Some time ago, while sitting outside with my grandpa at his home, a great rustle stirred in the forest ahead of us. The evening had been still, without wind or bird calls, and perhaps the rustle had seemed so tremendous for this reason. My grandpa and I jumped slightly in our lawn chairs, and kept our sight to the noise in the forest. It was growing nearer, and from my little knowledge, the noise most resembled the leaps of a deer. My eyes became ready for a doe, or perhaps her lost fawn, to poke out the woodland and stare curiously at us, the way deer do.
It was a rather sore surprise when a dog busted into the lawn. Its chest heaved and its mouth panted, but the exhaustion was expressed in such a way that seemed enjoyable. The stray dog trotted near us, and politely, he dropped a tennis ball at our feet.
Now, despite the excessive breathing, or the drool, this Labrador had a sharp mind. He was not so easily fooled by a fake toss, and as the evening idled along, he proved to be wildly gifted at the game of fetch. The instinct of anticipation was wired well within him, and as I tossed, the throws became farther, higher, or with added velocity, as to best the dog at his own game. Eventually, it was not so much a matter of win or loss, but a matter of challenging the dog, who retrieved so effortlessly that it bordered upon hoax.
After one of the tosses, the Labrador did something strange. He disregarded me, as if my throws had brought boredom, and he laid the ball gently at the feet of my grandpa.
At this, I must give witness – my grandpa was once a very athletic man. My witnessing does not come from sight, but stories. I had heard from adults of his elbow once coming even with the rim in a basketball game; of his weightlifting days, where his muscles had been chiseled from stone; and, of course, his diving heroics in center field, so throughout my childhood, I had high regard for my grandpa’s past ability.
I must give one last witness – never in my life had I seen my grandpa perform an athletic feat. Mostly, I assumed, it was because of his age, so I respected him firmly, but never dared to ask him to rekindle that ability through H-O-R-S-E or a game of catch. It was best to let my mind run with the stories, and to see his athleticism in that respect.
The tennis ball, meanwhile, sat temptingly at his feet, and for a moment I watched his face and sensed his contemplation. His decision was suddenly made, and after picking up the ball, he stood with great effort from his lawn chair. I was silent and partially stunned, for something this unprecedented could not be appreciated in any other way.
My grandpa gave a determined eye to the distant forest, but as he wound his arm to throw, the movement was awkward, unable to bend the way it once had. The jerkiness would not have been so obvious if the ball would’ve sailed into the brush, but instead, he released too early, for he was much out of practice. The ball sailed perhaps ten feet high and long, and the Labrador, without excitement, walked to the bouncing tennis ball and easily snatched it from the air.
My thoughts had shot to my grandpa’s young athleticism, and surely his had, too. I suddenly had deep embarrassment for seeing the throw, and I wished to reiterate that I did not care about it, that I would forever see him as the diving center fielder, or the talented leaper, but my tongue was too hot from embarrassment, so I could not speak.
Our eyes connected, and within him, I, too, saw embarrassment. His mouth was slightly agape, his eyes wide, and without speaking himself, he slowly sat back in his lawn chair. The Labrador then compiled the issue, for when he chose his partner in the next round of fetch, he turned his nose up to my grandpa, who had not challenged him. Within a moment, the ball was placed at my feet.
What my grandpa said next was unexpected, and my only response was to obey his command.
“Try to throw it above the woods,” he said.
At the time, I was unsure whether he had said it to spite the dog, or to perhaps in an effort to lose the ball, so he could finally be away from the game. I, nonetheless, gave the ball a great heave. It was a good throw. My elbow slung like elastic, and the ball skied to upper quarter of the trees. The Labrador went happily to fetch.
I turned to my grandpa, and there was a satisfied look to him. I was very close to the man, and I knew immediately from where the satisfaction had come. He watched me, a product of himself, a young, strong arm, throw a ball far up into the trees, and it made him glad. In me, he saw himself – his youthful, athletic self. And in some strange way, both our embarrassment had been slightly chipped away.
The Labrador had faithfully returned, and after again dropping it at my feet, my grandpa said, “Try higher this time.”
I obeyed. My elbow slung once more, my shoulder rotated smoothly, and my body torqued as to give greater velocity to the ball. It had sailed higher than the last throw, and the Labrador set off to the woods.
This routine continued for a long while, and as the dog was off sniffing for his ball, neither me nor my grandpa said anything. We listened to the rustling of the paws, and did not look at one another – I think because we were afraid to do so.
I woke the next morning, and upon my first movement, my right arm was stiff. The little muscles around my elbow were tender, and the large ones running along my right ribcage quivered. I enjoyed every wince of pain, being very prideful of the soreness, knowing what it had given to my grandpa.
I went into the kitchen that morning, and my grandpa was at the table, sipping coffee. I sat beside him and did not let on to the pain in my arm. We said nothing for a moment, until he gave a weak smile.
“I wonder if the dog will be back today,” he said.
I contemplated it, and said, “Maybe.”
He took another sip of coffee, and his weak smile grew stronger.
“Well,” he said, “let’s hope so.”