Cover Carly Larsson
Suicide Without Dying
Socks and the City
Wendy S. Palmer
G J Johnson
Other Oceans, Other Motions
A Puma for Lucille
After the worst week of her life, Lucille phoned her best friend. Harriet lived in New Mexico and despised sob-sisters. Lucille bit back tears as she described holding her beloved Tabby in her arms while the vet put her to sleep; breaking up with Jason the very next day; and getting laid off on Friday from her longtime job as art director for a small mail-order company.
Harriet whistled. “Rough week all right. What went wrong with poor Agnes?”
“Kidneys,” Lucille said. “She was sixteen. She was in agony. The vet said if he had to rank ways for animals to die, he’d place kidney failure near the bottom.”
“Jason’s into heroin again. Destroying himself. I gave him an ultimatum—drugs or me. I shouldn’t have. It was cruel. I was upset over Agnes.”
“And what the hell did you do to get fired?”
“Made too much money . . . I guess. I wasn’t the only one. The company’s struggling. We all suspected a layoff was brewing, none of us thought it would be us.”
Harriet was silent for a minute. Finally she asked, “How much will it cost to get out of your apartment lease?”
Lucille hesitated. What did that have to do with anything?
“What you need to do, comadre, is come live here with me. Chuck the nonessentials. Concentrate on your painting. Get back your mojo. You’ll love it up on this mountain.”
“You’re not serious.”
“We’ll fix up a bedroom for your studio. Silver City has beaucoup galleries where you can display your stuff. In no time you’ll be famous.”
Lucille laughed. She had sold an odd painting or two, but her talent was limited. On the other hand . . . if she could devote full time to her art. She had enough savings to get out of her lease. But after that . . .
“Money’s not an issue,” Harriet said. “Sarge took good care of me.”
Lucille drew a deep breath. “Lord, you really are serious.”
“It’ll be like old times, except this time I’ll be the one bailing you out of a jam.”
“I’m not in a jam. Not yet. I’m just fucking miserable.”
“Sounds like a jam to me, amiga. How soon can you get here?”
Lucille needed to sleep on it, though it took her most of the night to go to sleep. Should she give Jason one last shot? But how could she ever compete with his habit—his true love? Turning down Harriet’s offer could end up being the biggest mistake of her life.
Over the next few days she paid off her lease, had a used furniture store pick up her furniture, tied up loose ends. She loaded a U-Haul trailer hooked to her Ford Escort with clothes, paintings, art supplies, a treasured bronze bust of Monet she’d found at a yard sale. The rush that hit her as she drove away from San Diego was surely comparable to the thrill Jason got shooting smack into his veins.
Her thoughts were primarily on Harriet. Funny how all through college her roommate had been the lost soul Lucille now deemed herself to be. Lucille had been the self-assured one, chiding her wayward chum with clever remarks like, “Love you, girlfriend, but why does everything you touch turn into Chernobyl?”
Truth be told—and this was her sore spot—Lucille thought she was smarter than she was talented. Harriet struggled to maintain passing grades. When she had to write a critical paper on Joyce’s Ulysses she asked Lucille to help her explain what made the novel great. Lucille read as much as she could stand, including Molly Bloom’s long unpunctuated soliloquy, before deciding the novel wasn’t that great. Ulysses was merely the product of a great writer showing off. Harriet ran with that and earned a rare B+, for which she was gushingly grateful.
Oh, Harriet, Lucille used to moan, Harriet, Harriet, Harriet. A chaotic life glutted with booze, drugs, and sex. One fiasco involving all three had resulted in an abortion that Lucille helped pay for. Lucille worried that her roommate could wind up dying of AIDS, a drug overdose, a botched S&M rite. But bless her reckless heart, the girl never once broke stride. Lucille couldn’t help but admire her friend’s stubborn fearlessness, while at the same time smugly believing in her own superiority.
Now Lucille was the one floundering. Her downward trajectory had seemingly started in her twenties, when she married a charming, handsome cop, expecting to have a slew of kids and live happily ever after. She got pregnant on her honeymoon, only to suffer a miscarriage. A year later a ruptured tubal pregnancy left her sterile. On her twenty-sixth birthday the man she loved, who she suspected was cheating on her, accused her of cheating on him, and went on a drunken, abusive tear that landed him in jail and her in the hospital. A messy divorce followed. Then came a series of affairs with high expectations that failed to pan out. Until here she was at age forty-four, without a job or anyone to come home to at night. Not even a cat.
Thank God for a friend like Harriet.
A little before dawn on the morning after Lucille’s arrival, Harriet woke her. She had someone she’d like her to meet. Lucille was hung over, after dipping guacamole and downing tequila shots with beer chasers far into the night.
Harriet led her through the house to the screened-in back porch. The screen door looked out on a gravel and flagstone courtyard enclosed by a low adobe wall. A wide double-gate in the back of the wall opened onto a dirt road that wound up to the house through a forest of oak, juniper, and pine. Lucille wore a flimsy pink nightie and shivered in the chill mountain air. Harriet had on gray sweats and sandals. Without makeup her face was ghostly, her strawberry-blond hair in disarray. But her green eyes lit up as she nodded beyond the screen.
Lucille could barely make out a shadowy figure crouched statue-like in the opening to the courtyard. After a minute the figure rose and crept forward, stopped to stare, crept forward again, stopped again, then padded quickly up to the porch steps.
Lucille was captivated by the undersized feline face, erect rounded ears, and long whiskers. With its thick chest, sleek grayish-brown coat, plump padded paws, the cougar was as exquisitely proportioned as any creature she’d ever seen.
“Good morning, Prince Puma,” Harriet said, in a sleep-husky voice.
The cat ducked his head to snap up a raw chicken. The porch light was off, but enough light from the kitchen spilled over for the cat to view them through the screen. He showed no alarm at Harriet’s voice, but gazed questioningly up at Lucille, comically so with that chicken dangling from his jaws.
“Meet my friend Lucille,” Harriet said. “She adores cats.”
The cougar turned and retreated a few steps before pausing for a backward glance. Then he broke into a graceful lope, ears twitching, long, black-tipped tail rippling. A tremor snaked along Lucille’s shoulders as the big cat slipped through the opening and headed up the dirt road to veer off into the trees.
“Aren’t they dangerous?” she asked.
Harriet shrugged. “If you run across one out hiking, stand your ground and make yourself as big as possible.” She stretched her arms above her head. “Never run. Never, never, never run. Do nothing to look like prey. In the unlikely event that one attacks, shout and fight back. If all you have are your bare hands, use them. Aim for the eyes. At all cost stay on your feet.”
“Is it wise to feed him?”
“What would Sarge say?”
Harriet sighed. “I got lonely after the sergeant checked out. As much as I love this place the quiet gets to me at times. Prince Puma appeared one morning like he’d sought me out. If only I could believe in reincarnation. . . .” She chuckled at Lucille’s blank stare. “Most likely he smelled the bacon I was cooking for breakfast. I’m hoping you’ll want to paint his portrait.”
“Not a bad idea,” Lucille said.
When Harriet first began seeing Sarge, not long after she graduated, Lucille warned her friend not to let things get out of hand. When Harriet decided to marry Sarge, Lucille waved a red flag. Not only did she question the sincerity of Harriet’s feelings, she questioned Sarge’s emotional stability. He still suffered from the terrors of the Vietnam war. And he was more than thirty years older than Lucille.
But Sarge was also rich. He’d retired from the Marines to start a business in San Diego, manufacturing a gizmo he’d invented that enhanced battlefield night vision. When he decided to sell the business he asked Harriet to accompany him to his home state of New Mexico. Harriet didn’t hesitate.
Turned out Lucille was wrong about Sarge: Harriet really did love him. And he worshiped her. They had nearly eighteen blissful years together. Until the day Sarge strolled into the woods right after supper, smoked half a Camel, knelt down beneath an oak tree, stuck his .45 into his mouth, and squeezed the trigger. A man of few words, Sarge left no note.
Lucille drove from San Diego to attend the funeral. She offered to stay as long as Harriet needed her. Harriet was grateful. Her means of dealing with grief was to start smoking again and pound the hell out of a beat-up piano she’d found at an auction sale. She played boogie woogie like she was fighting off an assailant, eyes shut to dam her tears, lips parted, head thrown back, body rocking to the rhythm.
At the service Lucille met Garret Abraham. Harriet’s closest neighbor lived in a small trailer a mile or so away on an acre of bear grass, yucca, and cholla. Sarge had built his Santa Fe-style adobe house on eighty wooded acres that adjoined a vast national wilderness area stretching from southwestern New Mexico into Arizona. Garret’s trailer was wedged into one corner of the national forest boundary and Harriet’s property. A disabled vet, Garret used the opportunity the funeral afforded to distribute handwritten cards featuring a caricature of a beggar with a tin cup, wryly billing himself as a jack of all trades, master of none.
Besides selling Sarge firewood he’d cut, Garret had built the adobe wall encircling the courtyard, laid the flagstone, spread the gravel, and tackled myriad other odd jobs. He was gaunt and sinewy, sported a gnarly gray beard, cryptic tattoos, and tied his long greasy hair in a pony tail. He looked to be a few years younger than Harriet and Lucille. Lucille found his smell—akin to a horse barn baking in summer heat—strangely arousing. At the cemetery, when Garret stood beside her and surreptitiously pinched her ass, she moved just as surreptitiously away. She never mentioned the incident to Harriet.
Now, nearly two years after Sarge’s death, Lucille was sure Harriet had something going with Garret. Two or three times a week her friend drove off in her Jeep Renegade without saying where she was headed. When she returned hours later—limp, sweaty, glassy-eyed—she always took a leisurely shower.
Lucille had the run of the property. To earn her keep, she took on as many housekeeping chores as Harriet would allow. On her morning hikes she often passed mule deer, alert but unafraid, grazing in meadows flowing with purple and yellow wildflowers. All around, rugged mountain peaks speared the sky, surrounded by mysterious spires and arches, cliffs and crannies, blue shadows and light. She couldn’t wait to capture it on canvas.
One morning Lucille peeked into Harriet’s bedroom to ask if she’d like to hike up to the point—she wanted to snap a picture of the canyon in preparation for a painting. Harriet declined as usual, then warned her to be on the alert for Garret.
“On the alert?”
Harriet sat up on the side of her bed and stretched. “Garret is deeply spiritual. Don’t be surprised to see him sitting up in those rocks looking out over the canyon like some naked Buddha, smoking weed and recharging his karma. He often eats breakfast up there.” She fished around for her house-shoes. “He thinks you’re a prude. Might try to shock you—guy’s hung like a bull elk.”
“And you would know that how?”
Harriet gave her a sly wink.
Lucille avoided the overlook and stuck to the less exotic trails.
She returned from her hike to find Harriet dancing around the living room, squealing like a teenager at a rock concert. Someone from her Oregon high school had called to invite her to her class’s twenty-fifth reunion.
“It’s next week. And guess who tracked me down for the invite.”
Lucille shook her head.
“Aaron Hildebrand! Told you about Aaron—remember?”
“One of many I seem to recall.”
“He was my first. Aaron and I were such dip-shits. Oh my God, the carnal delights we discovered in the back of his dad’s station wagon. Some we actually invented.”
“Better than Garret?”
Harriet only smiled. “Aaron joined the Navy right after graduation. I went off to college. He was married for a time. Not any more.”
“Which means you’ll be at the reunion.”
“Can you handle things here for a week or so?”
“What about Garret?”
Harriet blinked. “Garret? I don’t expect you to take care of Garret . . . unless you want to.”
There were chickens in the freezer for Prince Puma, Harriet said. If Lucille ran out, she should drive down to Silver City and restock. Harriet showed her the loaded .38 she kept in her bedroom. Lucille refused to touch it.
Early in the morning Lucille drove Harriet to the El Paso Airport—a three-hour trip one way. When she returned that afternoon the house was eerily silent. Following a light supper, she sat in a rocker on the back porch, sipping wine and enjoying the sunset. She hoped the cougar might make an appearance—by now they’d grown familiar with each other. By nine o’clock, when that hadn’t happened, she was about to turn in, when an ancient Dodge pickup drove up to the gate. Garret got out and moseyed over to the porch, hands in his jeans’ pockets, whistling softly.
“How’s it going, Lucy?” he called out.
“Fine, Garret,” she said. “Just fine. What can I do for you?”
“Stopped by to see if you needed anything.”
He stood at the screen door peering in at her, wearing a crooked grin and stroking his beard. She didn’t get up. She didn’t feel threatened. Garret wasn’t that sort.
“I’m fine,” she said.
“Well . . . if you ever do need something, you know where to find me.”
“That I do.”
“Night, Lucy. Sleep tight.”
“You too, Garret.”
After his taillights disappeared up the road, she locked the door, set a chicken on top of the freezer to thaw, and went to bed.
She was up before sunrise. She’d just stepped out the screen door to place the chicken on the flagstone when the cougar slipped through the open gate behind her. Before she was aware of his presence he’d advanced alarmingly close.
Lucille backed away, careful not to make a sudden move. When the cougar stopped to study her she thought to raise both arms. The big cat had a musty cave-like scent. With enough nerve Lucille could actually reach out and stroke his fur. For what seemed an interminable time they observed each other. At last the cougar gave a soft mowwww, grabbed the chicken and loped away.
She should’ve been afraid. It pleased her that she wasn’t. Maybe she was getting to be more like Harriet, which pleased her even more.
After her hike, Lucille showered and ate breakfast as usual. She unplugged the phone before going to her studio. Harriet had allotted her a spacious corner room with large rectangular windows facing south and west. She slid a CD into the player and removed a half-finished landscape painting from the easel. She replaced it with the largest canvas—forty by sixty inches—in her wooden rack.
For a time she stood motionless before the window, entranced by the layered brown mountains stretching to the horizon. Ottmar Liebert’s flamenco guitar set the mood. At last she slipped into her flowered smock and turned to the high chest where glass-fronted drawers housed her painting paraphernalia. On a wooden stool she arranged half a dozen brushes. She dabbed her palette with titanium white, alizarin crimson, cadmium lemon, Prussian blue, burnt umber. Payne’s gray for a subtle base, a touch of linseed oil. In her mind she visualized the composition before making a quick sketch of the cougar. Awash in ecstacy, she then began to paint.
With each passing day the communion between Lucille and the cougar grew stronger. Once she went so far as to allow the creature to tug a chicken from her grasp, triggering a convulsive quiver in her loins.
One evening, just before dark, a Department of Game and Fish pickup drove up to the house. A wiry, narrow-hipped man stepped down from the cab. Lucille set her wine glass aside and went out to see what he wanted.
He told her his name was Steve Jurado and asked for Harriet. Lucille explained why Harriet wasn’t there. Jurado wore a white straw cowboy hat, blue Western-cut shirt, black Wranglers, cowboy boots. A holstered gun hung from his wide black leather belt. He asked if she’d seen a mountain lion roaming about.
“Mountain lion?” Maybe it was best not to seem entirely unaware. “You know . . . one evening I did see something. It was getting dark. Thought it might be a coyote or one of those javelinas.”
“This one’s a renegade,” Jurado said. “Grabbed some campers’ fox terrier right under their noses. Big fella, not at all shy.”
“Hope the dog is okay.”
Jurado shook his head with a grimace.
“How sad. Well . . . we don’t have any pets.”
“You still need to be careful. This may be a case of familiarity breeding contempt. Human familiarity. Cougar contempt. If you know somebody’s feeding this lion, please report it.”
“Yes . . . of course.”
He turned to leave, then swung back to extend his hand. His calloused palm felt warm and dry, strong but gentle. Lucille surprised herself by imagining how that hand might feel caressing her breasts.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” he said, “you expect to be here awhile?”
She smiled. “Too soon to tell.”
“Well . . . hope we’ll be seeing more of each other.”
His mannered swagger as he returned to his truck, macho as it might be, appealed to her. Jurado was also attracted to her it seemed. He was nice. He didn’t wear a ring, didn’t look married. Something to think about.
The following morning, with Steve Jurado in mind, Lucille closed the gate and didn’t leave a chicken out. The cougar easily jumped the wall. Lucille hung back in the kitchen with mixed emotions as the cat sniffed around the steps and scratched tentatively on the screen door. After a time he slunk away like a pouting child.
Two days later Jurado returned. Lucille invited him inside, but he remained standing on the back porch with his boots apart, hands on hips, lips compressed. He didn’t offer his hand this time.
“Anything wrong?” Lucille asked.
“You acquainted with Garret Abraham?”
“Lives in the trailer, I believe.”
“Not any more . . . he’s dead.”
Lucille stiffened. “Dead?”
“That mountain lion I told you about?”
“Killed Garret . . . early this morning.”
“Oh my God!”
“I can spare you the details.”
“No . . . please. I’m not squeamish.” Although her heart was pounding like a roofer’s hammer.
“State Police Crime Lab’s performing an autopsy. But to me it looks like Mr. Abraham tried to run from the lion.”
“And . . . it chased him?”
“Chased him, caught him, brought him down like a deer.” Jurado made claws of his hands. He raked his belly, bared his teeth, took a fierce bite of air. He did this with paradoxical reverence, like he was praising some exalted warrior. “Propane delivery man found human remains not far from the trailer. Garret . . . running for home most likely. Running from the overlook. Liked to sit bareassed up there I hear.”
“Yes . . . I heard that too.”
“Parts of him were . . . consumed. Other parts the lion likely buried. Like cats do. We’re trying to locate those parts for his family. . . . Own a firearm?”
Lucille shook her head. “I carry pepper spray on my hikes.”
“Advise against hiking for now. Try not to be out early morning or after dark.”
“Whatever you say.” She hesitated. “But why? A little dog . . . but why would a mountain lion attack a grown man? Because he ran—I get that—but why would Garret run?”
“Wild animals can be unpredictable. Maybe the lion did something to scare Garret.” Jurado looked down at his boots before raising his eyes to meet hers. His bushy black mustache belonged in some smoky border cantina. “My bet is someone fed him. Maybe Garret, though he should’ve known better. Piece of sausage was found at the site. Toast. Pie pan. That lion wasn’t just hungry . . . I picture that lion seething with contempt.”
“I’ll be careful.”
“Once a cat tastes human flesh . . . this one’ll likely return to dig up what he buried. What we’ll do is set a snare. I’ll keep you advised.”
“Thanks . . . thank you,” Lucille said. She searched Jurado’s face for some sign of warmth. Today he was all business.
He drove away leaving her sick to her stomach. Harriet had fed the cougar, but Lucille had stopped feeding him. Out scrounging for food, the cat may have been enticed to the overlook by the smell of Garret’s breakfast. Jurado was probably right—something the cougar did panicked Garret. Now Garret was dead. God in heaven—could she be responsible?
The sun was setting. A cooling breeze wafted down from the heights, bringing with it the scent of pine. She shielded her eyes and scanned the area beyond the adobe wall. Might the cougar be crouched in the trees watching her suspiciously? She caught herself actually sniffing the air for his scent.
She couldn’t concentrate on her painting. At supper time she forced down a few bites of brie, a bit of French bread, a sip or two of Cabernet. During the night she got up more than once and walked barefoot to the porch to check out the moonlit courtyard. As bad as she felt for Garret she felt just as bad for the cougar, its instincts muddled by human meddling.
In the morning she expected the cat to appear in the courtyard. But it was Jurado who showed up to tell her the lion had indeed returned to the overlook. He was wily enough to avoid the snare, Jurado added with grudging admiration, but a load of buckshot had found its mark. “He’s even bigger than I figured. One-fifty at least. Maybe more. Left a bloody trail. Hounds’ll track him.”
Jurado’s guarded tone and sad eyes told Lucille he had reason to share these details. “You think I’m the one feeding him, don’t you?”
He pursed his lips. “Are you?”
The lie fluttered on her tongue before she reeled it back. Jurado smiled thinly at her silence and let the screen door slam shut.
That night in bed, squirming from one side to the other, she kept seeing the wounded cougar out there in the wild, struggling to understand what was happening in his world. Shortly before dawn the distant cacophony of baying hounds awoke her. She scrambled out of bed. In a fuzzy haze she threw on a robe and hurried to the porch. The courtyard was empty.
It was mid-morning when Harriet called to let her know what a great time she was having. She wanted to stay in Oregon awhile longer—if that was okay.
“No problemo,” Lucille said.
“Aaron owns a fishing lodge near Coos Bay. He brought pictures but wants me to see his place in person, wants to take me fishing. He’s got this godalmighty boat. You should see the size of some of the fish he’s caught.”
“Sounds like things are moving right along.”
“How’re you and Prince Puma making out?”
Lucille was expecting this. “Haven’t seen him lately.”
“Oh?” Harriet said. “Guess I shouldn’t have worried.”
“I was afraid he might start liking you better than me.”
“Not a chance.”
The lie came out that fast. She couldn’t take it back. And why should she? What purpose would it serve to ruin Harriet’s good time?
The cougar returned the following morning. Lucille was in her robe and house-shoes, curled up in the porch rocker with a cup of coffee. The first trace of vermillion revealed the cat as a gray phantom in the center of the road. His head seemed tilted at an unnatural angle. He paused to look all around before coming on, treading gingerly, as if each step brought pain.
When headlights flickered at the crest of the road, about fifty yards beyond the cougar, Lucille set her cup down. The lights switched off. The vehicle backed out of sight. Lucille jumped up. Anticipating what was coming made her weak in the knees.
But what could she do about it?
She kept watching the road, expecting Jurado to appear on foot with his shotgun. The cougar stopped and looked to his right. Lucille looked the same way. For a minute she could make out nothing within the forest’s impenetrable gloom. Then Jurado emerged from behind a pine tree.
Lucille flung open the screen door and ran straight for the cougar. Waving her arms, she shouted, “Shoo! Shoo! Shoooo!”
As she reached the gate, the cat’s rear dropped. He crouched. Tendons tightened in his blood-spattered legs. Jurado’s shotgun jerked up. He yelled something. Lucille kept running. Even when Jurado yelled again, even when one of her house-shoes flew off, even when the shocking roar of the shotgun knocked her off stride, she kept running.
She only stopped running when the lion shuddered and collapsed.
She skidded to her knees a few feet from the motionless form. Jurado cocked another shell into the chamber and advanced to stand over the animal. The tip of the barrel touched the cougar’s bloody ear. Finally, like a man succumbing to exhaustion, Jurado sank to his own knees. Laying the shotgun aside, he placed a hand on the cat’s head.
For a time they remained that way, not looking at each other, the world around them silent and still. Until a bird twittered in a nearby tree, an obscenely cheerful sound that made Lucille want to scream. She tried to rise, but lacked the strength. She heard a soft whimper, a plaintive whine like an unwanted puppy trapped in a plastic bag might make. On hands and knees she made her way over to the cougar, hoping he might still be alive and with a nudge get up and go loping back into the wild.
Then she was jolted back to her senses.
She reached out and grasped the cougar’s limp paw. The fur was still warm, the spongy pad coarse, the claws smooth and hard and lethal. Jurado’s eyes slanted at her from a contorted face. She tried to say she was sorry, strained to summon the words. They seemed inadequate and hung in her throat.
Jurado whimpered again, caressing the cat’s head. With cautious tenderness, Lucille released the cougar’s paw and placed her hand over Jurado’s.
Bill Pippin’s story “Century” placed first in the Summer 2014 edition of Sixfold. His short stories, articles, and essays have appeared in the literary anthology Tattoos, The MacGuffin, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Newsweek, Field & Stream, Writer’s Digest, Philadelphia Magazine, Delaware Today, New Mexico Magazine, and many other publications. He lives in the mountains of southwestern New Mexico with his wife Zona.