John Updike says parents get pets for children to teach them about death.
I think that’s a little vague, John.
Instead, I prefer to think my pets—more precisely my brother’s guinea pigs—taught me about the literary genre first popularized by Edgar Allan Poe, then perfected by the modernists William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and the playwright Tennessee Williams: the Southern Gothic.
First some background. My brother had two guinea pigs named Platypus and Jupiter. They were a gift from my middle-class parents to offset my care of the half-sow/half-corgi bitch pup Mayo (she was found by the Humane Society on the side of Highway 22 in southern Minnesota wearing an empty mayonnaise jar for a cap, hence the name). Little did they know, Mayo would die within a few years thanks to a rare kidney disease. But, at that moment in 1999, it appeared I had the upper-hand on furry livestock. So my parents equaled it out.
However, Platypus would die in childbirth, surrounded in the hay by her blind, lifeless pups. Which left Jupiter. Jupiter had a shiny black coat (guinea pigs resemble bedroom slippers with whiskers for sniffing) and a white spot over his eye. He was cute and seemed content with his wheel, hay, and just-for-nibbling suspended water jug. But after the loss of Platypus, the symmetry was gone out of the game. My brother’s interest faded. So, instead, we did something drastic.
We pushed the bedroom slipper pig out into the lawn.
There, for approximately two months, he lived the Life Valhalla munching on ferns, licking dirt (i.e. nutrients, I think) off the landscaping river rock, and got to run to his dumb little cumbersome feet’s content.
Once a neighborhood boy came over and squealed, “Hey! There’s something in your bushes!”
“Nope…” I replied from our porch. “That’s just our guinea pig. Duh.”
Enter: the Southern Gothic.
In a recent discussion in an online literature class I’m teaching, I resorted to novelist Pat Conroy’s mother’s description of the Southern Gothic: “All Southern literature can be summed up in these words,” Mrs. Conroy says, “On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Daddy did to Sister.”
Okay, that’s rough. But it’s also riveting. That’s hard living! And up here in the industrialized, suburbanized, civilized North Country, I’ve always felt cheapened. How come the South gets to have all the good stories?! How come we can’t get some good incest and/or monkeys-chained-to-gas-stations going on up north of the Mason-Dixon?
Well, I’m now convinced my literary parents had the same concern. Which is why they got us pets. Because our pets didn’t just die. They diiiieeeeeedddd. It was neighborhood news when our pets died. Two dogs were scooped up by the county when semi-trucks bulldozed them on our street corner. There was the aforementioned internal organ hemorrhaging by Mayo. And the postlapsarin catastrophe of Platypus. But all these pale in comparison to the demise of Jupiter.
We hadn’t seen the hog in a few days—which, given his predicament, wasn’t out-of-the ordinary. And really, his life had never been better. In fact, in the history of the silly guinea pig, Jupiter probably had a more zen-like existence than any since the domestication of their species. I mean, he should’ve been paying us for rent. That’s how good he had it.
Anyway, so I was mowing the lawn, and turning the corner on this hot summer day, when I look down, and see what appears to be a furry, black welcome mat hidden behind the bushes. Except I looked closer, spotted entrails and realized I was staring at the remains of our Jupiter. He was headless.
“Probably a vicious squirrel” Dad said. “Maybe a feral cat,” Mom responded. She always liked to imagine feral cats running around the neighborhood.
But here’s my Southern Gothic secret: I fear I got it with the blade. With my headphones in, I fear I clipped too closely to the river rock and zipped that bugger’s little head off before its lego-block legs could carry its belly to safety.
Anyway, that night, while I stared at the empty, moonlit lawn, I wondered about Jupiter, Platypus, all our pets, really. They lived such measly little lives. Even today, I spotted a bird with a broken-bone flapping vainly in the dirt of my alleyway. Measly. Pointless. Filled with unnecessary pain.
And I know my parents’ lesson was a success.
That’s what I think O’Connor, Williams, Faulkner, and even Poe were writing about—what my parents wanted me to learn. The Southern Gothic genre is all about the perverseness we somehow learn to live with. The skeletons that aren’t in the closet, but just sorta sitting there at table, sipping coffee or reading the funnies. The cute little bedroom slippers that get mangled up in the spokes.
I want to get a pet. But I live alone. And I can’t stand the thought. To make worse, I live near a pet hospital. Where day in and day out little terriers and old mangy cats walk in and don’t walk out. So whenever I think about getting a pet, getting all softy, I try to remind myself of O’Connor’s The Misfitcharacter, at the end of the short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” about a bucolic family who ends up a vacation in the ditch, getting shotgun-blasted by thugs.
“Shut up, Bobby Lee,” The Misfit says. “It’s no real pleasure in life.”
And I think you understand that line better if you’ve got a couple IRL Tamagotchies buried in the backyard under a rock.