Title pitch by Luke Selden
Story by Michelle Kicherer
If I recall correctly, and I do, I first encountered Gunther rummaging around a garbage bin outside the McKinleys’ house. I was out for an evening walk, with the excuse of needing exercise, but mostly for the sake of ignoring the frustrating existence that was my mother. Anyhow, I was walking along with my hands in my pockets, kicking rocks along the road as if life were so much harder than it was, and decided to take a little detour through the McKinleys’ backyard.
To clear their shoddy fence I did a running leap maneuver as if I were some sort of athletic genius, but tripped and flew over the wooden slats headfirst like a determined salmon, diving into the packed earth on the other side. The launch happened so quickly it almost felt intentional, and it was not until I’d reached my viewpoint from below that I realized how high the thing was. I suppose the fall could have been prevented had my hands not still been in the pockets of my corduroys, but the cards landed where they did.
I lay there for a moment, rolling onto my back so I could really take a breath before fleeing the scene of my embarrassment. My fingers scanned the ground for my hat, which had taken a dive before I hit the ground. My feathery brown fluff of hair was usually concealed from the world under a light blue corduroy hat with the word “Monterey” sewn across the front in red and I felt unarmed without it. The only time I went without trusty Monterey was when a teacher dared ask me to take it off, or when my mother periodically forced me to attend church. I even insisted I wear it at my father’s funeral, saying that he would have appreciated the gesture, nostalgically quoting the time he’d bought it for me on our epic drive from Bakersfield to the water.
I can’t say why but as I turned my head to see where my blessed hat had landed, I sensed another presence, and slowly looked around until from across the yard my dirt-brown eyes locked with two others: one green and one blue. And they weren’t mismatched in a creepy way, like a light-eyed herding dog, but in a beautiful, charming way, like David Bowie’s. We stared at each other for a moment, me on my back and he with his face hovering longingly above a garbage receptacle, a waxy cheese wrapper hanging from the corner of his mouth.
He stopped his quiet rustling and strolled nonchalantly in my direction then paused standing over my hat, which he sniffed gratefully. We never broke eye contact while he continued his pleased inhalation of the dander-coated garment, and I felt inexplicably connected to him, like it really meant something. But I was seventeen, and a lot of shit felt deeper than it was. I also may have hit my head hard enough to jostle the fragile mush inside, but meeting this way felt like a sign, and the addition of this fellow to our abode felt like it could be the solution to the heavy sterility of our home.
I looked deviously around the property and figured the McKinley’s would not miss him amongst their hoard of a goat herd, so for reasons I can’t say I understand, I told the fellow it was now or never. I got up, returned my Monterey hat to its post, and unfastened my blue cloth belt. After getting over a very brief fear of his savaging my fingers, I tied the soft belt around the fellow’s trusting neck and strutted out through the back fence, goat in tow, feeling like a real renegade.
On my walk home I named my comrade Gunther, and went over a few stories I could tell my mother that might seem realistic as to why he should join our household. In the imaginary quarrel we had, she’d ask where he came from and if he would miss his family, and how I would feed him, and where he would sleep. I would tell her that there were plenty of others I’d left behind, and that the McKinleys wouldn’t know the difference, and that goddamnit it’s me or Gunther (which I understood made little sense, but felt satisfactory nonetheless).
Gunther and I reached the front porch a bit after dark, and after a brief consideration of whether or not he should saunter right into the kitchen with me, we decided it’d be best if he stay back and let me do some maneuvering. I fastened the blue cloth belt onto the porch railing, hitched my loose corduroys, and went to face my mother.
I found her sleepily watching television in the living room, a glass of chardonnay in a hand my father used to hold. Sometimes walking in on her like this, I’d feel guilty that I had seen her this way, and guiltier that she had been reduced to this state in the first place. I wish I’d been sweet, taken her out, been a pal. But the truth of the matter is, what seventeen-year-old dude really knows how to handle that type of deepness?
“Hey,” I started to say, but stopped myself. Something about the way she dreamily watched Julia Child make a roast felt oddly personal. As if she were thinking about all the roasts she used to make, and how now it seemed there was no point to doing much more than baking an eye-riddled potato.
“Dinner’s in there. Some macaroni,” my mother said without breaking contact with the watery-eyed chef on the screen, who was tipsily laughing as she chopped an onion.
I knew I should have sat with her and turned on something more uplifting than a drunken old lady slapping around a hunk of meat with buttery hands. But instead I stood there flipping around a nickel that had been stowing away in the sandy corners of my pocket.
“Gunther is going to be staying here,” I mumbled and turned to the kitchen to fetch my macaroni without waiting to hear whatever it was she’d said back.
After shoveling down some sticky macaroni, and after calling my girlfriend then masturbating in the shower, I tiptoed back outside to see my new friend. I brought him a couple towels to cozy up with, the rigid macaroni I’d rejected, and an old Cool Whip container full of water. After determining his accommodations felt most suitable, I somewhat lovingly ran my fingers through Gunther’s beard and retreated upstairs for a snooze.
It was almost noon before my mother came out to find us. Gunther was gently nudging his flank against my shoulder while he nibbled from the Cheerio stash in my sweatshirt pocket. I was reading with my feet propped on an upside down flowerpot, thoroughly enjoying the sun and that feeling of liberty a summer morning provides. My mother stood sleepily with her hands in her robe pocket, observing the two of us before saying anything. Something about her hair and the shimmer of grease on her face made her appear smelly, and I didn’t wish her to get close to me.
“Morning,” I said, glancing up quickly from the comic I was reading.
“What’s this?” her voice came out groggier than expected. She paused and cleared her throat as if she were about to start over, but did not.
“This is Gunther,” I said without looking up from the important colored images.
“Okay?” she said, putting her palms to the air in a question.
“What?” I said, and resigned myself to looking up at her. And in a flash of selfish decision, I lied. “We talked about this. Last night. You said it was cool as long as I take care of him and stuff.”
The poor woman literally scratched her head in confusion, furrowing her brows while she looked to the ground.
I thought about all the reasons it made sense for us to keep him, maybe for her more than me. I almost shuttered at the thought of returning to the cripplingly quiet state of our house. I pressed on.
“You said it was cool,” I said. “Remember, I got him from that farm and they had to get rid of him or else kill him?” I added, solidifying my argument and looking at Gunther and shaking my head.
I don’t even know where the lie came from, but it spilled out so quickly I almost believed it myself. I felt an intense guilt creep over me and knew that if I were to back out, this would be my time. I could just say, oh never mind I’ll just return him, and get the whole thing behind us, no big deal. But as I looked at Gunther, his mystical blue-greens locked with mine, as if we had a severe understanding. I had a flash-forward of us spending many an afternoon together, and since I planned on dumping my girlfriend’s boring ass by the end of the summer, I knew I would need a long-term companion. But perhaps more importantly, it wouldn’t be just me, my mother and Julia in the house anymore. So I sat there, looking down at my comic but letting the images blur while I waited for her reply.
“Okay,” my mother said after a long, troubled pause, the alcohol smudging her memory. “Just, make sure he’s cared for,” Her voice faded out.
I immediately felt guilty as hell, worse than if I’d just stolen money from her wallet. It was darker than that, as if I’d just stolen her dignity. My poor mother put her hand to her temple and rubbed it a moment, taking a deep breath. She watched me, sitting rather smugly in my lame corduroys and backwards hat like a real badass. And she looked at Gunther, who stared blatantly somewhere beyond her.
“I don’t know why you want a goat,” she said, shaking her head as she turned back towards the kitchen.
“Whatever,” I said, because I was a disgusting teenager, and all I needed from her was everything.
A few nights later I woke in the early morning, reaching for the rattail that was once there, but that my stupid girlfriend had sworn I was too old for. I’d let her snip it off playfully a few weeks before, but only because she was rubbing up against me as she did it, a sexual innuendo that never delivered.
It was the second night in a row I had woken covered in guilt-induced sweat, reaching longingly for my rattail, and thinking about Gunther. I couldn’t get the image of my mother’s perplexed face out of my head. The way she had really thought to herself, and had seemed to ask her booze-hazed mind if she really hadn’t remembered an entire conversation, and saddest of all: the way she decided that she must have said that, because why would I lie?
I got out of bed and put on my father’s ill-fitting slippers and robe. I pulled Crime and Punishment off the shelf, opened it to page one hundred and ninety, and took out a cigarette and matchbook from the carefully carved square in the middle of the epically boring book. I tiptoed downstairs and passed my mother, who was sleeping soundly with Ms. Child on the couch, and went out to my porch.
I found Gunther sleeping on his towel pile with his little legs tucked under him, his bristly bearded chin resting on his knees. I sat quietly on the stairs and leaned back, lighting my cigarette and blowing the smoky fumes towards the stars. A few more procrastination-filled minutes passed before I finally got up and unclipped the blue cloth belt from Gunther’s neck. Surprisingly, he didn’t stir, and I felt a little sad that he didn’t wake up with me. Before turning to go back upstairs, I had a sudden urge to kiss him, to whisper sweet nothings in his ear to remind him of our bond. But I reminded myself he was really just a goat and went back upstairs to fall asleep.
The next morning I woke up excited and ready to prove my theory right, sure Gunther would be outside waiting to greet me. I slammed on my corduroy hat and pants, nearly rolled myself down the stairs and ran through the kitchen door. Surprisingly my mother was awake before noon, and was rummaging through the fridge.
“Morning, Sam,” she called to me as I passed her.
I opened the back door with hopeful suspense, and looked down to an empty pile of towels on the porch’s wooden slats. I felt nervously for my nonexistent rattail, and settled on pulling my ear with worry.
“Gunther!” I called out, and ran to the end of the long porch, peering out over the side of the yard. “Fuck you! Gunther!” I felt the frantic feeling of abandonment overcome me as I climbed over the porch fence and ran through the yard, looking to see if my friend was nibbling grass under the plum tree, or lounging in the sun in the front yard. But he was nowhere, and I couldn’t believe he’d left me.
“Sam!” my mother called out from the kitchen door, crossing her arms and watching me in my panic.
She would never understand, so I ignored my mother until she yelled something else and went back inside. I paced around the yard, kicked the tree a few times, then went for an anger walk. I speedily went down the street with my hands in my corduroy pockets, twiddling around the nickel I’d returned to its linty roots. I passed my girlfriend’s house and wondered if she would let me stick it to her again, but couldn’t handle the thought of more potential rejection in one day, so I just kept walking.
I looped around the neighborhood and passed the McKinleys’ house, longingly scanning the crowd of goats for my old friend, but I couldn’t spot him. A couple of goats approached me at the fence, but just stared at me with magnificently empty eyes. Disgusted with the lot, I spat at their stupid feet and turned back to go home.
I ascended the stairs of our house, sadly passing the empty nest of towels on the porch. Hands still in my pockets, I kicked the door three times as a knock, waiting crestfallen on the steps for my mother to let me in and feed me. She shoved the screen open and looked at me quizzically. I shrugged and looked down at my pocketed hands.
I trudged like Eeyore across the red and white tiles of our kitchen and took a seat, hoping for bacon. With my heavy head in my hand, I looked across the room, and goddamnit there was Gunther, eating diligently from a bowl in the corner of the kitchen. A wave of surprised joy and confusion hit me, and I tripped over my chair as I leapt up to see him, falling once again into his bearded presence.
I crawled closer to Gunther, whose tail shivered like a little feather at my approach. While he nibbled away at the fruity concoction my mother had given him, I ran my fingers along his coarse fur and smiled with relief that my summertime companion was here to stay. I was so happy I even smiled at my mother when she looked down as us, shaking her head in a way that mothers do.
“How did he get in the kitchen?” I said while I fed him a piece of cantaloupe from my carefully flattened hand.
She rolled her eyes at us.“Well he was bleating on the porch like a scared little kid all night,” my mother sat down next to us and rubbed the side of his round belly.
Gunther chewed rhythmically while he dropped a little pile of pebbles onto the kitchen tile.
I tickled his chin and thought about the time I’d asked my English teacher whether all gifts weren’t given with a bit of selfish intention, and she replied, not the good ones, which in this case I couldn’t yet decipher.
“Why Gunther?” my mother asked.
I thought about it while I lay on my back and watched his beautiful eyes.
“Can we name him Bowie?”
She nodded and I smiled, feeling like he was both mine and hers.