All That I Am and Ever Will Be

by Alice Hoffman

Shelby Richmond knew a bad sign when she saw one. Blood in the egg drop soup she’d had delivered from the Hunan Kitchen. Nothing good could ever come of that.

“That is not blood,” the owner, Shin Mae, said when Shelby called the restaurant to complain. “It’s soy sauce.”

Shelby lived in Chelsea with three dogs she had rescued from horrible fates. You’d think she would deserve some good luck, but that’s not the way things happened. The day after the egg drop soup, she got a call from her father. Shelby’s father never used the telephone. His conversational skills were nonexistent.

“What’s wrong?” Shelby said.

“You’d better come home.”

“If I come, I have to bring all three dogs, and you’d hate that.”

“Put them in a kennel,” Shelby’s dad said.

“For a hundred dollars a day?” Even if Shelby had the money, a kennel was out of the question. Her dogs had special needs. Blinkie was blind, General Gao got hysterical when he was locked up, and Pablo was a Great Pyrenees with a delicate digestive system.

“Then bring them,” Dan Richmond said. “Just get here.”

That’s how Shelby knew it hadn’t been soy sauce. It was blood and bad luck. She was glad she’d dumped the soup down the sink.

Shelby packed a backpack and carried the two little dogs in a tote bag. She put on sunglasses and got the cane she’d bought at the flea market so she could say Pablo was a seeing eye dog if the conductor gave her a hard time about having a dog on the train. Shelby wasn’t above lies like that and she had yet to be challenged. All the same, they could bring it on. Shelby didn’t care what people thought about her, especially on the Long Island Railroad. She’d been shaving her head for years; she wore old jeans and boots and sweatshirts. She called in to work and said she was sick, then she went to Penn Station to catch the train to Huntington.

People tended to stay away from Shelby—the bald head, the sunglasses, the big smelly Great Pyrenees accompanying her. No one sat next to her and the conductor didn’t even look at her when he punched her ticket.

Shelby didn’t drive. She used to, but she’d had a terrible accident in high school, which had put her best friend into a coma, and now she stuck to trains. She would only take a cab in an emergency. Even though she couldn’t afford a cab to Huntington, this was definitely an emergency. Shelby’s mother had terminal lung cancer. Her parents had decided to keep the news from Shelby to protect her, even though she was a grown woman with a full-time job who took classes at City College at night and managed to take care of three dogs. They did so because they thought she was “delicate.” Which meant she’d had a nervous breakdown a long time ago and she still liked to smoke pot several times a day; on top of that she couldn’t seem to have a relationship with a man without screwing it up.

On the other hand Shelby had been getting As in the classes she was taking, which surprised her. She’d thought she was a C student at best. She’d gone down to the library after her father had called and had looked up the form of cancer her mother had. Shelby knew her way around the library. That’s how she knew there was no hope.

“I thought you had two dogs,” Shelby’s father said after Shelby had let herself into the house. For some reason, she still had a key.

Shelby was taking the two small dogs out of the tote bag while the Great Pyrenees sniffed around the living room. Pablo was a big shedder and he liked to sleep on couches. You could hit him on the head with a hammer and he wouldn’t even whimper. That’s what the people who’d chained him up had done to him before Shelby rescued him. She’d made a hole in the fence where he was kept with a pair of metal clippers. She’d brought along a container of spicy orange chicken just in case the big dog was vicious, but he’d followed her and eaten the container of chicken out on the sidewalk. She’d named him Pablo because he’d been covered with mud and blood, a white canvas for a crazy design of everything he’d been through.

“What the hell is this thing? A Saint Bernard?”

“A Great Pyrenees. He was chained outside a junk shop, starving.”

“Jesus, Shelby, what’s wrong with you?” Dan Richmond sat down on the couch and Pablo climbed up to sit next to him. “He sure as hell isn’t starving now.”

“I can quit my job and stay while she has chemo,” Shelby said.

“She already had it. They started and stopped. It didn’t work.”

Shelby headed for her parents’ bedroom.

“Just so you’re not shocked, Shelby—she’s bald,” Dan said.

“That’s like a bad joke,” Shelby said.

“No joke. She won’t leave the house. I want you to take her to get a wig. There’s a place on Main Street. She won’t go with me. I think she’d feel a whole lot better if people didn’t stare at her and she looked like her old self.”

The two little white dogs followed Shelby into her parents’ bedroom. Amazing how a blind dog could find its way. Shelby figured Blinkie managed because he knew her scent so well, a mixture of marijuana and jasmine.

“Hey, Mom,” Shelby said.

Sue Richmond was in bed, under the covers. Shelby sat next to her.

“Don’t look at me,” Shelby’s mother said.

“Do you think I never saw a bald woman? I am a bald woman.”

Sue Richmond laughed. She sat up. She was bald and pale and she’d been crying.

“Jesus, Mom. You look like me.”

The General jumped up in bed beside Sue. Sue patted him.

“Which one is this?”

“General Gao.”

“Is he the smart one?”

“He’s smarter than Ben.”

Ben Mink was Shelby’s ex-boyfriend. He was still in love with her, but Shelby had moved on. She didn’t believe in love or loyalty.

“I liked Ben,” Sue Richmond said.

“When I met him he was a drug dealer,” Shelby reminded her mother.

“Still. He was nice.”

“That was part of the problem. I want to find a man who’s more like a terrier.”

“How did this happen to me, Shelby?”

It was a big question. Shelby was taking advanced biology, but she didn’t know the answer to this one. She’d read everything she could manage to absorb about advanced lung cancer and she didn’t have a clue. Her mother didn’t even smoke. It didn’t run in the family.

Shelby threw herself across the bed. She used to come into her parents’ bed when she was a little girl and couldn’t sleep. She’d always felt comforted there.

“I must have brought you bad luck,” Shelby finally said.

“Don’t talk like that,” Sue said. “Your dad wants me to get a wig.”

“Screw him, Mom. He never got that appearances are meaningless.”

“Shelby! Don’t talk about him that way. He thinks I’m depressed.”

They both laughed a little. Shelby herself had spent most of her life being depressed. She could tell that her mother wasn’t depressed. She was devastated.

“I think it would make him happy,” Sue said.

“Okay, let’s go. We’ll leave Dad in charge of the dogs.”

Shelby sat with her dad in the kitchen drinking coffee while her mother got ready. Sue wore slacks and a sweater; she’d tied a scarf around her head. Shelby picked up Blinkie and put him on her father’s lap.

“Take good care of him.”

“Oh, great, the blind one. Jesus, Shelby!”

Sue grabbed the car keys and she and Shelby went out to the driveway before Dan could complain about the dogs anymore. Shelby started to go around to the passenger side, but her mother stopped her. “You’re going to have to drive,” Sue said.

“I don’t drive,” Shelby reminded her.

“Fuck it, Shelby! You can drive me where I want to go this one time.”

They got into the car. Shelby was behind the wheel; she turned the key. She could do this. Any idiot could drive a car.

“Make a left and turn onto Sycamore,” Sue said.

“That’s not the way to Main Street. I thought we were looking at wigs.”

“I want to go see Helene,” Sue Richmond said.

Helene had been Shelby’s best friend, the one in the coma. For years people had been coming to see Helene in the hopes of being healed. At first, there’d been hundreds of pilgrims milling around, waiting patiently on line in Helene’s driveway. TV stations sent reporters out on the anniversary of the crash, when a prayer vigil would take place on the front lawn. Nowadays, there were fewer visitors; only the faithful and the desperate still came.

They drove to Helene’s street. Shelby hadn’t seen her since the week after the accident, eight years and six months earlier.

“I’m not going in there with you,” Shelby told her mother.

“I didn’t expect you to.” Sue flipped down the visor and looked at herself so she could straighten her scarf.

“She can’t heal people, Mom. If she could, wouldn’t she have healed herself?”

“Don’t go anywhere,” Sue said.

Shelby’s mom got out of the car and went up the path that led along the driveway. No one else seemed to be there. There was a shrine on the lawn, with pamphlets that told about Helene’s accident and the miracles she had performed. Shelby sunk down in the driver’s seat and lit up even though she knew her mother didn’t allow smoking in her car. Actually, it was a joint. Shelby only smoked half, then she realized her hands were shaking, so she stubbed it out in the ashtray. She thought maybe a million years must have passed. She couldn’t see anything through the windows of Helene’s house. There were heavy drapes. The windshield had fogged up, too. Shelby thought it was funny that her mother had told her not to go anywhere. Where in hell would she go?

Sue Richmond was inside the house for an hour, then she came back and got into the car.

“What was it like?” Shelby asked.

Sue was looking out the window so it took a minute before Shelby realized that her mother was crying.

“Fuck it, Mom, I told you she couldn’t help. This whole thing just exploits her.”

“She doesn’t look the same.” Sue wiped her face with her sleeve. “I wish I could give Helene whatever time I have left and she could get out of her bed and walk down to Main Street and do cartwheels on the green.”

“I wish it had been me,” Shelby said.

Sue turned around and slapped Shelby.

Shelby grabbed at her cheek and sat back so hard she hit her head against the window glass. “Mom!”

“Don’t you dare throw your life away like that! Don’t even think it! Do you hear me? You’re the best thing that ever happened to me, Shelby. Don’t take that away from me.”

“Okay,” Shelby said.

Shelby didn’t feel stoned anymore. She’d heard that people on chemo could have their brain affected. Maybe that was what was happening to her mother.

“And don’t look at me like I’m crazy,” Sue said.

“Okay.”

“And don’t keep saying ‘okay.’ It doesn’t sound like you. Say ‘fuck you’ or ‘kiss my ass.’”

“Okay, kiss my ass.” They both laughed. “So do you want to go to that wig shop?”

“Kiss my ass,” Sue said. They laughed harder. “Take me someplace else. Someplace I’ve never been before.”

They drove around for a while, up past the high school, then around by the mall. Shelby and Helene were supposed to have gone to college together. Now Shelby was making As and Helene didn’t even look like herself. In four years they’d be thirty, and Helene would still be in her bed.

When the car turned into the mall parking lot, Shelby noticed there was a Petco. She was a manager of a Manhattan branch.

“This is where you’re taking me?” Sue said when Shelby parked.

“Quality control,” Shelby said. “Let’s check it out.”

They left the car and started walking toward the store.

“Maybe they’ve got some good ideas at this branch that I can implement in my store.”

“Did you just say that?” Sue said. “Implement?”

“It’ll be fun,” Shelby said.

It was a Saturday and the mall was crowded. They went into Petco and Shelby had a rush of feeling comfortable, even though it wasn’t her store.

“It smells like hamsters,” Shelby’s mom said.

They walked toward the fish department.

“Remember when I had a Siamese fighting fish?” Shelby said.

“Jackie Kennedy,” Sue said.

“That was a crazy name,” Shelby said.

They were in front of a huge tank of angelfish.

“They’ve never cut Helene’s hair,” Sue said. “It reaches all the way to the floor.”

There was a big black-and-white angelfish over on the side by itself. Shelby could tell that it wasn’t breathing right. If this were her store, she’d separate it from the others.

“I asked her mom why they haven’t cut it short, and she said Helene always liked it long. She brushes it for Helene twice a day.”

“Helene always said her mother didn’t listen to her. Her mother didn’t know her like she thinks she does. Helene wanted to get a tattoo; she probably would have cut off all her hair if she’d lived and I was the one in a coma.”

“It wasn’t supposed to be you,” Sue said. “You were supposed to live.”

“Because I’m living such a brilliant fucking life?”

Shelby had a crack in her voice, so she moved on, to the goldfish. She hated goldfish.

Sue came up behind her. “Because you’re such a good person, Shelby.”

“I’m nothing, Mom! Don’t you understand that? You gave birth to a nothing!”

Sue moved toward her. At first Shelby thought her mother was going to slap her again. Instead Sue threw her arms around Shelby and hugged her. “Love of my life,” she said.

A group of kids came down the aisle, so Shelby and Sue moved away from the tank.

“Jesus, Mom,” Shelby said, wiping her eyes.

“Does your store smell better than this one?” Sue asked.

Shelby laughed. “Pet stores smell like pets. Actually, this is a pretty nice store.”

They walked through the dog-and-cat-food section.

“I wish I’d gone to Italy,” Sue said. “I always wanted to do that. And I wanted to live in California. Maybe not forever. Just to try it. A cottage on a beach.”

“Yeah?” Shelby said.

Sue had been a school librarian until the accident. Then she’d quit, to take care of Shelby, to try to get their lives in order.

“I wish I’d had more sex before I married your father.”

“Mom!”

They were in Shelby’s least favorite section. Puppies.

“Let’s stop,” Sue said. She leaned on the railing. There were two pugs and a little poodle and a dopey-looking golden retriever. “I always wanted a dog, but your dad was against it.”

“Why did you always do what he said?”

“What makes you think I did?”

They both laughed. Shelby’s dad was kind of clueless. He was probably sitting in the same spot where they’d left him, Blinkie on his lap, afraid to move with a blind dog in his care.

A salesgirl came over. “Want to see one?” she said of the puppies.

“The little one,” Sue said.

Shelby didn’t have the heart to say no. Her mom sounded about ten years old.

The salesgirl went and got the poodle out of its cage. It was wriggly and excited.

“He is so cute,” the salesgirl said.

She dumped the poodle into Sue’s arms and as soon as she did the poodle leapt up to lick Sue’s face.

“That’s not sanitary,” Shelby said. “They say dogs don’t have germs in their mouths, but they do. They lick their own asses.”

“Oh, Shelby, stop looking at all the negatives,” Sue said. “He is adorable,” she told the salesgirl. “Hey, buddy,” she said to the poodle. He was white with a tiny black nose. “Little bitty buddy.”

Shelby knew a sucker when she saw one. Her mother was falling for the poodle.

“He can fit in a tote bag so you can take him everywhere,” the salesgirl said. “You can take him to the supermarket.”

“We know about tote bags,” Shelby snapped.

“He really seems to like you,” the salesgirl told Sue.

Shelby glared at the salesgirl, who seemed completely oblivious to the negative vibes Shelby was sending out. The salesgirl led Sue over to a play area, where customers could get down on the floor with a puppy. Shelby stood on the other side of the half door watching her mother tossing a little stuffed animal for the poodle to fetch.

“We’re supposed to be getting a wig, Mom.”

Sue Richmond looked up, bright eyed. “I love him,” she said. She must have seen the look on Shelby’s face. “I know I couldn’t get him. I’m dying. It wouldn’t be fair. I couldn’t get him and then leave him all alone.”

The poodle brought the toy back and clambered into Sue’s lap.

“You’re not dying,” Shelby said.

“Right.” Sue didn’t sound like herself. “Okay.”

“Fine. He’s fucking cute,” Shelby said. “He’s like a cotton ball.”

Shelby left her mom and went over to the salesgirl, who was letting some teenagers play with the Golden Retriever, even though the boys clearly had no money.

“We’ve got a problem with the puppy.” Shelby reached into her backpack and brought out her manager’s ID.

“I didn’t know you were a manager,” the salesgirl said. “I know these guys from school, but it’s not like they’re friends or anything.”

Shelby went back to the play area where she’d left her mother. She picked up the poodle. “Let’s go,” she said.

They walked back through the pet food aisle.

“We’ve got the poodle,” Sue Richmond said.

Shelby grabbed two cans of puppy food.

“Shelby!” her mother said. “Are you crazy?”

“We’re taking this dog,” Shelby said. “We’re liberating him.”

“That salesgirl is going to get fired, Shelby. I won’t have it!”

They were passing the checkout, so Shelby stopped. She showed off her manager’s card to an older man working the register. “Write down the information,” she said. “I’m taking this puppy to be seen by a vet, and if he’s got medical issues, I’ll deal with it.”

“Okay, Miss Richmond,” the older man said.

They walked quickly out the door and when they got to the parking lot, they ran. Shelby held the poodle with one hand, and kept her free arm around her mother.

“Jesus H. Christ!” Sue Richmond said when they leapt into the car. They were both laughing like crazy. “He called you Miss Richmond.”

“Tell me that wasn’t fun,” Shelby said. She gave the poodle to her mother.

“Oh, Shelby, he is the cutest thing. Your father’s going to have a fit.” Sue patted the dog that curled up in her lap, nose hidden in her sweater. “Hi Buddy,” Sue said.

“You are not calling him Buddy,” Shelby said.

“Yes I am. And when I die and you come to get him, I want you to go on calling him Buddy.”

They went past Main Street. They were not stopping at the wig store. Instead they went to the park and let Buddy out to play in the grass. He peed first thing while Sue and Shelby sat on the bench of a picnic table. Shelby took out the rest of the joint she’d begun in the car.

“Are you going to get arrested?” Sue said.

“I hope the cops have bigger criminals to go after.” Shelby lit up and inhaled.

“I hear it helps people with nausea and pain.”

“So they say.”

Sue took the joint, inhaled, then coughed.

“Keep the smoke in,” Shelby said.

Sue inhaled a few more times. “It doesn’t do a thing,” she said.

Shelby went and got the puppy and wrapped it up in her sweatshirt.

“Little Red Riding dog,” she said. She looked at her mom, who was watching the leaves on the trees flutter. It would be a cool evening. “Want to go to California?” Shelby asked. “I’ll do it if you want to. I’m at your service. I steal dogs. I drive long distances. Whatever you want.”

“I love you more than anything in the world,” Sue said. “More than my own life. More than Buddy.”

“You’ve only known Buddy for two hours,” Shelby joked.

“Love has nothing to do with time or space. This is so weird.”

“What?” Shelby smiled. Her mother sounded like a little girl again.

“I really want ice cream. I haven’t been hungry for weeks.”

“Let’s go to Baskin Robbins.”

“Just like that? We do whatever we want?”

They walked back to the car, arm in arm.

“Your favorite was always cherry vanilla,” Sue said. “I like pistachio.”

“I didn’t know that,” Shelby said. “Dad always brought you chocolate.”

The poodle had fallen asleep, wrapped in the red sweatshirt Shelby had been wearing for more than ten years. It was threadbare in several places and the color was washed out but the poodle looked perfectly comfortable. A little white cotton ball.

“This is my perfect day,” Sue Richmond said when they were almost to the car.

Shelby agreed. It was a gray afternoon and rain would soon fall; later, Shelby would have to deal with rain-soaked clothes and a trip on the Long Island Railroad. But for now, when it really came down to it, she couldn’t have asked for anything more.

Published on January 18, 2023

First published in Harvard Review 31.

2022-12-19T14:45:03-04:00