BASS 2013: Bret Anthony Johnston, “Encounters with Unexpected Animals” from Esquire, March 2012

Esquire art by Bill Henson

Esquire art by Bill Henson

At supper, Robbie and the girl had told, in tandem, a story about playing hide-and-seek on the abandoned country club golf course. Hide-and-seek, Lambright thought, is that what y’all call it now? Then they started talking about wildlife. The girl had once seen a blue-and-gold macaw riding on the headrest of a man’s passenger seat, and another time, in a pasture in the Rio Grande Valley, she’d spotted zebras grazing among cattle. Robbie’s mother recalled finding goats in the tops of peach trees in her youth. Robbie told the story of visiting the strange neighborhood in San Antonio where the muster of peacocks lived, and it led the girl to confess her desire to get a fan of peacock feathers tattooed on her lower back. She also wanted a tattoo of a busted magnifying glass hovering over the words FIX ME.

We don’t expect to encounter macaws on the highway, or zebras in a herd of cattle; we don’t expect goats in peach trees, or peacocks in San Antonio. We don’t expect a boy with superhero posters on his walls to turn into a man over the wrong kind of girl; we don’t expect the wrong kind of girl to turn into a clever monster. And we certainly don’t expect to turn into an animal ourselves, or to discover that we had that in us, all along.

“The girl” in this very short story (1300 words, available online) is named Lisa, and Lambright knows it perfectly well – he uses her name when addressing her directly in dialogue – but she’s narrated as “the girl” throughout. Of course she is. Lambright is the point-of-view-character, and he doesn’t think of her as a person with a name; he knows exactly what she is: “She’d been held back in school. Her driver’s license was currently suspended. She had a reputation, a body, and a bar code tattooed on the back of her neck.” She’s bad news. Eve in Eden, bearing an apple with his son’s name on it. He’d been worried about son Robbie seeming a little, well, behind, in psychosocial development, with those superhero posters on his walls, and the airplane models hanging from the ceiling. Then the girl came into Robbie’s life, those childish things were put away, and Lambright’s really got something to worry about: petty thefts when she’s around, the flask of booze in the back yard.

As a reader, I had a hard time disliking this girl – how can you dislike someone with her taste in tattoos? – and I think that’s a credit to Johnston’s skill. But, and this is also a credit to Johnston, I sympathize with the father’s protective instincts, which have been inflamed for good reason. Or at least, I did sympathize, until he took a detour while driving he home from a pleasant dinner with his family. I wasn’t sure who to cheer for when things the tables were turned on him.

Blood was surging in his veins, like he’d swerved to miss something in the road and his truck had just skidded to a stop and he didn’t yet know if he was hurt, if the world was changed. The passenger door was open, the interior light burning, pooling. The girl jumped across the creek and bolted alongside it. She cut to and fro. He wanted to see her as an animal he’d managed to avoid, a rare and dangerous creature he’d describe for Robbie when he got home, but really her movement reminded him of a trickle of water tracking through pebbles.

The language does a great job of reinforcing mood and plot. They’re “outside city limits.” They certainly are. “He killed the engine.” Not, he turned off the engine, or cut the ignition. I had no idea what was going to happen, but I knew it wasn’t going to be good. Turns out, I had no idea just how bad it would be. Physical violence is not the only way to damage someone; sometimes just holding up a mirror will do it: “… and the scrub around them silvered…”

Just as I was putting my notes together for this post, Prof. Charles May discussed this story, and other BASS 2013 selections, on his blog, “Reading the Short Story”. He phrases it far more artfully than I could, pinpoints it down to motivations, motivations of which we sometimes are unaware.

I’m not sure Lambright’s motivation was that much a secret to himself. I think he knew exactly what he was doing; his mistake was in underestimating the girl, who also knew exactly what he was doing. Intimidation only works when the intimidatee doesn’t point out you’re being a jerk, and a borderline criminal jerk at that (I’m not sure what the crime would be, but some form of abduction, threatening, or endangering the welfare of a minor would be a good place to start). And when you’re dealing with an animal, who’s intimidating whom can change pretty quickly.

A seriously good story.

One response to “BASS 2013: Bret Anthony Johnston, “Encounters with Unexpected Animals” from Esquire, March 2012

  1. Pingback: BASS 2013: Closing the Cover | A Just Recompense

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