MY MOTHER AND I BEAT A DOG
for Maggie Daniels
In the months before our old dog died,
my mother and I took turns beating it
because the dog was sick and my father
didn’t want to put her down. Are we
going to put me down when I get old?
he joked once, rubbing his bald spot
while on the floor the dog writhed.
There was something my mother and I
hated in that dog when it slunk
into the kitchen to lick the tiles
of any crumbs, the sound of it an echo
of my mother’s broom or wash cloth,
the sound of it an echo of my own
chewing as I ate, me and the dog,
each time I ate, she and the dog,
each time someone had eaten,
in the kitchen at the same time,
me and the dog eating, my mother
and the dog cleaning, washing
the counters and the floor.
This was when my mother and father
were getting divorced without knowing
they were. It was as if not having
a word for this deprived them of a word
for anything, for instance, dinner,
which my father began making nightly
for the first time since I was born,
chili-rubbed loins of pork, great dishes
of primavera and lasagna that would sit
in the fridge for days, going bad,
no one touching them.
My mother and I never ate his food.
We were always out of the house anyway,
though who knows where she went?
I would pass through the whole town
without seeing her, running first four,
then eight, twelve, however many miles
brought me out to the edge of town,
the road running empty between grey fields
of flattened corn stalks, the motion
itself like a hunger. You could empty all of
yourself into it, and still it
could always take more.
When my mother and I returned
from our separate places, we’d meet
in the kitchen. As she cleaned
my father’s dishes, I would allow myself
something small to eat. We spoke
rarely. We were waiting for the sound
of the dog’s uncut nails on the tiles
as it limped in to lick the floor beneath
my seat, and if my sister came in to ask
where we’d been, we answered
vaguely, already hearing its approach.
“I can’t wait,” my mother said once,
“until it dies.” This was toward the
end, long after the days when we flirted
with what we were doing, staging
clumsy kicks, deliberately wide swats
that would send the dog, untouched,
hurrying to the edge of the room.
But always it would return, and the sound
of its licking—intent, rhythmic, obsessive
—would resume. Soon, we began
chasing her, but the dog could hardly
move. When it still stood there we’d
scream, then began miming the blows
that became real blows and eventually
it seemed that instead of coming into
the kitchen for food, it’d come to be
punished, though I know now that’s
false, that once you punish something
you give up your knowledge of
whatever it had been, the way people
in my hometown, Sunday after
Sunday, try to lift Christ onto his
Godhead by crucifying him again and
again in their minds, trying to find that point
where agony blurs into something else.
As a child I stole a pair of panties
from my babysitter, Maggie,
right out of her drawer and each time
I saw her after that, I’d think of how
my fingers played cat’s cradle
with the purple silk, her scent
vanished already, because
I’d grabbed a clean pair.
She probably never knew,
or if she did, she might’ve
just laughed at me,
but at the time, when my mother
dropped me off at her house,
I couldn’t see her, but only
what I’d done.
It was the same, years later,
long after I’d hid or lost or
thrown away those panties,
when my mother would say
of my sister that she looked
just like Maggie—the same
eyes, the same skin—I’d look
at her, but I could only see
what others might do.
When I got the call about Maggie’s murder,
I was in Virginia, as I had been
when my mother called to tell me
our dog had died. She said that
when my father carried her wrapped in a blanket
to the back of his car, he did it
clear-eyed, like another chore.
I remember how someone once told me
that everyone in our dreams is another
version of ourselves. I wonder too if, awake,
in pain, we’re always confusing ourselves
and others, that maybe, that day, my father
had tucked himself into a blanket and was
carrying that self, clear-eyed, balding,
unwanted in the house, to be buried.
When my mother finally told him that he
had to move out, he argued with
silence, his softness a protest, as if by
turning invisible and mute he’d be illuminated
by the light of his own loss. My mother,
when she told me about the dog, broke down weeping.
Weeks after I got the call about Maggie,
I heard how they’d found the murderer:
they’d found a box in which he’d placed,
as a keepsake, a dread of his own hair
that Maggie had torn from his scalp
in the struggle to stay alive and unraped,
as if he wanted to remember that
he could take something as large as a life
and only end up with a dead piece of himself.
After the funeral, my mother and I visited
Maggie’s family for Christmas. There was a tree
in the window. There were boxes on the porch
going to the curb. In the house, there were
six of them now. They wanted to know how
we were, and for a long time, my mother and
I spoke about ourselves, everyone comfortable
with this subject. Maggie’s mother sat
mutely, staring off. No one looked at her.
Occasionally there would be a long silence
in which it wasn’t clear if the family
was waiting for us to ask about Maggie
or we were waiting for them to talk
or we were all simply waiting.
Eventually, during one of those silences,
Maggie’s father began to speak about her.
I had heard that, after days of not
knowing, unanswered calls, vague answers
from the police, when the officers walked up to
the door, he fell to his knees, already knowing
what they would say. Now, he was saying
how the community had come together
for them, about the letters her students
had sent. At some point, my mother asked
about the trial and he began telling us how,
in the jail, the other inmates often beat
her murderer, and as he was telling us this,
her mother said the first thing I’d heard
her say in years. “I wish,” she said,
and her husband fell silent. Everyone
in the room turned. “I wish they would
just kill him.” For a long time no one spoke,
and then, even though we’d already talked about it,
she asked how old my sister was now.
As my mother began to, slowly,
carefully speak about her own daughter,
I stared into the dark of the hall,
which the stairs climbed, wondering what
they’d turned her room into.
Listening to my mother talk about my sister,
I realized she was as old now as Maggie’d been
the day I climbed those stairs, in love, and only
came down with a piece of fabric. In my eyes,
my sister is still a child but my mother was saying
how she’s old enough to know how to drive.
I know this too: my mother has told her when
she’s out, alone, to always keep, within reach,
beneath the driver’s seat, a lead pipe.
—from Rattle #57, Fall 2017
Michael Sears: “I didn’t start writing poetry until my mother called to tell me that my friend’s sister, a former babysitter of mine, had been murdered in her apartment. This was my first poem, and my first attempt to understand what happened.”