Because Gabe was unemployed, he sometimes spent entire days in the library, flipping through back issues of National Geographic. He liked the photographs, mostly. He only stared at the dense columns of text, wondering what type of people read print that small. On his way out one afternoon, he spotted Joan in the children’s section, perched on a yellow stool at one of the computers. She looked similar to the Canada Warblers he had just been asking who would take the time to read about. He might have mistaken Joan for a child if she hadn’t started poking the actual child sitting next to her. The boy’s mouse pad was moved far outside his station, so his elbow kept bumping Joan’s knee. She leaned over him, mouth tight and beaklike, her fingers pecking away at the back of his neck until he started crying. After he left, Gabe replenished the seat.
“What are you listening to?” Gabe asked.
“The Giving Tree,” Joan said. She handed Gabe an earphone. “It’s my favorite book.”
Gabe’s stool felt much smaller than Joan made hers look, and he awkwardly balanced his legs, leaving enough slack in the chord to maintain what he deemed an appropriate distance for strangers sharing earphones. Gabe imagined that they resembled Canada Warblers then, settled on a Nordmann Fir. If he were the kind of person who read the small print instead of the kind of person he was, he would know that Canada Warblers spend hardly any time on their breeding grounds, make very little fuss about courtship, and by this time in the exchange, would already be on with it.
The audiobook was fairly simple, but Joan seemed moved by it. She was one of those Oregon girls whose concern for the environment influenced her lifestyle, and she told Gabe that she wore the same clothes every day to avoid being consumerist and wasteful. She washed them once a week on Sundays. When Gabe asked what happened if she spilt coffee over herself or if she got those green, crescent sweat stains, she just shrugged and said, “Then I have a new outfit.”
Gabe was skeptical that Joan’s whole conservation thing was an act, but in a nearby café, a tomato slipped out the butt of her sandwich and landed on her white shirt, leaving a flower-shaped stain. She wiped her napkin across it to remove the seeds then declared, “I love shopping!”
A few days later, the stain was still there in a faded, yellower shade. Gabe would normally find this disgusting, but instead, it seemed admirable.
Gabe wanted to take Joan on a nice date, but without work, he always had somewhere between very little, to absolutely no, money. He’d been staying at his father’s, which was just a trailer parked in the center of a half-acre lot. Somewhere in a cupboard were the construction plans that Gabe drew up. His father recently adopted two rabbits. Gabe wasn’t sure why, since his father was more of a dog person.
As he walked his bike over the grassy lot, Gabe thought of how, only months before, he might have taken that moment to gather himself, to mentally prepare for the embarrassment of asking his father for money. But now, it was effortless, and he even felt a little skip in his step, thinking he might use it to buy a burrito later. He was, however, hesitant to bring up Joan. His father’s Joan died two years ago when a bear ransacked the trailer.
Joan was the golden retriever, not Gabe’s mother. Gabe’s parents divorced when he was five and were happiest when they hated each other.
His father sat in a camping chair with the trailer’s operating manual, which he read like the Bible, every morning, and made notes along the margins with a fine-tip pen. Gabe, out of a newly formed routine, felt the urge to compare him to some type of bird, but found it difficult due to his father’s arsenal of rifles lined against the trailer’s paneling. Gabe interpreted this as a kind of political statement, but his father claimed he was just being prepared: He believed that bear was coming back.
“What can I do for you, son?” he asked.
Lately, Gabe’s father referred to him as, “Son,” often. Gabe wondered if referencing their kinship was an effort to make him feel less pathetic. Gabe had a tough year. He had planned to build his father’s house and use the experience to start his own company, but like countless other men in their town, he lost his construction job. Unlike them, it was Gabe’s single skill that he unfortunately was not even that great at.
Because Gabe was the kind of person who avoided the small print, his backup plans had none.
“I met someone,” Gabe blurted.
“And I want to marry her.”
Gabe hadn’t actually considered this but felt that marriage held a certain gravitas.
“Wow,” his father said. “Congratulations.”
Gabe noticed his father staring at the rabbits. They were out of their cages and fifty yards away, resting between the trailer and the woods.
“I’d like to do something nice for her,” Gabe continued.
“As you should.” His father pulled out his money clip and handed Gabe several twenties. Gabe figured it was enough for at least two dates, and he relaxed in his chair, feeling hopeful about Joan. Being outdoors with his father felt nostalgic, like when he was a kid and they went together to the High Desert Museum. They let owls and eagles land on kids’ heads there and did a whole show where they brought out cloth bags with snakes inside. Before they pulled the reptiles out, Gabe’s father had him predict what was coming next. Gabe made irrational guesses like, “Panda Bear,” or “Unicorn,” even though he knew it was impossible; it was just fun to imagine how surprised everyone would be.
After an hour, the rabbits still hadn’t moved. They faced the pine trees. The woods draped behind them like a green, velvet theater curtain.
“What are they doing?” Gabe asked.
His father took time answering. “Napping.”
They smoked a pipe completely through, then walked out to retrieve the rabbits. His father named them Bugs and Olive, which Gabe noted was an unusually nurturing thing for him to do. When Gabe reached down to pick up Bugs, the creature tipped over into the grass, paralyzed. Statuesque, it stared out at nothing.
“Is he okay?”
“Oh, yes,” Gabe’s father said. He reached over to scratch Bugs behind the ears. Between his elbow and hip, Gabe’s father carried Olive upside down. Her multi-colored ears were stiff and pointed south. “They’re just sleepy.”
The next weekend Gabe invited Joan to the town amphitheater to listen to a concert. It was one of the free concerts, so everyone showed up. They searched the crowd a long time for a place to fit their blanket, and when Gabe finally secured one, Joan requested to lie in the grass. She shimmied her shoulders into the ground as if salsa dancing with it.
After the first song, she sprang up and asked, “Did I get a grass stain?”
A line of green hash marks intersected down her spine. “Yes,” Gabe said.
“Excellent!” she said, and then had Gabe spread out the blanket.
The band was jazz-fusion, which Gabe just couldn’t get into, but most people danced around them, caught up in an invisible, rhythmic current. By the time they rode bikes over to Joan’s place, her t-shirt had really become something. Gabe saw their whole afternoon there—the grass stain, the sweat from the bike ride, the brown ice cream smudge from dessert. It was Sunday, so Joan peeled her only clothes off to reveal a plain white bra and panties, her freshest parts. Her hips twisted slightly, as if she herself were submerged in the dull beat of the washing machine.
She looked up, and when her sharp mouth softened, Gabe bent down and kissed one side of it.
“Did you just kiss my cheek?”
Gabe reviewed the kiss in his mind. “No,” he said.
“Yes, you did.”
Gabe acknowledge that as the recipient of the kiss, Joan was likely more accurate. “Sorry,” he said.
“It’s okay. I’m just surprised you didn’t kiss my lips, since my shirt is off.”
“I didn’t notice.”
Joan’s expression made it clear she perceived this as a rude thing to say.
“I realize your shirt is off,” Gabe said, “But I didn’t realize I kissed near your mouth instead of on it.”
“I’m not upset. I’d put on another shirt, but I don’t have one. I could get a blanket or something, if you feel uncomfortable.”
“I know. I mean, I’m not uncomfortable.” Gabe eyed her collarbone, which poked out beneath her skin like a sturdy branch. “I think you should stay this way. You look nice.”
Joan did look nice sitting cross-legged on the couch flipping through one of the back issues of National Geographic. After Gabe introduced her to the magazine aisle, she started stealing them from the library. It featured a spread on penguins, and they started asking each other questions loosely related to penguins, like, “Why is the penguin a bird if it doesn’t fly?” or “What if human strides were only three inches long and we all walked like this?” and then got down on their knees and practiced their waddling. Gabe thought about how if he were just a different person, he would know the answers to most of those questions, and then focused on Joan’s waddling. It looked more authentic than Gabe’s, because she, like a penguin, was petite. Also her ribcage, protruding through her skin, framed her sides in symmetrical, nonfunctioning wings. The waddling was restrictive, and Gabe imagined traversing entire glaciers that way.
By the time Joan’s clothes were out of the dryer, he felt sorry for penguins, which he never spent much time thinking about before.
Joan slipped her t-shirt back on. The early evening light broke between the blinds and stained her shirt with sunshine stripes. Gabe wondered then what it must feel like to watch your days spill over you in different shapes and colors, to throw your whole week into the washer and wait naked for it to emerge, bleached-white, as if never worn.
“Do you feel different?” Gabe asked.
Joan tiptoed her fingers into Gabe’s hand and nested them there.
Gabe began to notice Joan’s smallest quirks, like how she preferred food that required cracking or peeling, then left the remnants strewn behind her like trail markers. This allowed her to retrace her pathways whenever she wanted, to relive the best afternoons in pistachio shells.
The following Sunday, they sat naked in her living room apartment. Gabe threw his clothes in with Joan’s because she was doing laundry anyway and he was almost out of quarters. As she peeled a tangerine, she tossed the rinds sporadically over her shoulder like a pigeon picking out seeds. Gabe already blew through his father’s money, so they were spending more time lounging in Joan’s apartment. She, a minimalist, didn’t mind. She preferred simple activities that subverted the capitalist system.
“Let’s build something,” Joan said.
She tossed a rind toward the growing stack of National Geographics she had been gathering for the winter.
“With the nature books.”
Gabe wondered if the request was an investigation into his ego, one of those sly things women do to test a man’s confidence. Joan knew he was a builder, had previously quizzed him on his construction techniques, and then formed a list of what she perceived as unsustainable practices.
“We need solid framing,” Gabe said. “Do you have any brooms? Any long sticks?”
It was a puzzle trying to make use of the very few items Joan kept on hand. With a Swiffer and some wire hangars, Gabe formed a mediocre roof between the sofa and coffee table over which they draped the magazines. Joan insisted they agree on each image, and they settled on the most colorful two page spreads. They entered the dwelling together, shoulder blades to the floor, careful not to lift their heads or knees too high to disturb it. They shared tangerine wedges under a ceiling of Wallabies, of Swiss Alps, of bustling Nairobi markets.
“It’s really something,” Joan said. “And totally recyclable.”
It actually was rather makeshift, just one wrong move from crumbling, but Gabe let the compliment spill over him, wore it the way Joan might wear a stain for a week.
For the last time, he imagined them as Canada Warblers, as if he’d spent the afternoon forging for twigs and pine needles to create this home for his mate. But Canada Warblers do no such thing. They were on the State of North America’s Birds Watch List, were at high risk of extinction, and were probably the worst avian metaphor through which to compare a relationship.
Yet he did. His forehead soared toward Joan’s smooth, leafless collarbone, and landed safely there.
Gabe told Joan about his father’s rabbits, by accident, over a burrito they split together, purchased with spare change they scavenged for between the cushions of Joan’s second-hand sofa. She tried to tear her t-shirt in a rage until Gabe reminded her that it was her only one. Since their conversation about the penguins, she had severely increased her animal activism.
“He’s drugging them,” Joan said. “To lure the bear.”
“No,” Gabe objected. Although, it was fairly clear this was the case.
“We need to go over there.”
“And do what?”
“Free them. You can distract him and I’ll put the rabbits in a backpack.”
Gabe knew it would never work. His father was exceptionally aware of his surroundings. Before Gabe was evicted and moved in, he once tried to sneak over to his father’s trailer in the middle of the night to steal food from the pantry. But it was all waiting for Gabe. Boxes of cereal and crackers were stacked on the kitchen counter with the lids open. It caught Gabe so off-guard he lost track of the noise he made, which is when his father stepped out from a dark corner of the trailer. His face was painted sloppily in various shades of green. A knife was duct-taped around the muzzle of his rifle.
“That’s not for you, son,” he had said.
Gabe had never seen his father that way—a covertly clad killer—and decided then he’d always be straightforward with him, would just bluntly ask for free things and never sneak around the property.
“We can go there tomorrow and express our concerns,” Gabe said. He wanted Joan to drop it, but also wanted her to consider it a symbolic step in their relationship.
Joan reached across the table for the hot sauce. With her teeth, she removed the cork lid then proceeded to shake the liquid all over herself. Line after line of pureed red chilies streaked across her chest and shoulders until Gabe took the bottle from her because other customers were staring.
“By tomorrow,” Joan began, “Those rabbits could look like this.”
A worker rushed over and offered Joan a wet rag. She refused to take it. She allowed the sauce to trickle down her shirt and arms for the entire meal like she was donating blood to her burrito.
Joan took charge of drafting the rescue plan. They would use introducing Joan to Gabe’s father as a decoy, and when Gabe inevitably took him behind the trailer to request more money, she would secure the rabbits in her bike basket.
“But you do actually want to meet my father, right?” Gabe asked.
“Eh,” she said.
It was not an encouraging response, but Joan had recently been overly emotional.
The plan seemed foolproof, Gabe admitted, until they showed up to find both rabbits propped in his father’s lap, one on each thigh, fully alert and nibbling carrots.
“Joan, I want you to meet my father,” Gabe said, just like they rehearsed it.
Joan was supposed to say, “So nice to meet you,” but she didn’t. Gabe thought she might be brainstorming how to get the rabbits from his father’s lap, but he turned around to find her frozen, staring doe-eyed at the rifles.
He improvised. “And these are his guns,” Gabe said.
Gabe’s father sensed Joan’s discomfort. “Don’t worry, sweetheart,” he told her. “They’re all loaded. We’re completely safe.”
His father asked Joan several questions, to which she offered no response. She looked faint, and Gabe led her to a log a safe distance from the rifles before stepping behind the trailer with his father. The rabbits snuggled comfortably on each of his father’s forearms.
“I hate to be rude,” Gabe’s father began, “But your girl’s got shit all over her shirt.”
“However, she’s very pretty.”
“We didn’t really come by to introduce her,” Gabe admitted. “I need more money. And she has some concerns.”
“About the rabbits.”
“She’s very committed to the environment.”
“A noble cause,” he said.
His father put the rabbits in their cages, and made a show of pulling on the padlock to show off its security. Then, he dropped a tablet into the rabbits’ water. A white fizz bubbled up then hardened across the surface in an icy crust.
“It’s just a treat,” he said.
There are multiple explanations for the 3.2% decline in the Canada Warbler population each year. Deforestation. Acid Rain. Deer getting hungry and greedy, and not enough hunters to even the score. Gabe would have mourned this, had he known, had he taken the time to absorb the text that detailed the birds’ plight. He had no plans to travel to Canada, where the birds resided. If he did, Gabe would have found it poignant to know the species’ success rate was even more hopeless than his.
However, there was only one explanation for why Joan didn’t want to see Gabe anymore.
“You’re a little materialistic,” she said.
It was an interesting critique of a man with no job, no house, and very few possessions. But after further investigation, which involved staring through her blinds for consecutive afternoons, Joan was dating one of the librarians. From his lookout at the circulation desk, he must have spotted the National Geographics creeping out beneath Joan’s dirty shirt.
Gabe would have just brushed it off as one of those unclear things that happen in relationships—bad timing, a few conversations gone wrong—had he not spotted, in a non-recyclable plastic bag on Joan’s kitchen counter, an unopened 3-pack of classic white T-shirts.
“She met someone else,” Gabe explained to his father.
“Did you threaten him?”
“I don’t own a weapon,” Gabe said.
“I don’t like them.”
“Did you like your girlfriend?”
“Well, son, you should think these things through more.”
Gabe was not that upset. Joan breaking it off with him wasn’t surprising. Considering his recent life trajectory—lost job, lost apartment—he could almost interpret it as a step forward. Plus, they had sex twice, which Gabe would never categorize as time wasted.
His father started a fire, and Gabe sat outside the trailer for several hours staring into the flickering pit. Olive burrowed into the dip between his thighs. He stroked her warm spine the way he once did Joan’s when she was shirtless, waiting for her laundry. Each of Olive’s vertebra felt securely connected, no different than a human being, and Gabe, maybe for the first time, understood why his father preferred the company of animals.
“She’s very affectionate,” his father said.
Gabe’s father looked at Olive proudly, and then turned toward the entrance to the woods. He held a rifle, and with a tender glide of his thumb, cocked the bolt.
Gabe returned to the library with renewed motivation to resume his job search, but his confidence fell when he spotted Joan’s librarian boyfriend at the information desk in a white t-shirt and jeans.
“Hello, there,” the librarian said with a British accent.
Gabe wasn’t expecting the accent. It was such a pleasant surprise that he even felt his jealousy lessen a bit.
“Good day, sir,” Gabe replied. He mimicked the cheery vowels but in a high-pitched tone that projected no regional qualities.
“Can I assist you?”
In truth, Gabe needed a lot of assistance. Did the cover letter go before or after the resume? Why did they need seven years of work experience? In lieu of references, could he just explain how all of his previous supervisors lost so much money during the recession, they were now either alcoholics or completely off the grid?
“I need a pen,” Gabe said. He didn’t want any gesture of kindness from the British librarian, so he lunged for the holder and seized a handful.
Gabe took his pens and headed straight to the magazine aisle. The library recently obtained an early collection of National Geographics, some of which dated back to the 1930s. A homeless man washing up in the bathroom had recognized Gabe at the urinal the other morning and said, “You’re the National Geographic guy!” then filled him in on the acquisition. The photographs were black and white, and not that much more appealing than the text, which was in a larger font than the current issues and had swirls on the capital letters that gave it the look of a fairytale. Gabe came across an article about Iberian rabbits, and for the first time in years, he found himself reading. He learned they were the most recent animals to be domesticated, and according to Darwin, the hardest to tame. A group of Catholic monks managed it, thousands of years after dogs and cows, but with the primary purpose of consumption.
Gabe felt an urgency to pass on this information to his father, who answered his call after one ring. His father offered no greeting, only heavy panting.
“You there, Dad?”
“Son,” he said. “I got him.”
“The bear. That bastard.”
“Dad, that’s a huge fine.”
“Get over here. He’s a big one.”
Gabe pedaled the four miles toward his father’s property. It was comical; a thirty-two year old man on a used bicycle, legs too long for the frame, uneven, shaggy bangs bouncing wildly over his forehead. There was little privacy on his father’s property, and Gabe imagined him standing over the grizzly, the bloodied corpse on full display, while the entire town’s well-behaved hunters swarmed out from the ponderosas with pitchforks.
But Gabe’s father was no dummy. He had covered the creature with a camouflage tarp. He squinted toward the fabric as if he had actually lost track of it over the grass. He held his gun at his hip carelessly; it looked like he might shoot his own foot.
“Are you okay?” Gabe asked.
His father lifted his eyes to reveal their wetness. “I missed the first shot,” he said. “Olive didn’t make it.”
Two heart-attacks. An ugly divorce. A brutal dog-mauling. A hunting knife that slipped from his grip and crucified his palm—all of that, yet it was the first time Gabe saw his father cry.
After gathering himself, Gabe’s Father called animal control. He framed the event as self-defense. “This bear’s been here before,” he said. “Got my pup two years back.” There was no mention of the rabbit bait, the midnight stakeouts, the years of stewing anger that motivated the deadly shot. His father watched the city workers load the animal into a truck bed, and then began polishing his rifles, but this time he stored them in their cloth bags and hard cases, as if the season was now closed.
His father disappeared into the trailer for some time. Gabe waited for him, not because he needed money, but because he had nowhere else to go. At dusk, his father emerged carrying Bugs and the trailer manual. They settled next to Gabe at the fire pit. From his library reading, Gabe knew rabbits were so difficult to domesticate because of their strong flight response, and Bugs, perched on his father’s knees, looked like he might jump at any moment. Although his nose and whiskers moved in constant, skittish vibration, the animal ignored every natural urge and stayed put.
His father draped the edges of his coat over Bugs’ body. “He always gets chilly,” he said. “I’ll keep him inside when the house is built.”
“Don’t, Dad,” Gabe said. He sighed deeply. He had buried his shame for so long, it was strange to have found it again over the course of an exhale.
“You told me you’d build it.”
Gabe nodded. “But I don’t know if I will.”
“You will, son.” His father opened the manual and tilted it toward the firelight. “And until you can, I’m just fine here.”