The Faces of Boys and Dogs
My grandmother, who had lived alone since before I was born, almost never spoke to anyone, but especially not to me, the only child of her only child, my mother, whom she hated, a fact I didn’t learn until the last day I ever saw her. I was seven or eight. Mother and I were in town because of the funeral of a family member later that day. She had told me to stay quiet and not give my grandmother a reason for anything. I didn’t know what she meant, but I intended to obey. I told her that I would read my book, which is what I was doing when Grandmother, who was sitting on the other side of her dark living room, turned her attention my way while my mother was crying in the bathroom. I was trying not to think about the meanness I’d just heard pass between the two of them.
Though grandmother hadn’t seen me in a couple of years, she didn’t ask about school, or if I played any sports, or even if I liked what I was reading, which was probably The Haunted Fort, my favorite of the three Hardy Boys mysteries I owned. She didn’t even ask if I was sad about my cousin, Wesley, whose casket hole I would watch fill with muddy rain later that afternoon. He’d been hit by a fire truck while riding his bike to school. No, she asked this: “Which do you think is scarier: seeing a boy with a dog’s face or seeing a dog with a boy’s face?”
Had I been older, I might’ve said, “What the hell kind of question is that?” But I wasn’t, so I treated it as if it were worthy of legitimate consideration. “Seeing a dog with a boy’s face, I think.”
“But how would you know?” Her old face twisted. “Have you ever seen one?”
I pictured a bulldog-faced boy walking a boy-faced bulldog on a leash. The thing on the leash was definitely scarier. I saw it wearing my best friend Troy’s freckled face. Meanwhile I could still hear my mother crying in the bathroom down the hall. She sounded like she might throw up. I wanted her to stop. I wanted to go home. “No. They don’t exist.”
“That’s what most people think.” She stood from her rocking chair on the other side of the room and came over to me. With a finger under my chin, she lifted my head until she was staring down into me. Her fingertip was moist, hot. I didn’t want to look into her eyes, but I couldn’t avoid them. She didn’t blink. She seemed to be waiting for me to say something more, so I asked, “Have you ever seen one?”
“I have. I was made to marry him because he got me pregnant. That’s why your mother is so ugly. And it’s why you are, too.”
She released my chin and walked back to her rocking chair. I knew this wasn’t true—it couldn’t be true—but when Mother returned to the room, I hated myself for how I examined her red and swollen face, and I hate how I continued to do so off and on for the rest of her short life, unable to stop looking for evidence of something that I knew didn’t—couldn’t—exist, but I had been seven or eight, and my grandmother had scared me there in the darkness of the musty living room. And I hate how I never had the courage to tell my mother what her mother said to me on that day, or even to press her for information about her father, a man she never talked about.
Now I’m older than Grandmother was on that day, and all I have is my saggy, wrinkled reflection to stare at. When I brush my teeth, my jowls quiver like a bloodhound’s.
Kevin Grauke is the author of Shadows of Men (Queen’s Ferry Press), which won the Steven Turner Award from the Texas Institute of Letters. His work has appeared in The Southern Review, Quarterly West, Blue Mesa Review, and Cimarron Review. He teaches at La Salle University in Philadelphia.