When they got off the bus in her neighborhood, she told him, “Ferrets are fur tubes with walnut brains.”
It was the first time they’d hung out not in school. Even if it was just a Spanish project, they were going to her house and her dad wouldn’t be home. The ferrets would.
“You down with ferrets?” She had a flat, oboe voice. She wore black Converse and black jeans.
“Alright with me.” He scratched his cauliflower ear. He'd given it to himself.
She started walking fast. He thought about calling, Hey, hold up, but his mouth was pasty, dry. The sky was the color of a faded blue raffle ticket. It was late October, cold enough to need gloves in the morning, and in the warm afternoon he’d tied his sweatshirt around his waist. All he could do was think her name, his—he wanted to hear her use his, he wanted hers, all six letters, coming out of his mouth—but she was blurring ahead of him.
She must've realized how fast she was moving. She paused and turned, but even then she didn’t stand still. She pendulumed her head and her neck like an old clock. It might not have been hypnotic if he weren’t high. Being high made most of life drip, slow and uneven, a pain. High, he got thinky. His doctor said he needed to stop. High was bringing him down, and he needed to be up, to like more people, including himself. He was supposed to like himself, but he wasn't sure he could. He was sure he liked her. She was weird, good-weird, even in her boring subdivision.
All around, the houses hummed aspirin-white under brown roofs. They weren’t actual houses. They were townhouses. They reminded him of a Powerpoint slide, conjoined twins he'd seen in Health class, a skin flap connecting two gray babies that made him put his head down on his desk. That's what townhouses in Acacia made him want to do.
He lived in Ambriance! and she lived in Acacia. No exclamation point.
"What's up, slow poke?" she said, when he finally caught up to her.
He blinked. She was tilting her head in front of the first unique building in the subdivision. It was cabinesque, with its own parking lot and a sign. The sign said Acacia Community Center and meant the building mattered. He was still waiting for that person, someone who made him feel he mattered. No prescription could do that, none of his pills. Not pot. Piles of dead leaves were raked all over the lawns in Acacia, differently than in Ambriance!, where teams of men hauled yard waste away in army-green trucks. Yet here the girl was, still in his day. Above the frayed black fabric of her shoe, he could see dry skin on her ankle. It wasn’t rashy or scabby, but sort of dusty—lightly, barely scaled, if he focused. A patch the size of a Sweet Tart. He thought about, very carefully, moistening just that place on her ankle with his tongue.
“Oh crap,” she said. Her head stopped tilting and her hand flew to her mouth.
First there were rings to count on her fingers (six, gold and silver); then he traced her gaze to a house across the street. A squad car hugged the curb, lights strobing, no sirens. He saw two police officers pinning a man in a red flannel to the yard. The man flailed in the leaves, sending leaves everywhere, thrashing against the officers, kicking up at them.
“I don’t do drugs, but if I did, it’d be heroin,” she said. “Not meth. Not bath salts.”
“Do you know that guy?” He pointed to the man being held down.
“Yeah. Yes, I do,” she said.
She suggested they take their studying to the gazebo in the park.
They went to a field behind Acacia Community Center. Dry grass crunched under their shoes. It was so quiet. Fall is the quietest season, he thought. He took a pen out of his pocket and wrote that on his arm. He couldn’t tell if she was upset. He wanted to say the right thing.
“You’re excited for the Spanish Civil War,” he said. “Been there.”
“Juventud, divino tesoro.”
He tried to think of another one of Senora Llañez’s proverbs, but that was the one he was remembered, too. The poet, Ruben Darío.
He hurried with her now. He sensed a change, like he’d joined a mission, a brigade. They passed tennis courts locked behind chain-link fences lined with forest green mesh. He wondered if anyone was watching them. His (almost ex-) girlfriend loved chain-link.
“It’s nice to have tennis courts close by,” he said. “Do you play?”
“They’re clay. I guess that’s special.”
“I don’t know if you’re being sarcastic,” he said.
She smirked. “Okay.”
The gazebo was right there. It smelled of new lumber, but the wood was ashen, like it had absorbed many thunderstorms. The girl went to a metal switch plate next to the doorway and the inside lit up.
It was kind of lame, this gazebo. There was a bulb in a wire cage mounted from the ceiling. One long bench wrapped around the interior perimeter. There was a picnic table in the center and a steel drum garbage can stenciled PROP. OF ACACIA and a floor drain. He thought about all the people who had peed down that drain. Probably lots in this area.
The girl set her backpack on the table and stood a minute, rubbing her skull. She took out her ponytail and looked relieved. She had a high forehead and her hair down balanced that out. But to him, she was pretty either way. He liked how in one of her eyes, on the sclera, there was a permanent dot of blood.
“I didn’t think he’d be so frigging dumb,” she said, abruptly. “To try that.”
He put his backpack on the table next to hers. “Your dad?”
“No, Federico García Lorca. Getting himself murdered in Granada.”
“Stupid Fascists,” he said.
He took out a binder. He couldn’t get settled (legs, always in the way). He crouched on the bench seat, looking at her shoes.
“Okay, what do we need to do?” she said.
He flipped to the green tab, which was Spanish. She was still standing, running her fingers through her hair, combing out snarls. He could hear each pull.
The first page in this section was the assignment sheet. It had Xerox vomit and clip art of a frigate beside the flag of Spain. There were vague instructions:
1) Define context of historical event.
2) Explain inciting incident.
3) Provide human testimonies, examples of relevant art, and other reactions.
4) Explore consequences and influences on Spanish culture today.
He pushed the binder into the center of the table like a declaration.
“One thing we can use is this vow from these nuns.” She took out a book called Blood of Spain and read from it:
“‘The Margaritas of Tafalla solemnly promise on the Sacred Heart of Jesus
1. To observe modesty in dress: long sleeves, high necks, skirts to the ankle, blouses full at the chest.
2. To read no novels, newspapers or magazines, to go to no cinema or theatre, without ecclesiastical license.’”
“It goes on,” she said. “No makeup while the war lasts, yay Jesus. Yay Spain.”
“You think that counts as testimony?” he said.
“Sure,” she said. “I guess every reaction is kind of testifying. To something.”
A dark look crossed her face. She climbed onto the picnic table and tented her legs, hugging her knees. He saw smears on her jeans, a pasty greasiness on the black, like what a dog left after it had licked glass.
“What’s up?” he said.
She tilted her head, only once. “Do you know anything about horny toads?”
“Is that a sex joke? Horny toad?”
She shook her head with that same dark expression. He joined her on top of the table. (Do not be alone in your fear, his doctor liked to say.) It was hard to look at her and also hard not to look at her, so he tried to glance on her face, the black makeup smears on the bridge of her nose.
“Horny toads are actually lizards. The name is a misnomer. But what they are is really freaking ugly. Like mini dinosaurs. There are lots of them in Texas.”
“You’re not from Texas, are you?”
“Y’all have to wait and see, huh? . . . No. But my asshole dad is. Eastland.”
Outside, the sky was a bruise, a bluing gray that heightened the color of the trees. They were maples, still holding copper in their leaves, scattered about the field, each staked by itself in the middle of a mound of mulch.
“He had to take over after my mom couldn’t handle me,” she said. “There was one horny toad who lived for thirty years in a courthouse. In the cornerstone of a courthouse.”
He nodded. He wondered what she would look like in a velvet dress, a particular grungy velvet dress he had seen on a singer on MTV. He had never seen the girl in a dress. He had known her since August, when he sat next to her in the front row in Spanish. He liked to be where Senora Llañez could see him. He liked to be called on. He was good at the language because he talked to the landscapers and brought them Diet Rite, also the housekeeper before Pam, Irma. It had been last month, on a fieldtrip to Emilio’s for tapas, where they tasted the potato salad (mucho de ajo) and drank virgin sangria, when his girlfriend announced he was too motherfucking loco for her to speak to him in public, that he watched this girl be a class act.
“And then it died?” he said. “The toad in the courthouse?”
“Quien quiera saber, que compre un viejo. Or, I guess, an old lizard.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said.
“If you want to know something, ask an old man.”
He watched a worker with a bandana under his baseball cap approach one of the maples. The man had a plastic tank strapped on his back that connected to a hose in his hands. Angling the hose at branches, he started blowing down dead leaves. The noise was muffled, but the smell was loud hot fuel. The leaves came down in sharp grabs.
He looked back at the girl. “I know what you said, I don’t know what you mean. What do you mean, couldn’t handle you?”
The girl’s knees butterflied open. Every year since sixth grade, a kid claimed he could fellate himself in this position: at least he’d never been that sick.
“Do you mind if I take off my shoes?” she said.
He shivered at the thought of her feet. Maybe he would become a man who masturbated on toes, some desperate decade in the future. He didn’t rule anything out. He might own a boat, become a lawyer, get ticketed for jaywalking across LaGrange Road, lose his virginity to a transsexual man, swallow a bee on a cupcake and get stung in the esophagus and die without leaving the country. He’d begun stockpiling his meds. There were so many ways to be somebody, and life always put them out of reach, in the distance. The light in the gazebo was waning. The worker was gone, the tree denuded. A siren wailed. They both turned, even though the street was out of sight. The girl untied her shoes. She was wearing black socks, low-cut. They curved just below her ankle. She started to scratch the dry skin.
“I was getting these headaches. I thought they were migraines, without any of the auras. You know what those are?”
“Mom gets migraines,” he said.
“You’re one of those people,” the girl said. “Mom. Is it Mom? Does Mom get migraines?”
The girl smiled. “Okay, so I was very disappointed. Because if I was going to have headaches, I wanted to have the full experience of being . . . I don’t know, altered. It’s like the closest I could come to being high.”
He picked at his jeans.
“They were so bad, I would have to lie down if I drank a glass of milk or if my mom had the TV going, or when she was having a cigarette—especially then. Finally, they were so bad I couldn’t read. I’d open a book and watch the letters just swim.”
“Jesus,” he said.
The gazebo did not provide much barrier from the wind. “Anyhow, this culminates like every good story in a trip to the El Paso emergency room. Which, let me tell you, is two-thirds nacho-eating and one-third pistol holsters. So that sounds funny, but I’m scared. I think I’m going to . . . I start telling myself that I have a short lifeline, that I’m destined to die at fifteen, that this is the trajectory of my life, and I’m terrified. I don’t want to cease to exist in the El Paso Emergency Room. I don’t want to stop smelling nachos. I’m there, with my mom, who has had it up to here with my headaches. And, finally, they do X-rays. I had to get an MRI. And I’m in the tube for about thirty seconds, staring at the ceiling, where they wallpaper it with a sky to make you relax—”
“That’s pretty uninspired,” he said.
“So just listen,” she said, shortly. “The lights flash on and off. The grinding thing that happens with an MRI just stops. And I think, maybe I am dead. That when you die, it’s just that.” She snapped. “Quick. And maybe you don’t know. Maybe you’ll just keep going along . . . thinking . . .”
He didn’t want to say anything. Her finger was working exclusive of the rest of her body, digging at her ankle in surprisingly even gouges. He saw a 3-D chunk of skin fall off and, without thinking, he grabbed her wrist.
“Please stop,” he said.
She yanked away her arm but fisted her hand in her lap
“What’s in my head is 100% unique,” she said. “Not one other person alive today can claim to have a horny toad in her skull. The end.”
He coughed on a laugh. “Fuck you, horny toad. No way.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“No way,” he said again.
“There’s a lot about me you wouldn’t know,” she said, quietly pleased.
He didn’t want this, but he felt himself starting to like her less. He fit her, quickly and immediately, into a mold. She was a quirky girl, a girl who loved cats and black nail polish and tarot decks and occult legends. Fine. She was a girl who carved Wiccan symbols into her thighs and filled in the grooves with Sharpie. Okay. But she was also a weirdo who made up implausible things to catch you in a game of gullibility (sick-making, that same sad-queasy sick, Siamese twins and townhomes and warts), and he was so tired of being tricked by people who pretended to have a personal interest in you. Dear lord, his mother used to say when he started crying, would you just be quiet.
The girl picked up his hand and read what he’d written on his arm.
“Why do you think this is the quietest season?” she said.
He gave her a blank look.
“You seem like you have something you want to say to me,” she said. “You still can, you know. Even if I do have a horny toad. His name, by the way, is Duke.”
He shrugged. “What did you say? I was thinking about this stupid poem for my girlfriend,” he said. “And I got distracted.”
“That’s everything?” the girl asked, flinching.
He stared at her ankle. Otherwise, all he was thinking about was Spanish.
They took notes until it got dark. The girl got up, switched on a second light in the gazebo, and they worked more. It got colder, and the wind didn’t stop, and he was hungry and thinking about what Pam would make for dinner—he was having a hard time focusing. Eat, drink, sleep. Sex? Sometimes, his girlfriend would let him do what she called tapas sex. It was a joke she’d come up with after they learned, last year, how tapas were invented in bars in Barcelona, with glasses covered by saucers to protect the drinks from bugs. The bartenders would put food on the saucers. His girlfriend said he could consider her his saucer. Basically, tapas sex meant he masturbated and came on some part of her, usually her forehead.
“I should probably get home,” the girl said. “The ferrets need to feed.”
Walking back through the field, she was in front of him again. He thought about how, just a couple hours ago, he should’ve pushed the girl up against the fenced-in tennis courts. He regretted that. It seemed to him that if he had kissed her, if he had pressed himself into her, she wouldn’t have invented a frog in her brain to—what? Codedly explain her dad was a junkie? Hint that she was depressed? He didn’t understand.
They walked up the driveway of the house with the lawn where the man in red flannel had been kicking leaves. The girl tested the knob of the front door like it would be hot. He saw her shoulders untense as she used a key hooked to a jungle green rabbit’s foot.
Do you want to see the ferrets?” she said, flipping on the hall light.
He peeked in. The townhouse smelled like piss and garlic sauce. There was a dartboard in the hallway and a bunch of foam darts on the floor, which was carpet, a camouflage of stains and burns.
“I would love to see the ferrets,” he said.
He followed her down the hallway. There were doors on both sides, but they were all closed, and it was longer than he’d expected—it felt more like a crumby office than a home. At the end, they came to a door with a poster of John Wayne.
“The Duke,” the girl said. She smiled. “It might smell.”
She opened the door. He wanted to turn around, but he could only go forward.
He had expected the ferrets in glass tanks; they were loose. Running, moving, wriggling between a small white desk and a canopy bed, they shrieked creeee (a shrill like two-dozen ibuprofen in your stomach) and there were four: one mink-brown, another sable, two others white.
The girl made kissing noises. Her face brightened, her eyes were gleaming. She knelt down and he stared. He felt a little sick. He was jealous. She looked so happy. The ferrets dodged his feet and swarmed her ankles. The minky one ran up her arm and clutched her neck with its paws.
“The most remarkable thing about the horny toad is its venom vision,” the girl said, only half to him. “It can shoot blood out of its eyes at its enemies. That and the fact that, with me, it’s in a symbiotic relationship. My toad must be the first toad to live in a human, and I know I’m the first human to live with a toad. A toad at the brainstem.”
She rolled up the cuffs of her jeans.
“Ferrets, on the other hand, need meat.” She stroked the tiny head of one of the white animals. There was a rust-colored stained on its little capped skull. It had a pink nose; it was a snake, a mouse, and a cat combined. “These guys should eat ten times a day. That’s why I let them sleep with me. I’m an easy nibble.”
She pointed at them, one at a time, when he asked if they had names.
“A, B, C, and D. My dad’s such a fuck-wad he didn’t give them names. A is anorexia, B is bulimia, C is cutting, D is depression. Some girls get problems. I get pecks. Love pecks.”
He watched the sable ferret sink its tiny triangular teeth into her index finger. The back of his neck was itchy. He said he probably needed to call his ride.
“In the kitchen,” the girl said, over her shoulder. “It’s a red rotary on the wall.”
He hadn’t used a phone like that in years. His girlfriend didn’t answer, obviously: she had called him a crazy, out-of-touch, elitist stoner maniac. He stood on the porch, wondering if the housekeeper, Pam, would smell ferret piss on him when she picked him up, and was surprised when a station wagon turned into the driveway. The man in red flannel got out.
“Evening,” the man called. He sniffed. “You’re a little late to rake leaves.”
“I said, it’s about dinner time. For me, anyhow.”
He stepped down from the porch. He didn’t mean to take a deep breath, but that’s how it happened. He was thinking, Be cool, be very cool. This is the father of a girl who matters.
“I was just working on a project with Portia,” he said to Portia’s father. “Spanish.”
The start of a gibbous moon was stuck in the sky. There was an owl.
The man looked at him. “Portia.”
“Portia,” he said.
“She hasn’t really been up for much company since the move.” The man pulled a hairball from the nap of his flannel and dropped it into the yard. “I’m surprised she didn’t ask you to do the leaves.”
He shrugged. He hoisted his backpack and started walking down the driveway.
He figured Pam would see him on the street. Acacia didn’t look any better in the dark. Actually, it was worse. Now the homes had hollow blue TV light filling the windows. He felt sad that this was the way so many people spent their lives: fit into identical houses, pointing their faces towards sitcoms and sports. He smelled something like caf tacos. Then he heard sneakers slapping.
He turned around and stopped. Portia was running. When she got close, he could see her shoelaces weren’t even tied.
“I forgot to tell you,” she gasped. “Turkey parachutes. In the Spanish Civil War.”
He looked at her. “What?”
She took a breath. “Okay, so another thing about nuns. It’s 1936. There's a monastery in the mountains that needs stuff. Delicate supplies. So the Nationals make bundles and attach them to turkeys . . . live turkeys. And then they push the turkeys out of planes so the supplies land safe and the nuns can survive . . . on turkey meat. Which sounds cruel, but . . . even though they were basically isolated, they survived.”
When she stopped, he told himself to do it and he did: he bent down and kissed her until their mouths tasted like blood.
She stared at him. He wanted to say something else, but he couldn’t get himself to, so he knelt down and tied her shoes.
On the way home, the housekeeper, Pam, made a show of plugging her nose. She didn’t speak Spanish, but he said it anyway, “Juventud, divino tesoro.” The gatehouse attendant waved them through. He had time to scrub up, Pam said. They were having quiche and green salad for dinner and Mom was working late. (Fine.)
Alone in his room, he ate the last of his marijuana gummy worms and let his mind unfold. He shook out his stash of pills on a study abroad flyer and moved them around like tiny checkers pieces, into a diamond, a circle, a spiral. He even took out a piece of loose-leaf and a pen, but he could only think of the Spanish word for frog. Rana. He put the paper away. He sat in his underwear and turned on his computer and started reading about Phrynosoma. Horned lizard. Horny toad. It was pastel-scaled, he read, its coloration “pleasing” and “sandy.” One image showed it beside a teacup, and it really was small. He scrolled and clicked and felt a sadness he couldn’t put into words. The sturdy creature, he learned, was becoming rarer. A few scientists blamed a siege of fire ants, but mostly the consensus was deforestation. There was no way for an animal to survive without its habitat.
Read JoAnna Novak’s “Acacia” in the print edition of The Arkansas International 7.
JoAnna Novak is the author of the novel I Must Have You and the book-length poem “Noirmania.” She is a founding editor of Tammy, a literary journal and chapbook press.