13 September 2007
Creative Nonfiction: Old John Smith By Kelli Ward-Sturgill
A note before you read: I took a creative writing class last semester, and this happened to be my favorite selection from the whole term. I found out that I like writing my own stories a whole lot better than those about people who don't exist. I hope you enjoy, I wanted to share one of the many memories of my childhood with you guys and gals!.

Old John Smith

I was at a stoplight today and saw a tattered sign on the post. It said Lost Dog - ”Noodles” - $500 Reward, followed with a picture of the most obnoxious looking Pomeranian you have ever seen tugging on one of those rope toys. The rope was thicker than the pup’s head. Some poor soul’s best friend probably got out of an open screen door a few weeks back when it was warm, and it seems they’re determined to pay more for Noodles’ return than they paid for him in the first place. Noodles must be some dog.

I immediately went back to another time, when I was about ten years old. There was an old man who lived up the holler above one of my grown cousins, and this man never left his house. I think every neighborhood had one of these types. You know the kind; eccentric old man whom all the kids make stories about how he killed his wife or locked her in the attic and you swear you saw her once, but chickened out and ran away. This old man was exactly that.

I grew up hearing from my family how he had been some kind of brilliant engineer, and had a breakdown in his fifties and moved from New York City to Harlan County, USA because he saw the documentary about the UMWA strikes and thought this was an isolated enough place to get away from people. At least, that was the story. He left the house only to walk to his mailbox every morning, and he even had made an arrangement with the local Mom & Pop store to bring him groceries every week.

When he came here, he called himself John Smith. Whether that was really the old man’s name or not was still in question. One of the boys in my class said that his father told him Old Man Smith was here because he was running from the mob, and was in Witness Protection. I was ten years old, and to my knowledge the mob was a group of people chasing someone around with pitchforks, axes and torches. But then again, until I reached adulthood, I lived what one would call a sheltered life.

It’s safe to say that in such a tight knit town as mine, stories like these will pop up like wildfires in August. Everybody knows everybody, the gossip grapevine has been securely set in place for generations, and if they don’t know you, they’ll figure some reason out as to why they don’t. Needlessly, these stories put the fear of God into us kids. However, the one thing we children absolutely knew to be true was Old Man Smith’s dog. It was a mutt; had the face of a Beagle, the sable and white body of a Great Dane, and the howl of a Bloodhound. You could see it run around the fenced yard and into the house, and if you got too close, the dog bellowed like you had just escaped from a chain gang. Lucky for me, I never got that close.

Well, one day that dog got gone, and I reckon Old Man Smith was having a fit. That dog must have been the only being Old Man Smith had the most contact with, so it’s reasonable to assume why he was perturbed. He had called somebody up the Creek and had them post lost dog signs all over the place. He had a quarter page ad taken out in the paper offering “a cash reward for the finding of a beloved friend” and gave a description of the dog, but no picture. I believe it was my aunt who worked at the local clinic that said someone came in from the local Humane Society and said he had made a hefty donation for them to help look for it, and the lady even said that he had called in a psychic to help him find the dog.

A week went by, then two, the talk petered out, and then a month and the ad in the paper disappeared. Everyone thought that Old Man Smith had just given up. I hadn’t thought much about the dog, let alone Old Man Smith. I was out playing in my yard one Friday afternoon, Dad was at work and Mom and my little brother was in the house. Lo and behold, Old Man Smith’s dog walked up from over the riverbank and right into my front yard. My family always joked that if there was ever a stray, it would follow me home. Animals have always seemed to be attracted to me, even when I pretend they’re not there. Maybe it was because I was chubby and looked like I knew where food was, I don’t know, but believe me when I say I was a little Dr. Doolittle by the age of ten.

The dog walked right up and sat beside me. He looked like he hadn’t eaten in weeks. I resolved right then and there I was going into the house to get him a can of Vienna sausages and a bowl of water. My mother asked me what I was doing rummaging in the cabinets, and when I told her there was a dog outside and it was hungry, she naturally threw the “You’ve brought another stray home?!?” fit she had always thrown. Convinced that the dog was going to bite me and give me rabies or some incurable disease, she went outside with me.
(Not that it would have helped matters if the dog had been rabid, but you know how mothers are).

The first thing she proclaimed when we were outside was “You’ve found Old Man Smith’s dog!” I hadn’t even thought about whose dog it was, it just looked hungry to me. But naturally, a ten year old child and the prospect of a monetary reward seem to be great bedfellows. The dog chomped on the sausages as Mom went in the house to get a leash. When my Dad came home early, he naturally threw the “You’ve brought another damn stray to this house?!?” fit he had always thrown, and then after a second or two it had dawned on him that I had found Old Man Smith’s dog too.

You would have thought that we had won the lottery in that house. My dad worked eleven hour days six days a week at the sawmill, but we never had much money to play around with. The paychecks always went straight into bills and groceries. Dad dug through an old stack of newspapers and found one that had Old Man Smith’s ad in it. He called the number and told Old Man Smith that he believed his daughter had found his dog.

My Dad agreed to bring the dog back to Old Man Smith after we ate dinner and he took a shower. However, somewhere between bites of thirty nine cent chicken noodles from Save a Lot and dreams of a new bicycle, Old Man Smith wanted Dad to bring me with him. After Dad hung up the phone it was like I had been handed a death sentence. Actually having to go up and meet Old Man Smith wasn’t exactly in the itinerary I had fashioned for myself. I was terrified of that man, and good reason too, after all, people with pitchforks, axes, and torches had chased him into the armpit of the Appalachians that was Harlan County.

I begged and pleaded with my Dad to let me stay home, but his reply was “You found the dog; you’re taking it back to him.” After my dad showered, we loaded up the dog into the old Blue Chevy Blazer with rust holes in the floor that Dad used as a work vehicle and headed up the Creek to Old Man Smith’s. I had a knot in my stomach the size of Texas as we went into four wheel drive and climbed that steep hill.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Old Man Smith was actually sitting on his porch. In the sunlight. We got out of the Blazer and Dad got the dog out on the leash and walked up to the gate. Old Man Smith got up from the porch and let us in the yard. He had wiry hair that looked like cotton batting, and it looked like the wind had blown it every which way, floating on the wind like a broken spider’s web. He looked at the dog and said “Hello old Boy.” My dad then proceeded to introduce ourselves and made small talk with the old man about how the dog came into our possession and a little joking about the miniature Dr. Doolittle standing beside him while I stood there still as a stone. Looking back, I would have made a lovely lawn ornament.

Old Man Smith had on a pair of pajamas with wide blue stripes and black house loafers. In his shirt pocket was an eyeglass case from which he pulled an old pair of horn rimmed glasses. He smiled at us, put on a pair of glasses and pulled a picture from his pocket. I noticed his hands were shaking. He looked from the picture to the dog and back again. He walked around the dog, looking at each side, checking its ears and teeth, uttering the occasional “Hmmm,” if he found something interesting. The dog acted like it knew Old Man Smith; it was as friendly as a dog could be. It felt like ten years standing there as none of us uttered a sound, as the dog licked the man’s hand.

Old Man Smith looked over to me and gently said in that Yankee accent that terrified me because of its unfamiliarity, “Well m’dear, it looks like you have found someone’s friend, but not mine. They look nearly alike, but their spots are different, see?” My heart fell. There goes the bike, I thought, but nobody knew how I felt, because I was still as wide eyed as I was when I first walked through that gate. Then he continued, “However, my dog, Boy has been gone for over a month and I fear him to be dead. I think someone upstairs sent this one to you so you would bring him to me. He looks awful lonely and he does look a lot like my dog. I would be very willing to take him off your hands and give you a little something for your trouble.”

He reached into his front pocket once more and pulled out an old, well handled business size envelope. It was stuffed with money to the point that the flap would not close. On second glance, it wasn’t just filled with dollar bills, it was filled with twenties. I had never seen that much money in one place in my entire life, it had to be twice what my Dad made in a week. If my eyes had been wide before, they only bulged more.

I looked down at the envelope, then to the smiling, kind face of the old man I had been so afraid of my entire life and realized that he was just a lonely old man who seemed to be just as scared of the world as I was of him, and he was willing to give me what looked like every penny he had in return for bringing him the next best thing to his closest companion. I looked up to my Dad with a face that said “I’m sorry,” and he looked at me with a face that I took to mean “Do the right thing”. I looked at the envelope once again and releasing the breath I had been holding, I handed the parcel back to the man and said “Mr. Smith, I can’t take your money. Just promise that you’ll take good care of him. He likes Viennies.”

He tried to hand the envelope back to me, but I wouldn’t take it. It just didn’t feel right. After refusing a few more times Old Man Smith gave in and said “You’re a good, kind girl. I’ll treat him like a king.” He and my Dad talked for a little while longer while I sat and pet the dog. On the way home, my Dad said he was proud of me, one of the few times I’ve ever heard him say it. As I came back to the present when the light turned green, I thought about just how far someone would go for the return of a beloved friend.

I really hope Noodles finds his way home.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

AddThis Social Bookmark Button