It’s 4:30 in the morning, and Nate finally rocking his way out the bed. Can’t just throw his leg over and get up since the stroke. I been laying here listening to Chumley whine about a hour, hoping — naw, praying — Nate wake up and let that dog out before he make a mess all in that crate. He make a mess, that’s on me. I’m the one got to clean it. Nate right hand don’t work good enough, and sometimes I get in there to clean and find dried-up mess from I-don’t-know-when after he done tried to clean it up. So I just lay here, cause Nate need to start understanding Chumley belong to him.
Dog won’t hush with his whining. I try not to hate this dog, but he always messing something up. I get to feeling guilty when that SPCA commercial come on and show abused pets. Make me feel like I ought not yell at Chumley. Like I ought not hit him with the flyswatter when I catch him drinking out the toilet. Nate love him, but he can’t do nothing with him. Everything on me. He wanted a dog. American bulldog. Specific like that. Wouldn’t have nothing else. Almost cried when I suggested something little, like a Chihuahua. And I done had to do everything got to do with the mutt. I house-trained him. Taught him about his crate. Taught him not to climb on my furniture and to stay out my room. But he Nate dog. I keep telling myself and Nate that. Hopefully that’ll make him remember how to talk and how to walk like a man.
Nate stroke caused a bleed. Bleed caused his brain to swell, and then come the coma. After a while, them doctors ain’t see no signs of life in Nate and wanted they bed free, cause he wasn’t gone be they success story. They come in that neuro ICU room and about near put us out with they big words and little faith. Satan. That’s all it was. Satan trying to scare me. I knew Nate would come back.
“Make sure you put him on that leash, Nate,” I say, cause Chumley like to slip under the fence to run with the neighbor horses when we let him out just before dawn. Our little rental duplex is situated in a real funny way. It’s the only one of its kind — only duplex, period, on our road — and we kind of surrounded by farms and ranches. Our place back right up into a forty-acre ranch. A few horses live back there, and Chumley think he one of them. He always come right back after I call him for a few minutes. I get mad when I got to call him and stand out there waiting on him, though. He a dog. Ought to come the first time he called. On account of Chumley running off, Nate done took to closing his retractable leash in the door and letting him go out like that. Sometimes I fuss at Nate about being too lazy to walk Chumley like he supposed to, but I know it ain’t that. I know Nate just ain’t who he used to be. His old self done passed away.
“Nam,” Nate say.
And I tell him to get the leash again, cause I don’t want to tell him that I don’t know what “nam” is. He get irritated when I don’t understand him, and I feel guilty about that.
He take a breath, make a hissing sound, and say, “Nam,” again.
I just say OK and hope he do what I done said.
I’ll wait on him to take the dog out and come back to bed before I start dozing off again, cause I want to make sure he settle back in all right. I done become a true caregiver to Nate, even though my oldest daughter say he don’t need one. I try to explain to my daughters that I’m all he got, but they don’t want to listen. Seem like, cause he they stepdaddy, they seeing him as somebody they ain’t got to be here for, stead of seeing him as what he always been to them. Seem like they done forgot how he was there for us — homework, driving lessons, and to hold us when my oldest girl’s baby died. And I try not to worry about them giving up on Nate. I got to a point where I do what I can to make sure they don’t give up on me.
I hear Chumley barking outside, but I don’t hear nothing out Nate. That make me sad, cause his voice always been important to me. He always been real good with words. To me, anyway. We ain’t college folk like my girls. Matter of fact, we grew up in the same West Texas town before we found each other in Dallas. I was lucky to get out the cotton fields, and Nate was lucky to get out his daddy church. We done since wound up in the country outskirts of where we found each other, and maybe that’s cause the country always gone be in us. But none of that matter when Nate open his mouth. He used to be able to talk like he was from somewhere real. Like he was somebody educated. He always been humble and quiet, but when he talk, it was worth listening to. Now seem like he half a person. Can’t even quiet his dog.
I get out the bed, find my slippers, and make my way down the hall to the front of the house. Nate standing at the door, holding the dog leash with one hand and holding hisself steady inside the door frame with the other. I see him struggling to pull the dog into the house, but Chumley just standing out there barking at him. I see the red beads the light make his eyes. He telling Nate, I’m the boss. I say when I come back in.
I walk up behind my husband — his shoulders slumped, kind of slanted, cause his brain ain’t firing the right neurons to tell him to stand up straight — and I pry the leash from his hand. It’s not that he don’t want to give it up. It’s that the stroke destroyed his hand, and he done forgot how to loosen his grip. Once I get the leash, I give it a hard tug and grit my teeth and say to that dog, “Get your ugly tail in this house.” And Chumley stop struggling and hunch his body like he scared and try his best to squeeze through the door without touching me.
I let his fat self escape to the safety of his crate. I shake my head and smile at how slow he wobble over to it, like he hurt and want me to think it’s my fault or something. I watch Nate hang the dog leash back on the hook and turn his body slowly, carefully, and make his way back to bed. I stand there waiting for the man I used to know to break out from the stiff-limbed man moving down the hall, stand there so long I forget myself. And then Nate turn back and wave his hand for me to join him and grunt, “Moan, Old.” Every time he try to say my name, say Opal, it come out, “Old,” and I feel that way, cause he ain’t even sixty and done become a old man, and I ain’t even sixty and done become his old caretaker wife.
I smile and nod my head a little and close the dog crate to lock our fat boy in. “OK, sweetheart,” I say. “OK.”
Before his stroke, Nate never called me by my name. I was always Honey. In fact, my kids picked up on it and began calling me Honey stead of Momma. Now I got seven whole grandchildren that call me Honey, too. When Nate woke up from that coma, I wasn’t Honey no more.
It’s a quarter till eight. Chumley threw up in his crate after Nate took him out this morning. Ain’t no telling what he ate out there. Nasty dog eat everything from frogs to his own mess. Ain’t no telling what Nate struggling to scrape out that crate. A job I know he gone half do. I’m sure I’m gone have to deal with it later.
I know Nate mad about cleaning up the mess cause I hear him trying to fuss. It just sound like baby talk or mumbling, though. I imagine he done closed the dog leash in the door. I imagine every now and then the leash handle move, but Chumley must can tell by Nate mad mumbling that now ain’t the time, cause he ain’t made no barking sounds.
After I wash my face and brush my teeth, I make my way toward the kitchen for coffee, but the smell so foul I got to take a pause. It smell like something died, like the rotting hog carcasses we’d smell when a good West Texas wind blew through my girlhood home. I know Nate smell it, too, cause he look up at my face, and I see all kind of explanations in his eyes.
“He did more than throw up,” I say. “He messed, didn’t he?”
Nate shake his head from where he kneeling by that crate, and it make me mad that the dog got him in a position that’s gone be hard for him to get out of. My middle daughter say he need to be in them positions. That he need the practice. But she don’t see the pain come across his face when he struggling to stand up. She think I spoil and fuss over him too much. Say it don’t matter that I was the mean one before his stroke. I done paid my dues and served him well. She don’t understand nothing about marriage, though. She gone always be single.
“Ick,” he say and point to the door where the leash handle hanging.
“I can’t understand you. Open your mouth,” I say. I can feel the irritation in my voice. The snappiness of it. It can’t be helped, though. He make me mad when he try to talk to me without completely opening his mouth. When he talk to me through gritted teeth. I know what Nate can do, and he can do better than talking through gritted teeth.
“Ee sisk,” he say, allowing his eyes to bulge and gritting his teeth even more. I can tell he getting irritated right back with me, and even after three years of living with this Nate, him catching attitude is something new for me. Before the stroke he never even frowned at me, but now he seem mad with me all the time.
“He sick?” I ask.
“Eah,” he say and give his head one hard nod, frowning, like I should’ve understood him the first time.
“Ain’t nothing wrong with him but greedy. Done ate too fast,” I say, and I think about getting down there on my knees and helping Nate out, but I know I can’t. The Wobenzym and turmeric stopped working on my arthritis about three months ago. My joints, specially my knees, make getting up off the floor pretty hard for me, too.
Nate stop moving his hand inside the crate and grunt. He look at me and turn his head in the direction of Chumley dog bowls. I see all the food Nate probably poured in the bowl before he even brushed his teeth and washed his face. The bowl funny shaped, like a maze or something. Man who sold us the dog recommended it. Said it’ll slow him down when he get to eating too fast. Said if he eat too fast, he can fill up with gas or something. Said that can kill him. But I don’t think that bowl slow nothing down. Chumley still eat like he done lost his mind.
I stand there for a minute, looking at that full bowl, knowing it ain’t like Chumley to leave one single kibble in it. Knowing I usually have to clap my hands at him so he won’t eat the three big scoops we give him in thirty short seconds. I told Nate just last night that Chumley look huge, and we need to lose him some weight. He was laying on his back, right in front of where me and Nate was sitting on the couch. Laying down there begging for a belly rub in his own little way. I noticed then how big he done got. That white belly spread out all over that floor, like something spilled.
When I open my mouth, I don’t say nothing about Chumley being sick or not. I say, “We need to put him on Craigslist.”
Nate nod and turn his head back to the crate. “Tay,” he say, like I just told him somebody died. And I feel bad cause I done made him feel bad. Like less than a man. Seem like I should know better bout making him feel like that since his stroke. Now I see what all he done lost, and I want to make up for it.
I have to remind myself that things ain’t always been this way. I remember when we was young, in our thirties. All the girls was still at home, and Nate bought them a puppy, a rottweiler. Named that monster Nico, and I made him put it in the backyard when Nico was six months old. I’m talking about a mutt that mess up everything. Even chewed up one of the cushions on my living-room couch. I wasn’t raised in no place where dogs live with people. Where I was raised, dogs was tied up to trees in yards. My momma always called it nasty when people lived with dogs like that. So I got to complaining pretty early on about Nico living in the house.
When I finally told Nate that dog had to go outdoors, he hung his head and commanded Nico to go. Nico listened, too. Did most things Nate told him to do. Nate had a voice that make a mountain move back then. That’s why I felt bad when, a few weeks later, after I made him put Nico out, he go to feed the dog but find him dead.
I could tell it hurt him by the way he come back in the house with the unopened bag of food and just dropped it by the door.
“Why you ain’t feed him?” I asked, and he grunted. I still remember the roll of that grunt, like thunder beginning, like some big disaster coming.
“Why you ain’t feed him?” I asked again and got up from my seat on the couch to find him some scissors. I figured maybe he had a hard time opening the bag. Maybe I needed to get him some scissors.
“He dead,” he said and made his way to the kitchen. “I just need a trash bag to put him in.”
And I think about that as his hand start moving in the crate again. I think about that as I listen to Chumley start to act a fool out there. I remember that as the handle of the leash start to knock around inside the door. And I say, “Sweetheart, I’m sorry. He just get on my nerves. I can’t stand that dog.”
I walk over to the front door, bend down and pick up the leash handle, then open the door. Chumley stop barking and kind of jump back when he see me standing there. His tongue unroll out his wide mouth, and his short, stout body make him look kind of vicious. He almost two now, but he was a little bitty puppy when Nate found him on Craigslist and we drove out to Denton to get him from the breeder. I still can’t believe he picked a brindle dog. Brindle dogs so ugly. Both of us done always thought so. I guess the stroke done changed that, too.
“You thirsty?” I say to the dog. “You old worrisome mutt,” I add, as I step over him and make my way to the hose out on the lawn. He lay down on his paws, and I think it’s cute and disgusting at the same time, the way all his extra skin and fat gather together on the ground.
I smile when the idea come to me — to squirt him with the water hose. To punish him for making the morning so horrible for us.
I make sure the sprayer screwed tight, and then I turn on him. He stand up quick and make like he gone run but then just stand there like he daring me to spray him. “You don’t want this,” I say to him, but he take a careful step toward me anyway.
I squeeze the trigger, and the water spray fast and hard, right at his face, and this fool dog open his mouth and start jumping all around to catch it. He opening and snapping that big old mouth like he having the most fun in the world, and after a while he start getting so choked up and tired that he can’t catch his breath. I let go of the trigger and watch him till I know he all right, and then I have myself a good laugh, and I think he laughing right along with me.
“You all right, ain’t you, boy?” I say to him, still chuckling. “You all right.”
It’s 11 AM. My hand shaking cause this dog and Nate and everything. Took me a while to dial my daughter number. My fingers don’t seem to be working like they should. Feel like somebody driving nails through them every time I touch something. They give me just as much trouble as my knees. Sometimes I can’t even use them. I’m just glad I can dial my baby girl today. Some days I can’t even do that.
Chumley got my house smelling like dog, and I’m irritated with Nate, cause it just don’t seem like he trying hard enough to be whole again. I want him to lift up his shoulders like he used to do when he was my pastor. When he was my man. Nate wasn’t never no tall man, but when he step in a pulpit and crack open his Bible, he hold his shoulders straight, not crooked, and he look tall enough to touch the sky. Now he can’t even chain that dog up. I told Nate to tie that dog to the stake behind the house, but every time Nate come near him, Chumley run and get low, like they playing a game.
And the kids don’t come by like they ought to. When Nate was Nate, it didn’t matter that we lived out past the city limits, out on these acres, where they got to drive a pretty good distance to see us. They come out every Sabbath and listen to the sound of his voice. Now seem like I got to beg them to bring my grandbabies to see me. So I’m by myself. Only me to talk to, since Nate won’t find his tongue.
“Where you at?” I ask my youngest daughter soon as she pick up the phone.
She a therapist, and I got just enough stress in my voice for her to know I need her. I’m thinking maybe she might hear that and come see about me.
When she tell me she returning something that ain’t fit her at the mall, I grunt, “Humph.” All she do is shop and take back. Could be over here comforting her momma, but she out doing foolishness. Selfishness.
“You coming out here later on?” I ask after she go on about work and her kids and the bad traffic. And that question make her pause. Like she can’t think of no excuse to get out of dealing with me. Like I done asked her for money or blood.
“Never mind,” I say. “Y’all just act like y’all done forgot we out here. Ain’t got nobody to talk to. Dealing with this arthritis. Your daddy . . .” And all I can do is sigh. “Just lonely is all,” I finally say before she start going on about how she’ll be out here soon.
I want to tell her I’m getting tired. Starting to worry her daddy won’t never be who he was before all this mess. This stroke. I want to tell her about all the things I miss with him. I want to tell her that sometimes I think I’m losing my mind. Stead I tell her, “When you get here, I want you put this dog on Craigslist.”
She let out a breath, like she tired and what I just said took everything from her.
Honey, you always say that, I hear her say on the other end.
“I’m serious this time,” I say defensively. “I’m tired of taking care of him. Your daddy can’t help me with him. This all on me, and I ain’t the one wanted the dog.” Then I decide to hit her below the belt, cause I know my health is more important to her than her own: “Plus, chasing after him got my bones hurting. Y’all just don’t know. You don’t come here enough to know how much pain I’m really in. I—”
Honey, she say, like she done had enough.
“I just can’t do both of them. I can’t take care of Nate and this dog,” I say.
OK, Honey, she say, sounding all defeated like I done won. We’ll be over as soon as we done. We can talk about it then.
“Humph,” I grunt and hang up the phone.
Nate following Chumley around the coffee table with the stake wire in his hand, like some little kid.
I take a deep breath and let it go. “Chumley,” I say as loud as I can without hollering. Both of them stop and look at me like I’m God or something. Like the next thing I say gone give them life or take it away.
“Go in your house,” I say, pointing to his crate.
He drop his head, like I done hurt his feelings, and Nate do the same. They little game over. Both of them look at me like they pleading with me, but I narrow my eyes and say, “Now.”
Chumley climb into his crate like I sentenced him to death, and Nate bend to lock the latch like some kind of reluctant hangman. And I don’t care about being the bad guy. Ain’t no dog about to run my house.
I sink back in the couch and pick up the remote control. Dog done had us so preoccupied, we missed the news, but I don’t even say nothing about that. I just grunt. Nate make his way around to the other end of the couch, and I watch him, moving with his hands out like he Frankenstein or something. Soon as he pass from in front of the TV mounted up on the wall, I flip through the channels until I find one those crazy shows white folks put on the air for dogs. I don’t turn around to see if Chumley done picked up his sad head from his paws inside the crate, but I know he watching. This his favorite channel. I don’t look in Nate direction when I feel his body come down on the opposite end of the couch, but I know he looking up at the TV and smiling.
Clock say 12:45. Time feel like it inch forward since this done become life for us. Nate ain’t never been no rich man, but he done loved me like I was his earthly obsession since the day we met. He been a janitor or cleaner of things ever since I done known him, and before this stroke, even before we found religion, I ain’t never known a better man.
We lived together about three or four years before we was married. We both had failed marriages behind us, and he should’ve been as scarred from his as I was from mine, if not more. His first wife was a evil woman. But Nate was still able to love me from the inside out. Back then I saw that as weakness. Man before him taught me how to run around on people and forgot to show me how to love, so I ain’t love Nate, and I ran around on him.
Never forget the night I fell in love with him, the night he thought I was leaving him cause I was a bird that wasn’t gone be captured. That night was one of the only two times I ever saw him cry before the stroke.
Before we was married, we rented a little townhouse in Dallas. My girls was with us. They from my first marriage. Nate come to us when my baby girl was barely a year old. He latched on and took us all like we was his, and I didn’t see all the love in that.
One night I took the girls out to eat with my lover. When me and my girls come in that night, my baby girl said my lover name. And I could tell something in Nate fell apart cause he flinched, like fists was coming at him and slamming hard against his face. But he didn’t let on. Not to the girls, he didn’t.
I was shaking when I shuffled the girls off to bed. My ex used to hit me. Had a hard time not hitting me. Nate was gentle and meek and kind, but my momma always said that any man got it in him to put his hands on a woman if she piss him off good enough. When I made it to our bedroom, he was sitting on the edge of the bed. His head was down, and I could see him kneading his fists against his pants.
“You gone leave me now, ain’t you?” he asked, and I stopped where I was and just looked down at my shoes.
“You and the girls, y’all all I got,” he said. “Nothing else to live for.”
And I saw something so big in him that my knees almost buckled. Tears was rolling down his face, and he kind of slid off the edge of that bed down to his knees and scooted — no, walked — on his knees until he was kneeling in front of me.
He looked up at me with the most sad and beautiful eyes I done ever seen, and seem like he, being vulnerable and weak and walked on by the world, rose up and became something grand in that moment.
“I listened to you put them girls to bed, and I sat in here and thought about what’s gone happen next.” He sniffed, and I remembered all the things I liked about him: How I’d catch him staring at me while resting his fist on his cheek, all lazy-like. How gentle he was with the girls, even when they was having a hard time accepting a man in they lives. How when he smile, he do it shy and drop his eyes, like his smiles come by accident. How that was his reaction the first time my baby girl called him Daddy.
“Honey, y’all all I got. I want y’all till I die. I want you for a wife and them for my daughters, and it don’t matter what happened, where you been.”
I pulled that man up to his feet, but not before I fell in love with him, and he done carried me across all these years. Took care of me better than I took care of myself, before that stroke caught up to him. Caught up to us.
I step out the kitchen in time to see Nate coming down the hall, dragging the stake wire in his hand. He walk right up to Chumley crate and bend down to open it. Chumley stand up in the crate and start moving around, like he ready to bust out, but before Nate unlock the door, he tell that dog to behave. He clear his throat and say, real stern, “Act white.”
Chumley stop moving. Seem like he just calm down, and Nate open the door and hook the wire to him. Nate guide the dog outdoors to the stake, where he clip the wire on and walk back toward the house.
All this time I’m standing in the big bay window watching, cause I’m shocked by Nate taking a stand and this crazy dog listening. And just when I think I got my old husband back, just when I think he gone make it out that yard and come through the door and call me Honey, that mutt run for him. I know if Chumley jump him from behind with all his 125 pounds, he gone knock my husband down.
I’m stuck in the house. I can’t move. Too far to make a difference in what’s gone happen out there. I feel relief when the stake cut Chumley short and Nate get back to the door. But it make me sad that my man didn’t even know about the danger behind him.
Chumley ain’t happy about being left outside. Chumley ain’t never happy about being left outside. He start barking and carrying on, and when Nate walk in the door, I say, “Just wash your hands and eat. We can’t let him bark too long. You know that old nut down yonder gone call the police if she hear him.”
We found out the hard way that a dog ain’t allowed to bark outside more than twenty minutes. Lady in the trailer down the road into rescue dogs and hate Chumley cause he come from a breeder. She used to speak to us until she found that out. Called the police one day when he barked too long, and they come and tell us that it’s a twenty-minute rule. I guess you can’t leave a dog outside no more.
We sit at the breakfast table and eat our lunch in silence against Chumley angry barking.
Just before I take the last bite of my sandwich, Nate forehead wrinkle up in a way that make my heart speed up. It make me flash back to the night he had his stroke. His forehead wrinkled up the same way when he come down the hall and said, “Honey, call 911. Something ain’t right with my body.”
I was working on my sewing machine, patching up one of Nate dress shirts for service the next day. He walked through that door, and I saw the left side of his face sliding down, like a melting popsicle. I watched him fall to the ground, and all I could do was scream. That was the day I watched my man slip away from me. That was the day my whole life turned, and now his forehead wrinkling up again.
“Nisten,” he say, turning toward the yard.
“Huh?” I say.
He clear his throat. “No bark,” he say.
“Oh,” I say. “Good. About time he shut up.” I think about Chumley being quiet, how he a good dog for that. I hurry toward the door to let Chumley in on account of his going quiet. You got to reward him when he done good. I’m gone let him in the house. Give him one of his beefy treats. I’m gone let him sit on the couch between me and Nate so he can watch his channel while we rub his back from both sides. I know he’ll like that.
“Chumley!” I call out, expecting him to come charging toward me, knowing I’m coming to set him free. But when I set eyes on him, he laying on his side with his tongue hanging out his mouth.
I’m confused at first. Chumley don’t never relax like that in the yard. Then I make out how fast he breathing. The closer I step to him, the more I hear the struggle, the gurgling of his breath. I blink, and he ain’t Chumley no more. He Nate, and I scream. I drop to my knees and see how swelled his belly is. I put my head on Chumley and start talking to him: “Nate. Chumley. Get up.”
And I think about him being out there with that big belly and no water and no us, and I scream for Nate to bring me a pitcher of water. I look for anger in Chumley eyes, but they look the same as they did this morning. They look like thank you and goodbye and love, and that make me regret the flyswatter and all the times I complained.
When I look up, I see a blurry image of my man going fast as he can, with his hands out and water from the pitcher splashing all over.
By the time he make it to me, the pitcher halfway empty, but I take it anyway. “He thirsty,” I say to Nate when he kneel down beside me. “He done passed out cause he thirsty,” I say, trying to make myself believe it.
I start pouring the water in his open mouth, and I think about this morning when he was jumping for it, playing with it. I pray a silent prayer to a god that ain’t listened to me since before my husband’s fall, and I ask for this dog life, for Nate life, for mine.
Chumley ain’t taking the water. It’s just flowing out the side of his open mouth, so I drop the pitcher and lay my head on his belly again. “Nate, it ain’t working. What’s wrong with him?” I ask. And I wish my husband was the man he used to be. The one who would hold me and tell me that everything’ll be all right.
I feel his hand on my shoulder, trying to be a comfort, but he can’t say nothing. His eyes glassy, like he want to cry. It remind me of the day our first grandchild died. We all loved that little girl. When she was six months old, she got sick. Wasn’t nothing long and drawn out, just a little overnight illness. It was the second time I saw Nate cry. He took care of everything had to do with the baby’s death and everything had to do with us. When I saw tears rolling down his face at church a few months after we lost her, I knew he had held it all that time. That he had made sure everything was taken care of before he allowed hisself to cry.
It was like now. He patting my back, and letting my tears roll first. And he like old Nate — before-the-stroke Nate. And I know it’s small, but I am grateful for it.
“We need to get a sheet, Nate,” I say. “We can roll his body on it and try to get him to the car. We got to get him to the doctor.” He nod his head, and I turn back to the dog. His mouth fall open, and his tongue roll out.
Nate walking toward the house for the sheet when Chumley chest stop moving. I put my head on him, and I cry out, “No!” I don’t feel no life from him.
Nate kneel down beside me again and pull my body away from Chumley. He ain’t saying nothing, but he pull me toward him. He patting my back and rubbing my hair, and he ain’t saying nothing with his mouth, but he taking care of me. And I know he gone take care of everything best he can.