Sunday, February 19, 2012

Me & Mr. Roberts: Part 1 - Our Dogs

  I'd known Mr. Robert's mule at least a year before meeting Mr. Roberts. He lived on a small farm in a little cove in Mars Hill, NC since the 1940s. Fifty some years later, in 1994, I moved into the mouth of that cove. It was known as Phillips Valley, a small hollow between the hills where a handful of families lived along the winding loop of road traveling through it. By the time I moved there, Mr. Roberts was in his eighties.
   I would get home from my job in Asheville, fix a little dinner and take a walk around that loop, sometimes in daylight, sometimes in the dark, sometimes with visiting friends, family or a boyfriend. Most days I was alone. The mule would walk down the hilly pasture to the fence when he saw me. Sometimes it would be dark and I only heard his rustling and snorting, or maybe see his shape in the moonlight. I didn't know at the time who Mr. Roberts was, or that he owned the mule, its pasture, and the farmhouse where he lived across the road.
    Back then I was committed to spending at least an hour each day outdoors. It counterbalanced the effects of my desk job. I made this commitment after noticing that I was already doing it. Thirty minutes was spent walking the loop, and there was usually some kind of yardwork that easily took me into an hour or more. My property was a high-maintenance, sloping landscape with three houses; two rentals and one which I lived in. Most of my thirties were spent as a full time PR person and a part time landlady, always with the feeling that something was being left undone.
    The summer I met Mr. Roberts was the summer that a big red dog landed in my yard. This dog was the size of a small pony, his head the size of a bowling ball. The Saturday he jumped over the creek into my yard, I was outside mowing grass. I heard his thunderous bark and witnessed his massive construction and froze, hoping he was just passing through. I told him to go home several times. When he ignored my sharp commands and instead lumbered straight toward me, keeping pace with me and my push mower, I lowered my gaze and continued to repeat in my deepest voice,"Go on home!"
     For hours I repeated this while I tended the gardens. His response was to find a grassy shade spot and settle down on it. He kept a distance from my two kittens to show how non-threatening he was. He looked long and pitifully into my eyes. But it was only when three days in a row he greeted me after work and for three nights slept on my cement stoop, unfed, that the message became clear: he had found his home. (for the record, I did call the county shelter to see if anyone was missing him and I was advised to keep him if I could) I guessed he was homeless, possibly jumped (or fell, or was dumped) from the back of a pickup on the county highway that edged one side of my property. I named him Jupiter for the planet that was passing through my seventh house that year. One can expect large luck in love and partnership when this happens once every 12 years. Nice, eh? My dreams were set on something of similar size, only two-legged, that could clean gutters. Apparently Jupiter, the planet of hearty humor, had something else in mind. When at last I accepted this gift from our bright, beneficent planet, Jupiter the dog served as my loyal bodyguard and dear companion for many years.
    The daily walks around the loop changed after Jupiter joined me. How easy it felt with a gentle giant protecting my every step with a purposeful gait that sent a message of strength to all we encountered. He rarely barked. He didn't have to. Other dogs made quick peace with him, usually in silence.
    It was just after Jupiter met Bear, Mr. Robert's dog. that I finally met Mr. Roberts himself. Bear was a scrappy thing, with a shaggy, black and tan coat, always matted. His large frame held a daring stance, and his willful eyes told he was planning to leap at you. Dogs, for the most part, ran free in Madison County, and when you walked with yours past another dog's property, you expected to witness a contact sport. My luck in having Jupiter as my dog was shown again and again in these encounters. They were always brief, and ended with a friendly understanding. Jupiter handled his Alpha vibe with a generous spirit. Bear leaped up his sloping driveway, barking threats as soon as he caught wind of us. When he reached the road and saw Jupiter, Bear skidded to an astonished halt, stirring up some dust. He recovered with a  combination back-step and a casual sniff.

Mr. Roberts' driveway
  Right then we heard a deep voice calling off his dog.  Down in his yard, Mr. Roberts was working. He said a few more words that I didn't understand, so when it was sure the dogs were at peace, I stepped down closer to talk. I don't remember what he said, only that within two minutes, Mr. Roberts asked me where I was from. Some folks would accept my answer that I had moved up from Asheville, which was true, but he wasn't satisfied with that. "Hmpf. Yeah, but where'dya start out?" He needed to know how foreign I really was. I was honest: New Jersey. Instantly his head jerked back and he winced like he caught a wiff of something really foul. "New Jersey?" He drew out the words and turned his head like I had physically hurt him. I had to smile. Reactions of this sort had become familiar living in Madison County. But I wasn't there to represent my home state. I was there to be there. I could have mentioned my southern parents who moved north before I was born, or all my southern relatives and ancestors. But I believed he was aggravated enough just knowing I wasn't local to these hills, so I just let him be with the information. If he planned to dislike me on geographic grounds, so be it.  I could take my big dog and my Yankee self off his property to prove no harm was meant, if needed. Besides, I had a lot more yardwork to do before dark. "So, what are you doing here?" He continued, accusingly, with a sideways glance. It is well understood that Yankees come down here with a lot of unwelcomed values, such as greed, insensitivity and fast talk, and an agenda to change things. As for me, I was just taking a walk, and I told him so. His eyes showed he didn't appreciate this answer. "So? what else do you do?" It turns out he'd never heard of the Southern Highland Craft Guild, the non-profit where I worked on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I'm sure he assumed it was started by a bunch of Yankees, (and technically, yeah, it was...almost a century before).
      It seemed everything I said shut him down a little bit more, and we didn't even know each others names. I was ready to finish my walk, so I quickly held out both hands, and shook one of his, introducing myself. He didn't smile. "Roberts. George Roberts." I followed Jupiter's playful prompts back to the road.
   The next time we saw him he was sitting on his front porch, set way back from the road. He lived in a little dale that spanned the middle of the circle road, with the front porch facing the road on one side of the loop, and the back porch looking out to the other. I gave a friendly wave, and he stood up and waved back. Then he motioned for me to come over. So, after greeting Bear, we went all the way down to the house. I expected to hear some quick news, or maybe he needed help with something.

      It didn't go like that at all. He returned to his porch chair and reached over to the chair beside him, pushed it a few inches toward me, for me to sit. So, I sat down as he began talking. I honestly can't remember what we talked about that first day on his porch. I'm sure it involved weather, and plants, safe topics in rural life. I remember us looking out at the distant road, as the dogs found their resting places at our feet and talking until the light faded and fireflies came blinking out from under the boxwoods. I finally had to tell him about all that needed doing in my yard before dark, and he said,"Welp. You can't stay here then. You better go." As I stood to go, I started my usual twitter of pleasantries about how nice it was to meet him, etc... . He waved it away in mid stream like redirecting a water hose before he got wet. As a goodbye, he lowered his head and raised his hand, and I finished my farewell spiel as if I were speaking to Bear.

     Most days, I'd speed quietly past his property because if he saw us (or if Bear smelled us and alerted him) Mr. Roberts would always call out from his porch chair:"Don't you need to be home workin?" I'd wave and yell back, "I sure do! I gotta walk the dog first!" If only that were all there was to it. Invariably he'd start to walk slowly off the porch, saying,"You're too busy sit down?" Something in me could never walk away from an 80-something man asking for company on his porch. So once that happened, we'd sit, in the cool of the day, until the cardinal would sing his evening song."Cheer, cheer, cheer!" There would always be the weather to recount, or predict. I'd share a bit about all the things needing repair or maintenance at home, about my garden, and I'd always learn something about him. I enjoyed his smile while he was remembering things. He told me how it used to be: about Lottie and Guy Buckner, that built my house out of creek rocks pulled from the narrow branch that flowed along the edge of my property. He told me about being a supervisor at the Enka plant back in the 60s. He never spoke about his wife, but several times he'd mention a girl he knew as a youngster from another cove. She was raised so remotely that her special dialect was almost impossible for him to understand. He'd imitate her strange accent, and we'd laugh.
     While we chatted, I might unconsciously be rubbing my bare feet across Jupiter's ribs, or massaging his massive head and velvet ears. Mr. Roberts did not think well of this. It made no sense to him that I even bothered to walk with my dog after the thing had the whole day to run free while I was gone. I explained, "We have to have our bonding time." he shot me a look of grave pity, and shook his head disapprovingly. "What in THEE world." he whispered, to God. Then to me: "Why.... that dog ain't nothing but a pet." He tisked a few times to make sure I understood. I had to believe that Bear was not a "pet." He did his job, and Mr. Roberts fed him for it. That is why you have animals. This business about "bonding time" was for fools who lavish inappropriately. I got that. I understood.
   On those summer evenings on his porch, there were so many things to disagree about. And so much work I was letting slide. It could easily have bothered me enough to hasten myself on home. But I'd look at the dogs spread out cool on the concrete. I'd feel the breeze unwinding the stresses of work. And then there'd be another story, one that helped complete a picture of where I really lived. The soft rustle of leaves, the high notes of the songbirds, the slow breath of retirement. Something was happening there, and it felt important to stay a part of it. The earth held us, while holding a universe of rich dark life beneath us. The sky offered its limitless opening above us. All life around us exhaled after a long summer day of growth and struggle. There was a joyful rhythm moving around us, infinitely old, always new, and the part of us letting go of effort was joining in. If I didn't know better I would have called it a lush "bonding time," with All That Is. But I knew better. Better to just ask,"What else did that girl from out in that other holler say?" Then I would hear Mr. Roberts laugh again.

1 comment:

  1. Here's to "fools who lavish inappropriately" - where the real work of the world takes place.