By: Clive Aaron Gill
Martha steered her pickup truck down the steep road from Valley Center towards the Escondido High School bus yard. Dawn spread its pink-rose rays over morning clouds, softening the San Diego mountain peaks.
She hunched her shoulders and pressed her full lips into a thin line. Occasionally, she smelled skunk and manure that overpowered the sweet fragrance of lemon and orange blossoms.
Martha walked into the stuffy transportation office with moist, reddened eyes and pushed a blond strand of hair behind her ear.
Cupcake was giving Reconstructed Man, her tall co-worker who had total hip replacements, a traditional morning hug, leaving her White Musk perfume on his jacket.
Martha cried, “My dog, Max, is lost!”
“Oh no! Since when?” asked Larine, who wore a tight-fitting T-shirt that emphasized her curves.
“Two days ago. He’s terrified of lightning. The storm washed away the scent that he could have tracked home. We don’t know where to search.”
“What’s he look like?” said Cupcake in her high-pitched voice.
“He’s an eight-year-old American Mastiff, 180 pounds, dark amber eyes… and he’s an apricot color.”
Cupcake squeaked, “I’m so sorry. Let us know if you find him. I’m gonna check out my bus.”
Martha sat in her bus while the engine warmed, her hands shaking. “Oh God!” she said to herself, “I’m so lonely without Max.” Her body rose and fell with choking sobs. “Now, Joe needs dialysis. In five years I’ll be a widow.” She banged her fists on the steering wheel and screamed.
Two days later, Martha walked into the workplace.
Reconstructed Man pulled up his sagging, blue jeans and asked, “Any news about Max?”
“I’ve driven hundreds of miles in every direction. The Humane Society doesn’t have him. I’m afraid he can’t take care of himself in the wild,” Martha said in a tearful voice. “He’s used to organic dog food and an insulated dog house.”
“Wow!” said Reconstructed Man. “He was spoiled.”
Martha’s eyes widened. “He deserved it!”
Reconstructed Man furrowed his brow. “OK… OK…”
“He was so patient,” Martha said, weeping. “And he loved children. He wouldn’t let anyone harm me. We loved our evening walks.” She sat on a chair and pushed back her hair. “He just recovered from spleen cancer.” Martha wiped her wet eyes and nose. “I’m sorry. The stress is getting to me.”
“Poor sweetheart,” said Larine. “We understand. Do you have fliers with Max’s description?”
“Yes. I’ve been putting them up all over Valley Center.”
“Bring us some,” said Cupcake. “We’ll hand them out in Escondido.”
The fliers, distributed by the drivers, showed a large, powerful dog with rounded ears, a black nose and a long tail.
Martha and her co-workers searched for three weeks. When they received identification of a dog like Max, they rushed to where he had been seen, but found him gone.
Martha took lost, starving dogs home. Owners were located or the dogs were placed in adoptive homes.
Cupcake met Martha a month later at a coffee shop while the students were at school. They breathed in the coffee aroma and ate freshly baked scones.
“Thanks for helping me look for Max,” Martha said, with a weak smile.
A muscle twitched below Martha’s eyes. “I think it’s time to end the search. I pray that someone kind has found him and given him a good home. I think about Max every day.” She breathed deeply and sighed.
Cupcake leaned over the table and hugged Martha.
* * *
On a clear morning two years later, Martha drove to a shopping center in Escondido. She saw a homeless man in the parking lot with white, unkempt hair, a full beard down to his chest and a small head tapering at the chin. He sat near a rusty shopping cart filled with bulging, black trash bags. Torn jeans showed his knees and his yellow sweatshirt displayed grease and food stains.
Next to him Martha saw a dog that looked like Max, being stroked by the man. The dog licked the man’s cheek.
As Martha approached the man, he became startled. She saw dark lines under his tired, gray eyes and she smelled the stale odor of unwashed clothes and urine. The dog appeared thinner than Max and greyer around his jowls. Martha put her hand out for the dog to sniff.
“Hi,” she said. “I’m Martha.”
“I’m Wolfe. My dog’s name is Buddy.” Wolfe gave the dog a pat on his back and lit a cigarette. “I got him two years ago. One night, four guys jumped me in a dark alley. If it wasn’t for Buddy, I’d be dead.”
The dog walked back and forth between Martha and Wolfe. He whined sharply and tried to get into the back of Martha’s truck.
Wolfe called, “Here, Buddy.”
Martha told Wolfe the story of Max.
“I’d hate to lose Buddy,” Wolfe said, while smoke from the cigarette in the corner of his mouth rose past his tangled hair.
Martha hesitated. She glanced sideways and back to Wolfe and the dog. She clenched her car keys and sweat beaded her forehead.
Opening her purse, she handed Wolfe all her bills. As he smiled, she noticed his missing front teeth.
Tears surged down Martha’s cheeks while she ran to her truck and quickly drove away.
* * *