Papi came home with a dog whose kind we had never seen before. A black-and-white-speckled electric current of energy. It was a special breed with papers, like a person with a birth certificate. Mami just kept staring at the puppy with a cross look on her face. “It looks like a mess!” she said. “Take it back.”
“Mami, it is a gift!” Papi shook his head. It would be an insult to Mister Victor, who had given us the dog. The American consul1 wanted to thank us for all we’d done for him since he’d been assigned to our country.
“If he wanted to thank us, he’d give us our visas,” Mami grumbled. For a while now, my parents had been talking about going to the United States so Papi could return to school. I couldn’t understand why a grown-up who could do whatever he wanted would elect to go back to a place I so much wanted to get out of.
On their faces when they talked of leaving there was a scared look I also couldn’t understand.
“Those visas will come soon,” Papi promised. But Mami just kept shaking her head about the dog. She had enough with four girls to take on puppies, too. Papi explained that the dog would stay at the end of the yard in a pen. He would not be allowed in the house. He would not be pooping in Mami’s orchid garden. He would not be barking until late at night. “A well-behaved dog,” Papi concluded. “An American dog.”
The little black-and-white puppy yanked at Papi’s trouser cuff with his mouth. “What shall we call you?” Papi asked him.
“Trouble,” Mami suggested, kicking the puppy away. He had left Papi’s trousers to come slobber on her leg.
“We will call him Liberty. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Papi quoted the U.S.A Constitution. “Eh, Liberty, you are a lucky sign!”
Liberty barked his little toy barks and all us kids laughed. “Trouble.” Mami kept shaking her head as she walked away. Liberty trotted behind her as if he agreed that that was the better name for him.
Mami was right, too—Liberty turned out to be trouble. He ate all of Mami’s orchids, and that little hyperactive baton of a tail knocked things off the low coffee table whenever Liberty climbed on the couch to leave his footprints in among the flower prints. He tore up Mami’s garden looking for buried treasure. Mami screamed at Liberty and stamped her foot. “Perro sin vergüenza!”2 But Liberty just barked back at her.
“He doesn’t understand Spanish,” Papi said lamely. “Maybe if you correct him in English, he’ll behave better!”
Mami turned on him, her slipper still in midair. Her face looked as if she’d light into him after she was done with Liberty. “Let him go be a pet in his own country if he wants instructions in English!” In recent weeks, Mami had changed her tune about going to the United States. She wanted to stay in her own country. She didn’t want Mister Victor coming around our house and going off into the study with Papi to talk over important things in low, worried voices.
“All liberty involves sacrifice,” Papi said in a careful voice. Liberty gave a few perky barks as if he agreed with that.
Mami glared at Papi. “I told you I don’t want trouble—” She was going to say more, but her eye fell on me and she stopped herself. “Why aren’t you with the others?” she scolded. It was as if I had been the one who had dug up her lily bulbs.
The truth was that after Liberty arrived, I never played with the others. It was as if I had found my double in another species. I had always been the tomboy, the live wire, the troublemaker, the one who was going to drive Mami to drink, the one she was going to give away to the Haitians. While the sisters dressed pretty and stayed clean in the playroom, I was out roaming the world looking for trouble. And now I had found someone to share my adventures.
“I’ll take Liberty back to his pen,” I offered. There was something I had figured out that Liberty had yet to learn: when to get out of Mami’s way.
She didn’t say yes and she didn’t say no. She seemed distracted, as if something else was on her mind. As I led Liberty away by his collar, I could see her talking to Papi. Suddenly she started to cry, and Papi held her.
“It’s okay,” I consoled Liberty. “Mami doesn’t mean it. She really does love you. She’s just nervous.” It was what my father always said when Mami scolded me harshly.
At the back of the property stood Liberty’s pen—a chain-link fence around a dirt square at the center of which stood a doghouse. Papi had built it when Liberty first came, a cute little house, but then he painted it a putrid green that reminded me of all the vegetables I didn’t like. It was always a job to get Liberty to go into that pen.
Sure enough, as soon as he saw where we were headed, he took off, barking, toward the house, then swerved to the front yard to our favorite spot. It was a grassy knoll surrounded by a tall hibiscus hedge. At the center stood a tall, shady samán tree. From there, no one could see you up at the house. Whenever I did something wrong, this was where I hid out until the punishment winds blew over. That was where Liberty headed, and I was fast behind on his trail.
Inside the clearing I stopped short. Two strange men in dark glasses were crouched behind the hedge. The fat one had seized Liberty by the collar and was pulling so hard on it that poor Liberty was almost standing on his hind legs. When he saw me, Liberty began to bark, and the man holding him gave him a yank on the collar that made me sick to my stomach. I began to back away, but the other man grabbed my arm. “Not so fast,” he said. Two little scared faces—my own—looked down at me from his glasses.
“I came for my dog,” I said, on the verge of tears.
“Good thing you found him,” the man said. “Give the young lady her dog,” he ordered his friend, and then he turned to me. “You haven’t seen us, you understand?”
I didn’t understand. It was usually I who was the one lying and grown-ups telling me to tell the truth. But I nodded, relieved when the man released my arm and Liberty was back in my hands.
“It’s okay, Liberty.” I embraced him when I put him back in his pen. He was as sad as I was. We had both had a hard time with Mami, but this was the first time we’d come across mean and scary people. The fat man had almost broken Liberty’s neck, and the other one had left his fingerprints on my arm. After I locked up the pen, I watched Liberty wander back slowly to his house and actually go inside, turn around, and stick his little head out the door. He’d always avoided that ugly doghouse before. I walked back to my own house, head down, to find my parents and tell them what I had seen.
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