A Shiloh Christmas
YOU KNOW HOW SOMETIMES YOU look back on a simple, ordinary day, and you wonder why things couldn’t be like that forever? Why just loving your own dog wasn’t enough?
My dog’s simple, all right, and next to getting his belly scratched, Shiloh’s favorite thing in the whole world is rolling around in deer poop. Guess who has to give him a bath. The girls have their bathing suits on already. Once a wet dog goes to shaking himself, anyone within ten feet ought to have an umbrella.
I put a big plastic laundry basket under the pump in our side yard and start working the handle up and down. The very second that water splashes out, I see Shiloh’s tail disappear around the corner of the house.
“Here, Shiloh!” Becky calls. Only turned four last
week, and her voice don’t carry even as far as the back porch.
So Dara Lynn gives it a shot. Got her head and arms through the tire swing hanging from our box elder tree. “Here, Shiloh, Shiloh, Shiloh!” she yells, as the tire turns her round and round.
But we could call that dog till the moon comes up, and he’d still make like he didn’t hear. Shiloh’s learned by now that the worse he stinks, the sooner he gets a bath. Ma comes out with the teakettle and pours it all into the basket to bring up the temperature of the well water.
“Pull it out there in the sun, Marty, so he won’t get so cold,” she says before she goes back in.
Hard to see how anyone can get cold on a hot July day like this, the dry grass crunching every step I take. But I pull the basket out farther into the yard. Now comes the hard part, and Becky knows it’ll be a while, ’cause she’s got a little matchbox with a paper sail, and she comes over to float it in the laundry basket while she waits.
I walk around the house to where Shiloh’s hiding under the front porch steps. Have to go through this every time Shiloh gets a b-a-t-h.
“Come on, Dara Lynn, and help,” I yell.
Dara Lynn works herself out of the swing and walks
around front. She’s already outgrowed the bathing suit she had last summer, and it’s stretched tight across her stomach.
We both know what to do. I make like I’m going to crawl under from one side of the steps, and Dara Lynn pretends she’s coming in from the other. Sure enough, my beagle scampers out from between the steps and in two seconds flat, he’s up on the porch looking down on us, like it’s only a game.
We both lunge at him, but Shiloh’s too quick. Goes racing around the front yard in his “crazy dog” act, and the minute we give chase, he’s under the steps again.
Ever since I read about the brown recluse spider and told it to Dara Lynn, we neither one of us will go crawling under the porch or anywhere else like that. It’s been ten minutes now of trying to get my smelly dog in that bathwater, and Ma won’t let him back in the house until we do. He’ll give in finally, like he always does, but Dara Lynn and me are both hot and tired of this nonsense.
“You know what this means,” I say.
“Yeah,” she says, sitting back on her heels. “Let’s do it.”
So I go in the house and come out with the vacuum sweeper, the only noise Shiloh hates worse’n motorcycles.
Don’t even have to turn it on. Shiloh sees the nozzle coming toward him, and he is out between the steps, running around the house, Dara Lynn and me after him, leaving the vacuum on the grass, and the next thing happens so fast I almost miss it:
Becky’s decided to cool herself off and is sitting there in the laundry basket, chubby little arms and legs hanging over the sides, and Shiloh jumps right in on top of her. Figures he might as well get it over with.
Water everywhere, and for a couple seconds Becky just blinks and wipes her eyes. Then she sees poop on her arm.
You never heard such screeching, not even if you closed the refrigerator door on your cat.
Becky’s trying to get out of the laundry basket, Shiloh keeps turning around and around on top of her, and Dara Lynn is bent over double, laughing herself silly.
“I’m poopy!” Becky screams as Ma comes out the back door. “Get it off me!” And now it’s on her bathing suit and in her hair.
“Marty, what in the world . . . ?” says Ma, like it’s my fault.
But right then the laundry basket tips over and the dirty water splashes all over Dara Lynn.
“Yaaagh!” she bellows, pulling her bathing suit out
away from her body to make the poop fall off, and she’s dancing up and down, hopping on one foot, then the other.
Ma sighs. “Get the hose, Marty,” she says. “This is sure a waste of good water.”
Ma washes Becky’s hair, I wash me and the dog, and Dara Lynn scrubs herself twice just to make sure.
I hold Shiloh’s muzzle with one hand as I dry him off and look into his big brown eyes. “You are a barrel of trouble, you know it?” I whisper. And when I’m sure Ma and the girls can’t hear, I tell him, “Most fun I’ve had since school let out.”
Wish now I could have held on to that fun a little longer—made it last all summer. But there’s not a single person ever knows for sure what’s coming next. And whenever I get to worrying about it, the “it” is usually J. T.—Judd Travers. And I’m thinkin’ now that the only other time I seen Shiloh hide under the front steps was when Judd Travers tried to take him back.
One difference between a dog and a boy is, a dog never asks why. I got a hundred whys in my head. You think a dog wonders why he was born or why he’s got a tail?
But if Shiloh ever did think why about anything,
he must have wondered why Judd treated his dogs so poorly. Why, if they meant so little to him, wouldn’t he just let ’em go?
But now that I’ve earned Shiloh fair and square from Judd, Shiloh knows he’s part of our family. Ma forgave me for hiding Shiloh up in the woods, Dad forgave Ma for not telling him about it, and I figure the whole community has almost forgiven Judd for the miserable man he used to be, before he rescued Shiloh in the creek and showed he had some heart. I can’t never thank him enough for that. But I can’t ever seem to quit worrying about how long the peace will last.
We sprawl our scrubbed bodies around the living room, playing with Tangerine, the cat I gave Dara Lynn for Christmas last year. Got a couple feathers tied to the end of a string, and you just wiggle that along the rug and this cat does a twelve-inch leap off the floor, then pounces to the left; leaps again and pounces right. . . .
Dad comes home, drops his mailbag on a chair.
“You kids makin’ that cat crazy again?” he says.
“Had one crazy animal around here today, and that was enough,” says Ma, nodding toward Shiloh, who’s on his belly now, lazily watching the cat.
“And he got us all poopy!” says Becky.
“Well, can’t have that, can we?” says Dad. Goes out
in the kitchen and draws him a big cold drink of water from the faucet. If my dad was a dog, I think he’d be either a boxer or a mastiff. Got a square face and a nose just shy of calling big.
“Saw Judd when I made a delivery at the hardware store,” Dad tells Ma. “He was buyin’ a metal awning to go on his trailer. Wants a place he and his dogs can sit out in the shade.”
“That’s a nice idea,” says Ma, her knife going chop, chop, chop as she dices some celery there at the counter. “Maybe he can invite a few neighbors over once in a while—show a little friendliness. He’s not the only one out there on Old Creek Road.”
“I don’t know,” says Dad. “He was having an argument with the clerk. Asked if he could bring the awning back if it didn’t fit, and Mr. Bowers, he tells him not if it’s dented. Judd wants to take it out of the box and make sure it’s not already got a dent in it.”
Dad sets his glass on the table and grins. “They were still goin’ at it when I left, but no shots fired,” he jokes.
Problem, I guess, is that Judd’s not changed enough to suit some people. Not fast enough to suit anybody, that’s for sure. He don’t keep his dogs chained and hungry, the way they used to be, and they like romping around that fenced-in backyard. I haven’t heard any
more complaints about him trying to cheat Mr. Wallace, either, and he don’t swear around Ma, leastwise where she can hear it.
But he still spits on the sidewalk no matter who might step in it. Still honks the minute the light turns green if the car in front don’t take off that split second. He’ll sometimes walk right by a person down in Friendly or Sistersville and never say “good morning” even when they say it first. With people wanting so hard to like him once he’d saved Shiloh, wouldn’t you think he’d try to make it easy for ’em?
“He’ll never make friends if he’s always looking for an argument,” I say.
“Marty, people don’t change all at once,” Dad tells me. “You need to have a little patience with Judd. Old habits are hard to break.”
“Just think on how you still forget and leave your shoes where people can trip over them,” says Ma.
“And you go right on using my pencils instead of sharpening your own,” pipes up Dara Lynn, all eight years of her sassiness making themselves heard.
But Becky walks over and hands me one of her animal crackers to show that somebody in the family is on my side, and I feed it to Shiloh just to pass the favor along.
It’s the driest summer West Virginia’s had in sixteen years, the Tyler Star-News says. Last spring, Middle Island Creek was so high Dara Lynn almost drowned in it. Now each day, it seems, the water level drops some more, and things get uncovered that never should have been there in the first place—a baby carriage, for one. A stove top, another.
But it’s a good season for fixing up a place, and Dad’s building an extra room at the side of our house. It’ll be a big bedroom for him and Ma, so I can have their old one. My sisters got the bedroom I used to have. Two girls in two beds meant I got the living room couch.
Dad thinks he’ll have the new room done by Christmas, and I can’t wait. Then when David Howard comes over to spend the night, we’ll have a door to close, and believe me, I’ll have a lock on it Dara Lynn won’t be able to open in a million years.
Only chance Dad has to work on it, though, is Sundays. The other six days of the week he’s a mail carrier, driving the back roads in his Jeep. Starts his day up in Sistersville casing mail for over three hundred families. After he delivers that, he drives to the post office in Friendly and does the same thing there. Pulls up to each mailbox along the road, lifts the flap, and stuffs the letters inside.
Sometimes I go along to help, especially when the new catalogs come out. What I like best is when I open a flap and find that Mrs. Ellison has left him a piece of walnut cake or the Donaldsons have put in a loaf of banana bread. We eat it right there in the Jeep.
On this last Saturday of August, though, David Howard—my buddy—bikes up from Friendly after lunch, and we’re setting out with my wagon along Middle Island Creek, looking for empty bottles I might get the deposit back from Wallace’s store. Aluminum cans I can get a few pennies for at the junkyard. Everything I earn goes toward the bill I owe Doc Murphy for sewing up Shiloh after that old German shepherd attacked him. That was a year ago, not more’n a week after Shiloh come to me a second time, and I’d built him a little shack up in the woods where my folks couldn’t see him. And that old shepherd got in—had Shiloh cornered.
Right now I figure we’ve found about a dollar forty cents’ worth of cans and bottles, but we’ve also got us an August sun so hot it’d melt the candles on a birthday cake, wouldn’t even have to light the match. Shiloh trots along beside us, but I won’t let him go in the water.
“How much more do you owe Doc Murphy?” David asks me.
“Not sure,” I say. “May be an old man by the time it’s paid off. But I do yard work for him sometimes too, and he takes that off the bill.”
“You sure must love that dog,” David says, wiping the sleeve of his black T-shirt across his forehead. Got a picture of a dragon on it, breathing fire, which don’t make him any cooler. He’s not got one ounce of fat on his body. Used to be he was heavier’n me, but now every pound he’s got is pure energy.
I can see the white steeple of a small church through the trees up ahead, and David says, “Hear you’re getting a new preacher.”
“That’s right,” I tell him. “Been three years since we had a preacher at all. I can hardly remember the last one. Now the church is all scrubbed up. Ma and the girls are going to service tomorrow, but I’ll be helping Dad build our new addition.”
I’ll be interested, though, ’cause a lot of my whys are in the preacher’s department. Like, last fall, when Dad and I were watching football on TV, a reporter asks this quarterback how come he played so well this time, and the quarterback says it’s all the Lord’s doing. And then, couple weeks later, another team beats ’em, and the reporter asks the guy on this team how he managed to make that terrific touchdown. And this guy just points
one finger toward heaven. What I want to know is what God’s got to do with football, and just whose team he’s on. Makes me cross-eyed trying to figure it out.
“What’s that up there?” David says.
We slog through the weeds and jump a ditch. Shiloh’s nosing around something that looks to be an old wood chair somebody’s thrown down the slope, got one leg broke. Something’s different about this chair, though.
David grabs the back of it and sets it up, all lopsided. It’s got wooden arms, but near the end of each one, somebody’s fastened a big clamp. You can open and close them like a crab’s claw.
“What kind of contraption you figure this to be?” I say.
David studies it a minute. “It’s for holding somebody still, is what I think,” he says. “Maybe a doctor’s chair for giving shots to little kids.”
“Dad could fix that leg,” I say.
“If they’d wanted it fixed, they wouldn’t have thrown it away,” says David. He studies it some more. Then he starts to grin. “Could turn it into an electric chair, you know.”
David Howard has the wildest imagination of anyone I ever met. You could tell him that a man was missing
when he got on the bus at Friendly, and by the time we got to school, he’d have that man’s body shot twice through the head and thrown in the Ohio River. But he’s got me grinning too.
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll take it.” And we both of us carry that chair up the bank and set it in my wagon. I almost laugh out loud, thinking how I’ll play electrocution with Dara Lynn—Dara Lynn in the chair, of course. Don’t know what that new preacher would say about playing that, but it’s something to do the next time I have to watch the girls for Ma.
Back home, though, I carry that three-legged chair to the old shed behind the chicken coop. More I think on it, I give up the idea of playing electrocution with anyone. Too old for that, for one thing. Plus, then I’d have to explain what electrocution was to Becky, and a four-year-old wouldn’t understand the logic in that anymore’n I do.
Going to save it for Halloween—put an old straw man in it, with a square head, arms in the wrist clamps, wires attached to his head, and a metal bolt going clear through it: Frankenstein in the laboratory, right out there on our front porch. Halloween’s a big deal in West Virginia.
While Ma and the girls are at church the next morning, Dad and me manage to get the roof on the new addition, and the waterproof sheets that’ll cover it till we buy some shingles. Wanted to be sure we get this done before it rains, but don’t look like that’s about to happen anytime soon. We’re pretty proud of ourselves, though—still bragging about it while we all sit down to Sunday dinner. Becky don’t want to talk about roofing, though.
“What’s ‘trespasses’?” she asks, pushing all the gravy to one side of her plate so it’s not anywhere near touching her lima beans.
“Sins,” says Dara Lynn, important-like.
“What’s ‘sin’?” asks Becky.
“Anything that makes Jesus sad,” Ma tells her.
Dad’s passing the chicken platter around the table. “So how’d the preacher do? You like his preaching?” he asks Ma.
She don’t answer right away. “I think it takes a new preacher time to settle in,” she says at last.
I figure that’s about as lukewarm an answer can get without any ice on it.
“Wouldn’t hurt him to smile a little,” Dara Lynn says.
“That’s true,” says Ma. “But he’s probably nervous his first day.”
“I sure wouldn’t want preaching for a job,” I say, and wonder if Dad can tell I’ve got a piece of chicken in my hand under the table, and Shiloh’s sniffing it out.
“Marty, quit feedin’ that dog at mealtime,” Dad says.
He can tell.
“Marty always feeds Shiloh at the table,” Dara Lynn pipes up.
“Just butt out!” I tell her.
“Would you two stop squabbling?” says Ma.
“They’re making Jesus sad,” says Becky in a pitiful little voice, and suddenly all of us start laughing. When your littlest sister begins preaching at you, you know it’s time to quit.