About the Author:
Sonny Brewer owns Over the Transom Bookstore in Fairhope, Alabama, and serves as board chairman of the Fairhope Center for the Writing Arts. He is the author of the novel The Poet of Tolstoy Park and the upcoming A Sound like Thunder.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
From the Hardcover edition.
IT ALL BEGAN with a silver and black-saddled German Shepherd. He was my first dog.
I remember it this way:
The big dog leaned all its weight against my leg. I answered by reaching out my hand to stroke the thick fur between his ears, looking into his deep mahogany eyes. He knew something was wrong, but I had no confidence to share. I turned up my face and searched my mother’s eyes hoping to find some reassurance.
She repeated her instructions, telling me to take a different school bus, telling me not to come home this afternoon on bus 50, to instead find bus 64 and show the driver the note she had just tucked into my shirt pocket. I placed my hand over the pocket, as if to press the note into the skin of my chest so I would not lose it somewhere around school or on the playground.
The only time I had ever been to Big Mama’s creepy house was when my father had taken me there, and never had I spent the night there. It had a woodshake roof going mossy green and gray walls with no paint. Almost all of my relatives and friends now had a television. She did not even have a radio. Plus, she smelled like the snuff she dipped, or she smelled like wood smoke from the black iron stove in her kitchen. She was also huge, her bosom like a fat pillow, and it seemed to me that I should not call her big to her face. My father had hit me across the face for calling Waymon Culpepper by his first name. And this seemed to me a worse thing to say, that my
grandmother was big.
And, she was not my mama.
“Who’s going to feed Rex, Mother?” I looked at my dog and his eyes brightened and his tail wagged, but tentatively.
“I will feed your dog, Sonny. Or your daddy will.”
“No. You have to feed Rex,” I demanded. “You feed him, or I’m not going on the other bus.”
“Young man! You will not speak to me like that,” she said, making fists and propping them on her hips. Then her face went soft and she pushed her fingers through her hair. “Sonny, sweetie, don’t worry about Rex. I will feed him.”
“But why do I have to go to her house?”
“It is not her house. She’s your grandmother,” mother said.My father required me to address her as Big Mama. I think that’s because she used to be married to my Pop Brewer, and “Grammy” was used by Pop Brewer’s new wife. “Look, Sonny, Big Mama’s excited to have you come for the weekend. Why you’re going is so your father and I can–well, take a break from things.Maybe drive to the lake. Just talk.”
“You mean argue?”
“No, Sonny. And I don’t like you saying that. This is a good idea, good for all of us. You stay tonight and tomorrow night at Big Mama’s house. Your daddy and I will come and get you on Sunday morning.We’ll all stay for lunch, and we’ll come home. It’s not like you’re being sent to a work camp, for goodness sake.”
“Rex will be fine. You just be sure to get on the right bus. Mr. Owens drives bus 64.He told me himself that he will watch after you on his bus.”
“I’m eleven years old. I don’t need anybody to watch me.”
“Of course, you don’t, Sonny. It’s just that one of those Rayford boys picked a fight on that bus last week.”
“I’m not afraid of Doug Rayford,” I snapped.
“No, I don’t expect you are.” She tousled my hair and told me to go and meet my bus. “I hear it coming down the road. Better hurry.”
I stopped on the top step of the porch, the morning sun warming my face in the frosty air. I squatted and put down my books and Rex nuzzled my chest. I still could not believe, after almost six months, that he was my very own dog.He wagged his tail and licked my face. I laughed and turned my face to avoid his wet tongue. I heard the bus’s brakes screech at the Dawkins’ house just around the bend. I hugged Rex, grabbed my books, and jumped up. I told Rex to stay, and ran down the hill to meet the yellow bus.
My grandmother did not have a phone. And so I did not learn until Sunday morning that Rex had not eaten since I left.
“If there was any doubt that Rex is your dog, and your dog alone, it’s all gone now,”my mother told me.
My father had not come with her to Big Mama’s.
“That dog sat watching for the school bus the way he always does, and when it went right on past he made like he was going to chase it down. He lay in the yard until dark, watching the highway.”My mother said Rex refused the bowl of food she took out to him, that he walked away from her standing there and went underneath the house.
“Three times yesterday I looked under the house, and there he lay,” my mother told me. “I’d call him, and he’d raise his head to look at me, but he wouldn’t budge.” I sat with the two women, listening to Mama, looking at her as though she told of a hole that opened up in the ground.
“Well, I’ll declare. I reckon I’d forget my head if it wasn’t attached,” Big Mama said, pushing her chair back from the table. She got up and took a dish towel from a wooden peg beneath the windowsill. She folded the threadbare cloth into a kind of potholder and, letting down the oven door, wrapped it around the handle of a heavy iron skillet. She took out the pan of cornbread and set it onto the table atop a jar lid that served as a trivet. She left the towel wrapped around the skillet handle and eased down into her chair with a hmmph and a smile.
“Now,” said Big Mama, “let’s say the blessing.” And we bowed our heads and she addressed God in a clear voice, thanking him, and asking him, “...to keep things about the way they are, if you please.” I did not close my eyes, and my eyebrows were locked together in a frown.
As soon as amen was spoken I entreated my mother to tell me more about Rex.
“Nothing more to tell, really, Sonny. He’s upset, I guess, that you aren’t there. And I reckon he’ll be fine as soon as you are.”
“But Rex didn’t eat since Friday. He’s not fine. Can we just go home?”
“Sonny, let me say something,” Big Mama said, spreading butter on a slice of cornbread. She put down the knife and the triangle of hot cornbread. She folded her hands in her lap and drew me into the warmth of her gaze. She spoke my name again. I think my troubled face might’ve softened some, but my eyes were still full.
Big Mama had walked and talked all day yesterday, asking me a thousand questions that I answered, and she had told me a thousand things about the homeplace, as she called her house and land. She had pointed out trees my father had claimed and climbed. She told me of the bull that chased her from the feeding pen just last Christmas, and that she bonged the beast on the head with her bucket.
She told how much she missed Mister Frank, as she called her husband who was like my grandfather only not really kin to me. “I can nearly about feel Mister Frank on these cool autumn evenings, ’specially at twilight when whippoorwills venture to call out from the darkening woods yonder across them hills and hollows,” Big Mama had said, pointing a crooked finger south toward the treeline a mile distant. She asked me, did Daddy still make those long hauls to the West Coast? I told her yes. It did not register with me then that we had not visited her since the middle of summer.
“That’s where Daddy found my dog. Out in California,” I said. “Where Hollywood is. That’s how he came up with a famous dog like Rex.” I told my grandmother that my father had brought me the dog last summer. “Daddy told me Rex is the grandson of Rex the Wonder Dog. From the movies, you know,” I said, my eyebrows high. I told her I only knew about Rex the Wonder Dog
in the comic books, but Daddy had told me this was the movie dog’s grandson.
“Did you see Rex the Wonder Dog in the movies, Big Mama?”
She had only laughed and said,“Lord, no, son. Mister Frank and I were too busy running this farm to get to a picture show.” She had stopped walking abruptly then, looking across the pasture toward where Mud Creek cut through a stand of willows. “We did go off to town one Saturday night–you must’ve been a baby then–and saw a silly picture about a talking mule. Francis, the thing was called. I never saw Mister Frank laugh so, but then he reckoned money was too hard to get to spend it on such a trifle. And we never went back.” She dusted her hands on her dress, turned back toward the house. “We might ought to have gone to another picture show, it
seems,” she said, and had picked up her pace, walking ahead of me.
Now she got up and went to the counter and got the apples she’d peeled earlier. She stopped and looked out the window, but I didn’t think she saw a thing. Some of the same sadness I’d seen yesterday flickered in Big Mama’s eyes as she leaned close to the table, setting down the dish of apple slices. “We had a big mutt here on the farm, part shepherd and part bloodhound of all things. Ugliest dog I ever saw. But he was Mister Frank’s favorite. Called him Grizzle.” She sat down and looked at me, not blinking, completely ignoring my mother at the table. She put her hands on either side of her plate. “Lord, son, I hope I’m wrong, but I’m of a mind your dog is an old-timer and he has gone down in his back.”
“Big Mama!” Mother scolded. “Why in the world would you tell this child such a thing?”
“Because his sorry daddy won’t, that’s why. I’m just saying that Grizzle...”
“What? Big Mama, what?” I began to cry and shook my head. “I told you, Mother, I shouldn’t go away from my dog!”
“For heaven’s sake. Both of you, please...”
“You have to know, Sonny, if Rex is down it is nothing you did. You hear me, son? Coming to see your granny wasn’t part of this. When Grizzle got down, Mister Frank told me it was a fault of the Shepherd in him. Their long backs don’t bear up well as they get older.”
“Rex is not older,” I shouted, and leaped from the table, tipping over my chair. I ran from the room as Mother said, “Good Lord, Big Mama! This just beats all! I’ll just have to get him home now if he doesn’t run off through the woods on foot.Why would you do this,Marjene? Is this how you pay back a boy’s affection?”
As I think back, I know now that the old woman did not get up to follow her daughter-in-law out of the kitchen, where the beans and corn and squash still sat steaming in their bowls. She would have waited until she heard the automobile’s tires leave the gravel of her drive to meet the quiet pavement before she would have put her napkin over the uneaten potatoes on her plate and pushed back her glass of sweet tea, its few ice cubes near melted. I’m glad Big Mama did not have a telephone to get the news that Rex had to be put down. It would be a long time before another visit, and the story would have acquired some measure of peace before it was told to her that Daddy had held out the gun to me, offering me the shot that would take my paralyzed dog out of his misery.
Daddy’s face had been a mess of anger, blurred in my vision that focused on the fat blue pistol in his hand, its wood handle extended toward me. He had not stopped scowling since I crawled out from beneath the house, dirty and huffing from dragging Rex on a bed sheet into the sunlight that made him close his eyes.
“He’s your’n, boy,” Daddy had said, still holding the butt of the gun toward me, and I’d looked straight at him like he was a copperhead in a coil, that if I broke the stare I’d be struck. Big Mama would learn that when he asked me flat out, “You want to shoot him?” that I’d said no and
squeezed hard as I could to keep from crying. “Then move. Get over here back of me.”
And when I stepped to the side, Rex blinked his eyes open and locked on mine, looking for reassurance. Somebody might tell Big Mama how I gave in and cried then, but they wouldn’t know to tell her how that river of bewilderment and anger flowed right from me into the silent, waiting eyes of Rex the Wonder Dog, when what he needed was confidence. But I had none to share.
From the Hardcover edition.
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