The car that ran over Heidi didn’t even put on its brakes, let alone pull to the curb. Instead it signaled right onto Lexington Street. Heidi was a puppy, and a worried bloody smear on the slushy road that evening.
Christmas Eve, and even though I had suspected the night with the in-laws might be strange, I hadn’t imagined anything like this.
The year before, the worst thing had been the blow-up when Ted accused Sue of cheating at Pictionary and Sue breaking into tears as she threw the plastic hourglass at Ted. By some miracle of physics, the tiny hourglass hit Mary’s beveled-glass mirror and cracked it. That’s the kind of luck this family has. Mary cried too, as she hit Ted over the head with a blue throw pillow from her couch. The pillow had delicate tassels hanging from each corner. They bobbed and weaved a crazy belly dance as Mary banged and pushed against my husband’s head. These people are in their thirties and forties. I married into the family late. Everyone seems to know how to handle these outbursts except me. I sit back and watch, start smiling, forget to swallow.
When the puppy, Heidi, got run over, the full and extended family blubbered and snorted, and I stood mid-dining room holding a case of beer with an inappropriate grin on my face. Bottled beer. Kind of heavy. It seemed insensitive of me, but I knew if I set the box down one niece or another would come sniffling into my arms. I remained the only dry-eyed person in the room. Even Frank, the patriarch, wedged into Sue’s recliner in front of the TV, dabbed one eye then another, honking his nose with a big red hanky.
Frank, the big, burly father, used to beat the shit out of all the kids. Now no one except Ted seems to remember this. These days Frank is very old. It’s hard for me to imagine the growling larger-than-life monster Ted describes lumbering through their childhood home. Mostly, Frank stays in the recliner.
Frank bellowed, “I’ll get you a new dog. From my own pocket, full price. You’ll see. I’ll pay. You need a dog for those girls.”
Here is what confused me: this family already had a dog: Bucky. A big, fluffy dog—a nice dog—that everyone ignored. She came up and licked one of my hands. I clutched the beer box and said in my high-pitched dog voice, “Good doggy. Yes, I see you. Yes, I do.” And she seemed to smile as she wagged her feather duster of a tail.
Frank bellowed, “Put it in the fridge, Jessica. Or set it on the floor. You’re making me nervous with that box there.” Ted’s father liked me a lot. I was the only female he addressed by name. Bucky left the room, and I set the case of beer on the kitchen counter, pulled out two bottles. One for me, one for Frank.
By now the Husbands had settled in the living room with their heads hanging low. To me, they all looked alike. Kind of a farmer-turned-hunter-turned-salesman. This night they all wore turtlenecks and poly-cotton blend V-neck sweaters in patterns of brown, black, and yellow. One evening when Ted and I were first dating, I asked them if they called one another before get-togethers to plan the wardrobe. Later that night, Ted suggested I tone down my sarcasm in front of his family. He explained that the guys had no idea what I was talking about and that was why my question was met with the same kind of long steady stare my cat gives me when I yell at her for eating the plants.
It might help here if I mention that Ted’s family lives in Nebraska. I’m from Boston. Ted’s first wife, Katie, grew up in Nebraska too. In fact, her family lives down the street from his mom and dad. Ted and Katie rode their Big Wheels together, and then their bikes. To this day, she uses hairspray and thinks eating wings at the local sports bar is the hottest thing going. Ted admits he made a big mistake on that life decision. I know that Katie still gives his family presents, goes fast-walking with Sue and Mary every Thursday, even babysits Sue’s girls every third Saturday of the month.
I do t’ai chi and eat organic vegetables. Volunteer with inner-city kids. Many people think I’m a kind person, a good friend.
In general, Ted looks frazzled and confused compared to the rest of the family. Sort of a farmer-turned-activist-turned-highschool-teacher. He has a goatee, wears Converse All-Stars and blue jeans. We met at a cocktail party in Cambridge. When he told me he was from Nebraska, I didn’t believe him. These days, I love him a lot, and he loves me.
The Husbands had mopped and scraped up Heidi, put her into a garbage bag, and heaved her into the back of Tom’s pickup. The Christmas lights twinkled, and cookies lined the table along with sliced ham, baked beans, and a plate of shrimp. The shrimp’s naked bodies looked obscene compared to everything else, heaped together in a rubbery, cold mess with their cocktail sauce shimmering in the center of the display. Later, I heard Ted’s mom say she’d gotten them on sale at the Hinky-Dinky, just for me.
I could not eat the shrimp, and I couldn’t help wondering aloud where they had come from, seeing as how bodies of water containing shellfish did not ebb plentifully in the Great Plains.
I know Ted’s family thinks I am a thoughtless person.
Ted tells me I’m aloof—but good for him.
The way his family deals with crisis is so far from my own that I riffle through blank index cards in my brain, trying to find a response to the situations placed before me. But really, I don’t even know which letter of the alphabet to look up. My family is straightforward: the weak fall—adults don’t cry. Children throwing tantrums are escorted from the room; seafood is bought fresh from the docks if it’s bought at all. We’re polite even though we all dislike one another. There would never arise a circumstance under which a pillow would be thrown at another family member—in jest or in anger—for any reason whatsoever.
At any rate, after Heidi had been bagged and dumped, Sue took each young child (all female) down to the pickup, lifted her up, and showed her the garbage bag with blood leaking out of it. Sue said (to each one), “Heidi is dead.” Then she set each child back on the ground and each ran screaming to her mom or dad, who cried along with her and said, “Yes, Heidi is dead.”
I never saw Heidi in person. What I imagined was a small brown dog in a gingham dress with braids. That’s wrong, of course. I know this because I got to see Heidi in many pictures that night. That’s the next thing Sue did. Mary helped. They distributed snapshots of the puppy.
Christmas Eve. Everyone had brought presents to be exchanged. I knew that showing all the girls the dead dog had something to do with being a hunting family. I must admit the picture distribution looked festive. Some of the men tucked the photos into their billfolds or handed them to a wife to be put into a purse. Heidi would be on every fridge by Christmas day. I held my picture of Heidi at the corner so I wouldn’t get fingerprints on the glossy print. In it, Heidi had her head cocked at the camera, her tongue a long slippery blur of a thing hanging from her jaw. A constellation of spots speckled her reddish body. She sported short, perky ears.
Ted took the picture from me, replaced it with a beer, and gently squeezed my shoulder. Then he walked his beautiful, lanky walk back into the kitchen with a niece velcroed to each arm.
I swallowed, sat down by Frank.
Frank started talking NRA at me. “You know, Jessica. I’ve been thinking lately about how it’s every citizen’s responsibility to support the NRA, not just gun owners.” I nodded. My attention pleased Frank. I stayed sane during these discussions using a game Ted had taught me. I translated every NRA statement into the NEA. Thus, I heard, “It’s every citizen’s responsibility to support the NEA, not just art lovers.” That seemed logical to me, so I said, “Yes, Frank, but how can that be done?”
Heidi’s little ears peeked out of the photo in Frank’s front shirt pocket. For the next thirty minutes he discussed why and how he’d like to move his gun case to the living room—and also why his wife, Stella, couldn’t appreciate this idea like I could.
Everyone had calmed down by then. Two of the girls walked around clutching stuffed dogs that bore a remarkable resemblance to Heidi. Besides that, things looked up. Someone had put on some holiday music, and someone else had thought to break out the Wild Turkey. Soon, all the nieces gathered in the den to watch 101 Dalmatians, and the adults assembled in the living room to tell dead-dog stories. Tom got the fireplace going while Jimmy told the story about his old hunting dog, Lucky. One day Lucky raced out, after a duck. The punch line came when Jimmy found him stone-cold in the high weeds and he still had the duck hanging limp in his mouth. Frank talked about the cocker spaniel Boomer, who had drowned in the neighbor’s lake. Stella even contributed a short anecdote about her dog Pepper, who had miraculously survived being run over by a thresher on her girlhood farm but hadn’t faired so well the next month under a tractor tire. They continued to tell dead-and nearly dead-dog stories late into the night.
I knew that Ted and Katie’s married life had begun to end when their beagle Boom-Boom ran out the door and down the street, never to return. Ted liked to say he was just giving Boom-Boom a head start. But Ted stuck around for another year, let Katie rack up some more credit card debt while he drank himself silly with his oil paints in the basement.
His divorce settlement reads like an episode of Dallas. What I’ve been told is Katie’s attorney did a very good job of flirting with the judge.
Ted had opened the door to air out the place because Katie hated the smell of his artwork. Boom-Boom had been trained to never run out the door, but that day something went haywire in his head. Ted didn’t notice him missing until hours later. Katie never forgave Ted. She loved Boom-Boom. To this day, she still weeps at the mere mention of that dog’s name. Mary and Sue have told me this on more than one occasion. To Mary and Sue, Katie is a perpetual homecoming queen. They’re in awe of her suburban beauty, eternally bitchy nature, and endless skills in country crafting. I must admit, Katie has a great body. She looks like an aerobics instructor—which she isn’t.
Ted’s whole family believes he is irresponsible. For a while, they sided with Katie in the divorce even though she was the one with the lover, the high-paying job, and the bad credit. I knew when Ted and I weren’t in town, his family invited Katie to family dinners, to holiday celebrations like this one. I knew if Katie was there, she’d tell the story of Boom-Boom and everyone would weep and nod and understand her anger and grief. Tonight no one mentions Boom-Boom in the dog discussion, but he lurks behind every word.
I felt uncomfortably warm. The Wild Turkey dwindled in my tumbler, and I’d had very little to eat. I loved Ted. I knew that for sure. My family thought he was the best thing since lemon butter.
He sat beside me on the couch. We were newly married. I loved the arm he had around my shoulder, the shirt he’d worn, his thigh. One of the Husbands said, “So, Jessica, you guys got a dog?”
I smiled. I said, “No, a cat. I’m not really a dog person. We have a white cat named Ishmael.”
Ted squeezed my arm in this way that meant faux pas. Stop there. Quick.
The whole family stared. Christmas lights blinked. A Husband cleared his throat. I thought about the naked shrimp piled in the dining room. Ted squeezed my arm again which meant, Say something. Anything. Right now. Save yourself, please.
So I said, “My cat, Ishmael? He can fetch. Most people don’t know you can teach cats tricks. I wad up a piece of paper, throw it across the room, and he runs over, picks it up in his little mouth, and trots it right back. He drops it at my feet so I can throw it again.” I looked around the room at all the blank faces, cheeks made bright pink from the crackling fire. Finally, I said, “I didn’t know Heidi personally, but I’m sure she was a very special dog.”
Frank cleared his throat, fiddling with the dog in his pocket. A sign. And like magic, conversation began again without me.