by Amber Hart
“When a writer presents me with a surreal, if not absurd premise, and does so without wavering, I am absolutely on board. I was at first bewildered, then intrigued, then utterly charmed by this story of a woman looking for love in the most unconventional way.”–Roxane Gay
The first time I showed up to Sunday dinner with Pat, my father didn’t even bother to look up from his latest copy of The American Journal of Medicine. He feigned interest in the cover story, “Recurrent Pancreatitis, Rash and Diarrhea: A complex combination.” But I knew better. I was going through a bit of a varmint phase and my father did not approve. He stirred his Bombay and tonic and pretended not to be disgusted over my date being a raccoon. Mom smiled and backed her way toward the kitchen, the panic in her eyes directed at me. I fixed Pat a drink and excused myself to the kitchen where my mother stood piling steaming meatballs into a Ziploc bag.
“You should’ve told me he was a raccoon, Janey,” she said.
“What difference does it make, Mom?”
“I would’ve made something different. Pasta, maybe. I made meatballs!”
“Pat likes meatballs.”
“He’s not vegetarian? Like…the others?”
“No, Mom. Pat’s an omnivore. The others were herbavores.”
“Well, you still should’ve told us. Prepared your father and I.”
We made it through dinner thanks to my mother’s well-trained hospitality and my father’s reserve bottle of Bombay gin. For a few weeks afterward I fooled myself into believing they were beginning to accept my alternative lifestyle. But the next time I saw them, I got a different impression. I’d no more than poured myself a cup of coffee when my father started in on a rant about vermin. He called them filthy and promiscuous. Disease spreading rodents, he’d said.
“You’re making assumptions based on social misperceptions,” I said.
“I’m not making assumptions, Janey. I’m a doctor. I’ve seen it.”
“You’re being narrow-minded.”
“And you’re taking unnecessary risks with your health.”
“But, I’m in love.”
My father shook his head. My mother wrung out her dishrag and wiped the same spot on the table repeatedly.
“You have to understand, Janey. Your father and I grew up in a different time. People who dated outside their genus were considered…”
“Trashy,” my father said, “and that’s putting it nicely.”
“But I’m in love. Doesn’t that count for something?”
“It’ll pass,” my father said.
“Oh, like love is a thing that just passes, Dad.”
“Of course not, dear,” my mother said. “What your father means is that it would be easier for you if you found someone, you know, normal.”
“You mean someone with two arms and two legs. Because that defines what normal is, right? And by the way, raccoons are rodents.”
The air got a little stuffy for a while. Mom brought out a lemon icebox cake and busied herself with cutting it into precisely measured slices, while my father clicked through the television channels about a hundred times. I slipped some Bailey’s into my coffee to keep from asking them what they could possibly know about love.
Pat and I split up less than a year later. I came home early from work and caught him dumpster diving with my neighbor. The break-up took its toll on me. I didn’t leave my apartment except to go to work. Couldn’t eat or sleep with any consistency. Wouldn’t answer my phone. When I finally showed up to Sunday dinner at my parent’s, the first thing my father asked was, “Where’s Pat?”
“We broke up,” I said quietly.
My mother sucked in a breath and sighed, “Thank God.”
I braced myself for the I told you so that was sure to come.
“Honestly, Janey, he smelled terrible,” Mom said.
“Downright putrid,” my father added.
“Why didn’t either of you say anything?”
“You wouldn’t have listened,” my father said. “You seem hell bent on dating strays.”
Sometimes the truth is quite a low blow.
When I met Pat, I did notice a certain odor about him. But, I thought he was a true outdoorsman, and as such tended to smell like dried leaves and old pennies. Tangy. Edgy. And, it turned out, homeless. As soon as I figured out he was living on the streets, I moved him in with me. I cooked his meals, taught him how to grocery shop, bought him scented body soap and heavy-duty nail clippers. I didn’t realize he had a lifestyle of his own.
No doubt my parents were overemphasizing the extent of Pat’s stench as a way to restate their displeasure with me dating a rodent. However, a month or so after I kicked Pat out, I ran into him outside my apartment and realized there was more to it than that. I watched as he backed out of my neighbor’s trashcan, ass first, completely unaware of me. Deciding to be the bigger person, I squelched the urge to chuck one of my tennis shoes at him.
“Hey, Pat.” I tried to sound nonchalant.
He started scrambling, bicycling his legs down the trashcan like I was Annie Oakley pointing a shotgun at his thieving ass. When he saw me, he let out a little sigh. When he squinted at me, his eyes disappeared into the black of his mask.
A heavy pause hung between us.
“So. How’s slut face?” I nodded to the next building over.
Pat sighed again and pinched the space between his eyes, a thing I’d seen my father do at least a thousand times during my childhood. He started hedging, staring at me out of the corner of his eye as if to say, Shit happens, Janey and You can’t help who you fall in love with. But I couldn’t focus over the sharp smell hitting the back of my throat. A mix of odors, like canned cat food and rotten hardboiled eggs.
Pat’s voice trailed off. He stood there shifting from one scrawny foot to the other like he always did when he was uncomfortable. God, was he ugly. His nose, peeling from rooting around in the garbage all the time to feed his filthy habit. His fingernails, packed with the remnants of half eaten meals and dirty diapers. That ridiculous mask he refused to take off. And this guy had been the love of my life?
“Well, I gotta go, Pat,” I said.
Hell bent on strays or not, my parents should’ve said something to me. Spared me the embarrassment of my misjudgment early on.
I didn’t date for a while after Pat. My best friend Margo made me sign an official contract with her saying I promised never to date a raccoon again. We were drunk, both of us crying into our margaritas over the assholes we’d been duped by. I thought we were long past the point of her trying to talk me into dating normal guys, and me pushing her into trying something different. Just two drunk girls at the bar slurring over our losses, but then Margo asked, “Didn’t his mask bother you?”
“Why would his mask bother me? He’s a raccoon, Margo, they all wear masks.”
“I don’t know… because it seems like… it would feel like… a masked rapist or something.”
“And? What would be so bad about that? Beats the hell out of lights-out, missionary-style, every-Tuesday-Thursday-and-Saturday-sex, doesn’t it?”
Margo blushed and stirred her margarita. I knew right then what type of sex she was accustomed to. I also knew she wasn’t as hip to my alternative lifestyle as I thought she’d been.
Margo didn’t understand. My parents didn’t approve. Pat was gone and I had a trail of shitty relationships behind me. All of this left me pretty damn lonely. I suppose that’s why I ended up going home with a mole. He sent me a drink. We talked for a while. Margo tried to persuade me to say no but something about him not having eyes intrigued me. Not having to hold his gaze or worry about what my hair looked like, felt like a relief. One less facade to put up with.
Back at my place, he touched me gently here and there, gathering information through his senses. I felt wildly uninhibited. Close to him and yet so far away. Like an observer thrown into the ring. In the early hours of the morning he slipped out, not bothering with the usual awkward good-bye that comes in these situations. We knew where we stood.
I showered and went back to bed to sleep off my hangover. Around three, I awoke to the sound of my phone ringing. My mother called to invite me to dinner.
“I have a roast in the oven,” she offered. “And those little potatoes you like so much.”
“Yeah, okay.” The best option I had on my own was a piece of American cheese and a half can of tuna sitting in my fridge. But she didn’t need to know my reason for saying yes.
“Are you tired, dear? You sound tired.”
“I’ll put on a pot of coffee for you.”
I was about a mile from my parent’s house in the left turn lane, waiting for the light to change, when my favorite song came on the radio. “Loser,” by Beck. I reached over to turn up the volume and the asshole behind me laid on his horn. Full on blaring, not just a polite beep. The light had turned green and I’d wasted a nanosecond of his life by not pressing the gas pedal immediately. I adjusted my mirror and eased into the turn as if my car wasn’t capable of going over ten miles per hour. You should’ve seen him. Beet red and irate. He even rolled down his window to stick his middle finger out at me. The jackhole burned rubber, fishtailed past me and smashed right into a small dog. The guy didn’t even try to swerve. He didn’t stop either, just kept on driving as the pup’s body flew up and over the car and slammed against the ground, thunk, thunk.
I steered over to the side of the road to avoid running over the body. My hands were shaking so hard I could barely get the hazard lights on. I slid out of my car and dashed over to the little guy, my stomach already flip-flopping and I hadn’t even seen any blood yet. I held my breath. Surveyed the scene. Not good.
The first thunk was clearly the impact of Mr. Asshole’s muscle car bashing into the.. the.. dog? He didn’t even look like a dog anymore. His tail was fluffed up to about three times normal, his intestines were seeping half out of his gut, pale and pink with smears of mottled blood clinging to the exposed parts. His mouth hung open and his purple-black tongue lolled to the side. His left eye was missing, the socket ragged with strands of skin like broken rubber bands.
Without even thinking, I reached for him, pressed his feather light body against mine and choked out the inane things people say in times of duress. “You’re going to be okay, buddy. It’s going to be fine. You hang on. Stay with me.”
I loaded him up in the passenger seat and arranged my jacket around him, trying to keep his insides intact. A strange silence surrounded us, suspending time. In that moment, I realized just how responsible I was for keeping him alive. I’d never felt so important in all my life. Like I had a true purpose for once.
I don’t remember the drive to my parent’s house or getting out of the car. Just my mother’s face when I burst through the door with bits of fur and blood smeared on me. A limp little body in my arms.
My father dropped his newspaper and shot up from his recliner.
“What the hell?” he said,
“Your windbreaker!” my mother shrieked.
I pulled back the sleeve of my jacket covering the carnage. My mother scanned the exposed gut, the dangling tongue, the missing eye. She leaned into my father and started crying, her face splotched red like her blood pressure was up.
“Please, Dale,” she whispered, “help him.”
“What do you expect me to do here? I can’t perform miracles,” my father said, rolling up his sleeves.
“You have to save him, Dad!”
“Jesus, Janey. One of these days you’re going to have to let me enjoy my retirement.” My father went to work pushing intestines back inside Buddy’s body and pinching the wound closed. He checked vital signs, examined the empty eye socket, and ordered my mother to fix him a drink.
My mother bee-lined it to the medicine cabinet, gathered needle and suture thread, bandages, and painkillers. She arranged the supplies on the coffee table beside my father, then disappeared into the kitchen to make his drink.
I stood there like a useless limb while my father swabbed and stitched and bandaged Buddy back to life.
“He’s lucky. It’s not as bad as it looks,” my father said.
We were at the dining room table, my mother and I sipping coffee, while my father stirred his cocktail. Buddy, as we taken to calling him, lay on the couch sedated out of his mind.
“Foxes are actually very resilient,” my father said.
“Foxes? He’s a fox?” I asked.
My parents exchanged a glance, then turned their patronizing eyes on me.
“You didn’t notice?” my father asked, almost laughing.
“He’s so dainty,” my mother said.
“Strong, though,” my father added for my benefit.
Helpless, I thought. I pulled a chair up next to the couch and gazed at Buddy all sewn up and whole again. So helpless. Black sutures curled out of his wounds. Dried blood splattered his face. I traced the outline of his body feeling the way his fur changed texture from coarse to soft. The pads on his feet were well-worn. His face, serene. A fox. How did I miss that?
When Buddy came out of his haze the next morning his face registered confusion. I tried not to crowd him. No doubt he was wondering what the hell had happened for him to wind up on a stranger’s couch, feeling beaten and drugged. I couldn’t talk over the feelings that welled up inside of me. My father stepped in using his impeccable bedside manner and explained. The more my father talked, the more Buddy squirmed and jerked around. When he started in with a low growl and curled his lips up to bare his teeth, my father reared back and shot him in the arm with a sedative.
“Don’t take it personally, Janey. He’s disoriented from the pain killers.”
On day three of his recovery Buddy sat up and stretched as if he’d just had a long nap. He surveyed his wounds then hopped down off the couch. He didn’t seem to need further explanation. My parents were smiling, my mother leaning into my father again. We had done it, saved him! He was ours to love now without the risk of loss. A total reversal of how love usually works.
A few days later I moved Buddy in with me. My parents didn’t say anything about it like they usually would. My mother gave us some new ace bandages in case we needed them. My father packed up some pain meds and a stack of medical journals.
“Read these. It’ll help strengthen that eye,” he said and handed them over to Buddy.
To me, he said, “Watch for infection at the wound sites. Call me if anything changes.”
They hugged us both. It was more than they’d ever done for anyone I’d brought home, including that stupid football player I dated in high school just to please them.
Margo came by my apartment. She’d never seen a fox before, except on television. She eyeballed Buddy so intently I felt embarrassed for her. I offered her a margarita and eventually she relaxed enough to move past the novelty of the situation. She sat and visited with us like we were an old married couple. I tried not to feel superior.
Then on our three-month anniversary, Buddy went missing. I was at work with a hell of a respiratory infection, coughing all over my co-workers and wiping my nose raw. I’d used up all my sick days nursing Buddy back to health. My boss finally told me to go home, we’d work something out with the hours. I stopped by Walgreens for Robitussin and a can of chicken noodle soup and when I got home, Buddy wasn’t there. I tried not to worry. Maybe he just needed some fresh air. I guzzled some Robitussin straight out of the bottle and lay down. I wanted to sit up and wait for him but the elixir took me down against my will.
I woke up to someone ringing my doorbell repeatedly. In a Robitussin-induced haze, I pulled the covers over my head and tried to ignore the sound but whoever it was, wasn’t giving up. I got out of bed and stumbled toward the door. A stern-faced cop stood on the other side frowning at me for taking so long to get to him.
“Guilty as charged,” I said.
The cop didn’t appear to appreciate my attempt at humor. His posture softened a little and he took off his hat.
“Ma’am. There’s been an incident…” he started.
I knew right off it had to do with Buddy. My first thought was that the asshole who had run him over had come to finish the job, just to piss me off. I’d been on the lookout for that muscle car and that meathead since the day we crossed paths. But what the cop told me was far worse.
He explained that around 3:15 that afternoon a fox had been observed scampering out in traffic at the intersection of Main and 7th and was struck by a city bus. The bus driver was unable to make an abrupt stop or swerve to avoid the fox, as it would’ve put the passengers at risk. Onlookers from both Starbucks and Subway stated they’d seen the fox dart out from a row of nearby hedges, run into the intersection and stop in front of the oncoming bus. According to witnesses, it appeared to be a purposeful act.
I stood there in my robe, my nose dripping, my fists clenched, contemplating what would happen if I grabbed the cop’s gun and shot him in the chest for what he said. He launched into the “I’m sorry for your loss” part of his speech. The useless blather that’s supposed to make a person feel better after a death. I slammed the door.
I don’t recall driving to my parent’s. But there I was, bursting in on them the same as I had the day I brought Buddy home.
“Janey? What is it?” my father said. He struggled to get up from his recliner.
The details of the moment invaded me, protecting my mind from the reality of what had happened. My mother’s face ashen. The dish of ice cream shaking in her hands. The television blaring an infomercial for a pressure cooker guaranteed to cook an entire meal in ten minutes. My father looking old.
I blurted out what the cop said. Everything. Even though, for a second I considered leaving out the purposeful act part. I didn’t want to see my mother cry. Or hear my father harrumph the way he did when it came to illogical things.
“Son of a bitch,” he said, “after all we’ve done for him.”
“Such a waste,” my mother cried as her shoulders caved in on her. Her ice cream melted into a gooey pool of mush, the nuts succumbing to their weight, drowning.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I thought he was different.”
My mother stroked my hair and said, “I know, honey. I know. We did, too.” But she didn’t know. She had my father. She had my father and always would.
“I’m going to go,” I said, suddenly aware I was still in my bathrobe. I squeezed my mother’s hand and left.
Margo came over a couple of days later. I suspected my parents called her and asked her to stop by to check on me. My place was a disaster; the trash overflowing, balls of Kleenex strewn all over the place, a pile of blankets on the couch where I’d been stationed for the past few days. She offered to clear out anything having to do with Buddy. She’d even brought an empty box.
“How could I have been so stupid?” I asked Margo.
“You are not stupid. How could you know he was suicidal?”
“Well for starters, he jumped out in front of a fast moving car the day I met him.”
“But, that was an accident.”
“No, it wasn’t, Margo. I can see that now. You know what really pisses me off? About the whole thing? All those times he smiled at me, I thought he was saying thank you and he was really just figuring out how soon he get rid of me. Everyone I’ve ever dated has done the exact same thing. Used me, pretended they loved me until they were strong enough to leave. My love is never enough to keep someone around.”
Margo placed the long metal pick I’d used on Buddy’s hair in the box, on top of my soiled jacket and a roll of unused bandages. I could tell she didn’t know what to say. Maybe part of her agreed with me and couldn’t come up with a believable rebuttal. I would’ve argued with her no matter what she said.
For the first time in my life, I preferred to be alone.
I started going on long hikes by myself, the more rugged the better. Sometimes I’d get lucky. I’d slip into a meditative state plodding one foot in front of the other and escape from analyzing everything I’d messed up in my life. Other times I’d hear voices, not hallucinations, just voices. My mom saying, “I’m worried about you.” Or Margo asking me when I was going to start dating again. Buddy, not saying anything just staring at me as if asking, “Why didn’t you just let me die?”
Eight miles, ten miles. No matter how long the hike, it never seemed enough to completely lose myself. Then I found out about this hike, an eighteen-mile loop in the Rocky Mountains that picked up in Estes Park. A week before I planned to go, someone spotted a mountain lion about a half-mile in from the trailhead. The story appeared in the local newspaper. My mother pointed it out to me when I mentioned my hiking plans.
“Sounds dangerous,” my mother said, tapping her finger on the article.
“Look, Mom, spotting a mountain lion in the mountains is not exactly newsworthy.”
“Why don’t you postpone a week or two, to be sure?”
She paused, waiting for my father to say something to support her position. She even cleared her throat to make sure he was aware of her waiting.
My father pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. He cast his eyes down into his coffee cup like it was the damnedest coffee he’d ever seen.
“Leave the girl alone, already. She knows how to handle herself,” he said.
“Fine,” my mother conceded. “But you better call us the minute you get back.”
To be honest, I hoped I didn’t run into that mountain lion. I hiked in search of solitude, to reconsider my life’s choices without really having to think about them, and to grieve without the hassle of explaining my tears to anyone. In short, I was trying to get my shit together. The last thing I needed was to be distracted by the bad-boy type. I’m sure there are perfectly wonderful mountain lions roaming around, but I have yet to meet one that doesn’t at least look like he’s ready to devour you.
As it turned out, I didn’t see much wildlife on the trail. At least, not initially. A squirrel here and there. Plenty of birds making noise but nothing more. The trail was muddied and slick from the occasional heavy rains that rolled through. I spent the first half of the hike developing a rhythm, steadying my feet and considering my next step.
Look, step, breathe.
Look, step, breathe.
My mind settled in to mull over everything and nothing.
I’d come out of the thick wooded part of the trail into an open field. Boulders jutted out of the ground, some as big as cars. The sun, which had been trapped behind smeary clouds misting rain on me all morning, burst out and practically blinded me. The change in terrain and weather caused a shift in my mood. I hadn’t realized I’d been crying. Hadn’t noticed the thin line of blood oozing from my knee where I must’ve snagged on a thorny, low-lying vine.
When I reached the first reasonably sized boulder, I plopped down, wiped my eyes and dabbed at the blood that’d almost made it to my sock. I hadn’t heard anything for a while, deaf in my own thoughts. Look, step, breathe. Now, I felt the cool of the rock under me, heard the birds screaming out to each other. Cicadas and crickets sawing their legs together. Then this breathing. A huffing, snorting kind of breathing coming from behind me.
I suppose to some degree I’d been expecting the mountain lion. When I finally worked up the courage to turn, I nearly fell off the rock in surprise. A wooly mammoth. Massive, like a wall of shag carpet tacked up in front of me. His tusks, his trunk, like nothing I’d ever seen. Cracked and smooth, fluid and rough, all at once. The scent of him floated across to me, earthy and musty like sweet patchouli.
His size should’ve made me feel small and insignificant but instead it empowered me. I felt like I’d been painted right into the landscape alongside of him. Like I belonged right there as much a part of the scenery as the giant boulders and the blistering sunlight. He stood rooted to the earth, shifting his head gently in my direction, a small smile of recognition on his face as if we’d known each other for a hundred years and wasn’t this something running into each other out here, of all places?
I couldn’t bear to say anything, afraid my words would ruin the tenderness of the moment. Instead I listened to the hum of the wind through the open field, the birds whistling into the concrete sky, my heart slowing in my chest.
I slid off the rock as if I had no choice in the matter. The universe was summoning me, showing me how all the places I’d been, all the lovers I’d had prior to this moment were necessary in order for me to appreciate this exact moment for what it was. I saw how I’d been avoiding real love to nurse the damaged and sick in exchange for feeling needed. I sidled up beside him, breathed in the scent of oil on his body, the dead grass and cattails and burs adorning him. Together, we climbed until the path got too narrow for him and too steep for me. I held onto his fur for support as we descended the mountains. He stopped a few times when he could sense I needed a rest, and draped his trunk around my shoulders when the sun went down.
“I’ve met someone,” I told my father when he answered the phone.
“Hang on a minute,” he said. He jostled the phone and I could hear my mother in the distance instructing him on how to use the speaker feature on his cell phone. More jostling, a few numbers being pressed, then both of their voices sounding like they were talking into a tin can.
“Oh, Janey, not the mountain lion!” My mother said.
“What? No,” I started with the usual defensiveness but toned it down when I thought about the way my day had unfolded.
“Who, then?” My father asked.
“You’re not going to believe me,” I said.
“Janey…” My father’s voice rang loud through the line. No doubt he’d gotten his face too close to the phone in an effort to be heard. “Listen, your mother and I are still a little concerned about you after the.. the thing with Buddy…and…”
“A wooly mammoth,” I interrupted. “I met a wooly mammoth.” The truth seemed like the best way to keep from hurting them anymore than I already had.
“But, they’re extinct,” my father said barely above a whisper.
“That’s what I thought, too. But they’re not. They’re just very private. Reclusive, even.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” my father said, back in the bottom of the tin can.
“Are you sure you’re ready, Janey?” My mother had recovered slightly from her initial alarm but her voice still quivered with uncertainty.
“Janey,” my father said.
“He’s a good guy, Dad.”
“You’re sure?” They said in unison.
“Yeah, I’m sure. This time I’m really sure.”
Amber Colleen Hart is a graduate of WRITE, Middle Tennessee State University’s creative writing program. Her short stories have been published in Neon, Cheat River Review, Storgy, Gravel, and The Danforth Review. Amber’s debut short story collection, “No Landscape Lasts Forever,” will be released May 2016 through Excalibur Press.