I stood on the back deck, holding a fragrant mix of canned and dry dog food. I scanned the back yard for Hazel. She jogged out from behind the barn, her tail wagging the whole way to the house.
"Thanks, I'm good," Hazel said as she hopped up the back deck's wooden stairs.
"What?" I asked.
"I'm good, I already ate."
"Hmmph," I responded. "Deer legs left by the hunters?"
"Don't mind if I do," Hazel said, hopping back down the stairs. She crossed the yard to a large sweetgum tree, retrieved a gargantuan deer leg from behind its trunk and disappeared into the woods.
I added "hiding animal parts" to my mental list of trespasses committed by our sweetgum trees. They seem innocent enough at first glance, but sweetgum trees are as troublesome as they are beautiful.
Sweetgums often lose large branches during wind or rainstorms. The likelihood of dropped branches is increased tenfold if a truck or horse trailer is parked nearby. We have the dents to prove it.
Sweetgums are also infamous for releasing bushel after bushel of spiked seed pods into yards, riding rings, driveways, pastures and barn aisles--or anyplace else you really don't want them.
And these "gumballs" decay so slowly that they're unrivalled at ruining lawns, getting stuck in hooves, twisting ankles and obliterating any dreams of walking barefoot through your lawn.
Yet the sweetgums remain in our yard--partly because they provide great shade during the relentless heat of the North Carolina summers; partly because of their beautiful autumn palettes of gold, burnt orange and crimson; and partly because Kimberly and I don't have the heart to cut them down. Technically, they were here first.
I picked up a dried gumball from beneath a patio chair and hurled it at a nearby sweetgum. It struck the tree with a satisfyingly hollow knock. A bright red cardinal fluttered from the sweetgum's lowest branch.
"Drats!" cursed a nearly invisible Sascha cat, giving me a dirty look as she crouched in the grass near the tree.
"Sorry," I hollered as I went back inside with my bowl of dog food. Pickles the cat was waiting for me just inside the back door.
"I couldn't help noticing that bowl of food you have," he said, his eyebrows raised in anticipation.
"One piece only," I said, picking out a round bit of dog kibble and tossing it to the floor. It rolled past Pickles, who pounced and batted it under the closet door.
"One more please," Pickles requested.
"Aww," he responded.
"Let's check the closet," I said, kneeling down and setting the bowl beside me.
I moved aside the vacuum cleaner, an ironing board, two boxes of Christmas ornaments and an old bicycle pump, revealing what was probably two year's worth of long lost cat toys.
I dusted off and piled up an assortment of fabric mice, plastic and rubber balls, rubber bands, hair ties and curled plastic bands from the tops of milk jugs.
"Look at all this stuff!" I exclaimed. "It's kitty Christmas all over again!"
Pickles said nothing.
I looked over at Hazel's bowl. Jack sat beside it with his face covered in canned dog food; he purred as he licked his tiny lips. Pickles darted across the floor behind Jack. Pickles had picked out all the round pieces of kibble and was busy batting them throughout the living room and kitchen. I sighed.
"May I take your bowl, sir?" I asked Jack, who seemed to be slipping into a food-induced slumber.
"Yes, thank you."
"Did you enjoy your meal?"
"I'd come back to this restaurant," he mumbled, slowly falling over on his side and snoring.
I took the bowl to the kitchen. The kibble crunched under my feet as I walked to the sink and then to the pantry to fetch the broom and dustpan.
I tossed a few of the rediscovered toys in Pickles' direction. As I swept the floor, he swatted fabric mice and rubber balls across the living room. Many bounced over--or off of--Jack, but he was too deeply asleep to notice.
I finished sweeping just as a truck towing a horse trailer pulled into the driveway. I went outside. Hazel barked. A catbird flew out of the lower branches of our holly tree and disappeared over the house.
"Drats!" cursed Sascha, glaring at Hazel from beneath the tree.
"Sorry," said Hazel.
The family that climbed out of the truck was here to meet Ellie. Kimberly and I had talked about downsizing and decided that Ellie and Vander would be "put up for adoption" to the right homes.