A scenic overlook at Big Sur along Highway 1, the endless blue of the Pacific in all directions. My car—a dirty white 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit convertible. Us, sitting there in that steeled beast like some tumor on the side of the road. Like we didn’t belong. Regardless, there we were, top down, listening to Nada Surf’s High/Low, the duet we had been singing earlier replaced now with horrible silence.

“Let’s get right up to the edge,” she said reaching for the door. “I want to see how far down it is.”
“Far,” I said. “Real far. Obviously.”

She smiled, let it fade quickly, got out. We had been driving for days and had reached the point where the small gestures, what we once found cute and wonderful and sexy, were now just diminishing returns on a bad investment.

“Just be careful,” I said, stepping out myself.

Obviously.”

At the edge, a guard rail—not much of one. She stood there in her tank top and homemade cut-off khaki shorts, crumpled hair blowing in the wind. She clutched her body, arms wrapped around herself. Used to be that was my job. But I kept my distance. She turned and looked at me, forced a smile again, looked back out at the water.

“Pretty,” she said quietly.

“Mhm,” I said. “How long you want to stay? We still have like three or four hours to go.”

She didn’t respond, just looked back out on to the water and I stood there studying her, knowing it was over—had been since Colorado—her form no longer intimate to me.

“Hey,” she said. “Check it out.”

I looked where she was pointing: two groundhogs approaching from the edge of the cliff as if they had scurried up from the sea. “Groundhogs. Cool.”

“Ground squirrels, maybe,” she said.

“Aren’t all squirrels ground squirrels?” I asked.

She sighed. One of them walked right up to her feet, stopped, squeaked, looked up at her. “I think they’re tame,” she said.

The other one sat back a ways, watched, then walked toward me. I studied the dirt and gravel of the pullover lot, the tufts of dark green sawgrass and sedge running along the lip of the cliff. Then: trash, candy wrappers, white In-N-Out bags clumped in neat piles like some totemistic shrines.

“I think they get fed from tourists,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said. “We should give them something to eat. They probably don’t know how to fend for themselves anymore.” Pause. “You think we’d get in trouble?”

I looked back at the road—empty, only one car had driven by since we got here—then checked for signs or warnings posted about the wildlife but saw none. “It’s probably okay. Hold on.”

I dug through the car and came back with a half-empty bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. I held it to her like a trophy.
“You can’t give them those,” she said, hands on her hips. “That’s probably really bad for them.”

“They’re animals. They eat dead shit. They can handle this,” I said. “Watch.”

I knelt and the one closest to me squeaked, looked over at the other, and moved toward me slow, nervous. I reached out with one of the Cheetos and it took it with its paws, stepped back a bit, then ate it greedily. The other came to me, satisfied it was safe, and took one from my fingers—with his teeth, this one—and the two sat near the grass munching, eating. Squeaking. After they had finished they sat up and looked at her then me, face-fur stained neon red, and came back for more.

“See?” I said. “They’re fine. They love it.”

“Yeah,” she said as if she had already grown bored of this experiment. “Don’t give them too much, though.”

I didn’t look up, just kept handing the Cheetos over as quickly as they could take them. After they had eaten three or four each something happened: the heat—the spice, we later agreed—had gotten to them, and they started rolling on the ground, sprinting in circles like hyper dogs. Just going plain nutso. But they still came back, asked for more. I obliged and they squeaked and chittered at each other, seemed to be loving every moment of their short lives, taking them from my hands until the bag was gone.

Later, as we drove through Malibu past the million-dollar homes and luxury cars and tanned perfect bodies of everyone who lived there, we talked about the groundhogs—figured they were probably mates. Wondered how long they’d stay with each other, if they mated for life, but decided probably not. Decided that the Cheetos, us being there, probably changed everything and they could never go back. That it could never be like it used to.

 

 

 

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© Robert James Russell