Authors: Thomas Pierce
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) LLC
375 Hudson Street
New York, New York 10014
USA â¢ Canada â¢ UK â¢ Ireland â¢ Australia â¢ New Zealand â¢ India â¢ South Africa â¢ China
A Penguin Random House Company
Copyright Â© 2014 by Thomas Pierce
Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.
The following stories have been published previously, in slightly different form: “Shirley Temple Three” (
The New Yorker
), “The Real Alan Gass” (
), “Grasshopper Kings” (
The Missouri Review
), “Why We Ate Mud” (
), “Saint Possy” (
The Coffin Factory
), “Felix Not Arriving” (
), “Ba Baboon” (
The New Yorker
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Pierce, Thomas, date.
Hall of small mammals : stories / Thomas Pierce.
PS3616.I3595H35 2015 2014017324
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
for c & e
awmaw's throwing the party, and her own son is three hours late. Already he's missed his cousin's goshdern wedding ceremony and the grape-juice toasts and the cake-cutting, and now he's about to miss the couple's mad dash to the car too. All the tables are decorated with white flowers in beakers, since the groom, new to the family, is a chemist for a textile company, and in the foyer she's put out enlarged photos from when the bride and groom were babies and total strangers to each other, and overall Mawmaw would give her reception an A-plus if not for this business with Tommy.
Tommy is supposed to be driving in from Atlanta, where he works as the host of a popular show called
Back from Extinction
. On each episode they actually bring back long-dead, forgotten creaturesâsaber-toothed tigers, dodo birds, and all the rest. The show is a little controversial, but people seem to enjoy it. Tommy always looks so handsome in his khaki safari vest.
The happy couple is about to depart when the phone rings.
One of the uncles holds it out the door saying it's you-know-who on the line. Mawmaw swats it away, because she doesn't want to hear it. Not a word of it. Tommy is always full of excuses. She gives all the guests baggies of rice, and they go out front and shower the bride and groom with kernels as they dive into the back of a Plymouth decorated with shaving cream and condoms, and then they're gone and the party is over, and Tommy has missed the entire thing.
What's crystal clear is that he doesn't give two hoots about anyone but himself.
House empty again, Mawmaw steps onto the back porch to smoke a menthol and feel the cool night air on her freckled skin. The night air is a natural force, and natural forces help you remember how small you are, and when you remember how small you are in the Big Picture you see how silly it is to be upset at almost anything. It's a technique she picked up from a woman on television, and even though the woman was talking specifically about money trouble, Mawmaw finds it works in most situations. The technique helps you to remember that you have to surrender control to the universe. She can feel the breeze tickle her skin. She can recognize the breeze as a natural force much larger than her little old arthritic self. And she understands that one dayâwho knows, maybe even tonight in her sleepâshe will die and enter God's eternal golden Kingdom and feel His Love, and when that happens all her frustrations and concerns will be like dewdrops on the windshield of a fast-moving car, the glass streaked clean and clear of all blurriness. That thought is a true comfort to her, and she's close to letting go of her anger, but then she allows herself to picture Tommy with that boyish look on his face, the one
he puts on when he pretends to have absolutely no idea why anyone could possibly be mad at him.
Mawmaw stubs her menthol out on the steps and goes inside to stack the dirty dishes and glasses. The real clean can wait for the morning. Upstairs, she changes into her nightgown and takes her pill. She is on the edge of sleep when she hears the truck in the driveway.
The porch lights hum with a new electricity. If the moon could radiate more light, it would. Tommy is home. She wants to sing. She wishes the party wasn't over, so everyone could see her son. When she greets him out front, he pulls her into a deep hug. “You look thin,” she says. “How about some coconut shrimp or wedding cake?” His eyes are bloodshot, his brown hair ruffled. He's wearing suit pants and a white undershirt. She hasn't seen him in eight months and six days. She's already forgiven him, already forgotten how mad she was an hour ago.
He pulls her into a short waltz across the asphalt. “I promised you a dance,” he says. “Don't think I forgot.”
“Your uncle asked me if you'd fallen in with the wrong sort of people,” she says, teasing him. “That's code for drugs, in case you're wondering.”
They stop dancing. “Did you set him straight?”
“I wasn't sure
to tell him,” she says, eyebrows arched, looking away but smiling. Sometimes she feels like a different person around Tommyâcarefree, lighthearted.
“Well, Maw, I've got a good reason for being late,” he says, and pats his truck, which has a
BACK FROM EXTINCTION
magnetic decal on its door. “Something I need to show you. Pour us both a drink and meet me around back.”
She pours him some grapefruit juice in a tall Daffy Duck glass. Tommy comes into the house through the back door. She hands him the glass and he takes a swig, then looks at her, confused. He pulls a flask out of his pocket and tips it into Daffy Duck. “Follow me,” he says, and leads her into the backyard, both of them swatting their way through a veil of mosquitoes and moths attacking the overhead floodlight. There, in the freshly mowed grass, Tommy has something hidden under a quilt. It's moving.
“What I'm about to show you,” he says, “you can't tell a soul about it. If you did, it would be major trouble. Trouble with a capital T.” He sips his drink and tugs the quilt away.
Mawmaw takes a step back. She's looking at some kind of elephant. With hair.
“Don't worry. She's not dangerous,” Tommy says. “Bread Island Dwarf Mammoth. The last wild one lived about ten thousand years ago. They're the smallest mammoths that ever existed. Cute, isn't she?”
The mammoth is waist-high, with a pelt of dirty-blond fur that hangs in tangled draggles to the dirt. Its tusks, white and pristine, curve out and up. The forehead is high and knobby and covered in a darker fur. The trunk probes the ground for God-knows-what and then curls back into itself like a jelly roll.
“What's a goshdern Bread Island Dwarf Whatever doing in my yard?” Mawmaw asks.
“Listen,” Tommy says. “This is very special. Other than the folks at work, you're the first modern human to ever lay eyes on such a creature. Her episode hasn't even aired yet. Go on, you can touch her. She's friendly. Practically tame. Her name's Shirley Temple.”
“Shirley Temple?” Mawmaw asks. “You can't name it that. Shirley Temple was Shirley Temple.” She points to the dog pen, under which Shirley Temple the Great Dane is buried. The dog had tumors that couldn't be removed. The vet wanted to put her to sleep, but Mawmaw couldn't bear it. One night she left the pen open by mistake, and three days later she found the dog curled and cold under the porch.
“All right,” Tommy says. “I meant it to be honorific. Call this one Shirley Temple Two, if you'd like.” He puts his hand on the mammoth's tusk. “Or maybe we should call her Shirley Temple the Third? Since, you know, technically, the first one was the âGood Ship Lollipop' Shirley Temple. This one's about as dangerous as the little girl.”
He runs his hand along Shirley Temple Three's back. The mammoth looks up at him with dark, mysterious eyes. It doesn't seem to know what to do in this new setting.
“Is it full-grown?”
“That's what they tell me. Isn't she amazing?”
Mawmaw nods because the mammoth really is a scientific miracle, a true marvel, but then again, it's getting late. She's been awake since four a.m., working on final preparations for the reception, and she's already taken her pill. The moonlight shines down on the three of them. They decide to keep Shirley Temple Three in the dog pen for the night.
â¢Â Â Â â¢Â Â Â â¢
Not all of Mawmaw's friends like her son's showâespecially her friends at God's Sacred Light. When the show debuted, she had not yet retired as the church's financial administrator, and Pastor
Frank pulled her into his small, warm office and asked if she was concerned about her son. She hadn't been until that moment. Pastor Frank knows everything there is to know about Mawmaw and Tommy. They joined the church two months after she gave birth. She wasn't married, because Tommy's father was already married to someone else. Kyle Seevers was a CPA in another town and had given a talk in Mawmaw's night class in business administration. Kyle couldn't leave his wife, but he was a real gentleman about all of it and mailed regular checks until the day he died of a heart attack. Mawmaw thought it best not to attend the funeral.
Tommy knows the name Kyle Seevers. Mawmaw doesn't like secrets.
Her son comes into the kitchen the morning after the reception and asks if he can have scrambled eggs and grits. She can't refuse him. His hair sticks up in the back. He's forty-two but could be twelve. Up on her toes, Mawmaw reaches for a pan on a high hook, then down low for a whisk in a bottom drawer. She's feeling more energetic than she has in months. Her knees are hardly bothering her at all. Tommy sips his black coffee and reads the newspaper. The eggs crackle in the bacon grease.
“And how's Shirley this morning?” Tommy asks.
All morning Mawmaw hasn't let herself look out the window above the sink.
“Don't see nothing out there,” she says.
“Don't see it?” Tommy is up in a flash and out the back door. She watches him scurry across the grass in his boxers. He goes inside the pen. The mammoth emerges from behind the oak tree in the far right corner. From a distance it's almost doglike. But that
long probing trunk. Those tusks! Tommy squats in front of the mammoth and runs his fingers through the dirty-blond coat.
“Wash your hands,” Mawmaw says once he's back inside. “Could have diseases.”
“Maw, it doesn't have any diseases,” he says. Yet she can't help but notice how thoroughly he scrubs his hands in the sink.
She puts his breakfast plate on the table and sits down to watch him eat.
“How come they let you take this elephant?” she asks. “Isn't that against the rules?”
“It's not an elephant. Listen, Maw, I'm going to let you in on a dirty little secret. You know about the Back from Extinction Zoo, right?”
“It's where that cute little zookeeper takes all the animals to live at the end of every show.”
“Right. Her name is Samantha. Only, she doesn't take every animal to the zoo. We never say this on the air, but sometimes we clone twins by mistake, and that, legally speaking, is a bureaucratic nightmare. There are so many fucking laws that weâ”
“Sorry, but it's true. You'd think we were trying to make nuclear weapons. We're allowed to keep both twins alive until we've filmed the episode, so we can use each one on camera. But then we have to get rid of one. Samantha is the person who has to euthanize them. It's awful.”
Tommy scrapes the grits into a small pile and takes another bite.
“Why are you telling me this?” Mawmaw asks.
“Because,” Tommy says, “we had two dwarf mammoths. Twins. Only, this time Samantha couldn't bring herself to do it. She took Shirley home instead. Not the smartest move, but it's not like she could just set a mammoth loose in the woods, you know? Anyway, the show suspected something was up. She needed it out of her house for a few days in case they came snooping around, and I told her I would help.”
Mawmaw goes to the window. Shirley Temple Three is using its tusks to root up the dirt. She wonders what it eats. If it would eat eggs. Shirley Temple the dog used to eat eggs.
â¢Â Â Â â¢Â Â Â â¢
Tommy plans to be in town for less than a week, but his friends want to see him. One night his high school buddy Mitch Mitchells comes over to take him out like old times. Mitch is recently divorced, and Tommy says he thinks he's lonely, which is enough to make Mawmaw laugh. What does Mitch Mitchells know about loneliness? But, standing in the foyer, Mitch gives Mawmaw a long, sad hug. She hasn't seen him in probably a decade. Unlike her son, he hasn't aged well. He has an extra chin, thinner hair. He's clearly in awe of Tommy, a real celebrity, and is full of questions. Has Tommy met many movie stars? Is he dating anybody special? Have any of the animals bitten him or stung him or stabbed him or done him any sort of bodily harm as yet unimaginable? And how do the scientists bring back all those animals, anyway?
First of all, Tommy says, he hasn't met many movie stars, since he lives in Atlanta, not Hollywood. And he's not dating anyone special, certainly not anyone famous, and thus far, knock
on fossil, he hasn't suffered even a single scratch from the animals, and as for the science, well, to be perfectly honest, he doesn't have a clue how they do it. He's just the talent. He reads the cue cards. He doesn't have to handle any pipettes, let's put it that way. Mitch Mitchells thinks that's just hysterical.
“You'll look after the dog?” Tommy asks on his way out, a glint in his eye. Mawmaw nods, but once he's gone she wonders what she's supposed to do. Walk it? Give it a treat? Earlier that week, on the computer, she learned that prehistoric mammoths ate grasses, fruits, twigs, berries, and nuts. In the pantry Mawmaw has a tub of mixed nuts. She pours some cashews and almonds and pecans into a metal bowl and takes it outside, to where the mammoth has stuck its trunk through one of the squares of the metal gate. The trunk recoils when she places the bowl in front of it. It doesn't seem very interested in the nuts.
“Take it or leave it,” Mawmaw says, and abandons the mammoth for her nighttime ablutions: her face cream, her electric toothbrush, and, just before sliding into the faded red nightgown, her sleeping pill. She sleeps hard until midnight, when a car in the driveway pulls her awake. She realizes she's not in bed anymore but at her desk in the office, half her toenails painted dark red, the computer printing a ninety-two-page document about the dangers of lead-based paint. Her pills can have that effect sometimes. They turn her into a zombie. She goes to the window, but it's not Mitch's Bronco outside in the driveway. It's a taxicab. Tommy shoves a wad of cash through the driver's window and stumbles toward the house. Mawmaw creeps back into her room and shuts her door. She considers taking another pill but turns on the television instead.