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The dust of 100 dogs, p.6
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       The Dust of 100 Dogs, p.6

           A. S. King
 
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  “I believe so. Have you seen one before?”

  “In museums and stuff,” I lied. “It’s cool.” I babbled for about ten minutes about my humanities class and our recent visit to Philadelphia to see the museums.

  “Saffron?”

  “Yes?”

  “Why did you come here today?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Well,” he smiled, “you don’t seem to want to be here.”

  “I don’t.”

  “Because your mother sent you?”

  “Well, do you think it’s right that she just sent me here, without asking me first?”

  “She’s just trying to help,” he explained. “She wants to make sure you utilize your potential.”

  “Do you know why?”

  “What?”

  “Did she tell you why she wants me to utilize my potential?”

  He pushed his glasses up. “You know, you’re not the first clever teenager I’ve met who’s scared to go to college.”

  “Really?” I asked sarcastically.

  “I think you’re smart enough to know that if you just talk to me about what’s on your mind, you’ll be wasting less of your time, my time, and your parents’ money.”

  “What’s on my mind?”

  “Yes.”

  “I couldn’t tell you what’s on my mind. You’d think I was nuts.”

  “You could try me,” he said softly, raising his eyebrows.

  “And what? You’d call my mother before the bus drops me at the corner and tell her all about it, right?”

  He laughed. “I won’t tell anyone. That’s the rule.”

  “Sure. Rules. I still don’t feel like telling you.”

  “Well what’s the big secret? I mean, what is there to do instead of college that could be so awful?”

  “I didn’t say it was awful.”

  “Why are you hiding it, then?”

  “You wouldn’t believe me.”

  He sighed. “You could really try me, you know. I’m not on anybody’s side.”

  “I can’t tell you. I just can’t. So, if that’s the only thing we’re going to talk about, then there’s no point in us being here. I can’t tell you, so ask something else.”

  He nodded his head and rocked in his chair, thinking.

  “I am sorry,” I said, feeling bad.

  “No, it’s okay. Why don’t you tell me about your mother? You mentioned her earlier.”

  “I’m mad at her today, so I don’t want to talk about her either.”

  “Are you mad at her for arranging this meeting?”

  “That, and other things.”

  “Oh. But you don’t want to talk about them.”

  “No.”

  “What else is going on in your life? Your mother mentioned something about your brother.”

  “Junior’s on drugs.”

  “And what do you think about that?”

  “I think what I always thought about Junior. He’s a spoiled lazy brat and he’ll end up a loser.”

  “Have you ever tried any?”

  “Drugs?”

  “Yeah.”

  “No,” I lied. I had tried pot a few times with a stoner girl from my history class, and Susan.

  “Why do you think your brother tried drugs?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “How did your parents react when they found out?”

  “Normal stuff. They flushed his stash. And they sent me here.”

  He raised his eyebrows.

  “They sent me here, and Junior is probably out smoking joints with his buddies right now.”

  “You think Junior should have come to see me?”

  “If you had a choice, and two of your kids bugged you on the same day—one who’s on drugs, the other who says she doesn’t want to go to college; one who’s been a discipline problem his whole life, the other who stays quiet, does her homework, and never acts out; one who gets awful grades and detention, the other who gets good grades—which one would you send to a shrink?”

  “I would probably send the quiet one with good grades who says she doesn’t want to go to college,” he responded.

  “Why?”

  “Because maybe there’s no saving the other one.”

  “Saving me? Saving me from what?”

  “From bad decisions at a crucial time of your life. You do realize that you have opportunities other kids only dream of, don’t you?”

  “You don’t know the half of it,” I said, imagining an emerald nearly as big as Doctor Lambert’s belly.

  “Saffron, our time is up soon. Is this time good for you next week?”

  “Do I have to?”

  “It would be a good idea if we met a few times, at least. Maybe for the next month?”

  “A month? Is that what she wants?”

  “No. It’s what I recommend. Once a week for four weeks.”

  “What do you think you’ll find out in a month?”

  “I guess whatever you’re willing to tell me.” He smiled.

  I left the office and walked to the corner to catch the late bus home. As I stared at the busy people in their passing cars, I realized his questions had churned up everything I didn’t want to look at.

  My mother wanted to save me—from what? From bad decisions, from turning into a loser, from trying drugs—from what? All that was bullshit. My mother wasn’t trying to save me from anything. She was saving herself. She was trying to utilize my potential so she could leech off me for the rest of her life. The shrink didn’t know that yet, but right then I made a vow to tell him what sort of blackmail I’d been living with, ever since I’d been crowned the Adams’ genius at age six.

  I would tell him about my mother’s problems, her needs, her secrets. I would show him the letter on ivory paper in my brother’s writing and tell him of her nights at the kitchen table with her whiskey bottle. If he wanted to find the root of my problem, he would find it in my mother’s greedy lap. As for me? I would no longer be a towrope to her promised land, and I would no longer accompany her on her journeys down memory lane. After years of trying to be my friend, Sadie Adams would finally get from me what all needy mothers dread—a frightfully independent teenage daughter. If she wanted any part of being on my boat from now on, she’d better change her pathetic little song—because I saw myself keelhauling her for the rest of my life if she didn’t.

  DOG FACT #2

  Never Lie in Your Master’s Bed

  Puppies should learn independence from an early age. By giving your dog his own bed (territory), you are assuring that he knows his place. The howling ball of lonely fur when you turn off the lights for the night may be heartbreaking, but ignoring the cries will assure your dog’s emotional maturation.

  I lived for six years on a Wisconsin farm belonging to Francine Wilkes, a widowed homemaker who had borne no children during her forty-year marriage. It was the early 1950s and Fran had more than most of her neighbors did at that time, once Harold’s life insurance payments came through. When she brought me home from a friend’s farm, I was seven weeks old and already knew the secret of howls and whimpers. That night she put me in a box next to the large, black, wood-burning stove in her kitchen and kissed me good night. Before she put her right foot on the bottom stair, I howled. I heard her climb two more steps and I let out a cry-combination-coughing fit to seem pathetic. She stopped. One high-pitched sob later, she was mine. From that night on, I slept in Fran’s lumpy feather bed, in the hollow where Harold had slept for forty years.

  She fed me at the dining room table: freshly simmered ground meat (beef on Monday, Wednesday, Friday; chicken on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday; and on Sunday, a surprise) with cubes of white bread and mi
lk for dessert. I got a warm, relaxing bath on Sundays followed by a two-hour grooming session and the usual evening routine. We would sit for hours by the open door of the stove and listen to radio programs. She loved the murder mysteries. I could feel her body tense up with suspense as I lay sprawled on her more-than-sturdy, corn-fed lap.

  If I heard a noise at night I would wake and listen, but never get up to find out what was going on. Sometimes, if I found a good spot in an afternoon sunray, I wouldn’t even bark at visitors (which, in looking back, I feel guilty for). Fran Wilkes treated me like a child of her own—I owed her at least a warning bark.

  I outlived Francine by one short week. I could have stuck it out longer, but I saw no point. On the day the hearse took her from the house, the neighbors led me from the front porch a mile down the dirt road to their place, the farm I’d been born on. I was closed into a cold shed by myself and given a dish of kitchen scraps. For a minute I sat, expecting the woman of the house to return with at least one blanket, but to my disappointment she seemed to forget I was there. I howled for five nights straight. I scratched grooves into their front door and destroyed the back screen door. I chewed on water hoses and odd shoes, anything important. I cried from the porch as they ate their dinner and jumped on them when they came outside. If Francine were watching me that week, she would have been embarrassed. But like most humans, she would deny her role in my behavior. She wouldn’t see that spoiling me was the worst thing she could have done to me—because not only did it wipe out any chance of me becoming a confident, independent, beneficial member of a family, but it caused me such feelings of loneliness and isolation that I died from going cold turkey without her.

  Your puppy will try anything to get stuff he shouldn’t have. Your job is to restrain from spoiling him. If you allow your dog to sleep in your bed, he will assume that he belongs there, and that’s just plain wrong.

  The next few weeks were awkward, to be sure. It took only one serious temper tantrum—complete with swearing, book throwing, and plenty of high-pitched screaming with my fingers in my ears—to scare the crap out of both of them. My father tiptoed around as if I were a card-carrying pantyliner, and my mother hovered between being especially nice to me or playing vacant. Junior had an incurable dose of senioritis, a disease which made him skip classes and drive around with his friends listening to Led Zeppelin and inhaling nitrous oxide from a whipped cream can. We rarely saw him.

  On the nights I came from Doctor Lambert’s office, my mother wouldn’t talk to me at all. The first night, she claimed a migraine and stayed in bed. After that, she just ignored me on Tuesday nights completely.

  I spent part of my time reveling because I’d made her think twice about exploiting me, and part of my time feeling equally guilty, because I knew that it really wasn’t all her fault. What else could she do with a kid who was born with a secret mission? The doctor only knew part of the story, and my mother knew even less. No one had a clue what was really wrong with me, and no one ever would.

  I went to see Doctor Lambert for the last time in March. Our usual Tuesday meetings had lasted for two months, twice his recommended time, since I wanted to see just how far my parents would take their pursuit of my secret. And looking back, I think I liked talking to him about my problems at home. I hadn’t been able to vent my frustrations in such detail for centuries.

  Before Sadie and Alfred, there were other owners, other masters, and other canine parents, but none of them wanted me to go to college or expected much more than a growl at visitors and proper toilet training. Never had my past owners attempted to control me so much while choosing to remain losers. Sadie and Alfred were an exception. They were pushing me to achieve, and yet not doing a damn thing about their own situation. It seemed ridiculous.

  Doctor Lambert got a glimpse at life with the Adams—their habits, their secrets, their war stories and, most importantly, their effect on me—and that was all. I never told him about my plans to dig up buried treasure or my vivid, violent daydreams. I never told him about the love I carried for a three-hundred-year-old dead man, either. During our last visit, he made me promise to tell my parents about my plans to travel for a year before college. That’s what we decided to call it. We figured “travel for a year before college” sounded sane enough.

  I knew at some point in the week that I would have to sit my parents down at the kitchen table and tell them the great news. It felt horrible to get their hopes up, but I figured their desperate hopes shouldn’t be pinned on a teenage girl in the first place.

  I arrived in the living room at eight. Both of them were staring at a rerun of The Cosby Show. I asked if they had a minute to spare, and pointed to the kitchen. We went in and sat down. My mother put the kettle on the stovetop and my father walked to the fridge and pulled out a beer, never meeting my eyes. (Patricia once told me that he used to monitor when there were tampon wrappers in the bathroom trash can, to know when to look at us or not, on account of his phobia of menstruating women.)

  “Doctor Lambert wanted me to share a few things with you,” I announced.

  My father shifted around and my mother mumbled, “Uh huh?”

  “Well, he seemed to think that you thought I would be dropping out of school. I just want you to know that I’m not.”

  “That’s a relief,” my mother said.

  “I can’t believe you thought I’d drop out!” I said, laughing.

  “We can’t figure you out at all these days, dear. We don’t know what you’ll do next.”

  “But aren’t you being a little unfair? I mean, I haven’t done anything differently! My last report card was the best this year.”

  “We’re not being unfair. You said you didn’t want to go to college. It scared us,” she explained. “Right now, we have so much to deal with, with Junior, that having our shining star fall from the sky was enough to shock the hell out of us, love. That’s all. You’ll understand when you have children.”

  When she said that, I felt the ball of anger in my belly. First, she had me in college and running a local practice. Now, she had me having babies and obligingly understanding her warped view on life. I was only sixteen years old. Why was she making me imagine slicing her eyes out? Why was she forcing me to take my cutlass to the ligaments at the back of her knees?

  “After I graduate next spring, I just want to travel for a year before college,” I lied. “And then I’ll come back and do everything we’ve always planned.”

  The two of them just stared at me with a depressed sort of disbelief on their faces. My mother was shaking her head slightly and my father took a long swig of his beer. I could imagine them yelling at Doctor Lambert the next day. Why hadn’t he cured me? Why hadn’t he changed my mind?

  “Is something wrong? Doctor Lambert said you’d be happy to hear this. You don’t seem it.”

  My mother said, “Well, it is a relief to hear you’ll finish school.”

  “That’s it?”

  “What was the part about traveling and coming back? You’re going to go away? Is that what you’re saying?”

  “That’s part of the plan, yes.”

  “Where are you going?”

  “I can’t really say yet,” I replied. “But if it doesn’t work out, I’ll fly right back here to Hollow Ford for a little while before I go off to college.” I felt bad for lying.

  “You can’t say yet?” my father asked, annoyed, still looking past me at the cupboards. I loaded my musket with used tampons and fired into his throat. I doused a maxi-pad with gasoline, stuck his lips shut, and lit it.

  “Not yet, no.”

  “Not yet? What the hell does that mean?”

  “It’s a year away anyway. Can’t we leave it until then?”

  My mother whined, “Well what will I tell the other parents when they ask me about where you’re going to college?”

 
Tell them I’m looking into going abroad for a year. That will shut them up.”

  “Abroad?” My mother’s face nearly cracked with pain.

  “Well, wherever. You can say Philadelphia—it just doesn’t sound as exciting.”

  “Where would you get the money for that, anyway?” my mother whimpered. “Why are you ruining your life?”

  “I’d get a job and save. Don’t get upset.”

  My mother tried her very best to hold back tears while my father looked at the table and said, “Saffron, give your mother and me a few minutes.”

  I gave them a few minutes, which turned into a few hours. I sat watching whatever boring shows were on the television while they stayed in the kitchen with the door closed. I heard my mother’s bottle come out and my father’s beer cans snap open three more times before I went to bed.

  The next day, my parents’ attitude toward me took a new turn. They cut me off. First my father, who was frightened of blood and estrogen, and then my mother, who was afraid she would never see me again, like the rest of her scattered family. That conversation was the last time we talked about anything, ever.

  Junior moved out in August, finally pushed by a fight he had with my father when he said the Army was for redneck losers, and he only came around when he needed something—usually money. My senior year in high school was, therefore, quiet. I took a part-time job at the local McDonald’s to begin saving for my trip. By Christmas, I had over five hundred in cash saved in a book hidden in my bedroom. By New Year’s, Junior had stolen it on one of his nighttime raids of our house, and I had to open a bank account and start all over again.

  Throughout January 1990, things began to disappear from our house at an alarming rate. First, it was the television and VCR, and then the microwave. After that, it was the two space heaters and my hair dryer, my mother’s small radio cassette player, and my father’s barbecue grill. I soon noticed that certain pieces of furniture were missing as well, and the heat was turned down. On the first of February, the phone company disconnected our phone, and three times after that, I had to meet the gas man at the front door and lie for my father.

 
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