As True As Anything

by Jen Larsen

The small girl who stood on my porch, round and short and dirty and wall-eyed, said, “Are your dogs married?”
…..It was hot out here, and the whole neighborhood was empty except for this little girl, standing on my porch and asking stupid questions. It wouldn’t be dark for hours, and the light was late-summer, heavy and weary, oozing down into the gutters.
…..“No,” I said. I was used to people coming by at all hours, carrying faces on top of their necks that I didn’t recognize at all, talking to me in strangers’ voices, low and soft and sweet like I was a child. I didn’t remember any children coming by, or my children. This was a new person, standing on my front porch, just looking at me from down near my knees.
…..She didn’t blink. It must have been a long time since I had raised children—good lord, how many years? How old was I, and how old were they? Did they carry handkerchiefs? Did they give a damn about their mother, and fish forks, and wearing a hat? However long it had been, I was sure I remembered that their brains were well-developed enough to produce timely blinks. But this small thing didn’t blink.
…..“They’re not married,” I said. “Dogs don’t get married.” I thought that was probably as true as anything I knew, or remembered. Pigs don’t fly, hell doesn’t freeze over, dogs don’t get married. Sometimes clichés are clichés for a reason. Sometimes things just make common sense.
…..“You have my doll,” she said, and that was clearly a lie. Her face was round and soft.
…..“I don’t have your doll,” I said. “How could I have gotten it?” I said. But she just looked up at me, silently. Should I offer her cookies? That was what witches did in stories. Come inside, and let me pry open your teeth and force cookie after cookie—oatmeal raisin and lemon and sugar and chips of chocolate—between your teeth and onto your dumb little tongue. Or I could take her little round face in my hand—I had long fingers, knuckles like golf balls. I had had beautiful hands once, and white gloves. I could palm her face, dig my fingers into the dough of her cheeks and propel her right to the edge of my stoop, let her dangle from the tips of my fingers and then simply release her like a crane in one of those toy machines, down the hole and game over, is how they always went. Did anyone ever win? No one ever answered my questions any more, and they were so often such good questions.
…..I couldn’t think of any more questions to ask her, except the stupidly obvious ones, and I was never stupidly obvious. I knew that much, too. She was peering, now, swaying on her feet, to look around me and through my door. The dogs were still in the backyard, I thought. Bitsy and Telemachus. Those were such good names for dogs. They sometimes appeared where I did not expect them, on the bed or behind the couch, with things in their mouths like whole hams or my stockings. I suspected they had eaten my wedding rings, or I had taken them off years ago, or they had slipped off my fingers, or they had been taken from me. Dogs get into everything. They probably also ate my wedding albums and my checks and my white gloves and the postcards I was getting from thousands of miles away. A stack, yellowed, tied with a ribbon. I remembered that. On the dresser, they were. A stack of them, tied up, from people who had loved me.
…..I turned to hurry inside, and she was bumping up against the backs of my knees, her hands, hot and a little damp, catching on my skirt and leaving wet marks. If I had ever had children they would have had manners. This was not a child of mine. This was not anything I made, or had a hand in making. If there was anything I believed in—and maybe someone could come by and make me a list (a short one, it didn’t need to be annotated) of all the things I believed in—it was probably that blood will tell. Genetics is what they call it, and I like that word. It is round and solid. It is mahogany, well-polished and sturdily built and lasting.
…..“No,” I said sternly, like she was a dog, and I lifted her hands from me. She let go. I could slip behind my door and shut it firmly, but she was faster than me, inside my house and down through the hallway, in the dark. None of the switches were working, but the sun wouldn’t set yet. I heard her sneakers, squeaky on the wood floors. When had I last waxed those floors? I know I have said a million times, oh, don’t run in the house. Oh, you’ll hurt yourself, you’ll slip and fall. What do you say in those situations? Don’t come running to me when you break both your legs. Don’t come running to me when you break your neck, when your brother’s neck is snapped right in two.
…..I followed her down the hall, through the back room with all the boxes, everything packed up like I was going somewhere or had just arrived somewhere, or as if I’d always be nowhere in particular. Everything was white-glove clean, but such a mess. She had left the screen door open, had gone out into the yard, and there she was with her hands on the dogs, her hands in their mouths. I hoped I had remembered to feed them today. They could eat her in two bites. They could bury her bones.
…..“They like me,” she said, and they might have. They had the same dim look that all dogs of my acquaintance have had, all glazed eyes and open mouths bunching up at the corners, their throats black holes. She was delighted, this little girl. Bitsy was almost as tall as she was, and did not seem to notice when she grabbed his fur in both hands.
…..“Easy there,” I said sharply. “Gentle.” Like I was a goddamn petting zoo attendant, or a babysitter. But the little girl stood there, as real as anything else in my house, solid and immovable and consistent. Three-dimensional, pink and grubby. I put my hand out to touch her head, lifted her ponytail. I had made so many braids. I remembered blond hair and two tails cinched tight.
…..“Okay,” I said. She didn’t look up. “All right, now,” I said. The little girl cooed and petted Bitsy. She took his ears in both hands, and he looked at her with a kind of sloe-eyed bliss. I turned and walked back into the house. I would make tea. I would unpack all these boxes that were lying around. Entirely too many boxes, so much stuff. I should have a bonfire, I thought. I could pile boxes on the lawn, and the whole neighborhood would appear, emerge blinking and sleepy-eyed from their dark and air-conditioned caves to come to see what made their windows glint orange and the huge trees that lined our streets flicker and sway, see the old woman standing there like a witch over her cauldron. I looked for a chair, but there was none in the front room, so I knelt gingerly in front of the fireplace, my knees aching, and tore into the first box. It was silent in the house—birds don’t count, or cars on the street. And that was best. That was when things eased up in my head, and it was easier to push things away. But you don’t choose what you get to forget.
…..For instance: I remember my husband, still in his pristine white jockey shorts, which I bleached and bleached. Climbing on top of me. I remember how cold tears feel when they slide down your cheeks and into the cup of your ear. I remember scrambling for the light. Bourbon in my coffee, a warm Christmas morning with no snow, a long, blue-windowed envelope, buttons at my wrists. I remember one time that he hit me. I remember that. You’d think that would be the first thing on my list to wipe clean. But I don’t get to choose. I remember saying that to a doctor, maybe. Recently, perhaps. I said: It’s a wall, advancing toward me, a wall of fog. In a bank of fog you can still see the things closest to you—the wrinkled backs of your hands, the ropes of your veins. I had walked through fog like that once, in another life in San Francisco, and my high-heeled shoes had clicked down the hill, toward Union Square. The sound of cable car bells, ringing for me. I worked at Macy’s. A girl like you, men would say, shouldn’t be in a place like this. They must have offered me diamonds. I had a beautiful life, like a flame, and it was doused. I have sat in the sun at my kitchen table with a bloody steak pressed to my cheek, icy cold. A case of champagne behind the back door, three days later—an apology. Did I make that up? Sometimes, you don’t get to decide what you make up, what you see behind your eyes, what appears in front of them. It was possible that I missed the apologies, if nothing else.
…..“Hello?” someone said, out in the hallway, a disembodied voice. I was kneeling in front of an open box with an ashtray in my hand, heavy glass or crystal. I had stopped smoking years ago, years and years. I hurled it at the fireplace brick. It didn’t break into a million glittering pieces. The childish disappointment. It bounced and thumped with a terrible noise onto the wood floors. It would scar.
…..“I don’t remember you,” I said to the woman standing in the wide French door leading to the living room. I was kneeling on the floor, and the fireplace was filled with shattered porcelain. I didn’t need this, or this, or this. This wasn’t mine, I was sure of it. The satisfying sound of separation and destruction. How pleasant, to pull your arm back and let fly, your fingers opening at just the right moment. Splinters flying.
…..Splinters flying. “What are you doing?” the woman said, and her face was pinched and strange. She crossed her arms over her chest, a stained t-shirt, her hair up in a ponytail. Sneakers on her feet like women wore, and commas around her mouth like she was not used to being happy, like it was an afterthought, an aside, not part of the regular narrative of her life. Unkempt. She looked at me, and at the fireplace, at my hands. I dug through the balls of newspaper and pulled out another wrapped package, tore it clean. A plate, suitable for hanging. I did not like it.
…..“My daughter,” this woman said. “Where is my daughter?” Her voice pitched up, climbing. “I know she came over here. She’s obsessed with the Donners’ dogs. Did you let her in?” She looked around the room scattered with balls of newspapers and brown paper and peanuts, my plate. Her teeth clicked together, and then her rubber soles were squeaking down the hall. When was the last time I had waxed it? She was calling a name—“Candace,” she was saying. Dogs barking. My dogs were vigilant. They ate all my things, and then they growled at strangers and at squirrels and the complexities of life and difficulties of the sky and clouds.
…..Voices coming down the hallway sounded familiar—a whine and a hiss, rising and falling, a drawn-out cry of frustration that is the kind of noise only a girl child could make, I knew that for certain. They stopped at the living room door again, the mother standing there with a child held by the elbow. I set the plate carefully on the floor and heaved myself up.
…..“Who are you?” the woman said. “Why do you have my daughter here, playing with those dogs? What is going on here? Where did you come from?”
…..I wanted to offer her tea. That was the graceful thing to do in this situation—smile a polite old-lady smile, offer polite-old lady tea.
…..“Mama, they’re her dogs,” the grubby little girl said.
…..”Did you meet the dogs?” I said to the little girl. “Did you like them?”
…..“They’re not married,” she said. “Dogs don’t get married.”
…..“That’s true,” I said to her. “You’re very smart.” I tried to trade a knowing smile with the woman, the kind you pass over a child’s head and is filled with a sweetness that is indulgent and whisper-light. She would have none of it, this woman.
…..The little girl turned and pulled on her mother’s hand. “I want to go,” she said.
…..“We’re going,” the woman said, looking at me. She turned, and she was pulling out her little portable phone and dragging the girl out of the room. That noise must have been the front door. I wish I could draw the curtains closed, but they were down, too. I had been washing them, extra bleach to make them bright in the sun. Bleaching and bleaching them. This was my favorite room. Or if it wasn’t, it should be.
…..I should unpack more boxes. I would have tea first. It was getting dark. I was opening cabinets and closing them when they came in. I lost track of the cabinets and had to start back at the beginning, because I was afraid I had missed the cabinet with the sugar. She was blond, and her face was worried and he was blond, too. They were my children, which anyone would know, of course, by the way they said, “Mom!” in such sharp voices, like I was a grubby, unruly child in their house.
…..“Mom,” the girl said, and she looked at the boy, who shook his head. His arm came around my shoulder.
…..“Have you always been this tall?” I asked him. He smelled like cigarette smoke and the summer, a barbecue and suntan lotion smell.
…..“Thank you,” the girl said to the woman with the child. They were standing in the doorway of the kitchen like they had always been there. The little girl was looking up at me, and I said to her, “Do you like dogs?”
…..“We’ll be going now,” the woman said, and the little girl kept looking behind her as she was herded away, like she wanted to tell me about dogs. I liked dogs. I used to have some, but it would be cruel to have one now, at my age. I would not outlive that dog. I had outlived everyone else, so far. Most everyone else.
…..“Be good to your mother,” I told the little girl, but she was gone down the hallway, and that noise was the front door shutting.
…..“Mom,” the young man said. My son. “You can’t do this.”
…..“I can if I like,” I said, just to be contrary, and I pulled away from his arm. When they looked at each other and rolled their eyes as if they thought I didn’t know anything, I grew angry. I lifted my teacup and I smashed it on the kitchen counter. Shards tumbled to the linoleum, around my feet. It was a satisfaction. “I can if I like,” I said again.
…..There was a bustle and yelling, and I slipped back out of the room.
…..My children would live forever, and they would think I was ridiculous the whole time, and old the whole time. They thought I was old when I was young. They thought I was old when I wasn’t, not yet, I wouldn’t be old for years. They thought, when they called, that my voice sounded strange and they wanted to know why I couldn’t catch my breath. They had moved so far away from us, and I couldn’t blame them, not even a little bit. Once the girl finally asked and immediately regretted it—I could hear that in her voice all the way from Boston. She had actually asked, “Is he hitting you?” and I laughed. I remember that very well, standing at the kitchen counter, next to the wall phone with the receiver to my ear, running the tip of my finger over the shallow indents of the keys. Running my finger over the reset button.
…..I laughed, and I said something. Something like, “Darling, don’t be silly.” And we changed the subject and soon after he died with a breathtaking suddenness, a terrible flurry of phone calls and insurance claims. I wasn’t ridiculous. One of my children came back into the room, and she put her hands on my shoulders. I wanted to tell her that. I wasn’t. She looked at me, and her face was so full of sorrow, all white and pale pink, her lips pressed together. I touched my own lips. She may have gotten them from me. She would get spots on the backs of her hands and her neck would seem to lengthen and the skin would drape down and she would understand everything, soon, eventually. Perhaps never; perhaps after I was finally dead, and after she had cried some.
…..“Mother,” she said to me. “Mom.”
…..I patted her shoulder. “Yes,” I said. It was true.
…..“Mother, this isn’t your house any more. You can’t be here.”
…..“I’m just unpacking,” I said. There were no full boxes left in this room, just balls of newspapers. They’d have to help me move more boxes.
…..My son came in, that was him. My daughter said, “Michael. Michael, tell her.”
…..“I don’t know how she got in,” he said. “I don’t know how she got here.”
…..“Were you watching her?”
…..“Were you?”
…..It was their job to control me. I shook away from my daughter’s hands, and went to the window. I placed a palm flat on each pane, and looked out into the yard. A small child, her chin resting on the picket of the fence, was peering into the yard with wide eyes, not blinking. It looked like her head had been severed from her body, lodged onto the sharp end of the fence, left there as a warning. Don’t make me have to tell you twice. The streetlights were starting to flicker.
…..“Mother, we need to go,” my son said, and I shook my head.
…..“You go,” I said.
…..“She doesn’t remember,” my daughter said. “Why are you doing this to us?” Her voice was filled with despair as she came to me, turned me around from the window like I needed to be led. I lifted my hand, and I slapped her, hard across her face. I have large hands, and long fingers. Her head rocked back, white and pink and red. Her hair was blonder than it was as a child, in braids, in a ponytail, in pigtails. My son stood there empty-eyed and hollow-mouthed.
…..“Don’t you dare talk to me like that. Don’t you dare use that tone with me. Don’t you dare.” I scrubbed my cheeks with my fists.
…..Didn’t they know I would be so happy to forget everything, if only they would let me? You don’t get to choose what you remember. My husband had been stronger than he was supposed to be, the strongest man I had ever met, and so handsome. He was going to live forever. He wasn’t supposed to die first. He was supposed to live long past his mind, ridiculously long, and I was supposed to take care of him. His frail body, my strong hands. I was supposed to let my conscience be my guide.
…..My son’s hands were hard on my elbows and he propelled me over the soft wood of the floor, the golden light falling through the window, through the tall-ceilinged foyer down the hall, down the hall to the door. When had they ever been small? Once they had come up to my knees, had blond hair, and dirty knees and they loved me. They had asked me so many questions, all kinds of questions. Stupid questions that I still remembered the answers to.

Jen Larsen‘s work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Word Riot, and Nimrod International Journal, among others, and is forthcoming in South Loop Review. She can be reached @ .


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