Jay Green


Wanda likes to dress the dogs in pink and frills, paint their nails fuchsia or lime green, with matching little bows twisted up in their matted ears. Not even Clyde, the swaggering boy dog, is saved. Instead, he waddles through the sandy backyard in his tiny shit-stained tutu and mounts anything that moves while the family watches and laughs, the ugly thrusts, his bottom teeth jutting out sharp and yellow from his lower lip while the tulle at his waist bunches and wilts in tandem.

Andy takes quick gulps of his beer and tries not to watch too long. He’s been drinking since the morning and still isn’t as plastered as Russ, who can’t hold himself up. He’s laughing so hard, hat first in the dirt. Behind him, the sun is sinking easily into a sky like velvet, just approaching the final moment of hereness, the crown of her head like a bald strip interrupting a placid night.

“Andy-boy, oh Andy-boy—” Russ likes to sing when he’s wasted, hands on his brother’s shoulders, trying to cajole him into some kind of jagged waltz in the porchlight. “Baby-brother boy, pouting-like-a-bitch boy, stick in the mud—”

Once he would have shoved him off, kicked for good measure. Tonight, he is tired. His hands are cracked and dry, stained white from the plaster at work. Russ’s wife is standing beneath the veranda with her arms wrapped around her middle, and he doesn’t feel clean enough to argue. He turns and heads for the garage, the laughter sharp at his back.

When he’d moved back in with his mother, he’d been embarrassed. Mostly he’d been relieved. The past twenty years of adulthood had never felt quite right on him, like the church shirts Wanda had bought for him secondhand as a boy—always too short and wide for his lanky frame. His childhood hadn’t fit quite right, either, but he’d known it was his the way unpleasant things usually are, so much more willing to be claimed.

His childhood bedroom still looks the same, the model cars on the windowsill, his signed Cavalier’s basketball half deflated on the corner of his desk. The same nudie poster remains undiscovered on the back of his closet door, three Playboy bunnies in varying degrees of toplessness. The miniskirts he’d fantasized endlessly about slipping his fingers under, feeling the creases in the fabric from beneath. He could have pinched those hems between his fingers with his eyes closed, careful and reverent, like the lid of the cardboard box still buried somewhere under his bed, that hallowed stash passed from Ward brother to Ward brother as a parting gift.

Legend has it the box was once their father’s. It was carefully curated over his own rumored adolescence, and that he’d only bequeathed it to Russ once their mother had finally found it and chucked the forty he’d been sipping straight at his head. This all happened when Russ was four, and so Andy has his doubts; it’s difficult to imagine their father being challenged and not getting his way in the end.

He feels a pull, some ancient and morbid curiosity, but tonight Andy lets the box remain buried. He takes off his clothes and climbs into bed. The way his feet hang over the edge, the same as they had since he was fifteen, is almost enough to make him smile.

Sometimes he dreams of nice things. Pleasant things, like the crisp pop of a beer tab, the unhurried fizz. He sees the creek bed he had laid near as a boy, watching the little current snarl up the weeds and the silt. In his dreams, he can wiggle his toes right into the mess of it, let the water pool around his ankles and then his calves and then his knees. In the best dreams, he gets to his shoulders and then watches as his body dissolves like sand, his sunburnt skin staining the water a fleshy pink, whirling out and away until he is only a pair of eyes floating downstream, taking the world in without the pains, the desires of a body.

Sometimes he dreams of bad things. The things he doesn’t like to look at in the daylight: the bruised cheek, the car alarm. Sometimes he watches in mute horror as a doorknob turns (it isn’t him turning it, it can’t be. He’s outside himself and the world and is watching with the world and God as a doorknob turns) and a doorknob turns again, and again, and it’s only when the dreams are really bad that the door opens. Sometimes the door opens to a child’s bedroom and Andy doesn’t always know what happens after that. Sometimes he doesn’t know when he’s awake either. Sometimes he lives in the creak of that door, its shadow slipping out impossibly behind him, and he curls into that darkness and finds that the sun is coming up and he can’t bring his eyes up to it, they’re still spinning downstream somewhere, as if trying to draw down the light.

Wanda doesn’t just keep dogs. She keeps lizards, and fish, and parakeets, and a fat cockatiel inexplicably named Pluto. The house at all hours of the night is alive with noise, the bubbling of tanks or the whistling birdsong, the growl-bark-whimper of one of the girl dogs sick of Clyde’s shit. Somehow his mother sleeps in the thick of it, in the armchair in the sitting room off the garage with the newspapers plastered all over the windows, the air and gray light thick with cigarette smoke and pet dander.

She snores. Loudly. Sometimes she chokes on the sound, hacking like she’s dying. Only once did Andy rush in to try and save her, frantically shaking her by the shoulders until she shot awake and glared at him.

“Pussy,” was all she said, before turning back over in the chair and settling in.

“Pussy,” Pluto confirmed from the corner.

He went back to bed.

Tammy sometimes asks him about it, only in the room, their strange sacred space where words mean both less and more. Tuesdays during Russ’s bowling meet they drive separately to the motel out in Hampton, on the corner near the liquor store and the adult movie place, a perfect trifecta of a strip. The dirtiness helps him pretend he’s someone else, grimy and greased over. He doesn’t shower before he gets there. Tammy says she likes that, the stale sweat still clinging to his skin.

“Have you tried to call her at all? To see her?”

Once he’d driven halfway to New York, six hours in the middle of the night, the lights on the interstate blurred together and smeared like soft butter. No music, no talk show. Just the rattle of empty beer cans from the back seat, their tinny rumble with the engine’s grinding. His teeth chattered together as he cried and smoked, and cried again. He’d made it to a rest stop just past the state line before he pulled over and called her again for the forty-second time that night, just to say he wasn’t going to leave her, that he’d flatten himself under an eighteen wheeler if she didn’t call him back just the one time. Just to tell him she hated him and that it was over.

“A little,” he tells Tammy. “She doesn’t pick up anymore.”

“Probably for the best.”

She brings his head to her breast and strokes his hair. If he looks her in the eyes he’ll know what he already knows, what this is, the pity so inextricably tied to lust and shame and need. He knows that Tammy, the same as him, can’t pass a mirror without flinching, just a little. The recognition is too forced, too painful to muscle down.

He doesn’t look at her.

Sometimes he dreams of good things, sometimes of bad. When he drinks enough, he doesn’t dream at all. There’s maybe a secret second of warmth, flashes of things: the pull of a sheet, the fleeting sensation of a woman’s hair brushing just under his nose, the sweet clean smell of it. The feelings come over him like heat and then like a mask, and then just like darkness, plain and simple and ordinary, the backs of his eyelids or the beats of his name, the familiar mouth that shaped them, once. It fades and the fog rises and he sleeps like a baby in the dark gray clouds, lost in nothingness, blind and forgiven.

When Andy was sixteen, his father beat the shit out of his mother on the front lawn using a glass bottle and a wooden baseball bat. She’d needed nine stitches and two staples, most of them on her scalp, and surgery on her left hip, which had never really healed and left her with a permanent, painful limp. Several doctors said that she was lucky to be alive. Lucky that the head trauma hadn’t put her in a coma, lucky that the neighbors called the cops before her husband murdered her like a dog out in the street.

She’d raised hell every time someone mentioned pressing charges. Threatened to get out of bed, to rip her stitches out. She once grabbed a scalpel and placed it to her wrist, eyes red and wild, spittle flying from her mouth as she wrestled with nurses and security staff.

Coming home from college to the situation, Russ only chuckled and slapped a hand down on Andy’s shoulder.

“You want to know how to keep a woman? You keep her fucking guessing, bud.” He laughed again and watched their mother slumped over in bed, sedated at last. “Bet you he’s got the dogs on her. She’s not fucking him over now, I tell you what.”

The county held Red for about three days before he was released on bail, and no one in the Ward family ever heard from him again.

Once he did make it to New York.

He drove ten hours and got sober on the way. He stopped for gas and snacks. Newports, just like his daddy smoked. He remembered smoking for the first time with him out on the front porch, the way Red had handed one to him silently, without either even asking. Andy had lit it and sucked too hard, coughed like a bitch, almost to his knees. When he was done he looked up, scared. Red only nodded.

“Gotta breathe it in, boy. Don’t waste what’s mine,” he’d said, and Andy had felt almost proud even with his neck out, his hands trembling, still holding the cigarette even with the smoke burning in his eyes and lungs.

He drove three hours more in circles until he saw her car parked at a Day’s Inn on the edge of town, barely lit even in the rising dusk. He got out the baseball bat and wished he’d stopped for liquor but knew he could, just after. He got out of the car and knocked on multiple doors until she was the one who answered. He forced his way inside and shut the door behind him, and then he just looked at her. Beautiful, even in hysterics, makeup running down her face, frantic and afraid.

He was ready, and then he suddenly wasn’t. He could have done it, could see the bruises still on her face, the evidence that he had before and wouldn’t need to work that hard this time. That she was already half-done, exhausted from the running. But then her daughter stepped out of the bathroom, young, so young. When they’d met she was only seven and now she was a runt of a nine-year-old, thin and haunted looking. She looked up at him with an expression so blank and brave it struck him like a blow.

He remembers the time she let him up even though he was drunk and out of his mind. She said the kid was asleep and to be quiet. He stumbled and knocked into the side table by the entryway cluttered with angel figurines looking up at him faceless and demure. He let three of them clatter to the floor and break solidly into eleven different pieces, like some slaughterhouse’s nativity scene. When he looked up bleary and confused, the girl was there looking at him. Suddenly, he thought it must have been God that brought him to his knees, hugging her to him and crying.

“I love you,” he’d said, simple, drunk. Bewildered, she’d said it back, automatically like children do when their parents say it a little too often, trying to make a point of it, and he knew it wasn’t real but still he tried to feel cleaner, somehow. Forgiven. He tried to believe it.

That night, he stayed. This other, darker night, he looked at them both and he left.

“Do you know where that old box is, Dad’s old stash?”

Andy looks up from his desk to see Russ in the doorway of his childhood bedroom, grinning.


“Thinking of passing it down again. Gabe’s getting to be that age, you know.”

Andy pauses and thinks for a moment. He tells him to check the attic. Otherwise, it’s long gone.

When he dreams tonight he makes a point of finding the door, of looking at it. The doorknob is trying to turn, but he stills his hand and turns himself instead, placing his back on the solid wood. He slides down and wraps his arms around himself, placing his head on his knees. Waiting.

He hopes there will be something. Some peace offering. A note slid beneath the door, or a smooth stone, something from the creek he can cling to. He imagines the door creaking open to the bedroom lit in white, the little girl waiting for him, not saying a word but looking. He imagines she tells him she, too, knows that it hurts to be left.

He doesn’t know what he hopes for, but he waits.

Jay Green is a writer, reader, and avid napper. After graduating from MCC in the spring, he hopes to continue on to a four-year and receive his bachelor’s in creative writing with an emphasis in creative nonfiction. His favorite book as a child was White Oleander by Janet Fitch.