I only ever knew by her dogs, frowzy, dowsy Ma, her curls spun out and frozen, plastered by the same hair freeze Grammie used, Aqua Net. I could never catch the rare whiff of that 1950s hair product or see the representative of one of the breeds Ma had owned without thinking of the things that went along with my Ma – fried bologna sandwiches with a square of melted processed cheese, the smell of Pall Malls drifting inside from the porch, The Price is Right blaring on the TV. She had her slightly more refined moments too like when she watched TCM and made us beef stroganoff with fancy cooking sherry and sour cream, the times she got dressed to go out to her book club, her bridge club, church, which was now Episcopalian though her roots were most firmly Southern Baptist, the times she served us wine out of grandmama’s decanter using the heavy crystal she received at her wedding years prior but now had little use for. But this was the every day Ma – the Pall Malls, the bologna, The Price is Right – the one buried in her past of poor whites, all of them related or at some point been a friend to a man wearing a sheet burning crosses at night singing praises to Jesus on Sundays. That past goes way back as do Ma’s dogs and her mother’s dogs and her grandmother’s dogs before her. It was deep and dark and impenenetrable it seemed, this past, these dogs and the women who owned them.
I had escaped all this, or so I thought. I had moved to New York City to take an internship, then a job. It would be cliché for me to extoll the city’s cultural merits and so I’ll just say, I never thought I would be living there, or maybe dared not dream it, but when I landed finally in my own apartment with my own life, it felt like I had arrived. Still, I was poor. I’d like to think I was a better poor than Ma’s poor, but this was New York. On my better days, I acknowledged the difference between Ma and me were negligible, except I had a cat, one of several very superficial differences. I do sometimes think of all the things Ma didn’t expose me to, like a string of boyfriends or a new dad. Who knows but maybe the constant string of dogs addressed her need for companionship at just the right level. There was also the likely fact of her sacrifice: She had given her prime years to me and me alone.
By way of contrast to Ma’s life when I lived with her, mine has consisted of men who overstayed their welcome after sleeping over, men who expected me to cook for them, men who assumed I was into them just because they have paid attention to me. I had dated cruel men and abusive men too. I hadn’t known my father well, he divorced my mother when I turned seven, left and didn’t look back, but I assumed he probably was not a generous man being that he was out of my life for good. He may have even been abusive to Ma and maybe me, but I could never recall anything specific and Ma didn’t want to have a heart to heart about this kind of a thing. Maybe she was trying to spare me. But there were some mornings a man would stay over and I had the urge to tell my cat Mo to go scratch his face while he was asleep, while his body oils soaked into my sheets. It was cruel, vicious of me, those thoughts I knew as a woman I was not supposed to have. When they occurred to me I rationalized by telling myself they may have some origin in unremembered violence.
It was with great surprise, however, that I met my mom’s most recent dog, “Lucy.” This past Fourth of July we pooled our resources as we did every year to rent a house at Flagler Beach. I flew down and Ma got into her station wagon, packed the dog, Pall Malls, extra beer and flip flops and drove over from Jacksonville. She drove up while I was in the kitchen unpacking the groceries. I heard her pull into the gravel drive though there was little else I could hear over the sound of crashing waves and crying seagulls. Low bursts of thunder had begun punctuating the monotonous roll of the waves. Through the windows along the beachside of the house, I could see a steel gray shelf of sky sitting low over the water.
I descended the worn wooden stairs of the stilt house to greet Ma in the drive. She had driven over in her pea green panel sided vehicle, a throwback from my past if ever there was one. Through the windshield I caught a glimpse of the silhouette of her teased out hair and the new dog on the seat beside, riding shotgun. I want to qualify, however, I saw the eyes of the dog, its body presumable black in accord with Ma’s description of the Rottweiler pitbull mix. But why would I be able to see a dog’s eyes from that distance in the bright light of day? It wasn’t as if it were night and a light illuminated them. There seemed to be some inner glow though there wasn’t time to puzzle it through. Ma’s veiny slippered foot emerged and she plunked it down on the gravel.
“Ma, I told you not to wear your slippers while you drive!”
“When you wear heels all day all bets are off at down times.”
“Sneakers would stay on your foot better. Remember that time on the bridge.”
“Lucy!” she said, ignoring me and my recall of a near slipper related accident when she was at the wheel. She pulled a treat from the lipstick pocket of her high waist full moon pants.
“How can you be so chic,” I said, noting the pants and mock turtleneck combo, probably handed down from rich as Croesus grandmamma, “And wear those beat up boudoir shoes. I guess I’ll let it go though.”
“Got no choice, ‘parently.”
“Let’s get your stuff in.”
Lucy raced out of the passenger seat, all bluster and saliva and a fiery silken blackness, and slammed into my right thigh. I fell, crunching into the gravel.
“Lucy!” Ma said. “Well, you devil!” and slipped a choke collar over her neck. Lucy sat and Ma gave her the treat.
“What’s rewarding the thing with homicide, Ma?” As Lucy chomped down on the tiny knot of rawhide.
“Why Su Su,” she said, calling me by the name I knew all of my growing up years, “I think you’re overstating your case.”
After scrambling to stand, I observed closely the animal’s eyes. The irises were red. I had never seen anything like it in a dog.
“I’m Sue now, Ma, just Sue,” I said not sure of what to make of what had just gone down.
“Where did you get this one?” I said.
Typical, I thought. The most essential of my questions relegated to the dust bin.
“Keep it away from me.”
“You’ll grow used to her. Won’t we make friends, Lucy?” She spoke to the beast in a way I’m sure would be translated as praise in the dog’s brain. Ma’s other animals had been incorrigible, shitting on the rug, stealing meals from tabletops and countertops, running away for days, but this was something different.
“Nice violent mixed breed there.”
“Bridge club loves her.”
I didn’t press it further. I was frightened for Ma’s friends at that instant but I had learned to compartmentalize my fears. I had enough going on at the present moment.
That night I made Ma a crusted salmon dish and we lit candles and had wine while the storm set in. Lucy was resting in “her bed,” thank God, with the door closed. I had put them in the front room, facing the ocean. My stuff was in the back room behind the kitchen, a quiet space where I could work.
The sound of the beach always reminded me of those long summers with Ma, the summer storms in the afternoon, playing board games and working on jigsaw puzzles. Ma smoked less when she was here, didn’t watch as much TV. She loved soaking in the shoreline as did I. During the day we took our golden “Lucky” down to the beach to collect shells and pieces of driftwood and at night we took flashlights down at low tide and watched the sandcrabs scitter. Those summers at the beach there was always a dog. Lucky was the golden who had stayed with us longest. She died before I went away to college and mom spent time fostering various breeds for the animal shelter. Lucky was hard to replace, she had said.
“Thank you for my dinner,” she said, leaning back in the bamboo seat and setting her unslippered feet on the chair beside. She was enjoying the Pinot Noir I always bought her at the Publix. “Doesn’t that storm sound delicious,” she said, sipping meditatively.
I stacked the dishes and pots and pans in the dishwasher. No handwashing ever, if I could help it though my tiny New York apartment boasted only a drain board.
“Glad I got Lucy out when I did,” she said referring to their jaunt down the sidewalk by A1A while I unloaded her car.
I didn’t want to talk about Lucy at the moment. Maybe if we crept around and didn’t say her name out loud she would continue to sleep as she guarded the depths of hell.
I had some laundry to do. I hadn’t exactly come on my vacation prepared, work being what it was of late, that and the fact that I didn’t have the luxury of a washer dryer. I loaded the basket provided and stepped out into the rain to make my way down to the ground level floor beneath the house. In the basement, I flipped on the light, a single bare bulb in the middle of the unfinished cinder block room. It smelled dank, a familiar smell from years previous, but it was swept bare and clean and was generally empty except for a wooden boat, overturned, it’s body a carved wood. It looked heavy, almost unusable.
I turned to make my way to the stairs when I saw it in the frame of the door Ma’s new creature, its black body glistening from the rain, its glowing red eyes, its lip upturned in a snarl, and this time, it growled in a low rumbling way, refreshing its displeasure with each breath. Ma appeared shortly thereafter as she was attached to the other end of the leash. She sported a slicker borrowed from the coat closet and rubber flip flops.
“Get on with it now, Lucy girl!” She said nudging the animal from behind with her knee. “I’m sorry Su Su, just our late night thing, us girls. I’ll be back.”
Dogs weren’t technically allowed on the beach and I wasn’t about to break the doggie beach laws in these parts for Lucy. It would be the sidewalk for her. As the leasee it would be my hide if something happened. Still, I didn’t like the idea of my Mom walking Cujo along A1A on a rainy night.
“Should I come with?”
I sat by the window waiting for them doing my breathing exercises, eyes open. The rain had slowed and the moonlight fell soft and yellow over the undulating water.
One summer, the last summer I lived with Ma, I came home from being out at night. I had found some friends my age in town and we didn’t do much but it was a narrow escape from that growing sense of boredom and suffocation I was beginning to feel when it was just me and Ma. I couldn’t find her. The house was pitch black. And then I saw it, out on the beach, her little fire on the beach and Ma, dancing slow, rhythmically. She hadn’t known that I could see her, that I would be watching, or that anyone would be watching. At that time ours was the only house within a quarter of a mile on either side. What was she doing? I asked her later. She said nothing.
I hadn’t brought my pills for my anxiety. They were developed to treat psychosis my former doctor had said but that’s not what I’m prescribing them for. I wish I had brought them now but I was determined to separate myself from them. My current doctor wanted me off of them. They were dangerous to use long term he said and were highly addictive. But they tamped down so much. Nothing else seemed to do what they did. I retreated to the back of the house to my dark, soundless room. For a moment I wished Ma was the kind of mother to come home and bustle in the kitchen and make me a cup of cocoa and fuss. If she was this when I was younger, that was not who she was anymore.
Since I saw Ma dancing under the moon, by herself, silently, I had noticed a change. She seemed more independent, powerful, even brooding at times though when she was with me she could still pull up some of her gentle, playful Ma talk from my younger years. Still, it took being with her again for me to remember that in many ways Ma had changed. I had since learned from a Google search that the triple moon necklace she had taken to wearing was Wiccan. She had raised me to believe in a Christian god. I wasn’t sure how this happened but at some point she had lost the faith. Maybe no god brought back the man she had loved. Or maybe the god she had worshipped left her lonely. Yet in this new faith she didn’t seem unhappy or lonely. I was going to talk to her about it this trip. I did have some concerns but it was not easy to talk to her. Though we did things easily together, engaged in our little diversions, she was not into talking, especially regarding things she considered her business and her business alone. I understood but I wanted to be close. I didn’t know how I could get her to trust me more.
I could hear her and Lucy coming back inside, the animal’s nails clicking on the tile, its flanks plopping down as it playfully rolled around. “Asshole,” I said quietly to myself. I heard Ma’s sing songy voice as she poured a bowl of food for her and set it down on the kitchen floor. I drifted off.
I woke to utter darkness and the sound of a low growl in front of my face. I sat bolt upright.
I wasn’t sure how the red eyes were now so close, in my room even though I had locked the door.
In one quick leap I threw my comforter over its body and ran. I closed the door behind me. “Yes, animal control,” I told directory assistance when I saw Ma had gone to bed. I stood in the kitchen twisting the antiquated phone cord around my finger. It was me or that demon.
They came out and I instructed them to be quiet about it. They lassoed her, muzzled her, and took her away in their white van under a full white moon, the stones of the drive bleached, the low underbrush and trees shielding the house from the highway a glistening silver mass.
I would tell Ma when she woke it appeared Lucy had gotten out somehow. This had happened with other dogs of Ma’s. Sometimes one of us wouldn’t pull the door all the way to or the strong winds from the shoreline would blow a door open and a determined creature would get out and wander around.
I went back to bed, fell asleep hard, returning to the kind of sleep I remembered from the time before my pills and the time before Ma danced by herself on the beach, back to the time when Ma and I played board games and chased sandcrabs and fell asleep at night with the smell of the sea air in our hair.
“Su Su,” said Ma, shaking me from my sleep. “Su Su.” The early morning light shown through the tiny window of my room. “Guess what? Lucy was outside, just waiting for us on the front step. Isn’t that weird?” And there, beside Ma, was Lucy chained and by her side, the black creature staring at me with that crimson gaze.
“I don’t know what happened,” she said. “But I’m so glad she’s here!”
I didn’t know what to say. So I said nothing.
“We’re going outside.”
I arose stiffly. What the hell. I threw on a sweater and slippers and enlisted Mr. Coffee to help with a much less powerful chemical fix than the Klonopin. I had ringing in my ears that had gotten slightly worse since leaving off the drug night before my trip down. I wondered if the local pharmacist could hook me. Doubted it. Law kept controlled substances flowing as freely as other scripts.
Still, things were a bit better for a time that morning. The day wore on. Ma and Lucy were staying away for a while so I had the house to myself. Given the new circumstance of an aggressive animal I was relieved. The sun set high, warming and drying the porch. Ribbons of grey green waves furled and unfurled along the sand, snapping out like a long whip. I put on a suit and hat and grabbed a chair and water. The sand was warm and giving underneath my feet. Familiar. Reassuring.
When the sky faded I grew concerned. It would not be unlike Ma to wander around on her own. I texted her. An hour later, nothing. Normally, I would have started dinner. Steaks were resting on the counter.
I put on a coverup and headed into town. At the second bar I checked, there was Ma talking to a group at an outside bar overlooking the water. Lucy sat at her feet. The group, men and women, about ten or so, were dressed for riding motorcycles. They were heavily tatted. Lucy growled when she spotted me.
“Come now,” said one of the men, placing a gigantic hand on the beasts head. The dog relaxed.
“Your mom is amazing,” he said, as I approached. “So many great stories.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant. He was about Ma’s age, I guessed, maybe a bit younger. They were all tucked into their beers.
“Thank you,” I said weakly, unconvinced. What had she done that was so amazing. I honestly didn’t know. I would have liked one of them to tell me. But I also didn’t want to be there either.
“Have a drink with us,” said the man.
“Yeah, honey, have a drink,” said Ma, indicating an open chair.
“Thanks. But I’ve got work,” I said, grateful for the excuse.
“Don’t wait up for me,” said Ma. “We’re going to hang out a while. Love you. Kisses,” she said, playfully and blew me a few.
The nights when I was in my last years in high school my mom sat home with casseroles waiting to emerge, how many times had it been this way. I was a little hurt but glad too in a way for more peace, more time to get some work done. After some blundering this year in the wake of drug withdrawal, I had something to prove and had brought some proofs to mark up. I hadn’t told Ma about the drug and the withdrawal, hadn’t wanted her to worry.
“Have a good time,” I said, and I meant it. It made me happy to see her being social, especially with a nice guy who was interested.
Later that night, a couple of proofs worked through, I stood outside under the moonlight to stretch and breath in deep the ocean air. For the second night in a row a yellow moon painted the rippling waves gold. As I stood and watched there seemed to appear from the luminous sea a circle of people swirling and twirling, holding hands like a ring of dark figures on a merry go round. Was it the group that had gathered at the bar? Was this a late night swim in the ocean with my mother as ring leader? Off to the left, closer to the dunes there was a low fire. I stood and tried to understand what I was seeing but every time the group formed it seemed to dissolve again. And if the figures were actual people, why were they silent?
There was a low growling from the stairs leading up from the dune. I plunged into the house, slammed the door just in time to escape the black dog that, eyes aflame, thudded against the glass