What We Know of the Animal

Leslie Pietrzyk


"No one says dating anymore." Thirteen-year-old Stephanie is always proud when she's able to correct an adult, especially her father, who's barely listening. To be honest, he barely listens to most conversations, so she shouldn't feel particularly special or at all dissed, though whenever she's with him, she feels both. He's gifted with the politician's ability to sustain lengthy, complicated, even heartfelt conversations while barely listening; questions, answers, words are an empty flow, like the whooshing sound spiraling through a seashell.

What he pays attention to is body language. He is forever a student of gesture, movement, nuance, watching for the sharp, pinprick of breath and the precise flicker of each of the face's forty-whatever muscles. Understanding nuance is what made him successful, he imagines. Stephanie, his daughter, sits spine-straight, phone pocketed, half-empty cocoa mug centered between her two hands, palms flat on the table.

He says, "Okay, so what do they call it?"

"I call it a cattle call," she says. "Or catalog shopping."

"Categories," he says. "Catapult. Catastrophe."

"Jesus," she grumbles. Her wiry body sways side-to-side in the unsteady coffee shop chair; he feels her delight in its wobble, in the rhythmic click of its legs. "Jesus—."

Don't say it, he thinks.

But she does. Loudly. "Dad." Repeating herself: "Jesus, Dad." Her eyes pin his. Her eyes are the exact flinty grey-green of his. He's trained his eyes to "twinkle" and "smile." Control is a difference between them. He can ignore the despised "dad," has trained himself to do that as well.

"Cattle call," he says. "Do you know what that is? Literally." His life is in DC now, but he grew up on a farm, long ago—and should know what a cattle call is, literally. His mind abruptly sharpens, focuses like an arrow zinging to a bullseye.

"Like, cows," she says. She's yanking at a hangnail on her thumb. His mother would have slapped his sister silly for picking at her flesh in public. This girl's mother doesn't give a shit. For a moment, he watches the girl—his daughter—and he feels sorry for her, her awkwardness, her fraught attempts to please him. Better than you have tried, he thinks. He smiles. His eyes "twinkle."

She's stammering about cows and—improbably—Ben & Jerry's ice cream and Chik-fil-A. (Ah, promotional cows—is that all she knows of the animal, he wonders.)

Anyone would love this girl. He should love this girl. Yet he refuses to.

Thankfully his mind curtains down upon itself, and he regards the dark calm residing within, a secret lake of sorts, a surface unruffled by weather.

Time accumulates—he couldn't say how much. It's an actors' term, he thinks, nothing to do with animals, everything to do with the impersonal mob at an audition.

He interrupts her: "They're herded up for slaughter."

"I said that already," she whines. The hangnail is off. She holds it aloft between her finger and thumb, examining it in a shaft of sunlight just now knifing through the window.

"This is my body," she remarks.

And no—his mind sends him back, back, back to the farm, the only Catholic family in North Carolina, or so it felt to him, a prop in the front pew at the church a county over, the fledgling priest shaky with power and reverence, half-a-step removed from being a boy himself, raising the Host, the intonation: This is my body which will be given up for you. The tense warmth of his mother pressed next to him, her quiet sigh, the riptide of her whisper, "That's gonna be you someday," and later, her words—"Only sure way of making it up to heaven is your son's a priest," and he should love her enough, shouldn't he, enough to send his mama to heaven, his mama, his crazy mother who wants this one thing, this one thing only, her place in heaven. When she disappears, he's only eight years old, not a priest yet (or still or ever), just her boy. Women disappear all the time, is what someone said, "including mamas." They never find her. He never finds her.

"Dad." Stephanie stills her chair and leans up close to him; there's the whiff of milky chocolate as she exhales, and he dips through vague nausea. "Are you all right?"

"Of course I am," he says. "Why on earth wouldn't I be? Anyway, I've been dating someone and have been for about ten months or so, and we're getting married Saturday morning."

There. It was done. To the slaughter. And give her credit, he didn't catch her flinch.