It was cold, early morning, and my father and I’d been out hunting duck. There was a little wind, just enough to raise the fog off the water. The current ripped, tugging our skiff all over the creek. The rice fields had been flooded by the North Santee River, a dark winter blue carving through high golden grain—with deer upriver and schooling spottail in the shallows.
The dog came out of nowhere, trotting on three legs down a rickety-looking dock, half-sunk and bleached by sunshine. A black pit mix with a sharp, narrow bark. He was all bones and balls, standing at the edge of the good part of the dock, as if stranded on some lost island. He held his back foot up, hesitating to touch it down.
“What’s wrong with his leg, Daddy?” I asked, paddling from the bow of the skiff.
“Can’t say. Let’s have a look,” he said. “Grab that line and loop it around the piling when we get close.”
The dog looked smaller when we got to him. He was skittish, clumsy as a puppy trying to limp off to where he’d come from.
“Stay put, son,” my father said.
The dock’s planks buckled beneath his waders as he followed the dog. My father’s hair had greyed early for a man of forty, tucked behind his ears under a brown toboggan. He wore a tan and green hunting jacket over his waders. The dog looked confused, curling on his side, as my father squatted down with his hand out.
I was nine years old and remember being excited, bouncing a shotgun on my knee, hoping the dog was okay. That we could take him home and surprise my mother. I couldn’t hear what my father was saying to the dog, but I knew he had a good bedside manner. My mother said she wished I could have seen what he was like with his patients, witnessed his tenderness.
“He’s been bit,” my father said, carrying the dog in his arms. The dog was wet and muddy, his swollen paw throbbing as he set him down in the boat. When I reached for the dog’s foot, he growled, foam bubbling from his gums.
“Goddammit, Jasper. Don’t touch him!” he yelled.
“What got him?” I asked.
“Looks like a cottonmouth.” My father showed me fang marks in the dog’s paw.
The motor sputtered as he spun the skiff around in a hurry, making a thick wake of heavy rollers. The salty spray stung, hitting my face like sand. I watched as the dog’s head bumped against the skiff before we planed off. I turned away from him, staring at the orange crack of the horizon, hoping he would make it back to Rice Hope alive.
Rice Hope Plantation was the only place I ever saw my father happy. He leased the property with three men I didn’t know. We hunted duck in the winter—mallard, pintails, and blue-winged teal. During springtime we went after turkey, then whitetail deer in the fall. I never shot anything. Didn’t have it in me, but I liked being outdoors with him. Growing up, we weren’t close. He never had much for me back home unless there was a ballgame on. But at Rice Hope, he was different. Dogs were allowed in the house and cursing was tolerated. It was a place of playing poker, smoking cigars, and at times, entertaining sweethearts.
The plantation was in the middle of the Francis Marion National Forest, part of the Santee Delta, almost four hundred acres of wetlands, full of alligators and cottonmouths. During the summer, the mosquitos were the biggest I’d ever seen, some the size of my palm.
The house was an empty mansion, with thick white columns. Inside, it was like a dorm, smelled of mothballs, and had no heat or air conditioning. The living room had a bay window overlooking a creek, wall-to-wall turkey and deer trophies, a secondhand sofa, ratty pool table, and stacks of old Playboys scattered on a jittery coffee table. An old RCA television with rabbit ears sat in the corner next to a wood-burning fireplace. Game One of the 1988 World Series was coming on that night—the A’s were playing the Dodgers. I wasn’t going to miss it.
The dog’s tongue slid out and he looked dead. My father put him on the pool table, hurrying out to get his black leather doctor’s bag. When he returned, he was carrying it along with a bow saw. I’d seen him hack the legs off big bucks, but never a dog. I felt sick thinking about it and threw up on the carpet.
“Open those windows,” he said.
I unlatched the windows and raised them, the rotting smell of sulfur rose off the salt marsh and passed through the curtains.
“Hold him still,” he said, loading a syringe. He put the cap in his mouth and thumped the syringe to get the bubbles out.
I watched as the needle tore through the dog’s backside. He whimpered, trying to raise his head a little. The bitten paw had swollen to the size of my father’s hand. The pads throbbing and worn down, rough as sandpaper.
“Are you going to cut it off?” I asked, watching as he tied the dog’s hind leg off above the knee.
“I don’t see any other way, son. It’s the only thing I know to do for him. If the venom’s gotten into his blood, he’s a goner.” He slid the leg over to the edge of the table, hunching over its dark shape and began sawing.
Gail was the first woman he brought to Rice Hope. I was six. At first, he tried to hide her in a way that might seem normal. He said she was one of his patients. I believed everything he told me, the way boys do with their fathers. He took Gail to the good bedroom we never used. Before we brought sleeping bags and stayed in a room with bunks. But now he would make the good room up when we arrived, keeping the door closed until Gail showed up. My mother had no idea he was fooling around. There were others, but Gail was the one he liked most. She kept coming back.
He caught me listening once as I sat on the hardwood floor with my ear against the bedroom door. “Get on outta here, Jasper,” he said, shooing me away with his foot. I kicked the door after he shut it. He came back a second time with a leather belt. “Go back downstairs, son, or I’ll wear you out,” he said, cracking the leather of the belt. I’d taken licks from it before, but I’d never been afraid, not until then. As the door closed, I could see Gail straddling a pillow, rose wallpaper behind her as she covered her chest with a sheet. I ran down the stairs, stomping as I reached the landing. I hid there, listening as he lingered at the top of the stairs to make sure I was gone.
I’d told my mother about Gail a few weeks before we found the dog. My father no longer bothered to hide her. The morning we’d gone hunting had been a rare one. I passed most weekends at Rice Hope alone, playing behind the house, among the azaleas and willows, watching as water moccasins drifted along the creek like sticks.
The dog was out of it, his limp body falling all over the place. I knew seeing his leg get cut off was a memory I didn’t want to keep. Outside the window, a heron fished along the mud banks, strutting with its grey feathers, head like a skunk, the long blue bill built for snatching fish up to swallow them whole.
After the dog’s leg was removed, my father wrapped it in newspaper. I don’t know why, but he put it in a big freezer in the kitchen where other hunters kept venison and fish. It was strange to see a part of the dog missing, a piece that that had just been there as part of a whole.
“Will he live?” I asked.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” my father said.
“How do you know the bite didn’t spread?” I asked.
“I don’t. But if he’s made it this long, it had to be fresh. The venom would have stopped his heart.” He covered the dog with a blanket and loaded him on the couch.
“If he lives, can we keep him? I want to name him Jack.”
“You’ll have to run that by your mother.”
He stared through the bay window at the creek for a few minutes.
“How’s she doing?” he asked.
“Fine, I guess.” I sat on the floor, stroking Jack’s ears.
He was quiet, shutting the window and pulling the curtains together.
“Why’d you tell her?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. I didn’t look at him, but could feel his stare burning through me.
“You should’ve known better, Jasper. Men and women are different.” The room was as cold as metal and smelled like bad eggs. He wiped the specks of blood from his face with a rag the way a mechanic does.
“One of these days, you’ll understand. You’ll see it was wrong.” He tossed the rag at me as he walked to leave the room.
“I didn’t mean to mess things up, Daddy.”
“Let me know when the dog wakes up,” he said, then went upstairs.
The stitching around Jack’s nub was loose, unraveling like an old baseball. As I picked fleas off him, I remember wondering if the dog was better off without us, or dead. I thumbed his eyelids open. They were white, moving a little like he was dreaming. Chasing rabbits or ducks, or whatever got him into trouble with the snake. Why couldn’t I forget what I’d done, take it all back?
By evening, Jack showed signs of life. Before he’d had a chance to notice the missing leg, he tried to stand, then turned and began to lick the stitching. His stomach muscles tightened and there was an awful froggish noise as he threw up. I ran upstairs and found my father in the master bathroom. His hair was still wet from a shower. He wore a white towel around his waist as he shaved.
“Jack is up,” I said.
“How’s he look?” my father asked. He stared at me in the mirror, dragging a straight razor across his jaw. He rinsed the blade in the sink and tapped it against the porcelain.
“He puked,” I said.
“He’s probably still drunk from the drugs. I’ll be down in a minute.”
“Is Gail coming over tonight?” I asked.
“She might be. Why?”
“I thought we were watching the World Series together.”
He eyeballed me in the mirror, wiping patches of shaving cream from his shiny face.
“Bring me a beer, will you, son.” He dabbed his face with aftershave. It had a strong, minty smell like chewing gum.
He was sitting on the corner of the bed, talking on the phone when I came back. I watched as first he ran the cold beer against his forehead then drained it in heavy gulps. I could hear a woman’s voice from the receiver. I wished I was home with my mother.
Downstairs, I fed Jack some Nilla Wafers and turned on the World Series. I tuned the rabbit ears to fix the screen’s fuzziness, then sat next to him on the floor. Jack was warm and the soft brown of his eyes looked sleepy. His slack tongue slid off to the side through his dirty teeth.
Gail showed up during the third inning of the ballgame. My father seemed like a different man when she walked in. He put his arm around her waist, kissing her in the foyer. The light was dim, with dead mosquitoes stuck to the chandelier’s glass. He brought her into the living room while he tended to Jack.
“Are his stitches supposed to be loose like that?” I asked.
“Yes, son. The wound needs room to heal.” He ran his finger along the bumpy edges of Jack’s stitching, then gave him a little pat on the backside.
“You’re so sweet, Roger,” Gail said, looking at my father like she was about to cry.
She wore a dress with heels and too much makeup. Her hair was sandy-colored and short like a man’s. She knelt down beside me, pretending to be my friend.
“Who’s your new buddy, Jasper?” she asked.
“Jack,” I said.
“That’s a good name,” she said. Her hand was cold as she combed my hair across my forehead, her nails long and sharp as blades.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened in that moment if I’d asked Gail to leave, if I’d told her about how she wrecked what remained of love between my parents. I imagined how things would have turned out if he’d chosen my mother over her, but I knew it was too late. I could see that he was already gone, that he loved Gail enough to give up his son.
I listened while my father’s voice trailed off, followed by the sound of Gail’s heels softening as they met the bedroom’s carpet. I couldn’t concentrate on the game, so I went out to the yard. I tossed a stone into the creek, which made a quiet little splash. As I got closer to the water’s edge, the wind lifted the willow’s branches, carrying its scraggly hair away with the current. Looking up, I could see smoky clusters of blue stars and somehow I felt bigger, part of the sky—I wished I could migrate the way birds do.
I read somewhere once that some birds have an undiscovered sense, that they can feel pressure changes in their feathers, alerting them of distant weather conditions, telling them when it’s time to leave. Even caged birds experience this period of restlessness, fluttering to one side of their cage each spring and fall.
I’d left the back door open and Jack hobbled outside. He took a few steps, and fell over, learning to walk again. He pushed himself up slowly, arching his chest and neck, dragging his limp, lower half behind him. He didn’t seem to know where he was going. He wobbled over on his side, sniffing at his ribs.
I went to him, kneeling down in the stiff, wet grass to pull up his bottom. He kissed my face, his breath like a small fire. I could hear creek water circling itself in little pools, swirling and moving past. I laid in the grass for a long time with Jack before the porch light came on.
“Jasper!” my father yelled. “Where are you, son?”
I slid across the frosty grass, snapping my fingers at Jack, coaching him to follow me. I leaned against the tree, watching my father’s panic. He was shirtless, his arms crossed to stay warm. He called a few more times, then went back inside for his shirt.
When he returned, Gail was with him. They separated, walking out into the far corners of the yard.
“Jasper!” he said, scanning the yard with a flashlight. “Get back in here!”
Jack was whining, so I covered his mouth. He squirmed loose from my headlock and let out a sharp bark. Their heads turned in our direction, crouching in the dark, the flashlight bouncing off shadows of wet grass as they trotted toward the tree.
“Jesus, Jasper. You scared me to death,” he said, squatting like a catcher behind home plate, his hands dangling between his legs. I pulled my knees to my chest and didn’t say anything.
“It’s cold, son. Come on inside. We can watch what’s left of the game.” His mouth hung open as if he’d run out of things to say. He shook his head and looked back at Gail. “Let’s get Jack back to the house, so I can check on him.”
“My mother knows,” I said to Gail. “She knows about you and him.”
“Stop it,” he interrupted, smacking the side of my head. “This has nothing to do with your mother.”
“I told my Mama everything. About how long it’s been going on.” He hit me again, this time with an open hand.
As I ran off, I heard Jack stumble behind me, my father snatching him up to carry him back in the house. I stopped running when I got to the edge of the rice fields. I knew the gators were active at night. I heard them moving along the marsh banks, like canoes being launched.
I saw Gail’s headlights pull away from the house, then heard the engine of my father’s four-wheeler crank alive. He was wearing a headlamp and sat upright in the seat, his high beams scanning the fields. My hunting pants were torn from snagging briars. When I was running, I hadn’t felt them lashing at my skin, but after I’d stopped, the places on my legs where the skin was torn burned in the cold dark.
The first thing my father said when he found me was not that he was sorry, but that Jack was in trouble.
“I’m afraid he’ll die. But I can’t help him if I’m out here searching for you,” he said.
“Stop lying.” I crawled out from behind a tree, held my hand up to see past the four-wheeler’s lights.
“His leg might be infected and he’s running a fever.” He revved the engine once, then left it running in park. The sputter of the engine felt close, drowning out the calls of stray birds and night bugs.
His hand felt strange when he placed it on my shoulder. He moved it gently to the side of my face where he’d hit me, then brushed my temple with his thumb.
“She’s gone,” he said. “I sent her home.”
My father had a way of never saying things head on. Never admitting he was wrong or saying he loved me. It no longer bothered me the way it did when I was a boy. Years later, I realized he’d sent Gail away because the fields were dangerous after dark. But that night I fell for it, and went with him back to the house.
We made a big pallet on the floor to watch what remained of the game. We were not Dodger fans, but rooted for them because they were the underdog. Kirk Gibson hadn’t been expected to play because of his injured knee. We listened as Vin Scully called the game with a full count and the tying run on second base. We saw Kirk Gibson step out of the batter’s box, dust off his cleats, bad leg and all; saw him shake his bad leg like a troubled horse getting rid of a fly, before hitting a walk-off homer.
When something amazing like that happens, you remember where you were. The whole day faded into something new, some rare joy I would never feel between my father and I again. For a long time, we stared, spacey-eyed, into the fuzzy RCA as the picture skipped, watching replays of Gibson limp around the bases, pumping his fist as he trotted past second.
Memory can’t breathe life back into someone and make things exactly the way they were. It only gives you a flash of someone, either good or bad, nothing in between. When I return to that night at Rice Hope, I remember the grin on my father’s face when Gibson hit the homer. We’d celebrated so loudly that we woke Jack, laughing at how we’d startled him into a barking frenzy. I will never forget the excitement in Vin Scully’s voice as he announced: “High fly ball into right field, she is gone!” For a moment, one of life’s simplest pleasures had passed between us. I remember how my father brushed the back of his hand softly against my puffy cheek. How he didn’t say anything when I told him I wouldn’t tell my mother what happened.
We stayed up all night nursing Jack, who lived for eleven more years, sitting in silence on our pallet in front of the television long after the game ended, listening to the soft coo of his snore. As I watched my father by Jack’s side, I knew he was capable of nothing cruel, but that even when together, we were alone.
He and Gail eventually married and had kids of their own. I never saw them much. I was in college at the Citadel when my father died. Gail phoned a few weeks after the service. She had put together of box of his things for me. Trying on one of his shirts for her felt strange, his aftershave still on them.
“You look just like him,” Gail said, smoothing out the shoulders of his shirt to make sure it fit. Her hair was still blonde, but longer, cropped behind her ears. “How’s your mother doing?” she asked.
“Fine,” I said, “she’s doing fine.” Gail looked at me like she expected me to say more.
Maybe if I had said something else, she would have understood that I had a regular sort of childhood in Charleston. That my mother made the very best of my father’s absence. That in some small way, we were better off without him. Standing there in Gail’s bedroom, I promised myself that I’d grant her whatever mercy she was reaching for. Time has a funny way of doing that, of making bitterness easier to bury. When someone dies, you have no choice but to accept it. I felt relieved that the distance between my father and I was no longer ongoing, that it was over.
“Roger talked about you a lot,” Gail said. She moved to leave through the open bedroom door, touching the knob and twisting it out of habit.
“What did he say?” I asked.
“He wished things had been different. He knew he’d hurt you and was afraid for you that night at Rice Hope. I’m not sure what he would have done if something had happened to you.”
We discussed that night as though it belonged to a period of time that had come to an end. Being alone with her in the bedroom, it seemed like we were traveling through the same memory of him, one full of regret and comfort. My father’s absence felt real for the first time, yet he remained a part of us that could not be removed.
Outside I heard rain softening the edges of leaves, running down the window in blurry floods. Gail’s kindness moved me and when I said goodbye to her, it felt more like we were old friends who knew each other’s secrets.
As I grow older, it’s hard to remember my father in specific ways. He was a small, shy man who loved baseball and hunting birds. He was not an easy man to love, but my mother and Gail both found a way. I didn’t know it then, but I was the only thing holding my parent’s marriage together. I believe now part of him wanted to get caught, to make his leaving easier.
Women have come and gone from my life like seasons. They seem to know ahead of time that I’m not the type who settles down and starts a family, that I’m afraid of wrecking things. There’s a part of me who wants to find out what kind of father I’d be, but deep down I know I’d be just like him, hiding in the woods, chasing sweethearts.
I never had the chance to see his bedside manner, except with Jack. I miss that about him, that there was promise between us. Rice Hope gave us that for a short time—being outdoors together in the early quiet as the day opened up, watching heron fish along the mud banks, with their skinny legs doing a little Mick Jagger strut.
I think about my father every now and then, when the cool fall air brings the ducks down from the north. I watch them fly in pairs, crossing a pale line of low clouds on the horizon. If I had wings, maybe I’d take a walk in the sky and be a boy again. Maybe when I got beyond the sea’s eternal movement, where the water meets the clouds, I’d see Gibby pump his fist as once again he rounds second base.
Randy Shelley’s work is forthcoming in Kestrel and he is currently at work on a collection of stories. He received an MFA from Hollins University. He lives in the mountains of Southwest Virginia with his fiancé (a poet) and their four dogs.