You're an Animal
This is a love story, for what it’s worth.
No one on the compound was expecting the girl, because her cousin hadn’t told them she was coming. He was working with Ernie that day, and he might have been freaked out by the bees and forgot. Later Ernie would tease Vick at dinner, say he was a bad cousin.
That morning, life sizzled right out of the gate, hotter than usual this time of year. The square maze of buildings huddled under the red ash trees the way animals do during the Oklahoma springtime, slowly and lazily and naturally keeping shade. Most members of the compound were still sleeping, but four shirtless men in Carhartt shorts—Jared, Vick, and Carlos, with Ernie leading the operation—were moving the frantically buzzing hive from near Tim’s personal barracks into the field.
Man, they’re stirred up, Ernie said.
Ernie’s face was worn like a rock in a stream, even though he was just thirty-four years old, and his long hair was bleached reddish by the sun. He was tall and skinny, a goofball, a character. His eyes were almond-shaped, his nose broken more than once. Chipped teeth, red arm hairs shining in the sun. Ernie looked like a hustler-Jesus from outer space, but chances are he was mostly white with a Mexican or Choctaw grandparent.
(He was found, at maybe a week old, in a gas-station bathroom, wrapped in a man’s blue-and-black flannel shirt. He’d seen the newspaper article about it. Well, it wasn’t an article, it was just two lines in the El Reno Tribune of January 16, 1962, and no one ever solved that mystery.)
Ernie felt Tim watching their progress from the screen door, muscular arms crossed and an unreadable look on his face. Tim said he’d had a dream the night before that it was bad luck to keep the hive so close to where he and his wife (heavy with their soon-to-be-born baby) were sleeping, and that’s why he needed this done pronto.
Here’s the thing: the dream was true. If only Tim was the type of guy to understand what it really meant, maybe everything would have gone down different, maybe everyone could have survived. But he wasn’t that type of guy.
It’s so loud, Tim said, unhelpful as usual. Sure y’all are doing it right?
They don’t want to get moved, Ernie said, exasperated. This is messing them up.
Um, I don’t really think you’re going to ruin their mood, Tim said in his “bossman” tone, trying to catch someone’s eye to laugh at Ernie with him. They’re bees.
The group carefully balletically quietly pushed the hive over bumpy ground till it was about five hundred feet from the main buildings. They lowered the handcart and shifted the hive into the wild grass.
Now what? said Jared, wiping sweat from his lip.
We set them free, Ernie said, and removed the screen very slowly. Here we go, easy now. Then he got stung on the neck three times—bam bam bam—and he hop-danced in pain. Well, f***!
You okay? Vick asked with concern.
Jared grimaced, looking at Ernie: Man, looks like they got you three times.
I’m fine, Ernie grumbled, and slunk back to the compound.
In the shadows of the doorway, Tim’s white teeth glowed as he grinned, but he said: What? It’s not funny, I’m not laughing.
Ernie walked by without saying anything and slammed open the screen door of the kitchen. Cupid, never without his lip ring and beanie, was peeling potatoes, and he cut raw onion for Ernie to press onto the red swelling bumps.
Thanks, brother, Ernie said.
No problem, said Cupid, straight-faced, but then he smiled: Looks like a hickey.
Whatever, Ernie said, smirking.
He checked himself out in the window glass and pretended it was a hickey. Ernie was in a state of familiar turmoil just then. He barely had one full thought—it was just loops and spirals and falling stars of anger, hatred, embarrassment, and desire. And it was all about Tim. Ernie had set out to do something helpful. As usual, it turned into Tim making fun of him. Who was Tim anyway? Tim’s uncles owned this place, and their nephew just lived here, a freeloader.
But whenever Ernie truly considered this, he got moody, because in this world, real estate did put Tim in charge even if he hadn’t earned it. Sometimes, when reality hit Ernie like it did now, he couldn’t move. He just stared at the kitchen floor, knowing how weird he looked—like someone pulled the plug on him for a ten-minute spell. When it was done, he was about to drag his sorry ass, his sweaty, gleaming, tattooed chest, his long and knotted hair, his self, his body, to his bed. He had no energy for much else. But that’s when she showed up.
Ernie saw the silver super-dented minivan bumping up the long driveway like a small-town hearse. Out popped an uptight couple. Or maybe they only seemed uptight because they were upset about what they were doing. Ernie would later find out this was a half sister who’d been taking care of the girl since the death of their grandma Inez (the girl lived with her grandmother for years). But the half sister was now getting married to a Mexican cowboy from Ojinaga—a very Catholic man, very strict, very boring—and there was no room for the girl in their double-wide. Which seemed to be an un-Christian idea, having no room for the girl, but here they were anyway, and they sure seemed steadfast in their decision to hand her over.
The cowboy had a big mustache and pleated jeans. The couple waited in the dirt drive until finally the back door of the van slid open and Coral came out. Everyone who lived on the compound was watching from their bedrooms, or from the garage, wherever they found themselves.
In fact, Holiday Ray was smoking at his window, and he said to Staci, still lounging in their bed: Incoming. The couple would rehash that moment years later, trying to understand everything. But while it was happening, Ray didn’t think for one hot second this teenager could affect their lives—sure, maybe other lives, just not the lives of Ray and Staci. He was more interested in lighting another cigarette. Come here, baby, Staci said, more interested in Ray.
The girl held her late grandma’s white valise, the case gone creamy yellow in spots, the handle tarnished, as well as a Discman with giant headphones and a trash bag that looked stuffed full of clothes. The couple talked to Tim, who put on his welcome-to-my-world face, but the girl didn’t speak. She didn’t say one word. The foursome stood under the live oak, arms folded, rocking back and forth on heels, and the cowboy handed Tim an envelope.
From where Ernie was standing, spying from the kitchen door, the girl didn’t look like the kids who landed here after binges or stints on the streets in Albuquerque or Dallas, or after they were booted from their group home or got out on bond. With her not-short not-long greasy blond hair, and her black socks in the middle of summer, those blue eyes, her Hanes T-shirt and cutoff black jeans shorts, she could have been twelve and really big for her age, or twenty-two and she simply hadn’t gotten wrecked by life yet. In reality she was seventeen. She wasn’t a clump of mud. Light pulsated through her the way it did through a yucca blossom or a spider’s egg sac. Through the cellulose material. Maybe Ernie wanted her to look afraid, and she didn’t, and that was what sparked his original disdain.
The half sister said: This is Coral, and um, she’s a good girl, for the most part, not a bad girl, not exactly. She had an accident when she was little and her hearing’s messed up, but she can still tell what you’re saying, usually. And, also, she sort of doesn’t talk. But she’s good at cleaning and weeding and folding, those type of chores.
Tim nodded. Hey all right. Welcome.
Coral didn’t shake his hand or hold up her fingers to say hi. She smiled with her mouth, not her eyes. Her two front teeth were tilted toward each other, which signaled mischief or lightheartedness in a way that was maybe false advertising.
Tim kept nodding as if he was assessing her. We got a bunch of weirdos living here, he said in his goofy-but-in-charge voice. They’re decent people, though. Some really nice loonies.
They talked a bit more, then the half sister sighed and moved to hug Coral goodbye. The girl let herself be embraced. Both the half sister and the cowboy reddened as they took a long last look at the girl, guilty like they were leaving a grand piano on the side of a highway in the rain. The couple drove away, and Ernie tried to read all their Jesus bumper stickers.
He lost sight of Tim and Coral as they stepped into the blue barracks where Tim showed Coral to a bedroom; he waited while she put worn-to-translucence sheets on the stained mattress and threw her trash bag in the corner.
Okey dokey, let’s get you oriented, Tim said.