Things that go “bark!” in the night

Dogs can be as peculiar as people. Their relationship with humans is complex. In story after story from Southern homes, there is strong evidence that this relationship can extend beyond death.

Do dogs return from the other side to comfort and aid their human companions? You bet your buried bones they do.

So today we’re kicking off our Halloween ghost blog series with Ghost Dogs of the South, by Randy Russell and Janet Barnett. This collection of twenty stories of man’s best friend “will not fail to charm even the most dour skeptics of supernatural phenomena,” according to Publishers Weekly. And to prove it, here’s one of our favorite tales from the book, as a little treat for you trick-or-treaters out there. It’s a little lengthy for a blog post, but well worth the read. Check back tomorrow (and every day this week!) for more spooks and ghosts.

Can’t get enough of Randy Russell? Check out his blog or Web site, or listen to Russell when he joined Big Blend Radio for this podcast, which aired last week.

Dogs can be as peculiar as people. Their relationship with humans is complex. In story after story from Southern homes, there is strong evidence that this relationship can extend beyond death.
Do dogs return from the other side to comfort and aid their human companions? You bet your buried bones they do.
So today we’re kicking off our Halloween ghost blog series with Ghost Dogs of the South, by Randy Russell and Janet Barnett. This collection of twenty stories of man’s best friend “will not fail to charm even the most dour skeptics of supernatural phenomena,” according to Publishers Weekly. And to prove it, here’s one of our favorites, as a little treat for you trick-or-treaters out there. It’s a little lengthy for a blog post, but well worth the read. Check back tomorrow (and every day this week!) for more ghost and ghoulies.
__Trick or Treat
Nashville, Tennessee 

Mrs. Hammond Singleton was crazy, and so was her dog. Every kid in the neighborhood knew it. Her front yard in the Belmont Hillsboro area south of Vanderbilt University was entirely planted in clover instead of grass. She wore a bonnet whenever she went outside. An eleven-year-old in 1962 needed no more evidence than this to be convinced that the old lady was certifiably insane.
Mostly, though, Cindy Linn=s grandmother went bonkers on Halloween. She handed out apples to children who came to her door for treats. Not candied apples. Just apples. And that was only the beginning.
Mrs. Hammond Singleton kept a sack of acorns by the door, and every pirate, ballerina, fairy princess, and baseball player who came to her porch on Halloween had to reach into the sack and pull out an acorn and show it to her. Cindy=s grandmother would read each child=s fortune by looking closely at an acorn, upon which she could see a face, she said, but only on Halloween. Cindy=s grandmother held a lighted candle in one hand, by which to study the acorn in her other hand. She recited a poem while squinting at each one: AOn All Hallow=s Eve,/When the hour is very late,/Find an acorn in the garden./Upon it read your fate.@
AShe=s nuts,@ Cindy complained to her mother. AAnd so=s Preston. He follows us to every house. He=s always bumping into us. It isn=t fair.@
Preston was Mrs. Hammond Singleton=s Boxer. The dog had the run of the neighborhood. He liked Halloween more than Cindy=s grandmother did.
Cindy was a beatnik this year. She wore a black beret, black tights, and one of her father=s sweatshirts that came to her knees. She tied a red scarf around her neck and was allowed to wear her mother=s lipstick. She didn=t know for certain if beatniks wore lipstick. But Halloween was the only time Cindy was allowed to wear it, and she certainly wasn=t going to pass up the opportunity to wear lipstick on a night when she might see Ernie Rousch from across the street. Ernie was almost thirteen.
AHaving a dog behind me all night doesn=t go with my costume, Mom.@
Preston knew all the stops. He knew most of the kids in the neighborhood, too. His daily routine, as soon as Mrs. Hammond Singleton let him out of the house, was to secure the entire area. He made a series of rounds each day, six blocks in one direction, six in another, four this way, six that, and back.
Preston was a solitary inspector. He made sure every mailbox was in place. He checked the trees and bushes to see if they were growing as they should. He counted the bicycles, tricycles, and water sprinklers left on the lawns. He saw that the right cars were home and that the right cars were gone. He verified that the rolled newspapers that wouldn=t be picked up until the end of day were where they should be.
Dogs in fenced backyards along his route barked as Preston came by. They said hello or alerted him that small pieces of neighborhood were already ably guarded. Preston took down the information as a mental note but never barked back. He had work to do. He was too busy to play.

At one house, he was given a dog biscuit. The young housewife was there every day. If she wasn=t, the dog biscuit was sitting on her concrete step as a signal to Preston that everything was okay. In front of another home, a large tabby cat waited in the middle of the sidewalk. When Preston came by, the cat hopped up and followed him to the end of the block, keeping a respectful distance.
Preston possessed a deep sense of community responsibility. And he dearly loved Halloween. It was the one night of the year when people went out to learn his job. He was pleased to accompany them, even if the children were noisy and slow to learn. They couldn=t go sixteen steps without eating something.
When children stopped to tie a shoe or repair the rubber band on a mask, Preston hurried back to check on them. He=d even push them a little from the side if they took too long. Then it was important that he catch up to the front again. He would brush by others on the sidewalk to get to the place where he=d left off.
Preston followed Cindy and her friends every Halloween, bumping them when they went too slow, cutting them off if they tried to overlook a house. He=d hurry to the front door to show them where they were going. Then he=d fall back, bumping them once again, and wait on the sidewalk until they had learned the people who lived there and counted the things in the yard.
It was a marvelous job, really. And no dog was better prepared for Halloween duty than Preston. On top of which, being a white-chested, light tan Boxer with black markings, including the traditional black around both eyes, he already had a mask.
Cindy was instructed that she was not only going to her grandmother=s house this Halloween, she was going there first.
AShe=s looking for you, and you aren=t going to make her wait, young lady.@
AThere=s bees in her yard,@ Cindy complained, using up her last excuse.
ANot at night,@ her mother said. AAnd they won=t bother you anyway, if you stay on the sidewalk.@
When she was thirteen, she wasn=t doing this anymore, Cindy decided.
She hiked all the way to her grandmother=s house with Brenda and Julie, her two best friends.
AShe=ll ask you to sing,@ Cindy warned them.
But Brenda and Julie had been to Mrs. Hammond Singleton=s before on Halloween. They knew the routine. If you didn=t sing, you had to dance to get a treat. If you didn=t want to dance, you could get your treat by standing on one foot with your eyes closed.
Brenda and Julie stood behind Cindy when the door opened.
AHi, Grandma. It=s me,@ Cindy said.
Mrs. Hammond Singleton held the candle out in front of her as if she couldn=t believe her eyes.
ACindy?@ she asked. AAre you sure it=s you? I thought it was a movie star.@
Preston waited inside the door while the three girls chose acorns and had their fortunes told. Cindy would marry a man with a mustache and have eight children, four boys and four girls. Brenda would marry a sailor and have four children, all girls, who would marry sailors when they grew up. Julie would marry a preacher and live in a foreign country. India, Mrs. Hammond Singleton thought it would be, but she wasn=t sure it might not be China or Pakistan. They stood on one foot with their eyes closed while Cindy=s grandmother dropped an apple in each of their sacks.

AThank you, Grandma,@ Cindy said.
ADon=t go by the church tonight,@ Mrs. Hammond Singleton advised the girls. ACircle back the other way. The ghost doubles of those who are doomed to die during the coming year parade through the churchyard on Halloween.@
AOkay,@ Cindy said. AWe won=t.@
Preston trotted out the door as Cindy and her friends walked back to the street, giggling. The fortunes weren=t real ones. They were going to marry Elvis Presley, if they married anyone. Or maybe Ernie Rousch. He was almost thirteen and could probably grow a mustache if he wanted to.
Preston went to work counting houses. He took note of trick-or-treaters coming from the other direction. He crossed the street to take inventory, double-checking on the littlest children. Preston liked the littlest ones the best. They worked hard at it, with serious intent, and didn=t lollygag like the older kids. Once the newcomers were accounted for, Preston ran to catch up to Cindy and her friends.
Preston bumped into Cindy to let her know he was there.
ACut it out,@ she said.
They were getting close to Ernie=s house. That summer, Cindy had written her and Ernie=s initials in chalk on the sidewalk in front of his house. It was the bravest thing she=d ever done. If he were there tonight, he would see her in lipstick.
Ernie wasn=t home, but the girls could peer into the living room through the front window. They saw the couch where Ernie sat when he was home.
AAsk to use the bathroom,@ Julie said.
ANo!@ Cindy squealed. AYou ask.@
When they reached the next block, the girls talked about going back to Ernie=s house. He might be home by then.
In the middle of the block, a second-grader had dropped his sack of candy in the street. His older brother was already at the door of the next house. The little guy tried to pick up every piece of candy on the pavement. His Halloween mask made it a difficult task. But he wasn=t leaving any. The seven-year-old had worked hard for his treats.
Preston bumped Cindy again. This time, he was trying to get around her to the street. He was the only one who heard the car coming.
Cindy spun around to watch him. She=d never seen Preston run so fast.
Preston rushed with his head low and smacked hard into the little boy, who was bent over on his hands and knees. The Boxer hit the second-grader in the chest and pushed hard until his head was under the boy=s stomach. The sack hastily refilled with candy went flying. So did the little boy. He landed on his bottom six or seven feet from where he=d been when Preston made contact. It hurt.
The car hit Preston squarely. It squealed its brakes. The thud was loud and certain. Cindy saw it all. She screamed.
Parents separated themselves from the trick-or-treating children and ran to the street. Several had flashlights. The driver was a college student. He was quick to open the door. The little boy wailed.
AI didn=t hit the kid,@ the driver said.
The seven-year-old was swept up by one of the adults.

AHe=s okay,@ the man holding him said. AJust scared. You=re okay, aren=t you, cowboy?@
AI didn=t hit the kid,@ the driver said again. AI hit the dog.”
Cindy ran to the front of the car, looking for Preston. He hadn=t made a sound. He was surely dead or badly injured and about to die. She was afraid to find him, to see him crushed, but she had to. She looked to the front of the car, then to the left and to the right. He wasn=t anywhere.
AHe must have run off,” someone said. ADogs do that sometimes when they get hit. He=s probably okay, then. He probably went home.@
Cindy was crying. It was a horrible Halloween.
AHe saved the little kid=s life,@ Brenda said.
AEveryone saw him do it,@ Julie added. AWe all did.@
Cindy hurried home to tell her parents that Preston had been hit by a car. They=d have to look for him. Brenda and Julie came inside with her. They would help look. Brenda could call her father, and they could use his car.
AThat won=t be necessary,@ Cindy=s mother said. AAre you sure it was Preston, dear?@
AYes,@ Cindy said. AHe came with us from Grandma=s house. He was with us the whole time, like always. This little boy was in the street, and Preston ran ninety miles an hour and knocked him out of the way, and then the car hit him. It hit him real hard, Mom. Everyone heard it.@
AYou=re sure it was Preston? You all saw him?@
The three girls nodded.
AMaybe he=s back at Grandma=s house. Can you tell her, Mom? Please. I just can=t.@
AI thought she might have told you, dear,@ Cindy=s mother said. AI imagine she didn=t want to ruin your Halloween. Preston had cancer. He died at the vet=s yesterday.@

Almost fifty years later, there are still trick-or-treaters in the Belmont Hillsboro neighborhood of Nashville who get bumped by a dog if they go too slowly from house to house or stand too long in the middle of the street. An old woman who was a young housewife in 1962 leaves a dog biscuit on the concrete step in front of her house once a year. On Halloween.
The old woman makes the children sing or dance for her, or at least stand on one foot with their eyes closed, before she gives them a treat. She says she learned to do this from an old widow named Hamilton Singleton, who immigrated to this country from York, England, and who was as crazy as bees in clover. And so was her dog, Preston.

__

Can’t get enough of Randy Russell? Check out his blog (http://ghostfolk.blogspot.com/) or Web site (http://ghostfolk.com/), or listen to this podcast that aired last week (link in favorites)

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One thought on “Things that go “bark!” in the night

  1. Pingback: Halloween isn’t just for ghosts–it’s for pirates too « John F. Blair, Publisher

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