The Country Way
By Danielle Chapman
Untitled (2007), by Marlo Pascual. Courtesy of the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York
Sketches of Tennessee
The Small House
“The caretaker’s residence is a small tin, gable roofed, board and batten cottage, with shed roofs over an open side porch to the south, entry porch to the east, and an addition to the north,” reads the application for historic status, with apparent innocence. A few years before he died, my grandfather nominated our family’s property in Fairfield, Tennessee—once a tavern at the edge of the frontier, bought by his great-grandfather around 1840—to be added to the National Register of Historic Places as the “Heidt Tavern–Singleton House.” It was as if by giving the place an official name that none of us had ever used, Papa could protect it from our misunderstandings of history. This honor left us with a plaque and the inconvenience of being inhibited from making renovations to two sagging tinderboxes, the larger of which mildly imperils our lives when we camp out in it for a couple of weeks each summer. (No one has properly lived in the “big house” since the Depression.) I might have been offended if I hadn’t inherited Papa’s terror that Fairfield—the idyll of our childhoods, sixty years apart—might change, and the attendant compulsion to re-create it exactly as it was.
The only other time I ever heard Frank and Irma (some names have been changed to preserve privacy) referred to as “caretakers” was by Hortense Cooper, widow of Prentice Cooper, the former governor of Tennessee. My grandparents—who, beyond Fairfield, were known as General L. F. Chapman Jr., the former commandant of the Marine Corps, and Emily Donelson Walton Ford Chapman, descendant of the Donelsons who founded Nashville—led Hortense, their fellow dignitary, to the place under the clothesline where we all sat with our flyswatters in the afternoons. The breeziest spot in the backyard, its only drawback was its proximity to Jim Wesley’s pasture, which, besides the flies, offered an aromatic bouquet that Irma poetically described as “three kinds of shit: cow shit, pig shit, and chicken shit.” Hortense must have felt disoriented and really couldn’t be blamed when she turned to the toothless woman slunk into an aqua tube top next to her and inquired, “Do y’all enjoy being caretakers here?” Forever afterward Irma referred to Hortense as “that old heifer” and barricaded herself inside whenever she came to visit, which wasn’t often.
It’s hard to overestimate the violence with which the current state of the small house—cocooned in vines, used as a fishing shed by people who’d never dream of actually living there—would make Irma turn in her grave. Irma didn’t just live in that place; she inhabited it with the passion of a voodoo priestess, particularly after Frank died. More than a decade after her death, the walls still leach her high-octane nicotine, but the rooms of buckled paneling and uneven linoleum, always lit up like a blister when she was in them, have dried to timber, revealing their meanness. Without Irma, and without her things—photos of her great-great-nieces and -nephews, the “little blue-eyed devils” whom Irma adored with the same vehemence she hated most everything else; her unlikely collection of befrocked, porcelain-faced dolls that covered the bed where she and Frank slept, before she moved to the velour recliner; the TV’s permanent glow—the house appears a shameful place in which to keep somebody.
Frank and Irma were what Papa called the salt of the earth, a phrase that was intended to spin their less attractive qualities as virtues and explain or justify our relation to them. They’d lived in the small house, which had once been the kitchen to the big house (removed a few yards from it to prevent fires), for forty years or so. Great-Granddad, Papa’s father, had recruited them as both help and company after the death of his wife, Clare, who’d grown up in the big house before her father—Robert, a Civil War veteran who got his leg shot off at Murfreesboro—sold off the surrounding farm and moved to Shelbyville to become clerk of the County Court. Before they met Great-Granddad, Frank and Irma had been living in a bona fide shack that floated on a mud skid among the cattle troughs to the left of our property. Jim Wesley boarded his field hands there, and in my time, only the most down-and-out, pot-bellied, dirt-faced, drunken louts had occupied it. It was impossible to imagine Frank and Irma in such circumstances, for they were almost like members of the family. Almost. When the weather was warm enough, they lived in the side bedroom of the big house (which had no insulation), moving to the small house when they needed heat, or when we got to town each June. Then at some point they moved over there permanently, leaving behind only their deep freeze, which they kept stocked with walleye, cigarette cartons, and other provisions that we were meant to keep our hands off.
They’d met at the county fair when Frank was working Old Man Dwyer’s farm and Irma was a cook at the Fairfield schoolhouse. He’d walked past her carrying a brown-bagged bottle and slurred, “Foller me, chicken, I’m full of corn.” “I been follerin’ him ever since,” she’d conclude when telling this story, as if it were her life’s only piece of luck. Their romance had occurred in an inconceivable past where they rented cabins on a lake and caught the ferocious, fanged fish that were mounted on boards above their couch—a time, presumably, before Irma’s skin had withered into one concentric wrinkle tumored by marble-sized blackheads and before she spent her days arthritically locked into a lawn chair, sucking down Winstons, drinking sweet tea made with “sulfur water,” and chewing her cud. Even in this state, Irma vowed to wring the neck of any hussy who looked sideways at Frank—and was convinced that plenty did, maybe because of the bumper sticker on his pickup that read I BRAKE FOR BLONDES, BRUNETTES, AND REDHEADS.
In belted work pants, a crushed cap, and mesh shoes, with his long, filed fingernails pincered around a butt-end, Frank was debonair in a way that no one could explain or deny, despite the fact that he was almost as awful-looking as Irma. All of us, even Nana, were smitten with him, for he possessed that talent for mischief that is generally irresistible to protected women. Since my father—Papa and Nana’s son—had died, my mother and I had been taken in by the Marine Corps–style standards of safety and security that ruled all of Papa’s affairs. Frank, on the other hand, liked things a little bit evil. My mornings were consumed by trying to make him laugh, nuzzling his grizzle-stache, smashing my face into his collar’s red-root-cratered triangle, grappling his chin open to confirm the six-count of his teeth until he hippo-chomped me without so much as smirking. I always wanted him on my team when we played croquet, for he was ruthless and wouldn’t hesitate to one-handedly thwack his opponent’s ball into the rotted meal of a tree stump or the riverbank’s marshy boondocks, laughing like Jehoshaphat once he’d inflicted the damage, even if his opponent was only seven years old.
The year after Frank died, Irma saw his ghost every night. She sleepwalked in circles around the house, waking up half dressed in the middle of the yard enough times that she had to get her sister Florine to come lock the screen doors from the outside at night so that she wouldn’t wake up neck-high in the river and remember too late that she didn’t know how to swim. She hunkered down into the paranoia that was the natural extension of her self, which the buffer of human companionship had kept at bay. She’d held on to Frank’s shotguns and boasted that if anyone crept up on the place at night, she’d shoot first and ask questions later. Even during the day she became wary of the wide yard, which she’d always contended was the most beautiful spot on earth (in defense of the fact that she’d never traveled farther than the next county). She sat inside with the doors locked, talking on the phone to Alice Buford, her friend and fellow shut-in at the end of the road (“Yeah-lo,” began the conversation from Irma’s end. “Huh-nh.” “Well, durn.” “Huh-nh.” “Durn.” “Alright.” “Bye.”), and watching TV. From the moment she woke up, the television burned with the soap operas that she followed for decades, until one of the characters committed some hatefulness she couldn’t forgive.
She often came over to our house at dinnertime, though she wouldn’t eat, and sat silently at the end of the table as if it were a particularly unpleasant requirement of her parole. If we were successful in goading her into sampling one of the dishes my mom or uncle had spent the afternoon preparing, her response was always the same: “’Salright.” This verdict resulted in predictable laughter, and Papa liked to say that “’Salright” was Irma’s highest form of praise, but in the privacy of her own home I’d heard her smack her lips over peanut butter logs and Popeyes fried chicken livers and declare, “Durn, them things is good.” She usually consented to being taken out for dinner if we were going to Granny Fishes’ House or the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, dressing up in polyester shorts, sometimes even putting in her dentures for a bizarre effect and looking almost lively. But afterward she always pitched herself into the car as if off a gangplank and muttered, “Well, thanks for makin’ me miserble.”
From the time I was about ten years old, my mother and I put in our time by visiting with Irma for an hour or two every day. We’d bring her the Enquirer and Star and try to cheer her up by pointing out the most salacious stories and the home remedies for arthritis. Sometimes she’d enlist me to rub her back, and I’d perch monkeylike on the back of the couch, kneading her knots as she growled, “I could hug yer neck fer that.” My imitations of people could make her chuckle her rapid, throaty laugh until she had to take off her glasses and wipe the tears from her eyes and warn me to stop. For these acts, and simply because she’d known me since I was a baby and I was therefore in some sense hers, she loved me with her signature ferocity. So it pains me to think of how it must have hurt when I simply stopped coming over. For me, it was mostly a practical matter. The smoke-stink that sank into your clothes after being in there for only five minutes couldn’t be gotten out without a wash, and there’s no washing machine in Fairfield. Also I’d become protective of my time and didn’t want to waste it on As the World Turns.
The practical hazards of being on Irma’s territory were no match for the moral ones, however. If the local news came on while I was there and it happened to feature a segment about a black person, she’d snarl, “I ain’t gonna listen to ’em bawl about niggers murdering each other in Nashville” and mash the mute button. If the news was closer to home, her outrage and her fear ratcheted up in direct proportion to how much she had lost her grip on the facts. She often seemed to have received top-secret missives about how black men were marauding the Kroger’s parking lot in Shelbyville, lying in wait to rape eighty-year-old women on the way to their cars. The hysteria that crackled through her when relating such tales was the closest that Irma got to religion. (She’d lost any faith she’d entertained twenty years before, when the Church of Christ pastor came around to personally invite everyone in town to his revival, except for Frank and her, because he thought they were just “tenants.”) She’d always been an unapologetic racist, though when I was younger, it had simply seemed like another of her bad habits. Then, suddenly, the time came when all that I found objectionable about Irma outweighed my affection for her.
By the time I was in college and had become obsessed with questions of race and justice, her tirades had begun to warp the dank, close space of her house as if pressurizing time and space, forcing me to see it from outside. It was as if I’d worn through my inherited Southern geniality, that self-absolving optimism that allowed Papa to call Frank his “best friend” a hundred years after Papa’s grandfather had given the same label to his slave. Now, when Irma said the N-word, it no longer sounded like an embarrassing expletive that was to be expected of someone like her; now, it scratched against the warped walls like the fingernails of a corpse against a coffin we had built. It trumped everything else. The word was central to Irma’s ugliness and her dignity, both of which she clung to until the end in the same way she hoarded her food and her family and her paltry belongings, in the secrecy of a place we couldn’t touch even if, by law, we owned it.
A Pickled Egg
The towns outside Fairfield drone a wounded silence, every morning like the morning after an argument that’s come to blows. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been there in the summer when the heat flattens all life into a vibration, as if a cast-iron skillet has just clanged down overhead. It’s an abuse in which the businesses participate—the Kroger’s and Piggly Wiggly camping out near the two-lane highway, Walmart and Lowe’s all the way to the interstate, as if escaping the point of impact somewhere downtown where the statue of a local Confederate hero stands like Ozymandias in the center of an empty square. Shattered signs outside the vacant barbershop, millinery, diner, and pharmacy still advertise dollar-fifty shaves, Sunday tea hats, biscuits ’n’ gravy, and Epsom salts—the WHITES ONLY addendums gone only under threat of judicial intervention. The ancestors who might have grieved the passing of such a South have all passed away themselves. Only Cousin William, Nana’s first cousin and my last link to those dead ideals, still stands like one final bulwark of chatter against the inevitable.
Eighty years old, never married, William was once a jolly egg of a man in plaid shirtsleeves with a huge round face as childlike as Howdy Doody’s. Now a fragile luminosity shines through his gin-blossomed features, his genteel drawl becoming a giddy falsetto whenever he gets worked up, as when he tells his story—as he always does—about the time he shot Mrs. Ivy Winterson through a hole in the fence with a BB gun while she was bending over to tend her peas. (“‘WHOOP!’ she screamed, ‘WHOOP!’ and jumped straight up in the air. My mother always said that was the maddest white woman she’d ever seen!”) Like many Southern men of his generation, William seems to have modeled his boyhood after Tom Sawyer’s; in his unique fashion, he’s continued to ride Tom’s example into old age.
He still lives in his parents’ stone home behind the square in a small town an hour’s drive from Fairfield, where his father was once the town dentist and Aunt Heddie won the pie-baking contests, where the poplars and oaks cast a civilized shade on the large but tasteful houses. He hasn’t moved anything, not even a picture frame, since his mother died, though he’s stacked his own adult life neatly, if precipitously, around it. His life is his collections: World War II–era ephemera; classic movies and opera DVDs; vintage pinup-girl posters; books about dinosaurs, airplanes, cars, and UFOs (he once saw one, in the shape of a Greyhound bus, flying over the liquor store); and, alas, military paraphernalia. He collects gas masks and spy goggles, ration kits and B&M canned brown bread, but it’s hard to pay much attention to anything but the guns. He has hundreds of them—from World War I Berettas to pocket-sized spy revolvers to a Vietnam-era AK-47. Before he had his leg amputated due to diabetes (one too many Denny’s cherry pies or bottles of Jack Daniel’s, the doctor said), he’d sometimes take them to the firing range with his buddies who meet outside the gun shop every Wednesday. Now the guns are stacked up on the piano stools and settees like everything else, all but the largest ones—the semiautomatic assault weapons—which lean against the walls of the dining room.
If this arsenal was assembled in the name of evil, its target remains undeclared. (Apparently, despite his stockpile, twenty-first century American politics have left William unfazed.) William’s only sworn enemies are the neighborhood boys who knock the heads off Aunt Heddie’s marigolds. For them, he tells us, he has conceived an ambush that involves booby-trapping the screen porch of his family home with a load of Osage oranges.
Yet, another memory insinuates itself, from the time before William’s 1960 baby-blue Mercury had been put on blocks and ensnared in the overgrowth from Aunt Heddie’s garden—when, for one Sunday afternoon each summer, he’d get gussied up and sail over to visit us in Fairfield in a clean shirt and crisply brimmed hat reminiscent of his days as a traveling salesman. He always came bearing a load of meticulously wrapped gifts for the ladies—Scarlett O’Hara dolls, porcelain music boxes, The Avengers on VHS—and a satchel of war booty for the men: serrated machetes in leather holsters, limited-edition models of the B-2 bomber, enormously phallic steel-bodied flashlights fashioned for the apocalypse. On this particular visit we sat out in the yard under the shade trees as usual, drinking iced tea and listening to William’s stories warble through the rush of the river until it was time for him to dole out the gifts. Assuming a rictus grin—this was already something I, at fifteen, endured rather than enjoyed—I peeled back my pink carnation giftwrap to find a commemorative edition of The Birth of a Nation, its infamous illustration of a triumphant hooded knight of the Ku Klux Klan rearing up on a black stallion.
“It’s rated one of the best movies ever made,” William began in his rapid, winded stutter. “It’s terrible what they’ve done to it; it’s just the saddest thing in the world. Even Roger Ebert rates it in his top one hundred, you know. It was the first real big-budget movie and the model for what movies are today, but now people think it’s some awful racist thing. The Klan didn’t used to be full of the trashiness it is now, you know; they used to be knights charged with upholding the virtue of Southern women. It just breaks my heart. People think that Nathan Bedford Forrest was some kind of monster, and they don’t know a thing about him. You know, I was down in Memphis where there’s a statue of him over his grave—he was a very handsome fellow with a great big beard—but the damned niggers tore it to pieces. I’ve never seen anything so pitiful in my life.”
Then, the silence. The bafflement of my connection to this hatred, which persists like some sort of ineradicable genetic disease, showing up even in children, or childlike men. It was in Aunt Heddie’s dining room, in the days before its ominous transformation, that I’m said to have uttered my first sentence, a long string of babbles that sounded exactly like That’s the best fried chicken I ever tasted in my life. This was considered hilarious not only because I was six months old but also because the chicken had been prepared by Aunt Heddie’s cook, Tookie, whose very name was considered a sort of punchline. (Cue the fond condescending chuckles as Tookie—her real name unknown—smiles inscrutably before banging back through the kitchen door.) For people with Southern roots, the question of culpability often comes down to the fact of having been too young to know what we were laughing at, even as it shaped the most primal stories of who we are. Yet when William was going on about Forrest’s monument, I was no longer too young to tell him why I thought it deserved to be vandalized, or worse. So why didn’t I? Cowardice, maybe. Or maybe, even then, I sensed the abyss between our versions of reality, and how absurd it would be to toss my outrage at it.
Every year, after we put in our visit, we drive away into a muteness that won’t be pierced for a year, or two, or three, by any communication but the grade-school cursive Love, Cousin William on the notecards that hang from the tins of cheese straws and candy-coated pecans he sends at Christmas. I know I’ll eat them, savoring the residue of artery-clogging guilt they leave, but I won’t write a thank-you or think to call and inquire about his health during the year. I’ll merely brood, wondering if, by failing in my manners, I share some of the responsibility for his unsettling solitude.
As we drive away, William’s house looms up behind us, a fortress of nostalgia. His version of the South is so stereotypical that it’s hard to believe it’s real, his eccentricity so true to fiction that it must be some kind of farce. Our incredulity foments our own inventions. When I was a teenager we decided that when William came home from World War II—having arrived too late to see any real action—he found that his best friend had married his girl, and the shock of this betrayal forever arrested his development. Another theory, most tossed about among us Northern visitors in the late 1990s: Cousin William’s next-door neighbor and best friend, Thomas, a reporter for a local paper and a gourmet cook who served spiked mint iced tea on his elegantly inlaid patio, had really been William’s partner, and after Thomas’s death William was never the same. The latest: he must have Asperger’s.
We arrive at this cool diagnosis as we pull the rental car into the gas station just outside of town. My Uncle Fred—my father’s brother, the only other person alive who shares these inherited passions and burdens—wants a pickled egg. The lip-pierced attendant ladles it to the top of the purple brine like some kind of neon ganglion: bizarrely colorful, equal parts sweet and bitter, and doomed to culinary opprobrium. He holds it up and dares me to take a bite, but I just stare, terrified of what still might hatch from it.
A Country Dog
The only call that we were absolutely required to pay when we were in Fairfield was to Cora Gravett, who was the last living proof that the Fairfield of Papa’s memory had existed. When Papa was three years old, Great-Granddad had quit his preaching job in St. Augustine and driven his little family north on a just-forged highway in their Model T Ford, to Fairfield. For three years, they’d lived in the big house with Papa’s aging Confederate grandparents and helped them farm the small plot they still owned. It was Papa’s first impression of “real country life,” and it was indelible.
Cora still lived at the crossroads in the greenhouse glow of her aloe vera plants, surrounded by photographs of her one hundred and five great-grandchildren. All buxom give under a flowered housecoat, she’d once been Papa’s babysitter and, as he liked to tell her when she was eighty-five and he was seventy-four, the prettiest girl in town, resulting in a girlish trill of laughter that made her chin’s gelatin quiver, her dentures click, and her round spectacles embed themselves in the skin around her eyes, one of which would wink indulgently whenever I looked in her direction. Though Papa had left Fairfield long before and become a big man in Washington, he always insisted that it was “good country people” like Cora who had made him the man he was.
Cora’s father had owned the general store; its charred cinder-block shell, spray-painted LARRY’S from a brief incarnation as an auto-body shop, still gaped from her front yard’s gravel rim. Papa remembered being sent to the store for eggs, holding them each up to a candle to make sure none contained the clot of a fertilized chick. He also remembered Cora’s grandfather, who was kept in a giant bell-shaped cage, the bars of which he constantly rattled with his steel water mug; in his stubborn defense of all things Fairfield, Papa insisted that this was a perfectly humane, if somewhat countrified, solution to the problem of a “halfwit” relative.
Unfortunately, among Fairfield’s general population—the people who moved in and out of the tiny trailers teetering on blocks among car carcasses at various points along the road—neither solutions, nor the means to procure them, had progressed much in the intervening half century. Nelly was the only one whose name we knew; she lived in a rotten log cabin halfway up the hill and sat rocking on the front porch all day long next to her son—a six-foot-tall, middle-aged man who squatted mutely on the floor in a plaid shirt and overalls, his long head wobbled to the side so that his eyes rolled heavenward and his tongue lolled out. “Yer gonna get hot,” Nelly would yell cheerfully whenever my mother went past for a jog, Papa trailing her in his wood-paneled station wagon to ward off “perverts.”
One dry, blazing July, we watched from the porch as Jim Wesley’s barn spontaneously combusted, its tin roof having aimed its glare at some nearby hay bales. The flame ate an acid spot into the white sky, scalding my memory of pulling on knee socks and hiking there through the pasture’s thistles, picking wildflowers as we went—which, when we returned, we’d lay in the flower press Papa had crafted of plywood and butterfly screws. He made me accompany him up the hill to Jim Wesley’s house to express our condolences; it was, he said, “the country way.” The old man’s baked visage was abrupt, raw, anguished at the door. His eyes flashed out of the darkness, and he shook his head slowly, mumbling about the pity of it, about how far in the red he’d be, so bad he doubted he’d ever get out of it. Papa, militarily opposed to open shows of despair, uttered some wise words, and Jim Wesley thanked us for our concern, but I was cowed by the look in his eye, the kind of look that would later make the searing mockery at the core of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction resonate as gospel.
In theory, “the country way” was, for Papa, a way of remembering when Fairfield was an actual community rather than a smattering of incoherent isolations. But in practice, it was most often a means of negotiating the conflict between urban and rural views about how pets should be treated, and of defending Frank against our outrage as he committed one efficient act of violence after another against the animals in our midst.
Frank’s indifference toward God’s creatures had been shaped by his over-familiarity with them; he’d spent a good part of his life hosing out chicken houses and slitting the birds’ throats. By the time I knew him, Irma bought his chicken livers vacuum-packed in foam trays from Kroger’s, though ironically the food Irma got from the refrigerated aisles in Shelbyville still came from the end of the road. In the 1980s, one of the nearby farms erected a complex of industrial chicken coops (though “coop” is too naïve a word). I could imagine the abominations taking place within their space-age platinum cartridges—the chickens’ waste turning to ammonia gas, scalding their lungs and blinding them. Capitalism, it seemed, had found the perfect metaphor for Frank’s hatred toward hens, which, he said, were the filthiest creatures in creation, though that didn’t mean he wouldn’t eat them.
When Max, a Doberman Uncle Fred and his wife, Laura, had rescued from the pound, started massacring the kittens of the feral calico that lived under Frank and Irma’s porch, Frank, worried that Max had gotten a taste for blood and might run off and kill one of Jim Wesley’s calves, summarily took him out behind the barn and shot him. (The shock of this assassination was compounded by the way in which it literalized what I’d always thought was an idiomatic expression—as when Papa, seeing an old friend in a state of decrepitude, would say “if that ever happens to me, take me out behind the barn and shoot me.”) The following year, when the cat had yet another litter of kittens, Frank tied them in a sack, smashed their skulls with a hammer, and drowned them in the river. Yet, when it came to animals of his own choosing, Frank was inexplicably graced. He’d always kept bird dogs: Pris, then Jack, both spotted brown and white, nimble and never in need of a leash, capable of catching quail and of hearing Frank’s whistle from a quarter mile down the road. Dogs, like everything else, figured into the harsh economy of survival. Whenever Frank or Irma got a load of my grandfather’s dog and heard how much he had paid for him, they could be relied upon to mutter, Durn, I wouldn’t give you a nickel for that thang.
One evening, a few years after Frank had died, we were sitting out on the back porch after dinner when we heard a gunshot at the top of the hill, then a prolonged wail, and realized that Mr. Hatcher up the road had shot the chow we called Licorice. It was the hour when, as a child, I’d have been barefoot in my flannel nightgown catching fireflies; the hour after poker or mah-jongg on the long porch (Nana’s coral nails clinking the tiles as she sighed at having to reach across the table to build the Great Wall); the hour when we went out to feel nature sink back down into itself, the creek bed retaking the bulrushes that had been but wickedness for our croquet balls, the honeysuckle drinking back its sweetness. The sound of the gun, and the inevitable conclusion we drew from it, was worse because it happened at a time of the day that was supposed to be sacred and, like the land itself, within our own possession.
Licorice, so named because of the smooth black tongue that looked like patent leather sticking out of his matted muzzle, was one of a band of limping misfits who’d gallop merrily down the hill to beg at our screen door every morning. Aunt Laura, a lifelong Northerner, social worker, and rescuer of strays, had taken a particular liking to him, bonding to such a degree that he’d allowed her to give him a mange bath under the hose. We’d assumed he was a vagabond and were surprised to discover he belonged to Hatcher; walking past his place one afternoon, Licorice trotted into the shed and collapsed in a well-worn dirt wallow just his size. Hatcher, rail-thin on his rocker, mumbled as we walked past, Durn dog been chasin’ calves reckon I’ma have to shoot ’im.
No one responded, but for the next several days every conversation turned to Hatcher’s character. Was he serious, or just talking? Was he a reckless cretin, or a good neighbor looking out for Jim Wesley’s livestock? Was he a redneck, or good country people? Laura, who’d quickly concluded redneck, started hatching plans to kidnap Licorice and take him back to Western Massachusetts. Papa said she would do no such thing. Never mind that in Northern Virginia, where the rest of us lived for most of the year, he sent his hyperactive cocker spaniel Birney, who’d shredded Nana’s French silk settee in his daily attempt to maul the mailman, to Olde Towne School for Dogs, which every Tuesday picked him up in a little howling school bus of other naughty pups. In Fairfield, Papa sternly contended, we were to respect other people’s property, and that included dogs. That was, he concluded, the country way.
Then we heard the shot. Licorice didn’t show up the next morning, but neither did the other dogs. Laura speculated that Hatcher had disappeared them, too, like the CIA had dissidents in Nicaragua, where she’d built houses for the Resistance. Papa said that she had quite an imagination; the sound had probably been Hatcher’s car backfiring. The next morning the rest of the band showed, sans Licorice. Laura called Hatcher a murdering hick bastard and threatened to go up to his house and demand the truth. Papa called Laura hysterical and insisted that the dog was Hatcher’s property. You, he added, pointing at her chest like a drill sergeant, you mind your own business. On the third day after we heard the shot, Laura stared into the distance like a soothsayer until nightfall when, having all retired to the porch again in relative peace, we saw something limping down the road.
It’s in the moment between seeing the shape of something and discovering what it actually is that metaphor and prophecies are born. At dusk, halfway up the hill, a long-awaited stranger appears; he is seen, but not yet known, and in that space we learn how desperate our inchoate fears are to attach themselves to flesh. Who or what was it coming down the road? I can’t exaggerate how long that question hung in the thick air, how unclear the answer was. The form erratically hunching its way through the dark was not a dog but a chimera moving with prehistoric slowness, a piece of taxidermy mechanized in a dream. By the time it reached the driveway, its shadow coincided with some abstract horror, and Laura screamed.
She stumbled out into the driveway, and my mother and I followed at a distance. The shadow-creature walked straight to Laura, who fell on her knees in the gravel. It was, yet it was not, Licorice, for he was already halfway to the underworld, having been shot but not killed, having wandered the countryside three days and nights looking for a place to die. His pelt was matted with briars, bloody and maggot-filled where the buckshot had opened it, his snout frozen into a rictus and foaming as if rabid. “Don’t touch that dog!” Papa shouted from the porch. “If he’s hurt, he’ll bite.” Laura sobbed or guffawed and opened her arms and Licorice toppled over stiffly next to her and laid his face in her lap. He wheezed several heavy breaths as if to rid himself of them, groaned gently, and, looking at Laura with glassed eyes that must have stopped seeing long before, passed away in the lap of the one person in Fairfield who wasn’t of it.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.