Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Au Pair in Alabama, or The Legend of the Dog-Killer

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Our first au pair killed the neighbor's dog the morning after she came to Alabama. She was eighteen and looked like her name in Finnish: Satu -- a fairytale. Her hair was long and angel blond, and eyes the kind of violet I'd always thought -- nah, hoped -- only came with lens-cleaning fluid and care instructions from the optician.
Great view, Satu said when looking out of my kitchen window for the first time. We'd just returned from the airport. I was carrying the baby, my husband was carrying Satu's suitcases and she was carrying a conversation with herself. She'd flitted through the house, put her toe in the pool in the backyard, bounced back into the kitchen, opened and closed the fridge before pausing at the sink. The small window above the sink overlooks the neighbor's driveway and garage doors. I went to see what she was talking about.

Of course. Doc was in his yard.

"He's a doctor. And single, " I said, not at all sure how one talks to an au pair. She wasn't all that much younger than I was. Girl talk or mom talk? I got a glimpse of my frowning reflection next to Satu's in the stainless steel sink I'd polished spotless. Shouldn't have. I looked grey. She looked like she was lit from the inside. I felt a small jab of jealousy. It was all over for me. Eligible bachelors. First dates. Moonlit drives. Not to mention business lunches and clothes without milk stains.

"Kinda old," Satu said. "But cute. Looks a little like Richard Gere." When she saw the chocolate Lab, there was no stopping her.

~

The good doctor hesitates when she skips over in the morning, introduces herself and asks to borrow his dog. She needs fresh air. You know jetlag? Everyone else is still asleep. But we'd told her she couldn't just go for a walk in Alabama. It wasn't safe. Not because ours was a bad neighborhood but because it wasn't: the subdivision was new and ritzy and the streets were built for driving. No sidewalks. Why would anyone with a sound mind walk outside in the heat? That's what gyms and treadmills were for. The cars would all stop and ask if she needed a lift. People would come out of their houses to inquire if she might be lost. The only excuse for traipsing across people's manicured front lawns was a dog.

Nice doggie, she coos in her cute foreign accent. What is doggie name?

Bud, Doc says.

Like a flower, yes? She kneels down to pet him. Pretty girl, pretty name.

Pretty BOY, Doc says, distracted by the way the Lab's chocolate coat sets off the girl's alabaster arms. Boy's a he. Bud is. Male. All male. Bud as in Bud-dy.

Bud-dee? she repeats. He offers her a paw. Pleased to meet you too, Bud-dee.

It's actually just Bud, Doc says, looking pained. B-U-D. Not Bud-dee.

Just Bud likes walk, yes? Satu says, straightening up. Just Bud want to come walk with me?

Bud wags his tail and does a small, excited pirouette. It's only now dawning on Doc that she's teasing him. He was the only child, I'd been told, of affluent elderly parents. A loner. Not much of a talker. Never seen outside before he got the dog. Never seen without him after. Doc & Dog, they were called.

Heel, he says, taking a firm grip of the leash. The dog is still a puppy. Not well behaved at all. Maybe later.

She's quite used to walking dogs, Satu says. Bud leans against her long, bare legs and looks up as adoringly as only a retriever can. She finds a sweet spot behind an ear, and he closes his eyes and sighs.

It'll be a hot day, Doc says, looking for help in the overcast sky. Or it might rain. Soon. Very soon. Any time now. A real Alabama downpour. He takes a small red rubber ball out of his pocket and bounces it in his hand. Bud pays no attention.

Tomorrow maybe, Satu smiles, tucking an angel curl behind a pearly ear. Bye, Just Bud.

Bud yelps and strains after her. Doc holds fast. The dog turns and looks at his master with moist brown eyes. I imagine a tear forming in one. I know: too many years of Disney cartoons.

Oh okay, Doc says and hands over the leash.

Don't go far.

Keep him on the curb side.

She turns around in her tiny shorts and halter top and shakes the angel curls.

Don't worry. I take care.

He might bolt if he sees a squirrel, he shouts after her, angry at himself.

~

That's how I play the scene in my mind. I wasn't there. The first I knew something was amiss was when Doc was banging on our door. As usual, I'd been changing, feeding, patting, burping and walking my infant son for most of the night. He'd finally dozed off, and I'd thought of a shower. Next thing I knew, he was screaming again. Somewhere in the house, the doorbell was ringing. Then the knocking started. I grabbed the baby and tiptoed to the door. Doc looked in the window and saw me before I could duck.

His parents would be devastated, Doc said when I opened the door. Bud was the closest they had for a grandkid. He'd hate to think anything had happened. Had the girl by any chance come back?

I tried to force my sleep-deprived brain into gear. Our new au pair had kidnapped his dog? I'd thought she was still asleep. How long a lead did she have?

Doc looked at his watch. "Eighteen minutes. She promised to be back in half an hour. It's been 48 minutes. I'm going after her."

He turned and went down our steep front steps in two takes. I closed the door and wondered what I was supposed to do. It didn't sound like a huge deal. She might have gotten lost. The good doctor would find her. They'd have a big happy reunion, he'd invite her over for coffee and one thing would lead to another. I sat down and quieted the baby with a breast.

Satu came back twenty minutes later, muddy and sweaty and sobbing so hard I didn't understand a word she was saying. She couldn't stay still but walked from room to room, waving her hands and sounding like she was having trouble breathing. The baby started howling too, and I had to go wake my husband to take care of him. Following the girl with the baby latched onto a breast still sounded weird to me back then. First kid, of course. Later on, with the second and third, there was little I couldn't do while breastfeeding. Peel potatoes, plant bulbs, shop and have a discussion about MMR vaccinations and autism, all at the same time.

"Here, hold," I told Antti, depositing the baby on his chest. "Satu's crying. I think she lost Doc's dog."

"Satu who?" my husband asked. If he had to ask, he obviously hadn't seen Satu skinny-dipping in the pool in the early hours of the morning. Unless of course, he had, and was merely hoping I hadn't.

Satu was in the shower when I went back to the kitchen. Coffee, I thought. I was afraid to sit down for fear of falling asleep. Doc pulled up in his red truck when I was rinsing the coffee pot. Oh good, I thought, expecting to see Bud jump down from the back.

He didn't.

Doc sat still in the cab, engine running, and stared straight ahead. He turned the engine off, opened the truck door, put a leg out and stopped moving again. When I'd measured the coffee and switched the coffeemaker on, he was sitting on the ground next to the truck, head in hands.

The only sound from downstairs was the shower running. She was using up all the hot water. I should have told her about the too-small boiler.

Satu was shivering in a too-small towel when I went downstairs with the coffee mugs.

"The water turned all cold," she complained.

"Yes, the hot water runs out." I was all sticky and smelly, and it would be hours now before I could take my shower. I offered her a mug and she took it, wrapping her hands around the steaming cup like people do when they come in from skiing.

"Milk or sugar?"

She shook her head. "I don't drink coffee."

"So, Bud got lost?"

"No-o-oh," she said, through chattering teeth. "I k-k-k-illed h-h-h-i-i-im." The violet eyes filled up with tears again. I thought maybe I should hug her or something but the cold water was still beading on her shoulders, dripping from her long hair and forming small puddles on the hardwood floor.

I turned the AC down, got another, bigger, towel and tented it over her head and shoulders. Like I said, I was still new to this nurturing business and wasn't sure if one should hug a half-naked teenager one has just met. A teenager who was supposed to be helping one, not using up all the hot water in the house, and kidnapping the neighbors' dogs.

"It's okay," I said. "Tell me."

They'd walked to the end of the street and were on their way back when Bud started panting real hard. She'd found a sprinkler and helped him drink. Bud lay down and refused to get up. She waited a while. People came out of the house and brought more water but Bud closed his eyes and keeled over. That's when Doc pulled up in his truck, yelled at the people to call his vet and started giving Bud CPR. Bud's tongue was hanging out and he was foaming a little but the doc kept trying to blow air into its mouth and pressing its chest. The vet came and put an oxygen mask on Bud and gave it a shot. It twitched and twitched but didn't open its eyes. People came from all over to watch. Someone called the ambulance but it left when they realized it was a dog.

"They were asking questions and I couldn't understand half of what they were saying so... so... so... they stopped talking to me and were talking to themselves and pointing. And more people came and they were all talking and pointing at me.

"I thought Doc was going to hit me when the vet shook her head and got up. Doc was cradling and rocking Bud and then he got up too and came to me. Why, he asked? Why did you do it? I couldn't find any words in English. So I just ran. They all think I killed him."

"It wasn't your fault," I said. I gave her two aspirin, put her to bed and patted her back till she cried herself to sleep.

"Shit," Antti said. "Something must have been wrong with the dog."

"Yeah. It was just a puppy, too."

"S'ppose we need to offer to buy a new one."

"And train it? Doc was going on and on the other day about the time it took him to housebreak Bud. You'd better go talk to him."

"Me? Why me?" he said but pulled his jeans on. "Aren't women supposed to be better at stuff like this?"

He grabbed a couple of beers from the fridge and went out. Doc didn't look up when Antti approached, shook his head to the offered beer. Antti sat down and took a swig from the bottles -- first left, then right hand as if that's the way he usually drinks beer, two bottles at a time. I guessed it had something to do with guy dignity. The men were sitting side by side, not moving, not talking till mine had finished his beers.

"He can't talk about it yet," Antti reported when he came back. "I invited him to dinner."

"You think he can talk then?"

"Why not? It's just a dog."

~

Doc walked over when Antti was grilling the hamburgers. I gave them a few minutes of male bonding time before going out to join them.

The doc was staring at his beer bottle but looked up and nodded at something just beyond my left shoulder when he heard me open the door.

"I'm sorry," I said and wondered if should extend a hand or a hug.

He shrugged, still not meeting my eyes. It was obviously all my fault. I should've kept an eye on the au pair. If I'd been a responsible person, he'd still have his dog.

"What happened? Satu said the vet came. What did she say?"

"Heatstroke," Doc said. "My fault. I should've never let her take him."

"Heatstroke? It wasn't even hot this morning."

"That's when it happens," Doc said. "When you least expect it. You can't just take labs for a walk in Alabama any old time you want to."

"I'm sorry," I said again.

Doc shrugged.

"But if that's the case, why ..." I began but stopped when I caught Antti's frown. Must be another Alabama thing. Come to think of it, most dogs I'd seen had been at the back of the truck. Not even dogs walked in the Alabama heat.

"We'd, of course, want to compensate you for --"

"No," he said.

"Maybe if we train a new --"

"No."

"Anything we can do? I feel really --"

"You've done quite enough," he said and lifted his bottle as if to toast. He gulped the rest of the beer down, set the bottle on the table harder than absolutely necessary and stood up. I only saw the label then. Oh, great.

"Thanks for the beer. I don't think I can eat anything."

I knew I shouldn't have but something about his manner and my embarrassment got to me. Of course, if my first husband hadn't died in an accident, I wouldn't have married Antti and we wouldn't be in Alabama in the first place. No Alabama, no kid. No kid, no au pair. No Bud.

"I know it won't feel like it right now. But the best you can do is to get a new puppy. I know. I lost a husband four years ago. I went right out and got a new one. Best decision ever."

Doc stared at me.

"My parents loved him," he then said. "I don't know how I'm going to tell them. I'd better go now."

"Congrats," Antti said when Doc had slammed the garden gate behind him. "Now what did you do that for?"

"Look who's talking. You're the one who gave him a Budweiser!"

"What's that got to do with anything?"

"For crying out loud. What was the name of the dog again?"

"Oh c'mon now, he couldn't possibly..." Antti said. Then, "He shouldn't have named his dog after a beer!"

"Too late now."

Antti concentrated on the burning hamburgers. "What was so bad about it anyway?" he asked after a while. "Doc could've taken it as a thoughtful gesture. Like, what's that word, in memoriam? Rest in peace. Bud to Bud."

~

Doc's parents came down from Wisconsin for the funeral. I watched the party leave -- dressed all in black, in a procession of big, black cars -- to the pet cemetery on the other side of town. Why do people do stuff like that, I'll never understand. Doc could've simply gotten a new dog and called it Bud. No way his parents would've ever found out if they'd only seen Bud once or twice before. Why cause them all that grief?

The autopsy found nothing wrong with the dog. The death certificate listed cause of death as heatstroke. I know all this because I went to talk to the people in whose yard Bud died. Oh, you're the dog-killers? the woman said when she answered the door. Y'all come on in. I also called the vet and offered to pay all the expenses but she said the doctor had already taken care of everything. Just don't let your girls take other dogs for walks.

Doc was studiously avoiding us, leaving early and staying late at the hospital where he worked. The parents stayed in Alabama for a month to support their son in his time of grief. I saw them drive by in their big black car, sometimes raking leaves in the yard, still dressed in black. They never said hello.

Satu was out in the yard with the baby the day they left. I heard yelling, then Satu and the baby came in. Both were bawling. I took my son and put him at the breast.

"She said she wished I'd burn in hell," Satu said.

"Who?"

"Doc's mother. She said they were leaving but she wanted to take a look at the girl who killed Bud. She was onto me, she said. That I looked pretty and young and innocent but had no right to kill someone's dog. I kept on saying I was sorry I didn't mean it but she wouldn't listen, just kept on talking about the grief I'd caused. The baby got scared and started crying so I tried to walk away, but she grabbed me."

She rubbed her bare arm. There were red marks where the doc's mother had dug in her fingers. "She said she'd never get over it. That she wanted me to remember what I'd done for the rest of my life. Like I did it on purpose. I didn't mean it. I didn't know!"

I ran out but the big, black car was already rolling down the hill. I saw the woman's profile glide by. I'm sure she saw me but didn't turn her head. I don't know what I would have done if they'd stopped but it wouldn't have been pretty.

A little after, there was a "For Sale" sign on the front lawn of Doc's house. He'd taken a leave of absence from his job, the neighbor across the street knew. He'd told someone else he was looking for a job up north, closer to his parents. The moving vans came a couple of weeks later, first the one to take away all of Doc's stuff, then another to move in our new neighbors. Oh you're the dog-killers, they smiled in the way of introductions. We have two cats. They'd gotten a good deal on the house because Doc didn't want to sell it to anyone with a dog.

Satu stayed till Christmas. She never went for a walk again. At first she was afraid of going out at all, not wanting to meet someone who'd ask about Bud. But once she got my car keys, she was driving like a local. It didn't take long before she'd found the downtown with the discos and clubs and was coming home in the early hours of the morning. Neighbors complained they could hear the bass all the way from the highway. I didn't mind that so much -- I was up anyway -- but the skinny-dipping was getting to me. You really don't want to run into a gorgeous fairytale creature rising naked from the pool when you are carrying a colicky baby. Or to be exact, you don't want your husband to.

Worse, we were all staying up all night but she was the only one sleeping in the daytime. I didn't let her bathe the baby after I found her sound asleep on the floor when she was supposed to be watching him. Soon, I didn't trust her with him at all. She looked hung-over when she got up in the mornings. I checked her room when she was gone but never found any booze, just pillowcases smudged with the too-dark makeup she'd taken to wearing. It looked like she took a plunge in the pool but didn't bother drying before going to bed. I couldn't wait till the weather turned too cold to swim, even for a Finn.

By November, the highway patrols were calling regularly after stopping her for speeding on the interstate. The car was registered to us and she didn't have her license with her. Of course, I thought, she couldn't show to the police the fake ID that got her into the clubs. I wasn't her mother, she said when I tried to reason with her. What she did in her off-hours was her business. Except she was driving my car, I said. The first time she drove drunk, she'd be on a flight back home. I would have limited her driving anyway but couldn't stand having her sulking in the house, either.

I was hoping the police would take her license away, but one look at her angelic eyes, a couple of words in a foreign accent, and they simply escorted her home. A pretty girl like that shouldn't be driving alone in strange places. The neighbor's got used to seeing the flashing lights late at night. Just the dog-killer au pair, getting home in style.

By Christmas, we all agreed it was better she went home. Alabama wasn't at all like she'd thought America was.

Was there something I should have done differently, I asked at the airport, hugging Satu goodbye. She shook her head. Or was it Bud?

"Bud?" she asked as if hearing the name for the first time.

~

Over the years the story of our au pair killing the neighbor's dog was told to all new neighbors, only amended to reflect scientific breakthroughs. At first, Bud was embalmed and stuffed and taken to Wisconsin by the doc's parents. Later on, he was deep-frozen to wait for a revolution in resurrection techniques. Finally, after Dolly the sheep, Bud got cloned. The only constant in the evolving legend was how we were introduced to the newbies: meet the dog-killers. They are from Finland.

Doc, someone knew, became a cardiologist who specialized in operations to shrink an enlarged heart. He lived with his parents and, as far as anyone knew, never found another soul dog. We never took another au pair. I already knew how to do anything with one hand, a baby on the hip. I could wait to mother teenagers.

As to Satu, she never wrote so I was free to invent her postscript. For a while, I told everyone she became Miss Finland, with a platform of rescuing labs from shelters. Other times, I made her do penance by running a dog & sled business named Bud & Rosebud in Labrador.

I did wonder, from time to time, what really happened to her but made no real effort to find out. Legends are easier on the conscience.


Tua Laine, a long-lost Finn, lives in Alabama with her husband and the bulimic cat their kids (2) left behind when they went to college in California. Tua’s stories have been published in Absinthe, Pindeldyboz, Rosebud, Snow Monkey and Parents’ Press in the US and QWF in Britain. She is currently peddling her first novel and the said (bulimic) cat: take one and she’ll throw in the other. Offers to tualaine@yahoo.com!


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