Julia Sunderlin and Gertie, R.I.P.

I'm driving home, and my street's blocked off. Important-looking old men in deputy suits and bright-green vests are manning the barricade. My turn is just a half-block further on, but they won't let me through. So I pull a U-ey and head down Snyder Road, down some street I never remember the name of, and down to Ocotillo Drive to go in the back way. Ocotillo's blocked off at the intersection. No one from our neighborhood is going in or out.

I figure a toxic-waste spill--hope not--or maybe some speeder's crashed. Nothing I can do about it.

Later, I talk to my son. "Yeah, I heard something," he says. I check my e-mail, put in a load of laundry--do the things I do every day--and by the time I leave the house again, whatever was going on is over. Traffic flows like always, up and down Sabino Canyon Road.

Where are all these people going? More and more every day. Trying to avoid the traffic snarl at River and Craycroft roads by hitting Sunrise Drive, I guess.

Next morning comes around, and I'm walking my dogs. Same way I go about every other day. Sometimes, I vary the route just to disrupt the monotony, but the favorite path of the bowwows is the unofficial olfactory highway, a stretch of dirt and gravel running alongside Sabino Canyon Road. Everybody walks there: runners, power walkers and cell-phone talkers. There's a quiet antipathy between the types. Runners are miffed at dog walkers; sometimes, we don't pick up our shit. Cell-phone talkers diss power walkers; they run into them, interrupting their calls. Dog walkers on the whole are none too keen on cell-phone talkers, with their heads turned off, miles from where they ought to be. On it goes. The same every day.

Until one day, it isn't.

There's a bouquet of flowers and a laser-printed photo pinned to the fence. A woman and her dog. I will hear all the details later on the TV news: how a couple of drunks going to fetch more beer at 8 in the morning lost control of their vehicle and plowed into them, throwing her 30 feet into a utility pole while her dog died under the wheels of their car. In that moment, life is forever changed along a 50-yard stretch of road.

The ground is covered with spray-painted orange circles, some cop-speak I don't understand. Maybe charting impact points, skids, what happened when, exactly where. It's all Greek to me, and seems a little superfluous, to tell you the truth. Everybody knows what happened, particularly since the female half of the misanthropes was reportedly in the backseat of her vehicle muttering, "I killed her. I killed her," when the cops arrived on the scene.

One of my dogs heads to a dark patch in the gravel and sniffs around, and won't come when I call her. She looks at me, goes around in a circle and looks my way again. Even she knows what has happened, her sense of smell perceiving far more than my weak-ass human eyes ever could. I get the feeling she wonders if I'm too thick to understand. She's probably as horrified as I am, asking me for an alternative explanation.

But I don't have one. Only the anemic palliative of heading for home, and bringing back a dog toy and some orchids for the shrine. I didn't really know the woman who died, just someone to greet in the morning, "Hi, how ya doing? What kind of dog is that?" So while bringing something for the dog is easy--all dogs like toys--for her, I'm not sure. But everybody likes orchids. How can I go wrong with orchids?

All through the day, the shrine gets bigger. Children write notes, contribute stuffed animals; there are more dog toys, more flowers and balloons. The following morning, there's a metal cross, and I feel grateful. Somebody made something with some staying power; it sometimes seems like nothing actually has that anymore. The cross says, "Julia and Gertie. Killed by a drunk driver."

It's been a week now as I write this. And every day, I like walking that stretch of road a little bit less. It's not that I'm afraid. I know the chance of a couple of drunks bound for beer plowing into me in the exact same spot is exactly the same as it's always been. I learned about probability in school. No, it's something else, something deeper, shrouded beneath sadness for a woman with a lovely smile and her shy terrier dog. It's hard to put into words, exactly, but maybe I came closest to understanding while driving west into the sunset just the other evening. The sky orange and mauve, yellow and purple. So heart-stoppingly beautiful.

I was getting to see it. The woman and her terrier dog were not.

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