By R.J. Barna
Artificial ferns hide rusted loud speakers on black mulch islands preserved by plaster-cast bamboo. A serpent path of cracked cement surrounds them; its back speckled with glass reflectors. In between, glints of golden disdain peer back through bars at glossy eyed children, open maws party to mismatched teeth stained pink by cotton candy and red tiger pops. Tap tap tap: the wobbly wheel of a chartreuse stroller mocks the macaws, singing the tune to Kevin’s impatience. Pressed black slacks against a grimy green railing. A scuffed silver band between red folds of flesh and invisible knuckles sings back along the bar: tap tap tap – tap tap tap.
“Otters are closed, man. Kid dropped an ice cream,” the groundskeeper shouts up. He twists his Beats back over his ears, shielding them with both hands as he drops into the green lagoon with a grunt. He bobs up and down, walks slowly towards the rolling brown slick, collecting it with a dustpan and holds it up for the other to inspect. “You know it’s funny, man. Wild otters live their whole lives in the water. Don’t need to get out.”
“No ice cream.”
“Always a catch,” he says. “You know, otters are the only animal but people that hunt with tools? They carry rocks, man: like the same rock. Tuck them up in their pits and carry’em around their whole life. Guess it’s how they deal, you know? Bashing the shit out of clams…” The groundskeeper knocks the runny chocolate lump loose with a tap tap tap, and it lands with a sickening smack on the sun-faded astroturf surrounding the pool.
Kevin pulls the corners of his mouth with tired cheeks. They always ache on Sundays.
“Anyways, you should come back tomorrow. Otters are nature’s clowns, man.”
Nature’s clowns. That’s just what Ms. Mulroney said after nine o’clock mass. Just after inviting him over to dinner again.
+ + +
Kevin’s eyes fell fixated upon a small purple blemish on the sanctified linen in front of him. The grocer’s girl crossed by the altar with a bow and gripped the cantor’s podium with both hands – tap tap tap. Her thumbs kept the beat on either side of her hymnal, waiting for the rheumatic digits of the organist to catch up. Each and every pew groaned with anticipation of the closing hymn – the crawling creaks of old wood strained by invisible hands readying coats, tucking away phones and groping for mishandled missals in the pew-backs in front of them. The song leader beside him on the altar took a deep breath and Kevin stood in response.
If any Man Will come after me
Let him deny himself
And take up his cross and follow
Step, step, pause; Kevin kissed the altar with a bow and crossed around in front. Step, step, turn; he was joined by a pair of young servers with dripping candles in their hands. Together, they bowed again and marched toward the sidelong and downcast glances of the car dealer, the ginger family and the plastic surgeon and his model wife. Their children were outside texting beside the Escalade. The handyman grinned, as she always did, but Kevin suspected it was to cover for her poor lip syncing. For his own part, he mouthed watermelon as he had learned to do with lips pinned firmly back in what he hoped might resemble a smile. He charged down the gauntlet in slow-motion, half-expecting to be trampled by parishioners on either side, trembling at the mouth of each aisle he passed like racehorses at the gate. The choir stood pertly in their pit, hymnals pressed firmly to their bellies as they sang.
If any Man Will come after me
Let him deny himself
And take up his cross and follow
As soon as the first wave crashed upon the vestibule doors, Kevin tucked into the church office and dropped into the worn leather chair left vacant by the late pastor just a month earlier. He pulled the phone across the desk and pressed the receiver to his ear as quickly as he could sit down. He found this ritual served well as a silent explanation to the peeking faces that crossed his mantle and retreated as quickly upon seeing his apparently absorbed condition. Occasionally he would need to exaggerate his pantomime of using the phone, since simply using the phone wasn’t always apparent enough. Neither act ever seemed to work on Ms. Mulroy, though. She would always stand alongside the donors’ plaque outside, shifting her weight from one foot to the other like a suspicious turkey passing by the cutting block for as long as it took for him finish his call, or until he stopped pretending. Kevin could see her across the crowd, feathering her bottle-red curls at the edge of the choir pit, pulling strands loose with each pass of her freshly painted fingernails.
The phone display read 9:38, and he wondered if it was too soon to call his brother again. Although he hadn’t answered for the last two weeks, Chet had served as his excuse and saved him from another dry pot roast and more awkward hours flipping through yellowed photographs of folks she called by different names from page to page. He punched in the numbers as she began her weekly walk towards him. Tap tap tap.
Kevin couldn’t bear the thought of dinner with her again, a dinner which he had expected others to attend. But he knew that his Boss would hardly approve of lying to her any more, especially for a third time: the third crow and all that. He looked busy, digging through his desk drawer, so she waited in her usual spot. His fingers drifted over the few artifacts of his inside: one Bic pen with cap chewed beyond function, an open pack of Nicorette and a wrapper from the Planters nuts he had finished before mass instead of the gum. The pen would have to do, and it found its way into the corner of his mouth. It was a new way to deal.
His niece answered, “Hi, Uncle Kevin.” She sounded like she was expecting the call.
“Is dad home, Tabitha?”
She pouted. “When did you stop calling me Tabby Cat?”
When I overhead the altar boys talking about ‘her rack,’ Kevin thought against his intention. “You’re hardly a little girl anymore.” He repeated his original question to avoid any further consideration of her development, but he felt as flushed as when she introduced herself to his new parishioners as his girlfriend during her last visit. The joke seemed funnier when he would take her to the zoo during the divorce, but then she was eight, wearing his Peyton Manning jersey like a dress, hair cut short because Kevin couldn’t get out the gum he didn’t know enough not to give her. Now she had hair down to her waist and wore that same old shirt differently, hanging off of one shoulder and tied up to display the new Celtic cross on her hip. “Is dad home?”
“Jet skiing with Janice,” she replied. Her eye roll was nearly audible. “He’s gone for some couple’s weekend up to Bayside. Probably come back with someone else…”
“He and Janice have been dating a while though, right?”
“No, that was Janet. You’re so bad with names.”
Kevin looked up to the waiting eyes of Ms. Mallory outside his office and bit down hard on the obliterated blue cap between his teeth. “Oh, I was actually calling to see if Chet still wanted to catch the game tonight – like we had talked about.”
“Sorry, Uncle Kevin. I’m free, though…”
“Oh… Well, that’s really responsible of you,” he said. “Keeping your Sunday free for school work.” Tap tap tap. “I should probably let you get back to it.”
Tabby didn’t respond at first. “Maybe I’ll take the Jag out tonight…”
“Better than the old Taurus.”
“You watch your mouth about my Peyton.”
“Hey, I’ll trade you for that Jaguar any day.”
“Nah,” Tabby replied quickly, “you stunk him up with your Camels. Besides, mom got the lake house, I got the Jag and you got me, remember, Uncle Kevin?”
Sounds like I won out, he thought he should have said. Kevin’s foot bounced beneath his vestments in silence. He wondered if it was too late to reply, but as the seconds drew on, he knew quite well that the chance had passed as quickly as the thought through his mind. Just like it always had before. Every time she called him Uncle Kevin, he knew he replied silently, “It’s Father Kevin.” He always hoped the collar spoke loudly enough, but it said nothing he expected, and it felt tight around his throat. “Well, I should get back to it.”
As soon as Tabby had said, “Goodnight” at ten in the morning, Kevin’s waiting guest entered his office without hesitation. His grip lingered on the receiver, plastic and damp. The choir woman was talking as soon as she entered, he knew, but her voice was drowned out by the soft static in his hand: evidence that his niece had not yet hung up. He pulled the receiver back to his ear in time to hear a click. Ms. Mulaney could not be stopped.
“…and I have a beautiful pot roast, if you’re free tonight. Do you have plans?”
+ + +
Tap tap tap. Why did he have to say the zoo? Of all the possible things he could have been doing. It’s like some bad joke. If only he knew a Rabbi and a Minister to go along with him. And of course she knows all about the zoo. She has a season pass, she says. Takes her grandson twice a month, she says. And oh, how he loves to watch the otters play. If you can’t make dinner, you just have to see the otters, Kevin. It is so funny to watch them pretend to be people. They’re nature’s clowns.
He stays for another ten listening to the groundskeeper in an otherwise vacant and decidedly otterless display. The park closes in another hour and Kevin is thinking all the while whether or not Ms. Mulrino will even know if he was there, let alone if he skipped out early. He half expects her to turn a corner at any moment and offer him a cotton candy or an ice cream, even though he’s already seen the tragic ends of both. Tabby used to make such a mess of herself. Seeing the filthy, sticky toddlers under the care of real parents, Kevin begins to think it may not have been his fault after all.
He splits open the last of the peanut shells from his pocket. Six fifty for nuts. He shakes his head thinking about it, appearing to support whatever “true fact” was just presented by his tutor below. His name tag says, “Peg.” Kevin mirrors a laugh, but his ring is tapping again. He pulls one nut from its smoky splintered husk with his lips, but loses its twin from the back end, which spills out and into the pool below. Peg doesn’t notice any more than Kevin. The latter is too busy wondering what in the world “Peg” can be short for, only turning his attention back to the nuts when he realizes that he has eaten them all.
Kevin announces his departure by crumpling up the wax-paper bag high enough for his lecturer to see. Peg lifts his chin in response and Kevin ambles off. Nature’s clowns, he thinks as he tosses the wad towards, not into, a green steel bin. Bouncing off the side, the misplaced projectile patters along until finally coming to rest beside a boy with a blonde bowl cut. His unblinking stare is nearly as unsettling to the priest as the mustard brown crust encircling the boy’s left nostril. Kevin pulls back the corners of his mouth again and points. The boy giggles. The giggle rises into near mania and the boy reaches out and slaps his father sitting beside him in the dark mulch, eyes buried in the screen of a Blackberry he thumbs frantically.
“Daddy,” he says. “That priest wants my butt.”
There is no apology or even eye contact, only an audible declaration, but Kevin isn’t sure for whose benefit. “We don’t say that,” the father says. Out loud, Kevin imagines the father meant to say. A heavy lump drops like ice cream in the pool of Kevin’s stomach, polluting it and chasing off the otters. Otters, which in the wild, could live their whole lives in that water, pretending to be people. He thinks they must have dropped their rocks in the excitement. He feels them. A dozen tiny stones, sinking slowly to the pit of his gut. Bashing the shit out of him. Tap tap tap.
Kevin keeps his lips pinned back and eyes fixed on his peanut wrapper as the father drags his son away squealing by one arm. He doesn’t see the small crowd of teenage girls filming him with their iPhones, though he knows they are there. He is just as sure they are laughing at him. Their snickers confirm as much as he bends down to pick up his trash. What Kevin does see is the wink and smile from a cartoon otter on the side of the can. Kevin deliberately places the trash inside with a trembling hand and shuffles along the sidewalk in the opposite direction, back towards the main entrance.
“Turn the otter cheek, man,” he thinks. Kevin repeats the phrase in his head again and again, convinced that he will either believe it or find it funny. He finds his car well before either.
It’s nearly six by the time he reaches his silver Ford Taurus in the “Gazelle” section of the parking lot. Peyton is easy to pick out on account of the zebra patterned seat covers Tabby had installed when they had shared it. A St. Christopher medal hangs from his rear view, a perfect match for the three he received as Christmas gifts since he finished seminary. His doors are still unlocked and his flip phone is still unstolen. Its water damaged display reads, “One New Voicemail,” undoubtedly related to the “One Missed Call from M. Mulryan.” Dinner is at six and she can’t wait to hear about the otters.
Kevin flips down the grease-stained sun visor with one hand while blessing himself with the other. A soft pack of Camels drops down into his lap and a single cigarette peeks out through the torn foil, the rim of its filter tattered cotton from frequent handling. Tap tap tap – tap tap tap. He presses in the lighter on the center console. Best thing about an old car, he thinks.
Kevin picks at the pack like an infected scab, pulling the foil back and folding it over again, unwilling to commit to either course until an irreparable wound emerges. The dull thud of a heated spring makes up his mind, and the single cigarette is between his lips as if by its own will. He puffs air through the stale tobacco, and he feels something starting to play in his stomach, something bubbling up to the surface.
Tap tap tap.
An otter knocks on the car window. Or rather its glossy plastic eyes do. Kevin rolls the window down and searches for the owner of the stuffed toy. By the van parked beside him, a pair of equally large brown eyes are waiting for the priest’s attention. The boy’s crown of dark curls shake with his head from side to side.
“Smoking kills, mister.”
“Joshua,” his mother interrupts from the driver’s side. “We don’t judge. I’m sorry, Father. We’re sorry.”
“No, no,” Kevin says. “He’s right. It’s very nice of him to remind me.”
Joshua beams and turns to his mother triumphantly, swinging his stuffed otter at his hip.
“Did you – did he get to see the otters today?”
“No,” his mother answers. “He loves them, but they were closed. Tell Father about the otters, Joshua.”
Joshua leans close to Kevin’s car. “Otters are the only water mammal without blubber, and that’s because their fur is so soft. That helps them deal with the cold, but that’s why they’re endangered too,” he says, “because people used to hunt them for it. They eat mussels, but not like people muscles. They’re really hard to get open, like shellders, so they break them apart with rocks on their bellies like this.” Joshua holds out his stuffed toy between them to illustrate, crossing its stuffed paws over to strike itself again and again – tap tap tap. The intensity of his grin seems to increase in correlation to the violence of his demonstration.
“Ok, Joshua,” his mother says, “That’s enough. I’m sure Father has to go.” She mirrors Kevin’s smile and reaches out to her son, opening and closing her hand on an invisible thread. “Let’s go, kiddo. Say goodbye.”
The boy climbs up into the van and waves a furry paw as they drive away. Kevin listens to the groaning whine of his old engine, waiting for the piercing screech of a loose belt to fade. Across the cooling asphalt, spent forms drifting below bobbing balloons are wrapped around the fronts of their folks. The parents slog back, balancing their burdens on their bellies while clutching overstuffed plastic bags, hollow Igloo coolers and half-empty fountain drinks half-full of ice. Maybe it’s how they deal.
Kevin returns his last cigarette to the safety of its hiding place. “Nature’s clowns,” he thinks and loosens the collar around his throat. He can’t wait to tell Ms. Mulligan all about them. And his brilliant otter joke. Kevin lifts his phone and punches in the numbers. Tap tap tap.
“Hey, Tabby Cat. I need a date for an awkward dinner tonight…”