Christmas on the Coosa
by John F. Dillon
Two, full-throated German Shepherds erupted in rage at the first drops of the sudden Florida downpour and invaded Fred's dream. He lifted his head and squinted through crusty lids as sleep's illusions faded. With comprehension came anger. Mindful not to disturb his sleeping wife, he uttered a silent curse and reached for the telephone on the bedside nights. "This is the third time this week," he sighed knowing very little would be accomplished by his call to the city. He rose and made his way into the bathroom.
By the time a patrol car was dispatched the dogs were exhausted into a temporary silence. Once the officer approached and knocked on the wooden gate surrounding the patio, the imprisoned dogs reinserted their displeasure and erupted into another frenzy. After a short wait, the officer knocked again before attempting to peer into the fenced-in patio. He knocked again before returning to the patrol car, and writing another warning to attach to the gate.
Fred anger had dissipated by the time he sat across from his wife during breakfast. "You slept through all the fun again," he told her.
Clementine gazed across the table. "The dogs?"
Fred nodded."Ah huh...They woke me." He spread orange marmalade on an English muffin. "Our considerate neighbors left and left the dogs on the patio again. And... it was raining."
"Must have been a shower. The sun was up when I got out of bed ...Did you call the cops?"
The corners of his wife's mouth lifted slightly. "Did they send a SWAT team?"
The image behind his wife's remark elicited a slight smile. He waited and then sighed, "Just one cop... Probably just left another warning on the gate."He paused and snickered, " I'm sure he didn't try to enter." Shrugging his shoulders, he reached for his coffee. As he lifted the mug to his lips, his voice dropped, "Well.... At least the complaint is on the record." He smiled adding, "Then again, I guess that would make me the number one suspect should someone ever murder those people."
Clementine lifted her eyes, "Why... Why would you say that?"
"I'll be among the first to know they're finally gone and they're sure to see the joy on my face. " he laughed. "No more dogs howling!"
Clementine shook her head and returned to newspaper. After a spell she teased, "Didn't you have pets when you grew up?"
"Not in New York...not in my neighborhood. We were so poor that anything that walked and wasn't human, was cooked in a pot." He chuckled and peeked over the brim of his cup. "You farmers never had to worry where you're next meal was."
"Oh.... You poor thing," Clem mocked.
"Not so poor," he beamed. "I got you."
Her teeth gleaned behind a wide smile. "You smooth talker...you." She reached for Fred's hand before returning to her morning newspaper. After a few quiet minutes, she asked, "Are you packed?"
Fred peeked over the top of the newspaper and nodded. "A grad-student is handling my afternoon class so I should be home early. I thought we might make it a nice leisurely ride...take the scenic route and maybe spend the night at the "Gibson" in Apalachicola. We can have a leisurely breakfast and be at the farm about three in the afternoon."
"Sounds like a second honeymoon."
Fred smiled lecherously and was about to speak when an article in the newspaper caught his attention. Soon, they were both absorbed in their reading and conversation ceased. Eventually, He put the paper aside and rose from the table. He touched his wife's shoulder on the way to the kitchen and asked, "Want more coffee?"
Clementine looked up from her reading and lowered a section of the newspaper as he passed. "You know, we could move...find someplace where they don't allow dogs."
Fred became indignant. Gesturing with outstretched arms, he sneered, "Why should I move? ...They should be the ones to move. They're the ones that leave their dogs out in the rain.
He returned carrying the pot of coffee to the table. After refilling Clementine's cup and his white mug stenciled "#1" in large red lettering he gtoaned, "It's not the dogs. It's their owners he groaned while lowering into the chair. "Why can't people just take care of their animals...be responsible? You know...pick up after their pets! They have no consideration for others! And God! ...Such big dogs! It's disgusting." He lifted the mug to his lips, took a deep breath, and murmured, "They shouldn't even own a dog-especially such big ones in these small apartments!"
The recent memory of his entering holding a shoe between his thumb and index finger while emitting obscenities about stepping in dog feces invoked an involuntary giggle from his wife. To keep from laughing aloud, she concentrated on their upcoming Christmas visit to her family's farm in Wetumpka, Alabama. Located in mostly rural Elmore County, just north of Montgomery where the site of Alabama's greatest natural disasters...an approximately five mile wide crater formed about 80 million years ago when a meteorite estimated to be 1000 feet wide plunged to earth. Clementine had been raised on eighty acres of mostly rolling hills of Wetumpka, less then 7 miles west of the crater .
Fred exited Highway 231 onto a single lane road that winded pass stretches of marshland to the Coosa River Bridge. Clementine reminded him to turn at the second dirt road that led to the farmhouse. The car slowed to a crawl as they navigated the ungraded dirt road. Hanging tree branches gently brushing the top of the car as they passed and proceeded to the farmhouse.
Following the death of her husband, Clementine's mother had continued to live in the farmhouse. Her grip on the wooden railing increased as she anxiously stood on the wooden porch. Hearing the approaching vehicle, her fingers tightened on the railing until her knuckles whitened. Her grip finally released when the car stopped beside the picket fence and Clementine emerged from the vehicle's passenger side door, started to the porch and into her mother's outstretched arms.
Clementine mother, a meticulous woman that was most comfortable in a flowered house dress that was always half hidden by a spotless white apron. She had a petite mouth with a near constant smile that merged into the aged lines of her round face, one that belied a wisdom and a personality that loved to banter and woo. Gentle, gray-blue eyes with just a hint of a devilish twinkle gazed from behind tiny-rimmed spectacles appeared to be always searching, listening, and laughing. Those that knew her, affectingly called this short, stocky woman with the silver hair tucked into a tight bun on the nap of her neck..."Granny". Seeing this mythical grandmother in her eighties scrutinize the pots of food cooking in her kitchen, or watching her shuffle between the buildings, the youths in the family affectionately nicknamed her 'The Little Tank'. To her face...they continued to respectfully call her... "Granny".
Fred had approached with the luggage and silently stood to one side.
At last, Clementine's mother turned moist eyes to Fred. The corners of her mouth made an upward quiver as the lips widened to an open smile.
"Lordly, I do believe you're more handsome each time I see you," she squealed as she moved from her daughter.
Fred playfully pinched her chubby cheeks. "Better clean your specs," he chuckled while moving into her welcoming embrace.
"You are staying for my birthday party. ...Ain't you?" she asked. "It's January fourteenth."
Fred tightened his lips and slowly shook his head, " I'm sorry. I just can't...school commitments. I gotta return to Florida the day after Christmas." He paused, and then added, "Clem's staying. She's gonna drive me to the airport."
Clementine's mother moaned. She audibility inhaled and sighed, "We'll try and make it a nice visit while you're here." She pointed to the wooden staircase. "You and Clem have the upstairs' bedroom," she paused and smiled. "You'll be able to smell breakfast cookin' when you wake up," She winked and added, "I sure hope you brought your appetite.
"Sure did! I've been looking forward to some good 'Southern' Cooking'.
Of the farm's eighty acres only ten were on open level ground and at one time worked to produce cotton. The remainder of the land was comprised of dense woods, and a winding brook that evaporated in the heat of summer. Pear, apple and fig trees, stood amongst the wild berry bushes that lined the dirt road ambling about the ten workable areas. Once the property of slaves set free after the civil war, it remained in their possession until purchased by Clementine's great-grandfather in the later part of the nineteenth century. He built a simple two-story farmhouse at the property entrance and bridled it with a five-foot-wide, wrap-around porch. A short distance from the house, a hand dug well provided an abundance of cool fresh water. Open windows permitted comforting summer breezes while a single fireplace kept the indoors cozy during the winter months.
Amongst the three houses constructed throughout the years, was a medium sized chicken coop, a barn, and a pig pen housing a single pig. The number of dogs that roamed the property through the years ranged from two to eight.
Clementine father died when she was a young girl leaving her mother to raise four children, two boys and two girls. Brother Bill, the oldest; Ruth; Mike; and Clementine, the youngest.
In time Bill married. He, his wife, Millie and their eleven-year-old son, Little Bill lived approximately one hundred miles south of the farm on the outskirts of the city of Dothan, Alabama.
Sister Ruth's husband Phil, an engineer, lived in the four-bedroom ranch house adjacent to the farmhouse with their two boys, Harry and Phil junior.
Brother Mike, a year older than Clementine, worked the farm. He, his wife, Terry and daughter, Emily occupied a large modern home on the north side of the cotton field near the barn, chicken coop, and the pen housing the resident pig.
He was not disappointed. Each morning, the crowing of the rooster competed with aromas from the kitchen to rouse him from the comfort of the feathered bed. He was first at the table and the last to leave. And although he never did develop a taste for grits, he seldom refused second offers of fresh eggs, sausage, fried chicken, pork chops, bacon, home-fried potatoes, gravy covered biscuits, rolls, and cakes.
All the while Clementine's mother sat watching proclaiming, "Lordly, Lordly. That boy can sure eat. I never would have thought a Yankee could eat so much without workin'."
The second morning Fred found it difficult to leave the warmth of the kitchen as the outdoor temperatures continued a rapid morning descent. He was alone with his mother-in-law enjoying his fourth cup of coffee and third slice of freshly baked coffee cake, when the kitchen door flew open. Clementine and Ruth were so excited their words ran together when they entered.
"Fred! Fred! You just gotta come and see!" Clementine exclaimed while attempting to rub the cold from her fingers.
Fred continued stuffing warm cake into his mouth and uttered a muffled, "What. where?"
Fred had no intention on leaving the warmth of the kitchen. He swallowed, wiped his chin and slowly asked, "What's in the barn?"
"Puppies! Come see! Mike's Pit Bull is giving birth! Oh, they're so cute...only babies...still sucking on their mother."
The thought of trekking the frozen ground to the barn in his recently purchased loafers was not appealing."Now why in God's name would I want to leave the warmth of the kitchen to see a dog?" he silently asked himself. He looked at his wife and uttered, "I'm not gonna...."
Granny joined the discussion urging, "Go on Fred. I'll clean up here. Ya gotta see these puppies! You go on!
Despite his reluctance to leave the warm kitchen, Fred eventually surrendered to his wife's pleads and pushed away from the table. He gently touched his mother-in-law's shoulder as she passed to clear the dishes.
"Aren't you coming?" he smirked, while reaching to the door hook bearing his coat.
"Soon as I clean up," she replied. "Only take a second...meet you there."
"I could help..."
"No. No. You go. I'll meet ya there. Only take a second."
Immediately after stepping from the porch the cold entered his polished loafers. "Why didn't I bring my boots?" he groaned aware of the billowing clouds of black fading to gray then streaks of light gray fading back to black as the cold wind flushed his face and caused his eyes to water.
Finally, he escaped the wind and walked through the large wooden opening of the barn. He took a deep breath welcoming the barn smell, familiar even to city dwellers.
Mike was perched beside a large bale of hay placed to shield the wind from the blessed event. He shifted his eyes from the ground activities, twisted his head and nodded when they entered.
On a mixture of straw and a dirty rumpled blanket, three puppies, two black males and one brown female, were greedily mashing the tits of their reclined mother.
Fred returned Mike's greeting with the question, "Who's the father?"
Mike laughed, "Not me!" Then with a nod toward the barn door said, "Most likely the black Lab on the next farm...musta plugged every bitch within fifty miles".
Engrossed in watching the puppies feed; Clementine and Ruth continued emitting, "O's" and "Aaa's"
It was not long before Clementine's mother joined the observers. She bent on her chubby knees and gently lifted and petted each puppy while occasionally exclaiming, "Oh! Lordly...lordly,"
"How old are they?" Fred asked Mike.
"Thee weeks...be coming off the mother soon."
Clementine turned to Fred. "Aren't they cute? she asked, paused, and turned back to the feeding frenzy. " Which one do you like?"
Fred's eyes widened. "Clem! No dogs! You know how I feel about dogs." He caught the flash of disapproval in Granny's eyes and attempted to amend his statement. "I mean, especially in small apartments. ...And, these dogs are gonna be big. Just look at their paws."
"I just asked which one you liked."
Fred hesitated and felt the scrutiny of the others and stammered, "Well...ah...."
"I promise. We won't make you take one," Mike laughed.
Fred submitted to the pressure and stammered, "I...uh...I guess.... Idon't....either of the black ones."
"Well? Which one?" Granny asked.
"I don't know. Ah... They both look the same."
"Both males are spoken for", Mike chuckled. "Christmas presents. I gotta drop them off next week for Christmas." He glanced at Fred and winked. "No one asked for the female yet. ...Reckon ya can have her."
"No!" He stopped,lowered his voice and said, "Ah no... No thanks."
Little Bill had remained with his Aunt and Uncle when his mother and father returned to Dothan earlier in the week. Overhearing the conversation when he entered the barn, he made a mad dash to the slurping puppies while shrieking, "I want her! I want her!" Kneeling before the bitch, he pulled the tiny female to his chest.
Ruth laughed. "Not so fast Little Bill. "I think ya better check with your Dad about that."
He'll let me have her!"
"Let's give Billy a call to be sure," Granny suggested.
It was a long telephone call with the boy pleading and his father first declaring an emphatic, "No way!" However, after much cajoling from his mother and sisters, and exacting promises from his son, Bill reluctantly agreed to a trial run to test the boys pledge to care for the dog."
Upon earing the agreement, Fred quietly drew a silent sigh of relief.
Little Bill returned the telephone to his grandmother and squealed,"Ain't we gonna go to the Coosa? Santa's gonna be there!
Fred welcomed the change in conversation and smiled. "What's this about a...the Coosa?" he asked.
Little Bill beamed and blurted, " There's gonna be boats and a parade and even old cars and...and... and Santa gonna be there!"
Clementine continued to cradle the female puppy in he arms. Without lifting her eyes from the puppy she told Fred, It's called "Christmas on the Coosa". The Coosa River goes right though the center of town and during Christmas week they have a big celebration with entertainment for the kids and a concert. Later there's a boat parade along the river. It ends with Santa and fireworks." She lifted her eyes from the puppy. "It's today."
Today? I thought we'd take it easy." The developing sensation about his toes reaffirmed his argument. "Besides, it's really cold and....
Everyone goes... every year. They come from all over. It's an all day event."
Fred felt he had escaped the bullet with the dog. He grimaced and held his words.
Fred remained with Clementine and her mother at the house while Mike, Terry, Phil , Ruth left with the children to a pancake breakfast and puppet slow downtown. Shortly after they left, Clementine's mother excused herself for a nap.
Alone with Clementine, Fred leaned forward in the overstuffed chair and withdrew his foot from a polished loafer. He removed his sock and began rubbing about his bared toes. "It's really gotten cold out there," he sighed and waited for Clementine's response. When there wasn't one, he said, "I hope it's not too cold at the boat parade tonight. I didn't think to bring my boots" When his remark seemed to go unnoticed, he waited a few minutes then said, " I went to a Boat Parade in Fort Lauderdale one year at a friends house-on the Intracoastal. The temperature had dropped to under fifty and with the wind flowing off the water, we almost froze to death."Not receiving a response he added, "It was so uncomfortable that everyone stayed inside. I swore I'd never do that again."
Clementine sighed noisily then said, "I told everyone we'd... Fred, I'd really appreciate it. It's not like we come every year." She looked at Fred. "Please...please. We don't have to stay long."
Fred looked from his foot and smiled. "Sure...I was just saying, I hope it's not so cold. I'd really like to see the boats on the river. It'll be nice." He replaced his footware, sat back in the chair, and closed his eyes.
The day had swiftly moved from one of cold, bright sunlight into a twilight of falling temperatures when Fred pulled the car into a recently vacated parking space on South Main Street. Puppet shows at the Wetumpka Depot Theatre and the few food concessions remaining on the courthouse plaza were in the final stages of closing down. The parade featuring over 100 entries, had already began it's entry to Gold State Park where 'The Wetumpka City Pops Band', having completed final tune-up preparations for their concert waited.
Seasonal lights of white, red, blue and green, competed with headlights and those illuminating the band, to hold the darkness, yet, if one looked skyward they could still see the brilliance of the heavens.
Clementine and Fred found the others and listened patiently as the excited children reiterated the day's events.
The temperature continued to drop as the music began and instilled a warmth with the familiar sounds of Christmas. When the concert ended, they watched the boat parade with competing Santas and and helpers aboard various size pleasure boats displaying flashing lights and loud music.
Mike lifted a flask and offered a 'hot toddy' to ease the chill. Fred accepted not disappointed to find Mike's idea of a 'hot toddy' was straight 'Ezra Brooks Bourbon'.
When the fireworks concluded, they stood unmindful of the cold, talking, and praising the celebrations while unnoticed in the distance, the silhouett of 'The Rainbow Arch Bridge' reflected off the quiet waters of th 'Coosa River.' Eventually, everyone returned to the farm.
After a night cap in front of the fire, Fred and Clementine hand in hand climbed the stairs for bed.
With the exception of the children having sniffles over the holiday, Christmas was a day of joy. When Monday came, Fred, echoing promises to telephone every night, grudgingly returned alone to Fort Lauderdale.
One evening, Mike's youngest son Harry answered the kitchen telephone on the second ring. Upon recognizing Fred's voice, the boy yelled, "Uncle Fred! Guess what?"
Before Fred could reply the boy shouted, "Granny named the pig!"
"That's nice, Harry," he replied. "Is your Aunt Clementine there?"
Harry persisted,"Know what she named it?"
Annoyed, Fred took a deep breath and snapped, "What"
"Guess! ...Guess what Granny named the pig!"
Fred sighed, "I don't know...Porky?"
"No!" Harry gleefully squealed, "She named it Fred...after you!"
There was an awkward moment before Fred replied. " Its nice to know somebody's thinking about me when I'm not there," he said. "Now can I speak with your aunt?"
A disappointed Harry passed the telephone to his aunt.
Instead of a warm greeting, Clementine blurted, "My brother won't take the puppy."
It seemed an eternity before Fred responded. " He won't take the.... I don't understand. Didn't he already say it was okay?"
"Ruth called a little while ago. She and Phil left with the kids this morning to spend New Year's Eve with Phil's parents in Miami. They were supposed to drop Little Bill and the puppy in Dothan. Everything seemed fine when they got there. My brother liked the dog and...and.... Anyway, they were having a cup of coffee when Little Bill said he was going outside to play with his friends. My brother told him to first walk the dog. Well, Little Bill put up a fuss insisting he wanted to go with his friends. One thing led to another and Phil and Ruth are now headed to Miami with the puppy.
There was another long pause before Fred asked, "They...Are they gonna keep the dog?"
"Can't! They're not permitted to have pets in his parents condo...not even for a little while."
Fred held his breath. Finally, he asked, "Whatta they gonna do?"
Clementine hesitated. Her voice was muted when she responded. "I thought maybe she could drop the puppy off on her way".
"What? No! No way! ...Clem...you know how I feel about having a dog".
"It's just.... It's just Ruth can't bring it to the condo. Just for a couple of weeks until I get home. Ill take her to a shelter when I get there. I promise."
" NO! I don't want a dog. No way! Clem...how many times have I told you?"
"I know...but.... Wait! Mom wants to talk to you."
Before Fred could protest, Clementine 's mother's voice was on the telephone. "Hi Freddy. I'm sorry about naming the pig. I didn't mean.... "
"I'm not upset about the pig," he told her.
"I...ah...was watching you...uh.... You were gone and I didn't think you'd mind. I wasn't gonna tell you until you came up again."
"No problem," he told her. "I mean it. I'm not upset about the pig. Clem told me how much you love the pig and how you bring food to him every day. Besides, its nice that you'll be thinking of me. Could you give me back to Clem... please?"
Granny giggled, "I just love watching him eat. I'll make you something special the next time you come up...something just for you." Her voice lowered, and she asked, "Fred, would you do me a favor?"
"Here it comes," Fred said to himself. He took a deep breath before replying, then said. "Now, you know I told Clem...."
"It's just for a little while. Lordly, you know I wouldn't ask if we had any choice.
"It's just.... "
"I know," she said, and waited.
Fred took a deep breath then relented. "Can't tell the biggest animal lover in the world that I don't like dogs," he snickered "She'd probably never cook for me again.">then said, "Okay, but only for you and onlyon one condition."
"You won't ask me to keep it after Clem comes home and one more thing." He deliberately paused before playfully telling her, "I'm gonna name the puppy after you. I'll call her: Ms Eileen...after you."
His mother-in-law giggled.
The following morning, Fred went to the pet store and purchased dog food, a bowl, biscuits, and a rawhide bone. He placed everything into an oversized cardboard box before leaving the store. When he got home, he tore a newspaper into small pieces and scattered the scraps inside the cardboard box. He then placed the box inside a lean-to previously erected on the patio. He was determined the animal would spend as little time as possible in the house. The puppy arrived late that afternoon. Phil and the boys remained in the car while Ruth took the dog inside. Obviously uncomfortable, she avoided eye contact. Fred attempted to reassure her but the effort was half-hearted and they both welcomed an excuse to end the visit.
Despite a desire to remain detached, Fred could not help but concede tenderness for the cute animal that fit in his hand. The puppy had a black snout, and a thin black mask that enclosed eyes accented in long lashers and ending in elongated tips at the comers. The underside of her thick coat was almost white. It gradually turned to gold and finally into light brown on her back. A lemon colored band wrapped her shoulders like a scarf. Brown floppy ears fell alongside a pink leather collar that had been placed about her diminutive neck. Although, the buckle was on the smallest notch, he could still comfortably place his fingers between the collar and the animals soft fur. Fred correctly surmised it was a gift from his mother-in-law.
The puppy made a soft cry when he released it into the box. "It's only for a couple of weeks," Fred told himself. Sometime after dinner, He took the dog for a walk. There was another soft whimper when he returned the puppy to the paper. Fred placed a bowl of water beside the lean-to before leaving the patio. Before retiring, he checked the curled fur in the box.
The wind increased during the night and it began to rain.
Wakened by the sound, Fred continually checked to insure the box remained dry within the lean-to. Growing storm activity resulted in another two hours of troubled sleep and more trips to the box. During one visit, a flash of lightening followed a deafening clash of thunder, and highlighted the enclosure. Almost immediately, light from a second flash revealed the frightened critter in a corner.
Fred checked to insure the lean-to protected the box from the rain and was about to return to his bed when the trembling pups wide-eyed face was illuminated by still another lighting bolt. Fred grimaced. He took two steps toward the door and stopped. "Oh what the hell," he groaned. "It's only for one night," and returned to the patio.
A few minutes later, Fred lay in his bed with the puppy cuddled against his hip. He lowered his hand to the animals little chest. The dog emitted a sigh, stretched, and fell asleep. Fred woke a few more times to return his hand to a spot above the puppy's heartbeat. In the morning, he took it for a walk before going to the University. He walked her again when he came home. After the final walk of the evening, he removed the lean-to from the patio.
Although it did not rain that night, a content Ms Eileen lay stretched against Fred hip. Fred hand rested over the puppy's heart. The following morning, They visited a veterinarian. The receptionist smiled as Fred approached with the puppy.
"Your puppy?" she asked.
"Yes...Yes. She's mine," a smiling Fred replied while gently stoking the dogs neck. "Her name's Miss Eileen. Named her after my mother-in-law. She named a pig after me."
The girl smiled. The End.top