4 September, 2023: The Barking set in Charleston, South Carolina, The United States of America

Mother was in one of those taxis taking her from the Walgreens back to her home, and she didn’t know where it was coming from, but she felt it—no, she just knew it: there was a barking sound coming from somewhere inside the car, too close to be coming from outside.

“Do you hear that?” Mother asked the taxi driver.

“No-ma’am,” said the driver, slurring his syllables in such a way that Mother had to parse out the no and ma’am.

It didn’t matter what he said. Mother was damn sure she had heard it. It wasn’t like the ruff-ruff in a movie. It was a clear stuttering groan, followed by an elongated anguished howl.

The sound wasn’t going away either. She kept hearing it. There had to be a dog in here. The driver just wasn’t admitting it. Google Maps was telling her that home was just six minutes away, and those six minutes couldn’t come quickly enough.

There was a story that went around Charleston involving a little stray dog named Poogan who had roamed Queen’s Street in the seventies. The dog had been dead for many years. Yet people claimed all the time to see the dog, a ghost, going up and down the street just as he had done when he was a stray.

Mother was a good Christian woman. Mother believed in an afterlife, and while she couldn’t discount the idea of a ghost, she knew the Bible didn’t speak of it.

So why was it that in the moment Mother got out of her taxi, she saw a young wheaten terrier? It was just lying in the grass right outside of her lawn, napping. Mother had seen dogs here before that belonged to her neighbors, but none were small and toy-like. Wasn’t Poogan supposed to look like something of this breed?

Mother tried to pass it, but it woke up and started following her.

“Shoo,” Mother shouted. She got to her porch. Her heels clacked against the wood, and she saw that it hadn’t gone away. She held up her purse like she was about to throw it. “Get on, git!”

The dog perked up and stared at the purse like it was a toy. Did the poor thing think Mother was in the mood to be playing fetch? Mother sighed. At her age it was hard to protest against anybody or anything. She just wanted to get into her house and throw off her heels.

Mother closed the door quickly and rested her feet on the sofa, turned on the TV, and thought about making popcorn. Then she heard the dog barking again. Was it outside? She tried to shut out the noise.

It was just at the corner of her eye, the slight wag of that furry tail. Somehow, the dog had gotten into her home. It was sitting by the couch, staring up at her with big Bambi eyes. It barked once, twice, just waiting for Mother to give it some of her time. Mother didn’t know whether to turn her head or keep her eyes fixed on the TV. Acknowledging the dog meant that she’d be confirming it was there, meaning she would have to get up and try to shoo it out.

Some ten minutes passed, and the dog settled down. Her feet were feeling a bit more relaxed, so Mother thought she would go upstairs for a bit to sort out where she wanted to put the medicines she had bought. She thought about taking one of the Tylenols. Her ankles still felt sore as she got to her feet.

The dog didn’t follow her upstairs. She thought about calling her sister and asking her what to do. Summer was ending soon, and her nephew, Clarence, would be heading off to school. He’d be starting middle school, which was a big deal. She was sure her sister would be hosting a barbecue to celebrate, which would surely embarrass Clarence and get the whole family laughing.

Her niece, Nakeisha, had called a few days ago to say she’d love to take up Mother’s offer to go to the mall together someday. She said she loved spending time with family and that talking to Mother taught her a lot. Mother knew that was a damn lie. All Nakeisha wanted was their money.

Mother knew this to be true because Nakeisha’s family didn’t have the best life over in Mobile, and sometimes Nakeisha’s mother, Latoya, would call just to ask for some help. All the fuss was because Mother’s husband was a private practice doctor. In other words, they were pretty wealthy. Nakeisha was getting into the theatre scene in Charleston and probably wanted the types of clothes that would impress her friends.

The dog was suddenly barking so loudly that Mother almost knocked the pill bottles off the medicine cabinet. Why was that damn dog in the house? Mother didn’t care that it felt like her ankles would fall off. She thundered downstairs and saw the dog sitting by the couch.

“Shoo! Just git!” Instead, the dog came up and started sniffing Mother’s hand. Mother pushed it aside before it could get wet with nose dew.

Mother shouted again, “Go on! Git!” If the dog could just move to the side a bit, she could shut the door on it, and it would be gone.

It was getting to be too much work, and Mother was too old to do any of it. She thought she’d get started on lunch as Father would be coming home from the hospital early today. Would she make lasagna? Or soup? It had been some time since she’d opened up anything Campbell, and they did have minestrone soup. It’d be easier than laboring over some minced meat, for sure.

She turned on the radio. On the program they were arguing about abortion, and this made Mother miss her pastor. The good news was that he was being put on bail. He wasn’t going to be in jail for much longer. But who would want to be led by a pastor who had been accused of raping a minor?

The barking was getting so loud that Mother couldn’t keep her hands fixed over the can opener. She went back to the living room with a shoe in her hand. She waved the shoe around, shouting about, but all that caused was for the dog to stare at it. She threw the shoe at it but it almost hit the TV, and caused the remote on the table to hit the floor, spilling its batteries everywhere. Mother had to pick them all up and put them back in. All the while the dog was barking louder because it was panicking.

It was so damn exhausting. She took another seat on that sofa, needing to rest after all the hubbub. She closed her eyes hoping it would all just go away.

Why did everything down to the smallest things in her life have to be a struggle?

Her life had been her son, but then her son had grown up and left home.

Her life had been her nephew, but now her nephew was growing into a teenager and forgetting about her, too.

Her life had been her church, but now that church had a bad rap and Mother risked getting caught up with the controversy.

Her life could have been her friends, but she only liked hanging out with them casually. There were no deep connections.

Her life could have been other relatives, but they were all so different, and all with their own agendas, and Mother didn’t know who to trust.

The fact was that she had so many options, but she didn’t know what to do with her life.

Except for the cooking. That she was going to have to get done because Father was going to come home expecting a meal, barking and all.

The dog was pouncing about and trying to sniff her, but Mother ignored the pooch. She decided on mac and cheese, which wouldn’t be as much work as lasagna, but at least it was something Father would sniff when he came in and say, That sure smells good.

And sure enough, when Father came in an hour later, long after the gruyere on top of the elbow tubes had simmered, he said, “That sure smells good.”

“All for you, my handsome,” Mother said. She came up and gave him a smooch. He was a little sweaty from the night shift, which Mother could smell immediately. Mother wondered why Father wasn’t making a comment about the other smells in the house. It was probably reeking of dog, but Mother’s nose was already acclimated to it.

Father came back down after a shower in casual clothes, and they started eating. Father talked about how tiring the night shift was, and Mother went over the things she had bought at Walgreens. She thought about how nice it was when Father was home and relaxed. She thought about how nice it would be if they could spend more time together the way couples were supposed to, and how much more fulfilling that would make her life.

Mother said to Father, “I’m so sorry about the smell.”

“The cheeses you put in this thing are pretty damn strong,” Father said.

“Silly,” Mother said, pouring herself some more wine. “You know that ain’t what I’m talking about. I’m talking about that dog smell.”

“That dog smell?”

“That dog smell. I don’t know how it got into the house. I was coming out of the cab and a dog was on our lawn and wouldn’t leave me. I yelled at it to try to get it to go away, but it just wouldn’t. I’m telling you, the barking has been making me go crazy.”

“The barking?”

“Yes, babe,” Mother said, pointing to her ear. “The barking, don’t you hear it?”

It was still happening, loud as always, but Mother had gotten used to it.

Father looked puzzled. He got up, despite him having only gone through a quarter of the meal. He went into the living room, circled back to the kitchen from the other side, went upstairs, then came back down.

“I ain’t seeing no dog anywhere.”

“Did it leave?” Mother said, getting up herself. It had been some time since she actually last saw it. But it couldn’t have left. Mother could still hear the barking pounding in her ears.

Mother went through the living room and circled back into the kitchen. She took a look upstairs. She took a look in the basement just in case.

It was odd. Mother could swear she was still hearing the barking.

Except the dog wasn’t there.

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