Down by the Creek, fiction by M.E. Parker

Stove up from work­ing the har­vest, Jessie hob­bled up the porch steps hold­ing his hand out for Chester. “Ches,” he called. The old blood­hound, “noth­ing but ears and ribs” snooz­ing in the shape of a ques­tion mark, usu­al­ly stum­bled up from his spot on a mildewed tarp behind a short-block motor when he heard Jessie com­ing. “Where are you boy?”

At four­teen, Chester wasn’t chas­ing rab­bits any­more, but he still enjoyed a scratch behind the ears every evening. When Chester didn’t stir, Jessie gave him a soft kick to the ribs. A jolt that should have sent the dog scram­bling to his feet with a snort did noth­ing more than scat­ter a fam­i­ly of flies mak­ing a meal out of his left ear. “Ches,” Jessie called, giv­ing him a swat across the hindquar­ters with­out even a twitch from Chester.

Jessie shook his head and thumped a smol­der­ing cig­a­rette butt into the yard. “Well, I guess it was bound to hap­pen soon­er or lat­er,” he said with a misty eye toward the south field, bend­ing down to give Chester a scratch on the bel­ly. “Come on, Boy. Let’s go.”

Jessie slipped his hand through Chester’s col­lar and hoist­ed him into his arms, plant­i­ng a foot in Chester’s water bowl as they tum­bled down the steps togeth­er into a heap at the bot­tom, Chester, Jessie, and the smell of a wet sack of pota­toes left out in the sun. “God, you stink, Chester.” And as he had done his entire life, Chester sim­ply lis­tened to Jessie. He didn’t fire back with an insult or scream at him to fix the roof.

Jessie reached for a leash on the clothes­line post, a sym­bol­ic ges­ture of one last walk, some­thing they hadn’t done in years, and hooked it to the clasp on Chester’s col­lar. Then he made right the bloodhound’s ears that had turned inside out, straight­ened his tail, and stepped off onto the grass.

Along a worn patch of earth from the porch to the gate, what Jessie’s dad referred to as “a po’ man’s side­walk,” Jessie tugged Chester over to Jessie Jr.’s fad­ed red wag­on, across an ant bed, and through a pick­et gate that clung to the fence by a lone pair of screws on a sin­gle hinge. 

Where you going? It’s almost time for sup­per.” Martha yelled from the porch.

Me and Chester was going down to the creek.” Jessie hoist­ed the dog into the wag­on.

What’s wrong with that dog?”

After a moment, Jessie replied with a quiver in his voice. “Well, he’s dead, I reck­on.”

You mean to tell me you have a dead dog in Jessie Jr.’s wag­on?”

Jessie Jr.’s don’t use this old thing no more. Besides, Chester always liked ridin’ around in it.”

Jessie looked at the ground and gave the wag­on a tug, his wife a dis­tant mem­o­ry on the porch as the two old friends entered the dirt path by the gate.

The wag­on wheels slid across a mud­dy rut left by the pick­up Jessie Jr. was using to learn how to dri­ve. Jessie pulled the wag­on up to the pas­sen­ger side door and jerked it open the in search of some­thing he could use to dig a hole. “Where’s that shov­el?”  He groped under the seat, but, instead of the spade, his hands land­ed on a half-full bot­tle of Old Grand­dad Ken­tucky Bour­bon sand­wiched between Jessie Jr.’s .22-cal­iber rifle and a pair of old gym shorts.

What’s that boy been up to, Ches?”

Jessie held the bot­tle up to have a bet­ter look. The cap twist­ed off with a snap. He passed the open bot­tle under his nose for a whiff of what­ev­er it was his son had put in that emp­ty whiskey bot­tle, kerosene maybe, or extra gas in case of an emer­gency, but as Jessie’s lungs filled with the sweet, famil­iar aro­ma of Old Grand­dad Bour­bon, he closed his eyes.

More than five years ago, the last time the sheriff’s depart­ment came to break up a fight between Jessie and his wife, he had sworn off Old Grand­dad for good. Not because he want­ed to, or even because his wife want­ed him to, but because Sher­iff Boyles, an old high school friend who leaned on Old Grand­dad as much as Jessie, had a long “come to Jesus” with him before he threw Jessie in jail to sober up.

Well, if you real­ly do love her,” Sher­iff Boyles had said, “do her a favor and light­en up on her a bit. That woman ain’t five feet tall. I enjoy a drink as much as the next man, but you got to con­trol your­self, Jessie. You almost killed her this time.”

Jessie had only respond­ed with a nod through half-open eyes.

Martha’s a good woman. She’s a good wife and mom. You did all right with her. And if I get anoth­er call out to your place for any­thing oth­er than a cook­out, you’re going away for a long time.” Sher­iff Boyles had giv­en Jessie the last warn­ing he would need before his long road to recov­ery began.

Jessie sniffed the open bot­tle again. Then he eyed his only friend, Chester, slung out on that wag­on in a less than dig­ni­fied man­ner and took a swig from the bot­tle. The cool burn of Old Grand­dad stung his throat. The bot­tle popped off his lips. He looked over his shoul­der toward the house to make sure no one had seen him. His neigh­bor, John­ny, was plow­ing across the pas­ture, but unless he had a pair of binoc­u­lars handy, he wouldn’t have seen any­thing. Jessie put the bot­tle to his mouth a sec­ond time.

 The wag­on wheels slid in and out of plowed fur­rows along the fence as they made their way to the creek. Jessie glanced at Chester, then at the bot­tle hang­ing in his oth­er hand, and took a drink. The fire returned to Jessie’s eyes before he reached the John­son place, adja­cent to his south field. Since he had giv­en up Old Grand­dad and straight­ened out his life, Jessie had made a habit out of attend­ing church with Martha near­ly every Sun­day. He recalled the pas­tor telling him one time, a joke he pre­sumed, though Pastor’s jokes were any­thing but fun­ny. “Dog’s don’t go to heav­en,” he had said. “They don’t have to. A dog’s life is heav­en.” Jessie could relate with that. He wouldn’t have mind­ed liv­ing Chester’s life. With the excep­tion of a stray bul­let from Johnny’s rifle on a hunt­ing trip, Chester had it pret­ty good.

The heel of Jessie’s boot twist­ed his cig­a­rette butt into the soil by a fence post as he pulled Chester down the draw to the creek bank. He tipped up the bot­tle again for anoth­er quick vis­it with Old Grand­dad and stum­bled over a drift­wood log. A gust of wind plucked the green ball cap from his head, and the wag­on wheel left a streak of mud over the fad­ed feed logo above the bill.

With his shov­el in one hand and bot­tle in the oth­er, Jessie stood by the creek for near­ly ten min­utes, star­ing at the mud­dy, almost stag­nant, water, before he turned back around to Chester and flipped the dog onto the mud by a crooked oak tree.

Two red dice popped off Chester’s col­lar when the dog’s body hit the ground. “I guess you’re not feel­in’ too lucky today, Boy?” On the same day he found Chester, Jessie had the luck­i­est run he ever had at a craps table, the rea­son he out­fit­ted Chester’s col­lar with a pair of dice to com­mem­o­rate the occa­sion. He stum­bled back to pick up the dice from the ground but fell flat on his face into a pud­dle of red mud, the bot­tle raised high in his free hand to keep it from spilling.

After stag­ger­ing to his feet, Jessie swat­ted the mud off his cap and held it to his chest to offer Chester a prop­er eulo­gy. “You was always a pret­ty good dog. I’m sure gonna miss ya, Boy.”

Jessie knocked back anoth­er swig. “I think this might be your fault, Chester. Last five years I’ve been a sober, God-fear­ing man–a pil­lar in the com­mu­ni­ty.” H
e glared at his dog, halfway expect­ing him to laugh.

You go an’ die–and now look at me.” He leaned up against the tree, grin­ning the trade­mark Jessie Stand­man thin grin as he stroked his mus­tache with his thumb and fore­fin­ger. A cig­a­rette dan­gled by half a lip as began to dig. 

I don’t know if the pastor’s right about dog’s not need­in’ to go to heav­en, but if there ever was one that should, it’s you, Chester.” The dog’s body, now caked with mud, rolled into the hole with a plop.

I almost wish I was in that hole instead of you.” He bowed his head in remem­brance of his old friend, and for the life he lead before he made his changes. He had kept so many secrets, lies that add a lit­tle extra weight every year until they become too heavy to car­ry alone. They were the kind of things that some men might brag about, oth­ers would pray about, and some might decide to cash in their chips and let the here­after sort it out. In that regard, Chester had served him well–a sound­ing board for all of Jessie’s indis­cre­tions. He had been Jessie’s con­fes­sion­ary priest, and on some occa­sions, his accom­plice.

Sleep with a woman,” Jessie’s dad­dy once advised him after a long spell of drink­ing. “Hell, maybe even mar­ry one, but don’t trust one. Put your faith in your dog. It don’t nev­er mat­ter what you tell your dog, he’ll take it with him to his grave.” Jessie had tak­en his dad’s advice to heart. Mar­ry­ing Martha had giv­en him three chil­dren and a hot meal every evening around six. Trust­ing Chester had enabled him to sleep at night with the knowl­edge that his secrets were safe. His dad’s dog, Left­ie, lived to be near­ly fif­teen. Jessie could only imag­ine what Lefty lugged to his grave. Lefty was a one-eyed Bor­der col­lie with no depth per­cep­tion herd­ing live­stock “in a damn cir­cle, a good for noth­ing pain in the ass,” Jessie’s dad liked to say, but when no one else was around, Jessie remem­bered see­ing his pop dote over that dog, baby-talk­ing him and such like a lit­tle girl with a doll. A cou­ple of days before Jessie’s tenth birth­day, his pop grabbed the rifle and tugged Lefty around to the back of the barn to end his suf­fer­ing.  “Damn dog can’t even find his food bowl no more,” his dad had said. That was the only time Jessie could remem­ber ever see­ing his dad cry, and it still sur­prised him to see it even once.

Jessie nev­er had it in him to end it for Chester the way his dad did for Left­ie, no more than he could’ve have turned a gun on him­self. Jesse looked down to his friend caked in mud hop­ing for a snort, any­thing, but Chester’s days of hear­ing Jessie cry into an emp­ty bot­tle and grant­i­ng abso­lu­tion were final­ly over.

Chester knew every­thing about Jessie Stand­man. Jessie pet­ted the four­teen-year-old blood­hound lying in the hole and sighed. “You ‘mem­ber them thangs I told you when you was a pup?” Jessie paused for a moment of reflec­tion. “Well, that was between you an’ me. No need to go tellin’ nobody,” he looked up and point­ed to the sky, “up there.”

With Chester gone, bring­ing back mem­o­ries his pop and Lefty, Jessie thought about his own son. Jessie Jr. was almost four­teen, a lazy kid who, despite the fact that Jessie hadn’t spared him the belt, still spent most of his time lying on the couch watch­ing TV. But he would soon be a man whether he was ready or not. And Jessie fig­ured every man need­ed a good dog, a way sound off all those things men do with­out hav­ing them slapped back in the face, a dog to absorb those things that shouldn’t be out there for pub­lic con­sump­tion, and when the time comes, it all goes in the hole togeth­er.

The bot­tle of Old Grand­dad only had a cou­ple of swigs left. Jessie dropped his cig­a­rette butt into the hole and filled it with dirt. He tilt­ed the bot­tle against his lips and let out a sat­is­fied smack when he pulled it down again.

Jessie’s dad nev­er threw him a ball or took him fish­ing or hunt­ing much, but Jessie learned a lot by watch­ing him. He won­dered if Jessie Jr. had soaked up any­thing from him about what it means to be a man. Maybe a rot­tweil­er, Jessie thought. No, too much dog for Jessie Jr. He need­ed a slack­er, just like him, a Bas­set hound, or a shel­ter mutt.

By the time Jessie got back home, the house was dark except for the gray flick­er of the tele­vi­sion in the back room. Jessie plopped into the porch swing to sober up. If Martha was still awake, she’d stir up a hornet’s nest if she smelled Old Grand­dad. Hell, a man can’t even have a sip when his dog dies, Jessie thought.  Alone on the porch, except for a crick­et chirp­ing under the tarp, Chester’s tarp, Jessie hoped Jessie Jr. would put less weight on his dog than what Lefty and Chester had to car­ry, but at least the new pup would have a good tarp to nap on.

M.E. Park­er is a writer, a read­er, web design­er, a soft­ware enigeer and a car­pen­ter who imag­ines a world of wood­en com­put­ers with leather bound key­boards. His short fic­tion has recent­ly sur­faced or is sched­uled to see day­light in numer­ous print pub­li­ca­tions and Inter­net haunts includ­ing 42opus, Ali­men­tum, The Bri­ar Cliff Review, Elec­tric Veloci­pede, Flint Hills Review, The MacGuf­fin, Night Train, Quer­cus Review, Smoke­long Quar­ter­ly and numer­ous oth­ers. Find him at http://​www​.mepark​er​.com.
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