The End of Truman
I don’t see why my father had to have the gun with him when he woke me. Opening your eyes to a gleaming double-barreled Winchester doesn’t make for a smooth transition back from dreams of playing in the state little league all-star game.
“It’s okay,” he said, watching me scuttle back to the headboard. “I need your help. Get dressed. I’ll make you eggs.”
He patted me on my knee and carried his shotgun to the door.
“Dad,” I called.
He turned, and in the light of the hallway I could see that he was not drunk, or at least coming down.
“I’ll have cereal,” I said, hating the way he cooked eggs.
On the kitchen table his ammo box lay open next to a bowl of Cheerios.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“Truman’s gone mad,” he said.
In my sleepiness it took me a minute to remember Vince Hislup’s little beagle. I had passed many hours playing with Truman while my dad and Vince drank and worked on whatever project it was they had in the barn--anything from a broken dishwasher to a ‘79 Harley my dad had picked up for what he considered pennies on the dollar. My dad and Vince were decent mechanics and talented drunks, and I’d always had fun playing fetch or wrestling with Truman until, out of beer, my dad would tell me it was time to head back to the house.
For an older dog, Truman was still playful, and even when his hips gave him trouble, which happened more and more, he would sit himself close to me so that we could play a seated version of tug of war well into the evening. He was a good dog.
So I found it very hard to imagine little Truman gone mad. Of any animal or human I’d met, he seemed the least likely, a pure soul who had never shown any sign of aggression or mental unrest.
Then my father told me about rabies. But a laconic man when not drinking, his description did little more than incite my imagination. By the end of his short explanation, I was expecting to arrive at the Hislups to find a demonic creature walking upright.
“Here, you’re on search patrol,” my father said, handing me a flashlight. And it was then that I realized it was still completely dark outside and that it was earlier than I’d ever been up.
Though I wanted to, we didn’t talk much on that drive over to the Hislups. My father drove with the shotgun across his lap, as I held my flashlight to the open window, searching the woods for creatures foaming at the mouth.
By the time we turned down the Hislup’s long driveway the sun had crested the eastern mountains. This light changed the feel of our task from hunt to execution and I wished we didn’t have to do it.
My father heard one of my sniffles.
In the sideview mirror I could see my tearful face and didn’t want to turn it to him.
“I know, kid,” he said, and took his hand off the shifter to give my shoulder a rub.
And then we heard the barks, incessant and tortured. Even filtered through the birch forest one could tell Truman was raving. As a kid who always felt he understood what dogs were saying through their barks, these sounds of Truman gave me a chill. My father was right, it was the sound of madness.
“I want you to stay in the truck, okay?”
I told him I would, and wondered then if he hadn’t said that if I would’ve had the courage to ever open my door.
A light was on in the Hislup kitchen. As we pulled up, a figure moved in the window and disappeared into the dark interior.
“Poor Vince,” my dad said.
From the barking we could tell Truman was behind the barn.
With the truck’s engine shut off the barking was deafening and I found it difficult to believe it came from the same little Truman I had always played with.
And then I burst out. “Don’t do it, Dad! Can’t we take him to the doctors? They can fix him.”
I thought of when my grandfather’s heart had stopped one Sunday afternoon while we were eating supper and how doctors had been able to bring it back to life.
“It's too late,” my father said, opening his door.
A strange feeling came over me then as I watched my father carrying his gun at his side. While I had questioned him over the years, secretly begun resenting him, it was impossible not to admire him in this moment. And I knew, whether he had intended to or not, I was being taught something about the complexities of manhood.
“Be careful,” I called out.
He looked back over the shotgun, now at his shoulder and brought his lips together to shush me. Then he slipped behind the barn.
The erratic madness of Truman’s barking now focused itself, morphing into a desperate sound like a human scream.
And then my father’s Winchester broke like thunder, echoed off the house, the barn, the surrounding mountains. The barking ceased.
I opened my door and ran towards the barn.
“Dad!” I called, just about to round the corner when he emerged again, the shotgun still smoking.
“Don’t look,” he told me.
My dad would not let me help carry the tarp or shovel behind the barn. He said it was nothing that I wanted to see. He said Truman wasn’t too big of a dog and he could do it himself.
As I stood by the truck listening to the shovel breaking rocky soil, the Hislup’s front door creaked open. Turning, I expecting to see the same loud and tough man I was used to, but instead, standing in flannel pajamas and a grey t-shirt, Vince looked old and weak. It was obvious that he had been crying. He peaked around the door, “You tell your father, I say thank you.” Then he retreated and I could hear the door lock from within.
When my dad came back there was blood on his boots. He thanked me for waiting patiently and said that after he went home and washed up we could do anything I wanted.
“I want to go fishing,” I said.
My father didn’t talk much while we fished, which I am used to. But at one point he had said, either to me or just to himself, “It's a damn shame,” and I knew that was all he would say about Truman. Well, that was until that night, and many nights after, when he’d get good and loaded and I’d hear that same boastful tale of the time my father, “blew that fucking beagle’s brains right out of its head.”