Roger's Belly, by Karen McKenzie

I’m under our brick veneer house rubbing wattle into dirt the way Mum rubs butter into flour for scones. A thud makes me look through cobwebs to the ceiling. Mum yells, ‘Stupid wog bastard.’ Can’t hear what Dad’s saying back.

Dirt’s gone under my nails and yellow’s sticking to my fingers. To Roger, our Cocker Spaniel, I say, ‘Oh dear.’

He wriggles on his back, like his spine’s itchy. Slobber oozes from a corner of his mouth. Sighing, I swish my fingers, minus the pinkies, in the cup of water. Up in the kitchen, a plate or something smashes. Roger twists onto his feet and cocks an ear.

In my head, Mum picks up a pot by the metal part, her red nails shining. She goes to chuck it at Dad and he ducks the way Roger does when Dad shows him the back of his hand.

Around me, streaks of light from square holes in the walls fall on dusty boxes of toys and rude magazines. Through one of the holes, I look at the trailer in the front yard. Rain tap-taps on the blue plastic tied over the trailer, which has its tow bar down on the grass, like its chin is down because it’s been bad. Under the plastic is the speedboat Mum said we can’t afford, but Dad bought anyway.

I cuddle Roger and say, ‘This one’s a doozy.’ That’s the word Dad would use.

Roger gives me a look, showing lots of white in his eyes, and he nods once. He licks my cheek and puffs a hot fishy stink into my face.

I push him onto his back and scratch his stomach with the dunny brush I nicked this morning. A back leg pounds the ground and his eyes half-close.

Upstairs the sounds stop. I stop. Roger stays on his back, legs stiff in the air, like he is listening too. High-heeled footsteps cross the kitchen. Over our heads comes the squeak of the fly-wire door and the clonk-clonk of lady’s shoes on the wooden stairs. Mum’s yellow curls bounce as she gets into the Corolla and drives off.

I stroke the waves of hair on Roger’s belly. His tummy is round, like the top of a cooked cake. And his belly bounces back when you poke it. It’s like God just took Roger out of the oven and he’s still warm.

Ages ago me and Dad brought Roger home in the Charger. He was four weeks, and he fit in my hand. When I put him all curled up between my legs on the passenger seat and looked away for just a minute, he disappeared. We had to stop the car and look. I felt under the seat right at the back and touched warm goo and a little leg. I had to curl my finger, which got more poo on it, and pat him towards me or else, Dad said, I could pull his leg off. But Dad let me do it.

He got a towel from the back so I could wipe off the poo, but there was still some on me and Roger. I put the towel round him and didn’t let go. On the way home Dad laughed a lot. He’d point at me and Roger then hold his nose and say, ‘Poo! You stink.’

I laughed.

When we came home Mum crossed her arms and did a cat’s bum mouth and said, ‘I’m not washing it.’

So Dad helped me. Roger shivered in the water at the bottom of the laundry sink. I rubbed soap into his hair, making it go creamy, and gave him a Mohawk.

Sometimes me and Dad and Roger go to the river at Warrandyte. Last weekend Roger barked at the ducks, like before. But this time Dad yelled at Roger, his voice kind of scraping, yelling, ‘Go on, jump in, get ‘em. Go on.’

Roger jerked forward, nose up, stopped, and jerked again. It was like, I’m going to jump now. No, NOW.

He never did.

Dad threw a stone at him, missing by miles, and put his chin down, with his hands in his pockets, as he said, ‘Like his bloody master.’ His eyes were wet and he blinked a lot.

Roger’s such a chicken.

The rain’s worse now. I can’t ride my bike. So I search through bags, find a Coca-Cola T-shirt, and call Roger over. He wags his bum. Mum said they chopped off too much of his tail. I asked her, why’d they chop it? She said it looks better. It looks stupid. He’s got a bump, not a tail.

I hold up the T-shirt and he wriggles toward me. I say, ‘Rrooff.’

His head goes up and he says, ‘Rrooff.’

I keep doing it until he jumps on me and bites my shoulder. I bite back. He tastes yuck.

He looks at me like I’m nuts.

While I’m pushing his legs through the armholes of the T-shirt, I hear someone walking up our drive. It’s a skinny lady wearing lipstick, holding an umbrella. She goes up our stairs and knocks on the fly-wire. She says, ‘I’m sorry to bother you…’

I can’t hear the rest. Dad’s voice is silky smooth. The lady goes into the house. They go to the back door. Now they’re in the back yard.

Scrunching up, I creep to the back, where the ceiling is only high enough for Roger to stand. Dad’s saying, ‘I’m really sorry, we don’t know where he gets the stuff so we can’t return it.’

They stop near the outside dunny, beside Roger’s pile. Dad has a big Band-Aid on his forehead at the side. Mum must have hit him. She’s done it heaps of times. Last time she hit him with the phone while he was sitting, and he put his hands over his head, showing the pale skin on his palms – like the colour of my skin – and said, ‘Charlotte, no!’

With each whack the phone made a ping.

When the repairman came, Mum said she’d dropped the phone. It was all smashed. The man looked her and me over, like he was looking for something. He said, ‘Oh, yeah?’

He gave us a phone with buttons.

From Roger’s pile Dad picks a shoe.

Beside me, Roger growls. I grab his collar.

Rain makes Dad’s hair stick to his head. He looks sad as he holds up the shoe. ‘This one?’

Under her umbrella the lady stands straighter than the walls of the dunny. She shakes her head and mutters something.

Roger growls again. I put my hand over his slithery mouth.

Roger likes to steal things from neighbours and put them on his pile. Mum and Dad say it’s embarrassing. His pile’s got socks, pantyhose, bras, twigs, a tiny shovel, and a pot plant.

After Dad finds the lady’s shoe and she goes, he calls to Roger from the front door. I hold onto his collar with both hands. Dad goes to the back and calls, ‘Roger! Roger!’

Roger pulls. My arms stretch. To hold the collar better, I move my fingers, but they slip, and he runs. ‘No!’

The T-shirt drops onto the dirt as Roger gallops out. I follow. Outside, rain stings my face and wind whooshes my skirt. Roger goes to Dad, who closes the screen door behind them. I stand with my back on the wall, the door on my right, remembering Dad telling me, ‘Just keep out of our way when we get like that.’ I don’t look in.

Roger’s nails click on the lino.

‘Fucking mutt,’ Dad says.

Roger yelps.

‘That pile is going!’

In my head Dad kicks Roger’s belly with his right foot. Roger rolls over and over and Dad kicks and kicks. A raindrop gets me in the eye.

Roger yelps louder. My hands push the brick veneer behind me. Bits of it dig into my palms. The yelps are moving away, to the front of the house. On my left, scratching against the window, a wattle tree sways like a wagging finger.

I run under the house and listen. The front fly-wire squeaks. Roger yelps again. The front steps bang, shudder. From below, I see Roger’s round body falling down stairs, Dad following.

On the bottom, Roger scrabbles to his feet. I press my face against square holes, my lips poking between the wood as I whisper, ‘Run.’

He bolts, ears flapping then staying back. He turns the corner. Gone. Safe.

Dad stands in the drive with his hands on his hips. The rain has stopped.

I’m packing my collections of wrapping paper, ribbon, string, stamps, coins and rocks in the big box Mum gave me before Dad got home. I do it slow so Dad, who’s watching TV, won’t hear.

Mum opens the bedroom door and whispers, ‘Just me.’ She looks into my box.

I know what she’s going to say.

She points, still whispering. ‘We can’t take all that.’

We had this fight last time we moved, and the time before, and the time before that. Mum likes a fresh start, so we move a lot.  My collections are big because we’ve lived here two whole years.

On my knees, I curl over the box, covering its insides with my arms. ‘I’m not going without them.’

She stops whispering. ‘What was that?’ I hear the hit in her voice. She hasn’t whacked me before but she might now.

I keep my arms over the box, put my head between them, and go stiff. In the dark box a lump of quartz twinkles.

‘You’ll end up an old lady with a house piled high with junk.’

‘What if I stay?’ My voice sounds funny in the box.

Mum’s eyes stare through the back of my head. I look up.

Hands on her hips she says, ‘Dads don’t stay with kids: mums do. You know that. The courts know that.’ Then she whispers, but I know she wants to shout: ‘Stop being such a child.’

I think about Julia and Pete’s dads, who pissed off. No one lives with just their dad.

Mum’s not saying anything. Out front Roger’s barking, probably at one of the Siamese from next door. Those cats don’t care. Weeks ago one of them fought him and he’s still got the scratch on his nose. He likes to bark at them from behind the legs of a human. But maybe one day he’ll sink his teeth into one of them and shake her like a sock.

‘Okay.’ I take out a pile of purple paper with yellow balloons on it.

Mum’s gone back to the nice whisper. ‘Don’t put it in the rubbish, Tony might get suspicious. Leave it in the wardrobe.’

She plays with my hair. ‘I take care of you, don’t I?’

I look at her and push up a smile.

She stands over me as I remove more stuff. ‘We still keep this a secret, right? We don’t want a scene.’

While Dad’s at the footy, Mum and I are moving. In the truck, we’re on our way back from the flat, where Auntie Kate’s helping us unpack. Mum keeps saying, ‘Too bloody small. Should’ve been able to do it in one load.’ She has a scarf on her head. We’re high up and the engine is noisy.

We’re going round the last corner before home. Mum says, ‘You’ll have to help me with the kitchen table, but after that just collect Roger. Put him in the cabin, okay?’

She’s stopped the truck but we’re not in the driveway. She stares ahead and says, ‘Shit.’

Dad’s Charger is in the drive. In my chest, something jumps. Maybe we won’t leave Dad now.

Mum holds her watch to her ear. She says to the watch, ‘He can’t be…it’s only five o’clock.’

She looks at the yard and the windows. Dad’s nowhere. She moves the stick. Metal bits crunch while she parks. She holds my hand as we go up the steps. We walk past stacked chairs and boxes marked Kitchen.

In the lounge-room, Dad sits on the biggest bit of furniture left: his leather couch. The sun shines on everything because Mum took the curtains.

Dad sits, legs spread, on one end of the couch. He’s holding a smoke over the glass ashtray. Smoke is coming out of his mouth in a tunnel that goes down to the carpet near Roger, lying with his chin on Dad’s foot.

Mum and Dad stare at each other. He doesn’t look at me. I think: dads don’t stay with kids. I want to run over and hit him, but I’m too scared.

The shag carpet’s empty. Round bits are flat on the shag where legs of the coffee table and TV were.

Mum lets go of my hand and starts to turn around.

‘You’re not taking Roger,’ Dad says.

She turns back. ‘Yes we are.’

He sucks on his smoke and blows it at her. ‘Try it.’

They stare. Then her feet shift, like she’s walking on the spot. ‘You don’t like him anyway.’

He snorts. ‘How would you know?’

Mum looks at Roger, then out the window. ‘Well, we want him too.’

‘Of course you do.’ He looks at me. ‘You have to take everything.’

It makes me blink, my face going stiff. In case he can read my thoughts, I say in my head: Mum said I couldn’t tell.

Sucking her bottom lip, Mum stares out the window.

I crouch. ‘Roger, come here boy, come on.’

Roger’s head lifts.

With one hand, I wave him to me. ‘Come on.’

He starts to sit up, looking at me.

Dad leans towards Roger. ‘Stay!’

Roger freezes, then his body sinks. He puts his chin on Dad’s foot.

Mum crouches. ‘Come on Roger, come here boy.’

I wave both hands. ‘Come on boy.’

With his body real low and his eyes on me, Roger squinches forward.

Dad jabs out his smoke. ‘Stay.’

Roger stops and lies down.

Dad growls, ‘Back.’

Roger backs up, his eyes sliding over me and Mum and me again.

I look for food in Dad’s hands, but can’t see any.

Now we’re all shouting. Roger squinches forward and back. Then he stays where he is, with Dad, his eyes fixed on my feet.

I stamp my foot, but the shag soaks up the sound. ‘Come here now!’

He looks away, at the sunny window, like I’m not here.

Mum pushes me out of the lounge. ‘Help me with the table.’ She points.

I look back. Roger hasn’t moved. Dad’s staring into his lap. My throat hurts.

Mum and I carry the table down the front stairs. The smooth wood makes my fingers slip, but I keep holding on. I put one foot down on a step, then the other foot, again and again. There’s nothing to hold onto. I could drop my end; then Mum would get sick and we couldn’t leave.

Mum’s face is red. ‘Bend your knees, honey.’ She holds the table up high, in front of her boobs.

I bend.

In the flat that stinks of paint, we have tea and scones at the table with Auntie Kate. I drink from a cup with little blue flowers on it – like them. I hold the cup with my pinkie out – like them. A lump in my throat makes the tea hard to swallow.

Auntie Kate spreads blackberry jam on her scone. She looks at Mum. ‘So, no Roger?’

Mum shakes her head. ‘A flat’s too small for a dog. He’s better off with Tony.’

Auntie Kate bites her scone. ‘Mm… wonderful jam.’

While they talk, I move off the chair and go on my hands and knees. They both wear jeans. I wag my bum.

‘What are you doing down there?’ Mum asks.

I could bite her leg. Real hard. Raising my chin I answer. ‘Rrooff, Rrooff!’

Bio:

Karen McKenzie’s stories and feature articles have been published in The Australian, Verandah, and Australian Women’s Forum. She has been shortlisted for the Judah Waten short story competition, received a Special Commendation for the 2009 Scarlet Stiletto competition, and is the two-time winner of the Dickinson Memorial prize for Fiction.

Legally blind since her mid-teens, and a passionate Braille and audio book reader, Karen completed her Bachelor of Arts (Professional Writing and Literature) at Deakin University in 1992. She is also a graduate of the 2009 Odyssey Writing Workshop in New Hampshire, U.S.A.

Her jobs have included project manager and training coordinator for disability agencies. She now writes full-time and lives in Melbourne with her husband.  She is seeking a publisher for her first novel, an 80,000 word psychological thriller entitled, The Urge to Tell.

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