Coyotes eat pretty much anything, including dumb little pets that run off during late-afternoon hikes and don't come back. On most hikes Jason would trail a few feet behind me, sniffing away at whatever before playing catch-up. But he seemed extra-excited that afternoon, popping in and out of my peripheral for twenty minutes before sprinting ahead about thirty yards, stopping abruptly to take a dump with this moronic look of worry on his face, then kicking dirt all over it and running a series of frantic laps around a large chunk of volcanic rock. I thought he was trying to herd it on account of, you know, his being an idiot. The next time I looked up, he was gone.
We all called out for him, the cowboy and Phoebe and me, and when he didn't show I tried not to panic. I knew only what I knew --- that it was getting dark and there were coyotes out there --- but then I knew what I didn't know, because the cowboy told me about a black Chow Chow named Cookie that got itself eaten a few weeks before I arrived.
"This one coyote wandered down the hill," he said, "right at dusk, right in the middle of the road. When Cookie saw it he leapt off the porch and chased it up the hill and over the ridge, where a pack of 'em were waiting in ambush."
I didn't call him an asshole. Instead I just kept picturing Jason's little bowling ball head and his ape eyes, his bat ears and his little paws, the pads of which I liked to pinch when he slept, their prints in mud like fat sand dollars. I thought about his gross tongue and smooshed face, his repeated attempts to dig holes in couches, the look of resentment on his face every time I'd spin him on linoleum floors. I thought about all the close calls: the time he ran onto a friend's covered pool, stopped in the middle, and sunk; the Christmas he got into the weed cookies under the tree and peed sitting down for three days; when he jumped out of the back of my pickup truck and hung himself from his leash until blood bubbled out of his nose; the earless pitbull he bit in the nuts at the park.
I wasn't crying, but I suppose it could've looked that way. The cowboy put his hand on my shoulder and said things like, "I'm sure he's fine," and, "He'll turn up," and, "There was a mountain lion sighting yesterday."
"You're an asshole," I said.
"Just telling you what I heard," he said. "It was on the news this morning. Someone got video of it near the hot springs, about ten miles from here."
"I like hot springs," Phoebe said. "And the dinosaur with the little hands."
"T. rex?" the cowboy said.
"Yeah," Phoebe said. "T. rex."
"You know what I like?" I said. "I like pussy and baseball and having a dog that's alive. That's what I like."
"Hey," the cowboy said, but stopped himself there, instead picking Phoebe up over his head and placing her on his shoulders. She grabbed two fistfuls of his thick, full hair before sliding her hands down onto his college-ruled forehead. "It's starting to get dark," he said. "I should get her home."
She stammered a protest but the cowboy interrupted. "Don't worry, Pickle," he said. "Jason'll turn up. Then he can come over and eat dinner with us. OK?"
She whined a series of noes until I got sick of hearing it and suggested that maybe Jason had wandered back to their house, was waiting there for someone to let him in. "Would you go and check for me," I said, "let me know?"
"But I wanna stay," she said.
"I know you do," I said.
"Odds are you won't," the cowboy said, "but if you do run into that mountain lion don't run and don't play dead. Just make eye contact and act big. Be loud. Grab a stick or a rock, cover your throat." Then he wished me luck and walked off in the direction we came.
For a while they were still in earshot, and each time I called out for Jason I would hear Phoebe call out for him right after, each time echoing me from somewhere else in those wild woods, each time getting quieter and quieter, until I called out and heard nothing after.
§ § §
After forty or so minutes of stumbling around in the semidark, the temperature had dropped to where my breath was visible in front of me and I had to hug myself from the cold. My voice was all but gone and my boots on pine needles sounded --- for a second, with my eyes closed --- like Jason eating the microwave popcorn I'd drop for him on the floor. And so, with no one around to judge, no little kid to scare, I did what came natural: I prayed to my dead mom to help me find my dumb dog and kicked pinecones until I hurt my toe after mistaking an unfortunately shaped rock for one, then quietly cursed my way out of the woods. Eventually I limped onto John Muir Road, a narrow, winding strip of patchworked concrete that switches back on itself four or five, maybe six times. The house was somewhere in the third switch, and I huffed my way up there, my pace quickening the closer I got, eager to put a drink in myself and get warm. Beyond that the plan was to grab a flashlight and a jacket, call the cowboy then head back out.
I was a few steps from the door when a feeling more than anything I saw caused me to stop and turn my head toward the dark corner of the porch. After a few seconds of my eyes adjusting --- focusing and refocusing --- I could just make out his small frame: back legs back, front legs front, sprawled out and unmoving. I took a step closer and could see that his fur was matted with something, possibly blood, but there was no way to be sure in that light. So I just stood there, unbreathing, listening. When I didn't hear a snort or snore or exhale I said his name, just once, like a question. He didn't move, and I knew what I knew.
In my ears a white noise like radio static turned real low. My heart a pond in a hailstorm, concentric circles of cold radiating out. I thought my chest might implode. I felt thirsty for sand. But that doesn't do it --- I don't have the words for the wild vagueness of the pain I felt.
I suppose country singers have tried to quantify suffering --- beers drank, tears counted. Doctors and nurses rely on numeric pain scales, lawyers and actuaries on compensation schedules (a lost thumb, say, is worth about seventy-five weeks of your salary). Even poets resort to measuring, be it in coffee spoons or metric feet. So I have to wonder then if it could be better explained with numbers, if there's some equation, some formula that could calculate the force by which my mother's death impacted me. So shattered was my spoiled-white-kid understanding of the world by it that I'm convinced momentum and mass somehow come into play. Maybe an algorithm could better explain how her suffering and dying divided time into before and after, could calculate how precious my dog became to me as a result, could communicate how his loss seemed like a loss compounded, interest earned on a previous injury. Maybe math could help me understand why --- after suffering for so long --- I don't get better at suffering. But I don't. Every time, I dont.
Of course, in that moment none of this was going through my head with any clarity. Even my vision took on a white, hazy quality that moved from the outside of my eyes inward toward my nose. My hearing went weird like I was underwater. I felt --- not woozy --- unstable. I put a hand against the house to steady myself. Took turns staring at the ground by my feet and the hand starfished on the wall in front of me.
I almost fell over when Jason woke himself up with his own fart and spun around trying to bite the smell. Halfway through his second spin he caught sight of me, blinked, and wagged his tail nub, then sauntered over like nothing at all, sleepy and dumb as ever. After I'd spun him and flipped him and inspected him for whatever mortal wounds he might have and found none --- there wasn't a thing wrong with him, except that he was covered almost completely in bear shit --- and after he mistook this inspection for play and rolled on his back, kicked at my hands, and licked his lips, only then did my eyes well up and spill.