2013 Creative Nonfiction Contest Judge's Selection
A New Bitterroot
My new stepfather liked to circle the classifieds, always checking if there was an accessory he could add to his new family to make us more hip, more exciting. He thought our lives dull until we met him, especially poor old Frank across the street who pumped our bike tires. Frank would sit on his driveway for hours waiting for a kid to roll up. He’d make us hold the cap to the stem.
“Don’t lose that cap,” he’d smile, holding the black nub in front of a sweaty child face. Sometimes we’d let the air out of our tires on purpose, just to give Frank joy.
It’s possible that boring old Frank had a boring huge pension from staying at the same job and paying off his boring ranch house for thirty years. My stepfather, on the other hand, swapped careers like they were bad appliances: car salesman, security alarm specialist, concrete company, auto paint shop manager, minister, auto repair shop manager, hospital security, delivery driver. One thing stayed the same –he enjoyed slowly peeling off bills from a wad of folded money, the big ones up front. Even if he only needed to pay a dollar for something, he wanted people to notice.
“We gotta get out of here, Mart, do our own thing, you know, get our own place in the country away from people, space to spread out, stretch our legs.”
The new man in our lives convinced us we needed a new scene and cool toys. Our pet dachshund Rudy was given away and a “For Sale” sign hammered into the exact middle of the perfect carpet of grass that was our front yard. My sister and I, not knowing that this would be the end of our gaggle of neighborhood friends, made the impending changes seem adventurous. We actually felt sorry for the kids who were going to be left in such a dreary place.
“Someday we’ll have a huge house, like a two-story mansion, with horses grazing everywhere, even in the front yard, even looking in the windows if they want. We won’t mind. And we’ll get a waterbed and a dance studio with a mirrored wall.”
Or something like that.
"My stepdad ran his stubby fingers through his feathered hair. Preacher hair. It framed his fox face perfectly. Maybe his hairdo helped make anything he told us the gospel truth."
Now that the lackluster dog was gone, the first thing on his list was a groovy humongous dog. A sled dog. In South Florida. A perfect symbol for our new family.
“Hey Mart, take a look at this – an Alaskan malamute.” He smacked the newspaper with his blonde hairy fist and then lifted the folded paper over his head, a signal for my mother to walk to him.
Sometimes he called her Mart the Fart. When he met my mother, he had a fresh water aquarium in his apartment and named a catfish “Flat Martha” after her because her boobs were small. My mother laughed about the catfish but still made him get rid of that tank before he moved in. I went along and knelt next to him when he dumped his fish into a local canal, including Flat Martha. She swam away, her thin tail like a wave.
“Me too. A Malamute. Since always.” Eager and agreeable, she was. Never seeing ahead.
My stepdad ran his stubby fingers through his feathered hair. Preacher hair. It framed his fox face perfectly. Maybe his hairdo helped make anything he told us the gospel truth.
I went along to see the Malamute. I think we went to Ft. Lauderdale or Miami. In the car, I read the ad and discovered it was for two dogs.
“Mom, you said it was only one dog, but it says here it’s a brother and sister.” From the backseat, I waved the ad as proof.
"Well, we’re only interested in one, so it doesn’t matter,” she said.
When we arrived at the address, my heart got fast. I knew what needing felt like, but poverty was new to me. The tiny house looked jacked up on a cracked rectangle of stained concrete. A rusty chain link fence bent at the top like it was giving up. Two undersized grubby kids in dirty white underwear and no shirts were trying to ride big masked dogs around a yard littered with the debris of those who don’t give a damn about what things look like from the street.
The dogs were the most beautiful animals I’d ever seen – black bodies, chocks of bright white eyebrows, white cheeks, white bellies. Their bushy tails curled up until the tips touched the center of their backs. We’d never had a big dog.
“Urchins. Yard apes. They’re going to hurt those animals,” my stepfather grumbled.
I wanted those dogs bad, wanted to wash them and feed them and give them good lives. The kids rode by again and glared at us with eyes way wiser than they should’ve been seeing with. The dogs’ spines bowed and they sat down. The riders fell backward. The air smelled like bacon.
My stepdad knocked on the front door with his fist. A sleepy young man opened it a crack.
“Yeah, man, these are the dogs from the ad. The boy’s Bitterroot and the girl’s Cocaine.”
I begged and the hippie man begged for us to take both dogs. Bitterroot kept sniffing my new stepdad’s butt, which kept him busy and quiet swinging his chubby arms behind him in a constant swiping motion.
“Only one dog – the male.”
Damp money changed hands. Bitterroot sat next to me in the backseat for the drive home. Pink tongue dangling, he poked his head out and looked back to his sister. The man had gone inside and the kids now chased Cocaine with long gray sticks. I pulled Bitterroot’s long nose toward me and wrapped my arm around his back. His breath smelled like fish.
Our real father never commented much about us leaving our normal neighborhood and moving near the Everglades. Back then, in the '70s, land that had anything to do with the Everglades was wild with creatures that wanted to eat you. There were still Seminole Indians nearby. If you wanted to, you could drive to see them doing traditional Seminole rituals or crafts.
Instead of talking about the changes, our dad took us camping. Metal stove, cooler, t-shirts, jeans, sweatshirts, two stuffed animals, and an orange tent that dripped dew on our faces. His powder blue Volkswagen buzzed up the mountains of north Georgia, to North Carolina. Green, so green, and wet, thick trees and telephone lines laced with kudzu, streams overflowing narrow curving roads until the heady shade of it all, each winding bend in the road looking like the last and no open space ahead making my stomach queasy with last night’s hot dog or pancake from the black skillet and I’d scream for us to pull over and throw up into the wet.
Dad liked rest stops and pausing at every turn out on the Blue Ridge Parkway to give his engine and my belly a rest. He tried to make North Carolina seem like it could be the answer. We stood on Blowing Rock while Dad read about the Indian maiden and her Cherokee lover who jumped for some reason or other but the wind blew him back to her. Dad let us tear Alabama into tiny pieces and throw bits of it off the rock, but the pieces of paper just drizzled to our feet, fresh litter to go with the silver gum wrappers and cigarette filters already there.
We almost made it up to Grandfather Mountain, but the buzzing died out and then we started rolling backward. Dad stood in the road and waved his arms and a farmer came with a tractor and pulled us to his property. From the entrance to his old barn, the farmer pointed to a long mountain with clouds waiting over it.
“See girls? See the grandfather? His nose and mouth? His beard?”
My sister shouted “I see him! I can see his face!” but I didn’t want to lie. I kept looking, sometimes using just one eye, but I swear I never saw an old man lying on the top of that hill.
Our father’s engine got fixed while we looked for arrowheads in the weeds. On the way back to Florida, Dad stopped near a gem mine, snuck us in off to the side so we didn’t have to pay.
“I’ll bet nobody has ever looked under this rock,” he said, pushing a pretty big boulder with his shoulder. Out from under the rock came a very scared snake, which bit my dad’s finger and wouldn’t let go even as my dad shook it and shook it and the snake wiggled and bit him harder.
“Agghhh!” our dad was truly scared, but my sister and I couldn’t stop from laughing. We laughed so hard we wet our last set of clean underwear and had to wear pee smelling ones the last two days of the trip. For a minute, while we were doing it, this laughing made me think that we were lost to goodness forever, that we’d forgotten what was good and what was bad, but then I forgot all about it. This was our last camping trip with our real father.
In late summer, when you’d walk outside and sweat was already rolling down your spine, I used horse clippers to shave Bitterroot’s coarse black coat down to its first layer, a thick gray shield of downy fur, like a bunny’s. This made him look like an ugly unknown breed – giant head and straggly body. But at least he wasn’t hot.
I didn’t bother picking up the clippings, so you could still see tufts around for weeks, shoved under a horse jump, wedged by wind under a tire, hugging scrub. Somewhere in the trees above us, birds probably tucked bits of Bitterroot’s hair into the sides of their nests.
In the summer, flies congregated and feasted on Bitterroot’s ears. This left crusted bits of blood at the tips. One winter, when Grandma visited from Ft. Wayne, she took out her knitting and created two triangle shaped ear covers in a deep shade of purple. A string under Bitterroot’s throat tied the contraption together. The ear covers looked like Bugles corn chips attached to the side of his head.
"Our grandmother’s skin was so pale you could see blueness in it. She wore her long silver hair in a wide bun as big as a bagel on the back of her head, until Grandpa died, because he wouldn’t allow her to cut it."
“I can’t stand those flies eating his ears. Poor thing, poor thing,” Grandma said over and over. Fascinated, my sister and I stopped what we were doing and sat on the couch to watch her knitting needles clack and swirl. I think we were suspicious that the project wouldn’t get finished, that it wouldn’t work. But with Grandma came follow through. She took notice of all things little, including discomfort. She spent months knitting sweaters, one for each of us, that she knew would get lost. She sent money and long letters. She gave us sterling silver charms from each place she visited with Grandpa. I got a gondola, koala, coliseum, alligator, mermaid sitting on a rock, windmill, log cabin, wooden shoe, horse and carriage, swinging monkey, a fan that opens and a devil holding a pitchfork. Talismans. Good luck charms. I still have them.
The ear covers fit perfectly because Grandma had taken precise measurements. Bitterroot didn’t even try to tug anything off, which made Grandma very happy.
Our grandmother’s skin was so pale you could see blueness in it. She wore her long silver hair in a wide bun as big as a bagel on the back of her head, until Grandpa died, because he wouldn’t allow her to cut it.
“I’ve been studying the backs of heads in church for years,” Grandma said. “I know the exact way I’ll have my hair when he goes.”
When Grandpa passed, Grandma had her long mane permed and cut short and then small sections of pink scalp showed through and she looked just like all the other little old ladies in church. Even though Grandma didn’t look like Grandma anymore, she was still Grandma inside.
After we moved from our lifeless neighborhood, we rented a small brown wood frame house in the middle of a cow pasture. Our stepfather said he had to humble himself while our new house was being built. The rental house had a large window that allowed afternoon sun into the living room. Bitterroot often curled in that spot of warmth and closed his eyes, or just kept them open and watched the room. One good thing about that dog, he let you rest your head on him. He wouldn’t move. You didn’t have to worry about fleas either, since his layer of thick bunny fur was so dense they couldn’t squeeze in.
My stepfather asked me to do a chore, it’s true, and I knew it made him angry if you didn’t listen, if you didn’t “hop to it,” as he requested. But I was on the floor with Bitterroot, and I fell asleep with my head on his side, warm and content, which was weird, because usually I couldn’t fall asleep any place but a bed.
Maybe he saw too much in Vietnam, maybe he was desensitized. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t his blood. He hadn’t known me when I was a baby, changed my diaper, fed me applesauce with a spoon, or used a crescent wrench to remove my training wheels.
The pointy tip of his cowboy boot landed in a slit in-between two of my ribs. The shock of it jolted me and Bitterroot awake, but I was the only one to feel the pain.
I wonder if it must have been hard for him in the moment he drew his leg back, to look down at a child sleeping next to her dog and know he was about to cause injury to her insides and outsides. I have to believe it hurt him too, even in a small dragonfly wing flutter way. Something miniscule must have buzzed to him, even if for a half second: Don’t do it.
Bitterroot’s life improved. He got fat. He went camping with us on our only mother-stepfather-girls camping trip and jumped through chilly mountain streams, watching over me and my sister while we built dams out of smooth flat rocks until our legs were numb. He waited like a good dog in the van while we rafted down the Nantahala River in blue windbreakers. It took longer because I fell out of the raft during the last rapid on purpose and had to be rescued by a cute guy in a canoe.
And when we took in a barn boarder who owned a white German Shepard named Namu, Bitterroot got a girlfriend.
Within a couple months of exploring the scrub with Bitterroot, Namu had a litter of puppies that looked like huskies since they had brown and white or gray and white masks. I got the pick of the litter. I named him Bear.
Bear slept on my bed and followed me everywhere. Bitterroot liked him, too, and sniffed his head. I had to watch Bear near the horses so he didn’t get stepped on. He was full of chubby clumsy curiosity, the kind of pup that chased butterflies without watching what he’d run into.
One afternoon while I was cleaning stalls, Bear padded down to the muddy edge of the canal where I was spreading manure with a pitchfork. He lowered his head to take a drink. Furry masked face, triangle ears, bubble gum pink tongue licking dark water.
I didn’t notice the ripples building in the murky water, or the one low wall of wave that pushed itself closer and closer to the shore. But I did see a rush of pointy jaws shaped in a V and a gray furry hind leg writhe. I screamed and threw the pitchfork at the deep dimple in the water, the spot where my puppy disappeared. Then I ran to the house so fast my lungs burned.
"Dangling the gun like a hot potato, I dashed back to the canal. I didn’t know if the gun was loaded and I didn’t know how to check. I cocked the lever like they do in movies, aimed at the water, turned my head to the side, and fired."
Fuzzy legs. Sofa. Beer. Remote.
“A gator got my puppy! Help me, please! Bring your gun!”
My stepfather didn’t take his eyes off the boxing match.
“Get the gun and shoot it yourself.”
I’d only used a Daisy BB gun when I was younger.
Something must pay.
I took the smallest weapon from the top of the piano. I knew it was a .357 because I’d heard him tell people what kind of guns we had. We had a .22 rifle, a .357 and an Uzi submachine gun. My mother picked up each weapon to dust underneath on Saturdays. The metal warmed quickly next to my skin. I looked at the back of my stepfather’s greasy head and pictured a short fat Abraham Lincoln.
Dangling the gun like a hot potato, I dashed back to the canal. I didn’t know if the gun was loaded and I didn’t know how to check. I cocked the lever like they do in movies, aimed at the water, turned my head to the side, and fired. The force flung me backward and I hit the ground then felt a sharp pain in my wrist and shoulder.
The mud smelled rotten. Not like manure. Like my luck.
He will pay.
I jogged back to the house, slammed the gun on the piano, slammed the kitchen door harder on my way out, and ran a quarter mile to the Nelson’s. Jeff Nelson had a blonde crew cut, a truck with oversized tires, chewing tobacco, and tight jeans. He definitely knew how to shoot a gun. I let him kiss me on my waterbed one night until his eyes got glassy and I got scared and told him to go home and he said he’d find a girl who would go all the way and he did. But we stayed friends, probably because we went to the same high school and we were half of the four teenagers who lived in our subdivision – the other two were our sisters. Jeff was more suited for living at the edge of the Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge, in gear and in mindset. I looked all tough on the outside, but now a gator had eaten my dog. Smiling pretty, wearing jeans, turning the dial to country and loving horses doesn’t mean you belong. Sure I could hitch a trailer to a truck, drive a stick, tractor, and motorcycle. But those things can’t save your skin or even get you revenge.
I swear that land and everything living on it knew.
I told Jeff about the gator. I tried not to cry but I cried anyway, big huffing snotty breaths of hysteria and anger. We climbed into his red 4x4 and Jeff fish-tailed deep grooves across our property, in-between a few horse jumps until we reached the canal behind the barn. I held Jeff’s shotgun across my lap. He jumped out of the truck so fast he left the door open and the engine running.
The alligator was in sight, drifting lazily, its long snout and dark eyes turned towards its accusers. Jeff pumped the shotgun once, aimed at Bear’s killer and pulled the trigger.
The gator exploded into chunks of pink and brown and yellow fat. I stood there until all the pieces sank. I wasn’t grossed out – it was just a dark green reptile turned inside out, to something lighter underneath. But I wasn’t satisfied or smug either. It didn’t come close to feeling like justice. There was now less goodness on this earth, less warm puppy to snuggle, and less cold hard gator going about his normal day.
I recently learned that the Lemhi Shoshone tribe in Montana and Idaho believed that the Bitterroot flower carried magical powers, especially the ability to prevent animal attacks. I also read about an herbalist who said the flower helped women suffering from flashbacks of childhood abuse to quell the panic when frozen by fear and want to run, but which way?
Run to the dull, I say, run to the dull.