Separation Anxiety

We stood at the edge of a gaping hole where his flower garden had been  yesterday.

“Where’s the dirt?” I asked.

“Dirt?” Smitty looked distracted, wearing his bathrobe and slippers, holding a chipped #1 Grandpa mug. The coffee lost its steam half an hour ago. He just stared into the depths of the hole.

“Yeah,” I said, “The dirt, the rocks, the flowers… everything that made this your garden. Where is it?”

Smitty mumbled something I couldn’t hear. Then he said that he didn’t know where the goddamned dirt was. “Or the rocks, or the flowers, or the fucking sprinkler system that cost me $650 in chiropractor bills! Or my fucking dog, for that matter. Have you seen that piece of shit dog? If he did this…”

His voice trailed off.

“It wasn’t the dog,” I said, looking across the yard to the edges of the fence. Sparky had a knack for escaping under the fence and coming to my yard to terrorize my cat. “No, I don’t see him anywhere.”

“Fucking dog.”

“Yeah. It wasn’t the dog,” I said. “Did you hear any noises last night? Anything that sounded maybe like a huge yard-sucking noise?”

“Where’s your ladder, Mike?” Smitty blurted. “I need your ladder.” He broke his gaze from the bottom of the hole and pulled the belt to his robe tighter. He was turning in slow backward circles, looking to see where I might have laid a ladder. I told him I’d get the ladder while he went in and put on some clothes. And that I’d look around for Sparky on my way. He looked at his cup of coffee and then seemed to try to focus on my face.

“Sparky? Yeah,” he said. “See if you can find him. I’m going in to put some clothes on.”

And with that, he dumped his coffee on the ground and shuffled back to the house. I stood and gazed down into the pit that was once a garden. The hole was a circular chasm about ten feet across, with vertical walls and a flat bottom. The sides appeared burnished to a low luster by the slow trickle of the broken sprinkler system. The faint smell of moist earth hung in the air around me. The hole was easily eight feet deep. The rim near my feet seemed to have been melted to a smooth crust. I gently kicked at the crust and a small piece broke off and slid to the bottom. The pit was tapered toward the center, and the piece of crust skittered along the bottom and came to rest against what looked like an old shoebox. I hadn’t noticed the box before. It must have been what Smitty was staring at.

I left the hole and walked across the yard to my place. I went through the house to the garage to fetch my ladder. I grabbed it off the wall and hit the garage door opener. As morning light spilled onto the garage floor, I caught sight of something tucked into a corner by the door.  Deep in shadow, with only a pair of dark eyes catching the light, crouched Sparky. He whined when I looked at him, his tail thumping against the wall. His coat was thick with mud, and smears of blood stained the concrete at his paws.

“You know your dad’s looking for you, right?” I said.

The tail thumping stopped and he withdrew further into the corner, trying to hide his muddy face in his paws.

“You wanna stay here for a bit?” I asked. He lifted his head and broke into a wide panting doggie smile. “OK,” I said, “You stay here until we get some of this sorted out.” I lifted the ladder and walked out. I heard his tail thumping as I headed back to Smitty’s.

Smitty was dressed and already in the hole by the time I got back. He sat against the far wall with the shoebox open in his lap, turning a small stuffed animal over and over in his hands.

“Did you find Sparky?” he asked.

“Nope,” I lied, as I slid the ladder along the wall into the hole. “You coming up?”

“You know, I found that dog in the desert,” he said, staring at the stuffed toy in his hands.

I climbed down the ladder. “No, I didn’t know where you got him.”

“Yep, in the desert, with this stupid toy in his mouth,” he continued. “Weird dog. His whole world is this stupid toy. The first and only time it went in the washer, Sparky never left the laundry room until it came out. For the life of me, I can’t even tell what this fucking thing is.”

He handed the toy up to me as I sat down next to him.

The toy was about five inches long and the color of the desert. Most of the fleece had worn off and what might have been a tiny ear was gone. It was vaguely animal-shaped, but with none of the distinct features to make it look like any particular kind of animal. It had the shape and feel of a new-born puppy. And it was creepy. I gave it back to Smitty and he chuffed.

“I threw this damned thing away once. Stuck it out in the can on garbage day. Sparky disappeared right after that.” He chuckled, “But sure enough, a few days later he was back in the yard with this ugly thing stuck in his mouth again.”

Smitty got up and headed for the ladder. “About a year ago I buried it. Buried it good and deep when I put in this garden.” He climbed up the ladder looked around at what was once his yard. “And now this,” he said. “Shit. Guess I’ll have to give it back to him.”