Sugarpool, An Appalachian novel.

Winnie, con’t

If my face is an open book to Lucky, then his ways are as predictable as the waxing and waning of the moon to me. I knew by the time the pup was grown, the rare breed dog show could be a mile down the road, and Lucky wouldn’t bother.

I’ve been on his roller coaster of enthusiasms all my life. I needed it. He eased the dead sister in me, but then, one day, while we rode on his Harley, he went too far and too fast, and I lost her. It was only for a second, but I couldn’t stand the imbalance, all Lucky and no Evie. I couldn’t let her go. So I closed off for protection, and I’ve always wondered if he noticed. He runs through everything.

He’s been through countless trucks, motorcycles, guns, hounds, his one time shot at religion, and a boy scout troop he offered to lead and then, after two meetings and buying all the scoutmaster stuff, dumped in his assistant’s lap.

Still, Lucky is a pleasure to be around when he’s happy. He can brighten the world, at least until he gets bored, and that is exactly what he did with the Fila Brasileiro pup.

Lucky finally named the pup “Pace”, after months of calling him “pup” or “big pup,” because when the dog was around ten and a half months old, Lucky had his hips X-rayed for dysplasia and the results came back OFA excellent. That’s unusual for a large breed. Normally, their joints don’t fit properly, but Pace’s X-rays showed his bones fit perfectly with the right amount of cartilage between, so he’d never go lame. Lucky was ecstatic and started calling him “Pace,” ignoring the fancy name on the pedigree, because, he said, his dog would outrun everything in the show ring. His interest lasted about a month, then he forgot about Pace.

I didn’t.

Pace was going crazy because he wasn’t a weapon. Lucky was the weapon, and the power he wielded was lack of love. Bonding had been bred into that dog, and when Lucky took away his special shows of attention, Pace did become a monster.

At first, he growled and yelped his frustration, then he began to bark most of the day. He chewed the wires, then fence fought with hounds in the next run. Finally, he went off his feed until even Lucky noticed and said he didn’t know why he’d bought the damn thing. He still fed him in the evenings, but the first word he always said to him was “Down!”

I’d never bonded with any of Lucky’s animals and had no intention of getting involved with Pace, until one day when I was hanging sheets on the line. To my mind, there is nothing better than pulling back a quilt and smelling the wind in your bed. It was fall of last year, and a more beautiful Indian summer I’d never seen. The trees changed color but hung onto their leaves. We had rain, but it was warm and steady, not like the deluge that usually comes to Sugar Creek in the fall and spring, causing roads to flood and schools to close. I hadn’t really looked outside of myself in a long time, and it was a frightening and exhilarating experience.

The world was wide and free and I realized how much life I was missing. Afraid of pain, I’ve never dug deeply to find out who I am. Oh, I know who I am in what other people want from me, but that’s all.

It was time to explore.

I kept up the housework, but I couldn’t stand to be indoors. I avoided the back yard, because Pace’s snarling and lunging scared me down to my toes. I went into the hills barefoot, and the only thing that called me back was time. I had to be home before Lilyanne got in from school. It didn’t matter that nowadays she hardly said two words to me, I needed to be there.

I didn’t have a cough or a pocket of infection then. I was happy, though Lucky could get on my nerves and my sister gasped under my skin. Then, one day, Pace let out a howl that bounced off the sycamore I was sitting under and then, like lightning, struck the trunk again.

I was accustomed to his barks and growls, but this time it was different. Grief came pouring out of his very core, high and wild, and when I thought the worst was over, it echoed off the hills and came back again.

I instantly bonded, because I knew how he felt.

I’m not exactly sure how the Good Book regards animals, other than we are to treat them kindly and look after their welfare. I’ve always been taught that animals don’t have souls, but when I heard that howl, I believed otherwise because it was a sound I’d been hearing since Evie died. I also realized another thing: that dog had courage, even in grief, and I’d never had the courage to express mine.

The next day I started cautiously. I fashioned a long wire made of coat hangers, leaving the last one with the hook still in place. When I approached the run, Pace lifted his head as if to growl, then plopped his muzzle between his front paws. Depression has its benefits, and Pace was too down to pay attention to me.

He always drank lots of water. His water bucket was empty, easy to lift out and I started with that. It was only after I’d filled it and tried to put it back in that I realized my mistake. As soon as I lifted the full bucket, my contraption fell apart. I stood with a thirsty dog in front of me, water all over the ground, and didn’t know what to do.

Then, I did.

I filled the bucket again, unlatched the gate, and walked three steps into the pen. Pace lifted his head, then plopped it down on the concrete so hard, the impact could have broken his jawbone. I turned around, latched the gate, and ran into the house.

I leaned against the kitchen door shaking, not knowing if I’d give him water the next day. Fear is something you can’t talk about when it’s still inside you, but smack dab against that fear was a warning: this time, I had to look.

Bravery leads to strange things, both on the side of the rescued and the rescuer, and that’s how I fell in love with a Brazilian Cattle Dog.

I didn’t immediately clean the breakfast dishes the next morning but started taking food out of the refrigerator. I dumped it all in a big iron skillet — the roast beef from last night, chicken from the night before, macaroni and cheese, stuffing, deviled eggs– there was so much I can’t remember it all. I heated it until it was palatable, mixed everything in a big bowl and marched out to his run.

I’ve always been a good cook, and someone or some thing was going to benefit from my labors, even if it was a dog that made my legs shake. Now, I realize I wasn’t shaking from fear but from recognition; behind that wail of desperation was a grief I couldn’t distinguish from my own.

Hounds are dirty and have no sense. They run in circles until Lucky uses a leather strap on them. Then, they cower and hunker down in the truck bed, where they stay without chains. Nor does it matter when you feed or water them; they make no demands and are grateful for whatever they get.

But this Fila Brasileiro could break, but only because of his strength. Everything in him had been bred to bond, to protect and serve, and now his instincts were killing him. My intuition had been right. I couldn’t not look.

When I walked out with the bowl the next morning, Pace was the only dog that didn’t bark. The hounds were going crazy, but all I had to do was lift one arm, and they shut up. Pace rose on all fours. Would he attack? I didn’t know, but the though of actual confrontation perversely gave me courage, and I unlatched the gate, dumped the food into his bowl, and shoved it under his nose. He sniffed, then looked up as if waiting for permission, and I said:

“Don’t think you’re going to get this every morning, because you’re not. This place looks good, but without me it would fall apart.”

The second I finished speaking, he began to gulp down his food. Then, I did something I’d heard Lucky warn us countless times not to do: Never disturb a dog while it’s eating or has a new bone. Even the gentlest will turn on you.

His warning meant nothing, and I reached out and patted Pace on the head. I don’t know how many times I did it, because at first my hands were fluttering too fast to count, then they slowed, but I couldn’t stop. My fingernails dug behind his ears and he gave a growl, but it was a deeply satisfied sound, and he didn’t look up, just started to wag his tail.

I went inside and washed the skillet and the big bowl, then rushed out to get Pace’s empty food dish. Lucky didn’t need to know I was doing this. I scrubbed it, then scrubbed it again in case there were any food scraps I’d missed. When I returned it to his pen, Pace was lying on his side, belly distended. Before I left the run, he raised his head and licked my hand.

I didn’t feed him occasionally after that, I fed him every day. Lucky couldn’t figure out why he was gaining weight yet wouldn’t eat his Gravy Train, so I began to get rid of the dog food left his bowl. Sometimes I walked out to the edge of the field and scattered it for the birds, but mostly I gave it to the hounds.

Lucky had no clue.

Not only did I give Pace leftovers, I cooked for him, too. I fried bacon and then bread in the bacon grease. I mixed in raw eggs to make his coat shine. Lilyanne’s twig and bark cereal went down the disposal, because Pace would’ve nudged that stuff out of his bowl and I’d have to spray out the kennel.

Pace and I became friends — actually, more than friends because I understood his heart. He’d been touched by grief.

Sometimes, I’d sit on the floor of the kennel regardless of what I was wearing, my day clothes or my pajamas and robe, and talk to him. Pace would put his head in my lap while I scratched behind his ears. Some days I talked sense, some days I talked nonsense. Nothing I said was wrong because the warmth of his body told me he was inclined to the warmth of words.

The weather held and I spent more time outdoors. I quit cleaning and started just “picking up” and no one noticed, except Lilyanne. She looked around one day and said, “What happened, Momma? Our house looks normal.”

One morning, when I was talking to Pace, I heaved his head out of my lap and walked out of the kennel, leaving the gate open. I knew he needed exercise, but I had to force him out. Even when stood I at the end of the run, he whined. I went back in, and the first time he left, it was with me.

West Virginia Indian summer

I pushed Pace hard during that glorious Indian summer, because I knew a change was coming for me. Whether it would plunge me down to heart of everything, or lift me high as heaven, I didn’t know, but I was going to be prepared. Since Pace was the only one who listened to me, he was going to be prepared, too.

The day of my ultimate resolve came on the day I took my last pill. It was still the original bottle. I never did go back for the refill. Anyway, I opened his run, stepped back, and said, “Come to me.”

He did.

I added, “Run free.”

I watched that dog nearly tear himself in two. He was intrigued by the smells beyond, but didn’t want to leave me. All the hounds were yelping, running in circles inside their pens, but I wasn’t going to offer anything. They’re clueless as to freedom. It would take nightfall to gather them back in, and Lucky would know.

Pace looked toward the north pasture, then nudged my thigh so hard, he knocked me off balance. I righted myself and said firmly. “Go now. I’ll whistle before he gets home.”

I added this last part for me.

Pace was sensitive to my moods, and when I gave him a whack on the rear, he took off without ever looking back. I watched that dog run pell mell across the pasture, his coat gleaming in the sunlight and the muscles working beneath his skin. Just before he disappeared into the tree line, I thought, Why can’t that be me?

And that’s why I’d run out in the mornings, all through the bitter winter and the chill of a merciless spring, half dressed but glad that I lived so far out no one could see me.

Yes, Dr, Cobble had guessed right, but only by half. I didn’t care about the hounds, but Pace was mine and Lucky still hadn’t caught on, although he complained that the dog wasn’t taking to him like it should and he’d never buy another animal that came from foreign soil. He might even sell it.

Over my dead body.

But back to my pocket of infection. After my examination, Dr. Cobble gave me a prescription and I went to Sharon who’s been with him forever and now runs the pharmacy the west wing, and handed it to her.

Sharon took one look at what he’d prescribed and returned with a bottle of bright red pills. Then, she had the office girl type the instructions and stick them to the bottle, and Sharon repeated them as if I couldn’t read. She even sounded like Dr. Cobble. They’ve been together too long.

“Winnie, there’s sixty antibiotics in here, strong ones, and you have to take the full course. Don’t miss a day. When you run low, come in early, and I’ll give you a refill.” She paused, then asked, “What in the world have you been doing to get yourself so sick?”

Before I could speak, she answered for me.

“You don’t have to say it. It’s those dogs, isn’t it? Now that Lucky got that — whatever it is — he’s finally got his hands full.”

I told her I’d follow the instructions and handed over my insurance card. Then, I signed a form, something to do with a change in prescription coverage, but instead of my name, I should have written: My sister drowned, but I’m buried alive.

My sister drowned, but I’m buried alive.

I took the red pills, and, sure enough, I coughed up gunk the same sickly green as Lucky’s mother’s couch, and I started feeling better. I have coughed up my sickness and my hatred of that couch as well. Then, summer started again, and I had energy. Not just in the morning but throughout the day. I freed Pace as soon as possible, forgot my promise about going to the dentist, and didn’t think I needed a refill.

Pace was going out of the pasture now, running up into the hills beyond the scraggly Scotch pines and into the deep woods, but all I had to do was whistle and he’d come back to me. Once I ran with him in the pasture but once only. It winded me, and I thought about going back to Dr. Cobble, but I couldn’t because I hadn’t phoned the dentist. What had come over me? I’d always kept my promises, but right then, I forgot my guilt, as well, and ran until I collapsed just short of the tree line.

I’m happier now than I can ever remember. Sometimes my side hurts, my breast as well, but not often. The infection knows it’s beat and is just having its last battle with my natural immunities before letting go.

I’ve also changed my mind about Nonna. There’s no reason to blame her for my aching bones and clumsiness, and something else that is painful to admit — the envy. I didn’t know I had it in me. She was only trying to help. I know nothing about finance, but I know how to get started. Tonight, instead of walking the floor, I’ll make a list for the flea market. Surely, I’ve got an Appalachian craft.

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