by Kathryn Etters Lovatt
As soon as Jimmy saw the roadwork sign, he made a U-turn. He knew other ways to get where he needed to go. From Old Wire Road, he went South, followed his nose toward the dump, came down Payne Pond Road. Four miles short of Highway 521, he slowed to a stop. Off to his right, a cloud of dirt, a dog in the middle of it, whirred like a cyclone.
On Jimmy’s drive back home that afternoon, the dog sat flat against the rough bark of an oak. His circles around the yard’s only shade tree had twisted his chain between stob and trunk. No water lay within his reach.
Next day and three after, the same: round and round went the dog by morning; reined in by afternoon. Never a soul or vehicle in sight.
Beyond tree and dog stood a frame house that looked like a lot of other houses in the county, not so different than the bigger version Jimmy lived in. His Momma’s house. But hers—so pale a yellow as to appear white in bright daylight—had been kept up and added to. Instead of clods of scratch and stinkweed, grass grew. Even in this July heat, flowers bloomed in pots and on islands; one giant red climber covered their mailbox.
While he was still well enough, Jimmy’s father hung a swing on their front porch. He thought about putting up a fence and finding something to go inside it.
“A dog has a way of taking your mind off yourself,” he’d said.
In the heart of last summer, Jimmy pounded sections of white picket into the ground as his father sat in a winter coat, blue wool blanket across his legs, and pushed himself with the tips of bedroom shoes. The chains of the swing made chirruping noises, like fledglings in a nest. Jimmy shut the memory down. The weekend was here. He should get home, get dressed, get out. Instead, he slowed as the dog came into view.
On a day hot as this, every living thing deserved a drink.
He pulled over and parked by the side of the road. He got out of his truck, knowing better. The burly shape of the dog’s body and the way his black coat feathered made Jimmy think him Chow. Part anyhow. As a rule, Chows didn’t cozy to strangers. As Jimmy came closer, this one barked and reared up, but his shackle held him in check.
From where Jimmy stood—outside the trench hollowed by the dog’s daily spins—he saw the collar had skinned off a ring of fur and burrowed into flesh. Nothing he could do to remedy that, but back in his father’s old truck, he had leftovers from lunch and a thermos of tea.
The dog ate the last of a club sandwich down to the lettuce and snorted in the ground for more. He wrinkled his brow and crooked his huge head. Jimmy topped the water bowl—a #2 can with its boiled peanut label peeling at the edges—and inched it forward with his steel-toed boot. A thick purplish tongue darted out and licked up the tea, ice and all.
“Atta boy,” said Jimmy. He would have slackened the chain if the two had time to get better acquainted, but considering who lived
in this particular house, Jimmy knew he needed to move along.
Next day, Saturday, he took a chance on a midday run. He brought water and a sack of KFC gizzards. No sign of anyone, anywhere. The dog, his range already cut to a third, let out a series of warning barks, but he thumped his tail on the tree roots and drooled when he smelled food in the offing.
Jimmy pulled a piece of chicken from the bag. “Want this?” He dangled each gizzard before he threw it. Every bite, Jimmy moved closer until his feet stood on the inside of the trench. With fat sopping the palm of his hand, he kneeled.
“Come get it,” he said. The dog barked, then began to whimper. “Come on,” said Jimmy. “I know you want to.”
Maybe next time.
Jimmy lobbed the last bit over. He rinsed out the rust and filled the can to overflowing. Tomorrow was Sunday. He wouldn’t risk coming.
Through the rest of the month, weekdays and Saturdays Jimmy went sneaking by. He brought burgers or subs, baloney. The dog was not so particular he turned down any scrap. He still barked, but the woofs sounded eager now. With the roadwork finished, Jimmy kept going along the back roads. He bought a 25-pound bag of Purina.
Won over by food and water, the dog allowed himself to be petted, but only a rotisserie chicken persuaded him to eat straight out of Jimmy’s hand.
In August, a hurricane hit the coast. Thick rain with a sizable wind moved across the state. No roofing that day. Jimmy and the rest of the crew hammered a few nails inside one of four new houses until Uncle Les, his mother’s brother, showed up and told them to call it a day. Although they’d surrender wages over those lost hours, the sky had a yellow tinge, and nobody objected.
The rain hadn’t started when Jimmy walked outside, but the air held weight. No bird, no breeze, no rustle of leaves about. Still as death, his grandmother would say, although death wasn’t still, not from what Jimmy knew of it.
Finally, raindrops, tiny and hard, did come. They carried shards of pinging hail. The mix pelted his windshield and wiggled down his side mirrors. In his cab, Jimmy felt the blues rolling in and flipped on the radio. Heartache showed up on every station. He cut it off.
Water sat deep enough on the road to cover the white and yellow lines and hide potholes. The truck hit a few nose-first and pulled up in a spray. Jimmy passed two cars stopped on the shoulder till the worst of the storm passed. One arrogant Jeep sped by him.
Jimmy pulled toward the roadside, grabbed his rain poncho from behind the seat and threw it over his head. The wrap billowed in the wind, giving the cold, sharp rain a chance to soak him.
The same downpour had flattened the dog’s fur. He looked naked—his body a shuddering heap of bones—and scared, as if a bolt of lightning had come too close a time or two before. The trench was now a moat. Jimmy crossed over and led the dog backwards until he put some give in the chain. He spread the poncho over the two of them as best he could, and he sat.
The storm moved off, then wound back. Who would have thought it possible, him fixed to the same spot two full hours? Not his old girlfriend, Lori, who used to tell him he was nothing but a fly in a bottle. He could hardly believe it himself. He hadn’t stayed so still in he didn’t know when. Yes. Yes, he did: last fall, in a hard chair, in the dark, his mother across the room in a rocker, not rocking, his father’s breaths so far apart, Jimmy could hardly breathe himself.
Now, this dog, his coat thick as a lion’s mane, soft and full under mats and tangles, kept him in his place. How anybody could confine an animal to such a small plot of harsh earth, piles of his own shit marking his boundaries, was beyond Jimmy. He shouldn’t have been surprised though. Hadn’t he heard plenty about the man who lived here? He had, and still he waited.
By the time Elton Johnson, a man everyone knew as Jaybird, rolled in, the sky had lifted. The afternoon smelled green as spring, but Jimmy and the dog remained huddled. The sodden ground and traces of thunder had drawn them close, and they never budged. When Jaybird whipped straight onto a hump of red dirt not four feet from the tree, the chance to move or to run had passed.
The man rolled down his truck window and stared at Jimmy with those gray eyes people talked about. Jimmy expected that the tuft of hair that gave him his nickname would sit high and run thick. Maybe it did in younger years. All left now was a few blunted quills. Hair or no hair, with his strong jawbone and veined neck, he looked like he could grind bones to make his bread.
“You broke down?” he asked Jimmy.
He stared harder. “You know who I am?”
“Everybody knows who you are.” Jimmy thought Jaybird looked satisfied to hear him say so.
“You ain’t broke down and your scrawny ass is sitting on my property, under my tree, next to that shiftless dog?”
Jimmy wasn’t scrawny. His build was trim and sturdy. Work saw to that. On the whole, he leaned toward the ordinary, his lips, the only exception. They turned-up at the corners and seemed always to be on the brink of devilment. Lori had loved that, loved his jokes, loved him for a while, but she’d wanted a boy who knew who he was and what he wanted. Somebody with gumption.
Jaybird didn’t seem offended by Jimmy’s everlasting grin or his silence, but he didn’t look amused either. “You here to make trouble?”
Jimmy felt the dog’s heart beating hard into his side and his own beating out of his chest.
Jaybird’s last name might be Johnson, but he had Juanita Oates for a mother and everybody in the state knew an Oates wouldn’t be messed with.
“The weather was coming down hard on your dog, Mister, and he was bound up.”
“He ain’t exactly mine, but he is a dog. He don’t mind the outside.”
“If he’s not yours, why’s he in your yard?”
The fingers on Jaybird’s left hand thrummed the truck door. “What business is that of yours?”
“I’ve been looking for a good dog. I thought you might let me take this one off your hands.”
“You did, did you?” Jaybird studied Jimmy. His eyes, hard but without any fire, told Jimmy nothing. “He’s my guard dog.”
“Well,” said Jimmy, who wondered if he might be going too far, “I’d say he’s got no talent for it.”
Jaybird opened his door.
“I’d pay a fair price for him,” said Jimmy.
“What was you thinking?” asked Jaybird, who looked like he expected a swindle.
“A hundred dollars.”
Jaybird cracked a smile. “You a fool, boy.”
“A fool’s money spends.”
“It do indeed.” In one smooth motion, Jaybird swung off his seat and jumped to the ground. He was not a big man, but he showed big. Jimmy thought that a talent worth acquiring. Jaybird propped against the door, crossed his left leg over his right. He puckered his mouth like he might whistle and pa-tooied a plug of gum to the ground. “Who are you anyways?”
“Jimbo Walters,” Jimmy said, thinking the change might put some strut in his name.
“Jimbo,” Jaybird repeated the word like it was a joke. “Where abouts you from?”
“Over there in Tater Town.”
“You connected to the feed and seed Walters?”
“He ups his prices when times get hard.”
“He gets the prices upped on him.”
“Your daddy the one to die last year?”
“Ten months back.”
“You’re set to take on the family business next, are you?”
“Not me.” Jimmy, only child of an only child, doubted his own words.
“How you plan to live then?”
Jimmy wiggled. The wet dirt had spread through his pants and worked its way into the worst places. He would have to suffer through, he guessed, chafing and being talked down at. Jaybird didn’t seem in any hurry to take the deal.
“For the time being, I’m roofing.”
“I thought only Mexicans shingled nowadays.”
“Mostly. Nobody else wants to do the hard labor.”
“Nobody but you, I guess.”
“And just how old are you, Jimbo Walters?”
This line of question didn’t suit Jimmy, but he was at a disadvantage, Jaybird being who he was and him on the ground. Jimmy pulled himself up to a squat. “Old enough to have my heart broke.”
Jaybird snorted through a nose that bent left. “Only the one time? You must not be twenty then.”
Jimmy didn’t say so, but he was. Just. Instead, he rubbed the dog’s ear. “This boy got a name?”
“My sorry grandson called him Boogey. Bogie. Bluey. Some crap like that. Took his credentials too.” Jaybird made his fingers into scissors and snipped. “Can’t even breed the son of a bitch.”
“I don’t mind.”
“Construction will catch up with you,” Jaybird said. “Look at me.” He limped over, a hitch in his bowed legs, to show what he meant. He brought the odor of sage and grease with him, too much sausage for one lifetime, too much sweat. The Oates were gamblers and scoundrels, the kind of men other men swapped stories about, but they were first-class tilers and bricklayers, too. People waited until they got around to their jobs.
As Jaybird approached, Jimmy took the opportunity to scramble to his feet. Bluey did the same. Jimmy shook one leg at a time. Both had fallen asleep.
“I’d been a surveyor if I’d had my druthers.” Jaybird hiked his shoulders in a shrug. “You take what comes though, like it or not.”
“Yes, sir,” said Jimmy, the best he could do.
“You got cash money?”
When Jimmy tapped the seat of his jeans, Bluey gave his fingers a long lick.
“My boy’s youngest boy—he’s the one staked this dog out here and left off. He took a young girl with him. Too young. Don’t expect he’ll come back no time soon.” Jaybird scratched his scraggly chin. He looked like an old dog himself, mangy and worn out, his arms full of stiff curly hairs and flecked with scars. “Truth is,” he said, “I’m a chicken man. Show chickens, if you get my drift.”
Jimmy understood what he meant. Oates’ roosters killed anything thrown in the pit or they died in the fight.
“To my way of thinking,” explained Jaybird, “you either got dogs or you got chickens.”
“I don’t have any chickens,” Jimmy assured him.
“I didn’t guess you would. And just so we clear, the chain ain’t part of the deal.”
“All right,” agreed Jimmy, his face wet from the slow drips off leaves. “Guess you’ll have to find another dog to stand watch.”
“Never counted on this one,” Jaybird said. “Look above you.”
Jimmy did as he was told. How had he missed them, a camera aimed at the road, two pointed at the drive?
“Got them everywhere. Know all, see all. I wondered if you’d work up nerve to steal him.”
“Why didn’t you stop me coming up here and feeding him?”
“Amusement mostly. But after the first day, I could tell he’d never earn his keep.”
“Just so you know, I never would have hauled off and took him.”
“Good thing I believe you.” Jaybird stepped forward, hand outstretched. “Pay up, why don’t you, and you two can be on your way.”
Jimmy reached for his wallet, took the birthday bill from behind his license and laid it in Jaybird’s open palm.
“You want a section of rope?” Jaybird rolled the bill tight as a cigarette and stuck it behind his ear. “I’ll do you that.”
“I feel like he’ll follow me,” said Jimmy, but when he unfastened Bluey, the dog stiffened like a mule. “Come on,” Jimmy said to him. “Let’s go.”
“You need to do better than that if you want an animal to respect you. You got to take charge.” Jaybird raised his foot and kicked the air. “Go on,” he shouted. Without taking a blow, Bluey yelped in surprise. Jaybird got meaner. “Get, I said!”
Bluey backed up then, and his eyes turned glass. Not a blink broke his pitch-black glare. Jaybird saw what Bluey thought of him. So did Jimmy.
“Now he shows some pluck.” Jaybird’s rough face broke out in red hot splotches. His hands drew into fists. Jaybird Johnson was a man made out of hard times and hard knocks, neither bluffer nor boaster. Jimmy knew he stood in his yard and at his mercy, but he stepped in front of Bluey anyhow.
“He’s my dog now, Mr. Johnson, bought and paid for. Everyone says that the Oates make good on their word.”
Jaybird stood stock still. “I thought you said you didn’t want trouble.”
“I just want my dog.”
“What you want and what you get are two different things.”
Although his instincts told him to, Jimmy didn’t drop his eyes to the ground. It was Jaybird, his color back to normal, who finally gave way.
“I’m not half so bad as people give me credit for,” he said, joking by the light delivery of it, sounding a little sorry, too. “I reckon half might be plenty.” He turned away and climbed back in his truck. “There’s power in dishing out food,” Jaybird said as he got settled in. “But the real power is withholding. That’s the secret of getting anything or anybody to do what you want.”
“Thanks,” said Jimmy, but he already knew he had no use for Jaybird’s advice. Look where it had gotten him.
The man would be alone now with his chickens and his cameras and his glum house. Jaybird would hate Jimmy’s pity, but Jimmy felt sorry for him anyway. All he had left was ruined legs and a reputation.
“Come back and see me sometimes,” said Jaybird. He pointed to the cameras strapped in the tree. “I’ll be watching for you.”
Kathryn Etters Lovatt earned her M.A. in Creative Writing and English from Hollins University. She continued studies and taught at Hong Kong University. She is a Virginia Center of the Arts Fellow and a recipient of SC Arts Commission’s individual grant for prose. Most recently, her stories have appeared in moonShine Review, His Mother, Wild Wonderful ‘n and Whacky South Cackalacky and South Carolina Voices:Poetry and Prose. She lives in Camden SC.