My Good Omens Keep Eating Each Other
BY TUCKER LEIGHTY-PHILLIPS
I spy the large black beetle teetering across my rug and think, that’s no good.
It’s one of those big beetles from television. You know, with the horn. Kind of looks like a car key fob, but bigger. Rounder? The horn.
The bug plods like a turtle, lifts each leg and holds the pose as if to announce the step before slugging forward. There is nothing about the creature that seems particularly threatening, but I am pretty sure I’ve heard a beetle in the house is a bad omen. It’s a bad year for a bad omen, I think. Not good for me right now. When the beetle lurches toward me, I see everything held within a bad omen. Heartbreak, bankruptcy, failure. Perhaps even death. I do not want death on a rug in my kitchen.
I go to the riparian preserve and scour the marsh, wander the shores until I’m a woman with a frog in her pocket. Not a toad. Not a bullfrog. Just a regular, mid-sized green frog. Frogs are always turning into Princes, glugging Budweiser with one another, teaching children lessons—seem to me like a good omen. I place the frog onto the rug beside the beetle and wait for her to dissolve the other’s capacities.
The frog pounces into the corner against a cabinet. The beetle stays put. I can feel their powers combining.
While checking my credit score, I see two black cats in the backyard, chasing after some small, evasive creature. They claw at the pavement, batting the animal, trying to snatch whatever they’ve trapped. I go outside to examine. One of the cats hisses at me. It’s a butterfly they are fighting over, now dead, its yellow and black wings toppled over in beautiful ruin, like an actor in a Shakespearean play. At least its dying is gorgeous. You don’t often see that, gorgeous death.
One of the cats is eating the insect’s thorax, or its head. This feels like a bad omen two-fer. Black cats. Dead butterfly. Can’t be good. I say no way, nuh-uh, grab one of the cats and pull it away from the butterfly, holding it at arm’s length like a new dad holds a diaperless, peeing baby. The cat claws me and little lines of blood form on the scratched skin. I bring the cat into the house and lock it in the bathroom, trapped, so it can’t go out and tell the world I’ve been bad-lucked. If the world knows I’m bad-lucked, something terrible will happen. The other cat gets away. The butterfly is gone.
My mother loves to watch butterflies, finds their flight patterns ambitious. A few years ago she planted all sorts of flowers to try to bring them to her yard. Alliums, geraniums, daylilies; her lawn looks like the Wal-Mart garden center at Easter time. But she doesn’t get to tend it anymore.
I keep the cat in the bathroom, away from the frog and the beetle. I sanitize my wounds and place a patchwork of band aids across my forearms. To counter the cat, the dead butterfly, the blood trickled on the patio brick, I get a dog. Dogs are man’s best friend, maybe they’ll be mine too. Dogs save children from wells and burning buildings. Perhaps their obligation to heroism would be useful.
I spend hours scouring local shelter websites, scanning photos and names, looking for the luckiest dog of the bunch. There are pitbulls, lots of pitbulls, all with tender names; Marshmallow, Mitsy, Toodles. Names meant to soften a dog with a bad reputation. There are chihuahuas too, pages of them, many in bonded pairs with names like Peanut Butter & Jelly, Thelma & Louise, Panda & Whimper (I don’t know the reference here, but I imagine it speaks to someone). After looking over every county shelter, I settle on a black lab mix named Dewbie. Dewbie is twelve years old, which means he has experience. At home, he takes to the rug immediately, joining the beetle. The shelter warns me about Dewbie’s urinary incontinence and gives me a pack of dog diapers. The dog looks at me through his tired eyes and I see veteran leadership within his glazed look, sense his wisdom. I hear a sound like a piece of paper being torn down the middle and realize Dewbie is peeing on the rug, the beetle just off-target. The dog’s face is guilt-ridden; he knows he’s committed a crime, but there’s a hopelessness to him, a sense of his body’s betrayal. Mom is connected to tubes and wires, IVs and a catheter, and sometimes I imagine they’re draining her, a series of straws in her arms sucking the juice.
Not exactly a gorgeous death.
There are more frogs. I don’t know if frogs lay eggs or if the frog was pregnant, but there are more frogs. Six at least. The cat has taken to sleeping in the bathroom sink, hissing every time I open the door. Just to be safe, I brush my teeth in the kitchen, keeping an eye out for the other cat, hoping to bring it inside and reverse the effects of ill-fated superstition. My house starts to feel like an early-nineties Jim Carrey movie, one of the flicks with all the animals in the apartment. Dewbie sleeps and pees, occasionally sniffing a frog or the bathroom door.
While letting Dewbie into the backyard, a bird rushes through the door and into the house. A crow. A bird in the house means impending death, I’m pretty sure my grandmother used to say. And she’s dead now, so.
My intuition is to counteract the impending death omen with a symbol of new life. I return to the riparian preserve to catch a stork, given it brings the babies and all. I’m not sure if storks populate the area, and even if they do, how I’d get one home. And there’s the whole question of bringing another bird in the house. Isn’t that bad luck, regardless of species? Either way, no dice. Don’t find one. Do find an egret fishing in the pond, which is sleek and inspiring in its own right, although it doesn’t help my quest. On the way home, I stop at a pet store and look over the cockatiels and parakeets using their talons to scale their cages and mope like tiny prisoners begging for bail out. The back of their cage has a plastered wallpaper of a rainforest scene, little pixelated dew droplets on the leaves. They have probably never seen an actual forest. My mother has probably never seen the rainforest either. I would love to save them from their cages, their clipboard-timed feeding schedules, perhaps another time. An associate feeds some of the caged reptiles from a box and I ask what he’s got.
“Crickets,” he says, not looking up from the scorpion aquarium.
Crickets. Who could forget crickets. They’ve got good luck dripping through their little exo-skeletal anatomies. I purchase a box, bring them home, spill them into the living room, letting them chirp and bounce and inject positive energy into every crevice my belongings. They settle into the cushions of the couch, in the toilet bowl and bathroom sink, the pillowcases on my bed. I lurk the internet for more good-luck insects and settle on ladybugs. I order a shipment through priority mail and scatter them across the house like rose petals. Together the bugs infest my home with good omens. Together, they salt the air with waves of healing.
The house is not without its rivalries. My good omens keep eating each other. The frogs eat the crickets and the ladybugs. The cat escapes and tries to eat the frogs. The house smells like urine. I buy a whole turkey from the supermarket and dig for the wishbone. I break it in half and come away with both the good end of the bone and the bad end, one in each hand.
I am achieving equilibrium.
The missing cat falls for a can of tuna in my raccoon trap. I wear a winter coat to bring it inside without getting scratched. When I remove it from the cage, it catches me beneath the chin and I drip blood onto its patchy fur, spilling it across the floor into the bathroom, where it scraps with the other cat. She is territorial, guards the sink, hisses in a rising tenor. The crow’s in the attic. The beetle’s on the rug. The crickets are everywhere. I can’t sleep without pulling back the sheets to see a pocket of frogs pouncing, perching, nesting in the fabric, their slick bodies leaving damp little spots on the blanket. My house is a biblical plague.
I begin putting my food in Ziploc bags, but something chews through them. Little nibbled shards of plastic collect at the bottom of the cabinet. Cupboard confetti.
When I visit my mother in the hospital, I tell her I’m applying for veterinary school. She sleeps for most of the visit, but the nurse taking Mom’s vitals insists she can hear me.
“Trust me, honey, I talk to her all the time. Your mom’s got a sense of humor.” She chuckles as she says this, as if she and my mother have inside jokes. As if they’ve been getting on so well they’ve made plans to be friends when this is all over, grab a drink once Mom’s healed and off the tubes. Someone has taped a poster of Costa Rica on the wall beside my mother’s bed. A beach scene.
I talk to her anyway, for my sake as well as hers.
“I know you’ve wanted me to find my calling,” I tell her. “animals have been on my mind a lot lately.”
Half-truth. Probably a bad omen. Bad karma, at the least.
A swarm of locusts comes in through the AC vent, flying in and out of my curtains, the blender, the toilet bowl. I get in the shower and blast the water, trying to distance myself, but the insects crowd the lining and buzz, a throbbing rhythm. They think my bathroom is the marshlands or wherever. They buzz and buzz and almost seem like cicadas and not locusts, and maybe they are cicadas. Maybe nothing is what it seems. Maybe everything is buzzing. Maybe everything feels too prophetic. I try to channel the ladybugs, the frogs; beg them to defend our stronghold. I take fistfuls of basmati rice from the cabinet and throw it at the bugs like newlyweds. I cross all my fingers and toes while they swarm me.
The clock on the stove reads 11:11. What’s the use, I think.
I leave the house, call an exterminator. On the phone, they ask if I have any pets, I say sort of, they ask what kind, I say a dog and two cats. I don’t mention the crickets, ladybugs, or beetle. The crow is probably dead, which also probably isn’t good for my karma or future good will. When the exterminator quotes me, I tell him never mind, not to come. I can’t tell my landlord about the locusts, because I’m not supposed to have pets, and although I wouldn’t refer to anything in that house as a pet, I imagine he might. He wouldn’t understand; they’re only treatment.
I get a hotel room and sit on the edge of the bed after flipping through the cable channels a couple times. I pull a blanket around me because the hotel air conditioning is so damn cold. There is a wetness to everything; a damp weight to the world. I hold the blanket around me and let myself be sad. I feel like another Jim Carrey movie; one of those late-nineties or early-aughts films where he plays a sad man. Maybe that’s what life is, I think: the Jim Carrey filmography. First you’re funny, young, and carefree, and then you’re sad for a while, and then you disappear altogether, but not disappeared enough that people mourn you. You’re just out of vision, and then you die, and then people feel bad for a bit and remember how you used to be young and carefree and how your garden was so beautiful and always filled with butterflies. Now you’re dead and they can hardly believe it.
I go to Chili’s and sit in a booth. I use two fingers to push over the salt shaker. The waitress asks me what I want to order.
“What’s your favorite,” I ask.
“I like the red beans and rice.”
I don’t want the red beans and rice but I also don’t want the waitress to think I only asked her opinion to be polite, so I order it. I remember when Chili’s opened here, five or six years ago. People said a Chili’s opening was a sign of changing times; a boost to the economy of an old country town, a look at what could be growth for a place long-forgotten. A good omen.
In the restroom, a radio station is playing much louder than in the dining area. The radio is playing What If God Was One of Us? And I hum along as I pee. When the song ends, it plays again from the beginning.
The waitress comes back and she looks sad, like she’s about to tell me bad news, news of death. My mother’s death. People are not economies; we can’t just franchise a Chili’s inside them and expect them to recover, to flourish with little red-pepper blood cells and chicken fajita antibodies. Sometimes you need luck, or miracles, or spiritual guidance.
“Honey I’m sorry,” she says. I brace myself. My mother took me to a Chili’s once when I was a kid, in Lexington. I remember being so small and thinking the bar in the center of the restaurant looked like the front of an old pirate ship; the tattooed man behind the counter the captain. When I told her it looked like a ship, she laughed, made a joke about rum.
“We just ran out of red beans and rice,” the waitress says.
I tell her it’s okay and order the fish special. When it arrives, I glance out the window to see a pair of doves fighting over a gummy worm in the parking lot. They pull their legs back, hover their chests over the worm, pulling with their bills, trying to tear the gummy in a manner that favors them rather than their opponent. That poor gummy worm, ensnared between two desperate tugs, trapped with no option but to wait for the inevitable. I’m trying not to think about my mother in a hospital bed, tangled in knots of IV drips and machine cords and testing devices. I’m imagining her in whatever scenario makes her the freest, whatever the opposite of a hospital bed is. On a cruise liner, maybe. I’m imagining my Mother on the deck of a cruise liner, one that looks suspiciously like the Chili’s bar, and the old bartender’s spinning the wooden wheel, leading the charge while I’m at the dock, waving my hat like a nineteenth-century family member from one of those old videos; or no, maybe she’s on the beach. Free and on horseback. On the most beautiful, lengthy beach in all of Florida. Jim Carrey is saddled at her back, the wind blowing the cursive of her hair into his face, and they’re laughing and smiling at strangers, watching the people as they make their way home.