The Mongoose and the Goat

map The Mongoose and the Goat

by Miranda Erdt

Published in Issue No. 195 ~ August, 2013

Photo by Lennart Sydney Grosch

When I first saw the goat, I was at the park reading DIY: Cabinet Installation, envisioning the kitchen my apartment could have, that I could give it with the right tools. The sun was giving me a headache, so I relocated to a shady tree and settled into a comfy spot between two fat roots. When I looked up and saw him, he was skipping stones by the river, swinging hard and quick, like he was dead set on breaking a window and he heard sirens in the distance. There was a rhythm to his swagger, stepping forward to follow through on each throw, and I wondered if he was wearing headphones I couldn’t see. He’d stuffed his t-shirt into the back pocket of his jeans and I watched the muscles ripple in his back. His dreads were brown but shone red in the sun, like there was a conflagration around his head. Watching him, I folded the page in my book, took the barrette out of my hair, righted my bra strap, and stood up. The ground rolled beneath my feet and I had to wait a moment to get my land-legs. I parted the air before me like it was a heavy curtain, and stumbled forward.

From a few feet away, I said, “Hey!” He dropped a stone and turned around so fast his dreads twirled out in a little circle like a merry-go-round. “Why hello,” he said. He had a mustache that curled up at the ends. Pulling a cigarette from the breast-pocket of my flannel shirt, I asked if he had a light. He was wildly handsome and I was afraid my hand would shake. He thought I was pretty, I could tell, and my delight disturbed me. He took a lighter out of his back pocket and handed it to me; I wanted to smell it. The cigarette between my lips, I put a hand up to block the wind, but it still tossed the flame around. Then, so delicately, as if he was a mother goat nudging her newborn, he touched my face. He pushed my hair, which was falling dangerously close to the flame, behind my ear, and traced my forehead, then cheekbone, then cheek with his finger. I closed my eyes, feeling the muscles around my mouth turn to fire, as I restrained a manic grin. He told me his name was Anthony and I said mine was Viddie. Then I did something that made me tingle from head to toe and smile giddily – I put his lighter back in his pocket. “Oh, I see,” he said, and took my hand and pulled me behind him, walking so quickly I could hardly keep up; it was like I was Alice following the rabbit.

“My home’s just a stone’s throw away,” he said, as he led me down the beach, away from the soccer fields and playgrounds, towards a wooded area. The ground changed from sand to stones and I wasn’t wearing shoes. He wasn’t either, but he wasn’t bending his knees like he was trying to step lightly – I saw calluses along the soles of his feet so thick they were like bone or hooves. “Your feet,” he said, and halted, dropping my hand, and crouching with his hands held out by his sides like he wanted me to get on his back. I said thank you but no and patted his shoulder and walked on, thinking that was strange. “It’s just a stone’s throw now,” he said, and I looked towards the woods ahead of us and then back at him and, as he winked at me, I noticed a mole on his lip under his mustache.

Where three trees formed a shady circle, the goat lived in a tent on a tiny peninsula in the river. He said he moved inland when it rained a lot. While he built a fire, he told me about himself. He’d grown up only a few blocks from where I did, but he’d bussed into the hills for private school. Five years ago, when he was eighteen and ready to leave home but penniless, he’d moved to the peninsula. Since then he’d traveled all around the country, but he’d returned to “the shelter,” as he called it, over a year ago even though his parents weren’t interested in talking to him anymore. Staring at the ground, he looked sad, but then he pointed at a banjo leaning against a tree and said he spent a lot of time with Francisco. As he spoke, it occurred to me that going with him had been reckless, that I didn’t know this boy, he could be a serial killer or an organ harvester for the black market. But being with him felt new and exciting, and I trusted that there was a kindness in him.

The scent of pine needles burning in the fire filled the air. I studied his face in the light – he had thick eyebrows and long lashes, big nostrils and a thin jaw, even with the layer of scruff. “And Shirley at the library hooks me up – me and her got a thing going on – she gets me all the best literature,” he said, his jaw cocked to the side like he was bragging. “She’s always telling me I look like her dead husband, but it’s sweet, you’d like her.” I told him that I hadn’t been to a library in years, I always bought my books, but that I associated them with independence. We were sitting next to each other, cross-legged, looking at the fire, but he turned to say, “Independence, absolutely.” And when he kept nodding, I nodded too, and we looked at each other and I felt like I wanted to know him intimately, but also that I didn’t want to tell him a thing about myself. When he said, “I want to know everything about you,” I narrowed my eyes, suspicious. I opened my purse and pulled out supplies to roll a spliff. That made him nod some more.

My hands are super tiny; half the size of my mother’s, even now that I’m done growing. I think their size means a lightness, which makes them nimble as a cat. I rolled the spliff in the blink of an eye; it was kind of remarkable.

The sun set behind us, but we didn’t turn to watch. We smoked in silence, with only the fire crackling and little splunks from the water. I said I liked Emma Goldman and Lou Reed, and most importantly, that my spirit animal is a mongoose. He said his was a goat. “Oh, really?” I said, surprised, but not. In the furrows of his dreads at the top of his head, I wondered if there were little horns. The fact that he was a goat told me not to trust him, but it also made me feel he was no longer a threat. A mongoose could kill a goat, if necessary. As I looked in his eyes, I saw an earnestness and loneliness that was indeed goat-like.

After I extinguished the spliff, I went into his tent. When the thick animal scent knocked me over, I looked for more goats in the corners, or perhaps a raccoon; one mammal couldn’t smell so much. Proud to be a mongoose, proud of our clean, silky coats and faintly citrusy odor, I took my clothes off and lay down on his bed, which was a camping pad and torn-up quilt, and watched his shadow moving back and forth in front of the tent. Then he parted the flap, popped his head in with a dreadlock in his eyes, and said, “Hi, Viddie,” and I said, “Hi, Anthony.”

I had sex with him and then he fell asleep, and I whispered in his ear, “I have to go home to Seymour.” As I walked back along the beach, the stones felt rougher and I tripped a few times. The cold air awakened me and I tried to take big gulps of it, as I thought it was a mongoose decision to go home alone, to not sleep in his tent, trying all night to cuddle him without waking him. As I smiled at Anthony’s smell in my hair, I knew Seymour was waiting for me.

When I got home, Seymour was curled in a little ball right in the center of the bed. I lay down next to her and spooned her. She started to vibrate, the early rumbles of a purr, but she didn’t open her eyes or move at first. Such a loving little creature. My face pressed into her fur, I drifted towards sleep, when Seymour suddenly sat up, perturbed. She sniffed my hair and my hands, as she nudged me with her nose and held me still with a paw. She reeled back, repelled by the smell she found, before she approached me hesitantly and began washing me, her spiky tongue scratching me, with resolve.

A few days later I went down to the river in search of Anthony, but he wasn’t there and neither was his banjo. I decided to wander into the woods and I sat on a log and thought for a few minutes. After picking a few violets, I went back to the shelter. Tying the violets together with a tall piece of grass, I grabbed a receipt and a pen from my purse and wrote: “Goat – XO Mongoose” and my number, and left them on his bed.

 

He called me the next morning from a pay phone and we agreed to meet at Doyle’s Park at noon. When I got there, he held his arms out and kissed me on the forehead. “Today, Columbus is our destiny,” he said, grabbing my hand and leading me towards the highway. He walked with an urgency, while I dawdled behind, stubbornly hesitant. There was a rhythm to his steps that was reminiscent of a trot. We arrived at the foot of the entrance ramp and he said, “This is how we do it now,” and flung his arm up and stuck out his thumb. I turned to the road and looked at the cars and the faces of the drivers. They mostly stared, blankly, but they did pay attention. Anthony smiled, hard and wide, beaming at the cars like he was a contestant in a beauty pageant. It didn’t take us long to find a ride; when the car pulled over, Anthony said it was because I was pretty, which made the whole thing seem less magical and put me in a sour mood.

The man who picked us up had a thick beard and wore a baseball hat. He said his name was James and that he’d be happy to take us to the city. Anthony got into the front and I the back. The seats were covered in typed pages and newspapers and it smelled like mothballs, which James said was because his trunk was full of his grandmother’s sweaters. Nodding enthusiastically, Anthony said, “Of course!” as though that’s what he’d presumed all along. I went to put my seatbelt on but there wasn’t a buckle.

We started down the highway fast, passing everybody, and James talked that way too, like he couldn’t wait to get to the end of the sentence but the sentence never ended. He said he was from Washington state, the rainforest part, and he’d never been able to find any place prettier. He grew up in a little house with his mother and nine cats, whom he’d considered his siblings – “Without them, I wouldn’t know how to love another’s body,” he said. There was a tenderness there that won my affection. I imagined him in bed holding a faceless body, his arms wrapped around it delicately, lovingly.

“I have a cat named Seymour who’s my best friend,” I said, interrupting him, but I knew that’s what you had to do with people like him. “Do you now?” he asked, as he turned his head around to look at me so quickly that the car swerved. Anthony, looking at the road, reached for the wheel, a reflex, but James turned back around and eyed Anthony’s hand, frozen in the air, before he laughed whole-heartedly and slapped Anthony on the thigh in a way that suggested brotherhood.

Then James’ face changed quickly, like a curtain suddenly drawn. He seemed to notice Anthony’s dreads for the first time and he looked at them with a sternness in the muscles of his jaw. “You kids runaways?” He watched my face in the rearview mirror. “No,” I said, looking at the mirror and raising my eyebrows like my third grade teacher did when someone was in trouble. Anthony said we were over eighteen. “And bona fide,” I added. He nodded, immediately assured. “Good, good. It’s just that my ex-wife told me to stay away from runaways. They’re only bad news. She once picked one up, a hitchhiker like yourselves, because it was raining and cold and the kid was soaked through, and Therese, despite her many, many faults, has a heart the size of a wild turkey. But boy did it come back to bite her – she didn’t have the kid in the car with her for five minutes before he pulled a knife on her. She barely got out alive,” James said. Anthony whispered the beginnings of a word, but James kept talking and Anthony closed his lips and sucked them into his mouth.

“She left me a year ago for no good reason. She said she’d just gotten bored. A few months ago, she sent me a postcard from some island in the South Pacific. Who knows what trouble she’s getting into there,” James said, as he shrugged and adjusted the heating vent to blow in his face. I lay my head against the window and the sun fell upon me and his voice became a lullaby and soon I fell asleep.

When I awoke, we were stopped at a red light in the city and Anthony was squeezing my knee. As soon as I opened my eyes, Anthony turned to James and said, “We’re all set now, thanks for the ride!” and leaped out of the car and opened my door. I grabbed my purse and stumbled out of the car, blurry and confused, as James yelled after us, “Bye now!”

The city was hot and crowded and everyone’s skin looked sticky. The sun reflected off the buildings into a blinding bright sheen that blended into the roar of traffic. I made my hand into a visor over my eyes and squinted up at Anthony, who had his hands on his hips and his shoulders back, his face tilted towards the sky like he was a plant charging himself up with chlorophyll. As I looped my arm through his, I asked, “Where you wanna go?” He said that was a very good question and kissed my forehead.

We wandered through the city, winding through side streets and back onto busy roads, while I looked at the sidewalk, the cracks separating the squares and the tufts of grass growing in them. Anthony’s arms swung by his sides, as he told me about his father taking him to baseball games in the city when he was a little kid. He spoke of the energy and excitement, the sea of people in matching shirts and the stadium lights guiding the way. “That was the only time my dad ever held my hand,” he said, quietly, like he wasn’t sure he wanted me to hear him. It made me ache for him, so I caught his hand mid-swing and held it tightly in mine. I asked when was the last time he’d seen his dad and he said a couple of years. “My dad doesn’t like the way I do my hair and he doesn’t like the way I think, and we just haven’t found a way around that yet,” he said, with a solemnness that was so thick and deep that it rushed over me and made me drown with him for a moment.

That lasted until I saw an ice cream truck and started to run towards it. My flip-flops slapped against the sidewalk and my purse fell off my shoulder, but I ran with all my might. “Viddie! Where the fuck are you going?” Anthony yelled after me. He sounded befuddled and a little hurt. It crossed my mind that he might think I was running away from him, but I was just getting us ice cream treats and I knew he’d be happy in the end. The truck rolled down the street slowly, blaring its song like a siren. When I got close, I started waving my arms and yelling, “Stop! Ice cream!” The truck had long rectangular side mirrors and I could see the ice cream man’s head; he was wearing sunglasses and a striped visor. A small child screamed nearby and the man turned his head, hoping ice cream could be of some comfort, and it was then that he saw me in the mirror, flagging wildly. He lazily waved his hand out the window to tell me he was stopping, although I only knew that was what he meant when I saw his brake lights, and slowed my pace to a steady jog, realizing my thighs were burning. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d run like that. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen an ice cream truck either. We mongooses are known for our passionate pursuits.

By the time Anthony caught up, I’d already paid for two strawberry shortcake popsicles. The ice cream man tipped his visor before driving off. As I held out a popsicle, Anthony took it, but he looked irritated. I asked what was was wrong because it didn’t seem fair – I’d just handed the boy ice cream. His face relaxed as he undid the wrapper. “I just wish you’d told me what you were doing,” he said, looking up at me. “I was worried about you, Viddie.” Suddenly, I felt like he’d given me a birthday present and I’d thrown it in the trash right in front of him. His eyes were deep set and I wondered how my thumb would feel in the dent between his eyelid and eyebrow.

“I’m sorry,” I said, as I put my hand on his shoulder. “I just got caught up in the moment, in the promise of ice cream.” He smiled at that and kissed my forehead again and put his arm around me. My insides flittered and I wallowed in the weight of his arm, and for a moment I felt thankful for his forgiveness.

But then a stubbornness rose up in me and I thought again: I just gave him ice cream, I didn’t do anything wrong, what do I have to apologize for? I’m a mongoose – we’ll drop anything for our true desires.

Eating our popsicles, we ambled, as the sky darkened and the street lights came on. We thought about getting dinner, but neither of us was particularly hungry and we didn’t have much money; instead we found a park that was filled with homeless men sleeping on benches and teenagers huddled in circles, the smell of weed wafting from them. We talked about our grandparents – we both had a grandfather who’d died when we were little and a grandmother who now had Alzheimer’s, but had once meant the world to us. “She took me to the circus once,” he said, as he tossed his dreads over his shoulder. “We were in the front row, and a lion roared in my face and I roared right back at him. My grandmother thought it was the funniest thing she’d ever seen, so for my birthday that year, she gave me this big, fluffy lion’s mane that had an elastic loop that went around my head.” I laughed, loving the mental picture. “Roar for me,” I said. And he did – first inflating his chest and then bellowing, his face stretched around his gaping mouth. It was charming. A group of kids nearby stopped talking and stared suspiciously. When I told him Anthony dreads were like a mane, he laughed and said, “Good.”

After we wandered out of the park, we found ourselves in a hip neighborhood filled with college students. It was a Wednesday night but there was a lot going on. We went down the street until we saw a dingy club blaring funky hip-hop. Smiling, we nodded our agreement. Then, I turned my head for a second and when I looked back Anthony was gone. Scanning the crowd on the sidewalk, I pinched the skin on my arm.

My stomach dropped; I knew instantly that this was his revenge and imagined myself on a dark street looking for a ride alone. Breathing slowly, I looked down at my feet, still hoping it wasn’t true, and noticed that the toe and the sole of my purple flats had separated, making a little mouth. As I counted the seconds in my head, my hands felt heavy, hanging by my sides, like my fingernails had turned to lead. What would I do if he didn’t come back? Stranded alone in the dark city, I’d be raped. As bodies jumbled past me, I stared at the ground – if their faces weren’t Anthony’s the tears, that were already swimming, would surface. But I could smell the people as they went by and my nostrils probed for Anthony’s dirty, goat-ish smell. I wrapped my arms around myself and closed my eyes and waited and waited, when a hand touched my back and I jumped. There was his smell: like a barn, as if he ate hay and bathed in mud. “There’s a cover, we’ll have to go around back,” he whispered in my ear.

He took my hand and led us through the crowd. I felt dizzy I was so relieved. Now that the fear had passed, exhaustion flooded me and made my muscles heavy and weak. As Anthony steered us into an alley, my mind began to clear and I wondered if he’d been here before since he seemed to know where he was going. I ran my fingertips along the brick wall, over graffiti and through ridges, but tucked them into my pocket when we came to a door. Not even bothering to see if it was locked, Anthony removed a bent bobby pin from a dread and stuck it into the lock. He only fiddled with it for a second before it clicked open and flashing lights and a cloud of noise enveloped us.

As soon as we stepped inside, I longed for what, just moments ago, I’d considered humid, summer night air. It was ten degrees hotter in the club. The sudden emergence of sweat from every pore, on every inch of me, made me itch. We stood just inside the door – it was a huge club with two levels and a circular dance floor with the band in the middle. We’d entered right by the bar, and when I saw a man behind the counter looking at us, I took Anthony’s hand and pushed my way into the throng of people. Everyone was wearing tiny clothes soaked with sweat and, as we slipped through them, the smell of human was overpowering. When we were close to the band and at the heart of the dance pack, I stopped and turned around to look at Anthony. He bobbed his head and swished his dreads and looked at the floor, so I did too and saw that it was covered in peanut shells, which I thought was strange – this wasn’t that type of place – and I wondered if he did, too. He hugged me then, squeezing tightly, and I buried my face in his neck and felt ecstatic. He began to sway between my arms and I stepped away from him and closed my eyes, letting my head drop, feeling the motion of the people around me. The music was thunderously loud – when I touched my heart, all I could feel was the beat of the music, which scared me. And then I let myself move, slowly and simply at first, back and forth, gently. Then blindly with sweeping motions and sudden twists, gyrating slithers. A tremendous, unknown energy surfaced, as the mongoose came out and my body became its own. Anthony pulsated next to me and I reached for him, clasped him – it was hard to hold on, our sweat was so slick, but I did.

When it was very late, we left the club and clung to each other in the street. Outside, soaking wet, I was freezing, but my body tingled, too, like I’d just stepped into a too-hot bath. Anthony seemed drunk, although I knew he wasn’t – he beat-boxed and groped my body hungrily. It felt good though, exciting, gratifying. We didn’t have a plan, there was no place to sleep and I knew we’d never find a ride at that hour. “Where should we go?” I asked. The city felt more private now, quiet and dark. “I think you’re wonderful, Viddie.” Anthony bent his head down towards mine and took deep breaths from my hair, which was sweet, but not what I was looking for.

“Yes, but where should we go?” I squeezed his side to wake him up a bit; I wanted him to direct us. He skipped forward and turned back to me with his arms in the air, fingers out-stretched, “To sleep, of course!” He suddenly looked up at the sky, like he’d heard someone call his name from up there.

“Anthony!” My voice was tight and strained. “Where?” I was starting to feel alone, after just feeling so together. Instead of looking at me, he examined our surroundings. We’d been walking in the direction of the highway entrance and were in a nice residential area. Leaning forward, Anthony squinted and then began to cross the street. His body seemed to change with each step, flowing muscles tightening with agitation and hardening into something foreign. He straightened up and lost his drunken gait. I stopped trying to catch up with him.

Then I saw what he saw. A man stepped off the sidewalk, out from under the trees, and into the streetlight. He had a brown labrador and held a long pole – he was blind. Jaunting in front of him, the dog was young, a puppyish bounce in its steps, its ears perked up, but the man was older, his back hunched. Anthony walked straight towards him, his bare feet silent on the pavement. I had absolutely no idea what was about to happen, but I had a terrible feeling about it. Suddenly, Anthony’s dreads made me think he was Medusa and instinctively I knew I shouldn’t look right at him. But I made myself, or I couldn’t stop.

Anthony took the leash right out of the man’s hand. The dog barked and held its ground, but Anthony yanked it sharply and the dog ran along after him. The blind man stumbled silently, his hands searching the air. “What the fuck are you doing, Anthony?” I screamed down the dark street. Standing with my hands over my mouth, I watched the man kneel and pat the ground in a circle around himself. Did he think that he’d just dropped the leash? That a big innocent gust of wind had just swept it out of his hand? I saw him moving his mouth; I thought he was saying the dog’s name, but I couldn’t hear him. It was hurting my eyes to look at him. I said in my mind: I don’t know what to do.

But I knew I couldn’t stand to keep watching the blind man, so I ran – off the street and onto the lawns, so he wouldn’t hear my footsteps. I ran past him, not looking at him, but seeing him perfectly in my peripheral vision. Going as fast as I could, I realized I was crying, tears splattered onto my collarbone. When I was two blocks from the man, Anthony and the dog appeared from behind a tree. “Viddie!” he said, his voice bright and childish like bubblegum pink.

I halted, squatted and buried my head between my knees, wrapping my arms around my head. Dabbing me with her nose, the dog sniffed me, a tinny whimper rattling from her throat. I knew immediately the dog was a she – maybe it was the pitch of her voice, or the curve of her hips, or how, when she looked me right in the eyes, I could tell she trusted me, saw that I wasn’t bad, too, she said, “I know you’re my ally.” Anthony petted the dog’s head and then mine and said, “I got us a friend, Viddie.” I wanted to explode at him, scream and punch, but I felt too afraid of him now. “Why did you do that, Anthony?” I looked up at him and hugged my knees. “Why would you possibly take that poor man’s dog?” Squatting next to me, Anthony tried to kiss my forehead, but I turned away.

“Because I’ve always wanted a dog,” he said, his voice hurt, like a baby goat who’d lost his mother. “Ever since I was a little kid. And I wanted to get it with you – it’s our dog.”

When he said that, I knew for sure that his heart didn’t talk to other people’s hearts the way mine did. The dog’s big copper eyes looked sad; she must’ve been terribly worried about the blind man. “Take the dog back,” I said, looking at Anthony’s filthy feet, which reminded of me of a Neanderthal’s. He stood up, grunting, and started pacing around like a trapped animal. “You know I can’t do that,” he said, his voice steely. “The cops could be there by now.” He kicked the ground and some dirt hit my shins.

Afraid I would vomit, I stood up and faced Anthony. In the streetlight, I could see a little row of sweat beads above his lip; it was revolting. I put my hands on my hips and told him that I wanted to go home. The dog kept whimpering, squealing sporadically, and the sound felt like it was cutting my skin. “We can’t go anywhere tonight, Viddie,” he said, and told the dog to shut up. As I readjusted my purse on my shoulder, I walked away from him, towards the highway, thinking I should sleep under an overpass, that that’s what people did in times like this.

I didn’t stop him from following after me; I didn’t know how to. As we walked, we were silent. The dog kept looking around and when she stopped in her tracks, Anthony yanked the leash. We found a hidden swatch of concrete in a multi-layered web of highways. Anthony lay down and began to snore immediately. Her nails tapping on the concrete, the dog paced the circle that Anthony’s foot in the handle of the leash provided her. She looked at me expectantly, pleadingly, and I scratched behind her ear – a mongoose and a dog comforting each other. We were hostages, together. I knew neither of us would sleep.

When the sun came up, I kissed the dog’s forehead as she tilted her head and tried to lap at me with her tongue. Anthony was curled up into a ball. I thought he looked like a sweet and tender goat then. His thumb cuddled with his chin like he might’ve been sucking it. Gingerly, so as not to wake him, I took the leash from his ankle, slid it down his foot and wrapped it around my wrist. Turning away and beginning the trek home was easy.