A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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Everyone hated that dog.
Every time my friends and I walked by the Hanson house, it was there, chained to a basketball pole at the far end of the long driveway: a huge retriever-mutt-thing, a hundred-and-some-odd pounds of pissed-off mange.
She hated everyone.
The dog’s name was Aphelion. Mrs. Hanson had named her, after the day of the year that the sun is farthest from the earth, back in the seventies, when she was a hippie following the Dead in a sky blue VW Microbus. But those days were long over.
Every time Aphelion saw Ben and Evan and me, she lunged. And every time she lunged, that chain went taut, and she whiplashed backward with a howl.
Sometimes I caught a glimpse of Aphelion before she saw us. She’d be licking her paws, or staring at the trees as if they were made of steak. In that millimoment, she looked like a normal dog, a faithful companion and watcher-over, just sitting around and hoping for a ham to fall from the sky and bonk her on the head. Then she’d see us and snap out of it.
I’m growling, she’d growl. I hate you.
We’d stand at the foot of the driveway and growl back at her, taunt her from a safe distance, make the motions of tough guys.
“You’re nothing, Aphelion!” I’d shout, though my knees were shaking.
The summer before we started high school, Mrs. Hanson got remarried, to a man named Mr. Green, and he moved in with his daughter Daisy.
Daisy made my heart stop. She had full, strawberry lips, big green eyes, and glossy skin. She wore her shaggy blond hair in two loose pigtails that looked like sparklers, and her ripe body had a dangerous majesty. She was the same age as us, but seemed ageless and immortal. She was the collision of bliss and trouble.
Daisy spent her afternoons reading magazines on the lawn in a lime green bikini and white-framed sunglasses. Rainbows from Mrs. Hanson’s sprinkler rose above her and rendered her an angel, a dirty rainbow angel without a halo. She slayed us all. She sent me into a painful place. She made me question everything.
At night, while Daisy said prayers she knew would be answered, Mrs. Hanson played the violin from the second-floor balcony, and the neighborhood grew lost in its treble waves.
Daisy didn’t notice us at first, but as summer went on she began smiling when we walked by. We smiled back but were too chickenshit to say hello. We didn’t care. We had made contact. We had entered her world. Anything was possible.
Aphelion would have none of it.
The more contact we had with Daisy, the more pissed-off the dog became. Her growling and barking and general hideousness grew in volume and intensity.
Daisy went on turning the pages of her magazines and running her sweaty hands over her shimmering golden hair. She was a transmitter of all the things we didn’t understand, a lightly humming tuning fork for our dissonant boyish notes.
Ben and Evan and I grew bold. Our hormones gave us courage, and we became immune to the growling. We started to wave on our daily reconnaissance, and, as we’d hoped, Daisy smiled and waved back.
We thought we were geniuses.
A couple of days later, Daisy appeared on the lawn with two other girls, who were only slightly less fine.
Three of them, three of us.
“No doubt, that’s on purpose,” Evan said after we did our daily walk-by, Aphelion’s barks blaring in the background. “I think she’s sending us a message.”
“Yeah, I’ll buy that,” Ben said, wiping sweat from his face with his shirt. “Nothing happens by accident.”
The girls played in the sprinkler, jumping around merrily like giants stomping over a village. We took cover in the bushes across the street, but they saw us and began singing a siren song.
“Hello!” they screamed and laughed. “Hello, shy boys!”
At first, their voices were bullets, and we stayed down in the bushes. But with time, those bullets turned into butterflies, so we stood up and let them flutter on our faces.
“Hello!” we yelled back. “Hello, sprinkler girls!”
This thrust and parry went on for a couple of days, and we congratulated each other on our progress. We had come a long way in a short time, the three of us. We were bridging the gap with Daisy and her girlfriends.
Then Aphelion started to do something she hadn’t before. She started to howl. She straightened her back and bayed at the sky, registering her complaints with the higher powers. Sometimes Aphelion howled when Mrs. Hanson played the violin. They were two musicians hopelessly out of tune.
“When is she going to stop that shit?” I said one humid day, the sky a marine-colored haze, as we stood underneath a giant beech tree not far from the Hanson house. “Golden retrievers don’t howl.”
“She’s not a golden,” Ben said, picking dirt from his nails.
“She’s not of this world,” Evan said, and he shooed away some gnats.
Aphelion’s howling worked. Daisy and her friends were no-shows for a while. We thought they’d been scared off. But then one afternoon we spied them eating lunch on the Hanson porch, their feet up on the table. They were talking loudly and making fun of people. When Mrs. Hanson took off in her Volvo, Daisy whipped out a big water gun, the kind that looked like a pump-action rifle, and started shooting it at Aphelion.
The dog yelped and tried to avoid the jets of water, but she could not escape the misty shrapnel. The chain whiplashed her over and over again. She made pathetic peeps, as if she was choking.
Daisy and her friends laughed their heads off.
“That’s right!” Daisy said. “Bark all you want! Bark, bark, bark! Go for it!”
Aphelion acted as if she were being attacked by a hive of invisible bees. I’d never seen a dog that hated water so much. Whatever messed-up mind she had left was being destroyed by the trauma.
“Knock yourself out, you freak of a dog!” Daisy continued, and a rainbow appeared in the arc of water between the trenches.
None of us said anything. We were silent, crouched down in the bushes across the street with the dirt and the worms, stuck in an uncomfortable position, spying on strangers.
For a week, we stayed away from the Hanson house. We played tennis and ate cheeseburgers and tried to get excited about other girls we knew. But our efforts were futile.
“Let’s go see what Daisy’s up to,” Evan said one evening, after we’d fulfilled our familial obligations at the dinner table.
We turned the corner on Vine and Chestnut to find the girls standing out on the curb, sipping Cokes and leaning up against Mrs. Hanson’s white Volvo wagon. We didn’t know what to do.
They waved at us as if we were late.
“Hi!” they said, and smiled. “Hi, shy boys!”
“Hi, sprinkler girls!” we said, our different levels of pubescent vocal change producing an awkward harmony.
Up close, Daisy was that much finer. Everything about her was in blossom. White bikini strings peeked out above her running shorts. Slung from her criminally curved waist was that water gun. And she had a really bad expression on her face. The expression on her face said, No one here gets out alive.
She introduced her friends, Sandy and Liz. They were fine as well, but in Daisy’s presence, they were mere handmaidens.
“You boys,” Daisy said, pushing up off the car, “are so silly.”
Silent, we waited for her to continue.
“You’ve been coming around here for weeks, but you never come on over.” She looked at Sandy and Liz. “You should have come on over. There’s no need to be shy.” She smiled and sipped her Coke. In the twilight she flickered like a firefly. “We don’t bite.”
Aphelion started baying at the rising moon.
Daisy winced, and her expression grew cranky, as if someone had broken a promise to her. “Aphelion! Shut up!”
Aphelion stopped for a second, then started again.
“I said shut the hell up, you stupid fucking dog!”
Aphelion cut the volume down to a dull growl, like the opening to Beethoven’s Fifth.
Daisy groaned in disgust. The streetlight gave the dappled sweat on her face a phosphorescent glow.
“My stepmother gave Aphelion some acid once,” she said. “Can you believe that shit?”
“No way,” Ben said.
“You’re kidding,” Evan said.
She shook her head. “She’s fucking proud of it or something.” She broke into a singsong imitation of Mrs. Hanson: “Oh, we were so silly back then, the things we did, ha ha! We just didn’t have our heads screwed on straight, ha ha ha!”
Aphelion was going nuts again, as if giving a different account of the same event.
“Yes, ha ha!” Daisy went on, growing louder as Aphelion continued to dispute her version. “Didn’t think it would have such a permanent effect, ha ha ha! Didn’t think it would screw up Aphelion for life, ha ha ha!”
When she stopped, Aphelion stopped. The aftershocks rippled down the street.
“So that’s why the dog’s so fucking nuts,” she said, and she smiled her trouble smile.
We stood there for a minute and said nothing. My palms were sweating like crazy. I wondered if our meeting was about to end.
Then Mrs. Hanson started playing her violin from her balcony. It echoed through the neighborhood.
Daisy breathed deep and sighed. Her chest heaved like a cresting wave. I thought I would die.
“That’s called ‘Greensleeves,’ ” she said. “Any of you know it?”
“Sure,” I lied. “My grandfather’s a violin player.”
“Really?” she said. “That’s so cool.”
“Yeah,” I continued, helpless. “He was in the Philharmonic.”
Aphelion started barking again. She knew how full of shit I was.
Daisy’s smile faded, and her expression changed. She seemed to go from happy to angry without anything in between. She had no time for the lesser emotions.
Her lips curled up in another half smile.
“Aphelion is crazy,” she said, and she led us to the top of the driveway.
The driveway dipped down at that end, taking on the shape of an empty pool. And at the bottom of that deep end, in the murk and darkness, lay Aphelion in her fury.
“Fucking dog,” Daisy said.
In a quick, sure motion, she grabbed the gun from its makeshift holster, took aim, and released a jet of water at Aphelion. The stream disappeared from sight. A moment later, we heard it hit the pavement of Aphelion’s squalid prison cell. The dog yipped and danced and spun every which way.
“Damn,” Daisy said.
“You’re wasting your ammo,” Liz said.
Daisy pointed the gun at her, but didn’t fire. “No shit,” she said.
Daisy looked at us, then looked in Aphelion’s direction.
“Anyone that touches Aphelion can kiss me,” she said. “Anyone. On the lips.”
My heart started to race. Evan and Ben looked shellshocked. There was no pleasure or pain on their faces. Pleasure and pain were too simple for her wager.
Sandy and Liz looked as if Daisy did this every day.
“Doesn’t anyone want to kiss me?” she said, and giggled.
I stared at the ground.
“No one?” she said, tapping her fingers against the gun. “No one at all?”
And then I started down the driveway.
“All right!” Daisy growled, and banged on her gun. “Go for it!”
My friends stared a silent goodbye. They knew I was on a kamikaze mission. I was a goner. I was toast.
“Nice knowing you,” Sandy said.
As soon as I crossed the threshold of Aphelion’s lair, as soon as I took that first step into that driveway, the dog went fucking crazy. She spat and spewed and sputtered.
“I’m coming for you, Aphelion,” I whispered. “Here I come.”
She scuffled backward to her post, giving herself plenty of slack on her chain. She was going to maul me, and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.
Female laughter taunted me from behind. Above me, Mrs. Hanson continued to play her violin.
“Don’t worry,” Daisy said from far away. “She’s a pussycat.”
Aphelion banged up against her post. I wondered if she was afraid or confused. Then she let out a particularly nasty bark, and I lost my train of thought.
“Ooh, he’s getting closer,” Sandy said, as if she were narrating a horse race. “I think he’s going to do it.”
Aphelion’s bark was amazing. It grew multilayered, rolling over itself in gruff sonic waves, different distorted frequencies competing to be heard.
“Jesus,” Ben said. “Jesus fucking Christ.”
“This is going to be so ugly,” Liz said.
I stopped a couple of feet from Aphelion, down there in the depths, where I couldn’t breathe. Mrs. Hanson’s violin hit a high note and went silent.
“Hello, Aphelion,” I said.
Up close, the dog was a misery. The crust around her eyes rose in tiny piles. Her fur was matted and dreadlocked. She stank all the way to next week. She was lonely, rejected, an outcast, one of the untouchables. Affection was unknown. Kindness was a big chicken bone at Christmas. I thought of the sick and the lame on those late-night revival shows, how they fell all over each other to receive the blessed touch of a loud-mouthed charlatan.
She growled low and quiet, crouched near to the ground, legs cocked and ready to spring.
“How’s it going?” I whispered, but only because I couldn’t speak any louder. “What’s going on?”
I was banking on Aphelion’s confusion. I was banking on the amount of novelty my scent held for her. I was hoping that she’d decide I was a friend.
“It’s OK, Aphelion,” I said. “It’s all right.”
I heard other dogs barking down the street. The noises they made were silly and unearned.
Aphelion’s dull rumble continued.
“Come on,” came Daisy’s voice from another world. “Touch her.”
I reached out, and Aphelion’s milky eyes followed my hand, rolled up in their sockets as I patted the top of her head carefully, as if she were a tripwire. I heard her breath and felt its heat on my palm. I rubbed the little bump on the top of her skull. She had gone totally still. Her eyes grew heavy, and her lids flickered. She made a deep hum.
“Holy shit,” Evan said, way back there in the past.
I kept rubbing her head, and her trance continued on, and her rumble calmed me. Her jowls hung low and swung lightly. For a moment, she seemed at peace.
“OK,” I whispered. “It’s OK.”
When I took my hand away, she cocked her head to the left, as if to question why I’d stopped. A hot flash went through me, and I took a step away.
“Thanks,” I said.
And then, while her head was still cocked in a peaceful manner, the tortured spirits rose in her, the ones that had been denied even a moment of comfort, and she started growling again.
“Goodbye,” I said, and backed away into the world of light, into the world of soft towels and ice-cream cones and soda in clean glass bottles.
Everyone applauded. I thought I would faint.
“That was amazing,” Daisy said. Her phosphorescence had increased. “I thought you were dead.”
“Yeah,” I said, not recognizing my voice. “Me too.”
“Fucking awesome,” Ben said.
I looked back at Aphelion. She wasn’t any different. She was still hobbled, and deformed, and tortured. My touch hadn’t helped at all.
“That was really brave,” Sandy said.
I could only shrug.
“You really must have wanted to kiss me,” Daisy said, and she stepped up to the plate.
She put her arms around me and pressed her body to mine. The pleasure I felt was complete and unfamiliar. Her lips were wet, and her mouth tasted of a candy bar. When our noses touched, beads of sweat blended together and became one. Her tongue was soft and tricky, and her hot sugar breath on mine had a senseless beauty.
“My hero,” she whispered.
The others giggled and whistled. Her gun tapped against me as we swayed. We were two soldiers during a cease-fire, making out in no man’s land. I should have felt invincible, locked in an embrace with the girl of my daydreams, but my triumph was tinged with survivor’s guilt. The cries of the one I’d left behind filled my ears, marred my celebration, covered my lips as they moved against Daisy’s so that, in a way, we never touched. In her wretched, unlit shelter, surrounded by vengeful spirits, Aphelion howled and gasped and hacked, reflecting on nothing but her own bad luck and all the whimsies perpetrated against her, beneath the high-toned score of Mrs. Hanson’s violin.