DOLPHIN DOUBT

BY MARTIE FULP-EICKSTAEDT

Lola did not know which one of her father’s addicts slit his wrists that day. She did not know the slightest bit about Mr. Jones, or, for that matter, any one of her father’s “sad friends.” This is how he had referred to his clients after Lola asked him to explain drug abuse counseling for her fifth-grade career day presentation. “I help some very sad friends through some very sad times.” Lola opted to write her report on her mother’s profession instead. Not that her life as a veterinarian was altogether free of woe, but at least routine pet check-ups and successful surgeries balanced out any bereavement brought on by euthanasia or road accident victims. And, better yet, the report was an opportunity for Lola to talk to her classmates about the teacup pig her family had taken in, her precious Angelina, a tyrannical, 150-pound porker. Once a charming piglet, Angelina had been abandoned on the veterinary office doorstep by owners gullible enough to believe she would always be small enough for photo shoots in baseball caps and garden pots.

Mr. Jones slit his wrists just as dawn began to hatch, underneath a stunning tulip poplar that seemed out of place next to a Taco Bell dumpster. Though he only needed one, he used an entire package of razor blades. The previous day his drug abuse counselor, a refreshingly heartfelt man named Roger, had signed a document that permitted him to withdraw from his residential substance abuse recovery program against medical advice. Beforehand Mr. Jones completed a questionnaire that asked at the bottom, “How severe is your suicidal ideation, on a scale from 1 to 10?” Mr. Jones had spelled out “four” in all caps, a winning answer, his prize his release.

By the time the Taco Bell employee taking out the trash that morning discovered Mr. Jones, his limbs stretched out like a basking cat, it was too late to call an ambulance. Even if there had been prospect of rescue, the stoned cashier would have likely botched it; her first thought upon seeing the puddle hardening around his wrists was, fuck that’s a lot of chocolate sauce.

Lola was on a field trip to the aquarium when her father received the call, her mouth agape, mirroring those of the fish behind the glass. She was having a hard time keeping up with everyone else, entranced by the acrobatics of the manta rays, the wily grins of the moray eels, the sleek pirouettes of the sea otters. Her favorite were the piranha, with scales glittering like cheap handbag sequins and bright orange underbellies, not nearly as lethal, perhaps, if not so alluring.

More than once her teacher snapped at her for straggling. Lola was the type to re-read informational plaques, her thoroughness often more of a handicap than an asset, though it had enabled her to become an impressive collector of facts. While marvels of science and history swam quickly out of the minds of her peers, she could keep them alive for years within an ever-expanding tank of knowledge. Classmates liked to label her annoying; adults, precocious.

The afternoon of Mr. Jones’ suicide, Lola’s older brother Kyle, an oafish outfielder for his High School’s baseball team, expected the family to attend his second game of the season. Lola’s father complained of a headache, a predictable excuse for him to flake, worn enough for everyone to suspect it was a front. Roger had missed half of his son’s basketball season that winter due to “headaches.” Lola promptly mimicked the excuse, finding her brother’s baseball games dull and a little cringey. Kyle consistently struck out, and he had a tendency to trip over his own cleats and fumble fly balls.

Before Lola’s mother left to drive her and Kyle to the game, she said, “Sorry, love,” to Roger, who sat slumped forward in his recliner, elbows on knees. Though Kyle had tersely reassured his father that his absence did not matter to him at all, as he followed behind his mother he slammed the door.

Lola took Angelina out into the backyard to root around in the sandbox for a while. She had named the pig after one of her best friends, though she had since fallen out of favor with her playmate over a nasty gel pen dispute, making the name an apt one at times. Angelina the pig could be a spiteful nuisance, sloshing the water out of her bowl for passerby to slip, chewing up stray socks and carpet corners, and even head-butting shins for green apples, her favorite treat. Her family had filled her sandbox with foam blocks and plastic hotdogs and ice-cream cones leftover from Lola’s toddlerhood to keep her amused.

After grabbing the last can of Sprite from the fridge, Lola tossed the cardboard box into the sandbox, too, then crouched in the grass to slurp her soda and watch Angelina crush it with her hoof, then gnaw on the green flaps, and then rip the whole thing apart. Roger liked to say Angelina did not deserve the dignity of a four-syllable name, referring to her instead as “Chunk.”

“Naw, don’t call me Mr. Jones. Call me Candy.” These were the first words Mr. Jones spoke to Roger. Now he wished he had asked Mr. Jones what specifically inspired the nickname. Whatever it was, Candy was fitting. Though he was nearing sixty, with scruffy cheeks and a liver-spotted scalp, he had the naïve, fearful eyes of a child who had been lured by sweets into a trap. Before becoming acquainted with his narcissistic ex-wife, and then meth, he ran a popcorn booth at carnivals. He blamed his tooth decay on an untamable taste for snow cones. And during free time hours, Roger could usually find him playing Uno in the rec room, smiling behind his fan of cards, one tooth in the top corner of his mouth twinkling like the North Star.

After bringing Angelina back inside Lola found her father still in his recliner, filling out a newspaper crossword puzzle in front of the living room T.V. Normally he completed these puzzles in the morning, over a bowl of oatmeal, his square glasses sliding down the bridge of his nose, but this afternoon the glasses were atop his head, buried among the graying curls.

“Why are you watching golf?” Lola asked. Roger was known to poke fun at his brother for liking the vapid and pretentious sport. He reached for the remote and clicked to the next channel, a Western movie, loud and percussive with gunshots and galloping horses. Lola asked him if his headache was any better and he nodded, then clacked the remote back down on to the coffee table without turning down the volume. Though they both knew their headaches had been fabricated, Lola was a little hurt he had not asked about hers in turn.

“I went to the aquarium today,” she said.

Her father raised his eyebrows but did not look up from his crossword puzzle. Sometimes they worked on crossword puzzles together, Roger reading aloud the clues and giving her time to come up with the answers, even if he already knew them. She could make him especially proud by coming up with an answer first.

When Lola bent down closer to read a clue or two, she discovered her father was not answering them at all. Instead of filling out the empty boxes with letters, he was methodically, one by one, blacking them out with the felt tip of his pen.

“You want to know something interesting?” Lola squirmed with yearning for him to look up from the puzzle, now almost fully devoured in ink.

“Huh,” he said, moving down to the final two rows of the crossword.

“At the aquarium I learned that dolphins are most likely capable of metacognition.” Lola paused for him to ask for the definition of this scintillating new vocabulary word, but his curiosity lay fallow. She began to pinch at the tan leather skin of one of the recliner armrests.

“That means they are aware of their own thinking,” she continued, the pace of her speech quickening with both excitement and the chagrin of having it unmatched. “So, let’s say researchers are rewarding them with treats for responding to yes or no questions correctly. If the dolphins don’t know the right answer, they hesitate or won’t swim to an answer at all, and that’s proof they experience doubt like humans do.”

Her father had yet to look up at her.  His nod reminded her of the serene, automatic propulsion of the jellyfish.

“Dad,” Lola said. “Dad!”

Finally, his gaze met hers. “What?”

“Isn’t that cool, dad?”

“Sure,” he muttered, leaning over to set the crossword and pen down on the coffee table. “That’s very interesting.” He rubbed his temples and sighed.

Not always, particularly when he was suffering from a headache, but sometimes, Lola’s facts could captivate her father, his rapt attention alone better than speaking to a crowded auditorium under a stage light. “Where did you learn that?” he would ask. Or, “Is that really true?” Or, the loveliest question of all: “Isn’t the world a wondrous place?”

Roger stared out the sliding glass door at the Sprite box debris Lola had simply left in the sandbox, vaguely registering that she was watching a band of cowboys kidnap a woman on the screen in front of them, but not that this meant he should change the channel again. Angelina was squealing and huffing, her hooves scrabbling against the linoleum tiles as she careered around the kitchen island again and again, sounds he had learned to tolerate out of love for his wife and daughter.

Aside from Mr. Jones’ elderly mother, who had depleted savings to help finance his string of failed treatment programs, Roger wondered how many other mourners would attend his funeral. In a group therapy session he once mentioned a friend from his carnival days who had been maimed while training a sea lion to catch hoops with its neck. Fed up with parading around as little more than a ring-stacking toy, the sea lion charged and chomped down on his forearm. After this story, far-removed from Roger’s planned discussion on positive self-talk, Mr. Jones snorted and shook his head. “Dumb fuck,” he laughed. “But Christ I loved that man.”

Lola, who had changed the channel to a cooking show where a model thin woman was giving instructions on how to bake lemon meringue pie, asked her father if he wanted her to heat up leftover meatloaf for him, an especially kind offer given her vegetarianism. He shook his head no. Her eyes wandered over to the Peanuts themed calendar hanging on the wall. April 15th, a date she recognized from studying for a test on the Civil War.

“Hey,” she said. “Did you know that on this day in 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated?”

He laughed gruffly. “You still torn up about it?”

No, Lola thought. That would be stupid.

Angelina trotted into the room, announcing her presence with a harsh squeal, livid for a snack.

Roger wiped a palm down one side of his face and then slapped it down on an armrest. “Will you do me a favor and shut that thing up with some food? And please, for God’s sakes, clean up that mess you left in the sandbox. We can’t just have Chunk leaving messes all over the place.”

Lola stalked off to the kitchen without a word, Angelina chortling softly at the back of her heels, delighted to be getting her way.  Hungry herself, Lola ripped open a pop tart package and slid the two frosted strawberry pastries into the toaster for dinner, but when they popped back up she decided she only wanted one of them. Already embarrassed by her father’s scolding, she now became even more aware and embarrassed of the prepubescent chub testing the snap button on her jeans. Normal and healthy, if not for the diet book eying back at her from the cookbook shelf: How to Burn Fat and Reclaim your Life. Maybe if she looked different, Lola deduced, her father would like having her around more. Though she was not supposed to feed Angelina processed food, she threw the other pop tart for the pig to fetch and gobble up.

Petting Angelina was not at all like smoothing back the fur of their former pet, a handsome golden retriever that had died of old age in her father’s arms. Angelina’s black and white coat was coarse, with a scraggly Mohawk rising behind her ears. Lola knelt on the floor and gently scratched her chin, prompting her to flop down and roll onto her back for a belly rub.

Over the weekend, a friend had invited Lola to her church, where the pastor preached a sermon about how Jesus healed a demon-possessed man by driving the demons out of his body and straight into a herd of pigs. The pigs all hurtled down a cliff and drowned in a lake. Deeply perturbed by this “miracle,” Lola sobbed to her mother afterwards that she really did not want to go to church with her friend anymore. Her mother assured her that this decision was perfectly okay, combing her fingers through the dark head of hair Lola had lain across her lap. After her breathing settled, Lola looked up at her mother and asked if she thought people could really be possessed by demons.

“No, no, I don’t think so,” she said. She told Lola she thought maybe when Jesus was alive that was their way of explaining mental illness.

“You know,” she said. “Like when your father talks about helping his very sad friends at his job. A lot of those people have mental illnesses.”

As Lola rubbed her belly, Angelina began to drool, her blinking droopy. Lola thought if Jesus were to drive deep sadness out of a man and into pigs, they would just fall over and lie there, dazed and motionless, like her father staring off in his recliner on a headache day.

After cleaning up the sandbox, making a show of stuffing the bag of cardboard bits into the trashcan so her father would know she had taken care of it, Lola went to go finish her homework in her bedroom. On the bed her history textbook lay open to a page with a photograph of Abraham Lincoln, regarding her through a window of printed lessons about his presidency.  Lola, who had never been keen on sarcasm, thought how ridiculous it was for her father to ask if she was still grieving a stranger who died over a century ago. She might not have been too upset even if she had known President Lincoln personally. Though posing for a portrait, he looked like he was standing around at a graveside service, gloomy and austere. He was clearly not the type to talk much, his furrowed, bushy eyebrows suggesting that joking around with him would not have been smart. Funny, Lola thought. He was shot while seeing a comedy at the theatre.

Kyle had returned from his baseball game, and now Lola could hear her father asking him how it went in the hallway outside her door.

“It’s fine that you didn’t come,” Kyle said. “I was benched for most of it. And anyway, we lost.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t go.”

Kyle dropped his baseball bag on the hardwood floor. A loud clunk.

“I said it’s fine, Dad.”

That night Lola woke from her sleep around 1:30 am with snarls rising from her belly. Irritated at herself for being too hungry to wait until sunrise, she shuffled in her frog slippers toward the kitchen in pursuit of some potato chips, but stopped halfway there in front of her parents’ bedroom, paralyzed by the wretched noises coming from beyond their door. It took a moment for her to realize it was her father crying, a heaving, snotty cry that lasted a long while, interspersed with hiccups and honks from nose blowing. The only familiar sound was her mother’s shushing, the kind caress of a lake over its shore.

“And that damned pig!” he blurted out. “That pig!” More blubbering. Another honk. Another long shush.

Lola tiptoed quickly back to her room, her hankering for potato chips forgotten. Earlier that evening Angelina had vomited a suspiciously pink spew across the living room carpet. When her father stormed into her room with a fistful of sopping paper towels to ask if she fed the pig something weird, Lola shook her head no. “I think she was just feeling sick today.”

Now Lola felt sick. Her father did not always suppress his laughter when Kyle cracked jokes about frying up strips of Angelina for breakfast. And he often complained about the financial toll of owning a pig. But this was the first night the worry crossed her mind that her family might actually ditch Angelina, subjecting her to yet another abandonment. She curled up into a donut shape on the floor next to the pig sleeping in a crate at the foot of her bed, her forehead pressing into her kneecaps.  Hours later, she finally fell back asleep by thinking of the crossword puzzle her father had left on the coffee table. In her mind she had a magic eraser that was able to clear the puzzle of ink, uncovering each empty box, one by one, so that each letter of each solved riddle would have a place to be kept safe.