“Bullet’s Last Day at School,” Friend, May 1988, 32
“Don’t forget Bullet’s hot dogs, Mom,” Janey called upstairs as she picked up her books. Bullet sat by the front door, waiting to say good-bye to Janey. She stooped over and gave the dog a big hug. “You do your best today, Bullet. The kids are counting on you.” Her arms just barely reached around the big dog’s bulky frame. He had a fold of loose skin around his neck like a collar. The black-on-tan markings that distinguish a German shepherd were streaked with gray, and his eyes were watery and a little droopy. He was nine years old. While Bullet rested his head on Janey’s shoulder, she gave him another squeeze, then ran out the front door into the May sunshine and down the street to the bus stop.
Dawn Marie, Janey’s best friend, was waiting for her at the corner. Several other kids stood around waiting for the bus.
“Is your mother bringing Bullet over?” Dawn Marie asked.
“Yes, about two o’clock. I hope he does all right. He’s getting so tired.”
“He’ll do fine,” Dawn Marie said encouragingly. “He always does.”
Nearby a big sixth grader named Jeremy laughed. “Don’t tell me that you’re bringing that dumb old dog to school again this year.”
Janey turned away and looked at Dawn Marie, ignoring Jeremy. She heard him say loudly to his friend Cecil, “Can you believe that she’s bringing that dog again? We’ve seen all his dumb tricks a hundred times.”
“He’s so fat that I don’t think he can even roll over this year,” another boy chimed in.
Dawn Marie touched Janey’s arm. “Don’t listen to them,” she said. “Everybody else loves to see Bullet’s tricks.”
Janey felt miserable. Maybe she had brought Bullet to school too many times. Before she even went to school, her big sister, Caroline, had taken him every year.
“The school year wouldn’t seem complete without Bullet,” Dawn Marie said. Janey smiled at her. She was faithful, just like Bullet. They had both played with the dog since they were little girls. They used to put an Indian blanket around him and pretend that he was Chief Sitting Bull. Sometimes they had tied him to their wagon and he pulled them. Not only the school year wouldn’t seem complete without Bullet, life wouldn’t either.
At two o’clock Janey’s mother knocked softly on her classroom door. Mrs. Hadley opened it, and Janey rushed up to take Bullet on his leash, along with the plastic bag full of hot dog chunks.
The old dog waddled obediently along by Janey’s side, undisturbed by the fourth graders’ cheers, and settled down by Janey’s desk.
When their history lesson was finished, Mrs. Hadley asked Janey to come up front with Bullet. Janey put a chunk of hot dog on the floor in front of the big dog. As he lowered his head and sniffed it, she said, “Wait! We have to have the blessing.” Bullet lowered his head even more and waited. After a minute Janey said, “OK, you can eat.” Bullet snatched up the piece of hot dog, chomped twice, and swallowed it. After that he rolled over, sat up and barked, and played dead, with his big old paws up in the air. The children roared their approval. When he had finished his tricks—each time being rewarded with a chunk of hot dog—he went up and down the aisles and solemnly shook hands with each child.
“You and Dawn Marie may take him to the other classrooms,” Mrs. Hadley said.
“Thank you,” Janey said. “I’m not going to take him into sixth grade this year, so we won’t be gone as long.”
Mrs. Hadley raised her eyebrows. “It’s up to you,” she said, “but I think that they’ll be disappointed.”
The kindergartners squealed with delight and clapped after Bullet did each of his tricks. In the resource class, children didn’t just shake hands with Bullet; some hugged him, and others planted kisses on his big old head. One girl didn’t want to let go of him, and the teacher finally had to gently release the girl’s arms from around his neck. Bullet stood patiently, enjoying all the attention.
The first and second graders enjoyed him just about as much, clapping and yelling, “Hurray for Bullet!”
When they were through, Janey and Dawn Marie returned to their classroom. They were finishing up some artwork when Mr. Linstrom, the sixth grade teacher, poked his head into their classroom. He looked around and spotted Janey, with Bullet sleeping by her desk.
“Hey,” he said, “you forgot us. My kids won’t settle down. They’re waiting for Bullet.”
Mrs. Hadley looked at her questioningly.
“All right,” Janey said. “I have some hot dogs left.”
To Janey’s surprise, the sixth graders cheered too. Even Jeremy strained his neck to see Bullet wait for permission to eat his hot dog. Actually he wasn’t very hungry by now, so it wasn’t hard for him to wait. When Janey gave him permission, though, he ate it with gusto.
As Janey left the sixth grade room with Bullet, she heard Jeremy whisper to a classmate, “He won’t last another year,” and a cold fear gripped her heart. Bullet plodded slowly down the hall. It was only when he was performing for the kids that he seemed to be his old self.
That night after dinner Dawn Marie came over, and she and Janey lay out on the front lawn on an old blanket. Bullet came over, crowded himself between the two girls, and soon fell asleep. The late spring day had been warm and summery, but now as the sun sank to the horizon, Bullet’s warmth was pleasant and welcome.
“He sure sleeps a lot these days,” Dawn Marie commented. Janey felt again that tightening feeling of fear.
“Do you think that Bullet will die soon?” Janey asked slowly. It helped a little just to finally say it out loud.
Dawn Marie looked thoughtfully at the old dog. He twitched occasionally in his sleep and made sort of snuffly, growly noises.
“I guess he could, Janey. Not many German shepherds live much longer than he has.”
Janey was glad that her friend was honest and hadn’t said something just to make her feel better. She lay her head on Bullet’s side. He raised his head, then fell back to sleep.
“What will I do if he dies?” she asked.
Dawn Marie thought again. “You could have a funeral. All the kids in town would come. My mother said that that’s about all you can do to comfort yourself when someone dies. I remember that she said that when her older sister died.”
A funeral would be nice, Janey thought. That way everyone could kind of say good-bye.
Janey looked at Dawn Marie. “I’m glad that people live longer,” she said. “I hope that we can be friends our whole lives.”
“So do I. And I think that we will be.”
The girls heard footsteps on the sidewalk and looked up to see Jeremy coming by. Janey sat up, tense, wondering if he would say something mean. Jeremy stopped on the walk. He looked behind him and all around. Then he looked at Bullet.
“He’s not a bad old mutt,” he said. “I’ve always wanted a big dog like that.” He turned quickly and went on walking.
Dawn Marie and Janey looked at each other and smiled.
“Let’s go in and get warm,” Janey said. “Bullet can sleep out here on the blanket.”
When the girls got up, Bullet lifted his head to look at them, then lowered it and slept again. When Janey pulled a corner of the blanket up over his back, he left it there.