By Brent Allen
His dad said it seemed warm, but it was spring and this would be a cool day in the fall. So James wore the jacket grandma O’Malley got him for Christmas, and his father wore the matching one she had bought for him. Grandma thought it was cute, but James thought it was dumb and his dad agreed, but they couldn’t tell grandma what they thought.
James held his father’s hand and thought about asking his dad to carry him, but he was too big now. That was what little kids did. He was still a kid, duh, but not a little kid.
Prince walked off the path sometimes, but he was older now and stayed closer to them than he had in the past. He loved the woods. James knew because Prince’s tail wagged like he was swatting flies.
James was huffing when they got to the clearing and the lake opened wide and far. His father let go of James’ hand and scrambled down the incline to the side of the lake. He put down the tackle and folding chairs, touched the water with his shoe, and turned back to James and opened his arms.
“I can do it,” James said.
“OK,” his father said, but James knew he was watching closely as he slid down the slope. He stopped at his father’s feet and let his father pull him up so he could brush off his pants. When his father told him they were clean enough and they were old jeans anyway, James stepped to the edge of the lake and touched the surface with his shoe.
“Maybe we could get a boat,” James said.
His father looked at Prince, and James said, “Oh.”
He didn’t do too well,” his father said.
“Remember how we lost some of the worms?”
“He almost tipped us over.”
James bent down and put his nose against Prince’s muzzle. His dog was panting after the climb down the slope.
“No boat,” James said. “It’s OK, Prince. We don’t need a boat.” When Prince tried to lick him, James fell backward and wiped his face with his sleeve.
“They’ll be biting today,” his father said. His father could always tell.
“I hope I get one this big,” James said, and he spread his arms wide.
“No whales in this lake,” his father said.
James laughed and wiped away Prince’s slobber some more.
He and his father prepared their hooks and his father reminded James how to toss the line. James held the button down and released it with a perfect, arcing, toss and his father said “Whoa, James, I can’t beat that,” and James was happy.
They talked about school and Miss Delacroix and how James liked being in her class. His father understood why James was pleased with his teacher and they laughed about that because James was old enough to understand when a woman was pretty. Miss Delacroix was very pretty.
Prince walked around them for a while, keeping close, sniffing the water and the bait, but he curled up next to the tackle boxes and fell asleep before they caught their first fish.
Prince was still sleeping when James felt the first nibble. His father had not noticed, and James jerked the line. It was too quick — he should have waited for more nibbles — but he set his hook.
“Nice job, son,” his father said. “That’s the way to do it. Reel it in slowly.”
“I know, dad,” James said. “Slowly. Slowly.” He wound the spool with the handle. “I think it’s big,” he said.
Prince had finally woken up and he watched James. For a second, James thought the fish had slipped the hook, but he felt it tug again and he reeled it in very slowly. His father got a nibble, too, but he lost the fish and reeled in his line. He slipped a nightcrawler on the hook and waited for James before he tossed the line.
“Got it under control?” his father said.
James nodded. “It’s close, but I don’t think it’s that big.”
His father tossed his line and let the bobber float while he watched James.
“I can see it,” James said. He reeled faster until the fish was out of water. It was a blue gill, and it was pretty big. Prince was interested and watched intently with his tail in a fierce wag.
“Let me take it off the hook,” his father said.
“I think I can do it.”
His father looked at him askew and nodded. It was a big moment. James held the fish tightly and slipped it off the hook without getting poked by the fins or the hook.
“You’re a regular pro, now,” his father said.
“James, one; Dad, zero,” James said, and they both laughed and Prince plopped down next to the tackle boxes and fell asleep again. James let his father slap the fish against a rock and gut it with the knife that had belonged to James’ grandfather.
“Someday, this will be yours,” his father said. James hoped it would be soon.
It was an hour before twilight before they were tired of fishing and talking. James had three to his father’s two and his father had promised a sundae on the way home for James’ victory. His father had caught a large bass and tried to change the rules to win by total weight, but James would not allow it, and his father conceded that it was number and not weight and he would have to correct that next time they came unless James caught a really big fish. They took four of the fish home to eat and Prince slept the whole way home.
It was the kind of hot that only the heart of summer can bring. James’ mother refused to cook inside, so his father grilled hamburgers in the back yard and drank a Pabst Blue Ribbon from a bottle. James’ mother held his baby sister Jessica and shuttled patties and cheese and buns to his father, who wore a big, dirty, apron that said “Please kiss the Grillmaster.”
Prince sauntered across the yard. He was older now and he coughed a lot and his dad said he would have to go to the vet soon if he didn’t get better. James watched as Prince toppled on his left side and James yelled “Dad!”
His father dropped a hamburger and the spatula on the grass and ran over to Prince and tried to get him up. James saw Prince cough up white froth tinged with red. The old dog whimpered. He had never done that before, and James was scared.
“Mary,” his father said. He motioned with his hands and James did not understand. But his mother returned with a bowl of water and his father took it and put it in front of Prince. When he did not move, James’ father poured some of the water on his teeth and Prince lapped at it a little. James’ father tried to help Prince up, but Prince whimpered again and started coughing.
“Oh, God, Mary,” his father said. “I’ve got to take him.”
“Look at him.”
His father knelt down and picked Prince up. Prince whimpered at first, but he stopped by the time they got to the car and James’ mother opened the back door and James’ father put Prince on the seat. Jessica sucked on her bottle and watched. James got in the back seat with Prince and closed the door.
“Not today, buddy,” his father said. “You stay home with your mom and sister.”
“I want to go,” James said.
“No,” his father said.
“You don’t want me to see him…” James said. He could not bring himself to say “die.”
His father rested his head against the steering wheel.
“I don’t want you to see me,” he said.
Prince was leaking slobber on the back seat, but the red was gone. James did not move.
“He’s my dog,” James said. “I’m old enough.” James saw his mother looking at his father, and his father nodded and kissed her.
“I guess you are,” his father said, but his voice was weak and not like his father at all.
They were silent on the ride to the vet. Prince raised his head to sniff the wind, but he got too tired to keep it up. When the car hit a bump on the road, Prince whimpered, and then he fell asleep.
James’ dad pulled up in front of the vet’s office. It was an old white home with an addition where the vet operated on dogs. It needed a paint job and on the side by the surgery, flakes of dirty white paint littered the lawn.
“James, you go get us signed in.”
James kicked open the door and ran to the office. Kathy, his favorite attendant, was there and he spewed out a rush of words that made her face go sad.
“The doctor’s with someone, sweetie, but I’ll get him,” Kathy said. “Don’t you worry.”
James’ father arrived at the door and Kathy came from behind the desk and hugged James and went to get the doctor. His father was still holding Prince when Dr. Bob opened the door of the consultation room and motioned for James father to follow him to the surgery. An old woman with a cat in a cage watched them leave.
James’ father placed Prince on the floor because he couldn’t lift him on the observation table. He leaned against the wall and the doctor said it was OK, and that he should take a minute to catch his breath.
“We’ll just take a look right here,” he said.
James’ father nodded as his breathing slowed. He wiped sweat from his forehead and the top of his head. Dr. Bob looked in Prince’s eyes and his mouth and he tapped Prince’s swollen stomach. When he was done, he stood up and looked at James and his father said, “Go ahead.”
“There’s nothing I can do but put old Prince out of his pain,”
Dr. Bob said. “He’s had an incident.” He looked at James again and James’ father nodded his head.
“I’m surprised he made it this far,” Dr. Bob said.
“How long?” James’ father said.
“He’s in a lot of pain,” Dr. Bob said. “It’s time, David. It’s been coming and it’s here.”
“Let’s do it, then,” James’ father said. His voice that did not sound like him at all.
“Do you want James with you?”
“Yes,” his father said.
That’s when James cried. It was so stupid, but he stopped when the doctor came with the big needle and his father lay down next to Prince and stroked his head and told him it was all going to be all right. He was still wearing the apron that said “Please kiss the Grillmaster.” Dr. Bob sat down on the other side of Price and held his back leg and rubbed with his thumb until he found what he wanted. He put the needle in Prince, but Prince did not whimper.
“It will be quick,” Dr. Bob said. “A minute or so. He won’t feel a thing. He’ll go to sleep.”
“It’s all right, big guy,” James’ father said. James watched as Dr. Bob pressed his thumb to the back of the needle and pushed the contents into Prince’s leg until the needle was empty. Prince’s head moved slightly, and he rolled his eyes around and James was sure Prince was looking at him when his eyes stopped moving. James looked at his father, and sweat was running down his face, but when he looked at his dad again, the water came from his left eye and rolled down his cheek.
On the way out of the office, James held his father’s hand for the last time.
It was the kind of cold fall day that would be warm in the spring. James followed his father through the woods and they talked about Miss Delacroix and her upcoming marriage to Mr. Courtlen, a sixth-grade teacher. He had proposed in her class and James had been there and thought it all very stupid and even sad in a way he did not understand.
He did not tell his dad; there were some things he had to figure out on his own.
His dad let him scramble down the slope to the lake without offering to help. James brushed his pants off while his father bent down and touched the water’s edge. The lake was strangely placid for this time of the year and the waves were little ripples dying on the shore.
“We could get a boat,” his father said.
James touched the surface of the water, and then he and his father looked back into the woods for what seemed a long time, but it wasn’t. They prepared their lines and watched as the bobbers made little ripples on the water’s surface.
“Maybe next time, dad,” James said.
“Yeah,” his father said. “Maybe next time.”