Thursday, May 22, 2008

Dog Days of an Abilene Summer

I sat at the kitchen table, staring at the brushed blue aluminum cup in front of me, waiting for the shot. I could taste the aluminum in my mouth when it came. The crack me me jump. I looked up at Paul.

"Was that it?"

"Yeah."

"Maybe he missed."

"Nah, he don't miss."

"But it was just one shot!"

"That's all he needs."

I knew he was right but I held on to hope for a minute. Then I heard his footsteps on the back porch, the click of the breech of the rifle and the clink of the shell on the concrete. As he came in to put away the gun, I could smell the lingering odor of gunpowder drifting through the room. I didn't look up at him.

It was only just past six in the evening, but it had been a long day. Even then, the memory seems as it does now, faint and distant, as if seen through a long paper tube. I can see it and smell it but I have limited it to that tiny area for now forty-five years.

Allen Glenn was an attorney who had an office in town but whose home was out in the country. He and his wife 'Emo' (her nickname - I have no idea what her real name was) and their three children, Paul, Caroline and oh ack I can't recall the name of the youngest, a girl. Paul was my 'best' friend, even though we didn't see each other but on weekends, and not every weekend at that. His mother and my mother had become friends through their mutual involvement with the Abilene art scene, such as it was back in the late fifties and early sixties.

Emo was, like Lynda, a painter, struggling to find the inspiration as well as the resources to practice her art. Like Lynda, she was forced to paint in the kitchen, after all the dishes were done and children off to bed. Her work was figurative, and many of Lynda's early 'portraits' are reminiscent of Emo's work, though the two never painted together, as far as I can recall.

Emo had an infectious laugh and a positive spirit. In my mind, she was that sort of mid-fifties pioneer woman who represented a whole different culture than the one Lynda had come from in New York, yet the two had much in common and often spent time together talking while we played in the yard and had our many adventures out in the woods that surrounded the Glenn home.

These were some of the greatest times of my life, but they were not without difficulty. For one thing, it seemed that it was always up to me to invite myself over to the Glenn's house every weekend. Even though we had what seemed to me to be some wonderful times together, it never seemed to me like Paul valued our friendship in the same way that I did. I can still recall the anxiety that would well up in me every Friday as I anticipated the weekend. I was anxious because I knew it would be up to me to make a call if I wanted to see him that weekend. He would never call me. Sometimes, his mother would call, on his behalf, but I think it's just the way Lynda played it out for me. In fact she and Emo often made plans for a Saturday that would include 'getting the boys together' and some cocktails on the back porch in the afternoon. If no such plans were laid by Friday, if I wanted to see Paul, I had to call him and, in the spirit of fairness, invite him to come over to my house.

He did this, sometimes, but reluctantly, as I lived in town and there were not merely so many things to do as we could find out in the country. Whether or not they had a television I do not recall, but I do know we did not, so there was never any sort of inside activity that appealed to us. We spent all our time, dawn to dusk, outside, adventuring if we were lucky, laying around, bored in the heat, if we were not. And, unfortunately, we did far more of the latter than the former when he came to visit. It's no wonder he was reluctant to come over. We weren't allowed to shoot our bb guns, even in the back yard, so, even though we managed to fill the long hours with some sort of play, it wasn't our preferred activity.

What we wanted to do, morning till night whenever possible, was to take our bb guns out into the 'woods' and go 'hunting'. Both terms are in need of qualification, for both imply something that they were most decidedly not. For one thing, the 'woods' in which we played were merely thickly tangled and overgrown mesquite 'trees', which are in reality little more than woody shrubs with two-inch long needle sharp barbs emerging every six inches along it's gnarled and bent tendrils. Dusted only lightly with tiny leaves, these 'trees' begin to offer shelter only when they become so think that a person can not walk through them. We had the advantage of small size but were still unable to make our way through some areas lest we get trapped or worse, stabbed in the arm or leg with one of those infernal needles. Even the slightest poke would immediately get red and swollen and itch as if it were a wasp sting, which it closely resembled in form and feeling. I had plenty of yellow jacket attacks and honestly preferred the insect sting to the dull aching hurt of the mesquite needle.

Neither form of pain compared though, with the insidious and unrelenting discomfort that came with an encounter with a prickly pear cactus. At the very least, one could, with some care and attention, manage not to get stuck with a mesquite needle, but there seemed to be no way to avoid at least one brush with a prickly pear, no matter haw careful you were. There were just too many of them. They often grew in patches that could get up to twenty feet in diameter and over six feet high. I am referring to cacti that had no natural enemies in this harsh environment. They thrived while other vegetation shrank in the withering sun and at times it seemed that they were all that grew besides the mesquite. Avoiding the big patches was easy enough, but it was the little ones, hidden in a tuft of withered prairie grass or tucked under a rock that would attack without warning and almost without pain at first. You might notice when you kicked it, accidentally and think well, at least I didn't get stuck, but soon the burning would begin and you knew you were in for it. The prickly pear has two sets of needles, big and small.

The big ones are easy enough to avoid, and if not they can be pulled out with fingers, if you are careful not to break it off. If you are not careful, or get a bundle of the smaller hair-like barbs that grow around the base of the larger spines, you have to get out the tweezers and begin a very painful job of pulling as many two or three dozen teeny tiny little poison tipped daggers no bigger than a nose hair and ten times more painful to pull out. And heaven help you if you broke those guys off at skin level. Then it was just a matter of time till the body could absorb all the toxins and break down the tip of the barb. The problem was, the time was long, and nothing felt much worse than sleeping with the heat and throbbing set off with every tiny movement and touch.

So it was in this harsh west Texas land, still more frontier than civilized, that Paul and I found ourselves one Saturday morning, out by the edge of the 'tank' - an earthen berm around a low-lying bit of land filled with water pumped from the ground below. Many landowners had a tank for their cattle, but the Glenn's didn't have any cattle. The Glenn's tank also had an electric pump instead of a windmill, which meant that the water level in the tank remained fairly constant, enough for fish to grow and for us to swim and float in it on hot summer days. We were always tracking animals, and that morning, found a fresh set of tracks in the mud around the edge of the tank.

"A coyote?" I opined.

"Nope. It's a dog," said Paul. "Don't seem him though. We better look for him and run him off before Daddy gets home."

"Why?"

"Cause Daddy don't like dogs. He specially don't like stray dogs cause he says they're dangerous."

"Then why do you wanna find it?"

"Cause if Daddy see it first, he'll kill it."

"Nah, really? Why?"

"I told you, cause he don't like 'em. He'll give us a day to run him off but if that don't work, he'll shoot it."

I knew, of course, that Mr. Glenn was an avid hunter and very good with a gun. He had a collection of rifles and shotguns that were neither hidden nor locked away, but which resided in the hall closet in a rack where we often stood an admired the firepower we were hopeful of someday being able to make use of. But in my gun lust of those days, I hadn't really stopped to think about what the real function of those guns was.

After all, our hunting consisted of shooting our woefully underpowered bb guns at birds who invariably flew away after a bb passed near enough to make a sound but do no harm. Even bbs which hit their target had not force enough to penetrate the feathers of even the sickliest of white winged doves (our favorite target becasue they were big and slow, as opposed to the sparrows, which were too tiny to get in our sights and too fast to hit anyway. Often they would fly away at the sound of the gun going off and the bb would only approach it's target several milliseconds afte they'd taken wing.

As Paul revealed to me what his father would do if he encountered a stray dog on his property, it began to dawn on me that guns could be used to ends I had not anticipated nor would have allowed had I had the choice. Of course he could shoot a dog, but would he? Why? The answer Paul gave me was not satisfactory, but it didn't seem to matter as long as the dog was nowhere to be seen. Nothing to fear, no worries.

Then we saw the dog. Even from across the tank I could tell that it was a Collie. I should say here that I am not a dog 'person' if you will, and my ability to recognize a breed had more to do with the fact that I'd seen 'Lassie' and this was the one breed, other than a German Shepard, that I could easily recognize. Had it been a German Shepard instead of a Collie, things might have been different, for the affable Collie bounded over to greet us as soon as it spied us. It was a beautiful dog as I recall, even if that recollection may be enhanced by the inevitable end that he faced, I felt something special about him.

How he got there, and to whom he had belonged before he arrived on the Glenn's property I will never know. How he followed us around that day, in spite of our best efforts to scare him off, sticks with me more. He was obviously someone's pet, not feral or even starving, he had somehow gotten out of his territory and, in the middle of a grand adventure, gotten lost.

Certainly he wasn't trying to ask us for directions home, but then he wasn't afraid to seek out our companionship. Possibly he had more practical needs.

"You think he's hungry? I asked.

"Prob'ly."

"We should get him somthin' to eat."

"Nah. We should run him off."

"We can feed him then we can get him to run off," I said.

"We can't just let him starve."

"He aint starvin."

"Yeah, but he's hungry, and if we don't feed him he will be starving. We can't just let him go off hungry. Let's feed him, then we can run him off. After all, we got all day."

"We'll I s'pose we could give a meal for the road."

The Glenn's kept a 50 pound sack of dog food for their own three dogs in the garage. I ran back to the house and scooped up a coffee can full of food. Sure enough, the Collie was plenty happy to get that food, but in hindsight, this was the completely wrong thing to do. Try telling that to a couple of eight-year-olds who still know that they can change the world. Sometimes, an act of kindness, it seems, can set in motion the worst possible consequences. The most difficult part of life, for me has been, from that day till this, figuring out when it is appropriate to be kind and when it is necessary to be hard.

The remainder of the events that day are missing from my memory. I know that the Collie followed us all day, and in spite of our best efforts to make him leave, I think he sensed our kindness and assumed that no harm would come to him in our association. Sadly, the opposite was true, and I find myself wondering today if I might not have made this very mistake more than once.

No comments: