The day was beautiful, white clouds scattered across a bright, cornflower blue sky. The trees’ skeletal branches clung to a few yellow, vibrant leaves, trying to hold on to autumn.
“You have five seconds to get in this car or no TV for a week!”
Shawn didn’t want to go on a hike with me, his mother.
“There are no rocks or cliffs to jump off,” Shawn protested, stomping his red basketball shoes on the driveway, refusing to wear a sweatshirt on the unusually warm November day.
I waited a few seconds to see if my threat worked. Shawn stopped to a halt, his back turned from me.
“One!” I began to count to five, “Two . . .Three! … FOUR … I am about to say five! This is your last chance to get in the car before I say five! I mean it!”
I revved the engine to the car, shifted into drive and slowly started to pull away, hoping my retreating would pull Shawn toward me like tectonic plates converging together.
Shawn was by the car door, scowling and vowing that he would have no fun on the hike.
The brief car ride was pretty quiet with Shawn giving me the silent treatment. I obliged his protest for a bit until I had to merge onto Main Street, dodging the row of oncoming traffic. I felt like Beau and Luke hurling the General Lee across Sherrif Rosco’s cop car. I started singing the Dukes of Hazard lyrics.
“Just some good ole boys, never meaning no harm …”
“Stop singing! I don’t even know what you are singing,” Shawn howled.
I explained the 1980s show that aired on Friday night before Falcon Crest and how I once met Tom Wopat at a fair.
Shawn sulked, crossed his arms and proclaimed, “This is the worst day ever.”
The start of the hiking trail was adjacent to a rest home. As I pulled into a graveled parking spot, Shawn noticed two residents of the home loitering and smoking cigarettes.
“Who are those people?”
One of the rest home residents I recognized. Every day he walked up and down Main Street, taking staccato drags from his cigarette like a baby sucking its bottle. Sometimes he’d be arguing to himself, swatting away the air and taking more frantic puffs from his cigarette. I once saw him pee behind the Mobile station and I figured that was his final destination before turning around and walking back to the rest home. He was tethered; a boomerang returning to the home despite trying to flee each day.
I wondered what he was saying to himself. Maybe it was the last conversation he had with his boss before he completely lost it, flailing his body against the cubicles, tossing inboxes into the air and kicking the Canon printer that always jammed.
“Aren’t rest homes for old people? They don’t look old,” Shawn asked again.
We were now out of the car, heading toward the hiking path, “this is a different kind of rest home.”
“What’s the matter with them?”
“Well, I think they might be mentally ill.”
“What does that mean?”
I sighed to stall and come up with a definition of mentally ill that a nine year old could understand.
“Their brain is confused and sometimes they see things or hear things that aren’t real or they feel really, really sad all the time. Their brain stops them from having a normal life like we do. Sometimes people can take medicine to help and other people need to live in a rest home where people care for them and keep them safe.”
“So they are trapped there,” Shawn asked.
“I suppose so.” I spotted a steep hill, “Look Shawn, a hill you can climb and jump. I told you this would be fun.”
Shawn jolted up the steep hill and I dutifully followed, my breath getting deeper, harder, wheezier. He grabbed my hand for a bit, our arms swinging side to side and then he let go, running away from me.
The path was covered with leaves and I soon realized we hit a dead end, the Connecticut River was in front of us with low tied mud surrounding us.
“I think we took a wrong turn, help me find the path,” I called out to Shawn.
A streak of white fur zipped by and startled a flock of Cardinals. Shawn perked up.
“Where’d that dog come from,” he asked excitedly.
“I don’t know, but we are not petting him or playing with him. We need to find the path.”
The dog was out of sight, but we could hear his paws scampering through the leaves in the distance.
We found the path and continued on our hike that led to a picnic table and a view of the river. We sat and drank water and felt the sun on our faces, happy winter hadn’t arrived yet. The white furry blur zoomed by, upsetting another gaggle of birds that flapped out of the way.
“That’s got to be a Brittany Spaniel,” I said to Shawn.
My father owned two Brittany Spaniels, crazy dogs wired to hunt, run and flush out pheasant. Pumpkin and Rusty were our Spaniels. They always escaped, runaways eventually found and returned wet and stabbed with burs. After a bath, the dogs were chained around a tree, whimpering until the next escape or rare hunting trip.
“Poppie had Brittany Spaniels. They are great hunting dogs.”
The dog’s owner appeared from the forest brush, holding onto a leash and calling out, “Arrow? Come here boy!”
Shawn jogged to the woman wearing a rust colored coat, dark shoulder length hair, “Can I pet your dog?”
“Sure if you can catch him. His name is Arrow!”
Shawn began to chase the dog, calling out for Arrow. The dog surprisingly turned and ran toward Shawn, circling him, leaping side to side, pumped with adrenaline.
Arrow’s owner took advantage of the dog’s close proximity and latched his collar to her leash.
“Arrow never listens. I can’t believe he ran to you,” the woman commented to Shawn.
“Can I walk your dog?” Shawn asked.
I warned Shawn that the dog was a super fast runner and it would be hard to keep up with him. Before I could finish my lecture Shawn and Arrow bolted, each running parallel down the path toward a field of unharvested corn stalks. Arrow’s owner and I followed, quickly walking to keep the dog and boy in our view.
“Arrow has to be a Brittany Spaniel,” I commented.
“I think so. Some English Setter in him too. I got him at the shelter when he was three,” the woman said extending her hand to me, “I’m Marion.”
We followed Arrow and Shawn to a corn field.
Arrow veered into a cluster of woods to our left and flushed out three pheasants who dived across our path into the corn field. Arrow chased them and Marion and I waited to see if he’d come out with a bird in his mouth, proud of catching his prey.
“Wow! I am impressed,” and I was feeling bad that Arrow’s keen hunting and giving us a perfect shot at the pheasants was wasted on us.
“Arrow’s happiest when he is free,” Marion said as Shawn and Arrow continued to run away from us.
“Do you have kids that went to the schools,” I asked. Marion looked to be in her sixties, her hands knotted from arthritis.
“No kids. I never married. Had a few good boyfriends, but never settled down.”
I smiled at her, “Nothing wrong with that.”
We laughed. For a moment I tried to remember how it felt to have no strings attached, no commitment, no accountability, no kids telling you no. It had been many years since I was alone with tons of time on my hands and the freedom to do what I wanted.
Marion called out to Arrow who galloped back. She grabbed his leash to untangle it around Arrow’s legs. Arrow was free again and ran. Marion teetered and fell to the ground.
“Shawn go get Arrow! ”
“Okay mom,” Shawn ran off.
“Are you alright,” I turned to Marion and offered her my hand.
“I’m getting to be a klutz in my old age,” Marion gripped my hand and stood up. “I’ve been falling more lately.”
As I studied Marion’s face, pale blue eyes and sallow skin, I imagined her young, sexy, raven hair, hip hugging mini skirt and elevator shoes. She rode horses, was a groomer for the 1984 Olympics and still went to work every day.
The path ahead of us was quiet, “I’m just going to run after Shawn.”
I jogged down the path, “Shawn! Are you okay?”
Shawn poked his head out from a patch of tall, dried grass, “Yea mom. I’m just unhooking Arrow. His leash is caught around this tree.”
The four of us took a water break and then slowly back tracked toward the parking lot, retracing our steps beside the river, through the woods, up the steep hill and past other hikers.
Fatigue didn’t slow Shawn and Arrow. They raced through the woods, free, wild and untethered for a few moments more.