The little redheaded boy found his grandfather on the porch swing, late at night. The old man was whittling basswood, listening to a ballgame on the radio. The kid let the screen door slap behind him. The boy wore Evel Knievel pajamas.
“What’re you doing up?” said the old man. “Couldn’t sleep?”
“Had a bad dream.”
The old man patted the swing. “Step into my office, Kemosabe.”
The kid climbed onto the swing and leaned against the old man who smelled like burley tobacco, Old Spice, and sweat. The crickets were singing their aria.
“I’m scared, Granddaddy.”
He resumed carving. “Hush now. Ain’t nothing to be scared of. Just a dream.”
The ballgame droned in the background. The Braves were playing the Cardinals and getting shelled.
“What’re you carving?”
The old man held up the block of basswood. “It’s a dog. Hunting hound. This is Shelby.”
The boy looked at the crude canine figurine. It looked more like a deranged ferret than a dog.
“I know it ain’t pretty,” said the old man. “But she ain’t done yet.”
“My old dog. I got her when I was a little older’n you. I found her. She was caught in a mess of barbed wire in our east field. Nobody knowed where she come from so I took her home and kept her.”
“That was a long time ago?”
“You have no idea.”
“Was she a good dog?”
He inspected his wooden handiwork. “She was.”
“Tell me about her.”
“Well. Old Shelby came ever’ where with me. One time I took her to a church dinner on the grounds. She embarrassed me so bad when she jumped on the table where all the fancy dishes were. Looked like she was surfing. Broke ever’ piece a china.
“I had to work a custodian job at the church that summer for punishment, sweeping the floors, touching up the pews with wood stain.”
The boy watched the old man man’s hands move like an artist’s with his butter yellow Case XX knife. It was witchery watching him work.
“‘Nother time, me and Shelby was walking through town, and I’s talking to this pretty girl, and Shelby—she was a jealous dog—got right up between us and knocked that poor gal down. Got dirt all over her dress, I thought that girl’s mama was gonna gut me. Had to pay for a new dress.”
The old man laughed.
“Shoot, in some ways, that dog didn’t do nothing but cost me money. But she was a good animal. Best animal you ever saw.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, when the hard times came, when ever’ body lost their jobs, when people was standing in breadlines, my family was about to starve. My daddy was dead, we didn’t have no food. Know what Shelby done?”
The boy shook his head.
“Mama would look out the window to that east field in the evenings and see old Shelby come walking up, carrying a rabbit in her jaws, or a raccoon, or a squirrel. Sometimes even a chicken. Shelby brung it right to the porch.”
The old man pointed his knife at the boy. “She fed us.”
“Are you for real, Granddady?”
“Am I for…?” The old man held his right hand upward like a Boy Scout. “Have I ever been known to lie about anything except fishing and taxes?”
The little boy shook his head.
“Few years later, along came the big war. Your granddaddy got called up. We all got called up. We had to go fight and…
“Tell you the truth, we were all real nervous. The day I boarded the bus to go to Amarillo Air Field, Mama, my brother and Shelby was there at the station to say goodbye. Know what happened?”
“Shelby bolted onto the bus with me and sat beside me, she was gonna go with me to basic training. All the fellas were laughing and cheering. But I had to tell her to go on home. ‘Go on, Shel,’ I told her. ‘Go on now, watch over Mama for me.’”
“Then what happened?”
“First time in my whole life that old dog listened. She got off the bus and sat beside Mama, and watched me drive away. Looked to me like that dog was crying. Wouldn’t have blamed her. I know I wanted to.”
The ballgame rose to a crescendo. The crowd roared through the tweed speaker. The old man briefly paid close attention to the radio.
“I was so scared over there in France, you wouldn’t have believed how scared I was. Then I got shot.”
He raised his left arm. “Took a bullet right here.”
The boy inspected the scar. “Did it hurt?”
“Use your imagination.”
“Did you cry?”
“Well, I sure as hell didn’t laugh, if that’s what you mean.”
“What happened to Shelby?”
The old man smiled. “When I got home from R-and-R, I’ll never forget it, I’s walking up the drive, I saw Shelby come running toward me. Her big ears looked like wings. She was old. Her snout was getting white, and she couldn’t see worth a dang, but she was my girl. I got down on the ground and we just rolled around together.”
The old man’s chin began to quiver. This grizzled veteran with the gunshot wound and the soft spot for creatures with collars.
“Shelby died that same year. She went peacefully. It was like she was just waiting for me to get home. I buried her in the east field where I first found her.
“You see, boy, once in every man’s life, he’s lucky enough to find special love. A true love that surpasses life itself. If he’s real lucky he’ll find that love twice. But once is enough. Don’t ever take it for granted once you lay holt to it.”
But by then I was already fast asleep.