“You’re not supposed to tell your friends the truth,” Ray, a boy of ten, said to Lucy, his golden retriever, who was the best listener in his entire world. She stared back at him and panted her agreement.
“At least not when it’s the real truth of why you think they do the things they do. You’re supposed to keep it secret because they’re not gonna like that part.”
The two of them sat on the grass in the backyard, and Ray talked to her as he brushed her. Lucy was blowing her winter coat, and they were surrounded with so much loose fur he’d brushed from her that it looked as if they were sitting on a picnic blanket made of yellow-blonde mohair. Every now and then the breeze would lift a tuft of fur into the air and carry it up and over the fence into the neighbor’s yard.
Ray pulled the fur from the brush, held it high and dropped it in the breeze. “Boy, Lucy, we could make a wig for Dad out of all this.” He put a handful on her head. “Or one for Mom in case she goes bald like Grandma. She’d like being a blonde. You like it.”
Ray’s mom and dad thought he and his sister were too young to notice or understand the things they didn’t want them to see, like the hard looks they gave each other when Ray or his sister came into the room when they were speaking in hushed tones that were somehow louder than any shout. But Ray noticed and he understood. His mom and dad liked to drink–wine from the box, light beer that defeated its purpose when they drank twice as much of it, and sometimes hard stuff on weekends–but Ray’s dad had gone away on a trip and since getting back he hadn’t been drinking. But his mom had. She kept at it like she hadn’t noticed, and when his dad made a point to say he wasn’t going to have anything when she was opening the tap on a new box of Riesling, she gave him a look as if he’d betrayed her.
Once Ray had asked, “Do you love Dad?”
“Of course I do. That’s why we got married.”
But Ray’s sister had told him otherwise. “Cynthia says you got married because you got pregnant with her.”
His mom’s voice quickly snapped from patronizing to angry. “Cynthia doesn’t know what she’s talking about. She needs to mind her own business and keep her mouth shut.”
“She said she did the math.”
His mom called Cynthia a little bitch under her breath. She said it quietly so Ray wouldn’t hear, but he did, and he knew he was supposed to. His mom and sister had never gotten along. A mother was supposed to love her children but his sister didn’t make that easy. Once when the fighting got bad, Ray asked his mother if she loved his sister, and she just got mad and sent him to his room. How could you ask such a question? she’d called after the cowed boy, but Ray was learning a mother didn’t have to love her children just because they were her children, though he sensed his mom seemed to hate herself for it.
One evening Ray and his mom were watching a program on television about dogs and at one point they talked about a mother eating her young and it struck such a chord in his mom that she started to cry. It was then that he asked if she wished she’d eaten his sister when she was born and got sent to his room, but he knew she did because later that evening he heard a lot of trips to the fridge for more wine.
What had gotten Ray in trouble and sent him out to the yard to groom Lucy had been another question about love. Like his sister doing the pregnancy math, he had uncovered another uncomfortable truth. His mom had been picking at her morning grapefruit, more hung over than usual and pretending it didn’t show, when Ray asked, “Have you stopped loving Dad because he doesn’t drink with you anymore?”
Ray cleared the brush of more fur. Lucy was shedding so much he could pull little tufts free from her flanks and hind legs. “But I can tell you the truth,” he said. “Can’t I, girl?”
Lucy panted contentedly.
Ray’s mother appeared at the back door. “Come on, Ray. It’s time to take Lucy to the vet.”
“The vet? What for?”
“She’s gonna get fixed.”
“What do you mean?”
Instead of explaining, she just got short. “That dog is not having puppies. Ever. You hear me?”