4- Sad Times
Two days later, Jim sat in the back of his dad’s Chevy on the way to a funeral. Jim had never been to a funeral before. He had to wear his Christmas suit that was now a size too small. He pulled at his collar hoping to loosen the noose around his neck called a ‘necktie’.
“Quit bumping me.” Walter jabbed him with his elbow.
“It was an accident.” Jim defended.
“I’m going to separate you two and have Tammy sit in the middle.
“I don’t want to sit between these creeps,” she whined. “I need to sit by the window so I can get some air. It’s hot in her. Dad, when are you going to buy a car with an air conditioner?”
“Settle down kids,” dad ordered. “We’re on our way to a funeral to remember old Mr. Anderson. Quit arguing and show some respect. One day, you’ll be glad you have a brother or sister.”
“Yeah, right,” Tammy moaned under her breath. She was a teenager now and wanted nothing to do with her younger brothers.
The car rolled into the gravel parking lot shadowed by the tall, white steeple of the Trinity Community Church. The lot was nearly full, so they had to park near the road under a tall pine tree.
“Hurry up kids, we shouldn’t be late to a funeral.”
“What, are they going to get up leave or something?”
“Walter, that’s enough!” mom scolded. “Mind your manners and show respect for poor Delores. Her husband of sixty years just passed away and you’re making jokes about it.”
Mom humphed, and Walter lowered his gaze to the gravel as Jim broke a small smile; glad he wasn’t the one to get in trouble. Walter saw the smiled and stifled a snicker.
“’There’s nothing good about dyin’, my grandfather used to say,” dad spoke up. “We live our whole life paying bills and buying stuff and all of us will end up the same way.”
Ahead of them, Delores wearing a long black dress sadly climbed the three steps to the church entry. Jim lost his smile and Walter’s snicker changed to a grimace.
Sad organ music hummed out “The Old Rugged Cross” as the family hurried across the lot. The building was full except for an empty bench in the front row just to left of Mr.’ Andersons’s family. He had few relatives, so Delores sat next to her only son holding each other close. She held a handkerchief to her eyes dabbing away a tear.
Old Mr. Anderson lay on an open casket in front of the pulpit with eyes closed and powdered face slack and unmoving. During his life, he loved to joke and laugh but now the jokes were silent and the only laughter a memory in the minds of those left behind.
They were the last to arrive and shyly walked up the side isle and shuffled into the front row seat. Sprays of white flowers bordered the glossy mahogany casket on both ends, and a red wreath from the Veteran of Foreign Wars was displayed in a prominent place next to the pulpit.
Mrs. Lewis chimed out Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling while the pastor stepped up the platform and walked behind the casket. He turned to the congregation and read Psalm 23.
Jim heard only the first few words and was lost in thought for the rest of the service. Old Mr. Anderson lay unmoving on the silk liner with only his nose showing above the rim. Jim looked forward with eyes fixed on the nose of the now departed church usher. He had never noticed it before. All he remembered was Mr. Anderson’s chuckle of a laugh and his big smile of brown stained teeth. He had never looked at his nose and wondered what else he never noticed.
At Christmas, Mr. Anderson handed each child a box of chocolates after the Christmas program. They eagerly grabbed their boxes and outside to gobble down the goodies.
Did I ever say thank you? Jim thought. He would never have the opportunity to say anything again to the kind old man.
Sad quiet, tones seeped from the organ pipes and Jim felt a warm feeling in his eyes. He promised he wouldn’t cry because only babies and girls cry and he was much stronger than that. When he hit his finger with a hammer while building the raft, he didn’t cry. When he tripped over a log and fell into poison oak he didn’t cry.
He tried to think of good things like climbing a tree or playing army, but the lonely sounds of the organ drifted into his thoughts bringing memories of Mr. Anderson. Jim lost his dollar for treats at bible camp and Mr. Anderson gave him a new one and said he found it. When his mom was very sick, he came to visit with his wife and they brought a whole pot roast dinner. After dinner the kind man taught Jim how to play chess. It was still his favorite board game.
The last time he saw him. Was two weeks ago at a church dinner. Mr. Anderson sat quietly at a corner table and didn’t stand up during the singing.
“Now, I’ll never be able to say thank you,’ Jim whispered to himself.
He tried to hold them back, but when the church lady stood up and sang “Amazing Grace without music, the tears poured out of his eyes in streams of warm fluid flowing down his cheeks. He leaned forward and covered his face with both hands but the tears continued to flow. Soon his throat was dry and his shoulders pumped up and down uncontrollably as the grief from the loss of a friend he had known his whole life took hold and brought back smiling images of a kind old man who loved everyone.
Jim cried silently holding in his whimper but letting his tears cover his hands and run down to the floor. Moment later, the lone singer joined with the choir and shouted out When the Saints Come Marching In with joyous enthusiasm. This was one of Jim’s favorite songs and soon thoughts of the kind old man marching in to heaven filled his mind with a more joyful image. He took in a deep breath and wiped his eyes as best he could before looking up to see the whole church standing, singing out the wonderful words of triumph.
His mom slid him a handful of Kleenex and he wiped his face and nose and stood up to try to join in. At first, he only croaked out a few words but when the chorus started, he chimed in slowly and ended with a resounding “Lord, I want to be in that number, When the saints go marching in.”
The song ended, and the pastor prayed another prayer and it was time to leave. Many of the guests walked past the casket to say one more goodbye but Jim was content with remember his friend as he was alive, except for lasting images of his statuesque nose pointing up above the casket.
The family stood to leave, but his mom and dad stopped to turn to Delores and give her a hug and a few words of encouragement. Jim couldn’t look up at her and kicked at a few rose petals on the carpet that fell from one of the bouquets.
Walter joined in and tried to kick one of them away so Jim countered by shoving him and retrieving the white petal with his toe. Walter kicked at his foot and shoved back starting a soccer match with the rose petals.
Mom saw the commotion and slapped both of them on the back of their head and the match stopped.and slapped both of them on the back of their head and the match stopped. Jim realized he was smiling and almost laughing when, just moments before, he was lead to tears by the singing. For some reason, all the sadness he felt inside, made him feel better on the outside. He wondered if it was wrong to feel that way after a funeral. He shrugged the thought off and followed the family out of the church building.
He expected is older brother and sister to tease him for crying, but nothing was said after the funeral and no one ever mentioned the tears.
During the ride home, Jim unclipped his ties and loosened his wrinkled shirt. The summer sun streamed down, hot and steady heating up the blue-sky day. His dad pulled up to the house and as soon as he stopped Jim jumped out of the car and ran upstairs to change into his cutoff shorts. He dumped his uncomfortable black shoes in the closet and threw his suit on a hanger. He ran downstairs barefoot and went to the backyard to find Gruff. Gruff met him lie he hadn’t seen his master in weeks, He bowed his head and licked Jim’s toes waiting for a friendly rub behind his ears.
Jim knelt down and hugged gruff tight who wagged his whole back end because he was happy to be close to his best friend.
“Well Gruff, it’s good to see you.”
Gruff answered by licking his face enthusiastically.
“Eeyyuu. That’s enough. Lets go sit in the shade. It’s hot out here.”
Jim ran to the nearby pepper tree and sat down on the thick layer of fallen leaves. Gruff lay down beside him and curled up with his chin resting on Jim’s leg.
“I went to a funeral today.” He gently rubbed the top of Gruff’s head. “And I never want to go to another one.”
Gruff raised his eyes and looked at him.
“Do you know what a funeral is?”
Gruff said nothing.
“I don’t suppose you do. Well, a funeral is…..hummmm…. a funeral is when you go to church to remember the life of someone who died. I don’t know who started the first funeral, but I guess people have been doing it since Cain and Able.”
Gruff closed his eyes enjoying the neck rub.
“My dad says there’s nothing good about dying. I suppose he’s right.”
He looked down at Gruff and jostled his cheeks.
“You’re never gonna die. Are you boy? I think you and I should live forever.”
Gruff licked his hand.
“Every day we can go down to the creek, you can chase squirrels and I can catch crawdads. We’ll float on a raft and if ol’ man death comes to visit, we’ll kick him in the shins and sail away down the river. He’ll never catch us, will he boy?”
Gruff smile and stood up ready to play for another day. The words sounding like “squirrels” and “chase” gave him the idea to go track something. He sniffed the air, running in circles until Jim got up and together they ran side-by-side down to the creek.
A squadron of golden butterflies, migrating north from Mexico tickled past their faces on their unyielding journey to the Sierra Mountains. Packs of ten and twenty surrounded them as they strolled down the bank to the creek, occasionally swooping close. Gruff nipped at the air hoping to catch one, but each managed to elude his jaws with the staggered flight that only butterflies understand.
“You’ll never catch one, Gruff. They’re too quick for you.”
Gruff jumped high, twisting in the air and felt the flutter of a wing touch his nose and he clamped his jaws shut, but missed again.
“Don’t worry about them. Let’s check out the frog pond. I’ll bet the last of the pollywogs turned into frogs by now.”
Jim ran forward and Gruff reluctantly gave up the butterfly chase and followed at his heels.
Five minutes later they were at the little dam they built earlier to keep in the pollywogs. Small frogs with remnants of pollywog tails lines up along the bank getting ready to leave the quiet pool of water and hop away. Some still swam in the water with small front legs, not ready to leave yet.
“Look at that. Most of them are coming out of the water.”
Gruff leaned closed and sniffed and a green, mossy frog but stepped away, knowing it wasn’t good to eat.
“Look over there. The dam near the creek is washing away. Lets’ go find a piece of wood to shore it up.”
Gruff and Jim left the stream and waded through the tall grass to the pile of old lumber that was once a red chicken shed. Jim picked up a long board and threw it to one side.
“That’s too long. See if you can find a shorter one.”
Gruff sniffed around the woodpile but when he got to the other side, he was distracted by a new sound. From under a small board, he heard a sound like water running from a faucet. He had heard that sound before in the laundry room where he slept. Sometimes a lady would come in to run water from a shiny pipe into a white container on the floor. Sometimes he took a drink from the bucket when she left the room.
He licked his flappy jaws thinking of a cool, clean drink of water. Gruff leaned close and put his nose close to the splintered wood, smelling for the water. A strange, unfamiliar smell came to his nose, smelling of musty rags and dead things. He lifted his ears and leaned down to look in the shadow under the wood. A creature moved in circles making the hissing sound he heard. This was something new.
He lifted his head and yiped one time to his master.
“What is it Gruff, did you find something?”
Gruff leaned close again and a small, brown, thin, scaly creature charges a him from under the woodpile with mouth wide open showed two sharp white teeth.
Gruff squealed and twisted away but the animal sprung forward through the air and sunk both fangs into his shoulder.
“Gruff! Get away! That’s a rattlesnake!”
Gruff howled and Jim ran around the help with a short two by four in his hand. The rattlesnake released the bite and dropped the ground. Coiling up for another attack. Jim slammed the board down hard on the snake knocking it senseless. He smashed it five more times until it lay in a lifeless heap.
“Gruff, are you okay?” Jim turned his attention to Gruff who spun in circles trying to get away from the pain in his shoulder.
“Come here Gruff.”
Gruff hunched down and crawled to his master who always knew what to do.
“We have to get you to a vet. Doctor Janie will know what to do.”
Jim held Gruff tight trying to calm him down. Gruff relaxed and he used both arms to lift him up.
“Stay real calm now so the venom doesn’t travel too far. I’ll carry you up the hill and dad will take you to the animal hospital.”
Walking as fast he could with the load in his arms, Jim made the trip back up the hill to the driveway. When he reached flat ground, he sprinted to house and called out to his dad.
“Dad, come quick. We have to get Gruff to the hospital.
His dad ran out through the front door still wearing his church suit.
“Gruff was bit by a rattlesnake.”
“I’ll get the car. You wait by the driveway.”
His dad ran to the side of the house and jumped into their old green, Chevy. He flipped on the ignition, jammed the car into first gear and throttled forward leaving a cloud of dust behind. He slid to a stop next to Jim who opened the back door and quickly climbed in the back seat with Gruff.
“When did this happen?”
“Just five minutes ago, down by the creek near the old woodpile.”
“How is Gruff doing?”
He seems better now. He howled when he was bit but seems okay.
Gruff looked up and licked Jim on the cheek.
“Maybe the snake didn’t get much venom in him. But maybe he did. We’ll know more when we get to the vet.”
Jim held Gruff close and buried his face in his fur.
“Oh, Gruff, I hope you’ll be okay.” Then he remembered to pray.
“Please God, make Gruff okay. I’m sorry for what I said about kicking death in the shins. In know I have to trust you.”
Jim thought about the funeral he attended earlier in the day and wondered if Gruff would die. Hot tears welled up in his eyes so he pushed his face deeper in Gruff’s fur until he couldn’t breath. He prayed as hard as he could that God world take away the poison and Gruff would be okay. Gruff lay still and quite, feeling his friend sobbing in his fur.
Minutes later they arrived at the Animal Hospital and dad parked in the emergency space. He got out and opened the back door.
“Hand him to me. I’ll take him inside.”
Jim let go and his dad carefully picked Gruff up in his arms and carried him inside. Jim followed, watched the event through blurry, tear filled eyes.
“Remember to trust in God’s goodness,” his dad said as he entered though the glass door.
“Can I help you?” Dr Janie asked from behind a desk.
“Jim said Gruff was bit by a rattler.”
“When did this happen?”
“About twenty minutes ago,” Jim blubbered out.
“Where was he bit?”
“On his left shoulder. Right there,” Jim pointed.
“Bring him to the examining room and let’s take a look.”
They walked together into the clean examining room with stainless steel cabinets and a flat table covered with white sheet. A bright examination light was suspended on a movable arm over the table.
“Put him up here.”
Jim’s dad gently placed him on the table. Gruff layed on his side a looked around the strange room with curious eyes.
“You said he was bit right here” She pulled the fur away to look at his skin.
“I saw the snake strike and bite him on his shoulder. Is he gonna be okay.”
“Well I see the puncture wound, but so far there’s no sign of swelling.”
She touched the area near the bite. Gruff looked down, but did not flinch.
“He doesn’t seem to be in any pain. Normally I’d administer antivenin but this looks like a dry bite.”
“What’s that,” Jim asked.
“That’s when a rattlesnake bites, but doesn’t inject any venom. I think this is a defensive bite. The snake was afraid, but didn’t see Gruff as a meal so he didn’t release the venom.”
“You mean he’s gonna live?” Jim choked out.
“Of course he’ll live. I’ll apply some antiseptic and give him a shot of antibiotic just so he doesn’t get an infection.”
Gruff lifted his head and looked around at the strange objects in the room.
Gruff, you’re going to be okay,” Jim smiled and held back a laugh. “The doctor says your gonna be okay.”
He rubbed him on the side of his neck while Dr. Janie walked across the room to fill the syringe with antibiotics.
“This might sting a little so hold him tight.”
Jim held Gruff tightly around his neck and whispered in his ear.
“God answered our prayer Gruff. He really did. Thank you Lord for saving Gruff.”
Gruff flinched and let out a short yipe when he felt the shot but stayed close to his master. He liked being close to him and even if he felt a thorn in his rear, would never leave his side.
“Well, that’s about it. Take him home and keep him calm for the rest of the day and you’ll both be ready to go play again.”
“Thank you Dr, Janie,” Jim’s dad said. “Praise God it turned out this way.”
He looked down at Gruff and Jim. “They’ve grown to be good friends. I’d hate it if anything happened to either of them.”
He rubbed one hand on Jim’s hair and the other on Gruff’s head.
“Come on boys. Lets’ get out of here. I’m sure the good doctor has other patients to care for.”
“I’m glad it wasn’t serous,” she said. “What are you going to do about that snake? I’d hate for someone else to get bit.”
“I’ll go down there today to try to find it. If I do, I’ll relocate it far away.”
“Uh, dad…you don’t have to do that.”
“What do you mean? You don’t want it to bite one of your friends, do you?”
“Well, I kinda, sorta took care of it.”
“When I saw it bite Gruff, I got so mad I whacked is with a stick I was holding and sorta killed it.”
“Oh,” the doctor said. “I guess that’s the end of that.”
Dad helped Gruff off the table and the three of them walked out of the office with Gruff”s tail wagging and Jim smiling ear to ear. Just minutes before, they feared death and now looked forward to many year of fun playing by the creek.
“Thank you God, “ Jim whispered and they climbed back into the car.