To escape the poisonous bug bomb in her apartment, a young girl and her best friend, Maxine, are spending the day at the lake. Two Kansas boys interrupt their lazy afternoon with an invitation to a barbecue, Jackson and Walt. When Maxine leaves the barbecue with Walt, the girl is left to get a ride home from her new friend Jackson. The two quickly learn they have nothing in common: one vegetarian and one a hunter. Since the girl’s apartment is still toxic, Jackson offers to take her home with him. Things quickly become complicated when Jackson wants to take her hunting, and she doesn’t want him to kill the animals…
About the AuthorBecky Mandelbaum is from Kansas but is currently living and working in Mount Rainier National Park. She is the winner of the 2016 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction and the Lawrence Art Center's 2013 Langston Hughes Award for Fiction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Juked, Salt Hill, Midwestern Gothic, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency.
It was understood that Maxine and I were waiting for men. It was the dead center of July and the Kansas sun was poised like the face of a hammer ready to strike. In the lake, diapers surfaced jellyfish style, and children war painted with sunscreen pressed bottle caps to their ears, listening for an ocean they’d likely never seen. Maxine and I started rubbing sunscreen onto each other; there was nothing sorority girl about it. For the type of girls we were–both from hearty, Irish stock, our bodies like two peeled potatoes–the application of sunscreen was more of a medical procedure than anything else.
Maxine was working on my shoulders when a pair of men appeared before us, one holding a fishing pole, the other a hotdog. We were familiar with their kind: late-twenty-somethings who wore cutoffs and toted red Playmate coolers filled with Hamm’s. They came to the lake to drink and fish and sneak glances at girls in bikinis. The fisherman’s fly was down, and he was severely sunburned on his cheeks and nose, as if someone had taken a frying pan to his face. The hotdog eater was better: tall and tanned with a lumberjack beard. He was attractive–genuinely attractive–and seemed completely unaware of it.
"How we doing, ladies?" the fisherman asked, speaking through a cheek of chew. Either something blew into the hotdog eater’s eye, or he winked at me.
"Perfectly fine," I said, half wanting them to go away. I could foresee the whole thing: the hotdog eater would go for Maxine, who was objectively prettier and funnier than me, and I’d be stuck with the fisherman. "Can we help you?"
"We just wanted to come by and invite you to a barbecue," the fisherman said. He tilted his head toward the parking lot, where a group of people were gathered around a charcoal grill.
I was hungry and bored and had a deep love for barbecues, but I wasn’t about to accept an invitation from strangers. Luckily, Maxine had an inherent affection for strangers–yet another quality that drew men to her. She once drove all the way to Aspen with a guy she met in a yoga class. She invited me along but I told her we’d both end up dead in a ditch. As it turned out, the guy was related to a famous screenwriter and the three of them–Maxine, the guy, the screenwriter–spent the weekend drinking cognac in an outdoor hot tub. She hadn’t even had to kiss anyone. "Actually, I’m starving," she told the fisherman, and began to gather her things. She looked at me, eyebrows raised. "You coming?"
Not wanting to be alone, I put on most of my clothes and followed her to the parking lot.
In our defense, we had not come to Clinton Lake to meet men but to escape my apartment, which was filled with poison. I’d fallen victim to a rather bad flea infestation and, after weeks of scratching and telling myself they’d eventually go away, I’d caved and set off a bug bomb. Before leaving my apartment, I watched as the metal canister released a cloud of toxic white fog. There was something pretty about it–an amorphous poison genie slithering from its lamp. Safe at the lake, I dreaded going back home, where I would have to clean every surface with a hot washrag, as well as wash any clothes, bedding, dishes, and towels that may have come in contact with the fog. Even the doorknobs would be coated in poison.
Worse than the fleas was that I didn’t own an animal. It seemed an injustice, like a born-again virgin getting struck down by an STD. The fleas had come from the cat of an art history professor who was twice my age and who, as soon as I mentioned meeting his parents, slipped away by such tiny increments that I was suddenly shocked to find myself single. One day he was there–his books on the coffee table, his brown bottle of men’s thickening shampoo in the shower–and the next he was gone, leaving behind nothing but a sea of invisible flea eggs, courtesy of the overweight, walleyed calico he often brought over because he couldn’t bear the thought of her sleeping alone.
Exactly two days after he left, the fleas exploded in a grand display of evolutionary fine-tuning. They jumped in great arcs from the carpet and left itchy pink bites along my ankles and thighs. In the mornings, I woke with wild streaks of blood across my sheets, from where I’d clawed myself in my sleep. "Look at me, I made a Jackson Pollock," I whispered one morning. There was nobody there to hear me.
The barbecue offered scratchy country music from a boom box and a few folding chairs, the kind with thick strips of plastic that stick to your skin. In time, we were all introduced. The fisherman’s name was Walt. The hotdog eater was Jackson. Maxine introduced herself and explained that we were coworkers at the university’s admissions office, where we spent our days talking to potential students or, more often, their parents. Neither of us liked our job, but we had nothing else in the way of skills or interests. The only thing we’d accomplished was college itself–it made sense that we’d turn around and peddle it to others.
Surprisingly, Maxine took an interest in Walt, who was not as chubby as he’d originally appeared and who looked rather handsome in a baseball cap and aviators. She usually went for the lanky, artistic type–men who made their living painting murals or assembling sequined finger puppets for the arts center. She admitted to liking men who were interesting, not because she liked interesting men, but because dating interesting men made her feel interesting by proximity. While Maxine and Walt talked, Jackson let his hand hover over my lower back and attended to my cup of beer. I was giddy as he delivered paper plates loaded with warm strawberries and sweaty cheese cubes the color of duck feet. When he tried to feed me buffalo wings I told him I was a vegetarian. He looked at me as if I’d confessed to something shameful, like a case of chlamydia or an affinity for hair bands. It was a look I knew well. My mother had given it to me when I first told her I was giving up meat. "But, darling,” she’d said, “vegetarian households always smell like pee.”
Before long, Maxine and Walt came up to Jackson and me. "We’re going back to town," Maxine said, grabbing at Walt’s hand. "You guys need a ride?"
"I’ve got my truck," Jackson offered. "I can take us back in a little bit." He looked at me for approval. Part of me wanted to stick to the original plan, which was to get ice cream sandwiches and watch a horror movie at Maxine’s place. But Maxine looked so excited and Jackson smelled like something familiar, maybe pine trees or rain, and so I said okay.
Jackson drove a tan pickup. I sat in the passenger seat with a six-pack of warm Coors at my feet and a tackle box on my lap. From the rearview mirror dangled a red air freshener in the shape of a naked lady, the word "cinnamon" stamped in cursive across her breasts.
"So you’re some sort of scholar, is that right?" Jackson asked. We were on a highway going what was probably too fast.
"Not exactly," I said. "It’s more like sales than anything else. It’s just I sell college instead of snake oil."
"Still, you’re on campus all day. Makes you something of an academic."
"My mother would love to hear you say that," I said, and then immediately panicked. Why had I mentioned my mother? Men hated when you mentioned parents. If they had their way, every woman would be an orphan. I pressed my hand to the vent–hot air was coming out. "So what do you do?" I asked, trying to change the subject.
"I mean, for work."
I realized he was not the type to joke about matters of fishing or hunting. "You can live off that?"
"Sure–between meat and furs. I make all kinds of stuff from furs. And skins. If you make something, rest assured there’s some kook out there who’ll buy it. Learned that from the Internet. One time I made a doll out of horse hair. Just a little doll with pearl button eyes and a burlap dress. Some lady bought it off eBay for a hundred bucks. Said she only gave her baby organic, handcrafted toys. Can you even imagine a baby snuggling with a horsehair doll?"
"I had no idea there was a market for that kind of thing."
"If you build it, they will come."
Jackson turned off the air and cranked down the windows. Usually I didn’t like driving with the windows down–the wind tangled my hair and bothered my contacts. But in the truck I hung an arm out, feeling the invisible grooves in the air.
I’d gotten used to telling myself I didn’t want a man. My mother had summed it up the last time I called her crying about the ex: it was time for me to be alone, to be a single and independent woman with a bachelor’s degree and a one bedroom. I needed to learn to like myself, to enjoy my own company–something my mother feared she had never done. At least this was what I reminded myself as Jackson pulled up in front of my apartment.
He was looking at me, his car idling. "This is it, right?"
By now, enough time had passed that I could go inside and start cleaning the poison, but I didn’t want to give up on Jackson so easily. I was impatient to find out if we would sleep together. "This is it," I told him. "But I forgot–I can’t go in."
"I’m bombing. For fleas."
"Ahhh." He nodded, as if I’d mentioned an old mutual friend. "The herpes of nature."
"I’ve been drowning them in soap all week."
"Well then," he said, smiling. "What do you want to do?"
I shrugged, hoping he wouldn’t offer to drop me off somewhere else.
"Want to come to my place?" he asked.
The offer bloomed before me in a tableau of sweat and naked limbs. "Sure," I said, trying not to sound too excited. "I could do that."
"I live near Vinland. It’s about twenty minutes south. That okay?"
"That’s fine. I’ve never heard of it. Sounds like Finland."
"Might as well be." He cranked the radio, and we were off, leaving the tiny holocaust in my apartment behind.
We drove straight back to the country roads we’d just driven, passing fields of scorched grass punctuated by homes with wraparound porches and little man-made ponds that shone like nickels against the sun. Somewhere around the county line, I realized I’d forgotten to take my goldfish, Goldie Prawn, out of the apartment before I bug bombed. Had I been anywhere but in Jackson’s truck, I would have cried.
We arrived at his land after a series of turns I couldn’t have repeated on my own, yet this disorientation didn’t scare me. For some reason, I trusted Jackson.
"This is the Nine," he said, pulling into a gravel drive marked by nothing except an old black mailbox.
"Why the Nine?"
I decided not ask how large or small ninety acres was, settling instead on a notion of a happy medium, a modest fortune of land.
"My dad left it to me when he died," Jackson said. "My brother and I didn’t even know he had it. He gave Charlie the house in Lawrence, and I got this. I felt cheated, at first."
"But not anymore?"
"Not a bit."
"Because the house in Lawrence is crappy?"
"No," he said, a hint of defensiveness in his tone. "Because the land is the land, and it’s completely mine–was always supposed to be mine. Because if the land were Charlie’s he would have ruined it. Would have done something stupid like sell it or develop it or whatever. This place would be a shoe store or a nail salon or something stupid like that."
I curled my fingers into my palms, hiding the French tips I’d just had done.
"And I’m good here. I built myself this little place." He gestured toward what could have easily passed for a garden shed in the city. The structure stood half-hidden by trees, flanked by piles of wood, scrap metal, and cinder blocks. The house itself boasted two little windows. Through the glass I could make out rows of mason jars filled with yellow flowers.
"Like it?" he asked.
I did like it, in the way that people like pictures of places where they would never actually like to live, like tree houses or tents set up on snowy alpine ledges. "It’s very rustic," I said. This seemed to satisfy him.
Jackson parked his truck on a little clearing across the way from the house. He looked at me, his eyes bright with something I rarely saw in people anymore. He radiated a naive joy I’d known well during college but that had drained so fast after graduation it now seemed impossible I had ever possessed it. "This here is some of the only wilderness left in Kansas," he said.
"I didn’t know Kansas had any wilderness."
"Wilderness is just something nobody’s never touched. You don’t need mountains or waterfalls to be wild."
"Okay. So. What do you do with a girl out here in the wilderness?" I expected a certain type of answer, the answer all men gave when posed this brand of question. He would offer a wry smile, maybe plop a meaty hand on my thigh and say something like, We could go inside and I could show you around, or, I have a few ideas in mind.
But Jackson just hopped out and ran a little sprint to the truck bed, from which he extracted two rather large guns. "How about some hunting?" he called.
"Absolutely not," I called back.
"I don’t like to kill things. I’m a vegetarian, remember?"
He snorted. "Hunting don’t mean you’re gonna kill something. You talk like you’ll be good at it."
"It means you’re going to try," I said.
"Well then do you want to come with me while I try?"
I did not want to ruin the day. "I guess I could. I like to be outdoors," I lied.
Jackson smiled. "Damn right you do."
We geared up inside his house, where everything was fur and flowers. Fauna and flora. Instead of bearskin rugs or cartoonish moose heads he had a pair of stiff, tan leather armchairs and a fleet of potted plants. There were plants by the chairs, by the door, by his bed, which was just a twin mattress on the floor. An elephant’s ear kept the little potbellied stove company, its leaves withered and waxy on the hot side. Vines snaked around the posts of lamps and stuck their fingers into his bookshelves, which boasted titles like The Everything Guide to Tanning and Leatherwork, The Huntsman’s Field Guide, and Think Like a Turkey.
He gave me an orange Day-Glo vest and a worn-out baseball cap that read "Wyoming Game and Fish." "That cap belonged to my father," he said.
I took it, feigning sentimentality, and then smelled it while his back was turned. It stank of old sweat and sunscreen.
Jackson armed himself with one of the guns and then led me away from his house and through a clearing in the trees that I would not have noticed on my own.
"Watch for snakes and don’t go wandering," he said. "This place can eat you up."
I doubled my step–he was already several yards in front of me. We pushed deep into the woods until the hum of cicadas overtook the sounds of the little county highway. Minutes later, sunscreen was burning my eyes, and I had approximately one billion mosquito bites. I felt like the dopey younger sister on a Cub Scout trip. My calves ached; the forest had hills you couldn’t quite tell were hills until you were climbing them. I wanted water. Jackson was still moving fast, his gaze to the trail. He hadn’t looked back since we left his house.
"What are we looking for, anyways?" I asked.
"Anything that moves," he said. "Squirrel, rabbit, deer."
"You kill rabbits? But they’re so cute."
"Cute’s no reason to live."
"So you eat them? You eat rabbits?"
"In a pinch. They make a decent stew. But what you really want is deer. Enough meat to fill a freezer. Lasts for months. In the winter I sell the jerky at a few gas stations and groceries in the area. But for skins, what you’re looking for is bobcat. If it’s a holy day you might see a mountain lion."
"There are mountain lions out here?" I quickened my pace.
"You bet. About a week ago, a jogger came close to getting pounced. But he saw the cat coming and played big like they say to do. Cat turned tail."
"I had no idea there were animals that big in Kansas."
"Rumor has it there’s a black bear out here. That it came up from Oklahoma, looking for a mate."
"There’s bears in Oklahoma?"
"There’s all kinds of shit where you wouldn’t expect it."
I’d never seen a bear in the wild. Once, right after my parents divorced when I was seven, my dad took me to the Sedgwick County zoo to see a bear. They had a grizzly with some sort of skin disease that made its hair fall out, and people from all over were flocking to see it. My dad told me the bear would be bald, and so I pictured an otherwise normal-looking bear but with a halo of blank skull like my uncle Bill’s. When we got there, I was shocked to find that the bear was bald all over. It looked like a monster, with squinty eyes and horrible, pinched cheeks. The skin around its belly hung loose, like an empty trash bag. It was hot outside, and for a moment I genuinely wondered if it was melting. The bear kept trying to hide from the visitors, but it had nowhere to go, and the kids around me kept pelting it with fistfuls of popcorn and sand. I couldn’t sleep for a week, and my dad had to remove all of my teddy bears until the terror passed.
"Have you ever seen a hairless bear?" I asked Jackson.
He slowed his gait and turned to look at me. "Actually, yeah. I have. When I was little. It was at the zoo. My dad drove Charlie and me all the way to Wichita."
"We must have seen the same one, then."
"Huh. I haven’t thought about that in years. Someone should have put that thing out of its misery."
"I thought it was the scariest thing I’d ever seen. I had nightmares."
"About a bald bear?"
"Sure," I said, nearly catching up to him. "It was spooky."
He laughed, glancing back to shoot me a smile. "That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. Scared of a bald bear. That’s like being more afraid of a naked Nazi than a regular Nazi."
Just then, a branch snapped somewhere close. Jackson stopped and then started walking slowly, his movements gaining stealth. I thought of the ex’s calico, how she took on a primal fluidity in the presence of mice and laser pointers, slowly bringing herself to the ground where, pupils dilated, she would wait patiently for the moment to attack. Jackson turned to look at me and pressed a finger to his lips. He looked like the type of man you saw in adventure movies, the type of man that women like me–women who got pedicures and appreciated the appeal of small dogs–never had a chance with. It was incredibly attractive, especially coming after the professor, who spent his time writing papers that nobody but his colleagues ever read.
We were at the edge of a clearing, a cluster of pawpaw trees separating us from a half-moon of tall grass. The air was hot and heavy. Jackson leaned close enough that I could smell his deodorant. "Over there," he said. "Two o’clock."
It took me a moment before I saw it–a patch of fur moving through the grass. A deer the color of brown sugar lifted its head. Jackson pulled his gun up to eye level and squinted. "God, she’s pretty," he whispered. "Isn’t she pretty?"
"What are you doing?" I asked.
He kept squinting, moving the gun as the deer dipped its head into the grass. "Stay quiet."
"You can’t," I said.
"What do you mean?"
"I don’t want you to. Not while I’m with you."
"Then go somewhere else for a minute."
"Jackson." I felt myself choking up.
He took his gaze from the deer long enough to look at me. "You want me to just let it go? This is hunting, sweetheart. What’d you think we were doing?"
"But, it’s just trying to eat." I couldn’t help but start crying–he’d called me sweetheart, and not in the good way. But this was how I’d always been with animals. Once, at a house party in college, a friend of mine had a plan to feed a mouse to his pet snake, as a kind of show for the partygoers. The mice were in a little cardboard box, like the ones Happy Meals used to come in, and while nobody was looking I took the box outside and let the mice go. The friend was drunk and annoyed and made me reimburse him for the mice, saying he’d just go buy new ones. But I’d felt victorious, imagining the mice going on to create whole new empires of vermin.
"God, are you crying?" Jackson asked. He put the gun down an inch. "Jesus."
"Jackson," I said. "Please?"
"Oh, hell. Come on." He turned around, brushing past me, and charged back the way we came. I kept after him, nearly running, my heart going nuts. After only a few minutes I realized I needed to pee–bad.
"Jackson, I need to pee."
He slowed down and turned to face me. "Well, go on then. I won’t look."
I could tell he was frustrated with me, and for a moment I wished I were a different type of girl, the type of girl who hunted and backpacked and initiated outdoor sex. I walked toward a cluster of thick bushes, just barely out of his line of vision. I squatted down and let go. This was the first time I’d peed outside in years, since my early college days when, as long as you were drunk enough, it was acceptable to go in people’s backyards. And then suddenly I saw it–a heap of black fur moving through some reedy trees in the far distance. I stood up as quietly as I could and then squinted to make out what it was, although I already knew.
Just like the deer, the bear raised its head, perhaps sensing that it was being watched. It was not as big as I’d imagined, but still I felt faint. I imagined it noticing me, its eyes taking on an angry recognition. It would charge, leaping through the field separating us until it was on me, all claws and incisors. Jackson would have to carry my body out of the woods.
Holding my breath, I got low, keeping my eyes on the bear. Like this, I crawled back to where Jackson was waiting, a cigarette dangling from his lips.
"Why you crawling like that?" he asked, taking the cigarette from his mouth.
I tried to calm myself, to act natural. "I thought I saw a centipede, but it ran away."
He stubbed the cigarette into the dirt. "You’re weird as shit. You know that?"
I smiled up at him, trying to revive whatever connection we’d had before the deer incident. I knew telling him about the bear would make him happy, but I also knew he’d kill it. I was certain. And so I said nothing the rest of the way back to his house, matching his pace and turning back every so often to make sure we weren’t being pursued.
"You all right?" Jackson said, once we were back at his house. "You seem frazzled."
I was breathing heavy, my hands on my knees. I looked up at him and nodded, trying to hold my smile. "I’m just out of shape," I said. "Thank you, by the way."
"For not killing that deer."
"I should have," he said, looking back to the woods. "I made a mistake."
"I don’t think so. I think what you did was kind."
"Wasn’t nothing about kindness. I just don’t do so good with people who cry. Makes me feel weird."
I stood up straight and looked at him. He’d put the gun back in his truck, and the way he looked, suddenly defenseless, seemed sweet. Around us, the woods breathed. Despite what had happened, it seemed like a romantic moment. With the ex, our encounters were limited to restaurants and conversations, bedrooms and television shows. The most daring thing we’d ever done was have sex on his kitchen table, an awkward, brief exchange that ended with a constellation of crumbs embedded in my butt cheeks. Never had we stood together in the woods after a hike. Never had we stood amid the threat of a wild animal. Never, come to think of it, had we done anything outdoors together.
Filled with the moment, I made my way to Jackson and kissed him. At first, he grabbed me, holding tight onto my back. But he did not open his mouth, and soon he put a hand on my hip and gently pushed me away. "I’ll take you back, now," he said, turning toward the truck.
"What?" I said, my happiness draining.
"Listen, it’s been a good day. A fun day, but–"
"You don’t want me to stay?"
He looked to his feet. "I’m just feeling out of sorts. With the deer and all." He tried to smile. "I don’t know."
My chest tightened. I didn’t want to go home. Not to the fleas, to the empty apartment. "I saw a bear out there," I said. "When I was peeing. That’s why I was crawling on the ground."
His face went soft. "You what?"
"I saw a bear." I felt everything lighten. I knew that if he found the bear he would kill it. But I was willing to sacrifice it for myself, for my happiness. To stay with Jackson for even a little longer. To delay the drive back to town.
"You sure it was a bear?"
"Why didn’t you say something?"
"It happened so fast–I was scared."
He threw a hand in the air and then squeezed his forehead, thinking. Suddenly, he sprang toward the truck and retrieved his gun. Without inviting me along, he took off for the woods. Even if I had wanted to keep up, I knew I wouldn’t be able to. He was lean and fast. The woods swallowed him whole in a matter of seconds.
After the shock of his exit wore off, I occupied myself by building miniature huts out of twigs, like I’d done when I was a kid. They didn’t stand up for long, but it passed the time. I imagined the creatures that would live in them: ants and spiders and worms. They would throw cocktail parties and raise thousands of children and generally conduct big, important insect lives. When they were old and weary they would put their twig houses up for sale, move to a retirement community made from pinecones. I imagined what Jackson would think. "They already have their own homes," he would say. “The dirt is their home.” I would protest, explaining that my homes were clearly superior, with windows and doors. Some even had carports.
I was working on a cabana when I heard the shot. A cloud of brown birds exploded from the trees. Then came a moment of total silence, as if every animal in the woods was holding its breath. I thought about running into the woods, trying to find Jackson, but I knew I’d likely get lost, creating even more trouble. And so I waited some more. I waited until the sun oozed behind the trees and the air cooled to the point where I felt chilly for the first time in a long time.
When he came out, he came out empty handed, his eyes red and his skin burned. He was shirtless; the flannel he’d been wearing was balled up under his armpit, visibly covered in blood.
"You killed it," I said.
"Get in the car."
"Go on, get in." This time his voice was gruff. He threw his gun into the back of the truck. The flannel he tossed onto the ground, not even bothering to look where it landed.
In the car, he turned on a CD, some twangy band I’d never heard of, and tapped the tune on his steering wheel. He was tense. Before he took the exit back to town he looked at me, smiled, and said, "You’re sexy as hell, you know that?"
Confused, I gave a weak smile and then turned to watch the fields give way to strip malls and apartment complexes.
At my apartment, he killed the engine and I sat still, waiting for something to happen.
"You okay on the flea front?" he asked.
"You know," he said, "I only kill what I plan to eat. Or use. Just so you know."
"That’s nice of you."
"I don’t waste anything. Like the Indians."
"They prefer to be called Native Americans, actually."
He smiled and looked down to his pants. "You’re too smart for me, honey. I think you’re a nice find, though. It would have been nice to be together."
"We are together," I said, growing frustrated. I could feel him getting away. "We’re together right now."
This seemed to make him sad. "Why are you trying so hard to force this?" he asked.
"I don’t know–maybe because sometimes forcing works? Like, maybe if we just forced it for while, just a few weeks, it would end up clicking?" I could tell I was going to regret everything I’d just told him. I could picture my mother shaking her head.
"Listen, I wish it would work, too, but I know it won’t. You know it won’t."
"But it could. You don’t know. Nobody knows."
"You can’t squeeze water from a rock."
"But maybe this isn’t a rock. Maybe it’s a watermelon. We won’t know unless we try."
"Honey, I’m saying I don’t much feel like trying."
I did not want to cry, but the tears were there.
He paused, took a deep breath. "You go clean your apartment," he said. "That stuff in those bombs will kill you."
I was about to leave without saying anything, but I felt a sudden wave of anger, of injustice. I’d invested a lot in the day–I’d waited on him in the mind-numbing emptiness of his land. I’d sacrificed the life of a bear for him–for us. Sure, he saved one stupid deer for me, but that wasn’t enough. I deserved more. I deserved him. More than anything, I deserved to not go home to an empty apartment filled with poison and memories of a man who did not love me.
"What happened in the woods?" I asked. "Did you kill the bear or not?"
"I didn’t kill any stupid bear."
"Sure you did," I said. "Your shirt was covered in blood."
He pursed his lips and let his hands fall into his lap. He wouldn’t look at me. "It was a dog," he said. "I thought it was a bear but it was an old Newfoundland I’ve known for years. Belonged to one of my dad’s old buddies who lives up behind the Nine. I knew that dog. His name was Conan. He was a good dog. Smart as hell."
I put a hand on his arm. "Jackson," I said, trying to not let on that I was also feeling relieved, that maybe he did like me, that maybe he was just too upset about the dog to admit it. "Don’t beat yourself up," I said. "Doesn’t stuff like this happen all the time? With hunting?"
He looked up at me, shrugging my arm off. "No, it doesn’t. I had to see my dad’s friend cry. You know how embarrassing that is? To see a grown man cry? And then to explain it’s because I thought his dog was a bear? In Kansas?"
I didn’t know what to say. He was looking at me as if I were the one who had gone into the woods and killed that dog. I wondered if he even believed I’d seen a bear. For a moment, I questioned whether I really had, or if it had been Conan all along, and I too had wanted to see a bear, to create a myth out of my small time in the wilderness with Jackson.
"I’m sorry today was so uncomfortable for you," I said, and then I got out. I wanted to slam the door but it was too heavy. Even with all my strength it sort of just creaked shut, and even this didn’t do the job–Jackson had to open it from the inside and shut it again himself. By the time I reached my door, I could still feel his truck sitting there. Blowing exhaust.
In my apartment, I wasted no time. I made a beeline to Goldie Prawn’s tank and quickly scooped out her body with a Dixie cup. I said a few words as she swirled around the toilet bowl and then told myself to forget about it entirely. It never happened. Next, I took a wet washcloth to everything–the doorknobs, the countertops, the blinds. Whether real or in my head, the poison made me dizzy, and for a while I imagined passing out, how the paramedics would find me days later, brain damaged and foaming at the mouth. "Why was she alone for so long?" they would ask each other, confused as to how a grown woman could die the death of a flea.
While cleaning, I found an old T-shirt the ex used to wear to bed. His initials were written on the tag, as if he’d packed it for summer camp. I remembered something he said to me once, when we first started dating. "I can’t tell whether I like you or the idea of you," he said. "But then maybe there’s no difference."
The sun had barely set when I crawled into bed and found my sheets littered with dead fleas, their tiny corpses like a handful of commas tossed across a blank page.
Not bothering to clean them, I slept until it was Sunday.
In the morning, Maxine wanted to get coffee.
"He’s like nobody I’ve ever met," she said, bringing a latte to her lips. She had a tendency to flutter her eyes when she bragged, and she was doing this now. She and Walt had gone back to her apartment and made love on her sofa. He’d cooked her curry–the best she’d ever had–and then taught her how to say a variety of phrases in Japanese, a novelty he’d picked up while teaching English in Hiroshima. "He can build just about anything," she said. "And he’s been everywhere. I mean, places I’d never even heard of. Did you know there’s a country called Georgia? I didn’t believe him. I looked it up as soon as he was gone."
"Sounds like a catch."
"My god, I feel like I’ve discovered sliced bread or something." She started laughing, a girlish, hysterical laugh that made a few people in the coffee shop turn to look. "I’m sorry," she said, holding a hand over her mouth. "I just keep looking at everyone and thinking: Did they have sex like this last night?"
"I’m happy for you," I said, trying very hard not to say something mean.
"What about your guy?" Maxine asked. "Tell me everything."
"He took me home. That’s all."
"That’s all? He just dropped you off?"
I tried to smile. "We just met them yesterday. What did you expect? A proposal?"
Maxine frowned. "I just hoped you would hit it off like Walt and I did. That maybe we could double-date. I don’t know. I’m sorry. I know it’s silly–we did just meet them. It’s crazy."
"It is. It’s very crazy."
"Do you want me to have Walt ask Jackson about you? To have him push things along?"
"God, no. I mean, no. It’s okay. Thanks, though. I appreciate it."
"Okay." She looked into her coffee, as if Walt’s face were in there. She smiled a dopey smile that made me want to cry. Why’d yours work and not mine? I wanted to ask. Instead, I asked, "Have you heard anything about there being bears in Kansas?"
"Like real bears?"
"Yeah. Black bears."
She laughed. "Someone’s pulling your leg."
I heard the news on TV about a month later, while waiting for an oil change. I hadn’t had a date since Jackson and found myself filling my spare time with unnecessary chores and errands: steam-cleaning my curtains, ironing clothes that didn’t fit me anymore. One day I drove all the way to a hardware store in Topeka just to buy a new showerhead–I’d gotten it into my mind that the old one was contaminated with poison. When there was nothing left to do, I vacuumed my carpet, imaging whole cities of fleas spiraling up into the tube.
It was the six o’clock news and the anchors donned droopy-eyed expressions to prove their sadness. An eleven-year-old girl had been mauled in her grandmother’s backyard, just a few miles outside of Vinland. The little girl, who had lost a leg and an eye, had been out feeding her grandmother’s mastiffs. Upon finding the bear, and her mangled granddaughter, the grandmother grabbed a rifle and fired seven bullets. Two of them entered the black bear’s brain.
The grandmother was now on the news, discussing the incident with a pretty, wide-eyed news anchor. The grandmother had a mane of white hair and a small, puckered mouth. "Terrible monsters, bears," she said, scowling into the anchor’s microphone. "What they did to my poor baby. They should be ashamed of themselves. The whole species. Wish there were more of them out here. I’d shoot a whole family of ‘em if I could. Have myself a good ole Berenstain Bear massacre. Hang their big fat heads in a row above my oven." She pursed her lips into a tight smile, savoring the thought of it.
The mechanic at the register laughed. "God, what a nut, huh?"
I ignored him and kept watching, trying not to think about Jackson–where he was, what he might be doing. Maxine was having a birthday party the next weekend, and she’d invited him along as company for Walt. I didn’t like to think about how many times I’d tried on the dress I planned to wear to the party, or the three miles I’d started to run every evening, through the bug-infested woods near the levy.
The news anchor was talking now, listing off facts about the accident, perhaps to deflect from the grandmother’s monologue. But the camera stayed on the grandmother, who kept smiling and twitching her little pink mouth excitedly, as if she were there to receive an award.