Reading Mindfully: Bret Anthony Johnston’s “Encounters with Unexpected Animals”

Reading Mindfully: Bret Anthony Johnston’s “Encounters with Unexpected Animals”

Each month we offer you a chance to read mindfully, using literature to challenge your assumptions about the world in which we live and work. Through these short texts and questions, we hope to give you a small taste of Books@Work. Grab a friend, family member or colleague to read, share and discuss together.

Director of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas in Austin, Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of numerous award-winning short stories and nonfiction pieces. His “enthralling and skillful” debut novel Remember Me Like This was named a 2014 New York Times Notable Book of the Year. “Encounters with Unexpected Animals,” a portrait of a father at odds with his son’s girlfriend, was originally published in Esquire and later appeared in the 2013 Best American Short Stories anthology.

As you read Johnston’s story, consider these questions:

  • In whose best interest is Lambright acting? Is he right?
  • Is there a difference between the desire to protect and the desire to control?
  • Does power always lead to a false sense of security?

Encounters with Unexpected Animals
By Bret Anthony Johnston

Lambright had surprised everyone by offering to drive his son’s girlfriend home. The girl was three months shy of seventeen, two years older than Robbie. She’d been held back in school. Her driver’s license was currently suspended. She had a reputation, a body, and a bar code tattooed on the back of her neck. Lambright sometimes glimpsed it when her green hair was ponytailed. She’d come over for supper this evening, and though she volunteered to help Robbie and his mother with the dishes, Lambright had said he’d best deliver her home, it being a school night. He knew this pleased his wife and Robbie, the notion of him giving the girl another chance.

Driving, Lambright thought the moon looked like a fingerprint of chalk. They headed south on Airline Road. A couple of miles and he’d turn right on Saratoga, then left onto Everhart, and eventually they’d enter Kings Crossing, the subdivision with pools and sprinkler systems. At supper, Robbie and the girl had told, in tandem, a story about playing hide-and-seek on the abandoned country club golf course. Hide-and-seek, Lambright thought, is that what y’all call it now? Then they started talking about wildlife. The girl had once seen a blue-and-gold macaw riding on the headrest of a man’s passenger seat, and another time, in a pasture in the Rio Grande Valley, she’d spotted zebras grazing among cattle. Robbie’s mother recalled finding goats in the tops of peach trees in her youth. Robbie told the story of visiting the strange neighborhood in San Antonio where the muster of peacocks lived, and it led the girl to confess her desire to get a fan of peacock feathers tattooed on her lower back. She also wanted a tattoo of a busted magnifying glass hovering over the words FIX ME.

Continue reading the story in Esquire.

Image: Ito Jakuchu, Birds, Animals, and Flowering Plants in Imaginary Scene, [Public Domain] via

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Maredith Sheridan

Maredith Sheridan

Maredith Sheridan is a Development Communications Associate at the Cleveland Orchestra and a part-time member of the Books@Work team. She continues to write posts for our blog.