Mom and her sausagy little dog are hunkered down in Duluth now. When I visited last, she was giddy about a fancy new leash she’d gotten—this soft ropy thing meant for a giant breed. Mom has a cairn terrier. “Feel it,” she said, holding out the leash. “Isn’t it something?” She crooked her arm and laughed into her sleeve, like she does.
Mom’s dog also had a dapper plaid jacket and fancy boots. Fancier than Mom’s. Fancier, too, than this duplex she rented, sight unseen. “I’ve contacted the authorities,” Mom assured me. “The community here—they won’t stand for this.” She’s mostly mad about the water seeping in from the eave above the tub. “And these filthy blinds,” she said. “It’s uncouth.” Mom’s crumbling front stairs are another sore spot, though she’s untroubled that they rise from the shadow of I-35. “There’s a little park,” she said, pointing to the overpass. “With a stream. We like that, don’t we?” But her old dog was snoring, soft belly splayed upward.
In the mid 1960s, right before I was born, I-35 cost my paternal grandmother her house. “Highway robbery,” Nana always said. She nursed this wound like strong whiskey until she died. Nana was working class, but she had expectations: a full icebox, clean drapes, a decent davenport. The right not to have her house bulldozed from under her.
Expectations can be slippery.
Mom grew up on the fringes of Duluth in a neighborhood called Smithville. She lived with her parents and four siblings and Tot—an “old maid” aunt. And, in winter, chickens. “A whole upstairs full,” Mom always said. “Imagine the squawking. Imagine the chicken shit.” This was the 1950s, but Mom’s family still had an outhouse. They also had an uncle who sawed a house in half roof to mortar and a cousin who filed his eyeteeth to points. Drinking was a pastime. Mom was orphaned at seventeen, the same year she got pregnant and married my father. After she divorced and remarried, Mom got the hell out of Duluth. I wonder if she and my stepfather—as they shot west with us for “all the oil jobs”—laughed at Duluth’s iconic ’70s billboard: Will the last one to leave Duluth please turn out the light?
Only recently, at sixty-eight years old, did Mom get headstrong about moving back “home,” selling her condo in the heart of Minneapolis, where she’d long lived. She owned the condo outright—a sunny, hardwood sort of place in a gracious brick building. “Fire trap,” Mom said. And the park across the street? “Crime pit.” My sister and I live in Minneapolis, with six of Mom’s seven grandkids. She has no one left in Duluth. “I have a niece,” she said. “And Facebook friends. I don’t need any ruckus. I need peace and quiet.”
I wonder, did Mom ever expect the many moves that hole-punched our childhood to end with more peace? More quiet? She never said so. Mom taught us that when small things go missing—her favorite hairbrush with its yellowed bristles, her wide black comb, her silver sewing scissors—you look for those things until you find them. “Look harder,” she would say. “Use your goddamn eyes.” But when big things go missing—men, houses, dogs—you don’t ask questions. You don’t mention it again.
You simply move on.
Pete, Mixed-Breed, Stray
I’m not in my bed or even my pajamas—I have the kind with feet now, a present from Jack Daddy. But I’m still in my school clothes, even though it’s black outside. It must be fall. It’s not winter. In Duluth, if you open the door to winter, you don’t forget. Lake Superior is the reason for this hateful weather. This lake is too big, too deep, too cold. And we are high north, almost as high as north gets. Our city is carved into rocks. The cold never leaves—not all the way.
Anyway, it’s fall, not winter, when the dog barks at the door. I am four and this is the green house on the steepest hill, before the gray one on Twenty-Fourth Avenue. At the gray one, we will have a corner store with penny candy and a screen door that bangs. I will walk there alone, because I will be five and then almost six. At that house we will get a braided rug and Carrie will be born. She will be half of a sister. I will learn to rock her when she cries because her crib will be in my room. I will learn to wring out her diapers in the toilet. “It doesn’t stink when you love someone enough,” Mom will say. I will try to love Carrie more.
But all of that is in the next house. On this night, in the green house on the steepest hill, Mom and Mafia open the door and let the dog inside. Mafia is my stepdad. His real name is Mike, but no one calls him that, because of him being Italian. If Mom is mad she calls him Michael, in that voice. I call him Daddy because I have to. To myself, I sneak and call him Mafia.
The dog is whiter than sugar, whiter than teeth. He’s soft. Two black spots stretch across him—one covers the side of his face. His ears are long and black. His tail is a feathery white fan. A fancy lady could wave it in front of her face to make a breeze. But no one wants a breeze now, not even fancy people. The doggie shakes and cries.
“Poor doggie,” I say.
“He’s a mutt,” Mom says. “A little cur.” She rocks him like a baby.
Mutts are not as good as dogs you buy with money. Those dogs have real names, like collies or poodles or bulldogs. Mom and Mafia name this mutt Pete. Mom says Pete is her dog. I like Pete to sleep with his head on my pillow. But he likes it at the bottom of the bed. The heaviness of him on my feet gives me a melty feeling inside. When Pete kisses me on the lips, his tongue is warm and tickly. “Jesus Christ!” Mom says. “You’ll give yourself worms!”
Mom laughs her hardest when Mafia teases Pete. But when Pete bites Mafia, Mom says it’s his own fault for roughhousing. The scar on Mafia’s nose is like the edge of a dime. When Pete barks at the door, I’m supposed to let him outside. When he stays gone for days, I think it’s because he got run over. But Mom says don’t worry, dogs are smart. “Smarter than people,” she says. Dogs aren’t always smart, though, because lots of times Pete poops on the carpet. It’s my job to pick it up. Mom calls it an accident, but she still hits Pete with a shoe and rubs his nose in it.
This is how you teach a dog.
Brandy, Golden Labrador
Brandy is not a stray. We get her from somewhere. She is a kind of dog called a golden lab, so she is real, not a mutt. Brandy is bigger than Pete. Her fur is short and wiry and she smells sour. I don’t know what else to say about her.
We don’t live in Duluth anymore. The house on Twenty-Fourth Avenue where Carrie was born was the last one before we moved to Wyoming. Wyoming has mountains and cactuses and barbed wire but almost no lakes or trees. We live in a square yellow house on Meadowlark Lane. It was supposed to be nice, but the salesmen were crooks. Next door is Sheila, whose house matches ours, only backward. Sheila is eight, like me.
Here are things that happen on Meadowlark Lane: Mom and Mafia get purple satin sheets. Carrie turns two and has a strong will and needs to learn to behave. I start listening to the radio and my favorite songs are Here Come the Clowns and Someone Left the Cake Out in the Rain. Mom and Mafia start looking for a tapestry. They talk about it in special voices like people in church. I think it costs a lot of money. I can’t believe we are getting something so nice. Days go by. Mom is frying onions. I’m standing behind her, getting up my nerve to ask about the tapestry. “Christ,” she says. “You’ll give me a heart attack.”
“I was wondering about the tapestry,” I say. “When it will come.”
“Stop using your sing-song voice,” she says. “It’s on my bedroom wall. Look with your eyes.” I walk down the hall. I can’t believe it, but I won’t cry. It turns out a tapestry is just a dumb rug with pictures of weird people and horses.
Brandy and Pete run free behind our house. It’s empty back there all the way to Casper Mountain. Everything is greasewood and short grass and millions of sagebrushes. Old sagebrushes are hard and twisted but baby ones have nice soft hairs. Mom says Wyoming is ugly, but she’s not looking with her eyes. Some cactuses have tiny flowers. If you stand still, you might see a lizard or bright yellow birds. You might even see a jackalope. But probably not, because jackalopes aren’t real. My favorite thing behind our house is the smell—dark and peppery with something sweet I don’t know.
If something bad happens and only you see it, it could be your fault. Like when Pete slinks home whining and Mom gets on her knees to look underneath him. Her nylons have a run. Sometimes she uses fingernail polish to fix runs, but it doesn’t work for holes. “That’s a big bruise,” she says to Mafia. Her nice round bun is falling out. “Look at that, will you? I think he got hit.” On TV, the person is guessing the price of onion soup. I don’t like onions but I watch anyway. Some kids will blurt things out just because they’re scared. But not me. I can keep secrets. Like how I saw Pete run across Albert Street, how the red car screeched, how Pete made that high, sharp sound.
Our house was the third one built on Meadowlark Lane. Now the workers are building tall ones that have downstairs and upstairs. The tar truck rolls out more and more street like a shiny black ribbon. Still we don’t have trees. Mom’s mad about that—plus our baseboards peeling off and our kitchen floor bubbling up. Mostly, she’s mad about the water in our basement when it rains.
Here are other things in our basement: a furnace, cement walls and floor, old furniture, boxes. Mafia’s bed. That’s because he works graveyard shift at the oil plant and sleeps during the day. It’s also because he fights with Mom and raises his fist. He says he’s changing, but Mom says he’s not. Sometimes I sleep in the basement. That’s called being kicked out of the family. “You’ll learn to appreciate what you have,” Mom says. When you’re kicked out, you’re not supposed to sleep on Mafia’s bed. I wouldn’t anyway. I spread blankets on the floor. Carrie never gets kicked out. She only gets spanked. I am allowed to leave the basement in the morning to go to school as long as I go straight back down when I get home. And after supper, I can come upstairs to make food for myself and wash dishes as long as I hurry. I boil noodles and put on tons of butter and salt. You would not believe how good it is. Way better than real supper.
The oil plant leaves a smell on Mafia. I get the idea to pick my nose and wipe it on his jean jacket. I hate Mafia because he tried to pick me up by my hair. He can’t get hold of my hair now, though. That’s because Mom cut it short. She said it was a rat’s nest. Sometimes Mafia chases me and tickles me and takes off my clothes and rubs between my legs, same as he did in Duluth. I don’t like this game in the basement or upstairs. But upstairs is better.
What happens after Easter is mostly bad. Mom and Mafia get in their biggest fight ever. He smashes our china cabinet from Nana, the roll-top desk, the spindle rocking chair. He pushes Mom out the side door into the garage and throws the cedar chest out after her. The metal latch slices her foot open. “Get the neighbors!” she yells. I run and Pete runs after me through the broken furniture and out the front door. We run past our purple car to Sheila’s house. Sheila’s dad comes to the door and I start yelling—all choppy from panting—“He-elp! My da-ad is ki-lling my mo-om!” Sheila’s two little brothers stare at me with their mooncake faces.
“Sorry,” her dad says. “I don’t think we can get involved in this.”
I run back and Mom is stamping down the sidewalk. Her sliced foot leaves blood splotches. Mafia holds Carrie, squirming and whining. Mom gets in the purple car and slams the door. The engine starts. Mafia plops Carrie on the hood. She screams. Sheila’s dad is not at his door anymore. No one is. Mom gets out of the car and grabs Carrie. “Son of a bitch,” Mom says to Mafia.
The next day, Mafia goes to work and doesn’t come back. Brandy goes somewhere, too. I don’t know where.
I still pick up his poop.
Mom brings us on one of her long drives. We get a little lost. Finally, she parks under some low trees with branches growing out instead of up. Carrie takes her shoes off and plays in a muddy creek while Mom smokes her True Blue. “I should learn to paint,” Mom says. Smoke puffs out of her nose. “Not everyone has a gift. But I might.” She flicks her ash. Then: “How about we girls keep driving? Like gypsies. Like thieves in the night.” Mom’s lazy eye is doing that thing. She had a patch when she was little, but it didn’t work all the way.
“We should!” I say.
“Should!” Carrie says from the creek.
Mom smokes two more cigarettes. It’s getting chilly. “Let’s hit the road,” she says. Carrie sticks her arms up at me—Ketter! Ketter! She’s three, and this is how she asks to be carried. Her pants soak through onto my lap in the backseat. Lines of barbed wire zoom by outside the open window and Carrie’s hair tickles my face. I do want to thieve away, partly. But, partly, I was looking forward to fifth grade. I see the big yellow sign for the Kawasaki shop at the bottom of our hill.
We are going back to Meadowlark Lane.
Mafia comes back.
Mrs. Crimshaw knocks on our door holding Charlie, our Pekingese puppy. His lower jaw dangles like a shingle.
“We should take him to the vet,” Mom says.
“And pay for that how?” Mafia says.
We live in a gray house near downtown Casper. Mom said it was high time we live somewhere decent. We have a real upstairs and a fancy garbage compactor. “Don’t monkey with that,” Mom says. “You’ll get your hand ripped off.” There’s a porch on the front of this house and a deck in back and cottonwood trees and a garage filled with old clothes. Jack Daddy calls and says I might visit at Christmas. Christmas is a long time away.
Charlie is spiritless. But if I pet his back and don’t touch his head, he licks up tiny driblets of cream of mushroom soup. That’s what Mom says to feed him. “Just a few bites,” I coax him. “It will make you strong.” Charlie’s mouth smells horrible. I try to love him more, but it’s not working. One afternoon I put Charlie’s soup in his bowl and he doesn’t come.
“Where’s Charlie?” I say.
“Whe-ere’s Char-lie?” Mafia says back. He spits on his handkerchief and cleans his glasses and looks at me in that way. I am ten now. I go upstairs. The upstairs bathroom has a lock.
The next things that happen are regular, like Mom going to work during the day and coming home at night and Mafia going to work at night and sleeping during the day and smoking cigarettes under Mom’s Boston ferns in their macramé hangers and me looking for doorways. Doorways are formed by tree branches arching overhead. You can step under them into new worlds. You can even slip through on accident.
I get the idea for the stairs on accident, too. I’m dragging out the trash, which is leaking because the bag ripped in the compactor. The wind is full of October, all bread and old leaves. I’m dragging the trash through that when I see the painted blue boards. Probably they’ve been under the deck all along, like the old clothes in the garage. What the other people left here is mostly junk—but not these boards. They are perfect.
Stairs are hard to build, though. I’m making a god-awful mess with a coffee can of nails and Mafia’s claw hammer. But my fifth-grade teacher says not everything has to be perfect. I lean the boards at an angle against the chain-link fence between our house and Mrs. Crimshaw’s. Mafia comes out on the deck.
“Did I say you could use my hammer?” he says. I step onto a clean blue board. “Get back in this house,” he says. I wish I had built the next stair. “I’d suggest you listen,” he says. The wind snaps my hair into my eyes. I’m growing it out now because Mom doesn’t cut it anymore. I pull my cotton sweater tight and look over the fence to Mrs. Crimshaw’s house, past the high branches of her cottonwoods, all the way to Casper Mountain. I wish I could see through the mountain to the other side, where the gray plains cut into the sky.
One morning before school, Mafia takes me to Mom’s bedroom. He pulls down my corduroys and rubs his hands between my legs. He doesn’t do the chasing and tickling part. Mom’s dresser has two white doilies, one with a fancy brush and comb and mirror, and one with two figurines with their arms outstretched. They say, “I love you this much.” Mafia finishes. I don’t know, watching from the window, that when Mafia drives away in his red truck, he will keep going all the way to Duluth.
“Good riddance,” Mom says later.
Now Mafia and Charlie are both gone.
But we still have Pete.
Trixie, Scottish Terrier
I don’t think Trixie counts. She’s Denise’s dog. Denise is Jack Daddy’s wife in Minneapolis. Their new kids are Jason and Janie. Maybe that’s why Mom decides it’s Jack Daddy’s turn. If he has new kids, why not me? She’s sending me to live with him at the end of the school year.
Mom’s moving to Minneapolis, too, because they have a real university there. It’s supposedly better than Casper College, where she takes night classes. Casper College is close to where we moved after Mom sold the gray house. She works as a naked model at Casper College, too. I find the drawings in her underwear drawer. Anyway, college will be easier for her without me, except she’s keeping Carrie. Which doesn’t make sense, because I am her main babysitter. But Mafia doesn’t even call Carrie on the phone, so she probably can’t go live with him.
When school gets out, we hit the road. Mom drives the purple car with Pete. Mom’s boyfriend, Spider, drives the U-Haul. Spider is nice. But his brother, Dave, is my favorite of all Mom’s boyfriends. The one I can’t stand is Frank—he got Mom started with that belching thing. Anyway, Spider’s not coming to Minnesota. He trades off somewhere with Mom’s brother Grady, who drives until Council Bluffs, where Uncle Ed takes over. Uncle Ed is married to Mom’s youngest sister, Flossie. Flossie is not rich, but she buys me a curling iron with steam and gives me one of her old lipsticks.
Mom and Uncle Ed drive us to Jack Daddy’s in the U-Haul. His house is called a split-level. It has three bedrooms upstairs: one for Jason, one for Janie, and one for Daddy and Denise. The middle floor has a living room and a kitchen. Downstairs has windows overlooking the front yard, plus an office and a family room with pictures of Jason and Janie and a cushion for Trixie. My room is below the downstairs, in the deep basement. “Turn the light off and you won’t know if your eyes are open or closed,” Daddy says. He laughs. Then he sets up my bed.
Mom is moving into a weird place called student housing. “The rent is cheap,” she says over the phone. “But one thing—no dogs. Don’t worry, though. I found a farm for Pete.” I’m sitting in Denise’s kitchen at the fake wood table. She is cooking something called Swedish sausage in her electric pan.
“Where is the farm?” I say, swallowing down whatever’s coming up my throat. But Mom is talking about Carrie’s first grade teacher now. With Pete at the farm, Carrie is all Mom’s got. Except Uncle Ed. He’s not going back to Council Bluffs, even though Aunt Flossie still lives there with their kids. I don’t know what to say about Uncle Ed. He has a bad back and doesn’t work. His hands shake. Now he lives with Mom.
I don’t know if I want to visit Mom and Uncle Ed or not. I don’t know if I have a choice.
“Tell me something,” Denise says one morning. She’s moving spoonfuls of strawberry yogurt in and out of her mouth, sucking as she pulls. Mom never bought yogurt, but Denise gets the fancy French kind with foil tops. “Tell me,” Denise says again. “Why is your mother living with her sister’s husband?”
Jason is smart. He’s only four and can already read. He says pass gas instead of fart and bowel movement instead of poop. Janie is three and goes to baby ballet. She loves when I curl her blonde hair with my steam curling iron. Sometimes we play dolls. She has a pacifier just like I used to. I find an old baby picture of me stuck in the S encyclopedia and it looks exactly like Janie does now. It’s weird. Sometimes Dad mixes our names up because they’re almost the same. Maybe this sounds like I think Janie and I are a lot alike, but I know we’re not. I know we’re completely different.
One day in eighth grade, the health teacher, Ms. Nick, shows a movie about good and bad touch. Later, I tell my friend Kim about Mafia and the tickling thing. “Eww,” she says.
“Do you think that counts?” I say. “Like Ms. Nick said?”
“Sure,” Kim says. She is kneeling on her bed, digging in her purse for a lighter. She pulls out a yellow Bic and flicks it, holding her eyeliner in the flame until the pigment softens. She leans in close to the mirror and rims her eyes with layer after layer of black.
Mentioning the tickling thing to Mom is a mistake. She says something to my dad. Now Denise really doesn’t want me here. But Janie still likes me. I try teaching her to read, like Jason. She’s not catching on. I feel a little spark of hope that she will be stupid. But these kids are too lucky for that.
One day after school I say, “Hey, Janie? Want to come downstairs? I’ll curl your hair.”
“Mommy says I can’t.”
“Can’t get your hair curled?”
“Can’t go to your room.”
Janie chatters on, her sweet face turned upward. But I can’t hear, because of the rushing in my ears. It’s extremely loud, but the air outside my body is still. Nothing moves except for Janie’s little mouth, opening and closing, with her tiny teeth, so square and white, more perfect than I can ever be.
Eighth grade is almost over. Dad says I have to go live with Mom again. “It will be better for everyone,” he says.
I want to fight but I am not sure for what. I don’t want to be at Mom’s or here. I picture Janie’s little teeth. I don’t want to be anywhere.
I never see Pete again.
And I was right about Trixie.
She doesn’t count.
Smokey, Keeshond (kayz-hawnd)
Years later, I will ask Carrie, “What was that gray dog’s name? The one on Brompton Street?”
“Smokey,” she will say. “The cat was Bandit.”
“We had a cat?”
“How can you forget these things? Smokey and the Bandit!”
But that’s later. Now, I am fourteen, moving back in with Mom at the weird student housing place. Carrie is eight. “Where’s Uncle Ed?” I ask. Carrie shrugs. Apparently, he’s gone. Mom’s in graduate school, something to do with city planning and public affairs, a three-year shit show for all of us. But when she graduates, she gets a real job at the transportation department and buys a tiny brown house in a quaint neighborhood near the old student housing place. “Yay!” Carrie says. She has friends in this neighborhood. I love wandering here the way I once wandered behind Meadowlark Lane. Instead of sagebrush and greasewood, everything is oaks and elms, tall branches overhead.
The house loan includes something called a balloon payment, which I don’t understand. I also don’t understand Mom’s thing with Simon, the weird professor who comes around. He never comes inside, just picks Mom up and she disappears for a night or two. Until he doesn’t. Then Mom crawls into her bed and the wailing starts and does not stop. Carrie starts sleeping in my bed with me. This must be around when Mom brings home Smokey—Bandit, too, apparently. Maybe Smokey comes before Mom gets fired from the transportation department. Maybe after. Maybe the balloon payment is looming. Maybe it’s past due. What we all remember is the pizza.
“Why don’t you order one,” Mom calls from her bedroom.
“What kind?” I ask Carrie. She’s eleven now. I am seventeen.
“Pepperoni,” Carrie says.
Mom pays the pizza guy and opens the box. “What’s this?” she says. Carrie’s eyes dart to me.
“Pizza,” I say.
“You think you’re pretty goddamned smart,” Mom says.
Carrie’s hair has grown out. It’s long and pretty now. The end of her tight braid is in her mouth.
“What’s the matter with you?” Mom says. “Why don’t you answer me?”
“What’s the matter with you?” I say. “Why are you so crazy?”
Mom has a good arm. The pizza box hits just under the molding, a wide slide of sauce and grease down the yellow wall.
“Nobody cares that I don’t like pepperoni pizza,” Mom is saying. Her lazy eye does that thing. I stand up.
“Bitch,” Mom says.
Her hand comes toward my cheek. I lurch backward and slip around the table. I see her grab the ceramic jug from the built-in. I watch myself duck toward the kitchen. The vase smashes into the wall.
“Mom!” Carrie screams.
Mom is in the kitchen now. She has a cast iron fry pan. “You’ve always been this way,” she says. The fry pan crashes into the cupboard behind me. The only way out is back through the dining room, but Mom is blocking. I see both of us, Mom and me. Behind us, the window, the backyard of creeping charlie, the stone wall, and beyond that, the river and downtown.
“Get out of my way,” I say.
“You,” Mom says. “I should have aborted you when I had the chance.” She has the electric mixer now.
“Mom!” Carrie screams. “You’re hurting her!”
“I’ll kill her,” Mom says.
“I’m calling 911!” Carrie sobs.
The mixer hits me on the shoulder.
“Hello?” Carrie is hiccoughing into the phone. “My mom is killing my sister.” Then she throws up on the dining table.
The cops, when they arrive, talk to Carrie and me first. We have been waiting outside. They are so friendly. After they go into the house, their deep voices carry through the open window. Mom’s shouts carry, too. She yells about how I am incorrigible. She launches into her latest graduate school spiel about the community this, the community that, expectations and responsibility, some nonsense about authorities.
The cops come back out, frowning. “Do you girls have family in town?” They say something about “terroristic threats.” They cuff Mom and walk her to the squad. I want to say the right thing to Carrie. Like, maybe, I’m sorry. But I can’t. So I tell her a knock-knock joke. Later, I learn, paging through Mom’s blue spiral notebook (half notes from Human Relations and Social Justice and half diary), that as she hunches into the backseat of the squad, she wets her pants.
Mom loses the Brompton house.
Carrie and I go to foster care.
Smokey and Bandit go to the pound. I don’t remember that, though. Only Carrie does.
Wolfie, Cairn Terrier
“They’re so cheerful and busy,” Mom said. She was going on about puppies again. She had been ever since my son, Max, started first grade. Max was my middle child—his older sister Sophie was ten, and Lillie, the baby, was five. But Mom’s puppy craze was focused on Max alone. “He needs a dog,” she said. “Dogs give kids a sense of responsibility, a sense of community.” I rolled my eyes. Mom was hardly my expert on responsibility or community. Or kids. Or dogs. Besides, we had cats.
But also … I remembered Pete’s warm body in my old twin bed. His white fan tail. The “farm.” Maybe the timing was right for a dog. My husband, John, and I had been married ten years by then. We had recently settled into our forever home in that quaint University neighborhood I loved. Cairn terriers get their name from hunting and chasing rodents between the cairns of the Scottish highlands, the dog book said. Feisty little dogs with outsized personalities. “Doesn’t that sound perfect?” I said to John.
I got Mom involved with presenting the puppy at Christmas—after all, it had been her idea. We lowered him into a wrapped box that Mom carried into the house at the last minute so the kids could see him pop out under the tree. He didn’t pop, though. He ambled, black eyes curious and brave.
From The Art of Raising a Puppy by the Monks of New Skete, we learned that dogs respond to names that end in long vowels, so called him Wolfie. And we tried to follow the monks’ advice on crating. We really did. But Wolfie despised his so-called den. “Look,” I said to John after too many sleepless nights. “Our babies slept with me when the books said let them cry. The books were wrong. How much can it hurt to let Wolfie onto our bed?” This will cause behavior problems in your dog later, the monks promised. But in truth, things were going fine. Wolfie loved the kids, loved our shaggy yard, loved that rubber kong thing. He tolerated puppy school. I trusted he’d eventually learn not to eat paper, bark at shadows, yank the leash. Meanwhile, puppy love reigned.
The things that happened next were mostly bad. I threw a match on my marriage. My husband poured the gas. That’s the way I tell it now. I used to emphasize how I didn’t have an affair—but that never mattered. I fell in lust and then love, which is worse. Not that I didn’t love my husband. I did. But I was barely twenty-one when we married, still numb from Mafia’s oily fingers. I didn’t know there was any other way to be. But I was wrong, of course. After three pregnancies and natural births, ten years of breastfeeding, thousands of hours of snuggling warm babies and children, and therapy plus therapy, my numbness wore off—with another man.
The divorce was savage for all of us. Including Wolfie.
With me working full time, the puppy had to be home alone, all day, every day. “It’s bleeding, Mama,” Max said, holding out his finger. Some terriers are known to nip children, confirmed the dog book. They are also difficult to train. Wolfie wouldn’t sleep at night—not in his crate, my bed, anywhere. He took to peeing on Sophie’s bed—with her in it. He wrecked the couch. He learned to jump onto the dining table. He learned to open cupboards. I swear, he learned to sneer.
Then there was the dress. I bought it at Marshall’s, with money I didn’t have, for Lillie’s kindergarten fall festival. Lillie, the baby, was unraveling in our newly busted up life. But the dress—it had a red velvet bodice and a tulle skirt that landed just below my baby’s perfect knees. “Mama, do you love me?” Lillie said, twirling in circles, her skirt billowing. “Am I a tree princess?” She arched her arms overhead. “Am I so beautiful?” We set our things out before bed: kids’ backpacks zipped by the door, lunches in the fridge, my tote bag on the counter, the dress draped neatly over a chair.
You know how this ends. The monks were right about everything, even that rat’s nest of tulle the next morning. Lillie fell to her knees. The sound that cleaved out of her was deep and low. My own sorrow, however, was too full of rage for tears. Our brokenness was more than a dress—I knew that. But a dress was all we had, and there it was, shredded by that little cur.
That night, I called Carrie. She had grown up and out of foster care by then, and was forging a family of her own. At first, she’d been scared about my divorce—You’re going to lose that house! You’re going to end up like Mom!—but she’d settled some now.
“Get rid of that dog,” she said.
“I can’t,” I said. “You should know that.”
“Mom could take it.”
“Mom? With a dog?”
“Your hands are full. Your kids need you.”
“Seriously, though? Mom?”
“She can do this one thing,” Carrie said. “She has her disability income and zero responsibilities. She can step up.” Before disability, Mom had worked odd jobs—telemarketing, mostly—but not anymore. She had nothing if not spare time. Still, I couldn’t ask her.
It turned out I didn’t have to. “Listen,” Carrie said to our mom when she called her after hanging up with me. “You have to help with that dog. You have to.” That was a long time ago—more than fifteen years. It only took six months, maybe a year, for the worst of the divorce to dissipate. I eventually married the man I’d fallen in lust and then love with. It was hard, but our family survived—maybe even thrived, sometimes. That’s for the kids to say. But through it all, Mom would never give Wolfie back.
“Not now,” she’d say, laughing into her sleeve. “He just started a new diet.” Or, “Another dog moved into the building—a new friend.” Or, “He’s too stressed with this heat.” Wolfie’s walks and mealtimes, his girth, his maladies—real and imagined—and, of course, his shenanigans, became the warp and weft of Mom’s days. So we helped from a distance. We hauled Wolfie to vet visits, nodding dutifully to lectures about overfeeding. We brought Wolfie to our house when Mom had something going on—though, admittedly, that was rare.
Except, that is, for the Fourth of July. Until Mom moved back to Duluth, we always had Wolfie with us for the Fourth. Otherwise he fell apart over the fireworks in the park across from Mom’s condo. “He can’t stand the ruckus,” Mom always said. “I’m telling you, he can’t. This little dog, he needs his peace and quiet.”
JEANNINE OUELLETTE has published in Up the Staircase Quarterly, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, december magazine, Nowhere, and other journals. Recently she has won a second-place Curt Johnson Prose Award and been a finalist in Cutthroat’s Barry Lopez Creative Nonfiction Contest, Fairytale Review’s Prose Contest, Orison Anthology Awards, New South Prose Contest, and Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open. An associate nonfiction editor at Orison Books, Ouellette is a 2015 Pushcart nominee and her essays have appeared in several anthologies including Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives. ☆ Judge Paul Lisicky selected “Four Dogs, Maybe Five,” as first runner-up of Proximity’s 2016 Personal Essay Prize.