Mammals – Michael McSweeney
November 2, 2021
The only reason I attended the dimly lit coke party by the dump was to see Paul. A close friend from childhood who now lived in Florida, Paul was in town for the week. It happened that I was also in town for the weekend to watch my parents’ cat while they visited Maine. I despise cocaine, how it makes my heart sprint like some mammal frightened by lightning or gods, how empty my eyes feel as if some great white tongue has scoured them.
Hours before the party, my father showed me the groundhog trap in the backyard. He used one of his thick, sun-bleached hands to demonstrate how the metal door snapped shut once the groundhog ambled inside.
Then it just closes and they peacefully await removal, my father said. Just like that.
Just like that, I replied in the drum-tap pattern I learned from him.
There were two more traps around the backyard, but he only showed me the one. He pointed to the latch I’d need to move to release the trap door if the cat was stupid enough to get caught.
Paul later told me on the phone he and his brother Lee would hold court at the Pikeview Inn that night. I winced at the mention of Lee’s name. Four years older than me. A shorter, sweatier clone of Paul with a penchant for brown liquor. A year earlier, I encountered Lee as he stumbled nude and blind-drunk on the side of the road. I pulled my car over, tugged an old towel across the seat, threw the door open, and urged him inside. I never told Paul about it.
What’s happening after? I asked.
Paul said, Probably gonna go back to Lee’s place. Not really sure yet, though. You should come out with us.
See, Lee was the kind of guy who one time nearly choked someone out after they refused to give him a free cigarette and then laughed after the person punched him in the face. You can’t forget shit like that, his teeth glowing crimson beneath yellow porch lights.
I didn’t go to the bar. Instead I ordered pizza and loafed on the couch with the cat on my chest. I hadn’t seen him in months. I traced the bones of his spine as he rose and fell on my chest, scratched the ear with the corner torn away by some old foe and wondered how many years between us were left. I drifted off and dreamt of naked people opening doors, screaming Are you ready to go?! and then hurling them shut.
My phone’s schizo-electric ringtone woke me. I stared blankly at the time as I pulled my face in its direction: 1:39 a.m. I prodded the screen and coughed.
Hello? I asked.
Yoooo, Zack! shrieked Paul. His voice was more high-pitched than usual, kind of stretchy, even. Where the fuck you at, kid?
Home. Then I said, My parents’ house.
We’re on our way to Lee’s. You should come here, man. It’s gonna be fuckin’ rad. Good times. Good people.
Yeah, we met a whole crew here. Lee invited them over. It’s gonna be sick.
Paul ended the call as noise swallowed his voice. The cat watched me until his cloudy yellow eyes slid back shut. The urge to do the same was powerful. Then I heard a loud snap from outside. The trap in the back garden. I stood and approached the window and peered through the gloom. I heard the trap rattle as the captured animal struggled against the bars. There was nothing to do except call the number for Animal Control on the card my father left me. So I wished the groundhog good luck and shuffled toward the bathroom to hold my face and douse it with cold water.
It took me about forty-five minutes to walk to Lee’s. You knew you were getting closer because of the stench from the dump. One of those grassy pimples of the earth pock-marked by rusty methane pipes. Every time I see the thing, I wonder how big of an explosion it could create. How long the fires would take to extinguish. What they’d name the crater. As I walked, the frigid air iced the snot in my nose. To break the spell of the dump-stench I stopped at a nearby gas station and bought a fresh pack of smokes, relishing the aroma of cheap-ass gasoline and burnt coffee from the mini-sized Dunkin Donuts.
The embers of an unattended bonfire clicked and glowed on Lee’s lawn. The heat thawed and blackened the grass. I heard voices from inside and entered the half-closed front door. In the kitchen I found a half-dozen partiers crowded around a massive barbarian-bearded man who doled out small lines of coke with pudgy hands.
Zack! Zack fucking Sweeney! Paul cried as he collided against me. Paul, blush-cheeked and clean-shaven as I’d never seen him before, grabbed my face with his gloved hands and squeezed.
He said, Jesus, man, we thought you’d never make it.
You know you got that big fire out front unattended, right? I asked.
Oh true, true, we gotta — hey! Then Paul jabbed me a few times in the stomach and laughed.
I found myself standing beside the big man with the coke. Maybe it was the weed, but it seemed like the party orbited around him. Like he was a star feeding energy to all these mortal planets. I tried not to stare, but I was drawn to the big man’s facial shifts when someone asked for a bump. Like the entirety of a relationship shown through the twitch of eyebrows, nostril flares or the ways his lips waggled and stretched in response to flattery or pleas. Once or twice, these requests came with promises of future favors. Whatever calculations he made, the big man had a strong poker face and never said no.
The big man noticed me staring, and we shook hands and introduced ourselves. I’ve forgotten his name. His features softened when it became apparent that I was the only person there not angling for his stash. When I passed him my bowl, the big man’s face rose into a smile like a belt swing stretched wide by too many asses.
Good looks, good looks, he grunted at me. He pressed his lighter into the bowl and I watched the flames blacken and devour every speck of weed inside. When he passed it back, I tapped the ash into the sink and slid it into my pocket.
We got to talking. The funny thing is that once he knew I wasn’t after his coke, he insisted on offering it to me whenever our conversation seemed to lull. We spoke about growing up in Lowell. Whether we knew the same people who hung out at the coffee shop near the highway. What would happen if we gave Lee’s dog a bump. Every so often one supplicant or another would approach, and like some kind of bulging red-eyed pope of momentary stimulation, the big man parceled out a line on the countertop.
I divided my time between the kitchen, the remains of the bonfire, and the garage. Paul had set up a ramshackle studio amid the litter. Rough shapes of people and animals rose from flat wooden bases. One of the partiers roasted menthol after menthol and kept asking me what I thought about Paul’s work.
I said, It’s good. I know he puts a lot of time into it.
Seems kind of shitty to me, she said.
I think it’s the kind of thing you have to dedicate a lot of time to.
Like raising a kid.
Yeah, exactly. That’s a good way to put it.
I know. That’s why I said that.
I laughed and then coughed.
Then she said, I have a son. He’s four. You wanna see him?
She took a phone from her purse and pressed her thumb on the screen. It stayed dark.
Shit. I forgot that it died at the bar. Well, I have pictures. Lots. She pocketed her phone and rubbed her nose with the back of her hand.
What’s your son’s name? I asked.
That’s a nice name.
Thank you. He’s a lot of work. Like, he’s really bad with pets.
What do you mean?
She was smoking the tobacco down to the filter but didn’t seem to notice.
She asked, Would you believe we’ve gone through three cats in four years?
What do you mean, gone through?
Like, they died. In accidents. She said the word accidents very slowly.
I’m sorry to hear that, I said.
The last one was bad. He threw it off the balcony. It fucked up some lady’s windshield. I had to tell them the cat escaped by accident and fell off. If I told them it was Aiden, we’d get kicked out.
I looked at the ground and traced a crack in the concrete with my boot. Jesus, I said.
Another time we didn’t see the cat for two months, she continued. I thought it got away until we found it under the couch.
Two months? You couldn’t smell it?
Mmm. She tossed her cigarette on the ground and pressed it beneath her boot. She said, It kind of mixed, right, like with everything else, she said. Food. Smoke. We smoke inside.
I felt her eyes on my skin, vague like an old string.
Then she said, I would just do anything to help him. I wanna help him.
You should. You should.
But also help myself, too. That, too. God, I love him so much.
That’s also important.
You’re a good listener, you know that?
I think you’d like Aidan. He really likes to draw. Like your friend.
I need a drink.
With uneven footsteps, she left the garage and tugged the door shut behind her. I ran my finger along one of the rough sculptures and thought of a cat plunging five stories into safety glass. I dropped my cigarette to the floor and spat on the ember until it died.
It wasn’t until people began to drift away from the party and the sky shifted to deep blue that I saw Lee. Shirtless, sweat-swamped, eyes edged by red lightning. Lee didn’t recognize me at first, but then his eyes bulged, and he tugged me against his chest.
Zack. Zack, he told me. My brother’s best friend. He loves you. We love you.
It’s good to see you, Lee.
My skin shrank in his grip. I had a lot of sex tonight, said Lee. A lot of it. And I already forgot what it was like.
That’s tough, man.
It was? It was, said Lee, ejecting something between a cough and a snicker in my face. I don’t know who was in there with me. Might’a been two. Or three.
Did you wear protection?
Lee’s face twisted. No, I did not, he said, twitching away like the wind urged him on.
Then the big man rose from his chair. He hadn’t moved from it all night. Heads twitched as he disturbed the gravitational logic of the party. Coats and hats sprouted on people like weeds. No one said it outright, but it was time to go because the big man had decided to leave. I shook his hand on the way out. He’d chain-smoked all night and a wet edge tinted his breathing. I still don’t remember his name. No one else acknowledged me as they shuffled out into the new-breaking day.
I found Paul on the couch, awake, arms across his chest. The living room felt like a crypt.
Have fun, Zack? he asked.
Oh, yeah. I love meeting new people.
We didn’t get any games in, man.
Hang out later?
Maybe. Call me, I said. I don’t know why I felt so conditional. I didn’t choose to erect those walls. They simply rose, and I stepped back to allow them passage.
Paul pulled me down into an embrace and kissed me on the cheek. Get home safe, brother, he said, his breath stale and fleshy. He was snoring by the time I reached the door. The entire night, I never removed my coat.
When I reached my parents’ house, I didn’t go inside. My boots crunched the brown and frost-imprisoned lawn. My teeth felt sore in the dry air. I confused a garbage truck for a restless dog as it roared from the next street over. But most of all, I felt inescapably lonely, the way bedrooms shadowed by towers of old laundry and clusters of half-drained water cups feel. I thought of Boston, me a follower in groups I sort-of knew, more passerby than participant, night after night. What scared me most was that I believed I was meant to feel this way.
I remembered the groundhog and the trap. I walked around to my father’s shed by the back garden and found a skunk crammed inside the cage. It was alive, breathing in frantic bursts and slumped on its side. The skunk had knocked the cage over and now lay atop the latch.
Shit, I said.
I weighed my options, most of which ended with me smelling like some long-rotting corpse for days on end. I wondered how angry the animal control person would be if I called about a skunk, or what my father would say if I called him sleepless after dawn and rambled about my problem. There was nothing else to do but hope, so I pressed the toe of my boot against the cage and pushed it over.
The skunk didn’t react. But now it sat upright, and its round black eyes settled on me. A splotch of dried blood stained the white strip of fur down the center of its face. I could see the latch. With cautious steps, I approached the cage, eyes steady on the skunk’s eyes, and as I moved, I slowly raised my hand to grasp the latch. I waited for the inevitable hiss and the rush of the skunk’s foul defense in my direction.
I released the trap door. It thudded against the ground. I stumbled back a few steps, held the skunk’s gaze and breathed. The skunk gripped the bars of the trap with its claws and tugged itself forward. The thing was enormous, a god-king of skunks who blundered into some ape’s trap. We each held our ground and considered one another.
The skunk then bowed its head to me, looked up and scampered to the edge of the yard. After snuffling at the air, as if searching for a scent of home, the skunk’s great black and white frame pushed the dense and leafless overgrowth aside and wandered out of sight.