These escapes (Rusty managed several) did not elevate our father’s mood. His face would darken, and my brothers and I would steer clear. Eventually, someone miles away would call, using the phone number on Rusty’s collar, and we’d pile in the old station wagon and drive out to pick him up. Rusty was all too conscious of his diminished and tarnished status and so stayed uncharacteristically still in the back, head bent over, culpable, the perfect picture of “dognified” guilt, chin resting on his front paws, peering up now and then from under alternate eyebrows with his sad cow eyes, pleading, as if to say, “I’m really sorry about all this.”
These breakouts were not frequent, but they were how Rusty learned the language of the oil fields. Our dad worked for one of the majors in the “patch,” crowded together with the roughnecks and roustabouts, the drillers, landmen, tool pushers, company men, investors, and geologists. Their language was blunt, descriptive, rough, crude: brilliant in its color and eloquent in its manifestations. When he was safely back in the yard and under the careful tutelage of our dad, Rusty was subjected to a series of threats and expressions selected from that language’s most luminous and vivid hues. It was the mother tongue of the oil fields, the hardscrabble patois that grew among the rocks and brown dirt of West Texas, and it was the only time I ever heard our dad talk like that. Our dad was the kindest, most gentle soul I ever knew. He never raised his voice to our mother or to us, but on those rare occasions, when Rusty’s well-being had been in question, he grew tense and irritable. He loved Rusty as much as any of us, and when the prodigal dog finally returned, I think our dad’s relief just came tumbling out in the form of a unique, sharp-edged, oil-field discourse.
The men that created this language were also diggers of holes—holes Rusty could never imagine, holes miles deep, holes that fought back, that refused to yield any benefits, holes that resisted any intrusion, holes that bored through rocks possessing the pent-up energy of geologic ages, rocks that would seize a mile of steel pipe, twist it off and never give it back. It was the struggles and failures, the setbacks and back-breaking hours that gave rise to the language. It was the coarseness, the broken-down pickups, the fistfights, the do-it-yourself tattoos, and raw country music that birthed a vernacular peculiar to the vocation and the region. And Rusty received verbal instruction in it all; it was his punishment for snatching a day or two of gloriously wild freedom, of trying to reach the edge we all longed for. And Rusty took his penalty with the heroic stoicism of Epictetus. He had tasted freedom, and the linguistic punishment was worth it.
When this one-way verbal staccato ended, Rusty would slink back to the Camellia bush near the back porch and rest forlornly. I’d sit on the porch and tell him it was all right; I really did understand. After all, I could see the far edge of the world just as plainly as he could. We were all trying to get there. He’d look up at me with those eyes, sad, contrite, sorrowful, but never broken, ever. It was because he was an optimist—he didn’t know how to be anything else—and so he was sure better things were coming. And through all of this, he showed us better ways to live.
Many years later, I returned from a job interview at Georgia Tech, making that magical drive from Atlanta to Fort Worth through one of the prettiest parts of America I know. The kudzu is cursed by most, but to me, it is simply the rich, green gossamer drapery God has provided to welcome you as you pass quietly through those ethereal forests that so characterize the South. Pulling up to our house on that particular day, it was quiet; no one came busting out the door to meet me, no welcome poster scrawled in markers hung on the windows, and there was no Rusty. There was an uneasiness in the air.
Inside, the family was quiet and restrained, guarded. I sensed that there had been a shift in the earth’s axis, a notch in time that gave us a “before this” to an “after that,” a crease that marked a point in events we would never forget, no matter where we went or what we did. Rusty was gone. He had passed away two days earlier, lying under his favorite Camellia shrub in its cool shade. They hadn’t wanted to call me during interviews, better to wait ’till I was home, and so forth.
There was an emptiness in the room, a quiet hollow space, a hole, where something was missing. We all felt it. And there were tears. The companion that kept up his spirits and ours, that dug his holes just knowing he’d find some treasure, then not finding anything, and, undeterred, moving on to the next spot. Ever optimistic Rusty. Seeing the bright side in everything, even under the occasional deluge of oil field language. Always, for Rusty, the next hole would be the payoff hole.
We went out back where dad had dug Rusty’s final hole. We stood around, quietly, just for a few moments. The tears were soft ones, falling onto the hard Texas clay. And, in the quiet, I heard Michael Nesbit’s Rio and saw Rusty running, running for the far edge of the world. Running for all he was worth, stopping only for a second to do that awkward shuffle. It was Rusty’s way, optimistic, joyful—he was going to make it this time, looking back at us happy and singing,
“My feet have come loose from their moorings,
I’m feeling quite wonderfully free.” *
* Song Credits:
Writer – Michael Nesmith
Label: Pacific Arts
Producer: Michael Nesmith
Album: From a Radio Engine to a Photon Wing