Tantalizing once described how I felt about blackberries. The wild bushes, heavy with fruit, were a gift of summer. But I’ve lost my taste for them. And summer, which once spelled freedom, now just means hot months to endure.
I’d been feeling grown-up because I had a new role: guardian. The winter before my last carefree summer, I found a stray puppy. According to my father, “All kids should have a pet. It teaches responsibility.”
He talked of his boyhood beagle. My mother was pragmatic: “What happens when it throws up on my new carpet?”
I promised to walk him daily and feed him and clean up after him. Failure to do so meant the dog would go to the pound. I realize now that my parents wouldn’t have carried through with that threat.
When they agreed to let him stay, I announced, “I’m calling him Alexander the Great.”
“Pretty big name for a little guy,” Dad said. “How about Al?”
I walked Alex three times a day because he was thrilled to go out. As he grew, he walked me as he sniffed the news. On weekends, Alex rode in my bike basket to the golf course. While I collected stray balls, he hunted for ground squirrels.
The nine-hole golf course was modest and weather beaten, like the town. My dad, and half of Clarksburg, worked at the John Deere factory. My favorite hangout, the Carnegie Library, didn’t allow dogs, so I didn’t visit there much anymore.
I owed some of my freedom that summer to Alex. One evening, I overheard my parents in the backyard, sipping beer.
“About time you admitted I was right,” Dad said.
“That dog. He’s been good for Nan. He’s got her on the go day and night.”
“He does, but I don’t know that’s such a good thing. I’d just as soon she didn’t run all over town by herself.”
“But she’s not by herself. She’s got the dog. And she hasn’t got her head stuck in a book all the time like she used to.”
“At least she was safe at the library. I don’t know where she is sometimes.”
“This isn’t Chicago, Alice. She couldn’t get lost in this town if she tried.”
“I don’t mean lost.”
The cushion on the folding chair sighed. By the time the screen door screeched open, I was headed upstairs, Alex bounding ahead of me.
As an only child, I was used to entertaining myself, and most kids in my neighborhood were several years older or younger, so Alex became my constant companion. One humid July morning, we went down by the river to pick blackberries. I considered leaving Alex home; he’d just collect burrs. But Mom would put him in the backyard and he preferred investigating the larger world.
The outer bushes of the wild blackberry patch, those facing the road, were picked over. Only crouching or stretching overhead yielded the ripe berries. That prospect lured me into the thicket. Brambles plucked at me and grasshoppers leapt as I ventured further. When I heard a rustle underfoot—a snake? Rats? I climbed a boulder. Birds had nibbled the fruit atop the bushes. Hot air vibrated like a cloud of gnats, and a breeze off the river tickled the leaves. Soon, I was practically dizzy from the berries’ fragrance, eating one for every three in the bucket. The taste made up for the accompanying spider webs and winged bugs, powdery gray like moths.
The bucket was half full when Alex started barking, probably at other kids picking berries—the bushes stretched about 50 yards along the riverbank. But Alex sounded upset. With his leash tied around a butternut tree trunk, he could nose around but not reach the road. He stood, barking with his whole body, squared off against a man trying to free his pants leg from briars. When he straightened up, a thick vine hooked itself to his shirt. “Damnation.”
I almost laughed. Then he saw me. “Call off your dog, little missy.”
About the author: Pat Tompkins is an editor in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her fiction has appeared in Mslexia, Grievous Angel, KYSO Flash, and other publications.