Early Bird’s lips were drier than usual against my own as he took a cookie from my mouth, his paws – large for his age – pressed against my shoulders for balance. My wife fielded questions from the crowd, hiding her disappointment. Ticket sales had been down. “Two-sixty,” she yelled out, “And barely a year old!” His mom had been three-nineteen at her peak. She’d gone into labor early, and only Early Bird came out. He was tiny, and my wife fed him with a bottle. His mother didn’t take any interest in him. We sold her to a place in Minnesota (Early Bird racked up a lot of vet bills early that needed to be paid somehow), and we got word she died soon after. It didn’t feel right to pry for an explanation; it didn’t feel right to do nothing. We prayed for her soul to enter heaven, and prayed for her forgiveness too. She was the first to ever take a cookie from my mouth, back in the days when I didn’t take my survival for granted. We’d worked hard to establish trust between us, but my body was prone to forget this each time her paws pressed down on my shoulders. I think this made for a better show, in a way. With Early Bird, there’s not a trace of threat. Only the children are impressed, and it’s not the children in charge of buying tickets.
It’s because my wife treated him like a baby. Like her own baby. She brought him into the house, she bottled him, she sang to him. I understand she was doing what she needed to do, but now I have to think about what I need to do. I’ve been thinking about raw meat, the smell of blood. Instead of a cookie. I think, what would that wake up inside of Early Bird? I know what my wife would say, so I keep quiet. If I do it, it will have to be a surprise.
The tree next door drops bad apples into the gutter of the street. It’s a little bit too cold for the bees now, but for a while there the tree was a cloud abuzz. The mail lady made a wide arc around it; perhaps she was allergic, or perhaps she simply doesn’t enjoy getting stung. Now only the fat groundhog that eats our peppers and Brussels sprouts and chard works on the apples. She stands in the gutter and eats as much as she can get away with. If the apples were good, she wouldn’t get any. We’d eat them ourselves. But they’re mealy and the flavor isn’t good. So the bees eat them, and then the groundhog. If the apples fell earlier, perhaps the groundhog wouldn’t need to eat from our garden to the point that we gave up on it. Perhaps our yard wouldn’t be a weedy wasteland of gnawed stalks. Perhaps we’d be out there on our knees on weekends, improving things, enjoying each other’s company because of what we’d accomplished. Perhaps we wouldn’t be in the kitchen bickering about the overflowing compost bin. I wouldn’t be annoyed that the box of jars we’d bought for canning, back in the spring (so early because we were so excited), had no real place, and were in the way. He wouldn’t be so pissed that the Internet was being slow. I wouldn’t be so pissed at him for being pissed about a thing like that, when he could use the occasion to talk to me.
I wonder where the groundhog will sleep this winter.
Run-ins with wild animals during the loneliest year of my life, California:
The squirrels at Big Sur who got into my tent and ate all my Fritos and destroyed my sleeping bag. And pillow. And tent.
The grasshopper whose chirps filled my car as I slept pulled over on the side of the road by a quarry, who was on my knee when I woke up, and who then rode to the next town with me.
The black mountain lion who held my gaze at dusk, then continued across the artichoke field.
The hundreds of banana slugs that draped themselves over the railroad track, like they were staging an intervention through mass mockery.
The elk that made me stop my car and wait.
The man who woke me in the Tenderloin by climbing on top of my car to dance, then sleep.
All the men in the road at dawn outside the recovery center who made me stop my car and wait.
All the sharks that used to circle the bay underneath, their places inhabited now by fat seals.
A white deer disappearing before I had time to test my eyes.
The threat of a rogue wave as I turned my back on the ocean to see the purplish light on the cliffs. The threat of rutting elk after that. All the threats, gathering up, to ride with me to the next town.
Up here, there’s not a lot to separate between a sucker and a fool. One snap of breeze from the wrong direction. You used to see all the rigs go in at once, the harbor left deserted except for maybe Charley’s boat. There was a general wisdom, and only Charley thought he knew better. He did know better, too. All those years, never got slammed in a storm. Until, of course, he did. God rest him. Always said he wanted to be lobster meat one day, no children left to bury him proper. Didn’t mind too much how his wife would feel. Not sure he’d like to know how quickly she got remarried. To Gus, no less – “the laziest gadget whore on the water,” according to Charley. But Gus isn’t really lazy, just has a different idea of what makes sense. It’s Gus who’s still hauling lines, still sliding his body between the covers Arletta’s warmed up with a hot water bottle.
These days we start to worry as early as September. We wait for someone else to make the first move. None of us wants to be the first. First one in has to buy drinks for all the rest. Plus, has to burn with shame while all the others are out pulling in their traps.
This year, a sideways sleet caught us all off guard before the kids were even back in school.
This time, the old Greek took a long look at her after she told him she wouldn’t pay three hundred dollars for a new alternator. He never seemed to remember her or her red Passat between visits, was unselfconscious in his attempts to sell her things she didn’t need, often the thing he had most recently replaced. He wore thick lenses and could get away, to some extent, with never looking at you. He was the only one in town doing import work. This time, after he’d lied to her, he looked at her face. He looked at her face, and she could feel his weak eyes roving her surface.
“My son,” he said, “is good boy. University. But he need a wife.”
“Are you going to be able to replace the battery now, or should I come back?”
“He need pretty wife. You have husband?”
“If you can do it now, that’s great. Or I can come back at the same time tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow, okay. We shoot for tomorrow.”
“Just the battery. No alternator.”
“Yes, battery, alternator, no worry. I have it all tomorrow. You wear the nice clothes, you never know when Nikolas might be here tomorrow.”
Fiona left the tiny office with its tiny man and its motor oils smells behind, and cut left across the parking lot. It was a nice day for a walk, and before returning to work, she made a detour to her bank, where she moved $300 from savings to checking.
I was relieved when I found out it wasn’t me that had to give the speech. I wasn’t clear on why we were there. Black women in starched white dresses bustled around the courtyard, getting lunch ready for us. The courtyard, a sun-bleached square between the white walls of four low buildings, was being prepared. We were in Africa, that much I understood. Maybe we were early. The women in white dresses were scrubbing things intensely while we stood on the edge, waiting to be told what to do. I could smell church food being prepared, maybe chicken boiling. There was some low talk moving amongst us. Putin was coming. Not just Putin, of course, but his whole brigade. The mood changed. Was this why the women were working so hard?
Why would Putin be coming? To an unnamed African country where someone from my group – thankfully not me – was to give a speech, maybe about the nature of our work? Putin could be here any minute. Maybe our own speech wouldn’t even happen. It seemed silly to think it would. Of course it wouldn’t, Putin was coming and Putin would have his own speech. No one had shown us where the bathroom was, but I found it on my own, turning away from the standing group and walking down the low, dim corridor. I squatted over the hole. If I was vague about our purpose earlier, I was now vague about myself as a human being.
“How did you pick me?” Elena asked.
“You were the only one,” the man said. During a few silent seconds he seemed to be considering his mistake. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t truly admire your work.” He smiled at her – falsely, Elena thought.
“The only one?” Elena asked. She was, of course, humiliated. She’d been talking with this man as if he’d selected her work out of thousands of entries. “How can that be?”
The man struck a pose of beleaguered consideration. “We’re trying to figure that out,” he said. “We thought perhaps you’d have some ideas.”
Elena had no ideas, and did not like being asked to help the foundation with this so soon. She hadn’t even had a chance to disappear off the face of the earth yet. Or even into the bathroom of the upscale pub where they’d met for lunch to discuss her prize and the future of her work. “I’ll give it some thought,” she said.
The man brightened. They had both laid down their utensils, but he picked up his fork now and stabbed at an artichoke on top of his salad. Elena followed his lead. She did not want to appear despondent. She lowered her spoon into her chilled zucchini soup. “We shouldn’t be talking about this anyway,” the man said. “We’re here because you did such extraordinary work, and the foundation wants to support you as you go forward.”
A waiter came by and refreshed their water. They did not acknowledge him (the man was going on now about the foundation’s long history of supporting underprivileged female artists whose work they thought could bring about social change, how they had launched dozens of careers that in turn influenced public thought) and Elena wondered what he thought of her.
The poor dog thinks she’s got fleas. She snaps at them wildly, and also chews the fur off her own legs and the spot above her rump she can reach with her mouth. Now that area is a forest of wet, matted clumps. She doesn’t have fleas. She’s got the ghost of fleas.
My doctor says I don’t have the disease anymore. I just have all the symptoms, which, he says, may or may not be imaginary. Like I can’t tell which way he leans. This doesn’t make me angry as much as scared: Am I capable of that? Or rather, is my subconscious? I had always thought that it – whatever a subconscious is – belonged to me. Or at least that we had the same goals in life. But now I discover we’re opposed. It’s strange to have such an intimate enemy. I didn’t sleep with its girlfriend, or take its dog to the pound, or forbid it from letting its kids play in the patch of trees behind my house. So it’s hard to understand why it turned on me.
When I’m in his office, I withstand the pain so he doesn’t look at me like that. Softly. I stand on my ankles although I think they’d like to crumple. Though the sharpness makes my eyes water. When I blink, I do not let the darkness fill with images of my heart flailing like a beetle on its back. I do not sweat.
Back home, I straddle the scratching dog and place my cool hands on her pink-red belly. Shhh, I say. I can feel her muscles slacken, and her mind go still. I can feel her become calm in my arms.
He pressed his knees into the floorboards, arranging his objects within the shadow grid cast by the triangular hand-built shelf he’d found sticking out of mud in the creek bank behind their fields. The shelf stood vertically at the top of the composition he was laying out on the floor. Once he’d gotten all his objects laid out, the grid disappeared, and he looked up past the large picture window to see that a cloud had moved in front of the sun. The sky was full of these fat bright clouds, moving gently to the east. His grid reappeared, returning structure to his composition of feathers and leaves chewed away by beetles to just their tracery and old tools from the barn and even a bird skull he’d found in the field and cleaned gently with a soft rag he dipped in rubbing alcohol. From his knees, he watched his composition on the floor as the clouds passed over the sun like this. Sometimes his shadow shelf disappeared completely, as was the case with a dense cloud like the first, and sometimes, when the cloud was a wispier one, the grid wafted questioningly in and out of existence, like light wondering whether to give into the dark folds of the chop or to hold itself together on the surface of the ocean by his grandfather’s old house. He watched until the sun itself had moved behind the two large trees at the end of their lawn, and the shadow shelf stayed gone. His father called to him gently from the doorway.
Calvin had the feeling, from his father’s soft tone, that he’d been watching him for a while, and Calvin wasn’t angry or pleased, he only knew that he felt violated in some way he couldn’t or shouldn’t try to name. He got up off his knees and prepared himself for the evening services, which is what his father had come to tell him to do.
“If I don’t see a bear I’m gonna fucking kill myself!”
(This from Karl.)
“You might increase your chances if you turn that radio down.”
“I mean it, Meems, I’ll blow my brains right out. You know how much I spent on those tickets?”
“I do. I believe I’m the one who actually purchased them, with the money from my savings account, if we’re going for accuracy.”
“Justin Marcus saw three bears. He showed us all the pictures. They were like right there.”
“Justin Marcus is a geek and probably has some telephoto lens that he can afford because he has no life and lives in a hole. What’s going on with you?”
“That’s the wrong question. The right question is, where are the fucking bears?”
(They walk a few more steps along the trail in silence, or near-silence – Karl’s radio is still going, classic rock blaring from the ear buds dangling by his side – and then a bear rips through the trees and