When these two get together, anything can happen, and usually does.
We rode in silence for a bit then. Eventually I checked my phone. Still no reception. A lot of southwestern Georgia was that way. Not many people, not many towers. Maybe when we got into a town there’d be a cell tower around. I wanted to see if there was anything from Jerrod. He’d said he’d send me a message every day, and I’d been out of touch since Jim had arrived.
I felt an itch and reached up to scratch it, only to find Fitz’s shoulder next to the side of my face, his hair tickling me. He’d moved so his feet were on the center console. He was staring ahead of us. I looked where he was looking.
We were on one of the back roads Jim so favored. We’d been driving through an area that was mostly woods. The woods had grown to the edges of the road on both sides, making it feel like we were in an endless, roofless tunnel. Then, finally, we came out of the woods to an area where there were trees on one side of the road and farmers’ fields on the other, though some of those fields weren’t planted and were running to weeds now. It was poor country; you could tell that by the farmhouses we’d pass every mile or so, many of them unpainted—or not painted in this century at least.
The road we were on was a mixture of gravel and dirt. It was straight as a Methodist was sure all his sons were, and Fitz was looking far ahead. I could see something up there, and as we drove closer, it seemed to be three people and something else. Something they were looking down at.
We drove up to them, Jim slowing down as we neared. Finally, he stopped. We knew what they were looking at now. A small white dog was lying at the side of the road, and when I got out, I could hear it was whimpering.
“He done it!” was the first thing I heard after that. I looked at the three people then. Two were young boys, about 10 or 11 by their looks. What they reminded me of was, well, me at that age. They were nut brown—pecan rather than walnut—from the sun. They were shirtless, and one was barefooted. The other had flip-flops that looked like they were homemade and probably were. Both wore cutoffs that were so raggedy and ill-fitting that it was easy to see the only thing under them was themselves.
The boy who looked older was the one who spoke, and he was talking to me and Jim. He looked angry. The other was looking at the small dog, and he crouched down and gently touched its head. The dog’s tail twitched.
The third person, a man who looked to be about 50 to me, was dressed like someone who was much better off than those two boys and probably their parents. He saw the boy with the dog and said, “Hey, you, get away from that dog. She needs a lesson, and by God she’s getting it. I’m not done with her yet.” Then he raised his arm, and I could see he was holding a bent-double leather belt.
I heard Fitz begin a slow rumbling growl. He almost never did that! He had to be mighty upset.
The boy saw the belt raised. I was sure he’d scatter away, but he didn’t. He stayed right with that dog, raised his hands to ward off the belt, and gave the man a defiant look.
The older boy spoke again, this time looking at Jim. “He beats her all the time. She ain’t done nothin’. He’s a mean sum-a-bitch. Lives yonder.” He pointed to a farmhouse that looked in better repair than most we’d seen.
“Move, kid. Now!” The man was ignoring me and Jim; his eyes were on the dog and the kid shielding it. “I’m fed up with your meddlin’. I’ll be whippin’ you next!”
Fitz rumbled a little louder. He didn’t like angry voices. Maybe he didn’t like to see the dog lying there, either—or its whimpering. Hard to tell what Fitz thought half the time. Sometimes I got the feeling he was smarter than I was.
The man heard him this time. He turned to look at Fitz—and at me standing next to him. Fitz was right by my side, where he always was. Between me and the man. Funny how he did that.
“That dog better be quiet,” the man said, his eyes showing his meanness. “I’ll whip him, too, he comes close.”
“You’ll lose an arm if you do,” I said, sounding as nasty as he did. “You have no idea what this dog can do.”
That’s when Jim stuck his oar in. “What’s going on here, anyway?” he asked.
“Never you mind. Just teaching my dog to mind me.”
“Yeah, like you always do,” the boy who’d spoken before said, still sounding angry. He turned to look at me. “This time he kicked her and maybe broke a rib! Then he got his belt out! She hasn’t moved much since, and she’s whining. She’s really hurt!”
I walked over to where the dog was lying. Fitz came with me, looking up at the man. The man took a step back. I knelt next to the injured dog and placed a very gentle hand on its back. The dog was shaking. Fitz bent down and licked its face, then looked at the man again. How could he know? But he did.
“She’s hurt all right,” I said, after moving my hand over her body, so softly I was barely touching her, and watching her react. “She needs a vet.”
“You know where there’s a vet’s office around here?” Jim asked the older boy.
“Sure. We can show you.”
“Can you get the dog into our car?” Jim asked me.
“Hey! You’re not taking my dog anywhere.” The man looked outraged.
Fitz’s ears laid themselves back on his head. The rumbling started again, much louder now, and the man took another step away.
“You can come, too,” Jim said. “You need to pay the bill.”
“I’m not paying anything.” The man’s belligerence seemed to overcome his fear of Fitz.
“Then she’s not your dog any longer. Make up your mind.”
Jim’s voice was very reasonable, but I could hear the edge it had then, and the man could, too. He looked at Jim, then the dog, then said, “She’s no fucking good anyway. Keep her.”
“Not me,” said Jim. “But I know a couple of boys who’ll love having her.”
That took the man back a second, and he glared at them, but Jim said, “I’m giving them my phone number. If anything happens to them or the dog, I’ll be back, and I’ll take care of what needs being taken care of. Old Testament stuff. An eye-for-an-eye sort of taking care. And don’t think for a second I won’t. I have a special hate for bullies who mistreat animals, and I will make the time to take care of business.”
I managed to get the dog, a very light and cute female, into the car without it squealing much at all, and without a moment of pause the boys got in, too. The vet’s office was about a ten-miunute drive. The vet confirmed a broken rib. He gave the boys instructions on her care, and then we drove them home after Jim paid the bill.
The boys dressed like they were homeless waifs, but their house was a neat farmhouse, and their mother was dressed in decent clothes. She and Jim spoke while I helped get the dog inside and to the room the boys shared. We made a bed for her, put a dish of water close by and settled her gently into it, Fitz keeping close watch on the entire operation.
Jim did give their mother his phone number. She’d told him the guy who’d had the dog was a grouch and a nuisance, but that he wouldn’t cause any problems. Said he was scared of the boys’ father.
We were back on the road soon after, still headed nowhere in particular. I still had no phone reception. The sky was darkening, and the air felt thick. I had the feeling we were in for one of Georgia’s famous thundershowers. It seemed to me that we should find a motel in a town large enough that phone reception would be good. The road we were on wasn’t much more than a country farm road. It might not lead anywhere.
We eventually came to a highway, and a sign told us Albany wasn’t far.
“Let’s go to Albany,” I suggested to Jim. The sky was much darker now. He looked up, assessed the sky and turned onto the highway, heading west.
We beat the rain by two minutes. Just enough time for Fitz to pee and get into our room before the hail began falling.
It rained and hailed the rest of the day and through the night and all day after that. Georgia can be like that in the summer. We were stuck in our motel room because sometimes the rain got so heavy we would have been unable to see out the car windows even with the wipers going full blast.
I didn’t really mind us being cooped up like we were. We got to talk, and I got Jim to talk about his life more than I ever had been able to before. While we were in that room, stuck together, we had plenty of time the really talk, just the two of us without something going on to distract us. I found out some things he’d done as a kid. He’d always been a risk-taker. Thinking about what he was saying allowed me to see that I’d had that quality myself; I still did. We told each other things we’d done that had scared us when we’d thought about them after the fact but that had simply seemed exciting at the time.
It was an intimate time. I could tell by his eyes that he was fond of me, and that really meant something to a kid who’d grown up lacking affection. Sure, I had parents now, real ones and not the kind my dad had been. Both of them loved me. They made sure I realized that. But Jim was different. He loved me because he did, not because it was expected of him, not because we were a family, but just because I was me. He just loved me for me, and words can’t describe how that made me feel, the sense of self-worth it gave me.
We spoke about how I was doing now, too, all the little things that aren’t important until you talk about them to someone else and somehow put them into perspective. I talked about how it felt living with a real family, with parents who provided structure in my life, and even discipline which, at first, I’d resented, then seen the point of; I’d learned to appreciate it and what it meant about my relationship with them.
Jim talked about his relationships, that he’d never got close to anyone, that perhaps something was missing in his makeup, that it was difficult for him to really let anyone in. He told me that I was the person he was closest to, the one he cared about more than anyone else. He said he was really good friends with his boss, but it wasn’t the same personal bond he felt with me.
We talked about how he anticipated trouble in the groups he infiltrated as part of his assignments, some of the fears he’d had to overcome, some of the tight spots he wriggled out of. He told me how he’d recently removed the firing pin from the weapon a ‘new friend’ had carried, removed it with no idea whether doing so would be meaningful, told me his fear that he might be caught doing it but thinking it could be important, and how that forethought and risk had quite possibly saved his skin. He told me how that felt, knowing he had to be that alert to possibilities. During those talks, I learned how human he was. He was far more vulnerable than he’d ever appeared to me. He hid worries better than I could ever hide mine. But he told me there was an important lesson to be learned from these stories, and that was: he didn’t let his fears interfere with his purpose or doing what he needed to do.
I guessed maybe having someone to talk to about this, someone who cared deeply about him, might have been cathartic. It might have been important to him.
I did have a worry of my own right then, and I told him about it, sharing with him as he had with me. This was more a concern than a worry, but it was troubling me just the same. I’d been trying to call Jerrod since we’d arrived at the motel. His phone seemed to be off. I realized there could be several reasons for that, the easiest one being that he’d forgotten to take his charger with him. Still, it was a worry, a thought that kept playing through my mind in a minor key.
We ate at restaurants the motel clerk suggested. Most weren’t all that good, but Jim said he was used to much worse. I was now used to the cooking I got at home and just ended up tolerating the so-so food we were putting away.
The skies were finally sunny again when we awoke the next day. Jim was eager to be back on the road, and I was, too. I now had a destination in mind. Jim could be happy driving with no place at all as a target, taking whatever roads we came to with no idea where they headed, seeking adventure around every corner. I wasn’t like him in that regard. I liked to be heading somewhere specific. And now I had that place. We could go visit my new dad’s sister, I’d touch base with Jerrod, and that would put my mind to rest.
Jim had no objections about heading down into Florida. He’d listened empathetically when I’d told him about not being able to reach Jerrod.
“It’s almost certainly nothing,” he said. “But I don’t mind going there, unless you want to drive the Interstates.”
“No, I’m not in a hurry,” I replied. “It’s more that we’re heading there. That we’re doing something about my problem.”
We had breakfast and were putting things in the car, Fitz already sitting in the backseat ready to head out, when the skies rapidly darkened. More rain! More thunder and lightning. The skies opened once again, and someone up there began dumping water by the bucketful. All the thunder led me to repeating something I’d heard my mom say: that God was grumbling at us. That led to Jim asking me about my beliefs, and me him about his, and we had something else to talk about. We weren’t able to leave till the next day, a Tuesday.
We left after a quick, early breakfast. We were both tired of sitting around in a motel room or a diner. We both liked to be moving. Now we were.
We could see evidence of the storms all around us. When our back roads took us through forests, there wasn’t much evidence we’d even had any rain, but when we passed farms, we could see water standing in the fields and around the crops. It was easy to tell that the ground couldn’t absorb any more than it already had.
It was almost mid-morning when we came on an unusual sight. Jim slowed down and stopped, and we both stared out the car window.
We were right next to a field that had been plowed recently, and there was water in all the depressions. What made us stop was a mule standing in the middle of the field, and all we could see of him was his belly and above. His legs were completely sunk in the mud.
Standing at the edge of the field was an old man dressed in overalls, just staring out at the mule. Jim and I watched, and nothing happened. The mule just stood there; the farmer just stood there. Nothing.
Jim opened his door and climbed out, and so I did the same. It was a fair walk, but we ambled over to the farmer and finally came up to him. He looked ancient to me, a black man with short white hair and lined skin. I’d have guessed him to be in his 80s, but didn’t really know.
“Mornin’” said Jim, affecting a southern accent. I’d heard him use several voices in the time I’d known him. This was a new one on me. Funny, though. When the man answered, it was in the very same accent.
“Damn mule.” The farmer had glanced at us as we were walking toward him, but now his eyes were back on the mule. “Got hisself stuck. Stupid bassard.”
Jim nodded, and looked out at the mule, just like the farmer was doing. I guessed this was how they went about their business, these farmers, and so I copied Jim’s action. Which meant, I stared out at the mule, too, and held my thoughts in check.
The two, well, three of us, stared at that mule, who stared back but didn’t otherwise move at all.
“Need some help?” Jim finally asked. The sun was hot, a Georgia sun, and I was glad he asked because I was beginning to feel stewed in my own juices after only being out in it for a few minutes.
“Reckon,” the old man said. “Got no idea how to get that fool mule out of the mud. Just cain’t think how.”
“Got a tractor?” Jim asked.
The farmer gave him a quick glance, then his eyes moved back to the mule. “If’n I had a tractor, wouldn’t need a gaddam mule.”
Jim nodded and continued to stare at the mule. I was about to speak, when the man said, “Do got another mule.”
Jim smiled. “Well, then, I’m sure you got some rope. Got some long enough we can reach that mule? The fool one got stuck in your field?”
“And I think we’ll need a harness of some sort.” Jim reached down and picked a long piece of grass and put it in his mouth, took a chew of it, then mused some before speaking again. “If we just put a rope around his neck and pull, and he’s stuck firm enough, likely we’d simply pull his head off. Need some sort of harness going around him somehow.”
The farmer nodded. Then he half turned so he was almost looking at Jim. “Need more’n that. Need a ways to get that rope to that mule. I tried steppin’ in that field and almost sank to my knees, an’ that was right here on the edge where it drains better. Bound to be wetter ’n the middle out where Tom’s at.”
Jim nodded and kept chewing. “Right good problem,” he said at last.
The farmer nodded, too. Like they were communicating inside their heads. The man turned back so he was looking at Tom again, thought another minute and said, “What we need is som’n light, won’t sink none. Person like that, he might be able to get a rope over and hook Tom up.”
Jim nodded, spat, looked at Tom for a spell and then, together, almost like they were synchronized swimmers, without missing a beat, they both turned their heads and looked at me.
The farmer went and got some heavy-duty rope and came back with both it and another mule with a leather plow harness around its neck. While I watched, he fastened ropes to both sides of the collar, then laid each coil on the ground before turning to me.
“Might strip outta them clothes. They’ll just get muddy ’n make y’all heavier, and be hell to wash after.”
“Carrying those two bundles of rope won’t make me any lighter,” I said. I wasn’t even certain I could carry them both. I didn’t see why he should worry about how much my clothes would weigh. I imagined there were twenty, thirty pounds of rope lying there.
Jim had the answer to that one. He spoke to the farmer. “Got any light rope, like clothesline? Colt here could carry that out with one end tied to these ropes, then pull these out to him.”
The farmer nodded and went off to fetch some. Jim gave me an up-and-down look-over and said, “He’s got a point. You ought to strip down, and I mean everything. Be much easier to get the mud off you than your clothes. We can spray you down with a hose after this, dry you off, get you dressed and we’re on our way. If we have to wash and dry what you’re wearing, we might be here all day, most of it spent scrubbing your clothes.”
So that was why I ended up buck naked in the middle of a field of mud. I sank to my ankles every step I took, but no farther. Ankle-deep, however, made it tough enough going, made trekking out to Tom a real job. Each step was an effort, and it was probably 50 yards to where the mule stood, waiting for me. He didn’t have much expression on his face when I arrived. I guessed maybe mules just accepted things as they were. He seemed more patient than I’d have been had the tables been reversed.
Jim and the farmer had discussed the best way to get Tom out of the mud, and had had suggestions, but Jim had finally said I’d just have to see what looked best when I got there. The harness I’d dragged out with the ropes was meant to go around Tom’s neck and chest, and I studied that for a while, thinking how I could make it work. I tried sliding it over his rump and found it wasn’t much of a fit, and it kept sliding off.
“Hey,” I called out to the farmer and Jim. “Can you put some tension on the ropes. If they’ll hold the harness on his rump, this might work.”
So the farmer attached the ropes to Jerry, the other mule, and set him going far enough that the ropes in the mud came up off the ground. I held the harness in place, but as soon as Jerry started straining forward, the harness just slipped. No way I could hold it.
We tried it a couple times more, but it wasn’t going to work. I puzzled on it some, then called in to Jim. “I’ve got an idea, but need to come back in there to explain it.”
Jim nodded, and I made my way back to where they were waiting. Walking back out was just as hard as walking in. My leg muscles were burning by the time I got back out.
I told them what I needed, a couple of strong pieces of canvas about ten inches wide and four feet long. They had to be attached to the ropes so they wouldn’t tear when stressed.
The farmer had us come up to his house and took us to his barn. I thought about slipping my boxers on, but the mud came up past my knees from when I’d been trying to get the harness around old Tom’s rump; putting them on would get them filthy. No way to avoid that. And, what was the point, anyway? So I just left them there with the rest of my clothes.
There was some old canvas sacking from empty feed bags and some tools in the barn. The man got to work and in less time than I expected, he’d fixed up what I needed.
It was back to the field again then. Back into that mud. Man, I was hoping I had the energy to walk back out when I was done. I was beat just trudging through the mud going back to Tom.
I’d decided that the best way to help Tom get out was to put one strap of canvas behind his butt and another right up under his chest behind his front legs. Doing that was harder than it sounds, and it sounds hard to me, just visualizing it. Doing it, I had to get down in that mud to get the straps in place, really down into it. I was glad I’d already hauled that heavier rope across the field; doing that now, tired as I was, wouldn’t have been any fun at all.
I secured the heavy rope to the straps. Jim had had the farmer attach hooks to the end or otherwise I’d never have been able to tie it off; the rope was too thick for that.
When I had Tom all ready, I stood back a little and yelled out to give it a try. The farmer got Jerry turned around and said, “Git, Jerry.”
I looked at Jim and shook my head. Tom and Jerry? Really? But then, they were a couple of old mules owned by an old farmer who didn’t look like he’d ever had anything to laugh about in his whole life, and maybe he’d at one point or another had a bit of whimsy in him. Maybe this had been one of his few chances to show it.
Jerry strained, and the ropes tightened and came up off the mud, and suddenly it was like Tom came to life. His eyes brightened, his body moved forward a little, and then I could see his legs trying to move.
Little by little, he came up and out of the mud, and then was walking! His legs were still sinking in, but with Jerry’s forward trudging, he was able to pull them out each time and move forward. It was very slow going, but Tom was doing his best, and Jerry was doing his bit.
I was walking behind Tom, still only going ankle deep on each step but even that made the walk arduous and my legs had about had it. I plodded on, but finally those legs seemed to come to a decision, decided that enough was enough, and they just sort of collapsed on me; I tripped, falling flat on my face. As I tried to stand up, I found myself sliding forward while trying to pull myself up with my hands, and to my surprise found sliding to be easier than walking. For most of the rest of the way, I just used my hands to pull myself forward, almost like I was swimming. It was still a lot of work, but easier than walking, easier than pulling each foot up out of the mud on each step as I was now using my arms instead of my legs.
Both Tom and I were worn out when we’d reached solid ground.
The farmer and Jim were looking at me. I was darker brown than the farmer was, and I had mud every place one could have mud: hair, ears, nose, toes, fingernails, even the places that don’t see the sun much or ever. Especially those places.
“Need to get y’all to the hose,” the farmer said and began walking toward the old house down the path from the road. I guessed I was supposed to follow. Jim picked up my clothes and came along with me. I gave no thought at all to putting my boxers on. Why bother?
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