I am an ugly man. Not on the inside, where it counts, but on the outside where it hurts. Unfortunately, the outside is the first thing people see when they meet you. I’ve come to realize that a lot of people think that if you’re handsome or beautiful, you’re good or smart or even kind, which, of course, can be far from the truth. I remember my own mother, after the accident, gently holding my face in her hands and saying, “My dear, sweet, wonderful boy. You will always be you. And that is a good thing.” What have I heard from others about myself? I’ve heard people say that I have a face only a mother can love. I heard a woman at church say “As ugly as a mud fence” when she thought I couldn’t hear her. My mother heard the woman, too, and told her, “His heart is as pure as gold. And really, shouldn’t that be the only thing that matters?” She went on to remind the woman, “We’re all Christians here.” The woman was shamed, that’s for sure, and never looked my way after that.
My mother—and the rest—they’re all gone, but now I have Marnie and I’m no longer alone. Twenty years younger than me and beautiful—inside and out. By middle age, I’d pretty much gotten used to my face, my mug, gotten used to the little winces on clerks’ faces when they look up and see me for the first time or the doctor’s, “Have you ever considered more surgery?” But that day at the 7-Eleven when I handed Marnie my money, she didn’t wince, she didn’t whisper to her coworkers while I was on my way out the door. She just smiled as if she didn’t see the scars at all. I went back every morning to buy coffee and a donut. Then one day I got there late, and when I got up to the register she handed me a small bag and said, “I saved this for you. They were almost gone.” When I got out to the car I saw that she’d written on a napkin, “You seem like a really sweet guy” with a smiley face and her name and phone number.
I’m still surprised that Marnie picked me, of all the men she could have had. Other people are just as surprised. I’ve even heard strangers say, “What’s that beautiful girl doing with a guy like him?” And suddenly, I’m just as self-conscious as I was when I was a boy. Truthfully, I wonder about that myself. She’s not always an easy person to live with, given her moods. But she has that under control most of the time with medication. She has a hard time with any kind of stress, which is why I convinced her to quit her job and just stay home and take care of the house. She likes that, and she’s been a lot better since then.
This all comes to mind when Marnie and I walk up the steps to her mother’s house. I put out my hand out to the old woman and say, “Hello,” but she just looks at me and nods. Is she reacting to what she sees or the fact that I’m the man who has taken her daughter away and has now come for her grandchild? Marnie has told me that as far as her mother was concerned, no man would ever be good enough, so don’t take it personal.
Marnie’s mother has packed some of the child’s clothes in a little suitcase, pink with a ballerina on it.
“This is just for the weekend,” Grandma says, as if I don’t already know that. “I raised her since she was a baby. There’s no way I’m going to just let her go off with …with…someone I don’t know.” She doesn’t say, “With the likes of you,” but that’s how it feels.
The girl is five and when she stands next to Marnie, she comes up to her hip. She says to Marnie, “If you marry him, will he be my father then?”
I start to say, “I’d like to be,” but the grandmother jumps in and says, “Well, we’ll see how this goes. I’ll call on Sunday to make sure everything’s okay. To see if she wants to stay or not. That ought to give the child some time.”
Marnie must take after her father. There is no resemblance between Marnie and her mother. Marnie with her long, beautiful legs, her smooth, creamy skin, a face like a princess. The grandmother, a worn-out old hen with a face like Popeye’s. The girl doesn’t really look like either of them. Who does she look like, I wonder. No one I’ve ever seen Marnie with. She told me it was a brief affair. She thought they were going to get married, and then as soon as she told him she was pregnant, he turned into one of those guys who had other plans. When Marnie told her mother the news, the old woman said, “You sure know how to pick them. I told you he was no good, but you never listen.” And when the baby was born, she told Marnie, “Well, nobody will marry you now.” By the time she told me that, I already knew the woman was a piece of work.
I tell the grandmother, “I don’t know if Marnie mentioned it, but I own my own home and there’s a few acres around it. It’s a great place for a child.”
I expect her to be impressed, but she says, “How nice for you.” I’m glad I didn’t tell her that my mom left me the place or that there’s a building out back where I work on people’s cars. Even though I get lots of business, I have the feeling that she’d think this kind of life is beneath her daughter.
There’s nothing left to do but pick up the little suitcase and tell the grandmother, “We’ll take good care of her.” She gives me this level look and says, “See that you do.”
All this time, the girl—Lily—has been walking around and around Marnie like she’s doing ring around the rosy. She stops, looks me in the eyes, and says, “What happened to you?”
Marnie puts her hand up to her mouth.
“It’s okay,” I say. She is, after all, just a kid, and it’s the kind of stuff kids want to know. So I tell her, quietly, “An accident. Just an accident. I was running and fell on something hard.”
“Don’t ask anymore questions,” Marnie tells her, looking concerned. “Don’t be mean, Lily. Just don’t be mean.”
And then it’s time to go.
Driving out to the farm, Lily doesn’t say anything, and I think, I should enjoy the quiet. You know how kids are.
Marnie keeps turning around to the backseat and smiling at her daughter. She looks like she’s come up with an invention that will make us rich.
“Anybody hungry?” I say, glancing at the girl in the rearview mirror. I thought the mention of food would cheer her up, but she looks at me as if I’ve just offered her a worm.
We stop at the A&W drive-in restaurant where Marnie and her daughter inform me that they’ll be getting a foot-long to share. I order myself a couple of hamburgers with the works and, of course, root beer for everyone. I figure, what kid can resist root beer, right? But when the drinks come, she hands hers back to me and says, “I can’t drink this. Grandma says only a fool puts ice in root beer. Make sure they serve it cold with no ice.” I get this straightened out and when I hand her the drink, she delivers a “Thank you” that’s as ice cold as the drink.
When she starts talking more, I kind of wish she wouldn’t. It’s all what Grandma would do and what she wouldn’t. Her Grandma wouldn’t show up an hour late for an appointment. I don’t tell her we were late because Marnie kept hemming and hawing and changing her mind about what to wear. Lily says her Grandma looks people in the eyes when she meets them. And her old Grandma wouldn’t drive a car with only one headlight that works. In fact, Grandma doesn’t drive at all. The child makes driving sound like a thing of suspicion, at which point I breathe a big sigh of relief because that means Grandma won’t be coming out to visit unless she wants to spring for a hundred-dollar cab ride out to the country.
I say to the girl, “Imagine, if you come live with us for good, like your mother wants, you’ll see your mom all the time, not just on weekends. She doesn’t have to work anymore, so she can spend a lot of time with you. And when you’re sixteen we’ll buy you a little car. A car just right for a girl. One of those compacts. I bet I could get something for a few thousand bucks and fix it up like new.”
This interests her. She chews thoughtfully, both hands around her hot dog bun. Maybe she’s thinking I’m not so bad after all, which is probably a dangerous thought to a child who’s used to being with an old grandma, a mother who comes to visit, and no dad, no man, anywhere in sight. I have the feeling she is torn between saving up this news about the car to spring on her grandma when she returns and talking more about the kind of car we’ll get for her.
But Marnie says, “Don’t tell Grandmother about the car, Lily.” Marnie never learned to drive. The old woman probably thought if Marnie could drive, she’d drive away from her as fast as she could.
“We have a dog you can play with,” I say. I feel proud. I paid a lot for Molly at a dog show. She’s a purebred golden retriever. The people who had her tried to breed her and the puppies didn’t turn out the way they’d hoped. That’s why I got her cheaper than full price.
Lily stops chewing. The hot dog hits the floor.
“A dog?” she says. “You have a dog?”
I start telling her all about Molly when she says, with panic on her face, “I’m allergic to dogs. Grandma says I can’t have a dog. Ever.”
“Oh. Well,” I start to say but she goes on, gathering steam.
“I get real sick around dogs. I can’t breathe. My throat swells up.” She looks at Marnie like she already has something stuck in her throat.
Marnie has this stricken look on her face. “I forgot,” she says in a small voice.
Oh, my God. She forgot.
“It’s an outdoor dog,” I say, quickly. “She stays outside all the time.” I turn slightly and wink at Marnie.
“That’s right,” Marnie chimes in. “We hardly ever let her in the house.”
We smile at each other, united in our lie.
“Your mom’s right,” I say. “Molly sleeps in her doghouse. I built it myself. You know, come to think of it, I could build you a little playhouse or a dollhouse, too. If you like. I could do that for you. It will be fun. We could work on it together if you want.” She’s little but she could hold the tools at least and paint it. What kid wouldn’t like that?
Marnie passes the rest of her hot dog to Lily now that the girl’s is on the floor.
“My grandmother’s going to be real mad about the dog,” Lily says as she reaches for the hot dog.
“Oh, no,” I say. “She won’t be mad. You’ll see.”
“So you can’t even pet a dog, right?” Marnie says.
And the girl yells, “No!” from the back seat, loud enough to break my eardrums. Good thing I have steady hands when I drive.
When we get to the house, I don’t see Molly on the front porch or in her doghouse. I figure she must be near the stream, looking for rabbits.
We all get out of the car. Marnie and I laugh and joke to cheer the child up because she’s been real quiet for the rest of the ride. I hear the rustling of leaves. Then Molly comes out of nowhere, headed in our direction. I look at the girl who looks excited at first—good excited, because what kid, after all, can resist a dog. I say, “Stay, Molly!” and I try to get between Molly and the child. But somehow, I’m not moving fast enough, and Molly gets to the girl before me and, boom, knocks her down to the ground. Molly rifles through the girl’s clothes until she comes up, triumphantly, with a piece of hot dog.
The child doesn’t say anything until she sees her own blood, and then it’s hysteria. I try to pull Molly off, but she thinks I’m wrestling with her, and she jumps sideways with a crazy grin on her face. I pick up the girl and run to the house while she screams, “Don’t touch me! I don’t want you to touch me! I want Grandma. You get your hands off me!”
Marnie’s done for. I’m the one who cleans up Lily. The whole while, Marnie is literally wringing her hands and saying, “Mother’s going to be so mad. She’ll make me take her home.”
“Honey,” I say. “You’re a grown woman. You know, maybe it’s time you stand up to her.”
But then we turn our attention to Lily. Even to me, it looks bad. Lily’s not bitten, but she’s got scratches on the palms of both her hands, where she fell. And the worst, a jagged cut down the side of her face. It’s not too wide, but there’s the blood.
We take her to the Emergency where I wonder if I’ll be in jail by the end of the night. I’ve heard about parents who take their kids to the ER and end up dealing with Child Protective Services, and I wonder about whether any organization like that got involved when my uncle’s dog mauled me. A woman hands me some paperwork and says, “What’s your daughter’s name?” This is no time to explain that I’m not the father, so I say, “Lily Jefferson.” This is the first time I’ve said her name. I think back over what happened and realize that her face must have scraped against that tiny piece of metal I’ve been meaning to sand on the car door, and I damn myself for that. I think of all the things I did instead of sanding that door.
Because Lily is crying and thrashing around the doctor can’t work so they have to give her a shot to calm her down. Right before the doctor stitches the cut, the child glances at me and says, “I’m not going to look like him, am I?” The doctor gives me a sympathetic look, then tells her, “I’m going to make teeny, tiny stitches. The size of butterfly feet. It will heal just fine.”
“That dog tried to eat me,” she tells the doctor. “I’m allergic to dogs.” After the doctor’s done, she takes Marnie and me out to the hallway. I can’t help myself. I tell her everything about working on the car, how I didn’t sand it when I should have, how Molly accidentally knocked Lily over.
“That’s how she scraped her face,” I say, ready to accept my punishment. To my surprise, the doctor touches my shoulder and tells me, “Parents are always hardest on themselves when an accident happens.” Suddenly my heart is too big for my chest.
She says, “But you know your child’s allergic to dogs, and you still have a dog?” She shakes her head like she’s seen it all. There’s no use explaining. It would only make matters worse.
I say, “I’ll take care of it.”
I think she’s going to be nice again but she says, “See that you do,” just like the grandmother did.
“We have to do something about Molly,” Marnie says, and I agree. But what?
I carry Lily into the house. She’s dazed from the medicine, half asleep on her way to whole. It’s scary to see those tiny, perfect stitches running down the side of her once-perfect face. I can’t stand to look. Marnie sits on the living room rocker, and I put Lily in her arms. I take one more look at those stitches and, as if it’s a prayer, I keep going over the doctor’s words that it probably won’t scar. I go out to the front porch. When we came home from the hospital, Molly wouldn’t come to me. She sits a few feet away from the house, as if she knows she’s done something bad. I throw a couple of pebbles from the front steps to keep her away. She moves quickly from side to side, happy with whatever game I’m willing to play.
When I go back to the living room, I see that Marnie has opened the front of her blouse. She’s holding one of her creamy white breasts to her sleeping daughter’s still mouth. She brushes it across her daughter’s lips as if coaxing her to eat. I think, the child’s too old for that. I feel like I’m in a dream. Marnie looks up at me; her face is wet with tears. I know I’m interrupting. I wish I’d never seen this.
“She’s such a delicate little thing,” Marnie says. “If only I had nursed her when I wanted . . . but no, Mother took her out of my arms when I tried. ‘You don’t know what you’re doing,’ she said. ‘You’ll drop her.’ It made me feel so bad. She was always saying things like that. She wouldn’t even let me hold her. I could have taken care of her myself. I should have tried harder.”
I feel the bottom drop out of my life, like a road disappearing.
I don’t remember crossing the room. All of a sudden, I’m with her and her sleeping child. Holding them both while Marnie cries, clutching the top of her blouse around her throat. We are all together in my house, now. My fiancée, her daughter. I’ve made the decision to do this, and I’m surprised how much it matters to me and not just for Marnie’s sake.
I spend hours calling my friends, every person I know. The shelter is closed until Monday. Nobody will take this dog.
If you’re going to do a thing, you need to do it right. So that’s what I try to do.
When I go out to the yard to look for Molly, she jumps for joy to see me, then sits down, tail thumping, whimpering. Of all the living things in my life, she is always the happiest to see me. I walk to her doghouse and kneel down. She follows me, nuzzling her snout under my arm, trying to force me to pet her. I put my arms around her neck, sink my fingers into her long fur, and then remove her tags and her collar.
I walk to the car and get in, and she leaps in beside me.
I drive until we hit the exit for a northern highway, a stretch of road I’ve barely driven on. I keep thinking, she can’t come back, she can’t come back. While it’s still daylight, I pull over to the side of the highway and let her out. I sit with her awhile and watch the traffic. It’s not too busy now, but someone is bound to pick her up.
I say, “Stay, Molly! Stay!” No hot dog or other meat in sight, she obeys me. She sits down and licks my hand. I start to walk away and hear her whimper. I turn around and yell, “Stay!” as she starts to stand up. She sits down again and looks straight ahead.
I drive to the next exit and turn around, staying in the far left lane so she won’t see me and run across the highway. She looks like a soldier at her post. I pass once, twice, and still she doesn’t see me. I try to gauge the reactions of the other drivers. I see cars with children in them, watch the children point at the dog sitting at the side of the road and then turn their heads to talk to their parents. Occasionally, a car slows down and Molly looks at it, expectant. Almost an hour passes. I want to wait somewhere, unseen, until a driver pulls over, opens the door, and lets her in. But I can’t. I need to get home to my new family.
When I arrive, I call out to Marnie, but she doesn’t answer. That’s good. She must have taken Lily to explore outdoors, the field, the flowers, the little stream that runs the length of my property. Lily will like that, I think, lots of places for a kid to run and explore. It will take her mind off what happened. I can’t wait to see her excitement when she tells me. Then I see the note in the middle of the kitchen table:
I called Mother and she’s coming for Lily and me in a cab. She was right. Again. I should have never told you I’d marry you. I wasn’t thinking straight. It’s not fair to make Lily live with a man who isn’t even her father. A man who doesn’t even know how to take proper care of a child. Plus, Mother reminded me of what the therapist said. I need to start accepting responsibility for the decisions I make when I’m not myself. Please don’t call me. It will only make it harder for me to get well if you keep bothering me. Mother says I have to continue to work on myself and learn how to take care of Lily better because she’s my daughter and my responsibility. I’m really sorry. You’re a nice guy. You’ll meet someone else. It’s just that you and I are not meant to be together.
A desperate feeling starts in the pit of my stomach and fans out through the rest of me. I feel like something has been stolen from me, but I have only myself to blame. As quick as I can, I jump into my car and head back out to the highway, hoping against hope that Molly will still be there and that she hasn’t run out into traffic. What was I thinking? I pull over to the side of the highway, right where I left her, because I can’t see to drive anymore. As I sit here, with the traffic zooming past me, I imagine that if Molly were here, she would lick away my tears. I’ll come back tomorrow and Sunday, and if I don’t find her I’ll call all the shelters when they open on Monday to see if anyone has taken her to one of them. I’ll explain that she ran away, ran away. That I loved her so much but couldn’t stop her, no matter how hard I tried.