There’s a shortcut I’ve been taking for many years on my drive to Nashville—a curvy, narrow road over a ridge where there aren’t many homes. I go that way at least two or three times a week. At the top of the ridge there’s a small, tumbledown house with a yard full of stacked firewood and useless junk. Five or six Confederate flags swing from a rope strung between two trees, and a fresh No Trespassing sign blooms periodically on a tree at the end of the dirt driveway. I see the owner—I’ll call him Leon—outside every now and then, and let’s just say he matches the house. He is often shirtless.
I figure we’re all entitled to live and decorate as we please, Confederate loyalists included. The flags offend me, but Leon would probably feel a similar disdain for the Obama sign that once graced my own front lawn. Live and let live, I say. The man’s beliefs are not my business. I have always fretted, however, about the welfare of Leon’s animals. His chickens run loose and occasionally get hit by cars. For a while he kept a little goat tethered to a stake in the yard, which just broke my heart. In recent years he’s kept a boxer-type dog chained up near the road, and, since I’m a dog lover, that bothered me most of all. The dog has never looked underfed or mistreated, but I’m always sad to see one chained, and the doghouse Leon provided is just a homemade box tacked together out of plywood, certainly not much shelter from the cold or a heavy rain.
I’ve thought many times that I should buy a decent doghouse and go knock on Leon’s door and offer it to him. It would be a neighborly thing to do, and I could stop feeling so bad every time I drive past the house. Frankly, though, I was too scared to try it. Leon was clearly on the record as not welcoming strangers, and he didn’t strike me as the sort of guy who would appreciate some lady do-gooder coming around to suggest that he didn’t take proper care of his dog. Worst case, he might have an anger-management problem. I love dogs, but I’m not willing to get shot over one.
Calling the authorities about the dog seemed safer but pointless. As far as I could tell, Leon wasn’t actually breaking any laws; and in any case, I’d seen a police vehicle at the house once or twice, so they were already aware of the situation. Leon has more affluent neighbors nearby, and there’s a pretty active animal-welfare organization in the county. I told myself help had likely been offered and turned away. There was no use in my getting involved, sad as the whole thing made me.
When I drove by Leon’s house that afternoon I saw the dog out there, and knowing it would soon shiver in a sub-zero wind chill, I suddenly couldn’t take it anymore.
One day in early January the weather reports were full of breathless predictions about a brutal cold snap on its way. When I drove by Leon’s house that afternoon I saw the dog out there, and knowing it would soon shiver in a sub-zero wind chill, I suddenly couldn’t take it anymore. It was unbearable to continue doing nothing. Part of what set me off was an incident that had happened on Christmas Day, when I went hiking and came across a badly injured doe. A park ranger answered my call for help, but ultimately I had to leave the deer without seeing an end to her suffering. She haunted me. Abandoning her seemed like an awful failure on my part, and I thought I could redeem it by doing something, finally, for Leon’s dog.
I drove on to Nashville and rushed through my errands so I’d have time to hit the pet-supply store before the day was over. I bought a good weatherproof doghouse and a bale of straw—it was tough getting both of them into my little car—and then…. Well, I wasn’t sure what to do next. Leon still scared me. I called animal control in the county where he lives to see if maybe somebody there would go to the house with me, or even take charge of the delivery, but they were already closed for the day. I thought about stopping at city hall in the little town near him in hopes of finding a kindhearted cop to accompany me, but by the time I drove by they were closed, too, and I realized that was just as well. Showing up at Leon’s door with someone in uniform was unlikely to inspire a warm welcome.
It was almost dark when I finally got to Leon’s place, and he was nowhere in sight. Maybe I should just deposit the doghouse and straw at the edge of the yard and take off? That was an appealing, if cowardly, option. Trouble was, I knew I would have to struggle to get the damn stuff out of the car. I couldn’t possibly make a quick getaway, and lord knows what sort of confrontation I might wind up having with Leon. So I just went on home, mission not accomplished, and thought all night about the dog. The dangerous cold was only twenty-four hours away.
The next morning, still flummoxed, I considered scrapping the whole plan. I could donate the stuff to a rescue organization, or, hell, just return it to the store. But then I pictured the dog out there day after day, through future cold spells and storms, until one day he would disappear and be replaced with a new unlucky pup. That thought, and the prospect of my future shame, made me a little sick.
I couldn’t possibly make a quick getaway, and lord knows what sort of confrontation I might wind up having with Leon. So I just went on home, mission not accomplished, and thought all night about the dog. The dangerous cold was only twenty-four hours away.
So I set out again, and when I reached Leon’s house I was amazed to see an older woman working in the yard. In all my years of driving by the place I’d never noticed any sign of a female presence. The sight of her gave me courage. I pulled into the drive and discovered there was a man in the yard, too, and it wasn’t Leon. The two of them stopped and stared at me as I got out of the car.
“Hi,” I said. “I drive by here all the time and I see y’all’s dog out there. I was wondering if you could make use of a new dog house for him.”
“Sure,” the man said, “if it’s free.”
“Oh, yes sir, it’s free. I was just hoping you could use it.”
The three of us had to work for a good ten minutes or more to extract the doghouse and straw from the car. It was all twice as hard to get out as it had been to put in. During the struggle we chatted, and I found out that the two were Leon’s sister and brother. They were doing a little work around his house, “getting things ready for the cold,” while he was off receiving some sort of medical care. As we talked I learned that Leon’s sister—let’s call her Kate—was actually quite the animal lover. There was a second dog in the yard that I’d never noticed, a smaller female, also chained, but she looked well-fed and healthy, and she had a small manufactured doghouse—not the best in the world but better than the plywood number. Kate said something vaguely apologetic about the dogs being tied up, even though I hadn’t mentioned it. She clearly took an interest in them and seemed pleased to have improved shelter for the big dog.
Goods delivered, we shook hands and said goodbye. I drove away feeling genuinely helpful, as well as reassured that the overall situation for the animals was better than I’d feared. I also realized that I’d been guilty of jumping to a lot of conclusions about Leon all these years. I was so busy sympathizing with the dog that I’d failed to sympathize with the owner. It never occurred to me, for instance, that Leon had close family looking after him. I thought of him as completely isolated and hopelessly cantankerous. I did feel sorry for his poverty and saw that he couldn’t afford to provide better for his dog, but why did I assume he didn’t want to provide better? The chaotic dwelling, the No Trespassing sign—sure, those things contributed to my impression of him, but the thing that really stunted my sympathy, I have to admit, was my disgust at his choice of garden decor. Those Confederate flags were too much for me. They made him not only scary but contemptible.
My compassion for the dog was useless for a long time because I could not extend the same consideration to Leon. I feared and judged him, and so I could not be kind.
Just to be clear, I don’t apologize for disapproving of the flags. People can holler “History, not hate” all they want, but there is no getting around the real meaning of the symbol, and I say that as the great-great granddaughter of a Confederate veteran. I reserve my right not to tolerate bigotry. But—and no one should know this better than a white Southerner—bigotry is never the whole truth about a person. People can have hateful ideas without being themselves hateful, and if I had not made the assumption that Leon was his ideology, I almost certainly would have done something to help his dog a lot sooner. My compassion for the dog was useless for a long time because I could not extend the same consideration to Leon. I feared and judged him, and so I could not be kind. Failure all the way around on my part.
The next day, after the cold set in, I drove by the house in the late afternoon. Leon’s truck was back in the driveway. There was the new doghouse, all set up in the considerably tidier yard. (The siblings must have put in a full day after I left.) What really gave me pleasure, though, was realizing that the dogs were nowhere in sight. They’d been brought inside for this bitter night, at least. And I noticed something else: the flags, which existed in my mind’s eye as the bright, startling display I first encountered years ago, had actually weathered to nothing more than a few tattered, faded shreds. Somehow, I’d failed see that, even when I’d been standing just a few feet away.
It’s tempting to stop the story here, with my good deed a success and my prejudices overturned, but it’s more honest to add a coda. The big dog is, in fact, still living in the crappy plywood doghouse. For whatever reason, Leon has chosen to give the plush new digs to the little girl dog, who lies with her snout sticking out of the entrance, looking quite happy and house proud as I drive by. Maybe the boy dog prefers his hovel. I expect I’ll never know. One day recently I topped the ridge to find both dogs loose and running down the middle of the road, risking the same fate as the chickens. Clearly, Leon has not been miraculously transformed into an ideal pet owner. And the flags? They’ve been replenished. A half-dozen bold banners of Dixie flap again over Leon’s domain.
Maybe someday I’ll meet Leon and he’ll be a nicer guy than I ever imagined. Or maybe he’ll be exactly the nasty piece of work I once assumed him to be. The little gift I so agonized over might have done a bit of good, but not much. It sure didn’t fix anything. But the whole exercise was still worth doing, if only for all it taught me about what gets in the way of kindness: fear, self-protection, a mind full of judgments. And it was worth doing, too, for the reminder that the purpose of kindness is not to fix the world, or even a tiny piece of it. That can’t be done—at least, not in any enduring way. An act of kindness is just a good wish with legs, a fragment of love you send out into the world to do what it might, unencumbered by expectations. In that sense, it can never be a failure.
Copyright (c) 2015 by Maria Browning. All rights reserved. Browning is a fifth-generation Tennessean who grew up in Erin and Nashville. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she has attended the Clothesline School of Writing in Chicago, the Moss Workshop with Richard Bausch at the University of Memphis, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She lives in White Bluff.