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Lifelike

by

Anne Earney

2nd Prize Richard Bausch Short Story Prize

 

 
     
   

 

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I MET DAVE THE SUMMER OF MY EIGHTEENTH YEAR.  DAVE DROVE AROUND OUR SMALL TOWN IN HIS RED PICKUP, JUST LIKE MY DAD DROVE AROUND IN HIS BLUE PICKUP. I liked that Dave kept his guns in their cases on the passenger side, rather than hanging in the rear window. He smelled of plastic fishing worms and aftershave — unlike my dad, who usually smelled of the plant, but still there was a certain association. Dave had little to say on our dates and, because I was used to living with my quiet parents, Dave's reticence was a nice relief from the pressure I felt to converse on previous dates. I thought I fell in love with a strong, silent man. Perhaps I confused being in love with being comfortable.

Dave took me to the movies, to dinner, to the park. If he minded waiting in the living room while I got ready, he never said. I knew he was out there, but I changed clothes again and again. I supposed Dave favored an outdoorsy look, so I often ended up in khaki skirts, plaid camp shirts and tennis shoes, though I never started out there. I put my hair in a ponytail, took it down, put it up again. I compromised, untying the bow so the ends of the ribbon hung loose. Dave never noticed, or if he did, he didn't say. 

I sat on a wool blanket on the passenger's side of his truck. After one month, I moved to the middle of the bench seat, where I paid the price of closeness — the long stick shift banging against my knees.

"Comfortable?" Dave asked.

I nodded.

He took me home early. He'd come inside to talk to my dad, who was up watching the ten o'clock news.

"I know, I know." Dad agreed with everything Dave said and vice versa.

Mom served us strawberry ice cream and shot looks at me that seemed to say, "In five years you'll be filleting fish in the kitchen sink and arguing about where the stuffed animals go." 

By the end of the summer, Dave whispered in my ear as he slipped a diamond on my ring finger. That fall, he went deer hunting with my dad, while I stayed home and waited with my mom. Their last day out, Dave got an eight-point buck. Early on a Saturday afternoon, he threw the limp body down in my parents' front yard. He stood over his conquest and beamed at me. I reached down and put my hand on the neck, looked into the milky, lifeless brown eyes. I could faintly smell blood, gun powder and rotting leaves, rustled down from the drying oaks by a slight breeze. "Here one minute, gone the next," I said. Dave shrugged.

Because my dad hadn't gotten anything that year, he offered to have Dave's mounted; a gesture of goodwill from an experienced hunter to one starting out. The first trophy, an exciting moment in any hunter's life. I rode with them to the taxidermist's office in the city. The severed deer's head, in a canvas sack tied with red twine, lay in the back of Dave's pickup. It thunked against the side of the bed on every hard corner. I sat in the middle, between Dave and Dad, and worried the deer wouldn't survive the trip.

While they carried the head into the shop, I waited in the pickup. I propped my tennis shoes on the dash and turned up the radio.

As a child, I had loved going to the taxidermist's. "Who wants to go with me to Wilson's?" Dad used to ask. "I've only got room for one more!" I'd get nervous, worried he'd take my mom instead of me, but in truth, Mom never seemed to want to go.

The shop, in an old townhouse in South city, didn't appear to have changed a bit. Through the windows, I could see the original cut-glass front door and the wrought iron railings decorating wide granite steps. A hundred years ago, small boys in knickers probably played on steps like those. Even when I visited the shop as a five-year-old child, I had felt the lure of days past.
I leaned my head back, closed my eyes, and thought about what it had been like to go inside. To the left of the door, various mounted species mingled behind a low, polished hard-wood fence — hardly an effective restraint. Corralled together in death, the animals waited to be claimed, far more agreeable with one another in death than in life. Mallard ducks, their wings spread wide over deer heads, eyes frozen in the glare of invisible headlights. Wild-eyed bobcats baring tiny teeth, and a fox with a smooth red pelt, ready to run, one elegant paw raised. 

Another image came to mind. The taxidermist's dog, lying to the right of the door, an empty water dish by his side. Bosco held his head high, eyes open. As a child, I didn't find it odd that he had been mounted. I didn't think about it at all.

Sitting there in the truck that day, my adult self saw that it was odd, but I decided it was still all right. Why not mount an animal you love, along with the ones plucked from the woods; why not consider a beloved pet a trophy? I looked at the ring on my finger and thought about what an achievement it had seemed. Crystal-clear proof of Dave's love. What was there to be more proud of than winning another being's heart? The lifetime of love and devotion a pet gave was easily as worthy of memorial as a life taken in one brief moment that ended the hunt. 

I had stayed in the truck mainly because I was too lazy to go in. As I said, I wasn't fond of small talk, and I remembered Bill, the taxidermist, as a talker. But thinking about Bosco motivated me to go in and see how he'd held up.

I stepped out onto the crumbling sidewalk, walked up the stairs, and pushed open the heavy door. I was caught for a moment by a whirl of odors: embalming fluid, leather-tanning chemicals, cigarette smoke and mothballs. When I recovered, I stepped inside.
 
There were the animals behind the fence on the left, just as I'd envisioned them, give or take a tail or two. And there was Bosco, lying on the floor to my right. If he'd been alive, his tail would have thumped on the hardwood floor.

Silently, I commanded him, "Stay." 

He obeyed.

I leaned down to brush a bit of dust off his nose. His brown-and-white fur seemed to be in good condition, not falling out as I'd seen on other old taxidermy mounts. His wax nose shone and his glass eyes sparkled. Bosco was still happy to see me, and nothing could change that. For a moment, staring into his glass eyes, I loved him for that. He'd never leave Bill alone, and Bill would never miss the comfort of Bosco's companionship.

Dave was filling out paperwork in a workroom in the back with my dad and Bill. They didn't seem to hear me approach. I was surprised to see that Bill looked to be the same age as my dad, because I'd remembered a much younger man. The same striped suspenders held up his baggy dress pants. His shirt sleeves were rolled up, but his collar was buttoned. A small, red bow tie dangled at the center of his neck.
 
My dad registered no surprise when he saw me, but Dave, for some reason, looked a little shocked, even irritated.

"I used to bring Jane down when she was a kid," my dad said to Bill.

Bill shook my hand. "Of course, of course," he bubbled. "A pleasure."

I could tell he didn't remember me. "Do you still have that moleskin you used to give kids to play with?" I asked.

Why I had to ask that then, I have no idea. Bill's wife had kept a brown moleskin in the drawers of the reception desk when I was a kid. Smooth with oil from the hands of countless children, the moleskin was softer than any fur coat. I used to pet it forward and backward, rub it against my face. I wasn't allowed to touch my father's mounts, or any others for that matter, because the grime on my fingers would dirty the fur.

"Ah, no," Bill said. "A moleskin, you say? We did once have a coon pelt, something I did for a Boy Scout camp." He drummed his fingers against the table top. "And there were sometimes mink pelts brought in from the country. Well, we called them that, but they were really weasels; those poor folks didn't know any better..."
 
I stared at the dark stains on the skin around his fingernails. I began to regret coming in. Perhaps I'd imagined the moleskin.

Then my dad spoke up. "You remember, Bill. That old hunk of tanned skin your wife kept for the kids? Janie used to carry it around. Kept her hands off the mounts."

Thank god, I thought. At least if my memory of the moleskin was false, my dad shared it, so it might as well be true.

Bill's face lit up as if my dad had revealed new information. "Of course," he said, "of course.  How could I forget that?" He turned back to Dave and commenced filling out paperwork.

When everything was set, as Dave and Bill shook hands, I asked Bill if he'd mounted any of his other pets. 

He looked toward the door. "Like ol' Bosco? He was a strange little critter." 

"How so?" I asked.

"Oh, he was an odd ball, all right." Bill shook his head. "Always wandering off, getting into things. But I loved him. Always wanted him at my side, even though he always wanted to go away, chase things, anything but lay at my feet. Course, if I had it to do all over again, I'd bury him six feet under. Wild animals are one thing to mount, you know. When a hunter shoots a deer, he's only known that animal for a few minutes before the eyes glaze over." He gestured with his eyebrows towards Dave's deer head, sitting out on the canvas bag. "All deer have the same brown eyes, you know.  At least as far as the hunter is concerned. But with a pet, it's different. You know what he looks like when he wants to play, when he wants to be petted. Since I mounted Bosco, all I think is, 'That ain't Bosco.' But I can say one thing--he's always there when I'm looking for him."

"At least it reminds you," I said.

"Yes, it reminds me, both of what I had and - " Bill stopped suddenly and handed a piece of paper to Dave. He looked back at me. "And of what I didn't have. Yes, it reminds me, all right." He winked at me.

I wondered if I'd missed something. "Do you ever mount the pets of other people?"

"Oh, I've done a few," Bill said, "but it's expensive. A ten-pound dog can run you a couple thousand. I have to spend hours looking at pictures so I can get the expression right. You have to capture the eyes just so, and still it comes out wrong. It's quite a challenge, all right. The nose, the lips... Well, suffice to say there are many details to be dealt with. I try to talk people out of it." Bill flipped open a slim cigarette case and peered thoughtfully off into its depths.

"Well, thanks," Dave said. 

Bill started. "Oh? Yes, and thank you, Dave."

They shook hands and Dave walked toward the door with my dad. Suddenly my dad turned around. "Bill?  Mind if I use your restroom?"

Bill pointed Dad in the right direction, then looked at me again, as if he knew I had another question.

"What's the strangest animal you've ever been asked to mount?" I asked quickly.

A smile stretched his Bill's lips until they were almost invisible against the mottled skin of his face. "I've been asked to mount tropical fish," he said. "Very tricky. The skin tends to... Well. I've been looking into freeze-drying for things like that. No one else seems to have thought of it, but it would be relatively inexpensive. Of course, that's still in the very early stages." 

I nodded. "I had no idea advances were being made in your field."

"Oh yes," he said, "of course. But back to your question. I've done birds, parakeets and cockatoos. And someone once asked me to mount a pig, a huge sow."

"But if you could only pick one, what was the strangest?"

Bill puffed on his cigarette, the lines on his face lifting with each inhale. He decisively stabbed the cigarette out in an ashtray. "A man once asked me if I could preserve the body of his fiancée," he said. "She had died in a fall at a carnival. There were broken bones, of course, but her skin was fine." He made a funny noise, like someone who has gotten a whiff of something good. "I could have done it," he said.

Dave hovered midway between myself and Bill and the door, out of hearing range. It occurred to me that perhaps he'd feel more comfortable if he had a hunk of moleskin to play with. "But you didn't?" I asked.

"It's illegal. I'm not sure how I would have felt about it. I think the worst would have been thinking about that poor guy at home with his dead fiancée's body." Bill shook his head. "However, the challenge of making her look right... Well, that was the strangest, by far. By far."

Strange indeed. Dad came back from the restroom then, so I thanked Bill and followed the men out onto the steps. We climbed back into the truck. No one spoke, but I held Dave's hand

When we got to the house, Dad told Dave he'd better get used to my habit of questioning people until they told me something I'd have been better off not knowing. 

"That's one of the things I like about Janie," Dave said. He smiled at me and squeezed my hand. I wasn't sure what he meant, because I didn't usually ask questions that way, but I felt secure in the knowledge that Dave liked my apparently less agreeable traits.
 
There were many times I wasn't sure what was going through Dave's mind. It was clear that he liked me, because he kept coming around and he asked me to marry him, and it was obvious he liked hunting, but why he liked either of us wasn't obvious. I suppose I thought we got along just fine, and if not fighting were a measure of potential happiness, then we were set. For our honeymoon, we went camping. I remember thinking, without discussing it with Dave, that our future vacations would be more fun. I dreamed of visiting the grand cities of Europe, sipping espresso on hotel balconies. Yet I never told Dave I thought of such things. 

By the time of our one-year anniversary, we had two turkey tails, the deer head, and a large-mouth bass. After five years, I had two small children. I brought babies into our home; Dave brought dead animals. Bound to the house while he worked and hunted, I became used to the babble of toddlers below my feet and the silent mounted animals that graced our walls. This was what everyone I'd grown up with had, children to care fore and a husband who paid the bills and hunted. 

One hunting season bled into another, and there was fishing to fill any gaps. The years crept by, the children grew. There was always money for another mount, sometimes two, yet if I talked about saving for a trip to Europe, Dave scoffed as if I'd suggested trading in the boat for a yacht. Then he would buy me some sort of bauble, something he thought would keep me happy:  jewelry, a music box, a new sweater.

By the time the kids started high school, I could no longer stand the sight of so many dead animals. "They have to go the basement," I said. It was a Saturday afternoon in the summer. The kids were watching a violent movie on television. There was no peace to be had anywhere in the house, or so it seemed to me.

Dave nodded, as if he'd known it were coming. He spent his evenings down in the basement anyhow, with his dog. He began to move the taxidermy that evening.

Where the animals had been, I hung pictures of the European cities I'd never been to. I stayed upstairs in the family room, usually alone. The kids were busy teenagers with their own car, and when they were home, they stayed in their rooms and talked on the phone or watched television and ignored me. I did crosswords and folded the laundry. Mimi, my little Papillion, slept on my lap. 

Dave had bought Mimi as a gift one Valentine's Day. "To keep you company," he said. This was shortly after I had complained that living with our teenage children was like living with aliens. "Someone you can relate to," Dave said, handing me the tiniest puppy I'd ever seen. I looked at him, tried to read his meaning, but he only had eyes for the puppy.

I hadn't wanted a dog, but once Mimi was there, it would have been impossible not to love her. She sat on my lap in the mornings and chewed the edges of the newspaper. I fed her pieces of toast, which she shook, as if to make sure they were fully dead. She even had her own Christmas stocking. Sometimes we stuffed her in it for laughs. I wouldn't have approved, except she seemed to enjoy it. Dave gave me one of the most thoughtful gifts of our relationship the birthday after I got Mimi--a dog bed made to match our bed, right down to the bed skirt and throw pillows. It sat on the floor beside my nightstand, but most nights Mimi slept on my pillow, by my head. Dave's hunting dogs slept in the garage. Dave believed this taught them to be hardy or something.

When she was fifteen, Mimi developed arthritis and started to go blind, bumping into walls, if she found the energy to get up. On one of the rare weekend mornings when Dave was home to drink coffee at the kitchen table with me, I mentioned an article I'd read in the paper about pet shrines. "For four thousand dollars," I said, "I could have a customized shrine built for her in Arizona. People would pray for her soul."

"It would be cheaper to get her mounted," Dave said.

I laughed, but when Mimi died later that year, I called Bill.

"You sure you want to do this?" he asked.

I told him I would bring my pictures.

I put Mimi's body on a yellow bath towel in a cardboard box and wrapped the box in plastic, to keep out the drizzle that fell that day. At the taxidermist's, I shook off my raincoat, relieved to have Mimi inside, where it was warm. 

Bill motioned for me to follow him into the back. 

We went through the pictures and discussed positions. I took Bill's advice and chose the lying down position, which he said would look the most natural. When I got Mimi back the next week, I looked into her new glass eyes and had a sense of déjà vu — the same feeling I'd had looking at Bosco all those years before. Mimi could never leave me now.

A year later, Bill sold his business to his son and, shortly after, passed away. His wife had him cremated. 

I didn't have to ask. Dave told me. 

When the kids moved out, I had even more time alone. Dave was sometimes there in the evenings, if I counted sleeping in his chair in front of the television as "being there." When he was awake, even if he didn't want to converse with me, I felt as if I had a husband. But with his eyes closed, I was lonely. Then his friends began to retire and he went on more and more hunting trips with them. He joined another gun club, took up ice fishing. He was rarely home except to sleep.

"Do you want a new dog?" he asked one Saturday, on his way out to shoot. "Now that Mimi's gone?"

"Mimi's not 'gone,'" I said. "And no, I don't." 

So three days later, he brought home Willie. In the tradition of highly strung bird dogs, Willie struggled to adapt to indoor living. I found myself wiping his nose prints off everything, sweeping his fur off the floors several times a day. He tore around the house in circles like a devil on crack. 

Mimi, who brought new meaning to the words "good dog," slept twenty-four hours a day in her bed behind a closed door, where Willie couldn't get to her. She never peed on the carpets or ate the contents of my purse. 

But it was only a matter of time. One careless moment in which I left the bedroom door open, and Willie was chewing on her front paws. I laid the edge of her blanket over the stubs and made a mental note never to leave that door open again, yet somehow — Dave swears he was not responsible — Willie managed to get back in. He chewed off her nose the second time he met her. There was no saving Mimi after that. Dave dug a grave for her; the penance of a guilty man, I suppose. I buried her stiff body. 

The years continued to pass. The children graduated from college and Dave retired. He hunted some, but slept more. I quit mentioning Europe. I could be content at home, just like always. But as soon as I relaxed into a crossword puzzle, I would hear Dave in the kitchen, rooting around like a blind mole. His irritation with me — I should be feeding him, caring for him, not letting him starve in his old age — radiated throughout the house, yet I no longer felt like feeding him. It seemed fair to me that if he couldn't keep me company, I should hardly be required to cook.

We were too old to change; it was too late to start talking. The kids were grown. Our parents had died years earlier. I would never have the husband I'd wanted, not in Dave. And I hadn't wanted much, only few minor things — his presence in the evenings, a kind glance now and then. One trip to Europe. If I'd wanted something different, the time to get it had long passed. It was too late to do the right thing, but it wasn't too late to do something. I decided I wouldn't have to spend the rest of my life alone if I didn't want to. Like Bill had Bosco, I could have Dave.

First, I called Bill's son, who still ran the family business, and asked about pets. He said he would consider them. Why, he wanted to know, had Willie died? "No," I said. I couldn't bring myself to ask about people. The conversation ended awkwardly.

Next, I turned to the phone book. I called taxidermists until I had a list of men and women who, for one reason or another, seemed to me as if they would consider mounting a person. One hung up when he realized the person I wanted to mount wasn't quite dead yet. From then on, I said I was doing research on whether or not it was possible. Then I added, "Of course, I know you would never do such a thing, but do you know of anyone who might?"

And the first thing he or she, but mostly he, said was, "Do you have any idea how much that would cost?"

I did. I had already committed myself to spending a large part of our savings after Dave died, making him correct about that one little detail. But I am sure it will be worth it. I think of trophies, I think of love. I will have a monument to the years I have put in as Dave's wife, an achievement in itself. I believe if Dave knew, in some ways he might even like the idea. After all, taxidermy has been one of his favorite things, and he will finally join the ranks. He would know I won't be forgetting about him. And I will have the husband I wanted, one who is home. One who won't leave. I will finally have the comforting, quiet man I always wanted to share my life with.

After a year of making calls when Dave was out of the house, I finally talked to someone appropriate. The challenge sounded interesting, he said. When I would have the body ready? I told him it might take years. I see, he said.

I check in with him every few months or so, just to make sure nothing's changed.   

I haven't yet figured out how I'll get Dave's body out of the coffin and over to the taxidermist's. I'm considering having the wake at my house, where I could switch the body with a dummy I'd construct. I'll need a closed casket and something heavy to fill it with, maybe sand from the nursery at the hardware store. If Dave says anything, I'll tell him I've started a gardening project. I'll figure out how to get him to the taxidermist's later; maybe one of the kids will help. The technical details will work themselves out, I'm sure.
 
I return from the basement with a basket full of warm towels, and stop to look at Dave, snoring away in his chair. The beer can, which has come to look natural in his left hand; the remote, nestled in his right, even as he sleeps. I know that isn't how I want to see him for the rest of my life. I put the towels away and take out our photo albums, as I did for Mimi, hoping to find ideas. Willie looks with me and I wipe his slobber from each page before turning to the next.
There are endless photos of Dave kneeling on the ground, holding the head of a dead animal up to the camera. He looks happy enough in those. But maybe it would be better to have him standing by the back door, his arms crossed, a satisfied look on his face. The look of a man for whom things have turned out exactly as he suspected they might; no better, no worse. When Willie dies, assuming he goes second, I'll have him mounted, too. He'll sit at Dave's feet, no longer begging to go outside, no longer slobbering. 

I close my eyes and picture myself sitting across the room, working on a crossword puzzle. I'll look up and ask Dave if he knows the solution to a difficult clue. His glass eyes will shine at me, but he won't look annoyed. And when he doesn't answer, I'll say, "I didn't think so, but thanks anyway."

There is a small catch in my throat as Dave emits a loud snore and my eyes pop open, the image gone. It is difficult to imagine a house that will never seem empty again.

     

Anne Earney

Anne Earney lives in St. Louis with her husband and several well-mannered cats. She earned her MFA from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Her fiction has been published or is forthcoming in journals such as Hayden's Ferry Review, Natural Bridge, REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters, Six Little Things, Night Train, and Versal. She is currently working on a Gothic novel.

 

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