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Just a Closer Walk With Thee
By Jay R White
Thursday, March 21, 2002
Just a Closer Walk With Thee
Jay Raymond White
At odd moments spiritual epiphanies overwhelmed my aunt Fanny, and when they did, she shouted, "Yes, Jesus!" and grabbed the person closest to her and held on with the strength of ten. Such behavior was merely annoying to members of the family, but to strangers who imagined she had found madness, it was downright scary.
One day on the bus to Knott's Berry Farm, an oriental gentleman who had witnessed Aunt Fanny's act earlier in the ride, convinced himself her weather eye was working itself round to him, and his mind began to wobble.
One misapprehension sometimes spawns another. Perceiving a fellow pilgrim in distress, Aunt Fanny burst into megalomaniacal glossolalia, proclaimed the Second Coming and started up the aisle to the his aid, and the Oriental gentleman, believing the Hour had truly struck, ripped open the door of the bus and leaped into the back seat of a passing convertible. A motorcycle policeman sitting at the intersection observed the act and tore off in pursuit, and when the bus passed a pandemonium in the street a few blocks later, the passengers were not surprised that it consisted of flashing red lights, a crowd of gawkers, a yellow convertible half-way up a stinkberry tree, a bewildered blonde at the wheel, and a fumarolic police officer. The Oriental gentleman gyrating epicente of the fuss, tore his hair and audibly refused to be comforted.
Uncle Carl, reading about the incident in the paper the following morning, chuckled deep in his ponderous belly because, although his wife's name was nowhere mentioned, he knew she had authored the incident. "In a flap like that one," he told Father that evening, "Miss Fanny's fingerprints are indelible."
Later, on the drive home, Dad said to me in the tone he used when dispensing hasty lessons of philosophy, "You know, Son, it is sometimes dangerous to mistake another's intentions. Your uncle Carl ought to know that even if the Chinaman didn't."
"What do you mean, Dad?" --I often used the strategem of the innocent question to get a story out of my father.
It seems that when they were boys in Polk County, Arkansas, the White brothers: Lewis, Carl and Buck, owing to poverty, had but one bicycle among them, so they rode it to school turn about.
On the road to the country school, at the bottom of a long hill, a farmhouse endured inhabited by an old man named Ludo Kinnerson who had fallen heir to an enormous black and tan hound--a hound of about the size and demeanor of a demented range bull, named Old Booger.
And Old Booger hated people.
There was a logging trail behind the Kinnerson place which his more sensible siblings employed to avoid the front of the house, but Uncle Carl was the oldest brother and believed himself a man of principle. He took the road.
Uncle Buck informed him, "One of these days that dog is going to eat you alive so fast all of you will be in him but your head before you even get a chance to holler."
Offended by the ramark, Uncle Carl stationed his fists on his hips and raised his voice: "You think Old Booger hates people?" he demanded. "Well, by jingo he don't hate people anywhere near as much as I hate him, and I can tell you right now no dang dog is going to deny Carl Bailey White the public thoroughfare. I'd rather be dead!"
It is impossible to disassociate hatred from fear, but Uncle Carl was too young to appreciate the philosophical propriety of Truism--he refused to admit fear of anything, and since Old Booger was a notorious egoist of precisely the same stripe, there had to come a reckoning.
Several confrontations had already occured. On the first day of school, Uncle Carl had ridden by the ramshackle farm minding his business and dreaming dreams of personal notoriety, blissfully unconscious ot the fact that Old Booger cohabited the planet, when his attention was arrested by a noise resembling that of an approaching tornado emanating from under the porch of the house. Puzzled, he paused in the middle of the road to see what would happen.
He did not have long to wait.
The noise increased in volume and intensity until it approached apogee, then abruptly ceased, bequething a silence which widened and air that smelled like snakes. Then the loose boards of the porch began to seethe, and from under them burst an apparition of stupefying dimensions unfolding toward Uncle Carl's position with incredible rapidity, trailing from its neck a length of heavy logging chain as if it were a string.
The chain was all that saved my uncle, owing to the fact that its bitter end was attached to a "dead man" driven three feet into the iron-hard soil of the front yard, but he was not immediately aware that he was saved, for when the chain had achieved the definition of its length, it jerked the monster straight onto its hind legs, and what Uncle Carl thought he saw was a Bengal tiger disguised as a black and tan hound, marking time before him on back paws big as stove lids while the front paws, supporting claws like baling hooks, enthusiastically attempted to draw his face into a pair of jaws already crammed with noise and teeth--and that is how Old Booger introduced himself.
Uncle Carl could not later recall how he had managed the feat, but he was half a mile down the road and doing about sixty before he realized he was carrying his bicycle rather than riding it, and he threw it down and fell upon a shale embankment by Cedar Creek bridge to tremble and sob. When the paroxysm subsided and his heart had recovered sufficiently to permit an emotion other than terror, hatred clogged his blood like worms.
Tactically thereafter, he rode by the Kinnerson place at velocity and on the far side of the road five or six feet beyond where Old Booger could take his chain, and he did so with great trepidation. But as the dog never failed to attempt an ambush, and the boy never again failed to anticipate it, both parties eventually gained confidence in the parameters of their respective spaces, and the beast, rather than rushing out headlong to strangle himself, began stalking the road with the patience of an ancestral enemy, and he no longer even bothered to snarl, but the dull glow of murder never left his eyes, and of course Uncle Carl's loathing intensified. He took to riding by very slowly and offering Old Booger the most egregious insults imaginable, calling him a poodle dog and and egg sucker and threatening to look up his sweethearts and drown all his pups.
After the insult phase had been in effect for some time, Old Booger no longer deigned to display attention when Uncle Carl rode by, but sat and watched him up the road through lidded eyes, then stood and walked stiff-legged back into his yard and crawled under the porch.
Disappointed by the dog's attitude, and emboldened, Uncle Carl devised a torture which he inaugurated by pumping up to speed fifty yards before the road sloped off, then with his head thrust forward and elbows akimbo, he pedaled as fast as he could down the hill, directly at the animal, screaming like a fiend. At the last moment, he veered away from the jaws and zoomed past, laughing hysterically.
The stratagem worked. After the initial occurrence, as soon as he spotted Uncle Carl at the top of the hill, Old Booger exploded into blinding dementia, slashing at empty spaces in the air and slinging ropes of slobber in every direction while snarling and gnashing his great orange teeth and lunging with all his strength at the tormenter as he whizzed by.
That peculiar madness went on for about a month.
Then one day when Uncle Carl topped the hill to begin his run, Old Booger was absent from his post. Immediately suspicious, the rider braked and dismounted and carefully scanned the world within its horizons but discovered nothing untoward: languid cattle campaigned peacefully in the lush pastures against a backdrop of deciduous trees gone gorgeous in the rust and gold of Autumn. Deep in the woods behind him, a woodpecker thoughtfully tapped it evolutionary message into the bark of a dogwood, setting its echoes adrift among the valleys and through the shadow of the deep, primordial piney wood.
Blackberries festooned the barbed wire along the country road. Chips of sunlight barely discernible through the trees wallied and winked upon the river a few miles away, while in the foreground just below, a family of bobwhite quail entered and observed and called and disappeared into the blackberry briars.
Uncle Carl mounted and coasted cautiously down the hill.
He passed by the gaunt farmhouse silently, reverently, as though traversing the spiritual shadowland of some ancient and sacred burial ground, during which hollow moment a section of the tin roof of a fallen down barn out back keened eerily, touched perhaps by the malevolent little wind that lived in an adjacent and foreboding old oak, then fell silent as if listening for an answer from beyond. He stood on his pedals and ached along, barely making headway through the loose dirt of the road clutching his tires, reluctant, he thought, to let him pass through.
Then all at once he was safe on the other side, and the sky lifted. Relief overwhelmed him as if a flock of birds had burst from his colon and whirred away into oblivion. He stopped and looked back, suppressing the giggle working its way up through his belly into his throat. Then he remounted and continued on his way, his soul singing paeans.
At that moment, out of a tangled briar thicket a hundred yards ahead, Old Booger materialized big as a silo and braced himself astride the right of way like some phantasmagoric canine Colossus of Rhodes. Somehow he had slipped his chain in the night and was just then returning from a foray to the outskirts of a village across the Oklahoma line seventeen miles away where he had razed an electric power plant and destroyed a sawmill, and he was late and hurrying home to fulfill the obligation of his regular Wednesday morning rendezvous with Uncle Carl.
Old Booger's eyes sizzled the air across the distance separating them, and Uncle Carl whirled his bicycle about and fled to the rear at inconceivable speed, but he heard Old Booger coming hard, gouging ground at every bound and blowing like a runaway locomotive. The two hot bodies blurred the Kinnerson house going by and were just about to flatten out the hill behond, when the front tire of the bicycle blew with a report like a pistol shot, and Uncle Carl flew off the road smack into the trunk of the tallest white pine tree in Polk County, Arkansas, making a metal pretzel of the bike and breaking its rider's nose and three of his short ribs.
Old Booger arrived a millisecond later and tore into the bicycle with the ferocity of Cerebus--that is to say, he grabbed it and shook it so violently that his neck appeared to be supporting not one head but three, all of equipollent ferocity. Then he abruptly dropped the wreck and glared at it with premonishing balefulness, as if inviting it to twitch--merely twitch so much as a spoke. When the bicycle declined to do so, the dog turned his attention to Uncle Carl lying horrified and helpless against the trunk of the pine tree, gave him three great slobbering kisses, smiled as well as he was able without displaying too many teeth and turned to go home, wagging his prodigious tail like a two-by-four.
In that precise moment within the calamity, enlightenment arrived, late as usual, and Uncle Carl realized through the pain that it wasn't people Old Booger hated at all. It was machines he hated, and it was from the assassination of just such a machine that the great beast trotted triumphantly away, exultant perhaps to have rescued the feckless fat boy from it at last.
After Uncle Carl had sufficiently recovered from the wounds of his accident, he and his brothers walked by the Kinnerson place without concern, and as often as not Old Booger would be on hand to receive them and reap the rewards due him as a hero: a scratch, a pat, a moment of quiet conversation--but his loathing for machines was in no way abated. In the springtime of the following year, automobiles were introduced into rural Arkansas, and the first one that came putting down his road, Old Booger reduced to rubble in a little under three minutes flat.
The Lizzy's aghast owner, Reverend John J. Foley, a Pentecostal preacher from Mount Ida, accompanied by his devout adolescent daughter, Fanny, had innocently ridden out to call on Mr. Ludo Kinnerson on the business of buying his farm, and eventually the clergyman did buy it and settled his family there, but not before he had sent the sheriff's deputy out from town to shoot Old Booger.
Uncle Carl claimed the body and buried his friend on a rise above the east fork of Cedar Creek far enough from the road so he wouldn't be disturbed by the sounds of passing traffic, and every spring until he married Miss Fanny Mae Foley and moved to Southern California, he made the pilgramige to the tomb to plant a white pine sapling in memory of Old Booger and in mindful reverence to the maleficent properties of misapprehension.
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