It was raining the night she brought it home. One of those fairytale puppies with the oversized ears and the fumbly legs. It was the last thing we’d ever expect; a new member to our already-oversized family. Another thing to have to look after and eventually ignore. But there she was, the tiny Labrador, brought into the house to a group of us girls, of varying ages. She was miniature, confused, and bewildered as we all squealed and clasped at her soft, sandy fur to hold her up to our cheeks. Still learning how to walk properly, you could hear her short claws tap against the kitchen linoleum. My three sisters and I fell in love with her. My mother handed her to us, and I never saw her pick her up again.
In the first night of her residence, the rain still slamming our screens, she took to a corner in the back of the kitchen. The small apartment was bi-level, with the sisters and parents asleep in the rooms upstairs. My bedroom was always away from them, in any apartment we lived in, and in this case it was downstairs. I dared not ask why. They said it because I was the oldest; I think otherwise now. The labrador was crying: a soft, silent whimper in the corner not far from my abode. In the pitch, wet dark, a small abandoned child. The sound was excruciating. I put on a dim light and held her for as long as I could, stroking her, hushing her, alone. I eventually had to get back to bed, as I’d rise early to make the kids’ lunches before we all headed to school. I repeated this every night until her tears lessened.
Labradors grow into large, graceful beasts. They are known for their intrinsic loyalty, their hearty structure and their childlike joviality. They are meant to run in sprawling fields, hunting for foal and fish, and protect their families of any species. We lived in an urban backdrop with no backyard, only a concrete alleyway with some bits of gum-ridden sidewalk. For the lack of trees and grass, our Labrador was kind enough to exchange affections, even allowing my smallest sister to occasionally ride her into the living room, wearing pajamas and mother’s pumps. As she matured, our hysterical-spotless matriarch had realised: Labradors shed. Ours would grow and slowly coat our home in a layer of slivered animal. For mother, this was a great offense, worthy of incarceration.
There was a door that led to a back staircase. The stairs were narrow, black, and curled down into a dimly lit basement, low-ceilinged and damp-aired. All that was down there were white goods and dusty frames. From here, her hair could only shed against the black paint of the steps, and remain clear of mother’s neurosis. Our charming creature, now growing into adolescence, was condemned to this prison for years. She would curl up by the door itself, with soft, hopeful angles, as if it were to open. She’d only be let out to be walked. We would liberate her into the house when mother was away, only to be sentenced if a single fiber was found on fabric or floor. It was worth it, to have our flamboyant detainee ramble in and clumsily jump us with affection and outstretched legs. We’d swiftly sneak her back when we heard the station-wagon pulling up outside.
By this time, my limbs were longer too. My tiny exile-room down the hall still had the mauve carpet and floral bedding that mother insisted, but I taped up some black curtains to match my trenchcoat and eyeliner. This space was all I had – an attempt at self-rescue from the rest of that house. There was no door to the room, so I lurked in the space within the cramped closet, which had its own light source. This is where I hid when I heard mother thumping toward me, fists clenched. I’d sit cross-legged with collages and stare at my taped-up postcard collections while listening to headphones on 11. Her put-downs would still penetrate, those tenants of protection and love:
You are useless. You are disgusting, get out of my sight. Who do you think you are? Can’t you do anything right? You just sit there on your fat ass. You’re grounded. No, I’m not telling you why. Give me your cassette tapes. What, do you think you are some kind of artist? You’re not going anywhere.
If my head was slammed against a wall again, the music would go back on and I’d close my make-believe door. I’d cry myself to sleep.
I was given many tasks, to measure my worth. Love is not unconditional. I looked after the siblings and was taught to ignore my friends and books. I learned to keep shut, never ask questions and do anything I was asked. A regular assignment, only to me: to clean the dog hair from the back staircase every day. There was a molded grey-gold tupperware bowl that was kept under the kitchen sink. It was to be filled with a rankly scented lemon cleaner and with an old sponge, carefully applied to each step on the way down. When finished, the bowl was filled with grey water and clumps of coarse, golden hair. I’d nearly trip on the dog on the tight way down, but she eventually knew to stay out of my step as she watched me with pity. If the job was not done well enough, I would be forced to do it again or be punished.
I’d study hard, and daydream harder. I’d lie to everyone and run off to Manhattan, smoke cigarettes in Washington Square Park and pretend I was Jack Kerouac. I’d sneak a sip of Dad’s good whiskey from the kitchen top shelf late at night, and blow a kiss to the Labrador through the door on the way to bed. I’d listen to Koyaanisqatsi before sleep to remind me that there was something, big, beautiful, and abstract out there that I’d graze one day. In the meantime, I dreamt of ways to die.
While the Labrador remained, I went away, against mother’s will. She couldn’t bear to lose the ‘help’. I left them there, I didn’t have a choice. The family eventually relocated to a suburban setting, this time in a bigger house that no room for me. On visits, I would sleep in the basement, with the Labrador. In the new captivity, she was still forbidden into the home. While I lay there in the dark, I could hear her breathing right above me. She wouldn’t rest or fold. If I drifted off, she’d lick my face. I wished she would just lay her head on my chest; I patted her ears in the blackness.
By morning, I noticed her eyes had grown long, tired, and somber. She moved slowly, and often walked into walls. The family would laugh, but she was in pain. Soon, the Labrador would have to be put down. They said it was her kidneys, but I think it was her heart. I was informed when a sister called me. I was in my first Manhattan apartment, cigarette in hand, molding words and finding life. I had nothing to say, and no hair to hold.
Nobody knew where I was, and now I am no longer there*.
I was told that no one cried more, than mother.
*Gwendolyn Brooks, “Boy Breaking Glass”
***Jen Ellerson is a Berlin-based Creative Director, Designer, Promoter, DJ and Writer – and not necessarily in that order. Her 2012 publication, “Modern Movement”, is a document of Berlin subculture. She is currently working on a compendium of short stories. To this date, she maintains a perfect sense of trouble. www.jenellerson.com ***