After lighting charcoal in an old Webber grill, Woods poured himself the first finger of bourbon and sat in the shade on the porch. It was just a matter of time now. Time and patience.
A thick and bloody T-bone sat in the dented Coleman cooler. The table in the corner was set. He left nothing to chance. He’d be finishing his supper just as the sun set. The bottle too—it had to be empty then. And, since his thinking was apt to be muddled at that point, everything had to be ready, here at the end of the road.
He gazed south across the cornfield. The color had drained out of the stalks this past week, silently slipped away when no one was looking. A cool evening breeze rustled across the dry blades. If he looked east, he could see the old cemetery where, at sunset this time of year, the rows of standing grave stones glowed like fire.
To the west, just past the corn field, the gravel road dead-ended at the entrance to the town dump. It officially closed years ago, but on occasion Woods would still see a pickup hauling a mattress, or a van going to dispose of who knew what, pass by. Whatever. He minded his own business.
His grandma would have made a fuss all the way to city hall, but she was long gone. Her garden beds were a tangle of thorns and weeds now; the trees, planted the day of her wedding, a cathedral of shade. His army fatigues flapped on her wire clothesline. It was private here, just past the edge of town.
Woods poured himself two more fingers of bourbon. He rocked back on the wooden chair legs until his head and shoulders rested against the rotten siding. The paint had begun its departure while Woods was still a kid—his grandpa had just stopped caring for things somehow after grandma died. And then, while Woods was off to war, his grandpa hung up his cane and died, leaving the place empty.
The bourbon warmed Woods as it went down, but it couldn’t touch the part of him that never thawed.
He got up to check on the coals and remembered to use a pot holder to grab the bare handle of the kettle lid. Halfway to gray from black. Not yet. He lowered the lid into place. He had time. Patience, too.
He filled his glass to the brim this time and sat on the porch steps. Supper would be simple. A rare steak. A sliced tomato. He would have finished it off with a fine cigar, but he couldn’t stand them. Peaches. That would be the finishing touch. Nothing like tree-ripened peaches. He wasn’t going to slice them; just bite right in and let the sticky juice dribble down his wrists.
His ears tuned to the sound of a vehicle coming down the road. His eyes found the trail of dust and followed it. A silver pickup drove slowly past his place. Not one he recognized, but that didn’t mean much anymore. He heard it stop, and a door open. Just another son of a bitch trash-dumper.
Not that Woods minded in particular, just in general. Used to care, he reminded himself sharply. But then, he had to admit, there was bounty to be had in dumpster diving, and it was a bonus when it was delivered practically to your door step. Hence, the chair on the porch, the dented cooler, even the Webber without an ash catcher. But still....
The truck door shut and the crunch of gravel began again. Woods held up his glass in a sarcastic salute as the driver slunk by.
Shadows stretched farther along the ground now. With a sigh, Woods set his empty glass on the step. Time to spread the coals. He could feel the warmth in his hands when he set the rack over them. Fall evenings sure cool down fast, he thought. Would it maybe frost tonight? Don’t matter.
He stomped out a spark that glowed in the dry grass under the kettle. He went inside for his army jacket and tongs to flip the steak.
He pulled the jacket on as he stepped back outside. From the porch he surveyed the tarp spread on the ground below. Laid out at perfect compass points were a rope, a knife, a revolver and five bottles of pills, none of which ever took away the pain. There was plenty of room in the middle of the tarp to spin the empty bottle. Just so.
Time to get this party started. Woods grabbed the thick steak and walked it down the steps to the grill. He glanced at the cemetery, stones aglow now, before he slapped the meat down and listened to it sear. In the quiet that followed, his thoughts returned to his childhood visits to this place, this refuge from ....
Behind him, there was a rustle in the corn. Reflexively, he dropped to the ground and reached for his sidearm, the sidearm that lay out of reach on the tarp.
"Shit. I’m letting myself get spooked and it ain’t even Halloween yet." He got up and dusted himself off.
He steadied his hands, then refilled his glass. The bottle was almost empty. He sat on the steps once again, where he could be closer to the heat of the grill.
The shadows of the trees were longest now, just before the sun set. Soon their bottoms would be in a dark mist while sunlight yet struck the upper crowns, a spectacular sight in the orange leaves of autumn, a sight he’d treasured once.
Again, there was a rustle in the corn. Woods dove for his gun this time. He rolled and came up with it aimed at the dusky innocent cornfield. His hand was shaking.
"Son of a bitch. Get ahold of yourself, Woods." He lowered the gun once he’d convinced himself there was nothing out there but the wind, but he kept a firm grip on it, just the same. He found the tongs and, left-handed, turned the steak over. The juices sizzled and the aroma stirred a memory of appetite.
He had dropped his glass in his leap from the porch, and the burnished liquid had spilled on the ground. He reached for the bottle, took the last swig, and stood, as on guard against the approaching night.
A noise. He raised the gun toward the sound. A whimpering? He could see something in the dark space between the rows of corn now, crawling on the ground. A child? Brown. Dirty. A pack taped to its chest. Or a bandage. Decide. Quick. He took aim down the barrel at the life that took shape before him. “Son of a bitch.”
He stepped forward, gun aimed.
“You dog.” Woods took another step toward the animal, sighting between its eyes. It was a young dog, maybe a year, maybe less. Its belly was on the ground. “I ought to ....”
Woods paused. He lowered the gun. “Go on. Get outta here.”
But the dog never stopped. It crawled in the dirt like it was in basic training. His eyes never left Woods." Any second now, Woods was going to have to kick it in the teeth with his no-nonsense army boots.
It was then, in a bright spot in the dusk, that he saw what was missing. Between the weepy eyes and the wagging tail were only three legs. The short stump of an ugly amputation signaled some painful trauma in its past, its dog’s life.
“Shit.” A small voice in Wood’s head told him the decent thing would be to shoot it, put it out of its misery. Another voice in his head told him to do the decent thing.
“Go on, git. You can’t stay around here.” He kicked some dirt at it.
It wasn’t until a small crack opened in his chest and his melting heart started seeping out in tears that Woods deviated from the mission.
“You son of a bitch.”
And then, even Woods had to laugh at the sheer truth of his utterance. He lowered the gun.
The dog, belly squirming on the ground, kept its eyes locked on Woods.’
“Oh, what the hell.”
He tossed the empty bourbon bottle onto the tarp.
“You hungry, boy? Come here. Come on, now. Let’s see if we can’t rescue that steak.”
Woods grabbed the still red beef and threw it on his plate to cool. He sat on the steps and coaxed the pup over until it was within petting reach. He rubbed it behind the ears and was rewarded with nuzzling and dog talk.
“You sure picked a hell of a time to show up, mutt. Doesn’t look like you had much say in it, though, getting dumped at the dump and all.”
Woods had both arms around the dog now and was getting the tears licked off his face as fast as they were falling.
“Well, I gotta call you something other than sonovabitch. How ‘bout Scooter?”
The dog whined.
“Nah, you’re right. No dignity in that. Makes me think of all those lazy ass people cruising around the Walmart.”
The sun slipped below the horizon and dark descended on the yard. Light from the kitchen spilled through a small window onto the porch. It was enough. Woods found the knife on the tarp and started slicing the steak, feeding most of it to the hungry dog. He went into the kitchen and came out with an overfull bowl,water splashing out as he navigated the screen door. Somewhere along the way, it came to him.
“Here you go, Tripod.”
Woods set the bowl down and the dog lapped it up in great gulps. When he’d had enough, he went back to Woods, who was sitting on the ground and leaning back against the porch steps. The dog nuzzled up next to Woods, who petted him steadily as he watched the lights fade out on the tombstones.
“You and me, Tripe . . .” Here his voice caught. “We both got some balance issues. We’re going to have to work on that.”
He dropped his gaze and saw the dog looking up at him, really looking at him, in a way no person had in years. DSS
Barbara Schmidt, of Laura, IL raises organic produce and eggs. She's written two novels, poetry and short stories, some prize winners.