Joey was seven years old, and Billy Brown was one, which loosely translates, in the generally accepted sense, to seven in “doggy years.” The two were an all-American cliché: a boy and his dog. It was late autumn when Joey’s mother came to him with the proposition. She found him in the back yard and told him that she had a surprise for him. He left Billy Brown standing in the middle of the yard looking after them as he and his mother walked inside.
“How would you like a brand new puppy?” came the question as his mother took on a sudden expression of eager excitement.
“Wow, a new puppy? Yeah!” Joey replied, his face immediately glowing with the wonder noticeably present even in older people at the prospect of witnessing that greatest of spectacles: new life.
“What do you think about that?”
“I can’t wait! When do we see him?”
“Well, it’s a ‘her.’ We’ll get her next Friday.”
“Alright! I can hardly wait!” and with that, he rushed outside to inform Billy Brown of the new playmate’s pending arrival. “You’re gonna be best friends, boy. Just wait. You can help teach her to fetch.” Billy Brown licked the young boy’s face sensing the excitement, and the two played, and Joey chatted at him until the sun resigned its post and he was called inside to dinner.
The week passed with the patented slowness that always accompanies the days leading to big events, and Joey fidgeted, waited and contemplated with forced patience for the “big day,” and when Friday of the next week finally dawned, he sprang from his bed, and rushing into the backyard in his pajamas, found Billy Brown at the door.
“Today’s the day, buddy! She’ll be here after school.” Billy brown looked sideways at the boy, and lifted his paw to shake. Joey’s mother called him to get dressed, and he rushed in, calling over his shoulder, “I’ll see you after school.”
The day dragged itself through the hours, and Joey found himself unable to concentrate on its various activities, which seemed to him irrelevant and redundant in comparison to what awaited him at their end. When the final bell tolled the little prisoner’s release, he rushed across the street and down the alley that led the block to his home and ran through the door.
“Is she here? Did you go get her?” he cried as he entered the living room, and there she sat in his mother’s lap: the furry tan ball that looked very much like a bear cub to him, with its black tongue protruding and receding.
“What do you think?” his mother asked, holding out the bundle of fur to him.
“She’s great! What’s her name? Can I pet her?” he asked, taking the puppy in his arms before the reply.
“Of course. She’s your puppy, too. Her name is Duchess. Now, I’ll need your help with her, and you must be gentle. She’s only six weeks old.”
“I’ll be careful. Can I take her outside? She has to meet Billy Brown! He’s gonna love her!” he said as he turned to run toward the back door.
“Wait, Joey. I have to talk to you about that.”
“About what? Can I take her outside?” he paused, clinging to the pup and waiting restlessly to be released.
His mother moved a bit in her chair. “Billy’s not out there, Joey. He… he had to go…”
Joey stood still. “Go? Go where?”
“Your aunt Laura came and picked him up earlier. He’s going to their house.”
“What? Why? When’s he comin’ back?”
“Honey, he’s not coming back here. He’s going to live with your aunt and uncle.”
“Joey’s expression turned to one of curious contemplation and disbelief. “I don’t understand. You gave them my dog?”
“I asked you last week, and you told me you wanted the new dog. Don’t you remember how excited you were?” The sudden and hopeful expression flashed again in her face.
“You gave them my dog?” he repeated. “Why did you give them my dog? They were going to be friends,” and with that, he started to cry.
“Listen, Joey. We couldn’t keep both dogs. I thought you understood that.”
“No I didn’t,” he wailed, the tears falling from his reddening cheeks. “You lied to me! Why can’t I keep my dog?”
“Billy’s too big for the new puppy, honey. He might hurt her…”
“No he wouldn’t! Billy Brown doesn’t hurt anybody. He’s the nicest dog ever, and you lied to me and gave him away!”
“You don’t understand, Joey. She’s going to have puppies someday, and she couldn’t have puppies with Billy. They wouldn’t be pure blood. They wouldn’t be worth anything.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, sobbing.
“Well, Billy’s not pure blood, and even if he was, he’s not a Chow like she is. They couldn’t have puppies.”
“Yes they could. Dad says that Billy Brown was half German Shepherd and half Traveling Salesman. They could have puppies!”
His mother sighed. “No they couldn’t, dear. The puppies wouldn’t have any papers. Billy doesn’t have papers. Do you understand?”
“No. What’s he need papers for?”
“It’s to prove who his parents are. Papers prove that a dog is pure blood.”
“I could write him some papers!” Joey suggested desperately. “I know who his parents are! Miss Reed’s dog is his mom…”
“You don’t understand, honey.” She let out a little laugh. “It doesn’t work that way.”
“Why not? This isn’t fair! Please, you have to get Billy Brown back!”
“I can’t, Joey. He’s gone. You’re going to have to accept that. But, hey, maybe we can visit him at their house sometime…”
“We never go over there! You’re a liar! I want my dog back, now!”
“Joseph Oliver Bell, you will not talk to me like that!” she said, losing patience. “We’re not going to take him back. I already promised him to them. I can’t take him back, now. I promise, he’ll have a good home there.”
“No he won’t! They’re mean! They’ll make him mean, too!”
“I’m not going to talk about it anymore, Joey,” she said leaning back and picking up a magazine. “Now, why don’t you take the new puppy outside and play with her? You’ll see. You’ll be just as good friends with her.”
“No! I don’t want her! I want Billy Brown! I want my dog!” He pushed the puppy back into his mother’s lap and ran to his room, where he lay, crying.
In the evening, when his father came home from work, he entered Joey’s room to talk with him. Joey eagerly appealed to his father, hoping to find an ally there but without luck. His father apologized for the misunderstanding and tried to explain the justice of the decision and the problems with canine miscegenation and the strange papers proclaiming pure blood. When this failed, he encouraged Joey to try to be friends with the new dog, and then walked out of the room, leaving Joey feeling helpless and confused.
As the months and their various holidays passed, Joey fed the dog as he was told, trying to be genuinely friendly to her, but she seemed cruel and distant, lending him more cause to miss Billy Brown. His mother never took him to see Billy, though he asked often at first, then abandoned the idea altogether and looked nervously forward to Thanksgiving, when he knew he’d see his uncle at his grandparents’ home. He tried not to think about Billy too often, but his mind would sometimes drift to the subject when he fed the usurper, and a general sense of gloom would fall upon him. One afternoon in the late summer, he returned home from the early days of school to find that she had killed a cat that had haplessly wandered into the yard, and he stood for a moment in horror until the now-large grizzly dog approached him.
“You’re a bad dog,” he said, staring into her black eyes and beginning to cry. “Billy would never do that! You’re a bad, mean dog!” The animal with the pure blood simply stared and panted, glancing back and forth from Joey to the empty food dish. Feeding the duchess became the most dreaded part of his day from that point forward and all hope of reconciliation disappeared as the months before the family gathering introduced themselves and lingered like unwanted guests.
At last, Thanksgiving arrived and Joey found himself nervously fidgeting all along the seemingly endless drive to his grandparents’ home, but upon arriving, he found his aunt and uncle absent. He stood waiting in the driveway for a sign: clouds of dust indicating a car pulling up the long dirt road, but it never came. He stood faithfully there until his grandmother coaxed him inside. Through the customary dinner and chatter among adults, he sat, feeling very much alone until he heard his grandmother mention Bob and Laura. She’d left him. He was home, drinking perhaps, and would they mind taking a plate to him. Yes, I suppose and then they were on their way. Joey sat nervous and elated in the car until at last it pulled to a stop. He jumped from the seat and ran to the fence when he heard the barking.
Then he saw it all. There stood Billy Brown or something that resembled Billy Brown, lurching against a chain, tied to a tree. An overturned water dish and a wreck of a structure stood beside. The low growl and bark were unfamiliar, and the black eyes and bared teeth warned against approach.
“Billy? Billy Brown?” the boy stammered. The animal paused then lurched against the chain again, still snarling.
“Shut up!” Joey’s uncle’s voice boomed, startling him. The animal stopped, turned, and sauntered back toward the tree and lay in the dirt, eying the young boy and growling lowly. Joey stared after him. Joey looked toward his uncle, who stood on the porch, his tattooed arm waving a fly from his bearded and grizzly face. “Get back from that fence boy. That dog gets loose, he’ll eat you alive.”
Joey looked to his mother, who nodded toward the car, and he slowly turned and walked from the fence and stared down the narrow road that lay before him and did not cry, but stood realizing that the world would be much different than he’d imagined and that Billy Brown was lost to him forever.