The Beauty Secrets of Cave Dwellers

A little girl, a single father, three ferrets, and a bully. What’s a guy to do?

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From the day Jane walked out our front door — taking everything of value she could stuff in her car, except our seven-year-old daughter, Shoshana — the ferrets began appearing in our backyard. Every evening, they would creep through the straggling peonies and rustle the black-spotted old-fashioned roses. Before long, once night fell, they’d wander right up onto our porch.

That was five months ago. Last Sunday, I confronted the next-door neighbor.

“So, Josiah …” I said, standing in front of our houses, scratching my ear as though I just happened to be passing by when he was backing out his Yamaha. He had a new tattoo on his left shoulder, a giant black spider. Three of the spider’s legs curved all the way down over his pectoral to a nipple. The other three legs were fondling something on his back. I didn’t point out that his spider was two legs short. “Nice bike.”

Josiah stared at me. He seemed to be trying to figure out whether I was crazy or maybe he was trying to remember where he’d seen me before. It had only been two years since he’d moved in next door, and it’s not as though we’ve been holding block parties. Not that Josiah would have gone to one.

I forged ahead. “Yeah, so, about the ferrets …”

Josiah shifted his bike between his bulging quadriceps.

I couldn’t give up. I’d promised Shoshana. “So, you know, I live next door? And, you see, the other day, I was putting some ribs on the grill?”

A light seemed to go on. “The ferrets getting into your yard?”

“Well, yes! You see, that’s it — ”

Josiah grunted. “Keep your kid away from them. Ferrets can bite.” He raised a foot and smashed it down on the kick-start.

I watched him speed down our lane and went back into my house. So he did know who I was. And he knew I had a daughter.

* * *

“Daddy?” Shoshana had just gotten out of the bath, and her long sandy-colored hair — exactly the color of Jane’s before she made friends with red hair dye — was streaming water down her back. I handed her a terry-cloth bathrobe, the one with Cinderella on the collar, and tried not to worry. Shoshana’s legs have already grown longer than her torso; soon she’ll be getting a waist. Before you know it, she’ll be getting all those other things girls get. What will we do then? I never even had sisters.

“Do you want me to comb out your hair?” I asked.

“No.” She made a face. “I hate having my hair combed.”

I picked up the comb. She sighed and straightened. “Did you talk to him?” she asked.

I puffed my chest out. “Yes, honey. I did.”

“Did he’d say he’d keep them away?” When my chest deflated, her chin wobbled a little. “I don’t like those ferrets, Daddy.”

“I know, honey.”

“I’m scared of them. Really. I am! I had a bad dream with them last night.”

I started to pull the comb carefully through her hair. If I were ever trapped in a building where a bomb was planted, Jane had announced after the second time we’d slept together, I’d want you there. You wouldn’t panic. Within a year, that had changed to: We’re good together. Like fire and a bucket of water. But she was being lucid, not vicious, at that particular moment; my ability to keep calm in a crisis did come in handy when we were a couple.

“You did?” I asked Shoshana, tilting her head to get at some new tangles.

“Yes! I dreamed the ferrets had gotten into the house, and they were knocking at my bedroom door. I didn’t want to answer, but then I did and they came streaming in. I screamed. In my dream, I mean. And you came running in and, then, they started climbing all over you. I couldn’t even see you anymore. It was like you’d been swallowed up by them. Except, then, it wasn’t them anymore, it was Mom —” She stopped short. “It was someone else.”

The comb snagged on a knot of hair. “Well, that sure was a bad dream,” I said. “But, look, here I am. No ferrets. Just a lot of knots.” I smiled at the cloudy reflection of her little face in our bathroom mirror. “Anyway, I’ve told you not to open the door to strangers.”

“But, Daddy, the ferrets aren’t strangers. They’re our neighbors.”

We both laughed more than the joke warranted. The comb got stuck again. “What a mess!”

Shoshana swiveled her head so she could look me in the eyes. “Daddy?”

I got a sunken feeling in my gut, and not from the frozen burritos I’d microwaved us for dinner. “Yes, honey?” I was waiting for the question.

“How did people take care of their hair? I mean before. When they were cavemen?” She put her little hand on my arm. Shoshana’s second-grade teacher began the year with dinosaurs: Triassic, Jurassic, angiosperms, and T. Rex. They were now on to Neanderthals: broad nose, barrel-shaped rib cage, round fingertips. We’d spent some time hulking around the house, hamming it up as cave dwellers. “I mean did they have combs? They didn’t have combs, did they? Their hair must have gotten so messed up.”

Jane, if she’d been here, would have just made something up, anything, and would have announced it with total certainty. Just like she would have told Josiah exactly where he could put his three ferrets. Her certitude was in a way what I missed most about Jane. You might have thought we’d make a perfect couple, her with her doggedness and me with my imperturbability. For the first few hours of our relationship, maybe we did.

“I tell you what, Princess,” I said to Shoshana. “Now it’s time for bed. Not history.”

* * *

The ferrets had gotten out again, I could see the next morning. They’d dug up the strawberry plants Jane had put in last spring before she’d decided nothing more in our household would ever give fruit and moved 2,000 miles away to North Hollywood. She said an old friend had offered her a bed there. She said she was going to become a star or maybe an inspirational speaker. The ferrets had left a musky smell all over our porch.

“Look, Daddy.” Shoshana offered up a size-2 sock with Princess Elsa’s face half-eaten for my perusal. “I forgot my socks out on one of the porch chairs yesterday.”

“That’s okay. I needed to pick some new ones up for you this week anyway. You’ve grown out of these.” I threw the sock in the garbage before either of us could look at it again. Shoshana offered me her little hand, and we started off for her school.

When it had come to choosing a name for Shoshana, I’d suggested Susan, but Jane had looked at me as though I must be the dullest man on Earth. This wasn’t unusual; she’d already made it clear she’d never have ended up with me if she hadn’t gotten pregnant. Jane wasn’t just the best-looking clerical assistant working in the Kalamazoo City Hall. She was born with the drive of a Forbes 100 executive. The only thing she didn’t have was a high school diploma. Otherwise, she would never have found herself licking stamps and answering phones for accountants such as myself in the Employee Retirement Fund department.

I’m not naming her Susan, Jane had said. Susan’s like Jane: simple, straightforward. Boring!

Jane despised her name. Plain Jane. One of these days I’m gonna change it,” she’d told me the first time we spoke. And, she did, three years ago. I have to admit the name Jane didn’t seem to suit her. Still, after she had it changed, I could never remember to call her Jenna. I still can’t.

My mother’s name was Susan, I’d reminded her. My mother had died of stomach cancer shortly after Jane told me I’d gotten her pregnant. It happened like this: I’d stepped out of the office to find Jane, whom I had always admired from a distance, kicking the side of her old Opel in a blinding rainstorm. One of her tires was flat. I changed it for her while she sat inside my car and reset all the automatic dials for the radio stations. Afterwards, she’d invited herself over to my house to get warm.

Four months later, she’d showed up again at my house. You knocked me up, she said.

She was going through with the pregnancy. Giving birth to her, she said, had been the one thing her own mother had done for her. That was more than okay with me. I’d been dreaming about Jane ever since that one time we’d been together. I had some crazy hope that it would create a relationship that could stick. Anyway, I was an only child and my dad died when I was in college so, with my mom battling the cancer, I liked the idea of jump-starting a new family. Jane and I got a marriage license over our lunch breaks four weeks later. My mom died the following day, so Jane met her only one time, the evening after we signed the license. I once overheard Jane joking it must have been the shock of that meeting that killed Mom. Jane was sexy and exciting, but there is no denying she was far from perfect.

Okay, then, we’ll name her Shoshana, Jane had announced, making it clear that she was doing me a big favor. Shoshana is another version of Susan. Just prettier. You want your kid to have a future, don’t you?

That was when Jane still liked me at least a little. She’d declare I was the kindest man she’d ever known, foraging through my pockets for my car keys or my wallet and, for a while, she seemed to mean it as a compliment.

Monday night, the ferrets got into the porch swing and made off with a small cushion. Tuesday night, they climbed up on the window and stole the carrot-and-turnip-slice mobile Shoshana had created in art class. Wednesday night, they left no traces, and without saying anything to me, I could see Shoshana surveying our yard before heaving a sigh of relief. I did too, in private. Maybe, I thought, they’ve gotten bored of us and will leave us in peace. Thursday night, however, I heard a big thump in the dark. In the morning, we discovered they’d knocked over the barbeque.

I had to do something. I left work a little early for lunch on Friday and drove to the opposite side of town to visit a veterinarian. “We’re just thinking,” I told her. “It’s just an idea. My wife’s idea really.”

The vet shook her head. “Well, you’re right in coming to see what kind of diseases these animals can carry before buying one. There’s a kind of rage for this type of unusual pet nowadays, even more since so many people adopted pandemic puppies. It doesn’t always end that well, though. Have you heard about pet prairie dogs? They can be infected with monkey pox. One little girl almost died.” She shook her head again. “Are you sure your wife might not like a cute little puppy?”

“Yes,” I said. “I don’t think my wife likes cute.”

The vet sighed. “Well, some people have kept domesticated ferrets with success.”

“Okay.” I plunged ahead. “So, how about the other way around, then? I mean is there anything that could hurt them? Anything I should worry about in keeping them safe?”

She laughed. “I think keeping you and your house safe is going to be the bigger problem. Just keep them away from dairy products and chocolate. Especially chocolate.”

“Chocolate?”

“Chocolate,” she repeated firmly. “It can be lethal for ferrets.”

I paid my $40 consultation fee, got into the car and drove to a 7-11 about halfway between the vet’s office and my own. I parked the car and went in. I hadn’t had any lunch, so I picked out a tuna-and-pickle sandwich that I don’t really like and a ham-and-cheese that looked just marginally like food product.

The sandwiches were pretty small. Maybe, I thought, I should get something more.

I wandered down one aisle until I found some sour-cream-and-onion-flavored potato chips, though I’d promised myself to cut back on the junk food, and a slightly bruised banana. I also selected an apple that was so shiny with wax I could see my face in it. The cashier was watching me by now. I stopped by the row of auto magazines. I picked up a running magazine too, in case I decided to get back to running. That was another thing Jane had, at first, liked about me. You’re fit! she’d commented that first time I took my shirt off in front of her. I bet you have a lot of stamina. She’d even come out running with me once, after Shoshana was born. Let’s race, she’d suddenly declared, parking Shoshana’s running stroller in a corner of the church parking lot, A 100-meter dash! Even though I’d made sure she didn’t lose by much, she never wanted to come out running again. Later, she’d complained that it woke her when I pulled on my running shorts early in the morning: At least drop the Saturdays.

It was hard to exercise any day of the week now that it was just me and a seven-year-old Shoshana. Once I picked her up from afterschool care, I had no one to stay with her. It didn’t feel right, after she’d spent a long day at school and with all that’s happened to her, handing her over to someone else.

I let my stuff spill out onto the checkout counter.

“That it?” the cashier mumbled. She was wearing a T-shirt with “T.G.I.F.  —  Let’s Party!” emblazoned across the front of it in pink metallic letters, but she didn’t look like she felt that way. I don’t suppose what day of the week it is makes that much of a difference to 7-11 employees. Friday nights are probably worse rather than better, more drunks coming in.

I pulled four extra-chunky Hershey’s bars off the racks below the counter. “Well, I’ll take a couple of these too.”

“Ah-huh.” She started ringing up my stuff.

When she got to the chocolate bars, I put out my hand. “Maybe I’ll just not get those.”

“Yeah?” When I didn’t answer, she added, “So, are you getting them or not?”

I shrugged and put the chocolate bars back in their place on the candy rack.

Thinking about killing someone’s pets is one thing. Doing it is another.

“Suit yourself,” she said, and hit “Total” on the cash register.

“Have to keep an eye on my waistline.” I handed her two twenties.

She handed me my change. “Yeah. Guys around your age start to get the belly.”

I tried not to pat my waist until I’d left the shop.

* * *

“Did you hear something last night?” Shoshana asked over dinner that evening. I’d gone all out: pork chops, macaroni and cheese, and the potato chips I’d bought at the 7-11. As though that would somehow make up for my failure to get rid of the ferrets.

“No,” I said. I was holding the nearly empty ketchup bottle upside-down over my pork chop, but nothing was coming out.

“No? ’Cause I definitely did. At first, I thought maybe it was … Mommy.”

“Shoshana, honey — ”

“I know, Daddy. I was still sort of sleeping.” She reached for the ketchup bottle. It had been some time, I realized, since she’d last tried to ask me the question. “Here. You leave it upside-down in a cup for a few minutes. Then you can get the stuff in the bottom.”

“Shoshana …” I said.

“Yes, Daddy?”

I couldn’t say it. Not anything I was thinking. I settled on this: “It’s supposed to be a full moon tonight. Should we take a look outside together?”

Shoshana loves the night sky. Jane brought home a book called Goodnight, Moon that she’d found forgotten on a bench outside a courtroom, and for a short while she’d read it nightly to Shoshana. They’d sit there on the couch, both intently focused on the pages, looking like mini and maxi copies of one another. Don’t you grow up a drop-out like your mother, I’d overheard Jane say during one of those sessions. Don’t you grow up no ignoramus. You got to read to get ahead. Of course, Shoshana was too young to understand what either drop-out or ignoramus meant, but she’s been a big fan of the moon ever since.

Shoshana jumped up from the table and ran for the back door. She looked so tiny and effervescent streaking by, her sandy hair flowing out behind her, I thought to myself they should name a constellation after her. A shooting star. My daughter, I thought, could light up the sky forever.

“Daddy — aaagh!” A screech broke my reverie. I knocked over my chair in my haste to get to my daughter. She stood paralyzed on the threshold, the moonlight flooding over her chalk-white little-girl face. At her feet, the ferrets. Long-necked, small headed, with wide-spaced bulging black eyes and pointy muzzles. Fur sticking out in spiny clumps from elongated amorphous shapes that rippled across our floor. They pawed at her ankles, crawled over her toes, covered her tiny feet with their slinky bodies.

I carried Shoshana, sobbing, up the stairs and closed her door. Then, I went downstairs to get the broom. I spent more than a half-hour chasing Josiah’s three ferrets out of our home. When I went back upstairs again, Shoshana refused to open the door for me.

“Okay, honey. It’s okay. They’re all gone,” I said from the other side of the door.

I could hear her breathing, but I didn’t want to jiggle the doorknob. I waited a few minutes, and when she still hadn’t opened it, I said, “Okay, Shoshana. But I’m going to step back outside for a moment, and I need you to unlock your door while I’m gone. For safety reasons. So, I can come in during the night if something happens and you need me.”

I went back out into the night and stared at Josiah’s house. The lights were on, and I could hear heavy-metal music. Laughter crackled from inside, but it didn’t sound friendly.

I took a deep breath and knocked on the front door. When no one responded, I leaned on the doorbell.

“Yeah?” someone called from inside.

The door opened a sliver. I could see a watery blue eye with a tiny black pupil, not much else. But having checked me out, the owner of the eye swung the door open. He wasn’t Josiah, but from the size and style of him some sort of unpleasant clone.

“I was wondering if I might speak with Josiah?”

The guy snorted. A snake tattoo wound out from under the open front of the brown-leather jacket he was wearing, the words “Eat me or die” coming out of its mouth, curling up around his collar bones. He scratched the word DIE.

“You wanna talk with Josiah? Who the fuck are you?” But he turned from the door and yelled, “Hey, Josiah, some asshole here.”

As he moved away, I got a view of the front room. Lots of bottles, some empty, some not, and one woman. Another guy was in there as well. A bowie knife lay among the mess of bottles and spent matches and cigarettes on the low table between them.

“Yeah?” Josiah appeared from a back room. He looked at me like he had the other day, like either he wasn’t sure where he’d seen me before or whether I was crazy. Beads of sweat pocked his face and bare chest, like maybe he’d been pumping iron. “What.” He put his hands on his hips and took a step toward me.

“Well …” I tried to think what to say. Shoshana and I hadn’t heard a word from Jane since she’d moved out to California to reinvent herself. I’d really meant to do something definitive about the ferrets this time, really truly, but Shoshana couldn’t afford to lose her other parent. “Just wanted to let you know I saw some kids fooling around your bike, earlier.”

No kid on the block would have dared to mess with anything of Josiah’s. Josiah inherited the house from his grandmother, and everyone on the block has walked on eggshells since. Still, I figured I was allowed this one lie. For Shoshana.

“Yeah?” Josiah shoved his body through the front door to look at his makeshift shed. Judging from the blankly violent expression on his face, I felt I’d made a wise choice not bringing up the ferrets. I also realized Josiah would never figure out if someone did something surreptitiously to his ferrets. Even if he had been reading up on ferret safety, which I strongly doubted, he wouldn’t be capable of putting the two together. I’m not one for stereotyping and I know there are plenty of smart bikers in the world. Sonny Barger of the Hells Angels penned like six books. (Jane found one abandoned outside a courtroom too.) But Josiah wasn’t among them. His ferrets probably had a higher IQ than he did.

“No one there now,” he growled and slammed the door shut.

I went back into my house and up the stairs. Shoshana’s door was still shut. I pressed gently down on the handle. The door opened, and I peeked in to see her little form, balled up on the center of her mattress, asleep with her hands around the neck of a tennis racket.

I went into my room and turned on my old home computer, the one that Jane hadn’t piled into her car when she left. I typed in my town’s name and the words “real estate.”

By 3 a.m., I’d printed out the information on three potential properties. None was quite as large as our house, but they all fell within our same school district and were described as “quiet” and “private.” One mentioned a recently installed fence. I put the print-out on my bedside table and went to sleep.

* * *

Neither Shoshana nor I said a word about the ferrets all Saturday breakfast but, after we’d cleared the kitchen table, she announced, “You said we were going to get me some new socks. Remember, Daddy? Mine got eaten.”

“Do you want to go now?”

Shoshana nodded then turned her little face away.

We drove over to the Walmart, and I let her choose more socks than she could wear out before she grew into the next shoe size. I understood she’d given up on my ridding us of the ferrets and was preparing herself for a siege. When she saw another five-pack, with Sweetheart written in glittery script around the anklets, I let her put those in the basket also.

How was it possible for her to look both so vulnerable and decisive simultaneously?

“Can I get a candy bar?” she asked.

“Sure, honey.”

I wasn’t in the mood to deny my daughter anything.

She stood before the candy rack a long time choosing. She loved Reese’s Cups, but she’d never before seen chocolate “dinosaur eggs.”

“You never told me the answer, Daddy,” she said, turning the “dinosaur eggs” package over in her hand. “About cave dwellers’ hair.”

Her own hair had slipped out of the braid I’d tried to make for her this morning; fine sandy strands fluffed around her head like dandelion seeds. For a moment, I could see Jane peering defiantly through our daughter’s seven-year-old eyes. But, then, I saw Jane recede and Shoshana’s own brave but patient little person emerge. I had to control myself to keep from squeezing her tight between my arms, right there in the candy aisle at Walmart.

I put our basket down on the ground. I looked at all of the socks she’d gathered. I looked at my daughter, so big now and yet so small. I looked at the two of us, alone there in Walmart.

Jane wasn’t coming back ever. Not for me, not for her daughter. Shoshana will be better off without me, she’d said, and so will you, and she’d meant it. It wouldn’t matter whether she found success or not in California. That’s who Jane was. Moving on. All Shoshana would have of her mother was the house we’d once all shared. I couldn’t move her, not yet. I couldn’t destroy her only link with her mother. Even if it meant that the kindest man Jane had ever met would also have to reinvent himself, I had to rid us of the ferrets. And I couldn’t call the police on Josiah, because then we would definitely have to move.

“I think they just used their fingers,” I told her, raking mine through her tangled mop. “Like this.”

“That doesn’t work so good.”

“Maybe not.” I lowered myself down to Shoshana’s height and held her shoulders. “But, you do what you can in life, Shoshana. That’s all you can do. And, sometimes that just has to be enough.”

Then, I dropped both the Reese’s peanut-butter cups and the chocolate dinosaur eggs into our basket. “Why don’t we get both? And, a couple of bars of chocolate too,” I said. “Some super-sized bars of chocolate. Milk chocolate.”

Shoshana’s eyes widened. “For us?”

“Yeah.” I smiled and shrugged. “You could say that.”

“Can I try one?” I asked once we got back home, and she had plopped down on the porch swing with the bag of dinosaur eggs.

I sat down beside her and, while she fished one of her prizes out for me, I took the two large bars of milk chocolate from our bags and rested them on the remaining empty space on the porch swing.

 

 

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Comments

  1. This is a very enjoyable story Anne, told so well from a male perspective. We learn about what happened with wife Jane, changing her name to Jenna (I think Joan is better, but oh well) and that she’s unlikely to ever come back. The husband handled everything in the right way, I felt.

    He’d gotten a taste of how the ferrets owner Josiah the biker was, and knew any further communications would have to be handled delicately, which he did. He knew what had to be done. Some might think it was a passive-aggressive way of solving the problem, but under the circumstances the wisest choice.

    The biggest thing here is the strong and loving father-daughter bond. He has to be both mother and father to Shoshana and is carrying around a lot of guilt that isn’t his fault. A little overindulgence here and there is okay, but not too much. I think these two are going to be okay, and the bond they’re forging now should help make her teen years less difficult. Let’s hope so.

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