Department of First Stories

A Coon Dog and Love

by John Gastineau

No cops, praise Jesus. But if they’d come and if they’d asked, I’d’ve told them: We were just some guys standing around a pickup looking at a coon dog.

J.T. raises them, trades in them some. Me and Spank were at Lonnie’s splitting wood when he rolled up. His pickup’s just a mite, a little red S-10, but it’s pretty near new and J.T. acts like it’s a Silverado. He had the dog, a pup, in the back in a plywood crate, chicken wire for a door. The only paint on the crate was J.T.’s initials sprayed on drunk in green. He’s just pretty much trash.

J.T. put a cloud of dust up our noses when he jacked the mite to a stop on Lonnie’s bare-ass yard. He stopped so close to our work I could’ve hit the mite with the maul if I’d been swinging.

It was hot and me and Spank’d been at it for the better part of that Saturday, and we were sweaty and rank. When J.T. lighted from the mite, first thing he says is: “You’d think you loafers’d be damper for all the splinters you got laying around. Nobody ever teach you to stack her as you go?”

J.T.’s quick to pick a scab. Spank, in fact, had been loading splits into my truck, which is a Silverado, but not near as new as J.T.’s, so he shot J.T. the bird.

The deal was we could take two, three trees out of the woods around Lonnie’s double-wide each year if we’d cut them up there and leave him a winter’s worth stacked close where he could get to it without having to put his coat on.

He didn’t have to but, used to be, Lonnie’d help. Me and Spank appreciated it. Lonnie’s a little short guy, but he’s broad and hard across his shoulders and back ’cause he lifts in his garage at night after work and he’s got a lot of energy. When he splits and me and Spank haul, he’ll run a rick or two ahead of us so it doesn’t pay to get too close to him. He won’t stop stooping and swinging, so duck in close, you’re liable to lose your mind.

We make trailers at the factory. Lonnie’s our supervisor. J.T. thought he should’ve got it. Likely he figured good looks and seniority’d carry the day, except J.T.’s always acted like he shouldn’t have to work with his hands as much as his rate of pay requires. That’s why J.T.’s never went in with Spank and me on the wood deal. Bosses probably sensed it too, picking Lonnie over J.T.

Only recently, since he got promoted off the line, seems Lonnie’s come round to J.T.’s way of thinking. Last year or so, he finds something else to do when me and Spank show up. This year, when we honked to be polite, he stumbled out the double-wide in a wifebeater and boxers and said he had a ballgame to watch.

’Course, that puzzled Spank. He sometimes needs to be reminded to breathe, but least he knew ball games don’t start at seven on Saturday. Me it made ’bout half mad but I needed the wood.

Then Deb poked her head out the door. That made things better. Spank and me would’ve come for a minute, two of Deb, even if the wood weren’t free.

My mother used to say this girl or that girl was sweet and I never understood exactly what she meant, but surely Deb’d fit that category. She’s petite and dimpled, and you see a lot of the dimples ’cause she smiles when she talks to you and she always talks to you. She seems like she wants to hear whatever you have to say, and if she’s going to talk about somebody, she says kind things about them, and she does kind things for them.

Deb’s a nurse, works for Doc, and I ’spect people who come to see Doc come more to see her than him. She’s refreshing, like spring water on a hot day. She took care of my mom when she was dying.

Those who might know say she gentled Lonnie when he come back from Iraq that second time. I couldn’t tell you. Lonnie won’t talk about his service. I do know they married not long after but they never had kids.

Deb said to me once when I was helping her turn Mom she couldn’t and maybe it was just as well since she spent all her care at work. Not a lot of dimples there when she said it. I’m guessing the situation made her and Lonnie tight, surely more so than some.

Deb looked like she just got up too. Her hair was messed, and she wore a red T-shirt that looked too big on her. Nothing else either, far as I could tell.

She said hi to Spank, then me, and asked after our families. Then she said to Lonnie, “Let them take care of it,” and grinned at him in a way she didn’t at everybody else. Lonnie nodded, slid his eyes over at us, and went back inside.

Must be, both of them were baseball fans, though all we heard coming from the double-wide that day was country off and on. Sounded first like Little Big Town.

“I swear,” Spank said when they went back in, but, I mean, who ever knows what his understanding of a situation is?

Didn’t see them again until J.T. showed up, not long after noon. Deb stuck her head out. Didn’t look like she’d got far with the hair and makeup. When she saw who it was, her mouth opened like she was ’bout to say something and closed like she thought better of it. She smiled a little nervous at J.T., then us, and ducked back inside.

I could hear some low talk under the songs of that Lambert woman, and Lonnie come out not long after. Still had the wifebeater, but he’d pulled on some jeans and a pair of work boots. Can’t say he looked a whole lot happier than the last time we’d seen him. I noticed the music’d stopped.

“You’re pretty for a Saturday,” Lonnie said to J.T., and he was. Clean jeans, snap-front shirt, and cowboy boots that winked when he walked they shined so good. He smelled good too. You could smell him where we was, fifteen, twenty feet away.

J.T. give Lonnie no more than a courtesy snort. He said, “Got a dog for you.” He was looking at the doublewide when he said it.

“Don’t want a dog. Deb says I shot enough animals to last a lifetime already.”

“That’s surprising. She’s a woman that likes a dog.”

Lonnie tucked a finger in his belt and pulled his mouth tight.

“You would know that how?”

J.T. finally looked at Lonnie. “I ’spect you told me.”

Too quick, J.T. reached over the side of the mite, opened the door on the crate, and yanked a bluetick pup out by the scruff.

“How you going to turn down a dog pretty as that?” says J.T. He held the dog up, offering him to Lonnie, but his eyes were back on the doublewide. Dog seemed aimed that way too.

The dog’s head was black and the rest of him speckled black on white. A white Y rode upside down on his nose. There was a car’mel dot above each eye, close to the nose. They made him look worried or curious, depending on how he held his head. When my dad used to say something was pretty as a speckled pup, he could’ve been thinking of that dog.

Deb come out ’bout then, I suppose to see the dog. Now she had on a yellow T-shirt, extra-short, cutoff jeans, and sandals. She’d combed her hair and put on just enough makeup so’s her eyes grabbed yours. As usual, conversation stopped.

“Who’s that pup for?”

J.T. had to clear his throat before he said, “You,” in his big-balls voice. Then, a little more quiet: “If you want it.” I’d never seen him shy before. He seemed to be having a time keeping his eyes above her neck.

She took the dog into her arms, flipped him over onto his back, and rubbed his belly and up under his chin.

“What’re you calling this guy?”

“Owner ought to name him,” J.T. said. “Why don’t you do it?”

“I like Grady.”

She looked to Lonnie to see what he’d say.

“That’s not the way you treat a working dog.” Lonnie tipped his chin toward the way she handled the pup.

“’Course it is. Everybody needs a little attention.” She held up one of the dog’s ears, stroking the outside of it with her thumb like it was satin. “Some affection.”

Lonnie studied the woods. Acted like he needed time to measure the truth of it.

“It’s a fine name,” J.T. said. Lonnie bit his lips.

After things were quiet for a minute, Deb said: “He’s bigger than last time.”

Spank and me were gathering up splits and kindling and I was trying not to eavesdrop, but damn, that kind of brought my head up. Lonnie, too.

He considered Deb. She’d dropped the tailgate on the mite and taken a seat, googy-talking and rubbing the dog in her lap like she hadn’t said a thing.

The look Lonnie gave J.T. was hot, sparky. Enough to arc-weld a trailer hitch, but J.T. took it with a cocksure grin and not one blink.

“How much?” Lonnie said.


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Copyright © 2017. A Coon Dog and Love by John Gastineau

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