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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