All Stories, General Fiction

Giant Pandas by Rebecca McGraw Thaxton

The night I asked Lena to drop out of high school and marry me, it was freezing. We were waiting out a fall hailstorm, hunkered together under the awning of Kennywood Amusement Park’s Haunted House which was Lena’s favorite ride, even though she rode it with her eyes closed. “Oh, Lennerd,” she said, “Yes. Yes!” Afterwards, we rode the neck-whipping wooden coaster, Thunderbolt, and she was a good sport about it.

Then, holding a Giant Panda over our heads, we dashed to Pop’s car. I’d won the bear for her at the ring toss. She’d pointed to it and said, “That one!” as if it made a difference, because they were all the same, those pandas, their fat fluffy bodies covered in fake fur, plastic discs for eyes buried in what looked like black masks.

The line of cars to get out of the parking lot was at a standstill. “Thank You Please Visit Us Again!” a red and white sign read at the gateway of the exit. Under the archway, a thin bum held up a brown piece of cardboard that said, “Anything helps.”

“He’s soaked,” I said, and reached for my wallet.

“Oh Lennerd,” she said, “don’t bother.  It’s just for drugs, anyway,” but she tossed him a Schlitz from under her seat. I remember he toasted us as we left.

We were old enough. She was eighteen and I was older due to being held back a few times. Lena was smart, though, she got all A’s and B’s on her last report card from Mt Lebanon High where I was on the wrestling team. She showed me the report card, and I said, “My girlfriend is smart,” and after that I did this thing I know she likes where I gave her a raspberry right under her belly button. So she knew I would take care of her if we married.  “Who needs a diploma anyway?” I said.

I wasn’t going to go to college, and other than the wrestling team, I saw no point to stay in school. I knew I wasn’t school material ever since Pop had to help me with Hop on Pop just to get me through to the second grade. Thinking has never been my best thing, anyway, and I already had a job there at Kennywood, where I alternated between the hoop shoot game and darts. It was why I could win the Giant Panda for Lena at the ring toss.  I knew the tricks.  

Pop was a coatings technician at Pittsburg Plate Glass for nineteen years until they moved him up to resins. He was a provider. Mom died of something called pre-eclampsia when she had me, and I was born what my doctor called a micro-preemie. I was small enough to fit in Pop’s palm. The same doctor said he wasn’t surprised at all by my stuttering, “Sometimes it’s caused by lack of oxygen,” the doctor said. Sometimes genetics, he didn’t add. Anyway, just “D’s” and “P’s” is all I get stuck on, and S’s if I’m nervous. One thing I loved about Lena was that she didn’t care about my stuttering. She really didn’t seem to notice.  Like in wrestling, there was no smooth talking required. Just good old fashioned out-manning the other guy, except between Lena and me it was mostly her who won.

“Let’s say your opponent stands like this,” Pop used to show me, steady in a squat. “You get like this,” and he would take a step back with his right leg and lower himself. “Lower,” Because, he always said, the guy who gets the lowest will win. “It’s at the heart of every take-down,” he would beam. It was through wrestling Pop taught me my good work ethic and my love for winning, and he was not happy I was quitting school.

“I have a job at Kennywood,” I told him the night Lena and I moved out.  

After that was no more having to make weight, but times were lean. Some nights dinner was whatever leftovers the Midway food stand would give me, like corn dogs or a funnel cake. But I could not make rent by working at Kennywood, plus the park closed during winter. So I got a job just for the holidays stocking shelves at Howard’s home improvement store.

When the Howard’s gig ended, we moved back in with Pop. He said he could hook me up with a job at PPG despite the fact I ignored his good advice. “Let me see what I can do,” he said in the typical commanding voice he used when he took care of problems. He’d taken care of me. He’d make sure I could take care of Lena the same way.

I remember after I finished my interview at PPG my dad’s back was to me. Then he talked to the manager and shook his head when it was the manager’s turn to speak. Pop gestured with his hands and once even slapped his palm on the manager’s oak desk. I could tell from across the room he was saying the same things he told my teachers all my life. “He can do it,” and “Give him a chance.”  In the end, I got the job.

To celebrate, we went to Kennywood. “I’m riding Thunderbolt,” Lena said, and so we rode it, but this time she whip snapped her neck, and I had to take her right away to the doctor. That also was the night we found out she was pregnant.

So I drove plate glass with Low-e from the PPG plant to construction sites, and my good work ethic was obvious until one day my truck got t-boned by a mom driving a mini-van; she was talking on her cell phone and ran a red light. She got out of her car, wearing tight brown pants that looked velour, and a zip-up hoodie, also tight, also brown. She held up her phone to her ear with one hand and used her other hand to flap. Her hair was piled in a fluffy mound. She screamed, “I had kids on board! Toddlers!  Help me.”

“Help yours-s-s-elf, lady,” I said. “You were the one who hit me.” But then she made a big stink about her kids, who weren’t even hurt at all, and I tried to defend myself but my tongue was jammed, so I had to cave in, and I guess I looked guilty, and that was pretty much it for me at PPG.

“Do you think it’s because of my stutter?” I asked Lena.

“Never,” she said. She sure stuck by me, Lena did.  My whole deal was to prove I deserved her loyalty.

“I’m s—sorry,” I said.

Len, Jr. was his name, our first child. Len, Jr. was a dream for Pop because his first word was “ball.” He couldn’t take his eyes off the Steelers and Penguins channels on TV. Pop taught him to catch a football, dribble a basketball and swing a bat.  Soon after Len, Jr. came Neville. Pop loved Neville, too, but not like Len, Jr. Neville took a little longer to do things. And his first word wasn’t ball. It wasn’t bat or pass, either.  Neville’s first word was, “P—p—pop.”

But Lena’s neck pain never went away. And after Neville came an Oxycontin prescription for Lena, “Since nothing else helps,” said the doctor, and I’d get it for her, too, if it helped her.

I didn’t have insurance anymore. I didn’t know what I was going to do, so to cheer everybody up we took the boys to Kennywood, where they rode Krazy Trolley, and Len, Jr. rode Red Baron by himself. Lena stayed off Thunderbolt. I took Len’s picture proud smiling and sent it to Pop.  On Dizzy Dynamo, Neville started crying.

I won the boys a Giant Panda just like the one I’d won their mother. Lena called me their hero.

Then she did this thing where she pulled their heads together with her hands, her purple fingernails shining on top of their hair.  Their three foreheads bumped against each other, and she whispered to them.  She finished and turned to me.   Her mouth—it like, opened, like she was teasing me, and she made these eyes at me, like, mysterious, and the three of them took off running. The boys yelled, “Haunted house!”

On the way out of the park, who was there but the same beggar we’d given the beer to on the night I proposed. He had been gone for a while, but now he was back, and in his same spot. “Next time, Bud,” I yelled at him. “I’m out of work right now. Wish me luck.”

And I don’t know if he did or not, but the very next week I got called back for another job at Howard’s, where I was a real good reliable worker since I would never take a break until my task was finished. Like when I was stocking on the nightshifts, I would have to finish the entire shelf or empty the whole pallet before I would even so much as take a leak. And I would never leave a customer stranded when I was on days. “Lennard, you have a good work ethic,” my supervisor at Howard’s told me, and I did.  It’s just how I am. It bothered me if a customer couldn’t find something, and I would help them try to find it. I am not lazy like some. So I worked there, and I liked it, but the hours were not very flexible since I didn’t have any seniority, and one day I noticed I was making less money than when I started.  Plus, I had to pay for Lena’s medicine. And also, I had to pay taxes, which made it really hard to make ends meet.

Then I had an idea. I remembered that guy begging by the park and said to myself, Lennerd, why not? I dug a Tony’s Pizza box out of our trashcan, cut out a rectangle and wrote, “Anything Helps” with a Sharpie. I folded it over. Next, I sat at an inersection for a few minutes, getting my nerve up. Finally, I thought “It’s now or never,” so I stood up, unfolded my sign and guess what? I got a lot of money. I found myself something I was good at.

Just like that, I quit Howards, and soon my favorite part of the day was sitting down to count the dough. I even got to where if I did not have a hundred dollars yet at my break I would stay longer in the afternoon, and if I counted less than two hundred at the end of a day, I would go back out unless Lena or my boys needed me at home. So, I guess you could say I was pretty much loaded. The problem was that I couldn’t go to the same spot every day, because I felt like I would get stale there, so I had to dice it up. That’s when I ventured into different areas, including Dunesbury, where the people are richer, but they really didn’t give any more, in fact, probably overall less. I also experimented with going to some shopping centers with a bunch of foot traffic rather than waiting on people to stop at the red light at the inersections in their cars. Basically, it all depended on which days and what time of year as far as how generous people were with their handouts, though Christmas was the best for foot traffic. I guess you could say I was my own boss. I was a provider like my pop.  He didn’t know about this gig of mine at first if ever, exactly.  “Where’d you get the dough?” he said the first time I handed him a wad to help with expenses.

“Odd jobs,” I said.   But I have to think he would’ve been proud of me, because surely, he wanted me to find something I was good at.

Lena on the other hand, she didn’t seem to care as long as she got her medicine.  She kind of thought what I did was funny.

“You get it?” She said one day, rolling over in bed.  “I did,” I told her, and she propped herself up on her elbows. “Let me see it,” she said.

So I showed her my dole for the day, and she bent her legs up behind herself and crossed her little ankles.  Her maroon toenail polish was a real turn on.  She said, “Ahhh,” and flopped back onto her side.  “People can be so generous, you, know, there is good in humanity.”

She could say the deepest things. 

Anyway, I would sit along the sidewalk at the Kmart, my back up against the building and prop-up a sign and get a lot in my bucket, so when my boys had to write about their father’s job for school, I told them their old man had a sit-down job, because that is what I did.

Well, it was just about when I got in this groove of having a pretty regular schedule of places to go that Neville told me, “Jack said his dad saw you at Kmart begging for money?”

Now when I heard my grade-schooler tell me this, I decided right then there was no more of this type of work for me in Mt. Lebanon. I could not have my sons feeling unproud of their old man and his job. I told him Jack’s dad was wrong because I was in construction, and after that, Dunesbury became my main stomping ground. Later, I spread out even more, because I knew that if too many people got tired of me, I would get stale, so I bounced around to other suburbs and even, on many occasions, downtown Pittsburgh itself. Downtown the people were friendly and generous, and they understood what hard work was like, and it was hard work.  Very hard.  It was as hard a thing as I ever did.  If it sounds easy, it’s not.  It was harder than wrestling.  It was not just the work ethic of doing it every day, it was like swallowing my pride and confessing to strangers, look, I need help, even though I was good at it, yeah.

 Basically, I was getting the two hundred dollars a day, even though I took some days off for my boys here and there, some vacations, and when I added it up, I was probably making close to fifty thousand dollars a year. 

But then one day I came home, and the boys were on the couch with professional wrestlers talking smack to each other on the blaring TV.  Little Debbie wrappers littered the floor, chip bags were ripped open, and actual chips were everywhere.

“Where’s Mommie?” I said. Neville shrugged his shoulders. Len, Jr. stuffed chips in his mouth and licked his fingers. He said, “She took the car,” and stared back at the TV. She’d been out before, getting her medicines sometimes, but this time I got a funny feeling.

“Boys,” I said, “I’m going out.”

Len, Jr. hollered at me from just inside the front door. “Dad,” he said. “Jack made fun of Neville today.”

So that’s when I retraced all the steps of our life, Lena’s and mine, and wound up at Kennywood where I ran into the bum who said, “I remember you.”

“Listen,” I said. “Have you seen her? Here? Today?” I said, and I described her in detail, right down to the pretty dent she has where her collar bone sticks out on her shoulder.

“Huh?” he said. “No.”

So I wandered around the park in a fog. A skull in a pirate hat stared at me from the window of the haunted house. “Come on over,” it seemed to say, so I did.  I watched the backs of people’s heads lined up in rows on the benches of the cars going in. The fake caution tape read, “Beware of ghosts” as the wooden double doors swung open and people went through to be scared. I waited for a while where the cars came out from the other end, to see if one would have Lena sitting in it, her eyes closed, as usual.

“Does it count with your eyes closed?” I used to say, and then we would argue about whether or not she knew she’d even been on a ride if she left her eyes closed the whole time.

“Are you going to tell me you weren’t asleep in bed last night?” she’d answer. Lena was hard to beat in an argument, what with all those A’s and B’s.

On my way out of the Park, I saw the games at the Midway and the prizes lined up in order of size, plastic balls in every color, then teddies, with the Giant Pandas on the top. At the ring toss, the sign said, “One in wins.” The Giant Pandas were shoulder to shoulder, as usual, bowed at their necks from hanging on their hooks, one right after the next one the same.

But the rings were made to bounce off, I knew, and I was good at it.  It had to do with the aim and the throw. I aimed at the row right in front of me, and tossed it lightly, like a Frisbee, flicking my wrist so it would spin. If the ring sailed in like that, light and slow and flat, it would land on the closest bottle every time. I won a Giant Panda, and another and one more, three sets of blank plastic eyes, fake fur smooth as the skin on Lena’s tummy.

Where is she?” I asked one, like an idiot, actually looking into its hard black eyes.

I could have kept on going the whole night, too, winning ring toss, but then I thought of the boys, home alone, without their mother, and how much my boys would like those Giant Pandas.

Rebecca McGraw Thaxton

Banner Image: By 玄史生 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons

12 thoughts on “Giant Pandas by Rebecca McGraw Thaxton”

  1. I told myself this is just a very good fiction story, but I still couldn’t stop myself from getting emotionally involved and hoping …


  2. Great characters in this piece and it’s the kind of story that stays with you after you’ve read it. The amusement park scenes were really well written – enough description to set the scene but left spare enough to allow the reader to flesh it out in his or her mind. Really good story and great to see you getting involved with the site and commenting on other stories – look forward to more!


  3. Just finished my second read. Loved it! My mind’s eye flashes to local beggars, and I wonder… And I think of the opioid epidemic and the cliche assumptions, then Lena with “all A’s and B’s”, and I wonder…


  4. Andy! Thank you.
    To borrow from Lennerd— you can say the deepest things.
    Would love to read some of your work next. Very best, my good man.


  5. Hi Z,
    We know how you worked at this and you have done a brilliant job
    It is a cracking story with a lot of depth.
    His logic gives an insight not only to him but why the situations happened. Sadly, inevitability has nothing to do with logic.
    This had layers and as Nik said, it stays with you!


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