“Hush up now. And get away from that window,” Mama snapped at me in a whisper.
The sky was thick with soundless humidity. Clouds were beginning to gather, dully treading their way across the horizon, pregnant with rain. It was nearly palpable, the rain, I could practically feel the moisture hanging in the air, feel the electricity tingling through my fingertips and the hair standing up on the back of my neck in warning. I slowly backed away from the window.
Mama hadn’t inherited much from her mother, except superstition and her stern jaw. She turned off all the lights and was busy lighting candles all around the room while I sat on the bare bed with Old Faithful. Normally Mama would complain about the hound being on the bed, but she was too occupied to care as she made sure the windows were locked and the curtains drawn. Plus, the dog hadn’t been well in months, so lately she just let him be. Old Faithful whimpered a little in pain. The rain always seemed to agitate him, old wounds swelled and festered. I patted him gently on the head and he looked up at me with his unseeing eyes.
Mama laid the linens she’d stripped from our bed on the floor in the furthest corner of the room, away from the window. That was where we would spend most of the night, huddled up still in the corner, never daring to speak above a whisper lest we attract the attention of the storm and be struck. It was likely we would be, Mama had said, since we lived in a tin can and all. Our cable antenna in fact had been struck a number of times. We lived in an old metal little trailer near the edge of wilderness on a patch of fertile farmland that no longer exists. You can barely see it now from the road since the forest has grown up all around it for years unchecked.
“Come over here,” Mama instructed and patted the quilts around her.
I had always loved nights like these. Most days and nights I spent away from my mother. Since Daddy left, my mother worked a number of odd jobs. During the day she worked at a factory in the next town, sewing buttons on trousers. Nights she worked at a nursing home as one of the attendants. I hardly saw her. She would come home at some wee hour in the morning and sleep for all of four hours before venturing off to work again. Most of my days were spent with my grandparents, who I very much disliked. My grandmother, Mamie, was strange, stubborn and unkind. Her husband, Paw Paw, was often absent, drunk, and belligerent.
So I relished in nights like these. Nights when I could curl up in my mother’s bosom and bury my face in her thick dark hair and feel her warmth and breath as she told me stories about our ancestors. Stories about Indian chiefs and princesses, about heroes and war and triumph and sacrifice. Stories that I was really too young to understand but loved to hear. I liked the idea that our ancestors had been noble Indians and not dirt poor farmers who hardly farmed and lived off of insufficient disability checks the way my grandparents did.
Mama’s face looked much less harsh in the glow of candlelight. Mamie always harped on about how plain she was compared to her sister Ernestine, but I thought she was beautiful. I’d only inherited very little of her looks though, just her pronounced ears and full lips, features that she’d gotten from her father. However most of Mama’s looks came from Mamie, though Mamie was reluctant to admit it.
The storm didn’t last long. I could hear the house stirring to life again; Mamie clanking dishes in the kitchen and Paw Paw’s heavy footsteps as he walked around the house, blowing out each of the candles. Old Faithful was still shivering at my side. I caressed the slick hair of his head and whispered in his ear, “Don’t worry, it’s all over now.”
Mamie and Mama busied themselves making supper in the kitchen while Paw Paw watched from the living room in his big chair. No one was allowed to sit in Paw Paw’s big chair but Paw Paw, not even in his absence. Old Faithful blindly limped his way over to him and curled right under his feet.
“Etta!” he called.
“Sir?” I answered.
“Get me a cold one.”
I got a beer from the fridge, handed it to him and stood for a moment awaiting further instruction. He examined me through bloodshot eyes. “You want some?” he motioned to his beer.
“No thank you, sir.” I hated beer, the smell of it made my nose crinkle.
“Sit down and keep me company then,” he said.
I plopped down on the floor beside him next to Old Faithful. Neither of us spoke. Paw Paw petted Old Faithful and drank his beer. After he finished he told me to fetch him another and another, until his yellow eyes took on their normal glaze.
“That’s a good boy, Ol’ Faith,” he said to Old Faithful every now and again. “That’s a good boy.”
Old Faithful was the only dog Paw Paw took the time to name and the only creature, Mamie said, that he ever ‘treated with any kind of decency.’ From time to time stray dogs would make their way over to our little corner of the world in search of food and shelter. They would stay for a couple weeks or months at the most, eating leftover scraps and sleeping on our porch. But no matter how long these dogs stayed it was only a matter of time before they would be hit by the passing traffic on the highway in front of our house. It proved to be inescapable, the call of freedom from the other side of the road. One by one the dogs had gone off to answer it, and one by one they were each struck down.
But Old Faithful had stayed and followed Paw Paw around like he was being lead on a leash. Paw Paw not only named him, but took him in the car with him on errands, and made him a pallet to sleep on in the corner of the living room, and picked the ticks off of him when he’d been wandering around in the woods.
Supper came. Like most suppers we ate in silence. Old Faithful laid out on the floor beside the table, too old and tired to beg. He seldom had much of an appetite nowadays. Paw Paw took his entire ham-hock and set it on the floor for him. Normally when Paw Paw gave him scraps it was some leftover cornmeal mush and a maybe a bit of salt pork if he was feeling particularly generous. But this time he gave him the whole ham-hock and a little helping of pinto beans and cornbread, which Old Faithful ate in its entirety before laying out luxuriously and licking his jowls.
“That’s a good boy,” Paw Paw said again, patting him. “That’s a good boy.”
After supper Mamie went to bed and I stayed to help Mama clean up the kitchen. We then had something rare⎯dessert. Mama had gone to the store and bought Oreos, the actual brand, not the knock off kind that didn’t nearly taste as good. She even let Old Faithful have one.
I could hear Paw Paw rummaging around in the next room, hear the opening and closing of drawers. I noticed Mama looking a bit nervous about something. She kept fretting about her hair and brushing imaginary crumbs off her apron. Then Paw Paw emerged from his room, and went to the door, unlatched the porch screen and said, “Come here, Ol’ Faith.”
Rising, with much effort, Old Faithful rose and did as he was told. I petted him one more time before he went out the door.
I was still at the table eating cookies when I heard the sound like a clap of thunder, only the storm was long over.
“What was that?” I squealed.
“Nothing,” Mama answered, not looking at me. “It’s time to get ready for bed.”
“But what was that?”
“Didn’t I give you something to do? Go on, get now and quit asking me questions.”
A few hours later I heard the porch screen open and crept out of bed to investigate. I could see Paw Paw’s silhouette in the moonlight streaming from the window. He was glistening in sweat and covered with earth. He just stood there for a while. I could hear his heavy labored breath from where I stood in the hall. I hid behind the corner when he went to the fridge. He grabbed another beer and sat down once again in his big chair. He turned on the television, that had all of three working channels, and sat there staring at it. I don’t think he was watching the TV as much as it was watching him. He just sat there in his drunken haze, enveloped in the television’s eerie blue light.
No one ever spoke of the fact that Old Faithful didn’t come home that night or any of the nights after. Like most things in Mamie’s house, it was never spoken of, in the belief that somehow the truth could be avoided by not speaking it aloud.
Even now, in my mother’s house, these things are rarely spoken of. Of course, my mother is much less superstitious now, although she’ll still turn off all the lights and light candles when a storm rolls by. As for me, I’ll take my usual place by the window and watch the rain; the rain that taps its little rhythms on my windowpanes, the rain that keeps everything green and lush, the rain that makes old wounds swell and fester.
in my old coat pocket
in your awful hand,
and I wonder
if you still have things like these,
this detritus from relation-shipwreck’s past
washed upon the shores of your new life,
and why I haven’t yet found the strength
to let these things lie buried