Tuesday, May 17, 2005
— Fiction —
In the summer of 1993 I purchased a mounted armadillo for my natural history collection at a barbecue restaurant in Memphis, not because I agreed with the proprietor that it looked like Edwin Booth, the famous Shakespearean actor of the Civil War period and elder brother of Lincoln’s assassin, but because it looked impressive in the toga and I had just the right spot on my bachelor-pad bar. With a little research I determined the taxidermist had cast it as Brutus in Act III, Scene I of Julius Caesar. I wanted to purchase several more and form a repertory company but the grants never came through.
Technically, the term armadillo can refer to any of several burrowing, chiefly Dentyne-chewing mammals, although they have occasionally been observed with Juicy Fruit. All tend to have an attitude. The most common variety in North America inhabits much of the Southwest. These armadillos are notable for an unusual reproductive process called polyembryony, by which they always give birth to four identical young, all of the same sex. A reality series is in development with the Olsen quadruplets.
Other armadillo varieties I should mention, all found in South America, include the three-banded Brazilian species, the Andean species, which grows hair between its scales, and the savanna-dwelling six-banded armadillo, which always comes to the door in its bathrobe.
My first encounter with a live specimen occurred while on a nature hike with Angela, an old flame who wore tight, red cut-off jeans and heavy, leather hiking boots on our expedition. My companion also had large teeth and a bit of an overbite, so that she could never close her lips without concentrating, which may explain why she kept them moving. Since she was from Australia, I used to think of her as a migrating species from Down Under, but had the good sense not to mention it.
As I recall she had been directing my removal of burrs from her socks when I spotted the creature in the underbrush. “Shhh,” I suggested, then crept closer and closer, ignoring Angela’s questions. I expected the armadillo to curl up into a ball. It never moved at all, therefore grabbing it by the tail proved quite simple.
Right away I began to consider my next move. I decided to return it to civilization for either scientific study or training as a marketing icon in the ever expanding hot-sauce industry.
“Do you have any rope?”
Angela explained that I was an idiot to even ask.
“Floss. I know you’ve got floss.”
She had waxed in one breast pocket and unwaxed in the other, prepared for any item that might become wedged between her remarkable incisors. While I pleaded with her to share part of her supply, with which I hoped to secure the animal’s legs, it must have sensed my grip loosen, slipping free, then bouncing away like a Chihuahua in a shower cap, much to my vexation. I gave chase but it disappeared into a hole.
Irritated, I remained silent for the next quarter mile. Not so my companion. Finally, I had heard enough of her incessant chatter.
“Girlfriend,” I said, pointing to my own teeth, my tone empathetic. “You’ve got a thing caught here.”
It bought me a few minutes of silence while she went to work on the spot.
A professor later told me that the armadillo carries rabies. I suspected that Angela had been secretly bitten and never told me. After the day of our hike, I noted, she often foamed at the mouth in my presence and I never did manage to talk her into the shower, confirming her hydrophobia. I felt much safer when we parted ways.
Every time I have a drink now at my bar, staring at my little friend, however, I am reminded of Angela and wonder if it was a mistake to put my interest in the armadillo and self-preservation ahead of our relationship. If nothing else, she would look better in the toga.