Cousin Will was a baseball star. After college, a AAA affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds drafted him as a pitcher. Everybody said he was bound for the major leagues. If he didn’t fuck it up, he’d be a millionaire before he was thirty. Then, halfway through his first season he tore his rotator cuff, and the surgeries that followed did nothing to mend his muscles or lessen his pain. Even after weeks of physical therapy, he couldn’t lift his arm above his shoulder. The team had to let him go. Baseball was the only thing Will had ever been good at. When he dropped off the map, we all assumed the worst.
A couple years later, he showed up on my grandmother’s doorstep, wet to the waist, with a six-month-old wolf on a rope leash.
My grandma, Jackie, lived alone in the middle of nowhere. An old brown house on a hill overlooking Lake Whitney. Her house wasn’t easy to find, buried in a tangle of farm-to-market roads winding through juniper scrub and ranch land. The roads weren’t marked. The only time I’d driven out there alone my dad wrote directions on a napkin—left turn at Coyote Church, right at a homemade roadside tombstone that was decorated year-round with flower wreaths so bright against the scorched landscape they looked fake. Keep going straight, the napkin said. If you hit the lake, you’ve gone too far.
Will didn’t have a car. He said a friend had dropped him off. Jackie didn’t ask him why he was wet. There was something between his eyes that she couldn’t make out, like an Ash Wednesday smudge, but too low, right between his eyebrows. She stared at it but it wouldn’t resolve. Later she told us there was something off about him. Her word was precarious. She didn’t want to upset him by asking questions.
Jackie kept a pack of dogs she let roam free in the daytime. All mutts except for one Dalmatian. At night, they slept on her porch. All my life she’d seemed to be the same age—old but not feeble, perfectly capable of living on her own in rural Texas—but the last years had hit her hard. She’d shrunk down to four-and-a-half feet. She kept walkers strategically placed around her house and yard in case her strength gave out. The one by the garage and the one by the back porch were covered in rust, but the tennis balls on the rear legs were new, bright highlighter yellow. Because she couldn’t carry a fifty-pound sack of dog food inside anymore, she fed the dogs from the trunk of her car. She didn’t mind the mice that scurried across the floorboard when she drove from home to the grocery store in Clifton and from the grocery store back home. The grocery store was the only place she went.
She made Will tie his wolf up in the garage to keep it away from the dogs, or the dogs away from it. They talked about nothing while his pants were in the drier. Jackie urged him to take a shower—because he was filthy, but also so she could have a chance to call my aunt in private and tell her her son was safe. He wouldn’t do it. They ended up driving out to Glen Rose, to Dinosaur Valley. That’s where she’d taken us when we were little kids to look for arrowheads and pose for pictures beside the dinosaur footprints. She clung to Will’s arm as they walked along the dry river bed. She pointed out piles of rocks, and Will sifted through them and brought back the interesting ones for her to inspect. Pale quartz clusters on an ordinary rock, a stone that resembled an arrowhead but wasn’t. She’d been putting off cataract surgery for years. At home she’d wear two pair of glasses at the same time, but not in public. I doubt she could tell one rock from another. It didn’t matter though. It was just something to pass the time.
At a taqueria near the Wheeler Branch reservoir, Jackie snuck off to the payphone after the chips and salsa came. But payphones didn’t exist anymore.
When she returned to the table, the chips were crushed in the basket. The molcajete dish of salsa had been overturned on top of them. Will told her somebody was trying to poison him. They couldn’t eat here.
Jackie kept her house dimly lit. No overhead lights, only lamps. The one on the mantle lit a portrait of her and my grandfather, Warren. It was taken in the seventies, several years before he killed himself. The mantle lamp wasn’t positioned to bathe the portrait in light so much as keep the darkness away. Floor lamps and table lamps too, arrayed around the coffee table, the dining table. Beneath one lamp she kept a stack of bedraggled paperbacks (Little House in the Big Woods, Life on the Mississippi), a roll of toilet paper for blowing her nose, pillows to sit on, and a magnifying glass. A little station for her to rest whenever exhaustion overtook her. Beside the TV, a row of VHS tapes, the same ones we watched over and over when we stayed with her twenty-five years ago—The Sound of Music, The Wizard of Oz, National Velvet. If anyone turned on an overhead light, she wouldn’t complain, but the next time she got up she’d turn it off.
When she and Will returned from Glen Rose, he flipped on all the lights and unplugged all the lamps. Jackie didn’t say anything about it and Will didn’t explain. The new bright light let her see more clearly what she’d been looking at before
“What in the world is that?” she asked, pointing right between his eyes.
It was a squiggle from a distance, maybe a burgeoning unibrow. In the light, it was a tiny maze without an exit. The skin between his eyebrows was irritated because the tattoo was fresh.
“It means predator,” Will said. “It’s Chinese.”
My grandma just said, “Good lord.”
When the sun set, the wolf began howling in the garage, and the dogs set up a barking perimeter. Jackie and Will watched a movie with the volume high enough to drown out the noise. Something with Judy Garland or Elizabeth Taylor. Will fell asleep in the recliner, and in the morning, he was gone. The wolf was gone too. My grandmother’s car, her credit cards, and her double-barrel shotgun were gone. And the dog food in the trunk, the Conway Twitty and Elvis tapes in the glovebox, and the mice she didn’t mind at all.
“Of course, I want to press charges,” she told the sheriff. “Why in the world wouldn’t I?”
Will was arrested in Brazoria County a couple days later. His mother went to visit him in jail, but she refused to bail him out. The cops said he was heading for the border when they found him in a Walmart parking lot, sleeping in the back of my grandmother’s car, using the wolf as a pillow. Nobody knew how he planned to cross the border with a shotgun and a wolf.
When he was released, his mother said if he was going to live in her home there would have to be conditions, ground rules. He agreed to all of them, but he had a condition too—she had to bail out his wolf. He wasn’t going anywhere without the wolf.
For a mature wolf to tolerate humans to any degree, it has to be surrounded by them constantly as a pup, twenty-four hours a day. Wolf pups develop sight and hearing later than dogs. Sense of smell is their only means of understanding safety or danger. Researchers will forgo bathing so that the pups can distinguish them by scent. Even if someone raises a wolf that way—constant presence, constant nurture—nothing can ensure that any wolf is tame. There’s no way to domesticate a wolf. In each interview I’ve read, every zoologist, zookeeper, evolutionary biologist, and game warden are firm when they warn that wolves aren’t pets. There’s no such thing as tame.
I used to know a woman in Waco who shared custody of a mountain lion with her ex-husband. When she had guests, she kept it in a cage in her bedroom. She let it roam her house when she was alone. One of my old drug dealers kept a Burmese python in the same room as his infant son. A girl I dated in college kept an African serval in her tiny campus apartment, along with two great Danes. I don’t understand ordinary pet people, much less this hypertrophied variety. I don’t know if it’s the wildness or exoticism that appeals, or the proximity to danger. It’s hard not to think of captured savages trotted out in cages for the entertainment of civilized people. The difference is we all know how to feel about that.
Cage it, neuter it, lobotomize it. The danger has to be something you can show your friends at parties, not an actual threat. And if you can’t cage it you have to kill it.
I feel the same way about animals that I feel about children—I’ve enjoyed the company of some, loathed some, but in general I don’t spend much time thinking about them. I don’t have any special feelings about animals qua animals (as opposed to qua food), or even people qua people, but I fucking hate cages.
Several years back my dad called me and asked if I was busy. I was finishing my senior year at the college I’d dropped out of ten years before. He was driving up from Waco to his sister’s house, Will’s mom’s house. She lived in one of the countless sprawling suburbs surrounding Dallas-Fort Worth, and I lived half an hour north.
He brought lunch from a BBQ place in Fort Worth—brisket and pork ribs, potato salad, white bread, and pickles. We ate and talked on my porch. How my classes were going, updates on the family. Apparently, Will had taken off again.
Shortly after his release from jail, Will was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and he’d been having trouble keeping the kinds of jobs a person with a face tattoo could get. On top of that, he’d quit taking his meds. When his mother laid down an ultimatum—take your meds, hold a job—he told her to go fuck herself and lit out. And he left his wolf behind.
My aunt’s neighbors complained about the howling, but there wasn’t anything she could do. She lived in fear of her own backyard. Whatever domestic traits the wolf had shown around Will had all but disappeared. Twice a day my aunt would wait by the backdoor until the wolf was out of sight, whereupon she’d open the door just wide enough to hurl a handful of raw beef into the yard. If she went to the kitchen for a glass of water in the middle of the night, she could see its eyes peering iridescent through the backdoor glass.
She said she’d tried everything. She called animal shelters, wildlife sanctuaries, zoos, and safari parks, and nobody would take it. One place wanted five thousand dollars, which she didn’t have to spare. It was too wild to be a pet and too tame to be wild. She advertised it on Craigslist, for free, and the only people who came to look were a redneck couple who did little more than peek over the privacy fence and walk away shaking their heads.
My dad’s never been a gun person. It was my friends’ fathers and my East Texas cousins who taught me to shoot. I knew there was a rifle tucked away in the back of his closet, that it had been there for years, that it was my grandfather’s, but I’d never seen it. His aversion to guns was understandable. When he was ten he nearly shot his own father on a hunting trip. He hadn’t fired a gun since. And in 1984 his father killed himself, shot himself in the head in the backyard. That rifle in my dad’s closet might’ve been the same one he used. I’d never found a good time to ask.
So I was more than a little taken aback when he told me he’d volunteered his services. He would come back up with the rifle next weekend and take care of the wolf problem himself.
At first my aunt had balked. It was, after all, a beautiful creature. My dad reminded her of the dogs they had when they were kids—Herman, Major, Lady Jane, etc. Whenever a dog got sick and couldn’t get well, he and my grandfather would take it to the woods, lay down a plate of cold cuts, and while the dog contentedly munched away, my grandfather would put a bullet in the back of its head. They’d dig a hole together and discuss what kind of dog they would get next. My aunt was reluctant, but she didn’t know what else to do.
“Main thing is,” I said, “you gotta kill it on the first shot, right? How long since you’ve fired a gun?”
“Long time,” he said.
Having said his plan out loud, he now seemed to be recoiling from it.
“I could probably do it,” I told him.
And I could’ve, just as easily as I could inflate an abstract thing into a rite of passage, something crucial that might’ve skipped my father but would not skip me. Putting an animal out of its misery the old-fashioned way seemed like a full-throated answer to the bourgeois silly asses who put their dogs on Xmas cards, on antidepressants, on chemo, who call their pets their children and trot dutifully behind them, waiting to pick up their perfect little bowel movements. Neither of us had any patience for sentimental pet people. We agreed that a dog was a burglar alarm or a children’s toy and a cat was an exterminator.
We gnawed on rib bones and made fun of people, one-upping each other with stories about dogs in rain booties and people who bring their gerbils to Spanish class. He seemed more comfortable now that the subject was changed. When he left, we hugged each other and I told him once more that I would be happy to help with the wolf. He said he didn’t know. He’d have to think about it. We never mentioned anything about killing the wolf again.
That was something like four years ago. Between then and now, I moved to Ohio for grad school. I got married. My dad turned sixty and took a job reading meters for the city of Woodway. Will moved in with my grandma. I don’t know how he talked her into it, or if he had to. My dad would visit a couple times a month to check on her, and when we talked on the phone he’d tell me how Will had started wearing a turban, how he spent most nights in the woods between Jackie’s house and the lake. When he did sleep at my grandma’s, he slept on the screened-in porch in his sleeping bag, surrounded by all his worldly possessions.
My three aunts had been trying for years to convince Jackie to move into a nursing home, and she finally agreed. My dad sold her car and tried to make her house presentable for buyers. He nailed plywood over the windows Will had broken and replaced the carpet he’d burned holes in. The aunts had a yard sale but nobody came. They argued over how to evict Will and had their problem solved for them when he got arrested for something minor (an illegal campfire, resisting arrest) and made such a bad impression at his court date that the judge, with the advice and consent of a county doctor, made him a ward of the State of Texas. It was that easy.
My dad told me and neither of us knew what to say. Will hadn’t hurt anybody. He barely even talked to anybody. Now that it was too late, we thought of all kinds of ways we could’ve helped.
Will lives at the Austin State Hospital now. I’ve asked, but my dad doesn’t know where the wolf is.
But four years ago, none of that had happened yet. From my porch I watched my dad drive off. I cleaned up the barbeque trash and smoked the cigarette I’d been waiting to smoke until after he left. And I imagined it happening differently than it would actually happen.
How my dad would weigh his options and decide. How he would turn his truck around and march back up my steps with the rifle wrapped in a winter coat. He’d had it with him the whole time, stowed behind his seat, but bringing it out meant he’d committed. It hadn’t been fired in decades. We would clean it and oil it and buy ammunition at Walmart. I would fish the rib bones from the trash and wrap them in a napkin. We would drive out to the park behind the baseball fields where old men flew model airplanes. To prove my aim, I would fire a couple rounds into the side of a dumpster, aiming at the warning stickers, at the o in cuidado. Not a bullseye, but close enough.
The rest of the story told itself. It goes like this: In her suburb, my aunt greets us at the door and explains how she doesn’t want to be around when it happens, but my dad convinces her to stay. If anyone calls the cops about a gunshot, it would be best to have the homeowner present. She’ll be in her bedroom, she says, with her earplugs in.
My dad retrieves a ladder from the garage and props it against the fence. I think about what it means to shoot fish in a barrel and remind myself that this isn’t for sport. I’m performing a service.
We climb up and peek over the fence planks, but we don’t see it. The backyard hasn’t been mowed in months. Dead yellow patches spot the lawn. Dandelions and little purple wildflowers, a mangled football, sun-bleached bones, and a plastic kiddie pool for a dog dish. We can’t see the back porch from where we’re positioned. The porch is the only spot with any shade. That’s where the wolf is. My dad unwraps the rib bones from the napkin.
“Aim one over there,” I tell him. I draw up the rifle and point at a patch of dead grass.
The bone takes a hop in the high grass and lands at the cusp of the patch. Before my dad can throw another, the wolf trots out into the yard. I don’t know what I expect it to look like, but it doesn’t look that way at all. It’s lean, for sure, and big, with a gorgeous coat. Someone had told me it was white, but there are other colors too. Tawny and gray and black and gold. Bright amber eyes where I’d expected ice blue. It watches us as it approaches the rib bone, and only when it starts eating does it look away.
“Is it a he or a she?” I ask.
My dad doesn’t know. He guesses it’s a female.
He throws the remaining rib bones and they land nearby. The wolf raises her head when the new bones fall and immediately returns to the first bone. If I expect viciousness, I’m disappointed. She gnaws systematically, without any special fervor. I’ve never seen a rib bone sucked that clean. I want to give the wolf a name, something to redeem her from whatever stupid name my cousin gave her, but I can’t think of anything. When she moves on to the second bone, I decide it’s only humane to let her finish.
I rest the barrel in the v between fence planks and snug the stock into my shoulder. An old bolt-action Remington, no scope, no fancy shit. I find her face in the sight. The fence helps keep the rifle steady because my hands are damp and shaky. When the wolf moves to the third rib bone, I wipe my trigger hand on my pants and re-steady the rifle. I can’t chicken out now. This is when people chicken out in movies. What a fucking idiot my cousin is. Somebody should shoot him instead, right in his face tattoo, otherwise he’ll keep getting away with this kind of shit. I take a deep breath and hold it. The trigger is oily when the wolf looks up and our eyes look into each other’s and I don’t know what we see.
Tyler Sones received his MFA from Ohio State in 2019. His work has appeared in Washington Square Review, Pacifica, Hobart, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Austin, Texas.