Great Joy

It was an old, quiet horse, the color of
gray corduroy, or child’s clay, those elephant slabs wrapped in wax paper that
Reston remembered from classrooms in his childhood. Six months earlier the horse had been delivered to the pasture
out back of Reston’s trailer, and it had taken four men to coax her from the
truck. She didn’t kick or fuss, but
simply refused to budge. Reston had
paid 100 dollars for the horse to save it from being put down. He had inherited his ex-girlfriend’s
pathological weakness for downtrodden animals of all kinds, and he had a dog
that was crazy about horses.

One of
the delivery fellows had kept referring to the horse as ‘daft,’ which Reston
thought was an unusual word choice for a young man who couldn’t have been more
than 20 years of age. He didn’t think
the horse was daft, at any rate, just depressed. She tended to stand, with her head down, in one place for long
stretches of time, but there were signs that she was coming around. She and the
dog seemed to get along just fine, and it gave Reston real pleasure to see them
trot around the pasture together.


had never
in his life spent Christmas alone, and he wasn’t quite sure what to
do with himself. The day before
Christmas eve he drove into the nearest decent-sized city, a college town of
maybe 70,000 people, just under a half hour’s drive from his trailer. The city was crowded with last minute
shoppers from the small towns that were clustered in the long valleys
throughout the mountains. He stopped at
some chain steak place for lunch, and later splurged on a bunch of new CDs, as
well as nearly fifty bucks worth of treats for his dog. Heavy snow was falling as he made his way
back out of town, and by the time he pulled into the half-mile gravel road that
led to his trailer, visibility had been reduced to next to nothing; Reston
couldn’t even see the gray horse in her pasture. The snow was really swirling in the valley, and the Christmas
lights of Reston’s nearest neighbor a half-mile across the way had disappeared
as well. He couldn’t find the trailer
in his headlights until he was within maybe fifteen or twenty feet.

He sat
out in his truck for perhaps a half hour, maybe longer, listening to Christmas
carols on the radio and drinking beer.
Somehow he seemed to be pulling in a radio station from the Midwest; he
noticed that when they gave the time there was an hour difference from the
clock on the truck’s dashboard. By the
time Reston vacated the truck in the driveway he was well along the way to
drunk and had already switched over from beer to whiskey. He stumbled through the blowing snow to the
door of the trailer. His dog, a herding
mongrel so strained as to look exotic, was waiting for him in a state of
pitched agitation, and Reston opened the door and watched the dog disappear
into the whiteout beyond the trailer.

night he drank enough to feel genuinely sorry for himself, and almost managed
to talk himself into flying out to spend Christmas with his sister’s family in

The next
, Reston woke up on the couch, as hung over as he’d been in years. The trailer was completely drifted in, and
the wind was still tossing snow around and obscuring the range down the valley
to the north. Every light in the place
was still on. The only radio station he
could pick up in the valley was wheedling with Christmas carols, the signal
drifting in and out –some choir somewhere, with a big echo effect that
suggested a live feed from a cathedral.
Reston was determined to force down some Alka-Seltzer and go back to
bed, but he realized with a start that his dog was still someplace out in the
storm. It was rare that the dog would
spend the night outside in any weather, and Reston was alarmed and appalled
that he had left him out in the storm all night.

He went
to the door and called out into the blowing snow. There was no response, and he still could not even make out the
gray horse in the pasture less than 100 yards away. Reston pulled on a pair of boots, parka, mittens, and a hat with
earflaps, and ventured out into the drifts that had developed all around the
trailer. His truck was almost
completely buried. He tried to call out
into the snow for the dog, but his voice was swallowed in the swirling
wind. Wading knee- and sometimes
hip-deep through the drifts, Reston made his way around the side of the trailer
and managed somehow to locate one of the fence posts from the horse
pasture. He couldn’t see much, or far,
but there was no sign of either the dog or the horse. The wind was blowing so
hard that when he turned back his footsteps were already almost completely
blown over. Reston tried again to call
the dog’s name, but realized it was pointless and returned to the trailer.

crawled back into bed, bundled himself in blankets, and tried to nap. His head was throbbing, and as Reston lay
there he kept imagining that he heard the dog barking somewhere out in the
storm. He got up twice and went to the
door, but there was no sign of the dog and no sound other than the howling of
the wind. At some point Reston managed
to find his way back into sleep while listening to Christmas carols on the
radio. It seemed to be a loop of the
same program –the same choir– he’d heard the night before; every single song was
reduced to a melancholy, echo-chamber lament. It sounded like a death row choir, complete with all the mournful
sonic effects you might expect from an institution constructed entirely of
concrete and steel. It was breaking
Reston’s heart and blowing all sorts of painful memories around in his
head. Even as he slept fitfully he was
aware of his heart pinging in his chest like sonar in an abandoned


It was

had traveled so far from the man he’d once been that the people he had allowed
himself to be close to, as well as those to whom he was conjoined by blood, had
become mostly uncomfortable strangers to him.
Or at least that was the way he had come to think of the situation. There was now too much time and too much silence
and distance between himself and what for lack of a more strictly truthful term
he thought of as his loved ones. He had
no axe to grind, no extravagant grievance or baggage, and it now seemed sad and
even a bit shameful to think that his mother did not even know where he was now
living or how to get in touch with him.
He hadn’t spoken with her in over ten months. When Reston’s girlfriend had grown tired of the west and had
moved back to Boston –it had been nearly two years– he’d given up the apartment
in Bozeman and taken the trailer in the valley. He was supposed to be finishing a set of illustrations for a
children’s book –the sort of clunky and typically lazy and manipulative story that
people were always writing for kids– and he hadn’t made any progress in weeks.

In the
years since his girlfriend’s departure, Reston had almost gotten used to the
loneliness and its odd, romanticized solace and pleasures. His girlfriend had been in possession of a
more polished set of social instincts.
She’d been an English professor at a local college, and liked to host
small gatherings, enjoyed going out for dinner and shopping. Left to his own devices, Reston seldom did
anything that might be considered social.
He had made few real friends in the years he’d been living in the west,
and still hadn’t even bothered to have the trailer wired for a telephone. The dog was a perfect companion; it was all
the things people who were nuts about dogs claimed dogs to be: a good listener,
an enforcer of reasonable routine and satisfying daily order. It was also absolutely companionable:
patient, even-tempered, and eager to please.
That Man’s Best Friend business really was not overstating, not in this
instance. This dog was an ideal, Reston
believed, a study in refined, dignified behavior that seldom strayed into true
stoicism. It could muster real,
contagious enthusiasm in a heartbeat, yet also seemed to have mastered

was projecting, of course; he could see that.
The dog was exactly what he needed and wanted it to be. It was unconscionable that he’d allowed
himself to get so drunk that he’d left the dog outside in a raging blizzard all
night. The poor animal could have
trudged miles in search of shelter by this time. The odd thing about the whole affair was that Reston had seldom
even gone into town without taking the dog along, and he virtually never simply
let him roam freely, as he had the night before. He’d been made careless by melancholy and liquor, by the
crippling, almost narcotic nostalgia of the holidays, and he knew that he would
chew himself up forever with grief if anything had happened to the dog. In the two preceding years the only real
highlights of the holiday season had been the long walks they’d taken together
on Christmas Eve.

As he
lay there hung over and drifting miserably along the blurriest edges of sleep,
Reston imagined being hounded to the end of his days by a canine ghost. By mid-afternoon, as he forced himself to
listen to an old Jackie Gleason Christmas album –the ultimate expression of the
Christmas carol as suicide note– he believed he felt as wretched as he ever had,
and found himself actually attempting to squeeze out tears for the first time
in years.

finally bundled himself up again and ventured out in what was left of the
afternoon light to look for the dog.
The storm was lifting. A bank of dark clouds was rolling steadily down
the valley. The odd and alarming new
development was that not only was Reston’s dog missing, but there was no sign
of the gray horse anywhere in the pasture.
The sky had cleared to the point that the entirety of the fenced pasture
was once again visible, and the horse was nowhere to be seen. Reston waddled along the drifts that were
built up along the fence line and inspected the gate. It was not only firmly latched, but drifted completely shut. He walked the length of the road leading to
his trailer, all the way out to where it intersected the main gravel road that
led to the state highway. He saw no
evidence of any traffic whatsoever, no animal or vehicle tracks other than
those from his own truck the previous evening, and even those were mostly blown


managed to
get the truck started and backed out to the turnaround. The four-wheel drive got him
through the drifted snow to the gravel county road, which was in pretty
good shape. From there to the blacktop
state highway, a distance of just under two miles, he saw no signs of either
the dog or the horse. Once he hit the
stop sign at the highway he decided to make another trip into town. He had no idea what he expected to
accomplish there on Christmas Eve; it was almost four o’clock and already
growing murky. The highway had been
plowed and road conditions were fine.
There were still carols looping on the radio station, and Reston made up
his mind to attend Christmas Eve services at some church in town. He hadn’t been in a church in many years,
but he had fond memories of holiday services from his childhood, and felt very
much like a man who needed somehow to be forgiven. If God was ever going to grab him, he figured, this was probably
a good opportunity. He’d certainly never felt so susceptible.

In town
Reston found a phone book and tried to call the local animal shelter, but got
the answering machine and a deadpan voice wishing him a merry Christmas and
encouraging him to neuter his pets. He
walked around downtown checking telephone poles and bulletin boards where he
thought he might find notices of lost and found animals, but turned up nothing
that fit the description of his dog. In
the empty Greyhound station he picked up a copy of the local newspaper and
found an advertisement for Christmas Eve services at area churches. There was a six o’clock service at a big
Lutheran church right in town, so Reston left his truck on the street and went
off in search of the place.

church was packed with families, and there were dozens of scrubbed and
squirming children. Reston had a tough
time staying awake through some of the readings and much of the sermon, but
afterwards, walking back to his truck, he felt somehow better for having
gone. His heart felt lighter and
heavier at the same time, a strangely emotional state that he had always
associated with the holidays.

driving back to the trailer Reston stopped off at a 24-hour place for
breakfast. Sitting in the church it had
occurred to him that he hadn’t had a bite to eat all day. The restaurant was located in the middle of
a strip mall parking lot, and the lot was packed. Reston ended up parking several hundred yards from the
restaurant, and as he walked from the truck he was greeted warmly by at least a
half dozen strangers. He remembered his
late father coming in from a last-minute errand on Christmas eve long ago; the
old man was rosy-cheeked, half in the bag, and happy as a clam. He was a man who loved special occasions,
and as he came in with his arms loaded with shopping bags he had bellowed, "The
whole damn town is lousy with Christmas spirit!" Reston tried to remember how many years now his father had been
dead. He’d been killed in a car
accident on the Fourth of July, the car he was driving having collided with a
train while he and a couple buddies were returning –drunk as skunks– from an
early morning round of golf. It had to
have been at least fifteen years.

All the
way out to the trailer Reston tried to put back together the years, to line up
memories and freeze them back there when there had still seemed to be so much
time, time passing and carrying him past dark off-ramps, dimly-lit
intersections, and all the forks in the road where he had chosen –or,
unconsciously, not chosen– the direction that had led him to the road along
which he was driving alone now on Christmas eve, as lost and uncertain of his
ultimate destination as he had ever felt in his life. Reston couldn’t even say for certain what he was, or what he
might have been but wasn’t, or even what he might one day be. He’d basically let each day shove him
wherever it wanted, and when it stopped shoving he stayed put. He missed the old man, a guy who’d been a
shover, a dictator in the best and most intoxicating way; he’d always gone his
own way and dragged others along who were helpless to resist him, right to the
end. After his death, Reston’s mother
had admitted that she’d been little more than one more of his tag-alongs. "He told me he was going to marry me," she
said, "and I believed him."

Back at
the trailer
Reston stood out in the middle of the drifted-in driveway and called
out to the dog. The storm had blown
over, and there was a bright quarter moon.
There was no sign of the dog.
Reston craned his neck and watched a jet make its way right through
Orion’s belt in the east. He was so
tired. It was already close to ten o’clock,
and he went back into the trailer, mixed himself a glass of eggnog, and cued up
the Jackie Gleason record on the stereo.
He fell asleep on the couch and was awakened by what he thought were
bells. Reston sat up in the dark of the
trailer and listened. All was silent,
and then he heard voices. He pulled on
his boots and stepped outside the trailer.
It was a gorgeous night, and though Reston knew that voices could carry
a great distance on cold nights in that place, these voices had sounded like they
were right outside his windows. He
could see the Christmas lights twinkling from his neighbor’s yard across the
valley, and could hear laughter from what sounded like a party. The trees at the farthest edge of his fence
line seemed to be nested with glowing corposants. Reston walked around the trailer and there, a hundred yards away
in the pasture, was his dog, sitting attentively before the gray horse.

horse’s big head was hanging directly above the dog’s, steam streaming from its
nostrils. The horse and the dog were
right in the middle of the pasture. It
was an absolutely clear night, and it sounded like the voices were coming from
the pasture. Reston approached the
fence and swore he heard the dog emit what sounded like a hoarse, incredulous
chuckle. The stars were stretched out above the valley, precise, detailed
constellations embroidered across the clear, dusty clutter of the Milky
Way. Reston heard a pop and was
astonished to see modest fireworks of some sort bloom above the valley in the
direction of his neighbor’s house, and he was inexplicably moved to see the dog
and the horse raise their heads at once to marvel at the display.

let out a whoop that snapped out into the cold air and was quickly swallowed
up. And just then the dog looked in Reston’s direction, threw its head back,
and stretched out its front legs and executed a sort of bow of acknowledgement.
Reston watched the dog roll over on its back and begin to writhe happily in the
snow, kicking up a cloud that briefly enveloped both dog and horse. Reston
stood still for what felt like a long time. He closed his eyes briefly and when
he opened them again the whirling snow in the pasture was dissipating in a slow
shower of fine particles that shivered almost like sparks in the moonlight.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.