When I met my first real-life Texan, I asked him about the armadillos. Any information would do. Size. Object they most resembled. The color of their eyes.
I knew for sure this Texan wasn’t anti-animal. We’d just left my apartment to go for a walk. It was late evening, summer in Toronto, a street filled with Victorian houses, and the cats came running. He kneeled before every last one, even those who ran straight past. He sat down on the pavement, cross-legged, stretching his hand after them.
“The armadillos?” he said. He called them supreme pests. They loiter in the backyards of San Antonio, he told me, and see-saw on roadsides, threatening suicide. Manic depressives. He changed the subject: “They’re nothing like cats.” All he wanted to talk about was cats.
Back in my apartment, I introduced the Texan to Millo, my armadillo. He picked Millo up and turned him over. I think this was friendly.
“What is this?” he asked, so I told him: Millo is a sax player and “Millo” is short for Armadillo, his full Christian name and species. Before the sax, he was a county sheriff, but the dinky gold star came unglued from his vest and the bucket hat fell away soon after. He still wears cowboy boots, but that’s not enough to convince a civilian to show you his license and registration.
Millo has never fired a pistol and in a smell test, eight times out of nine he’d mistake gun powder for ground pepper. He moved from Houston to west-central Poland in 1987. Poland doesn’t have sheriffs so he decided to pick up the sax as soon as he got over his jet lag.
Communist-cloaked Poland in the 1980s was not as gray and drab as some might have you believe. But I admit that the most colorful thing I remember from that time was an import—a German magazine called Bravo . Bravo ’s best comparators would be the American magazines Tiger Beat and Bop . It was an entertainment rag for teens, with the added, distinctly European bonus of pages packed with naked women’s breasts.
Another thing Bravo had was a pen pal page—a newspaper classified ads-style grid with postage stamp-sized photos of smiling German sixteen-year-olds, listing their home addresses hungry for mail.
What happened in my grandmother’s house at the end of the 1970s wasn’t the discovery of polonium, exactly, but the effects were comparable. My father, then in his late teens, sent Bravo a pen pal ad, Bravo ran it, and within a couple weeks, the responses came in—no prefatory trickle, just a straight-out postal deluge.
My father’s ad was the first from east of the Berlin Wall, a novelty, as good as a sign of life from outer space. Day after day, for months, dozens of letters arrived, each bundle tied with hemp by the post office people so as to allow our mail man to reasonably deliver it to our door.
At first, my father tried to respond to every letter, but that proved crazy. So he started selecting the most promising ones, maybe based on the stationery or the stickers on the envelopes or how attractive the girls were in the photos they sent with their missives. Eventually he started sharing the letters with his sister, my aunt, who is four years younger and was eager to get her claws on the bounty. She’d respond to mail originally addressed to her brother and no one seemed to mind.
One day, a letter arrived from America. My aunt claimed it immediately. Like many people in Eastern Europe at the time, she had a raging crush on the USA. She’d strung an American flag over her bed and planned to study American literature in college. She wanted to have babies with the Marlboro Man, or a reincarnated Elvis, or the Hollywood sign, anything that stood as a symbol for that dreamy, unattainable nation.
My aunt wrote to the American. The American wrote back to my aunt. My aunt’s American was named Joy. The name couldn’t be more fitting for a native of the happiest country in the world. Joy was blonde, her hair thick and long, with big blue eyes straight out of a beauty pageant. She lived in a trailer and sang opera for a hobby. She didn’t say this in her letter, exactly, but it’s something I know: Her home state houses the lion’s share of American armadillos. They are New World placental mammals and their name translates to “little armoured one.” Joy was my aunt’s first real-life Texan.
I was old enough to remember my aunt packing her bag for the USA. That the American Embassy granted her a visa to visit Joy was as mind-boggling as a Houdini disappearing act. Naturally, the assumption was that she’d disappear, that we would never see her again. She was just out of her teens and looked exactly like Madonna circa the “Like a Prayer” video that came out around then: dark, thick, wavy hair; large, expressive eyes; a full bottom lip. An American man could fall in love with her in under a minute, I thought.
Her return flight was in two months. My grandmother felt this was plenty of time to earn a bagful of US currency. And my aunt had great and specific plans. She would land a job in a diner or clean American homes. On weekends, she and Joy would drive out to California to see surfboards.
My grandmother, my parents, and I took turns helping my aunt drag her suitcase to the bus stop. It was unreasonably heavy. From end to end, it was packed with vodka. This is what we assumed Americans wanted from us, our number one export—our only export.
The five of us waited for the bus in silence, hyper-aware that this could be the last time we’d see my aunt. The bus would take her to the train station. The train would take her to Warsaw. A Pan Am plane would take her to JFK, where she’d transfer to Houston. Joy would be waiting at the airport.
Joy assured her she’d be waiting at the airport.
I wish I had a picture of the moment my aunt met Millo. As I mentioned, he was in the police force, a sheriff, and for a time he had the outfit to prove it. My aunt had just pulled her canvas suitcase from the baggage carousel in Houston. The suitcase looked oddly unfamiliar, a shade darker than it had been in Warsaw. The stench oozing out of it was nauseating. Vodka is practically all ethanol and every bottle inside had broken. What’s worse, Joy was a no-show.
As my aunt dragged her bag down the terminal’s halls, people parted before her, though not in a kind way. She ducked inside a gift shop. She and Millo locked eyes. Perhaps he was into Slavic women or into Madonna or maybe an innate police sense simply told him she needed assistance.
My aunt used her precious US dollars to buy him and he repaid her by using his force-derived savvy to get her out of a bad situation. He and my aunt got in a cab and gave the driver Joy’s address. When Joy didn’t come to her trailer door, they sat on a neighbor’s stoop. The neighbor might have looked like the Marlboro Man. Let’s assume he did. He came out of his trailer intermittently to tell my aunt that Joy was probably stuck in traffic, that something had happened to make her late. He also said the reason my aunt was treated like the plague at the airport was that people thought she was Mexican. He pointed to her dark wavy hair.
Vodka is not a Mexican import. Let’s assume this man didn’t look like the Marlboro Man. My aunt and Millo waited. She was glad to have him there.
Every family has its secrets, and in our family the biggest secret is confined to one person. I’ve asked my parents dozens of times to hypothesize why my aunt returned home, unannounced, past everyone’s bedtime, dragging her suitcase into the house and getting into bed, as if it were no big deal, five days after leaving for America.
When asked directly, my aunt shrugs and says she felt like coming home. Joy must have helped her change her return ticket, paid the fees. Millo won’t say a word about it, either. He and my aunt must have made a pact.
America was a blast, apparently—even five days of it. One photo shows my aunt standing next to a massive NASA spaceship, her hair in pigtails. In another, she’s poking her face through a plywood cut-out with an alligator body. In another, my aunt lies in what is unquestionably a bed inside a trailer, a Pink Flamingos -style paradise, wearing a cowboy hat, grinning, with a bucket-sized container of Planters peanuts at her side.
The stuff she brought back in her suitcase was further proof of time well spent. She’d used her money to buy souvenirs, exclusively. Most of the suitcase was taken up by a white teddy bear that smelled like popcorn and had no apparent connection to Texas or America. The rest was standard tchotchkes. Among them was Millo.
Armadillos live in warm, southern climates. South America, Central America, Oklahoma, Florida, and Texas, mostly. When an armadillo is made of plastic and teddy bear fur, the effects of relocation from a tropical to a temperate climate are negligible.
I fell in love with Millo the moment I saw him. The main attraction, I think, was his ambiguous species: an anthropomorphized rat-thing with a suede cocoon draped on his back, hard, enamel bucket hat, boots, a pair of blue jeans, a belt with a gold buckle, and a sheriff’s star. There was no one like him in all of Eastern Europe.
At the time, he had no name. He had clip arms—the kind that open and shut when pressed where a human has shoulder blades. I would unclip him from my aunt’s bookshelf and play with him whenever I visited my grandmother’s house. I remember running my nails very hard across his boots and hat, I think to test their resilience.
When my aunt moved away for college, she took Millo with her, the white bear and the American flag too. By then, my parents and I had emigrated to the suburbs of Toronto. Communism had fallen and changes were sweeping the country. Years passed and I assumed Millo was gone. He was, after all, three inches tall. It would be very easy for a three-inch armadillo to disappear.
There’s a misconception floating around that all armadillos roll into a ball when frightened. The South American three-banded armadillo does this, yes. But when faced with danger, the American nine-banded variant only runs very fast.
By the early aughts, my aunt married and had three kids. One summer, when I visited her, I found Millo in the kids’ room, trapped under a pile of naked dolls. He’d changed. Fifteen years had passed. He’d lost his hat and the sheriff’s star, leaving a yellow stain in their place—the remains of the resin that had held him together. The rat-gray fur on his head had come loose, too. His belt and buckle were listing. He wouldn’t talk to me. He was not in a good place.
I put Millo my pocket. I smuggled him back to his native continent. I told no one.
In Toronto, Millo opened up. Maybe it was the proximity to home, even if proximity meant fifteen hundred miles.
I learned his name. I learned about his life, 1987 to 2002. After he moved away for college with my aunt, he nursed his emerging passion for the sax, a way to deal with the blues of being away from home, of having to give up his first profession. Then my aunt married, got pregnant. He went from bookshelf to toy bin, had his hat pried off, and I think his dignity, too.
I looked for tiny saxophones on eBay. I discovered that it’s possible to find tiny plastic saxophones on eBay. The one I received had originally belonged to a California Raisin. I presented it to Millo. He clenched it in his paws. Tight. I placed him on my bookshelf. He took a deep breath and tore into the opening notes of “Texas (When I Die),” an old Ed Bruce number.
Toronto has a semi-continental climate with weather ranging from unbearably humid summers to long, snowy winters. Armadillos do not hibernate. When he lived in Toronto, Millo stayed exclusively indoors.
I’m at the end of a two-year stint in Southern California. I attended a creative writing program here. I brought Millo with me. I thought there was a chance armadillos were also native to this state. They are not, really. No one I’ve met here has ever seen one.
California isn’t far from Texas, but I haven’t had a chance to make it there. In a few weeks, I’ll return home to Toronto and Millo will have to make the biggest decision of his life.
Since he is made of plastic, what I am saying is, I will have to make the biggest decision of his life.
I could ship Millo to my friend, the cat-loving Texan. I know he’d set Millo free if I asked him to. He’d simply place him on a rock in his San Antonio backyard and look the other way.
I could even send Millo to Joy. Joy and my aunt continue to write letters. Problem is, Joy lives in Washington now and it too has winters.
I’m not saying I’m a seer, but I’ll make a prediction. I predict that in two weeks Millo won’t choose either of the above options. I’m guessing that despite the cold climate and distance from home, he’ll ask to go back to Toronto.
Armadillos are not native to bookshelves or to Canada, but any animal, any species, will adapt to a new environment if given time, if forced. I’m not a scientist and I never studied zoology. I am only guessing, going out on a long limb, that this is the case with anyone, any species, that’s forced to leave home.