Life has a strange way of treating beautiful people sometimes.
“I was a beauty queen back in the day,” she said. “I traded by beauty for brains.”
I don’t know when “the day” was, but from the looks of it, she should be a genius. Her skin was tanned the texture and color of a worn baseball glove, the catcher’s mitt, not an outfielder. She was missing a few teeth, which can happen when you get in a fight and let your “alligator mouth overload your jaybird butt.” Her phrase, not mine. Working the Gulf boats is a hard life, even when the palms are spry and the weather brings a cool, salt-tinged breeze from out over the water.
“Up in this brackish bog, the wildlife earns its name,” she said, showing me a few scars, one from a snake bite that chewed out a chuck of muscle from her calf the size of a coffee cup, another that appeared to be ripped into her torso in a chainsaw design. “Gator nearly took me right here,” she said rubbing her bent and calloused hands over the ridges and crevices of ivory white tissue that would never tan.
The smell of fried fish, fecund mangrove swamps, and something dead in the distance wafted by now and then. Only a few times in your life will you see a sky so cloudlessly blue.
“My name’s Helen, if you care to know,” she said. “This is Heaven, my dog.”
“What kind of dog is that?” I said. The dog was wearing checked boxer shorts.
“A four-legged one,” she said, smiling, revealing a wad of perma-chew gouged into her jaw. Perma-chew, by the way, is the biological pouch that develops in a person’s jaw after decades of stuffing chewing tobacco in there.
“I’ll take some of those MoonPies for the boat,” she said, motioning towards my truck.
Heaven walked over the crushed oyster shell and sniffed around my tires, anxiously waiting for a bit of MoonPie.
“You know how Heaven got her name, right?” said Helen.
I said that I didn’t know. Helen took a deep breath like someone who had told a story so many times she was trying to think of a way to give it a different spin – and she found one.
“Heaven is 24 years old,” said Helen. “You know how old that is in dog years? One hundred and sixty eight years old. That’s why we call her Heaven. Cause she’s gonna live forever. Her name used to be Glenda, like the witch on the Wizard of Oz. When she turned twenty, we changed it. Just seemed like the right thing to do.”
I’d been there for several hours and it was getting late so I bid Helen and Heaven goodbye and walked to my truck across the parking lot to a fish market. On the way I passed an old man who smiled and asked me if Helen had told me the story of her 168 year-old dog. I acknowledged that she had, and he started laughing.
” And you believed her?” he said nodding like he had heard this tale many times, and had corrected it even more times.
“That Dog’s name changes every time somebody comes through here,” he said. “This is how Helen entertains herself. What was the dog’s name today?”
“Heaven,” I said.
He grinned and shook his head. “It’s been Hank, Roosevelt, Nixon, Fidel, Jamison, Schlitz, Earl Grey, I’ve lost track. One Christmas she called him Santa.”
“But it’s a female dog,” I said.
“Sometimes that part changes too,” he said.
Explains the boxer shorts I guess.