Third place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest, 2013.
by Edward Weingold
Raymond squinted through a stinging eye, made so by a droplet of sweat. He rubbed his eye to watch Dobie, his new wife’s eight-year-old, flinging smooth river rocks for the young Irish setter to chase. The boy’s biological father, Otis, would toss another rock and the dog would dismiss Dobie’s rock and chase the next one. Ferdinand (Ferdy, of course) tongue, ears, and big paws flapping, spent nearly an hour racing through the dry riverbed.
Weeks earlier, Raymond had replied a quick "Yes" to Otis’ invitation, that he and Dobie ride up with Otis for an overnight on the Trinity River property.
"No, no, no!" Bobbi objected.
But Otis had already pulled Dobie in. At home, Dobie kept up a string of sentences that began "When Raymond and I go up to the river…" and he had told his best friend, Starlie, whose mother, Carla, was Bobbi’s best friend and support system.
"You’ve got to let Dobie have this," Carla told Bobbi. "Don’t worry, Ray will keep it real."
And so Bobbi relented. It was also convenient for her because she needed a day out of town for her new job with a touring children’s storytelling troupe.
Ray, meanwhile, was redefining for himself what was "real."
Raymond and Bobbi were married three months before Raymond saw Otis for the first time--in a courtroom. Raymond sensed immediately that Otis loved his kid and would not be denied access, no matter how much Bobbi and her family would throw at a lawyer to wrest complete custody. The thought occurred to Raymond that he was merely Bobbi’s stage dressing. Now that they were legally married, Bobbi’s legal position was surely strengthened.
Now, sitting on a beached log watching the Irish setter scrambling over the dry, thistle-strewn river rock, Raymond dismissed the courtroom scene.
Otis had bought two acres when he and Bobbi were still together.
"Th’ land," Raymond heard his new wife’s mocking of Otis’ reverential attitude toward his homesteading plans on the bank of the Trinity River.
"When you see it, you’ll know what a jerk he is," Bobbi needled. "Half of ‘th’ land’ is up a steep mountain. Slag heaps everywhere, from when there was mining. The place is probably toxic. You be damned careful that Dobie doesn’t get hurt up there."
"Dad, show Raymond where we’re gonna build the cabin," Dobie piped.
"Sure," Otis drawled. "Ray, see those stakes?"
Raymond nodded at six weathered one-by-twos set in a rough L-shape.
"I put those in the ground four years ago," Otis continued.
"That’s where the woodshop is gonna be," Dobie added, pointing to the large alcove indicated by the boundary markers.
"Those two stones are the front door, and the ones back there for the chmi’nee,’ Dobie added eagerly.
"Nice," Raymond said absently. He was looking at the Irish setter, which had limped past him toward the shade of a small cottonwood.
"Your dog, okay? " Raymond asked Otis. "Looks a little gimpy."
"Ferdy? Indestructible," Otis laughed.
"Yeah," Dobie, laughed. "Did you see how he picked up those rocks?"
They made a fire later that afternoon, and, as the sun cleared the mountaintop, the chill evening came on. Otis tied Ferdy to a stake he had driven into the sandy soil. The dog lay down without exploring his tethered radius.
They hunkered as close to the fire as they dared. After marshmallows, skins burnt to black ash, Otis wrapped Dobie in his sleeping bag and carried him to where Ferdy lay, fitfully licking the pads of his forepaws. Otis and Dobie lay together for a while. Then Otis left his son and walked over to Raymond.
"Says he wants a story," Otis reported.
Raymond smiled. "Little ritual we have," he confided.
Dobie’s smiling face peered up from the cocoon-like sleeping bag.
Raymond made up a story about Sirius, the Dog Star, and how he liked to fetch, like Ferdy did.
After fifteen minutes, Dobie was asleep and Raymond returned to the fire.
"Thanks for giving Dobie some balance. " Otis said, "Bet he needs it at your place."
The next day, they broke camp before the sun began beating down. On the trip back, Raymond noticed the setter flopped down in the truck bed, unlike the trip north, when he stood most of the way, the wind whipping his red coat.
Father and son embraced each other for a lumped-throat parting outside Bobbi and Raymond’s house. Raymond expected a barrage of questions from Bobbi, but she did not arrive home until later that evening. She seemed distracted and slightly disheveled.
"Gus’ truck has a window that doesn’t close," she explained. "Windy trip back."
"Gus?" Raymond asked.
"Stage manager. I’m going to shower."
The next week, Raymond drove to Otis’ flat to pick up Dobie. When he entered, he saw Ferdy with white bandages on three of his paws.
"What happened?" he asked.
"Dumb dog," Otis muttered.
Dobie clarified: "He had stickers between his toes. Got infected."
"Hundred fifty buck vet bill," Otis groused.
The young setter sat, swishing its tail, while Dobie patted his nose.
"I don’t think he’ll ever be a star, like that one you told me about," Dobie added, thrusting his backpack at Raymond.
The boy turned dutifully and hugged his father. Raymond knew at once that the sleepover with Otis had been a trial for both of them. He imagined that Otis ragged on the veterinarian cost, and Dobie felt responsible the dog playing so hard in the brambles and thistle-clogged riverbed.
Dobie pushed Raymond’ toward the door.
"Ferdy sure looked funny, like he had boxing gloves," Raymond said lightly.
"Yeah," Dobie said, without conviction.
They drove home in silence.
Bobbi made a big deal on seeing Dobie. Raymond detected her probing to see how Otis might have damaged him on this court-ordered visitation. Dobie related how Ferdy had to have bandages on his paws because he was such a dumb dog.
That night in bed, before Raymond could begin a bedtime story, Dobie said, "I wish I could be invisible sometimes."
"Hmmm, you kind of can anytime you need to," Raymond said quietly. "When I need to be alone with myself I use what you’ve got there."
"Huh?" Dobie asked, confused.
"I pull the blanket over my head, and I keep it there until I don’t need to be invisible any longer."
The boy pulled the covers over his face.
"It’s hard to breathe," Dobie complained.
"Oh, yes," Raymond agreed. "You make a secret breathing space so you can be invisible and also breathe fresh air. Turn over on your stomach so you can hold up the blanket just a little bit with your arm."
The boy turned over and poked his hand through so there was a tunnel of air to his nostrils.
"You still want a story?"
"Nah," Dobie said in his muffled voice.
Raymond patted the shape under the covers, rose from the side of the bed, and turned off the light. But he lingered in the doorway. He wondered how this little boy would turn out when he grew up. He had an inner certainty that, sadly, he would not be around to know.