Sick Beasts

by Janice Deal

Harlon had done the Georgia crawl, in Milwaukee, before he lost part of a leg to a thresher. He’d worked construction, painting the backhoe buckets Belly Pink to keep them from getting pinched. He’d had a daughter. He’d done it all, Harlon thought, and wasn’t it amazing, how a body still clung to life?

Glen was sick, though, maybe really so. The cat had once been sturdy, but the bones of his hips were showing now, and his coat seemed darker, coarser. Glen had come to Harlon in Nevada, at a treeless RV park, its boundaries marked by gravel laid over greenish clay. Harlon hadn’t stayed there long. But one morning he’d been rummaging in the dumpster, looking for boards to paint on, and Glen had sidled up, mewling, a beefy tom with a magnificent orange ruff.

Harlon hadn’t been thinking of a pet, but Glen followed him back to the RV, and Harlon shared the tuna that was meant to stretch over several lunches but now made do for one meal.

It was good to have company. Glen received his name as his due and then he stayed on, sitting alert on the passenger seat when Harlon left the drear Nevada camp in his rearview. It was morning. There was the sound of gravel feathering away from the Winnebago’s rear wheels as Harlon and Glen drove into a Peach sunrise.

That had been nine months ago, or maybe closer to a year. Harlon lost track of time sometimes, but the Christmas decorations, which started coming out in the truck stops before the regular fall holidays even got their turn, were a touchstone. When Glen got sick, it was probably October. Although Harlon usually tried to stay south as winter drew on, one morning Glen jumped to Harlon’s lap and it could no longer be denied: the cat was measurably lighter. They had made camp in Missouri, but that day Harlon set course for Ephrem, Illinois. Ephrem was the town he knew best. He still had some friends there; his post office box was there. He could probably figure out something, barter art for a vet’s bill.

Before he took sick, Glen had been the color of marmalade when the light hit the jar. Harlon saw the beauty of this clearly. In the Winnebago were shelves of Harlon’s paints. He preferred children’s art supplies and would buy squat jars of tempera paint in bright, uncompromising colors. Harlon poured the paint into the lids, where it eventually hardened like frosting in its own plastic round. He labeled each color: there was Narwhal Green and Corn Fury Don’t Worry and Livid Sky.

Harlon had taught himself to paint when he was recovering from the threshing accident. It passed the time, took his mind off dark things. And now, on the road, it was a way to bring in a little cash. When Harlon set up at fairs or just on the street, spreading out his blanket, the work sold. He never said much, but he wore a cap spattered with color—reds and pinks and greens. That seemed to help, to draw people to him. But Glen helped more. Once Glen was in the picture, perched on Harlon’s lap or sprawled like a pasha on the blanket, the cat lovers clustered around. Sometimes they bought something: one of Harlon’s sunrise paintings, maybe, on driftwood, or the series he did on dented trash can lids. Harlon had learned just about anything could stand for a little art.

For the first hundred miles on the drive to Ephrem Glen watched the road, and then he curled up quietly. Gripping the wheel, Harlon looked over at him. The cat was breathing in little huffs. Rust Clay his fur was now. He was resting for the long journey, Harlon thought. He suspected Glen was steadfast in a way that many humans were not. Harlon, who had never had a pet before, considered this knowledge to be a shining thing, not to be spoken of.

He was a different man than the one he’d been in Ephrem. He’d lived there the longest, back when his house wasn’t on wheels. He must have worked at that motel for five years. His employers called it a hotel, but Harlon knew a motel when he saw one.

When Harlon pulled into Ephrem, it was pretty much the way he remembered it, except for a sort of silver arch that had been erected on the south side of town. On the arch, EPHREM was spelled out in little round colored lights that looked for all the world like gumballs, and Harlon, driving under them, had to wonder what that was like at night. After he crossed the river he turned onto Route 41 and took it past the mall all the way to the Walmart on the outer edge of town. When he got there, there was a teardrop-shaped camper in the far corner of the lot and a station wagon full up with clothes and blankets.

Harlon parked near the teardrop, which was painted a blotchy yellow. Hello Yellow, Harlon thought. He stepped down from the Winnebago and, as he went around to get Glen, a man came out through the teardrop door. Harlon was usually the tallest person wherever he was at, but not this time.

“Bo, here,” the man said, walking over and extending his hand. Bo had a small coarse face and his hair was wiry and alert. A silky cravat was tied around his neck. It looked a little grimy.

“Harlon.”

“Just passing through?”

“I have people here,” Harlon said. He leaned against his own front bumper and listened while Bo told him a few particulars. Bo was from Texas. He was just passing through himself, but he’d found the people in Ephrem, specifically the management at the Ephrem Walmart, to be congenial.

Harlon nodded. People felt they could talk to him; it had always been this way.

“Welcome,” Bo said by way of wrap-up. “I like you. Why don’t you come for dinner tonight?”

Before going over to Bo’s camper that night, Harlon put on his favorite sweater, which was decorated with the image of a tiger and coated with Glen’s hair. There were hardly any pills on it. He put Glen on his shoulder and took along a tin of meat. It was good, he knew, to always bring something. Harlon picked his way over the parking lot, which needed resurfacing. With his false leg he had to take extra care on uneven surfaces. Here and there, weeds burst through the asphalt, soda cans glinting in the clumps.

It was cool out, but not too cool to sit outside. At the teardrop, Bo had set out old-school lawn chairs on a mat that looked like grass (Green Dream, Harlon thought). Harlon took a seat, and Glen came down off his shoulder to curl in his lap. Bo nodded and handed Harlon a mason jar. He’d made Bloody Marys, pouring the drink around other things. The jar was crammed with mushrooms and what looked like Brussels sprouts. Harlon didn’t drink much anymore; there had been a time, in Milwaukee, when he drank to excess. He took a sip and then he set the jar on his knee and looked at it. When Bo’s cell phone rang Harlon took the opportunity to pour some of the drink out into the patch of weed by his chair where the mat ended.

Bo talked on the phone for a while, unselfconsciously, then hung up and grinned at Harlon.

“My son,” he said. “He gave me this phone, to stay in touch.”

Harlon himself had the one child, grown now, from his Milwaukee days. Meadow her name was. The girl’s mother, Lorene, had died years ago in a train accident that took the lives of everyone on board. Harlon and Lorene had never married, and when the accident happened they hadn’t been together for years, but Harlon kept in touch with his daughter. They were friendly and Harlon loved her, but they weren’t close. Day to day, Harlon didn’t miss her. Most of the time Harlon didn’t think about this, though when he did it worried at him, like the bawling of a calf.

Bo’s phone rang again, and when he answered his face took on a listening expression. He passed the phone to Harlon, but when Harlon pressed it to his ear there was no sound, not even the sense of someone.

“Who’s there?” Harlon finally said.

“Cancer!” someone shouted and then hung up.

“Here’s your phone,” Harlon said. He handed the phone back to Bo and crossed his arms.

“I don’t know who that was,” Bo said, chuckling. Harlon was put off, but then Bo got to work, rustling up sandwiches layered with thick slices of roast beef and cheese. Harlon, who hadn’t had meat for a week, was happy then. He shifted Glen in his lap and gave him a bit of the cheese.

“That’s a skinny cat you got there,” Bo said.

“He’s been sick with something. I’m gonna figure out a vet visit.”

“He’ll be all right.”

Harlon nodded. He bit into his sandwich and gauged what he could do for Bo in return. Even though the man was starting to seem like a fat mouth, a flatterer, he was company for now.

“So you have people here?” Bo asked.

“I worked here for a spell. At the motel.”

“You like it?”

“I did.” Harlon talked around the wad of bread and meat in his mouth. “Free room and board,” he said. “All the Faygo I could drink.” He stopped chewing, thinking of the jewel colors of those sodas in their bottles.

“Why’d you leave, then?”

“It was time,” Harlon said, and Bo inclined his head. Harlon chewed thoroughly, then swallowed. He debated whether to tell Bo how one night there had been a terrific storm. Rain lashed the floor-to-ceiling windows in the front office, and at one point, the front door had blown open, slamming in its frame so that the glass cracked. After the storm blew through, Harlon covered the broken pane with plywood and went and stood in the parking lot, which was strewn with leaves and broken branches. It was still very early. The mercury vapor parking-lot lamps gave off a blue-green light, and in their diminished glow Harlon could see the frogs. They were everywhere: shiny against the wet pavement and stirring weakly; some of them were dead. It was as though they had dropped out of the sky. He gave notice the next day.

“I got a sign,” was all he told Bo.

“Sure,” Bo said. “I know it.” He was watching Glen and digging at something in his ear. “That cat? What he’s got, you know? Might just be something he has to live with.” He paused for a moment, still digging away. “I have this thing in my ear,” he said. His voice was conversational. He pulled his finger out and regarded the flakes of skin on the tip. “I was in Guam, with the Navy.” He laughed shortly. “Got some sort of infection when I swam in the bay. It never really goes away. But what’s good? What’s bad? We’re all sick beasts.”

Bo returned to work on his ear as he said this, looking away as he itched and itched; it was like watching a dog. When he finally stopped Harlon tried not to regard Bo’s finger too closely—he guessed there was probably blood—but he knew what Bo meant. What could you do but dig and dig until the itching stopped?

Harlon stayed in Ephrem for more than two weeks. He was able to scrape up enough money, busking at the mall with his trash can lids and his driftwood. When mall security drew near he picked up and sold elsewhere.

The vet’s office was on Route 41, in a low brick building, its smudged windows plastered with decals of smiling cats and dogs. The vet herself, young and clinical, was not impressed with Glen’s case. Her assistant Bonnie remembered Harlon from when he worked at the motel, though; she was warmer.

“You’re back!” Bonnie said. She was an older lady, deeply tanned, with a crinkled face. Her dangly earrings were shiny white plastic and shaped like dog bones. They waved gently when she nodded her head, which was often. “Where you been?”

“Here and there,” Harlon said. “You’re not at QuickFry anymore.”

Bonnie grinned. “Aw, I slipped on the tiles and broke my elbow.” She held out her arm: it was a little crooked. “Too hard to manage the fryer.”

“I broke my wrist once, loading trucks,” Harlon said. He stroked Glen gently. Sometimes Glen took exception to new people, but he liked Bonnie fine. “In Montana,” he added.

“I have never been to Montana,” Bonnie said.

The vet came back in then and told them both that Glen had tapeworms and that there were medications for that kind of thing. Then she looked Harlan up and down. Had he been to a doctor himself lately, she wanted to know.

“I’ll go when I get worms,” Harlon said, and Bonnie laughed. “How much is this medication, then?” The doctor told him $15, and Harlon nodded. But there was also the cost of the visit. “Guess I’ll sell more art, then.”

“I’d buy your art,” Bonnie said.

After that, money got a little tighter, but Harlon was resourceful. A restaurant at the mall kept a dumpster in the back, and Harlon went there. It was hard to believe the things people threw out. One time there was most of a 7 Up cake, only a little crushed. Harlon scraped his arm climbing in to get it but it was only a scratch.

“I’m just a scarecrow,” Bo said, using a plastic spoon to eat his cake. “Outside lookin’ in.” Bo didn’t know that the cake came from a dumpster, and Harlon couldn’t help but notice that he had cut himself the biggest slice.

Sometimes a guy named Chuy joined them; he came that night when he heard there was cake. Chuy meant Jesus, Harlon learned. Chuy had been to Vegas and worked in what he called tiger-based magic. Now he was living out of a Winnebago much like Harlon’s own. Chuy said he was living the dream, though he missed the big cats, and he made a fuss over Glen. Was there such a thing as tiger-based medicine, he wondered aloud. He was looking at Harlon’s scraped arm when he said this.

It wasn’t always cake with the dumpster. Harlon ate the sandwiches he found there, carefully cutting away the bitten parts first, and he ate the steaks that were hardly touched. But the vegetables were for art. He took these back to the RV, where the dewormed Glen was purring and purring, and Harlon had maybe a can of beer.

At night he carved the vegetables with symbols. The eggplants were best; they looked like men’s slippers with their leathery purple skins, shiny and swollen. Where Harlon carved, the skin puckered back, and the white flesh darkened and shrank. Mostly he carved the alchemical symbols for air and earth. He had read about these symbols when he was a boy; there had been a book with a winged creature on the cover. He didn’t know what happened to it, though sometimes he wished he’d read it to little Meadow on the occasions they were together.

He meant the eggplants as a gift. A gift for Bo and the other inhabitants of this parking lot. He would carve until his bad wrist gave out, and at night he left the carved eggplants leaning against a tire or in a wheel well. At first people didn’t notice, and then when they did they were afraid. They couldn’t apprehend the symbols. Harlon understood, but it didn’t keep him from wanting.

“It’s something evil,” Bo told Harlon one night. “I don’t know who this sick fuck is, but I’m moving on.”

Harlon looked down at his mason jar. He was drinking; he had been celebrating that Glen was okay for now. The man didn’t have any sense, Harlon thought.

Harlon didn’t carve that night. He went to bed early with Glen on his chest, and he dreamed.

In his dream Harlon was in the RV, like now, but the wheels were gone. He didn’t need them; he knew he would die soon. They were all going to die, on the same day. Somehow they knew this fact: no one left behind, no one missing out. Lenore and Meadow and Glen and Harlon—even Bo. Even Bonnie the assistant. The same day.

In the dream, Bonnie wore her dog bone earrings. She was a little concerned about the dying thing. But it was a completely egalitarian life, Harlon assured her. No grubbing, no taking the largest portion.

Harlon woke panting. It was early but there was no question of his getting any more sleep, so he carefully set Glen aside and got up. The sun was rising behind them, pale over the fields past the Walmart. Bo and his trailer were already gone. The fields, frozen, glowed. Pink Ice, Harlon thought. There would be no outrunning the snow.

Harlon took his time tidying the Winnebago and cleaning the front windshield with vinegar and lemon; sometimes Glen lay on the front dash in the sun, and when he did the glass bore a Glen-shaped smear. Harlon wiped at the glass thoroughly and tenderly, then pulled on his sweater. With Glen settled on the passenger seat, Harlon drove back through town. Together they passed the train station. They passed the vet, with its smiling cats and dogs. Bonnie was probably there, or she would be, soon; when she was at QuickFry, she used to give Harlon warm milk with a little jelly, for the comfort of it. He drove slowly, committing each place and the people in it to his memory. When he passed under the arch, EPHREM was still lit up, pretty, the tiny globes of light protecting him.

It was November. The RV was cold and Harlon’s breath a cloud. Through the newly shining windscreen the road rose up darkly. To either side, fields unspooled. It was not the last minute, Harlon thought, though he was tired and the scrape on his arm had become angry. He glanced at the red line that showed beneath where his sweater sleeve was pushed up, declining to name it. Instead he slowed, turning the RV around and driving back under the beckoning arch. The bulbs spelling EPHREM winked out just as he passed under. But it wasn’t like he didn’t know that was going to happen sooner or later; if asked, he would have said it made no sense to keep the lights on 24/7.

Published on January 21, 2021

2021-01-21T17:06:16-04:00