Read More: A brief Q&A with Ellen Brikett Morris
Lincoln is Maw’s favorite, so when he went missing I knew it wouldn’t take long for folks to think I had something to do with it.
Lincoln didn’t show up for supper Monday night.
“Dogs wander,” I told Maw.
Maw made his favorite meal, chicken livers with white gravy.It was my least favorite, but I ate it anyway, so as not to upset Maw. When Maw checked Lincoln’s bed that evening it was empty.
“I wonder if he’s hanging around the diner?” she asked. An hour later, she wondered aloud if someone passing through might have picked him up. He was known to take up with strangers who showed any kind of affection for him. I tried not to judge him for it. I figured it was his nature.
“He’s a handsome dog. Someone might take him,” she mused. I ran my fingers through my hair, the first attention I’d paid to it all day, in an effort to make myself presentable.Maw didn’t notice.
It would be a lie to say that I wasn’t happy to have an evening alone with Maw. It was the first one we’d had since Lincoln had arrived. I wanted a chance to watch Wheel of Fortune with Maw without Lincoln howling every time the bell dinged to signal a bonus round.
Beagles howl, that’s what they do, but Maw had high hopes that she could fancy Lincoln up, have him acting like a well-bred poodle or something. That’s probably why she named him Lincoln. My given name is Marlon, but when it was clear that I was going to be tall everyone called me “Shorty.”
My English teacher Miss Perkins insists on calling me Marlon. She says my nickname is a perfect example of irony, but I told her it was definitely sarcasm.Then, she reached up and patted my shoulder and gave me look that made me suddenly aware of my big feet and the hairs sprouting above my upper lip.
I was getting all the puzzles that night, even hard ones like “Bread and Butter Pickles,” but Maw was too distracted by Lincoln’s absence to notice. The truth is Lincoln was a junk yard dog. In the country, you don’t go to the Animal Care Society or Humane Pets to browse rows of cages to pick out the perfect pet. In the country, you find cats in the cemetery and dogs roaming the trash heap and you either leave them be or coax them into your truck and bring them home.
I was fifteen when I found him. I was looking through the trash for car parts, planning to build a Plymouth Road Runner from scratch, when I saw a beagle pup curled up sleeping in a tire nearby. I knew then I needed a co-pilot. I might even get him some sunglasses. He had big eyes and floppy ears with a tail tipped in white. I found a length of rope and led him home. He was easy. He followed me as if he had always been mine. I figured Maw wouldn’t mind. Daddy had taken off when I was ten and I’d heard her say the house was too quiet.
Maw was checking a pie in the oven when I came home with Lincoln the first time. “What are you dragging in here, now?” she asked. Lincoln barked. Maw turned on her heels, her face stern. Her expression changed when she looked at him. There was a softness there that I hadn’t seen before. It puzzled me, but I wanted desperately to keep him so I let it go.
She came right over and took Lincoln from my arms.
“Who is my babykins?” she asked. “Who my babykins?”
Lincoln tilted his head up and licked her chin with his long tongue. He was Maw’s dog from that point forward.
“Kisses for mama,” Maw cooed. I felt like a peeping Tom watching Lincoln run his long tongue across Maw’s face. I went out to the barn and when I came back I saw that Maw had made a bed for Lincoln with the quilt off my bed. The quilt my meemaw had made for me that had my name stitched in the corner. I grabbed the throw off the back of the couch and covered my bed. The throw smelled like popcorn and cherry soda.
I’d tried to win Lincoln’s affection, feeding him bits of fried chicken skin under the table, but Lincoln took a cotton to Maw and she to him and that was that. Maw spent hours brushing Lincoln. When I asked her to scratch my back she did it for a minute. Sometimes she just ran her fingers across my back and I had to say “nails, nails” to remind her to really scratch me.
I was the odd man out. I was used to it. I had always been the tallest in my class, had the deepest voice of all the guys. I tried to make the most of it, making jokes about being a giant and making a bullfrog noises at strange times in gym class, which cracked the other boys up. Still, there was never any room at their lunch table and I would end up eating with Ronnie Jack, who had one foot turned in and couldn’t run the bases.
Ronnie was good company. He watched a lot of TV in the afternoons and knew every plot to all the Andy Griffith shows. Ronnie knew how to be on his own and how to amuse himself, skills that I’d figured out were essential to life.
“There’s three reasons why there’s so little crime in Mayberry,” Ronnie would say in a swaggering tone.“There’s Andy, and there’s me, and baby makes three.” He’d pat an imaginary gun in an imaginary holster at his side while I laughed.
After Wheel, Jeopardy was on. I could hear Maw out front calling for Lincoln, while Alex Trebek corrected the contestants in that half nice/half smarty pants way of his. I hoped Maw wasn’t too worried. That was the last thing I wanted. Before bedtime I gave her a hug, which she returned distractedly, her hand raising up to scratch me behind my ears as if she were holding Lincoln, not me. She stopped short of actually scratching me.
“Go on to bed, Shorty,” she said, brusquely.
So I did.
Lincoln didn’t show up that night or the next morning. I heard Maw on the phone with the sheriff trying to file a missing person’s report.
“Well, no it hasn’t been 24 hours,” she shouted. “It’s been the longest 12 hours of my life.”
I made my own baloney sandwich for school and snuck out the back door.
That afternoon, Miss Perkins asked me to stay inside during recess. Ronnie sat in his desk in the back, where he waited out recess reading a book. Miss Perkin’s had gotten sick of watching him get chosen last and had appointed him her classroom assistant and told him she needed him inside if he wouldn’t mind giving up his time on the playground.
She had pulled two desks to the front of the class facing each other. This was what she did when she wanted kids to open up. She leaned forward across her desk and I couldn’t help but notice a small brown mole on her chest northwest of her cleavage.
“I heard Lincoln is missing,” she said, searching my face.
“Yep,” I said, playing it cool. I was dying to sneak a look at Ronnie. I hoped he was still bent over his book.
“You must be worried about him just disappearing like that.”
“Yep.” I felt my eyes wandering south of the mole.
“What do you think happened to him?”
“Dunno.” I looked past Miss Perkins at the door, with its small square window that showed the florescent lights in the hall.
I knew exactly what had happened to Lincoln and so did Ronnie. […]
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Ellen Birkett Morris’s collection of short stories, Lost Girls, is forthcoming in September 2020. Her fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, Antioch Review, Notre Dame Review, South Carolina Review, and Santa Fe Literary Review, among other journals. She is a winner of the Bevel Summers Prize for short fiction. Morris is a recipient of a 2013 Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council in support of her fiction. For more information: http://ellenbirkettmorris.ink/
Read More: A brief Q&A with Ellen Brikett Morris