*This story is fictional. It is merely inspired by the Adk. Experience exhibition, which is real. That’s what good art does though. It inspires – Makes you question your feelings, your taste, and your overall outlook on things.
Last summer I went to the Adirondack Experience in Blue Mountain Lake, NY and saw an exhibition with stuffed animals in varying states of human activities. There were 2 squirrels frozen in the act of playing tennis, a gathering of well dressed kittens for a wedding, and other beloved pets stuffed in perpetual loyalty.
I was torn between awe and disgust.
It was this very awe and disgust and something more that I felt more than 20 years ago.
I was 9 and we were going to “the city,” as we called it, but it was just a bigger town an hour and a half away that included a mall and a Walmart. We were all getting ready to go Christmas shopping.
The weather didn’t really allow for any other activities that day with the windchill forecast at 20 below. Just the walk to the car made my whole body shiver, which made me realize I had to pee.
“I’ll be right back,” I announced to my mother and her newest boyfriend, and longest lasting relationship to date since my father.
“Hurry up,” Tony yelled as he slammed the car door, lighting another cigarette and cracking his window as my mother cranked the heat. He was not happy about having to come shopping with us, not to mention the fact that he angry my mother let me bring 2 kittens into the house the day before.
I had found them, two little black smudges, by the train tracks just down the street from our house. They were abandoned and crying away in the cold. I couldn’t just leave them there, and my mother knew I would find a way to sneak them into my room anyway, so she agreed to let me keep them.
“Until we find them a home or something,” she had explained to Tony when he came home that night.
“Do we REALLY need more mouths to feed?” he bellowed, taking a beer from the fridge and pulling the tab. The tell-tale pfffttt of a beer can opening always punctuated his angry barks.
That next day, after I washed my hands and turned the faucet off, I could hear a scratching and mewing. I followed the sound through the house and found it was coming from the sliding glass door on our back porch. There they were, my two little kittens, Jake and Elwood, named after the Blues Brothers. Their pink little paws were pressed against the frosted glass and their little black faces looked scared and cold.
“How did you get out?” I exclaimed, rushing to let them back inside. I bundled them up in a blanket and held them close for a few seconds. I couldn’t stay there long. I knew Tony would be fuming behind that wheel with me taking this long already.
After giving each of my cute little furry buddies a kiss, I left them to warm each other in their blanket and ran back out to the car.
“It’s a good thing I went back in,” I said to my mother as I hopped in behind Tony’s seat. The air in the car, still filled with his cigarette smoke, made my eyes burn. “Jake and Elwood got out somehow.”
My mother quickly looked to Tony who threw up his hands, “Aw, hell! Now I have to pee.”
The driver’s side door creaked open as he shoved his way out of the car and walked back into the house.
“How do you think they got out?” I naively asked my mother.
“Who knows,” my mother mumbled, staring ahead at the front door Tony had left wide open.
Not a full minute later, Tony jumped back into the car with a smile on his face.
“Let’s get this shit show on the road,” he said, lighting up another cigarette.
The whole trip was as to be expected. Tony chain smoked the whole way to town, my mother sung along to the radio in an attempt to lighten the mood, and I read my book and stared out the window when I started feeling carsick.
Once we got to the mall Tony took off to Dick’s Sporting Goods to look at hunting and fishing stuff while my mother and I shopped for Christmas presents and decorations.
When we stopped to eat lunch at the pretzel shop I remember taking this moment to ask my mother why she was with Tony.
“He drinks and smokes a lot,” I pointed out banking on her distaste for his habits.
“Well,” my mother said, taking a sip of her coffee. “We all have our vices, but he is good to us.”
I could feel the fear rising within me. I didn’t want my mother to be unhappy and alone, but I also knew she wasn’t completely happy with Tony either.
At 9 I already understood the anxiety that comes with loneliness. The gripping knot that rises in your throat, and the breathless feeling you get when you have been left to feel the emptiness in your chest can be all consuming.
I remember feeling it when my father walked out on us. I came home from school one day and he just wasn’t there. I knew he had left for good when I noticed his taxidermy buck was gone from the living room wall. A lighter section of wood in a shield pattern was all that was left.
It was that same look in my mother’s eyes when I questioned her relationship with Tony that I saw when she looked at that bare spot on the wall.
I didn’t push the subject, but I couldn’t eat any more of my pretzel. The dough turned to paste in my throat. I sucked on the straw in hopes the lemonade would wash it down, and stared down at the crumbs on the table.
“Let’s go get some toys for Jake and Elwood, huh?” she said, changing the subject as she plastered a smile on her face.
Later that evening, after another hour and a half ride in a smoke filled car with my head pressed to the cool glass of the window, we pulled into the driveway.
I couldn’t wait to show Jake and Elwood the toy mice and feather wand my mother and I had bought for them. I jumped out of the car as soon as Tony switched off the ignition, glad to breathe some fresh air again. It was so cold it hurt my face, but it was better than the poisoned smog of the car.
Inside I called for Jake and Elwood, expecting them to come running, but there was no sign of them. I made my way through the whole house calling for them until I came back around to the kitchen to grab some treats to coax them from hiding.
It was then that I saw them. Two black streaks, just like they were by the train track, but this time they weren’t moving. Their little pink paw pads were frozen to the sliding glass door and their mouths and eyes were wide open, frozen in mid-meow.
I screamed as my mother and Tony came in the door, and sobbed uncontrollably.
My mother held me in a panic asking, “What’s wrong? Are you hurt? What happened?” She hadn’t seen the exhibition created by careless evil, frozen stiff on our back porch.
“Guess that’s two less mouths to feed,” Tony huffed as he opened the fridge and cracked another beer.
I couldn’t move. Couldn’t breath. All I could do was stare in absolute hatred at the man who I knew had purposely thrown my two innocent kittens outside to freeze. A ball of heat started growing and burning in my belly, and I stopped crying long enough to look up at my mother and say, “This is better than being alone?” before storming off to my room to morn in solitude.
It was that same lonely feeling growing inside me at 9, rocking and crying in my room, that crept up inside me again as I looked at the exhibition of animals frozen in time. They were stuck, dressed in ridiculous outfits, and displayed in a mockery of their once free lives.
I stood before them and silently withdrew into the little girl of 9 who stood before a scene that was way too close to the glass enclosed, Disney-like scenes displayed before me.