****First Place Winner in the Great Short Stories Contest February 2008****
Featured in the Short Stories Newsletter 4/09/08
Featured in the Drama Newsletter 6/04/09
Featured in the Short Stories Newsletter 6/24/09
1959. Southwestern Ohio.
The massive animal shook and snorted and beat its hooves on the ground. We were so close that sweat from its nostrils splashed at my feet, like ice balls in an unexpected storm. As the bull prepared to charge, my dog, Blacky, crashed against the enclosed stall over and over. I was terrified and have no recollection how long this lasted. Granddad appeared with a pitchfork between the ragin’ bull and me. His voice had an urgency but wasn’t loud.
“Don’t move,” he said, lodging the steel prongs in the bull’s horns. The force thrust us backwards; I felt Granddad’s arm tremble. He held the animal at bay with one hand while liftin’ me to safety with the other. My next memory was suspended in time: strangely, the pigeons at the top of the barn were flying in slow motion, their squawks an echo. Horseflies on the plank walls never moved, yet continually buzzed in my ears. The smell of cow dung thickened and everything went dim like shades being drawn at bedtime. Granddad held my hand and walked me through the barn door. I vaguely recall Blacky licking my face. Still, I will never forget what Granddad told me that day. I was seven-years old.
“Breathe, Scout. Ever’ thing’s gonna be all right—look ’round. What do ya see?”
I gazed around the barn lot. The tractor and hay wagon slowly came into focus. The chicken coop materialized, as well as the pig lot beyond the fence. Tobacco plants stood in the distance. Cornstalks glistened. I remember thinkin’ there could only be one right answer. Our trailerhouse sat across the blacktop road from Granddad’s farmhouse, which we called the Big House, and beside it, the tomato garden appeared in my line of sight. The words leaped right out of my mouth. “I see a farm!”
Granddad squeezed my shoulder. “That’s right, a farm.” The changing lines in his face prodded my imagination. I just knew he was ready to reveal some secret code about life. “Scout,” he said, tightenin’ his grip, “livin’ on the farm can be tricky. You got to be r-r-real careful from here on out. But always remember this—the things you learn on the farm will help you discover the person you’re meant to be.”
Granddad was my hero. He never told my parents about me falling through the hayloft into the bull’s stall. I named my first child, John, after him. Granddad was bigger than life, tall and sturdy, and combed his hair straight back. The long bridge of his nose accentuated high cheekbones, and his rugged, weatherworn face disagreed with his soft-spoken manner. I remember him lookin’ up in the sky, with a piece of straw danglin’ from his mouth, and predictin’ what the sky would do. I still hear his voice . . .
“Rest easy, Scout. It’s bound to rain, shortly. Be no workin’ in the hay, not today.”
And sure enough, it would rain! He wore a wide brimmed hat and green work clothes. I noticed his farmer’s tan at an early age: neck, face and forearms dark brown. The rest of him was white as chicken feathers. He looked funny without a shirt. One of my fondest memories was puttin’ in the garden. I’d ride the mule while Granddad guided the plow from behind.
“Gee-haw,” he’d holler. “We’re gonna turn, hang on. Don’t let him get the best of ya. You’re way smarter than this ol’ mule.” The very best thing about workin’ in the garden was when Granddad and I ate fresh tomatoes. The juice dribblin’ down the front of our work shirts. Just me and Granddad. There was somethin’ special about that time, almost magical.
Granddad and I were repairin’ fence in the cornfield one afternoon. Actually, he was workin’ and I was mostly throwin’ mud clods and hangin’ around the water jug. All at once this ferocious animal took me by surprise. Hair stood straight up on its back, like nothin' I’d ever seen. It brought Granddad such joy to retell the story.
“That skunk ran him right up the cornstalk,” he’d say, gigglin’. “Yes-sir-e! If it weren’t for Scout bein’ so afraid I’d kept watchin’. But I shooed the varmint off ’fore it got plum crazy. Boys, ya should have seen ’em. The harder Scout climbed, the funnier it got.”
Granddad had a way that made a person’s embarrassment tolerable. I can’t remember him ever hurtin’ my feelings. A chubby kid tryin’ to climb a collapsin’ cornstalk, with a hissin’ skunk at his heels, truly must have been a sight.
This would be a good place to introduce Granny. She was the best cook in the world, and, in my way of thinking, partially responsible for the extra weight bringin’ down that cornstalk. Granny was a large woman, with a no-nonsense personality, and wore a sack dress and apron. She cooked all the time. Hired hands ate three times a day at the sound of the bell, and so did I. Every meal was a feast during harvest season. There was always gravy, biscuits, fried chicken and potatoes, vegetables from the garden, and blackberry pie. It wasn’t uncommon to have fried rabbit, squirrel, quail, or fresh bluegill. My favorite food is the same as it was back then, gravy and biscuits. Granny never denied me one bite. She did put me to work occasionally, although, it was never anything that suited me.
I came boltin’ through the Big House one mornin’ and let the screen door slam. Granny hollered, “Come here and help me churn some butter.” She was standin’ at a white porcelain table strainin’ cream through cheesecloth.
“Ya need it done right now, Granny? I’m ready to take my bow and arrows to the creek.”
“Well then," she said, "you’ll be ready to go when you’re finished here.” It took two hours to churn that butter. But at least I didn’t have to run down any chickens after Granny rang their necks. A bloody, floppin’ chicken can really put up a fight. That’s the one thing that didn’t set right with me—all the killing that took place on the farm. Most of it had to be done, but some of it was hard for me to accept. I don’t want to leave the impression that Granny didn’t have a lighter side. One time I caught my knee on a barbed wire in the barn lot. It really hurt, and I let out a powerful scream. Granny came a-runnin’ to the rescue and kneeled down beside me.
“Are ya hurt?” she asked, out of breath and tugging at my pants.
“It’s bleedin’, Granny. Will it need stitches?”
“Yes it will,” she answered. “I’m afraid these britches are gonna need a whole lot of stitches.” We both laughed until my pain disappeared, like a crow flying out of sight.
I’ve already told you that Granddad and I had a secret. How he never told my parents about me fallin’ through the hayloft into the bull’s stall. We had another very special secret. We hid whiskey bottles in the barn and in the outbuildings and any good place we could find, which allowed me to keep Granddad supplied with alcohol during the farm’s slow times. He always gave me that familiar smile with every bottle I delivered, and sometimes a quarter to boot. I remember the grownups trying to figure how he was gettin’ the whiskey, especially Granny. Retrieving the elixir without getting’ caught made me feel like a secret agent. No one ever knew until years later. I’ll tell ya the plain truth: there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t have done for my granddad. And it seemed to me the feeling was mutual.
I’ll never forget the day that he brought home a gray Shetland pony. He said I should call him Pal, because he would be my friend. When I would yell like Tarzan, Pal came a-runnin’ the same way my dog Blacky did. It was like magic! Granddad told me that I should have more friends than him and a mangy old hound. Neighbors were scarce. But I believe Granddad was gettin’ ahead of the turn of events that he figured would soon likely happen.
I came in from riding Pal one evenin’ and heard my parents arguing. I slipped behind the trailer and listened.
“Brownie, you can’t kill his dog,” Mom said. Brownie was my dad’s nickname. He was left so long in the fields when he was a child that his skin turned a deep, dark brown. But I always called him Pop.
“The dog has to go,” Pop said. “Didn’t I tell the boy to keep the dog in the yard?”
Pop's voice sounded exhausted, with a tone of resignation. He had warned me. Still, I couldn’t imagine him killin’ Blacky, even though killin’ was second nature on the farm. Uncle Johnny shot a dog because it went gun shy and wouldn’t hunt. He tied it to a tree, took off its collar, and shot it—just like that. The shotgun blast was still ringin’ in my ears when I got close enough to see the blood. The dog was lifeless, like fishin’ worms left in the sun too long. I felt sick. Uncle Johnny told me that if a huntin’ dog wouldn’t hunt it was useless, just another mouth to feed.
Mom pleaded, “Give the boy one more chance.”
“All right, all right! Pop said. ‘But next time the dog kills a chicken, it’s over.”
I went inside and didn’t let on I’d heard anything.
“You love green beans and potatoes,” Mom said. “Why aren’t you eating?”
“I ate a bunch of green apples down by the creek.”
“Look at me, son. You better spend less time at the creek and more time keepin’
that dog from killin’ chickens.”
“Yes sir. It won’t happen again.”
“Tomorrow, you can drag that chicken out from under the trailer and throw it in the pig lot. This is your last warning. Next time, I’ll have to shoot Blacky.”
Pop looked at me in a peculiar way. It was the first time I’d ever seen that look. I suspect it conveyed the uncertainty he must have felt reconciling the prospect of killing my dog. I loved my dad but wasn’t old enough to understand, but, regardless of that, I was determined to solve my problem. I began searching for chain the next morning. Granddad surprised me while I was rummaging through the machine shed.
“What ya lookin’ for, Scout?”
“A piece of chain,” I said, opening a rusty box of bolts.
“Ya won’t find any in there.” His course hands brushed mine, re-fixing the lid. “Ya think Blacky will be happy livin’ on a chain?”
I sat down on the dirty box to buy a little time. Granddad loomed like a statue waiting for me to speak; a yellow cat carryin' a dead mouse scurried through the barn door. I blurted out, “Do you think it’s right for Pop to kill my dog?”
“Scout, remember me tellin' ya how a cow licked your head when ya was little and that’s how ya got that curly cue? Well, it weren’t so. Just made it up so ya would like the farm.”
“I love the farm.”
Granddad raised his hand. “Most times when a dog gets the taste for blood it never changes.”
“Blacky can change,” I said.
Granddad took off his hat and pushed his hair back. “I’m gonna tell ya ’bout growin’ up. Ya have to make your own decisions and it ain’t always easy. Sometimes ya choose right and sometimes ya choose wrong.” Granddad put a piece of straw in his mouth the way he did before predicting the weather. “Do ya think it’s right for Blacky to kill our chickens?”
“No, I don’t. But my mind is made up.”
Granddad gave me that familiar smile; the same one he used when I’d deliver the whiskey. “I’m going to Tide’s store this afternoon,” he said. “I reckon I could fetch ya a piece of chain.”
The next night, under the giant maple tree, I overheard Granddad tellin’ Granny that the manure man would be comin’ on Tuesday. Now, if ever there was a spectacle, the manure man was it. His tractor pulled a contraption that looked like a utility wagon with steel rotatin’ arms. It flung manure ever which-a-way and made a klunkity-klunk noise that sounded like cadence for the engine’s hum. While fragments shot up in the sky, his dog, Jasper, would jump on and off the movin’ tractor. It was better than fireworks. It made me sad that Blacky would be tied up and miss the highlight of the whole season.
I rose early the next morning to watch Pop pack his lunch box. He placed the sandwich and fruit neatly and in order, that was his way.
“The manure man is comin’ today,” I said.
“You stay clear of that machine. Granny has some slop for you to carry this mornin’.”
This was the chore I could’ve done without. It was a long walk to the hog trough with a heavy bucket, and I wanted to be ready when the manure man and his dog Jasper came. I set out to get my chore over with first thing. Granny was waiting, too.
“Looks like I’ve got help this mornin’,” she teased. “Wouldn’t have anything to do with that manure man and his trick dog would it?”
“It’ll be somethin’, Granny. You gonna watch?”
“This house won’t run itself, and there’s no tellin’ if that scoundrel will even show. I heard tell he’s been in the liquor jug.” She pointed to the breezeway that connected the house and the fruit cellar. “That bucket yonder is the one. See to it. Breakfast will be ready when you’re finished.”
So off I went with thoughts of gravy and biscuits and the manure man. Granny was right about the manure man. He never showed. I spent the morning daydreaming, watching trucks drive by, and making up songs—“When I grow up I won’t slop no pigs, I’ll see the whole world and drive big rigs.”
“I thought we could take some pictures,” Mom said, tugging at my shirt. I had dosed off in the shade of the giant Maple. Taking photographs was her way of cheerin' me up. I still have one of me holdin’ a Blue Racer snake.
“Let’s walk down to the bridge,” she said. “The water is so beautiful there.”
This was the same water that I had watched Pop throw a burlap bag of puppies into. He explained that it was the humane thing to do, the farm’s remedy for unwanted puppies and kittens. I didn’t want to watch . . . but did . . . until all the bubbles were gone.
This was how things had always been done on the farm, how my father was raised. He couldn’t have known how those bubbles would affect my tender heart.
“You want to take a picture?” Mom asked, brushing my cowlick. She looked so pretty in her cotton dress. Her hair was coal black and curly.
“I’d rather pick hickory nuts.”
I led her to the big tree. All the while the Bobwhites talked back and forth signaling their plans: bob white, bob-bob white. Hundreds of grasshoppers chirped in the pasture below us. All was perfect.
“Your father thinks Blacky will try to get loose when the manure man and Jasper comes.”
“He’s chained up good,” I said, attempting to juggle three nuts.
“You better be mindful when they come.”
“I will, I promise.” We gathered a shirt-full of nuts and started back. I thought on what Mom had said. But the chain was strong; Blacky wouldn’t get loose.
It was Friday before I heard the klunkity-klunk sound. “They’re coming! ’Ol Jasper is ridin’ on the fender,” I yelled to no one in particular. I watched them turn into the soybean field and took off in high gear.
“Watch yourself,” Mom shouted. I rushed off without a care in the world; not knowing the turn of events was already in motion.
Jasper the dog had a new trick. He jumped high in the air and flipped all the way around before coming down. It was magnificent! The manure man didn’t waste any time either. His contraption ran straight and true. Watching Jasper jump on and off the tractor all morning made me hungry. The manure man finally stopped to take a break and sat down on the shady side of the tractor. I knew that smell. It was whiskey. He wiped his head with a bandana, grinned, and took a swig. “You a drinker?’ he asked, holding the thermos out.
“No. But I’ll take a pull on that water jug.”
The manure man chewed tobacco and was always spittin’. Once, he spit right on Jasper’s head. Jasper never gave it any mind. He just lay there. We all rested a spell and I gave the water jug what for. In a little while the manure man jumped on his tractor and sang out,” We’re a burnin’ daylight.” It was quite an afternoon, but would turn out to be more than a young boy could have understood at the time: the watering, maturing, and blossoming of a seed into what it was always intended to be.
The dinner bell rang and I took off for the Big House. Mom grabbed me as I reached the front porch. “I can’t find Blacky!”
I ran to the stake behind the trailer. His collar lay on the ground at the end of the chain. I ran out to the field as fast as my feet would carry me. Sure enough, Blacky was playing with Jasper.
“Blacky. Come here! Here boy.” He wouldn’t come no matter what I tried. My attempts to run him down were useless. I was no match for Blacky. The manure man thought it might help to put Jasper on a leash. That backfired. Blacky took off straight for the chicken coop, with me right behind him. My legs were so tired that I could barely run. By the time I made it to the coop feathers were everywhere, the chickens were frantic, and the blood was fresh. I fell down crying.
“Nothing can be done.” It was Mom’s voice. “Come on,” she said, helping me
up. There was a sad look in her eyes. The same expression she had years later, after being diagnosed with breast cancer.
“You can’t let Pop shoot Blacky. Pl-e-ease Mom.”
“Hush. What’s done is done. You stay with Granddad tonight. I’ll talk to your daddy.”
We went our separate ways, leaving me to wonder about things that I was too young to understand. Like why Blacky started killin’ chickens in the first place, and was it right to kill anything at all—or did it matter? I quietly slipped inside the Big House and opened a window shade.
“Sounds like that dog of yours been in the chickens,” Granny said.
“Went to town on business. Won’t be back ’till late.”
I watched Blacky drag yard bird after yard bird under the trailer. Maybe I could hide them? No. Pop would find out. There wasn’t anything to do but watch and wait. It was the longest and hardest spell I’d ever set in one place. Pop finally arrived and immediately saw what happened. My parents argued for the longest time. I kept waitin’ to see if Pop came out with his gun. I kept watchin’ and waitin’, watchin’ and waitin’.
“Wake up,” Granddad said. I was in his big, feather bed. “It’s mornin’ time. Come on, they want ya. Your daddy ain’t gonna kill Blacky. He called the dogcatcher.”
“Noooooooooo!” I ran out of the house screamin'. Blacky was nowhere to be found. Without warning Pop grabbed my arm.
“Yell like Tarzan,” he said. I resisted.
Pop jerked his thin leather belt from his pant loops. "Do it," he yelled. I held firm. Snaap. . . Snaaap, Snaaaap. The sharp sensation warmed my legs. I refused to give the signal, but knew I couldn’t hold out much longer—Snaaaap, Snaaaaap. How could I betray my best friend? I remembered Blacky tryin’ to save me from the bull. All the times we had played together passed before me, like flippin’ pages of a Sears catalog.
“Son, you’ve got to do it, you don’t want me to shoot Blacky, do you?” Mom gripped the trailer door, tears runnin’ down her cheeks.
Snaaap. It was inevitable. I let out my Tarzan yell. In less than a minute Blacky came bouncing toward me. His big, trusting eyes fixed on mine—until the chain noose made him squeal. The dogcatcher flung Blacky into the truck. I was dizzy with uncertainty. Blood and killing flashed through my mind, everything a blur. I ran inside the Big House and returned with bow and arrow in hand. I pulled a bead on the dogcatcher and let it fly.
Luckily, it missed.
Pop gave me my first and last whippin’. After that, I never pointed my bow and arrow at another living creature. I never even fished again, not until years later when my son was seven-years old. Every little boy should experience catching a fish. We stopped at a vegetable stand for tomatoes on the way home.
“I’m glad I threw my fish back, Dad,” John said. “I didn’t want to kill it.”
I took a bite of tomato . . . and thought about the farm and Granddad.
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