Animal Anthem- Robert Boucheron

“Come to the next potluck supper for Voice of the Turtle. They told me to invite you.”

    “I wouldn’t fit in, darling. Like an onion in a bed of roses.”

    “How do you know? You haven’t even met them. You could bring your eggplant dish. What’s it called?”

    “Ratatouille. It has other things in it.”

    “Such as?”

    “Zucchini, tomato, garlic—it’s a veggie stew.”

    “You’ll sweep them off their feet.”

    This made me laugh, and Laurel pressed her advantage.

    “Better yet, let’s invite them here. I mean, can we? I never hosted a potluck at the apartment, so I owe them.”

    “Or maybe you want to show off your new boyfriend.”

    “Maybe. Anyway, they made a request. It was Lance’s idea, and the others jumped in. Can you write a song for the group? Something we can sing at a rally.”

    “A protest song? Like Woody Guthrie, but for animal rights?”

    “I don’t know. Like your other songs. Serious . . .”

    “. . . but not too serious.”

    “An animal anthem.”

    “My first commissioned work.”

    “We’ll invite the group here, and you can unveil the new song. Is that okay?”

    “Whatever you say, darling. On one condition.”

    “What condition?”

    “You’re going to sing it with me.”

    “But I can’t . . .”

    “Oh, yes, you can! I heard you when you thought no one was listening. Sweet as a songbird.”

    “I never learned how to read music.”

    “A paltry excuse. Come here. Sing: ‘Ah.’”

    She sang like a child, with no vibrato. I put my hands on her waist.

    “Support the tone from your middle, down here. Breathe with your diaphragm.”

    “Like yoga?”

    “Could be. I only know about singing. Again.”

    “Ahhhhh!”

    “Very good. In the music business, you’re what they call a natural. I think we’re going to sound just fine.” With my hands already on her body, I started to get amorous.

    “Don’t you have to move your truck?”

    “Shoot, they’ll give me a ticket.” I grabbed my keys and scooted.

    The cottage had a tiny annex that might be a bedroom. I used it for music practice. Now it became storage for boxes. True to her word, Laurel never opened a box or read a book. I got used to seeing the bicycle on the front porch. Laurel could be out, but the bicycle meant she would come back sooner or later.

    On a Friday night in September, I stood in the kitchen. Laurel emerged from the bathroom. She was nicely dressed in a skirt and blouse and her hair was swept back.

    “Don’t you look pretty!” I said.

    “Thank you.” She was pleased. “The others should be here any minute. Is there anything I can help with?”

    “Not a thing. It’s all under control.” I stirred a pot on the stove.

    “I feel nervous. Aren’t you? Meeting people, making a good impression . . .”

    “Cool as a cucumber.” I dropped the spoon and scrambled to retrieve it.

    “We need the table to put food and silverware on, like a buffet. I’ll move the aloe plant.”

    “Good idea.” I stared into the pot.

    Laurel wandered, cupping the pot in her hands, unable to find a place for it, and talked to herself. “This is harder than I thought. Where in the world?”

    She disappeared into the annex.

    “I put it on a pile of boxes,” she said.

    A knock at the door. Laurel looked at me, then went to open it. Crystal and Lance entered. It had to be them from Laurel’s description—a tall, willowy woman in a flowing dress, and a trim, athletic man in a polo shirt, both in their thirties. She carried a bowl, and he carried bottles of wine. Laurel led them to the table, where they set things. A minute later, Molly and Duane arrived, each carrying a bag or bowl, and they did likewise. Two or three more people came in. Laurel introduced them to me in the kitchen, and everyone migrated to the living room. Crystal stood to one side and gestured for attention. I fetched my guitar and stood next to Laurel, while Crystal talked.

    “Many thanks to Wes and Laurel for inviting us here tonight. Speaking for myself, it’s a great pleasure to meet you, Wes. I’ve heard so much about you. Voice of the Turtle doesn’t have any business to discuss, but we do have a special presentation. As you all know, Wes is a singer-songwriter. He composed a song for the group, and he and Laurel are going to perform it, right here and right now!”

    “Thank you, Crystal, for the kind introduction,” I said. “It isn’t every night I get the chance to perform a world premiere for a select audience, and with such a lovely backup.”

    “Are you going to take off your apron?” Laurel stage whispered.

    “Oh, yes.” I yanked at the string behind my back and threw the apron on the futon. “I’m ready now. Are you ready?”

    “Let’s do it!”

    I strummed a few bars of introduction, and we sang my “Animal Anthem.”

On Old Macdonald’s farm, the duck

Says quack, the cow says moo.

The beasts in Aesop’s fables talk,

And Mr. Ed makes sense to you.

So animals aren’t dumb:

They speak to those who want to hear.

Be patient, and they come

To whisper in your inner ear.

 

And the voice of the turtle

Is heard in our land.

From the Great Lakes the good word’ll

Flow down to the Rio Grande.

As we leap every hurdle,

Come join our righteous band,

And the voice of the turtle

Is heard in our land.

 

The whale sings in the ocean deep,

The crows call and respond,

The cricket chirps, and chickens peep,

The bullfrog bellows in the pond.

The lion roars alone,

And wolves howl in a minor third.

Turn off your blinking phone,

And listen to the mockingbird.

 

And the voice of the turtle

Is heard in our land.

The whole kit and caboodle

Step up to take a stand.

Place your paw big or little

Here in my loving hand,

And the voice of the turtle

Is heard in our land.

 

    They applauded. I left my guitar with the apron, and everyone moved to the table. They opened bags, uncovered bowls, uncorked wine bottles, poured glasses, and filled plates. Laurel and Crystal made sure everyone got silverware and a napkin, while I took a casserole from the oven and accepted congratulations. The party was in gear.

    As the host, I waited to be last. Then I filled a plate and found a corner to hunker in. As I bent over to eat, without realizing they stood next to me, Molly and Duane talked.

    “Not bad,” Duane said.

    “Do you mean the song or the food?” Molly said.

    “Both, I guess. You know, I’m not really into this vegetarian thing.”

    “You’re not really into folk music, either.”

    “True. But he’s okay . . . for an old guy.”

    “Duane!”

    “He must be at least forty.”

    “This is his house!”

    “So? Kind of a dump, if you ask me.”

    “You’re terrible,” Molly giggled.

    They drifted away. Before I could escape, Lance bore down on me. He smiled like a tiger. His polo shirt showed off his chest, and he wore a gold earring in one earlobe.

    “This is your ratatouille? Fantastic! I really like your music, too.”

    “Thanks. Your name is Lance?”

    “Right. You’ve got it all, Wes. Master chef, musical talent, a fairy tale cottage, and a stellar young woman.”

    “Who would have guessed?”

    “If you don’t mind my asking, how did the two of you meet?”

    “At a café. I was the live entertainment, and Laurel was in the audience.”

    “Is that one of the perks of being a performing artist—women throw themselves at you?”

    “It never happened to me before.”

    “I couldn’t carry a tune if my life depended on it.”

    “With a body like that, maybe you’ll never have to.”

    Lance’s attention was distracted, and he moved on. Crystal and Laurel floated by, deep in conversation, their backs to me. Each held a glass of wine. Crystal had a habit of holding one hand against her cheek, as though lost in wonder.

    “I’m so happy for you, Laurel. Wes is a keeper.”

    “And I caught him on the first try.”

    “If Lance could stop gazing in the mirror long enough to notice . . .”

    “Oh, Crystal! Lance is devoted to you.”

    “Devoted is not the same as committed. Besides, how do you know?”

    “He told me . . . at the last potluck.”

    “That’s interesting.” Crystal was suddenly cool.

    I stood, pretended I just wandered over, and the two women drew apart to include me. Crystal raised her glass of wine.

    “Here’s to our songwriter. And the host of the evening.”

    “Good evening to you, again.”

    “Have you tried the wine?” Crystal asked.

    “No wine for me, thanks. I’ll stick with water.”

    “Wine is made from grapes,” Laurel said. “It’s allowed.”

    “Lance bought a case from a local vineyard,” Crystal said. “It’s very good. Try a sip.” She extended her glass. The room went quiet, as others listened.

    “Thanks all the same,” I said.

    “Why not?” Crystal asked.

    “I don’t drink.”

    “At all?”

    “I would if I could. Experience taught me otherwise. Here’s to your health.” I raised my plastic water bottle.

    Stunned silence. Laurel broke away to address the whole group.

    “There was a great story in the Vindicator today about cats and whether they understand certain words the way dogs do. Or do cats deliberately ignore what we say?”

    “I read that story,” Molly chimed in. “It was a research experiment on feline response to human speech. The headline was: Do Cats Even Care?”

    “Your tax dollars, hard at work,” Duane said.

    A general buzz resumed. Crystal gazed at me with one hand pressed to her cheek.

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