Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2018  Vol. 17 No. 2
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Reincarnation at the Wallingford Animal Shelter

Two weeks after I left home for boarding school, my father called me to tell me that Dana Carpenter, a girl I’d known since preschool, had shot herself with a handgun. When he called, I was sitting on the top bunk in my dorm room and I was facing a large mirror. I could see my lips open to shape words, could see that strange white coating on the back of my tongue.

“She shot herself in the face,” my father said.

I kept staring into my own face, which was not smiling but also did not look sad. I closed my eyes and counted to three and said to myself that when I opened my eyes again I would feel something, I would cry, but when I opened my eyes again I just saw the white slick of my front teeth and a few spots of color on my cheeks.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t give you this news in person,” my father said.


Dana Carpenter and I were not friends in grade school. We barely spoke. Once, at recess, she made me play this game with her called “Spot the Dyke,” which was not a real game but was just Dana spinning around in circles and beeping like a radar detector and then pointing at me. “Softball,” she said, “more like dykeball.” When I reminded her that I actually played baseball she laughed and said that was even worse, pointed at my breastless chest and asked if I was even a girl at all.

My roommate at prep school looked a lot like her: deep curve at the waist, wide breasts, a strange but lovely fat lip that made her look like she was always laughing at me. When my roommate slept she snored and when she didn’t sleep she masturbated, not quietly, under her blankets. I got used to tucking a large pair of headphones over my ears and playing old recordings of Yankees games on repeat. While I listened, I liked to stare out at the lake on the edge of our campus. During the day, the crew team used it for practice, but at night it just lapped in black silence. It reminded me of a lake my father had taken me to see once in Canada, in the town where he used to play professional baseball. It was somewhere in Montreal. Or maybe I’m remembering it wrong. Either way, he played in the cold. At night, I would touch the cold pane of the window and pretend that I was him, lying in a bed somewhere in Canada, just waiting for the sun to rise.


When I wasn’t in my room or in class or at the lake, I was usually at the animal shelter. I volunteered there. My school mandated that all students complete one hundred hours of community service each year, but most of my classmates had wealthy or political fathers that invented volunteer positions at their office or signed their forms whether the service had been completed or not. My father was neither of those things; he was currently traveling cross-country with a minor league baseball team. He was forty-four, and though local newspapers occasionally reported on his dedication to the sport, no one was waiting for him to finally get his big break.

So each Wednesday I worked from three to seven in the animal shelter with another girl from school, Atlanta. Atlanta was from even farther across the country than I was—the Rockies. She started a rumor about herself that her parents left her in the woods as a child to be raised by bears. Everyone knew it was a lie, but she was a beautiful girl, so most of us pretended to believe her.

At night, when we walked around the cages, Atlanta would give all the animals new names. A pit bull that cocked its head to one side reminded her of her best friend Patty, who’d died in a river rafting accident when she was five. She announced that a Siamese cat was the reincarnation of her fifth-grade science teacher, Mr. Shinn. No one, it seemed, ever left her.

One afternoon, the dogcatcher brought in a Siberian husky. When it paced in its cage, Atlanta began to coo. She informed me that her mother used to walk the exact same patterns when she spoke on the telephone. All afternoon, she sat on the floor and looked at the dog through the bars of its cage. When our shift was over, I came and sat next to her.

“Have you ever known anyone who’s died?” she asked me.


My older sister—half-sister—was going to grad school twenty minutes away. Every other Sunday she would drive down to my campus and pick me up on her moped. I would hold on to her waist and feel my hair sweat inside her too-small helmet and watch the auburn trees tick past our elbows. She never seemed to know what to do with me once she got me alone. Sometimes the two of us played board games or cards, other times she taught me how to braid my hair, let me sit on the floor and watch as she used those strange silver tongs to curl her eyelashes.

My sister was baptized the same day that Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon. As a young girl I sometimes got confused and believed that she was the one, actually, who first stepped onto a foreign world. I worshipped her, even though the two of us never lived in the same home. She’d lived with her own mother; I’d lived with mine. Now we both lived with roommates and ate most of our meals out of the microwave. She was seeing a man who was also her professor, something she’d shared with me in confidence, begged me never to share with our father. It was the first secret she’d ever told me, and it made me feel like I was finally an adult. When I stood next to her, I was finally just as tall. We had twin copies of our father’s nose, his fat cheeks, the serious way that he wrinkled his brow.

Once, while I was visiting, the professor came to her door. He had no hair on the top of his head, only the sides. I could see his clean, pink nails, framed in the red of the flowers he brought. She shrugged and took the bouquet. He followed the two of us inside and shook my hand.

“I didn’t know you had a sister,” he said.

“Half-sister,” she said, without a pause, unworried about whether the clarification would offend me.


In September, five refugees from Hurricane Katrina moved into our dorms. They were all boys. The headmaster called them up to the stage during our Friday assembly and they stared back at us, disinterested, as Dr. Ford lectured about community, about the endless generosity of our school. They were wearing polo shirts and pants with small whales printed on them and the clothes were so stiff it was clear they had just come out of the store. That afternoon, I saw one of the boys kicking a soccer ball across the grass alone, sweating in the cold afternoon sun. I watched his cheeks flush, watched as he stripped layer after layer over his head until he was sprinting across the frost-tipped grass in no shirt, thighs nearly bare to the wind.


Autumn had tricked the hills away from their green. The East Coast sweaters arrived—elbow patches, large buttons and toggles. The girls continued to wear their small skirts and so I did too. I learned to shave above my knees and enjoy touching the pink bruise of my cold thighs. Atlanta said I would grow used to it and I did. If the sun came out I could even bear to sit outside on the grass for almost an hour and watch the boys with blond hair and rich Daddies who wore pink pants and played golf with tennis balls. Their belts were decorated with flourescent lobsters and I was furiously jealous of them. I was jealous of everyone that fall, it seemed, even those poor boys from New Orleans. What I wanted was the ease of their suffering, the simplicity with which they could point at the tragedies in their lives and identify them, no explanation required. At night, in my bed, not listening to the sounds my roommate made, sometimes I would hear myself begin to cry, but I never quite knew why.

When Dana was alive, she used to tell me that I wasn’t interesting because I hadn’t suffered. She had suffered; she wanted me to know. Her father was a cop. He was shot once in the hip and once in the neck. She told me this story while we were both waiting for our parents to pick us up from school. No one there knew that my mother was dead and I didn’t know how to share that information. I wanted so badly to be like Dana, the kind of girl who showed her grief as simply as pinning a flower to her hair.


A few days later, that boy with the soccer ball and I were called into the headmaster’s office. He introduced the two of us and informed me that the boy, whose name was Eric, would be playing on the school’s soccer team.

“And Beth,” he said, “is the first girl to play for our school’s baseball team.”

Eric nodded. He looked down at his nails and began picking at the skin around them. He slipped his index finger into his mouth and chewed at the cuticle.

“We’d like to take both of your pictures this afternoon,” the headmaster said. “For the school paper. You know, to highlight the charity of our school.”

“Charity?” I said.

“Well,” the headmaster said, “you have to admit, not all schools would be as accommodating about your . . . circumstances.”


“Baseball is, traditionally, a sport for men.”

Eric took his finger out of his mouth. He looked at me. “Isn’t baseball season in the spring?”

In the picture, which my father unfortunately cut out and kept, my mouth is open, like someone has caught my lip with a fishhook. Eric is sitting next to me and looking out into the distance, an expression on his face that now, as an adult, makes something hurt deep in my throat. At the time, though, all I could see was the handsome set of his jaw. I even fell in love with him for a few months, went to every single soccer game with Atlanta by my side.

The last game of the season, I thought I saw him look over at me once and wave, but he was just knocking dirt from his cleats. The whistle blew and they resumed play. It was November, and the fog rolled off the lake and settled around the field, thickening and shrouding the entire campus until it felt like Atlanta and I were sitting in the center of a cataract. The lights on the field helped some, but they only illuminated the top halves of the boys, so it looked like a game of shoulders facing off against each other, floating fragments of children racing across the grass.


I stopped sleeping and started sneaking out of my dorm room at night. The lake began to freeze, and I liked to touch it with my hands. I stood beside it and twisted my arms like I was swinging at a curve, imagined Koufax, the rumor that you could hear the sound of his breaking ball. I ran wind sprints around the brambles, the dead grass, pushing my body into my father’s ghost until the sun arrived and reminded the world to split itself back into ground and sky.


The first week of November, everyone in my dorm caught the flu except for me. I walked through the cages of the animal shelter alone. While I filled out paperwork, I let my favorite dog, named Ben, out of his pen and he sat next to me, pushing his nose against my leg as I cleaned the spam out of the shelter’s email. It was quiet that afternoon, had been quiet for weeks. Ben and I fed the other dogs in their pens and he played chase with a cat missing one eye. I started hosing down the empty enclosures, scrubbing out the stains from the dogs that had already found homes. While I washed, my boss walked down the halls with a clipboard and made note of weak links in the fences, drains that tended to clog. I thought about how grateful I was that I’d never had to see them put an animal down, though my boss told me this was something they did regularly in the spring.

“Kitten season,” she said. “We’ll get dozens of litters a day for weeks.”

I knew that in the spring I’d probably have to leave the shelter; it would interfere with baseball practice. But I didn’t tell my boss that afternoon. I wanted to be sure that she understood I wasn’t a coward. I knew things about death; I could face it.


My father came to visit for Thanksgiving, took my sister and me out for dinner. He picked her up first and I tried to catch glimpses of his face from the backseat. His beard was not the black that I remembered, but salted with gray. There were bruises up and down his arms.

“I can’t explain it,” he said. “I just seem to bruise so easily these days.”

Back on campus, my father got out of his car and walked me up the steps to my dormitory. I felt like a stranger with him by my side. The boy from New Orleans was running laps around the field and my father looked at him.

“Wow,” he said. “That’s speed. Wish I could move like that.”

He whistled through his teeth. The boy turned and I hunched my shoulders; I didn’t want to be recognized. I understood suddenly why Atlanta might want to pretend that her parents were impossible, unnamable things.


By the spring, I would see Atlanta only in the halls between our classes. My hands would smell like pine tar and sunscreen and my friends would be the boys I played baseball with and their girlfriends. By then, all five of the boys from New Orleans would have left our school and the East Coast. Of the five of them, Eric was the only boy who didn’t try to move home. His family drove all the way to California. The rest of them returned south. One of them became a prison guard and died in a riot. Another opened up a successful smoothie chain. Everyone at my school forgot their names.


The night before Christmas break, I slipped outside of my window again. I walked through the dark and the snow crisped and then collapsed beneath my boots. When I got to the lake I didn’t stop; I kept walking. I felt that the lake might stretch on forever. That I could cross beyond the state, maybe even farther still. I looked up at the clear, polished stars. Their steady light. I spoke to myself. I said, well, Beth, here’s the good news: in a few years you will have forgotten what it feels like to be young and alone. But as soon as I said it I knew it wasn’t true. And I was right. Years later, I can still remember, even without closing my eyes, those boys and their foggy backs, the sound Atlanta’s feet made walking the animals through the grass, those eerie bruises palominoed across my father’s tan. I can still remember that night standing on the solid water, how I took step after step away from the shore. How I waited for the ice to weaken, for the white beneath my feet to splinter like buckshot, like blossom.  

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