Finally, it is that time of day I wait for when the dog comes by begging for food at our porch. I get excited because it’s him. He’s here. I pet him and say, Good boy, good Jesus.
Mom sees me through the window with the dog and taps at the window, waving her finger.
When neither of us moves, she disappears from the window and then reappears at the door, gliding through it at us. Get, she says with a broom.
With a whimper Jesus gets. Down the sidewalk he limps away from our house, tail wagging in the wind. He gives me one last look and I give him one back. Mom points at me with the broom. I told you not to talk to him, she says. I stay outside and pout and watch the sun make the katydidless grass die.
He’s been coming around a lot but I’ve only recently started calling the dog Jesus because if Jesus were to return, this is how he would do it. In this shape, in this form, in these times. I’m sure of it. My best and only friend, Holy Amy, who thinks of herself as a kind of very powerful and sexually budding nun, disagrees. She says Jesus would return in the form of a handsome kisser, not some ugly mutt. Someone with a beautiful face, so we would know it was him. I say he’s not ugly. She says I am “vexed,” “cursed,” and that I am doomed to repeat the mistakes of those before me, though I’m not sure whom she’s talking about. All I know is it’s true: he’s not ugly. The dog suit he wears isn’t even a dog suit. It’s more of a maddened, mottled onesie. It’s black, the hair bristly and curled like the hair I have around my thing down there. Its whiskers beneath the eyeholes are bent plastic. The eyes in the eyeholes are dark, almost not even there, but human and usually always very hungry. The tongue, alive, wet, and pink, pants out at me. Dreamboat.
Sometimes I want to sing a song about Jesus’ hungry eyes in private in my room in my underwear but then I just get caught up in thinking about all the songs there are about being hungry. Everybody is always hungry. But not for the thing you’d think a normal person would be hungry for. Cheeseburgers, milkshakes, pizza. Nope. They’re hungry for touching, for scent, for fingers, for some kind of strange home they’ve lost long ago. I don’t know.
When I’m hungry I ask Mom and she goes to her larder where she’s collected a lot of cans of food to keep us fed while she and my sisters are not working. Sometimes she tells me to wait because we must be frugal. Recently she’s started noticing the cans, noticing something lesser about them perhaps, and says with a silly shake of her curled head we must have a mouse in the house! My sister, Bev, says probably to this. She says she’ll try and obtain mousetraps when she’s out again. She and my other sister, Margo, have been going out and collecting leftover parts of the town, bringing them back inside. The shambled neighborhood is abandoned in parts and they go to see what others have left. Bev says she doesn’t like doing this, “looting,” she calls it, but unfortunately, it’s what must be done at this time. She enjoys learning how to use the things they bring back. Sometimes it is a tool that looks complex to use, but she ends up, after some time, figuring out a purpose for it, even if it is not the purpose it was originally made for. She says I should stick by her and learn a couple things. I tell her she does it better though, why should I learn?
When Jesus is hungry, he comes to our porch and whimpers and begs. It’s not quite the whimpers of a dog and it’s not quite the whimpers of a human, these sounds. At night in my bed before I fall asleep I try and replicate them.
They sound like I’m trying to learn how to say an embarrassing thing in another language.
It’s been the mystery of our family for weeks: why does he come to our porch? That is what Mom is always saying out loud when watching the TV later in the night, lit in its blue, the thought coming to her like another kind of hunger. We only have a few neighbors left but that weirdo never goes to their porches, says Mom.
Every day at the same time I watch Jesus walk down the road, his haunches getting more sticklike by the day, the sun wilting his back, toward our porch. It makes me giddy. Every day I wait and wait for that moment to be giddy. It almost makes me feel guilty to be giddy but I just can’t help myself sometimes when I see Jesus ambling down the road at me!
I want to build him a doghouse out in the backyard, under the burned bramble where nobody could see. But that’s too risky, I think.
Instead I’ve been feeding him a can from Mom’s larder each week. Sometimes beans—baked, black, or navy. Sometimes creamed corn. Sometimes mushroom soup. Salsa. Anything I can quickly grab while Mom or Bev or Margo are not looking.
Bev taught me how to use a knife in weird ways. I feel like you should already know how to use a knife, says she, and so I open the cans with a special knife she calls Swiss, and let Jesus in his dog suit lap it up with his tongue. I am frugal with the can that I take, like Mom says to be. I make the can I take last all week.
Even when Jesus wants more and he looks up at me with those big eyes filled with begging, I pet his hard-haired head and say good boy and sing tomorrow, tomorrow. He understands me, too! He gives my hand a lick with his soft tongue. A look with those human eyes. Then I watch him waggle down the street until he becomes small and then nothing at all.
You actually think he’s a real man? says Mom at our dinner of garbanzo beans and salsa and for some reason string beans when I bring up my dog suited Jesus.
He’s a vagrant, says Bev. A bum. Who does that? Act like a dog for food?
Sounds like a boyfriend you used to have, says Margo.
You’re confusing me with you again, says Bev.
Mom says, Whose was Brent?
He was hers, says Bev sternly. Oh god… Brent…
Okay, okay, says Margo. I don’t want to hear about Brent.
He asked me if I, too, was a feminist, says Bev.
Okay, okay, says Margo. No use crying over spilled Brent.
Bev laughed. Oh my god, says she, imagine if Brent is the dog!
Stop, says Margo.
Next time he shows up, I’ll say, ‘Here, Brent, here, boy,’ see if he comes, says Bev, pleased with this scenario.
We could take him in though, I say. As a pet!
Bev loves this idea. Oh my god, you’re so right, kid! she says. Brent could be our little feminist pet! Wouldn’t that be great?!
Ugh, like you have never slept with an idiot, says Margo, rolling her eyes.
Mom rolls her own eyes and says, It’s just a poor dog with rabies.
I fall asleep thinking of Jesus as a big brother or a dad or something in between. I think of the way Margo and Bev will talk or not talk to each other. It is almost the same as me talking with Jesus. Which is a kind of not talking. The language is in how our bodies are next to each other. My hand on his head, his back. His head in my lap. His tail going back and forth on my backside.
One night I watch a movie about a very busy dad who dies in a car-wreck and comes back as his son’s dog. He helps his son, who is a little bit of a weirdo, and even falls in love again with his wife. But then he dies again as a dog. I couldn’t sleep after. I remembered my dad in a coffin. Everything that’s happened the past few years makes me distrust even my simplest memories.
Something else I like to do is keep what I really think about things to myself. I know it’s a sin to not be truthful but silence is a kind of truth, isn't it? At least it’s not lying. Being good in mysterious ways is one way I get my jollies! Once, I walked with Holy Amy through a house hollowed out and blackened by a fire. There were still little signs talking about hope in the front yard. We were looking for signs from God. Holy Amy said in times like these God is inventing new ways of speaking to us. While she talked of God and his interesting ways I looked around. The house from the inside was like the belly of a whale and I pretended secretly that I was Jonah, making a family out of the whalebones. The family who lived here, Holy Amy said, must’ve been godless. Out of my reverie I was spooked and asked my friend why she would say such a thing. Because they allowed their home to be burned, she said. Which means they were weak, she said. Which means they were godless, she said. That felt sound to me. I tried to remember the family who lived in the house before it became the belly of the whale I was pretending to live in. I wasn’t sure it was even a family who lived there. The neighborhood had taken on newer shapes and geographies, which made it hard to remember who lived where or even what was where: homes, trees, and even streets had become what Bev, being college educated, called “defunct.” I had a feeling it was the house of the old man who lived in the neighborhood. The old man was creepy, shy, white and fleshy like the backside of an eyeball, and would supposedly pay you ten dollars to let him see you shake naked through his back window. A couple years back I sleepover-dared a younger, poorer, more picked-on boy—Moon was his name (his parents believed in the sky)—into taking his clothes off and walking around the backyard for the old man. I was feeling brazen that night. The other boys laughed at little Moon, clothesless and hairless and tiny thing like a broken thumb waggling between his legs, dancing awkwardly in the moonlight in that creepy man’s backyard. It’s not something I wish to talk about because when Moon went home, moneyless and sobbing, I knew even in the pit of wherever feelings are kept inside a person that I would never see him again. If I did end up seeing him, he’d be different somehow, something inside of him changed, which would molt the outside of him, and keep him that way forever. It was the first time I felt like I had done something I couldn’t truly take back and it made me curl up inside my head. For days it felt like there was a dead mouse dancing on my heart. There were still books, cooked and burnt, one could find in the black shapes of the creepy man’s house. One of those books talked about living alone near a pond. I wish I still had that book but Holy Amy called to me from what I considered the kitchen in my whale belly home. There, we ended up finding a hole filled with skulls that we played with until dark.
Fetch! I tell Jesus when we play.
He fetches the browned tennis ball at the other end of the yard and brings it back to me.
He grabs it in his hand, then puts it in his mouth, then puts it in my hand with his mouth and I pet him.
Good boy, I say.
Then we sit together on the too-hot grass, the bent and burnt tops of trees making music notes against the too-bright sky. I love it. I love how he leans into me, sometimes panting, his wet tongue outstretched and still begging. So cute.
Where does Jesus go when he’s not with me, is something I often wonder. When I’m done feeding him from my stolen can or Mom or my sisters tell him to get, where does he go off to?
I imagine he has a home closer to the city. The city: where he has access to more food, more people who produce more food.
Perhaps even has a secret love in the city. I think of him and his love, spindling the same string of spaghetti from a trashcan lid into their mouths, unknowingly moving closer and closer to an embarrassed kiss!
Then they sniff each other’s butts.
Part of me wishes I were Jesus’ secret love, but then I get real because no one can be Jesus’ love! Jesus is immaculate, pure, untouched.
I throw the ball again and he fetches. We do this until Mom comes out, waving a hammer around and says get. Jesus, my sad Jesus, with a whimper, slinks off, to be with his city love, the one I’ve made in my mind, who may or may not look a hint like me with a tail, and my heart trembles with a jealousy one could drink from.
The TV tells us there’s a pack of wild dogs, six of them, attacking and eating small children in the southern part of the county, on the outskirts of the city. They’re ravenous, possibly rabid, moving from neighborhood to neighborhood. A picture on the screen shows us an artist’s rendition of a cruel-lipped snout, angry frothing at the mouth. Very bad dog.
A young girl has been eaten, the TV says.
Dogs are eating better than us! says the girl’s Dad, outraged, teary-eyed, halfway to oblivion. This isn’t right, he says. This isn’t right. And the government isn’t going to do anything about it.
Mom says: I don’t like watching this.
Me neither, says Bev. Turn it, will ya?
I don’t turn it; I keep my eyes and ears tuned to the screen.
Hey dweeb, change it! says Bev.
I change it. I get a weird, murmuring kind of feeling inside me. Of sadness. Of intense fear. But mostly of sadness.
Where is my wild Jesus? I keep thinking. Is he safe? Does he have food?
Inside I am hectic. Dissecting me would reveal the same molten red stuff the earth has inside it. To calm myself I think, jollily, of combusting into Satanic flames. Just letting the overheated furnace of me go off spectacularly, in a quick hush. Where do I go? Who knows. The places to go are inevitable and distant and seductive.
Later, I have a dream that I am stripped and tied down. I understand my heart is to be taken out for sacrifice and I am fine with this. I get this intense feeling that I have wronged someone deeply. This person, though I don’t recognize them in the dream or awake. But I have done something so unspeakable I must submit to this sacrifice. I wake up and I have wet myself.
Jesusless days pass. The city is willing to pay anyone who kills the marauding dogs. Bands of men march from their homes, armed with guns, kissing their loved ones, if they have loved ones, a brief goodbye. Mom says it’s reckless and tells me to stay inside. Even if that weirdo shows up, she says, I want you to stay inside, understand? I get giddy because that means she thinks Jesus is still alive. The thought of him being killed or eaten by the other dogs hasn’t crossed her mind. I have been worrying all sorts of fates for my Jesus. That he’s been attacked and murdered by the wild dogs, that he’s been mistaken for one of the wild dogs and killed, that he’s found a new love in a new place to get food from, to play with. On the phone I talk to Holy Amy and she says it is for the best if any of these fates befalls him. Live by the sword, die by the sword, she says. I don’t know what that means, I say. The sins of the father, says she.
Under my bed among the dust bunnies sits a half empty jar of salsa. I can smell it when I fall asleep.
The days linger like bad bruises. Then all six of the wild dogs are shot dead. They are strung up and hanged from a tree that still has leaves on it. Bev insists there must have been another way to deal with the problem of the dogs. Mom says what’s done is done. Margo says that is what someone says when they don’t want to deal with a real issue. My heart pounds and pounds. I look for news. I wait for the tiny artifact of language that distinguishes one of the wild dogs to be, in fact, a man in a dog suit. I begin to think maybe Jesus was always a dog, a real dog, and then how could I ever know if he was one of those six wild dogs. The “prodigal” son, as Bev says. All six of the dogs were dogs. After they were dead and the two men who shot them, a father and son, walked over to their bodies none of the dogs were found to have eyes like a human, none of them had hands and arms for holding inside their furry sleeves, none of them had cried out as a man who is only pretending to be a dog would cry out if being shot to death. People can lick too but all the tongues of these dead dogs were the long tongues used for lilting water out of a bowl and licking the hand that has just given it a treat.
It’s for the best, says Mom when I tell her Jesus is gone. He was a sick man.
She winces at the word “man.” Says: He was a sick dog. He’s hopefully found some peace, poor thing.
No, says Bev, it’s okay to be sad. I was looking forward to having Brent as a pet, too. Then her face blossoms out a deviled smile.
Margo huffs. She says, No wonder everybody leaves us.
Nights later—in the middle of one that is quiet, owlless, barkless—I get woken by a clink at my window. And then another. And another. I go to it and there in the backyard I see a man, naked and white as the swan-necked moon, as if his body has been shielded from the sun’s browning rays for many days. The naked man is dancing and waving at me as if I should recognize him. When he dances, he limps a little. His face is skinny, bruised, hungry. He looks up at me, waves again with a skeletal hand. He smiles. He wants something but I don’t know what it is. He just smiles and waves. I give a half a wave back and close my shade on him. I crawl back into bed. I try to fall back into the dream I was having. Trouble is I can’t remember what it was now. I know it was a happy one this time. I just can’t seem to remember it. I was running toward it. It was just there. In front of me, like a piece of meat. Until it was taken away.