The boy sat on the bare ground. His hand gripped a small block of wood, and he pushed it forward, furrowing the dirt. He pulled it back making a growly sound like the exhaust of his grandfather’s black pickup, a Ford, because that is all he would buy. His tractor was also a Ford, light gray with red lettering. Forward and backward, the boy made a toy road in the dirt.
The boy looked up when the screen door from the kitchen sang against its rusty spring and swung open. The old man came out wiping his hands on the front of his denim coveralls. He took down a straw hat from a peg in a porch post, and, descending the steps into the bright sun, put on the hat. The boy knew his grandfather was heading to the barn where it sat on a low hill a quarter-mile away across an open pasture of low, brown grass. The few cows he farmed were fenced in a lower pasture.
It had not rained in a long spell. Pale dust powdered the boy’s skin and the knees of his jeans were dirty. He didn’t have on a shirt or shoes. His grandmother said yesterday he needed a haircut so she could see his face better. “Those blue eyes of yours,” she had said.
If his grandfather did not straddle and crank the tractor there in the shade of the big water oak, the boy would follow a few steps behind on the hardworn path that marked its winding way across the pasture. The old man did not talk much, but the boy could read his eyes.
The sun pinched the boy’s shoulders. Up ahead as they drew near, the rough-sawn oak planks of the barn were unpainted and bleached gray-white, and its tin roof was rusty except for five new panels put on last year. A fat black wasp buzzed around his grandfather’s head as he walked. He paid it no mind, once telling the boy he had an agreement with them. “I won’t bother them, if they don’t bother me.” When the wasp left the old man’s company and instead circled the boy, neither did he swat at it, nor flinch, only switched his eyes left and right and up and down as it maneuvered around him. When the wasp flew away, the boy relaxed his shoulders and picked up his pace.
The old man stepped into the cool dark of the barn’s broad opening, lacking a gate or door. The boy was close behind. “What’re you gonna do, ‘Pa?” The sweet smell of hay from the loft and feed corn from the crib rode on dust motes in sunlight slanting in between cracks in the wall planks.
“Tote some water for the horse. Had to put her up ‘til I fix the fence. Get to that before dark, I reckon.”
His grandfather reached for a 3-gallon galvanized steel bucket hanging by its bail from a hook screwed into a fence post between stalls situated two on this side of the barn and two on the other side, across the aisle. The dull brass spigot was mounted just underneath the bucket, and as it swung free of the hook, a popsicle-green tree frog sprang from the bucket onto a fence board.
“Well, look here,” the old man said to no one. He reached the toe of his boot and with it dragged a flat pan from two feet away on the ground to underneath the spigot and turned on the water. He ran it half-full. With the bucket still in his left hand, the boy’s grandfather reached out his right hand, slowly-slowly, toward the tree frog. His fingers were extended. He stopped six inches from the frog and waited.
The boy could see the little frog’s eyes. They seemed to be looking at the fingers there before it. Its head turned slightly away, and the boy thought this was a signal the tree frog was about to jump away. The horse sputtered its lips and at the same time the frog leaped into the old man’s hand.
The boy did not move. He held his breath and followed his grandfather’s hand as he slowly-slowly lowered it to the edge of the water pan. The tree frog was the size of his grandfather’s thumb. And it raised its body and crawled awkwardly onto the rim of the water pan.
The old man straightened his back and ran water into his bucket. The boy watched his grandfather’s back, how the straps of the bib coveralls were loose across his shoulders, how his sun-darkened arms seemed small inside the short sleeves of his brown shirt. And he wondered did the tree frog think his ‘Pa might be Jesus.