Christopher Lowe is the author of the short story collection Those Like Us (SFASU Press, 2011). His fiction and poetry have appeared widely in journals including Third Coast, Bellevue Literary Review, Sport Literate, and War, Literature, and the Arts. He serves as editor for Trigger and as an assistant fiction editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal.
When I catch up to the dogs, I realize it’s Pearl that’s treed the raccoon. The blue-ticks are baying, jumping here and there, showing their asses they’re so excited about the coon, but Pearl’s just standing there, a fleck of white curving out from under her lip, telling the creature in the tree that she ain’t messing around.
The coon’s looking for a way out, but Pearl’s got him up a half-dead oak right in the middle of the field, off away from the other trees. There’s nowhere for him to go but down, and he’s getting frantic, his claws grating at the bark. I can hear the scrabble above the noise of the blue-ticks, and my flashlight finds him trying hard to get up to a higher branch.
“Aw’right, now,” I say to the dogs, raising the twelve gauge. “No need for all that.”
Was a time, Warren would be out hunting with me, walking alongside, his daddy’s .22 pistol shoved into his waistband. We’d started going out when we were just boys. Then, still too young to be given shotguns, we used the old .22 to shoot squirrels and crows. If what we killed was edible, his Mee-maw would fry it up. She always cleaned the animals for us, soaked the meat in melted butter, sprinkled little flecks of rosemary from her garden into the skillet as they cooked. After we’d eaten, she left us to clean the mess. We scrubbed the old cast-iron under scalding water and left it to dry in the oven. The entrails went into the weeds at the far end of their property. Some afternoons, full of the gamey meat, I’d lay out in the high grass and drowse while Warren used an old roofing hammer to tack the skins to the side of their shed. When I asked him why he did that, why he papered the old wood that way, he said he wanted everyone who came by to know what kind of man he was. That even at seven, he was a hunter.
Back at my daddy’s, I give Pearl the kidneys. She swallows them down without much chewing, and I think about gifting her some of the entrails, but I decide against it, tell her to get on back to the porch. In their pen, the three hounds lick their chops, saliva dripping and drooling, but I don’t toss them anything. “Only give ‘em what they earned,” Daddy told me when I was five, going out with him for the first time. “A dog gets what he ain’t earned going to end up lazy, won’t tree much of nothing, squirrel nor coon.”
When I’ve finished cleaning the thing, got it on ice for my daddy to take down to Walt’s for stuffing, I head up the porch, pet Pearl as I move by. In the kitchen, Daddy looks up from his cup of coffee.
“What time you go out?”
“Quarter to three,” I say, and he whistles through his teeth. I pour myself a cup of the coffee.
“You get you one?”
I nod. “Pearl got it.”
The old man frowns. “Thought I told you not to take that dog hunting.”
“She likes it. And she treed that coon before any of your hounds.”
He shakes his head. “Don’t make a damn. She ain’t a hunting dog. She’s a porch dog, maybe a yard dog, but she ain’t made to be out in them woods.”
“She’s my dog. And she does just fine out in the woods.”
“You taking your dog with you back to Wyeth? You going to take care of her in that dormitory? Or are you leaving her here for me to feed and water and look after like I been doing?”
I feel heat rising in my face, bringing pain back to my cold-numbed cheeks. “I can’t take her with me. They don’t allow pets.”
“Then don’t sass me. And don’t take that dog hunting.”
He takes a gulp of the coffee, and I do the same. It’s acrid, burned from sitting in his old metal pot, but I take another sip. “What time’s the service?”
“Eleven,” I say.
“What you doing till then?”
I shrug, swallow some more of the coffee.
“You going back right after?”
“I got an exam Monday. Got to get back and study.” I think about Carrie, about how she’s probably still in bed in her apartment, the one her father pays the note on. I think about how if I’d of woke up next to her, under that down comforter, I’d not have had the get-up-and-go to hunt on a morning like this. Instead, I woke up on the old cot in my room, my back stiff from the metal bar.
“You be back for Christmas,” he says.
“And you can leave that attitude in Wyeth when you come. Your granny ain’t coming to town to see you with your nose up in the air.”
I begin to walk out of the room, thinking that I’ll go on and shower, change into the suit I brought with me, the one Carrie bought me last year for her sorority’s formal. Before I’m out the door, he says, “Your grades in line?”
He hasn’t ever asked about my grades, hasn’t paid much attention to school nor classes nor how I fare in them. “I’m doing all right.”
“Keep it that way. You lose that scholarship, they won’t have much interest in keeping you around, you’ll be back here, bothering with the dogs and getting underfoot.”
“Yessir,” I say.
I found Pearl when I was thirteen. Me and Warren had wandered off down the tracks, over toward Millport and Kennedy, and she’d come sniffling up to me, just a puppy. Then, she’d been all blond, looked like a little of pit-bull and a little of shepherd and a little of everything else besides. None of the pieces of her matched. Legs were already muscled, chest broad, like you see with bull-dogs, but her head was dainty, lacking that flat plane, those laid back ears. Her body seemed too long, a by-product of basset hound I reckoned, and her tail curved up like a beagle, though she never had that warble you get with them. Her eyes and ears were all German Shepherd.
She came up to me there on the tracks, and I fed her a bit of the white bread I was carrying in my pocket. Warren said we ought to tie her to a tree, throw rocks at her, but I told him no, and we moved on. She followed us over to Millport and back again, laying herself down on the porch when I got back. My daddy took one look at her and told me to get that damned mutt the hell away from his house. Told me we was a blue-tick family, always had been, and weren’t no way in hell we was keeping some goofy-ass Heinz 57.
After a while though, he got sort of used to her, let me name her. We’d been reading Steinbeck over at the middle school and I was starting to figure that sometimes reading wasn’t so bad a thing, and around that same time, Warren found half an old pearl necklace buried out back of his place. We’d been digging out there for weeks, hoping to find the rest of it, so I figure I just had pearls on the mind.
“Ain’t no kind of name for a dog,” Daddy said. He preferred the tried and true names: Buford, Otis, Guy, Buck, Arleen, Doris.
“It’s my dog,” I told him.
“Name her what you want,” he said. “Don’t make it a good idea.”
“Ain’t got to be a good idea,” I said, and he’d smacked me a good one, and we didn’t talk much about her name from then on.
The sun’s come up a bit, letting just a hint of warm into the crisp air, and I head down to the railroad tracks, Pearl following along like she used to do.
Weeds are growing tall on the tracks now that they aren’t used anymore. I walk plank-to-plank, and Pearl keeps to my heels, snorting through the grass in my wake. Moisture is coating the shiny black shoes, and I can feel it soaking through the bottom of my pant legs and socks, but I figure nobody’ll be paying much attention to my legs. The air, sharp in my chest, brings little flecks of tears to my eyes. I blink them away, wipe at them with the sleeve of my jacket. Pearl whines once, looks up at me, and I tell her all right, motion down the trestle, down to the ground below us.
She barely gets off the little slope before she sets to, dripping runny turds that steam up, the hard smell reaching me even from this distance. When she’s done, she begins to move back up the slope, back to the tracks where I’m waiting, but mid-way up, she hears something, her ears sticking up at that German Shepherd tilt, and before I can stop her, she’s off through the brush, heading for the tree line.
All this land is posted, and it’s dangerous this time of year to wander off the tracks. Go too far in the woods, you’re liable to get a ass full of buckshot from some dipshit in from Birmingham for a weekend’s hunting. I call to Pearl, but she doesn’t slow down, and before I can really think too much on it, I’m moving toward her, trying hard to keep up, though my shoes stick in the shallow mud.
She leads me a quarter mile before I catch up to her. She’s caught the scent of something, and she doesn’t want to let it go, no matter how I pull at her collar. When I wrench her backwards, she looks up at me with anxious eyes, her fur bristling high against the cold. I think of my father, of his warning not to take her in the woods.
I let loose her collar. As soon as she’s free, she sticks her nose to the ground and moves forward again. I follow, listening close for the skitter of an animal, but the field’s quiet.
When my daddy called to let me know about Warren, I was lying naked next to Carrie, sweat drying, a high, feral scent coming up from our bodies. I answered the phone without thinking about it. If I’d taken a second, I’d have seen the caller ID, said, “I’ll call him back later,” but instinct kicked in and I answered without looking at the screen. Carrie rolled away from me, closed her eyes, and my daddy said, without greeting, “Your buddy went and got himself shot.”
Since then, the details have come out a little at a time. He’d gone to the Kroger’s, blood laced through with the meth he brewed in a trailer on his grandfather’s land. He had the old .22, but it was unloaded. In better moments, I tell myself that he didn’t want to harm anybody, but I know he probably just forgot to put the bullets in.
It was his uncle shot him, from behind the register with a Smith & Wesson he kept for such purposes. I don’t know if he recognized Warren before he pulled the trigger. I figure he must have. Though Warren was wearing a mask, I think it’d be hard to mistake the rail-thin figure, the jittering hands, the dull eyes.
“Funeral’s Saturday,” Daddy told me on the phone.
“I’ll try to come.” I looked at Carrie, who was already asleep. “I may not make it.”
I heard a wet sound, spit being shot through teeth. “They skip out of funerals much over there in Wyeth?”
“No sir. It ain’t got a thing to do with Wyeth.”
Before he hung up, he sighed, said, “Boy, it’s got ever thing in the world to do with Wyeth.”
After a minute, Pearl stops, buries her nose in a patch of weeds. I reach down into the thick tangle of green, figuring I’ll feel the quick movement of a field mouse, but instead, my hand grazes something smooth and cold rippling across the surface of the mud. I jerk my hand away, grab Pearl by the collar to haul her back, but it’s too late, the thing’s latched onto her leg, it’s fangs sunk in deep, and she’s got her head down on it, gnawing into its scaled hide.
I hear the hard snap of the snake’s back being broken, and I try to pull Pearl’s jaws free of it, but she stays locked on. The fangs are still dug into the meat of her leg, and I try to pull that loose too, but Pearl just whines, so I let it be.
I sit down in the mud next to her. She’ll be gone before I can carry her back to my daddy’s and even if we make it in time, what then? No money for a vet. I put a hand on her head, rub the bristle of fur, imagine what my daddy’ll say when I tell him. “Shouldn’t of been out in them damn woods no way. She was a porch dog, and if you’d listened to me, she’d still be alive.”
I massage the muscle behind her jaw, trying to coax her loose, but it stays knotted tight, holding the dead thing. A little blood is dripping out of her mouth.
I look down at my watch. I’ve only thirty minutes to hike back to the house, drive down to the funeral home in Reform. I couldn’t make it in time, even if I didn’t have Pearl to carry, so instead of trying to do something, I just sit, one hand in the mud beside me, one hand on Pearl, smoothing back her fur, coaxing her hackles down. I give myself a moment of guilt, tell myself that if I’d ignored my daddy, if I’d stayed in Wyeth, with Carrie, this wouldn’t of happened. But that kind of thought doesn’t do any good, so I just sit and pet Pearl some more. She’s not whining, and I wonder if she’s gone numb, if the poison has worked its way deep enough for that. I wonder too, if the meth coursing through Warren’s system kept him from feeling the sharp pain of the gunshots. One in the arm, two in the chest, dead in five minutes. When he walked in the door, did he think himself a real criminal? Did he imagine loaded guns and empty bank vaults?
I lean down, look Pearl in the eyes. They are sharp as ever, comprehending. I say, “Aw’right now, girl,” and I massage her jaw a little more. She finally releases, choosing loyalty over instinct. I take the tie off, use it to wipe at the blood dripping from her mouth. I let myself believe that this is the way to go. A wide field, the hand of someone you love gentle on your neck, the sharp iron tang of victory on your tongue. Sometimes, I think, it’s okay to pretend we are that which we are not.
“Get it, Pearl!” I nudge the body with the toe of my shoe, make it shift a little in the grass. She looks down at the snake, starts growling. Her hackles are up, and the growl is growing stronger, and I want the fight to resume, want the poison to do its work while Pearl gets after the snake. “Sic ‘em!” She stands on her three good legs, her wounded paw wavering an inch above the ground. I nudge the snake again, and she lowers her head toward it, flashes tooth, and I bump it once more, make it rustle the grass. As she lunges toward the snake, I run a hand along her side, feel the heave of inhalation. I say, “Get that motherfucker!”
“ 'Reform, AL' was the first story that I wrote after completing my long-gestating collection of stories, Those Like Us. The stories in that collection all exist within the same universe, and they are all concerned with the same characters. I lived in that world and with those characters for something like six years, so when the book was done, I found myself a little lost. I started five or six stories, but I could never get more than a few pages into them. A story about a guy who goes back to his hometown for a friend's funeral was particularly troublesome. So one day I'm sitting there on the couch, feeding my then-infant daughter, and our dog, Buckley, jumps up on the couch beside me. He's a goofy thing, part dachsund, part bassett hound, part pit bull, with a dash of beagle. I look at him, and he looks at me, and I realize that the thing missing from that funeral story is a goofy dog like Buckley. But maybe this dog - Pearl could work as a name - maybe Pearl doesn't have it as easy as Buckley does. Maybe Pearl's trying to be a hunting dog out in the wilds of West Alabama. I put my daughter down for her nap, and I started in on the story again, this time with Pearl as an anchor. After that, 'Reform, AL' came pretty easily. ”