By KB Holzman
On the side of the only road leading into town, a sign propped up by two wood stakes beckoned in white print, “Enjoy a Drive-Thru Marriage Here.”
Leticia leaned back in the passenger seat. Jonathan held onto the steering wheel, white- knuckled. Every time a passing car honked, he jumped.
Scooter, eyes cloudy, muzzle white, had wandered off in an ice storm early that morning. Jonathan, rolling off the couch to pee, stumbled on the elderly mutt waiting at the front door expectantly, ten years of habit trumping a month of senility. Shoving the dog outside, Jonathan rubbed his hands together in a futile attempt to warm his fingers. Through the frosted window, he watched Scooter limp down two rickety wooden stairs and wade through icy water pooled on the front walk.
Jonathan momentarily considered pulling his wool jacket off the hook, but the roar of the frigid wind deterred him. He doubted the dog had a clue where he was going. Later, he told Leticia that Scooter seemed oblivious to the cold. For days now, his dog eyes had been fading. Jonathan watched him disappear.
Leticia prepared the morning coffee before she noticed the dog was gone. Jonathan, wearing his jacket and gloves at the breakfast table, couldn’t get warm for the life of him, despite the hot fire crackling in the wood stove. Concerned, Leticia scrambled some eggs and put two slices of bacon on the range. She wore leggings under jeans and a bathrobe over her clothes.
“I cleaned up another accident at the bottom of the stairs last night,” she said. “I think the dog is losing it.”
The dog. Never your dog or my dog. Before Jonathan had left for Afghanistan, the mutt was his dog but Leticia had agreed to keep Scooter in his absence, and by the time Jonathan came home, Scooter had made his bed at the foot of hers.
Jonathan said it was for the best. He was in no shape to take care of another living thing. Besides, he envied the dog, laying out in her yard while Leticia kneeled in the garden, planted garlic bulbs in the rocky soil.
He’d never said thank you when Leticia invited him to hang around. At dusk, they walked the dog together. At dark, she made up the couch before heading upstairs to bed. Scooter would pause a second, think it over, and then follow her upstairs without looking back.
The morning after Scooter wandered off, Leticia and Jonathan looked for him all morning. They walked logging paths through the woods that they had explored when Jonathan first came back, long silent walks when, like today, she had not asked any questions. The shorter one to the mailbox that got the job done on those days when, after appointments at the VA hospital, he came home pissed, cursing the doctors who told him there was nothing wrong. The wind never let up; no one was about. Every five minutes or so, Leticia rolled down the car window and shouted, “Here boy, here Scooter!” The car heater couldn’t compete with the bitter gusts of cold. They listened in vain for the crunch of paws on ice, the crack of dry twigs under faltering footsteps, the lonely howl of an abandoned pet.
The thing that finally got to him was that Scooter hated being alone. Locked in her house, the mutt howled with the conviction of a wolf calling his pack. The neighbors, half a block away, always knew when Leticia wasn’t home.
Now they knocked on their neighbors’ door, but Frank and Mary hadn’t seen Scooter. “Poor old guy,” Frank said, offering them a hot cup of coffee.
They stayed in Mary’s warm kitchen until they could feel their fingers again.
Frank suggested they look under their porch. Scooter was there, frozen stiff. Eyes wide open, empty. He’d probably been there all day. “It’s better this way,” Leticia said, “knowing he died at home.”
He liked that she called the cabin home. That she had hooked the rug herself during the time it had just been her and the dog.
“No way you can bury a dog when the ground is frozen,” he said now, thinking of friends he had lost in the towering mountains of Afghanistan. Waiting in the snow for helicopters to cart them away. Jonathan carried Scooter to the toolshed where Leticia wrapped the dog in her flannel-lined sleeping bag, tucking him as if he were a baby.
“Is that what you’d do to me if I got old and gray, push me out the door?” she asked as they walked back to the cabin.
Got him to thinking. Without Scooter, what held them together? What made the cabin home?
A Drive-Thru Marriage. Leticia’s idea. The man at the drive-thru asked whether they wanted the father or daughter, both justices of the peace. When the daughter walked up to their car, her red hair blowing in the breeze and her brown robe flapping, a passerby pulled off the road and raised her phone to snap a picture of the happy couple tying the knot.
The Justice of the Peace’s high heels bucked in the mud. She asked if they’d brought a ring but took it in stride when they’d shook their heads “no.” Instead, they held hands as she pronounced them man and wife.
The father, wearing a cowboy hat over a black robe, signed as the witness. “Still makes me tear up, every time,” he said. “Just yesterday we had a beautiful family. Four young kids, an infant in the car seat.”
“I have the best job in the world,” Abigail said, leaning into the car to give Leticia a congratulatory kiss.
Cost them $100, worth every penny. If only Scooter had been there, grinning in the back seat.