by Jake Greenblot
Mom had just killed a dog in the dining room. An arc of arterial blood had splashed against the glass double doors of my father’s special, never-to-be-touched-if-you-want-to-continue-sleeping-indoors oak cabinet, and a pool was forming on the floor around my younger brother Chris’s Superman cape, red on red. So much blood, and that red so impossibly bright. Too much to be inside one dog, it seemed. Memory can magnify these things, I’m sure.
Behind the tall and blood-splattered glass on each shelf stood a varied array of vintage playing cards: risqué Bicycles from the 1950s, Rosette-backed Blue Ribbons, Victorian-era woodcut imprints, faded Swiss Kaiserspiel. Exquisitely hand-inked Ganjifa from India, circular and mysterious. Aristocrat 727s and Aviator 914s. Each propped erect on its own miniature wooden easel, the cards pincered a panoply of antique chess figures, which were scrupulously arranged atop their respective boards in iterations of the Nimzo-Indian defense. The Nimzo-Indian being our father’s favored opening.
My mother. I was ten years old and, at that moment, frozen in place. My little brother, almost five, sat coughing and crying mutely, trying to scream out between gasps. I stared at the cabinet, one foot in the kitchen and one in the dining room.
On the lowest shelf, a pin-up girl played with a curl of her blonde hair, a gleam in her blue eyes. She grinned impishly, head tilted forward, staring out between streaks of blood at the nearly decapitated Doberman slumped on the floor—its eyes still wide, its pink-and-black tongue hanging out one side of its mouth and just barely touching the faux parquet and the steadily encroaching crimson puddle. She was the three of hearts.
“Go get mommy’s keys and purse from the bedroom, please.”
Her voice. So calm and even, with the barest hint of a waver underneath. Something else there too, an elusive thing my memory can never seem to grasp, no matter how much I think about it. Something not there before or since. But I can remember the rhythm of her words, their distinct cadence—cutting so cleanly through the shock of that moment—like a nursery rhyme.
“Okay? Daniel? Can you do that for me?”
She waited for a response. That singular timbre, even now. Like a song I’ve heard sung on the radio over and over. She exhaled forcefully through her nose, raised her arm over her head, and opened her fist. The knife clattered on the dining room table.
I blinked. Then I bounded wordlessly through the dining room and up the stairs to my parents’ bedroom, finally jarred free of my motionless stupor.
Mom—the opposite of motionless—had rolled off of the dog, right through the pool of blood, and was reaching for Chris’s flushed, panic-stricken face as I ran by. In fact, she seemed always to have been in motion, ever since I could remember: vacuuming furiously, making cooking into a harried sort of kitchen ballet, the way she would pace about while talking on the telephone. I remember when I was little, tracking her path as she would prowl around in an aimless ellipse while brushing her teeth, inspecting random objects in the upstairs hallway before ambling back toward the sink.
When I returned, she held Chris in her arms, examining him for injuries, glancing back at the grisly mess under the table.
She murmured, “It’s okay, Bug. It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay. My baby. You’re okay,” kissing the disheveled mass of hair atop his head, soon standing up. The faucet in the kitchen was running and water began to spill over the sink, splashing insistently on the linoleum. Mom had been washing vegetables for dinner: chicken pot pies, I’d heard her tell Dad. I’d been listening to her side of their short telephone conversation, reflexively scanning the tone of her voice for clues as to how the night would go. When you grow up in a certain kind of house, you become attuned to things like that. Necessity nurtures these skills; it makes you into a certain kind of kid. Watchful, quiet, serious. An impala grazing on the Serengeti. Your body learning to trust a sense of dread long before it becomes a conscious thought.
It had come out of nowhere. Someone had left the front door ajar, and the dog must have been attracted to the aroma of chicken simmering on the stove. There was a choke collar around her neck—it was a she—but no ID tag. Her skin stretched taut over every rib. Chris, decked out in his Halloween costume—it was barely March, but Mom had found it on a clearance rack—had spotted the hungry animal from the kitchen and scurried toward it, shouting, “Doggy! Doggy! Mommy, look!”
This was the same year Mom and Dad finally split up. The year she quit her job as a part-time paralegal and joined Walsh & London as a junior associate. The year she stopped dressing like Old Mom, the one I can barely picture in her floral prints and flats, and started dressing—and walking, and speaking—like… well, like Mom. The one I think of when Chris and I talk, when I hear the word. The Mom that would begin smoking packs of Benson & Hedges Menthol 100s down to the filter, that would let her laugh take on a wilder edge than before, that would clop clop clop hastily around the apartment in the dark early morning, returning in the evening with heels in hand, flinging them—sometimes along with a bra, always with a relieved sigh—onto the chaise lounge seemingly positioned for just that purpose. The Mom that would firmly squeeze my shoulder, unblinking, as I sat while she told me Some Things I Needed to Understand. That all happened later, after the dog and the blood and the Drive. Back then, I had never even known that she’d gone to law school, and that my parents had actually first met there.
Half Choctaw, she’d grown up on a farm right outside the reservation. She hardly ever spoke of it. Every once in a while, there was a mention of candling eggs, or tagging cattle, or how we were lucky to even have a tiny little driveway to shovel down to our nicely plowed paved street, and did we even know what a post-hole digger looked like?
It seemed so far off, so different from the modest, judiciously maintained lawns of our neighborhood. So removed from the suburban parks, the strip malls, and our small, stucco Tudor. I’d always hungered for details, stories, anything that would transport me to that unfamiliar world, but something in the narrowing of her eyes and the small movements of her body, bracing against our curiosity, let us know not to ask. Nor to push for a clearer picture of our grandfather, never seen or talked about—not beyond my hearing her once mention to someone that he had “lived hard and died young, all on the Rez.”
Our mother had learned how to shoot a gun on the farm—that much we knew. She’d make fun of the way guys on TV would hold their weapons: “He’d break his g.d. collarbone!” she’d say with a laugh. Old Mom, carefully sidestepping curse words. “Hey, tough guy, why’re you trying to cock an automatic?!” She loved action movies. We’d never seen her with a gun, though. Our father hated guns.
Throwing a knife—that was something else she’d learned how to do. Either she learned it from hunting or as something bored kids did on a farm or she picked it up from somewhere else entirely. I’ve never inquired. However the skill was acquired, her command of it was deadly. The day a Doberman Pinscher came to our dining room to tear out Bug’s throat, he and I both found this out.
Clumsy Chris, in the costume he wasn’t supposed to know about and that our mother had yet to take in properly, had reached out to pet its back. As he did so, he tripped head-first to the floor, just as I turned to see the dog lunge. I remember this strange feeling of weightlessness, seeing everything occur right in front of me. My body lost all corporeal substance. I was in a dream. I was watching myself watch all of this happen. Instead of flesh, the Doberman came up with only a mouthful of cape, crashing into the dining room table’s sturdy base. Furious, she instantly turned back to face Bug as he lay wide-eyed and breathless. The cape, overly long for his little frame and loose-fitting around the neck, had slipped sideways and then wrapped across his throat as he had fallen. When the dog had wrenched the fabric with a terrible, seemingly unearthly might, it had tightened like a noose.
She crouched down. She shifted weight to her hind legs, meaning to take one step and pounce. One step and kill. For a fraction of a second, all muscles were stilled, squeezed together like the metal coils beneath our parents’ mattress, the one my little brother and I would jump on at every illicit opportunity. Teeth gleaming, saliva dripping. Then the full force of her desperate, starving strength was let loose.
There was little traction on the hardwood; the dog hadn’t counted on that. For a moment, it seemed to run in place. I remember wildly thinking of a Roadrunner cartoon. The coyote. I was thinking, of all things, of poor Wile E. Coyote and big boxes with ACME written on the side, the airless cartoon desert, and the hapless, hungry coyote trying to dodge a giant anvil with his frantic footsteps futilely kicking up a cloud of dust as his feet failed to catch, resignedly raising a tiny umbrella when there was a soft thunk, and then the walnut handle of Mom’s six-inch utility knife was sticking out from the left side of the Doberman’s throat.
Astoundingly, she still lurched forward, eyes full of fear and hunger and hatred. Before her paw touched the floor, Mom was on top of her. The two of them crashed back into the table, barely moving the heavy oak. Mom had the knife’s handle in her clenched fist and then with a guttural shriek she thrust it forward from the wound, opening up the dog’s throat, spraying me and the floor and the cabinet. And it was over.
By the way, I wasn’t kidding when I said we’d be sleeping outdoors if we messed with that cabinet. I’d done it just once, wanting to use the intricately carved horses and castles with my army men. Dad had found an onyx rook blocking up the vacuum, and out the door I had went, for three days, in a canvas tent.
I remember, from my backyard exile, hearing the distinctive whine of my mother’s old Buick ascend our inclined driveway. She’d gone to stay with her sister, as she sometimes did after a particularly eventful evening with my father. With his previous sentencing for my crimes of Zero Fucking Respect for This House or Me and Taking This Roof Over Your Head for Granted for the Last Time Goddamn It—exacerbated during my brief trial by contempt-related charges of You’re Not Even Listening You Little Shit and Stop Crying I Haven’t Even Done Anything—overruled by my mother, I had been allowed back in the house. I had tried to watch TV, but could hear my parents shouting, stomping around their bedroom, things breaking and ripping. I had gone back to the quiet of the tent.
Out there, among the smells of mildew, mothballs, and DEET had hung the scent of campfire smoke embedded deep in the tent’s fabric. Not until I had gone back out on my own had that smell beckoned forth from my memory an image of Mom on all fours, like an animal, alone in the living room. And ever since, whenever I first happen to find myself in the confines of a tent—seldom as that occurs—this is still the image that greets me. Funny how things like that work.
First, Mom had stumbled backward out of the bedroom, holding her left wrist and wincing grimly. This had been a year or so earlier, after a day of so much fighting that my father’s commanding baritone had grown hoarse and suffered pubertal, intermittent crackings into higher registers, fueling his fury even further. A white towel had come flying over the handrail as she plodded down the stairs, hitting her in the back of the head, and she’d smoothly grabbed it without turning or looking back. Then, she had entered the living room, where I could see that the towel was actually a white dress.
The veil, pinned in place, had fluttered in the fireplace as the flue had been opened and the match had been struck, afterward Mom driving off with tires screeching. She had seemed so calm, her movements so swift, despite being down on her hands and knees. She had paused, poised like a predator, to watch the flame catch—staring studiously, soundless and, for once, completely still—until her eyes were aglow with the fire’s reflection. And then up and out the door. Everywhere in the house, the nauseating stench of burning silk. A strange smirk persisting on her face the whole time, and now I can’t remember if she had even noticed me watching. She was gone for a few days after that happened.
So we drove to the ER, leaving the carcass under the dining room table and the blood to dry on Dad’s cabinet. Mom remembered to turn off the stove, placing the unassembled pot pies in the refrigerator. She seemed stoic, almost serene, but when the massive black pickup in front of us abruptly stopped, she practically howled, “Asshole!” as she slammed on the brakes. Her arm instinctively flew across my chest, pinning me back against the seat, the sudden force knocking the wind right out of me.
Bug had a bruised trachea and a small welt on his chin, nothing too severe. Certainly not what the intake nurse had expected, not when she witnessed my mother stride urgently through the door in thoroughly blood-soaked clothes. By the time we were back in the car to go home, he was contentedly sucking on a Dum Dum.
Chris had gotten the name Bug from our father, based on Chris’s love of Looney Toons and a toddler’s inability to properly say “Bugs.” He’d grab a carrot and do his “What’s up, doc?” whenever Mom or Dad brought home a bag from the grocery store, and they would crack up every time. The funniest part, I thought, was that Chris hated carrots. As soon as his little performance was over, he’d spit the half-chewed orange glob into his hand and spew some short utterance of disdain, like “Yuck!” or “Gross!” or “Barf!”
I looked over at him enjoying his candy.
We all sat silently as Mom drove us toward the approaching dusk. She had turned the radio’s volume all the way to low, and I remember her reaching out for my hand as we’d exited the parking garage. She still held it now, miles away.
Macaroni and cheese. The unannounced memory settled slowly in the quiet. She had brought me out a bowl of macaroni and cheese on a tray with a glass of milk and a brownie. We had spent the night out there together, surrounded by that musty, smoky canvas smell. She’d fallen asleep before me, breathing hard. I had felt her trying to jolt herself to attention a few times, waiting in vain to outlast me. Her hard, sharp sleeping breaths.
An oncoming U-Haul flashed its headlights, and Mom remembered to switch ours on. My palm was getting sweaty and itchy. I was just about to complain or try to wriggle out of her grasp when Chris’s raspy little squeak of a voice came from the back seat.
“Is Daddy gonna be mad about the shelf?”
I looked at Mom. A small stream glistened on her cheek.
“We’ll clean it up,” I said, not quite crossly. “He won’t even know.” My face felt hot, and I didn’t know why, but I felt like I might cry too.
Mom sort of laughed.
Not really a laugh, but that’s the closest way I can think to describe it. She pushed her thick, black hair behind her ears and wiped her eyes. My newly freed hand retreated to my lap. For that or some other reason, I felt a twinge radiate inside of me, so I distracted myself by turning and making a slow show of trying to snatch Bug’s sucker, letting him win.
She was smiling, or almost, looking out at the road. Little rust colored specks danced in the draft of the heat vent, landing on the seat, on her shoulder. The Mom that would refrain from washing the blood out of her hair for six more hours.
“No,” she said. “He won’t be mad. He’ll be fine.”
I can remember chewing my lower lip and feeling the weight of the breath I held as it burned in my chest, but not why I did these things. She flipped on the blinker and turned into a gas station. Bug was clenching his candy with one hand and giving me the finger with the other, which I was sure Mom would have been pissed about if she’d seen.
“He’ll be fine,” she repeated softly.
When she came back from inside the store, she had hot dogs, bags of Chex Mix, and sodas for us. Twizzlers for dessert. She didn’t say much, and when we pulled out of the parking lot, I noticed that we were going the same way we had just come. I was going to say something, but I figured she knew a lot more than I did about how to get home.
Jake Greenblot writes poetry and fiction, and graduated from the University of Kansas with a BA in creative writing. He is a member of the Gila River Indian Community currently living in Kansas City, Missouri.