Intervention

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My father called to tell me that my sister was going off the rails at college. According to him she was distracted by trivial fascinations, like communal living, and now owned a ferret. She was a sophomore at Oberlin and I hadn’t yet visited, so I used dad’s concern as an excuse for a trip north. During the first hour of my drive I cranked Johnny Cash, thinking about what I might say. I had plenty to say to her, not just the things my father wanted me to say on his behalf.

I drove in one shot all the way from Louisville, where I’d just started working in the warehouse at our cousin’s shipping company, to the place in north-central Ohio where corn fields yield to public parks, protected woods, and village streets. Five miles from Oberlin, I pulled over next to someone’s pumpkin patch and peed beside my front tire, looking at the dried-out pumpkin vines in my headlights’ periphery and the steam rising from the dead grass, hearing the muffled music from inside the car.

We’ve always been a family that reveled in surprise.

I wanted Katherine to be shocked by my arrival, and to catch her off guard—to remind her of our family’s spirit—I’d packed a costume before I’d left Louisville. We’ve always been a family that reveled in surprise. Beside the pumpkin patch I took off my windbreaker and unbuttoned my oxford shirt, stripping down to jeans and boots, then clicked the trunk open and from a white shopping bag pulled a can of silver aerosol paint. I began by spraying my arms and neck. My stomach was soft and hairy and my nipples looked larger than usual. I applied the paint so thickly that it matted down my chest hair until the contours of my body shone in the oncoming headlights. I’d done this once when I was a student, for a homecoming game, and I’d been so drunk during my morning walk to the stadium that I curled up in the back of a stranger’s pickup.

The other part of my homecoming costume had been a mask, a wildcat, but I couldn’t find it anywhere in the cardboard boxes I kept in storage, so I settled for a replacement from the drug store. I grabbed it from the trunk, a waxy rubber mask, and before pulling it on, I held it out in front of me and looked into its dark eye holes: the face of a cartoon dog, different from the wildcat but still quite menacing with its impish grin and long, red tongue. I pulled it over my head and drove the last few miles in disguise.

A year earlier, when Katherine had planned an intervention for our father, I rejected the idea, telling her it would be silly to bully the old man out of his evening cocktails. She asked me if I remembered the time he’d taken us sledding in the middle of the night in our pajamas. Of course I did—it was one of my fondest memories. She said that all of the best times we’d had with Dad had been when he was drunk. When I asked her what was wrong with that, she thought I was joking. She sent me some books about interventions and I thought they were asinine, but I read them.

When my father called me with his concerns about Katherine’s well-being, he asked me, in his quiet evening voice, why she’d acquired the ferret. He seemed genuinely confused. Maybe it’s part of the Biology curriculum, he asked, or Environmental Studies? When I thought of Oberlin I had an image in my head of entire buildings, entire groups of buildings, entire quadrants of campus donated by Hollywood Marxists, and within these buildings and on these quadrangles, students were unwittingly absorbing mindless trivia relevant only to future investors, moviegoers, refreshment manufacturers, pet shops, and puppy mills. In this vision I saw my sister wearing a fedora, smoking a cigar, holding a ferret. I didn’t care that she had a ferret as much as our father did, though it did seem to suggest that she had changed.

The streets of Oberlin are flat and straight and dimly lit by sodium lights. I parked beside the town green and walked the last few blocks to her house to make sure my Caprice wouldn’t give me away.

The house Katherine shared with twelve other hippies was a three-story mansion with a neglected lawn and a fleet of ramshackle bicycles parked out front. As I walked up the driveway, my chest gleaming silver in the cool darkness, I felt especially giddy about my disguise. What I liked about wearing the mask was that a dog seemed the opposite of a ferret. I couldn’t wait for Katherine to see me. I briefly imagined the look on her face, stunned, like when I used to throw her into the town pool before she’d changed into her bathing suit. My hands were cold, but the paint made my body feel snug and insulated, and inside the mask my face was pleasantly humid. When I arrived at the door, instead of opening it, I started barking. It was hard to believe that twenty-four hours earlier, I’d been forklifting boxes of paper towels into a semi bound for Tallahassee. As I barked I felt unencumbered, like a border collie that stays cooped up most of the day but gets to run in the park at night. After barking for a minute or so, the door swung open, and a small young woman with fierce brown eyes and shell-shaped earrings, her hair cropped short, stared out at me. She barely smiled, as though she was tired of answering the door and finding bare-chested men dressed as dogs on her stoop. “You sure you have the right house?” she asked.

The house Katherine shared with twelve other hippies was a three-story mansion with a neglected lawn
and a fleet of ramshackle bicycles parked out front.

I nearly explained to her that I was Katherine’s brother, but instead I barked a few more times. It had been feeling so good.

“Are you friends with Delmon?” she asked.

I barked again, a short, deep “Woof.”

The small, needle-eyed woman shook her head and stepped out of my way.

When I was in college, my classmates and I would assemble in the basement corridors of one of the high-rise dormitories, where we played a version of kickball involving trashcans full of yellow beer. The scene inside Katherine’s house was not familiar. It felt like a movie set. The first room I passed was lit by candles, and inside was a group of lackadaisical students sitting on the carpet, grinning at a young man with a beard dressed only in loose-fitting soccer shorts, a hula-hoop gyrating on his thin tan hips. Further down the hallway in a darkened corner were two women in tank tops and sweatpants at a card table constructing an intricate sculpture with toothpicks, dried beans, and glue. I barked gently at them. They glanced up from their project with interest, each of them flashing me a generous, unbiased grin before turning again to their sculpture.

The kitchen was packed with other happy people dressed in muted tones, a few wearing corduroy pants, some dancing languorously with drooping eyelids, but most of them just standing close to one another, shooting the breeze, holding their drinks up near their throats. It seemed as though I’d arrived in the midst of a party. The room smelled like avocados. All the men had some variety of facial hair: long sideburns, silly moustaches, untended chin whiskers. I didn’t see Katherine in the crowd. After a few minutes of standing and staring I walked over to one of the kitchen cabinets and found myself a glass. I opened the refrigerator with my silver hand and peered at the neat rows of brown beer bottles and unfamiliar condiments. I spotted a waxy box of fake milk on the door, so I poured myself half a cup, then filled the rest with rum from the counter. I could tell people were looking at me but not wanting to stare. I tried taking a few small sips through the air hole at the back of the mask’s tongue. This method worked fine, and I started getting more attention from the revelers. They had assembled in a group around me and were talking as though I couldn’t hear. I thought about what my body looked like to them, metallic and lustrous. Perhaps they recognized it as an older body than theirs, because of the fat nipples. I finished the drink and placed the glass in the sink. Then I sounded a few sharp yipping barks to the crowd. One of the students who’d been dancing—his long straight brown hair was gathered in a ponytail and he wore mirrored sunglasses—approached me and started baying like a wolf. I barked again. Then the kid acted as though he was sniffing me—my silver belly, then the seat of my jeans.

I figured this little show was okay as long as Katherine was watching, but I scanned the crowd and still didn’t see her, so I pushed him away. This got some laughs. I couldn’t see his eyes through the mirrored lenses but he stepped closer and latched both arms around my right leg and began humping me. The hippies loved this, watching him pump away at my leg. Someone said, “Delmon is awesome” and someone else said, “Delmon is psycho.”

I’d been at the school for ten minutes and already I was encountering the lack of hospitality I expected. I felt sorry for Delmon, who was still humping my leg and getting laughs. I think he might have been looking into the eyeholes of my mask, hoping to intimidate me, so I said, “I’m here to see my sister.”

Delmon stopped humping and asked, “Who is she?”

“Katherine MacArthur.”

His smile was oddly defensive and he didn’t speak. The woman with the shell-shaped earrings stepped forward and said, “Kat’s right over here.” She took me by the arm and led me to the wide doorway into the living room.

Against the far wall, sitting on the carpet with her knees up by her chin huddled over a game of chess with another guttersnipe, was my sister. At first I wondered if Katherine was just wearing rags, a bunch of miscellaneous tatters which she’d sewn together into an outfit, but then I saw it was an old T-shirt of dad’s, his BSA motorcycle shirt with a large rip in the armpit, and oversized paint-splattered Dickies. She was barefoot and her hair had a big “I’ve just woken up” snarl on one side. When she turned toward me, her face was bright and cheerful—she looked much more like our father than I’d ever recognized—and I knew she didn’t know how she appeared to me, her brother in disguise.

I took off my mask and yelled, “Katherine Whitmore MacArthur, it’s intervention time!” Her eyes widened but she remained seated. “Holy shit, that’s my brother,” she said to the woman across the chessboard. Finally she pushed herself up off the carpet, padded across to the doorway and before giving me a hug pointed at my chest and asked, “What’s with the paint?”

“It’s my intervention costume,” I said.

I thought this might anger her, but she put a finger on my chest and asked, “Will it rub off on me?”

“Oh, I’d hate to ruin your outfit.”

She hugged me quickly, and said, as if she’d missed the punchline of a joke, “How do you mean, intervention?”

“Denial is a very typical reaction,” I said, jabbing her back with my index finger.

She smirked, holding my gaze for a second or two, and I felt a twinge of satisfaction that she wasn’t completely comfortable with my presence. She said, “So you read the books I sent.”

“Oui, Madame.”

“I wish you’d called ahead.”

“I’ll just sleep on the floor in your room.”

“Maybe on one of the couches out here?”

“Sounds fine,” I said. “Come on. Let’s walk around.” I wrapped my arm around her thin shoulder.

“Where do you want to walk?” she asked.

With my arm still around her, I tried to steer her forward, but her feet were planted. I asked, “Can’t you give me a tour?”

“There’s not much to see. I could show you the solar panels that run the stereo and the fridge, but it’s too dark out.”

“You could show me your room,” I said.

“It’s a bit of a mess right now,” she said, coming out from under my arm. “Maybe you’d want to play some chess? Or I could get you some food?”

“I had a glass of fake milk,” I said.

“Want to meet some of my friends?”

“I met Delmon. I love that guy. He’s ‘psycho,’” I said.

She narrowed her eyes. “Okay, I’ll show you my room.”

I kept my mask off and we wound our way through the party. Shadowing my sister, my presence in the co-op was now legitimized, which was a disappointing feeling. I followed Katherine to a hallway of rooms reeking of lentils and wet cardboard, and when she opened the door to her room, the sharp stench, like a horse stall, gave me chills. Depressing paisley tapestries covered the walls. I had never seen anything remotely like this in her room at home. We stood close together in the narrow space between her bureau and her desk, the top of which was adorned by a few shiny textbooks, a jogbra, a stick of charred incense, and five or six soggy cigarette butts floating in a glass of water.

I said, “I love what you’ve done with the place.”

“See? You wouldn’t want to stay in here.”

The one serious conversation we’d had about the intervention happened Columbus Day weekend, at a family reunion on a riverboat in Louisville. We disagreed about the unhealthiness of our father’s drinking, and I argued that confronting him would make him feel like a stranger in his own family. Katherine still wanted to go through with it even though she knew he would feel betrayed. With Dad getting fired by the ad firm and trying to sell precious gemstones to his friends and relatives, I felt strongly that the timing of her plan was bad. I’d read the books but couldn’t imagine delivering a canned statement to him like I’ve reserved an appointment with Dr. So-and-So to help you with your recovery. I’ll drive you. Finally Katherine yelled at me, really shouted full bore. “Take some goddamn responsibility, Ned!” She knew she couldn’t carry out the intervention without me, especially with Mom out of the picture. We were leaning against the rail of the casino boat, looking out at the shabby banks of the Ohio River. Plastic bags caught in the reeds flapped in the twilight. Eventually she calmed down and said that mostly, she just wanted to talk to Dad, just talk to him. That surprised me, and though it didn’t change my mind, I understood what she was saying.

I recalled this conversation in the moment, because I didn’t want to come at her guns-blazing about the ferret.

She said, “Hey, let’s go back to the party. I have friends I want you to meet. We’ll find you a good place to sleep.”

Before we left, I spotted a pair of running shoes in the trashcan—each sneaker had its toe and heel chewed away, gaping holes at both ends. I had no choice but to raise the issue. “You been running a lot?” I asked.

“Tons,” she said. She tugged at my arm and said, “Let’s go.”

“Katherine, I know about the ferret. Dad told me.”

She looked confused. “What did Dad say?”

I bent down and looked under the bed, but the view was blocked by laundry. “Where do you keep him?” I asked.

“I don’t have a ferret,” she said.

I shook my head. “Okay, now we need some honest talk. I’m concerned about you and I’d be happy to drive you to Dr. So-and-So’s office.”

“Look at you, so proud of yourself, mocking me.”

“You know, Katherine, holidays and social functions are uncomfortable when you’re with your ferret.”

“Fuck off, Ned. Don’t joke about Dad’s intervention,” she said, grabbing my arm and trying to yank me out of the room. That’s when a pause came in the music from the kitchen. In the quiet of Katherine’s room, I heard a gentle squeaking sound. It was such an obvious noise I was shocked I hadn’t noticed it earlier.

“Ah-ha!” I shouted, and crouched to look under Katherine’s desk. A brown furry animal, the size of a football, was nested atop a pair of jeans. The creature darted under the bed, so I lay down on my stomach and pushed aside the dirty laundry, extending an arm beneath the boxspring. I saw a blur of brown and heard a little squeal; it fled to the far corner, wedging itself between the wall and a potted jade plant.

“That’s a fast ferret,” I said.

“It’s a woodchuck,” said Katherine, staring blankly at it.

“Why is there a woodchuck in your room?” I asked.

“Long story,” she said, and sighed as though I was boring her. “They were eating stuff from the garden, really tearing things up, so Delmon trapped one and we were going to release him on the other side of campus, or in town someplace, but the garden was still getting eaten, so he kept setting the trap, and caught a few more. Then we started wondering about tampering with the ecosystem, you know?”

“What ecosystem?” I asked.

She opened the thin doors of her wardrobe. Inside were three more woodchucks, each in their own nest of clothes. There was a large water bottle affixed to one of the shelves, with a metal spout like a hamster might use.

“Jesus. How many?”

“Five in all. Well, and there’s a baby fox in the bottom drawer of my desk.”

I felt a familiar anger burn in my chest. People in my family often act irresponsibly. “You let that guy with the sunglasses do this to you? Delmon?” I asked.

“Oh, come on. Take that face off your face,” said Katherine. “It was a house decision. But I kind of volunteered, too. Delmon’s got a big room, and I figured I could stay with him for a while. At least until we harvest all the vegetables.”

“You slept with Delmon?”

She folded her arms on her chest and stared at me. “Shut up, Ned.”

I sat beside her on the bed. I stared at the only animal I could spot. I couldn’t see much of him behind the jade plant, just his whiskers and part of his tail. Katherine took a flannel shirt off the floor and put it on, and we sat like that for several minutes, listening to the chewing sound.

Finally she nudged me with her forearm and said, “Have you ever heard of consensus? That’s how we make decisions in this house.”

It was conciliatory, the way she said it, but still I couldn’t help but tell her what I thought. “Consensus? Consensus is idiotic.”

“Oh, yeah? What the hell do you know about consensus?”

“I just know that you’ve got to take everyone’s opinion seriously. And a quarter of the people in any given group are extremely stupid. Their opinions suck.”

“You suck,” she said, but I could tell she recognized the kernel of wisdom in my words.

“Watch this,” I said, and I grabbed her hand, pulling her up off the bed. Now was my time to take responsibility. I walked her back into the kitchen area, into the heart of the party. I yelled out, “Listen up, everybody!”

No one paid attention. I yelled again, “Hey! I have an announcement!”

Katherine leaned against me and said, “Ned, please. No one wants to listen to this.”

I walked to the stereo and turned down the volume. The crowd was still loud, so I put my fingers in my mouth and whistled. Within a few seconds, everyone in the house was quietly looking at me.

“Okay, people. I hereby call an emergency house meeting. There are six wild animals in my sister’s room. This is obviously unacceptable. Do I hear a motion for a vote to remedy this situation?”

The bearded guy who’d been hula-hooping earlier started chanting, “Wood-Chuck! Wood-Chuck! Chuck! Chuck! Chuck!” and a few others joined him, until I yelled, “Quiet!” and they stopped chanting, though some continued to laugh. I said, louder, “Do I hear a motion?”

Delmon sat up from his place on the couch. “She likes animals,” he said.

“She got bullied into it,” I said.

“No, I didn’t,” said Katherine.

“We don’t tolerate bullies,” said the girl with the needle eyes.

“I move to exterminate the woodchucks,” I said. “Will someone second this motion?”

“Fuck no!” yelled the hula-hooper. Though I disagreed with his opinion, I admired him for having one. I prefer this kind of person, actually—someone who is memorable even if they’re deeply flawed. The mood in the room was still light; no one really seemed to think I was hoping to vote on this issue. The people on the dance floor laughed and no one offered to second my motion.

“Listen, people, get serious for once. You think the world is going to pay attention to your hippie bullshit after graduation? Those woodchucks cannot live in my sister’s room!”

“Fuck off, Ned!” said Katherine. “I like them.”

“Yeah, fuck off, Ned,” added Delmon. “Your sister can take care of herself.”

But I sensed a palpable shift; the room was warming to debate. I said, “Okay, okay, how about this: How many of you want the freaky zoo to be in your room? Let’s see a show of hands.”

Another chant of “Wood-Chuck! Wood-Chuck! Chuck! Chuck! Chuck!” started, but only a few people actually raised a hand. Many in the room seemed scornful of this democratic procedure.

“Fine,” I said. “And how many of you like roasted woodchuck?” The hippies laughed—I even saw Delmon chuckling behind his sunglasses. I was annoyed that they perceived this question as merely academic. I laid it out more plainly. “Look, people. I know how to kill an animal, and I know how to cook one, too.”

This caught them off guard. The hula-hooper looked pissed. “We’re vegetarians.”

“So no one’s voting for roasted woodchuck?” I asked.

“No,” said Katherine, and many others in the room shouted their disapproval, too. I had finally ignited some real dissent.

“Well, I vote for roasted woodchuck,” I said. “And by the rules of consensus, you’re going to have to deal with me.”

“You’re not a member of this house,” said Delmon.

He had a point there, so I calmly walked up to the dish rack by the sink and took a paring knife from the utensil basin. As I passed Katherine, she said, “Very funny, Ned.” So I lengthened my stride and began sprinting toward her room. Katherine and several others ran after me. I heard someone say, “Is this for real?” and someone else said, “He better not hurt the baby fox!”

I saw a blur of brown and heard a little squeal; it fled to the far corner, wedging itself between the wall and a potted jade plant.

Our father had always been the kind of guy who needed a lot of private time in the early part of the day. Katherine and I—and our mother, before she moved to Wisconsin—knew to give him a wide berth. Get him his coffee and maybe an egg but otherwise steer clear. Was there anything wrong with that? By dinnertime, after work, he was as warmhearted and fun-loving as anyone.

By the time I got to Katherine’s room with the knife, it was a trick to spin my way inside, shut the door, and click the lock on the doorknob before Katherine and the others arrived. As I’d seen in movies, I wedged the desk chair underneath the doorknob to keep the thunderous mob from entering.

From the other side of the door, someone shouted, “You’re fucking with house property!”

I yelled back, “I’m practicing consensus.” I got down on my hands and knees and spotted one of the woodchucks, who’d returned to his nest atop Katherine’s jeans. All I did was look at him and he darted under the bed.

As more and more people assembled outside the door, I considered my various options. What I wanted to do was to teach the unwashed heathens a lesson. While I described the process to them in a loud voice—capturing the animals one by one, holding them by the scruff so they couldn’t bite, popping their necks swiftly so as to paralyze them, stringing them up by one leg with a shoelace tied to the light fixture, cutting off their heads, skinning them, pulling out their guts, creating a hand-cranked rotisserie contraption out of coathangers, building a fire and roasting them slowly—the audience outside the door responded in kind. “Killer!” they yelled. “Terrorist!” they shouted. I couldn’t hear my own sister’s voice, but I knew she was out there.

I must have been fairly convincing as I narrated these fake details; my sister’s friends continued shouting and pounding for several minutes. But eventually their outrage began to wane, and finally, quiet.

A single knock on the door. “Hey, man—it’s me. Delmon.”

“My hands are covered in blood, I can’t turn the knob,” I said.

“That’s fine. We can talk through the door. Everyone’s gone. Let’s talk man to man.”

“Go ahead.”

“Your sister’s a badass. She’s a truly good person.”

“I know that.”

“You’re upsetting her.”

I laughed.

He said, “I’ll keep the woodchucks in my room from now on, okay?” I said nothing, and eventually I heard him walk away.

I flipped over Katherine’s mattress. Using her blanket as a net, I cast it atop one of the woodchucks huddled in the corner. The frightened animal chattered while I bundled him up in the blanket and opened the window. But when I set him free, he was quiet again, limp in the grass for a second or two, looking much smaller, like a stray mitten, before ambling away, vanishing among the other dark grays of the back yard. I repeated this process four more times. Each time, the woodchuck cries got my adrenaline going. The baby fox was easy to snatch from the desk drawer and deposit on the lawn, one hand under its belly. After all the animals had been freed, I was reminded again of my father’s concern, and I wanted to get the whole house screaming again, so I busted up Katherine’s wooden chair, then ripped a few pages out of her semiotics textbook and crumpled them beneath the kindling. In the desk’s top drawer, I found a Bic lighter, and lit the mess.

The smell of burning wood got the hippies to return to the hallway again, which should have been gratifying, but the noxious smoke in the small room, and the searing heat of the flames, made me think not only about the reaction I was inciting, but also about my own plight. I saw my silver hands darkened with soot and realized I was very close to roasting myself, like an ill-behaved witch. I truly wonder what might have happened had the sprinkler system not engaged. Torrents of water sprayed down on me and the crackling chair.

Not much later, Katherine found me in the backyard. Like me, she was soaked and shivering. She sat down beside me on the cold, wet grass, her knees tucked beneath her chin.

“Ned,” she said, staring straight ahead, out into the dark where the animals had gone. And then again she said, “Ned.” It was as though she were catching her breath, but she wasn’t winded. “I’ve decided to talk to you as though you’re not out of your mind, even though you are. I’m finally going to say the things I’ve been meaning to say forever, and I’m going to speak them clearly, and I’m not going to stop until I’m done. I’m going to talk to you like I’ve always wanted to talk to you.”

“That’s fair,” I said. From her tone of voice I knew it was probably time to listen.

Lewis Robinson is the author of the novel Water Dogs and the story collection Officer Friendly.

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