As Carl Crowley eased his pickup over the rock-studded dirt road, a white dog slid from wheel-well to wheel-well, too weak to lift her head, too weak to whimper, her one good eye rubbing in the sandy, cold steel track bed. The dog was nothing more than loose bones and filth, and when Carl pulled up at the end of the road, she came to rest at the front of his track like a half-filled sack of grain.
Carl dropped the tailgate and slowly pulled the dog toward him by her legs until she lay in front of him, her white-gray tongue spilling from her mouth and turned under her lower jaw. She huffed short, slow pants that seemed as though they might stop at any moment, forcing out breath that had the stench of vermin dead a month. Carl cupped a hand under her head, lifted it ever so slightly, and gently brushed gnats from her sightless eye. He turned back a mottled gray and white ear and wiped a tar-like grease from it, rubbing his hand clean on the thigh of his coveralls. He started to inspect the dark collar of blood-matted fur and the raw, chain-link marks embedded in the dog’s flesh, but thought better of it and stared at the motionless animal and wondered how long she had been chained to the fence before the men had found her. Carl guessed a week, maybe more. He ran the palm of his hand lightly over the dog’s muddy white rib cage and said quietly, "It’s all right, dog. Everything’s going to be just fine." He lifted her almost hairless, pale pink tail with the same caution he’d use picking up a snake, and asked in a low voice if the dog was part possum.
When they’d found the dog in a remote corner of a potato field not far from the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, the other farm hands had sensed that Carl didn’t have the stomach to do what needed to be done, and told him they’d shoot her if he couldn’t, for she was certain to die, and what’s more, she was the ugliest damn dog any of them had ever seen. But throughout his fifty-two years Carl hadn’t been too good at listening to what other folks had to say and asked the men to slow down a minute. "Something tells me she’s worth saving," he had said. Now he wondered if he shouldn’t have let the men put the dog out of her misery. The same old question, he thought. He slid his big hands and forearms beneath the dog, cradling her sharp breastbone and pointed haunches in his elbows. As he lifted her, he felt a familiar frailness, a familiar helplessness.
Carl’s clapboard shack sat far enough back in the shade of the oaks that in the summer it was well hidden from the road, but now, in the leafless days of February, it was easy to find, its tin roof, ridged like the ugly dog’s rib cage, glowing a warm gray in the late afternoon sun. He carried the dog up on the porch, nudged the door open with a booted foot and looked for a place to set her down. He gently laid her on the sofa, her opaque, milky eye pointing toward the ceiling. The vacantness of the eye made Carl shudder, and he lifted the dog and turned her over so her sighted eye was not buried. It, too, was lusterless and registered nothing—no fear, no contempt, no hope.
He looked down at the dog and thought death was around him again. He thought how his Katie had held on for so long, held on until the fever and the pain had made her crazy, until the cancer had finally taken her, but not before she had asked him to help her die, had held his hands with a strength that had surprised him, and pleaded with him, telling him it would be so much better for her, for him. He had thought how to do it, kissed her tear-filled eyes and dry mouth, told her how much he loved her, worshipped her, how much he would miss her, that he wanted to go with her. She said that she would be waiting for him and he placed the pillow gently over her face, held it there a moment, then pulled it back and lay beside her, his chest heaving against her frail body. "I’m not the man to do the Lord’s work," he had said.
Now, Carl wondered, what do you feed a dying dog?
He added water to a can of beef broth, threw in a handful of sugar and warmed the liquid on the stove. He took the pan and a brown-stained baster, sat on the sofa and lifted the dog’s head to his lap. Gently, he slid the baster’s tip into her mouth and squeezed the red rubber bulb until he felt a warm wetness on his crotch as the broth ran from the underside of her jaw. He pushed the tip farther and squeezed the bulb again. He thought he saw a slight movement in the dog’s throat and continued to pump the liquid until he felt the wet once more.
Carl fed the dog at eight o’clock and again at ten. In his bedroom, he set the alarm for midnight and undressed to his under-shorts and T-shirt. He lifted the picture of his wife and held the plain pine frame in his large hands, rubbing one of them over the glass across her smiling face. He knelt and set the picture on the bed in front of him and said his prayers aloud, as he had every night since she had died: "Dear God, please look after my Katie, and let her know I wish we were together. Well, thank you. Amen." Carl set Katie’s picture on the table, took his heart pill and a long drink from his water glass and turned out the light. He lay down and closed his eyes hard, forcing the tears to crawl out the edges. It had been almost a year since Katie had died, shortly before she turned forty-seven. Carl still didn’t understand why she’d been taken from him when she was so young. "She was so beautiful," he said into the darkness.
Carl fed the dog every two hours, every day. While he worked at the farm, harvesting the winter wheat and tilling the fields for potatoes and soybeans, the dog lay on a dirty blanket in the back of his pickup. When he was at home, she lay on the floor. The most she ever moved was to raise her head.
One evening on arriving home, the dog tried to stand in the back of Carl’s truck. He lifted her and set her on the ground and steadied her, his meaty, freckled hands on her bony white shoulders and hips. The dog wavered on uncertain legs and followed him to his shack. Twice she toppled and twice Carl helped her to her feet, finally carrying her up the porch steps.
That night while Carl fixed his supper, he put a small bowl of oatmeal by the dog’s head. Slowly she stood and licked the bowl clean, then lay down, her sighted eye looking up at Carl with a curious look. He collected the bowl and stroked the crown of her head. For the first time since she had been his dog she thumped her sparsely haired tail on the floor. "Well, I’ll be damned," he said.
At bedtime Carl added thanks in his prayers for his dog. "I plan to call her Possum," he said. He turned out the light, called good night to the dog and went to sleep.
In the spring, when the Canadian geese began flying north in long, loose V’s from the Chesapeake Bay, Possum followed Carl everywhere. She jumped in and out of his truck as he came and went from the farm. Her white coat was full and rippled like tall grass in the wind when she ran; her tail now covered with feathered hair, constantly winding in a small circle. Carl thought she was beautiful, even though the other farm hands still laughed and called her the ugly dog.
Behind Carl’s shack, a short walk through a stand of pin oaks and loblolly pines was a small pond where Carl spent summer evenings fishing for bass. His first evening fishing with Possum he sat against a small willow, stroking her neck, delicately searching for the chain’s scarring with his fingers, and talked to her about fishing. The dog pressed her sightless side hard against him, her sighted eye blinking lazily, her tail brushing back and forth over the ground.
Carl stood and cast a plastic worm beneath the branches of a willow that bowed almost to the water’s surface. He whispered, "Now, watch, Possum," and jerked the grape-colored worm across the water—stopping, jerking, stopping—until a bass a foot long took the lure and shot out of the water, splashing back hard on the surface. Carl fought the fish for a few moments, then led it toward a small aluminum-framed net he held in his left hand. Possum crept to the water’s edge and swung her tail slowly in a circle. When Carl had played the bass into the shallows of the pond, the dog waded into the water and jabbed her head beneath it, flattening her thick white coat along her neck and shoulders.
"What you doing, Possum?" Carl asked. The dog lifted her head from the water, the bass held firmly in her mouth, walked toward Carl, and stood, waiting for him to take the fish.
"Well, I’ll be damned," he said as he slid the wriggling bass from the dog’s mouth, "I’ve never seen the likes of this." But Carl did see the likes of it on the next bass he hooked, and on the one after that and all that were to follow.
That night when Carl knelt to say his prayers, he spent a little longer than usual. "Dear God, please look after Katie and let her know I wish we were together. And please tell her about this dog you sent me that retrieves fish. Coming from you, she might believe it. Amen."
As he lay in the dark, Possum jumped on the bed, spun in a circle and lay down next to him. "No you don’t," Carl said. "Off the bed. "The dog craned her neck forward and licked him on the face. "Your breath smells like fish," he said, smiled, and went to sleep.
The first Sunday in August the temperature reached ninety-seven degrees. Everything green around Carl’s shack shied away from the sun for lack of rain. Carl sat in a rocking chair on the porch, half-asleep, listening to the Orioles-Yankees double-header while Possum slept in a hole she’d dug beneath the weathered planking. Late in the afternoon Carl heard a car door slam in the distance, then slam a second time. He could hear a man’s voice yelling but couldn’t make out what he was saying. He looked and listened, then watched dust roll above the trees as a car sped down the road. "We may have trouble, Possum," he said, and switched off the radio.
Carl waited a few moments. A young woman stepped from the trees and timidly approached his shack. She led a child, no more than three years old, by the hand, a maroon duffel in the other. Carl thought they both were very small and pale, and had the blackest hair he’d ever seen.
Possum opened her good eye and crept out from under the porch.
"That dog bite?" the woman asked.
"You’d know by now if she did," Carl said. "Where you headed?"
Possum pressed her nose into the boy’s neck. The child wrapped his arms around his mother’s leg from behind.
"I don’t know," she said, and looked down at the child. "We just got thrown out of a car."
"What made you stop here?"
"We got thrown out the other side of those trees. It’s the first place we come across."
Possum nuzzled the boy again. The child giggled and pressed his cheek against his shoulder to cover his neck. Carl stood and looked down at the woman. He thought she looked strong for someone so small. Her eyes were shiny black like her tight curls. Her lower lip was scraped a blood red and puffed on one side.
"How’d you get that bloody lip?" he asked.
She lowered her eyes and drew the toe of her right sandal in the dust. "I’ve been worse," she said.
"It needs tending to." She’s in some kind of trouble, Carl thought. "What’s your name?" he asked.
She said her name was Jean Carol; that her son’s name was John.
"Those all your belongings, Jean Carol?" he asked, pointing to the duffel.
Carl shook his head and smiled. "Not much to live off."
"No, sir, but it’s all we got."
Carl wondered where the woman and the boy would go. He wondered what harm it would do to take them in.
"You can stay the night, if you’d like. You and the boy can have the couch."
She shrugged her shoulders and looked at her son. He was giggling and waving a hand above Possum’s head to pat her. "That would be nice, sir," Jean Carol said. "We have no other place to go."
"If you’re going to stay, stop calling me sir," he said. "My name’s Carl Crowley. I call the dog ‘Possum.’"
The woman smiled an awkward, fat-lipped smile and lifted her son. "We won’t be any trouble."
"The sooner you put some ice on that lip, the better," Carl said.
Carl stepped out of the way as Jean Carol carried her child up the porch steps and past him. Possum followed closely, rolling her tail in slow circles. Jean Carol opened the screen door and looked in. Carl was embarrassed by what he imagined she must think. Dirty dishes in the sink. The bedspread draped over the sofa covered with muddy paw prints and white dog hairs. The few pictures on the walls uneven and the American flag above the wood stove a dusty gray.
"You’re free to go in," he said. "It’s a bit of a mess."
Jean Carol stepped inside and looked into the bedroom through the open door. Carl followed her eyes. A frayed hunting jacket hung on the doorknob and a paint-splattered pair of coveralls and an olive T-shirt were piled on the dresser. The large bed was unmade, one side dark with dirt.
He watched as Jean Carol peered into the small bathroom where the residue of shaving cream lined the chipped porcelain sink and the shower curtain hung dankly, showing large mildew spots along its bottom edge. He heard her whisper, "It’s only for a night, John."
Carl opened the refrigerator, took a handful of ice cubes and wrapped them in a dishtowel. "Here," he said, handing the damp towel to Jean Carol. "It’ll help with the swelling."
After they were through eating their supper, as Jean Carol readied the boy for bed, she said, "Your place could use some cleaning."
"It’s all right the way it is," Carl said, and whistled at Possum to follow him to the bedroom. He sat on his bed for a long while and wondered what he’d gotten himself in to. As darkness closed around his shack, he undressed, placed his wife’s picture on the bed and got to his knees. He studied the picture, Katie’s straight brown hair parted in the middle, her startled black eyes looking for something, for me, he thought, then pressed the frame against his chest. "Dear God, please look after my Katie and let her know how much I wish she was with me. I hope she wouldn’t mind me giving this woman and her boy a place to lay their heads. Amen."
Before he turned out the light, Carl opened the door a crack and said goodnight. The woman thanked him for taking her son and her in, and the shack was silent until daybreak, when Possum woke Carl to pee.
After breakfast, Carl lifted his lunch pail and a plastic jug of water, ready to go to the farm before the heat of the day began to build. A narrow pain flashed through his shoulder and down his left arm. He waited for the pain to pass, as he had many times before, and turned to Jean Carol. "Where will you and John go now?" he asked.
"Baltimore. I’ve got family there."
"You’re going to drag the boy sixty miles north on foot?" he said.
She looked at him with large, hopeful black eyes. He liked her smooth white skin, tightly curled black hair and narrow, sloping shoulders. He enjoyed it when she smiled. He didn’t think she could be any older than twenty-five. "I don’t know what else to do," she said.
Carl clucked at Possum to follow him. At the door he said, "You’ll find what you need for cleaning underneath the sink."
Carl’s shack was orderly when he returned that evening. The clothesline drooped with bedding and his clothes, all dried by the heat of the August sun. The floor was swept and the kitchen clean and uncluttered for the first time in almost a year. At first Carl liked the way his place felt when it was ordered, it made him feel like Katie was home, but soon a feeling of guilt came over him and he wondered how this stranger thought she could replace her. That night at the supper table Carl said, "I don’t know how much longer you should plan on staying. I don’t want your boyfriend poking around here."
The bright smile that Carl had begun to admire lighted Jean Carol’s face, and she said he had nothing to worry about, that all her boyfriend wanted was to be rid of John and her.
"Maybe so," Carl said. "But I think it’s time you moved on."
"You’re certain," Jean Carol said.
He said he was certain.
Carl had finished his prayers when Jean Carol quietly opened the door to the bedroom. She stood with darkness behind her, wearing one of Carl’s large denim work shirts, buttoned only at the bottom, showing her small breasts. She smiled at Carl and clasped her hands behind her back like a schoolgirl.
"John’s asleep. Do you want me to come in?" she asked.
Carl rose up on an elbow. "Come in?"
"I thought if… well … I thought maybe you’d let us stay a little longer."
"I said it was time for you to move on," Carl said.
"But we don’t have any place to go," she said. The smile had gone from her face. She rocked from one bare foot to the other.
"Coming in here won’t change that," Carl said.
Jean Carol remained facing Carl and slowly buttoned the shirt. He looked away from her and ran his thumb over the crown of Possum’s head. He heard the door shut, and was alone with his dog.
“ I didn’t mean to insult her, but she surprised me.” He got out of bed and opened the door. "Jean Carol, I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings. I’m not much good at being a widower. It’s got nothing to do with you."
" We’ll be leaving in the morning," she said.
" You and John need a place to go first. You’re welcome to stay until we’ve got it worked out."
As Carl lay down in the dark, Possum licked him on the forearm. "She’s real pretty," he whispered as he dropped his arm across the dog’s chest, and wondered how things had changed so in such a short time. He thought how much he enjoyed her smile, and admitted to himself that he liked the way his home felt with her and the boy in it. He could see her buttoning his shirt to cover herself and wanted her to stop. He knelt by his bed a second time that evening. "Dear God, I need Katie now more than ever. Please don’t let her be mad at me for what I’m feeling. Well, thank you, again. Amen."
The next evening Carl took John to the pond to catch their supper. Possum walked at the boy’s side, switching her tail. While Carl tied a lure on his line, he kept an eye on the boy, watching as he threw pebbles in the water, wandering close to the pond’s edge. "Careful, son," he said, leaning his rod against a small willow. As he spoke, he froze in pain, a pain that joined his body at his left shoulder, ran down his arm and along his jaw, and clamped his chest. He grabbed at his shirt and tried to tell the boy to run and get his mother but the words wouldn’t come out. He slumped to the base of the willow and came to rest as though he had seated himself.
John walked closer to the water, searching for pebbles to throw, giggling as he stepped in the soft black mud at the edge of the pond. For an instant his feet were sucked in place and then he lurched forward, free of the mud and in the water, struggling, then slowly sinking.
Carl called weakly for Jean Carol but his cry was lost in the thickets of oaks and pines. He dragged himself toward the pond, his hands and knees heavy in the sand, and saw the boy roll on his side under the water like a dead fish. At the water’s edge, the backs of Carl’s hands came in and out of focus as his chest grew tighter and tighter, and he fell forward, the side of his face digging a furrow in the sand.
He reached for the boy but his hands grabbed nothing but thin, black mud.
Possum’s tail circled slowly. She stepped past Carl and into the pond, jammed her head underwater and grabbed John by the back of his pants and—half-dragging him, half-carrying him—pulled him to the safety of higher ground.
The boy’s piercing cries ricocheted through the trees. All the while, Carl lay as still as the humid evening air.
In minutes, Jean Carol arrived gasping, sweat beading on her forehead and upper lip. She screamed Carl’s name as a question and then in desperation, knelt and pulled John to her and pushed his wet hair from his face. "Hush, baby, it’s going to be all right," she said, and then asked, "Carl, what’s happening? Was he drowning?"
Carl rolled to his side. His chest burned with pain. He saw Jean Carol holding the boy, the dark eyes he admired so when she smiled now wild with terror and felt her hand gently brush the sand from his cheek. He clutched at his shirt as though he was trying to tear away the breast pocket.
"Is it your heart?" she said. Then, "Oh, God no, Carl. Please hang on. Please. We need you."
Carl coughed a painful cough, and shook his head. "Just let me go, "he said, and watched Jean Carol stand, back away from him, then turn and stumble toward the shack carrying her son.
He wrapped his arms across his chest. His vision dimmed, the trees around the pond slowly becoming nothing more than a green smudge against the evening sky. Possum crept near him; her rear end cowered close to the ground, her feathered tail curled tight between her legs. She whined and pawed at Carl’s shoulder, then lay flat to the ground, stretched her head between her forepaws, and swept her tail across the sandy bank of the pond.
Carl felt heavy and very tired. Each breath he drew was short and shallow. "I’m coming, Katie," he whispered, and closed his eyes. All went silent and then he heard a woman’s voice: "Not yet, Carl." He forced his eyes open to look for Jean Carol, but she wasn’t there. Beyond the trees he could hear the wail of a siren and closed his eyes again as Possum pressed her wet, sightless side against him.Harry Groome was born in Philadelphia, graduated from Penn, and has lived here most of his sixty-seven years. In 2000, he received an MFA in Writing from Vermont College. Since then, his stories have won several writing awards and appeared in numerous publications including Aethlon, Aim Magazine, American Writing, Detroit and Gray’s Sporting Journal. He has just finished his first novel, Wing Walking, and is hard at work on his second.