Jack and the Skunk
Jack and the Skunk
◊ Installment 1 ◊
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.
Then Jack began to feed her. He started with milk, poured into a pie tin on the back step every night, then bread, then meat. When the skunk came right up to Jack’s feet one dusky evening and took a piece of bread he had carefully placed on the grass in front of his boots, Jack called a veterinarian. He agreed to pay five hundred dollars for the removal of the skunk’s stink sac. The skunk only sprayed Jack once in the car on the road to the vet’s office, and bit him twice. When Jack got home again, he put a blanket under the kitchen sink and moved the skunk inside.
Jack was a security guard at Armstrong Campgrounds. He lived in a trailer on the edge of the woods. It was not a very large trailer. When the skunk had lived there for two hours, Jack’s wife threatened to leave him. She said that if Millie was not gone by morning, she would be. Jack would have to choose whom he loved more: his wife, or his skunk.
Jack thought about it all night.
In the morning, Jack woke early. His wife was still asleep and Jack did not wake her. He opened a can of meat and fed the skunk in the kitchen. Millie snuffed the food once, then burrowed her nose deep into the dish. Jack walked back into the bedroom where his wife was sleeping soundly. Her hair, flung across the pillow, fluttered softly when she breathed. Jack opened the drawer by his bed and took out a gun. For several minutes, he stood in the dark, watching his wife sleep. Then he walked back into the kitchen, stood behind the spot where the skunk’s face was still buried in its food, and shot it dead. ♦
◊ Installment 2 ◊
Two months later, Jack’s wife left him anyway. Jack watched her load a suitcase and a laundry basket full of clothes into the back of their truck. While she rattled around in the kitchen, choosing her favorite pans, Jack went out to the woods. He sat down on a stump, next to the spot where he buried Millie. The trees made a dim circle of shade around him. Jack heard the truck door slam; saw dust rise up over the trees. Jack sat for hours, doing nothing. When it grew dark, his sister came over. She went out to the woods to find him.
“Why did you shoot the skunk?” she asked, after Jack told her what happened. She was sitting on another stump in the dark, facing him. Jack’s sister was an enormous woman, with shoulders like a champion prizefighter. The stump looked like it might crumble into dust at any moment.
“I had to shoot it,” Jack said. “The skunk couldn’t of survived on its own.”
Jack shook his head sadly. “It was domesticated. I domesticated it. Domesticated animals, they forget how to find food on their own. Then they don’t survive.”
“You stupid son of a bitch,” said Jack’s sister. “Which do you think is easier to survive: finding food on your own, or getting shot in the head?”
Jack thought about it.
“Well, hell,” said Jack.
The following morning, Jack woke up without remembering that Lisa was gone. When he rolled over and looked at the flat sheet next to him, recollection hit him like cold water and forced him out of bed. Jack went out to the woods, where it was still dark. There was a storage shed behind the trailer where Jack kept odds and ends. Among them was a box of things Jack’s father had left behind when he died. Lisa was always on at Jack to sort through the box and throw things away. Now, Jack crouched on the grimy cement and opened the box. The faint scent of mildew puffed up from within. Jack lifted out stack after stack of old, damp shirts, some of which brought back faint memories, until he found what he was looking for in the bottom of the box: a set of steel traps. Jack’s father had used them to hunt rabbits. Jack took a trap out of the box, cleaned it, baited it with Millie’s favorite food, and left it behind the dumpster where he first met Millie. ♦
◊ Installment 3 ◊
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. ♦
◊ Installment 4 ◊
Jack liked dogs. Lisa preferred cats, but they had never owned one. Jack did not trust cats. You could not, for example, take a cat for a walk in the woods and expect it to stay with you. A cat was too likely to slink away into the darkness, melt into the trees like a shadow when the sun sets. Jack bought a plastic mixing bowl for his dog and filled it with ground beef every morning. He tried to feed the squirrel warm milk, squeezed from the mouth of a tiny eyedropper. The squirrel bit him.
On Wednesday, the campgrounds were empty. Campers rarely came to the woods on weekdays in October. Jack had planned to consult a lawyer about his wife that day. But when he had shut up the trailer and was standing outside in the driveway looking at his truck, Jack decided suddenly to go to the zoo instead. His squirrel would die of starvation if Jack did not find out what to feed it; that was clear. Jack’s finger was still throbbing where it had bit him, and he thought that he should ask a zookeeper if squirrels ever carried rabies. There was a tour bus that stopped at the edge of Jack’s woods, which Jack could take directly to the zoo. There was no need to take the truck.
The front of Armstrong Zoo was brilliant and lustrous. A flock of red and pink flamingos lit up the cold sky like a pink and red sun. Jack watched them hesitantly for a moment, but the flamingos made him feel uneasy. They were too silent, too sleekly graceful. Jack doubted you could trust a flamingo. He went off in search of squirrels.
There were not many visitors at the zoo at this hour. Probably, Jack reflected as he walked, the children were still in school. It had been a while since Jack had been personally acquainted with a child, but he felt fairly sure that on Wednesdays, they attended school. He passed a small woman feeding a bag of peanuts to an elephant. A romantic young couple wandered through the baboon park, hand in hand. Otherwise, the zoo felt abandoned. It was infinitely huge, wild, lonely. There were no squirrels to be found. Jack wound up sitting sadly on a bench in the petting zoo, staring disconsolately at a trio of velvet-footed ferrets that were, in almost every way, completely unlike squirrels.
“Do you come hear often?”
The voice came suddenly from behind Jack’s shoulder. Jack lurched up from the bench and tripped. He turned around. A young mother was crouching behind the bench. She guided the hands of her young son as he stroked a resigned-looking white goat.
“What did you say?” said Jack.
“I said, do you come her often?” said the mother.
“Er,” said Jack. “Yes. Not often. Excuse me, I have to leave.”
Jack turned to go, but the woman continued to speak as if he had not said a word.
“This is my son, Natty,” she said. Jack turned back to look at the child. The mother held up its arm and made it wave at Jack. “Natty knows all about animals,” she said. “Don’t you, Natty?”
Natty buried his face in his mother’s shoulder. He appeared to be about four, Jack decided, or possibly five, or eight. Jack did not know many children.
“Natty, tell the man what your favorite animal is,” the mother crooned encouragingly.
Natty peeked shyly at Jack.
“The dinosaur,” he whispered.
“And what kinds of dinosaurs were there, Natty?”
Natty cleared his throat.
“The Abelisaurus, the Abrictosaurus, the Abrosaurus . . .”
Jack began to feel nervous.
“ . . . the Achelousaurus, the Aracanthus . . .”
Jack looked around for the nearest exit, but the mother interrupted before Natty lost his audience.
“And what did the dinosaurs eat, Natty?” she prompted.
“Leaves, berries, other dinosaurs-”
“Do you know what squirrels eat?” Jack interrupted suddenly. The mother looked startled.
“Squirrels,” said Jack. “I’ve got one in my house. In the bathtub.”
The mother looked vaguely offended, but Natty responded tranquilly.
“Squirrels eat acorns, nuts, berries . . .”
The mother looked surprised.
“You know what squirrels eat, Natty?” she said.
“Yes,” said Natty.
“How do you know?”
“I’ve seen them,” said Natty, “In the park. Seeds, people food, little snakes-”
“Squirrels don’t eat snakes, Natty,” the mother interrupted. “Squirrels do not eat amphibians.”
“Squirrels do eat snakes.” Natty’s eyes were huge. “I saw one once. It was eating a little snake.”
As Jack was leaving the petting zoo, he found a little snake. It had slithered under the door to the Reptile Room and looked lost, lying alone on the step. Jack peered around and saw that no one was looking. He put the snake in his pocket.
(To be Continued…)