An animal trainer
“Don’t eat that!”
By Konner Knudsen
Sometimes, still, the thing I long for the most is to remove my shoes and socks and plant my feet into freshly tilled soil. Even as a small child, I am told, I would tug and stretch at those tight toddler socks with puppy print or Power Ranger logos and run rampantly toward the nearest garden or potted plant. “No, no!” Mom would shout, “Don’t get your feet dirty again!” But I was never one for listening. I would jam my feet in-between blades of grass or directly into the exposed earth and wriggle my toes until they disappeared into the dirt. My brothers called me crazy, my sister said it was gross, my father would talk about how “boys would be boys” and tell the same story about how he once ate a fifteen inch earthworm for only four dollars.
My grandpa was different, the one who lost a leg in “The War.” A war that was only ever explained to me years later in textbooks and History Channel documentaries. Once, when I was nine, with feet buried to the ankles next to my grandma’s rose bush, instead of yelling at me to “stop playing in the garden,” or to “quit getting so gosh-darn dirty,” he just plopped down right next to me.
He didn’t say anything right away, just took his time getting comfortable. He removed his shoes and rolled up the cuffs of his jeans. The foot that I always thought he might have stolen from a mannequin rested sockless next to the lawn gnome. The other sock he took his time removing, rolling it down and popping it off with a sigh leaded with both arthritis and relief. He wiggled his toes in the air and plunged his callused old foot into the dark damp earth inches away from mine.
“You know, this ain’t so bad,” Grandpa said with a chuckle, “It’s sort of like burying your feet in sand at the beach, huh?” I nodded and smiled. “Yeah, I was quiet too at your age, and that’s okay.” We sat for a while just like that, in total silence, our toes creating tiny earthquakes on the mounds that enveloped our feet. Later, as he refused my help, and struggled to stand up on his own, he looked at me with kind but intense eyes and said, “Never let anyone convince you to be normal,” and slowly he walked back into the house.
* * *
I first met Em at the community garden. I was watching her over-water tomatoes from behind a row of thickening corn. She was like a piece of art that you can’t pull yourself away from because there is some intangible thing that causes you to run your eyes along all its lines and search for hidden patterns in the brushstrokes. Three piercings in one ear, two in the other, a stud in her nose, maroon lipstick, unnaturally faded jeans and a zombie Captain America t-shirt. She was some form of punk and I looked like a bad REI add that spent too much time in the garden.
Suddenly she turned to me, put a hand over her brow to block out the sun and said, “Hey Scarecrow, are you just going to stand there and scare off the birds or can you help a girl out?”
I was stunned at first, and embarrassed thinking that she knew I had been standing there for probably what was a creepy amount of time, but I managed a smile. Stepping around a cornstalk, I stuttered, “What… What exactly do you…need help with?”
“Watering the tomatoes. Next I am going to move on to the strawberries, although. . . I have never watered them before, figured you could show me the right amount.” She talked while still raining water from the green plastic watering can on the already soaked tomatoes.
“Have you watered tomatoes before?” I asked, failing at not sounding like a jerk.
“Umm, no not really,” she nervously smiled, “Am I drowning them ?”
“Just a little bit,” I lied.
“Oh. . . My bad,” she said, handing me the watering can and holding out her other hand. I awkwardly shook it and she said, “I’m Em.”
“Danny,” I said, moving toward the strawberries trying not to think how if it rained that night all of the tomatoes would be done for.
“Yeah, you live in number twelve right ?” Out of the corner of my eye she was gently pulling down a leaf on a corn stalk.
“Yup, how’d you know ?” I tried to focus on the plants, feeling the leaves with tiny holes in them, hoping I wouldn’t find too many more the next day.
“Oh, ha! That sort of sounded stalkerish huh? I just moved in with my friend Alex who lives in seven.”
“Alex . . . Alex . . . is that the dude with the beard who always wears a black Peacoat ?” I knew it wasn’t, that guy lived in number six. I just wanted to contribute more to the conversation.
“No, My friend Alexis. She is blond. Usually seen in nursing scrubs or pajamas with pink bunny slippers. Still listens to the Spice Girls. Says you are always barefoot like you are right now.” She kicked at some dirt underneath her Vans, the dust hit my heels.
“Oh her. At least she doesn’t blare Justin Bieber all day like the sixteen year old that lives next door to me.” I tried to avoid the comment about my feet, even though I only really went barefoot in the garden. She laughed and walking through the corn loudly hummed the tune of the pop stars famous song “Baby”. I was never a fan and judging from the way she laughed I guessed that she wasn’t either. I set down the empty water can and followed her into the corn.
“Holy shit!” Em called out, “I didn’t know there was this much space up here, it’s a whole freaking cornfield. ” I caught up with her at the railing where she slumped against the bars to watch the people on the streets below. “When I came to the city,” she turned to look at me, “the last thing I thought I would see is a bunch of corn growing on top of some old apartments like this. I mean this entire roof is just covered with plants.”
“Yeah, I sort of helped out. Before I moved in here this roof was just boring grey concrete, there wasn’t any railing either. This took a whole lot of soil.” I didn’t tell her how I had convinced the other tenants to petition the owner, and moved bag after bag of dirt up to the roof by myself.
“I’m not surprised, you seem to have a real green thumb.”
“I guess,” somewhere inside of me a brave and foolish Danny thought he would take a chance and ask, “Would you want to get coffee sometime, I know a good place. Well this is Portland and here everyone knows a good place for coffee, but I promise my place is really good,” I felt like I was rambling. I rubbed the back of my head and stared at the ground.
“No. I can’t. Sorry,” she said, looking back to the busy streets below, “I have a boyfriend.”
It was sudden, it was unexpected , and I had no idea how to properly backpedal over the desperate jump I had taken. “Just-friend coffee then?” I said, instantly wanting to bury my palm into my stupid face. I thought of climbing over the railing just to escape the embarrassment.
Em laughed and pushed away from the ledge, “Sure, maybe some time we will have Just- Friend Coffee.” Walking back through the corn she waved without looking back, “See ya around Scarecrow.”
I finished watering the strawberries and sat down by the tomatoes not caring If I got wet at all. I wanted a ridiculously large anvil or grand piano to materialize out of nowhere and come crashing down on my head.
* * *
Grandpa’s casket was carried by five guys who fought the war with him. One of them only had one arm but I remember him carrying his share of the weight. During his eulogy he told the mourning crowd the story of how they met in a military hospital, how they would joke about being willing to give an arm or a leg just to see home again.
Before the Cancer progressed too far Grandpa told me that after he was gone, I should consider heading north. He told me, “Maybe Seattle. I think you might like that town, good earth, soft grass.” But I never made it past Vancouver. He would tell me to move around like he did, like a tumbleweed. In his life he had moved from South-East to North-East to South-West. I never asked why. His last words to me were, “Head North, try the soil, plant something for me.”
I left the night after his funeral, packed a bag and hopped on Highway 1, took it all the way to Newport before heading inland. It was my first great road trip and in Oregon it seemed all roads led to Portland. As if the city itself was one big strange heart that all the States life flowed from and came back to. It was the right place for me to lose myself for a while.
* * *
My roommate Johnny didn’t need to ask what had happened when I started moping around the apartment and watching the street from the window. Instead of asking anything at all he waited until he could sneak up and peek over my shoulder to ask, “Which one are you in love with, Nurse Barbie or the chick who looks like she is trying to be Tank-Girl?” He didn’t give me a chance to answer, “Ha, who am I kidding we both know it isn’t the Barbie.”
“Doesn’t matter,” I shrugged, “She has a boyfriend,”.
Jamming what must have been half a maple bar into his mouth he said, “So what?”dropping crumbs from his mouth onto my shoulder.
I brushed them off and nudged him away, ” I’m not like that.”
“Eh whatever, at some point we are all like that. Do you need a ride to work?”
I nodded while I watched a leather jacketed, spiked collar, green-mohawked anarchist toss Em over his shoulder and carry her into the building.
“Let’s go man, quit staring out the damn window, plenty of other weird chicks in Portland. Hell, Comic Con is coming up if you really want a Tank-Girl you can probably find one there.”
* * *
Johnny had gotten us jobs as Groundskeepers at the Oregon Zoo. It was peaceful there before the crowds arrived and the babies started wailing and bored teenagers snuffed out cigarettes on my grass. The Zoo was so much better without people.
At first I was afraid to go inside most of the enclosures, even if the animals were in other areas or distracted by their trainers. But I guess someone had to clean up the lions shit, literally. It turned out it was the un-caged animals I needed to be careful of.
One day we witnessed one of the rabid peacocks attack a little boy and knock his snow cone out of his hands. The worst part was that the little boy, scratched-up and crying, kept on trying to pick up the snow cone but his mom just kept slapping his hand away shouting, “No don’t eat that! It’s dirty!” and was beginning to drag the kid away from the scene by the arm. A park official trapped the peacock in a tree where it made that awful cawing sound while opening and closing its plumage as if to show it would attack or shit on anyone.
As we watched this crazy lady yell at her child I whispered to Johnny that the mother, “belongs in a cage more than any of these animals.” And unfortunately for me this lady had librarian-level hearing and almost got me fired just for saying that. Luckily for me I had worked wonders for the green spaces around and inside the enclosures and was deemed “too valuable” to get rid of. This gave us a good laugh for a month or so because the week before one of the Bird guys got fired just because he couldn’t get the damn owls to do anything during the day. They would just sit there on their perches and mechanically turn their heads slowly to examine nothing. They wouldn’t even chase after the feeding mice with vigor. They were really quite boring. The messed up part was, the new guy they hired after him couldn’t get them to do anything either. And they were talking about firing that dude too. Yet they were dying to keep me, a glorified landscaper, even though this lady bluffed at a lawsuit before storming away when other bystanders threatened to call Child Protective Services on her.
Really we spent most of the time at work pretending to clean wherever a feeding was taking place. Sometimes we would get into debates about whether or not it was humane to keep certain animals in captivity, and some of the customers passing by would join in. Johnny and me disagreed on everything except Polar bears. They were probably better off in the zoo, but that was only because he had shown me a documentary about the ice caps melting and Polar bears drowning because of it. Apparently a polar bear can swim forty miles. . . forty miles and their habitat has shrunken so much they still drown.
* * *
Months blew by and I felt myself slipping into an Arctic depression watching Em leave with that guy almost every night and coming back wasted and banged up. I was just glad her roommate was a nurse. Sometimes I would see her at the rooftop garden and avoid asking about the bumps bruises and bandages that she claimed to get from “Mosh-pitting”. I couldn’t shake the feeling that he did it, and that made me want to destroy him.
She would ramble about some crazy band’s music inciting a violent clash, or some “Bitch” that tied razorblades into the shoulders of her leather jacket, and I would daydream about what I would do to her boyfriend if I had proof he was the one who was hurting her. I’d envision his destruction animalistically. Remembering how I had seen chimps tear apart heads of lettuce, or tigers play with their already macerated prey, or how even the gentle elephants enjoyed crushing the giant pumpkins they were given to entertain crowds near Halloween.
I wanted to be with Em. She knew I liked her and she had been avoiding me because either she felt bad or liked me a little bit too. Every day that I went to work and watched the animals sit in their lonely cages I felt a little less free myself. I was sure I could never be with her the same way that they could never be back in the wild.
I thought of a zoo lion rejoining a Pride in Africa and lazily waiting for some dude to show up with two raw steaks, that guy never would show up and the lion would waste away. I thought that even if I had a chance with Em I would probably fuck it up. Some nights I would find myself staying up till two or three AM just to go to the Garden and lay down under the cornstalks, barefooted and press the bottoms of my feet and my palms into the earth. I wanted the soil to take me in, to be of some use to someone or something. To be a part of something else. I would return to bed just before dawn with dirty feet and just enough willpower to rise and go to work.
* * *
I was half asleep on the roof when I heard sirens race toward my building. I prayed that they would zoom past us to somewhere else. That Em would be okay, that she would be safe. It was her, and it was his fault. He did it, well, he tried to do it. Later I found out that Alexis had gotten back from her late shift at the hospital just before she would have been too late.
In a way, I soon decided, it was everyone’s fault for living with and accepting the denial. Pretending we didn’t see that the kind of wear and tear Em was getting had to be more than just extracurricular activities in underground night clubs. Alexis came to my apartment that night and told me everything that happened. Maybe because she knew I had seen it coming, or maybe because she knew I would care more than anyone else.
Mohawk guy was dead. I didn’t get to be the hero but he got what he deserved if you ask me. Judging by the details Alexis was too shocked to tell me I figured the little blond nurse knew exactly how to stop an abusive boyfriend. Medical training turned deadly force. Which arteries to slice, what organ to puncture and how. In my mind the whole struggle played out like a fight scene from Sherlock Holmes, except a larger part of me understood that Hollywood could never capture the real brutality the world was filled with. Every action movie we ever watch is only really a grown-up version of Cowboys and Indians.
The horror of reality was written all over Alexis’ face that night. She had cold eyes, not because her flame was out but because she snuffed someone else’s flame and didn’t feel bad about it. When Em came back the next week the two friends embraced as survivors of the same battle. They didn’t need to discuss their nightmares. Time would bury them.
* * *
A month later Em came to find me in the garden. I was picking a ripe tomato off one of the plants that she had drowned the day we met. Our small talk was awkward but funny and I tried not to stare at the thick bandages on her arms, or the bruises on her neck and face. When I finally made eye contact I was a little shocked.
“Em, you took your piercings out? All of them?” She smiled, and I noticed her lips were a slightly lighter shade of red. Something in her eyes was different too, but I couldn’t place it yet.
“Yeah. . . Old lifestyle wasn’t exactly working for me,” she rubbed the bare part of her upper arm and stared down at her shoes, the ground, then back up at me, “Sometimes you just need to make some changes about yourself right?” She asked licking at a cut on her lower lip.
“Only if you want to,” I said, subconsciously digging my toes into the dirt wet from morning rain.
“I think I want to go by Emma now,” she said, reaching down and undoing one of her shoelaces, then the other. She put a hand on my shoulder to support her balance and kicked both off. Balancing on top of her shoes one foot at a time she removed her short socks and tucked them away together. She wiggled her toes down just like I do, as if she had watched me do it a thousand times. She took a deep breath and exhaled, “I have wanted to know what this feels like for so long, you have no idea. It actually feels nice,” she said closing her eyes and tilting her face towards the sun. I did the same. We sat in a serene silence for a comfortably drawn out moment. I dropped my eyes and looked out over the city.
“So,” she said, recapturing my gaze, “Do you still think you know where the best coffee place is?” And I finally recognized her look.
“I actually remember hearing about a pretty good one.” I thought back to the night I drove North, how my eyes reflected in the rearview mirror.
“Oh yeah? Where at?” Emma grinned at me. It was the look of someone who needed to move on, to relocate.
“Seattle” I said grinning back, feeling a breeze pick up and whistle through the corn. I shook the dirt off my feet.
“Okay” she said playfully nodding, “But I need to let you know something. . .”
“What?” I played along, holding out a hand to pull her out of the dirt with.
She accepted, swooping her socks and shoes off the ground before standing slowly to let my curiosity build, “I definitely do not go all the way to Seattle for Just-Friend coffee.”
As we laughed I thought about how I finally felt like I was a part of something human, something beautiful and real. And I realized that some people, like Emma and me, are just meant to migrate now and then. Destined to be pulled in whichever direction the road takes us. Brave enough to pack a bag and leave everything else to fire and mulch and strong enough to plant our roots wherever we land.
© 2013 Konner Knudsen