Great Depression, middle o’ nowhere, West Texas, times are hard and waste is a sin. Don’t flinch, nor judge too hard, for their doings were for their time.
Dogs dropping litters at a rate they’d outnumber the cattle, so O.D. Johnson did like it was done, stuffed the litter in a burlap sack, twine knot the top, chunked them in the pond.
Had O. D. stayed half a minute he’d have seen one survivor break top water, figuring out dog swimming like his life depended on it…
She Named The Dog Earl
Addie came walking barefoot, wearing a flour sack dress, one pocket on the pelvis. In that pocket was a brick of a biscuit from day before yesterday.
Thought it was a little turtle, there in the ditch, until it made a puppy sound. First words out of her mouth, “You get any uglier you’d be almos’ purty!” Reached in her pocket, snapped off a piece of biscuit. And that was that.
Grow he did, but never outgrew ugly. Earl was stretchy lean, big feet, big white teeth showing all the better inside that black mouth, head looked like a box for holding things that you didn’t care much about. Full grown, he was a dog you double looked at.
As for disposition, ask Mrs. Adams and Sister Brand, the preacher’s wife, who came by to talk to Addie, about scriptures, recipes, and things old women tell unmarried young women, who are carrying their first child. They could saunter right up the porch steps, right past Earl, and the dog wouldn’t do more than a one-two with the tail, and then set his head down on his paw and watch the road.
But once Addie had that baby Earl got to getting to be a different kind of dog.
Addie had a name in mind, a tender, meant something name, but since the baby was sickly, flip-a-coin from the get-go, she kept it to herself, for once it was spoke, it was took.
Earl took an attachment to the child. Addie in one room, child in another, but never alone. Child at breast, look down, there was Earl, near, ears perked, head pointed towards the door.
When the weather was ripe she’d fix a little pallet on the porch for the baby. Give it the teat, belly full and head sleepy floppy, she’d settle her child on a quilt just outside the screen door, then be about her doings, knowing that Earl was on duty.
Occasionally she’d hear him growl. Hen near the steps, rooster foolishness, a cat too near, one growl and gitting was soon got.
Company maybe twice a week, most times someone on horseback, as they neared Earl would stand, place himself between the baby and the arrival. He’d bark, once, twice, stop once Addie came onto the porch. Sometimes she’d squeal happy noises to the dearly welcomed. Sometimes she’d put her hands on her hips, uncertain of the call. Whether friend or stranger, Earl kept his body between them and the child, and only stepped aside when Addie reached for the child.
Upon That Certain Day
North wind in the night had swept out the sticky. It was a day for smiling. Addie milked the cow, gathered eggs, pumped water, stuck wood in the stove and slapped bacon in the skillet.
Happy mornings, she’d do like her grandmother did, talk to Jesus over black coffee. “Thankee, thankee, for all our many blessings,” she’d say, then slap a rag at flies. She gave the 23rd Psalm a stab, off to a good start with “Yea tho I walk through the valley,” and then start making up nice words that fit the mood.
Earl was dozing on the porch near the baby on the pallet. A fly landed on his ear, he flicked, and then heard a sound. Off there, a cloud of dust, hiding a Ford coming this way. Earl stood.
When Abbie came through the screen door the Ford was still a hundred yards away, a black hood in a cloud of dust. She glanced to her right. Seeing Earl standing over the sleeping baby, four legs planted over the child like pillars on a castle, something he’d never done, she went back inside the house for the shotgun.
O.D. Come To Call
“You kind of disappeared.”
“You’d know why.”
“Meeting friends with a shotgun ain’t much for hospitality,” he said.
“We ain’t friends.”
O. D. put one leg on the first step. He took that leg off. It wasn’t the shotgun, it was the look on that dog. “I see you got a baby, Addie.”
She lowered the shotgun, crotch high.
He put his foot on the step again. Earl hunched his back, showed teeth. O. D. stepped back off.
“I ain’t scared of that shotgun,” he told Addie. “You ain’t the kind to shoot.”
“You’re scared of this dog,” she said. She looked down at Earl, seeing him fresh, like dog become wolf. She lowered her shotgun. “I’m square dealing with you, O.D., you brought something out in him I ain’t never seen. I’m curious if you’ve noticed what’s obvious.”
“He ain’t barked.” O.D. nodded. “He’s got the fire, O.D. You brung it out in him.”
“I ain’t scared o’ no dog.”
“Yeah you are. Look at him.” O.D. didn’t need to be told. “This dog ain’t parade. This dog is battle.”
Earl stepped forward. One paw, moving like a cat, to not wake the baby. His head was low, eyes cold black, and his teeth were many. He took another step.
O.D. stepped back. He glanced behind him, measuring the distance to the Ford.
Earl walked O.D. to his car. Step by step, a big man, walking backwards, afraid of falling, one hand behind him, waiting to touch car metal.
When O.D. was inside his Ford Abbie came down the walkway. “You remember how to get home, O.D.?” He nodded. “You remember how to forget where I live?” He just stared.
He was thinking about thinking about something. Now inside his Ford, hands on the wheel, foot ready to mash on the starter button, he was open to being brave again. Just as his mouth was about to say something provoking, Earl rose on hind legs, and that big box head dog head came to the car window, put them black eyes on O.D., let out one, low, long, growl, which put a tingle in his back, got him reminded of his grandfather’s advice from a stretch in the Huntsville joint…Beware the quiet ones.
“Best take me serious, O.D.,” she said. “You come back out here again, I’m gonna take it that you’re wanting to visit the pond.”
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This edition of Uncle P’s Bedtime Stories is brought to you by Eighty-one. It might surprise many that most of the writing Uncle P did before these Bedtime Stories was fiction.
With a little encouragement he might do this again. Uncle P can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Other Bedtime Stories can be found on the Eighty-one Facebook page.