Jack and the Skunk
“ When Jack first saw the skunk she was nothing more than a foul stink, a tail disappearing behind a dumpster, a glowing white stripe rippling over black grass in the dark of night. ”
It’s raining in Portland … raining flower petals. The trees are all in blossom, and the air is full of pink and white petals, swirling in the wind, piling up on sidewalks and in the street gutters like rosy banks of snow.
With this lovely image in mind, I now turn your attention to skunks, with the next installment of “Jack and the Skunk.” I always feel the need to apologize about this story to those readers who prefer something lighter, funnier, and generally more flower-petal-like overall … I wrote this story about loneliness and isolation, and those people in our world who fall into the cracks and crevices of society, frequently overlooked. For those who find it bleak, I promise that (a) it gets quite a bit more cheerful after a few posts, and (b) after it is finished, I will post something a great deal more cheerful overall. Happy reading,
Jack and the Skunk
When Jack got up the next morning, he looked out the window. There was an animal in the trap.
It was hard to make out what the animal was at such a long range, but Jack could see that it was moving. He blew on his hands and rubbed the glass. The window was foggy on the inside and frosty on the outside. Drops of condensation formed where Jack’s fingers touched it. It was impossible to get a clear view of the woods. Eventually, Jack gave up. He turned away from the window and looked at the empty bed.
Outside, it was cold again. Jack cut his way through the mangy weeds lining the path to the dumpster. The wet grass made a sound against his boots like thruck thruck thruck. Halfway down the path, Jack stopped suddenly. A muffled howl had risen up from behind the dumpster. Jack caught his breath in shock. The animal howled again. The sound began as a high, short whimper of rage and pain and ended on a low, almost musical note, lingering in the air like a ghost. Jack hurried around the dumpster and stopped short. The animal was a dog.
She was a skinny dog. Ugly, too, with brown and gray splotches on her short fur, and a mutilated tail. One of her bony front legs was tangled in Jack’s trap. She howled again, setting Jack’s teeth on edge.
“Take it easy now,” Jack crooned. “Stop that.” He put one of his hands on the warm, rough hair of the dog’s neck. She turned and looked at him. Jack nearly fell backwards in a second burst of surprise. There was another animal in the dog’s mouth. An enormous, limp squirrel hung from the dog’s mouth, muffling her bark and nearly choking her. The squirrel hung at a strange angle, its tail leaking out on one side, its head swinging loose on the other.
“Well, how in the-“ Jack started, but then the dog gave another howl and Jack realized the squirrel was still alive. Its right leg twitched whenever the dog howled. Jack put a hand on her back.
“There now,” said Jack. “There now.”
“I need you to adopt a dog,” Jack told his sister later in the day. The dog was lying in the corner of the kitchen, growling over a piece of meat. The squirrel lay on the kitchen counter, looking warily at the dog.
“You must be out of your mind,” said his sister.
“This dog is a very intelligent animal,” Jack argued.
“Doesn’t look that way to me,” said his sister. “What did it get stuck in your trap for, if it’s intelligent? What are you setting up traps for anyway, Jack?”
Jack looked at his hands. “Nothing,” he muttered.
“You thought you could make up for killing the first skunk by killing another, didn’t you?”
“I wouldn’t have killed the second skunk,” Jack explained patiently. “The trap wouldn’t have hurt a skunk. It was never intended to catch a dog.”
“You’re goddamned lucky it didn’t catch a buffalo,” his sister snapped. “At this rate you’re going to adopt the entire forest.”
“Well, no,” Jack said. “You see, that’s the problem. You hit right on the problem. I can’t adopt a dog. That was one of the rules when we moved in here: no dogs.”
“If you think ‘no dogs’ is code for ‘instead of a dog, adopt a skunk,’ you’re crazy,” snapped his sister. “What’s the matter with you, Jack?”
“Nothing,” said Jack. “Nothing.”
“Do you think Lisa would have left you if just once in your life you had used some common sense?”
Jack looked at his hands.
When he came back from the woods that morning, after freeing the dog, he stood outside the trailer for a moment with the sudden conviction that Lisa was inside. Someone had been there: Jack could sense a presence. When he went in, Lisa would be there to help him. But when Jack went inside, no one was there. Jack tended to the dog and the squirrel as best he could. As he washed his hands, he looked through the window over the sink. It was then that he saw the truck, sitting, empty, in the driveway.
It was the truck Lisa had driven away in. It had been washed and filled with gas. A note lay on the front seat. The note said, “Lisa wanted me to leave this for you.”
Jack couldn’t believe it. The words cycled through his mind all morning, like clothes in a washing machine: Lisa wanted me to leave this for you. Lisa wanted me to leave this for you.
“Are you listening to me?” his sister was saying. “Jack? Are you hearing a word I’m saying?”
“What?” said Jack.
“I was saying you’re a fool. You’re a fool to be worrying about adopting dogs when you already adopted a skunk. What do you think the park deputy would say about all the birds you take in? What do you think the park deputy’s going to say when he finds out you’ve got asquirrel?”
Jack rubbed his chin, where a beard was starting to grow. He decided his sister was probably right. He would keep the dog.
(To be continued…)