Passing Trains

Short Stories... All Aboard!


A Passing Snow

This memory has haunted me for more than thirty years.  It comes unannounced to wrap me in chains of dead-heavy guilt, in the weight of oppression, plaguing me when I might least expect it.  A moment ago I was lying in bed reading a pleasant story – about a likable fellow describing his room in New Orleans.  Then, with my mind on my pillow and visiting a comfortable place, suddenly that devil came to haunt me again.

This is an exorcism, and an epitaph, to rid my sin and its dark accomplice, and to let you know the good dog she was.  Until this moment not a word has been said, not a memory of her life spoken or recorded.  And who would recall a dog who lived tethered to a tree, who gave her short life to an earth of trouble in every season.

I first saw her from my attic room.  My window faced the narrow side street in an older, middle class, well kept neighborhood...  

Below, across the way, I’d see her walking in circles around and around, and around and around again, only pausing to bark and threaten the animal or human who occasionally appeared as if to invade her scant, miserable territory.  Paws and chain had worn her small patch of green suburban grass into brown and bare earth.  At times she would rest in her gray and cramped dog house, her head on her paws, her eyes looking out, sad.  Beyond her chain, her imprisoned sphere, life was passing her by, hour by hour and day by day.

Her owner’s name was Brown, Reverend Brown, and finely dressed in the success of his congregation.  In the garage below his substantial house, Reverend Brown kept his long, impeccably polished black Mercedes.  Unknown to Dixie, this car had been her fate, her progenitor.   She had been chosen from a litter of two, not for her good company and carefree romps in the park, but forsaken to keep watch over the reverend’s expensive car. 

Early each morning Reverend Brown’s wife filled Dixie’s blue dish on her last-minute way to work.  If Mrs. Brown had time, she’d also check Dixie’s water bowl, and if she had extra time, splash it half empty.  In the seconds it took, never a hand or kind word entered Dixie’s preordained world.

Except for Sunday’s, the more leisurely Mr. Brown left their substantial home after the sun was well up.  Monday or Sunday, he wound his way down the forty steps from the house to his spiritual guide and master, Saint Mercedes.  In the unhurried minutes he took, never a reassuring parable or inspiring psalm entered Dixie’s hopeful heart.

In the evening, except for Sunday’s, the Brown’s returned as they had left.  And each day, all day, Dixie waited.  She strained excitedly against her chain, jumping up and down as each Brown arrived home;  “Not ‘today’ dog, I have god on my mind.”  “Not ever Dixie, I have nothing left in my soul.”  (Well, maybe tomorrow, Dixie, maybe tomorrow.)

Dixie was born mostly a bird dog, with the telltale patches of brown against clouds of short, white fur.  Yet, slow time had taken its toll.  She was no longer as fit and slim as her twin brother. Even his name was more appreciated; Hawk.  Dixie’s two-year-old coat had lost its brilliance.   Her eyes were dulled by her harsh, exposed existence,  and after two years lashed to a tree, Dixie could pass as her twin brother’s thrice older third cousin.

I first met Hawk downstairs, guarding my landlady, Mrs. Evans.  Given the chance, he’d bite the hand, except the one that fed him.  Other than that, he had the run of the yard and the walk of the neighborhood.  Unlike his sister across the way, he lived the golden life, the life dogs dream of.  He was a valued member of the pack, a human family. Hawk ate when he was hungry, chewed on the newspaper, charged every knock on the door, barked at strange noises, talked easy in his sleep, and only objected to a bath after a warm dinner.  He had all that was missing a short glance and far cry from his sister tied and forgotten across their narrow street.

Mornings and afternoons I’d look down from my window hoping Dixie’s fate had changed.  But she was always there, chained and circling, chained and resting.  At night I’d see her below through the branches and leaves from my window.  I’d whistle to let her know she wasn’t alone, that there was life just beyond her sight, over her wall, maybe even chained to that tree like her.  During the day she’d respond to my invisible calls by looking in all directions, all directions but up.  When she barked, I looked down to make sure a passing kid wasn’t throwing rocks at her threats.  Her existence was restricted to twenty feet, while the long-gone kid had the run of parks and birded fields. 

It seemed Dixie had become hostile from loneliness, and had been baring her teeth before I had first arrived.  During the year after I walked into that otherwise pleasant attic room, I believed there wasn’t much I could do for her.  I thought she was the neglected twin of her healthy brother, but would snap a stranger’s hand as soon as sniff it.

I rarely walked up or down her narrow side-street, but when I did, and became completely visible past the wall-break at the foot of her driveway, she’d run to the end of her chain like the dutiful watchdog she was.  The first few times I passed, she charged so hard the chain recoiled and spun her around like a rag doll.  I cringed at the sight and thought of Dixie’s fifty pounds whipped and pained by my passing.  I began walking another route to avoid causing a misery that would rob her sleep or increase her torment.  

Reverend Brown and his wife were considered good, if not entirely sociable neighbors.  Not unusual, their preference to keep to themselves, since that’s what people tend to do.  And it was this point Mrs. Evans made, that there wasn’t much anyone could do to free Dixie from her banished, neglected life.  Occasionally, on Sundays, the Brown’s allowed Dixie to run with trim and fit Hawk in Mrs. Evans yard.  But something happened that closed god’s door on Dixie’s brief moments of unbounded joy, something the tearful Mrs. Evans couldn’t explain.  Yet, I’d seen enough from my attic window to understand this reverend and his partner wife.  Thus, I pressed Mrs. Evans gently no more on the issues of cruelty, or man.

My voice of concern, however, had made Dixie my business, and the sorriest task a man could have.  I made Dixie my business again when I turned my thinking around, and walked across that narrow street.  In spite of her threats, I looked left and right, my relaxed focus only glancing past hers.  At the end of her tense chain, she stood rigid and stiff, straining forward, looking at and into me without a sound.  I was there to take my chances, and after pausing, crouching down on gentle words, I walked up to the edge of her bare and brown prison. 

The immediate change in Dixie’s posture was amazing.  She put away her   bloodless teeth, lowered her head, and rolled on her back in the dust storm of her tail.  In the blink of an eye, it was if I was the hand that fed her.  Instantly, I became the owner she never had, the hand that touched her in the only way he knew how.  Dixie was grateful beyond words, for my hand, any hand that affirmed her mere existence. Behind her suffering duty, Dixie was all dog, all beating heart.

I tried to visit her every day while the Brown’s were out, even stealthily at night.  I’d bring her small treats, but not too much since her cross wasn’t a lack of bulk food.  I thought of taking her with me when I moved, and finding her a good home along the way.  Yet, this thought waited in the future, waiting impatiently for us to arrive. 


On the night of the blizzard, the reverend yelled from his snow-covered window when he heard me working on Dixie’s locked chain.  When I returned to the house covered in the ravages of raging winter, Mrs. Evans was waiting in the hall in her bathrobe.   Hawk was behind her ground-floor apartment door, barking to come out, yet barely audible above the blizzard of winds shaking the house.

“Reverend Brown called me, he said he’s going to get the police if you turn Dixie loose.”
“I was going to bring her in.”
“I don’t know how he knew it was you?”
“I told him.”
“It’s terrible; I couldn’t sleep knowing she was out there freezing, so ‘I’ called the police.”
“What did they say?”
“There’s nothing they can do, but they gave me the number for the Humane Society.”
“Did you call?”
“Yes, and they’re coming as soon as they can, maybe first thing in the morning.”
“That may be too late.”
“David, I don’t know what else we can do…”
“Well, you can let me deal with the reverend, and that means Dixie will be spending the night in my room.”
“David, you know I’m not supposed to be renting out rooms, and Reverend Brown will cause me nothing but trouble if you take Dixie.”
“Then, I’ll leave it be.”

Mrs. Evans was a sincere, hard working woman.  Her security and youth had waned, but not her spirit.  Every day without fail she had cleaned my wreck of a room, turned the mattress, aired the closets, and neatly piled the scattered papers.  She never complained when my water colors colored her carpet, or of hearing the front door opening and closing at all hours of the night.  She waited patiently for my weekly rent.  In front of Hawk, Mrs. Evans had handed me the keys to all that she owned, and Hawk treated me like the hand that fed him until weeks later when she returned home.  If not for her seven renters, she’d be tethered to a desperate tree.  Thus, we floated on an iceberg which was sadly flowing away from Dixie.

Never a more fitful sleep in my comfortable room.  I couldn’t look down from the window, and when I did the world disappeared, leaving only a blinding white in its wake.  I wanted to put my tracks in the snow.  I wanted my tracks to lead across that narrow street and up to the reverend’s back door.  I wanted to drag him from his fireplace and tie him to a tree.  I wanted to. 

Now I write the hardest part.  You must know, and only for her. That night, the night of the blizzard, Dixie died in the snow.

© 2001/2017 David M. Molloy (a/k/a David Baker)


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