Under the lemon tree

(Performed at Avid Reader Salon, 2012)

We’ve been here a few months when the dog follows me home. I figure she must be pretty tame because she moves slowly and presses her wet nose against my palm, friendly like. She’s filthy, with big runty shoulders and a skinny backside. She follows me right inside down the hallway and sits when I tell her to sit. Her long tail sweeps the floor. I look up the number for the shelter and run a hot bath in our laundry tub. I scrub her mangy fur until it gleams like a seal’s back and by the time Joni gets in from work the dog’s right at home, sleeping in the washing basket where I’ve stuffed our doona. Joni asks me just what I think we’re going to do in winter. I wrap my arms around her and press my face against her shoulder, biting down gently. Oh that, she says.

There’s meat some weeks but not this one. We make a soup with what we’ve collected from our own backyard, and from my late night visits to our neighbours’ more impressive gardens. Joni has this vision of the corncobs and the bushels of spinach and the hilltops of fresh mint and coriander she’s about to spout at any moment. I don’t tell her about my dreams of cannelloni stuffed with ricotta and currants, or a thick piece of rare steak seasoned with rosemary and olive oil. Instead I’m just waiting for this wanting to go away. Tonight I’m on washing up duty because Joni doesn’t trust me with a chopping board. She likes her vegetables the way she likes them: she always peels potatoes but never carrots, she dices beans and slices snowpeas, and she won’t let me float the celery leaves on top for flavour. It’s some strange remnant of her family life.

While we eat I tell Joni about the Labrador from when I was a kid. He could smile, I say, a genuine grin. I hold my hands up and say, I swear to god. I think of how this is my own souvenir from my family. All Joni says is hmmm, and then, this one’s probably got fleas. But I know she’s already softening up because after we finish eating she takes a bowl into the laundry for the dog. When she comes back inside she tells me to take the stupid thing to the vet tomorrow and I pull her close against me. She’s silent. I think we’re both thinking what a good mother she’d be, but maybe she’s not at all. Then I’m thinking about the time my mum asked me to put my brother in the shower and I’d turned the hot water on instead of the cold.

After Joni’s gone to sleep I walk down the hallway and look around the corner at the dog. One paw is draped over her nose, like she’s hiding her eyes from the light. I am flooded with happiness all of a sudden and I decide I’m going to call the dog Alice after my grandmother. I want to wake Joni up and make her come and stand here with me. I want to tell her that maybe this is enough right here.

*

The next morning I call in sick and don’t get out of bed until mid-morning. The dog’s still asleep. Hey Alice, I say. Wake up. She doesn’t move an inch and so I prod her rump with my toe. She is stiff and cold to touch. I go back inside and call Joni’s work even though I know she’ll be in class. When the secretary asks me if it’s an emergency I say no. I tell her I’ll call back later and stay on the line long after she hangs up. There’s a dead dog in our laundry, I say out loud, just to hear how it sounds.

I go sit down beside Alice. I reach out to stoke her ears, but stop. I wonder if she was alive last night when I’d gone and watched her sleeping. I wonder if I’d killed her by using the wrong shampoo. I wonder if I’m allowed to put on a load of washing.

Joni doesn’t ring back until after lunch when she has a free period. Alice is dead, I tell her and she says, Who? Then she says don’t cry, please. I’ll be right home. I think about how last night I’d stood in a doorway and imagined this could last years more. That the dog wouldn’t die until we were both old and grey and that we would bury her under the lemon tree out in the front garden which we’d only planted a month ago. We can make lemonade, you’d told me then and I’d hated you for bringing me here.