Nathan and Roy Hobbs
Often, Nathan rides atop my shoulders. His cap
sports floppy ears on each side with string ties that
fasten under the chin. This morning I tied the flaps up
with a bow on top of his head—a Cossack astride me. His
coat is corduroy, chocolate brown and unbuttoned revealing
blue, yellow, and white stripes across the T-shirt underneath.
Blue jeans with iron-on patches at the knee cover the
boy’s energetic legs. Of course, the patches loosen at
the corners and roll toward the center where the knee
turns pink. His socks, a twice a year gift from Grandma,
sport argyle patterns of maroon and green. Grass-stained
running shoes reveal a boy who prefers the outdoors to
computer games. Nathan turned seven in May and he has
a dog—a mongrel that eagerly demonstrates affection to
any passerby, dog-lover or not. The day we brought him
home, I bought a twenty-five foot clothesline from the
hardware, taped the ends with duct tape, and cut them
off square. I wanted to give Roy Hobbs roaming room. I
couldn’t bring myself spring for one of those plastic
leashes with a button you push to reel in the pooch.
to Roy Hobbs. I fancied the name in, “The Natural,” a
movie where a baseball player held a vision that in years
to come people would watch him walk down the sidewalk
and declare, “Now, there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there
ever was.” No logic between the mutt and the movie, but
the name stuck. Like I said, a friendlier pooch does not
exist. When we’re out gallivanting and a stranger happens
by, Roy Hobbs charges, bounces, bobs, weaves and cavorts
much to that poor stranger's astonishment. Give Roy Hobbs
the slightest intimation of a petting gesture, and that
love-starved mutt flops on his back, spreads his legs,
and offers up a pink belly. Most demur. Roy Hobbs courts
no ill feeling evidenced by an unstoppable tail. He leaps
to his feet and renews an eager sniff for the next opportunity.
Clearly, Roy Hobbs is an optimist’s best friend. Maybe
that’s the sticking power of the name.
finds Nathan, Roy Hobbs and me outside tramping. We beat
our way up and down the trails along the flanks of a mountain
that rises a few blocks from our home. Green
call it, though vaguely green in a wet spring, and then
for no more than two or three weeks. My wife works full
time as an assistant district attorney for the county.
While she was in law school, we decided we’d try for a
baby after she graduated. After that, I’d go back to school
for a teaching certificate or maybe training to coaching
baseball. But Laura found out she was pregnant on the
same day the job offer came through. We decided I’d be
Mr. Mom. Early on, I knew some worry, but Nathan has taught
me how to parent him. This fall Nathan and I are in second
grade together; we home-school each other. And we usually
start the day up here on in these slopes west of Denver.
This morning the October chill glazes the grass
with the season’s first frost. The air stirs lightly on
a northeast breeze. Though early fall, summer clouds left
a month ago, replaced this morning by a flat sky. The
white underbelly of one low cloud stands out from the
settled gray background. I keep honking my nose and then
wipe my mustache with a handkerchief. We’re about a week
away from pumpkin carving. The boy and I have been practicing
on some gourds grown wild in a neighbor’s patch. I try
for happy faces, but most turn saggy-eyed and the teeth
We walk quietly. Nathan sings a tune of his making.
He is, as his great-aunt whispers, “just a little slow.”
I suppose slow is as good a label as the ever-changing
clinical ones—idiot, retarded, Mongoloid, Down’s syndrome,
developmentally challenged. But maybe the new labels help,
as attitudes mature so do the words. At first, welcoming
a less than normal baby felt grossly unfair. Now it’s
natural to love and be loved from this boy as presented.
We make his life as normal as we can. In my heart, I know
that Nathan warms to recognition and appreciation like
everyone else. I’m truthful with him about his limitations,
and about his important place in the world. He nods and
smiles. The boy skips through his life with boundless
One of our
favorite haunts is a washed-out gully. It rarely runs
with water, yet wildflowers flourish there. Must be damp
beneath the dryness. I carry a stout walking stick carved
of hickory in case we bumble on to a rattlesnake. This
time of year they migrate from one side of the mountain
to the other. They slither south with winter’s tilting
sun, warming before hibernation. Well and good for National
Geographic, but I’ll carry the stick just the same. Nathan
prefers to walk by himself. He explores with his eyes
and listens intently. Sometimes he falls down on all fours
to smell a pear cactus flower. He pets at the tall grass
and pricks his finger when he forgets about cacti.
This morning we head for the gully. I decide, rather,
Roy Hobbs decides to explore the top edge of the ravine
so that I look down on my son below. The bottom runs sandy
like a beach. He squats and wiggles his fingers in the
sand. Then he holds one hand above the other slowly tilting
the upper hand until the sand falls like salt from a shaker
into his other hand. The colors enchant him, browns and
grays and whites. With each handful, flecks of quartz
glimmer. Nathan admires these flashes with giggles and
a babbling commentary.
lights out after a cottontail. This gives me no small
grief attempting to untangle loops of clothesline around
a bush and haul in the dog. Maybe those automatic zip
leashes really work? After retrieving Roy Hobbs, I notice
that Nathan has left the sand and journeyed further up
the wash. Roy Hobbs and I continue along the top edge
of the gully, bare but for a few scrub oak and desert
“Hi, Daddy. Hi, Woy Wobbs.”
We’re working on pronunciation.
Suddenly, the dog stops dead, stiffens. I look
up, see nothing. Roy Hobbs makes a sound I’ve never heard
from him. He whimpers. I look down at him as he crouches
behind my legs. He leans against me, trembling. I wonder
if he’s sick. Then I look up again and see her. She stares
from a thicket. Larger than a German Shepherd, the coyote
is tawny. The eyes glow yellow, almost gold. The pupils
shadow the darkest brown. She bares her teeth; moisture
drips from her nose. I’m scared. I thought wild animals
were supposed to fear us and run off at the first whiff
of an encounter. Then I hear Nathan. The coyote hears
“Twinkle—Oh, twinkle—Oh, twinkle star,
I wonder how far you are,
Above the high sky I see you,
Twinkle, Oh, my star.”
What the hell am I going to do? Roy Hobbs sits
in a puddle, peeless. Nathan climbs hand-over-hand out
of the gully on a game trail leading toward the coyote.
I suck a quick breath. My voice cracks like an adolescent.
son, Daddy wants you to go back down. Son, listen to me,
son. Go down in the ditch. Right now, Nathan. Go back
down into the gully. Do your hear me son? Go back and
play in the sand. Nathan!”
Too late. The coyote snaps her head
toward my Nathan.
“Hi puppy dog.”
from the puppy. Now, Nathan. Go away from the puppy. It’s
a bad puppy dog, Nathan. Come to Daddy. Right now, come
here to Daddy. Damnit Nathan!”
looks back at me. I can see the muscles in her shoulders
bulging with tension. Her bushy tail is stiff, nostrils
wide, sniffing. Her eyes pierce my father-protector armor.
“Hi ya, puppy puppy.
I step toward the boy and the coyote
growls. I stop. If I could unhook Roy Hobbs maybe—what, beat
a coyote with a clothesline?
Suddenly, a pup scrambles underneath its mother’s
belly toward Nathan’s out-stretched hand.
“Puppy doggy. Hi, puppy, puppy.”
Nathan smiles. I know exactly what
he will do. What will I do? Should I grab the boy and
cover him with my arms come what may? Will the coyote
attack me or go for Roy Hobbs? Nathan makes his decision.
He reaches for the pup and the mother takes a step toward
my son. I hear the wind rustle dry leaves. Roy Hobbs cowers
against me. And Nathan thuds to his knees with both hands
outstretched toward the pup that startles with the sudden
movement, and then yips. Time stops. In the silence, the
pup prances toward my son and licks the fingers of his
Mama coyote has had enough. She turns into the
brush, and then gives off a piercing howl that makes my
gut turn. Her youngster gives a pup-yelp and follows its
mother. I need a bathroom.
“See Daddy. See puppy doggie?”
Nathan is on his feet starting to run
after the darting family.
I catch my son with one hand on his collar, the
other brushes off bits of dirt from his knees. Both patches
fall to the ground. I caress Nathan’s neck and his soft
shoulders, and scratch the hair on the back of his head
where he likes it at bedtime. Roy Hobbs starts barking.
Nathan laughs while I struggle to keep from crying.
I carry my son on my shoulders. The trail leads
us to the street and home. Roy Hobbs tangles in the clothesline,
and, of course, I fuss at him.