He had been a hunter all of his life,
and so he learned how to skin animals,
and then how to stuff them. He got good
at it, and word of his skill spread.
Men who had shot bucks and foxes
sought him out. He made a few bucks
that way, enough to put himself through
school and get his teaching certificate.
When he reported for work the first week
to teach freshman biology, he got off on
the right foot with the kids; firm, but not
too stern. He tried to convince them that
cutting up worms and frogs was fun, if
you had the right attitude about it.
But they were mostly city kids, college prep
types, who’d never hunted in their lives.
The second month, October, he told them they
would be doing a leaf collection project.
He told them how they should preserve the leaves
in a cardboard box with wax paper in between
them, what kind of leaves they had to collect,
what the trees looked like. Some of the kids
looked bored, but for others it was a welcome
change from the chloroform and formaldehyde.
He was at home one Sunday, working in his
basement on a raccoon, molding it to a log,
when he began to feel light-headed. It was
as if he was in a dream, but awake. He went
out to his car and, as if controlled by forces
he couldn’t see, drove to Kansas City. There,
he had a hamburger at a drive-in, then drove
down into the heart of the city, and parked.
He began to walk around, not knowing what
he was looking for. As he wandered the
streets, he seemed to be watching a movie of
himself, not living his life. It was as if he
was the animal he was working on from on
high, outside of himself. He didn’t know
where the he who observed was located,
or what tools and chemicals he was using,
but he thought he had done a masterful job—so
lifelike, so realistic. He noticed that people were
looking at him as if he were in fact a well-stuffed
animal, and the man who had made him a real artist.
He would smile back at everyone who admired him,
happy to know he would probably win a prize if
he was entered in the Hobby Competition at the
Missouri State Fair—maybe even get a blue ribbon.
He wandered until he was so tired he had to lie down on
the sidewalk and fell asleep. When he woke up the
next morning, he emptied his pockets and bought a
fried egg sandwich and a cup of black coffee at a diner,
and continued to walk the streets of the city. This time,
it was as if everyone else were on display, and he was
walking the aisles to examine them in glass cases; a few
people returned his gaze with alarm, but he just passed on.
He emerged from the skin he’d been in to find himself in
a cell; his fingernails were long, and curled in on themselves.
He could see his hair without looking in a mirror; it hung in
matted strands in front of his face. He got food three times
a day and a place to sleep. Now he was back on display,
along with other human animals. There were very few
spectators, and they didn’t linger or look long. They would
stop in front of a cage and say “That’s him,” and one of the
other animals would be released to its owner. In just this fashion
his father appeared, grey and haggard, in front of his cage one
morning, and said “Yes, that’s my son.” They had opened up
the door and let him out, and his father had taken him away in
the Oldsmobile that his dad had said was the last car he’d ever buy.
He stayed at home for some time, cleaned up and made to stay
quiet in a chair while he recovered. Winter passed and then he
noticed green buds on the trees, and he understood it was spring.
His doctor came and examined him, and pronounced him fit to
return to the classroom. His students had had a succession of
substitute teachers, each one beginning where the kids told him
or her the last one had left off. They had all abandoned their leaf
collections except for one boy, an honor student, who’d been told
that he’d better not bring up the subject when the taxidermist came back.
His first day back he looked out at the class as he had looked at the
strangers on the streets of Kansas City—vacant and unfocused.
“Good morning,” he said. “I’m back. Where did we leave off?”
The students seemed to have glass eyes, like the animals he’d stuffed.
From “Town Folk & Country People.”