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The dust of 100 dogs, p.2
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       The Dust of 100 Dogs, p.2

           A. S. King
 
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  For the next five years, all I would hear would be questions about it. Where would I go? What would I study? Could I earn a scholarship? But I had more important things to take care of. I had three hundred years’ worth of buried bones to dig up, a curse to break, and paradise to build with a man who would never come back from the dead.

  But first I had to turn eighteen, graduate, and tell my mother that I wasn’t going to college, and I guess I was crying for the night to come when it would be me that would make her sit at the darkened kitchen table and hopelessly mutter things into her bottle. I guess I was crying for the day Saffron Adams would ultimately switch roles—from girl genius with the hopes of a desperate family riding on her brain, to the biggest disappointment who ever lived within twenty miles of Hollow Ford, Pennsylvania.

  DOG FACT #1

  All Puppies Are Anxious to Please

  Training your new puppy will be straightforward at first. Start with toilet training on newspaper, placing the pup on it when he first wakes and after meals. Remember to praise him when he uses the paper and scold him when he does not. Toilet training should not take too long, as puppies are anxious to please.

  Simple commands, to go to his bed or sit, can be taught with relative success once your puppy knows what you expect from him. Dogs who have consistent, dedicated masters will always fare better than those who don’t. A master who trains his pup for one week, then abandons training will see a significant drop in the dog’s obedience. Confusion like this in the early stages is best avoided.

  Remember that too much of either scolding or praising leads to a dog who is too anxious to please. A dog that needs his master more than he obeys orders is a challenge and often a menace.

  I learned this the hard way at least fifty times. I won’t bore you with the details. But I will say that you’d be surprised by how many people buy dogs for the wrong reasons. They seem to expect magic dogs, dogs that don’t pee or bark, dogs that come trained and understand English.

  Humans treat us like a box of chocolates half full of nibbled sweets. They claim they don’t like the nougat, but they love the ones with the almonds; I love how pretty she is, but I can’t stand the smell; I like the idea of a mutt to fetch the papers, but I’m too lazy to scoop up the minefield of shit in the backyard.

  Dog Fact #1 is the most important fact to remember throughout the training of your puppy. No matter how much they frustrate you some days—peeing in the wrong place, barking at the wrong time, or not paying attention—puppies are always anxious to please, and to hear you say, “good dog.”

  The next time I sat with my mother at the darkened kitchen table was almost three years later, after my brother Pat came home from seeing his Army recruiter. Pat was my favorite brother, I guess. He was good with his hands, helpful, and never macho. His recruiter had assured him that the Armed Forces exam would be easy, so he hadn’t studied for it and, as a result, he’d failed.

  I think the thing that hurt him most was the fact that my mother chose to sprinkle her sorrows with sips of whiskey rather than be a part of the conversation still going on in the living room. My father had always tried his best to deal with my brothers on his own, but he would often lose his head and say stupid things.

  “But son, anybody could pass that test!” he was saying now. “I knew bigger morons in the war than you, boy, and they passed it.”

  “He said I can retake it next week,” Pat argued. “It’s no big deal.”

  “It is a big deal if you end up stuck in the jungle with a bunch of idiots! Don’t wanna be held responsible for another man ending up dead, do you, son?”

  That was the point where my mother left for the kitchen. I don’t think it was in her Irish nature to let her sons be told they weren’t good enough, but it wasn’t in her Irish nature to disagree with my father, either. Besides, he was half stoned all the time on a high dose of Thorazine the doctor at the VA had given him. Arguing would be pointless.

  Darren had done well in his first year of state college, and Patricia was training to be a nurse’s aide at the local hospital. Once Pat left for the Army, if he finally got in, it would be just me and my awful brother Alfred Junior, who we called Junior. I was half hoping Pat wouldn’t leave so I didn’t have to be stuck with the little brat. Junior seemed immune to my father’s strict influence, and he was totally spoiled by my mother.

  We were in high school then. Pat was a senior, Junior was a junior, and I was a sophomore. I was finding high school to be pretty stress-free so far. I figured if I went through the motions, studied, stayed active, and donned black and red on Hollow Ford High School Spirit Day (Go Hawks!) that everyone would believe I was going to go off to college and do what they wanted me to do. My guidance counselor was sure I would earn a scholarship if I continued to work hard. With Pat deciding to enlist and Junior getting bad grades, it was easy to pretend (without having to do much) that I was a normal girl with a glorious and prosperous future. It was only when my mother wanted to drown her sorrows that I was disturbed from my studies. The night Pat failed the Army entrance exam was one such night.

  “Are you hungry, love?” she asked, at my doorway.

  I shook my head. “Just trying to study over the yelling.”

  “Why don’t you take a break and come and have something to eat with your poor ole mother.”

  Down in the kitchen, she made me a sandwich and tea, poured a tiny drop of whiskey into her glass, and closed the door on the argument. We faced each other across the table.

  “Poor Pat,” I started. “I hope he can retake the test next week.”

  “He’ll be fine. You’ll see.” She nodded. “What about you, love? How are you doing these days? We barely see you between school and your studies. Have you any boyfriends we should know about?”

  I’d been so focused on avoiding adolescent bullshit at school that I hadn’t even thought about boys. “Nope,” I answered.

  “Well, don’t worry. Soon you’ll have to beat them off with a stick.”

  When she said that, I looked down at my flat chest and skinny legs and doubted it.

  “Are you sad again?” I asked, sipping from the hot cup.

  “Sad? No! I’m thoughtful. Or thoughtless. Or, well something in between. Just thinking.”

  “About what?”

  “About where you’ll be in ten years. How proud you’ll make us.” She stared past me. “After this with Pat, and Al Junior’s grades, we’ll need you to keep us strong. I don’t think your father can take any more of this sort of thing. Arguing with kids who have everything—just to get them to use it! How frustrating!”

  “Pat will try his best next week, Mom, I’m positive.”

  “Well that’s all well and good, but it’s really Junior I worry about. He’ll drive your father spare. But I shouldn’t be telling you that, dear. I wanted to talk about you.”

  “About me?”

  “I wanted to check in. School’s all right?”

  “Yeah, great.”

  “Do you know what you want to do yet?”

  Not really. Not really. Say not really.

  “Not really.”

  “Well, you must have some idea,” she said, smiling.

  “Nope. Still don’t know.”

  “Remember when your Daddy was sick in the VA hospital and you said you wanted to be a doctor? Or the time we went to Gettysburg and you saw the filmstrip about the medics and nurses in the Civil War?”

  “Yeah.”

  “You wanted to be a doctor then, too. Maybe it’s a sign.” She poured a little from her almost-empty whiskey bottle into the Waterford crystal glass she saved for these nights.

  “I don’t know. I really don’t. I have a couple years to figure it out. Don’t worry.”

  “Well, just so you know we’re counting on you, love. You’ll be th
e first in our family to really do something with your life! With your father so out of it he can barely form a sentence, and your own mother too daft to write a bloody shopping list.”

  I flinched. My mother’s partial illiteracy had been a family secret ever since I could remember. We all helped. If it was a form to fill in at the store for a raffle, we filled it in. If it was a check to write for the gas man, we would write out the amount while on a long errand to “find her checkbook” and give it to her to sign it. She never read us stories or helped with our homework, but busied herself with things around the house. I guess we felt her guilt and never mentioned it. After learning that she’d been more of a slave than a student at the school she was sent to in England, I hadn’t questioned it so much. I figured it was something she would hide until she was dead.

  “You don’t seem as excited about all the opportunities as you should, Saffron. There’s more to life than high school! Your future could save this family!”

  “Well, you always said not to count my chickens, so I haven’t,” I said, and pictured myself knocking her off her chair with the butt of my musket. Knocking her out cold, so she would just shut up.

  “But this is what you should be thinking about! I bet all the other students in your class could tell me what they might want to do in college. I mean, you must have had some thoughts about it by now. Maybe we distract you too much around here. Do you have everything you need?”

  “Sure, Mom. I don’t need any more. I just want to be sure, that’s all. I’ll figure it out.” I was sewing her lips shut with sail thread.

  “I don’t want to seem too upset when I tell you this, love,” she whispered, “but you’ve got to succeed. You just have to. Your father can’t keep up with everything, in his state. I can’t go getting a job after so many years being a housewife and raising you all. I need to know what you’re planning soon, so I can dream of a day I won’t worry like this, you know?” She drank the last of the whiskey in her glass.

  “You’ll be the first one to know,” I answered, looking around the tattered kitchen to feel better about what she’d just said—to feel better about cutting her tongue out and feeding it to the circling sharks. “I think I’ll get back to the books, then,” I mumbled. I put my empty cup in the sink. She stayed seated in the dark, and I kissed her on top of her head on my way out because she looked like she needed it.

  “You’re a good girl,” she said.

  “Good night, Mom.”

  I walked past my brother and father in the living room. They had reached some sort of agreement, which made them able to sit silently watching a baseball game on TV together. When I returned to my room, I closed my books, packed them up for the next day, and sat at my window in the dark, watching cars drive by on the suburban road outside. The view was crammed with houses in rows, each with two cars in the driveway and a porch light on.

  I had already tried several times to find a simple answer to my mother’s question. She would never understand that I was born with enough knowledge to make her rich beyond her wildest dreams. She wouldn’t understand it even if I told her. As far as I could see, there was no way to convince anyone that picking up at eighteen and moving to the Caribbean to search for old buried treasure was anything but insane.

  The thing was, I couldn’t go announcing that I wanted to be a doctor because, with my brains and my grades, there was a very real possibility that I could get a scholarship to some amazing medical school. Plus, it wouldn’t be right to lie that much. I had learned to live a vague, fence-sitting lie whenever anybody approached me seriously about my future. A biology teacher offered me a summer job helping at the funeral home (for practice with cadavers, I guess) and I said no thanks. Susan, my best (and only) friend often daydreamed about college life and parties, and I would go along with her, discussing dorm rooms or dean’s lists. It seemed no one but my mother wanted to hear the details, and she would just have to wait another year to find out what would really happen.

  Pat left for boot camp that summer and Patricia became a certified nurse’s aide. Darren was doing well on his business degree and Junior was doing well driving the rest of us crazy. He would fight over the stupidest things, like watching a certain TV program or getting in the shower first. I thought it was to make up for feeling stupid in school. He wasn’t stupid, though, and that fall I found out what his problem really was.

  It turned out he was into drugs and drinking and all the stuff that spoiled boys get into when they’re in high school. Some nights he would walk into the living room while I was studying and pick up my books and throw them at the wall. If I argued, he would chase me to my room and, when I locked the door, he would beat on it for ages. I’d never really trusted Junior, and this made me trust him less. One particular night right after New Year’s, when he pushed me onto the couch and sat on top of my head, virtually suffocating me, I decided to care whether he became a total loser or not. I squirmed free and pinned him to the floor, my knee on his neck. In my head, I was slicing his optic nerve, squeezing the juice from his eye, like a slimy lemon, into his choking throat. He turned purple and, when I let him go, he left, slamming the back door behind him. And then I told my parents about what was going on.

  I asked them to join me in the kitchen. My mother seemed delighted about something, and I hated to have to kill her good mood.

  “I have some bad news,” I announced. “And I don’t want you to freak out.”

  They stiffened.

  “Is this about your guidance counselor?”

  “What?”

  “She called us this week to talk about your future,” my mother chirped.

  “No. This isn’t about that. We can talk about that later,” I said as sternly as I could.

  “So?” my father asked.

  “It’s Junior.”

  “What about him?” my mother interrupted.

  I was nervous. I could feel that they weren’t going to make this easy. My father sat on the edge of his chair just at the mention of Junior’s name. My mother looked horrified and jumpy.

  “He’s on drugs,” I said.

  My father hit the table with a closed fist and then sat seething, while my mother tried her best to look surprised. After five seconds, he looked over at her. “You knew this, didn’t you, Sadie?”

  “I, uh…”

  “You knew?” he asked again.

  “I—uh—I found some pot in his room a few months ago. Flushed it down the toilet and told him that if I caught him again I’d tell you.”

  “Jesus, Sadie, why didn’t you tell me then?”

  “He’s on more than pot now,” I added. “I think he’s trying everything.”

  “What is it with this kid? Why’d you let him get away with everything for so long?”

  “I gave him one chance, that’s all.”

  “One chance too many.”

  “Everybody deserves a chance,” she said, looking toward the cabinet that held her glorious bottle.

  He sighed and looked back at me. “Let’s not argue while Saffron still has things to say. How’d you find this out?”

  “Everyone knows. Plus, he’s been acting weird. It’s scaring me.”

  “Scaring you, love?”

  “He’s been pounding on my bedroom door so much lately that the hinges are starting to buckle.”

  “Alfred, you talk to him tonight and make sure he stays away from Saffron. She can’t be bothered now that she knows what she wants to do with her future.”

  “I’ll talk to him all right.” My father nodded. Was he beating Junior with his M-16? Was he half drowning him in a marshy paddy field?

  “I didn’t want to get him in trouble. He’s just getting worse.”

  “I’ll take care of it, Saffron. Don’t worry.”

  “Do you want a cuppa before you go upstairs?
my mother asked, already at the whiskey cabinet.

  “Sure.”

  “We wanted to talk to you anyway, while Junior was out,” she said.

  “He’ll be sorry he ever came home,” my father muttered, his hand still tightly fisted. Was he making Junior play Russian roulette, like in The Deer Hunter?

  “About what your guidance counselor said on the phone,” my mother continued. “She said your grades are so good you could get a full scholarship, but you don’t seem interested in applying for them. You know, dear, these things don’t just walk up to you and bite you on the nose. You have to find them and apply. And you haven’t taken one college handbook home with you, she said.” My mother sighed. “She told us to be concerned that you haven’t talked, at all, about any of it. I told her I already was. I mean, what does she think I am, some sort of eejit? I know it when my own daughter is lost.”

  “I’m not lost,” I managed, stabbing her false self-confidence into her ear with a marlinspike. “I’m about as far from lost as you can imagine.”

  “Well?” my mother asked, sitting down with her glass, my tea, and a beer for my father.

  They stared at me silently.

  “I mean, maybe I won’t go to college. Maybe I’d be better use to you in other ways.”

  Silence, then sighing.

  “Maybe you won’t go to college?” my mother asked her empty glass of whiskey, after staring at me wide-eyed for about twenty seconds.

  “Yeah, maybe not. I do, uh, I do have a plan, though. I just can’t tell you about it yet.”

  “A plan?” This was useless. She was as stupid as a ship full of whores.

  My father stared at his beer. “Is this why you told us about Junior?”

  I shook my head no. My mother stood up from her chair and leaned toward me over the table. She was shaking all over; her blue-white skin jiggled just on the surface of her angry muscles.

  “If you think that having a son on drugs is bad, try having a son on drugs and the only hope of your family telling you she doesn’t really like the idea of college, all on the same night!” she sputtered, tapping the Formica with her index finger. “Don’t think that you can just make your own decisions about this! We worked our whole lives waiting for the day you would graduate and maybe—maybe start a family practice here. Or something. ”

 
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