This wasn’t the first time our guests were obliged with overnight hospitality so they could avoid the intimidating combination of vehicles, asphalt, trees, and drink. By the time I made it to our upstairs bedroom, Karen was peacefully asleep. My last memory before collapsing into bed was the majestic view from our bedroom window of Mt. Hood’s snow capped peak shining in the light of a pale moon.
The sleep shattering noise that came from downstairs demanded our immediate attention. It left no time to complete a dream which was having a bad ending anyway. Clanging and thuds would not seem unexpected in a house full of inebriated people, yet there was something peculiarly unnerving about that sound. For a second, I wondered if part of an airplane had broken off and hit the house, but then rationalized the improbability of that happening. Karen and I sat bolt upright. Iko, our German Shepherd, was seated at attention in front of our bedroom’s closed door, ears cocked, and eyes focused on the knob.
The clock said 4:06 a.m. Had we been asleep a few minutes or a few hours?
“What was that?” Karen whispered. She had the same uneasy look that surfaced a few weeks prior, when I had returned from the hardware store with a how-to book -- Electrical Wiring Made Easy.
“I don’t know. Probably Earl tripping over something.” I figured a quip about the big guy would relieve the tense situation. It didn’t. Karen took my remark at face value.
“Earl is sleeping in the basement on the futon. That sound did not come all the way from the basement.”
Earlier that night we had all washed away our tensions with liquor. Trying to ignore the consequential headache, I slowly made my way across the bedroom and reluctantly opened the door. One hundred pounds of canine galloped past me, and raced down the stairs. I followed her to the kitchen - unknowingly leaving behind my unseasoned view of life. Sometimes I wonder if that crash was God’s way of trying to get my attention.
By the time I got to the kitchen, Iko was barking aggressively in front of the pantry door. She was in a rage, ready to lunge at whatever lurked inside.
I didn’t try to quiet her. The dog was not the over-reactive, excitable type. Someone was behind that door. The only time Iko ever acted that crazy was on Tuesday mornings, when she was convinced the garbage men had once again returned to steal our stuff from the driveway. I grabbed a dirty knife that had been left on the cutting board, hoping it would protect me from whatever was hiding in that walk-in pantry. Grant and Earl came up behind me, and fixated on Iko. Earl was clad only in underwear.
“Who’s in there?” I yelled.
“If anyone is in there you should know that my dog was trained-to-kill in Germany and that we already called the cops.”
Grant, and then Earl, grabbed knives from the Wusthof set I had given Karen for her birthday.
Earl noticed that the butcher knife was missing.
“Oh, Jesus…” I whispered. If you want to see what somebody is truly made of, watch what they say and do under pressure. Some, like Abe Lincoln or Washington, were inspired by challenges and displayed genuine greatness. I took a moment to think, and then remarked, “…this unconditionally sucks.”
My thoughts momentarily flashed from whether a guy in the pantry had a butcher knife to how I had always wanted a gun, an idea Karen rejected vehemently. How many times had she warned me that every hour in the U.S. four people die from firearms; that having a gun in the home makes it three times more likely that a family member will die from a shooting? I wanted to ask her if she thought the presumed psychopath in the pantry preferred me unarmed, but didn’t. In my head I cursed her, and then turned my attention to the problem at hand.
Karen peeked in from the adjacent dining room, and whispered that she thought she had put the butcher knife in the dishwasher. The tone of her voice did not reassure us. The dishwasher was located about two feet from the pantry’s doorknob. No one wanted to risk getting that close to the pantry.
Roy made his way into the kitchen. His hands quivered slightly, which was not unusual for him when he was nervous. There was still no sound from the pantry. We hand-signaled each other to retreat to the dining room and formulate a plan. Iko began to snarl and whine, clearly annoyed at my reluctance to take action. Her disapproving demeanor brought to mind a recent encounter with my malcontented, vegetarian neighbor at the annual barbecue block party.
“Should I call the police?” Karen asked me in a barely audible voice.
“Go for it,” uttered Roy, but I always loathed involving cops in anything.
“It’s four in the morning. We can’t be sure there is someone in there. Do we really want to wake the whole neighborhood? It might just be a mouse that knocked over a bunch of soup cans.” I knew that wasn’t the case. We’d had mice before. Mice wouldn’t be strong enough to knock over a single soup can, let alone cause the loud crash we all heard. Iko might have barked once or twice at a mouse. She wouldn’t try to tear the door down over one.
Roy spoke up again. “All our cars are in the driveway. Do you think a burglar would really choose to rob a house with that many cars out front?” The hippy geek did make some sense, but none of us paid much attention.
“Where’s Tarini?” Karen asked. She was good at asking pertinent questions.
Grant said, “I fell asleep in your basement guest room. I don’t think she ever came down to join me. Our car is still out front.”
I told the dog to shut up. She quieted down but remained in attack position in front of the pantry door.
“Are you in there, Tarini?” Grant screamed at the door.
No answer. Was Tarini being held hostage behind the door?
Grant walked over, opened the pantry door about 6 inches and backed off. We should all have been feeling terribly hung over, I thought to myself, but a heightened consciousness kindled by fear overcame the lingering intoxication.
Iko saw her cue. She rushed into the pantry, flinging the door open with her strong body, and barked with more frenzy than before. I flipped on the pantry light. There was Tarini immobile on the floor amid cans of refried beans, soup, and a pool of salsa from an adjacent broken jar. I felt her image burn into my retina, and knew it would remain there with the same permanence as a brand on a bull. I rushed to her side. Grant and Earl looked at each other in disbelief, then after a moment of startled hesitation, joined me at her side. There were no cuts on her. No signs of trauma, but she wasn’t breathing.
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If there is one thing a medical education has unintentionally taught me, it’s that rapid advances in modern medicine generally outpace our ability to reach a consensus on how to deal with the ethical, legal, and natural repercussions. For years I tried to find reasons why I shouldn’t accept that lesson as fact. But idealism, in opposition to reality, demanded ignorance and an innocence that is now irretrievably lost.
We have tried reconstructing the details of the event that changed all our lives. None of us remember exactly what was said during our marathon-of-a-dinner, but we had laughed a lot and philosophized a little and told some good stories. We ate and drank well into the night.
Rather than face the diminished visibility of the roads due to Portland’s inevitable winter rain, our friends agreed to spend the night. I owned a three-level, five bedroom house, so aside from supplying breakfast, it was no imposition.