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Foothills Veterinary Hospital

Pete and Scarlett

Dog on motorboat

“Damnit, Scarlett. I left my house shoes right here by the bed for a reason.” Pete mumbled.

His feet searched the dark floor in a clumsy, semi-circular motion. He clicked on the lamp on his bedside table and located his glasses. Only one house shoe to be found. A recalcitrant shock of thin grey hair shot skyward from his forehead. “Did you take my damn house shoe again?”

Scarlett lay on her dog bed a few feet away. Though she was now awake, she did not move. Her brow furrowed slightly as she rolled her eyes in his direction. It was early for her.

“Scarlett…” Pete voiced a bit more forcefully, “You thief. Bring that house shoe back over here.”

Pete was never a fan of wood flooring in the bedroom. It felt bone chilling cold on his feet first thing in the morning. Dottie had insisted. Carpet was too hard to clean with a dog and a kid in the house. He came in from the fields one day and it was all gone. The installers were about halfway done installing the new engineered wood floor when he walked in. He felt a brief flash of anger but decided to let it pass. He loved Dottie more than the carpet and truthfully, the wood looked nice. He resigned himself to just being more intentional about wearing house shoes. For the last 15 years he always knew where his house shoes were at any given time.

Scarlett moved her head a little in his direction. Her body language and facial impression conveyed an aura of annoyance at having to get up from her bed to search for a missing house shoe – even if she was the one who confiscated it at some point during the night. She pushed her front feet out forward, dipped her chest to the floor and yawned. Big stretch. The slightly chewed house shoe still moist with saliva at the toe lay by the edge of her bed. She picked it up in her mouth and trotted over to where Pete sat on the edge of his bed. She dropped it from her mouth and propped her chin on his knee. Her eyes seemed to say I’m sorry. Pete knew better. True repentance implies a desire to abstain from a particular act or behavior. It would just be a matter of days before this whole scenario would play out again for the umpteenth time. Pete knew it. Scarlett knew it. Pete smiled and cupped her head in his hands. He gently wadded up her ears and rubbed the sides of her face. Her thick tail thumped approvingly against the bedside table. “Let’s get you outside.” Pete grumbled through a subtle smile.

Pete flipped the switch on the coffee maker as he made his way to the back door. It hissed and gurgled and belched to life, extruding it’s life giving liquid in a thin stream filling the carafe below. Pete watched Scarlett investigate all the familiar spots around the house, do her business, then once convinced she was fully appraised of all the transient creatures that had come and gone during the night, she stood at the back door and pleaded with her eyes to be let in. Pete acquiesced. A minute later, coffee in hand, Pete opened the door to the garage. “Come on girl. Time to go.”

The sun was just beginning to peep above the eastern horizon. Pete gently laid the fishing rods in the bottom of the boat and stowed his tackle box carefully in the bow. He opened the passenger side door of the truck and Scarlett lifted her front feet onto the doorsill. Years earlier she would have leapt gracefully onto the seat, but a lifetime of glorious wear and tear bounding in and out of boats and trucks, swimming after downed ducks and leaping over logs in pursuit of deer or rabbits or whatever else might try to escape her sensitive nose had left her stiff and sore in the backend. Pete fully understood how she felt, remembering a time when he was more spry, and he gently lifted her back feet up onto the floorboard of the truck. Scarlett climbed into her spot on the passenger seat and sat down eagerly awaiting their departure. Pete hooked the boat trailer to his truck and slowly pulled out of the driveway.

Familiar sights paraded by the windows of the truck as they drove. A montage of snapshots, present moments hearkening to past experience that both illustrate and define the life they’ve shared. They passed the neighbor’s farm where the boy would often go play or read comic books with friends after school; where Dottie would spend days canning garden vegetables with the farmer’s wife in the summer and where Pete would while away countless hours in conversation with the farmer about the weather and commodity prices and politics and more about the weather. Then the gas station on the corner, where year after year Pete went to buy fuel for the truck and the farm equipment, sometimes on credit when crop prices or yields were disappointing and cash flow was tight. It smelled like cigarettes and diesel fuel and the display in the glass case at the register always contained the same collection of air fresheners, pocket knives, tobacco tins and lighter fluid for long as anyone could remember. Pete and Scarlett rode in silence watching the world wake up around them through the bug speckled lens of the truck windshield.

Pete slowed and pulled into the parking lot of the local diner. Several trucks already occupied their usual spots outside the front door. He stopped alongside the building where there was enough room for the boat without obstructing traffic. “You wait here girl.” Pete instructed. “I’ll be right back.”

Scarlett turned her head to acknowledge him but did not budge from her spot. None of this routine was new to her. Years ago sometimes the boy would wait with her. In those days she sat in the middle. She never complained, content to be between her people, but she longed to be by the window where she could stick her head into the wind and experience the torrent of smells that bombarded her senses. When the boy got older he sometimes went into the diner with Pete, leaving Scarlett by herself in the truck. At first she felt anxious, wondering if they would come back, but they always did. Looking back it was both foreshadowing and preparation for when adulthood would claim him – physically, emotionally, intellectually – and leave her alone, the sole sentry of the automotive outpost, if only for the ten minutes it took Pete to get sausage biscuits and a coffee refill to go.

“Here you go.” Pete unfolded the wrapper from her egg biscuit and parceled it out in bite-sized pieces. Scarlett gingerly accepted each morsel from his outstretched fingers and with a single deft chew/swallow motion she consumed each bite eagerly. The boy used to feed her the biscuit. She loved to watch the enjoyment on his face when she ate from his hand. She sensed he liked feeding her better than he liked getting up early to go fishing. She was ok with that. Years ago the biscuits contained some bacon or sausage but one day, after a visit to the vet, the breakfast meat stopped appearing and it was always eggs thereafter.

Pete guided the truck and trailer out of the parking lot and onto the highway. The sun was visible on the eastern horizon casting long westward shadows. It’s energy warmed the cool morning air creating an ethereal mist rising gracefully from the dew-moist vegetation carpeting the fields and fallow ground that bordered the roadway. It was his favorite time of day. For years he would rise before sunup – especially during planting and harvest season. Dottie, the consummate farmer’s wife, was always up with him. They sipped coffee and pondered the weather, the growing conditions, the crops, the prices of fertilizer and herbicide, the price of corn, wheat and soybeans, the boy’s future, their future. He ate a light breakfast and headed to the shop to ready equipment before heading to the fields to tend to whatever needing tending. Dottie inventoried the pantry and the icebox, planning the day’s meals and the logistics of her to do list. Getting the boy off to school was always item number one.

Pete thought back to when Dottie first got sick. She became too weak and tired to make coffee in the morning. He took over that task, taking her cup to her bedside to seek her counsel before starting his day. The boy was old enough at that point to get himself ready for school. He seemed aloof, a little bewildered yet somehow also profoundly sad during that time. It was only in retrospect that Pete realized how unmoored the experience had left him. The boy too. Pete knew the land, the equipment, the markets, the plants. The boy knew school, words, numbers, formulas, theories. Dottie knew them. She knew their likes, their dislikes, their favorite foods, their favorite activities, the comfort of their routines. She made the house a home. Pete didn’t realize any of this of course until the cancer settled into her vital organs and took her away. He never realized how much of his ability to be a father depended on her ability to be a mother. He tried to be what the boy needed. The boy didn’t know what he needed. He only knew he didn’t have what he once had. They each sought comfort in what they knew – Pete in the land, the boy in his books. They gradually became more isolated from one another. The boy became a young man and moved away to the university where books and knowledge reigned supreme. Pete stayed put and continued to turn the soil, year after year. Scarlett watched it unfold with a curious sadness. She missed Dottie and the boy. She sensed the emptiness that enveloped Pete and she rarely left his side. Though the darkness never relented, life went on.

Pete slowed the truck and tapped the blinker lever downward. The road to the pond was unpaved and pocked with irregularities. He navigated cautiously. Scarlett sensed their destination was near and a nervous energy welled up inside her. Pete backed the boat to the water’s edge and got out to ready the launch. He whistled to Scarlett.

“Come on. You can get out.” Scarlett bounded off the seat and ran a lap around the truck and trailer before stopping by the bow. She looked anxiously at the boat and bounced up and down on her front feet as if she wanted to jump up but knew it was way too high.

“Settle down.” Pete counseled. “I’ll have her in the water in just a second.” Pete climbed back into the truck and eased the boat trailer down into the water. Scarlett heard the truck engine turn off and the ratchet of the emergency brake. Pete pushed the boat off the trailer then pulled it around onto the shore. Scarlett leapt onto the bow – forgetting about any stiffness in her hips or lower back that she may have been experiencing earlier. Pete smiled, thinking to himself that she has him pretty well trained. He climbed into the boat behind her.

The sun was above the eastern horizon now. It’s rays glinted off the small ripples on the surface of the water like thousands of flickering lights. Soft morning winds waxed and waned effortlessly. A gauzy veil of shape-shifting fog hugged the surface of the pond. Whistles of wood ducks rising off the water, peeved that breakfast was cut short by intruders, drifted on the breeze from the opposite end of the pond. Scarlett sensed the calm that settled into Pete and she in turn felt content. She settled into her spot on the bow. The smells of mud and water, fish and moss filled her with a familiar sense of belonging. The angled rays of the morning sun illuminated her coat. She basked in its warmth.

Pete fumbled through the tackle box looking for one particular lure. His fingers brushed a silvery broken back minnow that he rarely used. The boy had given it to him for a Father’s Day some years ago. “Not that one.” He thought to himself. It was a fine lure, but the thought of losing it was unbearable. He located the one he was looking for. As he tied it to his line his eye was drawn to the empty seat at the front of the boat where the boy used to sit. In his mind’s eye he saw a thoughtful 12 year old with curious eyes and windswept hair before him studying the flora and the fauna, more concerned with observing than obtaining, with understanding than consuming. He saw an innocent smile that all but disappeared after Dottie was gone. He saw the boy he thought he knew but never really did. As he cast and his line sped gracefully toward the bank he was flooded simultaneously with peace and loneliness in this sacred space.

Scarlett heard the zing of the line leaving the reel when Pete cast. She also sensed a brief moment of melancholy. She studied Pete’s face for a second. She studied the empty seat in the bow. She missed the boy. She felt Pete miss the boy.

As he slowly, carefully jigged the lure back to the boat, Pete found himself quieted and somehow hopeful. He glanced at Scarlett and softly uttered in her direction. “I hope he’s happy.”

Part prayer, part declaration, the antecedent understood, the boy, the boy named Aaron, the boy named Aaron whose comfort came in the form of knowledge not nature. The boy named Aaron who desperately missed his mother and never understood his father. The boy named Aaron who sought solace in distance; distance from the suffocating pall that befell his unrecognizable household once his mother was gone.

He hoped Aaron was happy.

Scarlett studied his face and sighed, a voiceless witness to the invisible ache. Fully aware. Fully present. Fully engaged. Not capable of comprehending the complex range of human emotion but finely attuned to its wavelength. Somehow perfectly equipped as healer, confidant, companion, yet blissfully unencumbered by the role. She lay her head between her front paws and listened attentively to the sounds – the sound of the wind stirring the leaves in the trees, ripples lapping the sides of the boat, the mechanical whir of rod and reel plying the water – the sounds of succor and solace, sustenance and healing, seeping into the brokenness, content in the moment, oblivious, yet crucial.