Joyland

The Midwest |

Victoria

by Jen Fawkes

edited by Anna Prushinskaya

“This,” said Sid, holding Queen Victoria aloft, “is not your best work.”

Darryl nodded. Sid wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t know. A blind man could have seen it. A blind mole rat could have seen it.

“Dare I ask,” Sid continued, “where this creepy sonofabitch came from?”

The fur that, in a more just world, might have covered Victoria’s nudity seemed to have sprouted up on Darryl’s tongue, and the furniture in his wood-paneled living room was looking distinctly diagonal. It felt as though his head had been flattened and stretched, like an acoustic membrane, over an in-use kick drum, and he wore nothing but a stained bathrobe and a pair of secondhand sandals, in the style of those worn by Jesus Christ, their footbeds blackened by the bare soles of a stranger.

“I’ve got the feeling,” said Darryl, attempting once, twice, and failing, to push up from where he lay, his right temple on one of those braided rag rugs Alma got from the Latinas at the flea markets, saliva tethering his mouth to the floorboards, “that I’ve had a visitation.”

“A visitation?” Sid watched his brother struggle to gain verticality. He made no move to help him. “From who?”

“From whom.” After propelling himself to his knees, then to his feet, Darryl stood swaying slightly, trying to gather the power to step toward Sid, who was now balancing the contorted, hairless form of Queen Victoria on his outstretched palm. “The object pronoun is whom, Sid. You know that.”

“Jesus.” Sid shook his head. “I think you’re channeling Dad.”

“Yes.” Darryl picked up one foot, put it down in front of the other. Heel/toe. Heel/toe. Nice and steady. This is walking. Once he got going, it wasn’t nearly so improbable as it had seemed from the floor. “Yes, my visitation was from Dad.”

“Dad?”

“Yes.”

“The Dad who disappeared ten years ago?”

“That’s the one.”

“Did he bring you the mole rat?”

Darryl bypassed his brother, rounded the dining table, wobbled toward the door through which he would find the kitchen, in which he would find the liquor cabinet, in which he would find the whiskey. “Sid,” Darryl said, without turning back, certain that any movement of his eyes would blow him off-course, that if he looked away for even an instant he would end up walking into another room entirely – the bathroom perhaps, or the bedroom he’d shared with Alma for nine years, or the big hall closet, or his studio, the room in which he stretched the tanned hides of animals, both wild and domestic, depending on the job, over polyurethane foam he’d shaved and molded into the shape of a charging black bear, or a twelve-point buck paused in a clearing, gazing majestically into the beyond, or a tabby cat arching its back on a windowsill, or a poodle dancing on its hind legs, the room in which, five days earlier, Darryl had beaten the shit out of Spencer, Alma’s 14-year-old son. “Can I get you a drink?”

“Darryl,” Sid said, following his brother into the kitchen, “where are Alma and Spence?”

“Gone.” Darryl opened an overhead cabinet, plucked from its interior a bottle half-full of Jack Daniel’s. He rinsed two rocks glasses at the sink, turned toward the Formica table centrally positioned on the blue-tiled floor. Sid had seated himself in an upholstered chair, one of a set Alma acquired at the flea markets for a song, after exercising her own undeniably brutal brand of bargaining, and he’d placed Queen Victoria at the table’s epicenter. Darryl sat, opened the bottle, filled the rocks glasses liberally with whiskey. “Are you aware,” he said, sliding one of these toward his brother, “that the naked mole rat is indigenous to the Horn of Africa?”

“I’m not.” Sid eyed his glass. “That’s a serious drink.”

Darryl lifted his own glass, drained it, poured himself another. The alcohol’s toxins went to work on his nervous system, and he felt a welcome lifting, a lessening of pain. His eyes stung with grateful tears, which he blinked out of existence. “I didn’t know you were in town, Sid.”

“I wasn’t,” said Sid. “I’ve only just arrived.”

“To what do we owe the pleasure?”

Sid sipped his whiskey. “Mom called. She’s worried about you.”

“They live in colonies,” Darryl said, shaking his head, as if to clear it. “Like bees. Or ants. You know that? In systems of underground burrows. Beneath the desert sands. There’s a Queen, even, and drones. Only the Queen can reproduce, and her offspring are raised communally. The other females’ fertility is suppressed.”

“Are we talking about mole rats?”

Darryl nodded.

Sid plucked Queen Victoria from the tabletop. “Jesus,” he said, turning her over in his hands. “He must have been a real pain in the ass to work with. I mean, he’s not very goddamned big, is he?”

“She,” said Darryl. “You’re holding the Queen of the Naked Mole Rats.”

As Sid studied Victoria, Darryl studied his brother, who looked more like their father each time Darryl saw him, which wasn’t often. Unlike Darryl, Sid had fled home as soon as he was able, gone to college in Maryland then moved to New York, where he’d been working in advertising and trying to “make it” as a playwright for twenty-five years. A couple of Sid’s plays had been produced off-off-Broadway, but they’d never garnered favorable reviews, and Sid was now closing in on fifty. He’d acquired their father’s paunch, and his hair was silvering in the same way. He even wore a pair of glasses identical to the black-framed spectacles Darryl Chase, Sr. had worn. When Darryl looked at Sid, he saw their father in the ramshackle shed behind the house in which they grew up, the outbuilding Darryl Sr. had converted into a studio, bowed over the hide of a deer or a German shepherd, carefully scraping it clean, removing all traces of fat and flesh with a knife, or shaping, with a pair of pliers, braided lengths of wire into the outline of an animal’s haunch or snout. A high school English teacher by trade, Darryl Chase, Sr. honestly felt that he’d been called, by God, to the divine art of taxidermy. It was the only thing that gave him peace, the only thing that quelled the rage bubbling just beneath his surface, threatening to spew, to coat the world in a deadly pall of vitriol, of molten matter and ash. Nothing could be more maddening, Darryl Sr. had often declared, than trying to teach teenagers how to properly wield their own goddamned native tongue. Left alone with his creatures, he might have been a wholly different man. “The beauty of it,” he said once, to his eldest son, as they lay twined together on the mattress Darryl Sr. had installed in a corner of his studio, “is that I get to build them from the ground up. They resemble what they were in life, but once I mount them, they become something else. Better than their best selves. I find their ultimate attitude, and I freeze them into it, eternally. It looks like life, but it’s better. Clean. Quiet. With none of life’s pain. None of its doubts.”

I know what you did.

“What?” Darryl hadn’t seen his brother’s lips move. “What was that?”

Sid deposited Queen Victoria back in the center of the table. He shook his head. “I didn’t say anything.”

“You did.”

“I didn’t.”

The brothers Chase blinked at one another.

“You sure?”

Sid lifted a hand, crossed two fingers over his heart, just as they’d done when they were kids. Darryl poured himself a drink. “You know who taught me about the naked mole rat?” he said.

Sid shook his head.

“Spencer,” said Darryl. “God, he’s a smart kid. The kind of kid I would have kicked the shit out of in grade school. The kind of kid who might actually have given Dad some small hope. Some minimal relief. Spence does well in all his subjects. He’s like a walking encyclopedia, if you want to know the truth. And it must come from his real father, ‘cause he certainly doesn’t get it from Alma. She loves Spencer and all, I mean, she is his mother, but ever since Spence learned to talk, she hasn’t been able to stand him. The boy does tend to go on and on, about any number of subjects. It gets annoying, sure, but it drives Alma up the wall. Spence regularly sends her into a blind rage. She hits him. Really wails on the kid. Sometimes, I have to intervene.”

You can’t hide what you did.

“What was that?”

Sid shook his head. “I didn’t say anything, Darryl.”

Darryl looked at Queen Victoria. He reached out, turned the mole rat to face him. She was without a doubt the ugliest animal he’d ever mounted.

“So a couple of weeks ago,” Darryl continued, “Spence was getting obsessed with these naked mole rats. Just obsessed. And I decided to take him to the Zoo in Atlanta, where they’ve got a colony of these things. Alma thought if she was trapped in the cab of the pickup with Spence for three solid hours, and he was talking about the mole rats, she’d strangle him, so she elected not to come. They had the mole rats in the House Rodentia, along with marmots, prairie dogs, chinchillas, porcupines, voles, that type of thing, and they had it set up so you could look through this plexiglass window and see the naked mole rats in their underground burrows, writhing together, a teeming mob of pink, wrinkled, nearly-hairless bodies, a mass of scrabbling claws and giant dirty-yellow buckteeth.”

“Ugh,” said Sid. “Sounds horrifying.”

“It was,” said Darryl, “but Spencer absolutely fucking loved it. The kid stood there for two solid hours, staring through that plexiglass window. I kept going off, buying popcorn and sodas, checking out the other animals. I finally pulled Spence away from the mole rats, got him over to the primate house. We went and saw the new tiger. And the baby giraffe. But Spencer kept begging me to take him back to the House Rodentia. So I did. And as we stood there, staring through the window, into that crush of naked mole rats, Spence started telling me about these things. He’d named them, see, and made up stories about their lives, about their relationships. It was nuts, the level of detail this kid imagined. Their Queen was named Victoria, and she ruled the other mole rats with an iron fist. Or paw or whatever. Absolutely iron. There were two mole rats in there named Justin, and one named Bernard. There was a really little one called Tina. And as we watched these African rodents wriggling blindly, I started getting angry. I started thinking that someone needed to do something about that fucking Queen and her tyranny. That someone needed to bring Victoria’s reign to an end.”

You’ll never bury it deep enough. No matter how hard you try.

Darryl picked up Queen Victoria, brought the mole rat close to his face. He’d mounted her with her mouth wide open, with her four dirty-yellow incisors exposed. Darryl poked the tip of a pinky inside her mouth. He looked up at his brother. Sid’s manicured fingers appeared to be choking his glass, which was still half-full.

“Are you telling me,” said Darryl, “that you didn’t hear that?”

“Hear what?”

Darryl indicated Sid’s glass. “Drink up,” he said, “baby brother.”

Sid swallowed the remaining whiskey, pushed his glass slowly toward Darryl. As Darryl poured, Sid stood. He crossed to the kitchen counter, braced himself against it. “Before,” he said, “when you asked why I was here, I wasn’t being entirely honest. The truth is, I’m not just here because Mom’s worried about you. There’s something else. Something I have to tell you.”

Darryl thought about standing, thought that, for some reason, he should, but he knew, instinctively, that he would never make it. His legs felt tremulous, like rubber bands or pieces of overcooked manicotti. He knew that were he to rise, they would not be willing or able to support him. “I thought we were talking,” he said, “about naked mole rats.”

Sid nodded. “Go on.”

“That night,” said Darryl, “in the motel room I’d gotten for me and Spencer, I couldn’t sleep. I sat up, beside Spence’s bed, watching him. He’s a beautiful kid, really. I mean, objectively speaking, he’s just lovely. And lots of times, when I can’t sleep at home, I do the same thing. Sit up and watch him. Sometimes I touch him, lightly, on top of his head, or on one of his cheeks. Sometimes, I kiss the back of one of his hands. But that night, in the motel, I couldn’t stop thinking about Victoria. The Queen of the Naked Mole Rats. I’d brought a fifth of Wild Turkey with me, and I was drinking that straight from the bottle, and I left Spence alone in the room. I drove the pickup back to the Zoo. I climbed the fence, used a crowbar to break into the House Rodentia, which was not terribly well-secured. I got into the room where Zookeepers had recreated the arid desert habitat of the eastern part of Africa, the home of the naked mole rat. I dropped to my hands and knees beside this big sand pit, and I dug down, down until I hit the colony’s system of interconnected burrows. The mole rats were terrified, squealing like mad little pigs. They kept biting me with their dirty-yellow teeth, trying to protect their Queen. But Victoria was almost twice as big as any of the others, and I finally found her, way down at the bottom of the burrows. I yanked her free, and then I ran like hell, fled the House Rodentia, climbed the fence, got the fuck out of that Zoo.”

“Jesus,” said Sid. “Are you shitting me?”

Darryl shook his head. He crossed his heart with two fingers.

“Jesus,” Sid said again.

“Queen Victoria kept biting me viciously, so I was holding her in this kind-of strangle-hold, and it wasn’t until I got back to the motel room that I realized I’d killed her. Or maybe she died of fright. I didn’t know. I just knew she was dead. And I knew from what Spence had told me that, at that very moment, back in the House Rodentia, the rest of the female naked mole rats were battling to determine who would take her place. Who would be crowned Queen. So I folded Victoria’s limp, wrinkled body in a hand towel from the motel and tucked her into the glove box. When we got back from Atlanta, I worked on mounting her for days. It was a tricky business. As you can see, she’s pretty fucking small, and her skin’s so thin. It was like trying to tan a Kleenex. But finally, I got her mounted. And I thought Spence would be thrilled. But when he opened the box I’d wrapped her in, when he lifted her out, he started crying. I mean, really bawling. How could you! he screamed. Murderer! You murdered their Queen! I tried to explain that I’d preserved Victoria, that I’d made her even better than she was in life, but Spencer didn’t believe me. He just kept calling me a monster. He was thrashing and kicking at me wildly. At some point, I guess I hauled off and hit him in the face. It felt good, so I did it again. And again.”

That afternoon, Alma packed a couple of bags, and she and Spencer departed for the Christmas tree farm where her sister lived with her family, some fifty miles from Darryl’s split-level ranch. When Darryl pointed out to Alma that she hit Spence with some regularity, she told Darryl that her son belonged to her in a way Darryl couldn’t understand, as he had no children of his own. “Spence is mine,” she said, “to do with as I will. The two of us are bound by blood, and blood grants you things. Rights. Permission. Eternal absolution.”

“Think they’ll be back?” said Sid, from where he stood against the kitchen counter.

Darryl nodded. “We’ve been a family a long time.”

“Good,” said Sid. “I’m glad to hear it.”

Someone’s going to dig it up. Someone’s going to find out what you’ve done.

This time, Darryl didn’t bother to look at his brother. He picked up Queen Victoria. Cradled the naked mole rat to his chest.

“Darryl,” said Sid, “I’ve written a memoir. And, well, the thing is, the book’s going to be published. And you have the right to know that in it, I talk a lot about Dad.”

“Dad?”

Sid nodded. “I’m sure this won’t be easy for you to hear, but in the book, I talk pretty frankly about what he did to you.”

“To me? What did Dad do to me?”

“Darryl.”

“What?”

“He abused you. Sexually. For years.”

“Do you know,” said Darryl, finding the strength to stand at last, pushing up to his feet, stepping over the blue tiles toward his brother, still clutching the Queen of the Naked Mole Rats to his chest, “what I found inside Victoria? What I discovered when I sliced open her belly?”

Sid moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue the way Darryl Chase, Sr. always had. He shook his head.

“Babies,” said Darryl, pressing his face close to Sid’s. “A litter of naked mole rat pups. Seven in all. Nearly-fully-formed. Seven tiny, tightly-curled mole rats. And do you know what I did with them?”

Sid shook his head again.

“I buried them,” said Darryl, “in the backyard. I tucked each of those unborn babies into an empty matchbox, and I buried them in the backyard. In the northeast corner. Under the black walnut. Right next to Dad. I buried those naked mole rats all around Dad.”

*

According to Lila Sparrow, the realtor who sold her the property, the bodies of Darryl Chase, Sr. and his youngest son Sidney had long ago been exhumed from the backyard, but still, Francine couldn’t seem to stop digging. Ostensibly, she was preparing the yard for a landscaping overhaul. In the southwest corner would be a vegetable garden, and in the southeast, a plot for the cultivation of exotic plant species. And in the northeast corner, under the shade of the black walnut, Francine would install a rock garden with iron benches and a rustic shelter. When New York acquaintances asked what had prompted her sudden move to North Carolina, when they asked if she’d purchased the split-level ranch in the middle of nearly nowhere solely because of its macabre history, Francine denied the allegation, but Francine was a liar. In fact, the house’s story had everything to do with her decision to uproot her family, to move her elderly father and her fourteen-year-old daughter to a part of the nation none of them had ever seen.

“Mom. Mom!”

Francine looked up, into the face of her child. “Yes?”

“What are you doing out here?” Eva dropped a hand on Francine’s shoulder, gave her mother a look of studied concern. “Shouldn’t you be in the house? You know, like, getting to work on your book already?”

Francine prayed for summer’s end. She wanted the demands of a new year at a new school to occupy her daughter’s time and energy. She was about to tell Eva to buzz off when she caught sight of Malcolm sitting in the southeast corner of the yard. “What the hell’s Dad doing?” she said.

Eva tented a hand over her eyes, swiveled toward her grandfather. “Painting,” she said. “I helped him put together the easel this morning. Dr. Russo recommended it. He says the making of art can be very therapeutic.”

“What’s he painting?”

Eva swiveled back toward her mother. She grinned. “You, of course.”

Francine pushed up from where she knelt in the shade of the black walnut. She adjusted her wide-brimmed gardening hat, sipped from her plastic water bottle.

“Goddamn it!” roared her father. “Quit moving around! Why can’t you hold still?”

“What are you wearing?” said Francine, looking at Eva.

Eva shrugged. “A bathing suit.”

“We don’t have a pool.”

“I was going to sunbathe.”

“Don’t you think,” said Francine, “that your time would be better spent practicing the viola? Or writing thank you notes for that mountain of birthday presents under which your bedroom is currently buried?”

Eva shook her head. She skipped ten feet away from her mother, checked the position and angle of the sun, unfurled, with a snap, the towel tucked beneath one slender arm, stretched out face-down upon it. Francine watched her daughter point her toes, watched Eva’s bottom, just barely covered by an orange bikini, switch back and forth ever so slightly.

“If you’re not wearing sunscreen,” Francine said, pulling her hat into place and dropping back down to her knees, “I don’t want to know.”

“Francine!” roared Malcolm. “Come on!”

She plunged her spade, again and again, into the dark, loamy earth, allowed its welcoming, metallic scent to wash over her. As a child, Francine had eaten dirt obsessively, a habit her father, whose wife died giving birth to Francine, never forced his daughter to break. Increasing age and the disapproval of her peers had eventually done the trick, but even now, as a middle-aged mother and successful author of unapologetically lurid fiction, Francine Fisk was tempted to pick up a clump of earth, place it on her tongue.

“What’s that child doing?” yelled Malcolm.

“Sunbathing,” Francine called out.

Her father snorted. “Is she trying to get eaten?” he cried. “Is that girl waiting for someone to come along and stuff her?”

According to the sole interview Darryl Chase granted, before he died by lethal injection, in Raleigh, North Carolina, in the fall of 1997, the only human beings he’d ever stuffed and mounted were his father, Darryl Chase, Sr., and his brother, Sidney. Knowing such things would be frowned upon not only by his wife and stepson, but also by society at large, however, he hadn’t stashed his family members in the cellar of his home, à la Norman Bates, seated on rockers, for ease of communing, but had elected instead to bury them in the backyard. After reading this interview and Sid Chase’s posthumously-published memoir, Boyhood, Broken, Francine had known that she would tell the story of Darryl Chase. And she’d tried, again and again, for months, to start the book, but her attempts had all been jettisoned. Then her best friend from college, an editor who’d fled the New York grind for North Carolina five years earlier, had seen a notice about the auction of Darryl Chase’s house and property in the Chapel Hill papers. Apparently Chase’s stepson, Spencer, had a problem with methamphetamines, and he was unable to keep up with the tax payments. It was around this time that Francine’s father suffered a nervous breakdown and came to live with her and Eva, and the sudden availability of the Chase property had seemed, to Francine, like a benediction. A place of convalescence for Malcolm, a way to remove Eva from the dangers of the City, the seamy underbelly of which the child would discover soon enough, but most importantly, an inhabitable map of the mind of Darryl Chase.

Even in his home, however, even seated in the studio in which he had skinned his father and brother, in which he carefully shaved and molded polyurethane foam to resemble their torsos, noses, and limbs, Francine had been getting nowhere. It occurred to her, more than once, that she might glean inspiration from Darryl Chase’s work. It would behoove her, she thought, to discover a hidden cache of the man’s mounted animals. She imagined herself stumbling upon a secret passage, uncovering a trophy room filled with owls and moose, deer and bears, badgers and bloodhounds and foxes. To keep himself in crystal meth, however, Spencer Chase had long since sold all his stepfather’s creations, so Francine seemed to be on her own.

She sat back on her heels. Put down her spade, glanced around the backyard. Eva lay prone, her skin pinking in the sun. Francine wondered if her daughter had drifted off, as she now lay perfectly still. Francine turned to the southeast. She studied her increasingly frail father. Malcolm sat erect, but his eyes were closed. He still gripped a paintbrush in his knotty right hand, which had fallen down by his side. He wasn’t moving. As she wondered if her father were even breathing, there descended on Francine Fisk a remarkable sense of contentment. This feeling was clean. It was quiet. It hardly registered, however, for the feeling was eclipsed, almost instantly, by a rising tide of panic. Francine’s heart began to kick at her ribcage.

“Dad?” she called across the yard. “Dad!”

Malcolm shook his white head, as if coming out of a fog. He cleared his throat. “Yes?”

“You hungry?” said Francine. “It must be lunchtime.”

“Franny,” said Malcolm, “can you ever forgive me?”

“For what?”

Malcolm shrugged. “Those things I did to you.”

“Oh, Dad,” Francine said. “Never mind.”

I’m hungry,” said Eva, who’d flipped over and now sat, Indian-style, on her towel. “To tell you the truth, I’m starved!”

“Help your grandfather get his things inside,” Francine said, “and don’t let him carry that easel alone. I’ll be there in a minute. How does turkey on rye sound? With avocado? And I think there’s fruit salad.”

Eva and Malcolm vanished inside the house. Francine was about to rise, to follow her family, but she felt compelled, once again, to pick up her spade. She turned over the dark, delicious earth twice, and that was when she saw it. Staring up at her from the dirt. Pink, hairless, and wrinkled, with tiny eyes, with wide-open mouth boasting four large, dirty-yellow incisors. Briefly, Francine thought the creature was still living. That it had just tunneled its way up through the earth, toward the surface. She kept digging gently around the artifact, freed it from the soil, lifted it clear. The small animal had been stuffed and mounted, standing upright on a block of wood, its hackles raised, its teeth bared as if ready to do battle, frozen into a defensive attitude, a stance Francine would describe, in the book, as one of “eternal ferocity.”

I know what you did. You can’t hide it.

Francine had shaped her first racy bestseller around an incestuously entangled father and daughter, a pair she’d modeled closely on Malcolm and herself. After the book’s release, her father didn’t speak to her for three years. When Malcolm Fisk suffered his nervous breakdown, however, he repeatedly cited, as its root cause, the remorse he felt about the ways in which he’d abused his only daughter. And no matter how many times Francine attempted to convince her father that the book had been a work of fiction, she was unable to disabuse the old man of his persistent, guilty notions.

“Your mind,” Malcolm kept saying, “is repressing the memories. In order to spare you. Someday, the dam will break, and those memories will well up, rise to the surface. Saturate you. Someday, those memories will drown you.”

You’ll never bury it deep enough. Someone’s going to dig it up.

Once the wrinkled pink relic had been safely submerged, folded back into the bosom of the earth, Francine joined her family inside. After lunch, she rubbed aloe into Eva’s sun-kissed skin. She tucked an afghan around Malcolm, who’d fallen asleep on the couch, pecked the old man’s mottled cheek. Francine then retired to the former taxidermy studio of Darryl Chase, Jr., the man who’d claimed, just before his execution, that he had the right to kill and mount his father and brother because of the blood that bound them. “Blood ties,” he’d said, “grant one both sanction and absolution.” Francine Fisk understood this. She understood far more about Darryl than it would ever be safe to let on. The book she would write about him would become her greatest triumph, and she was happy to sit very still, in the midst of his native habitat, endeavoring to channel Darryl Chase, waiting for inspiration to strike.