At work, Terry pulled out a slip of paper and read to everyone in the back room where we ate lunch.
It was a note from his son about how their hamster fell on its head and wasn’t moving or drinking water, he son wrote he was very sorry and would make it better. He’d take good care of the hamster, he wrote, while Terry was at work and his mom would help.
It was written like a kid with a lot of “pleases” and “promises.” A few people wiped tears from their eyes when Terry finished. There was a part in the note about how the son didn’t want his dad to be mad. Terry told everyone he had only shouted because he got nervous about the hamster, and that he could never be angry at his son.
Terry worked the same job as me at the restaurant even though he was older and married and had a kid. He lived outside the city with his four-wheelers and his dogs and his son’s pet hamster. He liked to show me pictures of their land and the food they cooked and the son on the four-wheeler pretending to ride. When he wasn’t doing that he was telling me how to stack boxes in the store room, where the rice went, where the ketchup cans went.
Mom told me to “hush up” and “give that man a rest” when I told her about Terry and his note, but she laughed at how I talked about everyone in the room crying like babies over a hamster they’d never even seen. It felt good, making her laugh. It showed me we were doing okay.
Mom told me once about finding a racoon in the woods behind her childhood home. It had its paw stuck in a steel trap. The paw was all mangled up. She used her denim jacket to put over the racoon so it couldn’t bite her while she opened the trap, then carried it back home and put it inside a rabbit fence. She gave it rabbit food and water and put a lid down over the fence. I know I never would have touched that damn raccoon.
When I was about fourteen I went out with a neighbor and we shot a bird and a squirrel with his pellet gun. They hit the ground and laid in the leaves shaking and making creepy sounds.
I never heard animals make sounds like that. I’d never killed anything before. We left them in the leaves, and left ourselves knowing we did something wrong I think about the squirrel and the bird a lot lot, if it means anything about me that I killed them. Or that I didn’t tell anyone. Or, that we didn’t use them for anything, like making a squirrel stew or a bird chili.
Mom grew up on a farm with a lot of animals. She rode horses, and they raised pigs and named them and ate them, and she always had a couple dogs, and chickens. My grandpa grew corn and tomatoes and muscadines. Grandma worked at a dairy. We drove there once; the house was overgrown with kudzu and ivy. The stable where they kept the horses was torn down a long time ago and the fields were almost yellow from no nutrients and a lack direct sunlight. I’d never seen it before so the trip was mostly for Mom. She told me about being a little girl there. How different everything was. That’s when she told me about the racoon, and how when she came back to the rabbit fence the next day it was gone. All that was left was ts mangled hand, alone.
I drank a beer in the bath after work and listened to the rain and thunder. I wanted to drive out to see Terry and his son’s hamster, to know what their life was really like. I wanted to see it for myself. Terry never gave me his address but I knew the general area, so I drove out into the country. I went the long way to watch the rain. I didn’t use the GPS, to prove I knew the country.
I watched for his truck but didn’t see it in any driveway and couldn’t see any house that looked like the pictures he’d shown me. After awhile driving around with no direction it felt stupid to be in a different town looking for someone I barely knew.
I turned around and drove back home.
There was a time when Mom tried to get me to build a house on her parent’s land. They didn’t have anyone else and Mom said it might do me some good, to get in touch with the family home. I never felt it was my land to use, like I was the right one for the land. I told Mom maybe, but not right now.
I thought about Terry and that hamster as I drove through the darkness. He said he wasn’t angry, but he probably was. Probably angry at himself for getting the hamster too soon, for putting his son in a position to hurt something innocent. Angry because now he was going to have to explain what death was to his son. Terry was the kind of man who would say it was honorable to end the hamster’s suffering. I thought of him shooting the hamster, or pushing a shovel into its little neck telling his son to watch so he’d know that being a man was noble and brave and important work. It felt like too much. It felt unfair that Terry could do that and only tell part of it to us back at work, and that his son might end up just like him, pushing everything down, never talking about anything but what’s in front of him.
Mom didn’t say it but I could tell it made her mad when I moved out to the city.
“You ain’t gotta run away from me,” she said.
She joked like that for a while but she’d stopped saying it so much recently. She told me she understood kids have to grow up and knew it must be important or I wouldn’t have left.
“I’m always here,” she said.
I called her on the drive back and told her about Terry and his son. I didn’t say anything about the note or the people crying in the back room, I told her it reminded me of her talking about Grandpa, and the yellow fields, and how she used to tame wild animals. I told her this part of the country reminded me of her old home, that it was good to see big green spaces again. Then I talked about trying to grow a beard, or getting new boots, or trading in for a pickup.
“I’m gonna be a new man, Mama,” I said.
She didn’t laugh.
She was going to bed, she said she had to get off the phone. I told her I’d come by sometime soon to spend the day with her.
“Sounds like a plan.” she said.
I wondered what the country really looked like, in the night outside my headlights.