fiction: Andrew Cothren

The following are two stories by Andrew Cothren. The first, Honeymoon Suite, appears in our spring/summer 2017 issue. The second, No Diving, No Running, is a web exclusive that we are honored to share here for the first time. Andrew Cothren is a writer and artist whose work has appeared in Drunken Boat, Eleven Eleven, and The Atlas Review. He received his MFA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and currently lives in Brooklyn, where he is at work on a novel.

Honeymoon Suite
Honeymoon Suite

Honeymoon Suite

Not wanting to offend, the newlyweds said nothing about the cheetah.

When they entered their suite, it lay atop the made bed, ears perked. Bits of fur stuck out at tufted angles, as though someone careless had stroked its coat in the wrong direction. Nothing else in the room was out of place; matching bathrobes sat folded near the cheetah’s paws, and a bottle of champagne waited in a bucket of snapping ice cubes. The couple paused in the doorway, arms tired from carrying luggage across hotel carpet, across airport terminal, across ocean.

Maybe every hotel room in this part of the world has a cheetah? the new wife said, breaking a lengthy silence. Or just the hotel rooms of the newly married. A ritual? Tradition?

That seems sound, the new husband said, though I read nothing in the guidebooks.

Poking their heads out to scan the long hallway, things looked normal. Housekeepers relayed towels and sheets into and out of rooms. A family walked toward the elevator bank, two small children hopping from shape to shape on the patterned carpet. Polished shoes sat outside the doors of late sleepers. There were no signs of other large animals: no scratch marks on furniture, no coarse hairs drifting in the near-still hotel air.

After several minutes of indecision, the newlyweds dropped their bags on the floor. The cheetah paid no attention, instead staring out the window at a passing flock of birds. The newlyweds left and began their honeymoon.

They flew in a small helicopter around volcanoes, the pilot pointing out plumes of steam rising from the peaks and explaining the tumult below the surface. Outside a cafe, they met an elderly couple from Buffalo who offered unsolicited marriage advice. During a walk through the market district, a fortune-teller read the lines in their palms and made vague proclamations about their future but said nothing of hotel jungle cats. They ate dinner at a restaurant on the harbor, the new wife insisting on a meal with octopus that looked too much like octopus for the new husband’s taste, though he ate it anyway, swallowing rubbery chunks whole.

Late in the evening, the newlyweds stopped at the hotel bar for a nightcap. They sat silent, exhausted, each mulling over the things the elderly couple had said, everything their friends and families had told them before and during their wedding, the hopes so many people placed in their union. Their disappointments, too. The new husband’s mother was still baffled by her new daughter-in-law’s unchanged last name. Paperwork from insurance companies, health companies, and the government all awaited them back home, as did their friends who’d already crossed the finish lines of marriage, parenthood, home ownership. The newlyweds clasped hands, each sensing the other’s unreadiness.

When they entered the room, the cheetah lay just where they’d left it. The animal lifted its head, as though they had interrupted its sleep. What should we do? the new husband asked. Shoo it out the door?

Though she didn’t believe any of the fortune-teller’s talk of omens and signs, something gave her pause. That doesn’t feel right, she said. Let’s let it be.

When she removed the sandals dangling from her feet, the new wife saw the bony outlines of her toes and remembered when she’d first bought them, on that weekend maybe four months into things, in a town at the tip of the Jersey shore populated by kitschy hotels. The first time she wore the sandals, the two of them walked down the shore, not holding hands because they never felt the need to hold hands, one of the first things they’d loved about each other. Stinking of sweat and sunblock, watching children chase the receding waves to the edge of the sand, then run from the incoming water, the new wife—then a new girlfriend—felt so acutely aware of her happiness that she imagined wind ripping a beach umbrella from the sand and the spiked end piercing her heart, killing her instantly, and she felt an odd sense of peace at that image, a feeling that in the midst of that moment she could die calm and unregretful.

While the new husband took cushions off armchairs and spread bathrobes and towels over them, making a bed on the floor, the new wife walked slowly toward the cheetah. Tail wagging atop the comforter, it regarded her careful approach. The new wife reached her hand out and, like other cats she’d known, the cheetah moved its head to her fingers, encouraging her to scratch behind its ear. A rumbling purr vibrated the bedsprings as the new wife took a seat on the mattress.

See? she said. It’s harmless.

I don’t know.

Come here. She beckoned with her free hand.

Holding his breath, the new husband ran his fingernails along the animal’s chin. The purring grew louder. The three of them sat for some time like that, the cheetah nudging them with its snout whenever they stopped.

Exhausted, unspeaking, the newlyweds finally rose to their feet and undressed, leaving their clothes in a heap near their unopened suitcases. They lay down on either side of the cheetah, wrapping their arms around it and each other in a fur-flesh tangle. The animal squirmed between them at first, making quiet grumbles of discomfort, but soon grew accustomed to their embrace. Head lowered to paws, it dozed. Running their fingers along each other’s skin now, feeling the small hairs on their arms, the newlyweds watched each other fall asleep in the foreign dark, between them a new, warm, animal weight.

No Diving, No Running
No Diving, No Running

No Diving, No Running

Real shame, what happened to the Cooper boy. A tragedy, no two ways. Couldn’t begin to imagine. To go through a thing like that? At their age? My heart just breaks.

But of course people get up on their horses, talk about pool covers, locked gates and fences, and how dare someone take their eyes off a child for five seconds, but you know what? When Mary Horn’s yippy Bichon Frise got plucked out of her backyard by that red-tailed hawk, everyone was all sympathy. She had stacks of casseroles just sitting there on her porch, all wrapped in foil. People sent cards. Emma and I saw her in the grocery store, maybe two weeks later? She was wearing a black veil, makeup dripping down her cheeks. People still put hands on her shoulders, asked how she was doing. Even I felt obligated to carry her bags to her car and put them in the trunk alongside a pile of wilting funeral bouquets.

But the Coopers don’t get that treatment. Cars slow down in front of their house, drivers rubbernecking to catch a glimpse of the pool, to see if they’ve filled it in with dirt or blown it up or who the hell knows what else. Far as anyone can tell they never come outside. Hasn’t been a bag of garbage on their curb for a month. Their car just sits in the driveway collecting pollen.

I saw their grass was getting long a few days ago, so I rolled my mower over after doing our lawn and took care of it for them. Got a couple looks, neighbors craning their necks on the sidewalk or around screen doors. Everything in the Coopers’ garden was dying of thirst, cooking in the sun.

When I finished mowing the backyard, I looked up and Rachel Cooper was sitting on the porch steps, beer in hand. Her too-big T-shirt was wrinkled like she’d worn nothing else for days. Underslept and underfed, squinting in the setting sun; chapped lips and long toenails. It might’ve just been the late afternoon sunlight, but I felt heat coming from her as I approached, like the warmth from a sick child.

She handed me an open bottle and we sat down, silent, drinking next to one another on the top step. Cicada chirps rose, fell, and rose again. I saw I’d been careless around the pool—large clumps of grass floated on the surface, or else slowly sank to the murky bottom. She and I sat staring at the neglected, algae-green water.

Rachel pointed at the mower, a small dot of old nail polish still clinging near her cuticle. “Ours doesn’t work,” she said. The motor clicked in response, cooling. “Never really worked.”

“I can come back in a couple weeks,” I said. “Bring the weedwacker, too. If you want.”

She didn’t answer. Next door, the Bissells had built a wooden playset and their twin girls rode the swings, the tops of their heads peeking intermittently over the fence, blonde pigtails disobeying gravity. I caught Rachel staring at them; she looked away and occupied herself with cracked paint on the porch railing, peeling off a large chip and rubbing it between her fingers.

“Do we fill it in?” Rachel asked. “Or do we leave?”

I looked at the water, imagined her or her husband finding their son there, already gone, and knew that if I were them I’d want to pull the house down board by board, dig the yard down to bedrock, fill the pool with the remains and drive away. Leave the empty lot to be taken over by weeds. And I’d want someone to tell me we’d done the right thing.

“You keep going,” I said instead. I knew as soon as I spoke that the words had landed flat. She looked disappointed, unsure exactly what she’d expected of me.

Rachel threw back the last of her beer, then put her hand on my shoulder to help herself up. She gave a quick thankful squeeze before she went back inside. “See you next week,” she said through the screen door.

Slowly, I finished the last few warm sips. I left the bottle on the top step and began pushing the mower back across the yard. Several houses away, someone washed a car. Soapy water trickled into the sewer. The odor of lighter fluid and charred meat hung in the air. As I walked home, the streetlights clicked on up and down the block and, almost instantly, each was surrounded by a cloud of insects throwing themselves against the glass, bouncing away, and trying again.

Image for Honeymoon Suite appears courtesy of Flickr user Simon Law.