“Animal Stories” opens with Jamie rushing to the hospital because he has just found out that his mother has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. He notes that he drives recklessly, which he gets from his mother. “Any man’s mother is a source of grief until she dies,” he says.
Jamie arrives at the hospital and helps his mother operate a television remote control. She is bald and tries to wear the remote control as a hat. A doctor comes in to see how much Jamie’s mother has forgotten since the previous day. His mother is sharing a room with another patient, Sharon, who is hospitalized because she overdosed on drugs.
His mother’s situation moves Jamie into a reverie about his life, his lack of friends and a job, and the fact that he used to have a girlfriend who wanted him to change. He notes that by the time his mother has the tumor, “it is too late for me,” indicating that his life has already reached its fullest point. From his description of himself, he is overweight, and the few friends he has are crazy. In lieu of a job, he has developed an interest in nature. He compares himself to a tree that is shedding its leaves at the end of summer, much as he is shedding jobs, cars, and possessions.
The doctor, after examining his mother, states that the tumor is “fulminate,” indicating that it is growing rapidly and a biopsy is needed to gauge the extent of its malignancy. The doctor notices the nature show on the hospital room’s television.
Jamie relates two things his mother did within the past year that indicated something was amiss with her health: she walked in on her ex-husband and his new wife at their house and demanded to know the identity of the wife; and, soon afterwards, she flew to London suddenly, leaving her boyfriend while he was taking a nap during their vacation in Nova Scotia. She called Jamie while she was in London and suggested to him that she was thinking about getting a divorce because she thought her husband was seeing another woman.
Jamie then remembers the summer of 1977, when he and his family lived in Waterville and his father had just moved out of the house. During the previous winter, Jamie’s mother had made a habit of wandering around the town placing one-word notes in neighbors’ mailboxes. After his father left, Jamie’s girlfriend Alice and his friend Tom, moved in with Jamie and his mother. “Mom spent the summer teaching us how to drink gin,” he recalls.
Back at the hospital, his mother asks Jamie to tell the doctor that she does not want to undergo a biopsy. He urges her to reconsider, but she claims she doesn’t want to know about the tumor and doesn’t want to take the time for the procedure. A nature show about pygmy shrews plays on the television. Jamie remembers that his mother has written a book (or perhaps she has only started one; the story isn’t clear) about how animals remember. In 1979, his mother developed an interest in animals and changed her name to Meadow Star.
Jamie comments that he has been trying to forget his past and the things he has done, but it is difficult. Before entering the hospital, his mother had been teaching him how to do this. “To have forgotten and not know one has forgotten, Mom tells me, is the happiness of an animal,” Jamie says.
At the hospital, Sharon complains about the nature show, and Jamie’s mother changes it to a show called Animal Imposters. Jamie’s mother asks where the bathroom is, and while Jamie helps her find it, he remembers when his schoolteachers tried to diagnose in him what they thought was a learning disability. “I was born with serious intent and not without means, but somewhere along the line I failed to acquire an adequate degree of clarity,” he muses, adding that he stopped worrying about improving himself in 1982 and soon thereafter “stopped caring so much.”
Jamie begins to remember more about the summer of 1977. He and Alice made love three times a day, “to stay within commuting distance of her sanity;” and Tom made salads to eat along with all the gin they drank, while Jamie’s mother talked about how she was leaving her husband and not the other way around. Jamie’s father, David, came by the house several times during that summer to work in the garden. His mother, by then, was “unrecognizable”; she had colored her hair red and was wearing brightly colored clothes from Goodwill. She also was drunk most of the time. She, Jamie, Alice, and Tom spent most of the summer in the basement during the day, due to the extreme heat. Jamie remembers that his mother often blames the tumor on that summer.
At the hospital, Jamie muses as to whether his mother has this tumor because she “can’t forget” and, as a psychic friend believes, her soul is “older than the rocks in China, which means she has a lot to forget.” A show about the three-toed sloth is on the television.
The doctor comes in to tell Jamie and his mother that if she does not agree to the biopsy and subsequent treatment, she should expect “a total loss of self-awareness, followed by a painful sinking into idiocy and death.” She does not seem to care. Sharon’s drug dealers come into the room to give her pills, as a show on the tree creeper plays on the television. Jamie remembers August 27, 1977, when his father came to the house to work in the garden for the last time; he mowed down all of the flowers he had been tending that summer. David advised Jamie that “it doesn’t matter how you feel about things” and that he should not listen to his mother unless he wanted to end up like her. David’s actions plunged the household into deep sadness, and Jamie thinks that the house, to someone from the outside, must have looked abandoned. He never speaks of that summer with his mother.
A bit later the doctor comes back to the room to advise Jamie and his mother that if she does not agree to the biopsy, she must leave the hospital.
Jamie thinks more about the summer of 1977 and how sad they all were. Alice and Tom ate almost nothing but celery in order to lose weight, and his mother forbade the eating of chicken because she started believing in reincarnation. Jamie remembers learning that Tom’s mother unsuccessfully tried four different ways of committing suicide and that they all used to go to the Goodwill store to buy clothes, becoming “collages of other people’s lives.”
At the hospital Jamie’s mother confuses time, thinking that Jamie has just taken a biology test— something he has not done since 1983. The doctor comes in as the nature video ends, and Jamie’s mother assures him that she will be out of the room very soon. She steals the hospital’s bedside lamp and offers her clothes to Sharon, who picks through them. Later, in the car, Jamie is not sure that his mother understands where she is going, but he is certain that she is glad to be out of the hospital. Jamie comments, “What doesn’t pass out of our lives, even if it is good, ends up killing us. Finally there is something that won’t pass like a disease or a tumor that takes us out of life.”
He stops the car in front of his mother’s house, the one in which they spent the summer of 1977, and notices that it is in disrepair. His mother asks about a trip to Vienna that he knows they did not take, but he answers her as if the trip really did take place. “Her own past has been replaced by the most pleasant memories from other people’s lives,” he thinks. He means to touch her face, because he knows she is dying, but she jumps out of the car before he has a chance and disappears into the house. From the back of the house he can see a small light come on.
Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 14, Jason Brown – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.