It was hot. It was so fucking hot. I had just learned the word fuck from a movie about an ex-Nazi pretending to be a Holocaust survivor. You’d think if I was mature enough to watch a film about Auschwitz and torture then I would already have heard fuck somewhere before.
I had not.
I’d read it a thousand times, I’m sure, and traced it a hundred in the various rotting picnic tables at Berry Hill Park or etched in plastic tables outside Dixie Queen, but I never realized what it was. I didn’t know the power of the word, what it could do. Ever since the movie I’d been constantly trying it out in my head, using it to describe everything under the sun.
The sun was really fucking hot. I didn’t know exactly how hot it was, but in my head really fucking hot did a lot more to describe the sun than any number would.
My sister was playing piano inside the house. I could hear it because our front door was open. I think my mom hoped it would be cooler inside if the doors and windows were open to let in the breeze. We did have air conditioning, but my mom refused to turn it on before mid-June, because the bill would be too high.
This would be fine in most places, but not Arkansas. Arkansas in May without air conditioning was just as hot as where the guy with a bible and megaphone outside Kroger would shout all us sinners were headed.
My sister had turned the show tune she was playing into loud chords that didn’t seem to connect to each other.
I don’t remember what the song was, then again it was tough to tell. She played everything in half-time for practice, so the songs were pretty hard to pinpoint unless you knew them really well. Every time you got close to guessing, she would miss a note and start over, making the whole process an exercise in futility. By the wizened age of twelve, I’d learned to just let the chords make their own clunky melody.
My mom was hanging laundry, snapping each piece of clothing to make sure they didn’t dry with wrinkles. We were too far away from any neighbors to worry about them seeing our underwear flapping in the breeze. Our dogs would snap at them from time to time when they were bored.
My skin was so damp with sweat I felt like I could peel it off like the labels on bottled water. As usual, I was hiding behind a tree. It was the best way to avoid chores. I was writing in my large notebook, filled with tiny scribbles and girlish daydreams that would find their way into some drawer where I would never miss or remember them. Our dogs, Ugly, Ellie and Lucky, were following me, panting for my attention.
Even though we only fed three dogs, there were almost always five or six running around our 20-acre property. They were strays that decided that our property was as good as any and played with our dogs. People always dropped dogs around where we lived, just north of our small town in White County, because they could get away with it.
It was so dry.
Both in the fact we hadn’t had rain for months and that it was illegal to sell alcohol in the county. Although the selling thing didn’t seem to stop anyone from drinking. It sure as hell didn’t stop my father. Then again, what else do people have to do in a town where Wal-Mart is one of the top five places to go on the weekend.
Most nights Dad would have a Bud Light and sit in the Big Blue Chair, whose description had become its name. It was where he always sat and seemed permanently warm from his presence as if he had just gotten up and his body heat still remained. I would sit in it, dwarfed by the impression Dad’s body made in the chair. I scavenged like a bottom feeder—poking my skinny arms down under the seat cushion of the chair, fingers wriggling into every niche and crevice, grasping hands searching for treasure. Usually I came up with stubs of paper or lotto tickets Dad had bought without telling Mom, who thought they were a pointless waste of money, so I never told her.
Sometimes though, sometimes I’d find a dime in there.
After work, my dad was always tired, and his arms and knees and feet would ache from tiling floors. I gave him massages, pulling up a stool to the Big Blue Chair. I still remember how the sock used to feel against my hands, the loose knitting, scratchy and smelly. Dad would usually be watching a war movie. Sometimes I got a cuddle with him in the chair for my efforts, sometimes not. I would sit there when he was working late, which was often, and watch cars go by, maybe three times every half hour, waiting for him.
Because it was so rural, people could easily drive by and drop dogs, and we were outside the city limits so the pound wouldn’t pick them up. We often had persistent visitors in the form of strays, because as much as Mom tried to keep us from fraternizing with the enemy, we still petted and played with them. One of my favorites was Claude, the friendly monstrous dog that looked like a Lab and was the size of a pony. The gentle giant bowled us over with affection when he got too excited.
One of the many days when Dad was working late and we couldn’t hold dinner any longer, we found a hideous mutt on our front porch. It was spotted different colors of brown, grey, white, and dark brown. It was short-haired, had long floppy ears, and a face that looked like it had tangled with a barbed wire fence and lost. It was built like a skinny Labrador, mixed with a greyhound, with just a dash of Beagle.
It was ugly.
We had two dogs already, sisters that we’d gotten off an ad on Craigslist, Lucky and Ellie. The stray, for some reason, decided this was her home and always seemed to end up back on our front porch. My mom hated that dog. She hated her from the get-go. She tried to run her off that first night. But when my dad came home from work, the stray was laying on the porch, blocking the door, like she was waiting for him. He immediately fell in love with her. Sometime later, on Christmas Day, Mom gave Dad a dog tag with the name Ugly engraved on it.
So, it was christened, by nature and my mother.
I was now in the walking stage of my daydreamy diarizing and trying not to trip on the three dogs around my legs, when I heard the grumble of tires on the gravel road that ran by my house. The moment the dogs heard the noise, their ears pricked up. Ellie, Lucky, and Ugly went running over the hill to chase the car, just as they always did, biting at its tires and barking crazily. Ellie, the least favorite dog, due to a generally unfriendly and disobedient disposition, was limping, because she had stepped on a thorn and her paw was still raw and scabbed over. She lagged behind the other two by several feet.
They disappeared over the hill. I couldn’t see anything, there was a patch of wild bamboo growing right at our property line, and it blocked my view. I heard a shriek that sounded too human to come from an animal, the whine and whistle of brakes, then silence. Or at least that’s how I remember it.
Everything stopped, except my mom who went running. I don’t know how I got out to the road as I have no memory of using my legs, but when I did, there was a man talking to my mom. He was using his car to hold himself up.
He was so sorry. I remember that. He was so, so sorry. Lucky and Ugly were laying on the side of the road next to crushed Natty Light cans littering the ground. Lucky wasn’t moving. Her matted fur covered her eyes and her chest was too messed up with tire marks and blood to even tell if it was going up and down.
But it wasn’t.
She was dead.
It’s so final when death gets written down or typed out or said out loud. But since nobody was saying it, it still seemed so surreal. My mom and the man were very carefully not saying it, not in front of the children, even though I knew all the words. I just didn’t know the way that row of letters can strike in real life, only the practice of typing them on invisible paper on the broken typewriter we stored in the shed.
Well, not until that moment, anyway.
The man drove away. His car was fine, I guess. Not a mark, just a memory. My mom was holding back tears, and me and my sister were so scared we weren’t even crying much. Ellie was there—barking and sniffing and getting in everyone’s legs until my sister kicked her out of the way.
Mom told us to go into the house. She must have dragged Lucky from the road and left her in the yard. Then she called Dad and we got packed into the car and she somehow lifted Ugly in the car by herself. Ugly was on the seat next to us. Her leg stuck out at a weird angle from her body. She wasn’t bleeding, but even then somehow I knew that was worse.
I was too scared to pray. Scared, because I had never seen anything die before, at least not like this. I had seen my dad bone a fish, I’d seen a chicken that’d lost its head to a weasel, but nothing about those animals is human to a child raised on a farm. My great-great aunt had died, but I was younger and I couldn’t really grasp it then, and I was realizing that I couldn’t really grasp it now. And all of it, the full meaning of what was going on was becoming clear and I was afraid of God for the first time.
This was that angry God people talked about, he was killing my dog, that’s what I was telling myself. But what was too confusing for me to admit then, was that I knew no one was killing her. Not God, certainly not the guy who stopped after he hit her and was shaking and crying. No one was killing her, she was just dying. And that was so much scarier.
We sat in the car, parked outside the veterinary clinic on the edge of town, so near the highway that the parking lot would shake a little when an eighteen-wheeler drove by on US-64. Dad left work early to meet us. Mom was talking to him outside the car, quietly where I couldn’t hear her, but I could see she was crying. Ugly was still inside the car with us. She was too tired to whimper anymore. She had been crying all the way to the vet. I didn’t know before that that dogs could cry.
They cry just like us.
My parents argued outside, getting louder. Mom was asking Dad to put Ugly down himself. She kept saying his name, Hank, Hank, Hank. But he wouldn’t look at her.
And my Dad was crying, “Dammit, Anne. I can’t. I can’t do that. I can’t do it. You can’t expect me to do that.”
The tears got caught in his beard, and his face was all red beneath his tan, and there were bags and tired lines around his face I had never seen before. It was the first and only time I ever saw my father cry. We couldn’t afford the price of the vet to put her down. It was over a hundred dollars and we never had enough money to spend like that out of the blue. But Mom must have found the money somewhere.
Mom drove us home and when Dad got back an hour later with his truck, he took a shovel and a six pack of beer and disappeared for a couple of hours while we ate dinner. She turned on the air conditioning that night.
A few weeks later, after the heat spell had finally broken, Dad had moved out to live in the trailer park with that White-trash-skank-whore. Or maybe it was a month or months later, or a year. I still don’t know how the dogs dying and my dad leaving were connected, but I know somehow, they were.
They always were.
It was that, or it was my fault, or his fault. Or, nothing at all is connected, which remains the most terrifying thought I’ve thought in my life. So, I decided they were connected when I was twelve, and since then have never muddied that truth with any timeline reconstructions.
I remember heading out to our rope swing and seeing a hole underneath, that hadn’t been there before, with a sheet of plywood laid over it. Eventually it was covered with earth and gradually Bermuda grass grew there in patches, the only grass that survives in Arkansas, due to pure mean-spiritedness I’m pretty sure. But every time I put my feet to the ground to stop myself on the swing, I could hear the thunking noise of my feet against the wood. The dull noise of body collisions and bad piano playing and wall punches and migraines and broken bones.
And each time I hear it, I think of my fucking father crying, as hard as I try not to think of him at all.
Lindsay Adams is an award-winning playwright and essayist. Recently, her work has been performed at The Kennedy Center and published in The Door is a Jar Magazine. She is a proud member of Terra Femina Collective and the Dramatists Guild. MFA: Catholic University of America. PhD: (in-progress) Saint Louis University.