Lessons in Love and Loss
Today is my birthday. Now that I’ve lived longer than I ever expected, and while I still have my right mind, I thought I’d better write down some things I’ve been thinking about lately before I forget.
I am looking at a photo that is at least sixty years old, and perhaps a year older. No one wrote dates, names or places on the backs of photos in those days, assuming that anyone who viewed them would know the people in the picture, and if they didn’t know them, it didn’t matter.
Four men stand in front of an automobile. Two younger men stand between two older men wearing hats. A mongrel dog lies in profile at their feet. The sun is almost directly overhead, the shadows crisp and sharp. It must be late fall or early winter of the year 1949. The tall trees behind the men still have a few leaves, though some limbs are bare. East Texas is way too hot in the summer and early fall for the men to be dressed as they are.
The man on the left, John Walker—my grandfather’s brother—is wearing a suit and coat without a tie, a hat perched jauntily on his head. The man on the right is Floyd Franklin Walker—my mother’s father—my grandfather, “Bebaw.” The collar of a white shirt peeks out of the neck of a pullover sweater. He also wears a hat.
The men in the middle are my mother’s younger brother, my Uncle David Walker, who must have still been in Redwater High School when the photo was taken, standing to Uncle John’s left, and my father, Eugene Norman, twenty years old, standing slightly behind David and Bebaw.
The men’s expressions are serious. The only seeming smile in the group belongs to the dog, “Little,” whose mouth is open, fangs visible. Little could be panting, resting after chasing cars passing on the nearby highway that connects Redwater with Texarkana, fifteen miles to the east, or just happy, as dogs are prone to be.
Except for David, who is now elderly, those in the photograph are all dead. The photo is significant to me for several reasons, one being that it is the first photo I know of my father with his in-laws, the Walkers. Another is it is the only existing photo of Little, an extraordinary creature who was an important part of my life almost from my birth until he was killed when I was six years old, which seemed like the longest year of my short life.
In East Texas, in the country, houses are named, usually for their owners or former owners. We lived at “Clary’s place,” a small white wooden house next door to Mr. and Mrs. Clary’s big house. They owned a piece of property with an old barn out back. At that time, Memaw and Bebaw lived at “Rip Nettles’ place,” then there was the “Bonham place,” “George’s place,” and “Chapman’s place,” among many others. I used to throw rocks into Nettles Creek. Rip’s impact was widespread.
At Clary’s place, we shared a large common yard, but there was an invisible border, a “no man’s land,” that Little respected when he visited from Memaw’s and Bebaw’s, which was at least half the time.
Mrs. Clary had a large, mean tomcat that would whip the average dog, but the tomcat usually stayed on his side of the yard and Little stayed on the other—an uneasy truce.
In his prime, Little was the Alpha male of the area. He would challenge and fight off any stray dogs that violated his territory. It didn’t matter if there was one or six, he’d set them running down the road. His ferocity in defending his turf was legendary.
I was very young—perhaps three years old. One of my earliest memories of Little: he was trying to sleep in the sun, on our side of the invisible boundary, and I was playing nearby. Mrs. Clary’s cat must have taken some vitamins, or somehow got its courage pumped up, because it nonchalantly crossed over from its side of the yard to ours, strutting boldly with its furry tail held aloft, only yards away from Little, who pretended to be sleeping. Mrs. Clary’s cat scratched, hissed, and yowled at any dog naive or hapless enough to invade his space and get into claw range, but until that day he’d never disrespected Little like that—a country cat matador turning his back on the canine toro, his fat fuzzy cojones taunting Little like two dancing marbles in his face.
Little growled an, ”I’m gonna get you,” warning, Clary’s cat glanced back for an instant, and the chase was on. The cat yowled and bolted for the old barn. Little leapt after him, kicking up a dust cloud from the dry ground. Tomcat zigged, Little zagged. I thought Little would catch him for sure, but perhaps he didn’t want to catch him, just scare religion into him. He certainly did that. The barn door was always closed, but a broken board at the bottom left a cat-sized gap that the tom darted into. Safe!
Little pulled up, sniffed, cocked his hind leg, and thoroughly doused the door and the hole with a stream of urine. He scratched the dirt several times with his hind paws and trotted back to where I sat watching, a dog smile of satisfaction on his face. He flopped down next to me, expecting to be scratched and praised. The next time I saw the cat, he nervously peeked around corners and crept like an escaped convict. He’d learned his lesson.
Little loved to chase cars. He taught me geometry lessons at a young age. A car would be zooming down the highway toward us. Little would be calculating its speed and his angle of attack in seconds, ears forward, eyes focused on the target, expression serious. In a flash we were transported twenty thousand years in the past. Little was a wolf, stalking a herd of buffalo, choosing his target, starting his run, slowly at first, then faster and faster, as the prey approached, determining the vector, intersecting at the edge of the roadway. The speeding car would be upon him in an instant. Little would bark and snap at the shiny spinning hubcap, fangs flashing at the galloping legs and hooves of his imagined prey in the seconds they came together, then the car was gone in a whoosh. Little would pull up a few yards down the road, then turn hack toward me, panting, smiling, victorious, having chased off another intruding beast. I wonder what he would have done had he caught it!
I envied that power, speed, and freedom Little displayed in approaching, chasing, and driving off cars and trucks until he was so exhausted he’d plop down and not get up.
It seemed like so much fun that late one Sunday afternoon I decided to join Little and chase cars, too. I was still very young, and Little had already passed his prime, but he had the same desire as always. I couldn’t possibly keep pace with him, so I went down the road a little further, to about the place he would intersect with the cars, and stood off the road a few feet. I didn’t want to interfere with his trajectory.
Here came one—flying! You’ve seen those track meets on TV where the athlete approached the high jump, the bar set several feet above his head? The high jumper wouldn’t just take off at full speed like the sprinters, but would start slowly, taking the measure of the distance, deliberate paces, then increasing to full speed as the angle of attack came together. That’s how Little would approach his car chasing. As he caught up with the car for a few seconds growling and snapping at the spinning wheel, I ran along with him a few feet imitating Little, copying his snarls and barks.
It was exhilarating! Dogs know how to have fun. I could never match his speed and distance, but for a short while, Little and I shared the thrill of the chase.
A car came cruising down the highway toward us. Little began warming up, taking short steps, then his feet moved faster and faster until his legs were a blur, running right up to the car, growling, snarling, nipping at the spinning silver hubcap. For a moment I ran along with him, a couple feet off the road, kicking up gravel, barking and yipping, too.
The car veered over the centerline, then slowed. Little and I pulled up at the side of the highway and watched. The car braked, stopped down the road, shifted into reverse, then backed up. Oh, no! I ran to our house and looked over my shoulder toward the highway. The car was pulling off the road in front of our house. Little stared back at me as though asking, “Where are you going? We have more cars to chase!”
I stopped on the front porch to catch my breath, opened the door and walked in, nonchalant, as though nothing had happened. My mother stood at the stove, busy cooking, stirring, carrying on a one-sided conversation with my father, who sat at the dining table watching her, a slight smile of amusement on his face.
Knock, knock, knock! My mother wiped her hands on a dishtowel and hurried from the small kitchen toward the front door, saying, “I wonder who that is?”
“Uncle Albert! Come in! “
Uncle Albert? Oh, no! A relative! Little and I had not been chasing some anonymous stranger’s car, someone who’d ignore a boy and a dog on the side of a long road, but someone who knew our family, who was related to us. Uncle Albert Thornhill was married to Aunt Bonnie, Bebaw’s youngest sister. A tall, dark, serious and quiet man, he was the father of Linda, Paulette, Wilma and Richard. My mother returned to her stove, stirring the pots and pans. Uncle Albert sat at the table with my dad. I knew I was in serious trouble. The conversation seemed to be coming from someplace else, a plastic film separating me from the other people in the room, blurring their images and voices.
Uncle Albert was uncomfortable saying what he had to say, but after a minute or two of required pleasantries—How is everyone? Fine, how have you been doing? How is work?—he finally spit it out. He was driving by, and that big yellow dog, Little, chased his car.
“Yes,” my father said, “that dog is always chasing cars. He’ s going to get run over one of these days.”
“Yes,” Uncle Albert said, clearing his throat, “but the reason I stopped is, the boy was chasing my car, too.”
“The boy? Charlie? What?” My mother asked in wonderment.
All eyes turned as one toward me. I felt like I was in roomful of pistols, all pointed at me. I was good as dead!
My car-chasing career ended as quickly as it began. I watched Little from afar, banished from nearing the highway. Little continued his pursuits of the never-ending streams of cars and trucks, often glancing back at me, as if saying, “Why don’t you help?” But I couldn’t. I had to obey. In East Texas, our dogs ran free and came and went as they pleased, but little boys didn’t have that luxury.
Little shared his time between our house and Memaw’s and Bebaw’s. During the day when I was out and could play he’d usually be at our house. As it got dark, he would disappear for a few hours, presumably down the road at my grandparents’ house. It never occurred to me until now—over half a century later—that his appearances at their house coincided with supper, food scraps, and feeding time. Little was not stupid.
Sometime during the night, he’d trot back, making his rounds, and leap onto the front porch from ground level. He never took the steps. He would curl up by the door and sleep until I got up. Little was a “yard dog.” In the country, yard dogs didn’t come inside the house.
About this time my baby brother, Danny, grew to the point where he could crawl. It was hot. No one had air conditioning. One Saturday, my father decided to screen-in the front porch so my mother could let the baby crawl around out there where it was cooler, and not get into mischief or fall off the porch while she was busy.
Little was gone all day for some reason. Perhaps Bebaw or Junior took him hunting. He loved that. My father nailed mesh screen all around the porch and installed a screen door with a hook-and-eye latch. My mother set Danny down on the porch. He crawled everywhere, delighted, secure on the newly-screened porch.
No one gave a thought to Little. Dogs have their habits, just like we do. They don’t expect change.
The lights were off, and we were all in our beds, not yet asleep, when Little came back. I heard his running feet crunch across a patch of gravel before he leapt for the porch. He thumped hard against the porch screen, “oofed,” then landed hard on the ground. We all ran to the front door. My father hit the porch light switch.
Little was just getting to his feet, confused. He shook himself, shaking off the dust. He had come running fast in the dark, never expecting the barrier blocking his usual path.
The dog looked up at us, as if to ask, “What have you done?” He was nothing if not adaptable, though. As long as the screen door was unlatched, he could push against it with his nose and get in. After the sweltering summer ended, the heat broke and the weather cooled down, my father took down the porch screens, much to Little’s approval.
Little was about three years old when I was born. By the time I was six he had been an integral presence virtually every day of my life. By then, he was nine years old, and he seemed to suddenly have aged greatly. Living in the country, having never been to a vet or gotten a shot or vaccination, surviving the rigors of a hard, dangerous life, it was amazing that he had made it that long. After countless dogfights, cat scratchings, and encounters with raccoons, skunks, rattlesnakes, and bobcats, Little’s head was covered with battle scars, one damaged ear flopped, and his eyes were clouded and dim. He was virtually deaf, his teeth had fallen out, and he had a gimpy, arthritic walk. He’d still limp out toward the road to challenge younger dogs encroaching on his territory, and just his aggressiveness and reputation were usually enough to send the interlopers on their way.
One day Bebaw and I were sitting on the back porch steps at his house. Bebaw was showing me how to sharpen and hone his pocketknife blades with a whetstone and three-in-one oil. Little lay sleeping on his side in the sun a few feet away. As he slept he whimpered, and one of his front paws began to move. He whimpered some more, then all four legs were moving, as though he was trying to run in place in his sleep.
Tasked Bebaw what Little was doing.
“He’s dreaming, Hoss.” All the Walker men called me “Hoss.” I don’t know why. Perhaps it was a male term of endearment for the eldest grandson.
“Dreaming?” I asked. “Dogs can dream?”
“Don’t you dream?”
I nodded my head.
“Dogs dream, too.”
“Sure. Why wouldn’t they?”
“What do dogs dream about, Bebaw?”
Bebaw had a rough, gruff voice, probably from smoking cigars. He was the strongest, toughest person I knew, but to children, he was gentle, patient and softhearted. I was proud that some relatives said I was a miniature Floyd, just like him in some ways. Perhaps that gentle affinity was one reason Bebaw spent so much time imparting his knowledge and answering my questions. My endless inquiries drove my parents to distraction sometimes. They didn’t mind that I preferred the company of Memaw and Bebaw. “When I was a boy, we had an old dog named Blackjack,” Bebaw said, warming up. “My grandpa was sitting with me, just like you and I are sitting right here. He was whittling a flute for me.”
“You know how to whittle a flute?”
“Sure. Anyway, Old Blackjack was sleeping and whining, and his feet were going a mile a minute, but he was lying on his side, so he wasn’t going anywhere. Grandpa asked me, ‘Floyd, do you want to find out what Old Blackjack’s dreaming about?’ Of course I said yes,” Bebaw said, smiling. “He told me if I were to clip a lock of hair off that dog while he was dreaming, and put it under my pillow, when I went to sleep I’d have the same dream Blackjack had.”
“Did you?” I asked.
“Sure did. I woke up panting.”
“What did you dream about?”
“Digging up bones, chasing rabbits, and jumping over fences,” Bebaw said with a straight face.
“No!” I was amazed at the revelation. I wasn’t nearly as smart then as I am now.
“Floyd, don’t be fooling my boy with your tall tales.”
Memaw had walked out on the back porch behind us, listening to Bebaw’s story.
“I’m not fooling Hoss, Velvie,” he said. My grandmother’s name was Velva Marie, but Bebaw called her Velvie or Vester. I never knew why. “If I had a pair of scissors, I’d show you.”
Memaw smiled, reached into the pocket of her apron, and withdrew a pair of silver scissors. She handed them to me. She knew I had to find out. I looked toward Bebaw for his approval. He nodded his head. I took the scissors and tiptoed over to the sleeping Little, who was still whimpering. His front feet were pawing slowly. One back leg twitched. I eased to the ground next to him and snipped off a lock of hair from a bushy part of his tail. He never noticed. I couldn’t wait to go to sleep that night.
The next morning, I was in the kitchen finishing my breakfast while my mother was making my bed. She called me, questioning, wanting to know what that patch of fur was doing under my pillow. I had completely forgotten about it. I had slept soundly all night and not remembered any of my dreams, or Little’s, either.
It was another nice spring day. Bebaw and I sat on the back steps whittling sticks. Two piles of shavings grew at our feet. His pocketknife had a bone handle, the large blade long and tapered, the other blade smaller and thinner, both razor-sharp. I had a smaller pocketknife Bebaw had given me, just as sharp as his. He had a simple test—if the blade would cleanly shave the hair on your arm, leaving a smooth patch, it was sharp as a straight razor, Bebaw would say. He had one of those, too, and would fine-tune its edge with a long piece of leather called a razor strop.
Little lay on the grass a few feet away, dozing, his chin resting on his crossed front paws. He wasn’t actually asleep, but in that resting state that dogs can slip into and out of easily when their built-in alarm system detects something that requires their attention.
A cottontail rabbit hopped out from beneath a gardenia bush, emerging into the bright sunshine, crouched on a recently mowed patch of lawn. What was he thinking? Uh-oh!
The rabbit’s big eyes took in the two humans staring at him, and the supposedly sleeping dog a scant few feet away. His ears swiveled in different directions like a radar screen, and his nose twitched, as if using his other senses to confirm the shocking image his eyes were conveying to his little rabbit brain.
The grassy fields and pastures surrounding the area were crisscrossed with rabbit runs, trails that the cottontail rabbits had worn through the weeds and bushes. In some places with grass more than a foot high, the rabbits’ trails were like little tunnels that opened out into flat areas, went under bushes and shrubs, turned and curved in mazes of escape routes. Perhaps the rabbit thought he could reverse his path and slip away without the dog noticing.
Little might have gotten old and decrepit in dog years, half-blind and mostly deaf, but his nose worked fine. He sniffed a whiff of cottontail, peeked open one eye, raised his head, and there it was—a fat, juicy rabbit! Little sprang to his feet as the cottontail quickly turned around and hopped out of view. Reliving his youth and his dreams, perhaps, Little lumbered after the rabbit, ducked under the bushes and disappeared.
Bebaw chuckled. “What would that crazy dog do if he caught that rabbit?” he asked. “Gum him to death?”
Half an hour later we were still whittling on our sticks, Little and the rabbit forgotten. City boys are deprived of one of the most meaningful fringe benefits and learning experiences of growing up in the country: sitting idle in the sun and whittling on pieces of wood with one’s grandfather, passing on wisdom and culture to the next generation. The piles of wood shavings had grown.
We heard a rustling sound and looked up. Little emerged from the bushes, chest heaving, exhausted, with the limp figure of the rabbit held in his toothless jaws.
“My goodness!” Bebaw said. “Will you look at that?”
Little hobbled over to Bebaw and dropped the rabbit at his feet, as if to say, “See here, old man, I can still hunt. “
Bebaw picked up the dead rabbit by its hind leg and held it up, examining it. Its fur was soaked with dog slobber. There wasn’t a mark on the rabbit. Just as Bebaw had surmised, Little must have gummed the rabbit to death. He certainly had no teeth to bite him with.
Bebaw called my grandmother to show her Little’s prize. The old dog basked in the pats and praise. Bebaw quickly skinned and gutted the rabbit with his pocketknife, threw the entrails to Little, and gave the dressed rabbit to Memaw to fry.
I was shocked!
“You’re going to eat Little’s rabbit?”
“Yep. There’s nothing wrong with it. Little brought it to me. He’s a good dog,” Bebaw said. “He got the parts he wanted.”
I guess he did. Little trotted off some distance away, sprawled on the ground, and gnawed on the rabbit’s remains. I went inside and watched Memaw prepare the rabbit: rinsing it in the sink, cutting it into four quarters, seasoning it with salt and pepper, dredging each piece with flour, then dropping them into sizzling hot lard in her cast iron skillet. My piece tasted better than fried squirrel.
Bebaw had a hernia. I didn’t know what that was at the time, but it involved something to do with his stomach, and if he strained too hard, something bad would happen to his guts. When Bebaw had to work hard or lift a heavy object he had to wear a truss, a strange contraption that fit around his waist and had a pad that pushed in his lower abdominal area, to keep the hernia from bursting. He could have had surgery to repair it, but he refused, not trusting doctors, preferring to live with it than risk going under the knife.
Although fairly easy and commonplace today, in the 1950s hernia surgery was much riskier and more serious.
Although I knew nothing of genetics and inheritance at six years old, I did understand that Bebaw had passed on his hernia to me somehow, through my mother. A doctor’s exam revealed the weakness, and there was no question that I would have the surgery now, sooner rather than later.
Despite having what I thought were good hospitals in Texarkana—St. Michael’s, the Catholic Hospital where I was born, and Texarkana General—my surgery was scheduled at the hospital in Mount Pleasant, Texas, sixty miles to the west, on the road to Dallas. They told me I would be in the hospital two weeks.
My father had a 1950 Ford. It never occurred to anyone to have seatbelts in their cars in 1955. People crashing through windshields or becoming impaled on steering columns in traffic accidents was the risk inherent to automobile travel. I sat between my parents on the large front bench watching my father drive and reading the traffic signs. We passed a sign that said, “Mount Pleasant—60 miles.” I looked at the speedometer, and we were traveling at sixty miles per hour. I asked my father if that meant we would get to the hospital in one hour. He smiled and said yes, seeming proud of my calculation.
Years later, on our annual vacation treks between Florida and Texas, I took over the road map reading and navigation duties for my father, marking off every town we passed, figuring the mileage and the quickest routes. It became a game for us, trying to cut a few miles and extra time off each trip back and forth in those pre-interstate days. On this day, though, it meant that in one hour I would leave the sanctuary of my parents’ Ford and face an unknown fate in a strange hospital.
I wasn’t too worried about it at first, when my parents stopped at a store with a newsstand in Mount Pleasant and let me pick out a stack of comic books. “Mutt and Jeff” was my favorite. There were also “Tom and Jerry” comics, “Tarzan The Ape Man,” and an illustrated “The Jungle Book.” But when we went inside a toy store and they told me I could pick out whatever I wanted, I panicked. I knew it was a trick, that I was going to die, and they were just being nice to me so I wouldn’t catch on or think about it until it was too late.
I began crying hysterically. I didn’t want to die! They finally calmed me down, told me I would be fine, nothing would happen to me. We went to the hospital.
All I remember about the day of the hernia surgery was they woke me early in the morning—it was still dark outside—and gave me a pill. Then they put me on a gurney, put a mask over my face, and told me to breathe deeply. Lights out.
I woke up groggy. The slanted light coming in the windows told me it was late afternoon. I was in a private room. It was cold. I’d never slept in air conditioning before. My mother, father and a nurse were there, reassuring me that I would be fine—I felt weird. My parents had to return home. I conked out.
The next thing I remembered, two nurses were waking me up for breakfast—in bed! A new experience—scrambled eggs, toast, marmalade, and orange juice. We didn’t eat toast for breakfast at our house. My father was from Georgia, and grits, eggs, biscuits and syrup were the standard farm breakfast fare. I liked the new food. It was different, but good.
I was alone. My father had to work at Lone Star Ordnance Plant. My mother didn’t have a car, and had to care for my little brother, Danny, who was only eighteen months old. I wouldn’t see them until Saturday. I’d never been away from my family before. I didn’t know what to do, was still groggy from the medicine, in pain, and couldn’t get out of bed. Nurses came and went, busy with other patients and duties. Loneliness gripped me.
A man wearing pajamas and a bathrobe appeared at my open door. I don’t know how long he had been there when I opened my eyes and saw him. He had a kind face and smiled at me. He came into my room and sat down on the chair beside my bed. He told me his name was Mr. Carter, and he was in a room down the hall. I told him my name. He knew about my hernia operation and had seen my parents come and go. I think he felt bad that a little boy was alone in the hospital, and sat with me to keep me company. That was fine with me.
He checked out the stack of comic books on the table, and asked if I wanted him to read one of them to me. “Mutt and Jeff” was his favorite, too, so he read one out loud.
I burst out laughing at Mutt and Jeff’s antics, and immediately screamed in pain, grabbing my bandaged abdomen. Laughing pulled my stitches! If I laughed, I cried. Instead, Mr. Carter read another comic that wasn’t so funny, saving the Mutt and Jeffs for when I’d healed some.
After he finished the comic book, Mr. Carter read the Bible to me for a while. When I woke up, he was gone. Hours went by. Two nurses brought my supper tray, checked my bed and bandages, and called me a brave little boy. I didn’t feel very brave. I just felt alone.
I picked at some strange looking vegetable on my tray. My grandmother called them “English peas,” and raised them in her garden. I loved picking them. I would shell the fat pods and eat the perfectly round green peas raw. Delicious, sweet! Memaw would steam the green peas and season them with a spoonful of butter she’d churned. Those peas on my tray were the same shape and size as Memaw’s English peas, but I’d never seen anything that shade of bright artificial green.
“Eat your peas, Charlie,” the nurse said.
“There’s something wrong with them.”
“What’s wrong with them?” she asked.
“They are the wrong color,” I said.
She looked intently at them over her glasses. “There’s nothing wrong with them. That’s just how frozen peas look. They’ re fine. Try them.”
I didn’t like the idea of frozen peas. I’d never heard of such a thing. Memaw would “can” fruits and vegetables—preserve them in Mason jars, make jams and jellies, and “chow chow,” a hot salsa-type condiment made of onions, peppers, and chopped green tomatoes—but she didn’t freeze anything. The freezer compartment of her Frigidaire didn’t hold much besides ice trays.
I tried the peas. They were nothing like Memaw’s fresh peas with butter, but I ate them. I was hungry.
The doctor came around and checked on me. I asked the nurse who Mr. Carter was. I hadn’t seen him since that morning, and I missed him. He was a nice man. The nurse and doctor exchanged looks.
The doctor said that Mr. Carter was in his room resting. He was very sick, and got tired easily. I would probably see him the next day. No, I couldn’t go visit him—I was recovering, and couldn’t get out of bed except when the nurses helped me to the bathroom. I was still too sore to get out of bed on my own and walk around, or I’d have gone to see him.
“Do you have any children?” I asked.
Mr. Carter was sitting by my bed, keeping me company. He smiled. “I have two little girls, both younger than you.”
“Are they going to come to see you?”
“My wife will bring them Saturday. I can’t wait to hold them,” he said. “It’s hard for my wife, working and taking care of our daughters, with me in here.”
“My mother ad father are coming Saturday, too,” I said.
“Maybe you’ll get to meet my girls.”
Early Saturday morning I stood by my bed, looking out the window for my parents. My room was on the second floor, at the end of the hall, and overlooked the front of the hospital. I could see every car that entered the parking lot.
Mr. Carter stood in the doorway, holding onto the doorframe. “What kind of car does your father drive?”
“A ‘fifty Ford, beige,” I said. I had it memorized.
He came over to the window and stood vigil with me, his hand on my shoulder. Even in the cool air-conditioned room, his hand felt colder. I wasn’t nearly so anxious with him there. Even though it was way too early to expect them, he waited beside me.
Time went by. I talked about Memaw and Bebaw, and my younger aunt, Cherry, my little brother, our dog, Little, and his exploits, the times he and I took long walks in the deep woods, how he loved to chase cars, but now he was too old. Mr. Carter patiently listened and smiled. I could talk to him about things I couldn’t say to my parents or anyone else. By the time I got finished, he was an expert on my family and Redwater.
I almost missed them! All I saw was a light-colored top of a car pulling into a parking space directly below my window. From that angle, I couldn’t see them get out, but I heard two car doors slam shut. Mr. Carter said I should get back in bed and wait for them. He left for his room. My father walked into my room first.
My mother carried my baby brother, Danny. He was as glad to see me as I was to see him. He shrieked and reached out for me. My mother set him down on my bed, and he immediately climbed over me.
I screamed! He’d kneed my surgery, pulling the stitches, shooting sharp pains through my abdomen. Once he got positioned next to me, we were all right.
My mother and father tried to be cheerful and casual, but I could tell they were anxious and worried about me. I was very happy to see them and felt much better than I had the last time they’d seen me, after my surgery. They seemed relieved. My father brought more comic books and a stuffed animal that Danny wouldn’t release from his grip.
Mr. Carter came to the door and met my parents. He told them I had been doing very well all week, and he had been keeping an eye on me, glad for the company. I told them he had been reading the comic books to me. I had taught myself to read already, but it was nice to have someone to read to me. My mother and father thanked him, glad that he’d filled in for them. After they left he sat down in the chair and kept me company.
“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” a little girl called out from down the hall. Mr. Carter had been dozing in the chair, and snapped awake. He called out. I can’t remember his daughters’ names. At the sound of his voice, I heard footsteps clicking in the hall, running toward my room. A cute little dark-haired girl about five years old dashed into the room shouting, “Daddy, Daddy!” over and over again.
He remained sitting in the chair. She jumped up, hugging his neck and climbing into his lap. I saw Mr. Carter wince—he was in pain, too—something we shared—but he forced it down, not letting on how much he hurt.
I’ll never forget that look of love, joy, and happiness on that little girl’s beaming face as she greeted her father, chattering away, telling him everything. Mr. Carter’s face lit up, too, but from the side I could see a hint of sadness, too.
A tired-looking, frazzled, but attractive woman with long, dark hair, holding a squirming two-year old girl stood in the doorway. The little girl in her arms called out, “Daddy!” and reached her chubby little arms out to Mr. Carter. His wife brought her over to where he sat. He held both girls on his lap.
Mr. Carter introduced me to his wife and daughters. The girls weren’t the least bit interested in me. I may as well have been invisible. Their mom just stood back watching her daughters cling to their daddy, occasionally wiping a tear trickling down her cheek. After several minutes Mr. Carter put the girls down and stood, holding their hands and walking back to his room. On the way out he turned and gave me a big smile. It was the happiest I’d seen him all week.
After the weekend, I grew stronger quickly. The surgery still hurt, but I got out of bed and roamed the hospital halls. Mr. Carter was taking cancer treatments that made him tired all the time, so I returned the favor and kept him company in his room. He liked for me to read the Bible to him, but some of the words were very hard, and I didn’t understand them. They talked funny back in those days! Mr. Carter knew most of the words before I read them, and helped me to pronounce them.
Memaw called it prowling—that urge boys have to explore and get into things. “Little boys have to prowl,” she would say.
And I prowled that hospital! By the end of the second week there wasn’t a floor, an office, a room in that place I hadn’t visited, sometimes several times.
I found the kitchen right off. The ladies in there were very nice to me, and always had an extra cookie or piece of pie waiting for me. I knew all the nurses and most of the doctors. The orderlies and janitors were my friends. I visited other patients: a tiny, white-haired lady who looked like she was old as Methuselah, as Bebaw would say, who never opened her eyes, but would smile when I’d talk to her; a teenager with a plaster cast on his leg all the way to his hip—motorcycle accident; mothers with newborn babies; a girl, perhaps nine years old, very sick, almost always asleep; and of course, Mr. Carter, my favorite. The second week passed.
The doctor removed most of my stitches, but left a couple in. It still hurt some. He told my parents to bring me back in a week for a checkup and to take out the last stitches.
For someone who’d dreaded going to the hospital two weeks before, who’d been homesick and lonely, who couldn’t wait to get back home to Redwater to see Memaw and Bebaw, Cherry, Danny, Little, and all the rest of the family, it seemed that now I couldn’t bear to leave. The nurses hugged me. Mr. Carter patted my head and told me he’d see me next week. The doctors waved goodbye.
On the ride home, my mother repeated all the do’s and don’ts—mostly the don’ts: don’t run, don’t strain myself, don’t pick up anything heavy or it would tear out my hernia, don’t climb any trees, don’t jump off anything, don’t ride my bike or I might fall off—on and on.
I told them I wanted to see Little to pet him—I missed him a lot. I asked them how he’d been while I’d been gone. Had he been over to our house? Had he looked for me? All my mother would say was that he was old.
We neared home eventually, and I began recognizing familiar landmarks—signs, an occasional store on the highway, houses, cow pastures, a horse in a field. We passed Memaw and Bebaw’s house, but didn’t stop. My parents wanted to get me home first. I craned my neck as we passed their place, looking hard, but didn’t see Little in the front yard.
The road curved between Memaw’s and our house, with thick woods on one side. I turned back toward the front, looking down the highway, hoping to catch the first glimpse of home. In the ditch on the right I saw a patch of yellow-orange color that looked like Little, but what would he be doing lying down out there? As we neared and passed by, I saw it was Little, but not the Little I knew. This Little was dead, smashed up, bloated, hit by a car.
I cried out, “Little!”
My parents knew, but hadn’t wanted to tell me. There’s no easy way to say, “Your dog’s dead.”
“He got hit several days ago, son,” my mother said. “No one saw him for a couple of days, then Rip Nettles stopped by and told Daddy he’d seen his dog in the ditch.”
“He was old,” my father said. “Deaf He was probably crossing the road, never saw or heard what hit him.”
That didn’t make it any easier for me.
In the country, in Texas, there is not a lot of sentimentality towards animals, even pets as beloved as Little had been. You couldn’t get too attached to animals. Life was hard. Chickens were raised from biddies, laid eggs, got their necks rung, were plucked and fried. Pigs were fattened up and butchered. Calves were petted, castrated, made into steers, and eventually turned into steaks, roasts, and hamburgers. Puppies grew up, became bird dogs, coon hounds, or watch dogs, got killed, run over, or otherwise died. Once they were gone, they were gone. That was it. Little was old, he’d been a good dog, but he was history.
That wasn’t enough for me. Little and I had been virtually inseparable since my earliest memories. Bebaw laughed and told stories about how as a toddler I would climb onto the sleeping Little, poke his eyes, and chew on his ears, but Little never grew impatient with me. He would just lift his paw and hold me down until I quit whatever I was doing to pester him. I couldn’t believe that no one had even bothered to bury him.
My mother was so worried I was going to rip myself open that she’d hardly let me out of the house. I was trapped under her eagle eyes. Danny wore her out, though, and a day or so later I got my chance when both of them took an afternoon nap.
I went over to the Clary’s and borrowed a small green shovel, one that folded up, that someone had brought back from the war. It seemed like a long way down the road, but upon reflection it probably wasn’t more than a quarter mile. I dreaded every step to where Little lay.
I dreaded what I had to do. I dreaded what I had to see. As I approached my mangled friend the stench struck me first. The weather was hot. I will spare you the details of what I saw, although I’ll never get them out of my mind, especially the buzzing blow flies. It was bad.
I intended to dig a proper grave, a deep hole, out of respect for Little, but I was too weak from the hernia surgery. My mother had been right. Every time I dug into the soil with the shovel a sharp pain pierced me like a knife. I excavated a shallow grave next to Little, deep enough to hold him, then prodded his corpse until it fell into the hole. Flies swarmed. I swatted. I cried and tears flowed as I covered him up. Eventually, he was gone.
I dragged the Clary’s shovel home, sad, grieving. My arms and hands were dirty. Mrs. Clary had an old bathtub on the other side of her house that she collected rainwater runoff in for her plants. I went around there and washed up the best I could, then went home. My mother and Danny were still sleeping.
A day or so later I fashioned a crude cross out of two sticks and stuck it on Little’s grave while my mother and Danny were napping again. Bebaw promised that we would get another dog soon, but there would never be another Little.
It was a long week, a bad week, and I looked forward to returning to the hospital in Mount Pleasant with great anticipation, getting the stitches out, and seeing my friend, Mr. Carter, again.
The examination room and doctor’s office was on the first floor, and after enduring the embarrassment of the hernia checkup and my stitches removal—healed!—I raced out of the room and up the stairs to the second floor to see my friend.
It was afternoon and the hospital was quiet. My footsteps clattered and echoed on the glistening waxed floor as I ran down the hallway. Nearing his room I called out, “Mr. Carter! Mr. Carter!” running so fast I almost ran past his open door. I grabbed the doorframe and swung into his room, crying, “Mr. Carter!” again, expecting him to be sitting up in his bed reading the Bible, but he wasn’t there.
The room was empty, the bed made, un-slept in. He must be in my old room, visiting, I thought. I ran down to the end of the hall, calling, “Mr. Carter! ” but when I dashed into the room an old man was sleeping, snoring, in what had been my bed. No one else was there.
I ran from room to room, looking for him, but all I got were stares. I went back to his room to wait for him. He had to be somewhere. Surely he would return soon. A nurse stood in the doorway, a sad look on her face. “I’ve been looking for Mr. Carter,” I said. “Do you know where he is?” She continued to look at me, not speaking, then took a deep breath. “He’s gone, Charlie.”
“He went home? When?” I asked. That would be good. So why did she look so sad? She shook her head slowly.
“I’m sorry to tell you this, but Mr. Carter passed away.”
“He died the day after you were released.”
“No, he’s not dead! He can’t be. He told me he would see me this week.”
”I’m terribly sorry, but be was very sick,” she said, coming to me, putting her hand on my shoulder. “He lived longer than anyone thought he would. We talked about it. You were good for him. It was like he held on until you went home. He didn’t want to leave you here alone.”
It was too much for me to bear. I fell to my knees, covered my face with my hands, leaned forward and cried. And cried. I cried for Mr. Carter, such a good man. I cried for his daughters, who loved him so, who had lost their father, who would grow up without him. I cried for his wife, the sad woman who wiped tears from her eyes watching her husband and daughters together, knowing a secret unknown to me. And I cried for myself, the loss I felt, so much in such a short time, it seemed—first my dog, then my friend.
My father came in and picked me up, still crying, and carried me downstairs. My mother and little brother waited in the car, the 1950 Ford. My father’s khaki work shirt became soaked in my tears.