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Nathan and Roy Hobbs


By

Rick Scheideman

 

 

            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.

Yeah, answers 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.         

Most mornings 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 Mountain, they 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 whither.

            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 curiosity.

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.

Roy Hobbs 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 juniper.

                        “Hey, buddy.”

                        “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 Nathan.

                        “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.

“Nathan, 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.”

“Go away 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!”

The coyote 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.

                        “No, Nathan!”

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 left hand.

            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.

                        “Nathan!”

            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.

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