The Usefulness of a Three-Legged Dog
by William LJ Galaini
It was right before lunchtime and right after weeding the geraniums that Joel realized Pa wanted to die. The idea had awkwardly wormed its way into his young mind like a barbed cone tussled down a snow-melted stream and after it bobbed about submerged in the waters of his subconscious, it pickled at his waking mind once surfacing.
Joel gently let his spade slip from his gloved hand, and wandered around to the front of the house. Sitting crookedly in his porch chair, leaning crumbled to the left as always, sat his Pa. His eyes squinted in the midday sun as he surveyed his farm’s many acres and the equestrian homestead beyond.
Since the stroke a year ago, Pa’s attempts at speech had been reduced to mumbles and trembling gestures with his working hand. The man’s arms, once lean and taunt with working-man’s muscle, were now emaciated and flabby with empty skin. Every part of him had withered from his thinned hair to his gnarled toes. Except his eyes; they were still of blue, vibrantly perceptive steel.
Evaluating his father, Joel ruminated on Pa’s resistance to eating. Just the week prior, Pa had managed to get into his wheelchair in the night and roll it down the stairs. The resulting damage wasn’t significant, but it did warrant a visit from the doctor and a new wheel chair. Even infirmed, the breathing husk of Joel’s father was still sturdy enough to take a beating without breaking. The balusters had taken more damage than the old man.
Looking at Pa, Joel thought of the tender man who used to guide the plow across the dirt deftly. It was startling seeing his father this way, and the boy’s heart plunged at the thought that the greatest man he had ever known could not tolerate continued existence.
Would Pa try again? Would he roll himself out a window in the night? Would he electrocute himself during his bath while Joel was away? Would he poison himself with the vermin cure?
Pa’s eyes fixed on Joel standing beyond the porch, the high sun shadowing his face under his tattered newsboy cap. The two regarded each other knowingly.
“The roof is going to leak again if it rains tomorrow,” Joel said to break the uncomfortable silence, eyes still locked with Pa’s. “I’ll fix it before I fix the stairs. But I don’t want to worry about you …” the boy was not accustomed to attempting tact. It was a difficult question to try and ask so after a moment of internal frustration and several false starts, Joel asked it plainly.
“Are you going to try and hurt yourself again?” The question came out sideways and unclear, but from Pa’s slumped head it was clear that it was heard.
Joel refined his question after a moment of awkward quiet. “Are you going to try and hurt yourself again? Why would you want to do that?”
Through his warped and limp face Pa scoffed. Clearly, he felt that Joel should have found the answer apparent.
“Renny has three legs and that don’t mean nothing.” Joel asserted. “In fact, Renny was needed to plow the field four legs or three. We couldn’t budge Charlie without Renny on his rump.” Joel smiled as the accuracy of his analogy hit him. “A three-legged dog, lame as he is, makes this whole farm work. Without him we’d have no corn, money, food, no nothing. You’ll be fine Pa. Even if you don’t heal. You’ll be fine.”
Renny was a small, scruffy dog that always sat on the rump of their big horse Charlie whenever it was time to pull the plow. When Pa was standing and able, he’d take Charlie around the field with the plow in tow; Renny curled up on Charlie’s butt looking about and enjoying the sun. One morning Renny was zipping about Charlie’s legs yipping in excitement for the coming day’s ride and Charlie accidentally stepped on him, crushing one of his little legs right off.
The vet had come and Renny was not expected to live. Swaddled in bandages and blankets the small dog lay by the window waiting to die. Pa and Joel took shifts petting and looking after him, but the corn would not plant itself and soon Pa was back in the field with the plow rigged to Charlie.
But Charlie refused to budge. Not even a sugar cube or a carrot or a nudge or a push or a yell or a smack would move him. Pa had suspected that the horse would stand there until trumpets sound, but then he had an idea. Running back into the house he gently snatched up the ailing Renny and scrambled outside with Joel running after in bewilderment.
Pa ran up to the tall horse and placed the crippled dog on his rump. Charlie looked back over his shoulder with a small snort and Renny’s head, for the first time in days, held its own weight to look about. Pa gathered his straps and uttered his usual guttural ‘go’ command and away Charlie went with the injured half-dog along for the ride.
Perhaps it was this observation, this kinship between a tiny beast and a large one that made Joel understand that his father was as precious crippled as he was able. Joel disregarded his father’s self-hating scoff and simply stepped up onto the porch and kissed Pa on the head. “I love you Pa. Would be miserable without you.” And with that Joel ran back inside to fire up the stove and make some ham steak for lunch.
Pa loved his son, even more than usual, and that was the reason for his wish for death. No young man should ever be confined to aid his father, bathe his father, clean his father’s soiled underwear, and worst of all feed his father a spoonful at a time while wiping his mouth. It wasn’t so much a matter of lost pride or useless shame that motivated Pa toward death, but the desire for his son to be free.
Their neighbors were a wealthy family of professional equestrians and they had a daughter a few years older than Joel. Pa could easily tell she liked his son. Whenever Joel was out feeding the pigs or straightening a fence post she was also soon to be seen on the back of one of her ponies prancing about. Her hair would always begin the ride up but at some point she would dramatically unfurl it and swish it about in the sun within Joel’s direct line of vision.
All Joel had to do was walk a quarter mile across the hill to her and say hi. Maybe even wipe off his hand from the dirt and the grime and greet her proper. Pa, having known a woman closely most of his life, knew that the girl would take it from there since she had already planned their discussion out many times prior.
But Joel would never leave listening distance of the house. His son wouldn’t place his father into undue risk and eventually the neighbor’s girl wouldn’t be so eager to saddle her horse and trot about for Joel’s attention. If Joel continued ignoring her she’d seek attention elsewhere or even worse, have her feelings hurt.
Pa sighed and reminisced. The house and what little existed of the estate was in order. Joel home schooled himself through the mail and a caseworker visited once a month so the boy would be taken care of as far as Pa could tell. A man should be independent and able to care for himself and he had made sure his son would. Besides, Pa had always loathed the thought of becoming useless like Renny the three-legged dog on the rump of a horse; only feeding off the compassion of others and never providing a difference to the world.
Joel brought out a chipped plate with several glazed, thin ham slices with a side of sweet corn. Parking it on a wooden tray next to his father, he pulled up a small stool and spooned up a mouthful of corn, but instantly Pa jerked away violently. He would have kicked the meal over if he could. ‘Make him mad! Make him angry at me! Make him want space!’ Pa thought as he spit and hissed and mumbled angry words at the top of his half-lungs.
Sitting back calmly, his son watched the outburst. Soon Pa was exhausted from acting out and Joel moved in again, spoon at the ready. Placing a firm hand on his father’s shoulder he pulled him upright. “We can eat later if you like. But it would mean a lot to me if you ate now. It will be hard for me to focus on the roof if I was worrying about my Pa.”
Looking at his son’s face he saw nothing but a loving and patient smile, so Pa couldn’t help but reward his son’s effort with an open and accepting mouth. In the corn went. After several spoonfuls Pa shook his head and grunted that he was done. “Well, that hardly passes for lunch, but you did good. You’ll do even better at dinner I bet, and we’ll save the ham.” With that Joel took the tray inside.
Soon after, from behind the sagging wood barn, Joel strode with the ladder and his tool belt over his shoulder. It was actually Pa’s tool belt since Joel refused to use his own. It was too big, so the boy wore it like a thick awkward sash.
“I’m going up to the roof so that tonight when we read we’ll be nice and dry. I want you to be thinking about what happens next to Dienekes and Alexandros.” He called over his shoulder as he vanished behind the other side of the house.
Rising beyond the hills, the dull sun simmered the humid afternoon air. The wind chimes and the birds in the trees mimicked playful tunes back and forth as the porch’s shadow slowly marched from one side toward the other. Since Joel wasn’t out in the pen or the fields the girl was nowhere to be found so Pa leaned back in his wheelchair and allowed his eyes to flutter closed in rest until a thump hit the ground around the side of the house. Pa’s eyes popped open alertly as he glanced about, twisting himself in his wheelchair as best he could. He called out of his bent mouth for his son, but there was no reply. Calling out again, terror seized him. It was a greater terror than when he awoke in the hospital after the stroke or when he was alone at night in Korea. Frantically he loosed the breaks on his wheelchair and drove it hard to the end of the porch. Thumping against the wooden railing he flung his body forward and balanced himself on his good arm to see around the side of the house as best he could. Reaching deep into his weak lungs he called out again for his son, not sounding like a man but more like a wounded animal. Squinting hard in the midday sun he saw the bottom rungs of the leaning ladder, a hammer in the grass, and Joel’s limp hand and sleeve leading to the rest of him just out of view.
The phone inside was useless since they hadn’t paid the bill. And if Pa managed to get to his injured boy what could he do for him? Clinging and crying wouldn’t help the boy in any way. All of his options were almost as useless to Joel as leaning against the railing pondering what to do. With a grunt Pa flopped back into his wheel chair and pushed it backwards with all his feeble might. Arriving at the stairs in the center of the porch he slid out of the chair into the dirt beyond the steps. With his one responsive arm he reached out and dug his fingers into the soil. Adrenaline was now in full surge and with the help of some dead roots he pulled himself forward. Then again, his good arm lashed out and dug in and he pulled himself forward.
In angry panic one portion of his body obeyed while the other simply dragged behind as he clawed his way across the field, occasionally lifting his head for his bearings. He didn’t consider time or exhaustion or the pain from last week’s fall but only the next handful of clumped dirt and grass roots.
Knees bleeding and body quaking, Pa found himself in a tall, huffing shadow of a horse. The girl scrambled down and rolled him over to sit him up. He gripped her and pleaded with his eyes since his warbled voice couldn’t find its way past his teeth. She knew instantly, and rode to her home.
Joel was found by the house’s side with a dry trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth. A shingle had shifted under his growing weight and he had landed flat on his back on the gravel path below bruising his muscles, breaking his jaw, cracking several ribs, and knocking him into a concussion.
When he woke in the hospital Pa was next to him with corn and a spoon.
Several mornings after that they enjoyed the sunrise on the porch together, both in wheelchairs, with their caseworker cooking breakfast. Joel was fast healing, and would most likely be walking within the week but due to his jaw he and Pa shared a notepad with a pencil to chat.
As it was every morning since the fall, she was seen out riding her pony about in circles at a trot up and down the hills and Pa watched his son’s eyes follow her. With the pencil Pa wrangled his better hand and wrote “She should meet Charlie” in his twisted and child-like handwriting.
The boy smiled and took the pencil from his father to write the response: “and Renny.”
© William LJ Galaini
Note – This short story was originally published on the old Winterwind Productions site in July, 2013, prior to our switch to WordPress in 2020.