How Animals Mate
I was a peeping tom for a short while, when I was fifteen. What
happened was I fell in with the wrong kids, although they were
the only kids on the block anywhere near my age, and I wasn't
old enough to drive to the neighborhoods of other, less perverted
kids, and my family had only just moved to Minneapolis from Islet,
a town on the north shore of Lake Superior seven minutes by bicycle
from the Canadian border. Brad Pedroncelli, whom everyone called
Pedro, lived with his depressed mother and was only rarely visited
by his estranged father, who drove a cherry red Lamborghini with
flip-up doors until the police arrested him for selling stock
in a race-car part manufacturing firm that did not exist. Mark
Guttenoff, who went by his last name, had two brothers and a sister
who were nearly as old as my parents and who had all left home
before Guttenoff was born. His mother and father were only waiting
for him to graduate from high school to move to Scottsdale, Arizona,
where they wouldn't have to worry about the drug-delivery girl
getting snowed-in at the pharmacy. OB was the name Gene O'Brien
went by, and he was perhaps the sickest of the three. His mother
had moved to Hollywood to open a gallery of erotic art, and his
father, whose occupation no one quite knew, left him alone for
weeks on end in a geodesic dome filled with pink plastic objets
d'art and shelf upon white shelf of pornographic magazines and
Across the street from my house, in a yellow split-level with
sliding glass doors for windows and cedar shingle awnings that
flared out from the first and second stories like pagoda roofs,
lived Tammy Fitzsimmons, a tall, thin, beautiful girl with features
sharp as scalpel blades. Connie was her mother's name, and she
opened all of the shutters and blinds of the house or none of
them depending on her mood. She also spread a thick layer of sunflower
seeds over the front and back lawns to attract Canadian geese,
which that summer and fall sometimes numbered a hundred.
Tammy was retaking twelfth grade, or so someone mumbled when she
appeared in Accelerated Human Physiology on the first day of school
and sat down beside me in the last available desk. Before then
I had only seen her getting into a black Rambler that rattled
away leaving exhaust and dust to roil above the groomed lawns
at our end of Braemar Court, a drive that entwined the houses
on it into a bracelet of charms, each different and full of promise.
Up close, I saw how her black locks tried to conceal the hoop
of a silver earring, how in the serpentine V of her leather jacket,
a red blouse with gold paisleys rose and fell, how her legs issued
from her skirt like a slip knot in a slack rope.
Mr. Sorenson began the class by sketching a measly valentine on
the blackboard. He bisected it from the droop at the top to the
point at the bottom and labeled it THE UTERUS. Then he told the
class how on such and such day at some ungodly hour of the morning
my father had delivered his daughter, Elizabeth Howard Lynn, by
Cesarean section. Mr. Sorenson, who also coached varsity hockey,
explained how Julius Caesar had been delivered by means of a knife,
then asked the class to give me, Rich Reville, a round of applause
for being the son of so gifted a physician and surgeon. As the
kids clapped and whistled, Tammy Fitzsimmons crossed her arms
and sighed, and I thought I'd never seen a person look as bored.
That night I told myself I would win Tammy's heart. If she had
appeared uninterested, then so would I, and she would see we were
alike and meant for each other. But in the days that followed
neither she nor her heart were there to win. After two weeks of
calling her name, Mr. Sorenson dropped her name from the roll,
and my only reminder that she had ever been in class at all became
a single vacant desk. Mr. Sorenson had no seating chart, and so
each day when the last student took a seat, I would notice which
desk her absence occupied.
Now OB, Pedro, and Guttenoff did not steal booze from their parents'
liquor cabinets, destroy public property, use or distribute illegal
drugs, as I would with my teammates on the varsity hockey squad.
OB and Guttenoff sang in the concert choir and performed duets
of Gilbert and Sullivan songs with girls who wanted nothing to
do with them outside of the show. Pedro wrestled at one hundred
fifty-five pounds and even went to the state tournament in St.
Paul where he was pinned three times in under three minutes-yet
he was just as courteous and inquiring as the other two were when
they came by to get me for a chilly autumn evening of hard-core
adult entertainment and voyeurism. "How are you tonight,
Dr. and Mrs. Reville?" OB would ask, the three of them standing
in a kitchen my mother had decorated with curtains of frilly blue
lace and Hummel-Göbel plates my father gave to her every
Christmas. Each plate showed a wide-eyed boy and girl engaged
in a different domestic task, from ironing and folding laundry
to weeding the garden, with the year of its minting printed below
in slender, arabesque numerals. As much as my mother hated those
plates, she hung them on the wall anyway, for form's sake.
If we weren't through with supper, my father would make my friends
laugh with stories about growing up in the dairylands of central
Wisconsin, about tying fishing line to Mrs. Pym's window screen
and plucking high-pitched eerie notes from the alley behind her
house. Or about yanking the cords on window-rattlers, notched
wooden spools pierced through the center with masonry nails. Or
about tipping over sleeping Herefords and Guernseys. Sometimes
they came over when my father was on the phone with a patient,
and my mother would rescue me by asking them questions about their
families, questions which they answered as smoothly as Mafiosi
charming a jury. "My mother has ladies over for cards,"
Pedro told her once, by which he meant his mother hallucinated
the hands as well as the players holding them. "My parents
like to go on walks," Guttenoff offered, by which he meant
from time to time inside the house. These questions and others
they answered as my father inquired after the color of a patient's
urine or the number of days her menstruations had contained pus
or whether she could meet him at his office in the morning with
a specimen-his voice so professional and kind that often the meanings
of his words would not register until after he hung up the receiver,
and then I would doubt that I heard them correctly.
One evening when my father was talking to a patient, OB told my
mother his father was a filmmaker, and she asked him what films
he had made.
"I'll be frank with you, Mrs. Reville," he replied,
"people are always asking me that, and I get a little tired
of answering because no one's ever heard of any of them."
"Are they documentaries?" my mother asked.
"Yes, they are," he said. "Wildlife documentaries.
How animals mate. That sort of thing."
"I see," she said. "Have any been televised?"
OB laughed. "No," he said.
"Well, I'd like to see one," my mother said.
"No you wouldn't," OB said. "They're so explicit
they're boring. Besides, once you've seen one, you've seen them
Often I would tell my mother I was spending the night at OB's,
and she would ask why we four never spent the night at my house,
and I would tell her it was because the O'Briens owned a wide-screen
TV, a Betamax video player, and a library of feature films on
cassette. If my father were off the phone, he would call to us
through the bay window, "Don't do anything I wouldn't do,"
and OB would holler back, "Don't worry, Dr. Reville,"
and I would go with my new friends to a geodesic dome which sat
like a wigwam on top of a wooded hill overlooking the strip of
park land behind our houses and, beyond, the fairways and greens
of the Braemar Hills Country Club. Sometimes deer would stare
at us as we climbed the gravel driveway-fat, corn-fed creatures
that barely resembled the white-tailed flashes I'd seen through
the jack pines and water birches of the Nett Lake Indian Reservation,
not far from Islet, where they were hunted year-round.
OB was always a perfect host because his father stocked the refrigerator-freezer
only with foods he knew OB liked. Sirloin steaks. Wax-covered
specialty cheeses from Holland and France. Perrier sparkling water,
which had only just been made available in supermarkets with gourmet
food sections. Inside the house everything was white except the
art, which was as pink as erasers. "It's erotic," OB
explained, though to me it looked more like stalagmites than anything
we saw blown up by a factor of ten on a screen I had taken for
a partition until OB turned it on. On a coffee table would rest
a basket of water crackers, finger-sized pieces of toast, and
a platter of foie gras. Or perhaps a tulip of caviar and onion
canapés, or boiled Alaskan king crab, a bowl of melted
butter, and four pairs of pliers. When we had closed the blinds,
OB would ask one of us to choose a cassette, which I thought was
diplomatic of him until I understood he was only hoping for one
of us to choose one he hadn't before. Often one of us would have
a container open, a cassette ready to be inserted, when OB would
tell us he'd seen it already. Then we would choose another, to
which he might respond, "I haven't seen that one in about
four years," and we would put that tape in.
We always started the videos at the normal speed. Then OB, lying
in his father's over stuffed recliner, the remote control a scepter
in his fist, would begin fast-forwarding through the few moments
of foreplay and even fewer moments of dialogue. I resented this
until I discovered the sets, situations, acting, props-everything
that made a violent, R-rated movie believable and good-were distracting
and false compared with the close-ups of enmeshed body parts,
which looked more like alien life forms feeding on themselves
than anything I imagined two, three, or four consenting adults
being able to accomplish, but which were as real as the tattoos
and pieces of jewelry I could see through the knotted limbs and
tufts of seaweed-like hair and so seemed to me more real than
anything I'd witnessed in my fifteen years on the planet.
By nine-thirty or ten, when we had scanned a dozen films and on
the coffee table lay the strips of cheese wax, crab leg shells,
and bits of liver and fat too identifiable to put in our mouths,
we would leave OB's geodesic dome in search of confirmation of
what we had seen on the screen. Often this involved creeping up
to the windows of people OB, Pedro, and Guttenoff knew and peering
in at them as they engaged in sex. But in our neighborhood most
people's bedrooms were on second and third floors, and so the
chances of seeing anything like what we had seen were diminished
by too-high sills or, if we were on a slope or in trees, by curtains,
blinds, and darkness. We saw Mr. Desmond, who jetted about the
continent installing International Business Machines, kiss his
wife Dorea close to her mouth after she poured him a flute of
French champagne and presented him a dinner of pheasant under
glass. We saw Mrs. MacGibbon, by far the most attractive divorcée
on the block, vacuum her living room in a one-piece swimsuit.
We saw Mr. Lilligrand, by far the least attractive divorcé
on the block, consume a bottle of Pabst. And so as we walked back
through the lit cones from street lamps, Guttenoff would make
jokes about how the human race was being perpetuated solely by
Often we came back before one o'clock, slammed any old cassette
into the deck, and as we fell asleep to the claps of converging
bodies, I would find myself on a train car pulled by an engine
of bones. One night when I had made up my mind to leave my perverted
friends as soon as varsity hockey practices began and make new
friends whose homes I would hike to, however far, Guttenoff said,
"Maybe Tammy Fitzsimmons is palucking her boyfriend."
"We looked in on her before," I said, "and never
"She wasn't home before," OB said.
"Tonight will be different," Guttenoff said and pointed
at the moon, which hung like a golf ball over the bedraggled tops
"The moon's as white as spunk," Pedro said proudly.
"What do you say, Reville?" OB asked.
"Sure," I said.
So we cut up between the Kuphals' Dutch colonial and the Goodes'
two-story ranch, and as leaves crunched under our sneakers, the
Warners' German short-hair terrier came barking and crashing across
their unraked yard. "Don't get excited, Hoffman," Pedro
told the dog as it snarled and bared its fangs at him through
the chain links.
Gnarled fingers of light clutched at us through the Kuphals' willow
trees as we crept along the edge of the fence. Then the Kuphals'
sliding glass door grated on its runner, and as we fell to our
stomachs behind a hedge of cornstalks, Old Man Kuphal stepped
onto his porch breasting the pellet rifle he used to pick off
blue jays from his bird feeder. A squirrel guard made from a steel
feed funnel clanked in the cold autumn wind. At the base of the
pole lay three dead jays, their tiny, prone wings casting shadows
across the grass. "Run," OB said, and as Old Man Kuphal
fixed us in his sight, we ducked beneath the Murphys' clothesline
and leapt the Schweitzers' Tuscany rose bushes, which were surrounded
by a moat.
Up the hill from the Fitzsimmonses, the Westphals were running
their sprinkler system, and every seven seconds the rotating nozzle
on the southwest corner of their lot sprayed the Fitzsimmonses'
backyard and porch. Across the street, light from my parents'
bedroom lay on the lawn like twin tombs. Guttenoff pointed at
the Lincoln Continentals parked on the Fitzsimmonses' drive-one
silver, the other gold-and whispered, "Her parents are home."
"Her parents are always home," OB whispered back. "They
don't care if she fucks."
"How the hell do you know?" I said. "We've never
"You haven't lived here long enough, Reville," OB said.
"Her parents are wacko. Bonkers. Sick as loons."
Tammy Fitzsimmons' bedroom was in the basement, and for the first
time since we had begun paying our late-night visits, warm light
mushroomed from her window well and drew us across the lawn. Sunflower
seeds crackled under our shoes as the wind carried sprinkler spray
across our clothes. "She's down there," Guttenoff said.
We lay with our chins to the corrugated lip. Tammy sat at the
foot of her bed, twisting the ends of a cigarette. Rolling papers
and a bag of pot rested beside her on the peeled-back sheets.
"If she lights it," Guttenoff said, "she might
decide to blow the smoke out the window."
"She won't," OB said. "Her parents smoke twice
as much dope as she does. They like the smell."
Tammy lit the cigarette with a match, and when at last she exhaled,
she looked through the smoke at the reflections on glass we lurked
behind, edged backward over the bed, and lay her head on pillows.
She wore a sleeveless cotton T-shirt, and as she took a second
drag, my eyes traveled the length of her free arm, from the black
bra strap that lay across the hub of her white shoulder, down
the sinuous, twitching cords of muscle to her wrist, and hand,
and the splayed folds of denim that partially concealed it. Her
eyes were closed, and her jeans unzipped, and beneath the sheen
of her black underpants her fingers crawled in place like the
legs of a spider trapped in paint. "What's she doing?"
Pedro asked, and when nobody answered, he asked again, "What's
she doing?" which was when Tammy Fitzsimmons turned off the
lamp beside her bed, and from the lawn we rose, cold and wet and
covered with seeds.
In the weeks that followed, I tried to forget our exploits because
they so depressed me. When OB, Pedro, and Guttenoff came over,
I told them I was writing a novel. Each time they came over I
told them I was writing a new chapter, and eventually they stopped
coming over at all. Having no friends, I devoted my afternoons
and evenings to schoolwork and earned A's on everything I did,
which sealed me off from everyone except my teachers, who told
me I was brilliant. But sometimes when I came home late after
performing extra-credit dissections in Mr. Sorenson's lab, I would
see OB, Pedro, and Guttenoff at the end of the block throwing
a tennis ball at the sky and feel a twinge of nostalgia for the
evenings we spent in front of the television, dining like emperors
before the fall of Rome, engaged vicariously but engaged no less
in sex with the biggest stars of porn.
In Islet, winds had swept off Lake Superior in the winter, fall,
and spring and strafed our windows with pellets of ice. My father
had designed our home with many huge, thick panes, and so the
only rooms that did not become like pachinko parlors were in the
basement, where my mother took her address book and box of antique
postcards when the first few hailstones cracked against the glass.
She'd grown up in southern California, and her side of the family
was spread from Bakersfield to Lake Elsinor south to San Diego.
When the weather turned sour, as it did even in Minneapolis where
we had moved as a concession to her demands for warmth, she filled
in postcards to her five sisters and six brothers and, if a storm
held out, to each of her nieces and nephews, too.
At school I learned that our neighborhood had been a Sioux Indian
burial ground generations before Scotch-Irish farmers set plow
blades into it, and so I decided to write my term paper on the
Sioux uprising of 1862, which cost the lives of hundreds of white
settlers and led to the largest mass execution in American history.
In December of that year, a regiment of the U.S. cavalry stationed
at Fort Snelling escorted thirty-eight male tribe members to Mankato,
stripped them naked the day after Christmas, and with President
Lincoln's sanction hanged them en masse from a plywood gallows
on the yellow bluffs overlooking the Minnesota River.
One evening as ice hammered the yards, Tammy Fitzsimmons' father
came over to our house carrying a pistol. He was a pale, portly
man with thin, slicked-back hair and slack jowls that sagged over
the edges of his collars like lumps in cheesecloth. "Gerald
Fitzsimmons," he said. "From across the street. My wife
Connie and I wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood, but gee,
how time slips from one."
"Dick Reville," said my father. "My wife Jo and
son Rich." As my father extended his hand, Mr. Fitzsimmons
jabbed the barrel of the gun into my father's gut.
Although Mr. Fitzsimmons looked nothing like his daughter, the
image of Tammy I saw in him-her wrists, blue-veined and tendinous,
where his thick, hirsute ones were, her complexion, smooth and
as white as bone, even her frame, so slender I wondered how a
soul could reside there-so entranced me I did not even see the
gun until Mr. Fitzsimmons said, "Jesus, I believe my mind's
going," and set it, silver and shining, on the kitchen counter
where fifty-odd postcards waited for a break in the storm. Even
then, as he set three cartons of shells beside the gun, I saw
my soul's match as if she were a sculpture and he the unshaped
"The reason I came over was," Mr. Fitzsimmons explained,
"I wondered whether you could keep this for me for a little
while. Just until my wife feels better. You see, Connie loses
her temper sometimes, and I worry about her finding it. I was
keeping it locked in a safe under our billiard table, but now
I have reason to believe she knows the combination. It's a Llama
model eight, forty-five caliber, semi-automatic police weapon.
Of course we all know the safest gun ever made, in the hands of
the wrong person, is a very deadly weapon indeed."
My mother tended to supper, three beef Wellingtons she had placed
under the broiler to brown, and as she opened the oven door, smoke
billowed from the delicate crusts. "Why don't you put the
gun in a safe deposit box?" my father asked as she set the
baking tray and the fillets in the sink, turned on the tap, and
extinguished the fires.
"I would," Mr. Fitzsimmons said, "but I can't stand
bank hours." He glared at his hands and cocked his head as
if he hoped words might drop from the side of his brain onto his
tongue. "The truth is, my wife's unstable. My daughter, well,
she only salts the wounds. And I find firing the gun once or twice
a month sure beats the hell out of watching gold prices."
My father considered this and said, "Okay, Gerald, we'll
keep it for you."
My mother turned off the faucet, said, "No we won't,"
and that was that.
Mr. Fitzsimmons returned the bullets to his coat pocket. Then
he picked up the gun and pointed it at my mother's cards. "Would
you like me to put those in the box?" he asked.
"Why thank you, Gerald," she said.
That night as I wrote my term paper in the dining room, Mr. Fitzsimmons
stepped outside onto a second-floor balcony and sipped his drink
in the storm. Steely wings of light radiated from the windows,
transforming the house into one of the old-fashioned flying machines
that never got off the ground. I had been entertaining the possibility
that our neighborhood might be haunted by the Sioux Indians buried
beneath it and wondering whether it had been a good idea for my
family ever to have left Islet where there was nothing to do but
fish, hunt, and play hockey-as curtains fluttered, and a hand,
then an arm moving in silhouette above Mr. Fitzsimmons' left shoulder,
closed the sliding glass door behind him. The panel in place,
a hand emerged to his right and flicked down the bolt.
When Mr. Fitzsimmons tried to re-enter the house, the door would
not budge, so he rapped on it, then tried to yank it across the
runner. When that didn't work, he finished his drink, tossed the
tumbler onto the lawn, and as it rolled across the grass and clinked
on the street, he lifted one leg and the other over the wrought
When he dropped, it was hard to tell whether he had fallen or
the house itself had lifted up, but he held onto the bottom rail
and as the vents of his jacket inflated and flapped, I knew he
was thinking there were feet and feet below him. There weren't.
A few inches separated his toes from the largest granite boulder
in his rock garden, a distance he only had to stretch for. But
instead he let go, his foot lodged between two boulders, his knee
snapped like a bead of epoxy, and he hit the ground face-first,
his arms and legs sprawled among the hailstones. He got up, limped
past the front of the house without even trying the doorknob.
As he eased himself behind the wheel of the gold Lincoln, Connie
stepped outside into the twin beams of his headlights. She wore
a black negligee, and as she unearthed one of the boulders and
carried it in her arms toward the car, her pink flanks jiggled
and glowed. Mr. Fitzsimmons backed up the vehicle when Connie
dipped and lobbed the rock in a granny-shot that rebounded off
the hood and crashed through the windshield. The car inched to
a stop, the electronic window lowered, and in time the boulder
emerged from the chrome opening and thudded on the grass. Mrs.
Fitzsimmons walked back to the house rubbing mud from her hands
as Gerald flung the car into reverse and, bleeding from the face,
sped unprotected into the slanting darts of ice. As each window
went black across the street, I imagined Tammy lying on her bed
in the basement, her hair splayed across three pillows, her forehead
furrowed, and willed myself into whatever fantasy she was entertaining.
I, like Mrs. Fitzsimmons, was feeling unstable myself. Nights
I dreamt of corpses performing fellatio, cunnilingus, and worse
on one another-thousands of them in wide pits in the earth, their
wrists and ankles bound with ropes, their necks collared and chained
to iron capstans-and woke believing if only I told my ex-friends
OB, Pedro, and Guttenoff I was sorry for dissociating myself from
them, they would say, "Don't sweat it. We've got something
new we want you to see," and when they had fed me the porn
I craved, the dreams would fly off like bats.
But alone in the darkness, surrounded by posters of Guy LeFleur,
Tony Esposito, and Bobby Orr, I sensed this would be a nostrum
for a disease that had spread from the flesh to the brain to the
soul turning contentment into hunger. If I re-befriended them,
what would I do in a year when OB left for college? Make sure
to pocket one of his house keys, or wind up outside decrepit all-night
movie places and bookstores with private viewing booths trying
to convince crotchety ticket vendors I was old enough to be admitted
Luckily, the dreams and contemplations disappeared on their own
when varsity hockey practices began, and I skated until the dark
proclivities rose from my loins to my lungs and left through my
mouth-gear in trails of blood and spit. The rink was a mile from
my house, across the road from the eleventh green and twelfth
fairway of the country club, now as brown and windswept as the
prairies south of the interstate. I rode the bus with the other
players after school and in the evenings walked home between sand
traps and frozen ponds, my bag of pads and leggings looped to
the curve of my stick blade. I made friends who smoked dope religiously
outside the pavilion after practice, between a mobile generator
and a mound of ice shavings left by the Zamboni, which was parked
in a prefab shed under lock and key.
Usually we had no more than a few minutes to get high, which we
did with pipes made in shop class out of lug nuts and brass tubings.
When the bus driver ground the gears to go, my teammates would
amble to the entrance door like outlaws in a podunk town, and
as the taillights dipped behind trees, I would trudge through
the tall, dead grass of the roughs. Grazing deer moved out of
my path as I passed through their herd, and in the strip of woods
behind my house I found the spinal column of a raccoon, which
I took apart by the light of the moon and soaked in bleach until
each vertebra was chalky and white. I strung them on a piece of
rawhide and before each game hung them around my neck under my
T-shirt and jersey. With each player I checked and shot I fired,
the jagged transverse, articular, and spinous processes dug into
my chest like talons of a bird of prey.
My sixteenth birthday came at the end of a week-long blizzard
that closed schools and government agencies. On that Saturday
when I came into the kitchen for breakfast, I found my father
reading the morning paper, his hospital beeper lying on the kitchen
table between his ashtray and coffee.
"Clear the driveway," he said, "and your mother
will take you to your driver's test."
I knew it was cold outside because my mother allowed my father
to smoke indoors only when the mercury dipped below zero. Up and
down the block neighbors cleared their drives with snow-blowers,
the crystal plumes rising in the shrill cold as I imagined whale
spouts might. As I rotated the blow-chute of ours for my final
sweep, Mrs. Fitzsimmons came onto her stoop and called to me over
the backs of two geese, a male and female whose necks arced into
drifts for buried seeds. They were the only two who had not flown
south with the gaggle, and my mother was certain they would both
be frozen dead by Christmas.
Connie squinted into the glare. She was wearing a pink and green
kimono. "If you'll clear our driveway," she hollered
down, "my husband will pay you a hundred dollars. Just come
to the door when you're through, and he'll give you a crisp, new
one hundred dollar note."
"Okay," I hollered back.
As I blew the snow from around their cars, I noticed Mr. Fitzsimmons'
new windshield and hood and the plush, splinter-free interior.
When I rang the bell, he came to the door looking a little worse
than his automobile. He had crutches under his arms and a cast
on his leg. "Yes?" he said, and as I told him about
the arrangement his wife had made with me, I saw the galaxy of
half-moons, cirques, and crescents left on his face by the spray
of glass. "Come now," he said haughtily. "Surely
my dear wife didn't promise you a hundred dollars."
"Pay him," came Connie's voice from inside the house.
"When you have, tell him I have something to discuss with
I glanced at his toes, blue as robins' eggs in a nest of plaster
and gauze, as he forked over five twenties from his wallet. "Evidently,
my wife has something she wishes to discuss with you," he
said, beckoning me into the house with a sweep of his arm.
In the living room, which looked onto my house through three glass
panels, Connie lay on a Barcalounger with her coffee and paper
while Tammy, whom I had not seen except in dreams since the night
I'd watched her through her window well, rested on a Naugahyde
couch against the wall, her hair knotted on the armrest. She smoked
a cigarette, and when she saw me the smoke left her mouth in three
rings that hovered for a time above the fireplace mantel, below
which a pair of Duralogs smoldered. Connie removed her bifocals
and set them on her bosom.
"I believe you and my daughter are acquainted with one another,"
she said. "From physiology class, taught by a Mr. Sorenson."
We were not, but I nodded anyway, to protect Tammy Fitzsimmons
and thereby win her heart.
"Tammy tells me she may not be doing very well, that she
may not pass. I find this hard to believe if, as she says, her
attendance has been good, but no matter. She gave me this, a list
of extra-credit assignments dated September third, which would
be, I believe, the first day of school."
"Mother," said Tammy as Connie snapped up her glasses
and put them on her face.
"'Idea four,'" she read. '"Visit the place of employment
of someone in a health profession and write a report. It's absolutely
crucial that you be polite when asking. In past years, I've had
students actually observe surgery.'"
Connie set the handout down. "Rich," she said, "isn't
your father in some sort of health profession?"
"He's an OB-GYN," I said.
"Splendid," she said. "Do you think he would mind
if you and Tammy were to see him perform, oh, I don't know, some
tiny, insignificant surgical procedure?"
"My mother spikes her coffee," Tammy replied. "She
doesn't know what she's asking."
"I do not spike my coffee," Connie answered. "I'm
sure Dr. Reville performs on plenty of old ladies-ladies he wouldn't
care if his son saw naked on an operating table."
"See," Tammy said. "I told you."
Mr. Fitzsimmons looked up from the tabloid he was reading. "You
ought to listen to your mother, Tammy. She just may get you out
of the mess you're in."
"So will you ask him, Richard?" Connie asked. "Politely?
So he'll say yes?"
Across the street, my mother came onto the porch in a hooded snowmobile
suit, matching boots and mitts, and a black, Thinsulate face-mask
with a six-inch-long triangular snout designed by scientists to
protect the faces of mountain climbers from frostbite. "I'll
ask him," I said as my mother's blue eyes searched for me
through the eye-slits.
For that night's supper my mother had agreed to prepare walleyes
my father and I had brought back from Canada and stowed in our
freezer in August. Every summer he and I drove to Thunder Bay,
Ontario, hired a bush pilot to fly us, a twenty-five-gallon barrel
of gasoline, and enough staples to last us a week to a fishermen's
camp on Lake Pakashkan, eighty miles from any town. Inevitably,
as we cast plugs from an oar-boat rigged with a six-horse motor
or played spades at night beneath the canvas roof of our rented
shack, my father would ask me if I had any questions about sex.
No, I would tell him, and he would say, "If you ever do,
Rich, you can trust me to give you the straight scoop. My profession
is sex. I am a sex expert."
"I'll fry them up," my mother said, eyeing the fish
on the kitchen counter, "but I'm not taking the skins off."
So I removed the butcher paper from the thawed fillets and with
a paring knife cut the skins from the meat.
My father returned from hospital rounds carrying a prophylactic
box filled with store-wrapped presents as my mother taped the
crepe paper streamer to a corner of the ceiling, then strung a
dozen helium balloons to my chair in the dining room. We ate,
as we did every night, in silence, only now with birthday decorations
festooned above our heads. When we were through, my mother brought
out the cake. It was a lemon, poppy-seed sponge, with the plastic
figures of a left wing and goalie stuck into the sour cream frosting.
The goalie lay face down, the left wing's stick was raised in
a slapshot follow-through, and inside the net sat a chocolate
puck. My father ripped down the sides of the bakery box, then
asked me to blow out the candles, which I did reluctantly because
I knew it would mean his telling me I had no girlfriends.
"Look," he said to my mother. "No girlfriends."
"Aren't you going to open your presents, Rich?" my mother
asked. When I did, the largest turned out to be a Toshiba VCR
and the rest, videocassettes of box office record-breakers.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Jaws. E.T. The
My father picked up the 1981 remake of Scarface, a movie
that changed cinematic violence forever, and said, "Your
mother and I wanted to start our video library with your favorite."
"I remembered your saying OB's movies were all on Beta,"
said my mother, "but the salesman told your father that VHS
was the wave of the future. Isn't that so, sweetheart?"
"That's right," my father replied. "He told us
"Who cares if OB and I can't swap tapes," I said. "I
"We love you, Rich," my mother said.
"Yes we do," my father said.
Then, as if I were a surfer and this conversation the only wave
on a flat sea, I told my parents about Mr. Sorenson's extra-credit
assignment and Mrs. Fitzsimmons' request, and I asked my father
if he would allow Tammy and me into the operating room to watch
him perform surgery.
For a time it was so quiet we could hear the roof creaking from
the weight of so much snow. At last my father said he wanted to
know something about Tammy. "Is she a good student?"
"She's an excellent student," I replied. "She wants
to be an OB-GYN."
"Okay, Rich," my father said, his voice lowered and
calm. "I want you both to meet me at the hospital annex at
6:45 Monday morning. I'll be in surgery until noon. If you're
late, there's nothing I can do."
"Over my dead body," my mother said. "Rich just
turned sixteen. I'm not letting him into an operating room."
"Jo, I want my son to see what I do," my father said.
"Rich, go on and phone your friend."
"Do I have any say in this?" my mother asked. "Any
say at all?"
"No," he said.
"None," she stated.
"That's right," he said.
I went to the furnace room, and as I turned the dial on an old
black telephone that hung on drywall between the washer and dryer,
my stomach tightened and pulse quickened as if I were performing
a rite passed onto me by the preceding generations, as if they
watched me, deciding on the basis of one telephone call whether
I was fit to propagate the race. When Mrs. Fitzsimmons answered
the phone, I said, "May I speak with Tammy, please,"
and when she asked who was calling, I said, "Rich. Rich Reville
from across the street," and when she asked again, I said,
"Dr. Reville's son," and she said, "No, I'm afraid
you may not." I said, "I spoke with my father. He wants
Tammy and me at the hospital annex at 6:45 Monday morning. He
said we can watch him perform surgery." When I heard nothing
through the receiver but the drums of a distant jazz orchestra,
I said, "I wanted to tell Tammy I could pick her up,"
for earlier that day I had passed my driver's test with an eighty-six.
She said, "You won't need to. Tammy's an adult. It was time
she moved into her own apartment." I said, "You mean
to tell me Tammy doesn't live there anymore?" and she said,
"Tammy moved out weeks ago. She lives uptown now. I thought
you knew that. At Thirty-fifth and Portland." "Thirty-fifth
and Portland?" I said, "The hospital is at Thirty-fifth
and Portland," and she said, "That's why you won't need
to pick her up. She lives across the street from the hospital."
I said, "Will you tell her I'll meet her there?"
"She's to meet you," she said, "at 6:45 Monday
morning at the hospital annex," and I hung up the phone believing
I had charmed the dead.
What happened was my father said we were med students from the
University of Minnesota, fell in love with his own lie, and convinced
himself it was true. He sat across from the patient in a small
consultation chamber three levels below the ground, and Tammy
and I stood in the doorway in white coats he had gotten for us
from a lab. "They'll be in the operating room with me,"
my father said to the woman, "along with the anesthesiologist
and the surgical assistants you met in the hallway."
The patient nodded. She was a Native American-as were many of
the patients my father treated at the free clinic where he and
his partners in private practice donated one night a month-no
older than twenty, and pretty, with teeth straighter and whiter
than mine and braided hair the color of black earth.
"They're top of their class," said my father-so handsome
in his gray suit and red tie I wished my mother could see him.
While he finished talking with the patient, Tammy and I waited
for him in a lounge across the hall. She lit a cigarette. "It's
bizarre to think," she said, "that I had life sucked
from me down here, perhaps on the other side of that wall."
"You had an abortion?"
"Last summer," she said. "I remember the day perfectly.
There was a moving van parked in your driveway. You were sitting
on the lip when my boyfriend Lou picked me up in his Rambler.
I dumped that son of a bitch."
"You did?" I said. "So you didn't need to come
here to write a report. You have the firsthand experience."
"Fucking right," she said. "But I'm not writing
a report about it."
"But you could've," I said.
"You mean Sorenson?" she asked. "Sorenson wouldn't
pass me if I observed a brain transplant. If you think that, you're
as deluded as my poor mother." She flung back her hair, and
a silver chain glimmered against her clavicle, and even that seemed
wondrous. "Uh-uh," she said. "I'm here to fuck
I paused. "What did he do to you?"
"He didn't do anything to me," she said. "I'm infatuated
with him. Have been since the day Sorenson told how he delivered
their little girl. Sure, I'd noticed your father before that.
Who wouldn't? In the first part of the summer when he was living
in the house alone, and I'd see him in the evening watering the
shrubs, or shooting baskets by himself on the driveway, or washing
his car by hand. He did those things so tenderly it didn't surprise
me he delivered babies for a living. Even before I knew what he
did, I imagined what it would be like to bed him."
"He's married," I said.
"Your mother doesn't love him," she said. "And
he doesn't love your mother. That was apparent the day you moved
in." She paused, and I took in the sheen of her patent leather
pumps and the tiny green and yellow marionettes printed into the
silk of her blue skirt, and I thought how none of it was meant
for me. "At first I thought about seeing him at his office,"
she said, "but I figured he probably had a policy against
becoming romantically involved with patients."
"I can't believe you went to such planning," I said.
In truth, I could not comprehend it, the months that had gone
"I didn't plan anything," she said. "Everything
just fell into place more or less." She put her cigarette
out in an ashtray, tapped another from the pack as my father came
into the lounge holding a cigarette, too. He lit hers, then lit
"So the patient has a benign teratoma on her left ovary,"
she said, "a cyst that develops out of genetic material."
My father nodded, pleased his description of what we would see
had not fallen on deaf ears.
"By what method did you discover it, Dr. Reville?" she
asked, and as he told her about the patient's bloatedness and
nausea and the laparoscopy he had performed the week before, I
succumbed to the vision I saw before me, saw her not as she was
but as she wanted my father to see her. In the clothes she'd chosen,
in the make-up she'd put on, in the interest she wore on her face
like a mask, she might have passed for his assistant or even his
partner. As smoke from their cigarettes encompassed us, I felt
as if I were no longer there, as if the flesh had been seared
from the soul and I lurked in the room as a presence, a chill,
a shadow cast by no physical object.
"A laparoscopy," my father explained, "is an exploratory
procedure. Imagine a telescope the size of a Number Two pencil.
That's a laparoscope. It's inserted into the patient's abdomen
through a tiny incision. The doctor can look through it directly
or see what's inside the body on a television monitor."
"Fascinating," Tammy said, and I saw how my father's
pleasure showed through his composure.
When they were done with their cigarettes, my father ushered us
down a narrow corridor to the men's and women's scrub rooms. "I
asked Dr. Sing here at OR to help you with a locker and scrub
suit, Tammy," he said. "She's waiting for you inside."
"Thanks," she replied.
Inside the scrub room, as my father undid our ties and hung our
suits in lockers, I wanted to tell him that I'd lied about Tammy,
that she was not an excellent student and had no intention of
becoming an OB-GYN, and that she had designs on him beyond his
wildest imaginings, but I never talked to my father about anything
of importance, not even when we were fishing, and each sentence
I formed in my head sounded more ridiculous than the one before
"I'm going to tell you something I probably shouldn't, Rich,"
my father said as we washed our hands in a basin. "After
you and Tammy left the consultation, the patient asked about you.
I think she was taken with you. She wanted to know your name."
"Did you tell her?" I asked.
"Of course not," he said. "But I wanted you to
see that patients are people. After years of practicing medicine,
some doctors forget this."
By the time we entered the operating room the patient had been
anesthetized and lay beneath operating lamps. A brownish stain
between her navel and the edge of her pubic bush marked the spot
to be opened. My father stepped between her legs, which were spread
apart by table-extenders. On either side of him female assistants
waited with hemostats, needle-holders, cochers, and scalpels.
I stood beside Tammy, who stood beside one of them. We were high
school students, but we were dressed like everyone in the room
except for the patient-in lime green scrubs, latex gloves, and
As my father made the incision, I watched his fingers, fingers
I'd felt lovingly against my scalp since before I could remember,
but fingers I could not remember ever touching my mother, not
to brush the hair from her face or zip up the back of her dress.
The incision made, my father applied metal clamps to the flaps
of skin, then staunched the flow of blood with small electric
shocks administered through a hand-held cauterizer. It was connected
by a cord to a pedal on the floor, and each time he pressed it,
the cauterizer made the same buzzing sound as a backyard mosquito
zapper. The ovarian cyst was immediately identifiable. It was
yellow and glistening and larger than everything else around it.
A grapefruit-sized egg yolk covered with veins, black follicles
of hair, and small, tooth-like deposits of bone. In the open air
of the operating room, it sagged lopsidedly, but in the tight
enclosure of the human body it slid between organs and glands
and occupied the slick crannies between viscera.
My father pushed it aside, applied his scalpel to the stretch
of tissue at its base, and severed it from the ovary.
"You've just witnessed the removal of a benign teratoma,"
he said and dropped it in a stainless steel bowl held out to him
by the assistant nearest me. She in turn set the bowl on a steel
cart behind her.
"Bravo, Dr. Reville," said the anesthesiologist, a burly,
dark-eyed man with a beard that curled out like weeds from the
edges of his surgical mask.
My father pulled back the edges of the opening and pointed out
the patient's pancreas, bladder, and colon. "Everything looks
pretty much just as it's drawn in the textbooks, doesn't it?"
he said, then plied a needle through the flaps of skin and narrowed
the incision with a knot.
I did not answer yes or no to this. Nor did Tammy, who hovered
over the cyst as if transfixed by it, as if in its sheen she saw
her own perfectly beautiful face transmogrified.
"Is she all right?" the anesthesiologist asked. He stood
beside the patient's head, his eyes wide, concerned, as Tammy
cupped the cyst in her palms.
My father craned his neck over his assistant's shoulder. "It's
okay, Arny," he said. "She can examine it if she wants."
I touched Tammy's arm. She was not okay. Her body was rigid, her
breaths frenetic. Her hair was tied and netted, and from the sliver
of flesh behind her ear came the smell of jonquils, delicate and
almost undetectable, and I wanted to kiss that spot, to graze
it ever so lightly with my lips. "Set the teratoma back in
the dish," I whispered. "You don't want to look at it."
Fluid seeped between her fingers into the bowl. With her thumbs
she parted its hair and caressed its teeth. "Please,"
I said. "For your own good."
I placed my hands on its warm surface, sank my fingers into its
sides, and as Tammy tightened her grip, its skin bulged under
my palms. In a second we had cored it. She held one half, I the
other. In the half she held, nestled in a network of veins, a
nugget of blood lay perched, a capsule hard and dark as a ruby.
"There's a strange beauty in the rampant," said my father.
He had finished his sewing and stood behind us-a professor who'd
inadvertently stumbled onto his students and their botched experiment.
Perhaps it was what he said. Perhaps it was simply the calmness
of his voice, but Tammy's eyes released their hold, and as her
half of the teratoma slid from her fingers into the bowl, I set
mine on top of it.
When my father asked if we had had enough surgery for one morning,
I told him I had, and Tammy told him that she had not.
"I've got a tubal ligation followed by a vaginal hysterectomy
followed by a second tubal," he told her.
"After that what?" she asked.
"Nothing," my father said. "I've got nothing after
"Good," she said, and I left them there in the operating
room. I know no more than this: that when I got home I asked my
mother to call the high school and tell the secretary I was ill,
that in the evening my father called to tell my mother to go to
bed without him, which she did most nights anyway. I told my mother
nothing about what had happened at the hospital, and she didn't
ask, and together we watched Scarface, which wasn't nearly
as frightening as I remembered it.
Not many months after my parents' divorce was peaceably handled
by their respective attorneys, Gerald shot Connie five times in
the arms, legs, and chest with a forty-five caliber handgun. I
was in college at the time, lying in bed with the girl who would
eventually become my ex-wife Mary-when my father phoned to tell
me the news. He had been driving home at two or three in the morning
after a night of deliveries when he came to a police roadblock
at our end of Braemar Court. By then the ambulance had taken Connie
away from the scene of the shooting, and as an officer signaled
my father into our driveway, he saw Gerald leave in the back seat
of a squad car. Two weeks later, when Connie had recovered enough
to remember what had happened, she dropped all charges against
her husband, who claimed he'd fired on her in self-defense.
The Fitzsimmons still live across the street from my dad. I don't
know what became of OB, Pedro, and Guttenoff, but a few weeks
after the operation I discovered plates of Christmas cookies my
mother had baked for them-krumkaken and pfeffernuesse, nut tarts
and lemon squares-wrapped in plastic and topped with a bow.
"No way," I said when I saw their names, each written
on a card in my mother's fine cursive. "I'm not taking these
"No one's asking you to," she said, but when I imagined
what she might see through their doorways, I went for my jacket
Outside the sky was gray, and snow was falling. I handed Guttenoff's
plate to his father, who came onto the stoop in Nikes and a bathrobe.
I set Pedro's inside his storm door, for I knew the wrestling
team was in Iowa and I didn't want to disturb his mother, whom
I could hear mumbling inside the house. As I climbed the drive
to the geodesic dome, I considered feeding OB's cookies to the
deer. He was the sickest of the three, but also the most sensitive,
and I dreaded seeing him most of all. When he came to the door,
we faced each other without speaking for what seemed like hours,
then I handed him the gift my mother had baked for him.
"Want to watch one of my father's documentaries?" he
asked. When I didn't answer, he said matter-of-factly, "He
doesn't make pornos."
"Okay," I said.
Spread out on the carpet were videocassettes labeled "Bats
in Ecuador," "Sloths in Costa Rica," "Tapirs
in Sabah and Sarawak."
"He makes them for zoos all over the world," OB explained
as he returned from the kitchen with a pâté fresh
from the deli. "Animals mate differently in the wild than
in captivity, so the zoos fly him in to each animal's natural
habitat to capture how they really do it, when no one's watching.
On the screen a female ape scurried away from her sex partner,
so he grabbed another by the shoulders and thrust himself into
her. Outside the wind whipped snow from the trees, and I wondered
whom I'd one day meet and what she'd be like.
Daniel Mueller got an MFA from UVA, where he was a Hoyns
Fellow. He is recipient of a TransAtlantic Review Award and in
1990 he won the Playboy Fiction Contest. He's acting writing coordinator
at the Fine Arts Center in Provincetown, MA.