The Menagerie

It was just after the break up, and early into my sessions with Dr. Harris, that I started drawing people wearing animal helmets. When I showed him the pages and pages I had drawn of owl skullies, winter cowls, plush hats for kids, crash helmets. There were also these theatrically large grey owls’ heads I had drawn for a local theater with beaks that loomed perilous and sharp near the heart. He was largely silent while slowly looking through them stopping only to remark on the sharpness of the beak. But even that was more as a bemused aside then a pointed accusation. Dr. Harris was always very gentle in a way that made you think that he must be pretty fragile himself. The profusion of naked women in the drawings and the attention paid to the anatomy; the laborious detail and richness I’d bestowed on them also drew comments from him. He closed the portfolio and asked after my wife (she was still my wife) and he knew goddamned well how she was doing. I picked up a stack of them and looked them over one by one, studying them as he waited patiently for my answer. ‘She’s fine. I hear she’s fine.’ I tossed them back on the table. ‘What time should I come next week?’



I still got up and went into work every day because, well, I had to eat. Just out of college I’d lucked out and gotten an internship at a small graphic design studio. It was then bought out by a larger advertising firm and our projects grew global in scale. Those of us that had gotten in early were instantly promoted and I’d found myself, at 28, in a moneyed, and frankly, enviable position. But recent events had left me loathe to go to work. I’d called in sick for a week but could put off the inevitable no longer. As I entered the historic Brown Building where we maintained a small office, I tried to avoid all contact with my co-workers; their pity stares, mouthed sympathetic questions, and whispers in the break room, only aggravated me.

On the way home I stopped off at Hobby Lobby and bought some balloons, three kinds of tape, wallpaper glue, chicken wire mesh; in addition to Styrofoam, Birchwood, toothpicks a bundle of day old newspapers from a newsstand near my house. I’d long since slept on the couch but now I made it my HQ. I cut the queen-sized bedspread in half with a pair of gardening shears and tacked the two halves over the windows in the living room.

The thing about ostrich heads is just how long the beak is. The sturdiness represented a real challenge as well – trying to get it to stretch out so long and thin, without breaking, was tough. In the end I used a few reformed coat hangers to give me the head shape and neck muscles. Their eyes are huge and they actually have lashes for which I used an old black broom. I had to hit up several second-hand stores, until I found an old fur boa (made of possibly fox or rat hair) that I used for its wiry gray-white hair (the gluing of which is a whole other story). Each night I’d come home and set to work more often than not with a box of lo mein and a six pack of something hoppy.

When not working on the head I’d obsessively check my email for messages from Madison and after hastily ‘unfriending’ her on Facebook I was reduced to leafing through the Facebook pages of our mutual friends for some trace of an update.

I guess they don’t have Facebook in Italy? Or was she just too busy fucking him to post?



I’d just finished a session with Dr. Harris in which I’d shown him a few photos I’d taken of me modeling the Ostrich head. He’d congratulated me on: ‘successfully transmuting my anguish into something of great beauty’, (that’s how he talks). Later at work I found out that one of my designs had gotten the green light from the higher-ups when I heard my smartphone and saw her email. Once again she’d managed to ambush me with her craziness. I’ve included it here in its entirety, not only to preserve it, but so that everyone can see what a treacherous wench I’m dealing with:

I’ve been holed up with a head cold and the muezzin call to prayer is absolutely splitting my head in two. And three times a day?! I’m not sure anyone here is so devout. I’m revisiting ‘The Two Towers’ on my laptop – watching Aragorn chop down goblins with a head full of Sudafed is how you spell B-L-I-S-S. The weekly eat-and-greets with the locals are going well – there’s this one little girl – she’s sooo cute. We were on our way back from the first meeting; where we wanted to show our good intentions and what the F crisis-mapping is, and she comes up to me all wrapped up in a Hajib and hands me a Dora the Explorer doll and told her mom: heya jameela which means: she is beautiful…I couldn’t help it I just burst out crying.

She’s always doing that – she’ll just stop mid-message. (Full-disclosure: we were supposed to have a baby girl; she lost the baby. Or it lost her whatever the PC term is for Horrendous Life Experience) but talk about presumptive and self-centered; she just launches into it without asking if I’m alright – assuming that I’m interested in hearing about her fucking world tour to study ‘conflict resolution’ and with a photographer who takes photos of people’s hands(?!) Fuck that douchebag. Seriously. Fuck. Him.

Feeling a murderous rage coming on, I called up Dr. Harris at his home and after ranting and then apologizing profusely for both a) calling him at home and b) failing miserably as a patient I finally calmed down enough to hear him telling me to ‘transmute, transmute these feelings’.

It was then that I moved into the barracuda phase. At first I had considered making a bear but it was just too warm-blooded and could conceivably be ‘cuddly’ or ‘cute’. I didn’t want cute – I wanted to instill terror in those that looked on this head, to paralyze them with fear. So I chose the barracuda which is just about the most terrifying head ever invented by nature. The helmet was outsized as hell and all teeth. I completed the whole thing in a marathon of Red Hook IPAs, Jameson and Marlboro reds. Ministry was on the stereo for 7 hrs straight and at one point I passed out with a shark’s tooth super glued to my cheek. I had some difficulty balancing the head on my shoulders due to the length of the jaw, so in the end I built it so that the upper and lower jaws framed the face. It’s lightweight ‘cause I made it almost all out of Elmer’s glue and newspaper strips over a wire frame.

I spent the rest of the weekend in the dark, weeping.



Truth be told it was my therapist who’d come up with the actual idea of doing the animal helmets. He used some terms like ‘cathartic’, and ‘externalizing’ before asking me to draw a house, a tree and a person; I humored him. Originally from the heartland, Dr. Robert Harris was an old hippie who’d gone out to NYC in the early sixties and, from what I’ve pieced together, hovered at the edges of Warhol and his cohorts. A few years later drug-damaged (my supposition) and reeling from the horrors and inhumanness that was the Big Apple in the seventies (he rarely spoke of it in positive terms, instead referring to it with kind of vague, sinister abstractions), he’d bought a bike and headed west aiming for San Fran but’d gotten sidetracked after a ‘mystical moment’ with a ‘shaman’ near Los Cruces, NM. He’d later settled here in Austin with his first wife. Big on art therapy, he suggested I busy my hands and utilize my talents to ‘work through my anger and disappointment, back to health’.

I was craving a bowl of Bun Bo and drove out to this Vietnamese joint off 183 for lunch. It was just after the rush and the place had an exhausted, cheap feel about it. A trio of girls were chattering and watching Dora the Explorer on an old TV set in the back, near the swinging doors to the kitchen, where various extended family members either rested, or prepped for the evening rush. They were squirming around the way kids do when watching TV and one of them looked over at me. I waved more out of reflex than anything else. Being too young to observe social custom she just kept staring at me. She had on a pink cotton dress and had a barrette straining to keep her hair out of her face. Having already played my hand, as it were, I began to feel awkward with her staring at me. I wished she’d just stop. Just fucking stop. The door to the kitchen swung open and her mother, impossibly young and wiry in a pair of shorts, shooed her away in Vietnamese.

-Sorry, she like strangers, said her mom laughing.

-That’s okay, I said calming down.

-Here you go, she said placing an enormous bowl of spicy beef noodle soup in front of me.

I dug in and the girl went back to imbibing a culture not her own. From time to time she glanced over at me throughout the meal.

I paid and left. Glad to be out of there, and feeling my anxiety subside, I decided to visit a comic shop I’d heard about in the same shopping center but found it to be unexpectedly closed. On the way back to my car I passed a taxidermist‘s with a stuffed fox in the window. I leaned down to get a closer look at it – instead of giving it the kind of half-snarl you often see in stuffed foxes (that is if you’ve ever seen one and have some baseline to compare them with at all). This one had a smug calculating mien and this was the amazing part – contemplative eyes; I’d even go so far as to say they had ‘depth’, ‘poignancy’. Impulsively I pushed on the door and to my surprise found it open. The owner was a kindly old man of obscure origin but with features that spoke of Slavic roots. We talked shop for a bit (which consisted mainly of me pumping him for info about his trade) and not wanting to keep him, it was Sunday after all, I shelled out for the fox. With its cunning mug under my left arm and digging in my pocket with my right for my car keys, I scanned the parking lot, shimmering with mid-summer heat for my dark gray civic.

I called up a friend of mine who has two toddlers, both boys, and asked if I could measure their heads. An odd request I’ll admit but she was an old friend and, aware of what I was going through, readily agreed. I went and had coffee with her and her husband measured the boys noogins and promised to have two fox helmets for them by the end of the week. I knocked them out pretty quickly using Styrofoam blocks this time and some sturdy tape to hold them together. I forewent the use of actual hair (to save Mia the cleanup) and simply painted them instead. I dropped them off on Friday and the boys seemed happy with them – they started chasing one another right away.

– You should do something with them.

– You mean…like chase them?

– (laughing) No not the kids, the fox heads. The boys love them, maybe you could sell them or something.

– Yeah, uh, maybe.

That night I got home and decided to write her an email. I really opened up in it. I told her I wanted her to come back; that it didn’t matter about the baby; that she could finish up her school work; that I suspected she was sleeping with Gerald and that I was prepared to forgive even that. I hit send without even giving it a second glance and went to bed.

The next day, first thing I got this:

Hey I’m writing you from the Gaza strip(!) you know how much I’ve always wanted to come here, the Palestinians’ struggle is paramount to my research into the origins of conflict and its eventual resolution. We’re even riding the buses which took some courage I gotta tell ya.

We flew into Jerusalem a few days ago and the Mossad sequestered me and Gerald for questioning. It was freaky how much they knew about us: that we’d been on the same school program had travelled together and so all this begged the question – why the separate seats?! I mean that’s how thorough they were they even knew where we were sitting!! I would’ve been more impressed if I knew everyone of them hadn’t fired off a few rounds at some a Palestinian kid who was reduced to tossing rubble their direction. Disgusting. But I digress.

You sounded hurt in your last email. Is your project going ok? I’m sorry about what happened and that I don’t have your money. (You got my last email right?) Gerald graciously offered to pay you for me but I just couldn’t bear owing two people. I know you hate everything right now (believe me I used to feel that way and it sucked) but with time and some distance you’re going to feel better.




I missed my next few appointments with Dr. Harris. He left some messages asking me to get in touch and assuring me that a missed appointment was no big deal. I worked hard to finish a cartoon sketch for the French; they were happy with it and I used some vacation time I’d been storing up. I spent the next couple of weeks experimenting with a vampiric sleep schedule. My waking hours were spent working on a sloth head and I became absolutely consumed with David Attenborough’s ‘Life on Earth’. This 10 hour series is simply phenomenal in its majesty and scope; it also helped me to forget myself, to mull things over in my subconscious while watching giant land turtles. Making the head was also therapeutic – anytime you spend 10-15 hours at a time shaping and staring into eyes that doleful you’ve got to feel better about your own life by comparison. It’s a shame that I was only doing the heads – it would have been nice to take a crack at those claws. Still, fashioning an appropriate Zorro-style mask for it and trying to get the sloping angle of that head just right were challenging.

I thought about her last email and what she’d said (and omitted). She was definitely sleeping with him and she wasn’t going to leave him. I was going to have to accept that.

It was crazy. Everyone said so. We’d met at a Cornell West reading through mutual friends. The following few weeks had been spent in the swoon of a kind of intellectual euphoria with long meandering walks around campus, in and out of bookstores, coffeeshops and restaurants. After six weeks we were married. At the end of our first year together she found out she was pregnant. Having come from a big family, I’d always wanted kids. Her family life was more troublesome and I noticed that after feigning happiness for a while, she grew more distant, was often touchy and picked fights with me. I took her lack of enthusiasm about the whole thing personally. I grew cynical, bitter, and resentful. I’d always viewed her obsession with third world violence as a kind of perverted first world privilege. One night, drunk, I’d accused her of trying to fill the void in her life with the pain of brown-skinned people across the globe. She in turn had accused me of being spoilt, politically disengaged and self-obsessed. It was about that time that she started hanging out with Gerald, a guy from her program who was also a photographer and was taking pictures of people’s hands in order to ‘document the toil of the world’. What a crock of shit.

I had to go on an important business trip to Paris. While I was gone she had a miscarriage. There is more to it than that (later I found out that she’d had an abortion and then hit me up for 600 dollars at his insistence) but that is the long and short of it. By the time I got back she’d already packed up and booked a ticket to Syria.



I was going over all this in my head when the phone rang:


-Hello? Is this David?

-Yes, who’s this?

-I’m Kate a friend of Mia’s she told me you’ve got some animal heads?



-Uh yeah sorry, I’m here.

-Oh ok well I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind me shooting them?

-They’re not actual animal heads, they’re more like helmets – made out of paper-mache.

-Yeah I know. Mia told me. I meant with a camera.

-Oh! God, right sorry I’m kinda…out of it.

-That’s cool. So when could we meet?

We arranged to meet on Saturday in Pease Park. She brought along some male and female models that slowly walked around in white tank tops with the helmets on while she snapped photos. Then she lined them up one by one and took portraits of them. It was odd to see them here in the open. I felt a twinge of pride.

-So what are you doing this for again? Mia said it was for some kind of therapy?

-I’m documenting the stages of grief.

She continued taking pictures. I went back to looking around at the models wearing the animal heads.

-5 or 7?


-5 or 7 stages of grief? There are a couple of different theories.

-Oh…5. I didn’t know that.


-It’s part of my therapy

-Oh yeah? Who’s your therapist?

-Dr. James Harris. Bee Caves Road. Do you know him?

-No way! He helped my sister.

-Really? Right on. What was wrong with her?

-Anxiety. Anorexia.



– But she’s ok now?

-Well she’s eating if that’s what you mean.

– Right on, I mean, that’s good.

I turned to really look at her for the first time. She was petite with a dark bob haircut and high cheekbones that made her look like she was always smiling.

-Not giant bloody steaks but still.

-What about you?

-What about me?

-Do you eat?

-(laughs) Yeah, sure.


-The bloodier the better.

-Right on.

We met at Chris’s Longhorn Steakhouse – a place I’d never been but was recommended to me by some beef-loving co-workers of mine. She didn’t leave me waiting long, turning up in a light green summer dress with an eagle soaring over some Douglas firs in the background. She caught me looking at her and smiled.

-Hey there.

-Nice dress.

-Thanks I got it for my birthday.

-Oh when’s that?

-When’s what?

-Your birthday?

-In February. I got it from my mom.


-She made it.

-Oh yeah? Right on.


-So this is the place.

We both look around at the wooden rafters, mounted trophy heads staring down at us from the walls.

We were soon seated, thankfully away from the center of the room. She ordered (fried okra, yellow squash, t-bone rare) I ordered (house salad, butter beans, ribeye medium). Two iced teas. The waitress brought us some cornbread and left us.

-Nice place. Nothing like this in the Bay Area.

-Is that where you’re from?

-Yeah, I didn’t tell you? Yeah Oakland’s home. What about you? Where are you from?

-Near Houston. So how come you ended up here?


-So how come you ended up here?

-Sorry I didn’t hear you the first time I was admiring that guy’s beltbuckle

I turn to see an emblazoned shield some guy had decided to use to hold up his size 38 wranglers.


-College. I came here for college.


– You? Did you go to UT?

-Um hum (mouth filled with cornbread) Yeah I did. Art department. Graphic design.

-Really I did RTF. Although now I think it’s called something else though. Media studies maybe?

-Yeah I think you’re right.

-Funny we never met before.

-I know….did you ever hangout at Mojo’s? You know. That coffeeshop on the drag? They used to have those TV smashing parties?

-Oh yeah! I went to one of those. People would write stuff like ‘Homewrecker!’ or ‘The eye of Sauron’ on them and then throw them from the roof?

-Yeah and there was that real crazy girl she’d always make those vegan cupcakes and lecture people about not treating their bodies like a graveyard. She was like an aggressive feminist with pit hair and she’d go topless at critical mass every month like flicking cars off and stuff?! God what was her name? She was a gender studies major I remember…

-Jen! She was in my dorm room freshman year she was totally crazy!

-You know her?! Small world I helped her design that ‘Wyman’ stencil she put everywhere.

-You did that?!


We both started cracking up. We talked our way through the meal (the steaks were top-notch) and on the freeway home and over coffee until the wee hours of the morning. I dropped her off at her place and we said good night and made plans to meet the following week.

The next day was Sunday. I woke up early put on a fresh pot of coffee and Stereolab’s, Dots and Loops, and cleaned the whole place top to bottom, even taking down the bedspread to let in more light. Then I got to work. Gone was the maniacal pent up energy that fueled the others, this one felt more like….play. I lost myself in it for several hours. Towards the end when I did finally ‘come out of it’ I stepped back and saw a majestic and noble eagle. Its head turned towards the future.

Judson Hamilton lives in Wrocław, Poland. He is the author of three chapbooks: Celebrity Slumbers (Cervena Barva Press), No Rainbow and Black Box (Greying Ghost Press). Most recently he published a novella entitled the Sugar Numbers (Black Scat Press). He has published poems, stories and flash fiction in various print and online publications. Highlights include: ActionYes, the Portland Review, Tammy Journal, and MonkeyBicycle, among others.

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