The Observer headed to Lower Arkansas over the long holiday weekend to visit the in-laws, who live in the thickets outside of Strong, pretty much as hard up against the Louisiana border as you can get without dipping a toe over the line. Yours Truly didn't know a soul south of the East End of Little Rock up until we met a lovely, dark-haired lass from El Dorado back in college. Eighteen years, a couple of degrees, a pair of wedding rings and a kid later, The Observer has peeps all over SA. Around the same time as the in-laws welcomed in Your Pal, they also welcomed Gidget, a rat terrier pup who never got much bigger than she was the first time we laid eyes on her. Like all the terriers, Gidget was smart as a whip and full of personality, one of those tiny dogs descended from fox not wolf, and who thus live by their wits like their forebears. In her youth, Gidget begat Cody, and together they've been an inseparable pair down through the years. It was Cody, in fact, who provided my mother-in-law the nickname — "Coco" — that my boy will no doubt recall with love and joy as an old, old man. As a toddler, Junior couldn't say Cody, and yet firmly decided that if the name was good enough for the dog, it was good enough for grandma.
Both Gidget and Cody have grown increasingly frail as the years have worn on, especially Gidget. While she's basically in good health, she's started forgetting things, and people. She's mostly deaf, and mostly blind. Some days, grandma Coco said, it's clear she doesn't recognize her. A few months back, Gidget went out to do her business and wound up crossing the busy highway out front, something she'd been too smart to attempt up until then. She was found wandering around the parsonage next to the church down the street, apparently with no idea how to get home. Like all of us will someday if we're lucky or unlucky enough, she has simply started to wind down. So it was that soon after we arrived at grandma's house on Friday night — the remnants of Isaac tearing themselves to shreds on the horizon and the night coming on unbearably hot — Gidget went out one last time before bed and simply disappeared. The Observer's father-in-law had been keeping an eye on her, but he turned his back for a moment and suddenly she was gone. There is nothing more frustrating in the world than looking for something in the dark. The full moon had risen over a night so humid that it was like being boiled in Vaseline. As Junior and Coco and Paw and Our Lovely Bride fanned out, The Observer got in the car and drove the dark highway a half-mile in either direction with the highbeams on, scouring the ditches but seeing nothing but a large doe and what appeared to be a bobcat. Junior, our giant baby who has never known a time when Gidget wasn't underfoot at Coco's house, grimly tromped the dense woods with a flashlight, looking for the shine of eyes, until his mother, fearing snakebite, forced him back into the house. We whistled in the dark, knowing Gidget probably couldn't hear us, but doing it anyway. We found nothing, and after two hours, we called off the search until daybreak.
At dawn, The Observer got up and opened the front door of the house to find Coco standing in the dim yard, unmoving, staring into the woods as they filled with daylight. And that is where this story ends. There is no happy ending as of this writing. The thing we have come to accept in our own dotage is that sometimes the fairy tale doesn't materialize. Sometimes you're left with a mystery instead. When we saw him off to bed the night Gidget disappeared, Junior surprised his Old Man by asking if maybe she had gone into the woods because she wanted to get lost. She was very old, he reminded us, and maybe she didn't want Coco to have to let her go someday soon. Instead, maybe she just slipped away. Dogs do that sometimes, he'd heard. He's smart like that. He is growing to a man's heart right before our eyes, and it is clear that heart will be soft and passionate and almost too heavy to carry at times, like his father's and grandfather's before him. We could tell he was trying to be strong for Coco and himself — trying to make some sense of it all. "Maybe so," the Old Man said, knowing there was nothing else to say. Outside the window, the hot, South Arkansas dark lay against the glass like black velvet, concealing its mysteries.