“THE PEPPERMINT FOX” by Robert John Miller

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When Zoraida Shulte’s husband had died the email from the dentist said: YOUR HUSBAND PASSED AWAY. PLEASE MAKE ARRANGEMENTS. CONDOLENCES. The dentist failed to mention, for the sake of all involved, that, still incapacitated after the removal of an infected molar, her husband had been placed in a wheelchair and pushed just a bit outside to a heated patio space, first in a rush to make room for other patients but later neglected in a rush to close early for inclement weather, and that by the time anyone had noticed him the following morning he had already become, in the less than delicate words of the office receptionist, “a mancicle,” frostbite setting in and prohibiting the use of his extremities before his conscious mindspace reemerged, and that through a personal favor with the county coroner the death was ruled a suicide, and also that coincidentally the dentist now owed the coroner two years of orthodontia for the coroner’s youngest son at another oral practitioner across town.

The Schulte life insurance policy would pay out just the same even given the suicide ruling, the dentist assured Zoraida later over the telephone, which was official and final, he said, and that creating a stink and an investigation and filing malpractice claims would not only NOT bring the husband back to life but would also create quite a large inconvenience in terms of the mucking up of the dentist’s entire dental career, which up to this point had been pristine (except for one previous incident which the dentist refused to discuss under the direction of his attorney), he said, and then he repeated the word pristine again just for emphasis and to get the conversation back on track, and for what, he asked, for a single little slip-up that could’ve happened to anybody and that couldn’t be undone (a lesson which he had learned, again, from prior experience, which, again, he was unable to discuss, on account of his bastard attorney, putting emphasis on the word bastard to lure some sympathy from Zoraida, to make the previous incident something he wanted to share but just wasn’t able to share, much the same way her late husband must have wanted to stand up but found himself unable to stand up given the bursting of his blood vessels, so they were really in the same boat, the dentist and the husband, he said), but also now there was the complication of what to do with the husband’s remains, because while it was still chilly outside the office would like to reopen as soon as possible and should the temperature rise above freezing then some sort of odor was bound to start emanating from the enclosed sundeck, which was a favorite sitting spot for many of the office’s patients, including Zoraida’s late husband as the dentist recalled, and he wouldn’t want to charge Zoraida for a deep cleaning of his whole office to remove the smell, he said, since she would be expecting quite a few bills for the arrangements she now needed to make, he was certain. And besides, the dentist added, she had been the one responsible for picking the husband up, and the husband had been the one who insisted on full anesthesia the day of a much predicted snowstorm, so who was really to blame, he asked.

The man who daily gave Zoraida a ride to work never asked about her husband, and she was never quite sure whether it was because he simply didn’t care or he had ulterior motives, that he was secretly and deeply in love with her, and that discussions involving her husband would ruin his fantasy, which she didn’t want to do on account of the rides to work. He never accepted even gas money because she was on his way, he said, though she knew that he was really roughly 3 minutes out of his way, both ways, plus the time it sometimes took waiting for her at the end of the day (though to be fair, she also sometimes had to wait for him), maybe an average of 10 minutes each week (sometimes more, sometimes less, but just on an average), which combined accounted for roughly 33 hours a year together, just right there.

And if you consider that an average date night, Zoraida thought, was, let’s say, 3 hours, just time enough for a cocktail, an activity like a stroll or a gallery viewing, and a light dinner, then that was the equivalent of about 10 dates a year she had been spending with this man, unbeknownst to her unwitting late husband, bless his soul, who never took her out for a cocktail, an activity like a stroll or a gallery viewing, and a light dinner. Plus there was the ride itself, 20 minutes each way together, which is to say another ten-thousand minutes annually, accounting for the equivalent of another 55 dates, so 65 total dates annually, tantamount to five or so dates every month, sort of like the equivalent of a regular Friday night or Saturday night thing, and plus it kept her from taking the bus, a kindness unto itself, she thought.

But what did they talk about, really, her and this other man? Work, mostly, or sometimes traffic. Often traffic, really. She had never looked forward to seeing him but had sometimes looked forward to the day that she might look forward to seeing him.

They had bonded as fellow vegetarians at the office, any office gatherings awkwardly accommodating what everyone referred to as their lifestyle preferences, and sometimes discussed food on their drives, which, to her mind, was tantamount to having dinner together, the thought being as good as the crime.

He had a theory that the most delicious animals must have all gone extinct long ago, thanks mostly to the neanderthals and the early humans, he figured, since those early animals would’ve been so delicious that they were eaten skin and bones and everything, which would explain why there was no fossil record of the peppermint fox, and how the most delicious animals on earth must pale in comparison to the animals that once were.

“And what is the peppermint fox?” Zoraida had said.

The peppermint fox, he explained, was a small fox, roughly the size of a wild stoat, which could be eaten raw and tasted like peppermints and was extraordinarily delicious. So delicious, he had once said, that the peppermint fox had gone extinct, because they were a dumb creature and allowed themselves to be popped into people’s mouths and chewed up like tic tacs.

“And how do you know about the peppermint fox?” Zoraida asked. “If there are no records of the peppermint fox, roughly the size of a wild stoat, how do you know it was ever real?”

Because, he explained, doesn’t it just make sense? Before he became a vegetarian, he said, he had partaked (or was it partooken? he wasn’t sure), to rephrase, he had made a point to partake in all of the most delicious of all the animals at all their life stages and all their parts, including the force-fed goose and including the tender baby animals, like the fattened calf, and how he had cried while he was eating them, wailed even, imagining the almost unimaginable delights that the peppermint fox would extend, given how delicious these animals were and how the peppermint fox was no longer among us, given how uncontrollably delicious it had been.

The afternoon after Zoraida received the email from her dentist concerning her deceased husband, and after their call, but before she had any concrete thoughts about organizing services or how to collect insurance money, she retreated into the sensory deprivation device where her husband had spent most of his time–her husband, the man who taught her that love was real because of how much he had loved her, how devoted he had been to her especially early on, when they were teenagers, even though she almost never thought about whether she loved him, because certainly it was enough that at least half of her marriage had love, and he knew best after all, and how she thought she had just enough to lose that she couldn’t bear choosing, unable to ever leave him, and he said that he loved her, after all–and inserted into herself a silicone apparatus which, until recently, she had not so indelicately referred to as “her mancicle,” and entered a simulation in which she watched herself, from the vantage point of a half-shut closet door, fellate the man who gave her rides to work, the two of them on top of a peppermint fox-fur rug (she selected a stoat-fur rug as a stand-in, since the simulator could not find an entry for “peppermint fox”) which sat atop a luxury king-sized bed, both of them knowing and enjoying the fact that the real Zoraida was watching them from the half-shut closet door (how wonderful it was, she thought, that nearly anyone could be added into simulation from even just a handful of photos, and so perfectly realistic, even the mole on his right ear, and how she had always wanted to lick it), and switched back and forth between the two sims’ thoughts–Zoraida could enter either sim’s mind, the thoughts being dynamically generated to improve upon whatever her present physiological state happened to be–and watched sim-him watch sim- her look up lovingly and send soothing messages with full eye contact, thoughts which the real Zoraida could hear but which the two sims just seemed to know, and cooed to sim-him, “You don’t have to be anyone else right now, you only have to be right here, with me,” and sim-he cooed back (but just with his body), “I know, I know.”

 

Robert John Miller’s work has appeared in New Flash Fiction Review, BULL, Monkeybicycle and others. You can find more stories at robertjohnmiller.com. He lives in Chicago and is working on a novel.