Great and Small
BY JENNI MOODY
He started running in the summer, and I encouraged him. It was sweltering. Humid. Hot. People stayed indoors and went out at dawn and dusk like cockroaches. But Jim was outside, running, in the middle of the day. When he’d come back, his shirt would be soaked through. He’d drop it on the floor of the bathroom to see how it would sound. It reminded me of going swimming when I was younger.
The running was great. Jim came back without his depression and his frustration from his part-time job. And it gave me a few hours of quiet, alone in the house without his frenetic energy filling our small three-room apartment.
But then he started bringing the animals back with him, and the running became something different. The first time it was a squirrel. It had fallen from a tree branch over the street, and a car had caught its tail. Jim came into the house just as I was finishing up another job application, the squirrel clinging to his shirt as if it were something more domestic. A ferret or a sugar glider like they sell at the mall.
“What should we do with him?” I was the least qualified person to do first aid on anyone. Anything. I’d passed out during the slides of deep cuts at the CPR qualification for my last job.
Midnight, our cat, had a few ideas. I pushed her into the bedroom, gave her a scratch under her chin, and shut the door.
“Let’s just give him a bit of time to recuperate.”
The bedroom door started shaking, a black paw whisked under the door and Midnight made one of her bird-chattering noises that meant she was on the hunt.
“Where?” I looked around our small apartment. There was no safe haven for a small creature where it would be safe from our cat.
Jim pulled a clean towel down from the top of the bathroom cabinet and filled a cat dish with water. He made a nest of towels in the corner of the bathtub, away from the drain. He even pulled out a few almonds from the kitchen and pushed them into the folds.
The squirrel lay on the towel, cleaning its face with tiny grey fingers.
We shut the bathroom door and went into the kitchen.
Jim cut potatoes for a curry, his most recent sweat-soaked shirt drying on the front porch. In five minutes, the sun would iron it stiff.
“How did you find the squirrel?” I’d seen the dead ones on the road. It was pretty common in our neighborhood, especially in the summer. But I didn’t understand how he’d gotten so close to an injured animal, and how it had trusted him enough to cling to his t-shirt and ride on his chest all the way home. I’m not even sure a cat would do that kind of thing.
Jim pulled a can of coconut milk from the fridge. “It’s weird. He kind of just ran into my path.”
I sat at the kitchen table looking through more job postings on my laptop. There was a small rapping noise at the window. At first I thought it was a branch, but when I turned there was a squirrel there, a tiny hand against the glass as if it were asking to be let in.
At night as we lay together in the darkness, I asked him the questions he was too busy to answer during the day. It was easier to talk in the softness of sheets, the bridge of intimacy and trust built with skin.
“How could the Union of Superheroes turn down your application again?”
“They said I didn’t qualify. You need proof of a minimum of one hundred lives saved and have national news source documentation of an arch-enemy.”
“Did you send them the profile from The Daily Independent?”
“They said I was a good Samaritan, and that my work was commendable, but that I wasn’t quite on the level of superhero.”
Midnight jumped up onto the bed, circle-stomped, and then nestled into the valley between my leg and Jim’s.
We had a week of summer rain, and it cooled off enough for me to sit on the front porch and fill out job applications on my laptop while Jim went running. He started bringing back birds, box turtles, squirrels, and once a whole litter of baby opossums. The stray cats in the neighborhood came like clockwork to our door for dinner and clean water. We weren’t spending much, but we were spending more than we had. My student loans had run out with all of the graduation fees, and that six-month grace period was growing smaller every day.
I had my feet up on our red plastic cooler, emailing my resume for a position as receptionist at a law firm.
Leaves crunched around the side of the house. Jim ducked his head beneath the branches of the magnolia tree, his arm cradling a wild rabbit, one of its ears nearly torn in half.
Jim handed the rabbit to me and its back feet started pumping the air as soon as my fingers touched fur. He sat down to pull his t-shirt off but I stopped him.
“Just a minute.” I handed him back the rabbit and ran inside to get my camera. In the photograph he’s standing there, looking dazed, the sweat on his t-shirt formed into the shape of a heart. I am not making this up.
“It’s like you’re a superhero,” I said.
I rested the palm of my hand on Jim’s chest, traced the line of his collar bone.
“What about the League of Environmental Heroes?”
“The Environmental Heroes all went citizen. They figured they could do more good as lawyers.”
“Maybe you could team up with Whale Man.”
“I got an email last night from the Ocean Guardians. They can’t offer me a place unless I grow some gills. They said I’d slow them down with an oxygen tank and worries about the bends.”
“But we don’t know yet. Maybe if you were in the water for an extended period you’d adapt. Maybe you just need that opportunity for it to materialize.”
“Maybe I’m already where I’m supposed to be.”
The rain started in again and Jim got up to go sit on the front porch and watch for small animals caught in the ditches, carried away in the swirls of rainwater and thunder. Midnight stood up when he left, walked up the length of my body to rub her cheek against mine, and then let her body fall with a thud onto Jim’s pillow, the very tip of her tail swishing at my nose.
One company did want in on Jim’s abilities—a raw power bar company based in California.
“‘Ahimsa Man,’” Jim laughed. “I’m an atheist for Christ’s sake!”
We munched on the box of sample power bars and looked over the mock-up sketch of the photo shoot they were pitching. Jim’s long hair let down across his shoulders, a well-worn t-shirt with a barely visible mandala printed in a red dye. Ahimsa Bars planned to bring in a bunch of animals and perch them on his shoulders and in his lap.
But he was going to have to fly out to Los Angeles. They wanted him to stay a week, maybe more.
Jim thought it would be too much time away. “Think of all the animals I could be helping here instead of doing a commercial.”
I went to our cabinet and opened the door. It was empty except for some spices, peanut butter, and an almost empty box of instant mashed potatoes. I pulled down the jar of peanut butter, scraped so clean you could see through the plastic, and placed it on the table. “The commercial money can pay for food. For us and for your friends.”
He sat at the kitchen table, a litter of baby opossums cradled in the bottom of his t-shirt. He fed each one with a dropper and they held onto his finger with a tenderness I couldn’t understand.
“I’ll take over while you’re gone,” I told him.
He didn’t look up from the baby opossums. One of them had a tiny pink tail curled around his thumb.
“I’ll walk every evening and look for the animals that need help.”
He was quiet for a long time. I picked up the empty peanut butter jar and put it in the recycling bin. A moment later one of the raccoons dipped his hand into the bin and fished it out.
I leaned against the counter, pressed my palms against my eyelids.
“Ok,” he said. “I’ll go.”
I waited until dusk and set out down the street. I carried an assortment of treats in a little bag since I didn’t have Jim’s superpowers.
The half-homeless cats, the ones who have houses where they are fed but not let inside, were out on the lawns. One white cat lay beneath a miniature Japanese maple. I beckoned him over to the sidewalk for a scratch behind the ears. “He’s deaf,” a neighbor called out to me as he watered his tulips. “No use trying to wake him up, either.”
Another black cat lounged behind the wheel of a car parked on the street. I held out a treat. “Here kitty. Here, here.” I coaxed him onto a shady spot on the sidewalk.
Ten scratches under the chins of cats.
Two frogs shooed out of the road.
One stepping out into the road in front of a car until a squirrel had crossed safely. Okay, the car was only going ten miles an hour and it was a few blocks away. But still. It was something.
These were the numbers I gave to Jim at night when he called from Los Angeles. I looked for injured animals, but I couldn’t see them. I couldn’t even spot the birds up in the trees when they sang. There were too many leaves, too many branches, too many places to hide and live.
“If I can’t see them when I’m going slow, how can I see them when I speed up?”
“Maybe you’re thinking too much. Jogging will empty your mind. Then you’ll be able to see better.”
“Oh my god.”
“You’ve turned into a guru.”
He laughed. “Just promise me you’ll try it.”
There was another cool spell, enough to turn off the air conditioner and leave the front door open. I pulled a zucchini from the garden, one of the last ones, and washed it in the sink. There was just enough flour to make bread. I grated the zucchini, listening to the sounds of the neighborhood drift in from the open door.
There was a bump. Rhythmic. Gentle. Something pushing at the screen door.
I went to the front room. A hedgehog had his hand on the screen door. He looked up at me with his small, beaded eyes and pushed against the door again. It opened half an inch before the latch caught the frame, pulled it back.
I squatted down. “Don’t you want to stay here? Are you sure you’re all healed?”
A tiny piece of gauze was wrapped around his arm. Jim had brought him home right before he’d left.
The hedgehog pushed at the door again. It bumped away from, then against the frame.
I closed my eyes and rested my head against my knees. A couple chatted with each other as they passed by on the street.
I stood up and undid the latch.
From the kitchen, I could hear the soft bump of the front door throughout the evening as the animals left. The zucchini bread filled the house with a good smell, something neither animal nor man. By the time the lightning bugs were out the house was empty again.
With Jim gone, Midnight slept beside me in the bed. Her small cat body flattened against my leg, or curled a few inches away. More and more often, I woke up to see her head on Jim’s pillow, her green eyes doing that pulsing squint that cats do, as if they’re trying to read you better. I reached over to scratch her chin and realized how neglected she must have felt with all of those other animals in the house, shut up in the bedroom so that she wouldn’t bother them.
I had thought the house would feel hollow, empty without Jim there with his laughter and energy. But the rooms felt a bit brighter. The air was lighter, somehow, with just me and Midnight. I found a job posting that I must have overlooked a hundred times—it was so obvious and perfect. A job teaching writing to kids after school. I applied and got called in for an interview. It was scheduled for the day after Jim would arrive from LA.
When I picked him up at the airport he was wearing new clothes. Athletic gear with reflective strips for night running.
“I didn’t know you’d gotten another sponsor.”
“I didn’t. I bought some clothes with a little bit of the ad money.”
I leaned into the trunk to make room for his suitcase. “Ah.”
“Don’t worry, there’s plenty left for food and stuff.”
“Speaking of, can we go to the grocery store? We’re really low on supplies.”
“Later. I’ve been itching to go for a run.”
He had me drop him off at the corner of the neighborhood. I drove the rest of the way home by myself and left his suitcase in the trunk.
I took a long shower, hoping Jim would come in sweaty from his run and hop in with me like he used to when we first met. When the water started running cold I gave up. I sat on the edge of the tub shaving my legs. They’d be in pantyhose tomorrow.
There was a knock at the bathroom door. Jim opened it a crack. “Are you almost done?”
A raccoon stared back at me, one of its legs horribly bent. I wrapped a towel around my body and Jim pushed past me.
“I can’t say this officially—we’ve still got three more interviews lined up for later today—but we’re looking forward to having you join our team.”
I shook his hand and walked out of the office. The receptionist gave me a teacher’s guide to look over and a packet of information about the classes I’d be teaching. My face was starting to hurt from grinning. As soon as I got outside I slipped my heels off and danced a bit on the pavement.
I pulled out my phone to call Jim. It rang and rang.
Midnight was in the bedroom. Her black paws curled underneath the door, and she made piteous meows as soon as she heard my voice.
“Just a minute girl.”
I peeked in the bathroom. A rabbit lay in the tub, munching on a small carrot. A mockingbird with a bad wing perched on the shower rod, and a chipmunk slept in a little ball in the sink.
The front door opened with a slam. Male voices called to each other.
I pulled my tennis racket from high school out of the hall closet and crept through the kitchen.
“You’re going to have to lift it up on your side.”
Jim pushed on one side of a giant sofa, trying to slide it through the front door. A man I’d never met held the other end.
“Sleeper sofa,” Jim said. “I figured we could use it to sleep out here in the living room when we need to keep some animals in the bedroom.”
“But this room is right by the street. It’s too noisy.”
Jim grunted and gave the sofa a hard push. It lurched in through the doorway at an angle and knocked against the bookshelf. The shelves shook. The small crystal ball I bought when I was ten teetered on its shelf. I lunged forward, but it fell onto the hardwood floor. It sounded like the crack of a bat against a ball, a sharp tchock. I bought it because it felt like magic. Twenty dollars—all of my birthday money that year.
Jim leapt over the sofa and bent to pick up the pieces with his hands.
“Don’t! You’ll cut yourself.” I got the dustpan from the kitchen and swept up the shards.
“I’ll fix it,” Jim said. “Let me keep it.”
I poured the fragments into a plastic bag and he placed it on a shelf in the kitchen. He kissed my forehead, then helped move the sofa into the living room.
Jim fell asleep that night on the sleeper sofa before I could ask him any questions. The sound of cars on the road kept me awake, listening to Midnight’s purrs as she slept on my chest.
The office was warm with wood paneling and old leather chairs. Every item, even the pen lying on the desk on a stack of legal papers, seemed to be worth more than everything I owned.
“What exactly are you proposing, Miss?”
“An associate level of membership for superheroes who don’t meet all of the designations for active membership.”
“Why would we offer that?”
“To boost morale among the minor superheroes and to give them credibility so that they can secure funding for their efforts.”
“As someone who is not a superhero yourself, you seem very keen on this topic.”
“Let’s just say I’m intimately familiar with the plight of minor heroes.”
His broad shoulders seemed to fill the room. That chiseled jaw was a super power in itself.
“There’s still the point of the corresponding villain. It will be hard to appease the media on that issue.”
There was a Pulitzer on his desk from his work on greenhouse gas emissions regulation.
“It might be good for everyone if we got used to the idea that there isn’t always a villain.”
He smiled. So many super powers.
“The League is meeting next week. I think they’ll be amenable to extending our membership to fledgling members.”
He rose to show me out of his office. His secretary had her fingers through the grate of Midnight’s carrier, scratching the deep black hair under the cat’s neck.
“I admit, when you first came in I thought you were going to do some kind of magic trick. Perhaps a disappearing act.”
I picked up my suitcase and Midnight’s carrier. “That was earlier today.”
JENNI MOODY is a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a fiction editor for cream city review. She is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her stories have been published in Strangelet, Booth, and Mason’s Road. She collects stamps (inked, not licked). Learn more here.