My brother and I stepped out of the Chevy Blazer in dirtclogged cleats and into the garage, drenched in Gatorade-infused sweat, our heads spinning from a helluva football practice. We were seven and nine, feeling like men, having been introduced to the world by way of violent sports and aggression, our constant ushers during those early years.
Memorizing football plays, being chastised in huddles by an eccentric coach who passed gas and held us there long enough for everyone to gag, and beating teams of other little men made us feel like we had some type of lot in life. I remember a friend, Ryan Skidmore, stabbing a stick into a piece of tobacco one of our coaches had spit near us on the sidelines. We stared at the foreign object, vapor rising from our hot heads in the cold of the night.
We were steam engines, taking in the ways of the world, resting from locomotive moves on the field, processing the motives of the grown men we were supposed to look up to. To this day, I still remember Ryan poking and prodding the tight wad of Skoal. It looked like cow dung. It looked like regret. It smelled like cologne that had been embezzled up someone’s stern.
Ryan died before he turned 20, and I didn’t attend his funeral. I blame denial. I blame a busy college schedule. I blame not wanting to let go of someone with whom I grew up. Someone who gave me Jerry Stackhouse’s Tar Heel rookie card. Someone who handed me firecracker poppers at school to take home and try. “Got ’em at Friendly Bear,” he told me. I hid those things in my red-and-white Igloo lunchbox until I got home.
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I can still see that unraveling piece of tobacco being rolled around in the cold grass. And I can still smell the burning sulfur those firecrackers exuded.
“Have you guys been praying for a dog?” My mom’s voice broke through the dark garage.
“What?” I asked, my eyes adjusting to the dim light.
Slowly, a black-and-brown Beagle emerged from the shadows, tongue out, breathing hard. She was heavy. In fact, even at such a young age, I found her weight shocking. (We were told later that her previous owner had gotten her fixed and weight gain was a by-product.) She looked up at me as if to say, Okay. I’m here. I’m your huckleberry. Her chocolate eyes burned into me like Christ’s on the crinkled oil painting in my mom’s sewing room. I got lost in them. I was frightened by it.
We named her Gypsy on account of giving up on calling her by a traditional name. Mom called her like she was. The Beagle was a traveler, a rolling stone; her last stop had been our house deep in those woods of North Carolina on 12 acres of land. A paradise for someone who liked to roam and still call it home. We never locked her up and never put a leash on her.
Hell, we didn’t even have enough money to spare for a cage or doghouse. She made her bed on a piece of brown canvas paper in the garage. We fed her dinner scraps—spaghetti, mashed potatoes, meatloaf and garlic bread buttered to the hilt. She’d eat anything. There were plenty of times when she’d bound up the steps to our decks looking for food, shaking the whole thing beneath my feet. She was an earthquake of love and loyalty.
Before Gypsy arrived, my brother, sister and I were perfectly happy exploring the woods by ourselves. Now, Gypsy was with us everywhere we went, busting through thick stands of poison ivy and thorn patches that should’ve torn her to shreds, wallowing in creek water, barking thunderously into the distant wood like her life depended on it—a siren of protection that she sounded over the three of us. Her bark was booming and deafening and unique; I’ve never heard another dog bark that way.
She accumulated gluttonous ticks that bloomed into penny-sized tubs of bloody jewelry seemingly overnight. We’d pick them off her back and out of her ear with sticks. Then we’d pop the little bastards in the driveway with those sticks, standing back, shielding our eyes from the red squirts. We’d marvel at how something so tiny could be so bloody. It was like staring at Old Faithful … they just kept on gushing. Garlic pills remedied that situation, but then she’d get worms from lapping up creek water and scoot on her butt down the gravely hill to stop the itching. Worm medicine took care of that. We took care of her and she took care of us.
One summer, my brother and I worked for our neighbors, shoveling horse manure and sawdust for three dollars an hour. They kept Arabian stallions, and the name on the stable’s sign made me think of Robin Williams singing “Arabian Nights” in the movie Aladdin. And it blew my mind that something so exotic-sounding was stationed so deep in the South.
The family owned Doberman Pinschers who would chase us home from work as we pumped our legs to exhaustion on our bicycles. One day, Gypsy came up on them, bridging the distance between them and us. She growled and the hair on her back stood on end. It gave me goose bumps, and I was lost in the burning bush that was her rage.
She helped us unravel the world in all its mystery. We poked the darkness, the unknown woods, and elbowed at things we couldn’t fully understand about nature and wildlife, like that gob of tobacco. Her spirit taught us that fear shouldn’t reside in one’s heart. She taught us to love, and by taking care of her, we became less selfish and grew up just a little more.
Now, all these years later, I still think of Gypsy. And sometimes when I see a thick line of trees at night, I’ll look out into that darkness and envision her breaking through its seams, bounding toward me like the bull in Flannery O’Connor’s “Greenleaf,” just to check and see if I’m all right. “Come here, buddy,” I’d say. “Let’s get you fed.”