Better Things To Do
There was a time when Ferrell Goodlow lived in town like all the rest of us. Then his momma—a mocha-colored lady from south Louisiana with decidedly witchy ways—took off for parts unknown.
There was nothing spooky about Ferrell’s daddy, Clarence. He was just a plain, country peckerwood who’d lost a leg in Korea and hadn’t done much of anything since then except draw his disability check and make corn whiskey. Nothing in town furthered either of those endeavors, and once it became apparent that his wife wasn’t coming back, he moved himself and Ferrell out to a tar-paper, tin-roof shack at the very dead-ass end of Buckeye Road.
Ferrell was a half-pint, ragamuffin who came to school in faded bib-overalls, a long-sleeve flannel shirt and—except in the dead of winter, when he wore a pair of his daddy’s cast-off rubber boots—barefoot. Yet, despite his appearance, he was exceptionally bright, able to answer questions that often left the rest of us scratching our heads, although he generally concealed his intelligence beneath a façade of feigned indifference. But when his momma left, he stopped answering altogether.
It was around this time that Ferrell’s dog, Curly, began accompanying him to school. Curly was a rangy, brindle mutt, whose electric-yellow eyes made him look more like a wolf than a dog. He arrived with his master each morning and when Ferrell went inside, the dog would lie at the bottom of the front steps, head on his paws, not stirring until Ferrell reappeared. Ferrell, who’d never cared much for the playground, now elected to forsake it altogether and sit on the front steps with Curly during morning and noon recess, whispering softly to the dog, stroking his fur, and watching what went on around them with Zen-like equanimity. And when Ferrell returned to the classroom after lunch, Curly remained in his spot until his master reappeared at three.
The dog was a passive presence, occupying a given space throughout the day but never bothering anyone. Then one of the mothers began to complain. The principal ignored the complaints, apparently out of sympathy for Ferrell who had no friends other than his dog. So the mother went to the town Marshal, Hob Goodlow, a distant cousin of Ferrell’s daddy, Clarence, but so distant that little connection remained between the two other than their common surname.
Hob came after Curly late one Friday morning. He had a long pole with a retractable wire loop on the end, like you’d use to catch a snake, only larger. Sidling up to Curly, he eased the noose over his head with no problem. But when he loosened the wire to exchange it for a leash, Curly sank his teeth into Hob’s outstretched hand. The Marshal jerked away, pulled his revolver and fired a single shot at the fleeing dog. The bullet missed Curly, but struck the left front door of Hob’s squad car which he’d parked on the street—all of this related later by Jesse, the school janitor, and the only other witness to the incident.
The pistol shot was like a clap of thunder and immediately thirty-odd faces were pressed against the windows of our fifth-grade classroom. Of course, by then there was little to see, just Hob cradling his bleeding hand and Jesse, standing to one side, wide-eyed and silent.
Our teacher promptly shooed us back to our desks, but once order was restored, we were one body short.
Hob was furious, itching to track Curly down and finish him off. But the town veterinarian, Fleetwood Skates—Fleet, people called him—convinced the Marshal it would be wiser to capture the dog and quarantine him for ten days which, he reasoned, might spare Hob the painful series of rabies shots he’d otherwise have to take. So the two of them drove out to Buckeye Road in Fleet’s old panel truck and took the dog into custody, Hob threatening to shut down Clarence’s whiskey operation if both father and son didn’t cooperate.
Curly was locked up behind Fleet’s clinic in a small pen surrounded by an eight foot chain-link fence, whose gate was secured by a heavy-duty, Master padlock. The amenities were spare—a rough-hewn, plywood doghouse, a bowl of water and a dish of food—only what was deemed absolutely essential for the occasional canine occupant. Ferrell showed up at the clinic that same afternoon and sat, intermittently, beside the pen for the next ten days.
Word got around about Curly’s sequestration and a few days later Travis Boatwright and I stopped by Fleet’s after school. Ferrell nodded when we walked up, but didn’t speak. We stood beside him, scuffing the toes of our shoes in the dirt, not knowing exactly what to say, so that in the end, we walked away without saying anything at all.
Fleet was standing in front of the clinic when we left and told us he’d been pleading with Ferrell to go home, assuring him that Curly would be okay. But Ferrell more or less stayed put. “No separating that boy from his dog,” Fleet sighed, dismissing us with a wave of his hand as he turned to go back inside the clinic: “I hate to think what’s coming next Monday.”
That following Monday proved to be the longest day I’d ever spent in a classroom and, when the bell finally sounded at three, Travis and I headed straight back to Fleet’s.
Hob’s squad car sat on the street in front of the clinic—the bullet hole in its left front door a grim reminder of what this was all about. We eased through the narrow side yard, stopped at the rear corner of the clinic and peeped into the back lot. Ferrell sat cross-legged and motionless beside the chain-link fence which separated him from Curly, who lay quietly on the floor of the pen. Hob, his countenance even more brooding and ominous than usual, stood immediately behind Ferrell, while Fleet shuffled about a short distance away, hands fluttering before his face as he spoke. “Now, Hob,” he said, his voice insistent, almost pleading. “The dog don’t have rabies, so there’s no…”
“Don’t matter,” Hob interjected, cutting him short. And as if he could sense what was coming, Curly got to his feet and disappeared into the doghouse.
“Goddammit, Ferrell,” Hob growled, his voice hoarse from the endless chain of cigarettes that would kill him eleven years later. “Call that fucking dog back out here right now or, by-god, I’ll shoot the both of you,” he said, resting his hand on the butt of his pistol.
Ferrell nodded, smiling amiably as he looked up at the Marshal. “Curly,” he called, snapping his fingers and clucking softly. “Yo, boy.”
There was rustling inside the doghouse and you could tell from the shadow flitting across its doorway that something was about to emerge. Only what came out wasn’t anything like what had gone in. No, it was a large crow that hopped out onto the concrete pad, stretched its black, silky wings, and flew up out of the pen, landing on a low-hanging limb of a nearby catalpa tree.
Ferrell cupped his hands and cawed twice to the bird. The crow looked down, turning its head quizzically from side to side, then let out a garbled cry which sounded more like the call of a turkey than a crow, as it lifted from its perch and floated away.
Not quite clear about what was going on with the crow, yet certain Curly must still be in the pen, Hob fired three times into the doghouse. The shots came in rapid succession, one almost indistinguishable from the other, their collective roar deafening. But when the sound had abated and Fleet unlocked the pen so Hob could step inside, the doghouse was empty.
Nobody could begin to explain what had taken place, least of all Hob—who already enjoyed a considerable reputation as a drinker and, not wanting to further enhance that notoriety by offering up an improbable tale about a curious, barefoot boy who could turn a dog into a crow, announced that since Curly hadn’t been rabid after all, he’d just decided to let him go. Of course, those of us who’d been present knew different. Yet nobody was about to risk getting crossways with Hob—much less bringing our own sanity into question—by repeating what we’d seen.
It was the last we saw of Curly, although that’s a somewhat speculative observation, given that we were no longer sure whether we should be looking for a dog or a crow.
And Ferrell pretty much disappeared too. Oh, we saw him from time to time, yet only fleetingly, the way you’d spot a wild animal moving through the woods. But he never came back to school. Why would he? It was obvious he had better things to do.
Howard Brown is a writer and poet who lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee on Lookout Mountain. He has published short fiction in Louisiana Literature; and, flash fiction in Crack the Spine, Pulpwood Fiction, Extract(s), Gloom Cupboard and Mad Hatters Review. His poetry has appeared in Old Hickory Review and Poetry Super Highway. In 2012, he published a collection of poems entitled “The Gossamer Nature of Random Things.” His poem “Pariah” won the “William Faulkner Literary Award” in Mississippi’s 2015 Tallahatchie Riverfest.