Heart Over Mind

Ernie Lee

Heart Over Mind

© 2014, Ernie Lee

School let out early for some reason. I didn’t know why, nor did I care very much. I could hear Momma and Grandma arguing all the way out back to Jack’s pen. Jack was what we called a brindle in those days. He would probably be called a pit bull today, but we hadn’t heard that term in South Texas in the 1950s. He was a big fellow, easily forty pounds heavier than my skinny self. His big old head was square and his massive jaws were black lipped. He had large brown eyes that always looked sad. He always seemed to me like he was trying to tell me something.

Jack belonged to my Uncle Jess who kept him in grandma’s back yard. Uncle Jess wanted Jack to be mean for some reason. Someone stole something from him once, and Uncle Jess wanted to make sure that the next person who came up into the yard would pay. Every time he saw that dog he would slap Jack across the jowls, and grab his snout and roughly shake it back and forth until the dog got angry and began to growl and slobber. Jack hated Uncle Jess, and pretty soon he would growl and get tense any time Uncle Jess came around. But Jack never bit Uncle Jess – not even once.

After a few months of rough treatment, Jack got so mean no one could come around him but me. He’d let me sit beside him after school and pet his neck and rub his shoulders. Anytime anyone else came around, he would jump up and start growling and the hairs on his back would stand up stiff. But, when no one else was around, he was calm, like when he was a puppy, and would look at me with those big brown eyes like he was trying to tell me how mean everyone was to him. He’d growl and bare his teeth at me sometimes especially if I got close to his face, but he never bit me or even tried.

I got closer to the house to see what the fight was about this time. They didn’t hear me come through the back screen. Momma and Grandma were in the dining room facing off, both faces contorted into rage and both yelling at the top of their lungs.

“You can’t just up and run off to Galveston anytime you want to!” Grandma said. “You got kids.”

Momma didn’t like to be told no. She cursed and shouted, “Look! I work my ass off every day for my kids, and I want to go to Galveston on the weekend to go fishing and have some fun. I don’t get any fun anymore! I’m going!”

“And hang out with Bob!” Grandma sneered.

“What of it? I’m divorced, and Bob is good to me, and he’s good to my kids!”

“Yeah, you’re divorced for the second time! Well, it’s your kids you should be thinking of more!”

“Kids! Kids! Damn kids! I should have stayed divorced that first time! I wish I didn’t have no more kids!”

The slap sounded like a gunshot going off! Momma’s sunglasses flew across the room and skidded to my feet.

“DON’T YOU EVER let me hear you say that!” Grandma was yelling. “That boy idolizes you -- he worships the ground you walk on! Those kids love you.”

I reached down and picked her sunglasses off the floor. An audible gasp came out of both of them as I walked into the dining room to hand the shades to Momma. The screaming stopped. Momma took the glasses and with tears streaming down her face mouthed the words, “I’m sorry.” Then, with her hand covering the slap marks on her left cheek, she looked back and forth between me and Grandma, and ran out of the house, got into her red ’57 Chevy, and roared off. To Galveston, I guess.

I stood in the doorway watching her leave. Grandma came up behind me and laid her hand on my shoulder. “Bo, people say things when they’re mad and hurt that they don’t really mean. You know that. She didn’t mean what she said, she was just upset. She’ll be back.”

After I changed out of my school clothes and put my shoes away, I pulled on my old blue jeans and a t-shirt and headed for the back door.

“Bo, I want you to stay away from Jack from now on.”

“Why, Grandma?”

Her hard grey eyes flashed as she fixed me with a stare. I knew she didn’t like to be questioned, but I also knew she’d let me get away with it. She didn’t smile, she rarely did, her features solemn. Her pure white hair, piled high on her head, was impossibly bright in the Texas sun. Sometimes she looked just like an old Indian squaw – but you knew better than to call her that.

“’Cause I told you to, that’s why.” It was her stock answer.

“But, Grandma! Me and Jack are friends. I might be the only friend he has left in this whole world.”

“Bo, Jack is a dog. He don’t know the difference from a friend from nothin’ any more. Jess has made him into a mean watch dog, and when you go inside his territory he will protect it. He’ll hurt you bad one day. And, I can’t have that.”

“Oh, Grandma, Jack would never hurt me. I’ve been his friend forever. He loves me. And I love him, and I can’t just quit pettin’ him. I would break his heart. He wouldn’t understand that. He’d think the whole world was against him.”

“Bo! That dog don’t love nobody or nothing – not you, nor Jess, or anyone. He’s been trained to hate people, and you are people. He’s almost twice your size and he could break your neck in an instant. You stay away from that dog. I’ll make Jess move him out behind the barn tonight. You stay away from back there, you hear?”

I knew there was no use to argue. “Yes, ma’am.”

She didn’t smile, but her eyes crinkled like when I said something funny. She reached out and put her hand on the back of my neck and took me inside. A big, old, black fan was whirling on the ceiling of the dining room, as she opened the ice box. She pulled out a Dr. Pepper which she always drank in the late afternoon. “Come on, you can have a sip of my pop,” she said, “before the others get here.”

It was our secret. Grandma and I had lots of secrets; like the fact that I was her favorite grandchild. She had over thirty of them, but she never shared her pop with any of them – just with me so far as I knew. The cold soda burned as it went down and brought tears to my eyes. Dr. Pepper just doesn’t taste the same these days as it did back then. Then it was stronger and not as sweet. You could taste the flavors better then, than you can now. We didn’t have soda pop on a regular basis – just on holidays or big family gatherings. Those were my favorite times. They would fill up a big old wash tub with ice and there would be hundreds of bottles in that cold, icy water. With an unguarded tub, we’d drink as many as we could fish out. We’d run around with our hands and fingers half frozen, chunking gobs of ice at each other. A different tub would hold the beer. There would be smoky, grilled meat and hand-cranked ice cream. We lived for those days. But this wasn’t one of those days. I’d have to be satisfied with just one sip. Grandma snatched the bottle back and swatted me on the bottom, and shooed me toward the back door.

“You remember what I told you, Bo! – about Jack.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She grabbed me by the collar of my t-shirt, turned me around, and eyed me closely. “I know you. You’ll give me that smile of yours and say, ‘Yes, ma’am’, but I know you are going to do it anyway – just you be careful and don’t let that dog get ahold you! That chicken pen ain’t far enough away! I’m going to have Jess haul that dog off tonight!”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Yes, ma’am!” She mocked me in her version of my voice as I swung out the back door. I could feel her worried eyes follow me into the yard. Grandma knew me better than even Momma did. Grandma never said anything she didn’t mean, and I was sure Jack’s days in the backyard were down to zero. He was a goner!

I knew Uncle Jess would not be home until late. He was out drinking beer and playing dominoes, and wouldn’t even show up for supper. I also knew Grandma was watching me from the kitchen window. So I didn’t even look at Jack as I sidled around the corner where I knew Grandma couldn’t see me. Just to be sure, I reached up into the plum tree and shook a limb like I was after the tart, green plums.

“Stay out of that plum tree, Bo!” came wafting from the house. I knew she was watching. “You’ll get worms! Go feed the chickens!”

I went through the gate in the hog wire fence and headed to the barn. I swung open the rickety door in the crib and opened the corn bin. I filled the coffee can with maize and corn mix and went into the chicken yard, spreading the seed as I walked. The chickens flocked around and pecked the ground around me. I hated chickens! I hated the way they smelled, and how they flocked around trying to beat each other out of the feed, even though there was enough for all of them. I hated the way the soft, warm, chicken shit squeezed up between your toes. I hated the way it crusted up and got hard on your feet if you didn’t get it off right away. It was nasty! I went and stood in the water trough until my feet were clean. The cold water felt good on my feet, and I looked around for a patch of grass that didn’t have sticker burrs to hop into so I wouldn’t get my feet muddy.

I stood on the green grass until my feet were dry, and then went back toward the barn to take the coffee can back. The crib door swung shut behind me, and I sat down on the wooden feed box. The sun was shining bright outside, but inside the stuffy crib it was dim. The old tin on the side of the crib was full of old nail holes and tears, and streamers of beams shimmering through the holes splashed onto the walls and the hard dirt floor. Some of those old nail holes were so old they were from square nails! I noticed for the first time that a sunbeam was almost always round or circular regardless of the shape of the hole it passed through. They were like dozens of tawny soda straws filled with pure light. You could see the bright, square, nail hole full of light, but the beam falling to the floor seemed roundish. Whenever they hit a surface, they changed back into the original shape. I didn’t know why, but Grandma said things were not always like they seemed. The light wasn’t pure either, I could see little specs of dust floating in the soda straws.

I went out the back of the crib on the barn side, and walked down to the path leading to little dry creek behind the house. I remembered the cousins and my sisters should be home by now, so pretty soon there would be someone to play with. So instead of going to the creek I decided to turn back and wait for them, so I headed back toward the house.

As I passed the side yard, Jack saw me and wagged his tail. Just to be sure, I heaved a rock against the side of the barn. When Grandma didn’t holler at me I figured she was busy herding the other kids out of their school clothes and supervising the girls in the kitchen or something. I went over and sat down by Jack and cradled his head in my lap. He seemed glad to see me – he didn’t growl at all.

“Hey! Jack, boy! How are you buddy? See! You’re glad to see me too, ain’t you? You like ole Bo, don’t you? You are a good boy, ain’t you?”

Jack rolled over on his back for me to scratch his belly, then he rolled the rest of the way over so I could scratch his back. His big brown eyes were full of love, and I just knew in my heart he’d never hurt me. I laid my head on his dusty back, and knew that this might be the last time I’d ever see him. Jack squirmed around and licked my face, making those little whimpering sounds he always made. He was trying to tell me he loved me.

Suddenly, I don’t know why, but I decided to hug his neck. I grabbed for his head but missed and brushed against his tender snout instead. He clamped down with those massive jaws on my left hand, and I heard a sickening crunching sound and felt blinding pain! Blood shot out of an ugly gash on my hand. Bright red blood was coming out pretty fast, and I went running, screaming toward the house. I ran headlong into Grandma coming out the back door. She took one look at my hand and wrapped it up in a dishtowel and put me in the pickup and drove me to the hospital.

They got the bleeding stopped, gave me a shot right in the middle of the bite, and I got four stitches in my hand. It wasn’t broken, but it hurt like the dickens. Grandma had a few choice words about that “damned dog” and Uncle Jess as she drove home. She walked me into the yard and told me to go inside and lay down. After about what seemed like an hour, I got up. The sun was sinking in a yellow gold haze of a south Texas late spring. Grandma was sitting on the porch in her chair.

“You ok?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Took a hunk out of you, didn’t he?”

“Yes.”

I looked and saw she had the .410 shotgun across her lap. I knew it was the one she kept behind the front door. I had shot it many times at squirrels and rabbits down by the creek.

“Bo, you have to go shoot that dog.”

“What? Grandma, I can’t do that. I can’t shoot Jack!”

“You have to, Bo. He ain’t Jack no more. Quit calling him Jack. He’s just a dog!”

“Why?”

“’Cause he bit you bad. He’s got to be shot, and I thought you’d want to be the one to do it rather than someone else. What if he gets your sister next time – or the baby? What if he breaks your neck next time? He’s tasted blood now, and he ain’t afraid of people no more. He won’t hesitate to do it again. You know that.”

She handed me the gun. “It’s loaded. Now go on out there and shoot him before it gets dark.”

“I don’t want to shoot him Grandma!”

“Boy! I know you don’t! Sometimes a man has got to do things he don’t want to do! This is one of them times! No go do it, and dig a hole and put him in it and cover him up.”

She pushed the gun into my hands, and I took it and went around the corner of the house. My stomach was doing flip flops, and I felt like I was going to puke. That old gun felt so heavy. I had carried it to the creek and back a hundred times and it never felt that heavy – seemed like it weighed a hundred pounds. I wanted to drag it behind me like a dead weight. Jack sat chained in the yard by the tree wagging his tail at me, and looking at me with those big brown eyes. I propped the gun against a Chinaberry tree and just stood there looking at him knowing what I had to do. I was turning over in my mind that maybe I could unchain him and chase him away down to the creek, but I knew he would just come back. Tears welled up. There was no way out. I had to shoot him – Grandma said. I was overcome with the compulsion to touch him one more time.

Suddenly there was an explosion that sounded right next to my head. It almost blew my ear drums out. At first I thought the gun had fallen over and went off. Jack lurched up and yelped and fell back dead, a gaping hole in his chest – blood pouring out of him. I turned around and saw Grandma with the gun in her hands; swirls of blue-grey smoke was curling out of the barrel.

“Grandma! I was gonna do it!”

“I know you were. I also know you were going to keep loving that old dog if he gnawed your arm plumb off. I can’t have that. I had to shoot him before you got close enough for him to bite you again.”

“I thought if I could love him enough, it’d be ok – he’d be ok.”

I looked up into eyes the color of the gun smoke that curled around her face, and saw the love she had for me, and I felt her fingers curl behind my neck as she pulled me to her. She smelled like Grandma.

“Bo… You can’t make somebody love you – they either do or they don’t. It don’t really matter much what you do, because it ain’t about you. It’s about them – it’s what’s in their heart not yours.”

She handed me a shovel and turned away so I couldn’t see her eyes anymore. “Finish the job. Go dig a hole and put him in it.” She turned and went back to the house – I watched her go. Halfway to the house she shifted the .410 to her other hand, and I thought she wiped her eyes with her apron, but maybe it was just sweat.

I cried the entire time I dug Jack’s grave. I wasn’t crying for Jack. I cried because of what Grandma said.

My mind said she was right. But, in my heart, I knew she was wrong.