national anthology of the best
undergraduate writing 2010

Dirge for a Ferret


New Frontier, Daniel Lachman

We know it’s for the queers almost as soon as we walk into the bar, when we see the men and their leaning into each other and all. They’re younger than us, in their twenties. One of them eyes Eli but otherwise they don’t look, and we get out of there real fast. When we’re out in the cold on the sidewalk we all kind of explode.

Who the fuck, Craig says, who the fuck had that idea.

We look at Sullivan, because, and he gets all pissed.

I wanted to go to Bleeker’s, he reminds us.

I was just following you all, Brian says.

Not my plan, Eli says, and he looks angriest, because of the eyeing.

We stare at each other and then away again. It’s not like we’re prejudiced, but it’s a question that needs answering, who suggested we go to the queer bar.


We walk into Bleeker’s Pub a little later like some kind of bad joke, one with a bada-bing at the end, a divorcé, a car dealer, a fattie and a Jew walk into a. We’re not feeling great on account of the whole queer bar fiasco. It’s too strange, with Sullivan, and this on a night to boost his morale now that he and his wife Alicia are getting divorced.

Alicia was lactose intolerant, yeah? Brian asks.

Yeah.

How do you remember that? Eli laughs around his beer. Who remembers stuff like that?

So you can drink milk again now, Brian says, ignoring him.

Sullivan shrugs. I never stopped drinking milk.

We don’t say much else. We keep remembering all those men touching, and then there’s Sullivan sitting there with his beer and no wedding ring, and is he remembering those men too? At least Bleeker’s fits us, with the crunch of the floor and the faint smell of body odor.

When Sullivan gets up to use the john, Craig turns to us.

Think he’ll go back?

Where? Eli says, but we all know where.

So fucking strange, Brian mutters. And you know, I really liked Alicia.


My ferret’s sick, Sullivan says on the phone the next weekend. Damn it, I don’t know what to do.

Sick?

It won’t eat. I think it’s dying.

We meet in front of his apartment. The elevator’s been out of order since he moved in a month ago, and Craig the fattie starts grumbling as he heaves his toddler’s empty stroller up the six flights of stairs, all of us climbing real slow behind him. Craig’s little girl is in Brian’s arms, and he’s holding her like she’s a pink-wrapped explosive.

Brian, if you drop my kid I will kill you, Craig grunts.

Jesus Christ, I won’t drop her, Brian says. Relax.

Didn’t the ferret die already? Eli asks. I thought it died.

Craig is turning red in the face as he climbs, the stroller slipping in slick hands. It’s hard not to think of his heart attack last year, that shitty night at the hospital, and Eli doesn’t say anything as he reaches out and takes the stroller.

Who owns a ferret, anyway? Craig pants with an odd ferocity, shoving empty hands into his pockets.

When we reach the landing Sullivan opens the door like he was waiting. The ferret is draped over his shoulders like a furry pale tube sock. Brian jumps when it moves and blinks red eyes, his surprise jostling the toddler, who starts to wail. Craig takes the girl into his arms.

Thanks for coming, Sullivan says in a low voice, and clears his throat. I think it’s gonna die soon.

It’ll make a nice scarf at least.

Not funny, Sullivan says.

The ferret blinks again, looking a nasty off-white and deflated.

We could go to the vet, someone suggests.

I’m unemployed, Sullivan says. I don’t have the money.

Eli, also unemployed, looks at Craig, who still works at the hotel by the airport. Craig pretends not to notice. He tickles his daughter’s tiny bulging stomach instead, and she laughs real loud.

Look, Craig says finally, turning but not quite meeting Sullivan’s eyes. Not to be insensitive, but sometimes you’ve got to accept the mortality of things.


It’s a week later when Brian has the idea, because he’s an idiot, God love him, to ask Alicia for money for the sickly tube-sock ferret.

It’s like child support, he says. It was her ferret once too.

Sullivan, slumped over the sticky booth table after too many drinks, groans. It died, he says.

What?

Yesterday, it died. It was curled up under the radiator like always, but this time it was dead.

Have you told her? Brian asks.

Sullivan shakes his head against the table.

Don’t tell her, says Craig. It’ll only make her upset. His eyes are glued to the closed captions of the basketball game on TV. He’s got an angry face on, because of the college kids on break taking over Bleeker’s and throwing up in the bathroom.

Nah, you’ve got to tell her, Eli says. She‘ll think you killed it if you don’t tell her right away.

The kids next booth over order shots, and Craig takes a long breath through his nose.

We need to find a new scene, he says.

There’s a silence, because how can we not think about the queer bar? His cheeks go ruddy.

You know what I mean, he says. I don’t mean any place different.

Sullivan turns his head so he’s looking at Craig sideways. It’s not contagious, you know, he says. It won’t rub off on you or something like that.

Craig wiggles out of the booth and grabs at his coat, his face contorted and angry. He leaves. Sullivan slumps back onto the table.

Everything’s weird, sitting in Bleeker’s without Craig, and we chug our drinks because we’re not sure what else to do. The truth is, no one’s ever left before. No one’s surprised us like this in a long time, since the queer bar, at least, because we know it all, the grit hiding in each other’s joints. We know that Craig eats compulsively and gets road rage, that he plays Santa for his daughter at Christmas and sweats in the suit. We know that Brian keeps having sex with a married manicurist he knows, and that Eli doesn’t tip, ever. We knew what Sullivan was going to say even before he opened his mouth a month ago, because these secrets are part of our most intimate circulation, like the spins, giving Craig heart attacks and Sullivan divorces. But no one’s walked out before, so.

There’s an ad for deodorant on the television. There are no closed captions, and the college kids are chanting about some jackass named Harry, so we just watch the muted screen where a perky teenager grins and holds up a pink roll-on.

Okay. We’re going to see Alicia tomorrow, Eli says to Brian. We have to. Now help me get him into a cab.

Sullivan’s feet paw at the floor and his head lolls around while we help him out. His head flops onto Eli’s shoulder, and Eli winces but doesn’t move it, and we go outside.


Alicia’s eyes are red rimmed when she opens the door to us, minus Craig.

Are you crying? Sullivan asks, stepping toward her, and she dodges away from him.

No, she says. What the hell are you doing here?

You’ve been crying, he says.

Not because of you. She glares at all of us. So why are you here?

Dali died, Sullivan says. Two nights ago.

Dali the ferret?

I brought him here. In case you wanted to say goodbye. Sullivan steps further into her house that was once theirs to put a smelly shoebox on the kitchen table, and we start to trail after him, still in coats and scarves.

Alicia closes the front door and shoots us looks until we take off our slushy boots. It’s funny to see her again, with her sloped shoulders and little nose and the way she breathes when she’s pissed off, like now.

I’m sorry about Dali, she says, but I’m busy. Frida just gave birth.

She points to a cage near the kitchen sink, and we head over to look. There are at least a dozen baby mice, a boiled pink color with the skin still covering their eyes. They’re sleeping on one of the oven mitts Craig’s wife would always knit as Christmas presents, before she left him.

Was it an easy birth for Frida? Sullivan asks.

Alicia shrugs. How would I know? Anyway, that’s why I was crying, miracle of life. Or whatever. Where’s Craig? I thought you four were inseparable.

Sullivan doesn’t say anything, just opens the shoebox to show Alicia.

The ferret looks broken and yellowish but mostly dead. Alicia starts crying for real at the sight of him, and strokes the ferret’s pointed face.

Christ, she says, and wipes her nose on her sleeve with her free arm. Christ.

I didn’t mean to make you cry, Sullivan says, handing her a paper towel from the counter.

Well, you did. She blows her nose forcefully. You always manage to.

I’m sorry, he says. You know I’m sorry.

She sucks in a breath. I’ll bury him in the backyard, by the other pets.

Thank you—

I’m not doing it for you. Her fingers pet along the length of ferret.

Sullivan looks like he wants to say thank you again, but doesn’t. Instead, he asks if he can use the bathroom. When he walks down the hall, Alicia doesn’t seem to know what to do with the two of us left. She goes to stand over the mouse cage again, looking down at the bald babies. She looks so sad that we kind of want to say sorry, too, and finally it’s Brian that does it.

He didn’t choose this, for it to end like this, you know? he says, getting red in the face. He always had a bit of a crush on Alicia.

Carefully, Alicia unlatches the cage door and sticks her hand in. The baby mice twitch at the heat of her fingers and then settle into the knitting again. I know, she says. She glances over at the dead ferret. No, I know.


The street of Bleeker’s Pub is different in sunlight. Suddenly there are trashcans and parking meters and recently spray-painted bricks. When we get there, Craig’s standing outside, eating a bagel with gloved hands. His daughter’s passed out in the stroller next to him, mouth wide open in sleep.

It’s closed, he says, gesturing to Bleeker’s. Sunday.

What are you doing here? Sullivan asks sharply.

Eli called me. Said it was a ferret memorial service.

Sullivan turns away.

So are we burying the thing? Craig asks.

Alicia is, Eli says. We’re just remembering it.

There’s a pause.

It bit my hand once, Brian says. That was cool.

Eli laughs. Right. You were bleeding a lot.

Three Band-Aids.

This is ridiculous, Craig mutters.

If Bleeker’s closed, Sullivan interrupts, his voice tight and strange, let’s go somewhere else. There’s got to be someplace that’s serving.

Craig goes white, and we all know where Sullivan wants to go as he turns on his heel. There’s a reluctant whir of stroller wheels against pavement and we follow.

Down twelve blocks, the bar is closed, and looks like nothing special in the sun, which kind of surprises all of us. Just a dark-colored façade, not much in the way of windows, right in the middle of a deserted street. This is the kind of nondescript place you have to search for, which is uncomfortable to think about, that we found it when we weren’t looking.

It’s closed too, Brian whispers as we stand in front. Look, it’s early, we can get coffee, or…

Sullivan stares at the bar for a second and then his face changes, and he slams a fist against the building. He stands there, leaning against the wood front like a drunk, and we hear him breathe. He’s crying. It’s the queerest thing he’s ever done, but nobody’s laughing.

Fuck, he whispers.

Eli moves over next to him, slow, and then sits on the littered pavement, back against the wall. Brian too. When Craig sits, he scoops up his sleeping little girl from the stroller and places her in his lap. Her eyes flutter at the brightness, a drool stain on her cheek. It’s quiet for a while.

Sorry about your ferret, Eli says.

Sullivan makes a sound and turns, wiping his face violently with a sleeve, and drops down to sit. Thanks, he says. God, it’s cold.

You don’t have dead ferret germs on your hands, do you? asks Craig.

No.

Here, then. Hold her, if you want. She’s warm.

Sullivan pauses. Yeah, okay.

We probably look homeless or something, shivering and sitting close together on the filthy sidewalk. Craig’s little girl grabs at Sullivan’s shirt collar so that he has to hunch forward, and he kisses the top of her head and closes his eyes.

Well, he murmurs. You know, it was a good ferret.

Softly, we agree.