It was a race against time. He had to finish knitting Julius’s coat before the snowstorm. As soon as Earl had heard the four o’clock news, he’d rushed to his yarn trunk. Propping the lid open, he rummaged in there until he found the right shade of green. Green suited Julius’s cataracts-clouded eyes. The wool should be soft; Julius was a fussy dog. Earl got so enthralled in this treasure trove of a trunk, where dozens of yarns were tangled up with old patterns and half-knitted pieces, that he nearly forgot about his pupil.
‘You about done in there Sam?’
Teenagers were so monosyllabic these days that tutoring them seemed like a waste of time. Still, it helped their parents out and…well…he had time. Plenty of time, now that he was retired and his wife was gone. Not that it was a bad thing. Irene leaving him for a wine merchant had been an absolute blessing. Sure, there’d been a gnarly few days when he and Julius had to find their footing. But once they had, boy was their life quieter. He had never realised how invasive the shrill music of Irene’s constant nagging had been. Julius had. He hadn’t barked since; no longer needed to. Julius was a clever dog. He was able to ignore Irene, even when she was having one of her rants. And that was a talent.
The way he would just look up at Earl as she scolded him for chewing furniture, pissing on her rhododendrons, or even shedding too much hair –as if he could control that - was a true sign of complicity.
Earl sat back down next to his pupil and peaked over his shoulder.
‘Well, only 32 states so far and two of them are wrong, so it looks like we’ll be here for a while longer.’
Sam was a sweet kid, but he was no genius. No amount of tutoring was going to change that, but it was worth a try. The new teacher just drove back home after school every evening whereas Earl knew every kid in town. They were family.
‘You knitting a nice tea-cosy for the winter?’ Sam smirked.
‘Watch the lip Sam. When you know enough about the country you live in, you’ll be allowed to jibe and jest.’ Earl paused. ‘And it’s a coat, I’ll have you know, for Julius.’
‘For that little mut?’ Sam laughed.
‘Respect the dog Samuel. Julius is a fine specimen of a dog; a pure breed Wirehaired Dachshund, if you must know. And he nearly caught his death last February.’
That had been such a fright; almost losing him to pneumonia. He’d grown so used to Julius and his little ways. He was a wheezy affair of a dog, and smelly too; a heady blend of damp cloth and corn dogs. But charismatic. The grey hair, the bushy eyebrows, the unkempt beard, the irritable temper; it was ‘like seeing double’, Irene would say on her prickly days. But he enjoyed the resemblance. They were family.
‘Well, I do apologize professah.’
The little smirk and the Southern Belle accent kids affected whenever Earl reprimanded them, irked him.
He knew what people thought; that he was a homosexual, because knitting is gay and books are gay…and enunciating is gay. But Earl knew better than to try to dissipate people’s assumptions: these Colorado folks would never see past his southern drawl, genteel manners and dexterity at handling a reverse stockinette stitch. And that was okay. Frustrating, but okay. He was a respected pillar of their little community, despite their erroneous conclusions. Him and Julius. Even under Irene’s reign, it was always Earl and his dog.
‘You should be heading home Sam, lest you get caught in that storm.’
A thick white blanket had already coated his balcony. Against the dark grey sky, coin-sized snowflakes changed angle with each gust of wind.
Earl accompanied his pupil to the end of the drive and picked up some wood on his way back in. A fire would lure Julius to the living-room, while he finished knitting his coat.
The jingle of the eight o’clock news woke him up. Sometimes knitting soothed him straight to sleep. The fire was out. The room cold. No Julius. The little slacker must have settled in bed for the night. He called him a few times, then went to the bedroom to tuck him in and turn on his night-light. His eyesight and spatial awareness were a little tentative at best.
‘Julius? Buddy?’ He wandered from room to room, checking Julius’s favourite spots, but he was nowhere to be seen.
He stifled a pang of panic. Julius was fine; he must have just slipped out when he gathered the wood, but he never wandered far.
On his front porch, clutching Julius’s half-knitted coat, Earl screamed his dog’s name and studied the knee-high snow, checking it for a bump, a little Dachshund-sized bump on the white canvas, or a movement in the snow.
He rushed back in and called the Vitners for help. They were bigoted old fools, but they commanded enough respect in this town to alert a search party. If they’d done it last year when the Whitmans’ brat of a son went missing, they would do it for Julius. Everybody liked Julius.
Half an hour later, 22 neighbours peppered Earl’s garden, all awaiting his instructions. Earl summoned the swelling anxiety away from his belly and channelled it through his voice. An imposing voice for once, even he noticed it.
‘Call “Juliuuuus”, and listen out for a muffled growl, or a whimper, Julius cannot bark. Do not dig, or kick; you could hurt him. Peeing could help…melts the snow. Do not use sharp objects, but follow my lead.’
So, they did.
About an hour in, Earl had to take a break. He inhaled the cold February air and watched the choreographed dance of the search party. It was quite moving really, but he was starting to feel that it was too late. He was trying hard not to panic, but something inside him was breaking off, like an iceberg tearing away from the floe. By midnight, every inch of snow in Earl’s garden had been ploughed or peed on, but still no Julius.
The villagers left one by one, leaving only the Vitners behind. They made Earl a cup of tea and told him to hang in there.
‘Try to get some sleep.’
But he knew he wouldn’t sleep now. He couldn’t abandon Julius. So, he searched some more. After all, whose voice was he more likely to respond to than Earl’s? By dawn, soaked and paralysed by the cold, he made his way home. Julius was dead. He could feel it.
He poured the tea down the sink. He hated sugar in hot drinks. Always had. And yet sugar always found its way in his tea. He never drank it.
People didn’t see him. Julius did. Already, he could feel the boulder of solitude tighten up around his ankles. He’d survived the slow death of his career, of his marriage, of his hopes for the sound of children to fill the house…and through it all, Julius had been there. Unwavering and panting.
Earl washed his mug. He wanted the house to be spotless.
He turned the shower tap on. Hot only; it would heat up the bathroom while he fished out his Sunday suit. He hadn’t worn it in a long time.
He undressed in the steam of his bathroom, pulled the shower curtain open, but walked back to the front door instead, and left it ajar.
He made his shower last as long as the hot water tank would allow it, then shaved close and, clean as a whistle, towelled himself dry and got dressed. The suit still fit. Earl’s weight had never fluctuated, not since college.
He called one last ‘Julius’, his voice more intimate than he intended it to, then closed the front door. He fumbled for his fishing rope, cut about three metres off, tied it in a hangman’s noose and walked back to his bedroom, checking all the rooms on his way.
He stepped on his yarn trunk to unhook the macramé pot-holder with its dangling ivy, watered it -a little pang of life running through his veins as he noticed a new shoot- then tried to slide the rope though the hook. Stretching his arm, he just about managed. He extended his leg out, ballerina-like, and leaned his foot against the wooden knob of his chest of drawers. In the mirror, he could only see the ivy and part of his left arm.
Before he could feel ready, the knob broke and he lost balance. He went down with a crack: the sound of his neck, judging from the sharp pain he felt. As he lost consciousness, he saw the lid of the trunk move once, then twice, in tentative little jolts.
The end of Julius’s nose poked out.
Published in Issue #13