Earl was always chasing pussy when he was alive, so it was no big surprise when he came back as a weiner dog. One night he showed up, scratching on my door with a trembling paw, probably on account of all he did wrong back when he was my husband.
“Get!” I said, banging the screen door, but still he nosed his snout in. Real cautiously. “Get lost, why don’t you?” I said, blocking his way with my bare foot. And then he looked at me with his sad brown eyes, his ratty tail slapping the porch a hundred rotations a minute. That weiner dog stared into my soul. That’s how I knew it was Earl, come back to me.
As a man, Earl never brought me flowers. He never took me dancing. He didn’t need to. It was those brown eyes of his, so sad they could melt you. I wasn’t the only bitch who flipped when that dog came calling. When Earl Cooper was sweet on me, he didn’t need to say a word. Those eyes pierced my heart back then and now they got me again, grinning up at me from that chinless doggy face.
Earl sniffed, then moved forward to lick my big toe. But then Linda trotted out onto the porch, growling deep in her throat. Linda, our daughter, came back to me as a standard poodle, a black one. No surprise there. She was smart, but a lot of people thought she was dumb. For most girls, this is a winning strategy, but Linda was unlucky. Still, in the end, she was smart enough to make her way home to Mama, and that’s what counts. Earl wagged at Linda, sniffing politely at her rear end. Linda’s black lip curled, showing the pink. She lunged. I grabbed her by the collar. I figured Earl had been punished enough.
“Get your sorry ass in the house, you sad sack of shit,” I said to Earl, but my tone was friendly. I held the door open, bumping Linda so she’d give her dad some space. “I’ll fry you some eggs.” Earl’s ears lifted when I said “eggs,” which was another clue. Earl was always after me to fry him some eggs. He thought it was a wifely thing to do.
“Fry your own fucking eggs,” I’d told him a hundred times when he was my husband. But Earl the weiner dog couldn’t fry anything, and I didn’t mind any more. Those soft brown ears perking up over the possibility of eggs were more than enough thanks for me. Anyways, I’d probably been too hard on the man when he was alive.
That night I slept better than I had in a long time, Linda on one side of me and Earl on the other. The next morning he was up before I was, with that eager look on his face that said, “Eggs, please?” I made some for Linda too, but she just sniffed. She prefers chicken, poached. White meat only.
It was like a second honeymoon for me and Earl. Him not being able to speak really worked in our favor. “I’m sorry about your heart,” I told him as we cuddled together on the couch. “We’ll keep you healthy this time,” I promised. “You get poached eggs starting tomorrow.”
I know Linda in her human form would have escaped if she could have. She was sharp, that one, but just too loving. The one thing Linda wasn’t smart about? Men. When she was five, she and Dave Newman used to pretend marry at recess, but one day the rest of the kindergarteners got wind of the ceremony, and teased Dave so bad his Mom had to come pick him up because he couldn’t stop crying. It was all downhill from there. From thirteen on, she dated a series of losers, but the worst was the one she married. To be fair, her husband Helmut—who will burn in hell forever for what he did to my baby—was a charmer. He even hooked me with his charm. I got after Earl to loan him money for a down payment for their fishing business. I may as well have used that cash as toilet paper.
To Earl’s credit, he never liked Helmut much. Thought he wasn’t good enough for Linda. “Well, fine, Earl,” I told him now, scratching behind his ear while we watched TV, “you can say you told me so.” Earl just put a paw on my thigh. It was nice to have him home.
With Earl back in my life, things settled into a good routine. He and Linda fought just like they always did. She got on him about his bad manners and his eating too much, and he got on her about her bad decisions. I just turned the TV louder. If they got too up in each other’s business I whacked the air in their general direction with a rolled-up newspaper. Should have done that to Earl years ago, when we first got married. He rode me every night, no matter how tired I was. That dog would never leave me alone.
“Ding dong!” said Elvira Sun, cracking open the door. I wish she wouldn’t say ‘ding dong.’ I wish she’d just ring the damn bell. But rain or shine, Elvira came over every Saturday. We’ve been friends since forever, when my Linda and her Minnie were besties. She sent Mr. Sun to take care of any household problems, though what she didn’t know is that when Mr. Sun came over, I fried him a steak, we played cards, and he called a serviceman to do what needed to be done. He paid. It worked for all of us.
“Come on in, Elvira,” I shouted from the living room. Earl was shagging my leg while I watched TV. I was neutral about the whole thing, just like when he was my husband. I knew we had another minute while Elvira took off her solar gear, blew her nose, folded up her hanky, put on violet hand lotion, and hung up her purse and coat.
“Hurry up!” I said to Earl. “Shake a leg.” But I miscalculated, because when I looked up Elvira was standing there, flashing alarm like a police siren.
“What the heck are you doing, Roxanne?” Her eyebrows were up so high I thought they were gonna take off and fly around the room.
“Oh, this dumb dog,” I said, shoving Earl behind the couch. “Coffee?”
Elvira drew a deep breath and then another one. The eyebrows eased down. I could practically hear her reminding herself of all the blessings she had that I lost. “When did you get another dog?”
“He just showed up.” I wasn’t going to use his name, because I knew Elvira would have a reaction to me calling him Earl.
“I brought you Krispy Kremes,” she said, sitting down next to me.
“Why, so I can get even fatter?” But Elvira knew I don’t mean it.
“Minnie’s coming home. She wants to see you. You come to our house for dinner.”
My heart skipped a beat. She knew I didn’t have to check my calendar. I loved Minnie almost as much as I loved Linda. “I’ll bring my sweet potatoes,” I told her.
“Mr. Sun will like that.” The two of them referred to each other as Mr. and Mrs. Sun. It was adorable. I sometimes saw them out walking together. Elvira wore an old-fashioned sunbonnet with strings. They took turns carrying a radio that played Cantonese opera. They matched steps. She pinwheeled her arms while Mr. Sun slapped his torso. Sometimes I wanted to drive on by without even waving. They didn’t do everything together, but they knew everything about each other, right down to the bowel movements. At Scripture Study, I used to watch them sharing the one book, leaning close together so they could whisper-correct each other’s pronunciation. Neither of them got it quite right.
It had not escaped Elvira’s notice that she had it all and I had nothing. Once it was the reverse: she and Mr. Sun came here with practically nothing and I was living the good life. It’s a good thing we don’t know how far we’re gonna fall before it happens or we’d never get out of bed. My bodacious butt once made married men look over their shoulders when I walked by. Now I sat on the couch next to Elvira, shifting my great white bowl of stomach dough.
“You still in pajamas at three in the afternoon?”
“Did you come here for any particular reason, Elvira?”
She crossed her arms and wagged a finger at me. “Your peach tree’s got too much fruit this year. If you get dressed we can pick them. I make you peach pie. ”
“Oh, let the birds have them. Earl, cut it out!” Earl had snuck back from behind the couch and was shagging my other leg.
“Earl? Why you call him Earl? Roxanne. Honey. You are going off the tracks.”
Elvira’s English was good, with only a trace of an accent, but she got a few expressions off the tracks herself. Earl and I used to help the Suns out with phone calls and such when they first arrived in America and had to depend on Minnie to translate everything. I felt charitable towards them back in the day. And then I just started getting more and more attached to them. Elvira had a puffy face, sparse eyebrows, badly applied eyeliner, cheap clothes, hair she washed only once a week so that I noticed drifts of dandruff on her sweaters. But she was the mother of my daughter’s best friend. She and Mr. Sun came every week after we lost Linda and then every day for a while when Earl died.
“I don’t want to hear it, Elvira. But if you want some peaches, help yourself.”
Linda’s paws tap-tapped as she came across the kitchen linoleum to the sofa. Elvira found it disturbing that I called her Linda. She thought I was memorializing my daughter in some strange way. If she knew the truth, she’d be even more disturbed. I get it. It wasn’t easy for me to wrap my head around it either.
I sent Elvira away with a bag of peaches and a promise to meet her and Mr. Sun for a morning walk tomorrow. It was a promise we both knew I would break. Who’s the ding-dong now, Elvira?
A few nights later I was out driving Linda and Earl to the supermarket for more chicken and eggs. I turned to tell Linda to knock it off with biting her paws. I hated that munching sound and she knew it. I turned my head maybe for three seconds—just long enough to see this flash of brown before I hit some animal. I pulled over. I got out of my old Ford and followed the howls to the ditch, where I saw the sorriest pit bull dog I’d ever seen. I hate pit bulls. I could tell I broke its leg because the bone was sticking clear out. I held out a hand. “Shh, boy, you’re okay. C’mere and let me help you.” The pit kept screaming without a shred of dignity. I didn’t even worry he might attack. I crawled over and stroked his ugly blockhead. He started licking my arm like crazy, like if he was real good I might not back up and break his other leg. “Oh, you poor thing,” I told him. In the car, Linda and Earl were crowded on my seat, watching.
The pit stopped licking my hand and locked eyes with me. His dewlaps were wet and dark red. His eyes were small and piggish. Something sinister passed between us and he started to shake and whimper. Right then I saw who he really was.
“Helmut?” I said. “Helmut, did you really think you could get away with it?”
He just stood there shaking. “Helmut, I got half a mind to leave you in the ditch to die. That would be justice.” I stood up.
Helmut whimpered and tried to stand up and walk, dragging his broken leg. Linda got her soft heart from me, that’s the truth. Tears filled my eyes. I opened the trunk and lifted Helmut in as gently as I could. No need to be cruel.
“Helmut, you don’t get to ride with Linda. You’re still a murderer, you sick son of a bitch.” He cried when I set him down, with that awful-looking leg, but when I closed the trunk it cut off any sounds he was making.
I drove to the 24 Hour Animal Hospital, which was luckily only a couple of minutes away. “Wait here,” I told Earl and Linda, and then opened the trunk. Helmut was so still I worried he had died. Then I thought, “What’s wrong with you, Roxanne?” It would have served him right. Just then he raised his head and gave me a tentative lick.
I wrapped Helmut in my coat and carried him in. “I hit this animal,” I told the rabbity girl with white hair at the front desk. Her name tag said Candy. She’d been watching us from the window.
“Ma’am, did you bring that dog here in the trunk of your car?”
“He can’t be in with the others,” I said. “He killed one of ‘em once, and I’m not gonna let him do it again. I have to leave him with you. He just ran out in front of my car. No collar. He’s not mine.”
“If you bring him in, he’s your responsibility,” said Candy. “And if you hit him, you should do the right thing.” Judgy little twat.
“Goodbye,” I said, setting Helmut down on her desk. He whimpered. I wouldn’t be able to get my coat off from around him and still make a quick exit, but in the circumstances I was willing to let the coat go. It was stained anyways. “Helmut, I hope you get what you deserve.”
“Hell Mutt? You calling this poor dog Hell Mutt? Ma’am, you know if you walk out that door we’re going to have to put him down right away.” Candy had both her hands on Helmut, like she was protecting him from me. If only she knew. “Nobody wants pits,” she continued, “let alone old pits who can’t walk. Just so you know he’s not going to make it.”
I stood at the door. Why my feet didn’t just carry me away only God knows.
Candy held out a treat but Helmut sniffed it and turned away. It was that turning away, that complete indifference to life, that got me.
“How much will it cost to save him?”
“Dr. Ellerston will work something out,” said Candy, her pale face lighting up. “You’re doing the right thing.”
I was about to put a huge dent in my bank account to pay for surgery for the man who killed my baby girl, come back as this butt-ugly excuse for a dog. Clearly there was something wrong with me.
As a dog returns to his vomit, so does a woman return to her folly, says one of the Proverbs. So I guess my folly returned to me. I didn’t ask any of them to come home, but they did. Helmut came back because of a guilty conscience. He didn’t have to face us, so I kind of respected him for that.
Two days later, I drove Helmut home from Dr. Ellerston’s. He limped in the house, meek as anything, that stupid plastic lampshade around his neck. He knew he was the lowest of the low. “I’ll never leave you alone with him,” I told Linda, holding her chin in my hand so I could look into her eyes. She lifted a paw to my knee. “I promise, Linda.”
Linda avoided Helmut as much as possible. She stayed at my heels. We often went out driving, just the two of us, for mother-daughter time. Earl, who only came up to Helmut’s belly, always ate before him, and liked to throw his weight around. When Helmut looked at me for help I told him, “You should’ve thought of that before you murdered Linda. You’re a monster, is what you are.”
I was in denial when Linda married him. I’d pushed her to try to work it out with him—even though he’d broken her arm—because she was pregnant, because her baby would need a daddy. Now here I was making her live with her killer.
“Ding dong!” Elvira said, walking in. Helmut barked and limped to the door, bumping the wall with his plastic cone.
“You crazy lady—bringing a killer dog home?” Elvira backed away, keeping the door between herself and the pit.
I grabbed Helmut by the collar and locked him in the guest room. Elvira settled down with coffee and donuts, but I could tell it cost her.
“How long since you had, you know, some sex with a nice man?” Elvira asked.
“What?” Coffee sloshed on my cake donut.
“How long since you had a boyfriend, Roxanne? Mr. Sun and I, we think you should try Match-dot-com. Minnie says so too. It’s not good that you are all alone here.”
“I’m not alone. I have my family. Right, Linda?” Linda thumped appreciatively.
“Linda’s a dog. Earl’s a dog. Mr. Sun and I so worry about you. You won’t do Aquacize with us. You won’t golf. You just stay with your dogs, sitting in the dark.”
“Linda’s my daughter. Earl’s my husband.”
“Are you off your meds, Roxanne?”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Are you or not?”
Before I could answer her, Helmut started scratching to get out. “Helmut!” I shouted. “Simmer down!”
Elvira stared at me. “You are my best friend, Roxanne. Now you are jumping off the deep end. You need to get help.”
She stood, took one last enormous bite of her jelly donut, and left, huffing powdered sugar. “Helmut?” she said at the front door. “Seriously. You play with fire, Roxanne.”
Elvira still gave me a hug on the way out. I sat there at the table, thinking things over. I knew these dogs were not actually human members of my family. They were dogs. But sure as I was breathing, I know these human members of my family were trapped inside these dogs. Why was that so hard for Elvira to accept? It’s called reincarnation, and it is an ancient, respectable religion.
That night, I dreamed Linda was talking to me in her human form. “Don’t worry, Mom,” she said. “Dying was hard, but it’s okay being dead. I lie under the earth and watch the roots grow. Plants and mushrooms, worms and bugs. It’s quiet down here. You’d like it.” I jerked myself awake. Linda was sitting next to me, watching me with some concern. Earl, being Earl, snored on my pillow. I got out of bed and padded to the kitchen to make coffee. Linda followed at my heels. The sun hadn’t risen but the sky was getting lighter.
The box of coffee filters was empty so I reached into the back of the cupboard and rustled around for more. Something small and hard clattered to the floor. It was a tooth.
Earl wouldn’t let me see Linda’s body. He was the one who’d found her in our house, battered by that bastard Helmut. Linda was still alive for a few minutes, but she died before the ambulance came. Earl said she couldn’t talk. He held her left hand. It was the only part of her that was not broken.
The casket was closed. He wouldn’t let me look. He stayed with me every minute because he knew I’d want to try. Earl gave me the luxury of hating him for that, rather than the horror of what he’d had to see. And I did, I hated him for thinking me weak and for deciding what I could bear. I hated him until the day he died.
But then I was grateful to have been spared.
There was so much blood we had to call one of those cleaning services that comes after homicides. And even when he called them I was not connecting the dots, that we were those kind of people, that our daughter’s husband was a murderer, that we were staying in a motel so we wouldn’t have to smell her blood rotting the carpet.
In the end, Earl decided that we needed a new carpet. If Earl could have gotten a new heart at the same time we got the carpet he might still be alive. His heart was bad before, we all knew that, but there wasn’t much fight in him after. Still, I’m glad I had him for another eleven months. I don’t think I could have survived if he’d left me any sooner.
That tooth. Linda’s incisor, almost transparent at the bottom, chipped on one side, blood still staining the root. I squeezed it tight in my hand. Had I not held each of her baby pearls over the years? And was I not now a woman—widowed, orphaned of my child—holding her adult tooth that should still be in her living smiling mouth?
I put the tooth in my pocket and took a deep breath. I was going to beat that motherfucking dog to death for killing Linda.
I went to the garage and got a snow shovel. The shovel was plastic but it was all we had. The one Helmut used was taken for evidence. I had to stop and retch on the way back to the house.
I figured I better tie Helmut up so he couldn’t bite me. When I took his leash, he came running, his nails scrabbling excitedly on the floor, thinking I was taking him for a walk. “Hold still,” I told him, but he just couldn’t, his whole backside was wagging uncontrollably. “Jesus Christ, Helmut,” I said, trying to lasso the leash onto his collar, while his ugly mouth grinned like a mound of roast beef loose in a bun. I tied him to the kitchen table. The first time I smacked him hard with the shovel, Helmut took it like a man, looking at me in surprise but not fear. “That’s for Linda!” I shouted.
Linda and Earl ran out of the kitchen, whimpering, but ran right back in like they couldn’t help themselves. On the second strike, I brought the shovel down even harder. Helmut howled. Squatting like a bitch, he urinated all over the floor.
“You’re a devil! You killed my baby!”
The third time I brought the shovel down, Helmut screamed. Still screaming, he rolled over on his belly, right into his own urine. He was shrieking like a banshee. I was crying so hard I could hardly see. Earl’s warning bark rang in my ears as he ran around me and Helmut. Linda grabbed my bathrobe in her mouth and tugged me away from that son of a bitch. I turned on her, enraged.
“Fine, you don’t want me to do it?” I threw the shovel down. “You do it.” I held Helmut down on the ground, belly and throat exposed. “He’s all yours, honey. Rip his throat out if you want. Kill him or forgive him—it’s up to you.”
Linda didn’t do either one. She just sniffed him and then turned away disdainfully. Something in me buckled, and I dropped to the floor on my hands and knees. A few feet away, Helmut writhed, making these terrible strangled sounds. Inch by inch that prick scooted himself close to me, dragging the kitchen table with him, still whining softly. Then he licked my hand. My stupid, useless heart was about to explode. I wanted it to. I was ready to go. I lay there, eyes squeezed tight so I wouldn’t have to look at Helmut, and hoped to die.
Then Earl came up and nudged me with his nose. I ignored him. He nudged me again, kept nudging until I was forced to look at him. He rolled on his back, his ridiculous weiner dog ears flared out like bat wings, his tail thumping. When I still didn’t move, he got up and flopped onto my stomach and did the whole thing again. Earl was a demanding dog. With both hands on his long body I gradually hushed.
From the kitchen floor, I watched Linda tap to the living room and jump up on the couch. I heard her sigh, regarding us from a distance with an emotion I couldn’t gauge. Outside, the stars switched off. The frogs stopped their racket. All was still.
After a long time, I pushed Earl off, stood up and walked over to the couch, leaving Helmut whimpering in the kitchen. I scooped Linda into my arms and carried her to bed. Earl trotted after. I tucked Linda in and slid in beside her. I felt her little heart beating as she faced me on the pillow, licking the tears off my cheek. “I don’t know how to make it right, Linda.” She pressed her nose against mine, locking eyes with me. I touched the whorl of hair on her chest, which looked like the cowlick Linda had as a little girl, when I used to clip her soft wispy hair in pink barrettes. Linda would never have that experience. Whoever was in her body died when she died. I held Linda’s black paw in my hand, kissing it, until her eyes closed and she slept.
In the kitchen, Helmut was still crying softly, whining under his breath. I’d left him there on purpose, tied up and in pain. I hardened my soft heart. I wanted to give him all the time in the world to think over what he did and could never undo.
I must have slept, too. The sun was high in the sky by the time I went back to the kitchen. Linda yawned and followed me. Earl joined us. Helmut lay curled up under the table, as small as possible. He flinched when I bent and pulled him out. “It’s over,” I said, dropping his leash on the floor. I scratched behind the ears of that pig-eyed dog as he lifted his sloppy head and placed it on my knee.
I stood up and opened the fridge, took out the eggs and the chicken. Helmut hoisted himself up and followed at my heels. “It’s okay now,” I told him. “We’ll start fresh. You’re a new man now—you’re Dave Newman, the only boy who was ever sweet to Linda.”
Earl looked up, attending to the number of eggs I cracked in the pan. Linda, with the quiet dignity of poodles, crossed her forelegs. But Helmut, I mean Dave Newman, rolled at my feet, ecstatic with relief. “All right, you big idiot,” I told him, knuckling his chest. “Get out of the way so I can make your breakfast.”
I cooked up the eggs and dished them out, the dogs watching every move I made. But before I served them, while the eggs cooled in their three bowls, I took Dave Newman’s blockhead in my hands. He let me bear his weight while he gazed up at me, which was its own sad miracle.