He sat there smiling. I hadn’t noticed him until my brother brought him to my attention at the dinner table.
“Have you seen the smiling dog?” he asked.
“The one on the Sand Creek bridge.”
“Look tomorrow when you’re on the school bus. You’ll see him. He’s sitting on the bridge. Smiling.”
I crossed Sand Creek nearly every day while growing up in Oklahoma. Our school bus crossed it morning and afternoon. We crossed it on our way to and from church on Sunday mornings. We swam in its warm silty waters at Osage Hills State Park.
My best friend lived in a mobile home just a few feet above Sand Creek’s flood levels. One year, when torrential rains had turned the creek into a raging river, our school bus had to take a detour from its regular route on the highway. The main bridge was under water. We took the back roads into town until the floodwaters subsided. We still had to cross Sand Creek.
This back-roads route took us to an ancient steel-truss bridge, covered with a rough wood plank deck. I had walked and ridden my bike across this bridge. It never occurred to me that cars and buses would ever use it. It was so narrow that the bus driver folded the side mirrors against the bus before driving across. He only had a few inches clearance at the narrowest point.
He didn’t trust the dilapidated structure enough to keep us on the bus either. After ordering us off, he drove across slowly, continually looking out for the lights and bumpers. We would walk across, throw a few rocks in the high waters, and get back on the bus. This was our morning and afternoon ritual until the highway bridge became passable again.
One of Sand Creek’s tributaries coursed through our property. On the topographic maps, this tributary was aptly called Dry Creek. Which it was for most of the year. My brother, my little sister, my dad and I built three dams across Dry Creek. We caught the runoff from heavy storms and held back the water for irrigating fruit trees, blueberries, melons, and a garden. We hung a rope from a towering sycamore tree and made a swing over the largest pond.
Sand Creek was my classroom. I rarely spent more than a few minutes each day on homework. Instead, I went into the woods and walked the river bottoms behind our house. Or I went to my friend’s house and walked along the banks of Sand Creek. I learned the hydrologic cycle while wandering along Sand Creek. I learned about erosion and sediment loads, observed families of opossums and skunks along the creek, discovered sassafras and wild strawberries.
Years later, I recognize that Sand Creek touched nearly every part of my youth. Its floodwaters washed over me, gently laying down lessons and experiences like rich sediment on banks and sandbars, marking my bones in its various stages.
The next morning, after my brother told me about the smiling dog, I walked the gravel road to the bus stop and awaited the trip across Sand Creek. When we finally approached the bridge, I pushed my face against the window to see this smiling dog. A few hundred feet from the bridge, I saw him.
He had probably been hit two weeks earlier. Most roadkill would have rolled off to the side and into the borrow pit. This dog had been hit right on the bridge deck and had remained as a token of someone’s inattention.
No amount of wind or rain or traffic could force this dog from his resting place; the concrete rails held him on the deck. He had been tumbled out of the travel lane and had landed with his back and head propped upright against the east rail. He faced south, greeting me as we headed into town.
Each day the sun left him slightly more desiccated, his hide slightly more taut than the day before. The first day I saw this dog, the skin around his mouth was pulled back slightly, exposing his front teeth. He was smiling. That afternoon, I sat in the back of the bus and watched him from the rear window as we headed home. He was still smiling, if not a little more since morning.
Over the following days, the skin pulled tighter at the back of his head, exposing more teeth, enlarging his smile. After a couple weeks, his smile had grown to a full sardonic grin. He had even opened his eyes and now stared into the sun.
For several weeks I watched him. I would break off conversations a few moments before reaching the bridge, just to get a glimpse of the dog. Finally, a hard rain came and softened the carapace which had held him upright for so long. In time the snows and ice storms came and gave him a proper burial. I looked for him the next spring, but he was gone. A snow plow had probably propelled him into a frozen trajectory over the east rail.
Yet, when I dream of the river bottoms, of sycamore trees, of coyotes, of childhood friends, of school buses, of Sand Creek, I see him, that old dog. He is still on the bridge. Back straight, head up, dignified, smiling.
Photo Credit: Comsol Blog