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Authors: Diana Wagman

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BOOK: The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets
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“Hey babe,” he hummed. “See you soon.”

Before he went to the reptile forums, he searched head injuries. He clicked on the first website that came up. Fracture. Paralysis. Trouble breathing. His heart was shrinking in his chest. “If the victim is unconscious, do not move them in case of severe neck or spine injury. Immediately call 911.” Too late, he thought. Too late. He should never have let her go to the bathroom. He should have made her shit her pants. He slammed his fist into his thigh. He punched himself in the face. He was an idiot, stupid, a buttwipe!

“Gimme a hot dog, buttwipe.”

It was raining. The canvas roof of the hot dog stand billowed in the wind collecting the water and then releasing it. The intermittent stream drenched ten-year-old Oren's left shoulder as he fished in the cooker. He had forgotten his jacket. His T-shirt was already half soaked. He handed over the hot dog and bun on a flimsy red and white paper tray. The meat had been rolling in the hot water since three o'clock that afternoon. The skin was blistered and glistening with fat.

“That'll be two seventy-five,” he said, but the teenager just laughed.

“In the fucking rain? Are you kidding?”

“Two seventy-five,” Oren said again, his young voice getting softer. “Please?” His dad would kill him if he gave anything away for free.

“Fuck you,” the boy said. He was long and skinny with a mountain range of white-capped pimples across his forehead. He took a big bite and stuck out his food-covered tongue at Oren as his friends walked up.

“Hey,” he said to them, “This kid is giving away free hot dogs.”

“No,” Oren declared. “No, I'm not.”

The teenagers swarmed the booth, like monkeys, climbing on the wheels, swinging from the corner struts. One of them opened the door and came inside. Oren waved his hot dog fork.

“Are you trying to poke me?” The boy was indignant. “Me? The customer?”

“Get away!” Oren wailed.

“Hot dogs!” the boy cried. He grabbed the fork from Oren and began spearing dogs and tossing them to the others. Some of them landed in the wet dirt. The boys laughed.

“Stop it,” Oren tried. He wondered where all the carnies had gone. The midway was empty. The cotton candy girl had gone back to her trailer an hour ago. The Tilt-A-Whirl was closed. Even the Haunted House was shuttered for the night, but Oren couldn't leave until his father said so. He tried to push the boy who was throwing the hot dogs. The boy just snickered, high and mean, his derision as sharp as a stick.


His father was coming. Marcus strode through the rain, his boots kicking up the mud. He wasn't tall, but he was pumped,
more pit bull than man. The boys scattered. Oren slid out of the stand and began frantically picking up the hot dogs.


“I'm sorry, daddy,” he said. He stood up to face him. “I couldn't stop—”

Before he could finish his father's hand swung and knocked him down into the mud. Oren scrambled to his feet and his father belted him again. He stumbled, but he did not fall. “I'm sorry,” he said. “I'm sorry.”

“Pick up those dogs and wash ‘em off good. That's your breakfast, lunch, and dinner for tomorrow.”

“I tried to stop them. It's not my fault.”

Marcus lifted his hand. “Do you want another one?”

Oren bent to get the dirty hot dogs. His father spread his legs, disgust washing his face, dripping with the rain on his broad shoulders, his muscular arms, those dangerous hands. Oren recognized his own freckled skin, the burnish of red hair in the dim light. He didn't want to share anything with his father.

He gathered the hot dogs and wrapped them in a soggy napkin. Marcus would not forget to make him eat them. He turned off the cooker, put the lid on it, and handed his father the cash box. Then he stood on his tiptoes on the milk crate to close the shutters as his father watched.

“Fucking idiot,” his father said as he turned away. “Tell your mother I'm going out.”

His father went one way, toward the exit, and Oren took off toward the RV that was home. His ear was ringing where Marcus had hit him. He always hit him on the same side. Oren wondered, why did he never give this ear a break?

Oren ran until he reached their motor home. “Mama?” he asked at the door. “Mama?”

The door opened just a crack releasing a strip of harsh light
that hit him right in the eyes. He squinted at the person in silhouette peeking out at him.

“Something the matter?”

It was Jimmy, the agent for the Ferris wheel. Jimmy had a secret tattoo on his thigh of a naked woman being burned at the stake. It was a picture of his wife, he told Oren once. She hadn't been tied to a stake, but she was passed out in bed and Jimmy said he hoped she woke up long enough for it to hurt like hell.

“Can I come in?” It was his home. “Dad said he was going out.”

“You cold? Take my sweatshirt.” Jimmy took it off. He wasn't wearing a shirt underneath.

“Is my mother in there?”

“Just take it.” Jimmy threw the sweatshirt at him and the zipper hit his face. “Leave your mother alone,” he hissed. “Leave the bitch alone.”

Oren tasted blood on his lip. He let the sweatshirt fall as he called again. “Mama! Open up.”

“Oren?” his mother called to him, “Baby, is that you?” Her voice was way up in the top of the trees somewhere, high and thin as the whistle from a plastic toy. “Baby? Go away now. Give your mama some time alone.”

“You heard her,” Jimmy said.

Oren took a step forward and Jimmy shoved him hard enough to send him back on his ass. Jimmy was chuckling as he shut the door.

Oren got up and started running again. The rain didn't bother him. He knew the exact number of steps to the place he was going. The only place he could go. It didn't matter if the carnival was set up in Kentucky or Wisconsin. Each ride always sat in its same place, the popcorn wagon smelled of chemicals and rancid oil, the merry-go-round calliope slid off-key in the same
measure. There were always discarded tickets under his feet, and fat people in shorts and tank tops, and mothers yelling at their children. Oren was never sure the carnival really went anywhere at all. Maybe they just pretended to drive all night. When he woke up, they were always in the same K-Mart parking lot or the same field just outside town.

He ran until he reached The Amazing Amazon, threw open the door and collapsed inside the warm stink and recorded monkey cries. The educational attraction where his fifteen-year-old sister, Fiona, worked was a forty-five-foot semi trailer transformed into a jungle habitat with fake foliage and a broken waterfall. It housed an ancient parrot, a nine foot red tailed boa constrictor, two corn snakes, some water turtles and an ever-dying collection of tree frogs. The star attraction was a pair of great green iguanas, male and female, who had just given birth to a small clutch.

Oren's arrival triggered the automatic voice. “Welcome to the amazing Amazon, the largest tropical rainforest in the world. As you walk the path, look up and watch for—”

“Done already?” Fiona cut off the recording.

“Dad.” He didn't need to say anymore.

“Yeah. I'm in the shit too. The last stupid tree frog died.”

“Maybe you can get another one in Kansas.”

“What'd you do this time?”

“Some boys stole the hot dogs. I tried to stop them.”

“You're a fucking fuck-up. Do you know that?” She shook her head at him. “Loser. Capital ‘L'.”

Even as bitchy as she was, she was a kind of comfort. “How's Cookie?”

“You and that lizard.”


“At least I haven't killed him yet.”

Oren crawled through the plastic bushes and behind the exhibits. In a special tank under three incubator lights, two tiny great green iguana eyes blinked. Oren reached in and carefully lifted baby Cookie out of his cage. He was only seven inches long and Oren cradled him against his chest, smiling at how the iguana calmed his thumping heart. He stroked Cookie's dewlap, and the round scales on either side of his head. Cookie let his legs fold and settled on Oren's palm. They were friends. Best friends. Oren carried Cookie out and together they watched Fiona feed baby mice to the corn snakes. She had to poke the hairless blind infants into the snakes' mouths with a chopstick and then massage the snakes' throats until they got them down. They were old snakes, far from wild anymore. As he watched, Oren made a plan. One day soon, he would kill his father. He would chop him into small pieces and feed him to the snakes. Slowly. One spoonful of flesh would look just like those hairless pinkies. If he kept his father tied up and alive, the meat would be fresher, the snakes would eat more, and his father could watch as he was eaten alive day by day.

Oren pushed the computer off his lap. The websites about head injuries were all bad news. She had to be coherent. She had to feel pretty good if his plan was going to work. He stood up filled with heat, with frustration, with his own incredible stupidity. He jumped up and down. Fucking idiot! He bumped his nose against the wall but it didn't give him the satisfaction it obviously gave Cookie. He threw himself from one side of the hall to the other, colliding into the walls, slamming his shoulder, then his hip, then his other shoulder. He grunted with every blow. This was it. The pain, always the pain helped him forget. Forget the mother lying in the bed. Forget the plan. Forget he was an idiot, fucking idiot, idiot. He swung his head down between his
knees and then back up. Up and down. He gritted his teeth and kept himself from screaming.

Stop it. His good voice told him. Stop. Look at the carpet. Look at this superior carpet.

It glittered in the overhead light. He crouched and dug his fingers into the wool and plastic-treated fibers. He had put this carpet in. He had gotten a very good employee discount. He had a good job at Carpet Barn and Uncle Nolan had been so pleased. Uncle Nolan said Oren was the best tenant he'd ever had. It was a very high quality carpet. He took deep breaths and he thought about the carpet and his happy uncle and his breath came in gulps. It was a woven carpet, not the cheaper tufted. It was a deep plush pile. Perfect for a house without children or dogs. It was spotless and would stay that way until he left. He would make her take off her shoes before she walked on it again. He took a deep breath. Yes, that's what he would do. And with her shoes off, she would not be as ready to run away. Good idea, he told himself. Damn good thinking. It was going to be fine. She was hurt, but she was not dead. Hurt badly maybe, but—

Why me, he began. Then he stopped himself.

Because I deserve it,” he said out loud. He rubbed his shoulder where he had banged the wall. It was sore, probably bruised, but it would be a reminder that he was who he was. “Because I am a special person.”

He had a plan. He only needed Winnie to wake up to begin step two.


Jonathan heard a noise from outside. He stood up. The neighborhood was changing. When they moved in, it had been mostly Latino. Back then it didn't look so nice, some of the houses were rundown or had junk in the front yards, but families had lived here. People waved when you went out to get the mail. When he and Winnie brought Lacy home from the hospital, the El Salvadorian woman next door had brought so many pupusas Winnie had joked Lacy would be taking them in her lunchbox to kindergarten. But then, during the housing boom, a lot of their neighbors had cashed out and bought bigger homes in the far suburbs like Palmdale and Lancaster. The yuppies and hipsters had moved in, or developers who had renovated and rented. Instead of being a neighborhood, it felt like a way station, starter homes for young people who wanted to move out as quickly as possible. In the past year, with the economy in the tank, there was more graffiti and many more break-ins and muggings. Jonathan knew it. Everyday he checked the LAPD Northeast Division website and read the crime blotter. It was his job to watch out for Lacy of course and even Winnie. She wouldn't take his money, but he was still the man. He felt responsible, not like some dead-head or dead-beat ex-husbands. Look at what a good job he did coming over here, fixing things, making sure the windows were closed, the back door locked. He was indispensable.

Buddy stood and bristled. He gave a single short bark.

“Good boy,” Jonathan said. “Good dog.”

He tiptoed to the side window in the dining room. The table was littered with old mail and newspapers, various articles of clothing Winnie had dropped as she went past. When he lived with her he had hated her mess. Her casual attitude about where things belonged had driven him crazy. She didn't know how to take care of her stuff, herself, or when he met her, even how to boil water. She had grown up with servants, staff to cook and clean and stay with her for the long months her mother was away making films. Her mother. He snorted. Daisy Juniper was a piece of art—or work—or both—whatever that expression was. She was crazy and she cultivated her insanity. She had called from her New York penthouse in the middle of the night more than once.

Winnie would roll over him to answer. “It's her,” she always said even before checking the caller i.d. or picking up the receiver. Then, “Daisy,” into the phone, not hi Mom, or hello or what the fuck are you calling me for this time.

“Don't cry,” seemed to be the next thing Winnie always said. Daisy had problems with men. She brought out the worst in them, and Jonathan could almost understand it.

“Did you call a cop?” Winnie would ask, but Daisy never had.

Usually Daisy stayed on the phone for an hour or more and she stayed in Manhattan. One time she had actually gotten on the plane and arrived the next day, sunglasses not really covering her beaten face. She hid in their house, this house, until her face returned to normal. One afternoon as he had made her lunch, the famous Daisy Juniper, two-time Oscar winner, had rested her pale, lovely head on his shoulder and cried. His arms had gone around her, startled by how fragile she seemed although
almost his height. Winnie felt solid in his arms and in his bed. He worried he could crush Daisy, but when he relaxed his grip, she snuggled in closer. At the time he was lucky to get any kind of acting gig. His two film roles hadn't gotten much notice. His agent wanted him to audition for a brand new game show,
Tie the Knot

BOOK: The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets
3.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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