Max Says No – New Fiction Writing by J. R. Kruze
It was a typical hot,sultry day. I was going about getting ready to do something I didn’t want to do, but “had” to be done. I turned around to tell Max, my black and white, crossed-mix mutt, to get in our old scratched, dented, and faded red pickup truck. We had a job to do and he liked to come with. I did the work, he supervised. That was the deal.
Before I could get the words out, Max stood on his hind legs and clearly said , “No.” Then trotted off on all four. Three black, one white paw. A white-tipped black tail held straight up as if to say, “I dare you.”
I didn’t have time to chase after him, as the truck was out in the gravel drive, just in front of the old faded-red wood dairy barn. It had to be loaded. The job had to get done. And nothing was going to get done if it never got started.
Of course I called after him a time or two, but he kept walking away around the back of the wood barn, turning a corner where an elm sprout had started a couple of years back. Out of sight, out of reach.
So I turned back to my job of loading the rolls of barbed wire we’d gotten used from an auction, along with a rusted paint can filled with black nails as well as gray galvanized fencing twist clips, both aged in their storage. Some fencing pliers now also red-black from real use, having lost their shine and padded handles years back. Another red plastic coffee container with a black plastic snap lid and molded-in hand grip to supply the staples we might need.
That should do it, I thought. And waited, looking over my set to see if I’d forgotten anything. Oh, yeah. I went inside and grabbed a roll of salvaged wire off an old tensile electric fence. It, too, used to be silver, but the weather had taken that away.
A lot of stuff on this farm had been changed from the weather. Seldom for the better.
After I was done, I paused to look it all over and see if I could think of anything else I’d need. Then remembered the steel post driver. It was new last year and the shine hadn’t come off it’s gray paint yet. I also put a few 6-foot green t-bar steel posts in there, also with their rust spots and not perfectly straight anymore. That would keep me the afternoon.
Then I had time to go find Max. He was sitting outside the faded grey porch, outside the faded aluminum screen door, on the faded grey wood steps, on his haunches, waiting.
When I got close, he cocked his head and lifted one speckled ear, as if to say “Well?” But not with any words I could hear.
I responded by first sitting next to him and scratching behind that ear.
He was patient, and waited. He looked off across the barnyard with the dry and dusty brown grass, left over from all the winter freezes. As a lawn, it was tall enough to mow, but too brown to bother with. It could wait until it greened up.
I looked out there as well. Grateful to be off my feet, and taking a rest before an afternoon of wrestling with nailing and twisting wire to fix holes so cattle couldn’t leave on their own. And being slapped by tree limbs and sprouts, while poked and scratched by wild-rose sticker bushes grown up from the last time I had to do this. (Mental note: get the hand clippers and limb loppers.)
The sky was blue, with a haze. No real shadows, just blobs of gray where there should be one.
“Since when did you learn to talk?” I asked him.
Max just sat there in the quasi-shade with me and kept looking out.
“I heard you distinctly say ‘No.'”
“That I did.” said Max.
“You don’t want to go out and keep me company fixing fence?”
“Not one of the things I was looking forward to, today.”
“But you know it’s gotta be done.”
“Yup.” With that, Max started panting, a sort of wry smile his. Teasing me, I guessed.
“How about this – the truck’s all loaded now and so you just come along and keep me company. You can talk all you want. I’d be happy to listen.”
“As long as you don’t argue with me.”
I was considering disagreeing with him, but then I remembered all the times I made him go out doors when he didn’t want to, and the times I brought back the dog food he didn’t like, but would eventually eat anyway.
So I swallowed, and replied, “Deal.”
Down across the driveway to the truck, Max was trotting with his tail high and pink tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. I opened the old steel pickup door, and he jumped up on the floor-board, jumped up and across the flat seat covered with woven, multi-colored rag throw rugs. Then sat on the other side looking out the windshield, expectantly. Tongue lolling.
The seat let out a sneeze of dust as I climbed in, and I could smell the dried manure and old hay from the cattle feedings this last winter. It was warm enough to crank down the window to let some fresh air in. At least on my side.
Starting it up with a quiet roar, I slipped it into gear and drove across the yard to the pasture. Three gates later (a process where I had to stop, get out and pull the gate open, drive through, then shut the gate, and re-enter the truck to start moving again – each and every time) down across a dried water diversion, we bumped over an uneven brown grass paddock with various heights of wood sprouts whipping the bumper to scratch the undercarriage in turn.
I drove as close to the fence as the trees would let us, then moved forward another couple of truck-lengths parallel to it in the clearing. That would keep me from having to move the truck more than needed. If I were lucky, I could carry everything I needed with me. (Darn. Forgot the loppers and clippers. Oh, well.)
Max jumped out behind me when I opened the door, hardly waiting for me to clear before he scampered off to scout the area for rabbit and coyote signs. And anything else, like possum or coon tracks, maybe deer or some neighborhood fox.
I got the fencing pliers into the old paint can along with the nails and fence clips. The roll of wire and roll of barbed wire I picked up in the opposite hand, then shoved the plastic coffee “can” under that arm. Reaching down with the other hand, I got the paint can bale and started off back toward the first gap, where a fallen oak limb had laid down on the fence and made an easy jumpover spot.
I’d been this way a few weeks ago to cut all the fallen trees out by chainsaw, and now had to get this fence fixed while the weather was halfway decent. All ahead of when I would run out of hay and need to turn the cattle in here when the grass was high enough. One thing after another. The main deal was acting ahead of when things were needed, so the emergencies were fewer. Like having to get cows back in from a neighbor’s crop field.
Setting everything down where the wire wouldn’t tangle and the cans wouldn’t turn over, I looked over the wire to see what needed to be done, picking up the fencing pliers to shove them into a back dungaree pocket where I could reach them easily.
Max appeared from nowhere, as usual, and laid down next to the paint bucket and coffee pail, laying in a grassy soft spot. Just watching me. I’d pulled the barbed wire roll over by the fence.
By habit, I set to work and forgot about having a conversation with him. I had to pull the broken fence pieces out and see if the stretched parts were able to still keep a curious calf in, while sufficiently resistant to yearlings wanting to scratch their necks on it. This would take awhile. I went at it and lost track of time and other things.
Max cleared his throat, “Ahem.”
I stopped with two wired crossed in my tanned leather gloves while I fished out the fencing pliers to twist them tight. “Oh, hello Max. What would you like to talk about today?”
“Not politics or religion.”
“Nope, that’s fine.”
“Not the weather.”
“Well, OK. We get that on the news every night anyway.” I turned back to the fencing and started twisting the two strands.
“And they seldom get it right.” Max started cleaning one of his paws, and using it to clean his face in alternate lickings.
“But they never apologize for getting it wrong.”
Max stopped cleaning and said, “As if that needed saying.”
I was twisting the wire, and putting a splice in the barbed wire to bring the two pieces as tight as I could by hand and grunting force of leveraged arms.
“How about life and eternity?” Max said after a couple of minutes.
“That could go on for awhile. Did you have anything specific in mind?”
Max sat back on his haunches. “You seem pretty calm about me talking.”
“Well, I figured you wanted to tell me in your own way. Now that I know you can talk, it’s going to be easier on both of us. And maybe you had some stuff to say that’s been pent up for awhile. So I didn’t figure to crowd you on it.”
“Well, thanks. But you’ve always been pretty considerate of me.”
“Not like you haven’t earned it. By the time I figured out what you wanted, it made pretty much sense from where you were sitting. The trick was learning what you wanted. So talking would make this simpler. Especially when you help me herd cattle.”
Max yawned, raised a hind leg to scratch inside his ear, then smelled the foot before setting it down again.
I clipped the barbed wire from the roll, long enough to twist as the other end of that splice.
Max said, “You know I can’t talk to you when other people are around.”
“Well that makes sense.” I replied. “A talking dog would make our lives more complicated if it got out. Press, media circus…”
“Government agencies wanting to test me…”
“Yea, complications.” Now I was twisting the other side while holding it tight until the twists picked up the slack in the wire.
“So we’ll just use telepathy when other people are around. Well, I will, anyway. You can keep talking.”
The splice held and seemed tight enough. That was the top wire. Now for the second. It had sprung into the rose bush on one end and I had to wrestle it out.
Max asked, “That’s OK with you?”
“Oh, sorry, I was trying to get this wire pulled out and still leave my arms whole. Of course that’s fine.” I straightened up and got some kinks out of my back, turning to face Max. “People think it’s cute when they see someone talking to animals like they can hear you.”
“Of course you know, we’ve always understood humans.”
“I kinda figured that, but didn’t know for sure.”
“And that’s just between us.”
“Sure. keep the media and government agencies off the farm and we can have our little secret as long as we want.”
Max was panting again. He stopped and closed his mouth and looked into my eyes. “So you can hear me now?”
I smiled. “Too much TV for you, young fella. Sure, you’re coming in fine.”
“Great.” Max sent. “I don’t know the range of this, but I’m most always around you anyway.”
“Sure.” I said. Then I turned back to that second wire and twisted the first end of a splice on it from that wire roll. And then measured it for cutting.
Max looked up suddenly, turning his head. “Gotta run. Squirrel.” And he ran off through the short buck brush, jumping over the smaller limbs when they got in his way.
“Some things never change.” I thought to myself.
“I heard that.” Max replied from a distance.
Smiling, I turned back to the job at hand and grunted the second wire tight again. The third and fourth wires were only stretched. Shoving the fencing pliers again into a back pocket, I picked up the barbed wire to twist it enough to hold as a roll.
The next job was to take the straight wire, cutting it to length and then twisting it into a vertical stay between the horizontal barbed wire strands. That would pull the slack out of all the wires and reinforce them against each other. Not a thing of beauty, but judges never came out in our woods anyway. Only cattle. And they wouldn’t go out this way, not for years.
Max trotted back soon and sniffed around for other traces. Then he came back to where he was laying before, circled once and laid back down again. He closed his eyes and rested.
When I finished up with that repair, then I picked everything up and went down the fence to the next spot. Max came along and looked after me, as usual. Sometimes we talked, sometimes not. Certainly was better than complete solitude.
But I still didn’t know why Max started talking to me that day. Why he waited that long, or the reason he had to talk at all.
The rest of the afternoon went along went along until I ran out of fence to fix. Then I piled everything back into the truck and started back to the house and barn.
As we drove back up to the open faded barn doorway, the black-and-white belted cattle were lined up side by side against the red corner gate looking at me. The cats were lined up on the house porch steps side by side – one short-haired calico, one short-haired red tabby, one black and white fluffy one. All looking right at me, not moving except the very tips of their tails. While I couldn’t see the chicken house from here, they were strangely quiet, too.
“Yea?” Max sent back.
“Does this mean the other animals want to talk to me, too?”
“Well, I was getting around to that. First they want to know how it turned out with us talking.”
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