The old man brushed stray grass clippings off of the front of his tan, short-sleeved coveralls, the unofficial summer uniform of all retirees, as he pushed the door of the shed closed on the still warm mower, the tick, tick of it’s cooling metal muffled now in a cocoon of weathered wood. A large, tangled weed grew out of the space between the shed and privacy fence, a space too small to get the mower into but too large to discourage this type of random renegade. With one leather gloved hand he choked up on the biggest of several stalks of the weed and wrestled it out into the light, uncovering an old wooden ramp and a flat, weather-worn basketball that had been sharing the space. In that particular moment the old man thought that he had uncovered a curious picture hidden behind that weed.
Flipping open the lid of the city can that held the grass from that morning his hands made short work of the dried, spindly weed, snapping it’s skinny branches easily and letting them fall into the can. He tossed the faded carcass of the ball onto the pile and paused, remembering the last time he had seen it, years before it had found it’s way here.
He was a rescue dog, left to fend for himself at barely a month old, if he had any hair it would have been black, mange had been hard on the little one. He didn’t appear particularly sickly otherwise but he did take his time getting up and around and that is how the pup got his name, ‘Old Jim’. He got big and he got strong and he loved to play. His favorite toy was an old basketball that the man had found somewhere, he loved that ball. He would chase it back and forth until he had worn tracks into the yard in several of his favorite places. Over the years the ball would get lost in a neighbor’s yard or lose a bit too much air and Old Jim would get just the right bite on it and tear a hole in it and then it would go away, a new one replacing it but Jim never seemed to notice the difference. The only thing the dog seemed to like as much as that ball was riding in the old man’s truck, the words ‘ball’ or ‘ride’ would guarantee Old Jim would jump up instantly, ready for action. Until the day that he didn’t.
Months went by, trip after trip to the vet. The old man had built the ramp so that Old Jim could get into the truck, he could no longer jump and the old man couldn’t lift him. Months went by but in the end he had to say good bye. In the intervening times he had sometimes thought of getting another dog but knew that it was a long commitment, one that he wasn’t sure his body could honor. There were times like these when he would be presented with a picture of the past and he would remember that big, black dog fondly and the pressure would build in his chest until it felt like it would overwhelm him. It began again now and he began to smile, so great a kinship, a love, leaves a mighty vacuum behind, but it was only a reminder, he knew, and the pressure turned to warmth as he let the lid fall shut and he turned and walked back to the house. To the old man the memory of ‘Old Jim’ was not just a picture from the past, nor would a thousand words ever be enough.