By Michael Chaney
Featured art: Chinese painting featuring two birds on a flowering tree branch
By the time the cow set down the samosas, covering the spot where he’d earlier hooved his name, Fox seemed different to Pig.
“Simply marvelous,” Pig said with an air, trying to play it off.
Fox coughed. “May I have more water?” Annoyance puckered her auburn snout.
“Not a problem,” said the cow. “Mind if I brag about our wines?”
“Please do, darling.” Fox had a lovey-dovey way of talking. To Pig, she was not so different from the elegant junk in herringbone patterns on the walls: bugles, radios, troughs, collars, toys, and white puffy gloves.
“I don’t drink,” Fox said, touching the waiter’s hoof. It was gentle. His bell never so much as whispered as she did it. Anyone else would have gotten a bray from all four of his stomachs, Pig was thinking, distracted by the samosas. Their crispy folds smuggled the aroma of mudzhki, the kind Pig’s grandsow used to make with cabbage and sweet layings.
“Enjoy, ladies.” The cow’s voice carried in his bell this time. “Your other apps will . . . Speak of the devil.”
A short dog with kewpie-doll eyes and an apron swarmed with buttons brought two more dishes. Her buttons declared things about cats and Mondays. “Here we have the mackerel slaw with pumpkin fiblits as well as . . . Fried. Lettuce. Wedges.”
She was a drama puppy. Still, Pig liked her more than the cow. He only looked at Fox when he spoke.
“I’ve been looking forward to this lettuce all week,” Fox beamed.
The waiter waved his hoof over the food. Now he’s the puppy, Pig thought, as he went on.
“Ladies. That is a lot of appetizers, I must say.” He was building up to the question they practiced in the jalopy. “Plus, you’ve each ordered two entrées.”
“We’re food critics,” Pig said, going off script. Fox’s eyes burned fire to match the rest of her. The “darling” Pig added was gasoline.
“Not professionally, of course. It’s our hobby,” Fox explained. Her lashes fluttered as if to flirt and to extinguish at the same time. “Waiter? Can you tell me how they fry the lettuce?”
The cow droned on about wilting thresholds and water-to-oil ratios. Like either of us sniff a shit, Pig thought. If he only knew what dear old Fox—Shall I bake you some clover cookies, darling?—was really up to.
“Now don’t you ladies hesitate to holler if you need anything else.” Pig felt sorry for him.
“Pig,” Fox whispered once the waiter had gone, “Cut the rooster act. We’re trying to keep a low profile, remember?”
“Aren’t we supposed to be foodies?”
“Sugar, you don’t have to grunt to like food.”
Pig didn’t have a grunt anymore, not the fake one or the real one she used to have.
And she hadn’t told people she met on the streets about her grunt since Cleveland.
Fox scraped her claw through the dip and made an embarrassing moan tast- ing it.
“What’s your favorite, sugar?”
Pig didn’t want to say it was the samosas. “I know you’re the expert at this, Fox, but shouldn’t we be looking for places—”
“We are, dear. We are.” Fox sampled the nachos. Pig was a good six sizes up the rack from her when the rack had her number at all. “Let’s settle in first,” Fox said. “Try the food. Sniff our bearings. Larry’s right about you, sweetie. You are impatient.”
“Larry doesn’t know fish about me,” Pig snapped. “I ate already. That’s all.” “Fine, sugar, but try the dip. It’s delicious.”
Pig did. “Tastes like the kind they got at the other place.”
“That spells money. Only the mom-and-pops do variety anymore.” Pig took another bite. “What about the lettuce?”
Fox tried it again. “It’s like all of these places agreed to have one strange thing—sauerkraut balls, deep-fried pizza, chocolate chicken. Theirs is the let- tuce.”
Pig had had sauerkraut every kind of way. “Chocolate chicken? Gross,” she said.
“I know,” said Fox. “That’s from a place I waitressed in Tennessee.”
Pig chewed the lettuce. Before she could ask if Fox did in Tennessee what they were planning to do here, Fox continued.
“That’s back when I was traveling,” she said, “picking up fleas and no-good bucks. I had a restaurant idea—Volpino’s it would be called. It’d be for lovers. There’d be dinner and dancing. Think about it: There’s nowhere to go for dinner and dancing anymore. Where would you go dancing around here if you were married, Pig?”
Nachos stifled Pig’s anger. “I wouldn’t live in Ohio,” she said through mulching chips. Pig had been dating Larry before Fox entered the picture.
“Where would you live, sweetie?”
“New York,” said Pig. “Or California. I don’t know. Just not here.”
A dreamscape of apartments paraded Pig’s mind. A collage of fashion magazines. Areas glimpsed behind pouting weasels in chintz. Rather than models or clothes, Pig’s appetite whetted itself on the sleek furniture abbreviated to sculpted corners in the pictures. She wanted mud-work sofa legs and grass ottomans. She wanted rooms like eggs, albino-smooth and all to herself.
On the other side of Pig’s daydreaming was Fox still barking about the Midwest. Papa Fox worked a road con back when work like that existed. When the waiter brought their entrées, Fox was all business again.
“You must have a real chef back there,” Fox said, “to come up with this.” “We do,” said the waiter. “He’s Paris–trained. I’ll tell Owl you liked the lettuce.”
“This place is perfect,” Fox said after he left. “Paying an owl is a dead give- away. Plus, they aren’t new. If a place is new, you stay away, sugar.”
Fox pushed a big knife into a ribbon of steak, scanning the room. Pig dragged her eyes across the knick-knacks, the booths, the mosaic floor. All of it clean and stupid. Yet, Pig knew she did not see what Fox saw.
“If a place is new,” Fox went on, “they might fold under the pressure. You’d get nothing for your troubles. You’d hurt yourself and get paid nothing in the end. Newbies are dangerous.”
Pig muttered something Fox misheard as a request for explanation. Pig let her go on talking. There was more saffron and butter to snort.
“One time I was in Indiana passing through,” Fox was saying. “There was this huge barn turned into a furniture store. Raw wood, chainsaw-carved coffee tables, that sort of thing. It was crawling with business. Money-city. So when I came upon nails poking out of the wall, I didn’t think twice. Except, the place was new. After all the blood, the fuss with the lawyers, I was never able to pounce the same way again. I still don’t grow fur where it happened. Only an ugly spot of pink. That’s all I got for my trouble.”
Pig didn’t let on how that stung. “I would’ve burned the place to the ground,” she said chewing.
“I’d get something for my trouble then, huh, sugar?” The look Fox gave lingered all wrong. Sharp and cold.
“What about the jalopy?” Pig asked. “Where’d you get that?” “Darling, that car stole half my childhood. It was Papa’s.”
Pig’s plate was empty. The other entrée had not been touched by either of them. It was steak with peppercorn and blue cheese.
“I heard you telling Larry how you bought it at a police auction in Detroit.” Fox hardly reacted. Pig was hoping for at least a red whisker twitch of concern.
“What I tell that jackrabbit and what I tell you are two different things, honey. Larry’s fast but you’re a friend. And now a partner.”
After Fox said that last part, she scratched her ears for a while. Pig suspected she was hiding something. Maybe Fox didn’t think Pig would go through with it. Maybe she was worried Pig wouldn’t keep her snout shut and stand witness or that she wouldn’t be able to pull off the accident herself. That, and the food, made Pig bold.
Pig’s knife sawed steak juices free. “Why choose me?”
“Baby, I love you but these questions . . . Look, we’re both drifters.” The meat tasted even better than it looked.
“And when you get to be my age, you want to pass on what you’ve learned.”
The steak was a perfect teacher. It explained in an instant how Pig had never seared meat the right way.
“Not me,” said Pig, high on marbling. “If I learn anything good, I’m gonna keep it to myself.”
Fox looked hard at Pig. Pig wiped her nose. That wasn’t it.
“Well it takes all kinds to make the world go round, doesn’t it, sugar?” “What do you mean?”
“Only that you wouldn’t teach, but I would. And that’s okay. Our differences make us a good team.”
Pig snorted. Fox didn’t blink.
“So teach me,” Pig said, finishing the steak.
Fox put her fork down. She grinned at Pig, showing fangs. That smile (and all the food she’d eaten) annoyed Pig.
In accidental sympathy Fox got up from the table. “If you’ll excuse me, my dear, I won’t be a moment.” She smiled at Pig again and pranced down the aisle. Her red head and black ears bobbed over the booths until the sounds of the 70s enveloped her and she was gone.
The waiter appeared just then. “Can I take these plates away for you, my lady?”
Pig could have thrown them at him. His bell chimed as he collected the empty plates she had pushed to the center of the table as if she had been the one to eat so much food.
Pig sat there ignoring the noodles and vole on Fox’s side of the table, listening to the chatter from nearby booths. She thought of all the dumb jobs she had worked and thanked her lucky stars that she had never been a server. Her old roommate back in Erie would say that Pig couldn’t handle the footwork, but she’s a junkie now and it serves her right, Pig thought. The way Fox flirted with those dogs at the house where they made the bottles with the skulls on them bothered her. That time Larry brought Fox along made Pig think about her a lot. Why did she act so damn in love with everybody all the time?
Inside, behind that sunset smile, did she hate every animal? Fox returned. “Well, darling, that was informative.” “What?”
“This place is definitely our mark,” Fox said. “How can you tell?”
“They’re not up to code, Pig. There’s a short set of steps you have to go down to get to the stallroom. There should be lights on them. And it’s dark as night by that spot.”
“So we’re set then?”
“It’s like I’ve been telling you, sugar, it takes patience. It’s not like I’m afraid.” Her voice wavered. She even trembled a little as she whispered the rest: “There is something else. I shouldn’t even be telling you this but . . . It’s the light.”
“What about the light?” Pig asked.
“The overhead light by the steps. It’s out.” Pig could feel her hocks sweat.
“Judging by the way they do things here,” Fox said, “they’ll fix it in the next fifteen minutes. But we can’t do anything rash, darling. You don’t even know what to do yet.”
Pig’s breath quickened. “What is there to know, Fox?” “What to say. What not to say. Really, sugar, you can’t.”
Pig thought of highways and couches the color of pink ugly skin. “How easy would it be? And how much could we get?”
“It would be a lot easier,” Fox said. “They’d probably want to finish it all quick.”
Pig imagined moss flooring, empty trough, the echo of fresh space. “How much?”
“At least fifty large. For both of us.” Fox stopped whispering. “But, Pig, the thing is . . . I’m scared, sugar. I don’t think I can go through with it right now.”
The waiter returned. “Can I interest you ladies in some dessert? We have a quadruple chocolate pie—it’s actually got a fifth layer of chocolate, but I can’t pronounce the word for that—pentup . . . penta-tuplica . . .”
Pig couldn’t let him finish. “Which way to the stallroom?” “Just down that hall. First door on your left.”
“Pig,” Fox said sweetly as Pig stood.
“I have to go,” said Pig. “What is it?” The waiter looked down.
“It’s your skin,” Fox gushed. “Your skin . . . It looked so lovely catching the light just then. Sorry, sweetie. I’m a sentimental old fool.” She said this last part to the waiter, who received her cardinal grin eagerly. Pig left him to it.
The booths near them had more couples than families. That shocked Pig. The sound of pups, shoats, cubs, and joeys seemed to fill the place a moment ago. A moody song played as she passed the only piglet in the dining room—another adoptee, Pig thought, already behaving like the goats she was sitting next to. The place was full of forty-somethings slurping tall bottles with skulls on them. If Fox hadn’t been so strict about it in the car Pig would have ordered as many as her tiny wallet would allow.
She turned a corner. Sombreros, skis, and album covers. Some giraffe with a hoarding problem and a nail gun had been let loose in this part of the restaurant. Pig thought she was lost until she got to the hallway. Sure enough, the sconce by the steps was out.
This place was dangerous, Pig thought. They can afford all this space, a fancy owl, and a herd of morons with buttons on their aprons, but they can’t replace a measly light bulb? If that’s all the hay they got for the safety of their customers, then it serves them right.
Four steps away and Pig thought more about the open road, the way the country looks in a windshield heading somewhere else rapidly. It wasn’t the place so much as the people that made her want to fly—their tails swished so listlessly in the sun, as if all there ever was and all there ever could be had van- ished for them a long time ago.
Two steps away and Pig remembered Fox’s story about the nails. Unable to figure out exactly how she would do it, Pig stuttered her heels in anticipation.
One step away and Pig thought of the last time she was back at the barn. Her grandsow was still alive, asking about Cleveland, where Pig was living. When Pig’s sow came in from the trough, Pig could tell she’d had a few more of what- ever had been in those empty bottles with skulls on them that she kept buried in the roost. Slurring her words, Pig’s sow made a big deal about Pig sleeping on pads in strange apartments. Pig couldn’t explain it to her grandsow, who was upset by the announcement. Pig wanted to tell her that she was saving up for her own stall, but she couldn’t remember how to say “saving” in Old Grunt and she couldn’t ask her sow, who kept rooting up all of Pig’s failings as Grandsow cried, “ngkyee dorogknayaeeah” and “soyee silayaeeee” (my darling and my sweet), the way she used to when Pig was little.
A realization about Fox dawned on Pig, but it was too late. Her plump pink body was already in motion and gravity is a cruel pilot. Pig heard a voice call out for her to stop. She couldn’t do that anymore. For a split second, with the album covers and skis upside down on the wall and the cow upside down too, looking almost happy to see her in midair, Pig caught a glimpse of the steps below and thought she hadn’t done it right. She thought she would accidentally land gracefully on her shiny black points, perhaps on the edge of the second step, terrifically unharmed, a perfect landing. Maybe the cow would hold up a sign with a good number on it for her acrobatics. After, she’d have to explain how she came to be somersaulting through this unlit area near the stallroom.
Maybe the whole thing was a show, performed in restaurants by strange ladies who pretended to be food bloggers and who ordered too much food that only this one, the one who can defy gravity, put away like it was her last meal. Of course, Pig had no need of those explanations. She crashed so hard on the wooden lip of the bottom stair that it broke clean off its tread. With it came part of Pig’s fibula, which leaked blood where it poked through the pink. The pain bore down in waves. It was white-hot pokers, razor harnesses, and branded
loins all in one.
Through it all, Pig heard the cow screaming to the manager, a silver-muzzled dog with a potbelly and a bowtie.
“Is this the one who unscrewed the light?” asked the manager.
“No,” said the waiter fumbling for his cell phone. “That was the other one— her mother—the fox. The mother told me everything. Said this one made her unscrew the bulb. Said she got scared the way this one was acting.”
“Where is her mother now?” asked the manager.
Pig fought the pain, white-hot bands of it shooting up from her leg. The manager growled, “Where’d her mother go?”
Pig screamed, “That was NOT my mother!”
Before giving over to the fireworks bruising her vision, Pig pictured Fox in the jalopy, hungry for an on-ramp. It filled her with envy, all that asphalt and dust. For Pig knew Fox would find a new place beyond the windshield, where a dessert might finally be an open door, leading to a simple gate, closing on a pleasant stall, and nothing more.