By Carol Major
In Sydney’s inner west, nine-year old Crisanto is following Mrs Linden and Earl. He has been watching them for the last three days, ever since Earl turned up in his class and Mrs Linden turned up at the school gate. Mothers don’t collect Year Five boys but Crisanto thinks it might be okay because Earl wears hearing aids and because his new Australian father told him that Mrs Linden wasn’t Earl’s mother any more. She was just trying to squeeze money out of the government and her ex-husband to set herself up in a house. She’d taken Earl out of a home for simpletons where his father had put him. It’s where Earl really belonged.
Earl does look a bit stupid. His face is big, like a blow-up picture of a baby on a disposable nappy box, all shiny and white. Mrs Linden also looks like a blow-up photograph and wears thick glasses. But Crisanto likes the way she smells of baby powder and something like Sunsilk Pink shampoo. The odour reminds him of his aunts in the Philippines, although Mrs Linden also smells a bit like ice cream and his aunts never smelled of that.
Mrs Linden and Earl live in a terrace house in a run-down row at the back of a church. A creek runs next to a lane connecting the terraces to the graveyard at the back. Tossed bottles, broken cardboard boxes and wrappers float in the water. There was a time when Crisanto would have collected the bottles but his mother says they are worthless in Australia. Waste of time. No one hands over money for plastic bottles here. Crisanto’s mother has a proper job in a hospital kitchen now and her eyes on even bigger things. Soon Crisanto’s new father will sell the house where they are staying and move them further west. He is building a mansion out there.
Crisanto is proud his mother has eyes that see bigger things, not like her sisters who are still back in the Philippines collecting bottles and looking after babies and old people, although sometimes he feels a small hollow space just below his ribcage. His mother says everyone feels like that at his age. It means he is getting ready to grow. He watches Mrs Linden as she picks up Earl’s school bag and they make their way toward the main road. His new father is right. They are both simpletons. You can tell by the way Mrs Linden walks too carefully, as if this is the first time she’s been outside. Earl walks beside her with his head turned on an angle as if he’s listening to his feet.
Up on the main road there’s a bakery, a video shop, and a little further down a vet’s surgery. In the evenings a cleaning man brings green plastic bags out of the back door and shoves them into a white van. That’s why you don’t see sick skinny dogs in the streets. Yesterday Crisanto counted four plastic bags. He also counted five blue cupcakes and four pink ones in the bakery window. There are only three blue ones now. Mr Barton, who runs the shop wouldn’t tell him who bought them, said he was a nosey little bugger and shooed him away.
Crisanto presses his nose against the window and then remembers Mrs Linden and Earl. They have reached the pedestrian crossing a little further away and Mrs Linden is raising her finger to push the button. He races in front of her and punches it with his fist. Mrs Linden half turns to look at him through her thick glasses but before her eyes reach his face the clicking sound of the traffic lights begins and the little walking man lights up. She leans toward Earl. ‘Listen and look. It’s safe to cross now.’ Crisanto scampers in front to show how easily it is done but neither of them takes notice.
When they reach the church Crisanto falls back. The graveyard gives him the creeps, and there is that littered path leading to the dirty creek beyond. He turns back to the main road to swat rubbish bins and watch people going in and out of shops. Later he swings around the railing in front of the vet surgery. If he’s lucky he will see someone bring in a dog, or a cat in a cage.
His mother is peeling prawns when he finally returns to his new father’s house. She’s still in her hospital kitchen uniform, the name tag on the pocket. She’s little and skinny like him with strong fingers and a hard-happy mouth. She doesn’t ask where he’s been; she seldom does, only if he’s eaten. When he tells her about Earl and the hearing aid she replies that she feels sorry for crippled kids. You didn’t want to be crippled in the village where they lived. Little hope for them. She sees crippled kids in hospital when she’s delivering meals.
‘He’s not that crippled!’ Crisanto shouts. ‘He can still move around.’ But his mother has lit the gas under the deep fryer and isn’t paying attention.
The following day Crisanto follows Mrs Linden and Earl again, this time right into the churchyard where Mrs Linden is pointing out things. She points out the clock in the church tower and the iron fence surrounding the graveyard. Crisanto runs past and kicks the fence to see if she might point at him. When she doesn’t, he kicks it again. An iron spearhead falls to the ground and he darts away. Mrs Linden doesn’t yell at him, which is what he’d half hoped. Instead, she bends to pick up the spearhead and shows it to Earl, telling him that it is a very old fence, surrounding very old graves. She opens the gate and guides him inside.
Crisanto is angry that she has opened the gate. He is also angry that she is still holding the spearhead as if it belongs to her, as if she owns all these graves too. Crisanto’s new father has an older son who comes here at night with girls. Tom moved out of the house when Crisanto and his mother moved in. He lives in a flat with other teenagers and works at the video store. At night he drinks Bundy rum and coke in the graveyard and aims the empties at the church clock. Mrs Linden has no right explaining what happens here. She knows nothing at all. Yet, her being inside the fence makes Crisanto feel brave enough to go inside too. He follows as she reads out the names on the old tombstones then skitters away each time she glances back. Later when she guides Earl down the littered path toward the row of sagging terraces, he races to catch up.
Each terrace house has a tiny veranda enclosed with an iron fence like the one around the graveyard, although not so high. Crisanto watches as Mrs Linden and Earl mount the step to their front door. She puts a key in the lock then suddenly turns. ‘We are buying a puppy,’ she calls out. ‘It arrives tomorrow.’ And then she and Earl disappear inside.
‘Mrs Linden is buying a puppy!’ Crisanto shouts when he reaches his new father’s house, not sure who might be there but wanting to say these words out loud.
His new father calls from the living room. ‘You stay away from her. She’s not fit to look after anything.’
Crisanto peeps into the room. He’s not afraid of his new father. The big man comes and goes, hollers out now and then, not to anyone in particular, just at the television and things he’s overheard.
‘Do you think she will kill the puppy?’ Crisanto asks. His new father often speaks of things getting killed and people starving to death in poor countries. Crisanto’s mother is lucky she’s been saved, Crisanto too. But now he only throws a look at Crisanto, as if this is a crazy question, and tells him to bring in a beer.
The next day the teacher yells at Crisanto for trying to touch one of Earl’s hearing aids.
‘I just wanted to see how it worked!’ he shouts back.
Earl unhooks the aid and holds it forward. ‘There are three switches,’ he says in a strange slow voice, pointing to the part that goes behind his ear.
Crisanto is shocked Earl can talk. And he’s never heard anyone speak so carefully before, as if each word sits beside the hearing aid in Earl’s large palm.
After school Crisanto walks with Earl to greet Mrs Linden at the school gate, and on the way home shows her as many things as he can: the Bundy and coke tins in the cemetery, the iced cupcakes in the bakery window, and how to thump the button at the crossing. Mrs Linden buys the remaining blue cupcakes and when they arrive at the terrace she asks Crisanto if he would like to come in. The puppy is in the back room. Crisanto runs down the narrow hall slapping the walls and pushing a side door open to see what’s behind. There’s a single bed with a boat sewn on the bedspread and painted shelves with toys.
‘Is that where Earl sleeps?’
Mrs Linden nods.
The hall leads through to a tiny kitchen. Crisanto stops to open the fridge door. There is a packet of cheese slices, some green beans in the crisper, and a glass bowl filled with something that looks like stew.
‘You don’t have very much to eat,’ he says.
‘I only buy what we need for the day,’ she replies. ‘I don’t like throwing things out.’
‘But I’m here and we could starve!’ Crisanto slams the fridge door and runs to the room beyond. The puppy is curled up on a grey sofa inside one of Mrs Linden’s cardigans. He must like the smell of her too. Crisanto tries to pick the puppy up but it wriggles away, begins to bark and then sniffs his hand.
Mrs Linden says the puppy is a beagle and that beagles’ brains are in their nose. They will need to be careful when taking it for a walk because it will follow any scent until it picks up another. It could easily get lost or hit by a car. She opens the back door to a patch of yard. ‘It’s okay for the puppy to go out there because the yard is fenced.’
The puppy scoots toward a bit of plastic sheeting sticking out from the neighbour’s side of the fence and begins to chew it. Mrs Linden dashes forward, forces its jaw open and pulls the plastic sheeting out. She says a beagle puppy will eat anything and then it will get sick. They need to watch out for that as well.
The next day is Saturday. This means there is no school. Crisanto’s mother has left for work but there is deep-fried pork knuckle on the kitchen counter and dried sardines that she has fried as well. His new Australian father doesn’t like the smell of dried sardines being fried so she only does this when he is away. ‘Like a fisherman’s wet scrotum,’ he says, but this is not true. Dried sardines smell like the sea and friendly chicken droppings, and diesel fuel.
Crisanto wraps half the sardines inside a paper towel and takes three packets of prawn crackers from the cupboard. He stuffs the food into the deep pockets of his new Australian board shorts and heads for Mrs Linden’s terrace. But this morning his feet won’t go as fast and the bright sun makes his eyes squint. He is feeling quite dizzy when he thumps on her door. Mrs Linden appears in her dressing gown with her hair standing up. She is carrying the puppy. Its nose is snuggled under her arm.
‘I came to play,’ Crisanto announces.
‘It’s very early, Crisanto. Earl is still asleep.’ She is not wearing her glasses. Her eyes look lost in her face.
‘Can I play with the puppy until he wakes up?’ Crisanto’s eyes feel tired too. He rubs at them. His nose feels big. Mrs Linden hesitates then says yes.
‘You can keep him happy while I take a shower and get dressed.’
She places the puppy on the floor. It follows her to the bathroom and whines when she closes the door. Crisanto claps his hands to get the puppy to pay attention to him. It jumps up on his leg and barks. He teases it toward the back room but walking backward is making his head spin harder, so he flops on the sofa and lifts the puppy onto his stomach. It worries at his pocket and tugs out the paper towel filled with fried sardines. Crisanto is too tired to stop him. He turns his face into the sofa cushion; his nose has started to run.
Mrs Linden returns smelling wet and pink. By then the puppy has eaten the sardines and is eating the paper towelling too.
‘Oh my,’ she says, picking up the scraps. ’Are you sick Crisanto? If you are sick you need to go home.’
‘But I want to stay here.’
‘I can walk you home.’
Crisanto shakes his head.
‘Well, let me ring your parents,’ she says, pulling tissues out of a box.
‘I don’t know the number,’ he lies.
Mrs Linden writes her own number on a piece of paper. ‘Then promise you will ring me and tell me you are home safe.’
Crisanto sprawls on a park bench near the schoolyard and doesn’t return to his new father’s house until late in the afternoon. His mother has returned from her shift. She tells him his face looks red and then asks if he’s eaten.
‘You are too skinny. You don’t eat enough.’
‘Why does Mrs Linden have a room with a boat bedspread and toys when she can’t look after Earl properly? Why does she call herself Mrs Linden when she isn’t married?’ His mother grabs him and pushes his face into her chest. She sways back and forth but she isn’t looking at him. She is looking out the window.
‘It doesn’t matter. We’re not going to live here much longer. Your new father has finished building that house and we’ll move out there. It is a big, big house, Crisanto.’
Crisanto pulls away. ‘But I could get lost in it,’ he screams at her. ‘I could walk outside and get hit by a car!’
She laughs, grabs his head again and pushes it this way and that. ‘You’re such a funny boy, Crisanto.’ And then she calls out to his new father. ‘Do you want another cold beer, lover man?’
Crisanto’s parents have begun moving furniture to the mansion. They will rent this house out when they are finished. Crisanto’s new father says the kid can wag school and help. Crisanto tells his mother that he wants to stay. She laughs.
‘Why you want to stay? You got a paying job here?’ But she leaves cooked food in the refrigerator and gives him a key to the back door. Sometimes they are gone for days.
Tom comes around in their absence. He sits on a mattress on the floor eating prawn crackers from the cupboard, watching TV and making a mess. Crisanto does not care about these things; he only cares about the puppy. Mrs Linden and Earl have named it Lucky. They take it for walks on the lead to the graveyard and Crisanto comes along. Mrs Linden says Lucky can go for walks now because his body is strong enough to fight any bugs that could make him sick. She shows Earl how to make Lucky heel and sit.
‘It’s important that a puppy looks at your face,’ she says. ‘That’s when you know it’s paying attention.’
But Mrs Linden isn’t always paying attention. She constantly forgets where she has left the key to the house or where she has put her purse, although she doesn’t forget other things. She’s very careful about giving Lucky heartworm tablets and putting drops on his coat to keep fleas away.
Crisanto constantly asks for a turn at holding Lucky’s lead but Mrs Linden doesn’t let him.
‘You jump around too much,’ she says. ‘You need to be calmer, Crisanto. You need to speak to the puppy carefully in a firm voice. You need to look into his face.’
Crisanto watches Earl leading Lucky and asks if the puppy is deaf too. ‘Is that why it needs to look at faces and why you have to speak to it carefully in a firm voice? Earl needs to look at faces,’ he tells her. ‘His hearing aids don’t pick everything up.’
‘I’m very proud of Earl,’ Mrs Linden says and then her voice cracks. ‘He won’t be staying here much longer. He will be going back to live in the special home.’
‘He never told me!’ Crisanto shouts. ‘What about Lucky! Will he go too?’
‘No,’ she replies, staring out at Earl and Lucky. ‘You can’t have a dog there.’
‘Then you’ll keep him.’ Crisanto tugs at her hand. He wants her to look at him. ‘You’ll stay here and Lucky will live with you.’
But Mrs Linden doesn’t look at him. She takes off her glasses and dabs her eyes.
Crisanto thinks if he doesn’t go to sleep that the days will not be able to pass until Earl goes away. And when the day does come, he doesn’t go over to Mrs Linden’s terrace to say good-bye because that would make it true. Instead he turns up early one morning two days later to see if the place looks any different. Lucky is on the veranda, tied to the gate. Mrs Linden must have forgotten her purse again. He opens the latch and tells Lucky to sit. But Lucky jumps up on him instead and then tugs in the direction of the graveyard. Crisanto wonders how fast Lucky could run if he was free. He wonders if he could beat him in race. He unties the lead.
Lucky bounds toward the littered lane, disappearing into the soggy weeds on the creek bank and shooting out again. His nose is pointed at the ground following a scent. Crisanto pelts behind but can’t catch up and now Lucky is sprinting through the graveyard, out the other side again and towards the church. The road is on the other side.
‘Stop! Stop!’ Crisanto strains to run faster but his breath is too tight in his chest. ‘Lucky come!’
But Lucky doesn’t come; he leaps onto the road and the car that is coming cannot stop. There is a dull thump and then Lucky’s little body hurtling. Crisanto can’t look. He presses his fingers into his eyes and screams and screams until someone has their hands on his shoulders.
‘Is it your puppy son? We’ve called the vet. The nurse is coming.’
Crisanto sits in a plastic chair in the vet’s surgery. He is still holding Lucky’s lead. He stares at his feet. He hadn’t bothered to put his shoes on this morning and his feet are scratched and dirty, his ankles splattered with mud. The vet is telling Mrs Linden that it will cost a lot of money to save Lucky and he can’t guarantee the operation will work. Can she afford this?
Crisanto can’t hear her answer but can sense the word ‘no’ in the room. It smells like plastic bottles and drains. The vet says this is probably for the best. There would be all sorts of problems even if Lucky made it through. He wouldn’t be the same puppy, probably blind and deaf.
‘It’s no life for a dog,’ he says gently. “But we can keep him comfortable here while nature takes its course. Then again, he may recover; he’s very young and brains do heal, sometimes on their own.”
Suddenly Mrs Linden is kneeling in front of Crisanto. She takes his face in her hands. He can’t bear her looking at him this closely, the whole world stopped in her glasses and his own face peering back. He pulls away. ‘Sorry, sorry,’ he shrieks, then runs out the door all the way to the house that belongs to his new Australian father. His mother has returned and is vacuuming the living room rug, a dusty nylon smell.
‘Lucky got hit by a car,’ Crisanto cries over the noise. ‘Mrs Linden doesn’t have enough money in her purse to get him fixed.’
His new father appears from the kitchen with a screwdriver in his hand.
‘Told ya. Couldn’t look after anything. Not even a dog. Well, she was given a chance and what does she do with the rent money? She buys a puppy. They can’t keep shelling out cash on this experiment.’
His mother turns off the vacuum cleaner. ‘Your feet are dirty Crisanto. Where are your shoes?’
‘Who? Who gave her money?’ Crisanto shouts.
His new father turns to his mother, as if Crisanto’s question came from her. ‘My taxes. That’s what gets poured down the drain.’ He swings to Crisanto, as if seeing him for the first time. ‘And you,’ he grabs Crisanto’s arm. ‘You don’t go near that house. You don’t stay in this empty one either. People will talk. You come with us.’
‘Listen to your new father,’ his mother chimes in. ‘That woman a loser. You learn nothing from her.’ Although Crisanto feels she only says this to agree with his new father, to make herself look clever in his eyes.
Neither tries to follow when he runs back out of the house into the twilight. And when he reaches Mrs Linden’s house no lights are on, and no one comes to the door when he knocks. He picks his way back down the lane, dropping on his knees to sniff at dark weeds and dirt. What is it like to have your brains in your nose?
A security beam shines from the church tower and up on the main road the bakery is closed but the video store is open. He can see Tom behind the counter. Further away the front window of the vet surgery is dark although the small lamp above the rear door is still on. The cleaning man comes out carrying plastic bags. Crisanto moves in that direction.
‘Are there dead dogs in there?’ he calls out, pointing to the bags.
‘Are you taking them to be burned up?’
The cleaning man hoists another bag through the van door. He has big square shoulders then turns to look at Crisanto properly. ‘Hey, it’s you. You belong to that lady, don’t you? I saw you earlier and then you ran out.’ He leans to pick up another bag then turns again. ‘Is that your dog that was hit? She’s been worried about you.’
Crisanto’s lips feel like rubber; he can’t get them to make words.
The cleaning man crouches in front of him. “She’s still in there. They’ve let her stay with him until I close up. Got at least an hour until I’m done. I’ll show you the way.’
Crisanto follows the man into a back room that smells of bird feathers and mice and cats and dogs, and Mrs Linden. She is lying on the floor beside a cage with her fingers stretched through the wire. Lucky is inside on one of her cardigans. She strokes his tummy, which rises and falls. Crisanto lies down on the floor beside her, curls around her back and closes his eyes.