When I was seven, Mom and I took a drive. There was a peace to life then. Rural South Carolina was a slow place. Mom always had somewhere to go, and I rode along. Wide paths cut in the forests for transformers and power lines rolled on and on over the hills of the Piedmont, and in some ways, their endless repetition rivaled the beauty of the land.
We hung a right on a dirt road by the elementary school where I attended 2nd grade and Mom taught Kindergarten. I didn’t like going where Mom taught. The watchful eyes of teachers and administration were always on me.
At the end of the dirt road, we arrived at a farmhouse. A fenced-in pasture spread out behind it and met thick forest. Lazy dairy cows chomped tall grass that blew in the breeze. A man stepped onto the porch chewing a piece of straw. I recognized him as the art teacher, Mr. Christmas. He had a thick red beard and smiled like he knew something you didn’t. I enjoyed pottery and learning primary and secondary colors in his class. He had two soda bottles taped together and filled with water. He shook them to create an effect like a tornado. It was very cool.
“Hey, dude,” he said and handed me a piece of straw. “Mrs. Koewing,” he nodded at mom.
We followed him around the back of the house to a pen of brown and black puppies. It made sense. Our border collie, Nellie died two weeks earlier. Dad got her before I was born. He placed her on a blanket in his shed and said not to look, but I did. Her eyes resembled marbles and her fur moved in the slight breeze that came through the open door of the shed. I touched her fur, hoping she’d come back to life.
“Well, pick one,” Mom said.
All but one puppy rushed the fence. They jumped on each other and bit at each other’s ears. One hid in the corner. I picked him.
I waved to Mr. Christmas and we drove away. The puppy fell asleep on the floorboard between my feet
“You should name him,” Mom said.
I named him Rickey Roger Koewing after my two favorite baseball players: Rickey Henderson and Roger Clemens.
“That’s a very good name,” Mom assured me.
“How old is he?” I asked.
“Seven, like me?”
“Not quite, but he will be soon,” she said. “Did you know one year in a dog’s life equals seven in a person’s?”
“It’s how we gauge how long they live compared to us.”
I snuck a look at Rickey, he opened one eye.
“How old was Nellie?” I asked.
“She was ten.”
“Their life is shorter, but seems longer?”
“We don’t know how it seems to them.”
I rolled down the window and reached out as far as I could to feel the wind.
“Seems like dogs get a bad deal.”
“Don’t reach your hand out the window like that.”
Dad was a mailman. He came home every day at the same time. I waited with baseball gloves. He went inside first but came back out and played. The day I held Rickey he seemed like a kid, too.
Rickey sniffed around the yard, while we played catch.
I started organized baseball around that time. I had natural talent. When I wasn’t playing, I used masking tape to create a diamond on the walkway in front of our house. I set up Starting Lineup figures and played imaginary games.
I loved toy dinosaurs, too. One afternoon, Dad tilled a section of the yard for a flowerbed. I flooded it with the hose and played with my dinosaurs in the muddy water. The brontosaurus’ long neck rose above the water. The pterodactyl swooped down and glided above the tiny waves I imagined were tidal. The triceratops didn’t think much of the affair. Rickey raced up and jumped in. He flopped around, then shook water all over me. It was a very good time.
Little did I know childhood asthma would soon take control of my lungs. It hit Mom worst. Life became doctor’s appointments. Two years watching television turned up as loud as it would go over the hum of the nebulizer I used a dozen times a day. Condensation built up on the mask. I peered out at the world from behind it, through a haze of liquid droplets and steam. Mom’s worrying eyes always on me.
During this time, Hurricane Hugo hit South Carolina and made it three hundred miles inland with hurricane force winds. We huddled in our playroom. A tree cracked outside from the wind. I sensed it falling. Mom rushed us into another room. The tree barely missed the house. Dad went outside on the porch to smoke. I watched through the window. He seemed calm. The clouds spun in circles overhead. Tree branches flew through the air. It was an odd scene.
After that, I worried about the weather. I saw a show about tornadoes. It said they sounded like a freight train and could spawn from thunderstorms. Before bed, I watched the evening news. If a thunderstorm were forecast, I slept by the closet under the stairs, the safest place in the house. Mom stayed with me until I fell asleep.
I worried about Rickey in his doghouse. I wondered if storms scared him, too. I spent more time than any child should thinking about the soundness of my dog’s doghouse. When it got cold, I convinced Dad to run a drop cord to his pen and install a heat light. Nights when I couldn’t sleep, I’d peer out my bedroom window at Rickey’s pen. I liked to think he peered back.
Rickey grew into a dashing young dog. I’d done my time and beat asthma. I’d been locked inside long enough, and I got out. Rickey was half collie, half chow, but he didn’t really resemble either. His tail stuck up chow-like, but no one saw the collie. He looked like Rickey to me.
We lived on two acres inside a neighborhood with similar lots and houses out in the country. In the evenings, I ran around the yard in the twilight chasing the fireflies that dotted the slow darkening. Rickey started to run with me. I chased and he juked. When I got close, he darted away at the last second. My face hurt from laughing. Rickey could have run forever.
When I retired for the night, I refused to watch anything but Jean Claude Van Damme movies. I watched them a hundred times. I took to pulling Rickey’s ears back behind his head and rubbing water on him, so his hair looked slicked back. His eyes would be pulled back a little, too. He looked a lot like Van Damme.
Sadly, Rickey found the road and tried to juke cars but he got hit. He limped down the driveway and hid under the cover of a fern. He wouldn’t let me close without snarling. Dad grabbed him up in a blanket and we went to the vet. He needed an expensive hip operation. My parents had to think about it. I threw a fit and disappeared into the woods with plans to never return. The fall of night changed that. I made it out as the darkest black arrived and sprinted towards the warm lights of our windows. They were going to pay for the surgery.
Rickey’s leg had been shaved before they made the incision. He gnawed on his stitches until they bled. We confined him to the kitchen with two chairs, but he kept getting loose into the living room and I’d have to drag him back to the kitchen trying not to hurt him.
When he got better and went back outside, fleas attacked the shaved part of his leg. The vet said he was allergic to fleas. Seemed odd it had never been an issue before. It was a real mystery. He chewed himself up. I bought flea soap. Nothing helped. He wouldn’t run around anymore. The fleas terrorized him. The puppy, the young dog, vanished. He stayed in the cool dirt under the back porch where the fleas didn’t bother him.
By high school, Rickey and I lost touch. I was a typical teen. I complained about having to feed him. His water pan greened with algae. Dad fed him after work.
Around this time, my grandpa got diagnosed with dementia, it hit Dad hard. He made his arrangements and handled his finances. He turned from the man he’d been his entire life into a prune in a chair staring through a window.
A year earlier, on the annual visit to Florida, I went for a ride with my grandpa. It was the last time I saw him. We walked to the end of the jetty at Nokomis Beach and watched the hazy turquoise waves beat sand against the black rocks. A Blue Heron stood so close I could touch him. He thought we had some fish. His feet reminded me of my pterodactyl.
Dad traveled to Florida a dozen times. Each time he returned a piece of him stayed behind. When my grandpa died, I think Dad felt relief. He'd spent his life trying to earn my grandpa’s respect by doing things his way. When he finally realized this, he did something for himself and took up scuba diving.
After that, baseball became my life. I pitched and played third base. I loved the hot corner. The team used to stand around at the end of practice and watch coach hit balls as hard as he could at me. He never got one by me. I didn’t give care if I lost all my teeth. The ball wasn’t getting by me.
Despite all the promise, I got kicked off the team during senior year. I tossed a soda bottle out of the bus window at an oncoming car. I still remember the sound of the windshield cracking. The flashing bright lights of the car flagging us down. None of my teammates snitched, but I crumbled under the guilt. I got off the bus and approached a man holding a little girl in his arms. I wouldn’t have blamed him if he’d stomped me into the ground right there.
I started smoking pot and befriended a high school dropout who lived in a trailer. His dad worked days at a factory. I went to his house after school. I didn’t have practice anymore. We sat in his driveway and smoked and drank and watched cars pass.
The day I graduated, I tossed my cap and gown in the trunk and rode around. I earned a scholarship that would pay to go to any public university in the state as long as I kept a B average. I attended the local technical college, a glutton for punishment.
I lost the scholarship after a year. My friend worked at the factory where his dad worked. All my other friends had moved on. I lived with my parents. Hiding in the garage drinking. Rickey was thirteen, ninety-one in dog years. He had the Mange. Tore himself to shreds all over again. My parents built a screen porch on the back of the house. Rickey wasn’t allowed up there, but he always got in, and I’d kick him off. He was decrepit. The worse he got, the more I couldn’t stand the sight of him. I couldn’t forgive him for getting old. One day, I shooed him off and slammed the screen door, hoping to smack him as he left. Instead, he got caught in the door and let out a terrible yelp. I cried about doing that to him; he never came back on the porch. I watched him stumble around the backyard where he’d once ran and juked. He stopped an inch from a dandelion and snorted. Dandelion snow landed on his nose. He stared at nothing, going blind. I went out to the yard and sat in the grass. He lumbered over beside me. I sat there petting him for such a long time as our lives slid away from us.
Wilson Koewing is a writer from South Carolina. He received an MFA in creative writing from The University of New Orleans.
His writing is featured or forthcoming in Pembroke Magazine,
Five on the Fifth, X-R-A-Y, Door is a Jar, Menacing Hedge,
The Hunger Journal, The Fictional Cafe, Borrowed Solace, Running Wild Press, Tiny Molecules, Potato Soup Journal, Ghost Parachute, Fiction Kitchen Berlin, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, The Fiction Pool, Ellipsis Zine, Sky Island Journal, (Mac)ro(Mic), Dreams Walking, The Loch Raven Review, Versification, The Remington Review, 101 Words, Spelk, Rejection Letters, The Daily Drunk, New World Writing, The Cabinet of Heed, Bull: Men's Fiction, Boston Literary Magazine, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Free Flash Fiction, Fiction on the Web and No Contact Magazine.
He was a November 2019 resident of The Vermont Studio Center. He is a fiction reader for The Maine Review and Craft Literary.