The world knew a secret, a secret no human could know, which made it all the more tantalizing to Gopher, who ached for so many things, but nothing more than the secret. On the day Peter Swanson and Marie planned to leave for good, Gopher found Sergeant on the porch and said I have come to ask you about the secret. Sergeant’s ears drooped. The secret is the most truthful of truths, Gopher continued, the answer to all heartache. Slobber inched from Sergeant’s mouth. Sergeant, it will keep them from leaving. Sergeant lowered his head. They would not speak of the secret again.
Despite being Peter Swanson’s dog, Sergeant didn’t appreciate a good secret, nor did he seem to care for much at all save for rawhide and Peter Swanson’s gossip. He had a frustrating relationship with his jowls, which never set correctly on his paws, and so he spent his days lifting and lowering his chin in hopes of finding elusive comfort. Truth be told, he was a dog and nothing more, not worthy of something as vital and rending as the secret —
You say I am not worthy? You are a person and nothing more, Gopher.
I am a gopher and so much more.
You are no more a gopher than a sparrow is friendly. And sparrows were never once friendly.
Most people agreed that Sergeant was, like his master, a flawed creature; yet for all of his failings, Gopher thought him an extraordinary dog. He could smell hamburgers grilling from three quarters of a mile and could hold a stick and a tennis ball in his mouth at the same time. He craved food the way all dogs crave food, but never once begged or stole from the table. More impressive, he seemed to sense Peter Swanson in the same way a thirsty animal might perceive a change in air pressure preceding a storm. He loved Peter Swanson violently, without start or end. The scent of Peter Swanson’s skin sent Sergeant into a frenzy, his desire beginning as a trembling of his tail and becoming a wild gyration that shook all the way down to the concrete foundations of the porch. Such a passion, so powerful it needed a body all its own, Gopher could usually understand. But not today.
No one has reason to be joyful today, Sergeant.
Peter Swanson came around the house. He wore work boots and did not look like talking. Sergeant yelped in glee.
“Get off my porch, Gopher!”
Gopher pressed his fingers into his body. His teeth felt too large, always growing, filling his mouth with tasteless stumps that would not grind down, not with rawhide or rocks or —
Gopher squealed. Sergeant, elated, bit Gopher’s shoe and held tight.
“You’re scaring him, Daddy!” Marie followed around the house and tugged on Peter Swanson’s arm. She was short for her age, maybe twelve, but strong.
“Honey, my gun’s in the truck.”
“He doesn’t know any better. You can’t shoot him”
Peter Swanson breathed; she was right.
Sergeant rolled to his back. His long tongue lolled to the cement.
Sergeant gurgled and narrowed two amber eyes. He barked once, too thrilled to do much else.
I will come back, Gopher said, but Sergeant already knew that. And tell Marie I would like a sandwich.
Peter Swanson and Marie were Gopher’s whole universe and his universe was called St. Anne. Located at the confluence of two rivers, neither of which was particularly noteworthy, St. Anne distinguished itself by being nowhere near anything remotely considered somewhere. Its main exports were meth and venison, though oil and the wheat crop attracted enough people to keep the post office in business. In St. Anne, nothing happened and the roads were no longer roads. People never thought about things bigger than weather and rifles. Such a setting made Gopher’s pursuit of the secret difficult. But necessary. So necessary, since despite his hard work, the moving boxes continued to pile higher and higher.
Master does not want you hanging around here, Gopher. Sergeant said when Gopher returned to the porch. These days the house stunk of fresh paint; the smell hung on the air like grief.
You have not answered my question about the secret.
I do not know the secret, but I do know this. Sergeant took the rawhide in his mouth, softened it with slobber, and sunk in his teeth. There is no secret that can make them stay. At sundown, they will leave and they will be less yours than they were before.
Gopher did not believe in a St. Anne where Peter Swanson and Marie could not be made to stay. He told Sergeant as much. If they stayed, Sergeant could sleep in the rye grass and bark at the buffalo. Together they could defend against the unfriendly sparrows, always peering through cracks to watch him, and they would save St. Anne, yes! save St. Anne!, by seeking out the virtue hidden beneath the bloody parts cut from freshly killed deer left steaming on the —
We hate St. Anne for good reason, Gopher.
There are no good reasons to hate St. Anne, Sergeant.
Let me explain it again, said Sergeant.
Peter Swanson had lived in St. Anne his entire life, got a job with the oil company, and raised two children as best he could. The economy eventually took its toll on St. Anne, as it had in many prairie towns, bringing in vagrants and users and other bad sorts. Peter Swanson wondered how it happened here, a good Christian town, how futures so bright could be dimmed so succinctly. He wouldn’t let it happen to Marie. Marie, who was so loyal and soft and lovely, and whose goodness transcended. If they stayed, St. Anne would fail her the same way it had failed Gopher. Marie, that soft, lovely, loyal child who slipped Gopher sandwiches under the fence when it was cold out and the prairie grew hard and unyielding —
Am I making sense? Sergeant asked.
Peter Swanson made it clear, when Gopher was only a little gopher, that giving up showed weakness. This was, in fact, the first time in Peter Swanson’s entire life he was deciding to call it quits. He said he was protecting his little girl, prioritizing her, but that was just a sugary way of saying he was fed up with his worthless son and was abandoning him to make his own mistakes.
If you are not interested in hearing what I have to say, get out of here.
I am interested, but you are not telling me about the secret, Gopher said.
Perhaps there is no secret, Gopher. Perhaps you are just chasing your tail.
No part of Gopher thought Sergeant was right, though admittedly the secret was still just a wasp endlessly stinging him with the prospect of truth and harmony and joy. The secret was special. He wanted to be inside it, burrowed underneath it, to feel it pressing all around him. He wanted to bite into it the way he might bite into a pear and feel it run down his face and catch in his whiskers and soak into his skin. He wanted it to sustain him and make him grow; wanted it to do the same with Peter Swanson and Marie. The biggest and brightest and most boundless thing; the answer that would save them.
No wonder they call you crazy, Gopher.
No kids played on the playground anymore, which sat on the edge of town next to the old middle school. Gopher liked the playground for many reasons. He liked how the dust settled in the cracks of his tight skin if he lay still. He liked the lack of shade, just two spindly trees long devoid of leaves. He liked when the wind blew and when the rusted merry-go-round moaned in response. Most of all, he liked the company.
“Morning, Gopher,” the man said. It wasn’t morning. From Gopher’s estimation, it was afternoon, and he was itchy. The man shaded his eyes with his hand and smiled a rotten smile.
Gopher asked the man about the secret.
“You still doing the gopher thing?” the man asked.
Gopher asked if the man was still doing the human thing.
“What do you need?”
Gopher only needed the secret. The man shook his head.
Gopher didn’t have much hope for the citizens of St. Anne. Most of them were like Peter Swanson — lifers, born on the prairie and raised on whole milk and corn meal. They took the same jobs their daddies left on the rigs, at the ranches, in the mines. Industry jobs, they called them. What was left of the industry, anyway. If they were lucky, they kept those jobs and found wives who were good at quieting babies and baking casseroles. The rest of them, people like this man, came to the park.
“Heard Pete’s packing up. You gonna say goodbye at least?”
Gopher stared at the sun and thought about burning up.
“You hear me?” the man said. Gopher asked again about the secret. “You want the secret? I’ll sell it to you.”
Gopher didn’t want the secrets the man had to sell. Yet the man asked again, told him it might help clear out some of the cobwebs tangling Gopher’s mind. Would give him a discount too if he ran just one errand. Drop something off, quick and quiet, for a friend.
“Beyond one secret, there’s another. Am I right?”
They exchanged a few things, plastic baggies and glances mostly. The man gave Gopher an address and a name, told him to go straight there and not get lost.
Fine! Fine! Fine! Gopher said, but the man did not hear.
He found a soft spot near the stairs and let his temptations come falling out. His heart broke against his ribs, over and over again, and his skin stretched and his ears heard. For a moment, he saw to the beginning, saw the mountains of ice drain away leaving a rolling desert from which a single seed gave life to the greatest expanse of prairie. He saw St. Anne and the people with so much. Among it all were Peter Swanson and Marie. They held him in their enveloping warmth and spoke peacefully, lovingly. The dust heaved and he grasped for them, the need clawing and digging and ripping. He thought of the places in St. Anne they would no longer be, the empty footsteps and untouched air. That was a throbbing no secret could dull.
After, Gopher sunk into the dark where he set about feeling nothing at all.
Phht-phtt-pheee! Gopher sang. Why are we not stronger?
Someone from the house on the corner told him to shut the fuck up. Parents ushered children inside and dogs whined in the distance.
Do you understand how hard it is to watch what you love die slowly?
He skipped in time with his heart and looked to the sky. It was a perfect evening, hazy and infinite. The sun hung low, melting to a slow burn over the horizon. The field was ablaze, a golden white sheet of wheat, engulfed in a sea of —
Yet what was a perfect evening without someone to share it with. Very soon, in minutes!, he would have no one to sit with, oh no! oh no!, while the day lingered and died. Everything left, even sunshine.
He knocked on doors, pleaded with them, you can’t leave! you can’t leave!, and imagined the truths he wanted to say to Marie. Marie in all of her lightness and holiday socks. She used to follow him constantly, even when he told her to go away — how could he do that?, how could I do that! — and with whom he walked as far as the bus stop where he deposited her — leave her! how could I do that! — so he could waste his life doing his stupid bullshit. “I’ll pick you up after school,” he told her, but he lied. Instead, he visited his friends, friends who were not his friends at all, and they met a man and made bad choices. But it was justified, wasn’t it — expected! — there was nothing better to do. That was the crux of it. Absolutely nothing to do in a nowhere town surrounded by nothing nothing! nothing! Peter Swanson got so angry with him, threatening to send him away and begging him to stop for everyone’s sake — “for my sake, please, I can’t do this anymore” — but Gopher didn’t listen because such a powerful, poison-induced need was like that, isn’t it?, impossible to see beyond.
Gopher did not remember coming to the house, but here he stood in front of the screen door holding a parcel and disturbing the fruit flies. On the road behind him, doors bolted closed and drapes hid living rooms. Unfriendly sparrows squawked and dove at the house, settling in untrimmed bushes and taunting him with their watchful beaks.
“I paid for it yesterday. So leave it.” The voice behind the screen door coughed.
No leaving. There is too much of that these days.
“Whatever. Just leave it.”
Can I come in? To talk?
The voice was as unfriendly as the sparrows, and belonged to a face no one had seen in years. No doubt the neighbors would say good riddance if the house, and the voice inside, collapsed into the dust.
Do you know about the secret?
The voice knew about the secret. He claimed to know the entirety of the world, and more about the absence of it all. Sometimes at night he heard the dogs barking, closer and closer until they invaded the walls of the house; they must have known what was happening inside, smelled the chemicals or the choke cherries, because they came from all around — from the fields, the voice swore. Even though he was sure the stinking pile of shit from the buffalo farm would cover it up, the dogs still came and barked and howled, relentless, always.
I am very close to the secret. I must find it soon because if I do not the blank spot in my chest will be more merciless and craving than it is right now.
“What do you think it is, then?”
“You’re on the right track. Perhaps you should come in. I can explain to you the entirety of the world and more about the absence of it all. I can fix it for you, if you let me. I can fix anything, even things that don’t need fixing.”
I do not need fixing!
“You need something.”
Gopher had so many things, and all of them were rattling loose. He ran back home to Peter Swanson’s yelling her name, Marie! Marie! and even Peter Swanson! Peter Swanson, who would always exist on the corner where the county road bent out of sight from St. Anne — the place where Gopher and Marie grew tired of waiting to see his car come through the hills and badlands. Peter Swanson, whose faults were as many as Sergeant’s, but who tried a thousand times harder and still failed. Peter Swanson, who had very good reason not to love Gopher, but did in a predictable and heartbreaking way.
Sergeant waited on the porch, slobbering and wary. He did not lift his head as Gopher approached, but his chest rolled with life. Gopher sunk to the stoop and thought about the boxes taped shut on the opposite side of the door.
Gopher, have you found your secret?
Yes, I have.
What is it?
By now, the boxes would almost touch the ceiling, filled with finger paintings and so much broken pottery. Gopher told Sergeant about the man in the park and the people who closed their doors and huddled behind gauzy drapes. He told him about the unfriendly sparrows, the burning fields, and the voice at the screen door who claimed to know about everything but really only knew about wasting away. Gopher told him about the time he didn’t pick up Marie from the bus stop, how she got lost on the walk home, how a neighbor found her in the dark. How Peter Swanson shut his eyes and became a different person when he opened them again.
Is that the secret? Sergeant said.
Just a secret?
Yes, just a secret. A riddle without an answer that will do no one any good.
Gopher and Sergeant waited for Marie to finish packing while the Big Sky turned red. They watched the grass move for a while, as they used to do, and then looked to the line where the green of the lawn met the dull wild of prairie. Inch by inch, year by year, they had watched it creep closer. Peter Swanson used to enjoy walking the edge of town, a quarter-mile on each side, with Gopher and Sergeant following behind. Together they fought the weeds and neglect. When people saw it, they called them watchmen, gardeners, even lighthouse operators, as if St. Anne was a beacon — which made everyone laugh. But one day, they started to go out farther, the brief quarter-mile becoming a half-mile and then a mile as Peter Swanson led them farther away. He must have seen something on the other side of that line, something fearful enough to make him realize the freedom of the prairie, the gnawing strength of emptiness, could trap him just as much as bars.
Marie came through the front door. She placed a sandwich in a plastic bag in front of Gopher. His cheeks throbbed.
“Peanut butter and sugar. It’s from my lunch, so it’s a little soggy.”
Marie sat down between Gopher and Sergeant and touched the soft spot of fur behind Sergeant’s ears until his eyes slipped closed.
“Dad says you’ve completely lost it,” Marie began. She smiled in the orange street light and Gopher’s eyes sparkled at the sight of it. “I think you’re sick is all. He keeps saying you’re dangerous. But he thinks the worst of people.”
“You heard we’re leaving tonight, right?”
“There’s still time, though. I read about places you can go to get better. Not like those clinics Dad wanted to send you to — nicer than that. There are a few near Billings. I bet Dad would pay for it. His company found him a good job there.”
Gopher rubbed his lips across the sandwich, breathing in yeast and white flour.
“I don’t want to leave, either. I like St. Anne just fine. My friends are here. And you’re here. Dad just thinks we’ll be better off if we don’t have to deal with this stuff anymore.”
He knew she meant him. Him and his tight skin and ceaselessly growing teeth and the sparrows always hovering overhead.
“That’s not true. You’d be better, too.”
He did not doubt Marie, for she was wiser and more hopeful than he could ever be, but if all home meant was belonging somewhere then St. Anne was his home and no amount of wishing could change that. Outside of St. Anne was a world where people lived in boxes, the cars were like sparrows, and the signs changed ruthlessly. A world where he would have to stop doing the thing that kept him exactly as happy as he was the moment he first saw her face, an angel hugged by pale light. No — St. Anne was a darkness he couldn’t overcome. It was his secret, his meaning of life, his question without an answer, an addiction purposeful in the ways it took and continued to take from him. How could he leave it — how could he, how could I? how could I?
“You could. I know you could.”
Marie, please do not go, he said. He held her sleeve and she touched his hand. Marie, please do not go!
Her skin felt dizzying on his. She told him to be quiet, Dad might hear. Gopher didn’t care. He wanted to be heard, make everyone know it was a travesty.
An absolute travesty!
“You can get better.”
Gopher held her close. He told her they belonged together and they belonged here!, at home, in the place where they were born, where they spent hours feeling the wind. He smelled the yellow dust and flowers in her hair. She was as fragile as he remembered, a little baby who used to hang on his foot and beg him to stay when all he wanted to do, needed to do! absolutely needed!, was to go to the park, get fucked up, and pretend good news existed in St. Anne.
The front door opened, and Gopher clung tighter. Marie’s small hands touched the wasted muscles of his arms, pushing and pulling at once.
“Sergeant!” Peter Swanson said. Sergeant growled and latched onto Gopher by the scruff of his neck. His teeth, flecked with plaque and rawhide, dug deep into his skin while his jaw shook and refused to let go. When Marie collapsed from Gopher’s arms, Peter Swanson picked her up and put her inside, only then taking Sergeant by the collar and pulling him away. The warmth of her hands did not leave his arms, and her screams — always screaming! — grasped at the corners of his body. Sergeant bared his teeth and showed his allegiance.
“Meth head piece of shit.”
Peter Swanson opened his mouth to speak again, watching Gopher with half-closed eyes, undoubtedly searching for the words he’d practiced so many times — “I’m sorry for leaving, I’m sorry for not being around when it mattered, I’m sorry for letting this place take you” — but as Gopher squirmed on the ground and dug his fingers under the dirt, all the things they wanted from each other, all the unspoken prayers and wishes, unhooked and fell away. There it was: Gopher was just another useless addict who would never get better. He would probably end up killing himself or someone else one day. Peter Swanson closed his mouth and dropped his hands. It was the end of all things worth saying on the subject.
Peter Swanson and Gopher waited with the gray sky, fully aware that when it was gone they would forever be as distant as two people could be. The secret would leave St. Anne for good and the specter inside Gopher would claw and dig and rip until it found its way out. Peter Swanson and Marie, harmony and joy and truth, gone like sunshine. Because change is like finding a whole flock of friendly sparrows. Meaning it doesn’t ever happen. After all, Gopher wondered, why would he want to be a human in a bad world when he could be a gopher and live in pure ecstasy. He closed his eyes, forgot the secret.
Truly, it was a beautiful evening to be a gopher.
ANDRA SKAALRUD is a writer and young profesh living in the Boston area. She enjoys planning pub crawls and writing for other people’s blogs.