The old man noted, as he put the empty glass down on the table, that the scotch was going down particularly easy tonight. It wasn’t often that it did this, because the stuff really isn’t made for that kind of drinking. Usually this would be a sign that it was time to stop.
He poured another. He called it a finger, but it was probably more like two, in the wide round bottom of the rocks glass. Nicest gift anyone had ever given to him for the kitchen. One had already broken earlier in the year, but this one was holding up just fine. Its strangely patterned golden rim nearly matched the golden glint in the liquid that seemed almost to move by itself, in the dim light of early morning.
The man stroked his hand gently across the table, a deep, glossy cherry wood with a strong stain that almost reminded him of the curls of her hair, as if she was trapped under glass. As if she were only trapped under glass, and not under the ground. Athena.
He remembered the first time they’d met, and how Karen had insisted they bring her home. He’d never seen Karen so happy to bring another woman into their home. A wry grin crossed his lips even now. Karen never felt jealous of Athena, which was fair. Karen and Athena were great together. Karen just couldn’t live with him. But Athena could. She stayed. Thank God, she stayed.
Smartest eyes, always reading him. Always knew when it was time to come sit beside him, park herself at his side on the sofa, lean against him to remind him she was there. Knew when to leave him be, when to be at his side, when to get in his face and remind him it was time to do other things besides brood. Karen never really understood that, but Athena did.
It didn’t seem to matter after that. He’d won and lost the hearts of a few very brave, very lovely women, and they had all loved him in their way. Athena had taken to them all in turn, accepting them and helping them get used to how things worked around the house. One of them had joked that he never considered marrying again because he’d secretly married Athena and merely had mistresses on the side. Ridiculous statement, but perhaps with a kernel of truth.
You can’t replace human companionship with the love of an animal. Not if you’re healthy. Not if you aren’t already a little damaged inside to begin with, and simply can’t connect to people anymore. He was pretty sure it hadn’t been like that for him. Athena just knew. She just made sense. And she knew he needed other things, so she never got in his way, although she did occasionally get in his face about the scotch.
He stopped to take another drink. He watched the liquid slowly, lazily roll around in the glass, sliding down the inside of the glass the way wine does. He’d stopped drinking wine some time ago. Wine was for companions. Scotch was for drinking alone. Athena knew that, too.
The park was like a personal little hell now. He still went for walks, alone, thinking of the past, the people he’d loved, the things they’d done. And always Athena there in the foreground, leading the walks, haring off after something interesting. Athena wasn’t a hunter. A herder, actually. Strange, bright blue eyes, splashes of cherry and ash on her white coat. Always rounding up children and friends who were straggling. Athena was a den mom. She’d come home pretty young, but she’d been with him such a long time. He had to stop and think how many years. Was it fifteen? Did it really matter? Athena had been there forever. Was still there.
Except that she wasn’t.
He slammed back the rest of the glass. Reached for the bottle again. Remembered those eyes imploring him. Held the bottle in front of him. He watched the liquid move around the bottle’s dark brown glass. Fifteen year old scotch. Smoother but richer tasting. This bottle had been distilled and bottled the year Athena was born. They’d aged together. Both of them very expensive, and well worth the price.
What the hell was he thinking? There was no comparison. He’d lost loves that had lasted longer than this bottle would, especially at this rate. Athena was irreplaceable. A lifetime of distilling would not recreate another like her.
He’d never had children. Never wanted to commit to children, in case the relationship didn’t last. Somehow couldn’t get past his fear of being a failure as a father, the way he’d failed so many loves. And over the years, it had just gotten easier to accept that he didn’t need children. And anyway, there was Athena, best daughter he could have hoped for. He could sire daughters from here to the grave and none would know him the way she had.
Cancer. How the hell does a dog get cancer? Dogs should not die of diseases that kill humans. They should be exempt. They weren’t corrupt in the soul. They were pure of heart and brave and true. Dogs shouldn’t have to die the way people died. Dogs should never have to experience tragedy. They didn’t deserve it.
The old man put the bottle back on the table, noticed the glinting golden light wavering in lazy oceanic patterns on the surface of the smooth satin finish of the cherry wood table. He walked slowly to the door, slipped into his shoes and shrugged on his autumn tweed jacket. He draped the scarf around either side of his neck, and then reflexively reached for the leash hanging behind the door. Gripping it, he let his weight settle slightly against its reassuring heft, solidly fixed to the metal hook. He could hear the leather strap creak slightly. He heard a choking noise, and noticed it was his voice. He let go of the leash, and dabbed at his eyes with the end of his black and white checked scarf.
It was a bright, mild autumn day outside. Good day for a long walk. A good day to go see everything like it was brand new, and find new adventures in familiar places. A good day for friends. He wondered idly what Karen was up to, and thought to give her a quick call. Shaking his head, he locked up and went out instead. Maybe later.
~ for Karen, Don, and Layla
© 2012 Lee Edward McIlmoyle