Li’l’ Billy is growing up fast. He came into our lives about five years ago, a castaway child, unloved by his parents, so traumatized that he could scarcely express himself without quoting long stretches of Shakespeare or Scripture.
Time and love heal a lot of wounds. Many times, Sally Rae and I had privately groused that we were just too dang old for this sort of thing — that is, raising a child — but we never seriously considered sending him away. At age 10, he had lost most of his oddness. Of course, as a normal pre-teenager, he could step on our last nerve about five or 10 times a day, never having a clue that he was driving us crazy.
So, I didn’t reflect too long when he asked, “Daddy Dave, can I go for a bike ride in the country?”
“Sure, son, just don’t be gone after dark.”
Like most kids, he was a bit of a jailhouse lawyer, literally interpreting every pronouncement with the greatest latitude he could reasonably interpolate into my rules. He arrived right at sunset, hardly one minute before the Texas sun disappeared over the horizon. And, he had a burlap bag under his arm.
I should have “jumped to” right that second, but we were right in the middle of the dinner rush hour.
Sally Rae was frying and grilling as fast as she could — and she was mighty fast — and I was running the meals out to our customers as quick as I could. Our trade was finally coming back from the darkest days of COVID. We had survived, and our business had survived, so, depending how you do your math, we were doubly or triply blessed.
Finally, as the last customers lingered over their vinegar pie, I realized what was bothering me.
What did Li’l’ Billy have in his burlap bag? From experience I knew several things. It was probably alive, he was probably pulling a fast one on us, and the range of critters that the bag could contain was limited only to the Linnaeus classification of vertebrates. I just hoped that it walked, not slithered; nor bit, nor savored the taste of human flesh … my alarm bells were ringing with a sudden intensity reserved for the lead story on “World News Tonight.”
“Li’l’ Billy, bring me your bag! No, wait, bring me whatever you brought home in that bag!”
There was a long pause, and then Li’l’ Billy reluctantly opened the door of our living quarters and led in a puppy.
On the one hand, I was relieved. It could as easily have been a flying monkey or a reticulated python. It was also too young to be pregnant, so I found another reason to be relieved.
“Daddy Dave, he followed me home. Can I keep him?” he asked.
I guess most parents have had a similar conversation. Our old dog, Bandit, had died a few years earlier. I think most kids need a dog, so I wasn’t too put off by his request. But I’ve learned the hard way not to give in to my first impulse.
“Well, let’s go ask your mother,” I said, buying time.
About then Sally Rae came out of the kitchen and sat down. She looked at both of us askance.
Now, this puppy was a winning sort. He was obviously young, but he already weighed about 20 pounds, and he had feet the size of pancakes. In a short time, he was going to be a really big dog.
The puppy looked at Li’l’ Billy, and immediately adopted his winning, pleading expression. OK, good marks; he had the instinct to beg at the right moment.
Sally Rae said, “Are you ready for this, Li’l’ Billy? ’Cause you know he’s going to pee and poop. When he does it, you have to clean it up yourself, and train him how to be a considerate, inside dog. That’s a lot of responsibility, you know.”
“Oh, I know, I know … I promise I’ll do everything that we have to …”
Then Sally Rae sniffed the air and sprinted back into the kitchen. Something was about to burn.
At this point, the puppy walked over to the end of the counter, right by the kitchen, and did what puppies do best: he squirted about a gallon of puppy urine on the floor.
“Well, Li’l’ Billy, here’s your test run. Get this cleaned up before Toby or the food police see it.”
Li’l’ Billy took off like a shot to get the mop and bucket — and at that moment Sally Rae came out with a load of freshly prepared chicken-fried steaks.
The next half-second seemed to play in slow motion: she threw the steaks high in the air as her feet slid out from under her, there was an audible “splash” as she hit the puddle of puppy pee, and I heard a sickening sort of snap.
Micro-seconds later, my dear, sweet, humble and reverent Darling Of My Soul exclaimed, “&0%5E-*@##!+ !!!!” (Please note, I have encoded her actual message in respect to tender ears, but Old Harley, a retired sailor, began blushing.)
After that, the evening sort of went sideways AND downhill.
Our remaining customers were also our neighbors, so they didn’t raise a stink about having to leave without their suppers. I can’t say as much for the puppy, who proceeded to leave an especially aromatic pile in front of the deep fryer.
With a little help from Old Harley, we moved Sally Rae out of the deepest parts of the puddle and straightened out her left leg – an operation that caused her to repeat “&0%5E-*@##!+ !!!!”, not so loud as before, but with equal sincerity.
I had the presence of mind to run into the kitchen and turn off all the burners. Li’l’ Billy cleaned up the doggy mess as quickly as possible, and “Squirt” (what else could he be named?) cowered in the corner, discreetly chewing on several “flying” chicken-fried steaks that had miraculously fallen from the sky.
I next called Old Doc Bailey. Thank goodness Heartbreak is small enough that a doctor would still make house calls!
A short time later Old Doc Bailey had given Sally Rae a shot of morphine. After a bit of poking and prodding — with appropriate outbursts from Sally Rae — he pronounced that Sally Rae probably had a fractured knee. He couldn’t be really certain without X-rays, but he had seen a few before.
“I could be wrong, but whatever it is, it’s a darn mess!” he concluded.
I left Li’l’ Billy – and Squirt – with June Bug and Co. to drive Sally Rae to Culver City’s hospital.
Poor Sally Rae had to have an operation: her left leg was a mess — not just broken, but full of shredded tendons, ligaments and cartilage — the scars not just of this spill but a career spent on her feet. In all, she was there for three days, and she spent another four days recovering in our bedroom.
I let Li’l’ Billy keep Squirt, but only outside until he’d learned to mind his manners.
As for Li’l’ Billy and me, we were busier than I can remember. Although I helped Sally Rae, she was truly the chief cook and bottle washer of our operation.
On day one I explained the facts of the situation to Li’l’ Billy.
“Son, this isn’t punishment, but I absolutely have to have your help for a while.”
He washed dishes and bused tables while I cooked, served, cleaned, ran the cash register, and quietly had a nervous breakdown in my spare time. Fortunately, there wasn’t much spare time, so my breakdown was necessarily a small one.
And the complaints started the day we reopened.
“My chicken-fried steak just ain’t right,” was the most common one.
Finally Sally Rae was improved enough to wheel around and run the cash register, and that helped a lot. Also, I was able to get some much-needed cooking tips.
“Show me how you do it,” she said.
I heated the oil and was just ready to put a basket of battered steaks in when she took my arm.
“Wait,” she said, and she spit into the oil. It jumped and danced, but to her expert eye, it wasn’t right. “Let it heat three minutes more.”
“How about the cornbread?” I asked.
“Simple, use two mouthfuls of buttermilk to one cup of mix.”
I looked at her, somewhat aghast.
“I’m joking. What you really need is to put in three tablespoons of the grease from the morning’s bacon.”
And so, one step at a time, I learned cooking and humility. I also imbibed a deep appreciation for how complex her job really was.
Li’l’ Billy never dropped a soapy dish nor missed a shift as busboy, I’m proud to report. It just proved to me not only how much he loved Momma Sally Rae, but how much he longed for a dog of his own.
There is perhaps no relationship found in Nature based in such mutual reciprocity as a boy’s need to own a dog, and a dog’s need to own a boy. Once again, I witnessed Sally Rae’s loving, forgiving nature as she gradually let Squirt wiggle his way into our lives. I myself was (again) humbled by learning the tasks that others — like Sally Rae — took for granted.
And once again Nature reminded me of the inexorable progress of Time. I’m 70 now, and the only oats that I feel at the end of the day are the kind generally served in a bowl for breakfast.
David Mosley spent 50 years on his family ranch on the Brazos River. In 2014 he sold it after developing several physical problems, including age. In 2012 he married his editor-in-chief, Terri Jo Mosley. They have lived many ranch stories, some related in the Heartbreak series. Like the Bible, some parts are true; some are parables to express the truth. Some parts of Heartbreak, though, are just dang ol’ lies.
His email is email@example.com.