My father let me have a beagle puppy for my tenth birthday. He’d driven us in his Chevy pickup, down the gravel road, past Mammaw Outlaw’s house and along the levee to Red’s place. Having long since given up on making me a proper hunter, as I’d eschewed guns and the murder of anything but snakes, this puppy wouldn’t be a bird dog. Instead, Blueboy, as he came to be called by my mother, would serve only as my constant companion, as well as a huge financial burden to my father.
Red was a rather large man with red hair and a red face. He worked for Mr Randolf on the neighboring farm and did the occasional odd job for my father. Mr Tim, my father’s foreman and best friend, along with my father, had convinced Red that he was my father’s brother. Red, not being the most intelligent man in the Delta, kept this “family secret” only occasionally bringing it up when he needed money.
That crisp fall day, I squatted at the makeshift dog pen and studied each of the puppies. The momma beagle looked at me with sad eyes- or, at least that’s what I assumed- as if to say “I’m exhausted. Take all of these little bastards!” One pup made his way out of the pile and literally reached for me with his fat little paw, the other caught up in the chicken-wire. It was an easy decision to make, the puppy having chosen me, and I scooped him up and showered him with kisses.
This is the first dog I can remember bonding with. My father had owned a string of black labs that he took duck hunting, but they are vague memories to me, save but one shadowy image of a dog called Mike. Mother tells the story that she was hanging laundry out behind the “little white house” one afternoon. She turned her back, only for a moment, when she heard Mike squealing from pain. When she looked to see what all the fuss was about, she found my baby sister, Susan, had clamped down on Mike’s nose and was being dragged around the yard on her stomach, as he tried to back out of her bite. That dog eventually went to heaven, and he still had those bite marks.
Blueboy loved us each the same, but it was clear to all that I was his master. He’d sit, nose pressed against the glass of the sliding door that led to the patio, and whimper to me “Come outside and play! I wanna chase you some more!”
On cold evenings, there was a pile of old blankets and a space heater in the corner of the carport for Blueboy. He and my sister’s cats, Peanut butter and Jelly, would sleep in a wad, putting aside the fact that they were sworn enemies, until the next morning. Sometimes, before Pop came in from the fields, I’d sneak Blueboy into the house. We’d sit beside each other on the sofa, he propped up on his haunches. Mother entered the room once and announced “I do believe that dog thinks it’s a person. Is he watching Sanford and Son?” then went back to check on the cornbread in the oven. “Eddie,” she called from the kitchen “you’re fathers on his way. Better put Blueboy outside for the night.” I’d lead him to the patio door, kiss his head, then push him outside. He’d stay there, watching and whimpering, until we all went to bed.
This dog isn’t riding back there, Wallace.” then snatched the passenger side door open.
One Wednesday night, after having been to church, mother pulled into the carport and switched off the Oldsmobile. Pop pulled up behind us as we piled out of the car. From the storage room, I heard my Blueboy whimper. But this wasn’t the kind of call for me to play. No, this language was one of hurt and fright. I tried to get to him, but my father latched on to me with both arms and held me in my place. Mother ordered my siblings inside the house, shaking her head and fighting back tears.
Pop told me then, that he’d accidentally run over Blueboy that evening. The vet had come to see about him and decided there was nothing he could do and suggested that he be taken to Mississippi State where the veterinary school might take him on as a case. My father assured me that he was taking my Blueboy to Starkville the very next morning, then said “Son, you don’t need to see Blueboy like this.” That night, I lay in bed scared that he wouldn’t make it through the night. I was old enough to understand that it had been an accident, but I was still angry. If he died, I planned to never forgive my father.
The veterinary school took Blueboy on, as he’d suffered internal injuries but no broken bones. They stabilized him, warded off infection and bleeding, then began several surgeries to repair the membrane that separated his lungs and other internal organs. As days turned into weeks, he made steady progress, only suffering a few setbacks along the way. The teachers were amazed by his will to get better, telling Pop over the phone “Mr Outlaw, we’ve never seen an animal like Blueboy. He seems to be aware of everything that’s happening. He wants to go home.”
Money aside, my father’s “punishment” for almost killing my dog was having to suffer constant phone calls about Blueboy’s progress. Several times, my father was jolted from slumber by the phone on his side of the bed.
“Hello?” my father would mumble after finally finding the receiver in the darkness.
“Mr Outlaw? This is so-and so at State. We just wanted to let you know that we just got out of emergency surgery to stop some bleeding. Everything seems fine, for now.”
“Okay…” Pop replied, then hung up.
RING RING RING
“Hello?” Father answered.
“Mr Outlaw? This is whatchamacallit up at MSU. Blueboy is sitting up on his own and seems to be having normal bowel movements! Isn’t that great?”
“Uh-huh… Thank you…” then he’d hang up.
Later in life, my father told me that they’d called so often, he’d wondered why he hadn’t just had the dog put down. “Son, they just kept calling. I never got a good night’s sleep while Blueboy was in that hospital.”
Eventually the call came for us to fetch my beloved Blueboy. While we were in school that day, my parents made the drive to Starkville, planning to be home before the bus dropped us off. After settling up with the veterinary school, mother carried the dog out to Pop’s truck. He’d placed a box filled with blankets in the back for Blueboy. My mother stood, glaring at the box and then my father, “This dog isn’t riding back there, Wallace.” then snatched the passenger side door open.
“Bonnie, be sensible…” he tried to reason, but there was no use.
“Wallace, hand me one of those blankets, I’m holding this baby all the way home.” then kissed his nose. “I’m not letting him ride back there like some common animal. Get in the truck!”
My father, grumbling under his breath, turned the Chevy onto the highway and headed back towards Humphreys County.
Blueboy, groggy from sedation and weak, shifted his weight in my mother’s lap.
“Now, now sweet boy,” Mother said lovingly, “Hold still. We’ll be home soon, and Eddie-Man is waiting for you!” then kissed him again.
Then, to my mother’s horror, Blueboy let loose a free-flowing stream of diarrhea as he stood in her lap. My father could only yell “Cover his butt!” as he fought to get the truck to the shoulder of the road. As the tires squealed and brakes locked, my parents were both fighting against their gag reflexes, as the rancid waste continued to stream across the dash, splattering the windshield an puddling in the floorboard.
Mother barreled out first, dropping Blueboy in the box in the back, then proceeded to wretch the contents of her stomach on the side of the highway. Pop kept disposable towels in the back for cleanup, and used damn near the entire box to mop up the mess Blueboy had made. Once they’d regained their composure, they climbed back in the cab and started out again. Mother, occasionally convulsing at the smell, they rode all the way home with the windows down.
It took several weeks, but eventually Blueboy regained his strength and returned to being my constant companion, the massive scar on his belly the only clue he’d ever been sick. Eventually, he passed on of old age and my mother replaced him with a Cocker Spaniel, but no dog after Blueboy claimed my heart in quite the same way. I know it to be true: you can pick a dog, but it won’t always pick you.