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The engine growled underneath me as I opened the throttle. Riding a motorcycle had never made me feel freer then it did today. The breeze flew through my hair, the smell of the country road, ran through my nose. I took the corners too fast, but that was part of the fun of riding.
I was two miles out of town. I opened it up and hit 60 when something up ahead caught my eye. I began to slow down staring ahead, it looked like a dog. As I closed the distance I came almost to a stop. The dog on the side of the road looked at me. Duke I thought. The bloodhound looked back at with his dark eyes, almost smiling.
I pulled over to the side of the road and parked the bike. The dog looked at me from his spot on the side of the road.
"Duke," I called. The dog didn't respond. Of course it isn't Duke, it can't be Duke. I watched as the dog looked at me for a moment longer before he turned toward the ditch and walked down into the tall grass. I waited for him to come out on the other side, but he never did.
I climbed off the bike and walked down into the grass, but the dog was nowhere to be found. He had disappeared into thin air.
That's not possible. But it had happened. Maybe it was Duke, I continued to argue with myself. After all, Duke died almost 10 years ago.
I climbed back on to the bike and began to drive away. I was fighting back the tears as I thought about Duke, and the role he had played in my life, including meeting my wife Dorris. My mind started to wonder as I thought about the night that I met her all those years ago.
The fair grounds were loaded with people. I walked slowly trying to navigate out of the biggest group of them, but Duke wasn't having it. As I finally reached the end, Duke stopped, sat, and looked up at me.
"I know boy, it's a damn madhouse. I didn't want to leave you cooped up in the house though. It's good for you to get out and exercise."
He turned his head sideways as if to say, are you calling me fat?
I laughed and gave the leash a gentle tug, and we were walking again. A few feet ahead there was a smaller group of people, I began to slow down but Duke shot forward. The momentum tore the leash out of my hand.
Duke ran through the crowd dodging people left and right, he eventually lost me. When I couldn't see him anymore, I began to walk around the fair-grounds calling his name. I walked from one end to the other, finally after what felt like hours, I saw a woman walking Duke.
Her beauty radiated. Her black hair flowed down her shoulders, and her laugh was infectious. Her eyes were a lime green, which were filled with joy and happiness. I stopped in my tracks for a moment unable to move.
"Duke," I called. He turned his face to me and barked, making the women around him jump.
"Ah, so this must be your dog," She said laughing.
"Yeah, sorry about that. I don't know what got into him. He just took off."
"That's funny," she said still smiling, "he came right up to me."
I reached down and patted him on the head; he licked my face and barked again. "I think that means that he likes you."
"I like him to." she added as she patted him on the head. She started to hand the leash back over to me but stopped. "What's your name?"
I looked at her with a smile. "Ernie. What's your name, since your holding my dog and all?"
She laughed that infectious laugh again, "My name is Dorris." She handed the leash back to me, still smiling.
"Thanks." I told her. I started to walk away but stopped. "Hey, if you need some company, me and Duke would love to give you some."
She looked over at her group of friends then back to me. "Sure why not, just let me tell the girls where I'm going."
The night passed by slowly. We talked, got to know each other, and when the time came we sat outside the gate for what felt like hours. When she finally went to leave I realized that she was walking home.
"Do you need a ride?"
"No I live right up the road, I appreciate it though."
"Can I see you again?" The words were out before I could stop them and she looked back at me with a smile.
"Sure, here's my phone number. Give me a call sometime." She wrote the number on the palm of my hand with a pen from her pocket.
I pulled the bike over again. This time I stopped at the top of an old gravel road. I killed the engine and leaned it onto its kickstand. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a cigarette, lit it and took a drag.
"These damn things hit the spot just right." I took another drag and pulled my cell phone out of my pocket. I looked down and noticed the missed call symbol. It was Dorris' sister. No surprise there I thought. I took a few more drags on the cigarette while my mind worked through the events of the day.
As it reached the filter I flicked it over to the side of the bike. I looked down at the newly laid dust that sat on the seat and brushed it off. I leaned against it again and looked out at the highway before me.
The road would be a damn nice thing right now. I thought. "But you'd be running away from it all." I said aloud to myself. Who cares, it's worth it, there's not a lot left here. Get on, drive, and never look back.
I looked down both sides of the road again. Rational won the argument within my own head and I got on the bike, turned around, and headed back into town. As I started to get up to speed my mind drifted back to our wedding day.
"Do you take Ernie to be your loftily wedded husband, to have, to hold, until death do you part." The priest asked us in front of 300 of our family and friends.
"I do," she replied with tears in her eyes.
The wedding itself was magnificent. But the reception, that was where I realized why I married Dorris in the first place. I heard the shouting before I walked outside.
"If you disapprove, then I don't want you here. I married him, I love him, and we're going to be happy, with or without you." She had yelled loud enough to be heard a county over, I walked into the parking lot and watched as she kept on.
"You didn't like him from the start. You thought he was just some creep who met me at a carnival. That was almost five years ago, don't you think that by now you'd come around."
"He hardly works; he doesn't have a plan for the future. The fact is, he's a bum."
"He's working, he's chasing a dream, and when he catches it, you'll be the first to know. In fact, I'll let him tell you first, because I want it thrown in your face."
"You have a lot of faith," her mother spat. "But, faith doesn't pay your bills. One of these days you'll see what a horrible man he is. When that happens don't come crying back to me. If you do, all I'll do is say that I told you so."
I watched as her mother stormed off to the car. She got in and drove away throwing gravel and dust everywhere. I snuck back inside before Dorris could see me. A little later I found her in tears.
"What's wrong sweetheart?"
"My mom, she left."
"Because she thinks that we're being stupid. That you won't ever amount to anything, that you're not the right man for me. She thinks you're a failure."
I sat next to her on the bench, took her face in my hands and smiled.
"I don't care what she thinks. All that matters is what you believe. If you think that I can do this, then I know I can. As long as you believe in me, that's all I need."
She started to cry again. I dabbed at the tears as she smiled. "Stop crying, now let's get out here on the dance floor and celebrate."
We danced, we drank, and we partied. Dorris was the firecracker who would defend me at a moment's notice. I learned that, that night and I never forgot it. It was the entire reason we have been married for 50 years.
I coasted the bike up the gravel road. Everything around me seemed so fresh and imprinted into my mind. Perhaps, that was because I had been here already today. I pulled the bike to a stop, put down the stand and climbed over. I leaned against the bike and stared as the workers were busy trying to finish up their job for the day.
I walked slowly between the stones and stopped three feet shy of the semi filled hole that now held a new casket. I reached down and touched the stone, her picture on one side with her birthday on the other. It was an all-to-real reminder that she was gone; age and sickness got the better of her.
I began to cry, letting the tears fall. As I did, I noticed the workers lay down their shovels and step away. I sobbed as I rocked back on my heels. I looked up at the trees and through the tears I noticed movement.
Duke had come out from behind a tree and sat, his tail gently wagging underneath him. He barked and I smiled, sure that no one else heard him. From the other side, Dorris walked out and kneeled beside him. He licked her face in joy. I watched as they sat and stared at me with smiles.
I realized death was coming. I was ready. I wanted to be on the other side, in heaven; walking the golden road with the love of my life Dorris on one side, and my amazing dog Duke close at my heels.