“Hey, mister. Where’s your dog?”
Of all the questions he might have expected, that was the last one on Ray’s list. Didn’t everyone know he had to put Tramp down last month? He lifted his balding gray head, looked to his left, and adjusted his glasses that had gone askew. He saw a young boy that might be five.
“Had to put Tramp down last month.”
“Oh. Cain’t you pick him up?”
“No,” Ray sighed, “I can’t. Wish I could, though. What’s your name son?”
“Billy. What’s yours?” came the reply.
“Ray. You can call me Ray.” Or you can call me Jay, he continued the line from a very old comedy skit he just barely remembered.
“Why cain’t you pick him up?” Billy asked again.
Ray looked at Billy and saw a bundle of questions that could go on forever. “Do you know what it means to die?”
“Yes, sir. My mommy’s daddy died.”
“Ok, very sorry about your Grandpa. That’s what happened to Tramp. He died, last month.”
Ray took a long time to answer that one. He looked away, his eyes moistened, and he grabbed his handkerchief. With restored composure Ray looked at Billy, all two foot nothing, standing before him and said, “Yes, it was on Christmas.”
He remembered it well. Tramp had woken Ray whimpering Christmas morning. He and Tramp made a hurried trip to the Emergency Vet. The problem was terminal age, not what the Vet said, but Ray knew. Tramp was 19 years old. It was going to happen, he knew that, but Ray could never get ready for it. When they got home Ray called his vet’s number and left a message.
The day after Christmas, Ray woke, checked that his friend was comfortable, sat food and water down, and his phone rang. “Yes,” he answered it. “Yes, 10 will be fine.” Ray sat with Tramp in his lap, stroking that special spot behind Tramp’s right ear. If his hand stopped, a paw reminded Ray of his duties. Tramp lay in his friend’s lap, on a couch and in a place familiar. Ray felt Tramp go limp, felt the ragamuffin’s head roll on his leg, felt the vet apply the stethoscope one last time, and one last time, Ray said goodbye.
“Yes, on Christmas,” Ray said again to Billy.
“Do you miss your doggie?”
Ray looked, and for a moment he felt anger rising at the impertinence of this child to intrude on his grief. He looked at Billy and saw an innocence, and for some reason, he remembered Tramp as a puppy.
That had been a Christmas day to always remember. A noisy box under the tree, that his beloved Janice had insisted on setting up that year. Only one box, a box whimpering and whining and raising holy heck there beneath that evergreen.
“You better open it,” Janice had whispered in his ear. How could he not open that box, to have a bundle of soft fur and licking tongue assail him, bowling Ray over and making him laugh.
Janice laughed too, grabbed the camera and cast the event into digital stone, to be looked at and laughed at many times down the years. They watched it every Christmas and added new memories every Christmas. The Three Musketeers, Janice had called them. Ray and Janice watched that puppy become twelve pounds of joy in their lives.
Tramp and Ray and Janice. Always the three of them together, those Three Musketeers. Vacations or just taking a weekend somewhere, there was always three. They grew old together. Until another Christmas day, five years ago, and a hospital bed where lay Ray and Tramp’s beloved Janice. That dreaded word cancer broke the Musketeers. Two said goodbye, one with licks, one with kisses, and two walked from the hospital.
“Yes, Billy,” Ray said, coming back to the moment. “I miss him very much.”
A few moments of silence passed.
“Do you want another?”
Bewildered, Ray looked at Billy. “Another what?” he asked.
A breeze ruffled his jacket, and for a moment Ray swore he saw Tramp and Janice standing behind Billy with all his questions. Tramp raised a paw and batted the air like he did when he wanted to play ball, and Janice just stood there with that knowing look and smile she had always given Ray. Another breeze, shadows shifted and they were gone, but Ray felt something break deep inside. That place where he had bottled up all his happiness broke like a dam holding back a flood.
“And just whom did you have in mind?”
“Me,” said Billy, “I’ll be your friend.”
Ray took only a moment to decide, and he patted the bench beside him. Billy hopped up and sat beside Ray, and they talked. They talked about what a 75-year-old and a five-year-old had in common. They talked about blue skies, blue jays, and the blues. They both liked the blues.
Back in the shadows, two figures turned and faded away, knowing that the third Musketeer would now be ok.