We don't have great expectations for our dogs in the little western
Kansas town where I'm growing up in the 1940's.
That's why we never buy them dog food. They survive mainly on
table scraps, an occasional rabbit, and a bone now and then from Darby
Dunn after he's cut up the meat at Dunn's Grocery.
And when we go out of towneven at Christmasour dogs are on
their own. If they can't pull through on roadkill and the neighbors'
garbage, if they can't dodge the pickups they share our gravel streets
with, it simply reinforces our strong sense of canine mortality.
Mine has been formed by a sequence of dog disasters: Duke had to
be summarily executed because he killed, without malice, 23 of our
neighbor's baby chicks; Meatball died of worms; and we ran over a new
puppy in our driveway even before we had time to name him.
We were on our way to an Abbott and Costello movie, and we went anyway.
So I'm not looking for another dog when Bully comes to live with
us. He just shows up one day when I'm in fifth grade. His ribs are
sticking out so my mother gives him the leftover ham and beans and
cornbread she's about to throw out to the neighbor's chickens anyway.
We ask around, but nobody knows who Bully belongs to. Travelers,
maybe, passing through on Highway 54, who forgot they let him out of the
car when they stopped for gas.
We end up letting him hang around. We never call him our dog, but
after a month I sneak him into my room at night so he can sleep at the
foot of my bed.
Pretty ugly dog, mainly Boston Terrier and who knows what else. He
likes to roll on dead things too, so he's usually pretty ripe. But he's
lavishly grateful for the hospitality. When I come home from school, he
howls and yowls in what I first think is agony but later decide is
ecstasy. He makes a noise like "A-roo-roo-roo."
And he follows me around on my paper route, peeing on any tree that
looks like it needs it. Our barber claims Bully saved the town's
Siberian elms during the summer drought of 1946; he proposes a
commemorative fountain on Main Street, a bronze of Bully lifting his leg.
Then he laughs. It's a joke.
"Don't get too attached to him," my mother tells me. "You don't
have good luck with dogs."
"Yes," I sigh, looking off into the distance. "I know."
I've seen movies. I know the way tragic characters look and talk.
So when my parents decide we'll spend Christmas of 1946 on my
grandparents' farm 220 miles away, I figure that's the end for Bully.
During our four-day absence, he'll freeze, starve, and be run over by
"We'll leave the garage door open," my mother says. "And he can
eat the Hofferbers' scraps. He'll be all right."
"Sure he will," I say, looking off into the distance and knowing
what I know.
The Truth, Mainly
When we drive away on the afternoon of the 21st, Bully chases us
the four blocks to the city limits.
My father tries to cheer me up during the four-and-a-half-hour trip.
"Look," he says when we go through towns with N-O-E-L spelled out
in big tinselly letters arching over the street. "They knew we were
coming and they tried to spell your name but they got it backwards."
Then he laughs. It's a joke.
I try to smile, but I know that Bully is at that moment still
chasing our car down Highway 54, about to starve and freeze and be run
over by a Mack truck. The best I can imagine is his showing up at my
grandparents' farm, bloody pawed and whining, on Christmas morning.
I'll go to the door to see who's there and he'll drop dead right in
front of me.
But nothing is there when I look out the door on Christmas
morning. I stare off into the distance.
"What in the world is wrong with that boy?" I hear my grandmother
ask my father. "Does he have the stigmatism? Does he need cod-liver
oil? Doesn't he like Christmas?"
We have to stay for Christmas supper, so we don't leave until after
7. It's a cold, clear night, lots of stars bright in the western Kansas
sky, and we listen to Christmas songs on KGNO on the way home. Just
before I zonk off into a deep and dreamless sleep in the backseat, I
wonder if the ground will be too frozen to dig the hole when we get
I wake up as we turn into our driveway. The radio finishes "It
Came Upon the Midnight Clear" and I get out to look for the body.
That's when something ripe and fat with garbagea howling, yowling
epiphanycomes barreling out the garage door and knocks me down,
filling my nostrils with the sweet stink of dog breath. It makes a
noise like "A-roo," then "A-roo-roo-roo," and just before my father
turns off the ignition, the car radio instructs me to hark the herald
My resistance gone at last, I give up. I hark.
Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.