by Paul Weidknecht
She hadn’t gotten there just yet, but Michelle knew it wouldn’t be long before she had her Wandering Deer Estates home, that Buck Ridge Terrace address. The timeline was anyone’s guess, but until then she would stay with the plan, let it play out, maybe visit the construction site a few more times. And now, it was in this soothing confidence that she stood in the doorway of her tiny kitchen watching the mess unfold without being all that angry.
Still, she wondered why they all had to prepare their lunches at the same time. It was as if a buzzer had sounded the start of a contest and the first to create something that resembled food was the winner. Skyler and Tyler, the teen and ‘tween, had begun work on an impossibly large mixed salad, much bigger than both of them could ever finish; while Don, off from the warehouse this Saturday, had thrown a handful of chips along side a tuna sandwich he’d put together. She peeked past Don’s sandwich to the countertop, then shot him a look, the meaning of which was lost in the bustle. A puddle of oil from the tuna and a tablespoon of diced onions glistened back, spread in a foot and a half swath across the counter. She sighed. Without a doubt, her next kitchen would be immense, spectacular; it would be a Wandering Deer kitchen.
Don looked down at the sock-footed three-year-old, Kyler, padding across the kitchen floor with a juice box in his hand.
“How come you got the kid dressed like a rat?” Don asked through a mouthful of sandwich.
Michelle would let that one go for now. Don had seen her in the back room night after night for weeks, cutting patterns and sewing together panels of material. He’d seen Kyler cajoled from his morning cartoons and bowl of dry Cheerios, marched in for alteration after alteration so the garment would fit like a second skin. Anyone with half a brain could see this child was not dressed like a rat.
“A weasel. We’re going to Shady Birch to visit Suzanna,” she said.
“It’s weasels now? Three months ago it was dogs, before that, cockatiels.”
“Yeah, I know. A while back a group of eighth graders from the middle school visited the home with several animals. Animal therapy. This time Suzanna really seems locked in on weasels. She’s got several pictures around her room, on the dresser, by her bed. She’s also asked me for a subscription to Weasel Quarterly, so I got her one. I figure it’s an investment.”
Don rolled his eyes and walked into the living room with his sandwich.
She hadn’t expected him to understand; his mind didn’t work that way. Not that he was dumb—he wasn’t—but Don’s vision of life was confined to the warehouse where he oversaw the swing shift as they palletted, shrink-wrapped, then shipped, various electronics around the country. She had to admit he was a hard-working man, just maybe not so ambitious in a captain-of-industry sort of way. Another man might have seen himself becoming warehouse director, or eventually angling for a piece of the action as a partial owner, but Don seemed to enjoy the comfort of a tight perimeter, a refuge in which any poor decisions on his part could be corrected by those a link higher in the chain of command. Each morning he’d leave for work in a shirt and tie, and every evening he’d return, shirt sleeves rolled to his elbows and tie absent, claiming it was easier just to pitch in and move a box of damaged or recalled merchandise himself rather than delegate the work.
When they’d first met, Don’s idea for a life together sounded fine. She wasn’t so much swept away by his specific plan (a nationwide fast food chain featuring gourmet gyros), but rather impressed by his delivery of it, his energy and enthusiasm. Taking the warehouse job nearly fifteen years ago had been meant to generate some start-up money for his enterprise, but this only led to that greatest enemy of dreamers in uninspiring jobs: a promotion.
Michelle wanted more. While her job as a sales rep who called on nursing homes and rehab centers was an essential supplement to Don’s income, that didn’t mean she had to like it, and it didn’t change the fact that she’d always imagined herself—her true self—as one of those blessed women who didn’t need to work.
Now, she found herself still amazed at how events had come together so fortuitously these past six months. First there was great-aunt Joyce breaking a hip in her bathroom at home and her subsequent rehabilitation at Shady Birch with Suzanna as a roommate. Then Michelle’s million-to-one, accidental spotting of Aunt Joyce while she was on a sales call, of all things, just a fluke glance into her room while walking down the corridor. And finally, discovering from Joyce that Suzanna was loaded, and better, with no heirs to receive her seven and a half million dollars when her time came to slip this earthly realm. Michelle found it hard to believe all of this had come from a wet floor and an out-of-reach shower rail.
And there was more good news: Suzanna’s cataracts were worsening. She could make out people by their shapes and voices, but minute details were fogged under a hazy circle of light. In addition to this, Michelle discovered Suzanna was experiencing what she felt were symptoms of dementia. Occasionally, conversations with her would come to a sudden halt as the woman jumped from praising the lovely tissue paper flowers they’d made in the day room, to inquiring if anyone had seen her ration book around anywhere.
“Kyler,” she called out. “Go find your shoes. We’re leaving to see Aunt Suzanna.”
Driving to Shady Birch, Michelle considered the last half year and all she had accomplished. The costume had taken a lot of time, but it hadn’t been everything. Weekly visits and purchases of little gifts to speed up bonding and raise Suzanna’s awareness about giving took up more time than she had anticipated. Then there were the intangibles, like her Oscar-caliber acting job when feigning interest in Suzanna’s somnolent conversations or trying not to laugh when she’d talk about wanting to hear President Roosevelt’s fireside chat tonight.
But Michelle was most proud of the plan itself, its creativity and originality, the degree of psychological depth and control involved. Although she felt a little embarrassed that the seed for it had come from a cable program about baby animals, she realized nearly all great enterprises had humble beginnings. She knew of at least one entertainment empire that had been spawned from a rodent scurrying across a cartoonist’s writing room floor.
About the time when Suzanna was becoming fixated on weasels, Michelle had seen the cable program and as one idea led to the next, she found herself pondering a question and arriving at its obvious answer all at once: What was more loveable than a baby animal? A baby as an animal.
She had never really thought the old woman would take this literally, as there were moments of lucidity in which Suzanna was as sharp as anyone, but by presenting two beloved entities—an animal and a child—as one, positive emotional saturation couldn’t help but wash over her short-circuiting mind.
She looked up into the rearview mirror of the minivan. Kyler sat bundled into his car seat, his gaze fixed out the window at the passing world. No question, the kid’s sweetness quotient was off the charts; he was cuteness to the tenth power. Michelle had talked to Suzanna about Kyler before, but now was the right time to roll him out. Skyler and Tyler were mentioned also, but there was never any serious consideration of bringing them to Shady Birch. They might’ve started acting like their thirteen and eleven-year-old selves in front of Suzanna, putting the kibosh on any will money for college. They would thank her for it later.
When Michelle and Kyler arrived, she signed in at the reception desk. Turning around a moment later, she noticed Kyler had wandered away, now standing next to an elderly woman shrunken into a wheelchair, both staring into the lobby aquarium. She began walking over, then stopped, dipping into a potted palm and standing still among the fronds.
With his furry arm extended and tiny index finger bent upward against the glass, Kyler looked to the old woman, bringing her attention to a passing fish. The elderly woman shook her head sharply in what appeared to be a rebuke. Seconds later, the woman pointed past him toward the front doors, poking the air several times to punctuate her message, before trying to shoo him away with a wave. It seemed as though the woman was not only telling him to get away from her, but ordering the child to leave the building. The old woman suddenly squawked, then she did it again.
A nurse walked over, placing her hand gently on the woman’s shoulder. Kyler’s eyes were wide as he fled back toward the reception desk, his little head darting back and fourth, scanning the lobby for his mother. Michelle emerged from the plant, and while the boy hugged her thigh, she noticed the nurse looking sadly at the woman.
Starting down the hallway toward Suzanna’s room, Michelle couldn’t help but sidle near the nurse and wheelchair lady. What she heard reminded her of a teacher speaking to a kindergartner.
“You’re right,” the nurse said. “That’s one of the rules. But that was just a boy in a costume. But you’re right, only therapy animals are allowed here.”
Michelle closed her eyes and grinned.
The two arrived at the room, and as Michelle knocked on the open door to announce themselves, Suzanna looked up from her book and smiled.
Though she was ninety-one, Suzanna could have passed for someone twenty years younger. Her face was alert, vibrant, and aside from wrinkles normal for the age, her skin appeared almost peachy. Her hair was completely white, perfectly groomed into an airy ball that reminded Michelle of cotton candy, springy to the touch. Her blue eyes appeared big and watery and innocent behind her overly-thick glasses.
“Well, well, who’s this?” Suzanna asked, leaning forward and smiling at the boy.
Now seemed as good a time as any to Michelle. She had practiced at home in the mirror; had gotten the face and words to match. There couldn’t be the hint of a smile when she delivered the line.
“This is a little weasel,” Michelle said.
“I no weasel,” Kyler barked up at his mother, his bottom lip jutted in a pout.
Michelle smiled down at the boy, picking a piece of lint from one of the triangular weasel ears with her bright red fingernails. “A ferret.”
“Suzanna, it’s a little ferret.”
“It looks like a little boy,” Suzanna said.
It would be a tough sell, Michelle knew, but she was convinced emotion would be enough to carry this to the end. She would be confident. She would stay on message. She would stand firm. Suzanna’s eyes were that bad, and the costume was that good.
“Suzanna, dear, it’s a ferret and a boy, both.”
Suzanna dipped her head in thought, vacantly bringing her fingers to her lips. Michelle saw confusion work its way over the woman’s face. Then Suzanna looked up.
“A ferret and a boy, you say?”
Michelle brightened. “Yes. And we love him so much.”
“He is a cute one,” Suzanna admitted.
“Very cute. And he loves you too.”
Michelle immediately regretted what she’d said. Here she was a sales professional and she’d gone and pushed too quickly. She watched the old woman place her hands on the armrests and slowly push herself up from the chair. Suzanna shuffled to the dresser where she picked up a framed photograph showing a weasel resting on its belly in thick summer grass, the sunlight warm on its coat, the creature wearing a flea collar from which hung a small oval medallion. The animal’s mouth was open in a kind of weasel smile, its little white teeth visible inside. She smiled back. Her smile faded as she turned around to Kyler, then back to the picture. Suzanna replaced the photograph and returned to her chair, shaking her head, frowning. Then she shrugged.
“Well, if you love him and he loves me, then I love him,” Suzanna declared with a laugh.
With the bathroom door open, Michelle washed her face and glanced over at Don. He was sitting up in bed, running through the stations with the remote, his eyes glazed at every offering, whether Bogie in a trench coat or bikini-clad parasites screaming at each other on a reality show.
“You know,” she called out over the running water. “I read something very interesting today.”
“In this magazine, North American Ferret, I read that—”
“Wait, I thought it was called ‘Weasel Weekly’ or whatever,” said Don.
She shook her head. “No, Weasel Quarterly is what you’re thinking of. North American Ferret is different, published out in Iowa somewhere. Anyway, you know how a gathering of buffalo is called a herd and a bunch of fish is a school?”
“Well, a group of weasels is called a confusion. A confusion of weasels. Isn’t that weird?”
She walked in and slipped under the covers beside him. Michelle picked up the paperback on her night stand, absently opened it to the bookmark, then put it back. She glimpsed Don with a faint smile he didn’t see. She wasn’t doing any reading, not tonight.
“I have great news,” Michelle began.
“We won the lottery.”
“Kyler is toilet-trained,” she said.
“Yeah? Great,” Don said, dully.
“It is great.”
“I know, that’s what I just said,” he replied, still looking straight ahead.
“You don’t sound enthused.”
“I’m just tired, Michelle. Tired doesn’t mean I’m not enthused.”
They fell silent, and after several moments, she felt grateful for the television’s stream of chopped conversations filling in the dead air. She didn’t want to argue. Today had been one of those special days that didn’t come along too often and could hardly ever be ruined. In fact, the day had been nearly perfect. Don had brought home news of a possible promotion. He’d made similar proclamations over the years, but something, maybe a feeling, said this was different, that perhaps this was his time. Suzanna seemed sold on the notion that Kyler was a ferret/child hybrid. And perhaps best of all, Kyler had surprised her with his maturity and discipline by graduating from diapers straight to underwear, skipping that entire in between stage all other children put their mothers through.
She felt good tonight. It may have been the news today, or maybe the muggy summer air through their bedroom window, she really didn’t know, and didn’t much care either. Michelle slid her hand over Don’s chest, the right pectoral, then the left, at first gliding it lightly over the hair in a breezy tickle, then pressing her fingertips into the muscle itself, as if checking the quality of a cut of steak. Not as hard as he had been, but still solid for someone knocking on forty. Must have been his box lifting at work. Keep that damaged merchandise coming… She ran her hand upward and cupped his chin, moving in, kissing the spot on his neck just below his ear. She swung her right leg over his, trapping it.
“Ah, honey, I’d love to,” Don said. “But, you know, I have this day shift to cover tomorrow. Switched off with Hector O’Grady. Remember?”
Stopping at the crest, Michelle stepped from the minivan. A vista of rounded mountains spread before her, the land rolling from green forested peaks nearby to smoky blue hills in the distance. She looked up. A hawk rode an air current above her, circling twice before tilting away and cutting from sight. Down the other side, a dump truck’s backup signal bleated, as a framing crew banged in sheets of yellow plywood, their hammer blows overlapping the work of another group of framers three lots away.
Her sister had taken Kyler for the day and Michelle had decided to come here once again. She wasn’t certain of the exact location of the home, but it would be someplace along this ridge. The street signs had already been planted, so she knew this was Buck Ridge Terrace. Although she saw no deer, she liked the view from her future backyard.
Lately, she found the construction site the only place she could gather her thoughts. She thought of the past and how everything over these last months had come down to simple persuasion, the art of gaining someone’s confidence and support for a purpose. Of course, this wasn’t new to her. Being in sales, she knew all about persuasion, about working the prospect into a lather, getting the customer to dislocate an elbow grabbing for the checkbook, and this was how she’d realized she had been sold as well. She’d bought into Don’s plan all those years ago. He had sold her. To her, when the great gourmet gyro company never took shape it was as if a contract had been broken gradually over time, a breach in slow motion. She still loved Don, and hadn’t become completely bitter, but she would take care of all future negotiations. She had worked hard for her Buck Ridge Terrace address. It was real and close and she would not lose it.
Michelle and Kyler hadn’t been to Shady Birch in over a month, and now as they walked down the corridor, she couldn’t help but feel they had missed some important happening. The place looked the same, of course, but something struck her as being strangely unfamiliar, as if some new rule had been enacted. She knew she had no one to blame but herself. Too many lunch break visits to Wandering Deer, too many model home tours.
They rounded the corner into Suzanna’s room and stopped short. Michelle’s smile went flat, as the tot looked up at his mother, confused.
The bed and reading chair were empty.
For a moment, she felt a pinch inside her she wasn’t sure was shock or sadness or happiness. The room looked lonely rather than vacant, as if no new resident could, or even should, live there. Kyler wandered several steps farther into the room and Michelle had the urge to stop him, although she didn’t know why. She followed him in, then caught sight of the dresser and night stand. The weasel pictures were gone.
“The courtyard,” said the voice behind them.
The two turned to see a thin man in purple scrubs and white latex gloves in the doorway emptying the room’s plastic waste basket into a huge bucket on wheels.
“She’s probably in the courtyard. Sometimes they’ll go out for some sun,” he added.
Minutes later, Michelle found Suzanna seated in a lawn chair near a low adobe-style wall, her face tilted toward the sun.
“Ah, Suzanna,” Michelle called out to her. Suzanna raised her arm in a mechanical wave.
Michelle leaned down, whispered into Kyler’s ear, sending him running toward the elderly woman, his ropy black-tipped tail dragging at first, then bouncing against the soles of his sneakers with each quickening step. He held his arms open and Suzanna caught him in a hug.
The women spoke for several minutes, but Michelle sensed something wasn’t right; their conversation was stilted, preoccupied, not as fluid as it had been for the past months. Michelle was about to speak when Suzanna began.
“We need to talk about something quite important. About the future.”
Michelle had been waiting for this. They had discussed lawyers and wills and estate planning, with each successive conversation drawing a more defined picture of where everyone stood when that time finally came. She couldn’t squeeze a promise out of her, but as a sales pro, she knew closing cues when she saw them. Five thousand square feet, hardwood flooring, gourmet kitchen with granite countertop, free of tuna oil and diced onions.
“There’s been a change,” said Suzanna.
“Mommy, I too hot.”
Michelle turned to Kyler, who played behind her, running a toy truck along the top of the wall’s bumpy surface. “That’s all right, dear. Mommy will take care of it.” She turned back to Suzanna. “A change?”
“He seems uncomfortable,” said Suzanna.
“He’ll be fine. Now what were you saying?”
“He really does look warm in there.”
“Suzanna, I will get him inside to the air-conditioning in a moment. What did you mean about change?”
“As the weather has become warmer and I’ve spent more time out here in the courtyard, I’ve come to a realization.”
“A realization,” said Michelle.
“Yes, I’ve come to see that my friends are, well, lizards.”
The word jarred Michelle. She chuckled to buy a moment of thought, to consider what the old woman meant. Had she just been insulted? Was Suzanna having one of her mental lapses?
“Lizards?” Michelle asked.
“In a second, Kyler.”
“Lizards,” said Suzanna. “They’re everywhere here, especially on this wall. They come up to me, brush against my hand, and quickly scramble away. Friendly little things. And pretty too.”
Michelle looked down at the wall with disgust. She saw nothing. The woman can see lizards. Big help those cataracts turned out to be.
“What about ferrets?” Michelle asked.
“Kyler, that is enough!” she screamed, wheeling around.
The shriek rooted the boy in place, and after Michelle turned back, the women said nothing for several seconds, each looking away until the moment had passed.
“Ferrets are nice, Michelle, but as much as I like them, I think—.”
“Well, I like ferrets best of all,” Michelle interrupted. “Better than any other animal in the whole world. Better than cats or dogs or cockatiels or goldfish or anything. And this little ferret loves you, and to switch from a cute ferret to some creepy lizard would make him very sad.”
“But lizards aren’t stinky like ferrets, Michelle.”
“What are you talking about? You just wash out the bedding and change the newspaper underneath. Come on, you know that from Weasel Quarterly.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about,” said Suzanna.
The breeze shifted, carrying on it a stench. Michelle grimaced. At the same moment, the women looked to Kyler, who had just peeked up from his truck. Michelle recognized the grin. She let out a weary breath, her shoulders sagging on the exhale. She began packing up.
“I bet you’ll be so happy when that child learns to use the toilet,” said Suzanna.
Michelle slung her bag over her shoulder and took Kyler by the hand. When they reached the door that led inside, she turned around. “We’ll be back next week. We can talk more about the will, maybe the trust fund. I can bring the girls.”
Suzanna stared from behind her glasses, her look now hard and deep, nearly a scowl. Michelle opened her mouth to speak, then stopped. Suzanna kept her palm unmoved on the wall as a small bronze lizard with an iridescent blue underbelly crept haltingly forward. Michelle stalled a moment at the door, trying to draw something out of the woman: a smile, a compliment, a piece of hope for later. Suzanna slowly withdrew her index finger, spring-loaded it behind the fat of her thumb, and as the lizard inched forward, she smiled, flicking it from the wall.
Paul Weidknecht is the author of Native to This Stream: Brief Writings About Fly-Fishing & the Great Outdoors, a chapbook collection of previously published short stories, essays, and poems. His work has also appeared in Once Upon a Time: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Tales for All Ages by the Bethlehem Writers Group, LLC, Best New Writing 2015, Rosebud, Shenandoah, and Structo, among others. He lives in New Jersey where he has completed a collection of short fiction.