“Hold the car door for Grandpa!”

My mother’s command, directed towards me from the kitchen window of Grandpa’s house, shook me out of my microscopic focus on a furious ant battle on the gravel driveway, and I looked up. Grandpa was almost to his garage, single-car, detached from the house, mistaken.

“Grandpa, I think we are taking our car.” I said it slightly louder than I normally would, as he was hard of hearing, but not so loud as to be considered rude. He walked slowly, shuffled really, tremors visible even feet away. It seemed to be all the old people I knew – the frail neighbor Mrs. Pierce, the pastor’s father, who was the pastor before him, the retired principal who now spent his days in the library, and Grandpa – had the same set of Old to them: they shook; they were mostly deaf; they seemed to be in a foamy cloud, a daze of some sort; they liked to sleep a lot; and they always had food stains on their shirts. There wasn’t any sort of diagnosis or talk of what was wrong; they were just Old. Grandpa stopped, turned his head to me, his eyes meeting mine as I absently brushed away pebbles that had stuck to my legs.

“No. My car. He won’t be as nervous.”

Well, it wasn’t my place to argue with him, ever. I let him continue to the garage and I sprinted over to the back door of the house, letting the screen door bang behind me, taking the forest-green painted stairs to the kitchen two at a time.

“Mom! Grandpa says he wants to take his car! I don’t want to go if he is driving!”

My mother, finishing up the dishes from lunch, wiped her hands with a red-and-white checkered dishcloth, quickly wiped the sink edge down, and folded the dishcloth over a bar underneath a cabinet. She looked pretty, almost elegant in a way with her hair pulled back and a crisp periwinkle-blue shirtwaist dress, but tired at the same time, a time-pressed look to her face, a few strands of her dark-brown hair falling in her flushed face. I searched for signs of Old in her, and only found a small gravy stain on the pocket of her dress. She looked at me, pursed her lips and frowned, then shouted out the window again.

“Grandpa? Go ahead and sit in the backseat. More room there. OK?”

“Alright! I ride shotgun!” I exclaimed excitedly, immediately regretting it as my mother turned to me from the window and frowned again. My joy in getting a very rare front seat ride was depressed by the reality of what we were actually headed out to do. We were taking Grandpa’s Old dog, Mutt, to the vet to be put to sleep. I was old enough at 10 to know that “put to sleep” meant that the dog would die, but I had no practical experience in death in such an immediate sense, unless you counted Grandma dying when I was 4. I didn’t remember anything of her death or the process of her dying; she was there one Sunday at Grandpa’s and Grandma’s house, then the next Sunday she wasn’t, and it was just called Grandpa’s house from then on. Walking into the dining room now, still smelling good from lunch, I tried to think of her, and accessed the only vague, blurry image I had: her smiling at me with fat pink round cheeks, like mine, in a powder blue and pink flowered dress with a white apron. No one took little children to funerals then, so on the day they buried Grandma I went to a friend’s house. We watched TV all day while my friend’s mom gave me sad eyes as she checked in on us and another rerun of “Mr. Ed.”

I walked through into the living room, where my dad sat in Grandpa’s big tweedy Barcalounger. I guess he is riding shotgun too. He’d never get to sit in that if Grandpa were still in the house. He is watching some car race on TV, doesn’t look up at me, just says, “Help your mother get the dog in the car.” He has a gin-and-tonic in one hand, and will finish that and three more by the time we get back, meaning he is then to be avoided and my mother will have to drive us all home. The cars go ‘round and ‘round on the TV, and my father’s jaw looks tight. I say nothing.

“All right, let’s go.” My mother speaks into the room just before briskly walking in, glances at me, then at my father, then back at me, the same jaw-tightness seeming to jump from my dad to her. She and I go over to the small rug by the porch door where Mutt is sleeping, his rattling breaths loud and uncomfortable to hear. He is 16 years old, a Beagle, comically overweight . He has sores and bumps all over his skin, cataracts that have made him blind, and long black nails that scratch you when you pick him up. He is not an affectionate dog, and when not sleeping either barks incessantly or pees and poops on the carpet. Looking at him, I felt guilty for not liking him. I thought to myself, well, there you are, asleep, and you don’t even know you are going to die now. This filled me with some kind of chilly, horrible ache that I had trouble pushing away, so I just tried to think of all the times he growled at me.

After a good three years of argument with my parents, my Grandpa finally agreed it was time to have Mutt put down; it was simply too hard to deal with a blind incontinent dog – Old – when Grandpa was getting increasingly Old himself. My mother would worry about Grandpa tripping over Mutt and “breaking a hip,” while my father just grumbled, “you’re not doing that dog any favors letting him go on like this.” My parents’ next project, they agreed, was that after Mutt was gone they would try to convince Grandpa to give up his car. He had become a scary driver, weaving and too slow, banging other cars while parking and not even knowing it. I didn’t know why the police didn’t ever ticket him; somehow they always let the old drivers be, it seemed.

My mother opened up an old flowered bath towel onto the floor next to Mutt, patted and smoothed it. She raised her head to look over at the Barcalounger at the back of my father’s head, looked down at the dog. “OK, Mutt, time to go.” She gently stroked him awake and he startled, growling and sniffing. She picked him up and before he could scratch her, wrapped him in the towel like a big ugly snorting baby. I thought he would fight her, but he didn’t, as she rose to stand. She hesitated for a moment, and I thought she was going to ask my dad if he wanted to say goodbye to Mutt. When she didn’t, and simply walked out of the living room with the dog in her arms, it felt like something broke in the air. I followed her out, silently taking her lead. The only sounds were of the roaring race cars, and the clink of an ice cube, melting and falling in my dad’s drink, and the click of my mother’s heels on the yellow linoleum as she entered the kitchen.

“Get the door for me, don’t let it slam this time.” I ran ahead of my mother and did as she asked, carefully closing the screen door behind her and the Mutt bundle. Grandpa had already opened the garage, and was sitting in the backseat of his Impala. It was as old as I was, but might as well have been a Model T to me, stodgy and square with shiny red vinyl upholstery. Grandpa had already sheared the doors off it twice backing out of the garage, but his small-town mechanic seemed to magically repair it to new. My mother nodded at the door handle to the back, which I opened. She awkwardly handed Mutt in the towel to Grandpa, whose arms shook even before he felt the weight of the dog. Mutt barked then, maybe knowing it was Grandpa who had him now, or maybe just that he was in his car. My mother shut the car door, opened hers, while I ran around the back of the car to get in the front, happy again, touching the dashboard, looking out the wide windshield as she slowly backed out of the garage, tires crunching on the gravel. I hoped she hadn’t driven over the anthill.

I had once asked my mother how Grandpa and Grandma got Mutt, since he was in existence before I was. It was my father that had bought him, for Grandpa’s birthday that year, when my parents had just started dating. When my dad was a boy, Grandpa had had another Beagle that he took hunting, whom he loved and treated well. By all accounts, Grandpa was despondent when the dog died after being hit by a car in front of their house. My dad, trying to please his father, researched the best Beagle breeders in the country, trying to find a dog that most matched the qualities of the previous beloved animal. He paid a great deal of money for the puppy, more than he could really afford at the time, my mother continued. With great excitement, my mother and father brought the new Beagle puppy to Grandma and Grandpa’s house for the birthday celebration, a surprise. When Grandpa opened the red-ribboned box, he didn’t smile. He just looked up at my father and gruffly said, “Where’d you pick up this mutt?” My mother said my dad was crushed, tried to explain what a fine pedigree the puppy had, but my Grandpa just didn’t seem to care. So Mutt became Grandma’s dog: untrained, overfed, coddled, with Grandpa never paying a moment’s attention to him. That changed when Grandma died. It was just Grandpa and Mutt in the house then, and Grandpa softened towards Mutt, began to treat him as Grandma did, a link to her in a way. Maybe that was why it was so hard to get him to agree to put him down.

“I don’t know why the vet couldn’t have come to the house. Is it so much trouble these days?” Grandpa’s voice sounded rough and angry. My mother tried to soothe him, but I wasn’t listening to what she was saying, instead messing with my unused seatbelt buckle, playing with the radio, staring out the window at the farms and cornfields as they rushed by in a green blur the ten miles into the next town. Mutt had fallen asleep again, rattling, snoring, laying on Grandpa’s lap now, the towel half unwrapped.

We pulled up to the vet’s, a small nondescript yellow brick flat-roofed office building, with a sign outside that had a smiling cat and dog on it. I thought, I bet the animals that come here wouldn’t be smiling if they could smile, and was glad I thought not to say that aloud. “Well, this is the place,” Grandpa uttered, a bitter tinge to the words.

“Hold the door for Grandpa, then stay in the car.” As I began to protest having to sit and wait in the weird old Impala, my mother shot me a look that told me there was no argument, underlining her words. I helped Grandpa get out of the car after Mom took Mutt from him. The dog began to bark again and struggle, and I wondered if he knew somehow, now. I ran ahead again to open the door to the office, but a woman in blue scrubs from inside beat me to it, smiling and cheery. I backed off, stared at her and her happy face. Did she understand that this dog was going to die now, today, here? That he would go in and never come out?

My mother paused in front of me with Mutt, still barking. She looked Older. I raised my hand, and gently patted Mutt on the back. “Goodbye, Mutt. I’m sorry.” I didn’t know what else to say, or do. My mother, and Mutt, and Grandpa went into the building with the Happy Death Lady, and I went to sit in the driver’s seat of the Impala, twisted and turned the red steering wheel in my hands, imagined myself driving through town, waving out the window like a beauty queen.