by Krista Creel
We had some work to get done at the Buckalews. They lived a mile down the road on the rich end of Feathers Chapel in a big, stone house with a blue-eyed dog. I had never seen a blue-eyed dog before, and I was almost afraid to stare straight at him—looked like devil eyes to me. But he smelled like baby powder, so I figured he was okay.
My dog, Pip, was Chihuahua mixed with German shepherd. Sharla said that was impossible, like one of our hens nesting with a turkey buzzard, but I knew Pip was part German shepherd. Pip knew it, too. He’s very protective like one, following me everywhere.
Sometimes it’s good being followed because it means you’re worth following; other times, it’s not so good, like when the truancy officer follows you home.
I had a one-eyed cat that would follow me and Harlan into the woods when we’d hunt, until one day she peed in the corn he had put out to trick the deer, and Harlan got fed up. He was always fed up about something. It never made sense to me, being fed up. It sounded like you were stuffed with grits and they were coming back up and that’s what made you so ornery. Anyway, Harlan shot at her. He had to. Most people hunted for fun, but we hunted for jerky and stew. He had a clear shot, but he missed. I’m sure it’s because her name was Lucky because Harlan never missed a shot, and he’d never admit to being soft.
I never saw her again after that, though, but we got a doe the next day.
It was a windy day out. The tarp flapped over the wood stack, and the metal door to the shed knocked against itself. Wind never bothered me. It seemed to part around me as if I was at the bottom of Moses’s Red Sea.
I climbed up on the fender of Harlan’s tractor. It was a big, old tractor. It had been the gravedigger at Peebles Cemetery until Harlan bought it off them. They got a new one around the same time they got their new Cadillacs. Business must be good for the undertakers. Just last week, Eric Jensen was crushed in the cotton combine. Before that, it was Mrs. Rosaleigh Dunn. She just died of old age, but it was a couple of days before they found her.
All I could say is when I die, I hope I get to ride in one of those shiny, black Cadillacs. People would look at me as I pass by, nod, and say, “That Marty, now she was something special.”
Harlan kept the gravedigger together with odd parts. It was rusted in places and painted in others with a busted headlight and noisy engine, but no matter what he put that tractor through and no matter how many times it stalled or stuck, he got it running again. Most of its guts were made of whatever he could rig out of clothes hangers, duct tape, and metal parts.
He jumped up on the seat and turned the key. It kicked on like some tired, hot bull. The fender rumbled and smoke shot out of the exhaust pipe and we began the treacherous event of getting out of the driveway. It was clay gravel with lots of holes that would catch the rainwater and wash out, no matter how many times we filled them or with what—grass clippings, chicken bones, ceramic pots. Nothing stayed in those holes for long. So whatever we took down it, that driveway would shake us fierce. This time, it shook a moth out of my ear, I swear. I saw it fly up into the Catawba tree and laugh at me.
Feathers Chapel Road was an improvement from our driveway, but it was lumpy, too, from the new patches of asphalt that the workers from the penal farm filled in last week. Seemed to me if the roads were just as lumpy with fixed holes as without, the jailers should’ve given those inmates something more productive to do. I try to accomplish something productive every day, no matter if it is just getting out of the driveway or shaking a moth loose.
Pip was trying to follow us, like always, so I had to kick at him. It was for his own good. He was a danger to himself, catapulting off the wheels of the tractor like a grasshopper, which was why grasshoppers got squished or ended up stuck in the grills of Mack trucks.
Once we got out, Harlan straddled the road and the ditch to let cars pass. I hung onto the fender with one hand and picked kudzu off the trees with the other. He would’ve put on his blinkers if he had had any that worked. The caution sign on the back was holed with buckshot.
I waved at the Washingtons as we passed. They were playing dominoes under a tent. They were always very quiet about it, not paying me any mind. Parker Washington was fresh from jail. He wasn’t much older than me. I didn’t know what he did. Harlan knew, but he wouldn’t tell me.
We passed Nettle hanging laundry. She had her baby in a sling around her belly. She was three months behind on her bills. She had lost her job at the nursing home—accused of taking a ring from an old lady. Now she might lose her house. She’s what Harlan called bent broke. We were all behind, but she was sooner to serious.
The Mennonites were putting out their spring mums for sale. Their yard was always clean and their cows fat. I felt sorry for the girls though, wearing dresses all day, even on four-wheelers. Didn’t make much sense to me.
I had a dress once.
The air was filled with the smell of wild onions and daffodils and wet purple clover, and then there were the dryer sheets and fresh manure and loblollies. Gobs of loblollies broke from the hard freeze we had just had a couple weeks back. Their tops had been pushed from the road and into the ditch like trash, but one tree bent all the way over the road, and an ugly, old crow sat on it like it was holding it down. Momma had always said that sometimes the smallest things could hold you down.
One time Harlan cut off all the branches of the big gum tree behind our trailer. It wasn’t good to put gum in the potbelly, but it was all we had that winter, so he had to do it. It was my favorite climbing tree, and I would’ve sacrificed warm hands for it. I had given up more for less. Besides, I stayed all winter long under great-grandma Jesse’s quilt, anyway. I prayed hard that the tree wouldn’t die. And can you believe it? All those limbs grew back the very next summer. They were pitiful, though. Reminded me of those toothpicks we stuck in potatoes in science class, but they were a start.
Harlan said prayers don’t work. I prayed again anyway, this time for momma to come home.
Harlan’s my daddy, if you want to know, but not my real daddy. I never met him. I asked Harlan if I could just call him daddy, but he said no. He said it made him feel responsible for me, even though, according to the courts, he was responsible for me. But he didn’t have to be. We weren’t blood. Sometimes he’d go off and not come back for a while. Sharla said those casinos in Mississippi had a hold of him. She said they float on the river like giant, glittering barges, so I didn’t blame him for leaving and wanting to stay left. They were probably anchored to a big ole pot of money down in the muddy bottoms that the giant alligator turtles snap at and catfish guard with their barbs.
That’s probably why Harlan’s hand was all cut up. He had wrapped it in one of my momma’s old scarves and tied it in a knot above his knuckles. His blood made flowers on the rag like wild roses. I would’ve asked him what happened, but he would’ve said to keep to my own business. I knew he was a go-getter, so he probably tried to get that pot of money, just like that one time I saw him go and get a pump off the neighbor’s diesel tank.
“You gotta take what you want,” he would say. “Ain’t nobody gonna give you nothing.”
He was smart like that, but the neighbor didn’t think so. He took the pump back and raised a pistol at him. We’re not allowed on his property anymore, not that I wanted to get on it anyway. Only thing over there worth a scrap was that pump and a horse trough that would make for a decent swimming hole.
So I didn’t ask Harlan what happened, but it’s hard keeping to your own business when there’s so much of everybody else’s business going on. Like Sharla’s. She’s my big sister and she’s pregnant. I thought it was impossible for her and Toby to make a baby. He’s half-bear, I swear it. He spits when he talks and his hands are covered in hair and you can hear his truck coming from a mile down. Sharla said she wasn’t quitting school, but I wished she would. Everyone’s talking about her, and it’s hard being in a school where people talk about your sister, so I didn’t go half the time.
I’m going to be an aunt, though, and I’ve never been an aunt or had an aunt, so I don’t really know what aunts do, but I’ll be a good one I know. After all, I had a chicken that I raised by myself. She wore a diaper. I’d put her in my bicycle basket and ride her down the road to my friend Maggie’s, and she could go in Maggie’s house because she had on that diaper. She was a good chicken, but one day her legs quit working. Harlan said it was because she was pecking at a dead possum, but I’m not so sure. There were a lot of dangers around our place for a chicken, like the broken glass in the burn pit and the busted wood chipper and the dark crawl space under our trailer. Even Pip wouldn’t go under there.
Sharla worries about cottonmouths. I don’t know why. I think people make too big a stink about snakes. They think more of themselves than the snakes do. It’s like when people say that mosquitoes bite them because they have sweet blood. They really shouldn’t be so vain. Vanity’s a sin. I know that much from the vacation bible school I went to with Maggie last summer at the Church of Christ. I’ve never had a snake run after me, but I can’t say the same about mosquitoes. They get me a lot, and it’s not because I’m sweet. The only person who ever called me sweet was a teacher at that vacation bible school, and she only said that because I told her about the bug in her hair.
Harlan belched. He always smelled like sour beer and dirt.
We turned into the Buckalew’s driveway and I nearly fell off the tractor because Harlan got too close to their mailbox and had to cut it quick. It was a new mailbox, he said, so he wasn’t prepared, but I had seen it before, even if he hadn’t.
One whole side of the Buckalew’s yard, between the driveway and their neighbor’s pasture, was full of brambles, tires, and whatnots. It was a low, wet spot. The neighbor’s pond dumped into it, and not accidentally, which was why it was so wet and low. We got a spot like that at our place, too. We just never cleaned it up.
The house had been empty for a year before the Buckalews bought it. A city cop from Memphis had it built. Harlan said the only reason people moved out here was because they had nowhere else to go or they had something to hide. He had lots of parties, that cop. Shot his own horse by accident. It jumped a fence and ended up down the road in Nettle’s garden. She was hot mad, but didn’t act it because he was a cop.
I think he had something to hide, but he didn’t hide much. He had a plane, boat, and tractor, too. I knew cops in our town didn’t make that kind of money. Officer Josh, who works at our school, lives in a small house on Marginal Street with a pet parrot he confiscated, some hobby rockets, and a riding lawnmower. I think that’s about all he has to his name, and I only know that because he tried to date Sharla.
Anyway, one day that big house went empty and before long, the weeds had grown above my head. They grew so high that Maggie and I used her metal detector to search for pocketknives and buried money, but all we ever found was a busted-up beeper, a handful of nails, and scrap. I took it all home to Harlan. He didn’t say so, but I knew he appreciated them.
The neighbor shot a bobcat in those weeds, stuffed it, and put it in front of his fireplace. After that, we didn’t play there much.
Harlan got right to work at the Buckalews digging a hole with his backhoe and pushing the tires into it. Whenever he had a job, it usually meant him digging a hole, throwing stuff in it, and setting it on fire. I sat at a safe distance in the culvert on the other side of the driveway, thinking how we weren’t so different, us and the Buckalews. They had nicer grass, sure, but they had the same clumps of buttercups, scraggly elms, wild honeysuckle, and spiders in their ditch.
Then I felt hot-as-fire breath on my neck and I just knew it was that devil dog. I could feel him staring straight at the back of my head like he wanted to eat it, like I were some kind of roast. This time, he didn’t smell like baby powder. He smelled like a cross between rotten sardines and a spit can. I knew that smell. He had been sprayed by a skunk, so I crouched down real low because I knew from TV that whenever you encountered a wild animal, you tried to make yourself small and not make any sudden movements. I turned around real slow, and when I did, he licked my nose.
Turned out his name was Pepper Jack, according to his bright red tag, and I thought he knew I could help him. I had gotten skunk off dogs twice before, after all, and it was about time to do something productive. I grabbed a piece of hay string that was sticking out from under a rock in the ditch, and I tied it around the loop in his collar. Together, we climbed out of the ditch.
I told Harlan I was going back home, but I didn’t think he heard me. His shirt flapped in the wind. Sometimes he had trouble standing. He was busy pouring diesel on the tires. Then, he lit a match and tossed it in. Pepper Jack and I watched them light up like my old Christmas tree, but they smelled awful. I swore that the black smoke brought down at least one bluebird that didn’t know any better to stay out of the way.
“Come on, Pepper Jack,” I said and tugged at his string.
He came without a fuss, which was a surprise to me. Pip would have never let me put a hay string on him.
I felt rich walking with a dog like him. Everything I had ever gotten in my life had been handed down or dug up or rescued. Nothing—not my dogs or my clothes or even my toys—had ever been new. And I felt sorry, all of the sudden, for people who had to settle for ugly dogs. That’s probably why momma left—to have nice dogs, better grass, and new things.
Nettle yelled at me when I passed by, telling me to put the wolf back where I got it, so I put her in her place.
“It’s not a wolf,” I yelled. “It’s a Siberian husky.”
“It’s gonna get shot, whatever it is,” she said, turning up her nose. “Someone’s gonna think it’s a wolf.”
“I’m gonna wash him so he smells like baby powder. No wolf smells like baby powder. Everybody knows that.”
Well, she didn’t have anything to say to that, so I picked a dandelion from her yard, stuck it in Pepper Jack’s collar, and moved on.
The Washingtons wouldn’t take their eyes off him when we passed, like I was going to turn him loose to eat their dominoes or their heads. I didn’t know why they were always so suspicious. If any of them had known what I was doing, they’d be praising me for my good deed, washing skunk off a stranger’s dog. But they didn’t ask. Adults never asked the obvious questions. They just assumed you’re always up to something or out to get them. Or maybe they just wanted Pepper Jack for themselves and were waiting for me to let down my guard so they could take him.
So I walked a little faster.
Pip wasn’t too happy with me bringing a new dog home. He snarled and dug into the dirt. He looked like a foaming rat. Pepper Jack just sat there and panted and looked around my yard like he had seen it before and couldn’t care less about it the second time. I understood. He was probably used to his mowed grass and daffodil flowers, but I’m not convinced dogs cared too much about fancy things. I tried to stuff Pip in a purse one time, like they did in Hollywood, and he nearly bit my finger off.
I tied Pepper Jack to the spigot, went and got the baking soda from the pantry, and knocked over a jar of pickles doing it. The whole house smelled like pickle juice and garlic, but I didn’t have time to clean it up. Pip was carrying on outside, so I had to get to it.
I got the dish detergent, ran down the hall, and grabbed the peroxide from the bathroom. I mixed all the ingredients up in a bucket, took a rag, and slopped it all over Pepper Jack. The water was cold, but he was a good and patient dog.
You’re supposed to leave the concoction on for a while before you rinse, so I flipped over the bucket and sat down. I let him know it wouldn’t be too long before he smelled like baby powder again. Sharla had been stashing away all kinds of baby stuff, so I knew I could find a bottle of baby powder in her closet. Pepper Jack’s breath was awful, though, and there was nothing I could do about it aside from give him a good stick, but he wasn’t interested in chewing.
I told him about my sister and her boyfriend and the moth that flew out of my ear. And he listened to me, not like Pip. You couldn’t tell Pip anything for any period of time before he’d get sidetracked, so I was thinking that maybe I should keep Pepper Jack because he was a good listener. Harlan would understand. He’d be proud of me for taking what I wanted. And that’s just what I was thinking about doing when the fire trucks drove by, blasting their sirens to let everyone know they were coming and to get out of their way. They came from all different directions, so long as they were left and right. Out where we lived, there were only volunteer firefighters and no hydrants. Most came from their homes, carrying yellow tanks of water on their trucks.
But then Pepper (I decided to call him Pepper for short) started howling like he was some kind of siren, too, and Pip, I couldn’t believe it, joined in. I had never heard Pip howl. He sounded something like a cross between a baby bullfrog and Officer Josh’s parrot, but I was proud of him for being so bold. So I howled, too, just to see what it was like, but Pepper wasn’t having any of it. He pulled, jerked, and snarled until he broke his tie and took off.
“Come back!” I yelled. “I haven’t rinsed you off yet!”
But if he heard me, he didn’t act it, and soon all I could see was his white tail bobbing through Mr. Wilson’s wheat field. Pip followed right behind, so I did what I had to do and ran off, too.
I had to cross through two sets of barbed wire fences, a rutty cow pasture, somebody’s bean field, and a gulley before I came up into the Buckalews backyard. That’s when I noticed the smoke.
The dogs had beat me there, of course, and were all in a tizzy. I didn’t think Pip had ever run that far, and Pepper was near dry, looking like a fuzzy mitten.
I couldn’t believe what I saw. That fire Harlan started skipped right over the fence and hopped on into the neighbor’s pasture, which was where the fire trucks were at.
Other cars sat with their hazards on in the driveway and people—some strangers, some not—had pulled over on the side of the road to watch. I didn’t know what entertained them more—one fireman trying to get his hose untangled or Harlan getting a good tongue lashing from Mrs. Buckalew.
“Are you drunk?” she yelled.
“No ma’am,” Harlan scowled, looking as fed up as I’d ever seen him.
“Then what the hell’s wrong with you?”
I didn’t think she saw me there. If she had seen me there, she probably wouldn’t have cursed. My momma cursed, but I didn’t think rich people did. I thought they had better manners and all.
“I’d rather discuss this with your husband,” Harlan answered her.
“My husband’s an hour away. I’m here now and I’m telling you, we didn’t hire you! We hired Josh.”
Harlan reached for his Hawkins chew. He always reached for his Hawkins when someone mentioned Josh. Josh was a Jenkins boy, and the Jenkinses had been in this town ever since horses hauled the cotton. There’s a sign dedicated to his great grandaddy’s honor, in fact, under the clock in the town square. I’ve never read it, but he must’ve been someone special to have a plaque.
“I spoke with your husband and he did hire me, ma’am,” Harlan said. “Josh is a Jenkins, you know.”
“So? What’s wrong the Jenkinses?”
“They cut corners.”
Well, I had never heard anything like that, and I didn’t think Mrs. Buckalew had either. She looked at Harlan like he was dimwitted, threw up her hands, and huffed over to a fireman. She was pretty, but unprepared. She should’ve known not to wear clothes like that in the country—skirts and high heels and such. You never knew when you might needed to stomp out a fire, wash skunk off a dog, or hop on a tractor. But her gold jewelry sure did shine. I could see why Nettle might have taken a ring from an old lady.
I’m not sure why she was so upset, though. It wasn’t her pasture that caught fire.
The firemen worked hard to put it out, but because it was a horse pasture, the manure kept flaming up, so I got out of there and started stomping on it. As soon as I got one out, another would flame up, like those trick birthday candles. I spent the next two hours stomping out those flames, long after Harlan had left. Even Pip had gone, but that was all right. I never let someone’s leaving keep me from being productive. Besides, I didn’t want the Buckalews to think poorly of us, and I didn’t have anything else to do. Good thing I was wearing boots. They were my mom’s brown Durangos, her favorites. The silver rings on the sides were beginning to rust and Pip had chewed around the tops, but they still worked.
Neighbors watched from the fence line, blasting their country music like it was a bonfire or something. They didn’t seem worried—said the fire was good for their Bermuda grass, but that I could keep stomping out the flames anyway because I was fun to watch.
The next day, Harlan had me put a bill of services in the Buckalew’s mailbox. He wrote something on it I couldn’t repeat, but I scratched through it. I had a hunch that he wasn’t going to get paid. And Pepper, well, he was a bit lighter than he used to be. The peroxide bleached his hair just like it had done Sharla’s last summer. I’m sure he smelled better, at least, but I still smelled like pickles.
Krista Creel received an undergraduate degree in creative writing from the University of Memphis and a graduate degree in journalism. She had short stories and personal essays published in CrossConnect, The Arkansas Review, and Hippocampus Magazine.