By Judy Fraher.
The old man’s arthritic hands gripped at the shelf above his head. His legs wobbled like a newborn colt’s as he stretched up onto his toes to grab at the object on the shelf. Wrapping his hand around it, he pulled and it toppled to the floor. Bending down, he picked it up, held it closely to his chest and moved to his bed.
The old man stared down at the object he’d placed on his lap. Once as white as new-fallen snow, it was now a dull gray. Stuffing spilled from a split in its belly, its ears had been sewn lopsided and its mouth was half-ripped off.
Santa Claus had given it to him a long time ago. He had been four years old and his parents had taken him to a Christmas party.
The old man unconsciously rubbed a spot behind his left ear as he recalled that day.
The slew of children had stood in line, shuffling from foot to foot as they waited their turn to sit on Santa’s lap. He could hardly breathe, he was so excited. He was going to ask Santa for a basketball, not just an undersized plastic kiddy ball, but an official NBA basketball!
It was his turn. He looked in Santa’s twinkling blue eyes and told him his wish. Santa patted him on his head and said, “I think you are going to enjoy this present.”
A basketball is round, the package Santa handed him was not round. It was very odd-shaped. He slipped off Santa’s lap. His mother took his hand and they walked towards the table where they’d been sitting. His mother urged him to open the present. Reluctantly, he pulled at a piece of paper. His mother, anxious to help him, ripped a larger piece of paper off. Together they got the gift unwrapped.
It was a dog. A stuffed dog, white with black droopy ears, black eyes made from glass, a black nose, and a mouth that curled up in a smile. It stood straight up like a person so that its paws looked like little arms and legs.
“Oh,” his mother exclaimed. “Isn’t it cute?”
He nodded obediently. He knew where this dog was going when he went home, in the net hanging from his ceiling where he kept all his other stuffed animals. Once he put them there, he rarely played with them. Hot Wheels, Atari games and basketballs are what he enjoyed.
Home from the party, the stuffed dog held in the crook of his arm, he moved to the corner of his room, opening up the hanging net. He placed the dog on top of the other stuffed toys.
His arms felt incredibly empty. His eyes shifted to the hanging net. He walked back and pulled the dog out of the pile of stuffed animals. He moved to his bed and leaned the dog against his pillow. The dog looked good there. He left him there.
That night, he tossed and turned, he couldn’t sleep. Pushing his blankets aside, he sat up and stared at the end of his bed. He’d thrown the dog down at the foot of his bed when he first crawled in under the covers. He sighed and reached down for the dog. Wrapping his arms around it, he fell back against his pillows. In seconds, he was fast asleep.
The old man shook his head. From that first night, the dog and he were inseparable. He brought that dog with him everywhere, even to school where he kept the dog in his knapsack. If he went outside to play, the dog went outside too. It was dragged through rain, mud and snow.
Soft Dog (the name he gave it) and he had many adventures. The woods became dense jungles they had to crawl through, snow banks became frozen tundra that had to be traversed by only the mightiest of military tanks (his rusty old sled), and the above ground pool became a stormy, angry ocean they had to swim, battling off vicious sharks and piranhas.
But childhood doesn’t last forever. The adventures stopped. He grew up, went to college, got married, and raised four children. Through it all, Soft Dog stayed with him.
The old man shook his head once again to clear the memories. He wearily pushed himself off his bed and shuffled to his bureau. Picking up a photo frame, he stared at the picture of his deceased wife and sighed. He glanced at the stuffed animal in his arms.
“Well, my old friend, I need to clean the apartment a little. It’s visiting day, and Elise will be coming soon.”
His hands were in the soapy water when he felt the first pain. He took them out, wiping them methodically on the red and white checked dishcloth. He looked over at his friend who stood on the kitchen counter.
“Soft Dog,” he said, “I think we are both going on a new adventure.”
His daughter knocked on the door of his apartment. She knocked again, a little harder.
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a movement down the dark hallway. A little boy, probably no more than five, stood in the hall, sucking his thumb and holding tightly to a dirty, battered stuffed animal.
Pointing, she asked “Where did you get that?”
“It was a present from the old man,” he whispered. “He said I would have lots of ad-ad-, fun with him.”
They found the old man sitting in his rocker, his hands clasped around the picture of his wife, his eyes closed and a smile on his face.
JUDY FRAHER is a mother of three who loves to write late at night when inspiration strikes.