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A Wolf In Virginia


ISSUE:  Summer 2003

There is a wolf in my woods. This is surprising, as I live in Virginia and wolves do not. But there he stands, with a silvery back, dark shoulders, and eyes like water beneath ice. My dog, a black shepherd mix named Mingus, growls through the screen door. They look the same size, 80, maybe 90 pounds. My wife Heather gave Mingus to me on our first year anniversary. He still lives here, though Heather does not. The wolf sniffs the air and looks in my direction. I want to believe that some ancient migrational instinct has brought the wolf here. That, perhaps, genetic information from another era has inexplicably overridden the wolf’s better judgment and delivered him, thin and slightly confused, to my woods in Free Union, Virginia.

But this is not true, and I know it. This wolf is from eastern Russia. He and his pack were shot with tranquilizer darts, crated, and set upon an ocean-crossing cargo ship bound for the Chesapeake Bay. From there, the wolves were placed in temporary holding crates until Dr. Jacob Conrad, the head of the Wildlife Ecology Lab in Wisconsin, could pick them up. He had recently resurrected the program when a lack of funding and his own mental breakdown closed the doors. The charges held against him for marking his territory in the university sculpture garden were dropped. Dr. Conrad planned to drive the wolves home to Wisconsin where he envisioned a spectacular release. In his mind, this project would both fortify the small population of timber wolves already inhabiting the region and restore his tarnished reputation.

Elvis Moon had a better idea. Elvis lives about a mile down Miner’s Mountain Road from me and works for the Virginia Department of Transportation; we all call it V-dot. It’s not that Elvis loves wolves; it’s that he hates beavers. Beavers are plentiful in Free Union. They cut down trees with their long, sharp teeth, as beavers tend to do and, as a result, dam rivers and flood roads. A V-dot employee, Elvis is responsible for cleaning up the mess. Initially, V-dot encouraged residents to hunt and trap beavers. Elvis shot and killed 39 beavers himself. But not enough of the locals cared one way or the other; their oversized SUV’s plowed through the two or three inches of flood water without ever slowing down.

Left to his own devices, Elvis would never have come up with his plan for the wolves. In fact, the whole thing is my fault. I had been researching timber wolves for a magazine article on animals making a comeback. I ran across Dr. Conrad’s papers on the Internet, phoned, and spoke to him about the subject of integrating new wolf packs into an existing ecosystem. Conrad held high hopes for introducing Russian wolves to Wisconsin. He said adding new blood to the genetic pool could make all the difference.

“Hell, have you been to the pound?” he asked. “Those mutts have twice the health and vigor of most purebreds.”

“My wife got my dog at the pound,” I said. “Mingus is the happiest dog I’ve ever owned.”

“But health. Not happiness. Health is what I’m getting at.” Conrad paused and made a sound like he was smoking a cigar. “With all those combinations of genetic material, nature is able to build a better machine. No inbred mutations. Perfect chromosomal alignment.”

Dad sits in his leather reading chair, bony legs cocked out, his right hand rubbing his swollen stomach.

“The tumors are pressing against my other organs,” he says.

My brother’s wife Sarah holds her own swollen belly. “I think I know what you mean,” she says.

My brother Graham tells Dad that he loves him. He asks if there is anything he can do. He grips his knees.

My father stares out at the darkening woods through the glass door. “I don’t know what in the hell anybody expects me to say.”

I stand, slide open the door, and step out onto the balcony. A buck picks his way between the trees. He sniffs the air with his head held low. A doe stands on the ridge. Graham has followed me out and leans against the wooden rail.

“I guess that’s all we can do,” he says.

“I guess,” I say,

“I mean, what would you say?”

“I don’t know. Something. I think I would say something.”

“He’s been drinking.”

“And driving,” I say.

“Where’s Stella?”

“I couldn’t get through.”

“Did he say anything when you guys went into his study?”

“He was confused,” I say. “He kept bringing up something about a clock and keeping the right time. He pointed to a picture of the kids and said that we were all late. He made me hold his shotgun to see if it was the right size.”

“He made me do the same thing,” he says.

“I didn’t know what to say.”

“I’m supposed to take the painting over the mantle.”

“I fucking hate this.”

We both look at the buck. He steps so painfully slow that it seems as if he will never make it out of sight.

I told Elvis all about the wolves over beers on my back porch last week. He told me about beavers. Elvis never stops moaning about the beavers.

“Wolves eat beavers,” I said and scratched Mingus behind the ear.

“That right?” Elvis asked. “Goddamn.”

“Yep. Mostly in spring and fall.” I gulped my beer. “That’s when the beavers spend more time on the banks. You know, cutting down trees.”

“Fuck I know.” Elvis crushed his can. “Goddamn vermin. Do we have any wolves in Virginia?”

“Afraid not.” I handed Elvis another beer. “But there’s going be a pack of them at the docks in Norfolk next week.”

Elvis cracked his beer and motioned for me to continue while he drank. His beard is so thick that spills bead up like dew.

“From Russia,” I said. “There’s a guy in Wisconsin who had the wolves shipped over so he could turn them loose.”

“Why the hell would anybody do a thing like that?”

“I told you,” I said. “He wants to add to the gene pool. Bolster the health of the population. He’s a smart guy. Enthusiastic as hell.”

“Goddamn.” Elvis stood up and stamped his massive boot. Mingus flicked his ears and barked. “How can I get some?” He grinned and craned his neck forward. “Wolves eat goddamn beavers.”

“You can’t get any wolves, Elvis.” I finished my own beer and retrieved another. “You have to have all sorts of credentials and paperwork. Research studies, numbers, corporate and government grants. All that shit takes years. You’re no Doc Conrad.”

“Hell with Conrad. We need wolves right here.” Elvis spat tobacco juice into my dead garden. “Goddamn.”

“That would be something,” I said. “Wolves in Virginia.”

The doctor sits down and explains my father’s diagnosis: concussion, cirrhosis, stomach ulcers. He pauses. Lung cancer, throat cancer, and liver cancer. The accident was bad—he’s very disoriented right now, the doctor says, but it’s the cancer that will kill him. I know all this already. He asks if there is anyone I should call. I’ve called Graham, but not Stella.

“I should call Stella. I should call my sister.”

I walk to the little gray phone cubicle, sit down, and punch the numbers. My brother Graham is already on his way, but Dad and Stella haven’t spoken in over six years.

“Stella?”

“Yes.”

“Stella, it’s Mark.”

“Oh Mark, how are you?”

“Dad’s in the hospital.”

“I’m sure he is.”

“There was an accident.”

“Did he kill anyone?”

“No.”

I pause for Stella to say something, but she doesn’t. “Come on, Sis.”

“How’s Heather?”

“I wouldn’t know,” I say.

The distance between us crackles on the line.

In the intensive care unit, Dad lies on a gurney enclosed by blue and white curtains. I stand next to the gurney with my legs pressed up against the metal guardrails. Dad looks right at me and asks in a shaky voice just who in the hell I am. He reaches for a chest pocket, but the hospital gown doesn’t have one. His cigarettes, of course, are not there either. Two other patients lie in the room. They have curtains as well, but the noise of machines beeping and pumping, of heavy, uncomfortable breathing, and the occasional fragments of mumbling pass right through. The nurse tells me they want to get Dad stable and into his own room quickly. She says we’ll need privacy.

“The tumor in his liver has swollen to the size, well, to about the size of a grapefruit,” she says. “Also, the cancer has metastasized.”

“What does that mean?” I ask.

“Just that it’s spread to other parts of his body. Liver, lungs, throat. It’s in his blood. We’re checking on a lymph node as well.”

“Christ,” I say. “He didn’t give us specifics. I knew he was dying. He made that clear. But he also made it sound like this could go on for a while.” I shove my hands in my pockets. “How much time does he have?”

“The doctor will talk to you about that. They have to run more tests. It is possible that treatments will be ineffective at this stage.”

“Christ,” I say and move toward the door. “I’ll be right back.”

In the hospital bathroom, small printed signs above all the urinals say “Please Conserve Water,” but I flush anyway. The smell of vomit is strong. I step out of the stall.

One of the other stall doors opens. Slowly, the top half of a balding head emerges. As the man’s eyes appear, they meet mine. His head pulls back fast and the door slams shut. I hear the lock click into place.

At the sink, another sign reminds me to conserve water. I cup my hands and rinse my mouth. A plastic pump bottle of antibacterial gel sits in place of the soap, so I use it. My hands feel more than clean. They feel sterile. Virginia has been under drought conditions for months.

In the mirror, I see the bald man climbing over the side of the stall. His eyes are darting back and forth between the next stall and my back. It looks like he’s wearing pajamas. His arms shake as he teeters on the steel divider. As soon as he realizes I see him, he drops all at once, one leg dunking into the toilet below. I hear a high-pitched yelp and water splashes out from under the door.

“You ok?” I ask.

“No,” he says, finally stepping out of the stall. “I’m wet.”

The bald man’s eyes look to me with childlike guilt. He is wearing thin hospital clothes. The green pants cling to his skinny legs.

“Don’t tell them,” he suddenly pleads. “Don’t tell them where I am. Don’t tell them I’m all wet.”

“Ok,” I say. “I won’t tell.”

“Thank you. Oh, thank you.” The bald man smiles and begins to step toward me, but hears something outside the bathroom and retreats to his stall. He locks the door and lifts his legs out of view.

Elvis claims the first one was easy. His buddy Hands, who works at the docks and is reputed to have bootlegged more black market whiskey into the country than any man alive, had provided the gate pass and key. Inside, he simply opened the crate, lifted the anesthetized wolf, carried him to his pickup, and locked him in a cage he keeps for his dogs. After that, Elvis said, things got tricky.

Dr. Conrad showed up at the Norfolk docks at three in the morning. He had planned on stopping midway for the night, but the anticipation of finally seeing his wolves firsthand pushed him on. He imagined himself comforting the wolves in their uprooted and drugged state. He liked to think that they would remember his kindness in the wild. That they might approach him as a loyal dog approaches his master. In time, the wolves could adopt him as the alpha male, allowing him to control the pack’s movement into the most remote areas of Wisconsin. Counting on his knowledge of local pack distribution and following the blips of tagged specimens, he could then shun some of his pack members such that the outcast wolves would integrate into other packs, mate, and begin new genetic lines with superior health. Once Conrad had reduced his pack to the core members, he planned to shed his clothes, drop to all fours, and return to what he now considered his natural state. His brain swimming in these thoughts, Conrad drove straight through from Wisconsin, smoking cigars and drinking coffee, and arrived just in time to discover Elvis Moon, a wolf under each arm, turning up a beer by holding it with his teeth.

Dr. Conrad ran to Elvis on adrenaline and kicked him in the crotch. Elvis dropped to his knees and let go of the wolves. The beer bottle clicked off his teeth and shattered on the cement. Conrad only managed to get one wolf back into the crate before Elvis regained composure and hit him in the jaw. The impact of the blow lobbed Conrad’s cigar onto the second wolf. Conrad began screaming and lunged for Elvis’ throat. Elvis held him back by the shoulders and kicked Conrad in the gut. Conrad crumpled. His breathing sounded like torn bellows. By now, the cigar on the second wolf had burned through her dense coat, scorching the skin. The wolf twitched, shook off the cigar, and lifted her head. Elvis leaned over Conrad. The wolf, fighting tranquilizers, stood and took a woozy step toward the two men. She growled. Elvis, who already had one wolf, turned and ran. The byline in the Tuesday Norfolk Daily read, “Stolen Wolf: Ecology Expert Found Sleeping Naked with Remaining Pack.”

At Dad’s house, I go through the mail. Magazines and bills. I stack the magazines on his desk and open the bills one at a time. When I get to his credit card bill, I stop to look through the charges. He owes money from stops at the gas station, grocery store, restaurants, and bars. The Double Olive, Havana 59, Southside Brewery, and an allnight cabaret called Hothouse. The bill at Hothouse is $437.23.

“What the hell costs four hundred dollars at a cabaret?” I ask out loud.

“What?” Graham calls out from the kitchen. He drove to Dad’s house first. Graham is an advertising executive in Richmond. He says he got lost trying to find the hospital.

“To hell with this,” I say and toss the bills onto the desk.

“What?” he asks again.

“Nothing,” I say.

Graham comes in with beers. He looks just like Dad. I take one of the beers and swallow half of it. “You pay the bills. I can’t do it.”

“Ok,” he says. “You call Stella.”

“I already tried,” I say. “I called from the hospital.”

“Fuck her,” he says.

“Hey,” I say. “I’m pissed too.”

“Yeah, but you’re here.”

“It’s all the same to him.”

“He’ll come around. I bet he’ll know who you are tomorrow.” Graham looks up at me. “Have you talked to Heather?”

“No,” I say. “She said not to call.”

“Call anyway,” he says.

I start to respond but finish the beer instead.

“I had a dream about her,” I say. “Heather is laying in bed next to me, white T-shirt just down to her hips; her head in between the pillows. I’m propped up against the headboard. Heather sits up and drapes a rosary over my head. The cross and beads are carved from rough stone. Sandstone maybe. Something porous that feels like sandpaper. The stones are earth colors, from bleached out white to dark brown. In the dream, I can feel the weight of the stones on my bare chest. Then Heather pushes the beads down harder with her hand. The stones are rough and scrape against my skin, but I can also feel the warmth of her fingers and palm. Heather says it is very important for me to have these. I don’t know anything about religion, but the stones are somehow comforting. I like the weight.”

I stand up to get another beer. I keep talking.

“In the dream, I’m nervous. I know I can’t keep it up. I guess I know she’s leaving. So right on cue, the bed is empty. I’m sitting on the floor. The rosary is gone, and I can’t see Heather. Like a magic trick.”

“Huh,” Graham says. “Get me a beer while you’re up.”

“She’s been gone three months,” I say from the kitchen.

“I don’t think they make rosaries out of stone,” he says. “Don’t they have to be carved from wood?”

“No,” I say. “I don’t know about sandstone, but you can get them in all sorts of other styles. I saw some on the Internet. Turquoise, tiger’s eye, pearls, quartz. The Vatican sells them right on-line. You can even request to have yours blessed by the pope.”

“No shit,” he says.

“Did Dad go in for that stuff?” I ask. “I don’t mean Internet rosaries, but church on Sundays, communion, that sort of thing.”

“I don’t know. He never talked about it.” Graham picks at the label on his beer. “I think I saw him cross himself when Clinton was elected.”

“I bet he’s thinking about it now,” I say. “I bet everyone thinks about it when you get this close.”

I awake sweating, having dreamt of the wolf. I call the office to say I’m sick and head for the hospital. I park on the fourth level of the deck and walk to the elevator. I push the button and wait.

“Psst.”

“Hello?” I say and look behind me.

“Psst.” A balding head pokes out from behind a Mercedes.

“Have you told?” he asks and steps out from the shadows.

“What?”

“Have you told them about me? You have. I mean, they’re after me. I’ve heard them calling my name.”

“Who?”

“White coats,” he says. “You told. They’re after me.”

“No,” I say. “I haven’t told anyone.”

“Did you know they keep the bodies in the basement?” the bald man asks.

“The morgue,” I say.

“That’s code,” he says. “It really means Medulla Oblongata Removal and Grafting Enterprise.” He glances over his shoulder and adds, “They’re stealing brains.”

“Oh,” I say. “Hey, what does the “u” stand for?”

“I haven’t figured it all out. Not yet.”

“Oh.”

“You told them,” he whispers through gritted teeth. “You’re one of them.”

“No,” I say. “They have my father. I’m here for my father.”

“Liar,” he says. “You don’t have a father. You just want that man’s insides. You’re one of them. Thief!” The bald man leans forward, spits at me, and runs for the darkness.

Dad lies still with tubes stemming out of his nose and forearm. Another one trails out from under the sheets. His stomach is so swollen, even lying on his back, that it seems as artificial as a costume. His hands twitch. At least he has his own room now, I think. At least no one else has to see this. I sit and watch the muted television screen. Oprah is talking to Regis, but I can’t tell who is playing host and who is playing guest.

Graham steps in halfway. “Am I interrupting anything?”

“No,” I say. “He’s not conscious.”

“Any news?”

“No. The doctors haven’t been by yet.” I find the remote and shut off the television. “What’s that?”

Graham sets down an arrangement of flowers on the table.

“I don’t know what else to do,” he says.

I shrug.

“Have you called Heather?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I say. “She asked if she could have Mingus for the weekend.”

“Anything else?”

“She called me a selfish fuck.”

“Oh,” he says.

I consider turning the television back on. “I wonder if Dad would have cancer if he hadn’t smoked and drank so much? I mean, do you think some people are just marked for it?”

“I don’t understand,” Graham says.

“Do you think it’s in our blood?” I ask. “Our genes?”

“I hope not. But if it is, you and I need to get our hands on some of those Internet rosaries. Pay extra and have them blessed by the pope.”

Dad mumbles something and lifts one hand. He looks like he might hail Hitler, but then his face goes slack and the hand drops. For an instant, I see myself in 20 years.

Elvis made it back to Free Union by daylight. He called and said to meet behind his double-wide. I asked why and he said, “You got to see this wolf!” I didn’t ask any more questions. I was still up after a sleepless night. I had called Heather and asked when she wanted to pick up Mingus. I twisted the cap of a scotch bottle on and off three times before she spoke.

“Friday, at six,” she said. “How’s your father?”

“Not good,” I said. “They say he could go anytime.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I am too.”

“I hope you’re not drinking,” she said.

“Not much,” I said. “Mingus is getting his winter coat.”

“Not much?”

“It’s thick. He was so small last winter you couldn’t tell.” Mingus looked at me from the floor.

“Will you talk to me please?” she asked.

I uncrossed my legs and passed the phone from one ear to the other.

“I could cook something for us when you stop by?” I said.

“No,” she said. “I’d prefer it if you weren’t there.”

Then she hung up. I stared at the bottle of scotch until the phone, still off the hook, began to beep. I returned it to the cradle and picked up the bottle. I poured one shot into a glass and the rest into the sink. My stomach fell into knots. Mingus rolled over, scratching his back on the rug. I sat next to him on the floor, rubbed his belly, and leaned against the kitchen cabinet. The cooling night had chilled the stone floor. I moved onto the rug and lay next to Mingus. Holding his paws, I closed my eyes and tried to bring Heather’s face to mind. Nothing came. I thought of the scotch on the counter, but forced myself to focus on Heather. I stayed there through the night, listening to Mingus breathe, and found that his paws smell like wet leather. I wondered if the paws of a wolf smell the same.

When I pulled into the drive, Elvis was holding up what looked like a calendar to the cage. He pointed to the picture above the grid, bared his teeth, and chomped at the air. I parked and walked over.

“What’s with the calendar?” I asked.

“They come in the mail,” he said, “My little girl loves them. Guess what this month’s animal is?”

“Beaver,” I said.

“Damn straight.”

The wolf, no longer medicated, dug at the corners of the cage until his paws bled. Neither of us wanted to open the gate. I suggested we carry the cage to the edge of the woods and tie a rope to the latch. We did, and from fifty feet away, swung open the wire door. The wolf froze. Elvis looked at the wolf, then at me, then back at the wolf. He took a step forward.

“Go get them goddamn beavers!” he yelled.

The wolf eased his head out of the cage, took a last look our way, and bolted into the woods.

“How many beavers do you think he’ll eat?” Elvis asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe he’ll eat them all.”

I’m stacking firewood on the back porch. The acorns have fallen and cover the brick patio. Enough leaves have shed that I can see the Indian River, a creek really, slinking down a crease in this ragged mountain. I stack the last of it, maybe a cord and a half—not nearly enough—and sweep up the bark and beetles from the floor. It’s been five hours since the funeral. I grab a bucket and mop, head upstairs, and lift some chairs onto my bed. I mop like hell for 20 minutes. I return the chairs. I put away the mop and grab a cloth and oil. I wipe down everything made of wood. Chairs, chest, bookshelves, coffee table, kitchen table, desk, and lockbox. My grandfather made the lockbox for me when I was a child. I had pleaded for a pirate’s treasure chest, and he gave me what I asked for. Inside, I keep family pictures. From great-granddad in his colonel’s uniform to a profile shot of Sarah’s pregnant belly, and everyone in between. I oil the box once a week. My cabin smells strong of oil now and I put it away. Thirty more minutes have passed. I head back downstairs, Windex and wipe the windows. I do the same upstairs. It takes ten minutes. I sweep the acorns from the patio. I use Comet on the bathtub. Twenty minutes. I dig out last year’s ashes from the black iron woodstove. Eight minutes. My hands are black with soot. I walk out to the garden, dead already, and sprinkle some of the ashes all over. Heather told me ash is good for the soil. I take a shovel and work it into the hard ground. I cut back dead stems of basil and oregano. I churn fruitless tomato plants back into the earth. The garden was Heather’s passion, and I don’t know how to maintain it. I lift the shovel over my head and smash down dead pepper plants. I smack them flat. I swing at the unplucked cabbage and kick through the corn stalks. I’m about to go after the eggplant when a movement in the woods catches my eye.

I step out of the garden, shovel in hand, and head toward the river. I walk 50 yards. The water is just a trickle. The wolf stands at the other side, watching me. I take hold of the shovel’s handle, swing hard, and slam the metal wedge into the base of a red maple. The impact sends a shock to my elbows and wrists; the ringing blast peals out into the woods like bells. The wolf jumps, cowers, and turns an anxious circle. He’s unsure of which way to run. I hit it again, harder. The woods fill with sound. I hit the oak harder still and my elbows throb, my wrists burn, my ears buzz. Finally the wolf runs, heading north, his silvery back disappearing into turning leaves. I’m hoping instinct will tell him to keep going, keep heading north. Dr. Conrad told me that some wolves, he called them dispersers, travel hundreds of miles from their original home. Maybe Wisconsin isn’t too far. One last time, I swing the shovel.

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