Don’t Touch the Animals by Matt Reed

Jason’s stepdad, Lloyd, takes up a sizeable portion of the bench seat in my Ford Explorer. He is a large, serious man and has to sit in a crouch just to see the view. I don’t like him, but we’re all grieving, and I’m trying to be generous.

We’re driving down a long narrow slip of the Pacific Ocean south of Anchorage called Turnagain Arm. On either side are ridges of glacier-cut mountains topped with snow. It’s a scene made to generate stirring conversation between passenger and driver, but thinking of anything to say is hard.

“So, do you fish?” I ask.

“No,” he says.

“Do you hunt?”

“No,” he says. He is looking out the passenger side window, his head turned away from me. “Do you hunt or fish?” he says. I tell him no. “I didn’t think so,” he says.

Behind us Peggy, Jason’s Mom, sits between Katie and Renee. The day before, she was staid and quiet, clearing shelves, divvying up photos and momentos, making trips to goodwill. But, this morning, she’s bubbly as the three of them share stories about Jason, his life on the farm when he was a kid, his quirkiness as a graduate student living in Alaska. A farm phenomena called “corn squeezins” comes up. It happens, Peggy tells Katie and Renee, when the grain silos aren’t cleaned out and the corn at the bottom rots and ferments, and pretty soon, you have drunk cows wandering the farm.

“Wait,” Renee interrupts her. “What did you call it?”

“Corn squeezins?” Peggy’s voice goes up as if she has heard herself singing in the shower for the first time. “Well, I don’t call them that. The farmers do.”

The back seat titters, then rolls into laughter

Lloyd turns sharply back to them, “Corn squeezins are no joke. They ruin the milk.”

There is a celebration of life for Jason scheduled tonight in the Student Union. Lloyd has asked to speak. When I had dinner with he and Peggy a couple weeks ago in Philadelphia, I wanted to give them a friendly face for when they came up. I told them Jason had had a real family in Alaska—good friends and people that care about him. Lloyd leaned over the table toward me, making his already imposing bulk supersized.

“I have just one thing to ask you,” he says. “Will you be ready when it is your time to meet our Lord?”

“If any one of us are,” I tell him, “Jason was.”

“I’m asking about you,” he says.


At the very end of Turnagain Arm is a quasi-zoo called Big Game Alaska. There’s a herd of reindeer, a herd of bison, musk ox (woolly ice-age looking animals with horns and six-inch-thick skulls), several moose and bears, and whatever other injured animals happen to come their way. It is essentially a series of pastures separated by dirt roads and high fences.

We drive from one pasture to another, walking up to the fences while the Explorer idles behind us. It is mostly just ungulates. The bear enclosures are abandoned. We forgot that bears hibernate in winter. I point out where this summer Katie and I saw a black bear peeing from twenty feet up a tree. I describe how it came down like rain. Lloyd is unmoved. I tell him Katie tells the story better.

“DId Jason like this place?” he asks.

“I’m not sure he ever came here,” I say.

The moose are standoffish. The caribou graze in the middle of their enclosure with their butts toward us. The only animals happy to see us are a pair of orphaned black-tailed deer. They cock their heads and lick our hands through the links of fence. There is a sign that says “DON’T TOUCH THE ANIMALS,” but we figure in this case they’re doing the touching. Peggy is a natural. It is obvious she has been around animals her whole life. She coos at them. One of them lets her scratch behind its ears. We are at the zoo because it’s hard to know what to do with parents who flew in from Pennsylvania two days before and spent their only day in Alaska at the Anchorage police station and cleaning out their murdered son’s house. The moment makes the whole trip worthwhile.


“Are you okay?” asks Lloyd. We are on our way back. The girls in back are now sharing photos of Jason on their phones.

“I’m fine,” I say.

“Your eye looks swollen,” he says.

“It’s fine,” I say. I look in the rearview mirror. My eye is twice its normal size and purple. But I already know this. It is tearing up and making it hard to see.

“Are you okay to drive?” he asks.


Lloyd asks the backseat what they think. Renee’s pops her head in between our headrests. “Holy shit.”

We stop at a gas station where I am told to go look at myself in the men’s room. When I come back the group has deduced that I am allergic to deer and that I must have touched my eye after letting the orphaned deer lick my hand.

“A lot of hunters find out they’re allergic to game while cleaning them,” says Lloyd, who doesn’t hunt.

More than once, I’m asked, “Are you okay to drive?”

At Jason’s celebration of life, Lloyd speaks from a lectern. He holds it with both hands and asks his question, “Will you be ready when it is your time our Lord?”

I eye the 100-or-so people gathered around tables and sitting on the floor, hoping to see a guffaw, a headshake. I look to Katie, who is sitting next to me and who was there after our five-dollar poker game to see Jason trudge sleepily out to his car the night before he was killed. Her head is down and her fingers are on her upper lip as if she is suppressing a sneeze. But it’s not a sneeze. She’s crying and I understand we’re all together in this and all alone at the same time—even Lloyd.




Matt Reed lives in Alaska, Anchorage. Since being fired, his former employer has added a paragraph in their policies and procedures regarding appropriate uses of Excel spreadsheets, and he has been running in the mornings.


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