Featured: Rachel Lyon, The Beetle Leopard

The Beetle Leopard

Rachel Lyon

THE BEETLE LEOPARD was about the size of a large cocker spaniel, with a coat like the coat of a tortoiseshell cat: uneven, mostly dark, of mottled browns and blacks. The private company that kept him in his vivarium on Pigeon Street claimed he was the only beetle leopard on Earth. Under the glass, which was always smudged with fingerprints, was a plaque:

This Beetle Leopard Was Rescued by S. Barry Gibson

Co-Founder and C.E.O. of Gibson and Bree,

from Poachers on the Island of Borneo.

Please Do Not Disturb the Beetle Leopard.

He Is the Last Known Specimen of His Kind.

We went out a lot in those days to a bar called Phantom Harry’s on the corner of Pigeon and Grant, one of just two bars in a neighborhood that, halted by the economic downturn during the early phase of its gentrification, was still more or less a wasteland of functioning and abandoned warehouses. Our favorite pinball game was there, Jungle Madness. We liked it because when you got the silver ball into the lion’s den the whole thing shook as if there were a small person trapped inside, a campy animatronic voice sang “Juuuuuungle Madness!” and its green lights flashed in the dark. It was fun, but the end of the night always hung over us, with its inevitable sobering walk home past the beetle leopard. His environment was well-curated, but not particularly convincing. We were saddened by the fact that the beetle leopard lived in what was, despite its ersatz trees and ferns, despite its pool of real water and plaster cavern, essentially just a painted box, with a window onto the street where drunks like us could stop by and harass him. Nights after Harry’s we’d stop and hoot and holler and tap on the glass, and from his languid slouch on a plastic branch the beetle leopard would look up at us with black eyes.

I’d urge the others to move on. “All we’re doing is reminding him that he’s trapped,” I said.

“He knows he’s trapped,” said Jill, and Eli agreed: “How could he forget?” Eli was a bartender. Eli knew. He watched with an empty face as the beetle leopard gazed at Danny, who was always the drunkest, banging and pressing his face against the glass and waving and making loud noises.

“Don’t taunt him,” I said.

“Come on, Nancy. I’m communing with the beetle leopard.”

“Danny, let’s go,” Jill urged.

“I’m the beetle leopard’s only friend.”

When Eli spoke, Danny followed. “Come on, Danny,” he said at last.

Incidentally, I knew that glass well. I’d installed it myself, years before, with the help of two other people from Welton Glassworks. We weren’t told what the pane would be for. We simply set the glass, dusted it off, sprayed it with cleaner, and wiped it clean. Then we stepped back. The clarity of it was perfect. Windows are like that. Delicate boundaries. Barely there.

I worked at Welton nearly eight years before getting laid off. By the time I was hanging out with Eli, Danny, and Jill, it had been months, nearly a year, since I’d worked. Unemployment was a vast, tangled, overwhelming wilderness. Navigating it required tools that I didn’t have.

Jill’s a news junkie. She writes for an anarchist rag online. She was the one who told us one night about S. Barry Gibson’s bankruptcy problem. At first I didn’t know what she meant. The relevance didn’t sink in. I watched her explain the situation in a removed kind of way. Her face was flushed, and despite the cold night her hair was damp at the temples.

“S. Barry Gibson,” I repeated. “How do I know that name?”

Danny was taking his turn on Jungle Madness behind us. Jill ignored me. She was talking to Eli. “Turns out the whole company was built on imaginary money. Don’t you guys read the paper?”

“Assholes,” said Eli.

“Like sub-prime mortgages?” I asked.

“It’s a big scandal,” Jill went on. “He made it look like they had more than they had, and then they borrowed on imaginary capital. Anyway, the company is going down. The building is being repossessed. On Wednesday.”

“What are they going to do with the beetle leopard?” asked Eli. I tried not to look like I was just catching on.

“Wildlife organizations have been fighting over him,” Jill said. “They’re trying to figure out which habitat would be most like his natural home. But not a lot of America is a lot like Borneo, and he’s protected under American law. In the meantime they’ve agreed to leave him with S. Barry Gibson.” Her pale face went dark.

“Seems like the natural thing,” I said.

She glared at me, finally. “Maybe. But in the article they took care to mention his extensive collection of taxidermy.”

“Is that legal?” I asked.

“Of course not,” said Eli.

Jill shook her head. “They have zero other options.”

“They could bring him back to Borneo,” I suggested.

Jill looked as if I’d suggested we skin him. “To be poached?”

My whiskey was mostly ice. The liquid slipped down my throat. “If S. Barry Gibson is bankrupt,” I said, breaking the silence, “won’t the state seize his assets?”

Eli turned to me, disapproving. “Do you really want to wait and see what happens if the state gets its hands on that animal?”

We all turned and watched Danny for a moment, urging himself on, cursing at Jungle Madness. The game snapped and shifted, rang mechanical bells, and talked back. Eli sipped pensively. He’s a thin, broad-chested guy with a black beard and a head of thick hair that slopes down in the back. His forehead is like the prow of a ship. When he looks pensive, he looks extra pensive. If Danny or me or even Jill had said a thing like what he said next, no one would have listened. But when Eli said what he said, we listened hard. “We have to save the beetle leopard.”

We nodded seriously.

“We should,” Jill agreed. “But what would we do with it after we got it out? It can’t just roam free in the streets.”

“Prospect Park,” Danny suggested loudly, his back to us.

I laughed. “I didn’t even know he was listening,” I said to the other two.

Eli bent his thin red straw back and forth and folded it, flicking gin on my cheek accidentally. Then he put it in his mouth. “There’s a big cat preserve upstate,” he said after a moment, chewing on the straw. “I mean, a preserve for big cats. In Pisquetawnee. My uncle’s friend works security.”

“They’ll want to know where he came from,” said Jill, “how we got him.”

“Not if we drop him off when they’re not there.”

“We can’t just put him in the back seat of the car like a dog,” I said. “We can’t just bring him on MetroNorth or something.”

“We’ll get one of those big dog cages,” said Eli.

Jill was nodding. “When my dads go to Rochester to visit my sister they use one of those in the hatchback for their German shepherd.”

“Could we borrow it?”

“We could borrow it,” Jill said. “But how are we going to break in?”

Behind us the pinball game shook like an unbalanced dryer. “Juuuuuungle Madness!” it sang. We all glanced over and watched lanky Danny smack the sides of it, hooting like an ape. Then they both turned to me.

“I still have a glass cutter from when I worked at Welton,” I admitted.

They smiled. Eli said, “Nancy, this is why we keep you around!” Danny whooped and shook his fists in the air, and flashing green light filled my eyes.

We met at three the following morning at the defunct phone booth on the other side of the street. We took our cues from heist movies. Everyone brought a stocking for his or her face. Everybody wore black. As always, the florescent light was on inside the beetle leopard’s vivarium. He was pacing back and forth behind the plastic foliage—slowly, as if contemplating something, or trying to lull himself back to sleep. Eli was beside me, writing something on a small notepad, holding a baseball bat under his arm.

He looked up. “Do you have the glass cutter?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Great. Here’s what we’re going to do. Jill, ready?”

“Definitely,” said Jill. She was filling a dog bowl with cat food. She was placing it inside the German shepherd’s cage. A plastic bag sat by her.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Cat toys,” she said, and held it up, and gave it a shake. I heard a dull jangling sound.

“Shh,” said Eli. “Danny, you’ve got the spray paint for the security cameras, right?”

Danny nodded. He was tugging his stocking over his face clumsily, with glassy eyes.

“Danny, are you drunk?”

“No,” Danny mumbled.

“Your stocking’s on backward,” I said.

“Danny, if you’re drunk you need to leave. This is a serious felony. This is, like, several serious felonies. If you fuck it up, we all go to jail.”

“Wait, for how long?” I asked. I hadn’t really thought about what I was getting into.

“I’m not drunk,” said Danny loudly.

“Lower your voice,” hissed Jill.

“I’m not drunk,” Danny repeated, “I mean, I’ve had a couple of beers. Three. Maybe three. But that’s it. I’m not drunk. I’m just moved. I’m verklempt, okay?”

“Okay. Okay, buddy. Get it together.”

“There’s something very meaningful about all of this.” Danny’s head shook like a bobble on his long, thin neck, as if the whole thing was just too much for him. “That beetle leopard has been there a long time. I’ve visited him every night. Almost every night. Whole time I’ve lived here. Four, five years. I feel like I know him.” There was a snag in his throat when he took a strained breath. “Whole goddamn time all I’ve done is play pinball, and drink, and visit the leopard, and make sandwiches. Thousands of goddamn sandwiches. Hundreds of thousands of goddamn fucking twelve dollar sandwiches.”

Eli said, “Danny, come on. Now is not the time.”

Jill said, “You big goon.”

Danny seemed exasperated. “You know what I mean, Nancy, right?”

“I know what you mean,” I replied. Once I’d seen Danny leave our sidewalk brunch table to stand ten full minutes in front of a pet store window, watching a couple of puppies in wood chips rolling around, chewing each other’s ears. He stayed watching those puppies a long time after his cigarette went out, holding the butt with two loose fingers, scratching his neck with the other hand. When he came back to the table I knew what people meant by the expression ‘down in the mouth.’

“Why the long face?” I’d asked.

All he’d said was, “That shit should be illegal.”

“Okay, okay,” Eli was saying now. The street was dark and deserted. The only thing that moved was the beetle leopard himself. “Let’s do this. Let’s do this now.”

Jill held the large cage flush against the window while I began to cut as perfect an outline as I could around its perimeter, about two feet by two and a half. The glass cutter made a horrible sound, part ear-piercing squeal, part growling drone, and everyone looked around up and down the street to make sure no one was watching. The glass was thick, and it seemed like the process would last forever. I pushed and pushed against the surface, then through it to the other side. We all waited a horrible moment, breathless, for a security alarm to go off—but none did.

“That’s weird,” Jill breathed.

The square of glass fell inward and shattered on the beetle leopard’s floor. The beetle leopard leapt behind his false ferns and disappeared. We all waited a long, tense moment, looking around to make sure we hadn’t attracted any attention. Then Danny crouched and stepped through the hole and raised his spray paint to the security camera in the corner.

We opened the cage’s gate. I peered in to look for the beetle leopard. It could have been anywhere, almost. It blended in perfectly with the plastic leaves. Danny gave each camera a good old fuck you with his left hand before spraying it black with his right. Then he got on his hands and knees to find the beetle leopard.

“Danny,” Eli whispered through the hole in the glass. “Come back out. We’ll lure him out into the cage.”

“I’ll get him in,” Danny said. “Don’t worry.”

“I’m not worried about him,” Eli whispered more loudly. “I’m worried about you. Get out of there and we’ll get him into the cage together.”

“I’m already in here,” said Danny, “it’s fine. Not a problem.”

“Danny, come on out,” I said, with some urgency. “That beetle leopard’s no puppy.”

All at once, there was a convulsion of movement behind the plaster cavern, and the beetle leopard sprang out like a trick snake from a gag box of nuts and latched itself onto Danny’s torso. Danny screamed an unnatural scream as he fell to the floor. Jill and I both said, “Oh my god!” Eli yelled and banged on the glass and Jill squeezed my shoulder so hard it went numb and we all watched, totally helpless, as the beetle leopard sank its sharp little teeth into the soft spot just under Danny’s skull. Danny’s expression was absolute terror, then submission, then nothing at all. The beetle leopard shook its head with precision, Danny’s neck in its teeth—once, twice, hard—and Danny’s neck broke, and we gasped and called out, and then everything was silent.

Danny’s head was slumped against his shoulder. The blood looked black in the dark as it spilled onto the vivarium floor. The beetle leopard crouched in the pool of blood, his back to us, and began to lick it up.

Jill collapsed to the pavement, holding herself. Pressed her back against a busted parking meter and began to cry. Eli puked in the gutter. His retching was the only sound I could hear. I felt as if I no longer existed, as if my feet were not touching the ground, as if the sounds that I heard and the cold that I felt and the scene I was watching were all aspects of some kind of cruel figment. I felt all I could do was not be there. I didn’t reach out to hold Jill as she shook. I didn’t help Eli stand when he lifted his head and walked to the middle of the street and stood with his back to us. I just stood there and looked, apart from it all, as I used to look when I was a kid and my sister, a belligerent babysitter, made me watch horror movies when our parents were out, holding open my eyelids as the zombies attacked or the aliens invaded or the poor possessed child’s head spun around and around.

The beetle leopard crept back behind his plaster cavern. We turned away from the gore, from Danny’s form lying in the half-licked-up pool of blood, his head staring up at the painted sky, cocked at an impossible angle, perfectly still. Eli was in the middle of the street with his hands over his head. We were all quiet a long time. Then Eli turned back to us. At full volume, he addressed Jill, who was sobbing. “Do you want to come to Pisquetawnee, or do you want to stay here?”

“Come to Pisquetawnee!” Jill repeated. She lifted her head, agonized. “You’re going through with this?”

“The hole has been cut,” Eli said. “We can’t let the beetle leopard escape.”

Somehow I began to shake off my paralysis. Jill’s hair clung to her mouth as she looked up at us both, one and then the other.

“All we have left is the plan,” I said. I felt enormously stupid. I felt like my tongue was too big for my mouth.

“You guys are crazy. You’re fucking crazy. I don’t want any more to do with this. I’m done. I’m out.”

“Can you just call an ambulance and stay with Danny until they come?” I asked. “While we head north?”

“We can’t do that,” Eli said firmly. “They’ll know who we are.”

“I don’t care if they know who I am,” Jill said with passion.

“You will after they give you a life sentence for manslaughter,” I replied quickly. Perhaps it was awful of me, but they took it in stride. With a last painful look at dead Danny, Jill left.

Luring the beetle leopard away from his cavern and out through the hole in the window and into the cage was a project of mind-numbing suspense. For what seemed like forever I jangled the little felt duck on the string that Jill had bought that afternoon. The sound of the bell inside it began to form itself into words, a curt, tuneless song: “Borrow, borrow, borrow, borrow, borrow.” I nearly peed myself with relief when the beetle leopard finally crept into the cage. His swiping, claws out, at the duck was interrupted when Eli let the door clang shut behind him. Then the beetle leopard was furious. He whipped around, snarled, and drooled, forgetting the duck for the cage door. He nearly snapped off our fingers as we lifted him into the car. My thumb was bleeding, I don’t know how, when we covered the cage with an old quilt, as my sister used to do with her parakeets. But the beetle leopard did not sleep. The yowls and whines from the hatchback were unearthly. So was the low, dreadful moan that wavered in Eli’s throat. We drove through night into morning, passing gas stations and diners, Wendy’s, White Castle, Friendly’s, and on and on. I was deeply unsettled by the unbelievable normalness of it all, the familiar signs that guided us out of the dark.

When Eli’s uncle’s friend met us at the gate, the first licks of sun were beginning to light the long twisted clouds that hung over the trees. He was a slouched little man with a face as brown and crumpled as used butcher paper, but when he saw what we had in the back of the car he looked about fifteen, and delighted.

“Don’t get too excited, Romeo,” Eli said, and I recognized something strained but performative in his voice, a hint of the cowboy, when he went on: “He’s already killed one person tonight.”

Romeo backed off. He got in a golf cart and led us to a spot about half a mile away where, mostly hidden by a glen of tall pines, there was another gate in the chain link fence. He shined his flashlight inside the gate before unlocking the thing and hurrying us in with the cage. We kept the quilt on until the last possible moment. We didn’t want to see the blood on the beetle leopard’s growling, panting mouth.

It was Eli’s idea to tie a length of twine to the door of the cage. I held one end while he and Romeo carried the unstable thing inside the fence. Then they came out through the gate to join me and close it and lock it. Finally I pulled the twine to pull up the cage door.

The beetle leopard didn’t move. He was lying on the cage floor, flicking his tail in a slow, mysterious rhythm.

“Go,” I whispered to him, still holding the twine. “Go run around or something.”

We watched him for a long time through the fence, lying there. It seemed like he was waiting. The sky turned a deep orange, then lavender, then white, then pale blue. Romeo smoked a couple of cigarettes. Eli just stared at the beetle leopard, his hands gripping the chain link fence, pale and dirty and streaked with blood, his lips moving ever so slightly, as if he were speaking to the animal, or maybe he was saying a prayer. It reminded me of nothing so much as Danny’s grunting and muttering when he played Jungle Madness, and for a moment I watched Eli without grief, without remembering that Danny was dead. Then the horrible awareness of what we had done began to unfold itself to me like bad origami coming undone, and I was filled with intense resentment. I couldn’t watch Eli any longer. I couldn’t look at him at all. I never wanted to see him again, or Jill, or Phantom Harry’s, or anything, not so long as I lived. I tried to direct my attention toward the pale vacant sky, to tune out his mumbling, but I couldn’t.

A bird behind us had begun a fugue-like song. It wavered in and out of melody. Maybe sensing an imminent private moment, or maybe just bored, Romeo wandered down the hill toward his golf cart, leaving me holding the twine. “I’ll be at the front entrance,” he told us. “Let me know when you’re heading out.”

In the cage the beetle leopard licked his loins. I was furious. I was impatient. I didn’t know what to say.

But then Eli spoke. “Nancy, you can take the cage back to Jill’s, right? You can take the car?”

Did the beetle leopard’s ears prick up? I was distracted. “You want me to drive?”

“I want you to take my car. Please, take my car.”

“How will you get home?” I asked, rolling the twine between my thumb and finger.

He might have been casting a spell. “I’ll stay here. I can’t go back to the city. I don’t ever want to go back to the city. I’ll find work here, upstate. I can’t go back to the city. I won’t. I can’t be there ever again.” Exhausted, he slumped to the ground, his back against the fence. Inside the cage, the beetle leopard stared at a noise in the trees.

“Okay,” I said. “I can take the car,” and I realized I could, that I would, that I wasn’t too lame or too weak to go back, that I could look forward to going back to the city, with its grid of streets and its jobs and its things. I hadn’t applied for a job in such a long time. Unemployment had left me feral and weird, nocturnal, drunken, and lonely. It was too much! But the city is made of business and commerce, of simple exchanges and circumscribed spaces. I could go back to the city. Go back to the city I would.

Eli took me at my word. He nodded. He kissed me on the forehead. Then he stumbled away from me, over the dew-soaked grass, down the hill, toward Romeo and some future I’d never know.

So it was that I was the only one watching when the beetle leopard finally left. It began with a yawn. He opened his mouth wide, showing all his teeth and his long pink tongue. Then he got to his feet, sniffed the cat food, turned away. Stepped out onto the soil. The moment he was outside of the cage, I could tell he sensed something threatening in the air. He pushed back his head, pressed his ears toward his skull, and eyed the sky. Then he hunched down, making himself as long and low as he could, and disappeared silently into the trees. I waited a few minutes before letting go of the twine and letting the door of the cage crash down on nothing. Straining, I tried to hear whatever he’d heard, to pick up on whatever sign he’d responded to. But all I could hear were the first birds of the day, the rustling of some small animal in the underbrush, a lost cricket whining somewhere nearby, the chain link fence shivering in the wind, and beyond that, not very far away, on the other side of the trees, car after car rushing by on the endless, thrumming highway.

 

Rachel Lyon received her MFA in Creative Writing at Indiana University and her BA at Princeton. She has been a teacher, a copywriter, a radio producer, the fiction editor at Indiana Review, and an editor at Sheep Meadow Press. In 2012, she was a fellow at Ledig House International Writers Colony, and in 2014 she will be a resident at The Anderson Center at Tower View. Her publications include the Portland Review, The Baltimore Review, Toad, Hobart, SmokeLong, Arts & Letters, and Works & Days. She lives in Brooklyn, her hometown.