The Veterinarian, Part II of IV: Lonely, But not Alone


This story happened five minutes after this story.

I woke up with the line. The sentence came to my mind as I lay there, unbidden, and again in the morning shower. I don’t sing in the shower; I think. But today I felt as though the line was thinking me, a slow dance to and fro, and I tried to touch it, testing out different tones, ways of saying it and how, all in silence. It was a simple line, not particularly shocking, but it managed to be a sequence of words I’d not heard before. Even alone it was slightly too powerful to say out loud. 

What did it refer to? 

I wrapped it up in my pocket and kept it to myself, venturing about my duties. These are the tiny thoughts that form most of human existence, the diamond slivers of contemplation we don’t realize form who we are. The shape of your ideas while brushing your teeth. Tying your shoe.

As the hours wore on the day relaxed into itself, and I forgot the sentence. I headed into the evening, into West Seattle, driving an uneventful 21. Isn’t the 21 always uneventful? I picked up commuters and dropped off commuters, not minding the pleasant reverie brought on by such repetition. 

Sort of meditative, this. 

But upon arriving at southbound Morgan, I was lifted from my dream state into an even more pleasant wakefulness by the sight of one my old route 7 passengers. I’m always happy to run into him. Short guy, fifties, respected by the street hoods who hang outside Franklin, but always a little less drunk, a little less high, a little more put together than my other buddies there. Mixed-race fellow with a killer singing soprano and a generous heart. He’d recently moved to West Seattle to “get away from all that mess” on Rainier. I felt comforted seeing a familiar face here in the wilds of High Point, and intimated so by way of greeting.

“Hey, my guy!! What’s been up?”

He mumbled. “… My daughter this morning.”

“Wait,” I said, indicating I hadn’t understood.

“I left my daughter this morning.”

“You left her?”

“I lost her,” he said again, and this time I understood. “She died.”

We take a moment so we can feel things. I paused. 

He is so small right now. All the world and its people leave me for a moment, vanish from my psyche. There is just he and I, privately, broken men speaking in quiet voices. I reach my hand out to his, shaking it, firm. Then his earlier sentence hits me, in combination with his most recent words: this morning

Must feel like years ago. 

I pulled him in for a hug. We held each other for a while, standing there on a city bus at southbound 35th and Morgan, with a crowd of people onboard. I didn’t care. 

Why do terrible things happen to you, who are good? 

So that when they happen to others, you can be there, and they can feel you being there.

“God, I am so sorry. I am so… God,” I said, with primal disappointment. “Oh, my God. This morning?”

“She was fifteen years old.” He continued as we drove away. “She’s walking down the street this AM, when somebody rode up shooting, she got caught in the crossfire…”

“God,” I said again. I was surprising myself. I’m used to saying “gosh,” out of respect for my believing friends. Is it really blasphemy, though, when your lot feels this cosmically vacant? Sometimes I believe in God, and sometimes I don’t. There’s insight to be gained from both sides of the line. But friend, have you been to that third place, not in between those two perspectives but beyond them? Have you been to that mind, where you’re so devastated that neither is a comfort, neither gets you a single iota closer to answering your questions? Some of us have been thrust there, and it’s never by choice. That’s where we stood now.

“Man. I am so sorry. Stuff like that I just keep askin’ why.”

“Exactly,” he murmured, as I pulled away.

“‘Cause there’s no explanation, there’s literally no reasonable expl—”

“Yeah. She’s… I’m good to people. I don’t never mistreat none of the guys.”

“You’re great people, man, I know! I seen you around, you’re always great. People love you, they respect you.”

“I just can’t even understand a thing like this.”

“Fifteen years old.”

He answered with silence. I agreed, saying, “This world, sometimes.”

“Right now I just don’t know what to think, or how. I don’t know if ah wanna…” He stopped short, even in his hardship now, he stopped just short of the saying it. Continue. He was at his weakest, but he was still strong enough to stay away from going there. Revising his thought: “Well, I just don’t know.”

In the space where there are no solutions, I decided to ask him about what really mattered. “Well. I’m a be thinking about you. Hey, what was the last conversation you and her had? What d’you guys talk about?”

“We were, we were.” Thinking back. “She’s thinkin’ about, she’s gonna become a veterinarian.”

“Brother, you’re gonna make me cry.” I felt a tickle in the back of my brain, and reached out for his hand again.  A woman getting off, and he moved aside—“Excuse me, ma’am—”

“You coming home?” she asked. They must be neighbors. It was his stop too.

“Hey,” I said. “I’m glad I got to see you today.”

“It’s an honour to see you today, man.” 

“I’m a be thinking about you.”

“Say some prayers for me.”

“You know I will.”

He crossed the street, heading over to the gas station. Lonely on the parking lot, the kind of place you don’t remember even as it’s happening. Especially now.

What will I remember of my thirties? I will remember holding him amidst an impatient crowd and indifferent traffic. Thinking about the human soul as one vast organism, us two strangers united in pain. I will remember him walking up to that Chevron. Abandoned. We are all of us, at the end of things, alone. Or are we? I should’ve told him to take care of himself. Don’t drink yourself to oblivion, buddy. Not like some of these other guys. I should’ve asked if he has good people around him.

I realized then that I had spoken the line I’d woken up with. Brother, you’re gonna make me cry. It had come to me unbeknownst, as I woke; I’ve never thought of that line before. But because I did today, because I’d turned it over in my mind, I knew exactly how to say it tonight. How to tense it into something that cut deep and true, that could touch his bone-bare soul softly, just right. The look in his eyes: well, at least somebody cares. A lot. I knew the moment before the present came to be.

What does that mean?

Incredibly, the story doesn’t end there. To be continued.

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Nathan Vass is an artist, filmmaker, photographer, and author by day, and a Metro bus driver by night, where his community-building work has been showcased on TED, NPR, The Seattle Times, KING 5 and landed him a spot on Seattle Magazine’s 2018 list of the 35 Most Influential People in Seattle. He has shown in over forty photography shows is also the director of nine films, six of which have shown at festivals, and one of which premiered at Henry Art Gallery. His book, The Lines That Make Us, is a Seattle bestseller and 2019 WA State Book Awards finalist.