by Thom Kunz
Alice Tierney walked into my father’s shop, a dead cat wrapped in newspaper under her arm. The cat’s name was Gala. When her wrinkled hands placed him on the countertop, I smelled its musky scent: damp fur, stale urine, and a faint whiff of cinnamon.
“I need your help,” she said, head downturned. “He meant so much to me.” Her hand slid through her silvery hair. I nodded and lifted Gala off the counter. He felt no bigger than a football, snuggled within the real estate section. “Liver disease.” She drew a long breath. “It was all so sudden.”
“I’m very sorry,” I said. I’d grown tired of sudden death. Last week my father died peacefully in his sleep.
There wasn’t an overwhelming demand for a taxidermist in Seabrook, a charming fishing town rapidly losing its luster, nestled along the New Hampshire coast bordering Massachusetts where my father had operated a small, profitable business. I’d published his obituary and funeral arrangements in the local paper. Several clients and a few acquaintances from the nearby and controversial nuclear power plant, Seabrook Station, had attended the service. I remained in town to finalize his affairs. My life in Manhattan dangled miles behind me. I was a struggling actor, and not a horrible one. The metropolis would survive without me.
Alice wore sunglasses too large for her face. She sniffled, calmly fighting the tears. I couldn’t tell her I didn’t possess my father’s talents.
“I’d like to examine him in the backroom,” I said assuredly. “I won’t be long.”
On the examination table Gala rested like a stone. I used a thin scalpel, cutting away the remains of newspaper. Patches of skin around his ears and eyes were jaundiced. His fur felt moist at the tips—a recent death, I assumed. That scent, not cinnamon but apples, grew stronger. Growing up, the only pets I’d had were dead ones from neighborhood families, inconsolable on our front steps and handing over their lifeless carcasses—cats, dogs, birds, turtles, lizards, snakes, frogs, rabbits, gerbils, hamsters, chinchillas, guinea pigs—all of which were strung up in my father’s workshop, waiting for his magical hands.
Alice stood patiently in the other room, anticipating my estimate. Her guess was as good as mine. Some of my father’s invoices rested in small piles on his desk. I quickly sorted a few and found one listing, a cat he’d preserved two years ago: Mittens, Age 14, 6 lbs, Gray fur. $425. I hadn’t seen his handwriting in years, not since he’d packed my school lunches in the fifth grade, little notes taped to potato chip bags, typically a mother’s subtleties. My father tried to play both roles, and though I couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment he gave up, I recalled a few afternoons in sixth grade: no notes taped to my potato chips, mornings with no cafeteria money on the kitchen table, followed by no lunch at all.
When I returned to Alice, she was admiring the white owl my father and I stuffed when I was eleven. “Simply breathtaking,” she said, taking it in. We’d found the owl in the woods behind our house, and together we rebuilt his left wing with wire mesh, reconnected tiny pieces of broken bone along its left shoulder. Inside the shop, its magnificent wingspan, speckled with crimson, hovered like a guardian over the sterling silver urns my father would inscribe whenever restorations were far out of a customer’s price range: antique bird cages with 24-carat gold perches, lacquered branches, aquatic scenes, sagebrush, shrubbery, artificial rocks, stained-glass cases, even lampshades—yes, people transformed their pets into lamps.
Alice removed her sunglasses and studied the animals. Dad’s display included a deer’s head semi-upright on a wall pedestal beside the hunting section’s habitat-themed gun racks with rich cherry wood finish, the cougar my father had hunted in California, a fox he’d hit with his truck while passing through South Carolina.
“I just want to honor Gala’s memory,” she said with conviction, approaching me. “His happiness guided me through the saddest days.” Her eyes met mine for the first time. “When God decides it’s my time, I want him buried beside me, sleeping soundly like he always did.” She laughed without enthusiasm. I struggled for a reply, not necessarily the right one. She was closer now. The chandelier overhead illuminated her face, pale and wearing a history that was none of my business. “I have a fond respect for what you do, Mr…”
“Paien,” I said. “Just call me Chris.” I noticed a small liver spot on her forehead, and her faintly bloodshot eyes revealed no pigmentation. I was certain she was an albino. I tried not to stare.
“I’m not blind, Mr. Paien. Some folk are just born this way. Does it offend you?”
“Not at all.” I turned away. “I apologize for being so tactless.”
She smiled. “You have your father’s voice.”
“You knew him?”
“George knows him,” she said. “I only spoke with him on the phone. He did an excellent job with Galleon, George’s dog. Is your father here? I’d love to say hello.”
“Not at the moment,” I said.
Alice didn’t know my father was dead or that I was the boy who’d killed his mother at birth. My father resented me, though he’d never admitted it. One time I’d brought home a stellar seventh grade report card, but he never blinked and slapped it against the refrigerator, covering the left corner with a small magnet. I’d learned very little about my mother: She made exceptional grades in high school, and before falling in love, she tutored my father in algebra. She’d volunteered at a soup kitchen on Sunday mornings after church, always wanted to travel across Italy, cooked incredible paella—the rest would forever remain a mystery. My father and I hadn’t talked about her death, the emergency C-section that saved my life and ended hers, according to the hospital records.
Alice studied my face for a beat too long. “The both of you are artists,” she said.
Her comment, combined with her proud gaze, made me uncomfortable. “That’s very kind of you.”
She wiped the left lens of her sunglasses with a tissue she’d removed from her coat pocket. “I may look different, but my pain is the same as the next person’s.” She surveyed the items around the store, eyeing the large owl once more. We exchanged another fleeting glance. “If you were born without your left arm, at your age now, you wouldn’t know what you were missing.” She beamed at the open air. She tapped her fingers against the clipboard holding her paperwork. “When will Gala be ready?”
I paused for a second. Her fingers were bruised, not from cat scratches but actual bruises, black and blue and yellow.
“Two weeks,” I replied, guessing.
She slid me the forms.
Like Gala, Alice reeked of something potent, outdoorsy, not botanical, but acrid like sour fruit. I placed her paperwork inside a new folder—the only folder I’d ever made. She tucked away the invoice and began humming an old show tune; I recognized it from a Broadway play my father had taken me to when I was six, but I couldn’t remember the title. I’d seen lots of plays in Manhattan, mostly alone on weekends in between auditions. Alice seemed happier than when she’d arrived. As we said goodbye, she refastened her sunglasses, took one last look at the owl and lovingly dipped her head. I couldn’t let her down.
Later that evening I paced the laboratory. I moved between the tool cabinet—knives, sharpeners, skinning tools, clays for mixing and molding, soaps and other grooming utensils, several staplers, woodcarving kits—and the supplies case—tanning chemicals, rehydration agents, bactericides, degreasers, oils, deodorizers, paints, epoxies, a variety of dyes, stains, and waxes. I put on latex gloves and positioned Gala on the table, his green eyes an indefinable frozen stare, wide and emotionless. His orange and white fur felt brittle at the tips. I unfolded the tape measurer and recorded the size of his skull, tail, and legs. I scooped out his soupy eyes, thankfully odorless, and then crammed wads of gauze into the sockets, and after a small incision across his stomach, I cut in a straight line toward his chin and brushed his fur with arsenical soap, thickening his coat. The paws were the hardest part, breaking through the toughest nails and bone, maneuvering the scalpel around the last knuckle. I applied too much pressure on the hind limb, heard a snap, the back left tibia cracking. The left paw dangled over the table’s edge. It could be fixed later. It was after nine and I had a migraine. I’d skipped dinner and decided to reassess the remainder of Gala’s restoration over a meal.
November winds swept over the Blackwater River and infiltrated the darkened streets. Though early in the evening, the town looked deserted, dimly lit streetlights haphazardly stood every few blocks, masking the town’s fading beauty, and a fishy air, mingling with the chemicals from my father’s shop, invaded my lungs. At Castaways Grille, I inhaled a blackened crab cake sandwich, a generous side of slaw, and two dill pickles. My head began to clear. I struggled to accept my father’s death one second at a time—that’s how grieving worked for me, not measured in days or hours but in seconds, which felt like hours—even days. At times I imagined him in the back office, peeking over my shoulder and judging each incision, holding up scorecards, disgustedly shaking his head at the other judges.
I couldn’t go back to the shop. Insomnia crept over me, and I aimlessly wandered around town, peeking in dark windows of closed shops, searching for peace of mind. Eventually I was lost, unable to locate the town’s center, one street sign blurring into the next. I stumbled upon a firehouse where a few locals, smoking cigarettes, holding Styrofoam cups of steaming coffee, a blinding blur of blue denim and flannel and coughing fits and hoarse laughter. They gathered in a semicircle, chatting outside the main entrance. Some slowly turned their heads, some nodding, others complacent, recognizing me: the dead taxidermist’s son, the murderer. Or maybe it was nothing like that at all. Closer, I observed a billboard hung crookedly on the station’s door: STOP THE SECOND REACTOR NOW!
I stepped inside the fire station and secured a seat in the last row. Men my father’s age, a few who may have attended his funeral, congregated around the cheese platter where triangular wedges melted from humidity and the women fanned themselves with rolled up flyers, no air circulating, iron bar windows lining the room’s perimeter like a prison. Town artifacts rested on shelves, in addition to certificates and awards from old town meetings. A row of photographs illustrated decades of political activism in Seabrook, countless attempts to de-license and regulate Seabrook Station’s expansion.
A black-and-white photograph of a protest taken at the plant’s construction site sat behind a bronze frame fastened to the wall, a chipped plate below it that read circa 1976. Tonight would be a discussion about much-needed action. Everyone settled in their seats, mostly in the first seven rows. I remained in the back, alone, a newcomer. The lights dimmed and a slideshow began. The first image, a picture of Michael Dukakis during his term as Governor of Massachusetts, faded in, followed by newspaper clippings that summarized how he’d delayed the plant’s opening by prompting the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to halt everything until each town within a ten-mile radius had secured a comprehensive evacuation plan. To most attendees he was a local hero—he’d meant something, even if the rest of the world remained in the dark.
Next, a video clip of John McCain campaigning during the 2008 presidential election blared from the tiny computer speakers, unevenly leaning against a box of doughnuts on a small folding table at the front of the room. A few gentlemen up front cursed at the screen:“Maverick, my ass!” “Forty-five new nuclear power plants in the next fifteen years will create over seven-hundred-thousand jobs!” There in the blurred footage my father appeared, seated on the bleachers behind McCain’s podium. His delicate and masterful hands clapped, praising each of McCain’s points as the spectators roared back, some cheering, others blasting profanity. When I was a child, my father never spoke about his political beliefs, and during our limited contact in recent years, we never discussed the elections, but none of that mattered now—it was safe to assume everyone in the room was against his beliefs, and I would not defend him. I couldn’t even act my way through it if I tried.
When the presentation ended, the lights flickered on and an older, yet muscular man stood up from his noisy aluminum chair in the front row. He stepped behind the podium. His name was Harris Reed, a volunteer from PRESERnation, a local organization housed in the neighboring city of Amesbury who’d helped organize the first protest that attracted more than 600 people in 1976. He talked of never giving up the fight, used a number of charts and graphs to highlight the details of the Nuclear Reactor Safety First Act. His voice expressed genuine concern and, at various points in his lecture, he maintained eye contact with each person in the room, including me. I felt like my father’s son, aware of our similar cheekbones, the subtle slope of our foreheads, as if everyone in the room somehow knew.
“The NRC needs to deny the plant’s re-licensing until more preventive safety measures are in place,” Harris said with historical gravity.
A husky voice countered, “You’re not considering the positive economic impact on the community! People need to work.”
“If you think 650 jobs is a bad thing, you’re out of your mind!”
“If we allow this monstrosity to remain open, all of our grandchildren will be born with deformities!” This silenced everything.
The room reeked of fishermen and sea salt and anger. I tuned them out, consumed by thoughts of Gala, limp and helpless, his broken paw awaiting my return. Sitting there, I felt bad for attending, an unwelcome houseguest. I wondered if Harris, or even Francine, somehow knew my limited knowledge of local history that had surrounded my father for the majority of his life in New Hampshire. Harris’s voice, monosyllabic at times, drowned in the buzz of overhead lights. I couldn’t focus. Everything was loud and silent at once. My brain replayed the sound of Gala’s tibia snapping; I thought everyone in the room heard it as they crossly shook their heads at Harris, crumbs on their shirts, phlegm in their throats, anger in their hearts, all of them searching for a healthier, defining commonality to unite them.
On my way back to the shop, I strolled along the riverbank where Seabrook Station, swallowing nearly a thousand acres in the distance, its center dome massive, almost biblical, curving into the sky beyond the opaque waters, brownish ripples dissolving into the void. It looked threatening now, even personal. The town, ominously quiet, looked more like an abandoned movie set than a vibrant fishing community: a bookstore and florist’s boarded-up windows, a bait and tackle shop’s slanted roof on the verge of collapsing, a weathered sign’s faded pink letters: homemade ice cream. I stood at the river’s edge, the water’s surface littered with trash and scum and revealing my reflection. Never in my life had I felt so irrelevant.
Two weeks passed. I’d applied the final layers of burlap to the original bones. Gala was taut, immovable, vibrant again. I placed him on a workbench behind my father’s desk where sunlight illuminated him, far from perfect but passable.
Alice had never returned for him.
I removed the operating hours plaque from the front door and permanently affixed the closed sign to the center window beside the main entrance. I left multiple messages on Alice’s answering machine, instructing her to knock on the back door since I’d spent most days after Gala’s restoration preparing my father’s business for final closure. There was no rush to leave Seabrook and no phone calls from my agent about auditions. There was only Alice.
I plugged her address into the GPS and began driving. Gala rested inside a box on the passenger seat while the apricot sun, a shade much like his fur, dropped behind a cluster of dogwoods. Alice lived off Route 1A along the Blackwater River where houses stood few and far between. The power plant stood in the distance like an Iranian palace, sunlight reflecting off the dark waters carrying small fishing boats. The more I drove through Seabrook, the more I learned about the political maneuvering in motion to revoke the plant’s license. The local newspaper had discussed concrete degradation surrounding the electric control tunnels and the push for Washington to pay closer attention to the plant’s unavoidable aging problems. Several protestors from the No Nukes Movement stood along the highway and held up signs: Better Active than Radioactive, Chernobyl & Fukushima What Next? How Can We Further Our Evolution If Our Own Power Can Kill Us? Whether they were actually making a difference or how my father would have disagreed with them didn’t matter—they were passionate and striving for a better world, and all I had contributed to the human race was a small part in a detergent commercial and my lackluster performance as a janitor on Law & Order SVU—an infallible emptiness constricted in my chest, and I shifted into fifth gear, tearing around the winding roads.
On a hillside that welcomed the chilliest northern winds, I found Alice’s dilapidated Victorian house, settled on nearly thirty acres, its murky windows and missing roof shingles, shutters hanging loosely on their hinges, white paint chips in small piles below the gutters, rusted and overstuffed with dead leaves and memories. An abandoned white van was parked in the driveway, windows unrolled.
After no one answered the door, I ambled around the side of the property, moved a crate aside, pressed my palms against the cold bricks along the window ledge and peeked into what appeared to be an office. Unopened letters and brochures in small bundles, addressed to George, were erected on the desk. The calendar blotter was set to June and it was already late November. Inching higher on my toes, I heard a dog faintly crying somewhere in the woods thirty yards behind the house. I lost my balance. My heels collapsed to the ground. As I continued around the perimeter, I peeked through each window, even checked the pink slip and paperwork three times—this was the correct address, but it just didn’t add up, like whoever lived here had simply vanished.
I jiggled the back porch door and carefully opened it. “Hello,” I said. No one answered.
I entered the foyer and then the kitchen, its decor a shrine to apples: apple-shaped oven mitts draped over the sink, apple-shaped salt and pepper shakers beside the stove, a green apple wallpaper border stretching across the cranberry-colored room, and on a corner wall beside the refrigerator hung an apple-shaped cork board, the shop’s work order receipt pinned to the center beside a photo of Gala dipping his tiny orange paw into a water bowl, also shaped like an apple.
I heard the dog crying again outside, restless.
The living room furniture, covered in plastic tarps, held a thin layer of dust. Stale embers, gray and abandoned, remained inside the fireplace, and the photographs in antique silver frames leaned over the mantle like interested parties. There was a large portrait of Alice and Gala in an apple orchard: Alice in a white evening gown and Gala comfortably against her chest.
Beside the fireplace was Galleon the dog, mounted to an oak platform my father had built. He stood tall on all fours, arched high and buoyant. Myfather had preserved the look of trustworthiness in Galleon’s pose: his mouth slightly opened, revealing the sharpest teeth, nostrils flared and shiny as if moist. The platform’s smooth finish was unmistakably the work of my father’s magical hands; when I was a young boy, he’d made similar platforms from wood we gathered by the creek behind our home. I had watched him, sanding and staining for hours, admiring his craft, the way his hands meticulously worked out the knots in each piece of wood, the way his mastery lit up the faces of families who stood dumfounded and amazed by how he’d breathed new life into their otherwise dead treasures.
I tilted Galleon to the side and marveled at the detail, ingeniously flawless and lifelike. Galleon’s paws, stitches hidden by clumps of hair, revealed no sign of the incision, undeniably perfect. For a moment I pondered how my father’s genius stood out among all the other objects in the room Galleon’s stillness and flawlessness reminded me how my father had lived life: for the happiness of others first, his own happiness second, his son’s happiness optional. He’d left the world before I accomplished anything relevant. I’d rarely felt my father’s love when he was alive, but love and pride were two very different things.
On the second floor, sunlight cut through the blinds and revealed isolated motes of dust in the air. I was high enough to see over the backyard’s array of trees—orchards, fifty yards below the hill, spreading over the remains of Alice’s property. I leaned against the windowsill, curtains fluttering against my forearms, cool air washing over me. It was the kind of quiet where the whole world and everything in it was listening. I cried, felt myself releasing all that would remain unresolved between us and dropped to my knees, my deepest thoughts of him lingering until the sound of a car, tires tiredly bulldozing the gravel driveway, suddenly halted with a slushing sound like a skier at the end of his run. I hurried downstairs, wiping my eyes, and slipped out the back door.
When I rounded the property toward the front of the house, I felt the wet air in my lungs. Alice stepped out of her Buick Invicta and she ambled toward the porch. She peered at my shadow in the distance.
“Is that you, George?” she asked.
“No, Alice,” I said, stepping into the lighted path alongside the porch. “It’s Chris Paien. I’m sorry…” I didn’t know if she’d heard me. She was still a few feet away. “I have Gala—”
“Oh, you scared me,” she said, palm between her breastbone and the cuff of her neck, the keychain glinting. “I thought you were George. I’m expecting him soon.”
“I’m very sorry to startle you,” I said.
Alice spotted the tiny cardboard box on the porch steps. “I thought George would pick up Gala on his way back into town. I do sincerely apologize, Mr. Paien.” Her voice was tired, almost forced.
“Please, call me Chris,” I said. “It’s no problem at all. I figured I’d come up here and make sure everything was all right.”
“My checkbook is inside,” she said, reaching for the screen door. She didn’t examine Gala.
“There’s no charge, Alice.”
“That’s incredibly generous,” she said, bending over to pick up the little box.
“I did my best,” I said. We stood in silence, searching beyond the lush fields and autonomous shadows, her pallid eyes scanning the landscapes, branches at war with the wind, echoes whipping against the house.
“Would you join me for apple pie? I’m about to bake one. George will be home soon. I know he would love to meet you.”
She carefully transferred the cardboard box from her hands to mine.
“Thank you. I’d like that.”
Inside the foyer light spread over the living room. Alice was humming that same show tune from my father’s shop, but I still couldn’t recognize the melody. Inside the kitchen, Alice’s eyes were soft, and it became obvious this was the heart of her home—she effortlessly maneuvered around the middle island to the stove, familiar with each inch of counter space, spice arrangements, hundreds tightly zipped up in bags, catalogued and safely stored behind cabinet doors.
She noticed me sitting awkwardly at her table, my hands folded in front of me, observing her. I wanted to tell her I was an actor, but it was no longer the truth. My lips parted, but she spoke first.
“We’ll need to gather a few apples from the orchard,” she said, swirling the cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom in a ceramic, yellow bowl, a disciplined rhythm in her stir. “The bruised ones on the ground will do fine.”
The backyard appeared infinite, a descending hill lined with rows of swaying apple trees. A dirt path stretched to the orchard’s center, apples scattered over the dewy grass. Branches, tiredly waving in the wind, formed arbors above us and concealed the sky. Leaves tumbled past our feet. Seabrook Station, miniature in the distance where the hills and blackness of the river receded, hung in the town’s vastness, its glow competing with the sunset’s, and after the building’s dome swallowed the sun’s final descent, the contest was over, and its artificial light, alive with a breath of its own, selfishly remained in the sky.
Alice stood beside me.
“George and I did all we could,” she said. “It’s where we met.”
“You worked at the power plant?”
“Heavens no,” she said, bending over to refasten a loose wicker strand on her basket. “At a protest in the seventies. A few thousand of us occupied the construction site. Thankfully George and I didn’t get arrested, but more than half did that afternoon.”
“I recently attended something at the fire station,” I said, wondering if she was still involved, if her and my father had once stood on opposite sides of the street in large crowds berating each other. “The plant raises a lot of concern, it seems.”
“It will continue to, I’m afraid.” She put her hand on my shoulder, as if to warn me. “The more we fail at change, the more disillusioned we’ll become.”
I reached down, ran my fingers through the grass and grasped the apples one by one, not feeling for the firmest or softest, selecting at random. Wind blew against me. My fingertips traced the top of the pile and absorbed the moisture. A worm, unexpectedly earnest, coiled around my thumb.
“I would love to meet George.”
“He’s been away,” she said, disappointed, “but he’ll be back. I know he’s coming back.”
She grew quieter as the hours passed. We shared apple pie and the sounds of the evening: insects mating between blades of grass, an owl hooting, winds whispering in the west and the crying dog all around us—there was nothing left to say, as if we’d covered everything two strangers could ever cover. She never checked Gala. Maybe she would later, but none of that mattered to us anymore. We waited for George who would never arrive, sat in rockers on the back porch and gazed at the sky, plum and secretive, clouds visibly retreating and permitting the moonlight’s splendor, shadows of apple trees splayed across the distant fields, stars illuminated and widening before our eyes.
About Thom Kunz
Thom Kunz received his MFA in fiction from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His stories have appeared inThe Magnolia Review, Twisted Vine, Other Voices, Ellipsis, and Slow Trains. He currently lives in Wilmington, NC.