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Wildlife Watching

Lise hadn’t left the condo all day, so around 3:00 she went downstairs to check the mail. In the foyer, she inserted her key in the slot corresponding to her unit. Her eye snagged on the parlor palm sitting in the corner. The plant looked limp, like it needed water. Maybe Lise could be the one to water it. It could be a job. Everywhere she went, Lise saw evidence of jobs, and felt envious and inferior. For instance: within her mail compartment sat an envelope, which someone with a job had placed there. Someone who worked harder than Lise did, and who probably had a more difficult, yet more rewarding life.

The letter was from something called NORC. “Wildlife Watching Survey enclosed” was printed in red across the front. It was junk mail, and Lise resented it for tricking her, momentarily, into believing someone remembered she existed. She was about to throw it in the recycling bin when she turned the envelope over, and found on the back a vertical, pill-shaped cellophane window, through which could be seen the gray-green of US currency.

Upstairs, Lise sat on her sagging velvet couch and opened the envelope. Within lay a one dollar bill so crisp it seemed fake, along with an invitation to complete a wildlife watching survey online. The dollar, the letter explained, was meant to demonstrate that her cooperation was appreciated, and her time acknowledged as valuable (it wasn’t). Upon completion of the survey, she’d be paid $10 in the form of an Amazon gift card.

Lise opened her laptop, typed in the address, and was taken to the survey, which posed a series of increasingly tortured questions about her wildlife watching habits:

How often, in the last year, have you traveled more than ten miles from your home with the explicit purpose of viewing or photographing wildlife? How often, in the last year, have you traveled more than ten miles from your home for the purpose of recreational fishing? How often, in the last year, have you used special equipment to observe wildlife more than ten miles from your home?

She answered every question, truthfully, with “never.” Did anyone do this shit? After she’d submitted the survey, she stood and stretched before her window, which, from her third-floor vantage, gave a view of the tall buildings downtown and the mountains beyond them, cloaked in smog. She scanned the sky for wildlife and found none.

When people asked Lise what she did for a living, she told them she was a bookkeeper. This had been her occupation, historically. Her last job was at H&P Construction, located in Hillcrest, a district of Bakersfield, the city in which she’d been born and where she remained. She’d gotten the job through her dad, who knew the owner of H&P through his support group for recovering drug addicts. Her dad, who was himself an insurance agent for State Farm, knew lots of guys with blue-collar jobs that paid better than Lise would ever make as a bookkeeper, a line of work she’d chosen because she had a head for numbers and no passion for anything else. H&P’s owner, Pradeep, had taken a chance on Lise in spite of her spotty work history. When she interviewed, he’d glanced at her resume like it was a distasteful bit of nonsense sitting on his cluttered desk. “You’re Tom’s girl, so you’re good in my book,” Pradeep had said.

She was confident she could come through in an emergency. She would rise to the occasion. It was just that no one had ever asked her.

Lise proceeded to fuck up the job. She arrived late and hungover most days. There was some light embezzlement. At any rate she was fired. Her dad was furious and said it was the last time he’d stick his neck out for her. Lise went to a few meetings on her dad’s insistence. She wasn’t an addict or alcoholic, she was pretty sure, but her dad, who owned the building she lived in, threatened to evict her from the condo if she didn’t try it. Lise knew he’d never follow through on this threat, but his anger had frightened her. She liked to keep the gears of his affection lubricated, ensuring her survival in an otherwise hostile world.

An hour after submitting the survey, Lise received an email with a code representing the $10 gift card. She copy-pasted the code into the checkout field on the Amazon site. It worked! Lise purchased $60 worth of items, which was knocked down to $50 thanks to the survey. In the kitchen, Lise poured herself a celebratory glass of white wine. She texted her “best friend” Emily, asking if she wanted to get a drink later. Emily wrote back after what Lise suspected was an artificial delay, saying she was getting drinks with some “colleagues” from her firm—Emily was a lawyer and never let Lise forget it—and that Lise was “more than welcome” to join them. Lise squinted at the chilly phrasing of Emily’s invitation and tried to remember the last time they had hung out. It must have been the Cinco de Mayo party Lise had thrown at her condo last month. Had something happened then? Lise couldn’t remember and decided it didn’t matter. Emily was always pissed off about something.

Lise arrived at the bar at 6:15, fifteen minutes after Emily had said they were meeting, so as not to seem too available. The bar was in the riverwalk area that Lise usually avoided, and like many establishments there, it was annoying. Inside, the ceiling was clotted with a network of exposed pipes. Edison bulbs dangled from wires. Servers wore waxed canvas aprons and Redwing boots and ferried to tables charcuterie on slabs of wood, with optimistic looks on their youthful faces. The air smelled smokey, a little bacon-y, which piqued Lise’s hunger. She spotted Emily at a table in the back, sitting with two of her colleagues, whom Lise had met at Emily’s birthday dinner, though she couldn’t remember their names—a white woman and an Asian guy, both in their late twenties. All three wore bland corporate attire, slacks and button-down shirts. Lise was grateful not to have to debase herself in such a way. She wore a linen sack dress with no bra.

Emily’s colleagues greeted Lise with a slight hesitation. She wondered if Emily had been catching them up on the saga of Lise prior to her arrival. Perhaps she’d been invited to provide entertainment, a despicable clown figure.

“Hey there!” Lise said, smiling at each of them in turn.

“I was just telling Eric and Maddie about your Cinco de Mayo party,” Emily said. She must have slipped in their names strategically. Emily had become such a corporate tool, her head hollowed out and filled with little social graces like packing peanuts.

“Oh yeah, Cinco de Drinko,” Lise said. She turned to Eric and Maddie. “You guys weren’t there, right?”

Eric and Maddie exchanged a confused look.

“I’m just kidding,” Lise said, and they laughed, though they seemed unsettled. Lise gestured to the waiter for another glass, and he brought one. Emily paused for a moment before pouring wine into it.

“How have you been lately?” Emily said, an edge to her voice that meant Lise hadn’t been keeping in touch with sufficient regularity. Emily needed a boyfriend, Lise thought. Or, more likely, a girlfriend. She was always guilt-tripping Lise as if Lise were a disappointing partner, rather than her “best friend” since high school, though as years passed they grew more distant from each other, and the term had begun to feel like the shadow of a Sears logo on the side of an abandoned mall. Lise wished she could break through the wall that had formed between them, but this would require a level of vulnerability she felt too irritated, while in Emily’s presence, to attempt.

“I’ve been good,” Lise said. Maddie and Eric were looking at her expectantly, and she felt obliged to offer more. “Actually, I’ve volunteered to be part of a study.”

“That sounds cool,” Eric said. “What kind of study?”

Lise took a sip of wine. This was her moment. “It’s about wildlife watching. Administered through the University of Chicago, though they’re targeting Californians for some reason.”

“That’s so interesting,” Maddie said. She was blonde and plain, possibly Mormon. “Like birdwatching?”

“I guess?” Lise said. “I don’t really do any wildlife watching, but I suppose that’s useful data for them to collect too.”

“So what does the study entail?” Emily asked, in a challenging tone that Lise politely ignored.

“Well, so far I’ve just filled out a survey,” Lise said. “It’s paid, but I’m not doing it for the money. I’m happy to help further scientific endeavors, especially involving wildlife.” She feared she was losing them. “You know, with climate change and all.”

“Climate change” was the correct phrase to utter, as Eric and Maddie began talking excitedly about a new climate bill that had passed, in Congress or something, which Lise hadn’t heard about, as she didn’t pay attention to the news. Lise knew the smug look on Emily’s face, which meant, Must be nice to sit around all day filling out surveys, seeing as your dad owns the building you live in. Emily had been on a high horse since getting into law school and had climbed onto an even higher horse when she got the job at the law firm. Emily had succeeded in becoming a real adult, while Lise remained a grubby-fingered child who had stepped, at some crucial juncture, off the path of respectability.

Emily regarded her with condescension, as if five years ago, they hadn’t been snorting crushed-up Ambien pills off the sink of the guest bathroom in Emily’s parents’ house. As if, three years ago, Emily hadn’t slept in Lise’s bed after getting dumped by a classmate from her Civ Pro class. Lise had held Emily while she cried, assuring her it hadn’t been her fault, though Lise had no way of knowing if this was true. Lise still kept tabs on the Civ Pro guy’s social media. He lived in Los Angeles and had recently gotten married. She looked forward to Emily finding out, and allowing Lise to comfort her, like the old days.

An hour later, Lise and Emily stood on the sidewalk outside the restaurant. Emily waited for her colleagues to turn the corner before hitting her vape pen.

“Was that guy from the party okay in the end?” Emily said.

“What guy?”

“I don’t know his name. He jumped off your balcony?”

Lise nodded, stalling as memories of the party flooded back. She’d started with margaritas and moved on to shots of tequila. She dimly recalled the presence of Frankie, a guy she’d met at a meeting and sort of dated. She must have invited him when she was already drunk.

“Oh right, Frankie,” Lise said. “I didn’t know he jumped off the balcony.”

“Are you kidding me?” Emily said, raising her over-threaded eyebrows. “I guess you were passed out in your bedroom by then. It was crazy. We thought he’d be seriously injured, but when we went down to look for him, he was gone.”

“He was drinking?” Lise said, dread pooling in her stomach.

“You think?” Emily smiled grimly. “Yeah. He was lit.”

So he’d relapsed, as Lise guessed she had too, though she wasn’t an alcoholic, just a loser, which seemed worse; there was no support group that could cure her. Emily’s face had settled into concern, her second-favorite emotion after anger. “How’s the job search going?” she asked.

“I’ve got some solid leads,” Lise said. “The survey was a good start.”

“Right, the survey.” Emily brought out her phone and opened the Uber app, signaling that Lise’s trial was almost over. “Are you doing anything fun, at least?”

Lise shrugged. “Not really. Just laying low.”

“If I didn’t have to work, I’d do so much cool stuff.”

“Like what?” Lise said, annoyed.

“I’d get in really good shape,” Emily said. “I’d read lots of books. I always wanted to learn Italian. Maybe take a pottery class.”

“It’s not that I don’t have to work,” Lise said.

“Oh, I know,” Emily said, but the corners of her lips twitched, and Lise knew she would gossip about Lise later to whichever friend had usurped Lise’s position. Maybe even Maddie. As Lise walked home, she stewed over the possibility that Emily already knew her ex from Civ Pro had gotten married, and hadn’t mentioned it to Lise, as she now had superior sources of comfort.

Lise knew it was better to be woven into a web of interdependent human relationships. But overriding this belief was her dislike of working and having to get up early.

Back at the condo, Lise sat on the couch and googled Frankie’s full name, but nothing recent came up, just some listings of old addresses and social media profiles. She had known Frankie to be resourceful, and hardy. He was able to juggle, and breakdance, and knew the names of all the U.S. presidents, skills he’d cultivated before his meth addiction took hold, and which hinted at reserves of unutilized potential. He rarely worked out, yet had washboard abs that Lise admired on an aesthetic level, without real lust. Frankie was twenty-five, four years younger than Lise, but seemed even younger. He wasn’t on Facebook, but he had an Instagram account, with 232 followers, 0 following, and no posts. The PFP was a photo of a pumpkin. Lise checked to see if any of his friends had tagged him in a tribute post, which would indicate he had died. But so far, nothing. He’d been tagged in only a few photos ever, dating back several years, and in only one of them could you see his face—the scraggly chin beard, backwards hat, ponytail dangling down his back. He was smiling, his eyes hazy, and his teeth were yellow, but the yellow of hygiene-complacent youth, not of decay. Lise’s own teeth were white and perfectly straight, thanks to expensive orthodontia in her youth. Her mother had enforced rigorous protocols of dental hygiene before moving north for a better life.

Frankie was not mysterious at all in person. He had worshipped Lise with doglike devotion. Perhaps because he was younger, he couldn’t detect that she was a loser. To Frankie, Lise was an impressive older woman with a career and her own condo downtown. It didn’t matter to Frankie that her dad owned the building; the fact that she had a dad who owned a building was also impressive. The first time he’d come over, he’d looked around the condo with amazement, and Lise had felt grateful for her life. Perhaps all was not lost.

But now, Frankie had apparently relapsed, and it was Lise’s fault for inviting him to Cinco de Drinko, and probably goading him into drinking her famous margaritas, or worse, straight tequila. She texted him now—Hey! How’s it going?—but her message turned an ominous green, indicating Frankie was out of service range, or his phone was off.

The next day, Lise went about her routine with a new sense of purpose. She set an alarm for eight a.m. and snoozed it only three times. She took her trash down to the alley between her building and the parking garage. The sun shone with what felt like personal malice. It was a relief to return to the frigid cave of her condo. She stripped the sheets from her bed and put them in the washing machine with some damp towels that had long festered in a corner of her bedroom. She ran the dishwasher. Machines buzzed to life, property cleansing other property, renewing her by proxy.

Around one, Lise’s doorbell rang through an app on her phone. On the screen, she saw her dad standing outside. He wore a white shirt and a tie and held a paper grocery bag. He looked thinner lately. She supposed he would die within a decade or two, a reality Lise tried to inoculate her brain with, to mitigate future pain.

“Hey Dad,” she said, through the intercom. “What’s up?”

“We had some leftovers from our lunch meeting,” he said, holding the bag aloft. “You hungry?”

“I’m in the middle of an application,” she said. The excuse slipped out reflexively, before she’d considered whether she wanted to talk to her dad.

He said he’d leave the food in the lobby. She knew he still felt guilty for lashing out at her after she’d been fired from H&P. Though she’d deserved it, she allowed him to think he had wronged her. Lise waited until she was sure he was gone, then crept downstairs to retrieve the bag. In it were six individually wrapped sections of a party sub, along with bags of potato chips, food that would sustain her for several days. Lise ate a hunk of turkey club over the sink, contemplating the empty afternoon hours she’d now have to fill. She was haunted by Emily’s insistence that if Emily herself had free time, she’d put it to good use.

Lise’s lack of hobbies had been exposed last fall, when she’d gone out with a guy named Dan she’d met on a dating app. Dan was a clean-scrubbed white guy, a guy so simple-looking she could have drawn him. He worked as an engineer for a petroleum company and didn’t check his phone once during their date, at a restaurant downtown. They sat at a high table, drank cocktails, and split a pesto flatbread. He asked what she liked to do for fun, and she responded, truthfully, with “Nothing, really,” before volleying the question back to him. Dan rattled off a list of hobbies—archery, beer brewing, poker tournaments, jiujitsu. As he continued asking Lise thoughtful questions about her life, Lise receded into a womb of self-loathing through whose folds it was increasingly difficult to see the man across the table. The balance of power had shifted. Lise was more physically attractive than this guy, but she had no interests aside from espousing a jaundiced worldview after a few drinks. Dan suggested they hang out again, in a perfunctory way. Later that night, she checked the app to find he’d unmatched her.

Lise recalled the survey and realized a hobby had been dropped into her lap, all the way from a university campus in Chicago. She could be a watcher of wildlife. It could be her “thing.” She put on sunscreen, a floppy straw hat, and a swimsuit, over which she draped the same linen dress she’d worn to the bar the night before. She placed some items in a tote—more sunscreen, sunglasses, a Kind bar, a Nalgene of water, a novel about female friendship that Emily had given her for her birthday—went to the parking garage, and got in her Prius, which she’d bought used three years ago and was still making monthly payments on, running through her dwindling savings and the small inheritance from her grandmother. The Prius was unbelievably hot inside, and for a minute she sat in it with the windows closed, wondering how long it would take for the trapped heat to kill her.

Lise drove to Lake Ming, a man-made lake nestled in the crook of Kern River. She’d come here with her parents when she was a kid. As a teenager, she’d sat on the pebbly shore and drunk forties with a loose assortment of friends. She’d had sex with her boyfriend in the water one night, though it was difficult to find sufficient leverage and they gave up after a few minutes. For days Lise had worried some lake bacteria or parasite had swum up inside her, encouraged by her boyfriend’s penis like a butter knife inserted into a ketchup bottle to usher forth its flow. Now, she found a sign warning against swimming, validating her past fear: ADVISORY—Bacteria Levels Have Exceeded Health Standards—Water Contact Is Not Advised, with icons of a person swimming and a person riding a jet ski, both with scoldy red diagonals across them.

Lise found a tree to sit under. Even in the shade, the heat was overwhelming. Sweat dripped down her sides and pooled at her breastbone. Before her, the lake was still, as if suspended in gel. No wildlife was evident. Human activity was confined to a cluster of figures on the other side of the lake. It was Thursday, and the good people of the world were at work. People were held fast by their obligations, pinned like butterflies to a board. She saw how this could be comforting, and almost wished it for herself—to be like Dan, a man whose love for the world expanded to fill all his waking hours. Soon enough, he’d find a similarly life-loving woman on a dating app. They would marry and have a child or several. Dan’s obligations would wear on him sometimes, and he’d wish he could indulge in his many hobbies as he’d been able to in his single years, but this was the reality of being an adult. Lise knew it was better, in some fundamental way, to be woven into a web of interdependent human relationships. But overriding this belief was her dislike of working and having to get up early.

She heard a fluttering above and looked up to see a bird sitting on a branch. Its top half was brown, its belly white. Its beady eyes regarded the lake with an air of equanimity. A moment later, it flew off. The putrid lake teemed with life, she saw now. An ant crawled across her foot. A squirrel moved listlessly through the patchy grass. Above the lake’s surface hung a cloud of gnats, or maybe they were mosquitos. A duck swam near the shore, trailed by six or seven ducklings. Lise imagined the mother duck getting hurt. She would take off her shirt and gather the injured duck and her ducklings in it, then drive them all to an animal hospital. Lise’s eyes filled with tears. She was confident she could come through in an emergency. She would rise to the occasion. It was just that no one had ever asked her.

It was too hot for wildlife watching. The important thing was that she’d cultivated a hobby.

Lise had to pee, having drunk half the Nalgene bottle, so she walked back to the parking lot, where her car baked in the sun along with a pickup truck whose bed was piled with junk strapped down with bungee cords. A grizzled man paced beside it, not seeming to notice her as she passed to the bathroom, a squat brick structure with a triangular roof. She opened the door and was met by a stench of human waste. She held her breath and hovered over the metal toilet, watching a clot of flies buzzing near the air vent. More wildlife. When she emerged, the grizzled man glared at her, and Lise felt nervous about leaving her car there. She feared the man hated her and would break her windows for fun. Besides, it was too hot for wildlife watching. The important thing was that she’d cultivated a hobby. Now she had grist for NORC. Next time they sent her a survey, she would not have to answer “never” to every question. She could answer, instead, “occasionally” to a few. She drove home and lay on her stripped bed. The linens had sat in a wet clump in her washing machine for several hours, but she’d run through her limited energy.

She was woken by her phone buzzing. Someone was ringing the doorbell—a delivery person, Lise assumed, though it seemed too soon for her Amazon order to arrive. She opened the app and saw a wraithlike young man standing outside. Backwards hat, oversized Black Sabbath T-shirt. He shifted from foot to foot in an agitated manner. It was Frankie. He was alive!

“Hello?” she said, through the intercom. On her screen, Frankie’s image jumped.

“Hey, Lise! Can I come up?”

Lise paused, her excitement over Frankie’s aliveness ceding to unease as to why he’d come. She could go downstairs to deal with him, but it was so hot out. She suspected she might have sun poisoning. Was that a real thing? She reminded herself this was Frankie. They’d had sex four or five times, and he’d been a grateful, energetic lover. She’d found him a bit pathetic, and thus felt free to really let loose with him, sexually. He was harmless, a threat only to himself. She buzzed Frankie in.

He sat on her couch. He looked very tan, and older than before, with dark rings beneath his eyes. He was also kind of grimy. She worried about her couch’s upholstery.

“It’s really good to see you,” he said. “I was so happy to get your text.”

He explained that he had five days clean. He’d been through all the local rehabs and was waiting for a bed at a residential treatment facility in San Francisco.

“Did you relapse at my party?” Lise said.

Frankie shrugged, seeming bashful. “Yeah. It was a long time coming. This last run, it was pretty bad. I can’t go back to that. I don’t have another run left in me.”

Before she could ask him about jumping off her balcony, he stood and began pacing the living room. He told her about a man who’d robbed him. He was going to get his money back, and then he’d be set. He just needed a place to stay for a few nights. Frankie knelt at her feet and took her hands in his. “I kept thinking, while I was out there, ‘I just want to get clean so I can be with Lise.’”

“You did?” Lise said. She hadn’t realized she’d made such an impact on him. They’d stopped sleeping together a few weeks before Cinco de Drinko. She’d been relieved when he didn’t text her, after their last hookup, sparing her the discomfort of a breakup conversation.

“I’m sorry I fell out of touch,” Frankie said. “I lost my phone, and then I figured you’d be glad to get rid of me. I was all in my head about it. I told myself, no way would someone like her want to date a loser like me. I should just do her a favor and disappear.”

Lise wasn’t sure what to say. He’d described their dynamic with perfect insight. “Have you ever gone wildlife watching?” she said.

Frankie blinked, and she watched as he recalibrated, seeking the best angle by which to please her. “You mean like birdwatching?”

“Sure. Birds, fish, bugs, even mammals. It’s something I’m into, lately.”

“That’s sick,” Frankie said. “I’d love to watch wildlife with you.”

He was looking at her with such hunger. To him, she had everything—a place to live, a dad who loved her, an associate’s degree. There were many objects in her condo that could be sold for quick cash.

“We can be together,” he said. “I’ll get a job, I’ll make money. I’m gonna join the electrician’s union. My buddy has a hook-up. We can do the whole thing. Get married, have a family.”

He was still kneeling at her feet, holding her hands. This was a moment in which her life could change. She could embrace experience, joining the Dans of the world. Lise wanted to believe it was possible; that her life had been waiting to click into place and become real.

“Do you want to take a shower?” she said, and Frankie smiled, revealing teeth that were yellower than before, and said that he did, more than anything.