Is there anything more exciting for a fiction writer than the first story for which he got paid? I won’t embarass myself by saying when this appeared, or how little money I received for it, but I will tell you this — it was published by The Fiddlehead, a literary magazine at the University of New Brunswick where I was briefly a grad student, and no dogs were harmed in the writing of this story.
Years later, a book reviewer for the Sri Lankan Sunday Observer wrote an article called “Reality and symbolism in the South Asian Canadian short story” , and because my family name (actually Scottish) looks very much like a common Indian name (Anand), my story got included in the essay. Here’s what the reviewer had to say about it:
If this is authentic North American idiom, matching well with the characters, in Annand we find the most native-like use of language, but, of course, in the mouths of native-born characters. Thus we find in “Rosie Was a Good Old Dog,” for example, Tom Banner “dunking” Garold in the river, and then “yanking” him out—expressive vocabulary usage. Authentic grammatical forms of the average Canadian—“Ain’t nothin’,” “since the other kids growed up and took off,” “the pups is comin’ along real fine,” expressions such as “real fine,” “what the livin’ Judas is makin’ that?” and spoken abbreviations such as “There’ll be more’n two or three pups” and “C’mere, lad”—are not wanting either.
Anyway, now that we know I’m right up there with Ernest Hemingway and Richard Price with a finely-tuned ear for Maritime dialogue, read on and judge for yourself.
* * * *
Rosie Was a Good Old Dog
“Daddy, Tom Banner’s dunking Garold in the river again!” Nancy stood breathless in the kitchen, her face pink with cold and excitement.
“Alright, I’ll go and stop him.” Earl pulled on his coat and boots. “But you stay here.”
“Ah, Daddy,” she complained, stamping her foot.
“You mind, young lady, or I’ll tan your fanny.” He closed the door behind him and ran along the beaten trail through the apple orchard to the river.
“You crazy fool, you’ll drown that boy!” he shouted, running up to the man on the ice.
“You mind your business, Earl.” Tom brandished his axe. Beside the three-foot-diameter hole he had chopped in the ice was a large gunny sack from which protruded the head of a young boy. “Now you stand back there, Earl, or I’ll wedge your ears apart. This here’s my own boy and I know what’s good for him.”
He grabbed his son by the hair and tried to pull him out of the bag but the boy shook his head and clung grimly to the burlap he had twisted about his shoulders. Tom drove his axe into the ice and used his free hand to pull the bag open. He yanked the boy out, clad only in a pair of long flannel underwear, and pulled him towards the hole. The boy resisted silently, straddling the hole with his legs.
Earl grabbed Tom by the collar; the other turned and clipped him under the chin with an elbow. Earl sat down heavily on the ice.
Tom kicked the boy’s feet from under him, forced his legs together and slid him into the hole. Garold’s eyes bugged wide, his mouth working soundlessly as the icy water came up to his armpits. Tom squatted by the hole and held onto one of his hands, watching the boy’s face as it turned from white to a pale shade of blue, teeth chattering violently. He pulled a plug of tobacco from his shirt pocket and took a bite from it.
“Want a chew?” he offered to Earl, still sitting on the ice with ears ringing. The gesture shook him from his stupor.
“No, I don’t.” He jumped to his feet. “Tom, you pull that boy out of there before he freezes to death.”
“Don’t be silly, Earl. Garold just loves the water, don’t you, boy.” Garold tried to crawl out of the hole.
“I suppose you’ve had enough swimmin’ for one day, though.” He grabbed the boy’s hands and jerked him out onto the ice. Garold crawled into the bag. Tom slung it over his shoulder and started off toward his house. “Grab my axe there, Earl, and c’mon up to the house. We’ll have a cup o’ tea.”
Earl picked up the axe and followed Tom up to the house. He closed the kitchen door behind him and took off his boots, setting the axe down in the woodbox beside the stove. A mangy mongrel bitch lay sprawled under the kitchen table, her belly and teats swollen.
“Tom, that boy’s going to catch pneumonia.”
“Sit tight, Earl.” Tom threw open the oven door and pulled out the trays. “C’mon Garold, hop in there smart now and we’ll warm you up.” Garold climbed into the oven and Tom closed the door on him. He kicked the bag under the table and threw a stick into the stove.
“Now you shut up, Earl, or I’ll throw you out in the snow in your sock feet. Old Garold’s been sittin’ around here real dopey for the past couple of days. He gets like that every once in a while and then I take him out for a little dip and he’s right as rain. I know what I’m doin’. Lord knows I wouldn’t hurt the boy.”
Earl sat on his hands and watched the oven door.
“Mandy!” Tom hollered, “c’mon out here and fix us a pot o’ tea. Earl’s come over for a visit.” He pulled a chair out from the table and tugged off his boots.
Tom’s wife, a large-breasted woman, appeared at the door in an old print dress and knitted, wool slippers. She nodded in acknowledgement to Earl, then pumped some water and set the teapot on to boil.
“Where’s Garold, Tom? Is he out in the barn?”
A couple of knocks came from the oven door.
“Oh Tom!” Mandy said, standing still in the middle of the floor, wringing her hands in her apron.
“He must be just about done now.” Tom got up and opened the door to peek in at Garold. “You’re not burnin’ are you, lad?” He picked up a stick of wood from the box and wedged it in the door so that Garold could look out into the kitchen.
“Don’t just stand there, old woman,” Tom said. “Where’s them biscuits you baked this morning?”
Mandy set cups and saucers on the linoleum tablecloth and brought butter and a tin of biscuits from the pantry. As she bent over the table to remove a pair of working gloves from the geranium plant on the windowsill, Tom gave her a loud smack on the bottom with his hand. Mandy flushed scarlet and left the room.
“Heh heh, that old girl o’ mine is sure built like a brick shithouse, eh Earl? I’ll bet you wonder what a strappin’ big woman like that could see in a scrawny little bugger like myself.”
Earl wondered in silence.
“Well, I’ll tell you, Earl, we may be gettin’ on in years, but we still know how to make that bed creak. We’ve had twelve young ones now, countin’ the latest.” He brought the teapot to the table and poured out a cup. “You’ve seen the little rascal, eh? I don’t know, he don’t look too good to me.” He spat in the flowerpot. “But since the other kids growed up and took off, I kinda wanted to have some more little fellers runnin’ around the place. Trouble is, when you make as many as we have, one of ‘em’s bound to spoil.” He nodded towards the stove. “I just hope the last little feller don’t turn out like Garold.”
Earl poured himself a cup of tea and buttered another biscuit.
“Hey there, Rosie,” Tom said, reaching under the table for the dog, “c’mon up here and have a biscuit.” He grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and lifted her into his lap. “By jeez, I love this old bitch.” He tweaked one of her nipples and she growled softly. “I got her when she was just a pup, before we had old Garold there.” He popped a biscuit into her mouth and caught the soggy crumbs as she chewed on it. “This’ll be her eighth litter, but it don’t look like there’ll be more’n two or three pups. Jeez, I hope they turn out okay — it’ll help liven up the house. The old girl’s just about had it.” He gave her another biscuit and a kiss on the snout, then spilled some tea into a saucer for her to lap up. “Yep, she was a good old huntin’ dog in her prime — brought home quite a few ducks for the dinner table.” He scratched her head. “Couple of Ralph Cotter’s chickens, too,” he chuckled.
“Tom, that oven must be pretty hot.”
“Yep, I reckon he’s dry by now. Hey there, Garold, c’mon out now.”
The oven door pushed open and Garold, apparently none the worse for his ordeal, crawled out onto the floor.
Garold went to his father who felt his underwear. “There now, you’re all dry and warm now, eh?” He tugged open the buttons at the boy’s fly and grabbed his penis. “Look at that. Earl, he’s gonna be a big little man just like his old dad.” He tousled Garold’s hair and shoved him under the table. Garold curled up on the burlap bag and made a humming noise. “You see, Earl, he’s just fine now. Here you go, lad, have a biscuit.” He threw one on the floor and Garold grabbed it up and ate it.
Earl got up and put his boots on.
“Where you goin’, Earl? You haven’t finished your tea!”
* * * *
“We’ve got to do something, Susan,” Earl confided to his wife as he helped her clear the supper table, “or Tom’s going to kill that boy with those notions of his. I think I should speak to Sheriff Maclean.”
“If Tom found out you’d done that, Earl, there’s no telling what he’d do.”
“But he’s dunked that boy in the river twice this winter!”
“Well, spring’s just around the corner.”
“That’s not very funny, Susan,” he admonished with a severe look.
“I’m sorry, Earl. Anyway, I think Garold’s beyond sympathy. Mandy’s the one I think of. How was she? Did you see the baby?”
“No, I didn’t see the baby, and Mandy looks the same as she has for the past ten years.”
“That poor woman, she’s too old for that sort of thing! It’s a wonder she’s not flat on her back.”
“That’s the way it always starts, isn’t it?”
Now it was Susan’s turn to give him a wicked look. He left her with the dishes and went off to the sitting room to look for his pipe.
* * * *
“Daddy!” Nancy came running into the barn where Earl was putting up a new pen for the chickens. “Tom’s going to bury Garold! He’s got him in a bag again and he’s digging a hole out behind the barn.”
Earl groaned. What wouldn’t that man think of next, he wondered, to torture that boy? He took his hammer with him and strode resolutely across the field to Banner’s. The snow had all melted and the ground had turned to mud.
“Howdy, Earl,” Tom said, pulling the gunny sack towards the hole he had dug near the manure pile.
“Now you just hold it, Banner.” Earl shook the hammer in Tom’s face. “You’ll suffocate that boy sure as hell if you bury him. I’m not going to stand by and watch you commit murder — no matter how much good you think you’re doing him.” He gave Tom a shove backwards and ripped the twine off the end of the bag.
He threw it open and the stench of the dead dog inside hit him full in the face. It was Rosie. He twisted the bag shut and stepped back.
“Now d’you mind, Earl, if I bury an old friend?” Tom lowered the sack into the hole and shoveled the excavated dirt onto it. “Best darn old hound I ever had,” he mumbled, his cheeks wet with tears.
Earl stood aside sheepishly, toying with the hammer. Garold came loping around the corner of the barn, slapping his haunches and bobbing his head. When he saw Earl, he pulled up short and galloped the other way.
“C’mon in and have a cup o’ tea, Earl.” Tom took his arm. “You haven’t seen the pups, eh? Old Rosie whelped just last week — we got two. She passed away the day after but I been kinda slow puttin’ her under the sod.” He sniffled. “Jeez, she was a good old dog. But goddamn,” he said, brightening considerably, “the pups is comin’ along real fine!”
They walked through the woodshed to the kitchen. Garold leaped out from under the kitchen table and Tom gave him a cuff on the ear. “Get on outside, Garold.” The door slammed shut as the boy made his exit. Tom put the teapot on the stove and, with a finger to his lips, beckoned Earl to follow him into the hall.
Earl took his boots off and tiptoed down to the sitting room. Mandy sat in a rocking chair looking out the window, her back to the door. Beside her was an old wicker bassinet with a red-faced baby wrapped tightly in its blankets.
Tom pushed the bassinet aside and, grabbing the chair posts, wheeled Mandy about to face Earl. Her dress was unbuttoned and in her cradled arms lay two sleek brown pups suckling at her pendulous breasts. She blushed violently and tried to turn away to cover herself but Tom knelt beside the chair and caught her hands in his.
“Ain’t nothin’ to be ashamed of, old girl,” he said, scratching one pup’s head. “Ain’t they prime. Earl?”
“They look real good, Tom.”
“By jeez, I bet they’ll be good huntin’ dogs too, just like their ma. Tell you what, Earl — I’m going to give you one.”
“What? Here now, take a feel of this feller.” He grabbed Earl’s hand and shoved it beneath one pup’s belly.
“He’s a nice pup,” Earl said, his thumb pressed against Mandy’s breast. She offered him a shy smile and he felt his ears take fire. He pulled his hand free.
Tom stood up. “Well, tea must be boilin’. ‘D you like a cup, Mandy?”
She nodded yes and he gave her breast a squeeze.
Earl and Tom went into the kitchen. Garold was sitting on a gunny sack under the table.
“By jeez, there’s one hell of a stink in here,” Tom swore. “What the livin’ Judas is makin’ that? And you, you little bugger, I told you to stay outside. ‘D you track all that mud over the floor?”
Garold jumped up from beneath the table and, grinning from ear to ear, held open the gunny sack.
“What the hell’s this?” Tom snatched the sack away and swung a kick at the seat of the boy’s pants.
Garold jumped aside and opened the oven. A cloud of acrid smoke rose to the ceiling and Rosie’s head flopped out onto the door. Garold knelt to run his hands over the dog’s matted coat and, smiling up at his father, grabbed Rosie by the scruff of the neck and shook her.
~ The End ~