INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BEST SELLER • From the best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of All Over but the Shoutin', the warmhearted and hilarious story of how his life was transformed by his love for a poorly behaved, half-blind stray dog.
Speck is not a good boy. He is a terrible boy, a defiant, self-destructive, often malodorous boy, a grave robber and screen door moocher who spends his days playing chicken with the Fed Ex man, picking fights with thousand-pound livestock, and rolling in donkey manure, and his nights howling at the moon. He has been that way since the moment he appeared on the ridgeline behind Rick Bragg's house, a starved and half-dead creature, seventy-six pounds of wet hair and poor decisions.
Speck arrived in Rick's life at a moment of looming uncertainty. A cancer diagnosis, chemo, kidney failure, and recurring pneumonia had left Rick lethargic and melancholy. Speck helped, and he is helping, still, when he is not peeing on the rose of Sharon. Written with Bragg's inimitable blend of tenderness and sorrow, humor and grit, The Speckled Beauty captures the extraordinary, sustaining devotion between two damaged creatures who need each other to heal.
“This is a witty, moving love letter to one extraordinary dog—and an ode to the transformative powers of his kind.” —People Magazine[Book of the Week]
“This moving book is a literary ode to canine love.” —TheWashington Post
“Pulitzer Prize-winning memoirist Rick Bragg ( The Best Cook in the World; My Southern Journey) grew out of rural Southern poverty, but the spirit of his storytelling has made him—and legions of readers—rich beyond measure . . . Amid dark days, bright Speck shows up at just the right time. How fortunate for readers that the joy of his presence—enhanced by the wit and wisdom of Bragg's inimitable prose—will resonate far beyond the Bragg homestead.” —Kathleen Gerard, Shelf Awareness
“If you’re a dog lover and want to treat yourself to a beautifully written story that will make your whole self smile, read this memoir by Rick Bragg. His writing is so powerful that it made my heart weep. Savor this book.” – Florida Times-Union
“I knew from the beginning that I would love The Speckled Beauty, but I did not realize just how much. Once I began this memoir, I did not want to put it down. Though Speck is the center of the story, Bragg’s compassionate portraits of his family members made me love them all. As the family grows and changes, so too does Speck, and Bragg creates a profoundly moving tableau.” — Ashley Riggleson, The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star
“Bragg has done it again, focusing his lyrical prose on one aspect of his Southern roots while managing to embrace much larger terrain in the process . . . [ The Speckled Beauty] delights the senses and is as honest as the day is long.”
—David Holahan, USA Today
“Bragg's descriptions are vivid, his use of colorful place names is enchanting, and while the story is Speck's, whenever Bragg turns the camera on himself you find you like and empathize with him a little more each time . . . ‘My people think a good story will fix just about anything,’ Bragg writes, and in this case it might actually be true.”
—Laurie Hertzel, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Rick Bragg spins his mesmerizing tales of life down South with characteristically wry humor and wisdom . . . The Speckled Beauty takes its place beside Willie Morris’ My Dog Skip, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ animal narratives and William Faulkner’s dog stories—as well as all those short tales of devoted dogs in Field & Stream—confirming once more Bragg’s enduring artfulness and cracking good ability to spin memorable, affectionate tales.”
—Henry L. Carrigan Jr., BookPage [starred review]
“Bragg's story will resonate with dog lovers and with his many fans, who will recognize this book's enjoyably colloquial tone from his monthly essays in Southern Living magazine.”
—Susan Riley, Library Journal [starred review]
RICK BRAGG is the author of ten books, including the best-selling Ava's Man and All Over but the Shoutin'. He is also a regular contributor to Southern Living and Garden & Gun. He lives in Alabama.
The Dog I Had in Mind
The cat in the waiting room looked us over, suspicious and superior. That’s the way a cat will do you.
I sat with my dog, and worried. That morning, he had a bad, shaking cough, and choked when he tried to breathe. I heaved him, kicking, protesting, into the back seat of my pickup, and rushed him to the vet.
I thought he had just swallowed something unspeakable, and with this dog that could have been anything from a live toad to a welding glove. That, or he was just sick, or poisoned; there was no telling what terrible disease he might have picked up, toting a jawbone around for a chew toy. He had been my dog for about two years now, and had ingested things I cannot even say.
He was stuck fast to my knee, again. This did not mean I was his master, merely his alibi, coconspirator, bailsman, and the driver of his ambulance. Most people would have taken comfort in the fact their dog stuck so close to them. These people, I suspect, are not familiar with the term “guilt by association.”
The nurse called his name, and I dragged him to the exam room on a leash. On the way he tried to water the dog food display like it was my mother’s calla lilies, but I snatched him back. He gave the cat a look as we passed by.
Don’t be here when I get back, Fluffy.
I don’t like to read too much into the dog, and I don’t like to pretend to speak for him, but in the two years or so since he arrived some things are just easy to translate.
In the exam room, he coughed so hard he seemed to vibrate, but wagged his tail, unconcerned. He is not a good boy, but he is a tough boy, and this was just one more scrap for him, just one more fight in a ditch.
The vet, Dr. Eric Clanton, called his cough “violent,” and decided to do an X-ray to see if something was stuck in his windpipe. The nurse gave him a shot to knock him out, because it was not in his nature to behave or hold still just because someone asked him to, and he lay on the floor as the drug took effect, goofy and kind of lost.
“That’s the best he’s behaved since I got him,” I told the nurses, trying to sound tough, but it broke my heart to see him like that. I reached down and rubbed his head, but he was out cold now, snuffling and drooling on the floor.
He is not the dog I had in mind.
I had in mind a good dog, in all the usual ways.
Just a few weeks before, I had been half asleep in a deep chair with a novel, The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr, open on my chest. The television was on, the sound turned low. Rita Hayworth was singing a torch song and dancing in her bare feet. I could hear the dog outside, his bark fading in and out, drowning in the hollers, rising on the ridge. I remember there was a big, orange moon that night, almost like daylight. The dog went wackier than usual under a moon like that.
My sixtieth birthday had passed without a parade, but I was feeling old, used up, and no-account long before I approached that milestone. I had been falling apart and glued back together for some time, tired, grouchy, and confused, and still five years shy of what people here call their old-age pension. My excellent doctors, all eleven or twelve, told me I was damaged, undisciplined, self-destructive, probably doomed, and maybe maladjusted, but in no immediate peril. I might limp on a ways, with clean living and fine insurance. But this was not a walk I wanted to take on my own. I thought it might be nice, on this leg of the journey, to have an old, slow, easy dog to go with me.
I had in mind a fat dog, a gentle plodder that only slobbered an acceptable amount and would not chase a car even if the trunk was packed with pork chops. In my mind, we shuffled side by side along a smooth path that was always slightly downhill, in a season that was always sweatshirt weather, always just right. In the chest pocket of my old, frayed button-down there was always a fresh pack of Juicy Fruit; you will go through more than you would think, going no place special. In my mind, I had traded my boots and jeans for some spongy orthopedic shoes and a baggy pair of corduroy trousers; I always planned on getting some when I was too old to care. Here, in this easy make-believe, I always had an apple in my pocket, and a full bag of treats. A good dog, especially a fat one, will need a treat every mile or so. And together, my old dog and me would shuffle off into the sunset, though we might have to stop occasionally, for a nap.
I have always loved that notion that dogs bring out the best in us, and have always wanted to believe in something like that. Sometimes, when the melancholy is on me, I get a little lost in the bitter weeds, and I see a much more likely end for a man like me. I see one of those mean old men who rock angry on an unpainted porch, glaring off into the great might-have-been. I can almost hear the runners squeal, hear the old man screech at the passersby that, as soon as he can get straightened up good, he will come down off that porch and kick their asses up to their watch pockets.
But I can’t picture it, somehow, with an old, slow, easy dog close by. It would make me ashamed of myself, in a way that most people never had.
Maybe we would even shuffle off down to some clear lake and pretend to fish, beside a bottomless cooler of bologna sandwiches and ice-cold root beer; maybe that is what heaven is. We might not even bait a hook, might just kick back and enjoy the day. If, by some miracle, we should catch a fish, we will just ease it back into the water. And if we see a snake, we will let it be.
It always seemed like a reasonable thing, not a dream but a modest plan. I know it might not sound like much to someone who wants to dive with the sharks on their one hundredth birthday, or hike a volcano on a new hip. I’m just telling you the dog I had in mind, for the shape I was in.
Outside, I could still hear my crazy dog chasing the wind through the trees.
Midnight passed, then one, two . . . I think I had just closed my eyes.
Yalp! Yalp! Yalp! Grrrrrrrrrrrrrr . . .
His tone was different this time, urgent, angry. My older brother, who has a fine way with words, calls it a booger bark; you heard it in a dog’s voice when he was truly spooked, not just interested in some wayward coon or wandering deer. Some dogs, you can ignore in times like this; you can leave them to their silliness till the threat moves away, or the dog just runs down, like a child’s battery-powered toy. Some dogs, you can. I have seen Speck run himself into staggering exhaustion, over a possibility. It better be a rhinoceros, I thought as I pulled on my shoes.
I was surprised to see him at the foot of the hill, bouncing in place, waiting for me to catch up. That worried me a little; he never waited for me to catch up. As soon as he saw me in the porch light he took off again, running not into the trees that formed a horseshoe around the cabin, which was where he usually played in the dark, but straight down the driveway and toward the road, as fast as he could go. I followed him around a sharp dogleg that hid the cabin from the road. And there in the driveway, a few yards from the mailbox, I saw the red glow of a single taillight.
The car, an old import, had backed into the drive, its engine idling. I eased up behind it, thinking what a sad end it would be to get shot dead in my fuzzy house shoes in my own driveway. I should have had a flashlight, but I didn’t think I needed one just to step outside and cuss out a barking dog. I stopped, not sure what to do next. Of all the hateful things that descended on me in the years after getting sick, a wretched and feeble uncertainty was the worst.
Once, it all would have seemed harmless to me. Teenagers pulled into the dark drive to park, sometimes, but it appeared that this was not young love taking its course, or kids passing a joint. Meth had left a stain on life down here, and no one said, anymore, that they didn’t lock their doors.
I saw the spike of a lighter, and then again, and
again . . . The old car seemed to sag with people.
I imagined skinned heads and neck tattoos, but they could have been Amway salesmen or Jehovah’s Witnesses for all I knew, or nuns.
But they shouldn’t have messed with my dog.
He was bouncing at the driver’s side door, growling, furious, and I could hear the people inside laugh at him through the cracked windows of the car. Speck yowled at the glass, close enough to fog it with his breath. I heard an anemic electric window groan down and saw something fly out of it, then heard a yelp and the unmistakable thunk and tinkle of a beer bottle, not shattering but rolling in the grass and gravel. They were throwing bottles at my dog.
A dog with any sense would have run away, but I guess all they did was make him mad. I called him, once, twice, almost in a whisper.
I picked up the first dead limb I saw in the gloom. I was not particular.
I stepped up closer to the car, almost to the back bumper, and called again, in that inane way that people try to whisper as loud as they can.
“Speck! Here!” I hissed.
I took one or two steps more, to within a few feet of the car’s rear window. What I meant to say, what I had in my mind to say, was a stern, reasonable:
Y’all need to ease on out of here, right now.
What came out, instead, was a shrill, angry:
“I’ll kill y’all, if y’all hurt my dog.”
I didn’t recognize my own voice; I think, maybe, I used to know the redneck who said crazy stuff like that, who believed he could say things like that, then absorb the consequences, but that leaping dumbass was surely dead and gone by now. But you see, I didn’t have any choice. Even if he is the worst dog of all time, he is my dog; you don’t throw beer bottles at a man’s dog, and giggle. You can’t try to hurt a man’s dog right in front of him and get away with it.
I remember thinking, as I stood there, that I wished I had selected a bigger and better twig, but there are just some stupidities that, once committed to, just have to be seen through.
I waited for the doors to swing open and the ass whipping—mine, most likely—to commence, but
I guess no one in that car of late-night party people was as stupid as I was. I saw the weeds glow red behind the car as the driver toed the brake and slammed the transmission into drive. Speck danced out of the way just as the car belched a whorl of smoke and lurched away, tires and fan belt screeching. The old car made a hard right on the main road and disappeared.
“Yeah, y’all better run,” I yelled, bravely, once I was sure they were, indeed, running. The dog, overjoyed, sang a song of belligerence in a cloud of wafting smut.
I guess they thought I had a pistol; this is Alabama, where pretty much everyone does. People go armed to the dentist, choir practice, the PTA, and Ruby Tuesday’s; why not go armed in your driveway. I did not, in fact, have a pistol, or even real shoes or long pants. But I would have done grievous harm to that windshield until I came to my senses, or got shot, or beaten up, or—and I am not discounting this—got chased back up my own driveway screeching Call 911!
I should have known that a dog like mine would lead me into situations like this, as surely as a good dog will lead you away from them. He wanted to chase the trail of smoke, but I hollered at him with all the meanness I could muster; he pulled up after a few steps, not because he was minding me but because of that thing in his head, that compass, that held him to this place.
I got a death grip on his collar and began dragging him, resisting, back up the drive. I was a little concerned that the people in the car might drink or smoke up some courage and come back here with a gun, and I did not want the dog, or me, to get a second chance at killing ourselves. It was uphill all the way, and he fought me every step. I dragged him up the drive, across the yard, up the steps, and into the house, and along the way I lost a shoe and could not get it back. I was wheezing, croaking, by the time I made it to the door. The dog still wanted to fight somebody, and ran crazily around the cabin, scattering mail and magazines. Ceramic angels trembled on a shelf. My mother, on the edge of her bed, asked if I was all right, asked what was happening, and I just told her, “Dope fiends,” since her vernacular of illegal narcotics is frozen in 1952.
“I heard you hollering,” she said.
“It was the stupid dog,” I said.
I sat in the living room and got my breath, then
I got the flashlight and headed for the door.
“What’s wrong now?”
“I have to go get my shoe.”
The dog walked with me down the drive. He would have torn the door off if I had tried to lock him inside. It was odd, how fast the chaos faded here. I could hear the wind sift in the trees, and the creaking of the limbs. But some of us are not built for tranquility, or the whispering pines.
“I should have busted that damn windshield,” I said to the dog.
He looked up, and there it was, that understanding.
“I should have thrown you through the window, and let you at ’em,” I told him. “See how long they’d of laughed at you, then, with you in there, amongst ’em.”
The vet was gone only a little while.
He showed me the X- rays. The cartilage that held open the dog’s trachea had partially collapsed, causing it to flatten. He could breathe in, but it constricted when he exhaled, trapping his last breath, causing him to sometimes choke and cough.
“Is it fatal,” I asked.
The vet shook his head.
“Not necessarily,” he said.
The dog was already breathing better, but Dr. Clanton said he was going to keep him overnight, to watch over him, and to run a tube down his throat to make doubly certain there was no blockage there. He was still passed out when I left.
The next day his office called to tell me to come get my dog.
What dog? would have been the prudent response, but I knew they had my address.
He heard my voice and came into the lobby in a rush, almost dancing, the way dogs have done since the beginning of time. He looked fine, and sounded fine, like it never happened. Some dogs, the vet said, just had an amazing ability to reset, to start over the next day. He was that kind of dog.
He gave me some medicine to help with the swelling, but I was hoping for a cure. I wanted him to tell me it would never happen again, that my dog was healed, but I had the wrong dog, entirely, for a guarantee. For now I had my terrible dog back, and I would have to settle for that.
The snooty cat was long gone when we left; the dog looked all around the waiting room for him and seemed bitterly disappointed. To make it up to him, we headed for a fast- food drive- through. I got him a twelve- pack of chicken nuggets and a cup of ice water, and stopped on the town square to feed him. It took twelve seconds, or about one second per nugget. “Can you chew, for God’s sake?” I told him, thinking it would be my luck to see him survive this most recent catastrophe only to be choked to death by a Chick- fil- A. People saw us on the square and stopped by the truck to talk, or to reach in to pull at his ears or scratch at his fur. “What a goodboy,” they said, one after another, and I just nodded, because who has time to set a whole town straight?
I had read that dogs like him understand more than you would think, so I talked as we rolled toward home. I told him he would get better if he would take his medicine and not just lick all the peanut butter off the pill and spit it out on the kitchen floor. I told him to stop running around like a crazy dog till he almost passed out, and to watch himself around the sneaky jackasses, and the malevolent tomcats, and the dangerous raccoons, and . . . and then I heard him snore. He was sound asleep, again, across the back seat. He huffed, snorted, and growled, in the way dreaming dogs do. My uncles, who knew a lot about dogs, used to tell me they were chasing rabbits. But then I was only a kid, and a kid will believe anything.