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.