Feral by Jared Hegwood
We were going to meet Inez’s new husband, Cory. They were coming through Atlanta and, though we only lived a few hours from her, visits with our friend were rare. Besides, my husband, Foster, and I were having a hard year and we welcomed the distraction. I was scared I was losing him. I thought maybe if he could remember who we had been, he could better imagine what we might be again.
When Inez popped the trunk, and opened the door to his kennel, Cory leapt out of arm’s reach and sprinted off through the yard. He was a balding blur in cargo pants. I tried to head him off at the pass, and force him to run back to Inez. He was faster than I’d considered, though, and in one fluid motion, he dashed toward the fence that surrounds the back yard and bounded effortlessly over it and into the dark.
Inez didn’t even bother to call after him. With almost as much grace as her already impressive paramour, she was over the fence with little more than a grunt, a “hupp” that sounded like martial art kiai. Her hair was greying and she was rounder in the face, but she still had the lean look of a gymnast. I sprinted around the house to the only gate that lead into the backyard in case he doubled back, but I only saw tree and shadow.
Cory, Inez had told us, was a retired history professor, a divorcé she had met after joining a book club. She said that after his split, Cory pulled out the last of his savings and moved Augusta to buy a franchise of a golf store chain. Easy money, he figured. But soon after his grand opening, the economy hit bottom and Cory was struggling to find customers in an already saturated market. The whole thing had gone kaput a month ago, and Cory was deeply depressed. His nest egg was gone, his former employer had already replaced him and the local college was only considering him for low-paying adjunct work. He and Inez married shortly after.
Cory never quite recovered. He taught night classes and struggled with a book about Midway that never went further than a few pages. The marriage was meant to center them, center him, but Cory worried to the point of insomnia and migraines. Inez suggested a trip to take his mind off things, a long overdue visit to formally introduce him to us, old friends. We were both high school teachers. We knew what it meant to live broke.
Foster followed Inez over the fence, but without the same degree of success. There’s some spring yet in the man (as he’s always trying to prove to me), but the solid frame that I held on to so tightly in bed had become more of an unforgiving anchor in the last few years. As we met in the middle of the yard, he was grumbling over a gaping groin hole he’d created in his pants. I couldn’t help but laugh. Thank God, so did he. There was no sign of Cory, and Inez thought that he might have leaped the outer perimeter of the fence, out into the woods behind the house. She cursed to herself, like she had known this might happen, and then marched off to her car. She rooted around for a while, jerking various items out of the small, brown compact, letting them fall and clang on the ground. A light popped on at our nearest neighbor’s house and I could see the silhouette of the woman who lived there. She watched for a few seconds before turning the light back off. Inez walked back our way with a flashlight and a bag of bite-sized beef jerky.
The second fence she went over, she took a more delicate approach, borrowing a lawn chair from our porch and easing over into the wood. From then on, we watched the beam of her flashlight scatter in the brush and listened to her as she eased through the goose vine and briars and fell trees. She called after him, tossing jerky as she walked in some pattern that only she understood. She cooed his name, and mewled for him like a cat. Foster looked at me with a mixture of amazement and perplexion on his face. He seemed to understand what she was doing, but not what she was doing, if you take my meaning. We stood like that, leaning against the barbed fence and listening to her voice trail farther and farther off, for what felt like hours. We simply didn’t know what to do. I wanted so badly to take his hand, but the fear in not having it taken back kept me from trying.
Later, Inez put together a tent that she had kept in her trunk. It was for emergencies, she said. Everyone should keep one in their car under the spare tire, she said. I’ve always thought her beautiful in a stark sort of way. She had the height and high cheek bones of a fashion model, but never quite developed into that sort of beauty. Her face was weathered, splotched, but she never wore make-up. A man would love her for who she was and what she did, she insisted. There was no point in asking for anything less.
Foster had since changed pants, changed into his pajamas and sneakers. We offered to help, but she turned us down and only asked for a glass of water. She pieced the tent together from memory, like a puzzle she had completed a thousand times before. She crawled inside and changed into a patchwork outfit made out of long-sleeved, high-collared, oxford-white clothing. It was the better to be seen in the dark.
It all felt strange, but maybe that’s obvious. Like a rush of adrenaline that hadn’t yet settled. She drove up, hugged me, then her husband rips down the yard and we’re here suddenly? It was dizzying. I hadn’t seen this woman in six years and before we have a chance to laugh about the smile lines, gray hairs and weight that we’ve both put on, she’s setting up camp in our yard? All I could do was watch and get out of her way. Foster seemed unfazed by the whole thing and just stood beside me on the back porch with his arms crossed. He waved at her in dismissal. That dude is gone, he said. He turned to me and pointed at his head. Gone, he said again.
Inez had done this before, she told us. With Cory and with previous boyfriends. This was the first time for a husband. Oddly enough, she took a great deal of pride in all of it. She was good enough, she said while stuffing the cuffs of white jeans into her boots, that maybe she could do it for a living. The strange outfit had worked before; the cooing, too. Each man had had their own unique personal travesty. What she had to do was call to them, soothe them.
She would tell us a story over breakfast the next morning, Cory still awol, about the first successful hunt she had gone on. I felt uncomfortable with the word, but didn’t say. A few years ago, Inez was working in New Orleans for her job as a text-book editor and her then-boyfriend, Dene, was staying with friends back in Waveland, on the Mississippi side of the Gulf Coast. Inez flew north for a meeting and Katrina hit while she was away. When phone lines and cell-tower systems fell apart, she understandably freaked. Dene was from Angola and had only been in the country for three months. Really, now that I think about it, it seems odd that she and Dene could have been in a relationship that quickly. But I suppose it’s only the end of the story matters. Either way, the friends skipped town, leaving Dene to fend for himself. Inez flew down as soon as she could find an airline that would get her close enough, and then drove in a rental car from Jackson to Waveland using back roads with only a trunk full of brimmed five-gallon gas cans and peanut butter crackers.
When she arrived, the city was a wreck. Utterly demolished. You’ve seen the pictures. After sneaking by the National Guard, she found the apartment complex where Dene was living. It was deserted. Six days went by; she walking through demolished homes by day and sleeping in her car by night. She found him a week after arriving at the public pool, just a block away from the apartments she started at. He was drinking trash-filled water with several other strays. The other toms scattered immediately, but Dene stayed. He was cautious; it had been an incredible thing, his survival. But despite the shell-shock of surviving the storm, he must have remembered something about Inez and living with her. He stepped to her lightly, and then, once regaining his confidence, leapt back in her arms. He slept for two days, she said, and she nursed him back to health. He’d been in a few fights, she could tell, from the scabs around his neck, but he seemed no worse for wear. Watching over him had awakened something in her, an instinct she’d never felt before. She’d never wanted children and was getting to be too old for it now, but in this she could be of some use to someone other that herself. Once the semester was over, Dene left to take a job in Sacramento. Inez said that it didn’t bother her, but Dene felt embarrassed about needing her so badly and having been that weak. Men couldn’t be so frail for their women.
Inez said that the experience of finding him, of rescuing him had saved the both of them, even though it ultimately meant the end of their relationship. It might be the end of this one, too, but she owed it to Cory to look for him, and, upon finding him, love him back to health.
Foster rolled his eyes once she had finished and gone upstairs to shower. He doesn’t believe the story, or at least, doesn’t want to imagine something like that could be. But he’s wrong. I understood, if he didn’t.
He and I had been briefly separated last year, something I hadn’t told anyone, certainly not Inez. I’d made some personal mistakes, ones that I deeply regretted. I can’t recall the reason we thought it was a good idea, splitting, when what we really needed was to be together. It was too long for the both of us. Maybe we thought we would learn something about ourselves that we couldn’t while together. I can’t say if we did or not, but what I do know is that long before we came back to sleep in the same bed, I realize that I did need him. I felt jumpy, desperate, my center lost somewhere. Wild, in the worst way.
And when I saw him after that first few weeks, I knew that he felt the same, even if he wouldn’t, or couldn’t admit it. I don’t mean that he couldn’t pay his bills or keep his space clean. He’s not a child. He seemed lost, though, without me. As much as I was without him. Like we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. We waited for some time afterward before fully reconciling, and we did enjoy a sort of second honeymoon. There was a lot of holding each other tightly, like we were trying to physically push ourselves back together.
But the bloom had fallen, you might say, and before Inez, I thought that things were turning bad again. Now, I know different. There are peaks and there are valleys, but Inez’s story insisted that we could make it, that we could be happy. It was because we had both gone feral that we were able to hold onto each other.
There was something exhilarating, I admit, watching her step back out into the night woods to look for Cory. She threw nip into the air, lined the fence with wet food. She’d sleep in the tent, so she could hear him if he called out. I wasn’t sure if things might work out for them or not. After I had gone to bed, I could still hear her out there, crunching through the underbrush. I didn’t know if he’d come back. Sometimes we find our way back home. Sometimes no. I climbed back into bed with my husband, the love of my life, understanding now that love is never easy. I wrapped my arm around his chest and though he was already fast asleep, he moved into my spooning. The year had been a tough one for Cory. Inez didn’t have to say it, but I could imagine.