Walking With My Mother

Jennifer Belle



My mother seemed young at lunch, demurring over the crème brulee and drinking wine. It was her seventy-third birthday. She was still thinner than I was. I was going through my divorce. I wished I had made one of the giant tissue-paper flowers I used to make her when I was a little girl. She would have pinned it to her olive sweater. Then I thought it would be ridiculous for a forty-five-year-old to a make tissue-paper flower.


Instead I gave her an expensive gold choker. I had tried it on in the store and the salesgirl had said it looked good on me. “Is it for you?” she had asked. “In a way, yes,” I thought. I supposed I would get it back, along with everything else, sooner or later.


“I should go,” I said, as we walked along MacDougal Street.

“I thought you said you took the whole day off,” she said.

“I did, but I wanted to get to the gym.”

“That’s good,” she said. “I’m glad you’re doing that.”

Two  teenagers, a boy and a girl, wearing baggy jeans falling down around their hips and Adidas, stood on the corner of Houston Street. They both held tiny newborn puppies, one in the palm of each hand. I had never seen such tiny puppies.  The girl got tired of holding hers and put one down on the sidewalk. It huddled onto her shoe. It was heartbreaking. I looked away. A church bell sounded four times a little too quickly, in true New York style.

“I think they’re too young to be away from their mother,” my mother said.  She went up to the teenage girl. “I don’t think it should be on the dirty ground. It doesn’t have any defenses,” my mother told her.

The girl just looked at the boy.

“It probably doesn’t have any shots!” my mother stated. She was really riled up. I was surprised. I didn’t think my mother knew about things like shots. She didn’t like animals. She never allowed me to have a pet as a child.

“Do you want to adopt one?” the boy asked, holding out his hands with the dogs in them.

My mother scooped the puppy off the girl’s shoe. It was barely covered with black fuzz with a white stripe down the center of its face. The other three were all black.  They were pit bulls.

“I like the striped one,” my mother said, as if it were a purse.

I couldn’t stand to look at the trembling puppies another second.  “Let’s go, Mom,” I said.

“It reminds me of you, when you were born,” my mother said. “Same face.” I looked at the blunt round snout of the tiny pit bull. “I used to walk you on a leash when you were little. It was the style back then.”

The puppy licked her under her chin. “What kind of dog is this, young man?” my mother asked.

“I’m not sure,” he said, lying.

“It’s a pit bull, Mom,” I said, wondering why there were so many things I knew that my mother simply didn’t.

“Is it free?” she asked, holding it to her sweater.

“Two hundred dollars,” the girl said.

“What if I take a set?” she asked, as if they were a scarf and hat.

“Two for three hundred,” the boy said.

“Was their mother a nice dog?” she asked.

“Sooooo nice and cute,” the girl said.

I couldn’t believe we were still talking to these people and holding the dog. This was cruel. My mother was crazy.  

“These puppies could be sick,” I said, gently taking her arm. “What if they’re sick?”


“What if I’m sick?” my mother said.


“Mom, don’t. You can’t take care of dogs.”

“You’re right,” she said. “I’ll just get one.  I’ll call him Tyson.”  




“No, Tyson,” she said. She held the puppy with the face like mine in one hand, unzipped the zippered compartment of her pocketbook, and handed over ten twenty-dollar bills. The boy placed his dogs in the arms of the girl and counted the money. “Happy Birthday to us,” my mother whispered.


Six months later, on the morning of my mother’s death, I found myself at Beth Israel Hospital promising to take care of Tyson. This isn’t happening, I thought. This couldn’t be my mother lying there dead. I looked down at the name bracelet on her thin wrist.


My brother came into the hospital room. His chin trembled. He puffed his cheeks out and put his hand over his mouth to try to steady it. “Mom wants us to take care of the dog,” I said.


“I can’t,” he said. “Will you give me a minute?” He sat in the chair by her bed and bent his head over his knees.


I didn’t know what to do, so I went to my mother’s apartment. Tyson was big now, about forty-five pounds. She had overfed him. He knew me from my visits and licked my hand, which felt as cold as my mother’s had. I took him for an awkward walk around her block. We made a strange funeral procession.


“Emily,” a man said to me, approaching with two large poodles, one white and one black. Tyson strained to greet the dogs. I stood stunned, unable to speak for a moment.


“I’m not Emily,” I told the man. “I’m her daughter.” I struggled to untangle myself from Tyson’s leash and I wondered if my mother was walking me on an invisible leash. Or if I was walking her, like a kite.


“Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” the man said. “I only recognize people by their dogs. When I saw Tyson I just assumed…”


“It’s okay.”


“This is Tyson, isn’t it?” He bent down and looked at the metal tag on Tyson’s collar. My mother had chosen one in the shape of a boxing glove.


Tyson crouched and took a shit in between us. “Good boy,” I said the way my mother had when this happened. “Oh, I don’t-- have anything,” I said. He handed me a plastic Food Emporium bag from his jacket pocket and I burst into embarrassing sobs. I told the man my mother was dead. He walked me back to her building holding all three leashes.


I decided to stay at my mother’s apartment so Tyson would not feel uprooted. I wore my mother’s gloves from her pocketbook and walked him. With her glove clutching the leash it was as if it were her hand, as if my hand was being held in hers.  Under the tight gloves, my wedding rings felt uncomfortable so I took them off.  


Walking behind Tyson three times a day, bending down to pick up his shit, enduring the most boring conversations with other dog owners and old people, waiting interminable lengths of time while kids petted him and slapped their small hands at his face, fielding insults about his weight problem or potential viciousness, tearing abandoned pizza crusts from his teeth, and praising and scolding—good, bad, good, bad, good, bad, I mourned my mother.


At the cemetery, Tyson jumped out of the car and stretched his body over her grave. “I’m taking care of him,” I told her. I didn’t know what else to say. “I’ve lost some weight.”



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Jennifer Belle


Jennifer Belle is the best-selling author of four novels, Going Down, High Maintenance, Little Stalker, and The Seven Year Bitch. Belle was named "Best New Novelist of the Year" by Entertainment Weekly, profiled in New York Magazine and People, and included in The Orange Prize for Fiction's "Orange Futures" as one of twenty-one young women authors to watch in the twenty-first century. She is also the author of Animal Stackers, a picture book for children illustrated by David McPhail, and her essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Observer, The Independent Magazine (London), Cosmopolitan, Ms., Harper’s Bazaar, Black Book, Mudfish, and many anthologies. She leads writing workshops in her home in Greenwich Village, where she lives with her husband, two sons, and dog.


Featured in Issue #6 of The Literarian.