Diego always napped on the floor of our living room when Dad went back to work after lunch. And while he napped, for a part of every afternoon, it was me, and not a six-month-old Doberman pinscher puppy, who got to play the part of Mom’s best friend.
Together Mom and I shared our little secret of what she called ‘Sin and Sacrilege.’ Afternoon Soap Operas. She would lay on a love seat and sip a clear drink, ice cubes and happy lemon slices bobbing inside, while I sprawled out on my back atop the blue shag carpeting, near a glass-topped coffee table, and kicked my feet up over my head. I watched, mostly upside down and from between my legs, impossibly beautiful people murmur troubled thoughts, and second- guess the motives of other impossibly beautiful people. All cast within a blurry TV setting, and broadcast through the beige camera filters of some always-warm California.
Beams of afternoon sunlight angled through slats of Mom’s wooden window blinds and pierced the clear drink that tinkled in her hand, the rim of her glass smudged a bright coral lipstick-red. Diego slept. I’d lay and wait for Madge, the manicurist and hero of the Palmolive dish soap commercials, to tell a fraught housewife with battered and chapped hands, You’re soaking in it. This was a line Mom and I would say together over and over again every day. Sometimes I’d spring to my feet. We’d laugh and laugh.
What? Madge’s client would say, aghast, and snatch her hand away. Madge would then calmly press the poor woman’s fingertips back down into an ashtray filled with the green syrupy liquid, and Mom and I would call out again that the woman was, in fact, soaking in it.
Once in a while the phone rang. Mom would close her eyes and shake her head for me to ignore it.
I was a good listener.
Diego had been my brother Michael’s puppy. He showed up one afternoon with a soft mouth, sharp pointy ears, and size-twelve puppy paws. We got him after Michael died in a motorcycle crash.
Michael had been living in a house with his best friend, Darla, when he died, and I’d almost forgotten he bought a puppy after he got back from the war in Vietnam. I was nine years old and ached for a dog. Literally ached. Any dog. And my insides twisted alternately between delight and grief, and guilt and glee, to learn of an orphaned puppy— my brother’s puppy—in need of a home. I felt so awful for feeling so happy.
Michael was thirteen years older than I was. He was always this big person to me—thick sideburns, muscular arms, tattoos, cigarettes, and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle— with little more than a detached biological connection to the rest of us still living at home. It was like he belonged to a different family or was the head of his own. And with Michael instantly no longer with us, I all of a sudden found myself struggling to remember anything about him. So part of me hoped that having Diego around would help me hang on to what memories of Michael I did have. Remember him a little better.
The way it worked out, people called me Michael half the time anyway, so it got to where he was pretty hard to forget. I think it was because people said I was a dead-ringer for my brother, but getting called Michael seemed to happen more once we got Diego.
Michael used to talk about Darla a lot. They were always running around with each other. They went to the breeder’s together, too. Darla told us that she was the one who actually named the puppy Diego. And that she was there when Michael picked him out of a black-and-tan squall of snoozing, nursing, squeaking puppies. And now with Michael gone, she wanted to keep Diego. She was so attached.
Mom was attached, too. To Michael, not Diego. I heard her talking to Darla on the phone after Michael died. Michael’s car, Darla could keep. But not the dog. A living, breathing bond to her oldest boy she lost in an ugly motorcycle crash weeks after he returned safe and sound from the war. No, Mom would be keeping the dog.
The next day, or maybe the day after, here was Diego. Darla sat cross-legged on the floor of our back porch and wept. She sniffed and wiped her eyes. We all watched. She smeared dark eyeliner across the top of a cheek. The edges of her tanned kneecaps poked through frayed rips in her jeans. She was wearing one of Michael’s shirts. She pulled strands of straight sandy brown hair from her face and spoke. She had the darkest eyes. Black like Diego’s shiny coat.
Michael lay on his side at the breeder’s, she said, near the puppies, for nearly an hour. Just kept staring and smiling and shaking his head. He wanted them all, I could tell, she said.
Then this one puppy came over to Michael, she said, and licked his hand. Michael looked up at me, eyes all hopeless. I teared up, she said. It was so sweet.
That’s the puppy we took home, she said.That was Diego. Diego the Doberman. She raised her eyes and thumped Diego’s rib cage and wiped her nose and smeared more makeup.
Darla handed me the leash. I was crying too. I felt bad for her. She asked if she could come visit sometime.
She kept staring at me. Those dark eyes so black. It was intense, and I didn’t know what to say, really, but finally just settled on Okay. She hugged me long, smoothed back my bangs, a and looked at me hard. She pressed her forehead into mine. I felt her tremble.
James, she whispered. You . . . She stood slowly and leaned down and kissed my forehead. Her face was really warm. You take . . . care, she said. She backed away with another penetrating look. Diego pulled at the leash. He was so strong. I had to plant my feet to hold him back. We all watched her walk away. Diego whimpered and pulled again. She got into Michael’s car. I could smell her tears on my cheek as she drove off.
Every morning after we got Diego, Dad went in to work, I rode off on my Schwinn to baseball practice, and Mom walked Diego to the park for his daily obedience training. She applied make-up and bright-red lipstick, put on a colorful summer dress, and pulled on a broad-brimmed straw hat and a big pair of dark sunglasses. Sometimes I’d see her disappear around a row of ‘rag trees’ on the mossy lawn across the street. Rag trees were these squat things with heavy and twisted trunks like an old elephant. They held a certain creepy power over me, probably because they reminded me of the dense grove of trees at the graveyard where Michael was buried.
Mom explained the importance of being able to ‘turn’ a dog. That is, when a dog tears off in a dead run away from you, say for a squirrel, you can call the dog back. This is important for the animal’s safety, she said. What if a car came?
Dad agreed. He always said that he would never tolerate an unruly dog. In fact, he would have been happy to let Darla keep Diego. The dog’s probably already too old to properly train anyway, he said.
So, there was that. But I think mostly Dad wanted to let Darla keep Diego because having Diego around just reminded him that Michael wasn’t.
Dad always came home for lunch. Lunch and a quick nap, that is. Sometimes Mom napped with him. During the meal, Dad talked about the day’s happenings down at the family hardware store, and Mom talked about her morning successes and failures at training Diego: Sit. Stay. Come.
Dad never seemed very interested, but he did notice how Mom clung to that dog. Mom’s voice would catch as she talked about Diego’s progress. Dad would shrug, and it was as though every new thing Mom tried to teach Diego pushed my parents farther apart.
Diego wasn’t a very speedy learner. Mom could get him to sit one day, and stay, only to find the need to start all over again the next. It was as if a sprint through the park and a good night’s doggie sleep erased it all. Did it erase all of Michael, too?
One morning, while I finished breakfast in the kitchen, Mom and Dad started shouting at each other in the next room. I was watching an episode of Laurel and Hardy on the tiny black-and-white screen of the kitchen TV when I heard the yelling start.
I was confused. Our house was always pretty calm and quiet, and my parents never argued much less fought. Never the explosive uproar like the next-door neighbors, the ones always with the dark stains under their arms, with their daily outbursts of cussing and screaming and swearing. No, Mom and Dad weren’t like that, not at all, but they seemed to have more moments like this one once we got Diego. Him being a slow learner didn’t help.
I peeked around the corner. I knew well enough not to interrupt my mom and dad, but I had to walk through the part of the house that they were fighting in to grab my baseball stuff. But doing so seemed as scary and unwise as running out into traffic. I mean, who would do such a thing, right? Yet, I knew Coach would really lay into me and make me run laps after practice if I was late… So I peered around the corner again.
Just watch him! Mom cried. Just once! Just watch what Diego can do, Ronald, she shrieked. Please.
Honey, Dad said, and sighed deeply. Show me tonight. I’m begging you… I’m already late! he said.
That was Dad’s name, Ronald. He always seemed like a different person when Mom called him that.
He twisted from her grasp and left in a huff at the very last minute before I walked through the living room. Mom’s eyes were small and wet.
I needed to grab my stuff, but felt I had to rescue her from this mood too. Some sort of distraction. So, I decided to sing along with an ad on the TV. But Mom didn’t turn her head. If only it had been Madge! Mom squatted down beside Diego and whispered something into his ear, over and again, as she stared at Dad’s truck pulling away. Off to work.
It was always ‘off to work’ with Dad. But this was different. Something bigger was going on here. I stepped closer. She trembled, and her breath chuffed out short and quiet. And sweet, like syrup. He doesn’t care, Mom sobbed, into Diego’s pointy ear. He doesn’t.
Dad’s truck stretched around the corner and disappeared behind the twisted rag trees.
I’d never seen Mom like this. My stomach was a tangle of weeds.
He does care, I said, not really knowing if Dad did or not, then dutifully sang along with the theme song of the morning Soap Love of Life, which resumed on the TV set in the room behind us.
Mom sat on the floor, silent and still. So still. A fly could have landed on her nose. Even the puppy, sitting and staying for once, was conspiratorially quiet and unmoving.
I turned and took a step into the TV room and there was Madge! Soothing the distraught. The power of a miracle flowed through me. Madge! I whipped around in Mom’s direction and called out, delighted, You’re soaking in it, Mom! and turned back to the TV set.
But Mom didn’t laugh. She didn’t even react. She’d gotten up off the floor and was standing in the kitchen with her back to me.The hem of her light dress brushed the curve of her calves. Her shoulders shook. Ice clattered into a glass. The TV screen dimmed. Mom poured from a bottle, and Madge faded from view.
Coach kept me after practice to run laps that day, and I returned home pretty late for lunch, certain I was really gonna get it. Especially considering Mom and Dad’s fight that morning. I hesitated in the back yard near the voluminous peonies for a moment, ever fascinated by the blur of sugar ants that writhed brown and black across the plants’ slick and enormous buds. Then I stepped into the house to face my parents, to take my medicine.
The screen door hadn’t even slapped shut behind me before I could tell that something bad had just happened. Something more than me being late for lunch.
No more, Dad was saying. I… can’t do this… Again.
I stood in the kitchen and stared down at the holes in my socks. My thoughts gurgled with Listerine and became a tangle of marketing jingles. Gradually, I became aware that the something was still happening. Something that no Quicker-picker-upper, or porcelain tub filled with a soothing Calgon bath could take anyone away from, even for a little while.
I thought of the peonies outside, buds pulsating like dark throbbing fists.
Well, I certainly don’t see what difference it makes! Mom said. Why, no difference at all, she cried, her voice all breathy. You stop and have one on your way home from work, now, don’t you, Ronald? You and the fellas!
That is not the same, Dad said. Not the same as this. And it’s not every day! He scoffed and paused. I shouldn’t have to put up with this, Elaine, he said, and walked away.
How is it not the same? Mom said. Her sharp shoes clacked anxiously behind him, clack clack clack.
All that’s different is that you’re down at the bar with your buddies and I am here, she said. Alone, clack. Her voice caught. With . . . Diego. She breathed loudly and looked around. I felt the palms of her hands press to her face.
And of course James . . . she said, and cleared her throat. I raised my head in the other room, where I pretended not to hear any of this.
Dad drifted down the hall. His voice faded away. Mom’s clacking shoes stopped all at once. Dad must have spun back at her, because his voice seemed close and clear. Just don’t you make me mark the bottles again! he barked.
Darla dropped by for a visit right about the yawning part of summer, when the oak shadows start to stretch across neighborhood lawns. I didn’t really get to see her. Would have been nice, though. I liked Darla. But I was on my way back from the creek when she pulled away in Michael’s car. She had black smears on the tops of her cheeks again. She kinda looked my way, but I think she was too busy driving to really see me.
Mom stood in the driveway, arms folded across her yellow dress. She looked like someone just punched her in the stomach. I walked up to her. I didn’t say anything. The golden air all around us buzzed with cicadas.
After a while, I asked if Michael’s girlfriend came to visit Diego.
Mom’s jaw swung open. She turned to me and stroked my hair. She spoke quietly. Darla says she’s doing okay, Mom said. But that… it will probably be a very long time… before she ever… gets married.
Mom’s voice shook, and she looked away and pressed the back of a hand to her mouth. I kept looking down the street where Darla disappeared, remembering her smell when she drove away on the day she brought Diego.
The next day, Diego bolted into the street as I got home from practice. I heard a car coming around the corner. Mom shrieked and shrieked his name, but Diego kept running and her cries deflated. She couldn’t turn her dog. I felt my stomach drop, and I got itchy all over.
The car zeroed in on Diego. I threw down my bike and sprinted to the street after him, hollering Diego! Diego! and Mom wailed, Michael! No!
But Diego streaked ahead. I had to save him. I ran faster and faster. I heard Mom’s voice one last time before I flung myself between a speeding station wagon and Michael’s dog.
I landed on the other side of the street, thudded up against the twisted trunk of one of those burly rag trees on that mossy lawn. My side hurt. I slowly opened my eyes. The graveyard! I was horrified. Was I dead? What about Diego?
Then I heard Mom. She wobbled above me, moaning and rocking on her knees and screaming my name just inches from my face. Her forehead was blotchy red and shuddered with huge beads of sweat. Diego was nowhere to be seen. Surely, he’d been flattened.
The neighbor with the dark heavy armpits told us that the driver managed to zigzag in such a way as to miss us both. Like a miracle, he said. He shook his head. His voice rattled in the back of his throat like he’d just seen Jesus. A miracle, he repeated.
The neighborhood kids, my supposed friends, the ones who saw that car’s unholy maneuver, and Diego bound out of the way, avoided me for a while after that. Like they were afraid.
Dad talked to me that night. Said he didn’t believe in miracles. Not the way our neighbor with the dark armpits did. He told me that the driver just had to figure out which way I was going to throw myself so as to swerve around. And Diego? Not listening to Mom, Diego effortlessly sprang to safety, watched the car whiz by, and barked himself around and around in circles after it passed.
I stayed home from practice the next day because my ribs hurt so much. Dad walked in at lunchtime. Mom walked toward the living room from the kitchen, but caught herself with a wobbling stop on the countertop. Dad seized up mid-stride. He turned and walked away without a word. Diego raised up from his nap in the middle of the floor and followed Dad. He seemed distant and small, his face the same shape as when he told me that miracles weren’t real. He walked to the basement door and clumped, forever, down the steps. It was like some slow march of dread with the dog behind him all the way down there until I heard him groan and the couch springs squeak.
Mom leaned against the entry to the living room. Her face hung, slack and flushed, and her eyes sagged. I lay atop the blue shag next to the glass coffee table, peering at the TV screen through the peaks of my knees, praying for Madge. Mom’s eyes scanned the shelves, then a side table, and slid across the room, where the orbit of her swimming gaze met mine. Madge couldn’t save us from this.
I twitched my head at the glass tabletop. Mom nodded and reached for her clear tumbler, basking in a fold of afternoon sun. She turned the glass in her hand and eyed the tired lipstick stains that clouded the rim, and the morning’s happy lemon slices, dried and dimmer now, stuck to the bottom.