On the Fourth of July I settled myself into a matinee of half-smiles and smoke at the McNeil’s cluttered kitchen table. Justice, my dog, had made the two hundred mile road trip with Mother and me, and nestled nervously at my feet. Mrs. McNeil, looking a bit on the raunchy side after having partied into the late night, yawned exposing a tongue covered in a dense layer of white. Mother fluttered about the kitchen. Pale-faced Cousin Betty wad donned in her white shorts and a white tank top with one red stripe. I thought she resembled an inflated bowling pin. There were dime-sized bruises on Betty’s goose-pimpled thighs; no doubt the result of a hangar beating from her mother.
Sitting there that morning, I felt acutely aware of Betty’s pain. It was ever present in her absent stare. I wanted to reach out to her, to help, to rescue. But attempting to converse with Betty was like throwing a ball against a wall—as hard as I tried, nothing came back, except what I threw out.
Maybe, for most children, the McNeil’s house would have been a playhouse of television, music, junk food, and entertainment, but for me it was a home where I repeatedly felt misplaced and saddened. I had a hard time breathing at the McNeil’s, not so much from my seasonal allergies or my recent set of silver braces, but from the hardened and bruised hearts that were all around me. Theirs was a house of broken dreams—relatives of all shapes, sizes and ages, who appeared lost and lonely even though they were all gathered together.
Most of the hoots and hollers were the fruits of too much drinking and drugs, which I perceived as futile attempts to wash away the past and present. Much of the conversations revolved around sorrows and disappointments: divorces, loss of jobs, cheating, stealing and what have you.
Although my good friend Jane, the McNeil’s daughter, was there with me, she too was somewhat lost in the shuffle of pain. Though she was my friend and kept me company, she did little to change the feelings stirring inside of me.
Having my little black dog Justice at my side was my only comfort. He carried within him a calm loving spirit that nurtured and guided me. Even though he was a fearful and timid dog, his mere existence gave me a sense of inner peace and balance.
Still, with all of my emotions revolving around the McNeil’s home, I understood why my mom visited the family. There was some value in these people. Certainly, there were aspects of the McNeils which brought cause for liking. Mrs. McNeil was a spirited lady, with enough spunk in her to draw anyone out of their own dismal thoughts. And she instinctively knew how to both nurture and humor my mother. As lonely as my mom was, I understood she needed the McNeils, much as I understood how I needed my dog Justice. I was never angry with Mother for bringing me to the McNeils, neither was I disappointed; instead, I was rather disheartened; for there was a bitter taste in my mouth whenever I entered their house, an immediate feeling of homesickness, even if my mother was right at my side.
If I had to choose, this wouldn’t be the place I would have wanted to lose my dog. But in life, I know now, as I discovered then, I don’t get to choose how my losses play out. Going back in time, I would have preferred to see Justice live to a ripe old age, and watch him pass in my arms at the vet, beside the protective watch of my mother and father. Though, by then, my father was barely visible in my life, and Mother needed my protection more than I received hers.
Nonetheless, I wish sometimes to go back and rewrite Justice’s end—to claim my right and his right to a formal departing embrace.
That hot, hot summer I lost Justice, some one hundred and ten degrees of sweltering heat, I partook in one of the McNeil’s Fourth of July traditions. An event I believed all people participated in on Independence Day; that is, until I was an adult and I discovered differently.
As the sun set behind the mountains and the sky turned a hazy velvet-pink, twelve people piled into an old yellow pickup. Mother, dressed in her skimpy halter and cutoff shorts, sat in the shadows of the truck near the tail end. Her dark tan in striking contrast to pale Betty, who took a seat to my left, and balanced her generous backside on an ice-chest. That evening Betty was smiling, as she peeled back the wrapping of the white taffy candy that she had stolen from my suitcase. I took my place in the back of the rusting bed, alongside my friend Jane.
From the back of the pickup, one beer bottle clanged against the side of the metal bed then rolled back tapping the heel of my shoe. Up above bottle rockets flared through the air arching like flamed rainbows. And Beside me, Jane ducked nervously under a beach towel.
The truck puttered up a steep suburban hill. I took in the air, a mixture of stale ale, cigarettes, exhaust, and the smell of heat escaping the asphalt. As the darkness set, together, the entire group, myself included, stood up in the rattling bed and banged pots and pans. This was our ritual. The way we celebrated our inherent freedom. “Happy Fourth of July,” everyone hollered. Some with slurs, some with screams, and others in quiet whispers. And then more and more banging.
Riding along, I was overcome with the sounds and sights, trapped between a sensation of elation and trepidation. I feared the constant movement and constant sound. But I was also filled with a sense of danger. I was pulled back in my mind with flash backs and reminded of my recent nightmare. At that time my dreams, if they were to manifest in real life, typically came true in seven days time. This day marked the week’s end. The seventh day. The day of reckoning. And I’d forgotten. I’d forgotten to remember.
The noise was my signal, my sign. I knew instantly, with the sounds all about me, obliterating my senses and tightening my stomach, that Justice was gone. I’d woken seven days prior screaming and running to Mother’s bedroom. I told her Justice had died. I told her of the shooting lights and loud banging. I told her of the lit up sky. Of Justice being stiff and dead in an unfamiliar road in an unfamiliar town. I had seen a fence. I had seen Justice leap and escape. And I had seen myself crying and lifting my flaccid friend into my arms.
I knew innately, in that instant, as the dream flashed back before me, that Justice was gone to me forever. Gone were the days of romping pirates in the neighborhood garden. Gone were the bubble baths. Gone were the nights Justice rest curled at my toes slurping at his backside. Gone were his predictable dives under the coffee table with the arrival of strangers. And gone forever was his thick curly dark fur, his hot breath, his tickling tongue, and the depths of his amber eyes.
When we arrived back at the McNeil’s house, I was already deflated, left and forgotten in my own pain, as all around me people laughed and joked. My eyes grew dim, my heart heavy, while I approached the backyard, the first to escape the noise into the frightful silence. Nowhere in the yard was my dog. No sight of him. No sight of anything to remind me of him except his tattered red leash. I already missed his red collar, the one with the silver studs. I missed it like that collar was my own throat, the very thing that held my voice and breath.
For a few moments, I was overcome with denial and fear. For a while I grasped a sliver of possibility—the chance my dream was wrong. I gathered my strength, and wrestled through the shrubbery, the heat of the night still on me like a warm blanket. I screamed, and screamed again: “Justice! Justice! Justice!” But Justice did not come.
I searched until my hair was covered in oleander leaves and grass. I searched the yard, the house, and then I searched the streets—a lonely, straggly-haired girl sprinting in the dark with the fireworks above her, crying out for Justice.