Savannah Schroll Guz is the author of American Soma (2009) and The Famous & The Anonymous (2004). She edited the theme-based fiction anthology, Consumed: Women on Excess (2005). She co-directs the Pittsburgh-based reading series “TNY Presents...,” but she lives, teaches, and writes in West Virginia. Keep up with her jonzes here: savannahschrollguz.com.
Woken by the sound of clattering dishes and the softer din of metal clanking metal, Jim Robinson instantly knew it was his father, not his mother, who was loose in the kitchen downstairs. His mother would never have made such a loud stir this early on a Saturday. The sounds were recurring, jarringly loud, and had pierced Jimmy’s quiet slumber primarily because the boy’s bedroom door was halfway open. He immediately looked to the pillow on the floor, where Darnell should have been. But the little corduroy bed, dented where Darnell’s small body had been, was empty. In a panic, Jimmy got up and searched the room for him: first in the closet, where the animal sometimes nested in Jimmy’s discarded underpants, and then under his bed. Darnell was not there.
In the kitchen, Jimmy’s father Clark was on a step ladder, rattling around in the short cabinet above the sink, a cabinet that housed things Jimmy’s mother rarely used.
“Daddy, Darnell’s not in my room.”
“What’s that?” his father asked, startled. He bumped his head on the cabinet’s scalloped valance and shouted, “Christ Almighty ouch!”
Jimmy waited a moment to see how mad his father actually was before quietly repeating himself.
Clark touched the top of his bald head to see if the scuff had drawn blood and then inspected his fingers. Jimmy could see his father’s eyes were bloodshot and rimmed pink. His protuberant nose was swollen and webbed with broken capillaries. Clark answered in a tone sharp with irritation, “Well I ain’t seen him, Jim.”
Jimmy went back upstairs, hearing his father continue to clank old metal colanders and other objects condemned to spend the rest of their usable lives in darkness. Jimmy was only halfways certain of what his father was looking for, primarily because the man never called it by its rightful name. Last time, his father, who was in a decidedly more jovial spirit, said he was looking for “a hog scraper.” The time before that, when Jimmy saw his father’s lean buttocks protruding from the cabinet beneath the kitchen sink, the man had explained—his head hovering somewhere above his wife’s cleaning products and scrub sponges—that he was trying to find where Jimmy’s mother kept the Kool-Aid. That time, Jimmy knew better, but he said nothing. He was aware that his mother made bottles of booze disappear with the same skill that the Easter Bunny hid eggs and chocolate every year. And while Jimmy’s mother did not intend these disappearing acts as a game, they often played out that way. Even when Muriel poured away the pungent contents of bottles, Clark still sought them. And more often than not, Clark did so in the most unconsciously ridiculous ways.
Upstairs, Jimmy found his brother already awake, but surly. “What the hell you want?” Randy snarled at Jimmy when he saw his face at the crack of the door.
“I wanna know if Darnell’s with you.”
“He ain’t in here,” Randy said, his fist against his cheek on the pillow, his other hand somewhere under the sheet. Jimmy could see the outline of his brother’s body beneath the faded images of Captain America. Jimmy wasn’t able to make out the specific details because Randy was partially on his side. But he looked uncomfortable to Jimmy, so Jimmy closed Randy’s door and started searching around the house.
His mother, who was still in bed when he peeked inside the door, was more welcoming. “Come in, Jim,” she knitted her brow sympathetically when she saw his expression. “Daddy woke you up, too, did he?” She held out her arms to him.
He crawled into bed and inhaled the not-unpleasant scent of her slept-in flannel, which had worn thin in places. He then snuggled himself against her. This was usually the point at which she began telling stories of spirited horses that escaped their mean owners and found beaches to run along and other horses to play with. Jimmy didn’t wait for the stories this time, but told her about Darnell.
Together Jimmy and Muriel went around the house calling out for Darnell, even going into the basement, which was not a place Jimmy cared to spend any amount time. He cast his flashlight into corners, behind forgotten piles of wooden furniture whose legs bore a creeping, calcified white scale from standing water.
None of this calling or light shining revealed Darnell. Jimmy saw only damp cinder block, thick spider webs, and the sparkle of broken glass. Still, he was glad to see there was also no hunched-over troll with three-inch fangs, which Clark, when either dangerously sober or marginally drunk, taunted Jimmy with. All Clark had to do was point to the basement door and say, “He’s awful hungry today. Ain’t been fed for awhile,” and Jimmy would run upstairs to his room, only half-believing his father but not entirely convinced that the creature didn’t exist. Now, for a brief moment, Jimmy considered whether or not the troll had eaten Darnell.
Darnell had been a part of the family for a little over a year and was a great source of comfort to Jimmy, and to a certain degree, to Muriel as well. Muriel would actually allow the little animal to walk across the worn Formica bar top where she, Jimmy and Randy ate most of their meals when Clark wasn’t around. And this turned out to be fairly often. Moreover, Randy had begun spending more and more time with the neighbor boys a mile or so away, so frequently, it was just Jimmy, Muriel and Darnell, eating microwave fish sticks and cheesy macaroni on plates that had been chipped during Clark’s quest for his stolen booze. Muriel sometimes even spooned a baby-sized helping of macaroni and cheese onto one of her pineapple and cherry printed saucers, blowing on it before placing it in front of Darnell’s inquisitive little ferret-nosed features.
Darnell had not come from a pet shop. Instead, he had gotten caught in a groundhog trap Clark had set up outside his homemade, asbestos-shingled hut in Kanawha Valley, where he infrequently (and often capriciously) took the boys fishing. More often, of course, he went there alone. “Boys!” shouted Clark exultantly, when he saw, from the front window, something dark moving around inside the wire box. “It’ll be groundhog stew for us tonight!” Clark hadn’t seen the white stripe.
When he went outside, with Randy following after, he observed the animal’s little fuzz-capped head and dark eyes turn to consider him. Clark stared back at it for a few moments, not moving. “Well, Jee-sus,” he said, low and drawn out. “We caught us a skunk.”
He sent Randy back inside the shack with Jimmy.
Uncertain of how to handle his catch, Clark left Darnell go for half a day. He then poured himself several glasses of contemplation: a series of generously dispensed double shots of Four Roses, which he’d bought on the way to the cabin. By 3 p.m., he was sleeping hard, his head lolling against the high-back wooden rocker, his half-closed mouth emitting prolonged snores that vibrated his lips.
Jimmy went out to the cage. Randy kept his distance, “You ain’t very smart, Jim. You know he’s gonna spray if you get too close.”
Jimmy ignored Randy, who was three years older but more anxious than Jimmy. He kept moving slowly forward. He stopped just short of the cage, out of spray range. “Hello,” he regarded the skunk, who, in turn, regarded him. “I ain’t gonna hurt you. Just let you out, okay?”
The skunk continued to stare at him. It did not turn around as Randy expected it would.
“He’s prolly got rabies,” Randy yelled. “You better not touch him. Mom’ll whoop you.”
“Shut up, Randy. She ain’t here, an’ you ain’t tellin’ no one.”
“I will, too!” Randy kicked the dirt in front of him. Dust flew.
But the skunk did not spray Jimmy, even when he reached forward and opened the trap’s metal hatch. The little black and white creature, whose fur stood on end as if carrying a static charge, ambled out of the wire box and moved towards him. It gazed up at Jimmy with a crooked smile. Randy backed up towards the cabin, ready to laugh hysterically if it turned its tail towards Jimmy. It did not. Instead, it followed Jimmy around for the rest of the afternoon.
When Clark woke up after midnight in a mood mean enough to do what he felt needed to be done, he went out with his 12-gauge and shot up the metal cage once, then put another shell in the chamber and hit it a second time, blowing out the trap door. The sound of the gun dissipated some of his rage, but the noise made his head clatter. He sat down a few feet from his handiwork, not really looking at it. On this moist plot of crab-grassed soil, he put the shotgun down beside him and, under the waxing gibbous moon, waited for his headache to pass. The boys, who woke up after hearing the gun go off the first time, came outside. They stood behind their father. Jimmy was holding the skunk like a baby.
“You okay, Daddy?” Randy ventured.
Clark moaned something inaudible.
“Daddy, you all right? Somebody try to get you?”
“I shot that gawddam skunk,” said Clark, his tongue still thick. “Wasn’t no other way, Randy. Had to shoot it.”
Clark looked up at Randy, and his eyes traveled to Jimmy just behind him. Under the moon’s brilliant glow, Clark could see something in Jimmy’s arms, the high contrast of white fur against black, the gleam of little jet-colored eyes. “What in hell?” Clark said, instantly stone sober. “Jim Robinson, what in hell do you have?”
“His name’s Darnell, Daddy,” Jimmy said quietly, lifting his chin slowly in hesitant defiance.
“Daddy, I tol’ him,” started Randy, lifting his hands as if trying to push any welling of anger back. “I tol’ him, but he don’t listen.”
Never once did Darnell attempt to spray anyone, but the family went and had his scent glands taken out anyway. This was what worried Jimmy, who understood the animal now had nothing to protect himself with.
When Jimmy found the back door open a crack, he and his mother, who was still in her pink checked housecoat, searched the backyard. They went first to Muriel’s blooming rhododendron bushes and then moved into the ankle-tickling grass that Clark never mowed before it reached six inches. Finally, they walked together towards the field behind the house, which stood in the long shadow of Hudson Hill. Here, Jimmy saw brown field mice scurry away from them as they walked, their feet disappearing into the scrubby stubble left by winter wheat. Yet still no Darnell. And when they got back to the house, Clark was gone, too. His pick-up truck with the green primer hood and patched fender was absent from the gravel driveway. Muriel said nothing to Jimmy, although he could read her thoughts in the horizontal set of her lips.
It was nearly dusk when Jimmy’s mother drove them down a narrow road that travelled parallel to the field that stretched out behind their house. “Skunks are naturally nocturnal, Jimmy. We’ll have a better time finding him then,” she’d explained.
Jimmy looked over at his mother, who sat erect in the driver’s seat in a pale pink dress dotted with little cascading clusters of violets. The fact that she’d taken time to put on lipstick before they left made Jimmy anxious and not just because he thought every minute counted for finding Darnell. Jimmy’s father was not home yet, and his mother seemed stretched thin by this fact. He could see it in the smiles she directed at him. They were practiced but lean. And close under their splinter-prone surface was something raw that shone through.
The Buick bumped along a gravel road that had washed away to reveal a series of rocky gullies. Jimmy sat sideways in the passenger seat, his fingers on the door beneath the window, his nose making a plume of condensation on the glass.
It was his mother who saw the furry black and white form first. “Look, Jim. Out in front of us. See? That looks like Darnell to me.”
The animal stopped its ambling, and turned to look directly into the car lights, his two onyx eyes wide open.
“Stop the car! Stop the car!” Jimmy shouted, opening the door before Muriel completely halted.
Jimmy stood in the car’s headlights, facing the skunk, which had not moved. While its body remained rigid, it now seemed to be regarding the boy. It finally lifted its small, fuzz-capped head and sniffed the air with its pointed ferret nose.
“Darnell?” Jimmy ventured.
The animal’s soft but brightly lit black and white form moved towards Jimmy, its nose occasionally twitching to take in Jimmy’s scent. The boy got down on his haunches and extended his arms. The skunk responded by trotting towards him, and Jimmy thought he recognized Darnell’s crooked smile on its diminutive mouth. As apparent confirmation of the animal’s relief, it held its tail low and flat, rather than high and stiff, creating two feathery stripes that moved fluidly and strikingly from crown to tail tip. But when the skunk got within a foot of Jimmy, it stopped. Jimmy could see the reflection of the car lights in its jet-colored eyes, an effect he found disturbing. He reached forward and scooped up the skunk, holding it against his chest. The animal again looked at Jimmy, sniffed him once more, its dark eyes broader than before, suddenly showing a slice of red-veined white. One face gazed at the other for several tense and uncertain moments before the skunk went still and lay his head in folds of Jimmy’s over-sized sweatshirt.
Jimmy relaxed. “Hello, Darnell,” he said quietly and turned to get back into the car.
Bumping back up the gravel road, over the rocky washouts, Darnell snuggled into Jimmy’s sweatshirt further, and appeared to fall sleep. Muriel turned to look at Jimmy, who beamed back at her. “Asleep already?” asked Muriel. “Well, someone’s evidently had an exciting day.”
Occasionally, when the Buick hit a bump, Darnell would open his eyes and look up to regard Jimmy once more, again gauging the tenor of his circumstances by sniffing the air. Each time, he calmed again and did not once struggle against Jimmy’s embrace.
They did not go home, but Jimmy had somehow expected this. Muriel drove right past their driveway, past their home, which seemed to sway under its own weight, the dark front porch stacked with his father’s abandoned projects. He saw a dim light on at the back of the house and knew Randy was in there somewhere. Part of him wanted his mother to stop and let him out. He had what he wanted. He had Darnell. But another part of him wanted to protect his mother. Part of him was afraid of what might happen to her if she were alone.
The lighted signs of The Racehorse Tavern reflected in his mother’s eyes yards ahead of their reaching the lot. Clark’s truck was there, parked cock-eyed, as if it had reached its destination just in time. When Muriel ground the car to a stop on the gravel, Darnell opened his eyes and sniffed the air. Jimmy petted him and murmured to him. Muriel got out of the car, slamming the Buick’s door so hard the whole car rattled. Men standing outside the bar stopped to look at her. One raised his eyebrows and whistled and then looked into the car and saw Jimmy. He turned back to his group of friends, laughing.
She was inside a long time, but Jimmy didn’t hear any yelling. He pulled his feet up on the bench seat and cradled Darnell, who didn’t seem to like the proximity and began to struggle against Jimmy’s embrace. When she came out of The Racehorse, Muriel had an orange flower print scarf over her hair. Jimmy’s father was leaning on her shoulder and saying something, his lips appearing to make extra effort to shape the words. Muriel was looking at the ground, at her feet and possibly at Clark’s. In response to his squirming, Jimmy released Darnell, whose hair bristled as he stood up.
Clark and Muriel were making their way over the gravel, slowly. Jimmy saw his mother had her arm under his father’s right side, balancing him, while his feet bent and drug against the stones like licorice sticks. Clark was talking in her ear. His other arm, draped over Muriel’s shoulder, moved so that he grabbed a handful of breast through the raincoat covering her thin pink dress. Muriel stopped, looked at her husband for a moment and then slapped him hard across the face. Jimmy could not hear what she said to him, but he did hear the raucous laughter that followed from the men in the lot, who had previously whistled at the speed with which his mother had first entered the bar.
Angry, Clark threw up a fist in the direction of these men and shouted, “Bastards! Every one of you!” But they waved him off as if he were not a serious threat. “Goddamn cowards!” he continued. Muriel kept walking him closer to the car, ignoring all of it but burning a bright and angry red.
When they finally reached the Buick, Clark immediately got sick against its rear fender, and Jimmy’s mother unknotted her pretty scarf and used the inadequate chiffon to wipe his mouth. She said nothing to him, but got the door open and pulled the driver’s seat forward, so he could crawl into the back. He groaned and lay face down, with his head pointed towards the foot well.
After a moment, he cast his eyes towards Jimmy and lifted his head, which wavered uncertainly. His hair was plastered against his sticky temples and a leer spread across the man’s face.
“Well, hello, son,” he lisped. “So nice of us to join you.” He became immediately sick in the footwell.
“Oh, Clark Robinson!” Muriel finally shouted, losing patience and hitting the steering wheel with her small fist. “Not in the car!” Her voice suddenly stretched to a thin, high pitched whine of exasperation. “Awh! I should just roll you out of here and let you lie in the parking lot all night!”
The smell of vomit rose up from the footwell and Muriel groaned, rolling down the window first on her side and then reaching over Jimmy to open his. Clark wiped his mouth with his sleeve, and perhaps by way of explanation said, slowly and with great effort, “Well, I didna think it woul’ be all that.”
He paused, burped wetly and then said to Muriel, “Let me have that kerchief again, dollface.” He reached over the turned-down arm rests to slowly and very deliberately seize the dirty orange chiffon scarf that lay there. Darnell, who had sidled over Jimmy, was standing there, sniffing the air, as was his way. The animal appeared suddenly agitated and unsure. And it was the invasion of Clark’s hand, along with the surprise of Muriel turning the key in the ignition and grinding the starter that caused the little creature to turn around and spray Clark’s outstretched arm and half his face.
Jimmy had never heard his father howl so loudly before. Apparently, this skunk was not Darnell after all.