our village (60)
chapter 3, story #2
Did I ever tell you the story of the shy white wolf in our neighborhood? The neighborhood is a village, really, but it sounds unrealistically quaint to say that, especially in a story about a shy white wolf, so I said “neighborhood.” It’s a neighborhood, too, but, politically, officially, on the maps and in the state records such as they are, it’s a village, if I’m telling the story truthfully. Shall I call it a “village” then? Very well. Let me start over.
Did I ever tell you the story of the shy white wolf in our village? Seventeen years old, so the story goes, and I think that’s old for a wolf. It’s old for a dog anyway, and, well, a wolf is a dog. So this old white wolf in our village is as shy as a crab, and when you see it you can see it just trying to sneak its head back in its shell, but it has no shell because it’s not a crab, it’s a dog, a dog that’s still got the wild in it, bred from a wolf, you can tell: it still moves like a wolf—not skittish like a coyote, even though this old boy is shy, old, and he startles easy, but even when he’s startled he’s smooth, like a wolf, and when you see this old boy, white as a ghost, out in the village at night, it can raise your goose-bumps, because you don’t necessarily want to be part of a man-wolf encounter, not anywhere, really, definitely not at night, doesn’t matter if you’re in a village or a neighborhood at that point, or in the woods or in a damn circus, you’re in a cemetery, that’s where you’d be after a man-wolf encounter.
So, the story goes, this old white wolf-dog that Paul Sr. had been raising, it gets out, loose, in the village. And what I’m trying to say is that no one really knows if this thing is a domesticated dog or if it’s a wolf with the wild still in it.
And Paul Jr.—he lives across the street from his old man, Paul Sr.—Paul Jr. is sitting in his living room one summer evening, windows open, TV off for once, and his wife has gone to bed and he’s just sitting there sipping on a Bud Light and listening to the cicadas, and he sees his old man across the little street—it’s just a little one-lane car path in our dead-end village—so he sees right across the street that his old man’s causing a bit of a ruckus, lights flashing on and off and furniture being dragged around, and Paul Jr. thinks his old man must be missing something, looks like he’s looking for something. Paul Jr. doesn’t know yet that his old man has lost the wolf, although that’s not what he’s scrummaging around the house for. No, he’s looking for a leash—hasn’t used it in years, you see, the old man’s been convinced his old wolf is just a dog, a tame dog, and a shy one at that, so he walks it around the village without a leash. But tonight the wolf-dog has run off, and the old man is looking for a leash, and Paul Jr.’s just watching, and waiting, and trying to figure out what’s going on. The old man would fetch his son if the old man needed his son’s help, so Paul Jr. needn’t worry himself. But the old man isn’t gonna ask for his son’s help because his son has been telling him for years, “You’d better be careful with that wolf. That wild thing is gonna get you in trouble some day.” That’s what Paul Jr. had been saying, so the old man wasn’t about to ask for his son’s help retrieving the run-away dog-wolf.
But here’s what happened. Paul Jr. was curious, and especially when his dad—his old man—left the house with a flashlight and a backpack, and then especially when the old man didn’t stop at his son’s house to ask for help, well that made Paul Jr. too curious to bear.
The night was so wonderfully quiet of human noise after the old man stopped futzing around, and the lights were off at both houses. And Paul Jr. figured his old man wouldn’t even know he was there, and he still had his beer in his hand, and he could keep sipping on that to help him avoid talking out loud and breaking the ambiance of the evening, you know, so he slipped silently out of his house to secretly follow his old man who was carrying a flashlight and wearing a backpack. The son following the father like the father is a little schoolboy.
Where in the world … ? Paul Jr. asks himself.
His old man, for now, walked with the flashlight on but shining down at his feet as he walked, and he was wearing that backpack like a schoolboy, as I said, so Paul Jr. really didn’t know what his old man was up to. Paul Jr. sipped his beer silently and followed a house or two behind the old man, trying to stay in the shadows, hoping no neighbor was watching—but a neighbor was watching; a neighbor is always watching—and wondering what his old man was doing. They were walking toward the bridge. There were plenty of shadows, and the cicadas were loud and his old man was old, so Paul didn’t have trouble secretly following the old man down the path to the bridge.
But, as he approached the bridge, he realized that he would have no shadows to hide in on the bridge, and he would be embarrassed if his old man saw that he’d been following him, so he decided to wait in the shadows at the end of the bridge until his old man passed at least halfway and kept walking.
Maybe the old man was just going out to the middle of the bridge for some stargazing—it was a family tradition—but with the flashlight and backpack? not part of any tradition Paul Jr. knew about.
Paul Jr. thought his old man was up to something, and Paul Jr. didn’t want to be caught spying, so if the old man got to halfway and kept going, past the stargazing middle of the bridge, then Paul Jr.. would try to sneak across the bridge without his old man seeing him in pursuit. (Even if my old man sees me, Paul Jr. thinks, he could just say he’s out for an evening stroll. Totally normal. Family tradition, in fact. Check out those stars.)
The old man walks to the middle of the bridge, and he stops. He stands the flashlight down on its head on the railing, so it’s casting a small orangeish glow. Paul Jr. sees his old man putting his hands on the rail—probably for stability, Paul Jr. thinks; his dad is an old man, after all.
Paul Jr. stands in the shadows at the edge of the bridge, sipping his beer and watching. The old man eventually picks up the flashlight again, shines it once up the bridge in the direction he’d been walking, then drops the beam of light to his feet again and he continues his progress across the bridge with the light shining down at his feet. And when it looks to Paul Jr. like his old man is not pausing again, Paul Jr. steps out of the shadows and cautiously follows his old man across the bridge.
But when the old man reaches the opposite end of the bridge, he pauses. Paul Jr. sees it, and he pauses too, and he realizes that he’s standing right in the middle of the bridge. And both father and son are standing in the dark of the night, listening to the sounds of the village, not looking at the stars. And eventually the old man turns back toward the bridge that he’s just crossed, and he shines his flashlight down the length of it until the light lands on the feet, then the legs, and on up to the face of his son, who is now shielding his eyes from the beam of the flashlight.
“I’ll be damned,” says the old man. “That dog followed you across the bridge.” And that old shy white wolf steps smoothly into the flashlight beam at the feet of Paul Jr.