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Daniel Mueller

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 videocassettes.

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 all."

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 porn stars.

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 saw anything."

"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 of elms.

"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 seen anything."

"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 clay.

"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 iron railing.

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 in.

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 him."

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 Sting.

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 Beta's out."

"Who cares if OB and I can't swap tapes," I said. "I sure don't."

"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?" he asked.

"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 your father."

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 into it.

"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 his own.

"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 it.

"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 surgical masks.

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 that."

"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 to them."

"No one's asking you to," she said, but when I imagined what she might see through their doorways, I went for my jacket and boots.

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.

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