The Truth, Mainly - 12/21/1992

Hark the herld angles of '46
by Leon Satterfield

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 town—even at Christmas—our 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 pickups.

"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.

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 there.

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 garbage—a howling, yowling epiphany—comes 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 angels sing.

My resistance gone at last, I give up. I hark.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.

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