Fever Dogs is a fictional biography of three generations of women. It begins at the turn of the 21st century with Jean, a young woman at an impasse. Romantically adrift, in a dying profession, she decides that to make herself a future, she must first make herself a past. Starting from a bare outline that includes an unspoken death, a predatory father and a homeless stint, Jean reconstructs the life her mother, Jane, might have lived.By Kim O’Neil
I was a green-eyed, bee-hived gorilla. I was the wild girl of Brighton. Nobody knew. I had a nineteen-inch waist and a D cup; they called me the Shelf; I cannot account for you girls. After your Gramp broke my nose and my arm, I moved. I lived at the Y. By day I kept up at Girls’ Latin. I kept up my grades, the scholarship – nobody knew. We had uniforms, white and navy. Kneesocks and ascot. I kept mine pressed and clean because I loved them. When I met your father, it was easy not to tell him things. He never told me things, too. About money he in effect lied. It takes one to know one, but that applied to me, not him. The year was ’67. Men like that never saw themselves as prey.
When I met him, did I think house? Did I think bedsheets, yard, breakfast nook? Did I think patio? That, and dog and guinea pig and cat and hamster and turtle and dwarf rabbit and, with some luck, horse. I wanted animals. I wanted a brass knocker and a singing doorbell, the melody “Que Sera.” A wreath of baby gourds for Thanksgiving, gooseberries for Christmas. There would be a mantel and on it seasonal elves. The Easter baskets would be excessive. I’d litter the house with fat foil eggs, each one oozing a gold sugar yolk. Underfoot for months they’d be. I did, yes, think so, very much. I thought ballet lessons like everyone else thought but also roller skating lessons and ice skating lessons and painting lessons, and a Formica bar in the basement where a person could paint – I don’t know why I thought you paint at a bar – and naturally, then, my thoughts needed you.
You ask about your father. That is half what I thought when we met.
When we met I nursed Dicky Lucy. At nineteen Dicky Lucy rolled a Chevy going eighty. The break was C1, the highest vertebra. When his mother, Mrs. Lucy, hired me on, I didn’t know I was the fifth. I was volunteering with quad vets then, answering phones at Doody Diapers. I wanted weekend work. I’m not a nurse, I said on the phone, I got through one term but then what happened –
Do you chatter? Mrs. Lucy said. His best topic is boxing. Dicky hates world affairs, and when you come wear three-inch heels if you’re under five five, a Cross Your Heart brassiere if you’ve got it, and stockings with seams. Show your figure, but not tarty. Are you any good with a gun?
I fed Dicky Lucy deviled ham on white rolls and floretted his pickles. I maneuvered his straw. I got him from his chair to the tub with the aid of a board. I scrubbed him and shaved him with sting-free kiddie soap. He had such a lot of hair. He was like my father in that. I combed his duckbill with a greasy grab of Vaseline and held a hand mirror to him, combed it four, ten times, until he was well pleased. We played Chinese checkers. I moved his marbles, illegal moves at his word and his voice that drill. My job was to lose and bemoan the loss. My job was to cut pictures from magazines and paste them in an album with rubber cement and no wrinkles at all: muscle cars and Ursula Andress. If the picture bubbled anywhere, Dicky Lucy said burn it. My job was to shoot Dicky Lucy’s pump gun out the window at squirrels in the oaks. How humanly they shrieked. How the cantilevered limbs groaned with their running and sometimes fell. I missed and I missed. What else could I do? Dicky Lucy’s get hims and my aim so poor. My sympathy lay with anything furred.
Dicky Lucy stayed midweek at a hospital in Weymouth, but on weekends he got dropped at his mother’s. She lived back-to-back to Idy Bridges. Their porches faced off across a shared plot of knotweed that Idy was hard-set and ill-equipped to kill. Ray, Idy’s youngest, was the last at home, work-study at Northeastern. He had a cherry Ford he tinkered with, Dicky Lucy knew well. At four every Sunday, Dicky Lucy made me dial. I hated telephones then the way I now hate cameras. A liar piece, my voice coming at you and pitched all wrong. Like with a gun, I could never seem to aim straight. Even my breathing on the phone to me sounds like a lie.
Why, hello, Ray, I’d say. It’s Jane, at Dicky’s. We were just wondering if you happened to be heading out, if it was not too much out of your way –
Weymouth was on the way to nowhere and Dicky Lucy was a hardship.
Dicky Lucy was vain.
And always, yes, your father would come.
Studious Ray; student of how objects transfused power, one to the other, a particulate sharing, like the transfusions, one to the other, blood or germ, of the living. (Ray would correct me on this. Electrical engineering isn’t like that, he’d say.)
And the way Ray hefted Dicky Lucy from his chair at the door to his Ford at the curb, the way Dicky Lucy needled him – someday, I’ll let you work on my toaster, smart guy – that worked on me too.
It was the other half of my thinking.
It began the way things begin for men, with cars.
Before cars it would have had to have been horses. Before that, what? What else can men own and strap on and make be fast?
They were neighbors, Dicky Lucy and Ray, and they had gone to grade school and high school together but were not friends. Dicky Lucy was two grades ahead. This was when Rindge and Latin was two schools. Latin trained kids for college. Rindge trained kids for typing and plumbing, woodwork and metalwork and engines and babies. Ray had won some fame in his grade school days as the local whiz kid TV repairman, but it was Dicky Lucy, not Ray, who went on to Rindge. Mrs. Lucy gossiped with the indiscretion of the long-term lonely.
Sundays Ray would say just I’ll be over.
He was, and took Dicky, and I’d take the train home.
But that day, for no reason, he said my name. And how it feels to hear a person say your name is only one of two things – happy or sick. The body keeps its decisions streamlined like that.
He said, Jane. You feel like taking a ride?
Then as now a man of small economies.
Reprinted with permission. Excerpted from Fever Dogs, by Kim O’Neil (Triquarterly, expected publication in August 2017.)
Kim O’Neil, M.F.A. ’09, teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she is a senior lecturer in English and assistant director of the Writing Center. She earned an M.Ed. at Lesley University and has worked for a decade as creative director of a Boston animation studio, where she created art for the Cartoon Network’s “Home Movies” and ABC’s “Science Court,” among others. Her short stories have appeared in the Packingtown Review and Orange Coast Review.