The Huey P., short for the Huey P. Long Bridge, sliced the Mississippi River from East New Orleans to Highway 90 in a dramatic arc, one side for leaving, one for coming back, so narrow that it made both possibilities a gamble. There was a middle part just for freight trains. Even the conductors, who had nothing to do but look ahead and whistle, held their breath as they crossed the river on a single parallel path high above the slow-moving mudwater.
It was June 30, 1969, my little brother's birthday, and my family was headed to Triotto, the cash-only seafood shack known for the baked oysters and the garlic chicken that looked like rat meat. My dad's wealthiest clients smoked cigars in its secret dining room, which had once been an eat-in kitchen.
The bridge could be a bit easier to cross if you were a bit drunk, was what my mother had said as she loaded us into the car. This was how birthday suppers started: Mom with a screwdriver, Dad with a scotch in a fancy highball glass, us kids in the backseat. Pete, my little brother, untucked his stiff shirt while I rubbed my scalp where it burned from the tightness of my pigtails. But when our two-toned Cadillac climbed the abrupt slope of the Huey P., we forgot all about our discomfort smashing our bodies against the window by the water as we giggled and yelped in fear.
Pete would always name the horrible thing and exaggerate it: one inch to the left and we're goners, catfish bait, food for the bottom feeders, crawfish poop.
"Shut up, Pete," my dad answered quietly, his understated meanness lower even than the crawfish, under everything.
For a moment, we'd settle down. But we'd have to start up again; it was too scary and too much fun. Like we'd win if we got across alive. On that particular crossing, when Pete was turning eight at midnight and I was nine, another car tried to pass us at the pinnacle. There were supposed to be two narrow lanes, but my mom used them both.
"Motherfucker," said Dad, holding up his middle finger at the other driver in the rearview.
Pete opened his window. A blast of sweltering air shot in, undoing the AC in an instant.
"Close the window, now!" said my dad.
Pete waited, taking in the wet air.
"You heard your father," said my mom. There were always sides.
"I'm cold," I said, choosing mine.
The other car kept inching forward, now parallel to ours.
"I'm just going to let him pass," said my mother, moving the steering wheel too much to the right, then left.
"Keep going," said my dad. "That son of a bitch has no right." As if he were the protector, defending my mother's honor, the veins risen along the side of his red face.
One year, for her birthday, my dad had given my mom a little baby blue pistol. It rested unused in the glove compartment, "just in case."
She faltered. The other car sped past.
Pete held his suntanned face out in the humid dusk, breathing in the river air, which must have contained the seed of some dark idea that would grow over the years. He felt the danger all around him and even the pain, which was called family, and he enjoyed it. It was his night. Then he shut the window.
Twenty minutes later, in the middle of an empty, flat highway, we pulled into the restaurant parking lot. Silhouettes of mossy, tangled oaks stood in the misty background, and from the dryer parts of the swamp, snakes and nutria crawled and slept on the asphalt.
My dad spoke again. "Park here."
"But it's not a spot," my mother began, and then she did as she was told, partly blocking Triotto's front door.
Mom and Dad became celebrities as they entered the restaurant, the old Italian owners fussing over them, introducing them around, and passing out glasses of wine. Then we all got a tour of the hellish kitchen, where vats of crawfish lost their lives tumbling into flaming black skillets. When Joey, the owner, heard it was Pete's birthday, he brought Pete and me out back, where high grass grew in patches and locusts keened. The yard extended back like a football field, no other buildings in sight except a chicken coop. Behind the chicken coop lay a mutt that Joey called a bitch. She nursed her new litter.
"Go ahead, son, pick one. Your dad, he's a good man. I never forget what he done for me."
"Pete gets to keep one?" I asked.
"My birthday," said Pete.
Joey pointed his alligator shoe into the mother dog's side. "Go on, get," he said.
The mother dog heaved herself away from her squirming litter.
The pups were an ugly lot. They looked like their mother: brown and black, long-snouted, short-legged with pointy ears, nothing babyish about them. The runt was the ugliest of them all, furless in some spots, and a pink corn niblet-sized mole just like Joey's on its left cheek.
"I'll take that one," said Pete, pointing.
Joey grunted and bent down. He spun the runt onto its back with a thick finger on each front paw. The pup's throbbing, almost transparent belly, was covered with eraser-colored scabs. I looked away.
"Ew," I said loudly.
But Joey didn't even hear me. Instead, he let the pup go and straightened to face Pete. He looked back toward the restaurant, then rubbed the stubble around his greasy, misshapen nose. "You no want that one, son; that one no good."
"C'mon, Pete," I said, "just pick another one."
"Yes sir, Mr. Joey," said Pete, doing the polite act, "I'll take that one, please."
When Pete decided something, that was it, and I knew it and all that was to come: that Mr. Joey would somehow lose, that my father would say, "Your choice" and not mean it, that my mother would whisper, "It's a fine dog."
And that night Pete ate even more than usual, which was a lot, and burped a few times, but not so loud that our parents could hear. On the bridge on the ride home, it was never as scary; we'd already done it once. Mom teased Dad about being his chauffeur, and he grinned with half his mouth, then it got quiet. Pete sat with his new pup on his lap, both asleep, as I held the jar of yellow ointment to spread on the puppy's rash. The toenail-moon shone like a nightlight through the gauzy haze, and in its comfort I nearly fell asleep too.
When we arrived at home, the car lurched into the carport, throwing us forward and crashing us back hard into our seats. The puppy mewled. My dad turned to me and said, "Nice choice you let him make." Then he removed his hand from the back of my mother's neck, where it had rested under her French twist, and turned to look at Pete. "And you know that critter's not allowed inside. It's unsanitary."
We all got out of the car. My mother leaned on me for balance while she searched for the house key. At first I thought she was trying to signal me that our dog could sleep in the room with Pete and me anyway. She wasn't. It was just that she had a lazy eye that sometimes made it look like she was winking, especially if she was tipsy. Mother would have been Junior Miss Louisiana if not for that. And my dad said it quickly once again in shorthand: critter outside. So the rest of us just shut up.
Pete and I got up before dawn to check on our puppy, which we had left asleep on an old wool blanket in a cardboard box in the backyard, next to the ticking clock that our mother had said would remind him of his mother's heartbeat. Smells rose from the puppy's bed, which was fouled with poop like Karo syrup. Pete named the puppy Curd for no other reason than he liked the sound of it.
When my dad woke, he came outside with the jar and told us to apply the ointment to the puppy's rash on his broken skin. But overnight, Curd's underbelly had become a mass of leaking blisters.
We couldn't do it. Pete couldn't and I couldn't and my dad, having never touched a dog before, couldn't either.
"When I was a boy I knew what responsibility was," my dad said. "Go ahead and spread the cream."
"No," said Pete.
"I said now!"
Our dad bent his red face to look straight into Pete's eyes. I looked down at the ground.
"Dad, please," asked Pete, "please just help me."
"What are you looking at? Here, you do it," said my dad, and he handed me the cream.
I unscrewed the rusty top and just stood there. The ointment smelled like the Easter egg we had once found in June. Dad turned back to Pete, who held his nose.
"What kind of man are you?" asked Dad. "You make me sick."
Then our dad slapped Pete hard, once on his arm and once on his bottom. He would have come after me too, but Pete had already run down the driveway yelling like a madman. That's how Pete saved my mom and me, by being worse. Dad muttered, "Christ," and walked back inside.
As soon as our dad went back inside, Pete came back to the yard like nothing had happened. The day was another scorcher. Pete and I tried to teach Curd to fetch, but he didn't want to. When Pete tossed a straw-sized stick all the way to where I sat in the shade, Curd didn't even see it. He was so small that he was halfway covered by the grass. Finally, Curd just limped back to Pete's lap. Pete stroked his fur, but jerked his hand away at a pimpled bald spot.
"Let me try," I said, placing the stick right under Curd's nose. "C'mon, Curdy, c'mon, boy." I gave him a piece of cheese from my pocket. Curd's pale tongue licked a corner of the slice, but he wouldn't eat it. We then tried to feed him water from the hose in a Barq's bottle top, but that kept spilling over. Nothing worked. Finally, I said to just let him sleep.
A horn honked three times for Mom. It was her day for the fortune-teller with Aunt Ida. Every Tuesday she needed a break from Pete and me. I heard her call, "Big girl time!" as she clattered down the drive.
After she left, Dad leaned over the wire fence.
"You kids having fun?"
Curd lay curled in a hamburger-sized ball in the grass near Pete.
"Yes, sir," said Pete.
"Come inside with me," said Dad.
We followed him into the kitchen, wordless. "Watch this," he said, and picked up the phone. "Joey, how ya doing, man? Uh-huh. Fine, fine. Listen, I'm gonna need you to come and get your little mutt. Uh-huh. I know, I know. Today. That's right. Bye."
Then he just smiled at us and left for work. He didn't even seem mad.
That left us one day with the only pet we'd ever have.
We snuck Curd inside, but into our bathroom in case he pooped again. It seemed like that was all he did: make Karo syrup poo. Pete suggested we play elevator. He was twirling his jump rope like a rodeo lasso; it was what we'd use to strap our dumb cousin, Lou, to the cot on the weekends when he slept over. I wasn't sure what Pete meant by "elevator," but I was hot and bored.
Then Pete held Curd by the furless skin on the back of his neck. One end of the rope went around Curd's neck, the middle over the doorknob, and the other end lay in Pete's hand. Pete grinned.
"Okay, Curd, what floor?" Pete looked at me to answer.
"Um, third floor, please," I answered. I couldn't stop him, and I couldn't walk away.
As Pete tugged on the rope, the puppy was hoisted up in three separate jolts. He whimpered, squirming so hard the blisters on his belly started to drip.
"What floor now, sir? Going down?"
The puppy kicked and yelped until he was lowered down to the tiles.
"Pete, put him back," I said. "Just put him back to bed. He's no fun anyway."
"Oh, you want top floor? Yes, sir!"
Curd dangled on one side of the doorknob before Pete announced an elevator breakdown and let go of the rope. Curd hit the ground with a thud and started to vomit. Pete just walked away. I heard the back door slam.
Curd lay on his side, his eyes closed, panting. In the angled sunlight, his moles glistened. Then he opened his eyes and just looked at me like I was supposed to fix things, like I was supposed to know.
I covered him in the Times-Picayune. Underneath the paper, I could barely make out his plum-sized head. I eased my foot onto the lump. The sharp light muted to dusk as the sun slunk behind a lone thundercloud, and I caught my reflection in the bathroom mirror: open-mouthed and wet. I heard it and I felt it give, like breaking a turkey wishbone with Pete.
But Pete didn't even see. He had already mounted his banana seat bike with Curd's clock and his slingshot in the front basket and rode away, hoping to find a squirrel, a bird, or a lizard to kill. It didn't matter which.