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Porcupine

Story by James Cato (Read author interview) January 31, 2022

Photograph by Mick Haupt

Suppose this windstorm veers onto shore before sunset, earlier than Amy the radio weatherlady expects. Suppose it helps the mangy wetlands swallow our truck. It’s 7:30am, we have five houses to weatherize, and a black fog has already risen where land lines water.

“Sleeping deer!” Van Behr says. Everything’s a joke to him. I can only tell the deer’s dead by the gnats blowing out its eyes, otherwise it’s curled like a dozing dog. I laugh with him. Suppose there’s sexual tension between the two of us.

 

The first house stands alone on the beach, Bezos-tier, but the last hurricane has buckled its porch and calved away the basement walls. The customer, a woman something like a human fly, hovers, circles, and whines in our ears. Rain taps the windows as we spray aerosolized foam in the cracks.

Suppose she is forced to squeeze into one of those cracks tonight to stay dry. What would she find in there with her?

Out back we lay sandbags around gradations of yellow wildflowers. The human fly asks about Van Behr’s two-fingered hand, a childhood lawnmower injury, as if he’s a zoo animal. We feed the water from leaks in the porch roof to buckets. Mistrustful crabs scoot sideways as we work. Van Behr raises his own claw at them, grinning.

 

He gets me good on the way to the next house. “Aw, look at those bald birds trying to wake up the sleepy turtle! They’re giving him good-morning kisses and tugging his little legs.” It’s funny, but before I’m done chuckling I notice a moth in the trunk beating the windows, probably the last space it’ll ever know.

I distract myself from the moth with the one thing Van Behr’s serious about: spotting a porcupine, and if he’s driving I’m on lookout. We spatter through the Everglades and I scan the forest, as if creatures crouch on the edge of that crisscrossing wall of wood. Probably nothing’s there, only the dead on the road, a swamp overhunted by accident.

 

“Oh, we’re going to hell,” Van Behr tells me around noon. “Our profit margin loves misery. More storms means more proofing, more stubborn old people hunkering down. You still watching for porcupines? Waiting 23 years, can’t have you dozing off.”

We’re approaching a group of inmates walking the road with litter stabbers who we pass at least twice a day. We light cigarettes and suck them down before flicking them out the window. Suppose we do wind up in hell, two founding partners of a start-up made successful by disaster.

 

The inmates with their barbed litter stabbers will wait for our cigarettes to roll to a stop. Then they’ll snatch them up, unwrap them, and pour the sweet marrow into longer papers for later, careful not to alert their supervisor. They call the process of combining chucked butts “roadkill.” It’s great to be in on the secret.

Van Behr and I collect our own roadkill minutes later, when we come across a dead Burmese with dull eyes and tire ruts. Invasive snakes earn a per-head bounty so we pull it into the plastic bin in the trunk reserved for such finds. When Surge Protection operated in the hole we needed the extra money, and Van Behr loves traditions.

 

The next house is screwed, but the furious old man inside won’t leave. Suppose his grandkids love this place. A tire swing wiggles out back like a sardine on twine and beached jellyfish jiggle in his yard, lost lenses in the dirt. “Porcupines are so majestic, nothing can fuck with them,” Van Behr yells as he works. “Today could be the day, I swear; I bet they climb down on account of the wind.”

When he catches me staring at his half-finished beard he looks away and tugs it with those two dainty fingers, pinky and thumb. Suppose there’s sexual tension between us. I’ve been supposing that more and more recently, but we live opposite directions from our office, a pretty inconvenient drive, and I wrote him off long ago as another older start-up bro, not relationship material.

 

“Look at Mr. Possum,” I say halfway to house #3. Van Behr will like this one. “He ate so much for lunch that his stomach’s on the outside!” This clinches a cackle out of him and I’m proud. I’ve always been able to summon violence easily.

House #3 turns out to be our last for the day, a quick stop for plugging, patching and sealing split planks. The hurricane hits four hours early and sheets of rain douse our windshield in pulses. We try a new way home and I’m on watch duty again, though all I see is the swaying caps of evergreens high above our empty asphalt vein.

 

We almost miss it. The world is disappearing thing by thing as the storm eats it, the spaces between each tree filling with dim. Then I shout: there’s a spiny hump on the road, cheddary wasps hanging evilly above its quills. I wish I hadn’t pointed. We creep by the porcupine dead on the shoulder and the brightness washes off Van Behr. No more jokes.

It’s shit timing for Amy the weatherlady to tell us Van Behr’s neighborhood has flooded. Apparently, cars float down his block like the stick-boats I used to race in the creek. He can’t even manage a smile when we pass a bus full of orange jumpsuits. Red dots glow inside—fruits of our cig gifts—and happy lips sip air from the cracked windows. “You should stay with me,” I say. I’ve never had to cheer him up before so I try thumping him repeatedly on the arm. “You should sleep over.” He lightens, I think, and two fingers pinch gently over my wrist, preventing another punch but holding it close.

About the Author

James Cato lives in the Pennsylvania backwoods. Look for him in Pithead Chapel, Atticus Review, FRiGG, JMWW, and Daily Science Fiction, among others. He tweets humbly @the_sour_potato and his work lives on jamescatoauthor.com/fiction.

About the Artist

Mick Haupt is a photographer from Orlando. FL. IG @mickhaupt102085 Tw @mickhaupt

This story appeared in Issue Seventy-Four of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Seventy-Four
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