by Laura Pigott
Regan’s face contorted as she surveyed the dark smudges on the kitchen linoleum and dirty rags strewn about on the counter. She grabbed her seven-year-old daughter roughly by the arm. “See what you’ve done!”
Marian looked stricken. “I was just trying to help. You said the oven needed cleaning but you’re too tired.”
“You call this cleaning?” Regan shoved Marian against the cupboard, where she fell and curled up on her side. She had learned that going blank and still was the best way to ride out her mother’s furies, especially when she was slurring her words. “It’ll take me forever to get these stains out. Go to your room this instant!”
Marian crawled into the twin bed across from her younger sisters’ bunk beds. Her black lab, Dorian, heaved himself up and nuzzled her, licking her tear-streaked face. Since Dorian wandered into their yard when she was three, he had been Marian’s constant companion. Her five-year-old twin brothers were too rough-and-tumble for the gentle dog, and her sisters too young to appreciate the comfort he offered. As the oldest, Marian bore the brunt of her mother’s frustrations trying to care for too many children while her husband spent his spare time finishing up his degree, or maybe just seeking the peace and quiet he said he couldn’t find at home. It was worse when Regan was drinking. Then they would have fights and Regan would shout at her father and cry and slam doors, like the time she brought home an expensive adding machine to help with paying bills and her father criticized her because there were these things called calculators that cost a lot less.
Marian was named after her mother’s oldest sister. It was supposed to be an honor, but when Regan talked about her aunt there was a sneer in her voice: “Marian was the smart one, Marian was the successful one, Marian was Grandma’s favorite.” It seemed as if her mother, the middle child, were always trying to show she could do something better than her siblings. From what Marian could see, having babies was it. Still, every time a letter came about how Aunt Lillian had an article published or Uncle Ethan had been accepted into medical school, her mother would find more reasons to yell at Marian. Then she would start bragging on the phone about how she wrote a screenplay that was going to be turned into a movie, or saved a man’s life in a car accident, which Marian knew was made up. In the last call with Grandma, Regan found out her youngest sister, Susan, a beauty queen in high school, had been certified to train police dogs.
* * *
One day Marian came home from school five blocks away to eat her lunch and take Dorian for a walk. Since he was mostly her dog, she was happy to be responsible for him. His tail beat against her leg as he jumped up to give her a slobbery kiss. She didn’t see her mother, but heard strangled sounds coming from the utility room. Her mother was sobbing while she ironed a pair of trousers. A radio was on nearby, next to a half-full wineglass, and men with solemn voices were saying that the President had just been shot.
For the next few weeks, it was as if a hush had fallen over the city and the monotonously blue skies of Marian’s San Diego neighborhood had clouded over. It reminded her of the afternoon the previous winter when she and Dorian were lazing in the backyard and she noticed fat flakes falling from above. She’d read about snow in her picture books and danced deliriously as it coated the grass, with Dorian barking at her heels—until her mother came outside and scolded her because it was only ash from runaway wildfires in the foothills.
For a while her mother was mercifully subdued, but one morning Marian woke up to find her mother in a rage. She had discovered melted crayon all over the laundry when she retrieved it from the dryer. As usual, she made the children line up from oldest to youngest, except the baby, who was taking a nap and was too little yet to be the culprit, and said they would be whipped until someone confessed. She fetched a leather belt and began walloping Marian vigorously across the back and bottom. Marian just stood there and pretended she was somewhere else, was someone else. Dorian bounded over, whimpering and pawing at her mom, but Regan lashed him across the snout and he yelped and hid behind the couch. Then she started in on one of the twins, who cried: “No, Mommy, stop!” By the time she’d finished with the boys and moved on to Marian’s three-year-old sister, Regan was worn out and only gave her a couple of weak smacks. And she was probably the one who did it, Marian thought.
Back in her room, Marian fished out Black Beauty from under her bed. She’d found it in a box of her mother’s old books in the garage. She first figured out how to make the squiggles on pages into words back when she was four, and she took refuge in the stories she discovered there, so different from her own. Dorian snuggled at her side, his doggy breath riffling the pages.
Regan appeared in her doorway. “Oh, so you can read that, can you? Well, aren’t you the little genius. And where did you get it? It’d better not be one of mine.” When Marian didn’t glance up, her mother snatched the book away. “Pay attention to me when I talk to you!” Ever since she’d discovered imaginary worlds, her daughter had looked back at her in the real one with the eyes of a stranger.
“I just wanted you to know I’ve decided to train Dorian as a therapy dog.” Regan grabbed his collar and dragged him off the bed. “That means he’ll need to be crated whenever he’s not with me so he learns not to be distracted by attention.”
Copyright © 2017. Therapy Dog by Laura Pigott