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Stray dogs were always around the store at Loyd Star, but my cousin Forest, Jr. only claimed one as a pet. Sparks was a beautiful red Chow that he raised from a puppy. The two of them were inseparable.
One Saturday morning during one of my summer visits, Forest Jr. and I were scouting around looking for something to do. We found a China Berry tree and declared war. We pelted each other with the hard china balls until we grew tired. Exhausted from our war, we walked to the store for a cold drink, and when we reached the building, we saw Mr. Versie's Ford pickup parked next to the gas pump. We noticed a 12 gauge shotgun hanging across the truck's rear window.
Forest, Jr. and I got our drinks and punched a hole in the bottle caps with an ice pick., (A new Forest, Jr. invention) We sat down near the drink box to suck on our drinks. All of a sudden we heard Mr. Versie scream, "MAD DOG! Don't come outside!", he commanded. My cousin and I ran to the screen door to see what was happening. Nothing was more terrifying than a dog with a running fit going mad. There were stories of rabies and rabid dogs that jumped into open windows biting an entire family and the possible fatal outcome of such a bite.
Looking out the screen doors we saw the dog running in circles in front of the store. It was Sparks, Forest, Jr's constant companion. Sparks was foaming at the mouth with a glaze over his eyes that I will never forget.
In slow motion the event unfolded. Mr. Versie dropped the gas pump nozzle, reached inside his truck for his shotgun, then there was a loud report, and a tumbling ball of red fur hit the gravel. My cousin fell to his knees crying.
The store at Loyd Star was our window to the world, and Mr. Versie and his wife were two characters that walked through it.
Mr. Versie was a regular at the store. He was a man of controversy and contradiction. Men would call him peculiar, women would say, cautiously, that he was charming. He was of medium build and had the dark piercing eyes of an executioner. His hair was neatly parted and combed, fingernails closely cut and clean. His clothes were always starched and ironed, his shoes shined to perfection. His manner was deliberate. He chose his words carefully, as if he were giving a legal deposition. There was something about him that was unnerving, just a creepy feeling, the kind of feeling that you get when you realize that you are standing underneath a nest of red wasps. There was no doubt that Mr. Versie was hiding a hair spring temper, but it was his wide, brown belt with the brass buckle that caught our attention. (It was rumored that Mr. Versie sometimes beat his wife with it.)
Mr. Versie's wife was much younger than he was. She came from up north to teach music at the school. she didn't teach long. She was pretty, in a strange way. She was frail, and delicate, but she wore corduroy overalls, a wide-wale cardigan sweater, and serious shoes. Her brown hair was wavy and styled in the Marlene Dietrich look of the 40's. She loved ice cream.
In 1946 the Purity Ice Cream Company at Brookhaven started a new promotion to increase sales of their nickle cups of ice cream. They printed pictures of movie stars on the cup lids: Clark Gable, Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner, and a stunning photograph of Gene Autry. Mr. Versie's wife started collecting the Lana Turner's. Forest, Jr. and I traded our Lana Turner's for her Gene Autry's. She had a sweet, gentle manner, often tousling our hair or carressing our faces with her fingers, calling us "precious children." The things she talked about had a way of scattering as rapidly as clouds on the edge of a cold front. She would begin conversations telling us about something in the movie magazines, then it would be something she had heard on one of her radio programs, then she would describe a "sentimental journey" that she wanted to take back to Lake Michigan. She carried a white oak basket in the crook of her slender arm for her purchases. Her eyes were red and swollen, and when she left, only the smell of her perfume lingered.
My summer visit came and went/ Six years later Mr. Versie called the Sheriff in Brookhabven to come and get his wife, he was admitting her to Whitfield, the state's mental asylum. Forest, Jr. told me he saw the Sheriff's car pass the store with Mr. Versie's wife in the back seat. "I was so close I could have reached out and touched her," he said. "She had this strange look on her face. She lifted her hand to wave, but it was her eyes that I will never forget, they were glazed over, just like Spark's."
No one ever knew the truth about why she had a nervous breakdown. Mr. Versie never discussed it and no one ever asked him. Chilling details of shock treatments, straight jackets, locked doors and barred windows reverberated through Loyd Star. There were rumors that she had become infatuated with a pretty school teacher at the school. Mrs. Versie died at Whitfield, Mr. Versie never remarried, and Forest, Jr. never claimed another dog for a pet.
My cousin and I knew that Mr. Versie had to shoot the dog, but we always wondered deep down if he enjoyed it.