There are three reasons why Talitha’s sister, Kerrianne, never liked me. One of the reasons is God’s fault; the other two are mine. First off, I’m bipolar, and Kerrianne didn’t inherit the compassionate gene that grew Talitha into both a fine social worker and my fiancée.
Secondly, at the Kings Park July 4th fireworks display last year, I made the mistake of teaching Kerrianne’s daughter, Margaret, an alternate version of the Oscar Meyer Weiner song. She was five and it was her first big display. We’d arrived early: wide rivers of grass curved among other families and us on our wool blanket (leave it to Kerrianne to wool us in 95 degree Long Island humidity). Kerrianne reclined in a low lawn chair beside the cooler stocked with provolone cheese, grapes, Spanish olives, cokes, and frozen miniature Snickers bars (leave it to Talitha to remember Margaret’s favorite treat and to surprise her with it when she later began begging for glow sticks from the vendors). The sun was penetrating. Talitha had run back to the car to retrieve the sunscreen after Kerrianne admitted she’d forgotten to lather it on Margaret. The grassy knoll on which we sat gave a perfect view of the barge out in the harbor, from where the explosives would launch. Fathers and mothers tossed Frisbees and softballs to cornucopias of children.
I was juggling plums for a gleefully squealing Margaret when she painfully squealed, “Look at that dog!”
Behind me, running up the hill after a tennis ball, was a white Jack Russell with perfectly functional front legs and wheels for back legs. More accurately, its back legs were tucked in a sling between the wheels, as though it hadn’t bothered to drag itself completely out of bed.
“Shh, don’t stare,” Kerrianne said, as if the dog were a human hunchback, as if the dog gave a crap what we thought.
“Who brings a dog to a fireworks display?” I said, thinking of my old dog, Cooter, who used to go manic and itchy and would epoxy his body to mine for the entire first week of July.
Margaret huddled against my left leg, her scalp sun-warm under my palm, her voice quivery. “Do you think his legs got blown up from fireworks?”
“Oh,” I said. “Oh. No. I bet he’s just old.”
“He might be very sick,” Kerrianne said. “If that was my dog, I’d put it out of its misery.”
“Do you think it hurts?” Margaret asked. She was still leaning against me, but directed this question to her mother.
“It might, honey,” she said. “Let’s stop staring at it.”
“Oh, I doubt it,” I said. “Look at that dog! He’s practically smiling, chasing that tennis ball. He’s having the time of his life!”
“But maybe the other dogs make fun of him,” Margaret said.
“Dogs aren’t like that,” I said. “I bet all the other dogs are jealous. They wish they could get around that fast! I bet when they see him they all sing this song:
Oh, I wish I was a three-legged doggy!
That is what I’d truly like to be.
’Cause if I was a three-legged doggy,
I wouldn’t have to lift my leg to pee.”
I sang it loud and off-key, holding the last notepeefor a long time. By the end, Margaret was giggling again. People on the other blanket islands stared at me and gave half-cocked smiles. I said, “Pee,” touched her forehead, “pee,” touched her nose, “pee,” tickled her belly. She curled around my hand like a starfish when you pour water on it.
“Richard,” Kerrianne admonished.
“What?” I had scooped up Margaret, had her hanging upside down, her hair fanning against my calves.
“You know what,” Kerrianne said. “She doesn’t need to hear language like that.”
“Like what? Like pee? We all pee.”
“Just drop it, Richard, okay?”
The third reason that Kerrianne never liked me is that I refused to have children with her sister. One week after Talitha broke off our engagement for good for this very reason, Kerrianne called me. She never called me.
“I don’t like you,” the phone said into my ear.
“I’m shocked!” I said.
“But I love my sister, and why the hell can’t you stop being so fucking selfish all the time? Can’t you see how happy she gets around Margaret? Why can’t you give her what she wants?”
“I’ve never known you to be so compassionate,” I told her.
“You were already screwing her. How hard would it be to leave the condom off? Most men would die for that.”
“That’s so romantic,” I told her. “Now, Kerrianne, even though you have a child, I feel compelled to lesson you about where babies really come from. See, eventually one of my bent sperm reaches her whole and spherical and perfect eggs. The egg is so happy to get company that she smiles wide, tosses her finer judgment to the wind, and opens the door, letting in a vacuum salesman who never leaves. Not only does he never leave, but he spends each and every day pouring dirt on the egg’s carpet just to prove that his vacuum is the best. Some days the vacuum doesn’t work as well and then the vacuum salesman weeps instead. I’m sorry, he says. I’m so sorry, I thought it would come out.”
“Richard” Kerrianne began.
“The dirt in the carpet begins to sprout. At first the egg is so amazed, that she’s not even disturbed. Then she gets curious: the carpet dirt seems to be growing arms, but not normal armsarms that look like vacuum hoses and a nose that looks like a nozzle and feet that look like those brushes that are supposed to get dog hair off the couch. I love it, the egg says. But the vacuum salesman knows the egg is disappointed. When the egg takes the baby vacuum for a walk, pushing it like a stroller, other mothers say, My, what an interesting baby. My. When the baby vacuum gurgles, it sounds like a stalled motor. And when the baby vacuum finally learns to speak, you never know what will come out of its mouth. It might say, Mama or it might say, Want candy, or it might tell the world that it would rather be a three-legged dog than a defective vacuum.”
That conversation with Kerrianne was four months ago. I haven’t seen her or Talitha or Margaret since.
And that fucking song is still stuck in my head.