I don’t know where she was buried; somewhere in Kilgore Cemetery, I think. That’s usually where they put people who don’t have any family. Her name was Millie Hollingsworth, but everyone in Hawthorn called her the dog woman. She used her government check to feed about thirty strays that lived with her in an abandoned house out on Old Airport Road. The times she came into the store to cash her check she only bought a few cans of beans or tuna fish, trash bags, Ivory soap, and a twenty-five pound bag of Chuck Wagon. People said she was crazy, and that’s why she got money from the government, but Daddy told me she had a husband who got run over by a tank in the war and that was really why she got a check every month. I think maybe she got two, one for her dead husband and one for being crazy. Anybody that would live in a house that didn’t have electricity or a working bathroom with a bunch of dirty, stray dogs and used plastic trash bags to cover the windows in winter must be crazy.
Millie walked along Airport Road talking to herself while she picked up trash. Mostly beer bottles and bags from What-A-Burger that kids threw out their windows when they drove to the woods to park on Friday and Saturday nights.
“People in Hawthorn have the cleanest cars in the world,” Millie mumbled.
She didn’t care that drivers blew their horns as they swerved to miss her. It wasn’t her fault they were going too fast. She didn’t even mind that some people shouted curse words at her, but it did bother her when some inconsiderate ass wasn’t paying attention and made her dive into the ditch, getting beggar lice all over her clothes. That happened at least once a week. One time, Fred Johnson slammed his Buick right into her grocery cart scattering an entire bag of Chuck Wagon all over the road.
“You must think you are the only one entitled to use the road!” Millie was screaming, down on her hands and knees scooping up the dog food.
“Millie! Somebody’s gonna come around that corner and run right over your crazy ass!” Fred shouted.
The smell of burning rubber filled Millie’s nostrils as Fred Johnson floored the gas and rifled off toward home.
“No human decency. He’s going to hell for sure.”
The rules were simple for Millie. Do good, go to heaven. Do bad, go to hell. Wash your face and say your prayers, go to heaven. Litter and abuse dogs, go to hell. Millie knew where she was going. She never went out in public that her face wasn’t shiny and smelling of Ivory soap, her hair pulled into a tight bun on top of her head. She forgot to say her prayers once. That was the night some kids snuck into the old house to smoke pot and burned it to the ground. Millie awoke to the sound of the volunteer fire department banging on her door in the middle of the night. She never forgot to say her prayers again.
In Millie’s heaven there would be long tables of all-you-can-eat corn on the cob and fried chicken. Golden pitchers of sweet tea, always full, and every kind of cobbler she could imagine, warm with vanilla ice cream, would be served morning, noon, and night. Dogs of every breed would chase butterflies through fields of wildflowers and take naps in the shade of pecan trees. She and her dogs would have the run of the place. Millie didn’t think about hell. Except when she was picking ticks off of one of her dogs or beggar lice out of her hair. That was hell enough for her.
After the fire, somebody from the First Baptist Church gave Millie an old tent and a sleeping bag. She pitched that tent on some floor boards she salvaged from the old house and built a shelter for herself and the dogs, using some plastic she found in the dumpster behind the Ace Hardware to insulate it.
The air was crisp and the morning star twinkled in silence as I stepped out to see a deep blanket of snow had fallen overnight. The waning moonlight cast a faint glow over the landscape, in the distance, an eerie howling chorus.