- Rostum Al-Gawad
This story was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.
Victim Impact Statement: Karen Dorchester
I came home that Thursday - right in the middle of the workday, so I could walk and feed my dog - to find the box at my front steps. I looked around, but the street was totally empty. I pushed the box aside and unlocked my door, putting my things down on the kitchen table before retrieving it. It was a plain, white rectangular box, like the type you’d get at any bakery, with a pink ribbon tied around it and a small square of blue paper taped to the top. I picked it up and brought it inside and was greeted by Purcell, who still needed to be walked and fed. I had forgotten about the box until a few hours later - about five or six in the afternoon - when I’d come home from work for the day. I pulled the blue paper off the top and read it:
SORRY ABOUT YESTERDAY AND ALL,
I stuck the paper back onto the top of the box.
* * *
I had run into him at the grocery store the day before; he was buying melons and we immediately got into it.
“What are you doing?” I had said.
“Excuse me?” he said. He laughed and looked around, acting as if he was genuinely confused. I swear I could’ve killed him right there.
“What are you doing here?”
“Jesus, Karen, calm down, I’m just buying melons,” he said. He held up two cantaloupes and shook them about, rolling his eyes.
I was actually surprised how quick it all devolved from there, not half as surprised as the other shoppers, but still surprised. I knew he didn’t need to keep shopping at that Quickee, I’m not sure where he’s living now but I know for a fact it’s not on the East Side. I know that the right thing to have done would’ve been to just pretend I didn’t see him, or even to leave and hide in the parking lot - in the car - till he’d gone. Maybe it would’ve been a little pathetic, sure, but it would have been the right thing to do. Instead, I went into the whole situation already angry. I don’t remember exactly what was said, just that it was nasty, or who started smashing the fruit first, but the manager was nice enough not to call the police; maybe he should have.
Inside the box were twelve donuts, carelessly stuffed together. There were two of each flavor in there, the most colorful and unhealthy kinds: lots of greens and blues - lots of sprinkles. It looked as if a child had picked them. The grease off the icing had darkened the sides of the box and the inside of the lid. I closed it and caught sight of the blue paper again and the stupid little note:
“SORRY ABOUT YESTERDAY AND ALL.”
“‘And all.’ Asshole,” I whispered to myself then repeated louder for Purcell, who was eyeing the box anxiously. My first instinct was to throw it out into the street, my second was to throw it into the garbage, and my third was to just toss the note and eat the donuts. I stood at the table trying to decide how to handle the situation until Purcell groaned and left, disappointed, and I did the same a minute later.
The next morning - Friday morning - leaving for work, I looked around for him before getting into the car: nothing. Also nothing when I came home to walk Purcell, and, again, nothing when I came home in the evening. I spent that entire weekend at home; it had been a particularly busy week at the hospital - I work for the Cleveland University Hospitals, on Euclid - and I just wanted to have some time to myself.
Saturday morning I woke up early - I can't help the habit - and went for a short jog with Purcell. When I came back I remembered about the box of donuts, sitting right where I’d left it. Purcell and I studied the box again, like we’d done the night before. I picked it up and walked it to the trash can, Purcell following excitedly, and pressed the lever with my foot. The lid sprang open. I looked at the note again, and decided against it. I slid the box back onto the counter, next to the stove this time, and went to take a shower.
“Asshole,” I said to Purcell as I walked out of the kitchen.
While getting dressed I could hear Purcell barking from his spot by the window. I hurried down to see what it was: nothing. I ran to the door to see if there was another box on the steps: nothing. I spent that afternoon reviewing the file of a patient I had been particularly worried about. As strange as it might sound, I don’t actually remember the case itself, only that I’d been really concerned about it - I think it was a young boy - but writing now, I don’t remember any of the details. I know, though, that I spent the day on my couch, in front of the window, trying to focus on the file. I couldn’t put that damn box out of my mind, it had bothered me so much. Everything from the pink ribbon and the blue paper to the way the donuts were actually arranged inside the box irritated me. They looked like they’d really been handled - like he had bought them, stuffed them in his pockets, then got the box as an afterthought. I felt like I’d be able to taste his fingers if I ate one.
I tried to bring myself to focus on the file, on the health of the boy - if it had been a boy - by reading aloud to Purcell. I read him blood test results, described scans, and postulated theories and prognoses. He looked and listened but didn’t seem very interested; I knew what he was really thinking about, because I was thinking about it, too.
Years ago, when we were still living together, he had had too much to drink and pushed Purcell down the stairs. It sounds bad, and it was, but Purcell had bitten him first, drawing blood - he’d even need stitches later - so I wasn’t sure how to handle it all. Purcell lay at the bottom of the stairs with a broken leg, switching between whimpers and growls; it was hard to approach him. We fought a little after that but things eventually got back to normal and everyone healed nicely, although he and Purcell would eye each other suspiciously from then on out. That’s how things were for most of our time together: occasionally violent but always with some excuse or reason - “he bit first.” That’s why it lasted as long as it did, I think, because everything was always in that sort of grey area.
Looking at Purcell, who was curled at the far end of the couch, and remembering the stairs, I decided I was going to throw the stupid box in the garbage. Sure enough though, after marching to the kitchen - dog in tow - and grabbing the box of donuts, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It was, after all, an apology. A poorly crafted, poorly executed, cowardly apology, but an apology nonetheless. Like a little kid who wraps a gift by sticking random pieces of newspaper together. The fanfare of the whole operation struck me as childish as well. Did he hide in the bushes, waiting for me to leave for work, just so he could leave me sweets? Even the note then irritated me less. Maybe the “AND ALL” was his way of acknowledging everything that had happened between us. That Quickee fight, with the melons, maybe he was just buying melons; he was, after all, holding melons when I approached him. I should have just left him there and let it be.
The clicking of Purcell’s claws on the floor interrupted my thoughts and, upon making eye contact with me as I held the box, he took a few unbalanced and excited steps backwards in anticipation of a donut.
“No,” I said firmly, “definitely not.”
I looked again at the donuts which, unlike the note, looked no less revolting than they had before. “They won't go bad for another couple of days,” I thought to myself, “junk food doesn’t really go bad ever.” There was no reason to throw them in the garbage just yet, it seemed cruel somehow, so I just left it there.
The following morning I had done as I did the day before and checked outside for boxes: nothing. Maybe I was disappointed not to find any, maybe I had hoped for more apologies - it's hard to say now. Around noon a friend of mine, Marsha, came to check in on me. She’s been a friend of mine for years, since before I even met him. She knew the worst of it but, still, I didn’t tell her anything about the Quickee or the donuts. Although, I did offer her a donut with her coffee; she declined. It seemed nobody but Purcell wanted anything to do with them. I don’t remember much else about her visit, except that somebody had called my house phone twice but hung up before saying anything.
“Oh, that’s so annoying,” Marsha had said. “Probably dialed the wrong number twice. I do that all the time!”
Marsha is a nice person, a really good person, but I wanted her to leave, and she finally did, at around two-thirty. I spent the rest of the day cleaning the house, which I had neglected for the past week; I had left for the hospital early every morning and come home late, exhausted. Dishes began to tower in the sink and crumbs had gathered in piles here and there that I’d swiped together with my hand, promising to tackle later. “Now is later,” I thought to myself and got together my cleaning supplies.
It took hours; I cleaned windows, floors, even walls, wiped the frames of paintings, and vacuumed rugs and under couches. Every time I tried to tackle the kitchen, however, the box would distract me. I got four plates into the tower of dishes before deciding to wipe the glass table down, and only a quarter way of that before sitting down and staring at the box again. It seemed to get bigger every time I saw it, inching towards me whenever I turned my back. It was almost like having him back in the house. Say what you will about him, but he knew me well, better than anyone almost, so I began to wonder: did he know that his little “gift” would have this effect on me? Did he know it would bother me so much? That it would sit in the house like this, like some heavy body? And why the hell was he buying melons, anyway? I had never once, in all the time we’d lived together, seen him eat one melon. Besides, didn’t they sell melons at every grocery store in the city? Did the East Side Quickee sell the best ones? And why donuts, for that matter? Did he ever once see me, in all the time we’d lived together, eat a single donut? No chance, I thought. I left the kitchen and moved on to the stairs.
I started at the top, cleaning each step on my way down, wiping the banister and the vertical bars as well, and even scrubbing the plaster molding where the wall meets the stairs. I couldn’t remember the last time the stairs had been cleaned that well. They weren’t filthy by any means but they couldn’t have been very clean either. Purcell lounged at the bottom of the stairs, following me with his eyes down each step.
By the time I made it all the way to the bottom, my back ached and Purcell had fallen asleep - it was already dark outside. I considered leaving him to sleep but decided to wake him and take him into the garden before going to bed myself.
I woke up the next morning at a quarter to six, after dreaming, I’m sure, about donuts. I walked into the kitchen with Purcell to find my crumb piles yet untouched, table wiped a quarter clean and my tower of dishes only four shorter. “All because of those donuts,” I thought. I looked at the clock that hung above the door. I didn’t have time to clean the kitchen now and admitted to myself that the tower and piles would likely remain there until next Saturday at the earliest.
“Goddamnit, that’s it!” I said to Purcell with conviction, who snapped to attention. I grabbed the box, looked inside one last time, and tossed it into the garbage: twelve donuts, pink ribbon, blue note, grease stains and all. “Ha!” I said to Purcell, whose gaze remained fixed on the garbage can. I left for work five minutes or so later.
* * *
I came home a little later than usual to walk and feed Purcell and, upon opening my kitchen door, discovered a mess. The floor was covered in garbage. The can had been knocked over and the trash bag pulled out, ripped open and dragged across the kitchen, then dropped. The contents had spilled out and an entire weeks worth of food scraps and trash led, almost item by item, to the box - that goddamn donut box. It was chewed up and ripped apart. Not a single donut remained; in fact, much of the box had been eaten as well.
I gasped at first, dropping my things, then, when seeing that box, pulled out a chair from the kitchen table and sat for a moment. I thought about what I was going to do to Purcell when I caught him. I let myself calm down before getting up, though. I knew it wasn’t really Purcell’s fault; those donuts should not have been in the house in the first place. I got a fresh trash bag and started picking up the garbage.
“Purcell,” I called out, shouting the “cell” - trying to instill in him a little fear. After getting halfway through the mess on the floor I went to find him. Sure enough there was a trail of white cardboard leading to his bed by the window.
I knew right away something was wrong - I couldn’t see his face but there was something with the way his body was twisted. I shook him but he didn’t move, his eyes were rolled to the back of his head. He was breathing, though, that much I could tell. I dragged him as best I could - my back still ached from cleaning the stairs. I drove to the animal hospital and called my hospital on the way, telling them I wouldn’t be back in that day.
In the waiting room I was thinking that he’d choked on something, the cardboard of the box maybe, or that stupid blue note, or just that the sugar had shocked his system. After about twenty minutes, the vet came out.
“He seems to be okay for now,” he said.
I sighed a breath of relief and threw my hands up and mumbled something.
“Yes, I think he should be okay. Needless to say, he should remain here for the night, so we can keep an eye on him. We had to perform a gastric lavage - it’s an internal cleaning that-”
I nodded and motioned for him to skip over all that.
“Ah,” he said, “well, I think we’ve removed all the poison from his system. As I said before, I want to keep him here for the evening and you should watch him closely when you take him home tomorrow. He’s going to need plenty of fluids.”
“Wait, wait - poison? What poison?”
“Well, he had ingested a toxic substance. A good deal, by the looks of it.” He seemed surprised I didn’t know what he was talking about and, had I not been so shocked, I may have been embarrassed. “But, like I said, I think we got all of it. A nurse will come get you when you can see him. Do you have any more questions for me?”
I shook my head - I was completely dumbfounded. I staggered backwards and sat down in one of the waiting room chairs.
* * *
I would later find out - from testing the bits of the box on my kitchen floor - that the donuts had large amounts of naphthalene.
“It’s found mostly in mothballs,” an investigator would tell me.
“Was he trying to kill me?” I would ask him.
“Uh, well I - um - you would definitely have tasted it before eating too much of it. I’m sure you wouldn’t even have gotten a stomach ache,” he’d say, adding, “don’t think too much about it.”
I’ve been encouraged to write out my story, and this letter is to be presented at sentencing. What do I advise? How have I been impacted by the crime with which he is being charged? I’m not a lawyer or a judge, I have no advice in sentencing, all I can do is tell you what happened and how it all happened. As far as how I’ve been impacted goes: I’m alive and so is my dog. I haven’t learned anything new about the accused; this is who he is. Whether he was intending to kill me or make me sick, I’ll never know for sure; he may have been after Purcell the whole time, or Marsha - I really don’t know. He is guilty, I know that much. I have no comment on his motivations either, like so much else in our lives, it probably exists in that grey area. Would he have done any of this had I not approached him in the Quickee that Thursday, had I just let it lie and not stirred things up? Do I find that he is remorseful - that he’s really sorry for what he’s done? Again, I have no idea. Sentence him to however many months or years as you see fit; and I’m sure that after he’s out - within a week or so - I’ll find an apology on my front steps. ▲
Rostum Al-Gawad is a writer and poet originally from Cairo, Egypt. He currently lives in Cleveland, OH and is looking for work as a screenwriter.