Across the blacktop from my childhood home in Point Clear is a vast wetland of tall pines, briars and pitcher plants. When I was nine years old, I found a dog back there and named him Joe. He was a straw-colored mutt, a runty mix of yellow lab and pit bull. I always assumed he wandered through the woods from a community of rundown houses a couple of miles east of us. He reminded me of the dogs I’d seen fastened to clotheslines in bare dirt yards. Pink whelps and scars showed through his short hair, and I was glad he had escaped a miserable life of abuse. But there were remnants of crazed fear that hung liquid in his eyes. If I moved too quickly around him or raised my voice, he grew skittish and tense.
When I think of boyhood and dogs and dog stories, I think of Joe. Since then I’ve had other dogs — better looking, more expensive, and with more personality. But Joe was there at an impressionable time in my life when I was learning how to go about being a man.
Most of the people in Point Clear moved back to Mobile in late August. The blustery southwest wind coming over the Bay died off, and the days grew calm and and cool, with light breezes from the east. Doves cooed and fluttered in the treetops. With my summer friends gone, I turned my focus on the woods behind the house.
Almost impenetrable and full of ticks and poison ivy in the summer, as it got colder the soggy thicket was a quiet retreat from the north winds howling over the Bay. I spent many days hauling driftwood from the beach and into the woods to make bridges, tree forts and animal traps — basically being a boy without television and video games.
I fed Joe at the house, but he lived outside and roamed freely. He usually appeared to me somewhere between my back door and the woods. He stayed with me throughout the day until it was time to go back inside for lunch or supper. Then he sat in the yard and waited for me to come outside again. If I didn’t return after a while, he’d trot away to wherever it was he slept at night.
Even though Joe couldn’t talk, and didn’t seem much interested in what I was doing, he followed me about like he’d been assigned the simple duty of reminding me that I wasn’t alone. And I was never happier to have his companionship than the first night I spent out in the woods.
I was 12 years old, and I’d been thinking about it for a couple of years. I felt that part of being a man was facing my fears and spending a night solo in that vast, mysterious thicket.
On the designated day, I left the house as the sun was setting. Before I reached the highway, Joe had fallen in beside me. When we arrived at the tree fort I shoved him up into a tarp-covered platform I’d built about 6 feet off the ground. As the forest grew dark I lay there staring at the underside of the tarp, trying to calm my fears. Joe was curled up beside my sleeping bag and the rising and falling of his stomach against me was comforting through that long night of eerie sounds and boredom.
That night in the woods is the last time I clearly remember being with Joe. One day, not long afterwards, I crossed the highway alone. I had not made it far into the trees before I heard tires squealing behind me. I ran back to find a car pulled into the ditch and Joe lying on the roadside.
His eyes were open and there was no blood, but I knew instinctively that he was dead. I was upset and didn’t want to touch him. I backed away and ran home to tell my father. I found Dad reading the newspaper in our living room and told him what had happened. As my younger siblings were also very attached to Joe, he decided it best not to tell them immediately.
“Go bury him before they see him lying there, ” he said.
I suppose I expected Dad to take over at that point, but he made no move to help. I went to our toolshed to get the shovel and the wheelbarrow. I returned to the highway and carried Joe back into the woods where I buried him in the same place I’d found him three years before. The task wasn’t pleasant, and I was still upset, but I felt I was doing a man’s job for the first time in my life. That final payment was a tough one to make, but it was time for me to learn that friendship and love come at a cost.
Text by Watt Key