The Old Man
Jennifer retrieved a large pitcher from the refrigerator, but paused without pouring the tea into the ice-filled glasses. The white curtains at the kitchen window floated in the late September breeze as she watched her grandfather prepare his pipe while sitting comfortably under a large oak in the back yard. Standing at the window, Jennifer watched the Old Man reach out and pat the head of the Lab who was sitting patiently by his chair. The dog inched affectionately closer toward Sam Kenton, finally placing her head on the Old Man’s knee. Jennifer smiled at her grandfather through the screened window, and another cool breeze delivered to her the first euphoric feeling of fall.
Sam Kenton looked up to see his granddaughter slap open the back door with her hip. She carried the tray in both hands, and he saw her smiling as she approached.
“What’s so funny?” he asked as Jenny placed the try on the table and poured the Old Man his tea.
“You... and that dog,” she said. Jennifer sat across from the Old Man and took her first swallow.
“I see absolutely nothing funny about me and this dog. Thank you for the tea... it’s very good,” the Old Man spoke in one breath.
“That dog acts like she would crawl right up in your lap... all eighty pounds of her.”
“She would if I’d let her,” said the Old Man. “She’s in love with me you see, and I with her... in our own kind of way. Can’t blame her for having good taste, can we?”
“Not at all,” winked the granddaughter who tossed her auburn hair behind her shoulders with a quick twist of her head.
“Did you ever see the movie Ladyhawk?” he asked.
“No, tell me about it. Sounds wonderful.”
“Well,” the Old Man continued as he relighted his pipe, “it was a wonderful movie and you know I don’t watch many movies. The kids had it on over at John’s one night, and while the rest of the adults played cards I stretched out in the floor, with full intentions of taking a nap you see, but me and all the kids got so caught up in the movie that I watched the whole thing.”
Jenny crossed her legs immodestly in the lawn chair, listening intently to the Old Man.
“Wonderful story,” continued Sam Kenton, “about a midevil couple who was madly in love, but had fallen under the curse of an evil sorcerer who turned the handsome prince into a wolf at night and the beautiful lady into a hawk during he day. They traveled together their whole lives, but could never actually be together because when one was human the other was animal. They longed to be together, but to no avail. The tragedy was quite touching.”
“That’s not fair,” Jenny said, and her eyes were suddenly sad. “That’s an awful story and I refuse to listen to anything but happy stories today.”
The Old Man raised his eyebrows as he drew on the pipe. “Ah, but you miss the point. Their feelings for each other were so wonderful. Their love was the story, not the tragedy of their pain. They were fortunate to have found each other at all. Most people are not so lucky.”
“I agree... I suppose when you look at it from that point of view, it is a happy story.” She sipped her tea. “But what does Ladyhawk have to do with you and the dog?”
The Old Man smiled and tapped his pipe against his boot heel, sending glowing embers to the grass below.
“Well, I’ll tell you. Two years ago, me and the black dog were duck hunting at Reelfoot when we were approached by an old, crusty coot hunter. I offered to share the blind with him, but he declined. He said that the blind was haunted and anyone who used it was automatically cursed by this legendary ghost-duck-hunter of Grassy Lake. I figured it was just a ploy to make me leave, but ever since that hunt a peculiar thing happened at sunset every night.”
“What’s that? Quick, tell me!” urged Jenny.
“Well,” said the Old Man as his voice lowered to a whisper. Every night at sundown, the black dog here miraculously changes into a tall, beautiful, intelligent, sensitive lady with wonderful blue eyes. She moves with the grace of an eagle and her voice is like the wind.” The Old Man sighed with resignation.
“And you!” Jenny was jubilant as she tugged on the Old Man’s arm.
“What do you turn into?”
Sam Kenton embarrassingly looked down at the dog.
“A drake gadwall,” he replied.
“A duck,” he yelled. “I’m overcome with amorous feelings every night with this creature of beauty in my house and all I can do is waddle around with ridiculous ‘quacks’, leaving disgusting droppings all over the floor. It’s a tragedy, I tell you. Somebody ought to make a movie out of it.”
Jenny threw an ice cube at the Old Man as she laughed.
The Old Man smiled. “Are you ready to go collect supper?” he asked.
Jennifer stood, slipped into her hunting vest, and retrieved the double-barreled 20 gauge that had rested against the shade tree.
“How many can you eat tonight?” she asked.
The Old man was cradling the double 12 in the crook of his arm.
“Pretty hungry... six, I guess.”
“Me too,” Jennifer replied. “Six is fine.” And she produced six yellow shells from her pocket. Searching her vest, she produced eight more and stood them on the tray, returning the original six to her vest.
“O. K., now you.”
The Old Man pulled two handfuls of shells from his pocket, along with assorted grass seeds, tobacco droppings and a broken, dirty match stick.
“How many did I say?”
Sam Kenton dropped the shells onto the tray, and then counted six out, cleaning them on his shirt sleeve before carefully inserting them into the cartridge loops on his vest.
The tall lady with the blue eyes was wagging her tail, looking quickly from the Old Man back to Jennifer. She barked in excitement as they walked out of the yard down the farm road toward the pond behind the house.
“I’ve noticed,” started the Old Man as they walked, “that you have grown into quite a handsome woman. Actually, I realized it a while ago, but I’ve also noticed that you’re still single.”
“That’s observant of you....”
“Don’t interrupt old people. It’s impolite,” he lectured.
She stopped, turned, and curtsied in the middle of the farm road.
“So sorry, your grandfathership.”
The Old Man smiled. “You’re forgiven... now, I’ve witnessed all manners of young men come a-courtin’ since you were sixteen, I reckon. So I know it’s not that I’m biased regarding your attractiveness.”
“That’s refreshing to know,” teased Jenny. The Old Man looked hard at her for interrupting, and she promptly stuck out her tongue in his direction.
“So,” he continued, “what seems to be the problem?”
Jennifer shifted the shotgun to the other arm. Two doves flew overhead within easy range, but the hunters only looked briefly as they crossed.
“Have you read any good books lately?” she asked.
“Don’t change the subject.”
“I’m not... just answer please.”
“O. K.,” he said. “Let’s see. No, I haven’t lately, but I’ve re-read some good ones. I can’t find writers these days I can identify with.”
“What about Michener?”
“He has some wonderful segments, but I haven’t the patience for Michener. He loses me in description.”
“Have you read Lonesome Dove by McMurtry?” she asked.
“It’s good. I’ll give you my copy. Who are your favorites in all the world?”
The Old Man studied on that.
“Twain for humor and pure entertainment... Hemingway for dialogue. He always amazed me with his genius for proper talk. Leopold was the wisest. Ruark was a master for enthusiasm and making you see things. Ford shows the finest heart. Karen Blixen was the most unpretentious, allowing no amount of her ego, if she had one, to enter into the truth. I would have thanked her for that, if I could have met her.”
They walked ten yards without talking until she began again.
“You told me once when I was fourteen that if I could find a honorable man who was not bothered by me having the ability to out shoot him... to marry him. I think you meant more than what you said. I’m now twenty-four and have found few men who could shoot a shotgun better than me. I’ve found some who are honorable, but cannot shoot at all. I’ve known none who could shoot, were honorable, were not upset when I did out shoot them, were good looking, sensitive, and could talk about Hemingway’s dialogue or Isak Dinesen’s truthfulness.”
She paused. “So there... you taught me to pick my shots, I simply haven’t found my target yet.”
The Old Man raised his eyebrows.
“Sorry I asked.”
The massive oak at the pond’s edge displayed large drooping limbs that extended within four feet of the ground. It formed a large natural canopy that covered the Old Man and his granddaughter. They sat in lawn chairs beneath the limbs, a huge natural blind that allowed them to view the sky for incoming doves. The black dog sat between them.
“O. K., show me your stuff,” said the Old Man. Three birds came in from their right, crossing over the pond. Standing, Jenny dropped two shells in the little gun and gently closed it. Her eyes remained on the doves. At twenty-five yards the gun came to her shoulder and went off... twice. And two of the three doves fell in long arcs toward the pond making two separate splashes on the water. The dog’s eyes were on the floating doves.
“Fetch,” commanded the Old Man, and the black dog hit the water in a tremendous splash making her way toward the farthest dove.
“You are very good,” said Sam Kenton.
“Thank you,” Jenny smiled. “For a girl, I’ve had a lot of practice... you see there’s this old man who reloads my shells so I don’t have to buy them.
When the black dog finished her retrieves, the Old Man waited for the proper conditions and duplicated Jenny’s double. They alternated shots until there were only two shells in the Old Man’s vest.
“Well, I’ll tell ya little girl,” said the Old Man. “We ain’t doing too bad.”
Jenny was watching her grandfather as his eyes scanned the sky for their last two portions of flying supper. The pain in her throat grew as she studied his face. The shotgun came up to his shoulder, and she saw the walnut stock meet his cheek. The recoil quickly drove his shoulder backward, and somewhere there were two shots and two splashes, and she heard “fetch” and the black dog was swimming and... the Old Man turned to see Jennifer silently sobbing.
The Old Man withdrew the two empties and slipped them into his vest pocket. He gently pulled Jennifer toward him and held her at his side with one arm.
“What’s wrong Jenny?”
Jenny tried to stop crying and attempted a smile.
“I’m sorry... I didn’t mean to do that.”
“Don’t apologize... crying is good for you. Relieves all manners of stress.”
“It’s just not fair. I don’t want you to be sick.”
The Old Man patted her shoulder. “Here, sit down. Let’ talk about it.”
Jenny wiped her eyes and sat down. The black dog was sitting at the Old Man’s side with a dove in her mouth. Sam Kenton took the bird and sent the dog back for the remaining dove.
“I am not ready for this,” she whispered. “You are not just my grandfather, you know. You’re one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and it hurts so bad to think of losing you.” Jenny paused and then looked directly at her grandfather. “It is just not fair.”
The black dog came dripping out of the water and presented the bird to the Old Man. He took it and patted the dog once between the ears.
“I want you to listen Jenny ‘cause what I’m about to say is very important... O. K?”
“The heart is a very wonderful part of us. You can tell your heart to dwell in a positive mood, or allow it to become bitter and negative. Bitterness is not productive and leads to discontent. You may stay there if you wish, but I hope you are smarter than that. I hope that I have taught you better than to dwell in unhappiness....”
“Now, let’s study on ‘fair’, but remember that a man can’t properly understand ‘fair’ or ‘pain’ until he understands about the heart first. Pain and suffering are the price one must pay for his own happiness. It is so obvious that this is true. One must have the I.Q. of an opossum to not notice that life... all life... involves pain and suffering. Human compassion has its price... love has its price. It means that you hurt when others hurt. It means that the thought of not being around the people you love hurts. Now, the big question is whether or not the pain one suffers was a good bargain in relation to the happiness he’s found. Along the way, if we all have the sense to study on such things, we will ask ourselves if the joy in life was worth our individual pains.”
The Old Man paused. “For you see, Jenny, the only choice we have in the matter is how much happiness we can find along the way. And it is so easy to build up your assets, if we have an understanding of those things that bring real happiness... like late September days when the air is cool and crisp and there is a real feeling of belonging to this whole wonderful land. Or the love of your family... memories of children and past pains that you realize were worth their burden for they added to your character in an honorable way which may have made someone else’s pain more bearable.”
“Fair?” the Old Man questioned. “There is nothing fair about being thrust into this world, with all its pain and happiness. We had absolutely nothing to say about it, but because I’m not excited about pondering the alternative, I look on life as a pure gift.” The Old Man slowly raised an index finger. “A gift, Jenny, because my happiness so outweighs the pain that even death cannot steal it. I’ll pay my own pain....”
Three doves passed overhead, and Jenny watched the Old Man follow the birds with his eyes. “I’ll pay it... and still beat it.”
Jenny watched the doves disappear into the sinking orange sun until they were just moving dots above the trees. She turned to the Old Man, but could not speak. She smiled at her grandfather who cradled a scarred, old double Ithaca like a child.
“I can beat it with that sunset. That sunset alone can beat it, or the memory of you at fourteen after your first shooting lesson, or a thousand sunrises in a duck blind, or any one of a thousand campfires, or any child that ever fell asleep in my lap, or any one of a million memories of your grandmother... the pain of death can simply not compete.”
“I love you so much,” Jenny whispered.
The Old Man reached out and gently touched her cheek with his hand.
“I’m so proud of you,” smiled Sam Kenton.
Jenny wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and tried to laugh. “It’s hard to believe that some people think the sole purpose of a dove hunt is to shoot things.”
The Old Man laughed out loud and put his arm around her shoulder.
“C’mon child, let’s go cook up these wonderful birds for supper and celebrate this glorious late September day in a proper manner.”
“Yeah,” laughed Jennifer. “Before you turn into a duck.”
And they walked slowly around the rim of the farm pond toward the now visible lights of the house on the hill. The dog walked peacefully at heel looking up occasionally in hopes that the Old Man would reach down and touch her head, as he had gently done a thousand times before.