Maybe I should explain this dog business. I became a dog when I was five. Being a dog was the natural thing to do in our house, a house filled with funny people with a lot of funny names who said and did a lot of funny things. We were all a little off.
My girl name was Lucinda. I didn’t have a dog name because no one recognized who I was. I lived with X, and her Mama, whom I called Goose. My daddy lived around the corner on Jackson Avenue near St. Charles with his mother. She called him Godgy or Gog or The Little Beast. I was his only kid. He said my Mama was his X. So I called her X. X fit.
I named my grandmother Goose after a tale I heard about turkeys. The story said turkeys were so daft they tilted their necks back and held their mouths open in the rain. The way my grandmother ignored stuff and buried her head in a book rather than do something reminded me of those birds. I didn’t call her Turkey because I’d read Mother Goose. I just cut the Mother out.
We lived in a Greek Revival house in the Garden District. X called it the Garbage District, her way of insulting everyone in the neighborhood. The Greek Revival had something to do with architecture, which had nothing to do with the Greek sailors who came over and spent the night with X in her room at the back of the house. But I’m getting way ahead of myself. Anyway, X was a snob. She ridiculed people, places, and things by giving them new names. I got that from her. Better to use euphemisms and puns and renaming than to tell the truth about our lives. She said, “People would die to live where we live.”
My family had three dogs: Wanda, Beebee, and me. Wanda and Beebee had belonged to my father, who got sick a lot, which is why he lived with his mother. He had to give the dogs to us because his mother wouldn’t keep strays. X laughed when he told us that. She said his mother collected last names instead.
Beebee arrived first. X said he was special and not a dog at all, but a person in a dog suit. She made a gigantic fuss over him the moment he arrived. She didn’t fuss over Wanda. Wanda was a girl. X didn’t like girls. She liked men and boy dogs.
Animals came first in our house; they got tens of pets, hundreds of coos and thousands of homemade treats in a blue and white Chinese bowl. The first time I turned into a dog, I went straight for it.
“Jesus H. Christ! Mother, why is that child wolfing down Beebee’s dinner?” said X one day, seeing me face-down in Beebee’s dish, chomping his meal.
“I’ve no idea, dear, unless you’ve prepared something unusual,” Goose said.
“I added a touch of left-over mirilitons to his kibble.”
“Well, there’s your explanation. Your stuffed prickly pears are divine. See how little Lucinda appreciates them!”
I couldn’t figure out if they were dumb or blind. Then they’d change the talk back to themselves and act as if I hadn’t sprouted whiskers and floppy ears. So I’d sit on my haunches and scratch my elbow with my heel. Or I’d let my extra-long tongue loll, letting drool pool at my paws. Or I’d shove my snoot in the dog’s butts. Beebee pretended not to mind. Wanda, though, looked like she’d swallowed a bee. I loved Wanda.
I also loved attention and would crawl around the floors on my hands and knees. The floor boards were full of little spikes waiting to slide under the skin. As soon as I got a splinter, I’d whimper and whine. Goose would run over—tweezers in the air—to pick the splinter out.
Boo-boos paid off.
My parents were good at little crises, so I created plenty of them. I hated wearing a dress, so when I did I took off my drawers. I’d sit on the floor and scratch behind my ear with my hind leg, displaying my private parts. Goose and X would scream, “Lucinda, put your foot down!”, then shoo me into the side yard, saying nothing about what they’d seen. The dogs and I tore through the aspidistra growing on either side of the path, doing what X called “wreaking havoc” on the leaves. Then we all pee-peed on Goose’s pink azalea. She’d throw her hands in the air, “My poor bush isn’t getting what it needs.”
My nanny Ernestine—I called her E—supervised me when X worked, which wasn’t often. X lost jobs because she took long lunches, said her friend, Bobby Conner. I heard him tell Goose that X had entitlement issues. I knew what that meant. X wanted to be a Queen the way my father wanted to be Princess Margaret’s long-lost brother.
I liked E better than anyone. One day we were sitting at the dining room table, eating grapes. Something came over me and I pelted her with a few.
“Lucinda, I’m going to report you to Miss Maud Ellen,” she said, ducking.
“Woof-woof,” I said, tossing another grape at her.
“Child, you are not a dog!” she said, bowing down to pick up the rolling fruit.
“Buf-buf,” I said, tossing the green balls overhead and opening my mouth wide. They bounced off my nose and jumped into my gullet. I spat the seeds at her.
“Lord Jesus! Child! Maybe you is a hound after all.”
That stopped me sharp. When E talked dumb, she was serious.
I curled my lips into a smile.
She sat mopping her brow. “I know what you are. You’re a fancy brown-eyed pug. Yes, that’s it!”
I loved E. She knew me. I trotted over and rubbed against her dark-stockinged legs. She scratched behind my ears. I sat my lap-butt down beside her, bobbing my noddle.
“Child, child! You a mysterious little faun.”
I wagged my tail and wondered if she’d been into the sherry.
Being a dog made everyone kind no matter what I did.
X took Wanda and Beebee on walks in the neighborhood, but she never took me, so I’d bark her out of the yard. I spent a lot of time at that gate, waiting for X and my sibs to return, or for my father to visit. I spent so much time waiting I’d made it into an art. I never knew when my father would arrive. He’d appear like a great crane swooping down from the sky and disappear just as fast.
X seldom let him in the house. He sat in the side yard in Uncle Walter’s Bauhaus chair made of plumbing pipes. He’d rescued Wanda and Beebee. Maybe he’d rescue me, too. I liked the way he talked, fast, like a St. Charles Avenue streetcar whizzing by. I’d curl up at the bottom of the three steps near the kitchen door and listen to him talk. He said he wanted to go back to the Pasadena Playhouse in California, where he and X had been when they were happy. People there said he looked like Montgomery Clift. He read me one of his poems about Christ and he called Christ a clown. I didn’t know who Christ was, or why he thought that, but I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Sometimes he brought his canvas and paints. He painted church towers with peace symbols in the windows.
One Christmas he arrived with a blue-velvet box tied with a white bow. He was in the parlor sitting on Goose’s loveseat near the tree. X had let him in, called me, then run to the kitchen at the back, busting with lies. X lied faster than Merlin chased the Lady in the Lake. She had dozens of lies she could pull out of her head. She’d say, “Someone’s burning on the stove,” or “Mother needs a cigar,” things like that.
“This is for you,” he said, opening the box. He removed a silver Hershey’s kiss on a sterling chain.
I grabbed it in my mouth, trotted outside and buried it in the yard. I never told him I was a dog. I figured he had enough on his mind without having to know he’d brought a present to a dog he thought was his daughter.
Sometimes he talked about his mother. “She’s something to miss, go right around her. She gets married too much.” I guessed he didn’t like her. I couldn’t blame him. We had the mama thing in common. He also talked about the English, especially Princess Margaret and Elizabeth, the queen. He said he was Margaret’s long-lost brother and that we were royals.
He and X agreed on class.
X said, “The queen is a Mrs. Gluckstein and her entire family are fakes. We’re blue-blood Confederates.”
When X started that stuff I’d cut up even more – roll on the floor and howl. Then she’d call me a cayoutle.
Cayoutle was the word she used to describe mongrels or lower-class people with mixed-up genes like my father. If X called him a cayoutle, then I’d be one, too.
One day in June, I was out in the side yard with Ernestine and Wanda. We were playing “ring around the house.” I chased Wanda, and E chased me. I could slip between the back shed and the fence to get to the yard on the other side of the house. E was too fat to do that. I was making my way around to the front when I passed the dining room. The window was open and I heard X calling out to my grandmother.
“Mother, Godfrey killed himself. Marjory found him hanging from a belt nailed to the frame of his bedroom door this morning.”
“Dear God! Where’s Lucinda?” my grandmother said.
I ducked under the outside sill.
“She’s with Ernestine in the yard. We’ll have to tell her, but we certainly can’t tell her the truth.”
“Of course not, dear. Just tell her he died in his sleep and went to Heaven.”
I jumped up, ran to the front yard, and howled like a husky.
E came running just as the front door opened and X and Goose stepped outside.
“Lucinda,” X said and stopped.
I stared at them. They looked like buzzards.
“Your father. . .,” her eyes darted at Goose, then looked straight at me. “Your father has shot himself in the head.”
“Maud Ellen!” said my grandmother.
“Seems less gruesome to me,” said X.
“Oh, child,” E said, grabbing for my hand.
I raced up the three brick steps in front of the house. I didn’t have to push X or Goose out of the way. They parted like the Red Sea. I ran to my bedroom, the lie ringing in my ears. My father wasn’t dead – he’d just gone back to Pasadena to be Montgomery Clift.
And I didn’t believe anything X or Goose said anymore. I hid under my big, four-poster bed where I curled up and licked myself clean. Sometimes I imagined my father back on the stage and having people telling him he was grand. Maybe even Princess Margaret had gone to see him in a play and clapped. And I dreamed he’d had his book of poems about Christ published by a big publishing house. I wondered how his mother felt, but I didn’t know because X kept me away from my other grandmother. “Three jumps ahead of the sheriff just like your father,” she’d say. So I refused to go to school. I had an excuse to stay home playing with with my fuzzy sibs all day.
X took me to see her friend, Dr. Scrignar, on Prytania Avenue. I trotted out of the yard and jumped inside the United Taxi cab, my nose smudged against the glass for the short ride. The driver didn’t mind hairs on his seat. At the doctor’s office, I didn’t say much, but I drew pictures while we waited. Drawing I did well, and I’d become a girl to do it. I went in first, alone. Doctor Scrignar had something wrong with one eye. It was red and blinked on and off like a stoplight. I batted my lashes in time with each blink—like musical accompaniment—my tail between my legs.
“I see you’re talented, Lucinda,” he said, reviewing my art work.
“You’ve drawn a room with such detail. In the picture is a girl, in a pinafore and pumps, holding three dogs on leads. Are they your pets?”
“The white one with red freckles is X. The black one with the flat ears is Goose. The one on the right, with the cactus hair and blue eyes, is Beast.”
“X, Goose and Beast are their names?
“Why do you call them those names?”
I got quiet for a second, eyed the door that X sat behind.
“Do you need your mother?”
I looked deep into his better eyeball. “X is Mama. Goose is my grandmother, and Beast was my father. X because Mama’s a liar. Goose just because and Beast because….” The doctor was smart. I could tell him.
“My father hanged himself and Mama lied. She said he shot himself.”
The words broke into birds and fluttered around the room.
“It sounds like your mother didn’t know what to say. I’m so sorry to hear your father died. I know how sad you must feel.”
Dr. Scrignar wrote on a pad. The only words I could make out were “Father was a suicide and child describes her family as dogs. Mother has N.P.D. issues.” Dr. Scrignar knew the truth. Maybe he’d come and put the real dogs out.
He stopped writing and glanced at me. “Which is it, Lucinda? Dog or girl?”
I considered the question. Could I keep my dress down, walk on two legs, stay clean, play nice, dig up Daddy’s kiss and wear it around my neck? The doctor was so nice. Finally, someone was paying attention.
I bared my teeth into a kind of grin, swung my legs, and felt my tail withering away.
Pretty soon I could feel its nubby bone.
Lucinda Kempe lives in an Arts & Crafts style house on Long Island where she exorcises with words. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Frigg, r.kv.r.y., the Summerset Review, and Jellyfish Review. The recipient of the Joseph Kelly Prize for creative writing in 2015, she’s an M.F.A. candidate in writing and creative literature at Stony Brook University. Her narrative nonfiction was a semi-finalist in the Under the Gum Tree’s 2016 inaugural contest.