DOGS ARE BORN HUNGRY
by Julia Dixon Evans
By the time the last of the pups are born, there’s blood all over the kitchen floor, smears in vague, squirming animal shapes. The tongue of our dog, oddly calm and busy at the same time, licking at everything: herself, her puppies, the floor.
“We can’t keep them,” my mother says, like she’d been saying all along.
“Just one,” I say.
She sighs, wiping at the floor with a rag.
“It’s not a good time.”
Issue #146 soundtrack: Jbdub113 "Gift Box"
When I wake up the next morning, I find my mother, asleep on the kitchen floor next to our dog, Jinx, pink puppies between them.
The doorbell rings and it’s a man I see a lot but have never met. I don’t know if it’s a boyfriend or what. I don’t know if she’s allowed to have boyfriends. I don’t know what is going on between her and my dad but they never said they were getting a divorce. They never said anything really, just stopped living together, even though nobody properly moved out. “Nesting,” I overheard my mother once tell one of her friends, both of them wine-drunk. They sat in between the kitchen and the dining room on the bar stools my mother had never wanted to buy. “It’s bullshit,” she added. “Caroline stays here, in the nest. Omar and I take turns popping in with chewed up worms.”
“Uh,” the man says, scratching his beard. I know I should speak, or even just step aside, but I’m compelled to stand here and wait for him to get past this awkwardness on his own. Which doesn’t happen. “Uh,” he says again.
I put a hand on one hip before realizing it’s probably a dumb move, a teenager trying to look sassy or something. I shift my weight. I instead bring that hand up to my brow to shield against the rising light from the east.
“The dog had her pups last night,” I say. I don’t say, You’re not my dad. I don’t say, Who are you to my mom. I don’t say, What are you even doing here. “She’s in the kitchen.”
“Okay,” he says. I step aside and he shuffles past me, careful not to get too close. He smells like soap and something else. Sandalwood maybe. Oranges. He’s taller than my dad. Hairier. I hear him wake my mom up, his voice real quiet and soft. I still haven’t heard much more than a syllable from him.
“Hey,” he whispers to her when he is in the kitchen. I don’t want to listen to them. I don’t want to listen to my mother be sweet and morning-y with anyone. I don’t want to hear her say romantic things. I don’t want her to even say romantic things at all. She’s a mother. She’s old now. She just needs to stop. But I listen anyway.
A minute later, I watch him leave. I hear the heavy creak and slam of his truck door, but no engine. He doesn’t drive away.
“Morning, Caroline,” my mother says, as she walks through. She’s holding a puppy in one hand.
“When’s dad coming?” I ask and it feels like the meanest thing I’ve ever said.
It’s already hot out and I have nowhere to be but it’s obvious they’re waiting me out. I make a big production of moving shoes around by the door, unlatching loudly, a heavy click shut, not a slam but the next best, blameless thing. I walk past the man in his truck and he rubs his beard again. There’s a part of me that respects his sheepishness. There’s a part of me that likes the way he smells.
I walk past the truck, fighting a childish instinct to kick a tire or even wave. I don’t look up. I wonder if this man is having second thoughts. I should never have messed with a mother, he’s thinking. I should never have messed with a married mother. Or maybe just, This girl hates me.
And that’s when I see it: A box. It’s nestled at the edge of the driveway against the mailbox, but it’s not a mail-style box. No label, not even any tape. The lid is just tucked like a shoebox, but it’s a square, a perfect cube, and about the size of a box of pop tarts. Plain brown. I look behind me but there’s no movement. It’s unlikely this nice-smelling, awkward man even saw it. My father would flip out, right now, not about the man in the truck gently waking my mother up (although: yes he would), but about the fact that I am about to open an unmarked box. He was raised in a war-ravaged country, half a world away, and always told us how all the parents of his homeland taught their children to panic about anything unattended. “A bomb,” he’d say. “You never know what might be a bomb.” But other times he’d also say, in the same grave tone: “A line, you never know what it might be for, so get in it.” I’d tell him we’re in suburban California, I’m pretty sure it’s safe to say most things are not bombs and no lines ever give out free food. He’d get a faraway look in his eyes and say, thickly accented, far thicker than usual, “You have it so easy, my love.”
I open the box.
The last time I had a friend over, which was the last time I had a friend I was willing to invite over, which was the last time I had a friend who was willing to come over, was a month ago, before the incident. The incident being, of course, in the last week of school when I told Kira Holloway that she was a cunt, and that her boyfriend Mac was also a cunt, and Mac, unfortunately for me, was just walking up and he overheard, and has no impulse control, which is part of why I didn’t like him in the first place, so he pushed me into the boys’ bathroom and pushed me again and then kept pushing me some more until my face was fast against the wet inside of a urinal. It split my lip and gave me two different goose eggs on my forehead and none of the administrators ever got far enough into the motive to hear that I called anybody a cunt. The other kids, however, all knew, and when Mac, their favorite golden boy was expelled, and his girlfriend Kira was more forlorn than usual, word got out that it was my fault.
My mother thought it was her fault.
My father thought it was his fault.
I wonder if truck man knows about it and I wonder if he thinks it’s his fault.
The day before, Kira and her younger sister Kristin walked home with me after school, and Kira spent the entire afternoon reminding Kristin which of them was the inferior, less perfect sister. Spoiler: it’s Kristin. The next morning, at our lockers, when I noticed Kristin drinking a Slimfast and frantically trying to smooth down her wispy hair, I couldn’t really stop myself.
It backfired, sticking up for Kristin, because now Kristin won’t talk to me. Maybe it’s fear of retribution from Kira, or, I don’t know. Maybe it’s just that she hates me too.
I haven’t spoken to anyone at school since the urinal.
Since all the cunts I said.
I don’t know if just one occurrence of cunt would have done the trick, but definitely the two cunts have sealed my fate: it’s not like anyone is gonna bring me any gift boxes.
Behind me, I hear the truck door swing open and shut, and the man isn’t even looking behind him as he approaches the house. I decide that maybe this is okay, that maybe even my dad knows about it, and maybe it hasn’t been happening before he moved out, or nested-out or whatever it is my parents are going to call it, because this man seems to really suck at sneaking around.
I look inside the box. Beneath a nest of cotton, like the inside of vitamin bottles, is a key. I’ve seen this key before, or at least one just like it. A skeleton key, cliché and vintage, but it’s probably brand new from the hardware store. It looks just like the one for our garden shed. Beneath the key is a photograph, a Polaroid, and it’s me, and I’m happy. I don’t know when this was taken. I don’t remember this smile or who I was smiling at. But in the picture, I’m reaching to tuck my hair behind my ear and I can see the rings I’m wearing, the rings I’m still wearing. It’s fuzzy but they’re mine.
I don’t know what it means.
When I unlatch our splintery gate and walk into the backyard, I hear soft, high whines of all the dogs in the kitchen and I think that I should probably help my mother with them, or I think she should probably help me with this, but neither of those things happens. I don’t really want to see her, and I don’t want to have to show the man with the truck this box, and I don’t want to have him step up and be supportive and like a father figure. I think of the pups, piled up around their mother, lined up, driven only by hunger, getting in the lines of my father’s childhood. They don’t even know fear yet.
The key, shiny and new, fits into the old lock of the garden shed perfectly. I’ve been in here before but not in years. I don’t think anybody has come in here in years, and it somehow manages to smell exactly the same as always. Bags of potting soil plus fertilizer plus Round-Up plus warmed plastic flower pots plus rust.
Affixed to the rotting wooden walls, though, with tiny, millimeter-thick nails, are copies of the same Polaroid picture, printed out on regular printer paper, rough-cut.
I spin around, my stomach lurching. It’s so much eerier in chorus: all one day, the same outfit, the same unidentifiable background, brown and yellow, varying bright spots, dozens of mes. I pull one down and regret it because what if this is a crime and what if the police come and see my fingerprints on something and say listen, we are tired of following Caroline around with her fingerprints on crimes supposedly happening to her. Listen, maybe it’s time we took a closer look at Caroline. Listen, maybe she is doing this to herself, maybe she called them cunts, and maybe she slammed her own face against the porcelain and maybe she pinned her own pictures up on a wall. Listen. Maybe Caroline’s the problem.
“Mom,” I said, flat, trying to be stern. Probably just sounding petulant. The house was still but I hadn’t heard the truck leave.
“Honey,” she says, smiling, holding out a puppy in both of her hands, an offering. “Look at this one. The runt.”
I take the pup from her. It’s warm and squirmy. I could kill this so easily. What if I held it wrong, or it squirmed too much and in steadying it, I broke its little spine? What if I dropped it? What if I am currently inadvertently applying pressure to a fatal weakness in the skull?
“I gather you met Jesse,” she says, and she’s not sheepish. She’s just looking at me expectantly.
“I didn’t meet him,” I say. “I let him in. Didn’t know his name was Jesse.”
I can’t remember the first time I noticed Jesse come over, and I don’t think my mother ever knew I had noticed. Seems they’d make a point to only meet up after I’d left the house. But they weren’t ever new, in that awkward sort of way. They always just seemed like they’d been friends for years. Once, I had left for school but turned around to grab a book I’d forgotten. Jesse’s truck pulled into the driveway and he got out, hurrying up to the door. I walked back up to the porch and listened through the door as they laughed about old stuff, things they’d done together, people they both knew. I didn’t know where she’d met him, or how long they’d known each other, but they each could barely get a word in edgewise. They talked nonstop, equally, well, maybe my mother a little more than the man, or maybe it’s just because her voice was louder, pointier, and his was soft and almost illegible through the door. My mom and dad hardly ever talked. I couldn’t remember whether her voice was louder than my father’s. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard their voices wrap around each other like that.
“Jesse,” she calls, and he appears from the dining room with a coffee mug in one hand and a puppy in the other. How many pups are there?
“Nice to meet you,” he says, and I think if I were him I’d be glad to have something to do with my hands. I try not to squeeze the runt. I nod.
“Mom,” I say, again, remembering why I’m in here. “There’s something fucked up in the shed.”
But the shed was empty again. Just bags of potting soil plus fertilizer plus Round-Up plus warmed plastic flower pots plus rust. As my mother and Jesse watched behind me, I ran my fingertips along the rotting wood, searching for tiny nail holes, but the wood was too porous to make anything out.
“I think I remember this,” my mother said, back in the kitchen, holding the original photograph up to the light. “Wasn’t this prom?”
“I’m wearing a flannel. I didn’t go to the dance, remember?”
“Oh,” she says. “Right.”
Jesse has yet to really speak much to me, and I try to imagine being him. I think I’d probably do the same. I don’t think I’d overcompensate and try to make small talk about how my summer is going or what grade I was in or movies this or music that. I think I’d say as little as possible. I think I’d want someone feeding me lines in one of those secret service earpieces if I was ever a man having to talk to the teen-aged daughter of my lover. I shudder at the thought of the word lover.
“These keys are a dime a dozen,” she says. “They’re all identical.”
I pick up a puppy and then sit down anyway, next to the pile. The puppies all seem the same to me, too. I count five. Jinx starts licking at one puppy’s butt and I watch her drink the newborn shit right out of its asshole.
“I’m not making this up,” I say.
“I know, honey.”
Jesse stays the night and it’s the first time.
Two soft taps and the swish of my bedroom door against the thick carpet. I know it’s my mom even though I’m facing away.
“Caroline,” she says. “Jesse is gonna stay here.”
I don’t say anything because I think it’d all be mean.
“I mean, for you.”
I flip over in bed, looking at her.
“I’m worried about the picture,” she says. “So maybe it’s for me, too.”
“I thought you weren’t worried,” I say.
“I mean,” she trails off. “I suppose I am.”
My room hasn’t changed since middle school. I wonder if we weren’t doing this bullshit nesting thing, if we’d just gotten two new smaller houses like most divorced families get, I’d have a chance to redo my room. Two rooms! Maybe I wouldn’t feel like such a shithead kid if I didn’t have such a middle school room. Maybe that would help. Maybe a new room or two new rooms would mean I’d find new friends, new neighbors, and they’d come over and we’d have new fun, two sets of new fun. Instead I have this old room, in a nest, a nest where someone knew to leave a picture. A dozen pictures. Why can’t I remember the picture?
When my mom leaves the room I think: What if it’s Jesse.
I quickly tiptoe, my heart stupidly racing, out of bed and lock my door, but I never brushed my teeth or washed my face, and I’ll probably break out on my chin now for two weeks as punishment for just one night.
Sometimes when I’m upset, or worried, I’d lure Jinx up the stairs to sleep in my room, though she was a trained and obedient dog to a fault and would never climb up on my bed and sleep at my feet like I’d always imagined a good best friend dog would do. I’d have to settle with knowing she was in the room, or I’d pull my pillow and blanket down on the floor and curl up next to her. Like my mom this morning. Did my mother do that for her needs or for Jinx’s? I wonder if Jesse found that endearing, the interspecies midwifery of his new love.
But my door is locked and I don’t want to go down there, and Jinx’s puppies need her anyway, and I’m not sure I could carry all five of them upstairs and they’ve been pissing and shitting all over the kitchen tile anyway. Too little to know anything. Hunger. No fear. Piled up, lined up for dog milk.
I sleep, somehow.
The sun is barely up when I leave my room. It’s gray out, misty, not hot yet, and everything feels cloaked in the earliness. In the kitchen, my mother is on the floor again, a pillow and a blanket carefully arranged in a way that makes me think she fell asleep there and Jesse brought her the blankets to tuck her in. Of course he knows where we keep our blankets. Was he excited for the puppies to be born? He’s on the living room couch, no blanket. I stop and watch him for a second from the doorway. Kind of handsome. He’s scruffy, rugged, but soft-looking. I’ve never really looked at him this much.
Outside, the grass in the backyard soaks the bottom of my feet, the hem of my pajama pants. It’s not as cold as I want it to be. It’s not as cold as it looks.
The shed is unlocked, which for a split second makes me think: Good, because I came out here without the key, but really I should be disturbed. Really, I should not be opening this door without feeling disturbed and scared. I feel nothing except compulsion to open the door.
Inside, grey morning light spills in through the open door and it’s soil plus fertilizer plus Round-Up plus warmed plastic flower pots plus rust. Plus the pictures are back. It seems tidy. It seems like they’re meant to be there. They look nice there.
I run back inside. I almost slip, dewy feet against pristine kitchen tile, which my mother mopped at least six times yesterday on account of dog birth, on account of pup bathroom.
Back in my room, I climb into bed and shiver.
My mother is about to call the police. “Non-emergency?” she asks, and I think she’s asking Jesse. “Remember that time with the weird guy outside the bar and we called non-emergency?” she asks, and they both smile, and they’re having some sort of nostalgia moment and I want to ask just how fucking long have you known each other, but now’s not the time. I don’t really want this to be an emergency. I want it to be a sweet nostalgia moment in a few years or in a month or in a few hours.
“Maybe 911,” Jesse says, and his voice is as quiet as I expect it to be. Kind. A suggestion of an opinion. A don’t blame me if it’s the wrong option. A don’t blame me for not being a good father figure right now. A don’t blame me for getting mixed up with the mother of a teen-aged daughter.
But before they can call anyone, the phone rings, and Jinx barks, and all her newborn pups startle, crying more than barking. Something pisses on the kitchen floor.
“Hello?” my mother says, and then hands me the phone. “It’s for you.”
I stare at her and don’t reach for the phone.
“It’s Kristin,” she says. The last thing Kristin said to me was nothing.
“Kira is fucking with you,” is all she says. “I just want you to know. And I just—” she pauses, and her voice is ashamed. “I, like, don’t want you to get Kira in trouble.”
I hold the phone to my ear in silence. Kristin doesn’t say anything else. I want my mother to think there’s a long explanation going on, although she can probably hear the absence of telephone voice from where she’s standing. I want Jesse to think I have friends, though if he’s been coming around here every morning, though if he’s known my mother long enough to have remember that one time? memories, he probably knows everything about me. He knows about the urinal. He knows about how I cried the first night my father wasn’t at the “nest.” He knows me, and I don't know him.
I press the button to hang up and hand the phone to my mother.
“It’s nothing,” I say.
They look at each other, my mother and Jesse. Jesse’s all right. For someone who shouldn’t have messed with a mother he’s doing all right. I’m pleased with my ability to have a generous heart in this moment. I feel like I’m doing something noble.
“Forget about the pictures,” I say. “Just don’t call anyone.”
“Caroline,” my mother says, and it’s her warning voice, her I’ll get to the bottom of this voice, her you can’t lie to me; lying just gets you more in trouble, young lady voice.
“It wasn’t Kristin,” I say. “I’m not worried.”
My mother steps towards me. My mother, who I feel like maybe I don’t know any more, or maybe I knew all along but she changed before my eyes today or maybe last month or maybe when her daughter was violently beaten by a boy, or maybe when my father didn’t exactly move out, or maybe when she met Jesse, weeks or months or years or decades ago. She pulls me into a hug, her arms warm. She smells like Jinx, and like PineSol, and like Jesse: soap and sandalwood and oranges.
When she pulls away, Jesse isn’t in the room. I look over her shoulder and see him in the shed, standing just one rung up the step ladder and pulling down all the pictures. He turns one around in his hands. I wonder if he’s trying to solve this. I wonder if he’s thinking about his fingerprints all over these weird pictures of this woman’s teen-aged daughter, at a house his truck is always parked in front of from mid-morning on. I wonder if he’s like me, picturing the police piecing it all together and pointing to him, and in a way it makes me feel fond of him. I smile at my mother.
“Jesse—” I start.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
That afternoon we take the pups to the Humane Society, but we’re turned down. Come back in a few weeks, they say. Bring the mother dog, too, they say. You really should get her spayed ASAP, they say. The runt is not going to survive the night, they say. We recommend you leave it here and we can euthanize it for you, they say. I chide my mother for not doing research on any of this, but the longer we keep the puppies, the longer we’ll fall in love with them and keep one, but all I am thinking about is how the one we love the most is going to die tonight.
“It was Kira,” I say. “The pictures.”
My mom glances over. I watch the bones in her hands clench, jutting from her freckled skin as she grips the steering wheel.
“I called your dad about it,” she says. “He should know this, too.”
We drive past Kristin and Kira’s house, a crate of dogs at my feet and the runt on my lap, its breathing slow and intermittent, and these puppies only know hunger and maybe they’re learning the warmth of their mother, maybe they’re learning the warmth of me and my mother, maybe even Jesse, and maybe when it’s his turn to nest, my dad, too. They don’t know what to be afraid of. They see a line, and they get in it. And I think of my dad, and I think of how he knew to end his marriage, how he knew when a line was worth waiting in and when to get away from maybe-bombs. A dog and a girl learn where the dangers are, somehow, eventually. I only run from one danger into the flameburst of another.
“I miss dad,” I say, one hand beneath the runt, the other hand on top, a cradle. I try to forget how it’s going to die tonight. I wonder if it will bleed. “And when I’m with dad I miss you.”
“Me too,” she says. “And.” She pauses, presses a flattened palm to the side of her face, dragging it down her cheek. She looks old and tired but not distraught. “And so does your father.”
I lift the runt up to my face, my mouth, and breathe in its puppy smell, sweet, dried milk in every wrinkle.
Julia Dixon Evans is author of the forthcoming novel "Mother Father Daughter Burn," (Dzanc Books, 2018). Her work can be found in Pithead Chapel, Flapperhouse, Hobart, and elsewhere. For more, visit juliadixonevans.com or follow her on Twitter.
Andrés Montiel was born in Adrogué, Buenos Aires, Argentina, and has been passionate about art since he was a young child. His journey in the field began when he became friends with a group of young artists who used to enjoy trips to the country to paint the landscapes. These early experiences would play later an important role in his work imprinting a romantic halo in his approach to painting. After studying with some successful Argentine artists in the city, Andrés enrolled in the P. Pueyrredon National Fine Arts College in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he studied fine arts and teaching. In addition to having his work exhibited in solo and group shows in the United States and Argentina, he has received numerous awards. Montiel’s paintings can be found in private collections around the world including Argentina, the United States, Israel, Canada, Spain, France, Australia, and Germany. For more, visit montielart.net or follow him on Facebook.
Jbdub113 is the pseudonym of Boston-area musician Jonathan Woodard (The Wrong Chaneys, Johnny Woodard and the Handsome Homeless, Dilly, Lono, Doom Arm). When he is not spreading the word of music, searching the depths for weirdness, or cheering on his beloved Celtics, he can be easily found at home with his cats and his Kate.