Good Boy, Blue



How many of us can say exactly when we grew up? I can—it was on that trip to the old cabin, the summer I turned twelve. When I met a dog named Blue.


I was rapidly becoming an ordinary overweight, low-ambition red-neck. I hung out that summer at the coffee shop where Mom worked, doing chores for pocket money or (preferably) a free piece of pie. Mom couldn’t afford an apartment with air conditioning, and even “working” at the coffee shop was better than the steam bath at home. 


Uncle Ray dropped in on us occasionally, usually around supper time. Mom and Ray looked enough alike that you knew they were related: skinny, thin brown hair, brown eyes and crooked teeth. He was always giving Mom advice on raising me, like he was some kind of expert. I wished he would give Mom something useful, like money to help with the bills. But Uncle Ray didn’t stick with a job much longer than it took to earn a twelve-pack.


He talked Mom into letting me go dove hunting with him, said the exercise would be good for me. Besides, their Uncle Fred was lonely since Aunt Gladys died, and wanted to see more of the family. It was hard to believe Uncle Ray would go to that much trouble for old Uncle Fred, but Mom thought that was sweet and immediately said okay.


We drove to the cabin Saturday in Uncle Ray’s old Ford pick-up. I thought we were lost after the third dirt road. Out of the scrubby mesquite a scraggly wire fence appeared, then a wooden shack with a tarpaper roof. When we pulled up there, I laughed out loud.

Uncle Ray shut off the engine. “Listen, Little Ray.” He smelled like B.O. and Bud. “Right over that hill they’re building some fancy new houses. When they come looking for more land, this place is gonna be worth a bundle.”


He grabbed my thigh, his iron fingers squeezing the muscle. It made my eyes water, but I knew better than to blink.


Uncle Ray’s eyes narrowed. “I’m planning for Uncle Fred to leave me this place in his will. I don’t need some fat punk, who I’m doing my sister a favor by taking him hunting, making fun of Uncle Fred’s cabin. Get it?” He squeezed harder.


My head jerked. “Got it.” I also got his sudden concern for Uncle Fred.


#


The .22 rifle made tiny circles as I tried to sight on the empty beer can Uncle Ray had set up on a fence post beside the cabin. Sweat trickled into my eye and I lowered the gun to wipe it away.


Uncle Ray snorted. “Seriously? The birds’ll die of old age before Little Ray can shoot ’em!”

 

Uncle Fred giggled, “Hee hee hee!” He was an older version of Ray with a couple of teeth missing. His hunting dogs were up on the porch with them. Miss Patty, the pointer, sat by Uncle Fred’s chair. Her pup Blue, not quite a year old, snoozed beside her. 


“That Blue, he’s a natural,” Uncle Fred said. “He’s got such a soft mouth, he don’t even bruise ’em. ’Course, if Little Ray never hits one, we won’t get a chance to see Blue work. Try it again, son.”


I stifled a sigh. It was so hot even my eyelids were sweating. I held the gun as steady as I could, closed my eyes and squeezed the trigger.


Uncle Ray swore. “Miss. Didja close your eyes like I told you not to?”


That night we drove into town for a gourmet Dairy Queen supper. The air conditioning inside brought me back to life. I bought the largest cup of soda they made to take back with me.


When we got back to the cabin we sat out on the porch, where it was marginally cooler. The air smelled grassy and faintly sweet, like lettuce left too long in the fridge. My uncles told stories about hunting. It was boring as hell.


Blue investigated the area inside the fence, tracking beetles and snapping at lightning bugs. Finally he ambled up onto the porch, looked at Uncle Fred and Uncle Ray, then flopped down by me. I petted his long, silky ears for a while before I shoved him off. It was too hot to sit with a dog.


“I’m turning in,” Uncle Fred said.


The cabin was one big, hot room, with a pair of twin beds and a pretend kitchen, just a camp stove and a sink with an old-fashioned pump. The outhouse out back stunk so bad I peed behind it instead.


Naturally my uncles got the beds. I unrolled the sleeping bag Uncle Ray brought for me, stripped down to my undershorts and lay down on it. It smelled like mildew and dirty socks. If I slept at all, it would be a miracle.


#


At first I didn’t realize I was dreaming. I was inspecting a June bug the size of a walnut. It smelled sharp and sour like old cheese. Then I trotted along a path through bushes that towered over my head, peering between the trunks. Everything looked blurry, like I needed glasses. 


Suddenly I glimpsed motion off to my right. I tore through the bushes, yelling, “Hey! Hey, hey!” An animal ran halfway up a tree and stopped. It was covered with brown fur and had a bushy tail so big I couldn’t see its head. The creature smelled warm and tasty. I jumped, trying to grab it with my teeth, yelling “Hey! Hey!”


I hit the trunk of the tree and tumbled backward. When I picked myself up, the creature was gone. Behind me I heard someone yelling. Uncle Fred, I thought.


I worked my way back through the bushes, tracing the smell of Uncle Fred. He towered over me, grinning, and reached down to pat me on the head. I hate when people do that. I twisted away so hard I woke myself up.


I sat up, rubbing my eyes. My uncles snored in chorus. Blue was curled up on the sleeping bag beside me. He stared at me and thumped his tail. I curled on my side, away from him.


#


This time I knew I was dreaming, but I couldn’t wake myself up. I followed Uncle Fred through the brush. He stopped in a clearing. I knew what Uncle Fred was looking for: those little things that fall on the ground after the bang, smelling of blood. I wanted to find one for him.


On the high side of the clearing, rocks were stacked up like the steps onto the porch. I climbed up and heard the noises the little things make. They must be this way. “Hey! Hey!” Uncle Fred whacked my butt. 


We climbed the rocks and I followed my mama-dog Patty through the bushes. I heard the little things clearly, now. “Oh, oh, oh!” I said softly, to avoid getting whacked again.


Uncle Ray said, “Shut up!” I tried, but the little things were so close I was getting excited. “Oh, oh oh!”


Wham! “Wake up, I said!”


I blinked at the beam of the flashlight. My hip stung where Uncle Ray had kicked me. “God’s sake, Little Ray. You can’t sleep all day if we’re going to find any dove. Get the hell up and dressed.”


My neck hurt from sleeping on it funny. My jeans were wadded up on the floor, and one of the dogs had used them as a bed. Mom had made me wear my old ones. They were so tight, I almost fell over pulling them on.


“Oh, man, look at that butt.” Uncle Ray snorted as he pulled a Bud from the ice chest. I stared. He had promised Mom he wouldn’t drink while we were hunting. He looked at me and deliberately popped the top. “Hurry it up, Little Ray.”


#


We followed the dogs in the half-light, my hands sweaty on the borrowed .22. I stepped on a rock and turned my ankle. “Ow!” The sun wasn’t up yet but I was already sweating.


Uncle Ray hissed, “Shut up, Little Ray! You want to scare all the birds away?” 


After that I was so busy watching out for rocks that I almost ran into Uncle Fred, standing with his arm out to hold us back. In the dark I could barely see the trees. How could I shoot a bird if I couldn’t even see it?


The grassy smell was stronger here by the creek. There wasn’t any breeze at all, and skeeters whined around my face. Uncle Ray whispered, “Come up real quiet. Patty found birds.”


We slunk up to the dirt road. I heard a low cooing sound. I stared at the trees, but all I could see was leaves.


Uncle Ray grabbed my arm and leaned in close to whisper. The beer on his breath almost knocked me over. “Look up, up at the top. See the birds?”


I saw the branches spidering against the sky, but I couldn’t tell the difference between the leaves and blobs that might be birds. I aimed at something that looked more like a bird. 


Uncle Ray whispered, “Sometime today, Little Ray.”


I squeezed the trigger. I tried to keep my eyes open, but knowing the recoil that was coming, I just couldn’t.


Birds blew up out of the trees. Uncle Fred pot-shotted at them as they went. “You shot off the top of the tree!” Uncle Ray yelled.


Miss Patty and Blue took off for the trees, noses down. “Might as well call ’em back, Uncle Fred,” Ray said, shaking his head. I could barely hear him, my ears were still ringing from the shot. “He didn’t hit nothing but wood.”


In a minute the dogs slunk back, tails between their legs, embarrassed at not finding anything. “That’s okay,” Ray said, reaching down to scratch Miss Patty’s head. “There wasn’t nothing out there to find, anyway.”


“If we go that way,” Uncle Fred said, pointing off to the right, “we should come out by the telephone poles. Birds on them are easier to see.”


Uncle Ray heaved a sigh and started off down the road. He explained with exaggerated care how, once it was light enough, the birds would see us coming and we wouldn’t get a shot. I thought they would smell the beer before they ever saw us.


We turned off the road onto a narrow path. Sweat poured off me. I hoped it would get light soon, so we could quit all this and go home. My uncles stopped and whispered, and I heard the one word that could make me feel worse than I already did: “Lost.”


Blue wandered around the little clearing. Suddenly he stopped, tail quivering, in front of three square rocks stacked back like a flight of stairs. My empty stomach knotted. I had seen those rocks before.


Blue scrambled up and lifted his nose. I knew what would come next: he would bark, and Uncle Fred would hit him, and we would be off. I put my hand on Blue’s bony butt to keep him quiet. Over my shoulder I whispered, “Blue’s got something.”


We hustled after the dogs along an overgrown trail, with branches scraping my arms and whipping into my face. When we got to the telephone poles I was so out of breath I couldn’t hold the rifle steady.


Honestly, Little Ray. If you weren’t so fat you might be able to walk for ten minutes.” Uncle Ray hauled me behind a clump of bushes. 


I could just see the birds on the telephone pole. I wasn’t sure I really wanted to kill one, but Uncle Ray would never let me hear the end of it if I didn’t at least try. I aimed carefully, leaning the rifle on a branch to steady it, and fired.


Uncle Ray leaped to his feet and hauled me up. “You stupid son of a bitch!” he yelled.


He dragged me to the dirt road on the far side of the telephone poles. We ran downhill, the dogs barking like crazy. I realized where we were: the road to Uncle Fred’s cabin.


We scrambled inside. Uncle Fred threw himself down on the bed, his breath whistling in his throat. “Hee hee hee!”


“What?” I gasped, trying to catch my breath.


Uncle Ray popped another tab. “I’ll tell you what. You didn’t shoot dove, you shot through the telephone line.”


Uncle Fred grinned. “Them rich bastards over the hill are gonna have a hard time calling out for pizza! That’s better’n dove any day!”


As soon as they caught their breath my uncles started taking apart something on Uncle Fred’s truck to make it look like we had been there all morning. I stayed inside where it was cooler, rolled up the sleeping bag and gathered my stuff. Blue wandered around the cabin, sniffing here and there, watching me out of the corner of his eyes.


When I sat down and leaned against the sleeping bag he ambled over, smiling a doggy smile with his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth. Blue had made me dream those dreams, there was no question in my mind about that. But how?


I scratched his ears. “Good boy, Blue. How did you do that, huh? Can you see what’s going to happen?”  Blue stretched his neck to lick the end of my nose.


I yawned so hard my jaw hurt. My uncles were still fiddling with the truck. I was bored out of my mind, and sleepy as hell after the short night of weird dreams. At last I settled down on the floor with my head propped on the sleeping bag. 


#


By this time I knew that the blurry vision and strong odors meant that Blue was dreaming for me. Uncle Fred’s cabin was lit by a couple of flickering lanterns. I lay in the corner and watched three men sitting on the floor, drinking beer and holding little pieces of paper.


Uncle Fred had more teeth missing. He took a piece of paper from Uncle Ray, looked at it and said, “I’ll raise.” He pulled a shiny circle out of his pocket and put it down in front of him. 


Uncle Ray scratched his head, then gave himself a piece of paper. He, too, pulled a circle from his pocket.


A fat man sat with his back to me. When Uncle Ray gave him a paper I heard him say, “What? You’re killing me!”


I stood up and stretched, first my front end and then my back, thinking the fat man might want to scratch my ears. I worked my way slowly around by Uncle Fred, careful to stay out of Ray’s reach.


The fat man looked at his handful of papers and said, “I’m folding. I got laid off again, I can’t lose any more.” He put the papers down and scratched under his arm. “I’m going to try down at the warehouse. Driving a forklift is sit-down work, at least.”


Uncle Ray grinned. “See if you can lift one of those little TVs again. The pawn shop gave you enough for the last one to keep us in beer for a couple of weeks.”


The fat man laughed and reached for his beer can, but accidentally tumped it over into Uncle Ray’s lap.


Uncle Ray yelped and dropped his papers. “Man! That was a good hand, too!” He scrambled back. 


Uncle Fred laughed. “What a shame! Hee hee hee!”


Uncle Ray frowned at the fat man. I took off for my corner. “You did that on purpose, Little Ray!”


Wham! I jerked awake and shoved Blue off of me as I blinked up at Uncle Ray.


“Can’t you do nothing but sleep?” he said. “Come on, it’s time to go.”


#


All the way home I thought about that last dream. The fat man was me, there could be no mistake. He even had the scar over the eyebrow from when I fell out of the tree that time. Except in the dream I was smoking and drinking beer, and laughing about stealing a TV to pawn for beer money. I shivered in spite of the heat.


After that weekend I thought a lot about those dreams. How did Blue do it? I remembered how he picked me to sit by on the front porch, and stayed inside with me while my uncles worked on the truck. How he watched me.


I sort of wanted to go back there, to see if I could figure it out. But I didn’t want to see myself again, at least not like that. 


The dream made me look at people a little closer: Mom, working her butt off to keep me fed and clothed; Junior, the ancient short-order cook whose cigarette dripped ashes on the scrambled eggs so he had to cover them with pepper. And Uncle Ray, working just long enough to qualify for unemployment. Surely I could do better than that.


I started paying attention in school and got a job mowing lawns, working my way up to supervising a whole crew. After I graduated I worked construction and took classes at the community college. Mom let me live at home even after her boyfriend moved in, most likely because, unlike him, I paid rent. Ray came by occasionally, generally before the boyfriend got off work, looking skinnier and meaner than ever.


We didn’t see as much of him after Uncle Fred died. He had left the cabin to Uncle Ray just like he wanted. Why would a grown man want to live out in the woods, with no running water so you had to take a crap in an outhouse? The subdivision hadn’t expanded in that direction after all. Mom said Ray was planning to high-fence the place so he could lease it to rich hunters from the city.


One day Mom stopped me when I got home from work. She looked tired, and gray showed in her hair. “I want you to go out and check on Ray,” she said, her forehead wrinkled. “His friends haven’t seen him in a month. I think it’s just his turn to buy the beer, but still.”


I stared at her for a minute. I did not want to see Uncle Ray, but I gave in like I always did.


#


I didn’t remember exactly how to get there. The first road off the highway was paved now, with a fancy sign with the name of the subdivision, so I didn’t recognize it at first. 


Signs along the road advertised a Neighborhood Watch meeting. Just past the second turn a sheriff’s car was pulled off to the side. I hit the brakes. The deputy looked up from the bar ditch and beckoned me over. I pulled in behind him and rolled down my window.


He was an older guy with squinty blue eyes and an enormous gut hanging over his gun belt. “Afternoon. You got business around here?”


I nodded. “My uncle’s got a cabin down this way.” 


“Guy with the old Ford pick-up? I need to talk to him.” He looked in the bed of my truck. “Might have to see inside that tool box you got back there.”


Unreasonable search and seizure, my brain automatically said. “Why?”


“Lot of break-ins around here. Somebody’s been stealing TVs, laptops, easy to carry stuff like that.” He looked in the back again. “I guess that thing’s too small for any of that stuff. Tell your uncle I’ll be by to see him soon.” He stepped back and waved me on.


As I jolted down the last, still-unpaved road it occurred to me that Uncle Ray was way too lazy to ever haul in concrete and posts for a high fence. But where was the beer money coming from?


When I got to the cabin Uncle Ray was nowhere in sight. I picked my way carefully over the rotting boards of the cabin’s porch. The screen door screeched open to reveal a front door much more substantial than I remembered from the last time I was here, solid wood fit tightly into a new frame. I banged on the door. “Uncle Ray? It’s me, Little Ray.” Nothing.


I wiped a trickle of sweat and stepped off the porch to look around. Knee-high Johnson grass rippled in the evening breeze, and crickets sang as I walked the dirt path around to the back. I found his truck there, the same old clunker. The smell of gasoline and outhouse almost made me gag. I hustled back to the front porch to wait in the shade.


#


The sky darkened and the moon rose over the trees. I had planned to treat Uncle Ray at the DQ and then go home to report to Mom. I couldn’t sit here all night, but if I told her I hadn’t seen Uncle Ray she would just give me that sad look. A skeeter whined up around my ear and I slapped at it automatically.


“Woof!” At the corner of the cabin stood a dog, skinny and old, its face all gray. It dropped something from its mouth and barked again, louder.


“Blue? Is that you, Blue?”


He barked joyfully, ran to me and licked my hand. 


I could hardly believe that dog was still alive. Or rather, that Ray would spend money on dog food to keep him alive. “Where’s Ray, Blue? Where is he?”


Blue darted toward the path into the woods, the one I had followed him down so many years before, then turned to stare at me, panting. When I made no move to follow, he hustled over to the thing he had dropped, picked it up and brought it to me, placing it carefully at my feet.


I expected a dead bird, but instead it was an oblong of black plastic. I examined it in the light of the moon. It was a remote, I realized, like for a TV. Where had Blue gotten it? 


“Uncle Ray?” I shouted for him a couple of times. Nothing. Blue stood wagging his tail, panting from the heat.


“Well, Blue, I guess we’ll just have to wait a little longer.” I tried to relax, leaning against the wall of the shack. Blue crossed to the far corner of the porch, lapped noisily from a water bowl, and came over to flop down by me. I petted his silky ears for a while, just like before. He was hot, but somehow I didn’t mind so much this time. Maybe because I wasn’t fat any more. 


#


I didn’t plan to fall asleep and find out what Blue saw for me now. But I had worked construction twelve hours a day for four days in a row, and I was just whupped.


I walked slowly across the grass, my legs stiff in the early morning chill. I couldn’t see much but gray haze. I thought it was fog until I followed my nose to a whitish cylinder on the grass. My nose confirmed it was newspaper; I was almost blind, I guessed from cataracts.


I picked up the paper and tracked back to where I started, a concrete patio. A hand appeared in front of me and took away the paper.


“Good boy, Blue.” Another hand scratched my ear. I cocked my head to put the most sensitive spot right where the fingers were rubbing.


A door opened. “Ray?” It was a girl’s voice. “Breakfast!” I smelled yummy things, bacon, and toast with butter. The door banged.


“Come on, Blue,” the man said. Now I recognized the voice: mine.


When I got inside I followed the yummy smell to a warm, bright room at the back. I knew my bed was in the corner by the stove, but I wanted a snack first.


“Oh, poor Blue. His arthritis must be worse,” the girl said. “You should take him to the vet.”


I didn’t like the vet. He stretched my stiff joints, and poked me with sharp things, and made me eat pills. “Oh, oh oh oh.”


“It’s okay, Blue,” Ray said. “We won’t go today. Here.”


I followed my nose and got a nice hunk of bacon. I started over to my bed, planning to take my time with the bacon. Behind me I heard a funny noise, like the man was having trouble breathing. He was panting, and swearing under his breath. I stopped and turned, wanting to eat my bacon and check on the man at the same time. I listened hard, trying to decide what to do.


I jerked awake as Blue leaped up from my lap. He stumbled off the edge of the porch toward a figure down by the path. I shook my head, trying to forget the warm kitchen, still tasting bacon on my tongue.


The figure panted and swore. “Get off my porch, sumbitch!” He struggled with a big, rectangular black box, clutching it to his chest with one arm as he pulled something out from behind him. 


Blue growled deep in his throat. I tried to call Ray’s name, but all I produced was a hoarse croak. I cleared my throat.


Ray’s right hand came up. The moon was high enough to light the barrel of a handgun. “No!” I croaked. It’s just me, I wanted to say, but my tongue was still thick with sleep.


Blue growled again. Uncle Ray finally saw the dog. “Useless bastard!” 


I pushed away from the back wall to stand up.


“Stay right where you are,” he said, and now the gun was pointed at me. “Don’t move.”


Blue rushed at Uncle Ray, snarling, like he was planning to snatch the gun. Like Lassie or something, I thought irrationally.


In slow motion I saw Uncle Ray’s right hand come around to point the gun at Blue. “Nooo,” I started, but of course it was too late.


Blue barked, the gun shot twice. Blue fell into a heap at Uncle Ray’s feet, lying still and quiet like the remote he had dropped at mine. Uncle Ray stared down at him.


I drew a shaky breath. “It’s me, Uncle Ray. Mom was worried because nobody had heard from you. She sent me out to check.”


He looked at me, and the gun hand dropped to his side. “Little Ray. Holy cow, I coulda killed you.” He looked at the gun like it came from Mars, then stuck it in his pocket. 


Not very smart, I thought, but right then I didn’t care if Ray shot his nuts off. I stepped down from the porch and started over, staring at Blue all the while. Blood leaked slowly from a hole in his side, gleaming in the moonlight.


Uncle Ray held out what he was carrying. “Put this on the porch for me. I turned my goddamn ankle on the way back. Sumbitch dog took off and left me.”


It was a good-sized flat-screen TV, probably went with the remote. I stared from it to Uncle Ray. The deputy had said he would be coming to see him. If he found the TV and dusted it for prints, I didn’t want him to find mine. “Take it yourself,” I said.


Uncle Ray sneered. “Don’t be rude, boy.” But he limped around Blue and carried the TV on up to the porch.


I stared down at the dog. Blue had saved me, twice, and now he was dead.  


I got a shovel from the back of my truck and started digging a grave, on the far side of the cabin where the mesquite trees would shade it. Uncle Ray jeered at me for a while, standing on the porch and drinking beer. When I ignored him, he gave up and went inside.


I thought about the dream. Blue had been too blind to see much, but I had had a place with a yard, and a girl. The kind of girl who fixes you a hot breakfast on a chilly morning, and worries about your dog, and makes extra bacon for him. Was that my future now? Or the one Blue had wanted for himself? My eyes stung, but not from the sweat that rolled down my forehead.


I looked in the window once before putting Blue in the hole. Uncle Ray sat by a lantern, a magazine in his hand. He held it up and turned it, and I realized he was examining the centerfold. Behind him the sagging cabinet held the TV, along with other assorted electronics, no doubt stolen earlier. I shook my head. Should I tell him what the deputy had said about coming by? Or just let him get caught?


When I was finished, I packed the dirt down tight over Blue’s grave. “Good boy, Blue.” As I took the shovel back to the truck I looked in the window once more. Uncle Ray drained his beer can, threw it out the window, and popped open a new one.


I got in my truck without saying good-bye, and got the hell out of there.






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