The first time I encountered him was on a Sunday morning, while traveling to Homer to teach lessons. Even while approaching him from behind, it was obvious by the sight of blue and orange lights that the truck was some form of law enforcement vehicle. State Trooper--in bold slanted font--I read on its side as I passed, my needle pointing at 39 in a 35. Surely he wouldn’t mind my inconspicuous exaggeration; after all, speedometers have been known to be off by more than that, anyway. That’s why I was so surprised when I saw the lights in my rearview mirror.
In the Safeway parking lot, he and I tentatively (and respectfully, I might add) discussed actual vs. hypothetical speed. He had no forms and no radar gun, so it was his speedometer against mine. Peering inside my car, he saw the violin case in the passenger seat. “Hey, mind if I get your business card? I’ve been looking for a violin teacher.” My stomach made my face flush. I mumbled something about the phone book and thanked him anyway for the free warning. Meanwhile, I memorized his license plate and made a mental note not to have any openings in my schedule for him.
The coffee shop crowd had a great time later, nibbling on my story while sipping their americanos. Wasn’t he that one cop that took underage girls out drinking? And wasn’t he that one cop that made lewd comments to the girl over at the Mocha Wagon? You can’t trust those cops, there are far too many up to no good. Corrupt predators, every last one of ‘em, with sharp pointy teeth under their wooly pretenses.
A few weeks later, I fielded a phone call from a man who explained that he took violin lessons once in Juneau, but the recent move up had severed him from his teacher. I told him I was booked, but if he would like to give me his name and number, I would let him know just as soon as I had any openings. I sensed sheepishness. It was then that he confessed tentatively (and respectfully, I might add) “...Actually, I’m ashamed to admit we’ve met already. You see, I was the cop who pulled you over a while back.” ...Oh. Smugly, I wrote down his personal information and thanked him for calling.
Booked. I have to admit, though, he didn’t sound very much like a toothy predator on the phone. In fact, I felt a little sorry for him because of the courage I sensed him mustering as we spoke.
Today I passed through Soldotna on my way to Homer in the typical Sunday routine, running five minutes behind and five miles over. Usually, I make a straight shot with almost no interruptions (minus moose and blizzards). Today however, I spied the blue and orange again, and going five under to boot. Shoot, do I pass him, or do I stay behind him for all 75 miles? Maybe he won’t recognise me, but if I pass him, I’ll have to speed just a little, and he didn’t like that the last time. But if I stay behind him, my sanity will whittle away and I will arrive at the lesson just in time to wrap violin strings around the children’s toes and hang them from the balcony. Then, what’s a speeding ticket in light of a double homicide?
I was still speculating the outcome of my options when the violin cop made a sudden unexpected right signal and pulled to the side of the road. He was letting me by! But why? Obviously, it has to be some sort of sting operation, since he knows I’m going to speed once I’ve passed. Plus he has those pointy teeth and all. He’ll run me down, and threaten me with handcuffs and other newspaper-worthy devices, and then how’ll I defend myself? I know, I could buy him off, offer him that slot that opened up last Tuesday. Yes, that’s what I’ll do: free lessons for a clean driving record.
He didn’t catch up to me after all, which seemed anticlimactic after the excitement I’d conjured. It wasn’t until the drive home that the thought occurred to me that maybe he was actually being purposefully nice in case I would reconsider him.
Valentine’s Day almost ended perfectly, with thoughtful gifts of chocolate, steak, and heart-shaped boxes of ammunition tied with red bows. We were just toasting ourselves with a buttery pinot noir, settling into the couch when we realised we’d let the dog out and he hadn’t come back. What? “Ben’s gone. Gonna go look for him in the truck.” From the tone of George’s voice, I could tell he was worried.
“Ben, Come!” Punk. I stood in the toe-nipping doorway, my calls being eaten by the wind. While George drove around the camp, I paced from window to window, peering into the dark woods that jutted from the whiteness, waiting for something in them to move. When all this failed, we took another drive to search more closely for tracks in the snow. Then George stayed home to watch for him while I went back out in the car and checked the highway and neighborhoods.
“Ben, Come!” Bonehead. As my fret grew, I tried to comfort myself with thoughts of other dogs who run loose with no consequences. But Alaska in February can be especially cruel and unforgiving to a highly specialized chocolate lab with no street savvy and not a mean bone to speak of. (We’d even trained the bite instinct out of him as a puppy; his mouth was so soft that he retrieved eggshells from the trash can unharmed.) I tried not to think of possible encounters with crazed moose, packs of Rottweilers, and highway semi's on ice. Maybe he was just hooking up with a dame; after all, it’s Valentine’s Day. Methodically, I made my way down each avenue to its end and back, probing the landscape with my headlights for fresh paw prints shaped like Ben’s. Only one set of tracks gave me any leads, to a husky pacing casually at the end of her drive; she wasn’t talking.
The fuel light had been glowing empty orange for a while already when I stopped back by the house to see George alone on the couch. With still no sign of Ben, I gassed up the tank for round three.
“Ben, Come!” Stupid dog. Twigs and branches tumbled across the headlights’ scope. Newer tracks gradually became sanded down into smooth ripples. Disappearing. I didn’t even know which road I was on anymore. I drove till there were no more roads, till I wandered to the end of the landing strip over at Tennessee Miller’s old homestead. An empty street lamp, a drifting runway, and darkness surrounded me.
I was alone.
I was still alone when I curled up on the couch to watch the back yard at 2:00 am. I willed the dark shapes to move, to become a dog and run to the door. I summoned with my heart, hoping that maybe Ben would get the message and get himself back to me. Though undue guilt would have typically persuaded me not to pester God over such a trivial matter, I prayed.
If Ben wasn’t tucked in tonight like every other night of his life, then it was because he couldn’t make it back, and there were only two explanations for that: he was either in someone else’s home, or he was probably dead. Lying on the couch, trying to keep my drooping eyes fixed outside, I thought about dead, and then I tried not to think about dead, about the frail mess of bones and blood and pain that make up life.
He shouldn’t be such a big deal. It’s not like he’s a human. (I can’t even imagine what it would be like if it was George missing!) But that’s just it; I have no children, so it’s my pet that constitutes the third member of my family trio. See, he wasn’t just a dog, he was also my hiking buddy. He’s the one who licked my hand when I cried that day on top of the mountain–-when I was not invited, and everyone else had gone out across the ridge without me. And when I wept about the fishing trip because it was just the boys, it was Ben who buried his head in my lap and tried as best as any four-legged friend could to offer a sympathy hug. At times when I felt most rejected, my dog was my best friend. He was just four years old, strong and beautiful and perfect. Honey brown eyes, baggy-pants skin, floppy ears. Frail bones and blood...
Every time I drifted off, guilt painfully snapped me awake for not watching. Then I dreamed he came home. When the welcome home scene finally dissolved and consciousness took over, I curled up tightly in hopes that my blanket could shun the day out of existence. Since it didn’t, I got up. But I wouldn’t hike anymore. I wouldn’t eat breakfast, either.
George and I discussed our next option and decided to file a lost dog report with the local radio station. We checked it out and discovered that this could be done easily on line. So I opened up their website.
FOUND: Male chocolate lab. Very friendly.
One of my students left a "Valentine" in the bathroom before lesson time. The following student must have left one as well. And since the third student couldn't get get them to go down, they ended up overflowing onto the floor and backing up into my bathtub last night.
I hate to refuse gifts from students because I don't like to hurt feelings, but next time perhaps they could give me chocolate instead.
“Hey, Laura, the Dvorak Sonatina I ordered for you came in yesterday, so we can start working on it at your next lesson. You know, it’s funny, I was just playing through it and thinking how perfectly Americana it sounded, wondering how Dvorak pulled off such a flavor, and then last night I read that he actually wrote it for his children after visiting the New World. He based the main theme on the American folk tune ‘Oh My Darlin’ Clementine’. I never would have guessed; isn’t that interesting?”
“...Actually, I hate that folk song.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s like dining on a delicious gourmet dessert and asking the chef what’s in it, only to hear him say, ‘Well, first, you take some Twinkies and crumble them up...’”
Yes, it's cold, but it's necessary. To weed out the sick and the weak.
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