By: Dennis Vannatta
Leon and Georgia Price had been married long enough that their grandchildren were no longer cute and cuddly and frankly not much fun to be around, so now each had a pet. “Our kids,” Georgia called them, which made Leon wince. He was sensitive about the pet thing because farmers were supposed to buy and sell animals, not get all sappy about them. A farmer might have a dog or a cat, but it had to be useful, a cat to kill mice and such and a dog to run off other dogs and foxes. It wasn’t quite so embarrassing for a farmer’s wife to have a pet because women do get soft-hearted about animals. Still, Leon was even more aggravated by Georgia’s pet than he was embarrassed by his own, which didn’t sit well with Georgia. Things got testy between them, then worse.
Georgia’s dog, Inky, was a cute little thing, all black except for a white front paw, big floppy ears, mostly cocker with a little of this and that thrown in, gentle disposition. Way too gentle, in Leon’s opinion. Wouldn’t roam around the farm looking for other dogs to run off, wouldn’t know what to do with a fox if he caught one messing around the hen house. Inky wasn’t healthy enough to be ferocious. Georgia had found him outside the door one day half alive. Probably he’d been abandoned on the farm by somebody from town. That happened a lot, and usually Leon would get rid of them—“Move them on down the road,” he called it, but Georgia was pretty sure he didn’t just give them directions to the next farm. This little fellow with the big sad eyes, though, Georgia already had in the house lapping milk out of a bowl before Leon had a chance to move him on down the road. “Say hi to Inky,” Georgia said. “Hell now,” Leon said.
Inky was sickly from the beginning and never got much better despite all of Georgia’s kind attention. He rarely left the house except to do his business. “Just another goddamn mouth to feed,” Leon said.
“Watch your language,” Georgia said. The Prices were Church of Christ and didn’t hold with profanity, which Leon tried his best to avoid but often failed. Then she added, “Besides, who on earth are you to talk, you and that dang, that dadgum, that doggone worthless Max.”
And Leon’s blood boiled.
Max had come into Leon’s life the night of that awful ice storm in the ‘90s. The cow was having a tough delivery, but Bill Bohm, the vet, couldn’t get out of his driveway, much less to Leon’s farm. Leon had to handle the birthing himself. It’d been a battle for all three of them, Leon, the cow, and Max, and when it was over, only two of them were alive. Leon fed Max with a baby bottle. Georgia offered to help out, but she’d stayed all warm and comfy in the house while Leon had been down on that frigid concrete floor trying to wrestle Max out of his mama’s belly, so he said no thanks, Max was his. He fed him on up—only the best hay and grain for Max—until Max was big enough to be put on the truck with the other steers for the one-way ride to the auction barn. But Max never took that ride. “I fed him from a baby with this right hand,” Leon said, holding his hand up and gazing at it as if it were something that had been touched by God. “I’m not going to send my Max to be put under the knife. I am not.”
Even after all these years he’ll still get kidded about having a steer for a pet, and it still rankles. He gave up trying to take it in good humor because it’s hard to feign good humor when you’re grinding your teeth. And once when Olin Summers played the fool with him at a school board meeting—“Leon, ain’t you taught that steer to roll over and play dead yet?”—Leon took recourse to religion, saying the Bible taught us to love all God’s creatures, to which Olin replied, “Sure, I love that steer of yours, too. I’d love it even more cooked medium rare and slathered in barbecue sauce.” Since then, when he’s kidded, Leon just keeps his mouth shut until it passes. Except with Georgia. If a man can’t let off a little steam with his wife, what’s marriage for?
Just yesterday afternoon, after he’d endured another round of kidding by Junior Wells at the farm co-op, Leon complained to Georgia, “They just don’t understand, Georgia. Max isn’t a pet. They need another word for what Max is. When you’ve saved a living thing from death, fed it with your own hand . . . .” He didn’t finish the sentence but held that right hand up and gazed at it wonderingly.
Georgia turned from the kitchen counter where she’d been trying to cut her way through a rutabaga with a butcher knife.
“Isn’t that just what I’ve done with my Inky? Isn’t that the very same thing? I brought Inky back from the dead, and now he’s mine for all time.”
“The difference is I still get out of the goddamn house!” Leon declared, only the fourth or fifth time he’d resorted to cursing that week.
Georgia, too furious for speech, waved the butcher knife at him, rutabaga attached.
“I got the worst of both worlds,” Georgia liked to say, “plump from my mama and arthritis from my daddy.”
She’d always been sensitive about her weight although when they were younger it didn’t seem to bother Leon any. “I like my women to shake, not rattle,” he’d say with a wink. But then she hit middle age, and the arthritis set in, fingers and wrists first, then knees. She didn’t get around very well, and it didn’t take her long to go from plump to fat. She’d still try to help out on the farm if Leon needed an extra pair of hands, which he did now and then. They weren’t a big enough operation for Leon to hire a farmhand, and Gerald, their son, lived in Ft. Smith and didn’t get home often and when he did didn’t seem much inclined to get his hands dirty. So Georgia was that extra set of hands—until Inky came along, that is.
Leon never understood why having a dog, even a sickly pet dog like Inky, meant the woman had to abandon her duties as a farm wife. It wasn’t like the mutt was helpless or anything. He could walk. He could go outside and lift a leg on his own. She’d never had to feed him from a baby bottle, that was for sure. Every time Leon came into the house, though, she’d be sitting there with that blasted dog on her lap, petting it, cooing to it like it was a little baby. Giving it kisses. It was disgusting.
Leon tried to warn her: “That dog is contributing to your arthritis. It’s a vicious cycle. The more you sit just fooling with that damn dog, the more stove up you get. The more stove up you get, the less you feel like doing anything other than sitting. You need to be up doing something, Georgia.”
“Doing what? Slopping hogs or shifting hay bales—that’s all you care about me doing. There’s not anything else you want me for.”
And he’d felt his face go red as he stammered, “We’re too old for that other stuff, Georgia,” because he knew what she was really complaining about.
When he first started “having trouble in the bedroom,” he told her it was just one of those things that happened to men at his age. “If you had a prostrate like a man does, you’d know what I’m talking about. It affects you in ways that’s not fit to talk about in public. Thank your lucky stars you don’t have a prostrate.”
She told him he should go to Doc Hensley about it because they had a pill for that now. He just walked off like he hadn’t heard her.
Doc Hensley. Leon had gone to school with Russell Hensley. He’d been a smug, smirky little banty rooster even in those days, and he didn’t start thinking any less of himself once he became a doctor. It’d be a cold day in Hades before Leon talked to Russell Hensely about his prostrate problem.
That discussion had taken place a couple of months ago, and since then Leon had steered clear of the farm wife not working on the farm issue—until their set-to yesterday afternoon. Between then and the vet’s visit this afternoon, they hadn’t said a word to each other.
Bill Bohm, the vet, had come out to check on Betty Lou’s teat. Little Red had stepped on it when Betty Lou was lying down in the barn—that’d happen—and it didn’t seem to want to heal. All Bill did was rub salve on it and hand the tube to Leon and tell him to keep on doing it until the teat was better. Leon didn’t need a visit from the vet for that.
“Well, while I’m paying you an arm and a leg for nothing, you might as well give Max a once-over.”
Bill did. He shook his head.
“Ol’ Max isn’t going to be with us much longer. How old is he?”
“Twenty-something. Hardly more than a teenager.”
“Twenty-something. Well, that’s about long enough, don’t you think? Might as well let me put him down for you. I do it now and you won’t have to pay me your other arm and leg for another visit in a couple of days.”
Leon nodded. “Well, that’s an idea. Say, Bill, how old are you these days, anyway?”
“Sixty-three. Well, that’s about long enough, don’t you think? I got my rifle back at the house . . .”
Bill held his hands up. “OK, OK, but like the man says, pay me now or pay me later.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that one. What I can’t figure out is what kind of jackass would choose now.”
Leon played the tough guy with Bill, but the diagnosis hit him hard. He’d known that Max was in a bad way, of course, but to hear it from the vet shook him. Any day now Max would be gone. Twice already he’d found the old bag of bones down in the lot and had the hardest time getting him back on his feet. Soon, Max would be down for the count, and Leon would be calling his neighbor, Dory Grinstead, to come over with his backhoe because Leon didn’t have anything on the farm that would dig a deep enough trench to put Max in. They’d dig it in that worthless strip of land on the other side of the cow pond, all clay and rocks. Even with Dory’s backhoe, it’d take half a day. Once they had the trench dug and Max laid to rest and the earth mounded back over him, Leon would ride the little John Deere back and forth over the earth, tamping it down so the next big rain wouldn’t wash the loose soil into the cow pond.
Thinking about it, riding the little Deere up and down , back and forth over the mound—over Max, his bottle-fed steer—Leon began to cry. He thought he’d gotten himself under control and the evidence of his crying rubbed away by the time he got back to the house, but as soon as he walked through the door, Georgia took one look at him and knew.
“I’m sorry about Max, I truly am,” she said.
“Sorry about what? Max on his last legs, you mean? Better him than me.”
“You don’t have to act hard, Leon. There’s nothing wrong with feeling affection for a living thing, hurting when you know you’re about to lose something you love.”
“Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah,” Leon said. Georgia turned away.
They were back not talking to each other. After supper Leon broke the silence long enough to say he needed to check the water line to the hog pens and went out.
It was almost spring, but a front had moved in and it felt more like February, damp and cold. Leon was trembling by the time he got to the barn. Max in his stall stood trembling, too. Leon leaned against the gate of the stall watching him a moment, and then he went over to the cabinet where he kept the udder cream and such and took the pack of Marlboros and the matches from the top shelf. He lit up and then went back to the stall and looked at Max and smoked.
There wasn’t anything in the Bible about smoking—Leon had read the whole thing on a five-dollar bet when he was a youngster—but the Church of Christ frowned on it, so he smoked only once in a while and then only in private. Tonight he felt like he really needed that cigarette. In fact, he smoked three in a row, taking his time, taking a short, shallow puff every minute or so like a kid with his first cigarette, afraid to inhale. Every now and then he’d say something low and soft to Max, like a father comforting a troubled child, but it didn’t do either of them any good.
After he finished his third cigarette, he said to Max, “I wish I’d brought you an apple or something, but I didn’t think of it until right now. I’m sorry.” A tremor ran through Max, who closed his eyes and turned his head away as if the whole thing disgusted him. Leon collected the cigarette butts and went back to the house.
He hadn’t looked at the clock when he left after supper and didn’t now, but he knew he must have been gone quite awhile. Georgia was standing by the kitchen table, obviously upset, and at first he thought that was the reason—he’d been gone too long and she’d been worried about him. But it wasn’t Leon she was worried about, it was that damn dog.
“Where’s Inky?” she demanded.
“Inky? How the hell should I know? He’s your dog, ain’t he?”
“Where is he?”
Her eyes were snapping open and shut, and the tendons in her neck stood out taut as if she were straining against something. She seemed at once terrified and enraged. Leon thought of a mama bird that’d discovered the eggs missing from her nest.
“What are you going on about? What am I . . .?” He’d been about to say, What am I, my dog’s keeper? because he thought it’d be funny but decided it wouldn’t, and my brother’s keeper didn’t make much sense, either, so he let his voice trail off.
“He went outside right after supper to do his business, like he always does. I was waiting for him by the door like always, but then Deb Greer called asking for my peanut butter brownie recipe, and by the time I got off the phone, Inky was gone.”
“Gone where? That dog can’t walk ten feet without falling over.”
“That’s what I’m saying! He couldn’t have gone off by himself!”
“OK OK, don’t have a hissy fit. I’ll go take a look. Just what I wanted to do on a cold damn night.”
He got the big six-battery flashlight and went back out.
He shined the flashlight into the crawlspace under the porch and under his pickup and Georgia’s Taurus. No luck. He couldn’t think where else the dog could be. He couldn’t have gotten far, that was for sure. He’d gone out into the night, gotten confused and couldn’t find his way back to the kitchen door, curled up some place. Probably died. Leon flashed the light here and there for another minute or two without paying much attention what it lit on, then he walked down to the barn and smoked another cigarette and stared at Max. He couldn’t tell if Max even knew he was there.
He went back to the house. Georgia was standing right where he’d left her. It looked like she hadn’t moved a muscle.
“I looked every place I could think to look. I couldn’t find him. He’ll turn up tomorrow, probably.”
“He’ll be dead tomorrow.”
“Oh, maybe not.”
She gave him a look that made him lower his eyes.
“Where is he?” she said. “Where’s Inky?”
He frowned and raised his palms helplessly. “Are we speaking the same language? I just told you. I looked and looked and—”
“You didn’t go out and check any water line to the hog pens. That’s not what you were doing out there.”
“What the hell are you—”
“You went out and then Inky went out and now Ink’s gone, dead somewhere, and I’ll never see him again.”
He took a step back and then leaned even farther back and squinted at her as if he couldn’t get her in focus.
“What are you saying? What do you think I did? Have you gone completely out of your gourd?”
“I know what I know,” she said.
Georgia walked out of the kitchen headed in the direction of their bedroom. Leon went into the living room, sat down, and took up the newspaper. He had trouble turning the pages, though, and it took him a moment to realize it was because he still had the flashlight in his hand.
He hadn’t made it halfway through the paper when he heard the gun shot, sounding at once distant and alarmingly near. It wasn’t unusual for hunters to trespass in deer season or boys shooting rabbits just about any time, but not at night.
Suddenly, he threw the newspaper down, lurched up out of the rocker, and rushed down the hall to the bedroom. The Browning .22, which he kept leaning up in the corner by his nightstand in readiness for a fox or wild dogs trying to get at the chickens, was gone. Sure. There was no hurry now. He knew.
He walked back down the hall into the kitchen and waited for Georgia. It didn’t take long. The barn wasn’t that far.
He stood by the table and peered at the window in the kitchen door, but the light glared so off the glass that he didn’t see her until the door opened, and there she was, holding the rifle across her chest like a soldier at port arms.
They looked at each other. Then Georgia said, a catch in her voice, “You used to be my husband once. Then my legs got fat and you didn’t want me anymore.”
She said it like a little girl whose heart was broken by disappointment.
Leon looked at her, shaking his head as if he wasn’t sure who she was. But then he remembered. He went over and pulled her to him even though the Browning was hard and cold between them, held her close and whispered words whose meaning he himself only half understood, for they were from long, long ago, a language they spoke when they were kids riding the school bus together from their daddies’ farms.
Dennis Vannatta is a Pushcart and Porter Prize winner, with stories published in many magazines and anthologies, including River Styx, Chariton Review, Boulevard, and Antioch Review. His sixth collection of stories, The Only World You Get¸ was recently published by Et Alia Press.