I always carry my hunting knife. I keep it real sharp. On my seventh birthday, my daddy taught me how to skin a squirrel. He gave me my own knife in a leather sheath when I turned 12. He had burned my initials, "L.A.," right there in the leather.
Tony teased me without mercy about that knife.
“Hey, girl, you can’t handle a knife that big! That’s a boy’s knife,” he’d say.
“So what if I’m a girl,” I’d answer my brother.
Then he just repeated my dad’s saying: “Never have a dog that’s too much for the master.” But Dad told him to lay off, and he did.
Don’t get me wrong, Tony was my best friend.
My daddy was my mom, too, since she died. I don’t even remember her. But they say I look just like her. I remember my daddy. He left us not long after giving me that knife. He went to work in the field in the morning, like usual. But he didn’t come home. He died in the hospital in Germantown before we even got back from school in the bus. After that, I was alone with Tony who just 17. Well, not really alone. I also had Jake. He was the pit bull pup that my dad gave me when I was 11. But by the time Dad died, he was full grown.
Anyway, my dad used that saying whenever the opportunity ’rose. Once I was helping him polish the car. It was a red car. Daddy liked the car polished if we were fixing to drive to church. Well, we was, so I said I wanted to do one side. He said, “Just do the driver’s door.”
I asked him why, and I remember him answering with that saying.
I said, “Daddy, this here car ain’t no dog.”
“Liza,” he answered, “I was speakin’ with symbols.”
I know symbols. He meant that the whole car was just too much for a tyke like me. I was only about 6. I could handle a door. That’s probably why he waited till I was 11 till he got me that dog. And then, like most other great things, it came on my birthday. It was a real small little pit bull. I bet it couldn’t have weighed more than two pounds. He said I’d grow up with it. And as long as I loved that dog and kept it kindly, it would never turn on me.
Daddy said, “Liza, you look just like your momma. And she turned out to be the most beautiful woman in the whole state of Maryland. So when you grow up, you’re gonna have a whole mess a boys hanging around. And this here pup, he’ll not let any of ’em get to you ’less you want it. He’ll protect you.”
Then he said, “And if you always treat him nice, this ain’t never gonna be too much dog for you. You’ll be growin’ even faster ’n him. So he’ll always know you’re the master. Just be sure you treat him nice.”
And I did.
Tony had a dog, too. Dad got him a big retriever before I got Jake. But then, Tony was five years older than me. He remembered Momma better. He always said Daddy was right: I looked just like her, and she really was the most beautiful woman in the state of Maryland. He got his dog when he turned 12. Tony called that black retriever Toby, so we’d all know it was his dog.
Once Dad died, Tony worked the farm some. I fed the dogs and did the cooking after school. Birthdays stayed special, and it’d be my job to kill a couple of the chickens or a small pig, and we’d invite our friends and have a party, and it’d always be a feast. I’d use my hunting knife to kill the chickens. But I’d need to use Dad’s old bolt action Remington for the pigs. I’d learned how to slaughter them by shooting straight down between the front of the ears, and then bleed them using my knife. I was pretty good at cutting up the meat too. In the fall, I’d help in the orchard. We’d have Macs mainly, but some Winesaps, too. Good cider. Must have been at least five years like that.
When we could, we’d go up the hill to the cemetery and visit Dad’s grave. We could see all the way up to Frederick from that hilltop. You could see back to our farm, too. We’d usually bring flowers, and sometimes a small planting.
I was a good student, even better than Tony was. I had a prom date when I finished. Class of ’70—a shy guy, but so was I. I was thinking I’d be maybe going on to college, but then things went bad. I mean everything got tough.
For a couple of years, Tony and I worked just to hold the farmland together. He needed me to hold the house and I needed him to work the farm. It was real hard work, and until harvest time we got no break. It meant that college became just a dream. ’Course I’d meant to go, but it got so far off I didn’t really miss it none when I couldn’t go.
It was early winter some day, and I came home and Tony was in the house talking with friends from high school. They were all talking about joining up with the army to fight in Vietnam. Brian, who worked with his dad in the garage down the road, said it was a way to get the hell out of Germantown. He said he’d go to college on the GI Bill. Tony was just listening. But then Stu, who was working a farm down the road toward Frederick, mentioned that it sure beat farming. Tony got involved then, and Stu insisted the hours were better, the work be easier, too. Tony went quiet.
It wasn’t for a few days that Tony brought it up.
“I been thinking ’bout signing up, Liza”
“I supposed you were.”
“I mean this farm is more dog than we can master if we want to do something while we’re here.”
“You got a point. It’s more than enough to keep us busy, letting us get by, but getting us old, too. But going to Nam? Why would that help? You might never come back. How’d that get us helped?”
“No one’s buying farms out here, Sis. We just the two of us and our dogs, chickens, pigs and crops. What kind of future do we have? I got to get training. They’ll give me some, maybe in electrical work, and then they’ll pay for college. I could get me a real job then, and you could go to school, too. ”
“You got a point.”
I didn’t press him. Didn’t ask again what if he didn’t come back. He didn’t mention it either. It was the mean dog behind the exit door. We just hoped the dog would be sleeping while Tony took that door to the other side. I mean, it wasn’t our fault. We didn’t make the decisions that got us here. We were on the farm ’cause it’s what we got when Daddy died.
I didn’t say no. And Tony went off.
The deal was clear. We had enough from the farm to pay for help to take his place as long as everything went well. He even said, after training, before going to Nam, “Look, if the dog gets too big...” We both laughed.
I said, “OK, Daddy!” and we hugged.
So I worked the farm and the house, and hired some, and the months went on. I’d keep the two dogs chained most of the day. Toby was getting old and his master was gone. The life sort of went out of him. He’d just lie there till feeding time. But Jake, he’d growl a lot. I had less time for Jake.
Didn’t stroke him, or talk to him. At night, I’d feed both of ’em. Mainly dry dog food. It was cheapest. I’d usually do it ’fore fixing my own. I usually just had me some eggs. That was easiest, since I had to enter the coop every day to harvest eggs for market.
I was getting letters from Tony pretty regular. It wasn’t easy, but he always wrote that it was our ticket. Anyhow, last month was my birthday. Two of my friends said they wanted to make a party; they’d bring steaks and we’d grill ’em. I was excited.
When it was all over and everybody had gone on home, I had these bones left over from the steaks. Figured I’d give ’em to the dogs as a treat. Toby was the saddest, so I let him off the chain first. Put the bone down in front of him. He picked it up, and lay down to chew on it, his tail just wagging. You know, I scratched his ears, told him not to worry. Tony’d be home soon. All would be fine. Just hang in there, old buddy.
I was a bit lost in thinking about Toby getting old and Tony away in Nam, or I’d have paid mind to a growl from Jake. I didn’t usually treat Toby special. So now was Jake’s turn, and I dropped the bone and took him off the chain. I figured he’d go straight for his bone. But faster than I could do anything about it, he took off—went straight for Toby.
He grabbed Toby’s head in his jaws. There was a horrible yelp, and all this blood. Toby never got up. I ran and screamed and pulled at Jake. But he wouldn’t let go. Jealousy, I figure. By the time I got Jake off him, I was crying, and Toby was gone. He musta bit his neck artery clear through.
It took all I had to chain Jake back up. I went over to Toby. His body was warm. His head and neck were covered with blood. So was the ground. I just lost it. I must have been there an hour.
After that I went inside to clean up, but I didn’t. I just sat in the kitchen, thinking about my birthdays and what was I going to write Tony? But I didn’t have any idea ’bout that. What I next remember, it was about two in the morning, and there was Jake’s steak bone. I brought it inside and put it in a plastic bag and slipped it into the top pocket of my overalls. Then I walked up to our rifle rack, reached up and grabbed Dad’s Remington. It was already loaded so I went back outside.
I unchained Jake and we took that walk into the woods. It was pretty dark. No moon when I hugged Jake and scratched his ears. I told him my daddy got him for me. I told him I was sorry, it wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t mine neither. I just had to take care of the place and didn’t have as much time to be kindly and nice. I held his face up to mine. He licked my face, like he always did. But I smelled Toby’s blood all over him, and pulled back a piece. I thought about how maybe I was the prettiest woman in Maryland, but there weren’t no boys wanting to be tied to a farm woman with a losing farm. So Daddy, Jake was just maybe a dog with no real purpose no how. So I dropped the bone. It was pretty outsized. He grabbed it and chewed on it. I dropped down and stroked his fur, and patted his head and told him again it wasn’t his fault.
I stood up, and put the muzzle right by his head and pulled the trigger. There was a lot of noise, the shot, followed by Jake’s squeals. I thought to take a second shot, but his cries stopped. He was collapsed on the ground, but still twitching. I dropped the gun and crouched down and took his head in my lap. There in the dark, in a few moments mostly silence was now back. It was so dark I couldn’t even see the blood. But I could feel some of it mixing with Toby’s in my shirt. And I left him there.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised when the Army man came down the drive to tell me the news. Still, it hit me. Sure, we both knew, didn’t we? There were no sleeping dogs around us. And Daddy didn’t tell us about the dogs we couldn’t choose. They’re always too big.
And I’m selling our farm, Tony. I know you don’t care no more. But I do. It killed Daddy. It killed the dogs. It got you, too. But I’m getting out. I don’t need no pit bull. I’d like a man to look at me like I'm something new.
So why am I telling you all this when you don’t hear me no more? Why am I telling you, Toby and Jake, Daddy and Tony, when you don’t listen no more?
I was putting all my farm clothing in a bag for the Salvation Army. But then I got to this here shirt. It don’t smell of blood no more and I’m keeping it. I ain’t washing it neither. I guess I’m telling you ’cause it’s all what I got. It’s what I’ll take with me when I pack up and leave our place.
Joe Oppenheimer was a professor at the University of Maryland. He retired in July 2010 in order to have time to write fiction and poetry. He has had poems published in Chronogram and Faculty Voice. An earlier version of "Salvation Army" won a prize in the 2013 Adult Short Story Contest of the Bethesda Urban Partnership and Bethesda Magazine. More information is available on his website.