Things around me tend to die. People, plants, relationships…you name it. My father killed by a hit-and-run driver when I was eighteen, my mom with breast cancer a year later. I’ll spare the details, other than to say that this past summer my husband and I lost what would have been our first child. I’ve read that that kind of loss can do irreparable damage to a relationship, the undercurrent of blame being lethal. But in our case—at least with my husband —it seemed less serious. Lars appeared to recognize it as a bad hand dealt by fate, something you accepted in order to keep afloat.
I was not quite so pragmatic. I’d see women my age—often younger—pushing strollers or picking out baby clothes or breastfeeding on the subway, and my heart would ache.
I was in the dumps for a while after it happened, and Lars pretty much kept me buoyed during that time. He’d come home from teaching, and I’d be back in bed, and he’d throw together something quick like a cheese omelet, then open a couple of beers, and things would seem not good, but better.
Lars’ mood of indifference didn’t always sit that well with me. There’d be times when he was going on with life—playing poker with his friends at our dining room table, painting the kitchen ceiling while a ballgame blared on the radio—and I wanted to say, What’s up with you? Don’t you want to grieve even a little bit?
We’d spent every Thanksgiving of our three-year marriage at his Uncle Bert’s place in Ontario. Bert, a fifty-five year old widower, threw this holiday bash that ran from Thursday morning until Sunday afternoon: TV almost always going, food constantly being brought out, glasses filled and refilled. The crowd was overwhelmingly male, including Lars’ two divorced brothers, his father, a bunch of male cousins and nephews, a couple of mechanics that Bert worked with, and Father Ralph, the parish priest. The few women, including myself, sat around the large kitchen table, talked family and drank boxed wine, joked about one another’s less serious problems.
This year, though, I tried to get Lars to take a pass. Last November, pregnant, I was the main attraction. I’d brought one more boy to the party. Now I was bringing one less. Lars, though, was insistent. “If we don’t go,” he said, “it’ll look like we’re giving in to self-pity.” And if there was one thing in Lars’s testosterone-fueled family to avoid, it was that.
I thought we had the perfect out: Scooby our eight-year-old, arthritic, 110-pound Great Dane that local kennels refused to board due to the animal’s constant flatulence. He’d been given to me as a pup by an ex-boyfriend a few days before he announced we were breaking up, and I never quite figured out whether the gift was meant as a conciliation or some form of revenge. Lars tolerated Scooby—the food cost, the vet bills, the replacement furniture—and was a sterner disciplinarian than I. As for Scooby, he showed little loyalty to either of us; the dog just more-or-less lumbered through life, not unlike his cartoon namesake.
“We’ll take him with us,” Lars said. “Everybody else brings their dogs.”
“In the Honda? For ten hours?”
So it was settled. We reserved a pet-friendly motel room a couple of hours from Bert’s place, packed the car, and left Manhattan around ten on Wednesday morning. Lars’ carefully drawn plan—including stops for food and dog-walking—would get us to the motel around 5:30. We’d order room service—the place actually had a separate menu for “Our Cherished Animal Guests”—veg out in front of the TV, and complete the trip to Bert’s on Thursday morning.
One unanticipated problem was the border crossing. Over two hours waiting in line while people cut through the duty free and pushed their way to the front. We wound up finally entering Canada around eight that night—the smell of Scooby enveloping us like some noxious fog—ready for a fight and low on gas.
I suppose we should have filled up when we had the chance, but Lars has this thing. He likes to wait until the last moment, stating that, “Simply topping the tank off adds too many unnecessary stops. You should be riding on fumes by the time you finally pull in to a service station.”
After about a half-hour, we exited King’s Highway 41 and hit a dark stretch of road. About a mile or two in, we came to an orange-and-white striped traffic barrier. ROAD CLOSED, it warned. LOCAL TRAFFIC ONLY. I suggested returning to the highway and taking it from there, but Lars shook his head.
“That’s what they do up here,” he said. “Road crews. Go home at six and leave their signs up.”
Lars maneuvered around the stanchions and within minutes the road surface resembled an antique washboard. No traffic in either direction. My husband claimed he knew the way, that he’d ridden this exact route since childhood, that there was a Shell station within striking distance. He was correct, but when we got there the place was as abandoned as an Old West ghost town. Lars checked the car’s GPS, and found that there was another station just five miles north.
We made it less than halfway before coasting off to the side of the road, evidently fumeless. I’d left my cellphone back in New York—the Canadian roaming fees were exorbitant—and Lars—cheapskate that he was—had chosen not to charge his phone at home in order to take advantage of the motel’s “complementary electricity.”
“I thought I saw a sign a ways back,” I said. “Some place called Gilerby, five kilometers.”
“Three miles,” Lars said. “I can walk that. You wait here.”
“Think again,” I told him. “I’ve seen the movies. This is hook-man territory.”
“You’ve got the dog,” he said, but we both knew that Scooby—who at this point had to be carried upstairs and down, who had bad teeth and needed his food grounded into a mash—was well beyond his protective years.
It was probably a few degrees above freezing, and fortunately there was no snow on the ground. Unfortunately, we weren’t exactly prepared for much other than a walk from the car to inside someplace warm. We pulled what we could from the trunk and the back seat. For me that meant a lightweight down jacket, a pair of hiking boots, and the jeans I was wearing. For Lars it included a pair of canvas cargo pants, a herringbone overcoat, a Mets cap, and suede slip-ons.
We leashed Scooby and hefted him down to the ground. I’d stashed a granola bar in the glovebox, fished it out, stuck it in my jacket pocket. We locked the car—against what I have no clue—and started off into the dark. Lars, with flashlight in hand, led the way while I tried to persuade the dog to keep up. Perhaps it was instinctual, but Scooby didn’t welcome the challenge. He spread his front legs like some burro knowing a thin mountain pass wasn’t necessarily a good choice, and I had to yank on the ten-foot long leather leash to get him to move.
I found that if I broke off small bits of the granola bar, I could at least get Scooby to take a few reluctant steps forward. We were maybe a mile from town—half the candy bar already gone—when Lars turned and asked if we could pick up the pace. With the light beam in front of him, his foot went into some undetected roadside hole and I heard him bellow, “Shit!” as if he was a cheerleader in the Big Ten Conference. Lars’ scream made me drop the candy bar, but impressed Scooby enough to make the animal trot forward.
“My ankle,” Lars said when we finally caught up.
“Can you walk on it?”
“I don’t know for how long.”
“What if you lean on me?”
It was a well-meant suggestion, but an impractical one. There was no way I could hold a flashlight, support my husband, and drag a Great Dane the size of a well-fed adolescent.
“Leash him to something,” Lars said. “We’ll come back later.”
“It’s pitch black out!” I said.
“He’ll be fine.”
“I don’t know about this.”
Lars grabbed the leash from me. “I’ll do it,” he said.
I held the flashlight as Lars, limping badly, yanked the resistant dog a few yards into the woods and watched as he selected a tree with about a five-inch diameter. He unclipped Scooby, wrapped the leash around the trunk, passed the metal clasp through the hand loop, and reattached the fastener to the dog’s collar.
“Come on,” Lars said, and I stepped toward him and placed his arm over my shoulder, then hugged him around the waist.
Scooby never made a sound, and I knew better than to look back.
It took us a while, but when we saw lit windows in the distance, we hobbled on.
It was a small, ranch-style house and the man who came to the door looked at least seventy. Lars explained the situation and we soon found ourselves inside a well-lit kitchen circa 1970. The man—Verne—told us to have a seat at the table and called his wife in. Carol was her name, and she was gray-haired and as round as a ball of dough.
“Can I pour you some coffee?” she offered.
“Folks prob’ly wanna take care of business,” Verne told her. “Get fueled up and be on their way.”
“We have a dog leashed to a tree between here and the car,” I said, and Carol and Verne looked at one another as if I’d announced I had a bomb in my pocket.
Carol stayed behind with Lars while I climbed into Verne’s pickup. He’d put a five-gallon can of gas in back, then pointed out an exterior spotlight mounted on the driver’s side that he was able to rotate using a handle inside the cab. We traveled along at maybe ten-miles-an-hour, and passed thousands of trees, hundreds of which could have been the one Lars had chosen. I thought we’d pick up Scooby, frozen in place and petrified, but we drove down and back without even a sighting. Verne stopped the pickup a number of times in order for me to get out with the flashlight and search. Nothing. I called the dog’s name and heard it echo back to me. I felt hopeless and defeated as I got back into the truck for the last time.
“How old was she?”
“Eight,” I told him, and instead of saying something like At least she had a good long life, Verne said, “I guess we should go get your car.”
I followed Verne back in the Honda, and when we got to the house it was after midnight. Lars and Carol were sitting in the living room eating rice pudding and watching some performer on television. My husband’s left shoe and sock had been removed and his ankle, now wrapped with an elastic bandage, rested on a hassock. Carol had even found a cane—the remnant of a past hip surgery, she told us—that was leaned against the arm of his chair.
“I can guess what probably happened,” Lars said. “Some neighbor probably found him and took the dog home for the night. That’s what they do up here. By morning, the news will be all over town.”
“I’ll call Animal Control,” Carol said as she collected the empty dishes and walked into the kitchen.
Lars was on his feet now, leaning on the cane like some chorus line extra. “Worse comes to worse, we’ll get a bunch or flyers printed and pin them up everywhere.”
“What about Uncle Bert?” I asked.
“We’ll leave tomorrow after we find Scooby,” he said. “Be there before the heavy drinking starts. All we need tonight is a place to stay.” He looked over at Verne. “Any suggestions?”
I took the sofa and Lars was in a hammock on the glassed-in porch. We were close enough that I could hear him snoring, and the fact that he could sleep so well while I lie wide-eyed, irritated me.
It was just beginning to get light when he came in, shook me by the shoulder, and whispered, “I think I know what happened. I think that crazy dog got off his leash and hid in the bushes when he heard you coming. He’s probably out walking the shoulder about now.”
I wasn’t sleepy, so I agreed to get up and help search. Any action, I figured, was better than no action. I took off the nightgown Carol had lent me, got dressed, and met Lars in the Honda. Even with his bad ankle, he insisted on driving, and when we arrived at the spot about halfway between the house and where our car had stopped, he pulled over. Lars got out and walked around to the other side using his cane.
“He’s got to be around here someplace.”
It was chilly and damp and I thought about waiting in the Honda, but instead I trailed behind him like a kid already knowing what to expect.
“Maybe we should just go back,” I said.
Lars was calling for the dog, walking along the side of the road, pushing and poking at the autumn underbrush, entering deeper into the woods. I followed, but stopped when something on the ground got my attention. It was the wrapper from the granola bar, the one I’d dropped the night before. Whatever had remained of the candy was gone, and the paper was shredded and flattened and punctured with holes.
“This is the tree!” I heard Lars shout from a short distance in. I shoved the wrapper in my jacket pocket and hurried toward him. “I remember!” he said. “This is it!” And as my husband continued to call the dog’s name, something else caught my eye. It was another tree, not far away, with a leather leash curled around the base. It was camouflaged against the brown bark, and when I uncoiled it and slipped it off, it was no more than five-feet long. The loop end was intact, but the other end had been chewed free.
I said nothing. I simply approached my husband and held it out. He studied it a moment, end to end, and then handed it back.
“This doesn’t mean anything.”
“Honey, he’s gone,” I said.
“All this means is that he chewed himself loose. I bet he made it to some barn. Found a warm place to sleep.”
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s just go.”
“I’m not going anywhere without my dog!” Lars said, and now he began to call into the woods almost frantically.
“Lars, stop,” I said, but he didn’t. Not until his voice got weak and he stuck that cane into the soft earth and fell to his knees. I put a hand on his shoulder. He was gulping air now and his breath was all vapor.
“I’m not crying,” he finally said, and I knelt down next to him and said, “I know, I know.”