror. Your vision had returned, or at least smeared colors became blurry shapes, and the near stroke was a migraine. You knew you’d get home, shoot back the aspirin bottle, swallow as many pills as you could, and lay on the floor with a cold washcloth across your forehead. Mara would come in, and you’d apologize and say you needed a few minutes, just a few more minutes. The words barely coming out because you were tired of apologizing and she was tired of listening. You took a deep breath, got out, and marched toward the front door, and even checked your phone one last time before entering.
Without looking up, a receptionist (the stumpy one with short, blonde hair who was there every Friday) picked up the phone and said, “Hank’s dad is here.” On papers, instead of his real name, Hankelford Henry Hank, he was listed as Hank Canine Ironman. Doctors got away with it because they were helping, but when others referred to him as your son, you’d say, “No, we’re not of blood relation.” They’d say that doesn’t matter, but why must something have to be your child to want it to live?
You played with the pen attached to the desk by a silver chain and kept your head down, not asking about Hankelford because you wanted to avoid sounding stupid, like you already didn’t know. The receptionist asked how you were, and you said, “Good,” still convinced that if they knew your chest felt tight and that you had lost twenty-five pounds because you didn’t eat or sleep and that every day you wanted to stop treatment and that Mara was right and you were only prolonging the inevitable, they would take Hankelford away because you were unfit.
Footsteps echoed from the other side of the double doors behind the receptionist, and you stood straight and patted your tie against your chest. In that moment of preparation, you thought not about Hankelford but about the van driver. You could’ve killed that driver. On the road angry and half-blind, you could’ve killed anyone. You could’ve killed yourself. You were killing yourself. You were ruining everything with Mara. And for what? You could always have another dog someday down the line. In that moment of realization, you had had enough. It was over. You were done.
Then, the doors opened and your eyes met and he ran toward you, straight and strong.
The stranger holding his leash said Caroline had left early, but you no longer cared. You crouched down and let him lick your face and do that thing where he’d circle and rub himself into your legs, like he wanted to be petted but had too much energy to sit still. You never could describe to Mara how you felt and have it come out as anything more than happiness that Hankelford was alive. It was more than that, though. On the day you put him down, you sat with Mara drunk on a bench, and she said, “I hope you learned your lesson.” Even though there hadn’t been much left between you two in the months since she got in your car outside of the clinic and when you asked how she felt, she said empty, you knew a yes would close the gap between you two, that you learned what she learned with her mother. She needed you to understand, but two definitions of what it meant to care was too large of a difference and you sat silent until you were sober enough to drive. It was years until alone in your apartment that you finally, not understood, but accepted that you were proud that day at the vet. Proud because you could’ve killed that van driver, because you were killing yourself, because you were ruining your relationship with Mara. It didn’t matter whether Hankelford died that day or the next. You never save a life—you only postpone death. It wasn’t about saving his life. Even though it was too late for you and Mara and the child, you finally learned something about being a parent. About it being all right to say fuck the world and fuck you and your own future, that sometimes you have to harm yourself in behalf of your child. You wish you could find Mara now and have her understand, have anyone understand, the comfort knowing that day at the vet you stood and paid what needed to be paid and signed what needed to be signed and said you’d see them on Monday, and that day, even only for that day, you brought Hankelford home.