by William H. Wandless
The third time I saw Jake Yates he was stained with blood from his throat to his waist. That’s not how I want to remember him, but a recollection like that is hard to shake.
The first time I saw him he was standing at the south end of his cornfield at the beginning of May, leaning on a fencepost and talking to a neighbor. We’d turned down the unmarked road just shy of Old 44 and rumbled down a dirt strip that was meant for tractors. Jake smiled and waved as me and my mom rolled by, our map flapping in the wind. The second time he was on our stoop with a deep-dish blackberry cobbler, the crust edges crimped with his own thumbs. He’d walked it over as his way of saying welcome to the neighborhood.
That third time, though, I began to understand the kind of man Jake was. He was cradling Cookie, my Husky, as if she were asleep in his arms. Her muzzle was tucked in the bib of his overalls.
She’d been hit on the curve of Old 44 just past the Yates and Culpepper farms. Cookie had probably run off to play with Mrs. Culpepper’s spaniels. Jake had found her by the side of the road and carried her home.
“I’m real sorry, Laurie,” he said. “I thought you were in school and I could talk to your mom before you got back.” I cried, and Jake sat silently beside me on our back steps with Cookie in his lap until I was done. He never put her down.
“I can help you tend to Cookie when your mom gets home, when you’re ready,” Jake said when I’d caught my breath.
“But where?” I’d asked. I looked around our backyard with its tufts of sunburnt weeds and ruts of dried mud. Nothing there seemed good enough for Cookie. Fresh tears welled up.
“Don’t worry,” Jake said. “I know a place.”
I didn’t know when my mother would get back from town, so we left a note for her and walked the mile over to Jake’s farm. Jake asked me about Cookie, what kind of dog she was, and I answered as best I could. He told me about the first time she ran over to his farm and tried to get his chickens to play with her, rolling in the dust like a puppy. I forgot she had died for a while.
It never occurred to me how heavy Cookie must have been on that long walk. She weighed almost as much as I did back then, plumped up by biscuits and table scraps. It never occurred to me to ask Jake where the blanket had come from when we wrapped Cookie up on his back porch. And it never occurred to me how hot he must have been, hotter still after he stepped inside his house and came out wearing a sweatshirt he’d grabbed to cover up the blood. I was twelve then, though, and at that age grief comes easier than gratitude.
Jake led me to the place he had in mind, an uneven field of deep green grass above a small pond, a spot shaded by maples and peppered with the blooms of white clover and wild violets. He showed me a row of stone markers at the edge, where the grass gave way to a ridge of mint and the sun-drenched seedbed of his pumpkin patch. “My Daisy is resting down at the end,” he said. “We can lay Cookie down beside her, so she won’t ever be alone.” I nodded, my lip trembling, and Jake set Cookie down. “You say your goodbyes, Laurie, and I’ll fetch what we need.”
I did, and he did. He returned with a shovel and a trowel, and he lifted up great heaps of earth while I knelt and cleaned up the edges. When I judged the grave deep enough, he lowered Cookie down, blanket and all, and we covered her up. Jake rested his big hand on my shoulder. “Thank you for spending a little time with us, Cookie,” he said. “We all loved you a lot, and we’re sure going to miss you.” I wept beside the grave for a while, and Jake waited with me. Then he walked me home.
When we arrived, Jake handed me off to my mother. I threw my arms around her, and she maneuvered me to the couch for another round of crying. He told her he was sorry for doing as we’d done without her blessing, excused himself, and walked back home alone.
The next day he came by in the morning and invited us to the farm to make a marker for Cookie, so we drove up in the afternoon and I showed my mother where Cookie was buried. Jake fed us shortbread and sweet tea, and we sat on the porch while I painted an oval stone Jake had found for me. “That’s a fairly long row, Mr. Yates,” my mother remarked, a peculiar note in her voice.
“Some of those places belong to my own old friends,” he said, “and some are for wild animals, but the rest are for strays. Old 44 has never been a kindly stretch of road, and though the ones I’ve come across might well have homes of their own, I hope I’m not wrong to tend to them and remember them as I do. When our days are done, I reckon we all deserve a little extra gentleness.”
When I was finished, we brought the stone over, and I said a second goodbye to Cookie. Jake said I could come back whenever I liked.
In the first few years that followed I paid Jake a visit about once a week, less regularly as I got older. Jake came to our house almost as often, walking down Old 44 when his work on the farm was squared away. When I close my eyes, I can still picture him in our backyard, his straw hat shading his tanned face, helping my mother set up some raised flowerbeds. I can see him in the front yard, too, taking down the birch that had fallen on our porch with a hand saw. I can picture him lining Saddler Street with bales of hay for kids to climb on and old-timers to sit on during the Homecoming parade. But I remember him best at the wheel of his old Ford, driving us out to the Nowak farm to look at a litter of beagle puppies, where I picked up my Sadie and he picked up his Blue. They both chewed on his fingers all the way home.
Jake stopped coming by so often when my mother remarried, though he had my stepfather over for beer pretty often and loaned him tools plenty of times. I liked my stepdad well enough, but I spent a bit more time at the farm after that. It was quieter there, tranquil, and seeing Jake made me feel settled inside no matter how restless I was. Jake always managed to conjure up work wherever I happened to be. “I get a little lonely sometimes,” he’d say, “and I’m grateful for the company.” But when I think on it, I know it was my loneliness he was tending to.
Jake added grave after grave to his Acre, and by the time I was sixteen it was four rows deep. The people who knew him well didn’t pay much mind, though some thought it was a shame to waste such good soil or to spoil such a good view with all those memorial stones. Now and again my mother wondered aloud if Jake had suffered some loss, if some sad story shaped the life he led, or if he’d had a Mrs. Yates he’d once tended to with the same kind of care. I never thought to inquire myself. It was just Jake’s way, and that was enough for me.
The only one who really objected to Jake’s Acre was Old Man Carriker, the sexton for the churchyard a half mile above the northward curve on Old 44, just northwest of the Culpeppers. He wasn’t old, truth be told—he was one of those folks who’d just gone sour inside, who looked out on the world and saw nothing worth loving. He hated animals of every description and thought of the Acre as a sinful thing, a deviation from the ways of nature. Any burial he didn’t see to himself offended him. I worked the till at Oldham’s Grocery most weekends, and every few weeks Carriker would corner one of his old cronies and work his way around to Jake’s Acre, grousing about the wrongness of it all. “There’s a proper place for everything,” he’d always say, as if any right-thinking Christian could finish that sentence for him.
But I tend to think there was something holy about what Jake felt called to do, something God might smile on. One day when I stopped by, he was laying down a possum some dog had got hold of. It had gone out with its ears pinned back and teeth bared, but the dog had been too much for it. Jake bundled up that possum in one of his own old shirts and held it close in the crook of his arm, set it down carefully as he made a place for it and praised it for being so brave when it had such good cause to be afraid. I’m not ashamed to say I was crying by the time he was done, and Blue ambled up to comfort me. Jake had big hands and knew they were meant to turn the earth, and he had a big heart and understood what it was fitted out to do.
The last time I saw Jake, I was dropping off some medicine. He’d caught a cough he couldn’t shake, so I’d driven down to the drug store and picked him up some cough syrup, lemon tea, and honey. It was a warm September day, but he had a sweater on and a quilt draped over his shoulders. “Thank you kindly, Laurie,” he said, scanning the cloudless sky. “I’ll rest up, have myself some tea, and get this old body moving. There can’t be too many of these sweet summery days left.”
I went to school, went out with friends, and came back home. I took care of my chores, had dinner with my folks, and settled in with my homework. That night, Sadie sat at the back door and howled. My stepfather went outside with a flashlight, but he couldn’t see what was upsetting her. “The dogs at the Culpepper place are at it, too,” he said. I sat out on the back steps with Sadie to try and calm her down, but she stood beside me, her ears pricked up and her tail stiff and low as she peered out into the dark, baying, whining and listening for answers.
The next day I got up early to check in on Jake. He didn’t answer when I called out, but when I circled around back, Blue’s whimpering led me to him. He was sitting on the porch swing, wearing the same sweater and wrapped in the same quilt. He was leaning to the far side of the swing, with his head against the chain that held it up. Blue had managed to make his way under Jake’s hand, but he could tell it didn’t feel right, that Jake wasn’t holding him close like he should. Blue came to me when I called, but Jake didn’t move.
One of Jake’s sisters came upstate to see to the funeral, though Mrs. Culpepper made all the arrangements. It was strange to see Jake laid out at the parlor, dressed in a suit and not his overalls, his hair slicked back like it was in an old photo propped on an easel beside the casket, a touch of rouge on his suntanned cheeks. His grave was ringed by more mourners than I could count, and well behind them stood Old Man Carriker in a dove-gray suit, presiding over the ceremony in his manicured patch, looking to me more smug than solemn, satisfied at last.
My parents went to the repast, but I drove home and had myself a cry with Sadie by my side. It did me some good to know Jake had been so well-loved, that he had walked the world with so many friends, that so many were sorry to see him go. Even so, the whole of the service didn’t sit right with me. It had felt hollow somehow—too formal, too fussy. There had been no tenderness, no comfort in it. Jake deserved something more.
At dinner, my folks cheered me up with their recollections of Jake, all the things he’d done to make us feel welcome, safe, at home. It felt good to swim in all that sweetness, to think on him as we’d known him, as I’d known him. We sat at the table well after dessert, talking and taking our time, me pushing a bit of pie crust around my plate with a spoon, Sadie resting her head on my foot under the table. When we rose to clear the dishes it seemed like a spell had been broken, though—that sorrow came right back. I’d never see Jake again, and that was a thought it hurt to think.
My folks went into the living room to watch TV, and I went to my room and listened to some old country music that reminded me of Jake. I must’ve fallen asleep, because I didn’t hear my dad rapping at the door before he’d edged his way inside. “Is Sadie in here with you, Laurie?” he asked, curling around the frame. “I want to take her for a walk before we turn in for the night.” Bleary-eyed, I looked for her at the foot of my bed, at her spot in the corner by my dresser, but she was gone.
Sadie was a doting, lazy dog, and when she wasn’t with me, she was almost always with my mom or dad. She’d take scritches and bellyrubs from whoever was willing to give them. But she could get rambunctious when the spirit moved her, and we found her out on the back porch, where she’d done a little damage she had never done before. She had gotten up on her hind legs and scratched some gouges into the frame of the door, and she was hiding under one of our wicker chairs, looking all guilty. We didn’t have the heart to scold her, and after her walk I toted her back to bed with me. She snuffled at my window until I slid it open partway, and we fell asleep together, making what we could of a soft and sad September night.
In the morning she was gone. I’d slept with the window open plenty of times; the height of the drop, about four feet or so, had always been enough to keep her from jumping, even when we could hear possums or raccoons moving through the underbrush. Sadie was a dainty little thing, a homebody at heart. She must’ve wanted something outside awful bad to escape that way.
I double-checked around the house and hustled out just as dawn was breaking to look for her. I couldn’t stand the thought of losing Sadie right after losing Jake. I called quietly around the yard, more loudly as I got out to the end of the driveway. But I shuddered when I reached the asphalt and looked up and down Old 44. I knew in my heart that Sadie had gone too far, and the memory of Jake carrying Cookie home to me came back, fresh and dreadful.
I grabbed my keys, climbed into my car, and crept westward down Old 44. I rolled along the stretch between the Yates and Culpepper farms and tightened my grip on the wheel as soon as the alders rose up around me, my head swiveling from side to side. I put my brights and my hazards on when I got close to the northward bend. Old 44 is a quiet road, one mostly used by locals, but now and again people from up north on their way to the city or people from out east on their way to the lakes use it as a shortcut and put the pedal down, giddy to get wherever they’re going. I figured there was light enough to see me, but folks who took that blind turn too fast in either direction were prone to cross over into the wrong lane, ready or not.
As soon as I neared the heel of that hard corner, though, I forgot all about the danger of it, made a U-turn so my car was facing back east, and pulled over to the shoulder. There was meat on the road, and the start of a fan-shaped stain that told me something had been hit hard by a northbound truck as it rounded the bend, a truck that never slowed and kept on rolling.
I got out of my car, my keys clutched in one hand and the other pressed against my stomach. I didn’t want to see, but I had to. I tucked my chin to my chest, looked down at my feet, and tried to keep my breathing deep and even until I reached the bottom of the curve. I leaned on the reflectors meant to warn folks of the corner and lifted my head, ready for the worst.
The worst was what I got, even worse than I’d imagined.
Old Man Carriker was there, and it looked like he’d been hit from both sides, one truck coming and one going, a real rarity on that road. About ten yards north of the stain I’d seen a second one began, this one curling south and west toward the tree line. As the start of the stain was a foot and half of a severed shin jutting out of a moccasin slipper. To my left, slumped against a trunk, was more of him, a big hunk tangled up in a baby blue bathrobe that had been bled through, some of him spilling from the bottom like raw sausage. I only knew it was Carriker because his head was intact. Beneath a coat of blood, pine needles, and roadside grit the half of his face I could see was wide-eyed and pale, surprised and terrified.
I curled behind the reflectors and threw up, heaving until my eyes watered. I had turned my back to what was left of him, composing myself so I could drive home and call for help, but I forced myself to turn and look again, remembering something I’d seen, something that snagged in the back of my mind. I knew where to look, and what I thought I’d seen was there: Carriker kept no pets, but the heel of his slipper had been chewed on, just like mine. A dog Sadie’s size had done it.
I stood there for a moment, stunned by a suspicion, until the sound of a siren far to the north goaded me into motion. I got in my car and drove to Jake’s place, pulled all the way to the end of his drive, ran around to the back of his house, and found what some wild part of my heart knew that I would see.
The rumors at school were strange that afternoon. My girl Dinah said she’d seen a pack of dogs and a half dozen cats trotting down Opal Avenue when she was out for her morning run. No one believed her till a bunch of other kids confessed that their pets had gotten loose overnight, the small ones squeezing between fence posts, the big ones shouldering doors open, the well-trained ones breaking away on late-night walks.
For a week what had happened to Old Man Carriker led off the news from the local station. He had confronted prowlers in the churchyard, according to police, and fired a shotgun loaded with rock salt at them. Mrs. Culpepper swore she heard the shots, and I believed her. The trespassers had chased Carriker down through the woods and out onto Old 44, where he had met his end. The police chief asked the public for help finding the culprits, but when asked if he had any description he chewed his lip, shook his head, and looked away. I reckon he’d guessed what I already knew.
By Halloween whatever had happened at the churchyard was all but forgotten. Old Man Carriker was buried in the plot he’d saved for himself, and the church signed on a new sexton. The Yates family settled the farm on one of Jake’s cousins, Cody Booker. He and his wife, Caroline, get on with my folks real well. I told them about the Acre, and they were kind enough to leave it be for Jake’s sake. They let me have Blue, too, and I love him as well as I can, but I know he misses his daddy.
But I didn’t tell anyone about what I’d seen behind Jake’s place that morning—not my folks, not the police, not anyone.
If Sadie and Blue hadn’t been waiting on me, I’m sure I would’ve lost my nerve and run back to my car. But they met me and led me forward, past Mrs. Culpepper’s spaniels, past a grinning Boxer that had been dusted and cut by rock salt. They led me to the place they had laid Jake down, swaddled up snug in the quilt he loved so much, the one his gran had made for him, its corners and edges torn by teeth. Jake had been ringed with treasures: walnuts, acorns, and gnawed-on bones, balls of yarn and feathers on strings, Sadie’s favorite tug rope, the stuffed squirrel Blue always slept with.
I didn’t tell anyone about the words I said, the words that just spilled out of me, words we’d all needed. When I was done they filled Jake’s grave in, filled in a space that would be shaded by maples late in the day but loved by the sun most mornings.
I didn’t tell anyone about the flat stone I painted on the back steps, painted with the picture of a heart, big as I could make it, a stone I worked into the soft turf a half-pace above Jake’s resting place. And I didn’t tell them about all the ones that waited till I was finished, hundreds of them resting on their bellies, hams, and haunches, expectant and patient, letting me take my turn, letting me claim my share of the sweetness Jake left behind.
Copyright © 2023 by William H. Wandless