When the stray, bighearted, mixed-breed female birthed twenty-four puppies all the exact size of a canned Vienna sausage, Watt Pinson made the mistake of calling up a friend of a friend who had an acquaintance at the local news station sixty miles away. At this point Watt hadn’t even named the dog, hadn’t let her in the house. She had been circling his property for a couple weeks, and ate what scraps he set out at dusk. Sometimes she slept next to the woodpile, other times Watt found her beneath his work van or in a tamped-down section of monkey grass edging his back deck. Watt’s wife, Mattie, left the back door open one Thursday evening, the dog flashed inside, and began the long process of exuding a litter of runts between the couch and wingback chair. Watt came home, saw the mess, and remarked how lucky he was to own a carpet cleaning company.
Mattie said, “I wasn’t paying attention. I left the door open while I took out the garbage. I didn’t even see her around.”
“Twenty-four has to be some kind of record. Even if it isn’t a record, I bet if we get one of those fancy scales that drug runners use, we’d find out that all these dogs are the same. That never happens. There’s always one big pup, and one really little one that usually dies off from not getting to a teat.”
Mattie went and found an old comforter in the garage—something that a client gave them when even industrial steam cleaning couldn’t get out the stains—and wrapped it around the bitch. Mattie said, “I’m tired of these yuppies driving all the way out here when they’re bored with their dogs and throwing them out. Or when the dog eats upholstery.”
The Pinsons owned another ten dogs, all ex-strays, that found their way from crossroads, around woods, through haphazard trailer parks, past a Christmas tree farm, to the Pinsons’ yard in Gruel, South Carolina. They’d spent five grand to have a back acre fenced off, bought upwards of seventy pounds of dry dog food a week, and employed two different veterinarians—one for spaying and neutering, the other who made yearly shot house calls.
Watt pulled a hardback chair out of the kitchen and set it down five feet from the stray. “This dog must be Catholic or something, what with this many kids. Let’s name her Sister. Like a nun, you know.”
Mattie didn’t say anything about how a nun wouldn’t have kids. She looked at the dog and said, “Is your name Sister? Do you want to be named Sister?” in her highest voice.
The dog weighed not more than forty pounds, and looked mostly mottled hyena. Sister wagged her tail, raised her head, and nosed newborns toward her belly. “I need to call somebody up and see what the story is with hand-nursing these puppies. There ain’t no way they’ll survive otherwise.”
Then Watt called his friend Yarbo, who called his friend Brewer, who called the man at WYFF to say that there was a human interest story going on somewhere in the middle of nowhere, between the towns of Forty-Five and Cross Blood. By the time Mattie had a saucepan of milk warmed on the stove and Watt found an eyedropper and an ear syringe beneath the bathroom sink, a news crew was on its way.
There aren’t twenty-four people I know who’d take a free dog apiece, Watt thought. Mattie won’t take a dog to the pound, and there’s no way I can take another dog. He stuck the ear syringe down to one of the all-white puppies and said, “This might make you moo instead of bark.”
Then he thought of how there was an empty burlap fertilizer sack in the garage and the Saluda River not two miles away.
Mattie scooped up two handsful of puppies and said, “Sister looks like a calico cat. I wonder why all these dogs are either all-black or all-white. I wonder who the father was.”
Watt thought about taking a drywall bucket out back, filling it with water, and drowning one—maybe two—puppies at a time and nestling them back down in the ruined comforter after his wife went to bed each night. He said, “I don’t understand the genetic makeup of people, much less dogs.”
He knew that he couldn’t harm Sister’s puppies, though. He’d gone out of his way, while cleaning the carpet of a near Italian restaurant on Friday nights after they closed, of shooing cockroaches instead of sucking them up into his machine. He’d driven his van on two wheels for twenty yards once while veering from a raccoon blinded in the road. There were flying squirrels in the attic and mice living in the crawl space that he couldn’t harm—vermin too smart to enter the live traps he set out. He held a one-ounce puppy and eased milk into its mouth.
“These dogs are so small I can’t even tell which are male and which are female. They’re like kittens,” Mattie said. “It won’t cost much to get them fixed, at least.”
The other ten dogs—all relegated to the backyard while Sister continued her motherly functions—began barking. The cameraman and reporter pulled into the long gravel driveway, their high beams on.
“How’d y’all find out about this?” Watt asked. He didn’t open the front door more than two feet.
The reporter was Celine Ruiz, and Watt recognized her. She appeared to be half Hispanic and half Asian, and much shorter than she appeared on the TV. Sometimes at night he’d watch the eleven o’clock news before going out to a carpeted Pizza Hut, Shoney’s, or Kampai of Tokyo that he had on contract some fifty miles away. Watt’s clients trusted him enough to give him keys, and most of the restaurant managers said he could partake of the beer coolers, the soft drink dispensers, that he could make a pot of coffee if he cared. Watt worked from midnight until six in the morning many days, came home to take a nap, then fulfilled his residential orders between noon and five. When he got enough steady clients Mattie quit her bank telling job, learned how to operate the steamer, and came along. Mostly she moved chairs and tables from one side of a dining area to the other, then back. She drank free Sprite some nights, Dr Pepper the others. Mattie liked to take a salt or pepper shaker, sugar packets, the cayenne pepper containers from the pizza joints. “I like to live dangerously,̶...