2019
SHORT STORY CONTEST
Honorable Mention
$50 Award

DAVE & STRANGER

by E.S. Rodriguez

The call came in the blackness of the winter morning. I glanced at the red numbers flashing 3:12 AM, ran a hand over my face and answered with a tight-lipped, “Yes.”

“It’s me, Dad. Annie. I saw Dave in Reno. He was in one of those alleys behind the casinos.”

“Did you talk to him?” My feet slapped onto the hardwood floor.

Sharon stirred across the bed from me. “What’s going on, Rich?” she asked, rubbing her eyes and brushing thick, chestnut hair from her face.

I raised the receiver. “It’s Annie. She saw Dave in Reno.” I returned to Annie. “Hold on. Let me put Mom on the other phone.”

Sharon hurried to the next room and came on the line. “I’m here now, Annie. Tell me about it. How is he?”

“He looked bad, Mom. His clothes were torn and his hair was matted and long.” Annie sniffed. “Mom, what are we going to do?”

“Did you talk to him?” I asked again.

“We just got home, Dad. Ray is putting the kids to bed.”

“I didn’t ask that. I asked if you’d talked to him. Did you?”

Her voice became quiet once more. “Ray couldn’t find a place to pull over. By the time we got back, he was gone.”

Sharon had complained more than once that I treated our kids like small children.

“You go rest now, Annie.” Sharon’s voice was soothing. “Call me in the morning. Your Dad and I will figure out what to do.”

I was still holding the receiver to my ear when I heard the sound of both women hanging up. My hand was placing the phone back in the cradle when Sharon returned.

“Annie did the best she could. Stop acting like an ass. She and Ray aren’t stupid.” She poked a finger at me. “Give them some credit? If they had talked to him, they would’ve let you know. You’re going to have to find him.”

“How do you expect me to do that? Or am I supposed to use magic?”

“I don’t need your sarcasm. What I do need is that you to go to Reno and bring him back. I don’t care how you do it.”

“I can’t—”

“Don’t tell me that you can’t. You’re a cop. You’ve spent twenty years helping everybody else. Now it’s our turn. Damn you, Rich, we should have been looking for him all along.”

“He has to fix himself. It’s not something we can do for him.” It was my recurring response whenever she tried to convince me to help him. I had seen enough helpful families of addicts compounding and intensifying the problem. It rarely came out well.

“You have to go there and find him.” It was an edict.

“You’re asking the impossible.” I knew the objection was useless even as I said it. Nothing I might say would change what she expected.

In the past, I’d been able to show her the futility of searching for him, but now she was demanding that I find him. A demand I knew I wouldn’t be able to set aside.

Sharon didn’t speak. She sat on the bed watching me with a cold, unsmiling mask. I dressed and packed a backpack with a few extra clothes and other odds and ends.

“I’ll call with the name and number of where I’m staying when I get to Reno.”

She wiped her eyes with a tissue, nodded and clenched her jaw as I bent to kiss her. She was hurting, but, as always, I didn’t know what to say

* * *

On the drive out of Chico, my thoughts were of Dave. When he was a small boy, before I became a cop, we were inseparable. I took him everywhere. At five, I taught him to fish. On his sixth birthday, we rescued two dogs from the local shelter. One for him and one for me.

When Annie was born, her huge brown eyes captured my soul. Having Sharon and the children in my life made me want to live forever.

I joined the department and, slowly, I accepted that wariness was necessary. I learned to be vigilant. To watch out for the children and Sharon. I needed to make sure they remained safe. Even though they failed to understand the reasons for my caution.

I arrived in Reno before daybreak. After checking into a motel on Keystone north of downtown, I called home. “I’m at a motel called the Driftaway. I’ll be here for a couple of hours catching a little sleep. I’ll go looking for him when I wake up.”

“Ray called to ask if you’d like him to go there and meet you. He wants to help.”

“What’s an accountant going to do? For Christ’s sake, just tell him to stay home. I don’t have time to babysit him and hunt for Dave, too.”

“Stop acting like an idiot. He wants to help. What’s so bad about that?”

“I don’t need him.”

“Did you go to the police department and ask for help?”

“No. There are hundreds of these men wandering around town. The police don’t have the resources to help me search. They can’t do anything.”

“If you tell them you’re a cop, they might.”

“No, Sharon, they won’t. Besides, I don’t want them knowing my business. This is private. It should be between you and me. No one else.”

Sharon paused. A long, silent pause. And then, “This isn’t the time to worry about your pride, damn it. Bring him home.”

“I’ll do all I can,” I said into an empty phone.

I woke at ten-thirty and searched the area west of Virginia Street to Keystone. Everywhere I looked I saw groups of the dispossessed, from teens to seniors. Most were leaning against railings or walls, or sitting on their haunches, passing a bottle or a joint between them, watching their present pass into the future.

* * *

Dave joined the Air Force right out of high school. He had the grades, even an athletic scholarship, but he decided to bypass college and go out on his own. Even though I thought postponing his education was foolish, I felt military discipline might do him some good. That was my mistake. I knew he had experimented with pot, but now he was out of my reach, and in a different world. One I wouldn’t be able to control.

It was four in the afternoon when I realized I was dog tired and hadn’t eaten since the night before. I returned to the motel and called Sharon.

“Where is he?” she asked without waiting for me to speak.

“I haven’t found him yet. I’m going to grab something to eat, get a few hours sleep and then go out again.”

“Did you go to the police department?”

She was back to that. “No, I didn’t. I told you I’m not doing that. Why should I bother them? They’re going to tell me ‘There’s nothing we can do’ or something like that.”

“Please talk to them, Rich. I know it’s hard for you, but we need all the help we can get.”

Dave’s disappearance had magnified problems in our marriage. Old, minor rifts were growing into chasms. Sharon had become silent. When he was twelve, Dave’s dog died while I was working. He was heart-broken. Sharon called to let me know and ask me to come straight home after my shift. I told her I couldn’t because I was busy. He’ll get over it, I told her. She didn’t respond. She just hung up the phone.

After Dave left, the second dog died. I donated the doghouse, brushes, leads and whatever to the local animal shelter. I was never going to have another animal. They were always underfoot. In my mind, friends and family became almost non-existent. Sharon and I stopped enjoying each other’s company and spent most of our waking hours apart.

“Leave me alone, Sharon. I’ll figure out a way to find him. I’ll call you later.” I hung up, shucked my clothes, and took a hot shower. I went to bed without eating.

* * *

The alarm crashed through some disappearing dream and forced me awake at two. One good thing about Reno: there’s always a place open to grab a bite, even in the middle of the night. I dressed and found a coffee shop in a casino on Virginia Street. A busboy in his mid-forties, with slicked back short, brown hair I guessed had been straightened with a hairnet came from the kitchen and glanced at me. He wore a well-trimmed mustache, a ‘brush’ as the boys in the joint termed it. He began wiping tables, head down and eyes focused on his task. Even though the coffee shop wasn’t crowded, he was working hard cleaning tables with a spray bottle and cloth rag. His actions were quick, efficient, and thorough. Men in the joint learn to bury themselves in their work. A cop can always spot a con.

When he got to my booth, I stopped him. “Excuse me. Can I ask you something?”

He looked at me with the same recognition, a con making a cop. “I not supposed to talk to the customers, officer.” He turned back to his task with his head down, and his eyes averted.

“I just need a little help. I’m looking for a guy named Dave. Used to drum for a lot of the house bands around town. Mainly blues-rock. I need to get a message to him.”

“I told you, sir, I don’t know anything.” He continued with his head down and his eyes glued to his task. He was hurrying so he could move away.

“I need to give him a message from his family. He’s not in any trouble.” I was rushing my words now, my voice a bit louder. “He’s a bit over six foot and has dark brown hair. He’s thirty years old and uses meth. His family’s worried, so they asked me to find him.”

The blank face changed. The man’s features softened, he pursed his lips and blew out a breath. “He’s your kid, right?”

I almost lied. “N . . .” I hesitated a moment, then began again, “Yeah. We’re worried about him. We haven’t heard from him for three years, then my daughter saw him here the day before yesterday. She was in her car and wasn’t able to talk to him.”

He studied me before answering, “Look, sir, I don’t know him, and I don’t see what I can do.”

“I really need help.”

He finally looked at me. “Officer, I don’t want to get involved. I just want to stay straight and get on with my life. Besides, I wouldn’t know who I could ask about him. This is a big town.”

“It would be easier for you to ask certain people. They’d always make me as a cop. What about your family? What if it was them looking for you? I’ll pay you.”

He paused, his lips pursed, his eyes squinting before he answered. “My family gave up on me when I was a kid.” He paused again, staring at me, and then answered. “I’ll do what I can. I don’t need money.”

I wrote my name and cell phone number on a napkin and handed it to him while I showed him an old picture of Dave. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insult you, but if you have to put out any cash on this, I’ll cover it.”

“I don’t think I’ll spend anything. My name’s Mike. Mike Wallis. If you need me, I’m always here during graveyard shift.”

* * *

I started my search once more. It felt as though I was trying to swim in a cast iron suit. My feeling of impotence was growing. Except for the encounter with Mike Wallis, everything seemed pointless. The search had become fatiguing, frustrating, and fruitless. At seven, I went back to the motel.

Sharon was right. At least, if Ray had joined me, he would’ve been an extra set of eyes. It had been over eight years since Ray married Annie and yet, I still couldn’t be close to him. Something had to give, and it would have to be me. I simply couldn’t do this on my own. If I let the local cops in on my search, I was sure they would, at least, offer some good advice. After all, it was their city.

In my room, I called Sharon. She answered on the first ring. “Have you found him?”

“Why is it you answer the phone with a question without even asking how I am or just saying ‘Hi’?” I was tired, and I felt as if I was on everyone’s dump list.

“Quit feeling sorry for yourself. I’m sorry if I can’t be more supportive, but all I want is to find my son.”

“Sharon, he’s our son. Not yours. Not mine. Ours.”

She began crying. That was something she didn’t do easily. “I’m sorry, Rich.” Her voice became quiet. “Since Annie told us she saw him, all I can think about is how he’s doing. Is he alive or dead? Is he hurt?” Her voice steadied, “I shouldn’t take it out on you. I’m sorry. I’ll do better.”

“No, don’t be sorry. It’s just that I’m tired. I’m back at the motel, and I’m going to rest for a while. I met someone at a coffee shop this morning. He’s an ex-con, and I wound up telling him our problem. He said he would ask around. He’s going to call if he hears any news. For some reason, I believe him.”

“Wait a minute.” Her voice rose, “You told someone you just met your private business, as you call it, but you won’t go to the police.” I could almost feel her fury as she spoke.

“You’re right. It’s just that it embarrasses me to let other cops know about Dave. I agree with you. I decided this morning to go to the PD. I’ll go after I get some sleep.”

“I’m sorry.” Her voice softened, “I love you. Go rest and call me when you can.”

Sharon hadn’t told me she loved me since we lost touch with Dave.

* * *

I was beginning to recognize the incredible mistakes I had made as my view of the world had hardened. I had become rigid. And in my rigidity, I crushed the spirit of those people I held the most dear.

I was beginning to understand how our dysfunction had happened.

Dave, who was assigned to an air base in Seattle after boot training, called home once a week, most often to speak to his mother and sister. Then, after a year, he called with the news.

After hanging up, Sharon announced that Dave had met a girl. “Her name is Rose, and he’s in love with her.”

“What the hell does a nineteen-year-old know about love?” I shook my head as I spoke.

Dave and Rose were married two months later and stayed in Seattle after his discharge. He enrolled at City University on the G.I. bill at Rose’s prodding. Meanwhile, he played drums with several local blues-rock bands on weekends for a little extra money. The playing became partying. Booze and weed became speed and heroin. Dave was lost. Rose threw him out a few years later. That was five years ago.

* * *

I was up and back to my task by three in the afternoon. I grabbed a burger and coke before going to the police department. An officer sat at the front desk reading the paper while listening to some country music station on a radio beside him. He didn’t even turn the sound down when I approached him.

I gave him my ID card, “Hi. I was wondering if you could help me locate someone?”

“Okay, Sarge, who is it and where do they live?” The officer looked at me with a little interest.

“That’s just it. He’s homeless. He used to play drums with house bands around town, but he hasn’t been around the union office for quite a while. I’ve got an old picture of him if it’ll help.”

“Is he a drug user?” he asked.

“Yes, he’s a meth head.”

“Well, you’ve dealt with enough of these dirtbags, sarge. Who the hell knows how to find the one you’re looking for? If he’s looking to score, most of the small-time dealers hang around the downtown casinos. I would check there. Also, they’re a lot of homeless over on the east side between Sparks and us. Why do you need to find him? Is he wanted for something in California?”

“No, I’m just doing the family a favor.”

“Well, you know what it’s like, sarge. We’re too damn busy to look for some asshole just because he’s missing. There are too many of them and too few of us. Sorry.”

“Unfortunately, this asshole is my son.”

He sat up, turned off the radio, and stood. “I’m sorry I called him that, but it doesn’t change anything. We don’t have the manpower. Believe me, I am sorry. I wish I could help. I’ll tell you what, leave me your number and where you’re staying, and I’ll spread the word to the patrol crews. If we come across anything, we’ll call you.”

I left my number and the description of my car, said my thanks, and left. I was feeling even more exhausted than before I slept, and I hadn’t started yet. A cold wind kicked up. I wondered if my windbreaker would be enough. I’d worked plenty of surveillance operations under similar conditions and with even less rest. This was different. This was my son.

I worked the area on the east side the officer had mentioned, between Reno and Sparks. He had been right. This was a prime area for dealers and the dispossessed. It was getting so dark I couldn’t see anyone on the street. Huge black clouds rolled in and took over the sky. The thunderheads over the Sierras were beginning to envelop the mountains. The car radio announced the temperature was in single digits now and a major blizzard, maybe a record-setter, would hit sometime the next morning before nine. I shut the windows because the cold was making my face stiffen. He’d been gone for three years, but the thought of Dave out here under these conditions was weighing on me.

I drove back to the coffee shop and asked for Mike. I wondered if he had learned anything. That was important, but just a somewhat friendly face would help me.

He came out of the kitchen, his ever-present table rag in his hand, and walked to my booth.

“I was getting ready to call you. He’s been seen wandering around West Fourth Street on the other side of McCarran. If you haven’t been around that area, most of the ground is rocky with brush and cottonwood trees growing down by the river. It’s open country, so there aren’t many people around.”

He put his hand on my shoulder as if offering solace. It was probably the first time he had ever touched a cop without getting in trouble. It was certainly the first time a con had ever put his hands on me without some strong reaction.

“Thanks, Mike. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate what you’ve done for me . . . us. Are you sure I can’t do anything for you?”

“Don’t sweat it. Just find your kid.” There was a slight catch in his voice as he spoke. With that, he began wiping tables without looking back.

* * *

The frigid March wind blustered through Donner Pass, down the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, and down into Reno. My car heater was making little headway against the freezing cold. It had been three days since I began looking for Dave. The freezing wind seeped through the loose window insulation attacking the exposed skin of my face and hands. My nose ached, my face felt punctured by countless needles, and my hands had stiffened.

I stopped for coffee, hoping the hot liquid would keep my hands warm. I was on Fourth Street just opening the car door to walk to a coffee shop when my cell rang. A woman’s voice began without prelude.

“Sergeant Ballmer, would you come over to the alley north of Fifth just east of Virginia? It’s behind the Golden Shamrock. We have a man down. We’d appreciate it if you could come check him for us.”

“I beg your pardon.” My temper flared. “Who is this?”

“I’m sorry, sergeant. This is Officer Jablonsky from Reno PD. My partner and I are at a dead person call. The body matches the description you gave the desk officer.”

My throat tightened and the pit of my stomach cramped. “I’ll be there as soon as I can. Thanks.”

I didn’t bother getting coffee. It took a little over five minutes to get there. Two patrol officers, a tall woman with her blonde hair in a bun and an even taller male officer were standing beside their cruiser. I motioned to them as I parked on the opposite side of the street.

As I stepped from the car, the cold bit through my windbreaker and my hands started to ache. The weather was bitter and almost unbearable.

The woman approached me. “Sarge, the body is in a doorway on the other side of our car. He looks like he might have died of exposure. He’s a close fit to the description you gave the desk officer. He has no ID. Would you take a look for us?”

I walked with her to the other officer. “I’m Tredlow, sergeant. Sorry about this but if you would check him, we’d appreciate it.”

The body was lying in a fetal position. I couldn’t see much from where I was standing. A dark, hooded sweatshirt hid the face. He was built like Dave, tall and broad-shouldered, curly, dark brown hair and those long muscular hands. The sight brought back memories of Dave as a boy lying in his bed with his hands clasped in front of him. In those days, I would come home after an evening shift and stand over him, watching in wonder. What in the world had gone wrong? I should have been looking for him all this time. The thought kept ringing in my mind. What if? What if?

“Is that him?” Tredlow asked.

“I can’t tell until I get a better look at his face.” As I looked down at the fallen form, I realized that I was shivering. And it was due to more than the cold. His build and coloring looked like Dave. My God, what would I say to Sharon and Annie? My breathing became shallow and labored.

Tredlow reached out and lightly held my elbow. “The coroner has okayed us to move the body, so we can uncover the face if you want a better look.”

With that, he stooped and pulled back the hood. Ice crystals were forming at the opening of the body’s nostrils and the corners of his closed eyes. His skin seemed almost delicate.

He had a soft, scraggly beard and his hair was dirty and matted. His thin clothes were filthy. I pulled the long hair back from his face and stared for what seemed a lifetime. A loud, sputtering breath broke from my mouth, and my knees wobbled. I staggered and reached out to the wall to steady myself.

“Are you okay, sarge?” Tredlow’s voice was a whisper.

“Is it him?” Jablonsky was straightforward and professional.

I couldn’t answer at first. When I tried to speak, a hoarse croak came from my lips. I clenched my mouth and tried again.

“No, that’s not him. Thanks for calling me.”

I turned and left as quickly as I could. I couldn’t speak further. I didn’t want them to see the tears in my eyes.

* * *

I returned to search the area Mike had suggested. After hours driving back and forth, I was almost ready to call it quits. I was eastbound on Fourth toward the rising sun, my eyes flicking from one side of the road to the other, when I saw him. He was walking out from behind an old abandoned gas station above the river about a hundred yards ahead of me.

It was a few minutes past seven in the morning. I opened my window and used my small monocular to get a better look. The freezing weather hit me. The icy cold stung my face like the slap of a giant hand. It was difficult to focus the telescope because my hands had stiffened so much. Dave, his rail-thin body, covered by an old army overcoat wrapped tightly around him, was leading a small red pit bull pup by a hemp rope tied to the dog’s collar. The change in him was stark. His eyes were sunken deep into his gaunt, unshaven face. His dark, curly hair was a ragged nest. He rummaged through a dumpster while the pup sat on its haunches and watched. I was afraid that Dave would bolt if I drove into the gas station, but there was no other choice.

I eased my car down the road and into the station. “Dave,” I called to him in as calm a voice as I could manage. He stepped away from the dumpster, grabbed the dog’s rope leash, and walked to my car as I opened the door and stepped out.

“Hi, Dad.” He didn’t blink or show any emotion. It was as if we’d seen each other yesterday.

“Hi, Dave. How are you, son?”

“I’m doing okay.” He paused and stared at me with a slight frown as he squatted and stroked the little dog. “What are you doing in Reno?”

“Annie and Ray were visiting friends a few days ago.” I kept my voice quiet and subdued. “When they started for home, they saw you. They weren’t able to stop in time. They looked but couldn’t find you, so they called Mom and me when they got home.”

“Really. So, what did you do? Jump in your car to come see me?”

“Well, almost. I came right after Annie called us. Your Mom and I decided I should come find you. I left home in the middle of the night, and I’ve been here searching for you for three days.”

“What happens now?”

I wanted to cry. I had found him. Now, what?

“Where are you living?” I began again.

“I’ve got a campsite set up on a little ridge over by the river. I’ve been there for about two months.”

“I’m staying at a motel close by. Would you like to come over and take a shower? I don’t imagine you have much hot water available.” My heart was breaking, but I needed to remain calm as possible. I needed to talk him into coming home with me.

“Can I bring him?” he asked as he pointed to the dog.

“I guess so. We can keep him at the motel while you and I get breakfast.”

Dave picked up the pup with a gentleness I remembered from his boyhood. He climbed into the passenger’s seat and continued stroking his dog as we drove to the motel.

This was all so different from what I had imagined our first meeting would be. I thought Dave would back away or bolt. At the least, I expected him to be surprised by my presence. Instead, he acted as if this was an everyday occurrence.

“How’s Mom? Is she okay?”

“She’ll be fine when I tell her I’ve found you. She never stops worrying about you. It would be great if you would go back with me. Spend a little time at home with her and your sister. Just for a while so you can get your bearings. What do you think?” I was pushing it, but after seeing that dead youngster in the alley, I needed to do something.

Dave didn’t seem to react. He kept stroking the dog.

“He’s a good-looking little pup. When we finish, we can figure out what to do with him. We can find a rescue shelter that will take him.”

“No, Dad. I can’t just dump him. He’s my friend. The closest friend I have.”

“You can’t be sure he isn’t sick. He might have something wrong with him that needs medical attention.”

“Dad, you taught me how to take care of a dog. I’ve wormed him. I’ve washed him and made sure he doesn’t have fleas or anything. He’s fine.”

“Okay, let’s talk about it later. What’s his name?”

“Stranger.”

“Stranger? Well, that’s different. How’d you come up with that for a name?”

“I don’t know. We just kind of adopted each other. Two strangers with problems finding each other, so it seemed natural.”

At the motel, I pulled out some of the clothes he’d left at our house when he’d left. He picked through what I’d brought. He chose a T-shirt, jeans and some underwear and went into the bathroom.

Stranger, bursting with energy, spent his time first sitting and then running around the room at full speed, sliding into walls and furniture. His tail slapped back and forth like a runaway windshield wiper. He alternated between nipping at me and jumping on my lap, then running about the room again. Dave came out of the bathroom and I realized how much he’d deteriorated since I last saw him. When he first came to us after his divorce, he was six-foot-three and weighed a well-muscled two hundred twenty pounds. Now, his shoulders and elbows were bony points on an incredibly thin body. I doubted he weighed even one hundred fifty pounds.

“Why did you come looking for me, Dad? I was doing okay.”

I looked at him with wonder. How in the world could he believe he was doing well? “Dave, you aren’t okay. You have a lot of problems that need solving. Let’s go get breakfast. We can talk when we get back.”

“I don’t mind going to eat, but I don’t want to talk anything out right now. That okay?”

“Sure, Dave. Whatever you say.”

We broke up three sticks of jerky I had in my backpack, put them on the bathroom floor beside a bowl of water and locked Stranger inside the little room. The small diner next to the motel was almost empty. A short, stout, older woman with dyed red hair came to the table and scribbled our order on her pad. Except for speaking to the woman, we both remained silent until the food arrived.

The waitress brought Dave his scrambled eggs and bacon and my oatmeal. Dave placed small bits of egg on his fork and ate slowly. After each bite, he set the fork back on his plate while he chewed. Dave picked up a sliver of bacon between the tips of his thumb and forefinger. He nibbled on it between bites of egg. He left the other piece of bacon and the toast untouched.

“Tell me about your dog. How’d you get him?”

“I woke up one morning, and he was sitting beside me. I was pretty sure he didn’t belong to anyone. He had been wandering around with nobody caring whether he lived or died. He followed me around for about a week. When I scavenged for food, he did too. He didn’t seem to need anything. Just to be near and belong to someone. He chose me, so I chose him. We’ve been together for a few months, now.”

When we finished eating, he put the second piece of bacon in a bag the waitress had given him. “It’s for Stranger.”

When we returned to the room, Dave let the dog out of the bathroom. He sat on the floor at the head of one bed. He stroked Stranger, now and then breaking off a small piece of the bacon strip and offering it the pup. When Stranger finished eating, Dave rubbed the dog’s head with a soft, gentle hand. The dog lay down beside Dave and rested his head on Dave’s leg. He was asleep in a matter of seconds.

I began trying to convince Dave to come home. “Your mother and your sister worry about you. Your habit is destroying you, and none of us can stop thinking about you. I came looking for you to see if we can help. We miss you, Dave. We want you to get better. We’ll do anything to help you.”

“What about Stranger?” Dave looked at me, before turning back to the pup.

“Stranger might be a problem. Neither your Mom and I nor Annie and Ray have the time to take care of him and take care of you as well. Come home with me. We’ll find a good rehab program for you. One you think will help. We’ll find a good home for your dog.”

“Can’t Stranger stay with you and Mom?”

“We’re going to be busy helping you. We’ll find a place where people can get him into a good home. That way we can concentrate on you and do what we can to help you.”

“You don’t understand, Dad. He and I belong together. You can’t ask me to just forget about him. Give him away. The way I feel, if he isn’t worth keeping, then neither am I.” Dave watched me with a look I had never seen on him. “I stopped using over two months ago. It’s been hard. I stopped for a month. I couldn’t do it and fell off the wagon. It took me almost a month before I tried again. You’ll never believe this. I stopped because of Stranger. It was the first time since Rose and I broke up that anyone depended on me. I don’t know if I can stay sober, but I know I won’t be able to do it without him.” As he finished, his eyes glistened. “God, Dad, I’m so tired of this.” His voice was a pinched whisper.

He looked away from me and placed his head in his hands.

He was in pain and I was still hesitating. What the hell was wrong with me?

My fingers reached out and touched his shoulder. I raised and lowered my stiff hand onto the back of his shoulder almost like burping a baby. Then memory kicked in, and my palm rested on him while my fingers gently patted and rubbed his back. It was awkward as if I was regaining something, some humanness maybe, that I had lost somewhere in my past. I stopped being a cop and began being a father.

“Come home. We’ll bring Stranger with us. We—I love you, son. We’ll find a good program for you. We can be home in three hours.” I put my arms around him and held him close. It was the first time I had hugged him since he was a boy. Tears I didn’t know I could produce began spilling down my cheeks.

“Okay, Dad.”

I didn’t answer him. I simply called Sharon, “I’ve found him. He’s here at the motel with me, and he’s decided to come home. He’s bringing his dog with him.”

“Let me talk to him, please,” she asked.

Dave took the phone and said a quick, “Hi, Mom.” He held it to his ear and listened intently. He didn’t speak. He just grunted a series of assents until he ended with, “Thanks, Mom. I love you, too.”

I took the phone from his outstretched hand and said, “We’ll be leaving soon. We should be home in two or three hours.”

Her soft voice stuttered. “Thank you, Rich.”

______________________________