Nonfiction by Ross Wilcox
As a child, all the dogs in my neighborhood died, including my own. This was in Elk Point, South Dakota, where there are deciduous trees, a Main Street, some houses, and a school. The town is surrounded on three sides by corn and soybean fields, on the other by a bend in the Missouri River. There are less than two thousand people. In my neighborhood, there were six dogs, and they all died in a span of four years starting with Scar and ending with my dog, Shadow.
The Carson’s had a crazy German shepherd named Scar who would chew his own leash until it broke or wiggle his neck until his head slipped out. Then he would run around and terrorize the neighborhood, pissing and shitting on bushes and flowers and attacking other dogs.
The attack on our dog came one summer day while my mom and I were eating lunch. We heard barking from just below the bay window, and we both stood. Scar and our dog, Shadow, an Alaskan malamute, battled in our front yard, snarling and snapping their jaws, going for the jugular. Blood streaks glistened on both their coats.
Gerald Carson, a round, portly man, appeared suddenly on the fringes of the canine battle. My mom gasped as Gerald threw himself in between the dogs, wrapping his arms around Scar’s neck and pinning him against the ground like the phony wrestlers I watched on television in the 90’s. He strapped a leash around Scar’s neck and pulled him away, marched back to his house with a streak of dog slobber across his back.
The Carsons’ had Scar put down a few weeks later – lethal injection, execution style. After Scar was put to death, Gerald told my parents one evening in our kitchen, “Had to put him down. Just caused too much trouble.” I had never interacted with Scar, had only seen him unsuccessfully try to fight Shadow to the death. I didn’t feel much in the way of symSamhy at Scar’s passing, especially since the Carson’s immediately got a new dog, a droopy Basset hound named Sadie. It was like they traded in a car. They loved Sadie dearly. Her worst offense was a whiny, high-pitched howl.
Later that fall, another dog died. His name was Max, and he was a puffy brown Pomeranian who belonged to an older couple named Betty and Winston Salem. After fifty years of marriage, they hated each other’s guts. Winston drank himself silly each night up at Pace’s, our town’s sole bar. Betty, a larger woman with a golden-colored perm and oversized bifocals, would mow the lawn on an orange rider once a week. The quintessential Winston anecdote goes like this: Winston is up at Pace’s. Betty calls and asks the bartender to put Winston on. Winston refuses. So Betty asks the bartender to tell Winston to come home for supper. The bartender relays the message and again Winston refuses. The bartender asks, “Why not?” Winston points at the phone and says, “Would you go home to that?”
Each evening at dusk, Winston or Betty would let Max out to pee. It was more entertaining if it was Winston. I remember him always wearing a blue workmen’s jumpsuit and a grubby Southeast Farmers Coop hat. The dog would whiz and then run around the yard like a rabbit, zig-zagging aimlessly. Winston would scream over and over, “Damn it, Max! Get yer ass over here!” But Max would only run in circles, sometimes dashing past his owner. Once, I saw Winston try to grab at the little dog as he blew past. He fell face-first into his yard.
Despite their differences, Betty and Winston loved Max. Perhaps the only true pleasure Winston derived in his angry life came from feeding Max doggie treats. He loved doing it so much that Max gained significant weight, ballooning into a puffy little basketball. Eventually, Betty put her foot down, restricting the amount of treats Winston could feed him.
The story of Max’s death was told to me by Emily Wagner, a neighborhood girl who told it to me, my brother, Scott Hull, and Shelly Keller one night under a streetlamp in the alley behind our house. Emily had heard it from her mom, who had turn heard it from a friend. Now, Winston kept the package of doggie treats in the pocket of a jacket he hung in his garage. Apparently one day Max got into the garage and managed to leap high enough to knock the package of doggie treats free from the jacket. He then proceeded to eat the entire package, which was almost full. The Salem’s found him there hours later, lying on his side, bloated, a pool of dried vomit at his mouth.
Death became more tangible with Max’s passing. I had touched that dog, petted his puffy coat, felt his soft little tongue lick my fingers. In the days that followed, as I scratched Shadow’s head and neck and back and watched his tail wag and his brown eyes gaze at me, I wondered when his time would come, wondered, with my limited arithmetic, by how many years I would inevitably outlive him.
Several months passed. The symbiotic harmony of my life with Shadow returned. As a bushy-haired Malamute, Shadow would, in the frigid drafts of a Midwestern blizzard, curl up in the snow like it was his bed, conceal his face with his tail, and take a nap. Around Christmas, my brother and I tied a rope from Shadow’s leash to a toboggan, hoping he would pull us. “Mush!” we yelled. But Shadow didn’t move. He stood wagging his tail, his tongue dangling, his brown eyes bright and hopeful.
The following summer, the time came for Charlie, a beautiful Chesapeake Bay retriever who belonged to Doug Ellis. Doug was a seasoned hunter, made regular weekend trips up to Aberdeen, the self-proclaimed pheasant hunting capital of the world (so far as I know, South Dakota is the only state that shoots and eats its state bird). Doug kept Charlie in a kennel in his back yard, but most nights he’d let him out to run. After a half hour or so, Doug would call Charlie over and he’d sit there on his stoop, petting the dog for another ten minutes.
Charlie was already old when I was a boy, and the neighborhood watched as Charlie began to grow senile. Whereas before Charlie was the most obedient dog anyone had ever met, he gradually began disobeying Doug’s commands. For example, Charlie stopped coming when Doug called him. Instead, he’d continue to dash about the yard and the street, even coming over into our yard and peeing on our bushes. Doug took to hollering at Charlie the way Winston had hollered at Max.
It got worse. Charlie’s sight deteriorated and he sat in the middle of the street, oblivious to passing cars. But people were polite in our town. They knew who Doug was, knew he was the head janitor at the school. They braked, waved at Doug as Doug ran out in the street and dragged Charlie back, apologizing to the motorists.
Eventually, Charlie went completely blind. After that, he gave up. He laid in his kennel all day, lost interest in walking about in the evenings. Sometimes I’d hear him whine from across the street while no one was around and I’d wonder what was going through his dog brain. Did he pine for his youth, the days when he could chase pheasants and rip apart field mice? Did he wish that, just one last time, he could trace the scent of some other dog’s urine to some bush, lift his leg triumphantly and pee over it, reclaiming the territory? It wasn’t long before Charlie quit eating and Doug had to do something about the situation.
Not wanting to take him to the vet, Doug gathered Charlie in his arms and set him in the passenger seat of his pickup. He drove the dog outside of town to what Doug said was Charlie’s favorite hunting spot alongside the Missouri River.
Together, Doug and Charlie stood beneath the afternoon sun, man and dog, the muddy river current flowing in front of them. Doug said Charlie panted the way he used to, in the signature way Chesapeake Bay retrievers are said to smile. Doug petted Charlie one last time, scratched his head.
Then he shot him between the eyes with a .22 pistol.
Doug was broken up for several months after that. He’d still come out and sit at his stoop, alone now. Often, I’d see his head buried in his hands. Cars passed by, and he didn’t look up.
That summer, I scratched Shadow’s head and back and belly more than ever, for twenty minutes at a time, to the point that he’d topple to the ground in sensuous bliss. His eyes glossed over and, if I hit the sweet spot at the center of his chest, his leg would jerk frantically in pleasure, as if he were pedaling. Sometimes at supper I’d suddenly jump up and look out the bay window, making sure Shadow was still there, still moving, still breathing.
In the next year, we lost Bud, the yellow lab who belonged to the Farrows’. He got old, had cancer. And there was Norman and Lilly, the little rescue Boston terriers who belonged to the O’Briens. They died of old age, peacefully drifting off in their sleep.
And there was of course my dog.
Shadow had thick, bushy black fur that stood off his body like a lion’s mane. He joined our family before we had a porch, which means that, in a sense, we built his dying place. Or at least my parents paid for it to be built by Sam Osweiler.
As a boy, I walked to school in the mornings. You could do that in our town, walk to school as a child unaccompanied by adults. The school was only six blocks from our house, and it took me about ten minutes to get there. Each morning, I’d step outside the door, and Shadow would emerge from under the porch where he slept. I would pet him for several minutes. And I would pet him when I got home. Of course, one morning he didn’t come out, which is why I’m remembering.
I crouched down, my backpack bunching up onto my shoulders, and peered underneath the porch. He lay there on his side. I couldn’t see him very well. Ironically, he was obscured by shadows.
I called his name and he didn’t move. I did it again. Then I tugged on his leash. He drug just a little, a scraping sound. Dead weight.
It’s weird at age ten, not really knowing much about death, but knowing it when you see it, tugging on it, hearing it scratch against the ground, lifting, however briefly, its thick mass in your hands.
I didn’t know what to do. So I called my dad. Then I walked to school.
I don’t know why I didn’t cry. Instead, I kept to myself for two weeks, stayed quiet. All I could think about was my dog lying on his side, the resistance I felt when I tugged on his leash, the sound of his body scraping against the ground.
My dad buried Shadow out on my grandmother’s farmland, covered him with dirt. He’s decomposed now – not that I’ve gone and checked.
I never got a good look at Shadow’s dead body, and we never knew for sure how he died. In the last year of his life, we’d begun letting him off his leash at night. He’d run for an hour or so, then return home. My dad figured Shadow had drank anti-freeze.
But it wasn’t just the dogs who died in my neighborhood. The people started to go, too. Edna Bradbury went. But it wasn’t a tragedy. She was ninety-four. I remember the elegant velvet hats she wore to church. Then there was Annie Trevor. She smoked forever, had tubes stuffed up her nostrils and carted along an oxygen tank in her twilight years.
Greg Welsh: heart attack. Debra Hunsacker: cancer. Lisa Carson: suicide because she couldn’t stand the burning pain of MS.
People. Dogs. They started to blur together in my mind. New people moved into our neighborhood: the La Croixs, the Framptons. People got new dogs. Sadie, for example. We got a Manchester terrier named Scout from the Humane Society in Sioux Falls. I picked him out as a Christmas present two years after Shadow’s death. He’s dead now, has been for years: liver cancer.
But of all the deaths in my neighborhood, the story of Winston’s was different. It came at a time when I was old enough to understand. Somewhat ironically, Winston would, a few years after Max’s death, also die in that same garage, not ten feet from Max. He was going to run an errand, was walking around his truck to the driver’s side when he had a heart attack. He fell onto the hood of his truck before thudding against the ground. Betty found him there a few hours later, which necessarily raised the question in my mind: who would be there to find Betty when she collapsed? Or, at the very least, would there be someone to put Betty out of her misery, a Doug Ellis to her Charlie?
Surely in today’s world there is someone for everyone’s dead or dying body, someone to find you, the way I found Shadow that morning under the porch. Someone to tug at your leash a bit, just to feel the weight of you, whatever there is left.
Ross Wilcox is a PhD student at the University North Texas. His work has appeared recently in The Carolina Quarterly, Nashville Review, Pembroke Magazine, and is forthcoming in Harpur Palate and The Adirondack Review. He lives in Fort Worth with his wife and two cats.