The year I spent in Texas was pretty much the worst year of my life.
Reed Junior High School had an Eighth Grade class of over 500 students – the school I moved away from had 20 – and I was completely overwhelmed by the scale of it, confused as well by a Texas culture that made no sense to me and upset that my parents would willfully uproot our family and bring us to this outlandish place.
We settled in Duncanville, a sprawling southern suburb of Dallas, in a rancher on Peach Street, part of a 1960s development with small but pleasant enough houses, rentals mostly. The walk to school took about twenty minutes and brought me up to Vinyard Road at the edge of the neighbourhood – yes, Vinyard, not Vineyard – a street with a mystery to its name and characterized by larger lots and older, not always well-maintained, properties.
I don’t recall the first time I met Jude; it was his dogs who befriended me.
As I passed his run-down house early one September morning, the dogs, resting on the front porch, raised their old greying heads to eyeball me, then got their stiff legs under them enough to come padding slowly down the overgrown lawn, huffing and wagging their friendly greeting. They were mongrels, of course, old and rotund, looking as if they might have some Lab and German Shepherd in their lineage. They licked my hands, happily grunting and smiling, circling around until, as if by some secret signal or pre-determined agreement, in unison they abruptly ended the ceremony and headed back to the porch, throwing themselves down in their respective places and nodding off again, tired already from the social exertion.
Their names, as I learned later from Jude, were Obesitas and Katastrophe.
“Obi! Kati!” Jude would yell, himself barely visible in the darkened room behind the screen door, “Saviour Christ Almighty, git y’r asses back up here on the porch and leave that poor kid alone!” Then the door would fly open and out he would come, maneuvering his wheelchair across the porch with remarkable speed and agility.
Jude’s legs were amputated above the knee. He wore faded denim vests over white T-shirts, wire-rimmed glasses, and had long grey hair which he pulled back in a pony-tail. He was almost always surrounded by a sweet, grassy fragrance, something I only later in life came to recognize as weed. It was impossible for me to tell his age, the wrinkles of his face being contradicted by his lean, strong arms.
It wasn’t long before the pattern of my homeward afternoon treks became punctuated with stops at Jude’s house, sitting on the top step of the porch with Obesitas and Katastrophe, Jude – having learned my preferences – fetching me a can of Mountain Dew from his fridge, pairing it with a packet of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups as he educated me in all things Texas. Many times, though, the house was quiet when I passed by, and occasionally there was a bright red pick-up truck parked out front. From the front room came the deep, resonant voice of an unknown man in conversation with Jude.
The red pick-up was there again when, on a crisp February day, pulling the collar of my leather fleece jacket closer to my neck, I turned the corner and saw the flashing lights of paramedics parked outside Jude’s house. I crossed the street to stand on the far side, not wanting to be in the way, not wanting to be too close to what was happening, appreciating that no-one else knew Jude was my friend.
There was a dark sedan there too, and another pick-up parked alongside, a white one with a canopy and meshed wire doors at the back. Through the lattice, watching me in sad silence, I saw the long faces of Obi and Kati. The whole scene was eerily quiet: four vehicles cluttered at the edge of the lawn, one with flashing white lights, and not a living soul to be seen, except the two dogs, heads bowed in dreadful, knowing expectation as they took it all in.
Presently the front door creaked open and a paramedic emerged pulling a stretcher, helped by a colleague on the other end, and carrying what must have been Jude’s remains, covered by a light blanket. They expertly loaded the gurney into the ambulance, slammed the doors shut and drove away silently, the flashing lights switching off half-way down the block.
Another man emerged, this one wearing a tan khaki shirt and dark jacket with a City of Duncanville badge embroidered on the front. Just as silently, he got in the white pick-up and drove away in the opposite direction. I watched until he reached the intersection and the dogs disappeared from sight.
I wasn’t sure what to do now. I wanted to go home, felt I should, but at the same time knew that doing so would somehow be a betrayal of the budding friendship I had with Jude.
Before long the two remaining men made their way outside, the older one pausing to lock the door behind them before they stood together for a moment taking their leave, the younger man in dress clothes finally initiating a handshake, then marching to the dark sedan and speeding off. What remained was the shiny red pick-up truck and an older man. He looked as big and strong as a bear.
He saw me across the street and stopped, considering. Then, his mind made up, he came to me, exuding an air of authority that made it impossible for me to move.
“Hi, son,” he said, “you’re the young man who’s been stopping in to see Jude, am I right?” Yes, it was that deep voice I had heard before, coming from Jude’s front room.
He knew he was right, but I confirmed it anyway: “Yessir,” I replied, adding eagerly, “I didn’t mean to pry, I just…wondered what was happening.”
“Rex,” he said, extending a baseball mitt sized hand. I shook it, feeling even smaller than my 13 years, and told him my name.
“Well, son, it’s a sorry business, but I suspect you’ve figured it out by now. Comes a day when we all have to meet our maker. Did you know Jude well?”
“He was nice,” I said, not knowing how to answer. “The nicest person in the neighbourhood, if you ask me.”
Rex looked down at me; I could see he was deliberating about what should come next.
“That’s good of you to say,” he said, lowering his voice. “I thought so too, though I reckon there are mighty few folk around here who would agree with you.”
“How do you mean?” I countered. I couldn’t imagine anyone having anything bad to say about Jude and his two friendly dogs.
“Son, why don’t you hop in my truck for a bit, get out of the cold, and I’ll tell you all about our man Jude; probably best if you know the rest of the story.”
Jude, it seems, had in his early years been a particularly successful Dallas businessman. He had it all, as they say – a high-powered job, a glamorous wife, a mansion of a house and a fleet of fast cars. Then his wife became ill with a mysterious ailment, the doctors were at a loss, and ultimately she was left paralyzed below the waist. She became depressed and weary of life, losing her sparkling personality and gaining much weight. Jude couldn’t handle it; he despised who she had become. He divorced her, the settlement making provision for her to be cared for in a home.
“And about six months later Jude and I met for the first time,” said Rex. “Not really ideal circumstances, you could say. You see, son, I’m the former Fire Chief of this city – retired now – and one day a call came in for a Corvette that had crashed and flipped out on Highway 67, threatening to burst into flames. It was Jude. Drunk and going way too fast. Both his legs were caught when the engine block got pushed back into the footwell and in the end there was just no saving them. Double amputation, the very next day.”
Obesitas and Katastrophe. I kept my thoughts to myself.
“Anyway,” Rex sighed, “I fell into visiting Jude in the hospital, kind of felt sorry for him in spite of his shortcomings, and the visits never stopped. Well, until now, I guess.” He went silent, staring out the windshield.
“What about the dogs?” I whispered, more to myself than to him.
Rex stirred. “They’ll be put down,” he said, as gently as he could. “Hell, they were in the pound waiting to be put down when Jude rescued them in the first place. He loved them back to life and happiness, gave ’em a few extra years they couldn’t rightly expect to have, but there ain’t nobody gonna want two old hounds like that, ‘specially with such odd-ball names. There comes a time when a stream has run its course, when the story comes to its proper end. But I’m pretty sure, now everything is said and done, they will all finally rest in peace.”