J Saler Drees

They Took Our Dogs Away

I was sitting on the front steps smoking a cigarette and eating beans out of a can when they came. They, the men from the Bible Church: Pastor Daniel and Mr. Whitney. They came, they said, to take our dogs away.

Several of the dogs had already run up barking and jumping at the men, who sweated in the summer heat. At that point, I didn’t much care, feeling sorry for myself, given that I’d missed two periods, my breasts gone tender, and I feared I’d gotten knocked up, though I didn’t know for sure who the father was. Maybe Ramsey, maybe Took-Took, but when I mentioned it to them, they both denied it. Ramsey saying, It ain’t mine, and Took-Took saying, I’m not ready. We’re not ready.

I’d had a miscarriage before, but I didn’t want to have another, nor find a way to have an abortion, the nearest clinic two hours away in Medford. And bleach can go to hell. Really, when you figure you have a baby inside you, you want to keep it. Even when you know it’s selfish, that your baby’s life will be hell, still you want to keep it. You tell yourself, I’ll give my baby a better life than mine, and this gives you something to live for. You say it while drinking a beer and think, then I better stop drinking and smoking and having all that sex. I better get heathy for my baby. But do you stop? Did I stop?

So, when Pastor Daniel and Mr. Whitney came to take our dogs away, I merely dragged on my cigarette, shrugged, sure, whatever. Didn’t even know how many dogs we had at that point, all them bitches having puppies right and left, and new strays showing up and scrounging through the trash lying about our trailer. And Ma, she could never say no to a dog or a cat. Yeah, we had all them cats around too, although they drifted, usually coming around only when we had Kibble, which Ma would buy before even buying people food. To Ma, the things of most importance were tobacco for her pipe, Popov for her sanity, Kibbles for the furry friends, and then people food. The reason being that people food was often donated to us by those like Pastor Daniel, whereas the other things weren’t.

Your mother around? Pastor Daniel asked. Or Greg?

Inside the trailer, the screams of fourteen-month-old Baby Julette, fussy with an earache, I guessed. Non-stop: earaches, and stomachaches, and ballooning snot. And Ma yelling at Pearl to get out of the way, which got Pearl, a sensitive toddler, to crying, and then several of the dogs started yipping, and a cat came to rub against my leg. I pushed it off.

Just go ahead and take ‘em, I said. Ma’s busy.

Usually I helped Ma with Baby Julette, but now that I had possibly my own baby to think about, it seemed Ma should learn to start raising her own damn children, instead of relying on me to do it for her. Much as I loved my littles, I needed a break once in a while, too.

The men stared at me while dogs continued to circle and sniff the truck they’d arrived in, and then pee on its tires. Dogs always pissing and shitting wherever they damn please, and either humping each other or somebody’s leg. I’d find shit on my clothes, in my shoes, so why’d I care if Pastor Daniel and Mr. Whitney took them dogs away? In fact, why hadn’t I thought of that myself?

I’ll help, I said, stabbing out my smoke and getting up from the steps. Where we gonna take ‘em?

To the pound, Mr. Whitney said, his face pinched as he petted a mongrel with patches of missing fur. He went on, There’s been lots of complaints saying your dogs are on the loose, nipping at people, getting into trash cans, but we don’t want you all to get into trouble. It’s not the sort of trouble worth getting in trouble over, you know what I mean?

I nodded. Certainly. I mean, another kerfuffle over some mangy dogs? Besides, their fleas were always biting Baby Julette and Pearl, causing these red bumps all over their arms and legs, like they’d got the chicken pocks. Fleas, they wouldn’t be good for my baby. A girl, I pictured her a girl, floating around inside me, all serene-like in a wet bowl of warmth, and every choice I made would be for her. Things that I used to ignore, like the dogs, the fleas, the shit and piss and barking, were no longer things to be all passive about, now knowing that I’d be a mother. Time to act. So, even though I knew I was going against Ma, whose odd attachment to the animals went beyond reason, I sided with the church men.

Pastor Daniel scooped up one of the friendlier pooches, one that tried to lick his face. He jerked his head back, not seeming too keen on accepting any canine love, and for a minute I wanted to tell him and Mr. Whitney to leave, remembering how much Ma giggled when the pups licked her face. And how much she liked petting them, or holding them in her lap. Even I, on occasion, liked to snuggle with a pup, my favorite being one I called Lama, a pit-bull/poodle. Amongst dogs there is no judgement.

And yet, when I saw a mutt climbing on the back of a black and white terrier mix, Pepper, I think her name was, with a low-sagging belly and blistered, chewed-on tits due to just having had a litter, it disgusted me, that mutt already going at it while Pepper lowered her head as if in shame. I grabbed the horny thing by the scruff, the first to go. He yelped, squirming, trying to get free, and I said, Where do I put him?

Pastor Daniel said, There’s a crate in the back of the truck.

Just as he said that, Pearl came crying out of the trailer. Mini, I hungry.

Ain’t there cheerios somewhere? I asked, trying to get the mutt to calm down, but he kept yipping, his paws scratching at my arms, and Pearl’s eyes gone wide as she said, Roger being bad?

Roger? I asked. So, the mutt had a name. I dropped him, and he ran off under the porch steps.

Meanwhile, Mr. Whitney crouched down, his gloved hands passing out jerky treats to yipping, salivating mouths, the dogs hopping about him. He slipped a collar around a patchy-furred mutt gobbling treats and gave it a tug, lifting it off the ground and carrying it to the back of the truck, ignoring its yelps of startlement.

And then Greg came around from back of the trailer, where he liked to go meditate, as he called it, on the edge of the gully. He had Parkinson’s and diabetes, his whole body a constant quiver, and rendering him mostly useless aside from his disability check, and the fact that he apparently was Pearl and Baby Julette’s father. How this was achieved, I didn’t want to think about. Not that he was a bad guy, plus he really was in pain, I think, but he also had no business fathering children he couldn’t take care of. Still, Ma got more welfare, claiming two new young’uns, so how could I complain? And the fact he stayed with Ma?

You’re getting mean, Mini, Ma said to me yesterday after I called her a loser for not cleaning up Baby Julette’s throw-up. Where you get off calling me a loser? she asked. As if we didn’t live in such a small secluded town way up in the Siskiyou mountains of California, the state, I realized later, associated with Hollywood, and movie stars, and palm tree-lined streets leading down to the beaches. Afterall, I was about to be a junior in high school and beginning to figure out a thing or two.

And Greg now looking confused, his long gray beard a tremor, his head a constant timid shiver, was saying, You here to take them pups to the pound?

Whenever he talked, his voice sounded nervous and uncertain, although Michael J. Fox, Greg’s hero, he didn’t have no shaking voice, so who knows?

I thought we agreed on this when we talked last Sunday, Pastor Daniel said, his face blushing, not the boldest man himself. You’d figure him to have more conviction in his dealings, like many men of Christ. But nope, Pastor Daniel, he was the shy type, and probably the reason he was sent to preach in this town that the rest of the world could care about.

Mr. Whitney, his face sweaty-slick, paused his roping of the mutts, and bent over, clasping his hands on his knees, breathing hard. After another minute, he said, Greg, these dogs need to go. They’re sick and starving, and it’s not right, having so many to take care of.

Mr. Whitney, unlike Pastor Daniel, spoke his mind with conviction. Greg stroked his trembling beard as if considering Mr. Whitney’s words. Pearl cried louder, which brought Ma out of the trailer, holding the sulky Baby Julette in nothing but a diaper, and sucking on a frozen juice-pop, food-coloring all over her face, and dripping down her chest and belly.

What you doing with my dogs? Ma shouted, cuss-free in the presence of Christian men. Always well-behaved around Pastor Daniel, being how he gave us free food. She smiled at him, all pleasant-like, said, Why, Pastor Daniel. Good afternoon.

We’re here for the dogs, he said.

Ma’s smile faltered though she was trying real hard to keep it. What for? No one else want ‘em and me their only hope.

I needed another cigarette, the air getting heavy. While I wanted the dogs gone, seeing how upset Pearl was, running over to Ma, and not me, and Ma’s face twisting, made me also want to keep them dogs. Baby Girl, I thought, and rubbed my belly. What should I do?

The three men, Pastor Daniel, Mr. Whitney, and Greg, all looked at each other, then at Ma, and at the baby and Pearl. No one spoke. But the dogs barked, and squirrels chattered in the trees. And if there weren’t enough people gathered already, along came another, Zane, my older brother. I’ll have you know there’s even more, three other half-brothers jaunting around town, no doubt playing down at the river, or trying to get invited over to homes for dinner. But we were never all that popular school-wise, and kids said we smelled and stole, so good luck, brothers.

Zane, however, was my full-blood brother, a high school drop-out and current meth-addict, and with a penchant for arriving home at the wrong time. He looked like he’d just binged hard for two nights and needed to crash, and wasn’t it just peachy he show up here like this, in front of Pastor Daniel and loud-mouth Mr. Whitney.

Ma cried out, Zane, honey, do something. They’re trying to take my dogs.

Zane, always a Ma’s boy, even with his bloodshot eyes and picked-at face, his bony frame and shallow anger, said, Get the fuck off our land. You got no damn right to take our dogs.

Pastor Daniel held out his hands. Now listen—

We’re not on your land. You rent a trailer, Mr. Whitney pointed out. And these dogs, they’re suffering all over town.

Zane’s eyes bulged, the way they do when he’s about to hit something, and this time I wasn’t having it, my older brother suddenly someone my baby girl could in no way be around. This wasn’t the sort of uncle I wanted, or the sort of family, and I imagined being far away, my baby nowhere near these people, or this past where she was created out of desperation and a lack of condoms.

I stepped forward, against Ma, sniveling Pearl, quaky Greg, cracked-out Zane and all the dogs lying about, snapping at flies, or yapping, humping, peeing, digging in trash, and I spoke: These dogs, they’re wild, and they get run over in the street, and eaten by coyotes, so don’t even pretend you love them, Ma.

How dare you speak to me that way! Ma said, her face ablaze, and she lunged toward me, but Pearl was gripping her leg, so she tripped, still holding Baby Julette, and went pitching over them steps, Pastor Daniel, Mr. Whitney, and Zane all leaping to the rescue, and Greg trying to but not fast enough. And Baby Julette and Pearl now screaming to high heaven as the guys steadied her.

Give me the baby, I said, and Mr. Whitney handed me the crying, popsicle-juiced Julette, whose diaper was swollen and loose with hours’ worth of piss, but no time now to worry about that. I balanced her on my hip and walked in circles; she liked the merry-go-round movement, and soon buried her snotty head into my shoulder, whimpering. The dogs pranced around me, thinking everything a game, snapping at the baby’s feet or at my ankles. Except for Lama, my favorite, who sat on her haunches watching, wary, like she knew that everything was going to change, that things couldn’t possibly stay this way.

Ma was wailing, making a huge racket. Bitch made me almost drop my baby, she said. I don’t want her holding my baby.

But no one, not even Zane, who was looking real upset himself, took Baby Julette, and Pearl ran over to me, wanting to be held, her little arms reaching up as she screamed, her face scrunched and ugly, so I picked her up, too, and bounced them both.

Greg came over to Ma and said, Bonnie, let them take the dogs.

They’ll go to good homes, and have full attention to their needs, Mr. Whitney was saying.

You telling me I didn’t give them a good fucking home? Ma cried out. You telling me I can’t take care of them?

No, no, Pastor Daniel assured her. We’re just—

Leave Ma alone, Zane shouted.

Greg repeated, Let them take the dogs, Bonnie, for God’s sake.

I held my two sisters close, my arms starting to ache. Their crying rattled me. I mean it’s hard to keep your cool when there’s crying babies around, and I don’t care how used to it you get. I tried to concentrate on my own baby girl inside me, but it hurt even to think. I turned to take Pearl and Baby Julette behind the trailer, where they could calm down by the gully. Lama followed us.

I brought the girls to the wild blackberry bushes along the gully, where berries were just ripening. August was blackberry season, and we loved to wander around town to the various patches and get our arms all scratched up from the thorns, our fingers and mouths stained with purple juice, and never mind the shits afterwards, the pain always worth the reward.

They ripen first at the top of the vine, where the sun hits hardest, and I promised the girls I’d get them some juicy ones, but first they had to quit carrying on. I set them down in the dirt, and, as I did, a sharp cramp cut through my gut. I grimaced while the littles snuffled. To distract myself and my sisters, I made a silly show of trying to find a blackberry, going for my goofiest faces and songs: Oh, blackberries, where are you? I’m gonna find you for my tummy tum tums.

Pearl found this extra funny and started to smile and lighten up.

Hey, Mini, where’d you go? Zane’s voice, from over by the trailer. I ignored him, afraid of what he might do, but he spotted me and came over.

What you want? I felt ready to be mean, but he kept wiping at his face, and for a moment his eyes looked all shiny, and I remembered how he, like Pearl, was a sensitive soul underneath the teenager bullshit. How easily he’d get upset in elementary school whenever kids teased him for his b.o., or the fact he didn’t own a Gameboy, had never watched Beavis and Butthead, that he wasn’t athletic, just gangly and fragile. It had embarrassed me, a crybaby older brother, and I’d resented the way I found myself always sticking up for him, and soon avoided him, especially when he turned angry. Lama trotted over to him, wagging her tail.

Why you letting them take our dogs away? he asked, sounding more drained than mad. He bent down to pet Lama, who licked his hands. In the distance I saw Pastor Daniel and Mr. Whitney still chasing dogs around the truck. Greg lifted a pair of squirming pooches into the crate as I handed the girls one blackberry each.

Like I make the decisions, I said, the cramping in my stomach not going away.

You take care of everyone don’t you? Zane said, looking at me with his sad slitted eyes, his narrow face.

The littles whined for more blackberries, but this time I couldn’t ignore the sudden gush of fluid I felt between my legs, hot and wet.

Watch the girls for me, will you? I said, calm as I could. Bathroom emergency.

I rushed off to the backdoor, where the laundry room was, except that the washing machine had broken down, yet again. Ma hoped someone from the church would soon donate us another, like last time. I tripped and crawled over mountains of pissy smelling jeans, t-shirts and sweatshirts on my way to the bathroom, where I stripped my shorts and saw the soiled, deep maroon in the crotch, and smeared on the sides of my legs. Dizzy, wanting to puke, I collapsed on the toilet, and chanted, No, no, no, my baby girl.

Part of me knew it was for the better. As Took-Took said, we weren’t ready, and yet, what a betrayal, this blood, this slime, staining the yellowed toilet bowl water pink. Whether it was a miscarriage or a late period, I wasn’t sure. My body didn’t hurt like my last miscarriage, yet the pain in my heart felt real, and I knew I had to get full again.

I can’t tell you how long I stayed in there, while outside, dogs yipped, and more shouting, and it seemed on the toilet a piece of the world stopped spinning around the sun.

When I finally did emerge, all was quiet. I’d cleaned up best I could, wearing sweatpants I found bunched on the floor, minus a pad or tampon. None under the sink, but an old t-shirt, swaddled around me would do. I’d thought of folding over one of Baby Julette’s diapers but decided I wouldn’t waste them on myself.

Out by the blackberry bushes, neither the littles, nor Zane and Lama were anywhere in sight. I rushed around to the front, Ma sitting on the stoop steps and rocking Baby Julette and Pearl in her lap, the three of them crying for their different reasons: Baby Julette for her ears, Pearl for her hunger, and Ma for her powerlessness. No sign of Greg or Zane. Pastor Daniel’s truck and the dogs long gone, and how quiet, still, secretive the air. The place seemed shameful without the dogs.

Ma looked over at me, her face tight, wet. How could you? she asked. How could you let them take our dogs away?

I started walking, a hollowness inside me, a hollowness black and spacious like sleep without dreams. I needed to fill that space, and even though I didn’t love Ramsey, or Took-Took, and they didn’t love me, I would find them. I left Ma crying with the littles, the dog-less trailer at my back.

J Saler Drees was born in and has lived all over California, currently residing in San Diego. MFA was earned at Pacific University. Recent works have been published in Blue Lake Review, Hypertext, OxMag, and RavensPerch. Forthcoming work can be found in Evening Street.