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issue 23: March - April 2001 

spanish translation | author bio

Cougar
Mark Anthony Jarman         

 

Motor to the mega mall and the mall moves me to a minor rage. I get in a fight with two women in the mall parking lot, a mother-daughter tag team. Then in the woods a sleek cougar nearly takes my head off, but I said ix-nay.
         The story was, I was going to chop us a free Christmas tree, but feeling base and mortal and morbid and pretty fine I collected every damn pill in the trailer, including Flintstones and Aspirin and iron and old tiny Infant Tylenol bottles. What the hell, I'll try anything once. In my pockets I had a dog's breakfast of pills and I felt like a dog, felt lower than a snake's belly.
                 Things had gone wonky. No jobs in the woods, our old mill sold to foreigners, and foreigners shut it down tight. They don't live here. New softwood agreement too, and Asia gone down the tubes, so we're going right with them, they sneeze and we blow our nose. A letter falls into my black mailbox: they talk of markets, infrastructure, capital costs, mergers, new realities. I imagine them fine-tuning this letter in a meeting over Danish and mineral water. Do they actually know any more than we do?
                  My tiddly little house is for sale but it's never going to sell because every nice little house is for sale there. I pawned the Husqvarna and moved down island. Everyone laid off. We're global now.
         No money for presents. Wet weather: sore elbow, trick knee, bad back, feel I'm hobbling, falling apart, and my K car is acting up since it got rear-ended and the physio making me wear a stupid collar on my neck. A mild buffet of arthritis and angst in my bones, and my K car is not OK, the Reliant is less than reliant.
         I was not, it seemed, lying on a sunny beach, I was not going to Disneyland after creaming the opposition, I was not leaning into a forest of microphones.
         It's hard to explain suicidal tendencies. No one detail gets you, but little things add up, little things eat at you. No one uses signal lights and every busker is convinced he can play harmonica. These things kill me.
         Drear faces, substantially altered by winter, marked by weakness, marked by woe, shadowed, teeth crooked and dun that were straight and white last summer, whole childhoods perverted, lost, gone down with Asia and you wake up to learn the world is no longer your bright laboratory.
        
Regarding my mega mall parking lot argument: an old woman and daughter, both smug and slatternly in some japscrap car, stole my parking spot, even as I backed into it. I began to feel I don't recognize this good old world anymore and I am sick of being a recipient. Sick of rolling snake-eyes when I want the dice to come up boxcars. Once this world was sweet as the low rumble of sixteen poolballs dropping as one; now I'm a bozo arguing over a stupid parking spot.
        
That same night I motored past a Christmas tree lot. All those strung lights and exiled, pointy-headed trees leaning around a little trailer used to cheer me up, but instead of good cheer, all I could think of was the tiny newspaper clipping that said the singer of the Tacoma garage band, the Wailers, died in a fire in the trailer on a Christmas tree lot just like this one I drove by. The Wailers were a wild band I really liked way back when, same time as the Sonics, both power pop punks from 1963 or so. I drove by, rain drumming, my car and head like an empty tin of British biscuits. The Wailers had some great tunes on Etiquette Records: "Out of Our Tree," "Hang Up," "You Aren't Using Your Head," "Bad Trip." Maybe they covered "Louie Louie." Have to dig out my old vinyl.
         Have to do something when Christmas starts to seem like a humungous tax, an annual root canal, to seem alien and overly familiar. To light out, I decided, to the dark woods, into the bush, into a valley to think about things.
         Weird weather in the firs on the edge of a continent, wind over the dead ships and lost harbours, stop and go storms jumping off the ocean, wind punching through treetops and stopping abruptly. Strange lulls, torn green branches on the forest floor and crashing sea vibrating rock miles away.
         Don't like the weather here, they say, just wait ten minutes. They have said these same words to me every place I've lived or visited.
         I tracked through the false infinity of ferns and firs and oak and owls, hiking and humming, If you go into the woods today, you're in for a big surprise. I hiked up over rocks, then down a rocky draw, into a bit of a jog moving downhill. Sometimes it's easier to run than hold back.
         I was jogging along and WHAM! Like being hit between shoulder blades by speeding bicycle.
         Mayday! Mayday! some automatic voice in me thought. AAOOGA! Bogey at three o'clock. A small thrilled monster with saliva and bad breath riding my neck and we rolled in a tense frenzy. Noises against me, a cat's mouth and breathing inside its throat, a rush of wind in some pipeline above, bass notes fumbling as we rolled in rocks and moss and sword ferns, and I thought, illogically of course, my face smushed in the rocks and moss, I will kill myself when I'm damn well ready to go and perhaps because of global factors beyond my control, but just this instant some sadass cut-rate panther with a wild face and bad table manners is not going to cut me down out of the blue without so much as a hello sailor.
         I didn't know it then, but the cat tore me up a bit, tore my scalp and ear, shoulder, back, but it could have been worse. The cat fell off with my neckbrace collar in its teeth. Maybe the physio's collar helped. The little cougar shook the white collar, then turned back to gaze at me, the real thing, pink meat in pink skin. The cat's fur was out like it was going for a punk look, a trendy looking dude or dudette, ears twitching and rotating like radar, big Oriental face, mouth twisted, white chin, dark where the whiskers poked out and some good looking teeth with drool falling out, which adds greatly to anyone's street cred.
         My drool dried up severely.
         Luckily my Christmas cougar was a skinny paltry thing, not full grown, and I believe a female, not a big stud tomcat, and not knowing how to really hunt proficiently or I'd be dead meat and not telling this yarn, I'd be remains with some dirt and leaves raked over me by the cat.
         Remains. I suddenly knew, despite my pockets filled with pills, that I did not want to be unidentified human remains, bones scattered around the woods, bits partly buried by animals in a secret funeral, wallet found years later with two-dollar bills in it like that hiker I read about in the mountains.
         I was not going to kill myself. My cockeyed world tilted, turned. I wish I could say I became magically happy but I was not happy. More like muleheaded.
         Remains: my neighbour, a university lady hires me for odd jobs. I have helped her bury pigs. She dresses the pigs in flannel shirts, denim, sunglasses. We buried one pig in a pretty prom dress and white gloves.
         I dig the holes for the university lady and she pays me. She studies the dressed pigs after they rot in the shallow graves, sees what insects and beetles are present after one day, three days, a fortnight, year. Police check with the university lady when they need to know how long a body has been in the woods.
         The university lady seems to enjoy her work. I don't like to be there when we dig up what I have come to think of as Arnold from the fine old TV show Green Acres. I didn't want to become Arnold, even though I thought I came into the woods to become Arnold.
        
The tan cougar feinted, put its head forward and trotted at me again, skinny but an impressive piece of work, muscles and moving parts leaping at you like you're a big gingersnap it's going to break in two. What my dad called a puma or a panther. In the highway ditches now the government uses expensive panther pee to scare deer away from the road, away from the voters.
         Rare to see a cat in the bush, no matter how often you go in, and I've been in the bush a lot. They're good at hiding and are more active after dark. This is rare. This one came out of hiding to try me on for size and I knew I wanted to get out and tell someone about this impressive little creature wielding muscle and razors if I could still get out, get out of the woods before dark drops, dark so early now in December.
         The young cat eyed me, ears pinned back, small lower jaw dropped in a snarl, springing at my shoulders. I felt naked even with my folding saw and hardware-store gloves and heavy coat and boots. I ducked and turned but still got knocked over from the cat's force. I think my grandfather's heavy old mackinaw helped deflect her dark claws. How does such a skinny creature generate such amazing force? It was like being boarded by Eric Lindros.
         In pure panic I got my old workboots up and kicked the small cougar, but not before she sliced me on the shins. I had a blurred close-up of curved canines, black gums, and white chin: her noise and cylindrical weight driving in at me and turning back and I went crazy, shrieking like a fishmonger the entire time, using my boots, kicking her several good ones in the pale muscled gut and soft snout, her low centre of gravity and loose skin, her nose bleeding, head down. She tried to get one paw up around me like a drunk, both of us rolling around and scrapping, and then in the hurlyburly this moaning cat shit on me - no kidding, let go like a semi-automatic semi-liquid weapon.
         I jumped about three yards trying to get away from that, found a handy hunk of fir and winged it and got her in the face with the wood and she didn't like that. I cut her smooth broad nose, and she paused to peer at this prey that can throw things and was recently sprayed in runny cat scat.
         What a world: slide into the woods feeling sensitive and Hamlet-like melancholy, feeling a fine fellow, albeit an antisocial suicide who'd like to blow up the mall, and does Mother Nature smile on you and proffer blackberries and real cream? No, Mother Nature says here is what I think of your finicky brooding.
         Maybe at the mega mall I should have shit on them, like the cat did.
         You can't back into a parking spot, the daughter sneered.
         Yeah, you can't back in, they chorused with their arms folded: stealing a spot and then feeling on the side of right. I had pulled forward to allow the parked car to leave and then I started backing in. They zigzagged in, stealing from me and then blaming me for having a reverse gear! I sputtered in inarticulate rage and wanted dearly to smack their heads together like coconuts but didn't because I was raised right, unlike some others I could mention.
         In the bush I had to walk backwards a mile or two and think about things while stepping very carefully in tripwire blackberry canes and salal, bloody hard work uphill and down and stinking of cougar shit. An altered sense of time. I walked backwards trying to look large and swearing at the little puma, though it is hard to sound tough while retreating constantly.
         The hungry animal followed me step for step, calmly placing her hind paw exactly where the front paw had stepped, stalking me in expired leaves and trees trying to live in rock and rucked landscape, skinny cat making yowling panther noises. It doesn't jump but stalks me step for step, following me like a machine, eyes in fearsome concentration, both of us thinking, and I waved a folding saw and waved a worthless stick like a B-movie pirate, a branch of punky oak that was about to fall to pieces, but the cat didn't know that. I walked backwards, waved a stick, and went back in time.
         Decades back my dad told me of a big tom that weighed as much as he did, a big cat that would lope along beside fleeing livestock and calmly flatten any goat or calf or sheep it wanted; one blow and it's down dead. A big tom can leap twenty or thirty feet from a perch and it can snap your neck.
         I knew that a woman died defending her kids from a cougar in the Interior, and a few years back a cat killed a child up the coast. When I was driving north from California to B.C. some years back, a woman in Northern California, a famous Olympic runner, was training in the woods, running fast and was jumped from behind and killed, and I was driving through the redwoods and heard about it and was amazed, but didn't know it would be visited on me later.
         I knew this cat could kill me and that impressed me, made things clear, and I knew the mall scene with the twin harpies was not important, even though I wanted to bend their windshield wipers into pretzels. It clears your mind wonderfully to walk backwards in the backwoods and wonder will you die from four sabre teeth or five claws attached to paws the size of country pancakes.
         I walked backwards, went into my past, and recalled all the old jobs I'd had: truckdriver, digging wells, digging clams by lantern light, spark-watching, whistle punk, faller for a dollar, bucker for a buck, busboy in Duncan, dryland sort and chainsaw maestro, choker, joker, smoker, timber cruiser, a snoozer, a scaler, feeding the green chain, working in a box factory, riding the milk train, and riding an orange forklift with a big battery on the back. Smoke meant money but now all the jobs are gone up in smoke, love's labour lost. I walked backwards and thought of burying pigs in the woods. It's legal but still there is something illicit about the act of burying a body in the woods.
         I thought of the singer for the Wailers dying in the burning trailer and the space heater that killed him. Did his Christmas trees catch fire too?

I have too many friends dead of mundane things. Widow-maker branches blown down on their head or a chainsaw into an artery, or touching the wrong wire, or porch-climber wine in your hand, or just some greasy creations you eat once too often.
         They jack-knifed their logging truck, or they drove a 4 x 4 backwards off a cliff in the snow, thinking they're just turning around, two guys and two women. The whole truck drops backwards with them in it, hood aimed up, when the driver was just trying to turn it around, trying to get them back home. Imagine their surprise, the terrible dashboard light on their faces.
         I walked backwards cursing at the cougar and remembering all the battered buses and muddy trucks, the company crummies with your black lunchbox and sugary coffee and long muddy drives into the trees, driving logging roads to the show and driving out the same way, hours and hours, the tiny taverns by the bay much later at last light, trees by the parking lot, water a silver curve at the picture windows, wind rushing the glass, and drinking feels good and logical. It's dark and you should be heading home, true, but not right away. There are pickled eggs and perfect clubhouse sandwiches and one more round, oyster shells piled outside, beer cases and kegs piled inside, enough draft to float a coalship, float a peeler, start a fight in the parking lot, the crews and friends and enemies and gilt-edged girlfriends and ex-girlfriends who never thought you were like this, what does anyone really know of anyone, and your friends die too young, play harmonica well, and drive innocently just one foot too far over the cliff in the snow, the jilted joking faces and farces, the smiling hours I thought were disposable, the smiling hours I thought would never run out.
         One young woman from the 4 x 4 crawled out at the base of the giant cliff, crawled for miles looking for me to help her and I'd had a few, I saw her crawling like a turtle in the headlights and stopped, thinking, What in Christly tarnation are these crazy schoolkids up to now? and then we found out what had happened and the whole town in shock.
         I was driving my '68 Cougar; that was a very nice car but I had to sell it some time ago to a child who I knew would crash it on Kangaroo Road, wreck my good '68 Cougar. I saw him drive away and envisioned his head busting right through the windshield and my nice green car wrapped around a tree up by the reservoir.
         How you miss that job you cursed and the guys that ragged on you; you miss the car that broke down, the life that never was, but seems sweet now in retrospect.
        
The cougar's face is a mask. When kittens their eyes are blue but later they turn yellow. Her dark eyes are almost crossed - strange, hypnotic eyes, circles in a triangle, her eyes round and slitted and triangular at the same time, a weird geometry, her dark eyes fierce and relaxed, like a good fighter, a boxer's broad nose, fur scrunched up on her nose like a tiny rug piled up.
         It stared at me and scrunched its nose, mouth pulled back, four good curving teeth, two up, two down, a perfect clamp. Teeth bared, that cougar walked me back over muck and rock and hill and dale to adrenalin and feeling; that cougar walked me back to sensation, blood, good bread, IPA, choice, the pull of home, to draw breath. I moved my brain in the woods.
         Out of the pitch and pine and turpentine the puma walked me back to life. The cat quit following me when it saw the rusty K car and it melted away in two seconds, gone like a ghost, no regret on its face. Perhaps a slight wince, didn't approve of the dull car.
         Clothes cut up, and lacerations starting to hurt more, after the fact, like in hockey when you don't notice some welts until later. Covered in blood, stinking and shaking after I stopped and sat and thought about my date, my escort, how close I'd been.
         Stupid car starts. In reasonably reliant Reliant I drove into town, past a Christmas tree lot, and I thought again of the burnt guy from the Wailers, but it was all right: I'll have some grog or eggnog in memory of him and his old fuzztone band. I believe he'd appreciate that more than any moping or mooning about death and gases and fire.
        
Stars and constellations floating like shirts in the December sky, Saturn's rings and Jupiter's moons moving right over her white shining trailer. Her porch and door lit yellow; tiny blue and red lights glowing on two shrubs. I limped through the silky colours, saw her reading on the couch.
         Her kitchen was warm and toasty; soup smelling good on the stove, her whole trailer creaking when you walk. It creaks like a ship, creaks like me. The soup sits on a flame, and flames killed the singer for the Wailers, but soup will heat up my guts, restore me. Soup equals life at this moment. Poor cat starving; it didn't eat me. I hope it has an okay Christmas, finds a few fat rabbits or a little blacktail or a chihuahua, wrapped in a sweater like a burrito.
         Did you get a tree?
         Uh. Not quite. Guess I forgot the tree.
         How can you forget? Were you out drinking again? What happened to your pants? You look . . . is that blood? You get in a fight or run into some wild woman?
         Well yeah. I did just that. Both. A real hellcat she was.
         I thought of the cougar's face. It thought it had me dead to rights but there was also a kind of glum resignation and hooded resentment there in its face. A lost nation. Both of us missed a connection, lost a world. I tried to tell her this in the kitchen.
         She knew something was up. She knew I was telling her something and she went quiet because she's smart and she waits for me to cut the crap.
         I have no real job and no irons in the fire and no cash on the barrelhead and there are no mills hiring and no king salmon run past our window. No one in Bedford Falls brings me baskets of money and the only job I can wangle is burying pigs for the university lady, but I am back in the world and I am going to have some good steaming chowder and after that a good beer, and maybe a crossword puzzle in ink, as I am careful and reckless. And maybe some screaming Buffalo wings - suicide wings we used to call them - and maybe clams in a metal bucket and another beer and maybe a bath with some salt for my multiple slashes from the cat, and her big soft bed with the creaking filigree headboard rattling Morse code to the wall.
         I was out of the woods. I was not remains, not eating hospital food. In terms of rolling dice, I now felt I was throwing boxcars.
         Have yourself a very merry Christmas, spoke a red bakelite radio on the oilcloth. Decided I liked that radio.
         Damn right, Merry Christmas to you, I said back. That soup ready? It smells great.
         Please, she said, testing the waters.
         I said the magic word and was rewarded, and I thought, My house up island ever sells I'll look for a '67 or '68 Cougar, a sharp looking car, light green paintjob, pretty glittery paint, and I'll put good tires on it, get a grip, control.
        
I see myself perched behind a clean dark windshield, my brain steering the car, and every red and green wire in my world working. Reflected in my shining chrome are bright planets and dark woods flashing past us like the briefest of seasons.

2000 Mark Anthony Jarman

This electronic version of  "Cougar" appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author and Stoddart Publishing, Toronto, Canada. It appears in the collection 19 Knives, published by Stoddart, 2000. Book ordering available through amazon.com

This story may not be archived or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our
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author bio

Mark Anthony Jarman's stories have been shortlisted for the Journey Prize, National Magazine Awards, the Pushcart Prize Anthology, and the O. Henry Prize. He has published a novel, Salvage King, Ya! a herky jerky picaresque, two short- story collections, Dancing Nightly in the Tavern and New Orleans Is Sinking, a poetry collection, Killing the Swan, and he edited the anthology Ounce of Cure: Alcohol in the Canadian Short Story. Born in Edmonton, he has taught at the University of Victoria and the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.

[See an interview with the author at The Danforth Review.]

photo: Mark van Dam

navigation:    barcelona review 23           March - April 2001
-Fiction

Alasdair Gray: Big Pockets with Buttoned Flaps
Thomas Glave: Whose Song?
Mark Anthony Jarman: Cougar
Ryland Greene: The Compatibility Factor
Jai Clare: Ramblista

picks from back issues:
Matt Marinovich: Slide Show *new Flash version
Robert Antoni: How Iguana Got Her Wrinkles

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