"Until I stumbled across an article about him in the newspaper, I never realized how much Walter Dodge and I are alike."
A snort drew my attention across the table to a pair of hazel eyes squinting over the top of the comics and puzzles page of the Kirksville Daily Journal.
"You can't be serious," my skeptical wife said.
I frowned in response but inwardly rejoiced. I'd missed our verbal sparring, one of many spices flavoring our forty years of marriage. I decided to carefully test the waters.
"Really, I am, Lauren. A lot of similarities, Really."
She meticulously flattened her paper and set it aside. "Name one."
I rose to the challenge. "Well, we both graduated from Washington High in '65."
"As did I. Go on."
I chuckled as I observed thin arms crossing her fragile chest. "Walter and I are college grads and have retired from full-filling careers. Some raspberry jam for your English muffin, dear?" I shoved the jar through breakfast clutter.
"Thank you. I believe I will." Lauren sighed as she precisely spread preserves to the edges of her muffin, set down the knife, and licked her index finger. "Hey, you on the floor," she said to a furry lump. "Pay attention while Mama sets the record straight."
Our basset stretched and yawned. He moaned and dropped his massive head onto the tiles so he could observe both masters. He remained motionless except for an occasional twitch of his white-tipped tail. He followed our conversation with soulful eyes.
"First of all, you and I graduated MAGNA CUM LAUDE because we worked hard and deserved the honor. Walter's father practically bought his sheepskin with donations to the science wing. Walter Dodge is dumber than this dog and you know it."
"Tsk! Tsk! Now you've insulted Petey."
Lauren laughed and stretched pale fingers to scratch behind the loiterer's lengthy velvet ears. The hound groaned with delight and sighed.
I smiled. Through it all--chemo, radiation, months of fear and mind-numbing panic--Petey earned his badge of valor and numerous Milk Bones.
As I had spun in helpless, confusing circles, seeking occupations of comfort to Lauren, her four-footed, brown and white friend had simply been THERE. He had sensed her pain and terror and lay by her side, never crowding but close enough for calm consolation.
Lauren loved Petey and I had no doubt he would forfeit his life for her. I envied the dog's intuition for her needs but accepted my position as second banana.
"Why are you smiling, my Heathcliff?"
I blinked moist eyes. "Oh, I'm just glad you've had your last treatment, honey. Why do you call me Heathcliff?"
She blushed, a trifle embarrassed and shared her muffin with Petey. She'd watched countless classic movies as she'd recuperated on the couch in the den.
"You're big and strong and my hero, Dave. You never gave up on me. So you're my Heathcliff and I'm your Cathy."
I cleared my throat as I rose to clear the table. At the sink, I turned to face her. "Excuse me, but didn't Cathy die in WUTHERING HEIGHTS? You're a survivor, Lauren."
She pursed her lips. "But, see. Heathcliff and Cathy were eventually joined for eternity. Nothing could destroy their love. Just like us."
I crossed quickly to kiss bristles on the top of her head. "You've got that right, kiddo. Hand me the milk, will you?"
Lauren avoided my eyes as we worked together. "What were we talking about?"
She gulped and finished her liquid supplement.
"Yuck Walter or yuck your vitamins?"
"Both leave a bad taste on my tongue." She grabbed a napkin to gently blot her lips. The sores in her mouth were almost healed.
"Hmmm. Something about 'full-filling careers'."
I turned again to set the plates, glasses and silverware in the sink to soak. "Walter successfully operated a thriving business and I. . .well, I guess I never did make Chief."
"David Miller!" Lauren spoke so sharply Petey raised his head and whined. "You retired as Lieutenant of Detectives with enough commendations to fill three scrap albums. Walter showed up at his father's lumber yard whenever he couldn't find something else to occupy his time."
I stooped to stroke Petey's muzzle.
"We both fell in love with you," I quietly said.
"Oh honey, that's so ridiculous. I never encouraged. . ." A coughing spasm caused my heart to race.
She covered her mouth and shook her head. "No, no Dave. My breathing is getting so much better. Here. You can feel my forehead. No fever."
I practically lifted my my slender angel and held her to my chest. Her arms slid around my waist and we stood, warming in the sunlight that brightened our kitchen.
Time had been our enemy, ticking away precious minutes we couldn't grasp and save. But her last check-up had been the best. No trace. . .see you in six months. . .regain strength. . .
Lauren had been determined to stick to the planned drug schedule regardless of the suppressed production of white blood cells. While I agonized over her nausea, bone pain and dizziness, she had worried about me.
She shushed me and spoke directly into my heart. "I know, Heathcliff. We've been through a lot, but I'm on the mend now. We're going to enjoy our retirement and spoil our grandsons."
"Your hair is growing back." I rubbed her head.
"Yeah." She looked up at my face. "It'll be gray, though. You're used to brown hair on me."
I shook my head. "I don't care, honey. Leave it gray and we'll match."
She stepped back and looked into my eyes. "I don't know. When it's longer, I think I'll ask Petey for his opinion."
At the sound of his name, his tail thumped on the tiled floor.
"I think Petey wants to go out."
I led Lauren back to her chair and scooted mine closer to her. "That's what I was thinking as I read this article about Dodge."
"Our brilliant city fathers are staging this eco-rally in Willow Park this morning. I thought if you felt up to it, we could catch a little fresh air and check it out."
Lauren sniffed. "A bunch of speeches about going green and saving the planet. What do you think, Petey?"
The basset woofed and his entire body wiggled, three feet of glorious anticipation.
Lauren laughed. Music to my ears.
"Well, lace up, Heathcliff. We're burning daylight."
Our happy trio proceeded slowly down our block. Spring's warm breezes signaled the end to the bitter winter with promises of new life. I inhaled deeply while obliquely keeping a close watch on my wife. We were going to be okay.
"Lighten up, Dave. No dizziness or nausea. I'm fine, hon. Really. It's great to be out and acting normal."
I frowned. Was I that obvious?
Petey languished in olfactory paradise. Being a scent hound, he shuffled along with his head down and tail up. His keen nose and brain received, sorted, and stored all aromatic data like a computer. His wide nostrils flared as his long, velvety ears acted as fans, blowing odors up from the ground to his nose.
"Hey! It's the Millers out and about."
I smiled a greeting to our neighbors. "Joe. Good to see you and your better half."
Pati Fife fell in step beside Lauren. "Hi, sweetie. How are you doing? Ooh, Petey. Your nose is cold."
Lauren said, "Dave. Make your dog behave. Sorry about that, Pati. You must smell too good to resist."
I tugged the leash so Joe, Petey and I fell a few steps behind our ladies. I couldn't help studying Lauren for any signs of distress. Petey sniffed a mailbox post frequented by neighborhood dogs. Reading his P-mail, I guess.
Lauren sighed contentedly. "I'm good, Pati. Getting better everyday. This morning is especially nice. Going to the rally over at the bandstand?"
Pati nodded. "We old folks have to keep up on current events, don't we?" She gently squeezed Lauren's hand. "You look wonderful." The Fife's had proven their friendship time and again. After Lauren's diagnosis, they never butted in but were always available when we had needed them.
Lauren adjusted her ball cap. "My head itches, but I guess that's a good sign."
As our wives chatted and fell into a comfortable pedestrian rhythm, Joe and I discussed Walter Dodge.
"So the lumber baron is running for mayor on the green ticket," Joe said. "I don't think he has developed any political platform of his own, so he's jumped on popular issues no one can dispute. He'll ride that train all the way."
I shook my head. "Does no one else see the irony here?"
"His family fortune accumulated from chopping down trees, and now he's pledging to save the environment."
Joe laughed. "Bring that up during the question and answer session, will ya? Did you hear he traded his big SUV for a Prius? He's even been seen pedaling around town on a hybrid Runabout."
The crowds thickened as we turned to cross the ball diamonds to cut through to the rally. Petey's tail wagged vigorously as adults and children paused to pet him. Greetings were voiced to all of us. I appreciated the friendly atmosphere but noticed Lauren and Pati were getting farther ahead.
"Watch your step, Lauren," I called. "There are ruts and who knows what along here."
Lauren turned to flash a reassuring smile my way. My pulse quickened as her eyes widened and she shouted, "Dave! Look out!"
A figure with his head down hunched over curved handlebars. A fast bicycle whizzed past Joe and me. I felt the breeze it created. As I futilely reached out to protect my delicate wife, Petey wrenched his leash from my hands and lunged to position himself between his beloved mistress and the wayward biker.
"No," I breathed as Lauren fell sideways into Pati's arms. The two women somehow managed to remain upright, but Walter dodge crashed to the dirt in a blur of blue and white striped spandex and orange carbon fiber and titanium.
"We're okay. We're okay," Pati said as we rushed to them.
Language far beneath the dignity of an aspiring mayor issued from a sputtering Dodge as he picked himself up and surveyed his bike.
"That's a nine hundred dollar bicycle, Miller!" he shouted. "It better not be damaged."
"Or what, you moron," Joe said.
Pati put her hand on her husband's arm. "Calm down, honey."
Walter Dodge kept his eyes on me, ignoring the Fifes and the curious growing assembly.
"Are you okay, Lauren?" I asked. I could feel my heart swishing in my ears. If she or Pati were injured in any way. . .
She nodded. "He swerved to avoid Petey. He could have hit Pati or me."
Dodge straightened up to his full five foot eight. "There's a leash law in this town, Miller. You'd better keep that mutt restrained."
As Lauren and Pati knelt to pet their hero, I couldn't believe what I heard. A low rumble issued forth from the gentlest giant in Missouri.
"Knock it off, Dodge. In eight years, I've never heard this dog growl, not even at a skunk that invaded our back yard."
I continued before he could respond. "You are well off the bike path and speeding through a crowd of pedestrians. You'd better just head on over to your rally and give your little speech."
Maybe it was my hands clenched on my hips, the look on Joe's face, the muttering crowd, or the aggressive stance of an angry basset hound. Walter's wide posterior presented itself as he pedaled toward his cronies and beloved microphone.
"You guys go ahead if you care to," Lauren said to the Fifes. "I'm out of the mood."
Pati smiled. "Bet you didn't know Barnes and Noble opened up over on Crest. We could have a cup of coffee and discuss global warming or something."
Lauren raised questioning eyes to me.
"If you feel like it, honey. It's only a block from here. Joe and I will keep Petey company in the park."
"Look at those two," Joe said as the women sauntered off, sharing a laugh about some little item of gossip. "Acting as if nothing happened. I could have punched him or something."
I chuckled. "I know. He's not getting my vote."
We parked ourselves on a bench across from the book store to wait on our wives, a practice man has perfected since the beginning of time. Something I'd missed in the last year.
"You're a good dog, Petey old boy," I said as the hound observed a squirrel digging up a treasure left over from last fall. He dropped to the ground and bunched his eyebrows at me as if to say, "Of course." DSS
This story has it all: a dog, a loving couple, a hypocritical politician. Keep these stories coming by donating to Downstate Story.