Here’s a lovely, wistful addition to Numéro Cinq‘s amazing collection of Childhood essays. Liz Blood grew up in Oklahoma amongst siblings and dogs. But this essay focuses on the universal passage from innocence to knowledge, the sad realization that idylls of childhood are shadowed by the opaque mysteries of adulthood. You grow up wondering, always, what you didn’t know, didn’t understand, at the time. Liz is a nonfiction student at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing program. She teaches English at a school in Gunsan, Jeollabuk-do, South Korea. See her “What it’s like living here” essay published earlier on these pages.
By Liz Blood
A neighborhood black Labrador made puppies with a neighborhood Dalmatian and the litter was up for grabs. My mother piled us—me, eight; Emily, six; Rebecca, four; John, two—into the metallic brown Mercury she drove then and we headed down the street towards the park. I hung my head and arm out the passenger window and, as we rounded the corner to the blonde-brick two-story, I saw him. Nixon—though he didn’t yet have that name—an all black puppy, running nonstop circles around the inside of a small, white wire-fenced pen. If my mother had taken any hints from this rambunctiousness, they were quickly ignored. We squealed in delight at this puppy, and squealed even louder when, after coaxing him onto his back with lots of petting, we discovered of a diamond-shaped tuft of white hair on his chest. This settled it, he was special in our eyes, and we took him home to the backyard.
It’s always been a dog backyard. Before Nixon we had Chevis and Bianca and Goth, but they all were old and soon would need replacing. Nixon was unlike any of those dogs, however. Where they were calm in their old age (the only ages at which I knew them), Nixon continued to act like a puppy long after he no longer looked like one. And I disliked him for this. His tail hurt when it wagged against your leg and it was always wagging. He bounded through the house if we didn’t confine him to the kitchen and, later, he became a chronic fence jumper. I suppose he had neighborhood gallivanting in his blood—after all, that is how he came to be. And even though I wanted to leave the backyard, to go beyond the fence, I couldn’t understand his need to do so. What did Nixon do out there among the wanderers? Did he mingle with the transients who asked for bus money? Did he run with the children on their way home from school? My parents warned if he did it again after so many times, they would not pick him up from the pound. I envisioned doggy gas chambers and wished he would just stay in the yard.
But he continued to jump.
One afternoon a burly man in denim overalls and a trucker hat came to the door and my mother let him in. He came to take Nixon away to his farm. My mother told us to say goodbye. He brought out a leash or a rope and fixed it to Nixon’s collar and had to drag him out the front door. My sister Emily cried. I moved into the den to peer through the blinds and watched as the man put Nixon in the bed of his truck. It surprised me he did not leap out. Here is your chance, I thought. I sat down in the brown naugahyde armchair. The back cushion and arms of the chair were ripped and white stuffing was coming out. I picked at it and thought. Nixon had been with me that morning, and then he wasn’t. I hadn’t liked him much, but suddenly I missed him, wanted him forever jumping out of and returning to the backyard. He’d been moving towards this point his whole life, from the day we saw him, and this frightened me. I didn’t know what to feel or towards what point in life I was moving.
A woman came up to our backyard fence one afternoon in early summer and rested her arms carefully on the twisted spiked top of the chain links. My mother, two younger sisters and brother were all outside. It wasn’t entirely unusual for strangers to approach our fence like this. At least I didn’t think so. My mother seemed unsurprised, so I acted similarly. The woman was taller than my mother. She had a greased-back, dirty-blonde, thin ponytail, a stained white t-shirt stretched over her protruding belly, powder blue jean shorts, and rail thin legs that didn’t match the size of her stomach. I stared her up and down, more than once, trying to make the connection between those sinewy legs and her top-heaviness.
“M’am I’m sorry to bother you but—”
My mother looked and subtly motioned her head in the way of the house. I ushered my siblings inside. They were less than interested in this stranger and ran off to our joint bedroom to play.
“—my daughter is in the hospital in Lawton and—”
I stuck around, was eavesdropping from the back door. My mother is from Lawton, which is one and a half hours away by car, and I recited these facts as I processed the woman’s story.
“—I really need some money for a bus ticket, d’ya think you can help me out?”
“Well,” my mother began, “I won’t give you money. But if you’re willing to do a little work I’ll pay you.”
“Yes m’am that’d be fine.”
“I have young children. You can’t come in my house.”
The coolness and evenness with which my mother delivered these words struck me, as if she had them prepared, had divined this woman’s visit earlier on and worked on what to say. I continued to look the woman up and down, spotting blue veins crawling up from her white sneakers, white tube socks.
I had actually seen her before she walked up the side yard, crossed our driveway, and leaned on the fence. She looked like the kind of person who routinely got off the city bus that stops at our corner. I was afraid of a lot of those people then for reasons I couldn’t voice. But there was nothing frightening about her, just something sad and supplicant. She had walked here, zigzagging across the road, looking for someone like my mother.
“Would you like some ice water?” my mother asked, pausing on the top step at the back door.
“Yes m’am, thank you m’am.”
“Would you take this out to her?” she asked, handing the nearly overflowing cup to me. And I did. She remained at the sink, in thought, looking out the back window. Down the peeling paint steps, eyes moving from plastic cup to concrete step to her thin, vein-riddled legs.
“How old are you?” the woman asked me.
“Ten,” I said.
She said nothing. Not even about her daughter, which I had expected.
The sun was beginning to move above the house in such a way that the patio would no longer be shaded. I could feel the rays creeping on top of my head. She folded a load of towels my mother brought to her and swept what we called the back patio. Really it was a bunch of concrete slabs laid unevenly next to one another, between which grew innumerable weeds and blades of grass that my mother relentlessly pulled. The woman repeated her story to no one in particular as she did the work. I believed her but could tell by my mother’s pursed lips that she did not, entirely anyway. But the woman seemed to believe herself and that was all that really mattered.
She woman gulped the ice water, a bit running down her chin, and I realized she’d been walking all day, out there in the heat. Maybe she was going to walk to Lawton if my mother hadn’t helped. The cup she held, which moments before had seemed large in my hands, looked appropriate to her size. I filled the glass two more times before she left down the sidewalk to the fence, out the swinging metal gate, and bounded on down the road. I stood there until I could see her no longer, until she had vanished into that world beyond our yard, and I turned around and went and sat on the swingset.
Years later when I was no longer a child, exactly, but that child still lived within me, I saw the vagabond woman at a gas station and recognized her instantly. Though she was older, she hadn’t changed much. Even her clothes were remarkably similar—short shorts, tall socks, stained shirt.
She approached the person on the other side of the gas pump and I listened as she told the same story she had told my mother years ago. I braced myself, hoping she would carry on her way and not speak to me. But she came around the pump and told me her story for the second time, though she didn’t know it and I didn’t have in me to tell her. That child within me? She felt sick to her stomach.
Even though I had long since learned that adults lie, even to children, it was like discovering it again. That memory had been buried under layers of years’ worth of other memories and experiences and lessons. So, when I saw her dingy frayed ponytail wagging and thin legs scrambling over the parking lot I was transported back in time, back when I was a little girl, back when I stayed inside the fence. The innocence returned to me as quickly as it was gone again and I felt the rawness of those first you-lied-to-me-now-I-can’t-trust-you situations and their attending hurt.
I don’t know when it happened, but I do know it happened after this sighting—I asked my mother if we really gave Nixon away to a farm. (We did, she assures me.) It was something I had never thought to question. But, this woman was still telling her stories; what stories was I still being told?