The sun sets on paradise, and I haven’t a care in the world.
The apples’ve already been picked, pressed, and casked. The truck’s been loaded. The kids’re visiting my sister-in-law. The wife’s on the porch-swing, reading away the end of the afternoon. There’s nothing for me to do but bask in the golden glory of an early autumn dusk.
Ah, the end of yet another day in paradise.
I pull the pipe from my breast pocket and retrieve a can of tobacco from the highest shelf in the kitchen. I nearly drop the antique cookie jar that rests right on the lip of the shelf, so I mutter a string of obscenities. I’ve suggested more times than I care to recall that the jar be relocated, but my wife’s as tough on the nerves as she is soft on the eyes. She maintains that if we’re going to keep weapons in the house, we need to keep them out of the children’s reach in accordance to the danger they pose. “Swords behind knives, tobacco behind cookies.”
She’s kind of a health nut.
Exhaling my first grey puff, I realize that Oswald’s nowhere in sight. He usually comes scampering at the very sound of the tamper scraping against the bowl. Tail waggin’. Leash in mouth. Electricity panting into the air.
I’d initially loathed the fact that my respite from the world – smokin’ and walkin’ through the orchard – would no longer be a solitary act. There were disagreements, and I spat pure obstinance. “I try to teach the kids about real dogs, ones that can pull their weight – retrievers, terriers, even greyhounds – and she comes home with a fuckin’ corgi?! A fuckin’ purebred corgi? A real dog comes from the pound, and it loves you simply because you kept it from being jabbed with a death-needle!”
Even the most adorable of black-faced puppy smiles and heartwarming hand-lappings were met with scorn.
But unless you’re a genuine curmudgeon – and not just tryin’ to prove a point to your wife and kids – there’s no stavin’ off the charm of a newborn pup. I’d like to think of myself as strong-willed, but it was only a matter of days before I began lookin’ forward to takin’ strolls with Oswald.
Dog. Comrade. Confidant.
Four seasons later and Oswald has never missed one of my afternoon walks. Our afternoon walks. So I’m more than a bit concerned when he doesn’t meet at our tacitly agreed-upon time. I fill my lungs with smoke and walk to the screen-door that leads to the backyard.
There’s a hole in it.
I slam my whole body into the door and pick up my gait. “Oswald! C’mere boy! Here, Oswald!” I’m screaming in a terror I don’t even understand. There’s nothing telling me that I need to be worried. Other than intuition, that is. “Oswald!”
The wife shuffles into the yard, dog-earing a page in her book and wiping the sleep out of her eyes. “Hon, what’re you screamin’ for?”
“Oswald’s gone missin’!
“Oh, he’s probably just rustling around in some leaves.”
I’ve been making love to my wife for the vast majority of my time on Earth, so I know every which way her face can contort. Needless to say, I also know damn well when she’s puttin’ me on. What she’s tryin’ to foist upon me now is her lame-ass poker face. The sentiment’s appreciated, but it doesn’t stop the panic from bristling the hairs on the back of my neck.
“Stay here in case he comes back!” As I make a beeline for the orchard I’m still sucking in and blowing out smoke. Carcinogenic comfort. I wheeze wisps of poison out of my lungs and wipe the sweat that’s threatening to bead from my brow into my eyes. For a moment, I actually think to myself that maybe I need to stop smoking.
Even with the toxins in my lungs and the spare tire around my waist, no more than three minutes pass before I’m halfway into the orchard. I can still hear my wife shouting both my name and our missing dog’s name into the great orange heavens above. But I’m too deep into this, all of it, to yell any sort of response back to her. Ain’t no point of calling for roadside assistance when you’re cruisin’ the existential autobahn in a flesh-mobile that’s smokin’ and threatenin’ to explode.
But I just keep on movin’, kickin’ rogue apples and lookin’ for any sign of corgi-activity. I don’t see anything, and my brain’s tryin’ to tell me that everything could be fine, that I’m just overreacting as I’m wont to do as a husband and father and brewer. But my heart is screamin’ in between beats, and I’m not ever going to stop movin’ –- and then I hear it.
A whimper more pathetic than you’ve ever heard.
I cock my head toward the sound, but I don’t see Oswald. No. What I see is a huge, purple-plumaged bird with its back turned to me. Its head’s firing up and down like a jackhammer, pneumatic and efficient and unrelenting. As I approach the bird, which is so engrossed in whatever that it doesn’t notice me in the slightest, I absentmindedly grab a branch from the orchard floor. With smoldering pipe in one hand and bark-club in the other, I step up and see exactly what I’m dealing with.
An enormous violet vulture with talons like daggers and a scabby, infected skull.
He looks back at me as if to say, “What the fuck do you want from me, old man?” And I don’t have answer for him. That is, of course, until I see the target of his pneumatic beak-joustings.
My canine-companion, the winsome little corgi in whom I’ve confided countless dreams and fears. And he’s laying there, gut torn open, intestines spilling out of gouged obsidian fur, a goddamn feast for a scavenger lacking the patience to wait for natural prey. There’s a final whimper, and then nothing. The vulture disregards me and returns to his regularly-scheduled consumption.
No hesitation, I wind up and crack the bird in the back of the head with the branch. Whack! It falters and then turns towards me, only to receive a thorough face-smashing. Whack! Whack! Whack! An especially powerful downward thrust demolishes the beak, and aves-blood spurts in every direction. Purple feathers are stained crimson, a grotesque tie-dye that no hippie’d ever wear. The vulture does its best to go skyward, but I wrap my arms around it and clench tight.
Without skill or dexterity, I snap the bird’s neck and drop it to the ground.
By the time my wife reaches me, I’m done swearing and I’m done crying. I’m sitting next to Oswald’s dismembered corpse, and I can barely muster up the strength to smoke my pipe and wish it all away. She runs a hand through my hair and does her best to console me, saving her tears for later when she doesn’t think I’ll notice them.
The wife and I walk back to the house. I’m cradling Oswald in my arms and she’s rubbing my back. As we reach the porch, I look back just in time to see the last vestiges of paradise slinking behind the horizon.
Feather-violet. Smoke-grey. Fur-black. Afternoon-gold. Ain’t no hues that’re impervious to the rust-tarnish of tragedy.
Even in paradise.