Creative Nonfiction by Annie Marhefka
Our mother rescued a mutt after we all grew up and left her. She had been abandoned, she said. The mutt had, too. I had escaped to college; my brothers found jobs that afforded their exit, and poof, like ants scattering, my mother joked with a tender smile. I guess she thought we would always stay.
The puppy had been discarded in a sack with the rest of its litter, the newspaper said, but it wasn’t really a sack, it was a trash bag, thick black and dark plastic, tossed over the side of the old wooden bridge in town, a jumble of puppy legs and paws sinking into the river below, a tiny droplet in a waterway that wouldn’t pause its currents for a bag of pups.
Only one survived the fall, somehow clawed her way free of the heavy bag, doggy-paddled to shore and yipped until a passerby spotted her river-soaked and mangy fur. The newspaper staff held a contest; they said this puppy’s story was too tragic to risk a regular adoption, an unvetted home, another dispensing of.
To win the puppy, readers had to submit their story, their fateful tale for why the pup belonged with them. My mother wrote that she, too, had been abandoned; she, too, had been cast aside. She told her tale to the newspaper, and to everyone in town, painting her children as ungrateful runaways, not just kids who’d grown up and gone. It made sense that she felt that way, I guess, since everyone else in her life had abandoned her, too.
My mother won the contest, of course, and named her new child Lucy, brought her home to the now-not-empty empty nest. She was pretty, all speckled Dalmatian belly and shiny black Labrador coat, and coal eyes like the river bottom. Mother was pretty, too, all soft, freckled skin and sweet touch of hand and pleading brown eyes.
The dog reminded me of a man named Bob. He was a stray, too, and had lived on our living room sofa for a month when I was ten years old. My parents met him at the bar down the street. They were regulars; he was not. He wasn’t sure how he had gotten there, he said, and my mother believed him. He had been in the war, he said. Agent Orange, Mom told us, with a somber nod and a whispered explanation, something to do with a chemical he was exposed to in Vietnam. I imagined the chemical was a blinding, neon color, the kind of orange you see on the door of the liquor store, beckoning: Open, or ATM Inside. But my brothers decided Agent Orange was what we would call him instead of Bob, because his skin was kind of orange, anyway, and we liked to pretend he was a secret agent living undercover in our house. We were too young to understand war, and too young to understand why our mother so often invited people to live with us–strays, our father called them.
Bob’s cheeks were rough and ruddy, his nose a burnt orange, and the hairless crown of his head had a cantaloupe tint in the mornings when we crept by him in the living room, the summer’s soft glow stretching through the window blinds and casting stripes of light across his face. Even his fingernails were crusted with orange, as if he had scraped rust off all the nails in the box in our toolshed while we slept. He slept late, often, and we would pretend he was a spy, Secret Agent Orange, diving and cannonball-rolling past the couch where he snored as we stifled giggles. His throaty rumblings came from both mouth and nose and I imagined they escaped his face in whorls of orange smoke from my vantage point, cowering behind Agent Orange’s dresser.
Our mother had put the dresser in the living room, where Agent Orange emptied his duffel bag into the drawers that our mother had hand-painted teal over a tarp in the backyard, using a delicate brush to stroke buttercup yellow flower petals in dripping vines along its sides. She told him it was a spare dresser, but it wasn’t; it was hers, and now her own clothes lay in piles on her bedroom floor. I had asked my father why Mom gave up her dresser for Bob, and he shrugged, and said, “maybe she thought he needed it more than she did.”
I heard people asking my father all kinds of questions about Agent Orange–where he came from, how did we know he wasn’t dangerous, didn’t it bother him that my mother had moved another man into his house. Each time, he shrugged, smiled, and said, “You know Donna, always looking out for the little guy.” But Agent Orange isn’t little, I thought. He was bigger than my father, stocky and sturdy like the oak tree in the backyard that dangled our rope swing. Although I guess he wasn’t that sturdy because one time, a car driving by had backfired and he had leapt from his seat at the dinner table, arms and legs spread wide and he was flat on the floor with his face against the gray slate tile mother had put in and spackled with grout by herself. Our mother tried to explain PTSD to us later that night but she spent a lot of time explaining hard things to us and at some point, my brothers lost interest. After she had finished, my brothers took turns mimicking Agent Orange’s scaredy-cat stiffening and yelling “Splat!” when they hit the floor. I watched them and giggled so they knew I was entertained, but I couldn’t help feeling a little sad.
Our mother wouldn’t leave us in the house alone with Bob, so we went with her on errands, like going to the post office or knocking on doors near the bar where she found him, showing his picture and asking if anyone knew him. We had done this before–there was the tabby cat that wandered onto our porch one day, the girl named Willoway who said she was a dancer and helped me choreograph a solo for my ballet routine while she stayed with us. Bob wasn’t the first stray our mother had taken in, but he was the orangest.
Eventually he left; apparently, he’d had a daughter all this time, but he’d forgotten. Or perhaps he thought my mother was her. Anyway, the daughter wasn’t happy that a stranger had taken her father in, so she came and picked him up one day. Our mother cried while she emptied out his dresser and neatly packed his clothes back into his duffel bag.
I forget about him most of the time. He’s become just one of those quirky things about our mother that we recall sometimes, like–remember when she put cottage cheese in the lasagna instead of ricotta? Remember when she thought that rubber snake was real and ran out of the house screaming? Remember when she brought Bob home?
We smiled at the recollection. Oh yeahhhhh, my brother would say, as he pulled the image of Bob’s apricot face from within. Agent Orange.
We cued up his memory when the rescued river mutt nuzzled her way into our mother’s lap. It wasn’t until my mother was preoccupied with one of her strays that I craved her affection the most. Broken people followed her like fawns chasing a mother doe–if she paused at the side of a road, wary of what dangers may erupt over the asphalt, her strays would pause too, study her movements, await her signal. She was always jumping out into the road first, the one whose body halted the traffic, whose eyes gleamed stoically in the headlights declaring, you will not touch this child. She was always on the lookout for another Bob.
Sometimes I wonder how this little detail about my mother could so easily detach itself from my memories of her, how I think of her possessively as my mother, when really at her core she was just mother to everyone, all nurture and empathy and inviting-strangers-into-our-home.
The puppy was sweet to my mother but otherwise a nuisance. She chewed gnarled holes in dad’s socks and peed on all the good rugs and bit the neighbor’s cat. But my mother said she loved the way she pawed at her, the way she filled her lap with the weight of a body when the thunderstorms rolled in, the way she needed her, the way she stayed.
Annie Marhefka is a writer in Baltimore, Maryland. Her creative nonfiction and poetry have been published by Lunch Ticket, Fatal Flaw Lit, Literary Mama, Pithead Chapel, and others, and her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Annie is the Executive Director at Yellow Arrow Publishing, a Baltimore-based nonprofit supporting and empowering women-identifying writers, and is working on a memoir about mother/daughter relationships. You can find Annie’s writing on Instagram @anniemarhefka, Twitter @charmcityannie, and at anniemarhefka.com.