Sensory Failure

Sensory Failure

Leo Robinson

Sensory Failure


Margaret Erhart

After my youngest brother was born, my father went shopping. He wanted to buy a present for the older three children to let us know we were loved. It was his way of keeping us from being jealous and possibly stabbing my little brother’s head with a pencil. Somehow we had learned that a baby comes with an open spot in its skull and that this open spot, covered with only a thin layer of skin, could be penetrated with almost any sharpish object. We had plenty of sharpish pencils, so pencils were what we imagined we’d use.

If we hadn’t had a dog, my father would have bought us a puppy. We had a cat too and several gerbils, one hamster, and close to three dozen mice. The mice kept giving birth, naturally, so my mother had resorted to flushing the newborns down the toilet when we kids were at school. The newborns looked like little pink erasers, neither cute nor cuddly. When we got home from school, we didn’t even know they were gone.

The hamster, Sir Hammy, had been saved from death at least once by my mother. In this way, he was the karmic opposite of the baby mice. The story she told was that she had found him shivering in his cage one day, naturally when we were all at school, and the obvious cure was to put him in a frying pan on the stove, feed him brandy, and turn up the heat. Sir Hammy survived that experience somehow and lived to be an old man in hamster years.

A pet, then, was not really what we kids needed, not what our household needed. We had a new baby brother—more life was not what was called for. But my father, a good but stubborn man, saw things differently. And that’s how we came to be the proud and sometimes not so proud owners—though who owned whom was definitely up for grabs—of a young fellow named Mr. Peepers. The Masked Bandit was his other name, and mischief was what he excelled in. His hands were almost human. He could unscrew the cap of everything he found in the medicine cabinet and paint the walls the pink of Pepto-Bismol, or the green of my father’s mouthwash. He was, of course, a raccoon.

Margaret Erhart’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Best American Spiritual Writing 2005, and many literary magazines. She won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, and The Butterflies of Grand Canyon (Plume) was a finalist for an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. She lives in Flagstaff, Arizona. Margaret welcomes responses and conversations at

Leo Robinson was born in Washington, DC, in 1938. He has an MFA from Cranbrook Academy and a BA from Howard University, with additional study at Corcoran School of Art and Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. He was Professor of Drawing and Painting at California State University, Fullerton, and taught at Howard University, Wellesley College, Moore College of Art, and University of the Arts. He has exhibited extensively . His work can be seen at his website,