The neighborhood girl comes over at nine to help with the dogs and chickens. She uses the flashlight on her phone to count the one, two, three hens. She’s careful; she makes sure. She shines and scans, guided by the light. Once she locks the coop, she goes into the house, shushes the dogs and shoos them out the back door: “Go potty! Go potty!”
She does it all better than I would have at her age. Better than I do now.
I have her in my phone as neighbor. I know her name starts with an M, but that’s all I can remember. She brings her mom with her most of the time since it’s dark out, and everything everywhere is unpredictable these days. I get it. Catalytic converter thefts, break-ins, randos walking the street. A mugging just last week. Two teenagers ran up and pushed a woman down from behind, ran off with her bag. Dog maulings. A serial killer in Stockton.
I can tell the mom doesn’t want to be there. For one thing, she covers her nose with the sleeve of her sweatshirt the minute she steps to the door. I know how it smells in there. The mother looks both tired and relieved when the dogs stop barking and head to the back to do their business. She’s anxious for her daughter to get the job done and go back home. Still, she pats the dogs a little, throws them their toys. Asks if there’s water in the bowls then answers, the way a mother often asks and answers herself: Oh yes, there’s water. Oh yes, there’s food.
I leave M money in an envelope under the doormat. I pay her well even though the chickens basically put themselves to bed, and the dogs have already pissed in each corner by the time she arrives. Still, it makes me feel responsible, like I’m taking care of things even if I’m not the one taking care.
When my parents lived in this house, it was painted white. My father burned his garbage, his mail, his leftovers in the fireplace; my mother played simple songs on the piano in the early dawn. They piled their stuff in the corners of each room, and then when the pile got too full – boxes, papers, old magazines, mail, sweaters or blankets or broken dishes – they moved it to the garage and started a new pile.
Repeat. Repeat. They drank.
My mother once hit a parked car on the street. The neighbors at the time forgave my father’s air pollution, my mother’s early morning piano. The hit and run. I don’t know why. When my mother moved to the home last year, my father died. It happened fast. When I moved in, I had the outside of the house painted bright blue. I hired someone to build a deck. I painted it a rusted red. The color of a farmhouse. I got the chickens. I got silver metallic bathtub-sized plant containers. I bought soil. I bought seeds. Once things start to grow, I’m going to ask M to water the seedlings for me. I will hear them growing – the same way you can hear the kids across the street bouncing their basketball on the sidewalk, chalking their hopscotch routine. My mother loved the high notes, my father the low. I never told them my favorite sound is flowers.
Something doesn’t have to make sense in order for it to be true.
The dogs – there are five of them – pee in the house even after M lets them out and back in again. They pee on the legs of the piano, the corners of the couches, the edge of the fireplace. I leave all the lights on for them, CNN too. Espionage, fire, shortages, celebrity weddings. Voices, voices.
They like my voice best. M’s voice isn’t soft. She’s impatient. She shushes them when they bark, their tails wagging, knocking piles of magazines and papers off the end tables.This place is still stuffed with my parents’ heavy oak furniture: dressers, a hutch, coffee tables, dining table, chairs. I don’t know how to unpack. What I’ve added is the small flat screen TV mounted to the wall over the fireplace, towels and sheets on the couches and chairs because the dogs sit on everything.
My mother’s piano is covered in dust and not a small amount. On the floor, the cabinets, the hooks in the entryway that still hold my father’s green windbreaker. His A’s hat. There’s the smell of his smoke on it.
Tonight when M comes, the dogs go crazy as usual. Bark, bark. Wag, whine. I’m not at work, but she doesn’t know that. Her mother isn’t with her for some reason. She puts the key in the lock and turns it. Puts her knee in the door first so the dogs won’t rush out. She opens the door slowly. Shushes them. Lets them out. Fills their water bowl. Leaves.
I’m in the back bedroom with a broken nose. Tripped over a box of my mother’s old quilts – face first in the hallway. Blood everywhere. I slept with the breakage, the bleeding. In the morning, when I could see again, I got myself to the Urgent Care. I forgot to tell M I didn’t need her to come. I might forget again tomorrow. For the five minutes she’s here – I won’t be alone. The dogs are a certain company. Eventually the seedlings will sprout into flowers and then I’ll have them, too. I decide to leave a note for M about the soil, the seeds. If she gets the supplies, plants the seeds, waters them, then I’ll have flowers. Easy beauty. I’ll cut a few to sit in a glass jar on the piano. Maybe I’ll learn something to play.
LISA PIAZZA — Lisa is a writer, educator and mother from Oakland, Ca. Her work has been nominated for Best Small Fictions, Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. She is an assistant poetry editor for Porcupine Literary.
Art by JAMES READE VENABLE — James was born in Manhattan, New York. He has been published in Black + White Photography, Dodho, F-Stop and many more. He is a 2x London Photo Festival Monthly Competition Winner and was on the Shortlist for the Storytelling category in this year’s 500px Global Photography Awards. He is also an actor and will be seen in the new season of the Irish series Hidden Assets. He lives in New York City at the moment.