I see her pull into the parking lot; she greets me with a quick wave and I climb into the passenger seat of the car. I take notice of the back seat—empty. I glance behind the driver's seat—nothing. I plop down, reach for my seatbelt, and fasten myself in for a long ride. We both sit quietly, idling in the parking lot for a moment. I look toward the driver, "So… where's the body?"
She sighs, looking in her rearview. "In the trunk."
We both sit quiet for another moment. She's still gripping the steering wheel.
"You know I have to write about this, right?"
Still gripping the steering wheel and staring at the rearview mirror, "I know."
"Good." I lean back in the seat, gripping the base of it with both hands, and start stomping my feet against the floor. "Does this fucking thing go back or what?"
She rolls her eyes and puts the car in drive.
When someone calls you and tells you their pet dies, it can be a more complex situation than if a person dies, at least in determining a proportional response. This is because a person is a person and if a human dies it's safe to assume that for the person weeping on the other end of a muffled phone line, this is an awful thing. So your reaction has to match that sadness and you must console accordingly.
I imagine her loading the shovel and cardboard box into the trunk, asking herself if it's okay that her rabbit, her pet, spend eternity in a Nike shoebox. However, pets aren't people, and some pets are greater than others. Below I have made a scale that I think is generally accurate. This scale does not take into consideration the variables like cat ladies, lunatics, bug collectors, and people who associate a pet with something external (i.e. "that was my dead mom's favorite hamster," or "my ex-girlfriend named that cat!"). For these people, pets have become something sentimental and I understand that. But this is a general ranking not taking into account those factors because one, those people are weird, and two, it does not serve the narrative.
So, ranked from greatest to least, I give you…
The Dixon Pet Scale
- Guinea Pig
This scale theorizes the following: if you call and tell me your dog died, my response would not be, "Shit, well, can you flush it down the toilet? Just run some warm water and put it down the garbage disposal." On the opposing end of that, I would not call someone say, "Listen, Jeff, I know I'm best man at your wedding today, but I'm not going to be able to make it. My neighbor's turtle, Walter, passed away last night and, well, everyone here is really beat up right now and it's just bad timing. …. Oh right, I do have the ring. Well I'll drop it off to you tomorrow, it's just a prop anyway, use a silly band or something. I can't believe how insensitive you're being."
The tricky part came for me the other day when my friend called and told me her rabbit died. In accordance with The Dixon Pet Scale, a rabbit falls in that awkward Goldilocks zone where you want to be sympathetic: "I'm so sorry. I don't know what to say. That's awful," but part of you wants to say, "Ehh, we live in Chicago, not a whole lot of open space…maybe…can't you just double bag it?"
But that wasn't the answer she was looking for, so now I have been deputized as the hole digger. For whatever reason, Chicago lacks guys who can dig holes, change flat tires, and hang dry wall—at least in my circle of comedian, artist, intellectual friends… bunch of pussies. So I have become de facto handyman, and today, certified gravedigger.
I sit in silence, slumped against the door, staring out the passenger side window, driving to the suburbs. We are armed with a dead rabbit, a shovel, and a sense that what we are doing is ridiculous but somehow necessary. Like when I sit in church and am told to pray, I sit, hands clasped together, scanning the pew to see how many people are actually praying and how many people are doing the exact same thing I am. Quietly searching, partly to find someone to share this inherently absurd moment, and partly to find the answer to the only question echoing through my head at moments like this: "Am I crazy or is this sort of crazy?"
"So should we say a prayer or something?" she says, breaking the silence.
"I don't know any Jewish prayers. Also, I'm an atheist."
"What are you talking about? I'm not asking you to sit Shiva, I'm just saying…I don't know…should I say something?"
I break my stare from the window. I realize she has probably been thinking about this for a while. I imagine her loading the shovel and cardboard box into the trunk, asking herself if it's okay that her rabbit, her pet, spend eternity in a Nike shoebox. But if it were not okay, what would be? With death, as in life, there is no rulebook. Maybe that's why funerals are such a complex ceremony. Maybe people need that sense of, "These are the steps you take, these are the rules we follow, and eventually everything will be okay." Maybe it's a way for people to grope at the illusion of control, like, "This death isn't final until, I say it is. There are arrangements that need to be made before it's official." Or maybe I'm wrong. I don't know, maybe.
I readjust myself, correcting my slumped posture. "Yeah, I think you should say something… if you want."
We pull up to the rabbit's resting place: her grandmother's backyard. She pops the trunk and I find a shoebox and a very large shovel.
I look at her. "Are we building a snowman?"
"Sweetie, this is a snow shovel. We will be using it to shovel snow before we dig a hole with this."
Her confusion dissipates and the fog of whatever she has been dwelling on starts to lift as she assesses the situation. "Ahh, shit."
After knocking on a few doors, we find a spade shovel. I dig a hole and she places the rabbit, wrapped in a white pillow cover, in the hole.
She stares at the hole. "Can I have a minute?"
I walk back and return the shovel to the neighbor, an older woman. I say thank you and turn to walk away. Then she asks, "So what did you need the shovel for?"
I turn back around and point to the adjacent backyard. "Oh, her rabbit died."
The old woman gives a sympathetic frown. "Well that's a tough one. I don't know what to say."
"Yeah, me either."
I wave goodbye and walk back to the car.