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Sunday mornings spent burning trash and pondering life and death is my version of church. Photo by Jeff Prince

Lockdown Day 21, Tuesday, April 14 –– My chaotic lockdown is just beginning to relax a bit. Being laid off from my job at the Fort Worth Weekly after almost 20 years, filing for unemployment, searching for jobs, switching insurance, and other tasks have been all-consuming for the past three weeks. Then, today, Weekly Editor Anthony Mariani emails me well wishes and offers a writing assignment. He and other department heads are still being paid (kinda) to keep the newspaper alive until the pandemic passes, at which point laid-off employees might be re-hired. I want the paper to survive, and I want to be re-hired, so I’ve been volunteering to contribute free content when I can. I’ve submitted a couple of articles already, but Mariani would like more.

“Any interest in keeping a daily journal of what life is like for you now, recently unemployed and under lockdown?” he said. “You can take ambient pictures that emphasize what you’re feeling.”

My first thought is to decline. I reveal too much of myself in navel-gazing writing assignments. “Write like nobody will ever read you” is sound advice for spurring deep self-analysis and soul-searching, but those confessions stay on the internet forever. I prefer writing about other people’s triumphs and tribulations.

Western-Days-300x250-Charley

Mariani ends his email by saying, “I know you would do a great job.”

Well. If you put it that way …

“I’ll give it a whirl,” I reply.

With my recent flurry of activity slowed to a blissful crawl, I’m not sure where to begin. I live alone, and the only dialogues around here occur between my ears. I rise and repeat a Groundhog Day existence of long walks followed by puttering around the yard, garage, and house before cooking and eating lunch. I play my guitar, write, surf the internet, and make phone calls in the afternoon. Preparing a healthy dinner is the evening highlight, followed by TV time before making my way to bed around midnight.

I’m a simple man. I don’t ask for much. All I want to do is go on my morning walks through my country neighborhood and not be attacked by vicious dogs.

I first met this massive pitbull I call Circus Face on March 7, a couple of weeks before COVID-19 would shut down society. At the time, I didn’t know I would soon become one of the 26 million Americans currently seeking unemployment benefits.

This road’s beauty makes walking it worth the risk of being mauled by a
pitbull.
Photo by Jeff Prince.

My morning walk is a ritual –– a seven-days-a-week-in-rain-shine-snow-or-pitbull kind of habit. That day’s walk had been glorious. About 50 degrees with light winds. My legs felt strong. I journeyed far and began exploring an unfamiliar road that snaked past small ranches, each with a personalized front gate. Cactus gardens, big brown rocks, and rusted wagon wheels dominated. Large wrought-iron archways above gates spelled out sprightly names such as Happy Hills. Small pastures contained livestock, and horses and cows stared as I sauntered past and bid them good day.

I despise going to a gym or straddling a treadmill but find it easy to climb out of bed each morning and walk for miles when surrounded by pastoral splendor. One problem: Folks out here are terrible about keeping track of their ornery-ass dogs.

I live on a couple of acres west of Fort Worth in unincorporated Parker County. Most of the people living around me own larger properties, and many of them raise horses, cows, goats, sheep, and alpacas. Three-strand barbed-wire fencing does a decent job of keeping livestock corralled but fails miserably at deterring cranky canines. These dogs patrol their domains with inordinate amounts of zeal. While I admire their work ethic, I question their analytical thinking.

Note to big, dumb country-ass dogs: Not every person walking past your property wants to strangle an alpaca. Some of us pass by merely for exercise and relaxation. Your lack of logic, quickness to judge, and aggressive manner of complaint mean avid walkers such as myself must stare into your jaws of death on occasion, and that sucks.

For a long time, I carried rocks in my pockets during walks. If a big, mean dog came close, I faced him head on, acted tough, talked loud, and said, “Let’s go, motherfucker!” I’d stride toward him while throwing rocks. Dogs turned and ran every time … almost.

One day, my tough-guy routine and pebbles tossed with limited velocity failed to impress a Doberman. He moved closer, snapping his teeth, becoming bolder with each lunge. I spotted several large rocks nearby and moved that way slowly while yelling at the dog to stay back. Finally, I bent down in a flash, picked up a mini-boulder, and heaved it. The dog jumped backward. I grabbed another huge rock and lifted it over my head. The dog took off.

Afterward, I was so angry/scared that I hustled home, turned on my computer, and ordered a pocket-sized can of mace for $10.

I’d been carrying that canister for a couple years without using it until March 7:

Circus Face is especially threatening, sprinting at me with teeth bared, his big paws scattering dust as he tears across the pasture. His cold, unblinking shark-eyes fix like Satanic lasers on their target: me.

The dog sails at 30 mph through the barbed-wire fencing. His barking grows more pronounced with each stride in my direction. The noisy charge provides me ample time to dig into my right front pocket and fish out my secret weapon. I yank away the little piece of duct tape I’ve been using to prevent the trigger from engaging accidentally while in my pocket.

I face my attacker and plant my feet. Circus Face comes to a sliding stop within three feet of me and makes a couple of quick lunges at my legs. I know my tough-guy routine is useless and speak softly and try to be friendly. The entire time, I aim the mace can at his ugly mug. My finger cradles the trigger, but I hesitate to pull. Instead, I back away and tell him to stay back.

Circus Face looks as if he’s about to lunge again. My finger clinches, and a stream of clear liquid flies out of the can with a slight arch and hits his forehead. I lower my aim, and the stream blasts him right between the eyes. The dog freezes. Without letting go of the trigger, I aim lower, spraying his nose.

The mace drenches him good.

The howling shriek of agony I expect to hear doesn’t happen. Circus Face is startled but hardly incapacitated. He shakes his head, trots back to his side of the fence, turns, squats, and stares at me in stony silence. Maybe my mace has lost its power from sitting too long or I’d bought an off brand that wasn’t powerful enough. I expected more of a punch.

The next morning, my mission is clear. I seek no trouble from man nor beast, but I’ll be damned if a dog will determine my path in life. If I let every country dog on every road push me around, there will be no place left to walk.

I stretch my legs in anticipation of my 5-mile round-trip trek to confront Circus Face. Déjà vu strikes as I lace up my sneakers. I flash back to sitting on a hard bench in the locker room at Arlington High School, tying my cleats before a football game, psyching myself up to go smash into opposing players with reckless, fierce, angry abandon. Physically, I had been skinny and a little slow but was dogged and tough and played first-string defensive back despite my slight stature. That warrior remains alive within me, although I summon the spirit far less often these days.

A mile into my walk toward Circus Face, I realize I’ve forgotten to grab the can of mace. Oh, well. It didn’t work that great anyway. Large rocks are scattered on the side of the road about a half-mile from the dog. I choose a couple of two-pounders –– small enough to carry awhile and hurl with some degree of accuracy but large enough to hurt like hell if they hit their target.

I reach the familiar blind curve and begin walking noisily, scraping my shoes in the gravel to let the beast know I’m coming. I see Circus Face lying on his stomach near a pickup truck in a driveway. The dog stands, stiffens his back, and begins barking. Instead of sprinting full speed like before, he trots toward me with a slight swagger. He stops at the fence and barks.

I make nice.

“Truce,” I say from across the road. “What do you say? Live and let live?”

My eyes stay on the dog as I walk except for an occasional glance ahead to make sure I don’t bump into a mailbox or cactus garden.

Circus Face follows on his side of the fence, quiet but wired, acting as if he is having difficulty restraining himself from bolting in my direction.

As we reach the end of his property line, I say, “Alrighty then. Have a good day, my friend!”

That’s when he makes his move. He darts underneath the barbed-wire in an instant and is halfway across the road when I rear back my right arm to launch Missile One. Cocking my arm catches the dog’s attention, and he hesitates. I give that rock my best Nolan Ryan fastball, and the mini-boulder bounces off the pavement at the dog’s feet and ricochets off his chest. Circus Face turns in a frantic manner to run away, but his paws, in cartoon fashion, rotate in a circular blur without catching traction. I transfer the second rock from my left hand to my right and launch Missile Two. Miraculously, it skips through his legs without hitting muscle or bone. The pitbull, though, has decided to live to fight another day. He crosses the fence onto his property, turns, plops down, and fixes his shark eyes on me again.

Our war isn’t over.

“Alright, motherfucker,” I say. “We’ll see you next time.”

I glance over my shoulder every 10 seconds until I’m around a bend and out of sight.

This is the blind curve that leads me to Circus Face.
Photo by Jeff Prince.

Lockdown Day 22, Wednesday, April 15 –– Tax Day. The deadline for filing was extended to July because of COVID-19’s pandemonium, but I file today anyway. My $495 tax refund will be deposited directly into my dwindling checking account soon. I’m still awaiting my first unemployment check, even though I was approved three weeks earlier.

My last paycheck was March 20, almost a month ago. I can’t stop working now. I have bills to pay and 10 more years of mortgage payments to make.

I haven’t been without a job since I was a teenager. It’s a strange feeling to not go to work every morning. I’ve been rising to the workday bell for four decades without complaint and still have plenty of good labor left in me.

I examine bank records, bills, and budgets to determine how much time might pass before I will be shuffling along a railroad track while carrying my belongings inside a bandanna at the end of a broom handle.

Since my layoff, I’ve spent no money on anything except my house payment, utility bills, food, and gasoline. Everything else seems superfluous.

In 2017, I quit smoking cigarettes, so I’m saving a small fortune there. However, I began chewing Trident gum and still enjoy several sticks a day. I’m almost out of gum. I haven’t decided whether that’s a luxury I can afford, even at $1.50 a pack.

My pants are fitting loose in the legs. I’ve lost what little butt I had. For most of my life, I’ve eaten lunches at restaurants seven days a week. Mostly at Mexican restaurants with loads of chips and salsa, tortillas, butter, and fattening entrees. Now, my lunch consists of bananas and Ranch Style Beans with freshly cut onions and tomatoes.

I recall learning a long time ago that my butt lacked a desired roundness that appealed to the opposite gender. This was in seventh grade. I was standing in the hallway talking to a girl whose locker was near mine.

“Your friend Kevin has a cute butt,” she said.

“Cute butt?” I said. “What do you mean?”

“His butt looks nice,” she said.

“Is that what girls look at?” I said.

I figured girls would like a guy’s face, hair, and biceps but hadn’t considered the butt. This prompted my next question.

“Do I have a nice butt?” I asked.

She laughed and said, “You don’t have a butt.”

“Oh.”

At 13, my ass was flat. At 60, it’s damn near concave.

 

Lockdown Day 24, Friday, April 17 –– I don’t feel as eager as usual to climb out of bed and go for a long walk this morning. On days like this, I remember all my animal friends and worry they will miss me if I skip a day.

I have several different routes and have named them all. The OG Trail is the straight, flat dead-end road that I first began traipsing when I was much fatter and easily winded from a 40-year nicotine habit. I walk the OG every morning, a mile in each direction, which takes 35 or 40 minutes. On days I have more time, I add one of my other routes. The Quiet Trail is hilly and winding, stretches 3 miles, and takes about 45 minutes. Noisy Lane is beautiful and hilly but is host to several bark-happy dogs that disrupt my thoughts. It’s about a 4-mile trek and takes an hour. Circus Face Circle is my longest route at five miles.

Not every animal along my routes is friendly, but many look forward to my visits. Alpacas aren’t interested in being patted by strangers, which is fine. I have better things to do than pat a pasture poodle. Cows are cool but wary of humans, and I don’t blame them. They’re being fed for slaughter, and everyone knows it, including them.

Sixy-Six likes to practice resistance training with his head and my hand.
Photo by Jeff Prince.

Horses, goats, and dogs are far more social creatures.

I wasn’t seeking friends –– human or animal –– when I moved to the country. I sought solitude. My walks are designed to clear my lungs, burn calories, increase my metabolism, boost the old heart muscle, and keep my body and mind cranking a while longer. Aerobic exercises are not as effective when stopping every 10 minutes to scratch a horse’s ear, but I can’t help myself. I like animals.

I make up names and call out to them as I pass.

“Good morning, Sixty-Six,” I say to a goat on the OG Trail who enjoys pushing his head against my outstretched hand.

This alpha billy is tough and won’t allow his goat buddies to come near me. He’s jealous and greedy. That’s why I call him Sixty-Six. He’s one six away from being Satan.

I keep walking and see two more friends, a couple of horses who graze side by side every day despite having plenty of room to spread out.

“Hey, Little Joe!” I say. “How are you, Big Hoss?”

Neither lifts his head or acknowledges my greeting. They keep eating grass and pondering important horse things.

Just for grins, I check to see if they’re paying attention: “Hey, Little Hoss! How’re you, Big Joe?”

They pretend not to notice my mix-up. They’re kind of snooty, too, now that I think about it.

Friendlier horses are nearby. A Clydesdale strolls across a pasture and waits for me near the fence. I call him Clyde Dale. I’ve never fed any horses sugar cubes, apples, or anything other than the occasional handful of grass, which isn’t a big deal since the horses have plenty of grass on their sides of the fence already. I don’t buy my friendships. Animals appreciate my friendly hellos and willingness to stop, hang out, scratch their favorite spots, and talk in a manner that makes us both feel good.

Therefore, I take offense upon noticing the new adornment to Clyde Dale’s fence, hanging near the entrance gate in plain view –– a white metal sign with black letters saying, “DO NOT FEED US!” Next to a cartoonish drawing of a horse, an orange carrot is stamped out by one of those red Ghostbusters marks.

I’m the only person who walks this road and interacts with this horse. Obviously, the sign is meant for me. I feel falsely accused. Hey, Mister Property Owner, don’t be petty just because your horse likes me better than you. Here I am bonding with beast and nature in hillbilly heaven and you’re harshing my zencicle with your accusatory signage.

“Don’t worry,” I say to Clyde Dale. “Our love can’t be denied.”

This sign irked me, but not my friend Clyde Dale.
Photo by Jeff Prince.

Lockdown Day 27, Monday, April 20 –– I’m walking the OG Trail near Clyde Dale’s place and notice the property owner –– a woman with big hair –– driving down the long driveway toward the gate in a white SUV. She is opening the gate as I walk past, and normally I would wave or say hello. Since she hung that tacky sign, however, I ignore her and walk by without a word. Instead of feeling justified and good, I feel kind of small.

 

Lockdown Day 28, Tuesday, April 21 –– I receive good news and bad today. I’m a bad-news-first kind of guy, so here goes. The job I was counting on, my Plan B ace in the hole, notified me that I wasn’t selected for an interview. The rejection gnaws at my confidence, but I will keep searching for Plan D, E, F, and however many other letters of the alphabet are required until I find a job that pays the bills.

The good news is my first two unemployment checks have been direct-deposited into my checking account, along with my $495 tax return. I’m flush with greenbacks but don’t plan on celebrating. I’m a locked-down teetotaler who lives alone and mostly talks to goats and horses.

 

Lockdown Day 30, Thursday, April 23 –– So far, my journal hasn’t been exactly action-packed. Finally, I have real drama to report. My refrigerator is void of blueberries. Understanding my dependence on blueberries is akin to examining your own reliance upon oxygen. The last food items I stuff in my piehole every night are dry pancakes with fresh blueberries. No butter. No syrup. Just lots of blueberries. Every night. I plow through the berries like a grizzly bear awakened from hibernation. Running out of blueberries is a Code Red emergency.

I drive to the closest grocery store. The blueberry shelf is empty. I hit two more stores without luck. Where’d all the blueberries go?

Years in the future, some youngster will ask me, “What was it like to survive the coronavirus pandemic lockdown?” And I’ll say, “I ran out of fresh blueberries. It was hell.”

I buy a bag of frozen blueberries, but they’re a poor substitute. Mushy, unnaturally sweet, and gross. I want plump, nutritious berries out of the produce section, not the freezer.

Score! I find a stash of berries after coming up dry the day before.
Photo by Jeff Prince.

 

Lockdown Day 31, Friday, April 24 –– I rise early, hustle the OG Trail, and then call the grocery story to ask if they have received a shipment of blueberries. A voice recording says the grocery store staffers are so busy they can’t verify inventories over the phone anymore. I make the 12-mile drive and am thrilled to find shelves stacked high with my beloved berries. I resist the temptation to hoard. I buy about four days’ worth. Berries don’t last much longer than that.

 

Lockdown Day 32, Saturday, April 25 –– I’m walking the OG Trail and see the white SUV coming down the driveway toward the gate at Clyde Dale’s place. As I walk past, I give the woman a wave and smile. I have forgiven her for the rude signage. I see her face through the windshield, and she smiles broadly and waves with enthusiasm. I feel good about preserving my friendship with the woman whom I’ve never actually met or spoken with.

 

Lockdown Day 33, Sunday, April 26 –– Burning trash is legal where I live, and I enjoy doing it on Sunday mornings. When I was a kid, Sunday mornings meant rising early, dressing up, and going to church. I disliked church and complained about going. My parents told me I could make my own choice when I turned 14.

At 14, I stopped attending church and never went back. I felt twinges of guilt on Sunday mornings when my mom, dad, and brothers would prepare to leave without me.

“You sure you won’t go with us?” my mom would say, poking her head through my bedroom door.

“Not today,” I’d say, lying in bed and ready to have the house to myself.

I didn’t dislike religion. I hated waking up early and having to wear ill-fitting clothes and sit on hard pews for what seemed like hours listening to some preacher yak while the best part of the day was slowly dying outside.

Building a fire in a barrel is the first step to burning trash.
Photo by Jeff Prince.

Sunday mornings are the perfect time to be outside burning trash. My church consists of rising early, throwing on old jeans, building a fire in a rusted 55-gallon barrel, enticing the flames up high, then plopping a bag of trash on top and watching it burn. The only thing else needed is a shovel for poking embers and a mind to contemplate the universe.

Today, I’m burning and poking and pondering death. The idea of Heaven and Hell as actual places never made sense to me, even as a kid squirming on a hard pew. I wonder if Heaven and Hell are merely experiences that someone has when dying. Live a bad life, and you’ll go through hell internally before you die. Live a good life, and you’ll experience peace before dying.

Then? Nothing.

Stephen Hawking compared our brains at death to computers that break down.

“There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers,” he said. “That is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

Saying it like that sounds cold but far more reasonable than thinking I will be jamming on “Purple Haze” with Jimi Hendrix while sitting on a cloud after I die.

Ask people what they fear most about death, and most will say they are afraid to miss out on the things they love –– watching their kids grow up, drinking coffee with a good friend, watching the Dallas Cowboys win another Super Bowl, seeing the sun set over the ocean.

When we’re dead, however, we won’t miss anything.

So, if death is pointless to worry about, life is beautiful and wide open for living!

I’m certain I have one of the prettiest burn barrel stations in the
greater Azle area.
Photo by Jeff Prince.

 

Lockdown Day 34, Monday, April 27 –– I realize I still haven’t had my final showdown with the pitbull. After walking OG Trail, I head west for the long haul to Circus Face Circle. Once again, I forgot to grab my can of mace. Then, when I was walking down the road where the large rocks are lying, I was deep in thought about something and forgot to grab a couple of mini-boulders. The blind curve reminds me that Circus Face is right around the corner, and I realize I have no mace or big rocks for defense.

Oh, well. No turning back now. I keep walking.

9 COMMENTS

  1. God Bless you Jeff I love your writing and Toast and Jam….I have been a Weekly reader for 25 years and need the paper to survive…I’m also a daily walker but now it’s here in Florida…pretty safe other than crazy drivers! Ground hog days are an understatement…sigh…hope things work out. Kevin

  2. Hey, Jeff, as a fellow Trident -a- holic your story touched my heart. For all of your entertainment and friendship you have provided down through the years (and forgetting how many times you skinned me on art deals) I’m going to ask my LLC (Late Life Companion) to get me a couple of cartons of Trident on her next trip to the store, for you. When she delivers them we’ll take a ride out into that beautiful country and deliver them to keep you from going stir crazy. P.S. What flavors do you like?
    Keep walking and chewing and don’t forget to wash your hands.😁😁🤓

    • You write just the right amount of quirk to let me fantasize that we’d be friends if I still worked at KERA. I have a couple of names that I save for dropping, and KERA is a no-fail drop to connect with smart and interesting people. Thanks for digging out the willingness to write.
      I have been sure that I’d never write again after having my fear confirmed by a neurologist – “mild cognitive impairment”- the thing that other people get.
      This is night #55. Thank you for “writing” me down from the ledge.
      To quote Brian May, “Keep Yourself Alive”
      Sherri Gardner.

  3. Oh Jeffery,
    You are such a talented writer. I’m proud to know you.
    I was a freshman in college eating in the cafeteria when I saw this guy sitting by himself. I approached you and asked if you’d like to join us. That’s where our friendship began. We made a lot more memories during those years. Mainly Rossini’s!!
    Keep up the great work my friend!
    Hugs. Leah

  4. Jeff, it is great to see you here, and I have very much enjoyed your writing over the years, including your daily “Corona Diaries’. I am currently WFH for Bank Of Texas, no gigs as of late, and this extra time at home has allowed me to revisiit some ‘lost’ videotapes stored you 25 yrs in the back of my closet, many of which you are a part of…I have some surprises coming your way, as soon as I can convert them to a digital format! Glad to see you enjoy long walks…I do approx. 4-5 miles a day myself. Helps me keep my sanity… Take care, my friend, and I’ll be back in touch soon…and I truly believe that God has something rewarding coming your way soon! EE

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