Max

Short Story

I don’t know why Red brought him over here, felt lucky that the last damn puppy he brought got ran over. Had to punish Phillip for leaving the door open, he thought I was mad about the dog, really didn’t care. Here’s Red bringing another dog, wish he’d put some money in my pocket instead of another mouth to feed.

“He’s a German Shepard,” He says while slurping spit from the side of his mouth. “He’s going to get big.”

Red sets down the cardboard box, the children surround the puppy. I stared at them over Red’s shoulder.

“I wouldn’t have to bring a dog over if you let me move in.”

“Bringing me things I don’t need isn’t going to help.”

“The neighborhood is long past south, it’s getting worse. That dog will keep you and the kids safe.”

“Max.” Oliver says, again. 

It’s the new word he learned. It’s from a commercial. Max detergent, Max gum, Max something. We all had a good laugh at him trying to say maximum, it comes out sounding like maxigum.

“Can we name him that, Max?” Lola asks.

“Name him whatever you like.” I say. “You didn’t put away any of the old dog’s stuff did you?”

“No, mama.”

“Then put him in that kennel, get your children to bed and I’ll get your sisters and brother to bed.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You still here?”

“I’ll take a hint.”

Red leaves out of the front door. I lock the deadbolt and the doorknob behind him.

Been working at the Purzelbaum cafeteria in the Perkins Building for the last fifteen years, ever since I moved to Rock Island, Nebraska from Rivertown, Arkansas. I moved to get away from John Earl and found nothing but men like him. John Earl found out I was pregnant with Lola from Uncle Dave, who found out from my mama. John Earl was on route 81, he drives trucks, semis, he’d turned around and came by to my daddy’s home asking for my hand like an idiot. I took the shells out of daddy’s shotgun, he always kept it loaded I knew he wouldn’t check. I knew John Earl only wanted to make me his wife that way he’d have a place in Arkansas to stop in. I couldn’t have that as a life.

My sister Maejorie happened to be in Rock Island because her husband was stationed at Olson Air Force Base. I called her up and I didn’t have to beg. Daddy gave me $140 and bought me a bus ticket. Living on the base worked out well, Maejorie’s husband was a captain at the time, he was able to get me a job at the PX, that’s where I met Stuart, he didn’t seem like John Earl at first. He turned out to be just like John Earl, when I got pregnant with Betty Ann, he had a house, a ring and my life mapped out. Maejorie helped me get a place off-base in the west end of town. 

West side reminds me of home and that isn’t a good thing. I lived too far away from the base to work at the PX. Lola just turned one and I was three months pregnant. I applied to Purzelbaum every month while I was working at Chubbs grocery store. Victor, the kitchen manager told me that they hired me after I had the baby. He did. My sister Eloise moved up because the cotton trackers had took a fair amount of work from daddy. She’d got a job as a night security guard at the federal reserve building, she’d watch the kids in the day and I’d watch them at night.      

 Victor and I got close and I got pregnant again with June Louise, he didn’t want to get married, he just wanted a place to crash when he got drunk. Eloise had enough money to get her own place and I had enough to afford daycare, but we didn’t want to part. We found some apartments still in the west end but in a nice enough part and close to a school for Lola. We moved without giving Victor any notice.

Victor had a slip and fall at Purzelbaum, he was drunk and forgoed the drug test, hadn’t seen him since and I don’t think the slip and fall had anything to do with that. Everything was going pretty well. We got word that daddy was sick but he told us to stay put, we had bills and family and there was nothing we could do to bring an old man back to life. Daddy been gone for eight years now. My temptations got the best of me due to this, started drinking which is how I met James, we enjoyed each other’s sin, he and the booze was enough of a distraction from my pain. Not my girls, just life. Listen I didn’t have some master plan how my life should have been at thirty-three. For a black girl who got pregnant at 16 and every two years after I’m doing damn good. 

The management offered me Victor’s job and I took it without a second thought. Maejorie was looking to get out of the house I hired her. James gave me Adam and a dresser full of clothes. For all I know he could have been murdered which I won’t say good riddance due to the jury still being out. With James being gone I got to clean myself up a bit. With all my working and drinking I missed my babies growing up and making mistakes, my mistakes, Lola tried to hide it from me but I walked in on her when she was coming out of the shower, big as a cow, 16 just like me. I wasn’t mad, I hugged my baby until I stopped crying.

First order of business was to make sure Lola would graduate high school. She had been wearing hoodies and baggy clothes to hide it from her peers and faculty. I felt useless because she had inadvertently learned how to be a mother due to my living. I don’t know what to teach her, she’s a mother and a child at the same time with no help from me. When she graduates I can hired her at Purzelbaum. She can stay with me. She hasn’t told me about the man, if I know her luck he’s probably sitting at a bar with John Earl, Stuart, Victor and James all sharing a cold one. 

Red owns the laundromat we go every Saturday, I should have known something was up. Who has a thing for single mothers of four? Someone who wants to make them a single mother of five which he did, Phillip was my last child.

I was wrong about Lola’s luck, she’d found a decent man, Kenneth. I had to hit her over the head to make her realize that. He showed up no different than John Earl at the house but he gave me $400. He told me that he wants to be a dad to his child, Lola can have her own life. He didn’t want her to promise herself to anything but her child. I should have been more careful, after Oliver was born, two years later just like her mother, Kenneth got her pregnant again with a girl Denise.

The apartment became a cell, I had moved out in the living room to give Lola and the baby the space. I looked good on paper to get a loan for a house and I did. In the West, but a great part, a elementary school a block away and a middle school across the street and in busing limit to one of the best public high school in Rock Island. The house is perfect, a finished basement for Lola and her babies, Lia and June Louise have a room, Adam and Oliver do too and I have my own room, the living room is huge, same as the kitchen and we have a garage, just in time to put something in it. 

Moving in wasn’t the warmest welcome, the man across the street, Tom put a for sale sign in his lawn the next day. There’s been a lot of talk I can only assume. I’m the only black woman in this neighborhood, hard to say there goes the neighborhood when it’s just me and my kids, but that don’t matter to white folks, they see black and think the worse. 

All it took was the children to meet everyone in the neighborhood and they all warmed up to us. I was too busy working to shake hands. My children did me right by being model and proper. Truth is I’m still a bit prejudice from my time in Arkansas, the problem I have with white folks is that they have a problem with me. Adam and Philip met Tom’s boy, Luther, he invited them over. Tom was over when I got off work to tell me how great it was to have some honest boys for Luther to play with. He went on to warn me about the Moller’s.

No one knew what this family’s problem was, crack, meth, just plain stupid, too many heads to not enough beds in a three bedroom house just two houses down from us. He called them white trash, I’d dealt with enough in my time back home, just keep your distance and you’ll be fine. He told me about their little girl, Ruth. A fat little thing that runs up and down the block looking for children to play with. Which isn’t as cute as it sounds, she’s three.

I trusted in God and look at what he’s provided me. Could have done without the dog. Damn thing got big as hell, like I assumed I had to walk the damn thing, build the fence, install the doggie door, feed him, bathe him, not in the house, unless I wanted to lose my mind. In the nine years of that damn dog living here, he never had to bite a robber, pull any of the kids out of a fire, Lola’s man Kenneth was a marine, he’d take the dog on runs with him. Hell, the only people who can get close to the damn dog is Lola, Kenneth, and me. Everyone else is afraid of him. He’s now too old to do any of those things Red brought him for.

“Miss Borsetta, can I pet the dog.” Ruth asks. What is she’s doing here so early? She looks up at me, the screen door between us. Dirt on her face and clothes. 

“Not right now Ruth, I’m heading to the store and Lola isn’t here.”

She turns around and walks laggardly.

“Wait. I’m sure she’ll be here when I get back from the store, come with me.” Her smile makes her face look chubbier. “Meet me at the garage door.”

I shut the door and tell the June, Adam and Phillip that Ruth is coming to the store with us. Once I get them all buckled in I drive up to the Moller’s.

“You said we’re going to the store.” Ruth says.

“We are baby, I do need to tell your parents where you are don’t I?”

I keep the window rolled down even though I’m not that far from them. The Moller’s don’t have a lawn, patches of dirt, sheets hang as curtains, their mailbox is on the ground. They don’t have a screen door. I knock three times on the door. I look back at the car and back to the door, I see the sheet part. I knock again. The sheet parts widely, the woman gives me me the shoo motion.”

“Excuse me.” I knock on the window.

The door opens slightly. Just the woman’s mouth and left eye are seen through the crack. “What.”

“We haven’t met yet, I’m Borsetta, I live down the street. I just wanted you to know that I have Ruth with me. We heading to the store, should be too long.”

“And you’re telling me why?”

“Just thought you should know. Sorry to trouble you.”

Impressively she’s able to slam the door without much space.

All I need was corn starch for the cornbread for dinner. I was right, Lola just got back home from registering for classes at the community college. Kenneth had brought her and the kids home.

“Hey mama.” Kenneth says. He’s been calling me that. “Need help with the groceries?”

“No, just some starch. Adam, take my keys and get the door.”

Adam takes the keys from my hand, holding the screen door open with his back, he unlocks both locks, he pulls the latch on the stopper to hold the screen door open. I wait for the kids to enter, Kenneth waits for me, he’s the last to enter. He sets down Oliver, he runs wobbly to the stairs. Kenneth closes the doors and locks both of them. I walk behind him, he takes each step one at a time. When we get to the top of the steps the phone rings, it’s answered down stairs.

“Mama, it’s Purzelbaum.” Lola shouts.

I pick up the receiver, “I got it.” I pinch the receiver with my shoulder and ear. “Hello.”

“Borsetta, sorry to call you on your day off but Shelby got arrested for driving with a suspended licensce.”

“And today is the Executive Luncheon. I’ll be there.” 

“Thank you Borsetta.”

I hang up the receiver. “Lola,” I shout down to the basement. Lola comes to the end of the steps. “I have to go into work, you’ll have to start dinner.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m going to put everyone down for a nap soon.”

“That sounds good.”

The Luncheon went smooth for me showing up thirty minutes late and not wanting to be there. I saw the flashing lights before turning the corner onto my street. Everyone is standing outside their house. Four cop cars, an ambulance and a humane society van. I can’t park anywhere near the house. I park at the middle school. Lola is sitting on the sidewalk, she has blood all over her arms and clothes. I run to her.

“Lola.” I scream.

She looks up at me with large puffy red eyes, tears still sliding down her face. A cop grabs me.

“This is a crime scene.” The cop says.

“This is my home.”

“It was your dog that killed the little girl. We have some question for you.”

“Mama,” Lola says, her words catch her tears making a small bubble.

I shake off the cop, running to my daughter. I hold her. Two cops surround us.

“Are you the homeowner?” A cop asks

“Yes.”

A man and a woman in brown coveralls comes over to us.

“We have subdued the animal.” The man says.

“What happened?”

“Ruth got in the backyard, Oliver heard it all, I put him down in your room.”

“How did she get in the backyard?” I ask.

“She didn’t want to take a nap I walked her back up to her house, she walked right in. She must have sneaked back there.”

“The animal has injuries,” the man in coveralls says. “Did you happen to find a weapon near the scene?”

“She was clutching a stick when I grabbed her.” Lola says. 

“Where’s the girl’s family? Is this some kind of daycare?” The cop asks.

“No, this is my home, this is my family.” I say.

“We’re trying to figure this all out.” The cop says.

“I just got here.”

“We don’t need that tone.” The cop shouts.

“Ru..the girl’s family is up the street, white house, dirt lawn.” They’re the only who aren’t outside.

The police officers told me I could wash the blood off the house. Max must have shook her. The Humane Society worker told me that she poked out Max’s eye, stabbed him four times in the belly and punctured his intestine three times and ripped his scrotum. They’re keeping him until the trial. God give me the strength. 

“Get the fuck out here.” Someone shouts.

I make my way to the front of my house, standing there gripping a pipe, is a older man with a large gut, his t-shirt is stretched by his gut, white chest hair curls out of the collar, his suspenders hold his self made jean shorts up. 

“Where’s that fucking dog?” He screams.

Kenneth comes out of the house before I get a chance to approach him. Kenneth stands on the porch, he’s closed both doors.

“They took the dog. You do best to head home. We’re all hurting here.”

The man looks confused, as if he forgot why he got down here.

“Just go, none of us need anymore pain.”

He laggardly turns around walks sluggishly back up the hill to their home. I return to the backyard, turn the valve for the hose, I have to use my thumb to create pressure to clean the blood from the house. It slides from the siding seeping into the grounds, into the roots of my home.

Television news, newspaper, they’ve all been around asking questions, I sent the television news away, they didn’t want to talk to us, they stood in front of our home for their story. The woman from the newspaper wanted to speak to Lola, Lola said she would if she printed exactly what she said.

Everyone in the neighborhood has been coming by giving us their support. Tom has come over the house every night to check on us, he has to hold his tears back every time, he feels terrible about what happened to Max. Same with all the letters I’ve been getting from all over the country, people worried about Max. I haven’t received any letters about Ruth, I expected hate mail, yet there’s none.

My court appointed lawyer said it would be best to only have contact with the Moller’s in the courtroom. I’ve been on the phone with the insurance people every night. I’ve never missed a payment for my home insurance, in situations like this it has to be for the best to make sure every I and T are correct. 

Lola hasn’t been herself lately. She blames herself for everything. Ruth and Denise are..were the same age, putting Oliver in my room hearing most of the attack and not being able to save the girl. The house hasn’t been the same, a blight stuck in the foundation of the home, a rot that secretly grows and spores into my family.

My insurance paid the Moller’s $250,000 dollars and they dropped me as well. I had to take the day off for court, everyone wanted to be there, my family and the neighborhood. The bailiff escorted us in. My lawyer arrived shortly after that. I kept looking at the door waiting for the Moller’s to come in. I had never met Ruth’s mother or father I don’t even know who the man was with the pipe. I need to ask these people for forgiveness. The prosecuting attorney walks into and sits at the table alone. The judge enters.

“All rise.” The bailiff says.

“Sit.” The judge says.

The lawyers stand while we sit.

“Your honor, we’re here today to find justice in this tragedy, not just for the Moller family or Miss Borsetta Gardner’s family, justice for the entire city of Rock Island. What happened, it’s sad to say is natural, a beast doesn’t know any better.”

The prosecutor speaks. “Your honor, I’m here today to show the court that this woman kept a vicious attack dog in her backyard for protection in the troubled neighborhood she lived in.”

The judge raises his hand.

“I’ve been looking at the docket. Mr. Crouse, how would you react if someone poked out your eye and stabbed you in the belly and scrotum. Miss Gardner please stand.” I do. “Where is your daughter? The young woman who pulled the girl away from the dog.” Lola stands. “This isn’t your fault, with the young girl’s family not being here I don’t want to imagine what her home situation was like. Do your best to overcome that empty guilt. I’m allowing your family to see Max one last time before being put down by the state.” Multiple gasps from the audience. “Case Dismissed.” He slams the gavel.

Kenneth and Tom took everyone home. No one wanted to go to the humane society. When I got there all of the employees seemed to be waiting for me, tears in their eyes, a lovely woman named Cathy brought me to the room where Max was. Laying there with his head resting on his crossed paws, his face perks up when he sees me, we’re happy to see each other.

“Would you like to hold him during the procedure?” The veterinarian asks.

I never even wanted or liked the damn dog, why am I crying?

“Yes.”

The vet has me sit on the metal slab, she opened the kennel and Max walked slowly to me, he puts his head on my lap and falls with all his weight on the table. I pet him from the top of his head to under his jaw. The vet wraps a bandage around his left paw. She insert a plastic device into his arm, Max is quiet, she then picks up a syringe with a clear liquid in it, she sticks it in where she implanted the device.

“Good boy.” This has to be the most I’ve ever petted Max.

She puts up a large syringe with purple fluid in it, she slowly plunges it into Max’s body, she tells me his pupils dilate, I stare into Max’s eyes until all of the fluid is inside of him.

“It’s done.” The vet says.

“How long will it take?”

“He’s gone.”

“He didn’t close his eyes.”

“Some do, some don’t. There’s some paperwork for you to fill out.”

I don’t know how I got home. I know I drove but I don’t remember driving. First thing I do when I get home is find Lola, she’s laying next to Oliver and Denise while they sleep. I put my arms around my girl, she embraces me as well. God help me, forgive me.