by Chris Dean
The grave was lost after three years. Pa hadn’t liked the dog, any dog for that matter, and to think of his son Charlie crying real tears like that disgusted him. Over a dog’s grave. Millie Prichard, with angry eyes flashing like russet sabers, planted herself on the back porch. With the evening wind whipping her apron into a frenzy she hollered, “Pa, you get in here and watch your television. Or put on a coat!” She didn’t care about the cooling weather, it wasn’t bad yet, but saying that was telling her husband to leave the boy alone, twice.
“I’m out here,” Pa rejoined in a stubborn voice, “In my yard.”
Humiliated by the attention, Charlie scraped his wet cheeks with his fists. He kicked at the mud and glared at that stupid fence. Winters had plucked and shoved at the spindly posts. A curl of rusted wire bounced in the wind and the wood posts jutted up from the ground like ugly black teeth. The last blizzard had stolen the cross and there was no telling where in the yard the dog’s grave had been. And now Pa stood there scowling because Charlie’s unmanly tears blighted his face. A terrible moment for the ten-year-old boy.
“I told you get in the house!” Millie screamed. She retreated back into the kitchen with the screen door slamming.
“Boy.” Pa’s voice scoured Charlie’s insides like curdled milk. “I’m not raising a pussy.”
Sullen, Charlie said, “I’m sorry.”
Pa softened. “You got that Pyewacket to play with.”
His back stiffening, Charlie hid his head and glowered. He hated that cat. And he hated his father not knowing how he felt. His dog Rusty was dead. Charlie had no urge to play with pets anymore. He only wanted to pray sometimes like he had, next to Rusty’s grave. The old man was a fool not to understand that.
“Come on,” Pa said. “We’ll go watch them goofballs on America’s Funniest Videos.”
“I want to find it.” Wiping his eyes dry, Charlie added, “The cross. Rusty’s cross.” He looked up at his father, face puckered.
“You aren’t going to start crying?” Pa winced at the thought.
“No. I want to put it back.”
“That thing is probably in Cobb County. The wind blew it away. The grave is gone just like that cross. Where you going to put it, boy? If you can’t even find the grave.”
“I don’t know.”
“Now, you listen good,” Pa said. “I’m not raising a crybaby. That dog’s gone and so’s his grave, just like that cross. I want you to forget all about it, Charlie. You hear me?”
“I got no problem teaching you the hard way. You hear me?”
Charlie wished his mother could hear all this. Then Pa would get his own licking. But she wasn’t there, so he said, “Yes sir.”
Pa’s big body shifted with a sigh. “I’m just trying to raise you right. To be a man.”
“You come on now.” The dirt thumping beneath his big shoes, Pa led the way back to the house.
Charlie dragged behind.
* * *
Years of excellent shortstopping, virginity lost, and Nietzsche-Locke for the boy. The old man gets surlier, and when Millie passes easily in her sleep from that heart murmur, he gets rotten-fruit bitter. He has nightmares highlighting her vacant, lifeless eyes.
Charles now, the boy is a man and he marries a woman who is obviously half-black. Pa hates her. One day during a visit he gripes, with curled lips, “You married her why? She can’t cook, can she? And she lets that boy of yours run wild.” He doesn’t mention her lack of whiteness, knowing his son would leave.
They are out on the back porch with beers. Pa’s drunk and Charles isn’t drinking. “You don’t talk about Timone, all right, Pa?” Charles says.
“I’ll say any damn thing I want!”
Silence. The chilling autumn wind slashes at their arms and faces. Charles looks at the spot where Rusty’s grave might be and sighs. Pa slugs his PBR down, belches, and reaches for another from the battered cooler.
“I wish you wouldn’t drink so much, Pa.”
The old man cusses Charles out and belly laughs. “And I wish you would drink more!”
“I worry about your health.”
“Me? I’m as strong as an ox. I don’t work in some office and sit on my butt all day, like you.” Pa slams his foot down. “That’s the difference between us. I have me a man’s job. Why you ever went to that college I don’t know.”
“I like what I do.” A city planner in a growing community up north, Charles is proud to be a part of something he believes in. He’s happy there.
“Pussy job. You want to arm wrestle? I’ll show you who’s a man.”
“No thanks.” Charles is amused. “We both know I’d lose.”
“You got that right.”
Charles studies the eyes twinkling above his father’s puffy cheeks. He shakes his head and chuckles.
Stretching up over the old caned chair, Pa murmurs a groan. “Getting old. Maybe you’d beat me. Who knows?”
Charles won’t take the bait. “Maybe next time I’m here.”
“Hell, I might be dead!” Pa guffaws.
“Don’t say that.”
“Hey, Charlie.” Pa squints, weasel-like. “How come you never bring that boy down? We were going to take him fishing, remember?”
“Ah. He’s got school.” Timone won’t allow her son be around a man who once called her a racist name, grandfather or not. But Charles can’t say that. No point in starting a fight.
An unhappy grunt hangs between them.
“Well, I should be going.”
Charles offers a tiny smile of apology. “Work in the morning. Long drive.”
“Go ahead then.”
“Love you, Pa.” Charles rises and moves closer to his father.
Pa waves him away, declaring, “Yeah, and I love you too. But not like that.” He isn’t a fan of hugs and such.
“I’ll try and come down around Christmas.”
Charles walks slowly around the weathered house. The drive to the highway sends memories spinning through his brain. How many times had he biked it? The fishing hole, Mom’s steaming gravy, that blizzard he almost lost a toe, kissing Ali for the first time, the memories come rushing back. His mother’s beautiful face.
The tires grind and groan as he pulls onto the asphalt streak that will lead him home. It’s like crossing into another world. Then on the bridge he tenses as that familiar regret engulfs him. He has left his father behind.
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Traveling throughout the American west, Chris Dean has worked as a truck driver and a concert promoter. Currently Chris resides in the Des Moines area.