I know what it’s like to be ugly. I grew up the boy with the long sloping nose, a hill fit for skiers and a mouthful of large donkey teeth. My shriveled hand looked like something preserved in a pickle jar, never able to uncurl itself from being pressed against my chest. Ma said that I was born not yet ready to enter the world and my hand hooked into her womb. The doctors had to break the bones in order for me to let go. Despite its appearance, the hand never bothered me much. I learned to write with my other hand like any other boy in school and could catch a ball and ride a bike. But when I was twelve it was my good arm, not my crooked hook limb and shrunken hand that threw those things like rocks over the bridge.
Ma had said, “No we can’t keep ‘em. They’ll just die anyways like last time. They ain’t born right.”
My sister, Gigi, was clinging to one, its eyes not developed yet, the pink wormy body squirming and squealing to get close to its mother again.
The others wriggled and writhed as they scrambled to suck on their mother’s teats. They all stank of rotting flesh. A grayish film covered their translucent skins. I was shocked by them. The way Ma had just pulled them out of the hole in the mother as though she were a mere vessel and no longer able to carry their weight. So many of them, they kept being pulled out as Ma cursed and spit. Slime and a peculiar wet smell filled the living room, covering up all other smells. I thought they were supposed to be cute and fluffy.
The mother didn’t even seem to want them. She laid exhausted, her chest moving up and down, her tongue hanging out of her jaw, her eyes wide and watery. Her skin jittered under her fur.
“Poor bitch,” Ma said, lighting a cigarette, flopping down on the floor next to a stack of boxes filled with old appliances and wires. “Six like that all at once.”
The wrinkle lines streaked down her cheeks as she sucked on her cigarette before saying, “We gotta get rid of them.”
“Give them away to who?” Gigi asked.
“Oh, Sugar, no one want these dogs,” Ma sighed. “They gonna die anyways. Look, they Mama is wiped.”
Gigi’s eyes grew wide and batted repeatedly.
“Can’t we give them to neighbors?” I asked. “Someone will want them.”
“Now Junior,” Ma said, her hair stringing over her face, the red sores around her mouth, swollen and gooey. “They born wrong. They gonna die with or without their mama like last time. Last time we keep them and it was no use. I’m so tired. I can’t do it again.”
She leaned her head on the back of the boxes and rolled it back and forth, closing her eyes. Cigarette smoke expanded above her head, spreading out when it hit the moldy ceiling of the trailer. Gigi continued to clean off the alien looking pink blob in her lap. I didn’t know how she could touch those slimy things.
I turned away. “So what should we do with them?”
“You volunteering?” Ma smiled, eyes still closed and she lifted the cigarette to her lips, inhaling deep. “Let’s get you a bag and you take ‘em to the river.” She paused and then said more to herself, “Can barely feed all you kids let alone six dogs. Dumb bitch just had to go get herself knocked up like she didn’t learn the first time.”
“So we not giving them away?” Gigi looked up from her wrinkled runt.
“Sorry, Sugar. No one gonna take these messed up pups.” Ma grunted as she pushed herself up off the floor and then she shuffled along the pathway made between boxes piled high in the living room. My bed of jackets was in the corner and I wanted to just curl up there and go to sleep.
Ma picked up a trash bag filled with old recycle bottles and dumped them out. Their plastic interiors clamored hollow-like on the floor.
“Here.” She hobbled back down the pathway. “This have to do for now. We can put these here plastics in a box. Need Netta to get on with going to the recycle center. That girl, I don’t know what she been up to.”
I did. Netta had been staying at her boyfriend’s place and told me she was never coming back, not after the baby. Her boyfriend was forty and owned his own pad and drove a truck. I never saw her at school anymore.
Ma whipped the garbage bag in front of my face. “Now go on. Fill ‘er up.”
I didn’t want to touch them, afraid they’d slide right out of my hand, maybe right of their skins and I’d be stuck holding this loose flap of skin while the rest of the puppy, its bones and muscle and blood would be hopping about on the floor. I’d have to chase it all around the boxes and clothes and trash and it’d be leaving a trail of bone and blood all over the trailer. I shuddered.
“Junior, what you waiting for?” Her face fell into grave seriousness. “Listen, when you take ‘em you must not let anyone on. If you tell anyone what’s in that bag, they gonna think you ugly and bad. They gonna blame you for the world’s wrongs. But they don’t understand, you hear? So don’t tell no one nothing. Once that bag is filled, it’s sealed forever, got it?”
Gigi said, “But Ma. See this one? It likes me already. I must keep this one.”
“I’m sorry, Sugar,” Ma said. “It’s gonna die. Put it in the bag.”
“Ma, you just going to kill her? You can’t do that,” Gigi said, clutching the pink blob in her hands more tightly now. The thing was calm, no longer yipping and squiggling like before.
“It’s just a dog. Not like killing a baby.” Ma stamped out her cigarette into the fraying, defiled carpet, already riddled with black pock marks among other stains.
I really didn’t want to touch those things. “Hey, you put them in the bag for me while I hold it open.” I hooked one end of the bag on my curled stiff fingers while holding the bag out wider with my good hand. Maybe I could save one for Gigi secretly. Maybe I could find a home for all of them. Or maybe they were to be pushed into Earth.
Ma scooped up some of the squalling things and shoved them in the open mouth of the garbage bag. The bag lowered. Mother dog did not seem to notice. She lay still and quiet. The things screamed louder, their tinny voices haunting, as Ma tossed more into my bag.
Only one more to go.
“Sugar,” Ma said and moved toward Gigi. “Don’t put up a fight for nothing.”
“She’s mine,” Gigi said. She stood up, still sheltering the pink blob in her hands.
“Nothing’s yours,” Ma said and tried to take the thing away. But Gigi shrieked and ran toward the front door, knocking over boxes, tripping over piles of clothes. Ma chased her, knocked her down in the kitchen. A clattering of tin cans, bean cans, soup cans clashed to the floor. I tied the bag up and inched down the pathway toward the front door. Ma and Gigi were rolling about on the kitchen tile amongst tin cans, beer bottles, Styrofoam, animal feces, and more full and exploding trash bags.
“We had to cut out big sissy’s baby and now you want to save a dog?” Ma shouted, grabbing Gigi’s hair.
I opened the front door, hoisted the bag of pups over my shoulder and walked out.
The sky dimmed as I headed down the road. The town was quiet at this time of night, most people home for dinner. Still, in a small town, everyone knew everyone and I hoped no one saw me. The pups weighed more and more. My good hand was growing tired. I considered letting the puppies go. I could dump them under a tree and they would become wolves and live in the wild. But what if they came back one night to eat me? Their teeth long and dripping with slime. You wanted to kill us, they’d snarl, now we’ve come back. Besides, Ma had said not to open the bag.
Lights beamed from behind, casting my shadow over the road in front. A truck slowed down and rumbled right next to me. Willie, Netta’s boyfriend leaned sideways from the driver’s seat into the passenger’s. “Hey, Junior, what you doing out late now? Need a ride?”
“Nah.” I looked straight ahead.
“Where you headed?”
“That bag looks awfully heavy. What you got there?”
“Rocks,” I replied, hoping he’d drive away and leave me alone. I quickened my pace. The bag felt even heavier after it became rocks. It didn’t move around anymore and the warmth emanating from the bag was cooling off, maybe due to the onset of dusk. I shivered.
“Come back to my pad. Your sister’s there. We could have some fun.” He still prodded. The passenger door swung out and I noticed a thirty pack of Natural Ice on the seat.
“I don’t want none of your beer,” I told him and stopped walking, wanting him to pull on ahead, give up.
He shrugged although I couldn’t see his facial expression in the fall of night. The door slammed back shut and the truck rattled off.
I saw the bridge in the distance and ran. Once at the center of the bridge I looked left to right, up and down. No head lights. No engines. Nobody. Nothing.
I swung the bag from the back of my shoulder to the front, but as I did so, the bag ripped, split down the middle and all the pink things tumbled out, making soft thuds against the pavement, possibly still alive. I gagged. Those slimy skins bounced about like jellyfish gleaming in the bridge lights.
There they were, laying around at various distances from me, the tops of their hides glinting with white. I had to act fast, otherwise a car would drive over the bridge and the driver would see.
One by one I snatched them up, cringing. I didn’t wait for them to slip out of their skins, and with my good hand trembling, I chucked them over the edge into the dark. Couldn’t even hear the plop in the water, the river rushing over the boulders was so loud. Just rocks, I told myself. Just rocks.
J. Saler Drees lives in San Diego, and when not reading and writing, enjoys bicycling around the city.
Such strong fresh fiction. I’ve now read two of your stories. It’s a great relief they’re not the usual, same old same old subjects that predominate writing now, and your characterization is masterful. Thanks–
Wow! What an amazing look at innocence vs growing up. For all the sad events in this story I love how it still feels like many of the characters will find happiness.
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