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A Decent Dog

She used to be a nurse. At our old house, I watched her get ready each morning. She began with pulling up white pantyhose. She never wore underwear which made me think I shouldn’t either.

“You have to!” she said. “You don’t have a choice.”

At our new house, Mom wears underwear. Her nursing uniforms replaced with colorful dresses sewn from Butterick patterns which say Maternity. Her sewing machine and ironing board remain open. Among dozens of unpacked boxes, scraps of material collect on the linoleum floor.

Mom misses work. She says this into the mustard-colored phone with a cord stretching across our kitchen.

“I’m going crazy,” she whispers into the sunny receiver. The next-door neighbor’s dog barks. Their dog always barks. We’ve lived here one week.

“Maybe you can play Barbies with me?”

Behind the swirling smoke and incoming light, Mom stares out the window at our neighbor’s roses. The barking gets louder. Mom taps her cigarette on the ashtray’s lip. The remains have no choice but to fall away.

Our new neighbor Mrs. Abbott introduces herself as Joan. She’s what Mom calls unfortunate looking. Red hair, thin and frizzy. Body, tall and gangly. The tendons on her gardening arms lift like map lines.

In private, Mom says, “Joan’s from Maine.” As if this explains everything.

Mom’s belly grows daily. I can’t remember what it looked like before. The baby is why Mom can’t work. The doctor says to take it easy. I was there when he said this.

“I delivered you. You never gave me trouble.” He’s bald enough to be my grandfather. “I got in nine holes that day.”

On the way out, I help myself to a red lollipop.

In the car, I ask her if it’s true.

I check the visor mirror to see if my tongue turned more red.

“He knocked me out with drugs.” Mom’s eyes are on the road. “He pulled you out with forceps. That won’t happen this time.”

A red stripe runs down the center.

“Why not?”

“It’s the seventies. There are better ways.”

Sometimes I get pictures in my head that can’t be erased. This is one. Baby me being pulled out of my sleeping mother’s belly with metal tongs. The sky forever a sunset behind us.

My unborn brother and I communicate through our minds. I’m not forthcoming with this. Mom wouldn’t believe me. Her understanding is limited. She redeems herself with shiny blond hair and blue eyes. I watch enough TV to know a pretty mother means something.

I resemble my dad. I don’t appreciate our boring brown hair and eyes the color of pennies. Compared to Mom, we fade in the background. He’s gone a lot.

“For work,” Mom says.

I refer to the baby as Rocky.

“You know that’s not the name.” Mom pats her belly. “Right, Lilly?”

I hate being named after a flower.

Mom thinks I’m saying yes to her, but it’s to her belly.

I’ll still call you Rocky.

We live next door to the Abbott’s and their roses for a month when Mom tells me Joan had a baby that died.

“Not even a year old. The poor thing was napping when Joan found him.  No one knows why some babies die in their sleep. It’s called crib death.”

I nod even though I’d never heard of it. Sometimes my mother teaches me things before I want to know. Without looking at Mom’s ripe belly, I lick the popsicle she gave me a few minutes earlier. A wet ruby red trails down my wrist.

Another picture forms. Joan’s dead baby, lifeless in his crib, curled in a soft gesture.

Rocky, that won’t happen to you.

“Nothing anyone could have done.” Mom’s hair picks up the sun. “I imagine you never get over a death like that.”

Her blue eyes scan the sky spattered with a spread of fully leaved trees.

My popsicle splits down the middle.

“Do you want this?” I hold up half.

Mom takes it from me and licks it.

“Joan was pregnant with Billy when the baby died.”

Is this why Billy slams the door so often, not noticing me as I kneel over my game of jacks or jump my hopscotch squares? Is this why he yells at his father who yells back?

“Billy! Don’t leave!” I once heard Joan plead with him.

When Billy’s mad, his head leans forward as if his neck can’t hold the weight of it. Joan says Billy signed up for the Air Force and will go to Texas after he graduates. I’m hopeful but also terrified that he’ll notice me at least once before he leaves.

Don’t worry, I tell Rocky. Billy can’t see us.

I worry. Enough to sense Billy’s tight fists, his heavy steps, his anger. His indifference to me gives me the magical power of invisibility. He can’t see me which means I can stare down the dark lines on his face and search his beautiful mouth. He looks almost grown to me. Besides my father, who doesn’t count, Billy is the first man I notice as handsome.

When I play house, I’m the mom and Billy’s the dad, even though he’s never home. He’s flying planes for our country. I use the threat of Billy to discipline our children.

You better do what I ask!  I’ll tell your father when he gets home!

My ability to talk to my unborn brother is a secret like my marriage to Billy, whose older brother died before he was born. Grief makes him sad. My love is enough to erase his pain.

I think Rocky might be sad. His due date is two months away. When Billy graduates, Joan’s throwing a big party. It’s why she spends so much time on the roses.

I hide my powers. Most people won’t understand. At best, they’ll make fun of me. At worst, they’ll try to take them away.  People like it when we’re all the same. Pretending to be married is not real like my magical powers.

I have always known the difference between what is and isn’t real.

Maggie is Joan’s dog. She might as well be ours. Nobody escapes her bark. It permeates everything. Shaped like a hot dog on short legs, she’s a born worrier; constantly in and out the Abbotts’ side door, which slams behind her. Behind Joan’s back, Mom calls the dog a nuisance. Dad calls her a bitch. I agree with both. Maggie considers herself the overseer of our adjacent driveways. She barks and chases anyone who sets foot.

“Maggie! Shut up!” we all yell.

“Shut up!” Sometimes I yell this over and over.

“Shut up! Shut up!” This makes Maggie bark louder.

On my street the painted colonials stand close. When Maggie stops barking, things come into focus—lawn mowers buzz, cicadas shake, and blue jays call out in bursts.

My dad is often away on business.

How do you think we can afford this?

On weekends he disappears into 18-hole golf games.

A man needs to relax.

When he gets ready to leave, he doesn’t mind me sitting on the toilet while he glides his razor over the white foam of his cheeks. Tiny black hairs collect in the water, held captive in the sink.

“I love you.”

 Dad’s brown eyes catch mine as he says this. Words I’ve never heard from Mom. But she doesn’t leave in a trail of spicy aftershave, gone hours before the newspaper shows up at the front door.

On the morning of Billy’s graduation, I’m barefoot in Joan’s kitchen. Her daughter Kay, one year younger than Billy, stares me down as if I did something wrong. But then she offers me a glass of orange Tang which she stirred with a spoon. Maggie sleeps at our feet, her shape resembles a loaf of bread. I never knew dogs had eyelashes. Mom and Joan chain-smoke. Seeing how relaxed they are with lit cigarettes resting in their fingers, heads tilted back to blow smoke-rings, makes me want to become an adult. Someday my unborn brother and I will smoke Benson and Hedges too.

“Billy and his father are fighting again. I hope you didn’t hear them.” Joan’s Maine accent turns the word into fatha.

“Of course not.” Smoke swirls between them. My mom can be a liar.

Red and white balloons reach for the sky, tethered to a Congratulations Billy! sign staked in the Abbotts’ front yard. A lawn so green it could be called lush, empty of the crabgrass and yellow dandelions that overtake ours.

On the night of Billy’s party, Maggie barks more than usual. Party-goers arrive in waves, teenagers from Billy’s school and family members who made the drive down from Maine. If Maggie was an old woman, she’d push each group back into the street with a sharp-bristled broom, her tongue wagging obscenities.

Car doors open and shut.

“That dog is too much.” Mom runs lipstick from a gold tube over her lips.

I sit on the toilet seat like I do with Dad. Her bright lips can’t cover up she’s not feeling well. Careful not to press her belly into the tiled counter, she uses toilet paper to blot her mouth.

“Can I touch Rocky?” I hold up my hands.

“Your nails are filthy.” My hands go back to my lap, each fingernail ringed with grime.

Mom’s voice softens.

“You can touch my belly.”

I rest my cheek against her roundness. Her belly harder than I expected, more cool than warm.

She brings me in.

I wrap my arms around Mom as if she were the moon.

I love you. I want to say this to Mom as much as I’ve ever wanted to say anything. What if I say these words and she doesn’t say them back? When Dad says them, we’re alone. It’s as if these words are silly in her presence. So, I never say them. Not to him. Not to her.

I pour the words silently into Mom’s belly, to Rocky, who gets me, who takes my unsaid words into tiny fists and spins them until they are a gold thread stitching mother to daughter to unborn child. When Rocky is done, his small and folded body turns over to rest. It’s rare for Mom to let me hold her.

For the millionth time, Maggie starts up, ending our embrace.

Shut up, Maggie!

When we venture next door, the party is in full swing. Joan’s in her backyard holding a red plastic cup in one hand and an unlit cigarette in the other. She wears a summer dress that brushes her ankles. Her tan shoulders peek out from white fabric. I don’t agree with Mom’s assessment of Joan as unfortunate looking. She waves us over with the hand holding a cigarette. “There you are!”

White lights glow around the perimeter. The wooden fence barely contains the roses, beds of bee balm, phlox, peonies, aster, iris, lavender and thistle. Maggie’s no longer guarding the driveway. Her barrel-shaped body weaves among guests searching for dropped potato salad or chips. I don’t see Billy, but under the shadow of a fat tree, I spot Kay sitting on the lap of a teenage boy. Their two bodies barely fit in the single chair. Her long legs hang off the sides.

People have found their way to each other, moving scattered lawn chairs to make small groupings. Bursts of laughter erupt. So does the salty smell of fat sizzling on steak. Mr. Abbott stands at his shiny grill, illuminated by a single spotlight attached to the back of their house. He wears a checkered apron and is joined by red-cheeked men puffing on cigars. A beer keg is around the side of the house. So are most of the high school kids.

Besides the Abbotts, Mom and I know no one.

Joan pats an empty chair, but then her body stiffens, a moment of concern flickers in her eyes. Her mouth opens into what is not quite a smile, revealing extra-large teeth. She quickly closes her mouth and whispers something to Mom who looks down.

A trail of blood traces the inside of both Mom’s legs.

“Sit down,” Joan says. Her voice shows no alarm. With sturdy garden arms, Joan guides Mom’s body to the empty chair. Her hands are bigger than my father’s. “I’m calling an ambulance.”

Joan lights her cigarette and hands it to my mother.

“Don’t be scared.” Mom turns her head and blows the smoke into the sinking sun. She directs her words at me. “It’s probably nothing.”

“Does it hurt?”

Rocky, hang in there.

“No.” Smoke curls out her pink mouth.

“Where’s Dad?”

“I don’t know. Golfing.” We both know it’s too late for golf.

“Joan will find him.”

She must have found her daughter because Kay appears in front of me. I wonder if Joan saw her sitting on the boy and if she got mad. I can’t picture Joan being mad.

“My mother wants me to watch you.”

Kay is tall like Joan but not as friendly. A single braid tied off to the side contains her copper-colored hair. Besides her hair, which she wears in a single braid, Kay has no remarkable features like the sad eyes or lush lips of her brother.

“I’ll stay with my mom until the ambulance gets here.”

“Suit yourself. I’ll be in the kitchen.” A strand of red hair sticks up on her scalp.

More blood appears on Mom’s legs.

I don’t want Rocky to know I’m scared. It’s going to be OK. You should probably stay in for a little longer. I stare at Mom’s belly and refuse to blink. My unwavering gaze will keep Rocky safe. It’s also my strategy to avoid what’s happening with Mom’s thighs.

When the ambulance arrives, Maggie can’t stop barking. She bites a paramedic’s ankle and he declares she broke his skin. The other one mumbles. “Somebody shoot that thing.”  The paramedics seem too fat and slow to be lifting pregnant women. Joan covers Mom’s belly and blood-soaked legs with a beach towel.

“Let me go with you.”

The guests look away, not wanting to appear rude. Restlessness hangs over the party like the branches of Joan’s roses. Everyone wants the bad stuff to be over so they can get back to the fun.

The ambulance pulls out and I spot Kay’s plain face through the Abbott’s kitchen window. She can’t see me. I decide to avoid her. She doesn’t want to watch me anyways. I’ve never been left alone. I slip through the Abbott’s front door. A good chunk of the party found their way inside.

It’s funny how my powers show up when I need them.

I’m invisible when I fill a paper-plate with Cheetos and grab a can of Pepsi. I’m invisible when I walk by the guests in the living room, including Kay and the boy she’s flirting with. I’m invisible when I walk by slumped men on couches, watching extra innings on TV. I’m invisible when I drop my body on the cream-colored rug beneath the grand piano. Joan says no one plays it but her. My fingers are greasy. A half-empty plate sits beside me. The only one who sees me is Maggie because my magic doesn’t work on her. She eats the rest of my Cheetos, licks each of my orange fingers as if they were tears, and circles three times before curling up next to me. I’m worried about Rocky. I’m worried about Mom. Where’s Dad? Maggie pushes in closer. The heat of her holds me. It’s the first time I’ve seen her silky ears relax. Her head rests on crossed paws when she begins the softest of snores. Our eyes close together.

I’m under the piano when my eyes open. The sky peeks through the living room windows, night touching day, shifting from harsh grey to soft graphite. I don’t know if my parents believe in God. They’ve never told me. I want to believe in God enough that he will grant me a favor.

God, please take care of Mom and Rocky.

Maybe God put this blanket, crocheted the color of the sun, on top of me.

Where’s Maggie?

Her spot is empty. I crawl out from the yellow afghan and grand piano.

Kay’s sleeping body takes up the living room couch. Prayer hands rest under one side of her head. Her red braid traces a shoulder. She opens an eye.

“You alright?”

“I’m looking for Maggie.”

“Oh. Ok.” She rolls in the opposite direction.

Drawn to a closed door, I open it just enough.  Billy sleeps without a shirt or pants. Light from the window sweeps over him; his skin marked with moles making a map down his body. Billy wears snug underwear, not like my father, the only other man I’ve ever seen this naked, who wears boxers. White fabric stretches across his hips. I know I shouldn’t look. His dark eyelashes curl upwards. A gold cross rests between light colored nipples. There’s no trace of boy in this sleeping man. Does his dead brother fly into his dreams?

I’m not sure what’s heavier—my arms and legs or my eyelids. Walking to the foot of Billy’s bed, I think about slipping my body into the narrow space next to him—like I imagine when I’m playing house. How would I explain this if he wakes up? He’ll think I’m some crazy girl, or even worse, he’ll get mad. What if he pushes me away or hits me? I don’t want to be a pain. I certainly don’t want to cry—something I only do in front of my parents. Then I remember my powers. Billy can’t see me. I lie down next to him. His warm body doesn’t stir. My body falls off the bed, but only a little.

Rocky visits my dreams. He’s not a baby but a little boy, maybe two or three, bald with thick-lensed glasses. Our feet touch down on clouds or maybe snow. I can’t be sure. In the same dream, I pull on Joan’s arm to get her attention. I tell her I’ve finally met my brother.

“When you’re a child,” Joan puts down her gardening scissors and begins to arrange each thorny stem, “Everything you can dream of is right.”

I wake up alone. Where’s Billy? More important—Where’s Mom and Rocky? My hair is a wet sweaty helmet around my face. Desperate to see my own family and find out what’s going on, I can’t get home quick enough. When I push open the Abbotts’ front door, I hesitate. Something tells me–be careful.

Silence folds like bodies sometimes do. Crouching on bended knees near the road are Billy and my dad. Billy shirtless. My dad in golf clothes. Their bodies similar in size. Billy cradles something small. Something fragile. My pace quickens. I want to see it too. Maybe it’s Rocky. But that doesn’t make sense. Not without my mother.

Dad turns to me. “Lilly! Don’t!” His eyes and mouth arrange in a way I don’t recognize.

It’s too late. My legs halt in front of them. In Billy’s arms is Maggie. Her triangular black ears are lifted as if still tuned to the normal sounds of day. Maggie’s spine is twisted in impossible ways. Her gaze is fixed straight ahead. Her eyes stand still like the sky.

“What happened?”

Billy and Dad say nothing.

I wish Mom was here. She would tell me.

“Tell me!” Tears burn my eyes.

Dad reaches out his tan golfing arms, attempting to draw in my shaking body.

“You killed her!” I push him away.

My fingers are still stained from Cheetos and Maggie’s tongue. They gently smooth down the soft fur of her face.

“I hate you!” I want my words to be thorns.

“Lilly, we don’t know what happened. Billy found her like this.”

I’ve never seen a man cry. Billy’s bare shoulders move up and down. Sobs catch in the back of him. I wait for larger cry sounds, but they never come. His knees make soft dents on the ground. His gold cross shines in the sun. Maggie’s fur is sleek and silky. Dad, who’s also on his knees, moves a little to the side making room for me to crouch down with them. A high-pitched sound fills the space between us and Maggie. A wild animal sad sound. I realize it’s coming from me.

The houses in my neighborhood sit close. One strip of life touches another.

Based on the extent of her internal injuries, the vet said Maggie was kicked to death.

Rose was born that same morning. Came out with the cord wrapped around her neck. Maggie’s twisted spine and my sister’s neck being squeezed by my mom’s placenta become two more pictures added to the photo album in my mind. My sister can’t come home yet. Mom’s staying with her. I don’t care what my parents say. I’m still calling her Rocky.

In Joan’s backyard, she uses her foot to push the shovel into the ground. With strong arms, she lifts out a patch of black earth. It hurts to look at the hole she’s digging. Instead, I watch the tendons move over the muscles of Joan’s arms. When done, she lowers the cloth-covered Maggie into the ground.

Goodbye, Maggie.

“There goes a decent dog.” Joan wears thick black sunglasses. I think of her baby that never woke from a nap, her son leaving for the Air Force, and the oxygen to my sister being cut off by a cord wrapped around her neck. Joan’s sunglasses take up a third of her face reflecting us. We all live close to death.

“Gone too soon. May she rest in peace.” With worn hands that have spent countless hours tending what grows from the ground, Joan picks up a small amount of dirt from the pile she made. In outstretched palms, she holds the dark soil up to the sun letting it be touched by light.


  1. Annie Sprarkling on

    Powerful. I’ve experienced some of what you so eloquently describe.
    Thank you do much for sharing it with me.

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