Our car sputtered along the dirt road across the thick prairie plains. It was a gorgeous, hot summer day: the sun sizzled like a sliced tomato in a frying pan and the vibrant green grass smelt fresh and alive. I bounced with the road in the backseat of our car while my parents sat silently in the front seat.
My mother was dressed very elegantly and kept her hands in her lap. She had a blue summer dress on with a floral pattern, and her fitted, bell-shaped hat was tilted just so to keep the sun from her eyes. She had just finished applying her red lip stick in the passenger mirror and she asked us how she looked.
“You look beautiful, Mama,” I said, meaning every word.
My father didn’t say anything. He kept one hand on the wheel and had the other hand dangling outside the window. His glass of scotch jiggled on the dusty dashboard of the car, intermittently spilling small drops. He emitted a small sigh, all while keeping his glassy eyes on the dirt road.
My father was an award-winning writer and had plenty of money to spend on mother and me. My mother absolutely adored my father’s work and she always complimented him on it. Her favourite piece of his was a story he wrote about a man who had a single day left to live and spent it in a hot air balloon, swiftly chasing the sun as it set on the horizon. The dying man, for the remaining twenty-four hours of his life, lived in bask of a warming, elongated sunset and it was the happiest that he had ever been in his entire life.
My father thought that was the worst story he had ever written.
Our car slowly approached a small fit of barns and houses amidst the green prairie grass. The wood of the barns and houses looked old, worn and tattered. My mother pointed out some cows that were procrastinating outside one of the barns, chewing on some grass and seemingly not caring about anything at all.
I pointed out to my mother that the cows looked odd. She agreed with me. The cows looked stagnated and they weren’t wagging their tails at all. My father paid no attention as to what we were talking about.
“Why do they look so weird?” I asked my mother.
“I don’t know,” my mother replied, sounding quite concerned.
I glanced at the cows as we drove past them. One cow looked our way after plucking some grass from the ground with its mouth. Something didn’t seem right to me. I strained my eyes to get a better look, and I realized that the cow had a human face.
“Oh, my. You’re right, dear,” my mother said to me after I had told her. “They’re not cows…they’re people dressed up in a cow suits,” my mother said, almost not believing what she was saying.
“Why are those people in cow suits?” I asked.
“I…I don’t know,” my mother said while staring at the people dressed in cow suits. They stood on all fours and chewed grass with their human teeth. They all wore bells around their necks and stood totally silent. One person dressed in a cow suit let out a thick, bellowing moo.
“Whaddya mean them people dressed as cows?” my father asked, suddenly caring.
“Look, dear. See for yourself,” my mother said sweetly, pointing towards the people in the cow suits.
“I think the heat has gone to both’re heads. How and why would those cows be people? You have to use the logic of your head sometimes,” my father said. He took the glass of scotch off the dusty dashboard, took a healthy sip, and set it back down in its original spot.
My mother and I didn’t say anything.
As we continued along the dirt road, we passed more barns that had more people dressed up as animals. We passed a field that had several dozen people dressed up as goats and sheep, just eating grass and basking in the sun. We passed a large, shallow pond that had several people dressed up as swans, who crouched in the water and splashed themselves with their fake beaks. We passed a large, fenced off range that had several people dressed up as horses, who galloped furiously on all-fours across the green prairie grass.
“There’s a town nearby, isn’t there? Maybe it’s the tradition of a holiday,” my mother said, trying to explain what was going on.
“Maybe they do it for fun,” I chimed in.
Maybe they’re demented,” my father said, half to himself.
“If you could be any animal, what animal would you be?” I asked with a grin on my face. “I would be an eagle because they’re fast and they live in trees.”
“I would be an armadillo,” my mother said in a lovely dignity.
“What?” my father said, glancing over to my mother.
“An armadillo, dear,” my mother reassured him.
“Armadillo? Them’s stupid, ain’t they?”
“I don’t believe so,” my mother said.
“Them’s stupid. They live in dirt and eat bugs and they die all the time because them’s stupid. They may be mammals, but they’ll never be as smart as human beings. Hell, they won’t ever be as smart as an elephants, and even them’s stupid too,” my father said.
My mother and I didn’t say anything.
We eventually pulled up to a gas station along the dirt road. My father got out of the car with his scotch and started fiddling with the gas cap on the side of the car.
“C’mon, dear, let’s go get a snack,” my mother said to me while unbuckling her seat belt. We exited the car slowly and she softly took my hand.
“Hey, are you getting something?” my father asked abruptly.
“Yes,” my mother said.
“Gimme potato chips, would ya? Not them oily ones, though. Them salted ones!” My father called out to us as my mother and I headed into the gas station.
The gas station store was small and the air inside was brisk and cold; Whisper-quiet lounge music piped through the speakers that were housed inside of the bright luminous ceiling. A middle-aged man stood at the counter, dressed in an owl suit. He greeted my mother and me as we walked through the door and we gave him a warm reply.
There were two other people in the store: a younger woman dressed up in a raccoon costume who was fiddling with some soda in the cooler, and an older woman dressed up in a pelican costume who was looking at some snacks. The woman in the pelican costume had a red basket swinging on her arm and she carefully stuffed snacks inside of it. She was very focused on what she was doing, almost as if she were surveying a school of tasty fish cresting in a shallow river.
My mother and I walked towards the pelican woman and we looked at the assortment of snacks. My mother grabbed a small bag of salted potato chips for my father and a large bag of non-salted pretzels for the both of us. The ruffling of the bags distracted the pelican lady just enough to break her concentration. She looked up from the snacks and she smiled when she saw us. My mother and I returned the smile with one of our own.
We walked up to the counter where the raccoon lady was purchasing her various bottles of soda. The owl man put the bottles of soda into a large paper bag and the racoon lady thanked him. She picked up her bag and quickly turned to leave, but she stopped when she saw us.
“Oh, my! Hello!” she said vividly.
“Hello,” my mother said in a warm disposition.
“Why, isn’t this something? Not too often we get tourists ‘round these parts. What brings you here?”
“We’re just passing through for some gasoline,” my mother said warmly. I never saw my mother interact with strangers before. My mother’s breathing was calm and her kindness felt extremely genuine.
“And some snacks!” I chimed, holding up the bag of pretzels.
“My, well aren’t you just the cutest!” the racoon lady said, looking at me. “How old are you, little fella?”
“I’m six-and-a-half years old, ma’am.”
“Aw! Well, aren’t you just the sweetest pot of sugar!” she exclaimed.
“Do you need help carrying your drinks?” my mother asked as the raccoon lady fumbled with the large bag.
“Aw, no, no, no, no, no, I’m fine. Look, you folks have a safe trip to wherever it is that you’re going. I can tell when I see some nice people, and you two are definitely some nice people. Ya’ll have a pleasant day, you hear?”
“Yes, we will. Thank you,” my mother said as the raccoon lady smiled and left. My mother put the bag of potato chips on the counter and I put the bag of pretzels on the counter.
“You people just might be the nicest I’ve ever met,” my mother said to the owl man as he rung up our purchase.
“Why, thank you,” the owl man said in a grizzled voice. “We love getting tourists around these parts. It’s just nice seeing people who live different lives, you know?”
“Absolutely,” my mother said. My mother paid for the snacks and the owl man put them in a brown paper bag for her. He looked at my mother in a very examining way as he stuffed the paper bag with our snacks, almost as if he was looking inside of her.
“Is something the matter?” my mother asked, taking notice.
“No. It’s just…it’s nothing,” he trailed off.
“It’s just what?” my mother asked.
“Nothing,” the owl man said. “It’s not important.”
“No, I insist,” my mother said. “What is it?”
“Well…I don’t know. It’s going to sound strange,” the owl man said.
“That’s perfectly alright,” my mother said calmly.
“Well…has anyone ever told you that you’re an armadillo?”
“Pardon?” my mother asked.
“You’re an armadillo. I can just feel it. It’s the essence that you give off,” he said very confidently. “You’re very soft and kind-hearted on the inside, but you have a hard shell on the outside that protects you from pain and harm. You like to burrow in one spot instead of roaming and wandering. And you have a hard time sensing the future and making sound decisions because of your poor perception.”
“I’ve…” my mother started. She struggled to say anything at all.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. It’s a bad habit I have, I apologize. I just feel I have some sort of talent with guessing what animal best embodies a person. You know, you can tell a lot about a person by what kind of animal they are.”
“What about me?” I asked with an incredible curiosity.
“You?” the owl man asked, looking at me diligently. “I’m sorry, but I’d rather not say. I don’t think your mother would like it too much.”
“Oh, please? Please, please, please?” I asked feverishly. The owl man looked at my mother for permission. My mother slowly nodded her head.
“Well, I’m feeling that you are an eagle,” the owl man said. “You have a strong personality, and you have a demeanour that will garner you great respect. You’re quick, sharp and will live a free and unrestricted life.”
“Wow! Cool!” I said. I tugged on my mother’s dress as I looked up at her. “Isn’t that cool, Mama?”
“Yes, it is, dear,” my mother said. The owl man looked deeply worried for my mother.
“Ma’am, I’m very sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything,” the owl man said.
“No, no, please. That was very nice of you…we were just talking about this in the car not too long ago.”
“And I said I would be an eagle and my mother said she would be an armadillo!” I told the owl man in salutations.
“Well…” the owl man said, but didn’t bother to finish. My mother thanked the owl man politely and gently took the brown paper bag of snacks. She softly took my hand and led me away from the counter.
My mother led me out of the store and we walked back to the car. We got into the car, where my father was already sitting and waiting for us.
“What’n the hell were you guys doing in there? You were in there for like ten minutes! Don’t tell me you were chatting up with them freaks,” my father said sternly.
“We were. They’re nice people,” my mother said distantly as she gave my father the
bag of salted potato chips.
“What’s the matter with you?” my father asked in a straightforward manner. He opened the bag of potato chips and stared eating them. He didn’t seem too interested if my mother had an answer to his question or not.
“Nothing’s wrong. I’m fine,” my mother said. Her voice was very faint and weak, and she sounded like she was struggling to breathe.
We sat in the car for a short, small minute in complete silence while my father crunched his potato chips. No one said anything for a while. I lightly touched my mothers arm from the backseat and she didn’t do or say anything to acknowledge me.
A car slowly pulled up beside us. A younger man in an armadillo costume got out of his car and closed the door. He noticed mother and me in our car, and he slowly grew a smile and waved. I waved back diligently. My mother shielded her eyes away from the armadillo man with her hand and she softly bit her bottom lip while taking a deep breath.
“Seriously, what’s with you?” my father asked as he finished his last potato chip. My mother didn’t say anything for a while. It sounded like she was trying to compose herself.
“Do you ever feel cursed?” my mother finally asked my father.
“Cursed? Whaddya mean? By like witches or something?”
“No, nothing,” my mother said. “It’s nothing.”
“Whatever,” my father said. He started up the car and glanced over at the armadillo man who was pumping gasoline into his car. The armadillo man acknowledged my father and waved.
“Freaks,” my father said as put the car into gear. He tossed his empty bag of potato chips out the window and we unceremoniously drove away from the gas station.