Cindy's Albino Skunk
Norfolk, Virginia, 1982
The night Eddie Jenkins took his wife to see Cindy's albino skunk he was drunk. It was Christmastime, so Kate didn't get off work at the Navy Exchange until eight o'clock. After she had been standing on tip-toe on the top step leading to the Employee's Entrance for fifteen minutes with no sign of their car, she had to acknowledge the fact that he was late. And as she smiled and said, “No, thank you. My husband's picking me up,” to the people who offered her a ride to Portsmouth, she also had to face the possibility that Eddie would not come for her at all, that out of either forgetfulness or spite, he would not come. By nine o'clock, her nose was running, her fingers were red and stiff, and she prayed that the base police wouldn't find her huddled on the top step and do something to her.
She heard a car enter the lot but didn't turn her head to look because she recognized the sound of it. It was their car, a white Mazda 626 with deluxe black interior. Even though she knew how warm the inside of the car would be, the sight of it gave her a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. When Eddie first saw the car on a television commercial and asked Kate to go with him to Castle Cars in Norfolk to check it out, she insisted they couldn't afford it, and there was no way she was signing any more loan papers, but it was his money, so in the end she had to give in. They couldn't afford it.
When Kate walked to the passenger's side of the car, Eddie was crawling over the gearshift to sit there himself. She hesitantly stuck her head inside the car, and he greeted her with a huge grin that threw his face completely out of alignment.
“You drive,” he said. “I'm drunk.”
She got into the car, slammed the door, and sat looking at her husband. He was wearing his usual off-duty outfit of neatly-pressed jeans, plaid shirt open at the neck, and dark brown leather jacket. His hair was every which way, cowlick in front, cowlick in back. When his hair was clean, it swept down over his forehead in a thick, slanted bang.
“I'm drunk,” he said. “I've been drinking tequila all day. All day. Tequila.'' He threw his head back. José Quérvo, you are a friend of mine.
“Right, Eddie,” she said. She took his keys out of the ignition.
“I was drinking with Martinez and Anders and Harrington and Martinez. All them spicks is named Martinez. Oh yeah, Roberts was there for a while, too, but he had to go do his laundry.”
Kate bounced Eddie's keys on her palm.
“We were at The Cradock,” he said.
“You don't have to explain anything to me, Eddie.” She dropped his keys onto the console, dug hers out of her purse, and after a few seconds of jabbing, found the ignition.
“We played Pac Man,” he said.
“All right, Eddie. Jesus.” She started the car, but didn't let out the clutch. “I suppose you want to go home now?”
His grin broadened. “Of course, of course, let's go home, home sweet home. Drive away!” He made a grand gesture, awkwardly slamming his hand into the windshield. Kate winced but stopped herself from asking him if he was all right. His face looked as if it had frozen into that foolish grin, the way everyone's mother always warned it would. As she pulled away from the Exchange, Kate wondered whether Eddie had chipped his left front tooth as a child or whether it had grown in oddly-shaped like that. She'd never asked him about it.
She drove the car out the back exit of the parking lot and muttered, “Damn, I always forget,” when she saw the No Left Turn sign at the intersection. Six years of driving on base, just about every day when the Kennedy was in port, and the sign still took her by surprise. She looked quickly behind her, put the car in reverse, and backed it, transmission whining, the five hundred yards to the parking lot. She entered the lot still in reverse, threw the car in first without coming to a complete stop, and roared onto the street and through the main gate onto Hampton Boulevard.
As they flashed by a bus stop, Eddie hollered, “Look, Katie! Squids!” She glanced over at them. Tall, young, hunched in their short leather jackets. “Boy, am I glad I'm not a squid,” Eddie said. “They'd never get a car like this. I'm gonna get a Mercedes. Did I tell you that already?”
“Probably,” Kate said.
He shook his head. “Nope, no, I didn't 'cause I just now thought of it. A Mercedes. Two-seater. I'll let you drive it sometimes. I always have fun when you drive fast because I never know if you're gonna hit something or roll the car or get arrested.”
“I'm so pleased you're entertained, Eddie.” She speeded up for the railroad tracks by the D&S Piers and shifted into fifth gear.
“You're cute,” Eddie said. He unzipped his jacket. “It's hot in here, isn't it hot in here? I think we should find a cop to outrun. I did that once, you know. I never told you about it. It was right after we bought this car, on the Virginia Beach Expressway.”
Kate rolled her window halfway down and smiled when she saw Eddie jump, shuddering, at the rush of cold, dank air. “And you bitched about my speeding ticket,” she said.
“Of course I did.” He leaned his face over her arm. “Cause you got caught. You're supposed to know enough not to get caught.”
She elbowed him, but gently. “I'm trying to drive.”
“See, that's the problem, Katie. You're too nervous. You wouldn't be nearly so dangerous if you wasn't nervous. Now your father, he's not nervous, but, oh, is he a bad driver. Remember when he hit that tractor-trailer rig in Enosburg and totaled his Pinto? I bet you anything he was talking to himself. I just bet you anything he was. He talks to himself all the time. I've always liked your father. He's a good man, a truly good man.”
“I know he is,” Kate said, stopping for a red light. She listened to the engine idle. It sounded like her heartbeat, low and fast.
“Oh, Kate,” Eddie said. “You're so cute. You know that? You're cute.” He chucked her under the chin.
“Quit it, Eddie!”
He pinched her cheek as the light turned green. “Dimples, let me see your dimples.”
“Eddie, God damn it, I'm driving!”
He leapt back against the door. “Okay, Katie, okay, don't get vicious.” He lit a Kool and nodded his head. “Seriously, though. Seriously. I do think you're cute. I've always thought you were beautiful, ever since the first time I really noticed you. You were standing in the park wearing your red dress. What ever happened to that red dress? You don't wear it anymore. It had yellow flowers on it, and you stood over me because I was sleeping under a tree and the noon bell was ringing.”
She frowned and changed lanes.
“Remember?” Eddie said. “You didn't want me to be late for English class, so you woke me. Remember?”
She ran the red light at the corner of Princess Ann. “Remember what?”
“Your pretty red dress. I want to know what happened to your pretty red dress I liked so much.”
“How the hell should I know? What red dress? For God's sake, Eddie, will you shut up!”
She jammed the brakes, momentarily blinded by the bright light of the Midtown Tunnel. Eddie threw both hands against the dashboard to keep from hitting the windshield. “Jesus.”
Kate fumbled on the console for her purse. “I've got to get a quarter for the tunnel.”
“No, no, I've got it.”
She rolled her window down the rest of the way, stopped the car, and stuck her palm out at Eddie without looking at him. He screamed, “Two points!” The quarter sailed over her head and out the window.
He was beyond laughter. He sucked air into his lungs with a squealing sound. “Did it go in?”
“No, it didn't go in, you idiot.” She opened the door, stepped out of the car, and looked under the basket for the coin. Traffic was backing up behind her, even at this time of night. Two more seconds and they would start honking. Three more seconds and they would start cursing. Five more seconds and the force of their anger would shove her into the car, shove the car through the plaza. Sirens would shriek and men would yell at her as they ran after the rolling car.
She reached into the car and hauled out her purse. She found a quarter and paid the toll. A guard wearing a green uniform and cap strolled up to her. He was bigger and younger than most.
“Something wrong, miss? Did you lose your quarter?”
“No, no, everything's fine. I paid the toll, all set, I'm going now.”
She got into the car and started it, but the guard stood with his hand on her door. He nodded at Eddie writhing on the seat. “You'd better get him home.”
“Yes. Yes, I know. I'm trying to.”
Eddie continued to laugh, all the way down London Boulevard, while Kate drove eighty miles an hour with the window down, clutching the steering wheel with both hands. When she turned onto Elm Avenue, Eddie had caught his breath enough to speak.
“Let's have some music,” he said. “We need to liven up. Think I'll roll another number for the road. No, wait, I can't sing that; that's a smoking song. I need a drinking song. What's a drinking song, Katie, huh? Sing me a drinking song.”
“I don't know any drinking songs, and even if I did, I don't feel like singing.”
“Oh, come on, Katydid, sing to me.”
Instead, she cranked on the radio, which kept him quiet for a couple of minutes. Opposite the Bluejacket Inn he started giggling. She wanted to ignore him--it would be best if she ignored him--but he was staring at her. “Now what?”
“You look like your brother. You do. You never used to, but the older you get, the more you look like him. It's the jaw. You both have the same jaw. And the mouth, of course.”
Kate clenched the jaw that was now the same as her brother’s. Eddie was still staring at her, at her hands on the wheel. As clearly as if she still had it on, Kate could see how worn her wedding band was from sliding around on her finger for the last eight years. She still had the unconscious habit of touching her thumb to her finger to make sure the ring was safe. Usually Eddie would stop wearing his ring first, so she knew she had to stop wearing hers as well. This time she hadn't waited for him. She'd taken it off because she couldn't stand to look at it anymore.
She stopped for another light. Only two more blocks until their turn.
“What do you think of me?” Eddie said.
“No, I really want to know. What do you honestly think of me? I want you to tell me.” He leaned his face over her arm, cocking his head like a puppy hearing a whistle for the first time. “Hmm?”
She looked out the window. Lee Hall Apartments on the left. Cockroaches, and the people living there did their Christmas shopping at Rose's across the street, buying cheap powder and cologne packaged together in cellophane. Seven-Eleven on the right. Convenience, a dollar-ten for a pack of cigarettes at two in the morning, trying to pretend that the men loitering outside by the pay phone, who had tattoos or missing teeth but smelled nice, weren't looking at her. Light still red.
Eddie cocked his head the other way. “Hmm?” he repeated.
She thought for a moment. “I think you're such an asshole it's funny.”
He straightened in his seat, fumbling with the zipper of his jacket.
At home Kate hung up Eddie's jacket and her coat and put her purse in the bedroom. She stood in the middle of the living room, watching Eddie. He was squeaking a loose board in the floor, shifting his weight back and forth, back and forth. “I'm going to fix this,” he said.
“You do that, Eddie.” She folded her arms tight across her body and didn't take her eyes off Eddie as he squeaked the board. What she really wanted to do was take a bath, but she didn't dare leave him alone. She kept telling herself that she was being silly and stupid, but in addition to not daring to leave him alone, she didn't want to leave him alone. She wanted to stay with him.
It took her a couple of seconds to realize that the squeaking had stopped. “Everything's spinning,” Eddie said. “I better sit down.”
He carefully lowered himself onto the couch. Kate sat next to him. His eyes closed. She leaned closer to him to listen to his breathing, thinking he had fallen asleep. “Boo!” he yelled, laughing at her shriek. He grasped her upper arm, though he didn't squeeze, just wrapped his hand around it because his fingers went around it so easily. “Scared you, didn't I, baby?”
“You're full of it, all right.”
He let go of her arm to light a cigarette, and she moved away from him. He dropped the pack and lighter back into his pocket.
“Do you know why I got drunk today?” he said, blowing the smoke out in a thin stream.
“No, why did you get drunk today?”
“I got drunk so I could talk to you.”
“Why, Eddie? I don't understand. Why? You don't need to be drunk to talk to me.” She laid her hand on his shoulder without realizing it, not even aware of the smooth skin, hard muscle, and underlying bone beneath her fingers. “Am I that intimidating?”
“Yes. I've always been afraid of you.”
She had no answer to that except “why?” It seemed all she ever said to him was “why?” and he never gave her any answers--just a look on his face as if she'd done something unforgivable. He stirred next to her, leaning forward to stub out his cigarette in the ashtray. Her hand fell from his shoulder.
“You're cute,” he said.
She didn't look at him. “Eddie, if you say that one time I'm going to scream.” She turned to him. “Maybe I’ll scream anyway. It might do me some good.”
“I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you mad. I was just trying to tell you how pretty you are. You really are pretty. You're even prettier now than when we got married.” He laid his hand on the back of her neck. “I wish you'd kept your hair. I loved it.”
When he had asked her, “Why did you cut it? I thought you liked wearing your hair long,” she’d answered, “I do, but it got too hard to take care of. It got so that just brushing it made me cry.” There was no sense now in telling him the real reason she had cut her hair. He had said, “I love your hair,” the same way he said, “I'll never leave you,” but the first time he left her and then came back, as capricious as a sun shower, she waited until he went to Guantanamo Bay for training exercises and, figuring she had nothing to lose, had all her hair cut off. She had been wanting to get rid of at least some of it anyway, and now she had nothing to lose.
“Oh, no!” Eddie said, leaping off the couch. “I forgot to feed the skunk.”
“What skunk? What are you talking about?”
“Cindy's skunk.” Kate didn't react. “She's the one you think I'm having an affair with.” He paused, and she knew he was waiting for her to say something. She didn't. “I promised her I'd feed it while she's out of town for Christmas. I should have gone over there this morning.”
“The skunk's an albino. Have you ever seen an albino skunk, Katie?”
“Don't you want to?”
“What in God's name for?” Kate went into the kitchen and started emptying the dish rack. “I don't want to see any skunk, albino or otherwise.”
After a few moments Eddie followed her into the kitchen. “Come with me. You'll get a kick out of him. He's real nifty.”
“Yeah. Come on, it'll be fun.”
He had his jacket on and was holding hers out to her. She took it from him and started for the front hallway to hang it up. She stopped by the bookcase and put the jacket on. She had to go. She couldn't let him drive.
Cindy's house was only ten minutes away, and as Kate drove, Eddie chattered about the skunk: he was an albino, Cindy had gotten him from the Tidewater Seed and Feed for $49.95, he was barricaded in the spare room because he chewed on the furniture and crapped on the floor, his name was Alexander. Kate showed no reaction to any of this; she could have been driving by herself.
“Turn left here,” Eddie said. “That's her driveway.”
Inside, he flipped a light on, strode through the living room into the kitchen, flipped on another light, and opened one of the cupboards. Kate stood just inside the front door on the mat. She slowly looked around her, shifted her weight, but didn't let either foot leave the island of the mat. The room was neat and clean, the furniture from Grand Showrooms or maybe Haynes. A tabletop tree decorated with red balls and tinsel sat on top of the big console television. Kate refused to look at the worn spot on the center cushion of the couch, but there was nothing else to look at, except for the large framed photograph of a young woman which hung above the couch. Cindy, presumably. Cindy wasn't pretty--her features were much too coarse--but she was very young, just out of her teens, and smiling.
Eddie entered the room with a mess of something brown in a big metal bowl. “You don't have to just stand there,” he said. “Come on in.”
She lifted one foot off the mat and placed it on the bare floor. When she didn't sink, she took two more steps and stood still again.
“Come on, Kate. I'm going to feed him now. Looks disgusting, don't it? He likes it, though.” He grasped the knob of a closed door and whispered over his shoulder, “You'll be able to see him now. Look.” Kate saw boxes, a chair, and a dark pile. “I don't see anything,” she said, also whispering.
“There, over in the corner. See him now?”
A lump sat by the dark pile. Eddie set the metal bowl down just inside the door. “Watch this,” he said. “I'm going to let him out.”
“Do you think you should?”
“It's all right. He likes to run. It's good exercise for him.”
Eddie opened the door wide. He put his arm around Kate's shoulders and drew her back. “You'd better watch it. If you don't stand out of the way, he'll head straight for your ankles.”
A light-colored ball of fur--not a true albino, but the color of taffy--flashed by their feet and was gone. Kate got a better look at him when he skittered out of the kitchen. Claws scrabbling on the floor, he careened into the living room, running with his legs tucked under him and out, like a rabbit. His yellow teeth were sharp and bared, his tiny eyes desperate as he ran.
“Look at him Katie. Isn't he great? Don't you like him? What do you think of him?”
She ducked from under his arm and retreated to the mat. “He gives me the creeps, Eddie. If he weren't so furry, he'd look just like a rat.”
Eddie crossed the room to stand in front of her. “Why won't you laugh, Katie?” He lifted his hand from his side, then dropped it. “Just be happy, please be happy.”
“Sure, Eddie. Just for you I'll be happy.” She smiled.
Eddie was smiling again, giggling now. “Watch this, Katie.” He intercepted the line of the skunk's run and chased him in a tight circle around the room, hollering, “Go, Alexander, go! Go, boy, go! Look, Katie, look!” scarcely able to get the words out for laughing. He chased Alexander round and round and round the room. A skittering, desperate, taffy-colored blur round and round and round. Kate watched them closely for the moment when they would both turn into butter, like Little Black Sambo's tiger.
Eddie chased the skunk into its room and slammed the door.
“Hoo-whee,” he said, bent over with his hands on his knees. “That was some fun. I'm having fun tonight. I feel good, real good.” He snapped all the lights off. “Let's go home now.”
Eddie turned on the radio in the car and sang along softly. Kate kept her driving within the speed limit. She drove with only one hand on the steering wheel, the way she usually did, plucking at her hair with the other. Eddie reached out and turned down the radio.
“I've always wanted to be like you,” he said.
She snorted. “Hah.”
“No, no, I don't mean look like you or act like you or want the same things you want. I mean I've always wanted to be strong like you. Always. Strong like you.”
Kate put her other hand on the steering wheel and looked over at him. “I never set out to be strong,” she said. “I don't much like it.”
“I know you don't.” He turned the radio back up.
When they got home, Kate hung up Eddie’s jacket and dropped her coat and purse on the couch. Sitting on the arm of the couch, she passed both hands through her hair and yawned. Eddie stood in the middle of the floor, where she had taken his jacket off him. He crouched, then lay down, not even cradling his head in his arms, his face flat on the floor. She sat watching him from the couch. After five minutes she got up and went to him. She bent over him and touched his shoulder. “Aren't you going to get up and go to bed, Eddie?”
“I don't feel good,” he said.
Kate watched him for a few more minutes, neither of them moving, both breathing in the same shallow rhythm. She finally just went to bed. It took all her strength to leave Eddie lying on the floor.