I don’t want to, let me tell you. You see, honest, I was in bed when it happened, pajamas and all, smoking a Pall Mall cigarette and staring at this fly banging against the bedside lamp. Ellie, my wife — bless her heart — she was reading the paper, shaking her head at the news, an article on marital bliss or something; nothing too serious, like “How to keep your marriage fresh,” or “Staying on the same page: Knowing your partner’s likes and dislikes.” And that’s when I heard it, the sound.
I said, “What was that?” and “Did you hear something?”
She said, “Oh, just the dog.”
I said, “Oh,” and “I see,” and “Barking at Jim’s cat, I suppose.”
She said, without looking up from the paper, “He’s something else,” and “Been out all night.”
I sat up in bed, balancing this ashtray on my knees. I set aside the ashtray and pulled down the sheets, uncovering both feet. I ogled all ten toes, wiggling. Socks had become a lost luxury, as the dog had chewed through all pairs, leaving but threads. Like confetti they were.
I said, “What’s he doing, you think?” and let out a ring of blue smoke. I poked my finger through it, I don’t know why, then brought it around Ellie’s head, bless her heart. Like an angel she is. “What do you think? You think he’s getting into something?” Images of the dog wrestling cross-trainers, wingtips, and penny loafers whirled about my head, like a picture show, frames flashing wildly on screen. “I bet he’s into something.” I smoked the cigarette to its filter. “I bet he’s up to no good. There isn’t a safe garden or trashcan in the whole neighborhood.”
Ellie nodded her head wonderingly. She said, “Can’t imagine,” and lowered the paper to her lap. She brushed away the smoke and then put her hand to her wan cheek. Like a Rembrandt she is, if you can imagine. She looked out the window. The moon shined bright and full and filled the bedroom with white light, casting shadows along the bruised hardwood floor. Her blue eyes concentrated and narrowed on the floodlight that cut up the bed like a pinstriped colonnade. She said, “God only knows what he’s doing,” and pulled on her long flaxen hair, wrapping it around her little finger. She tucked the strand behind her ear, making a bouncing curlicue. Then she brought the paper to her face again and said, “If I didn’t know any better I’d say he’s got his nose in something. You never can tell with Kitty.”
I said the dog’s name. I said, “Kitty,” and rubbed the back of my neck. The mill had me working longer hours, you see, and my joints were stiffer than wood. I balled my fists and dug at my eye sockets. I smoked. I combed my fingers through my hair, thought of the grey and of age — after all, I’m not a young man — and said the dog’s name again and then again, shaking my head back and forth. I said, “Kitty,” and threw my legs over the side of the bed, both feet resting on the cold floor.
About Kitty, if you really want to know the truth, first thing you should know is Ellie and I can’t have children. None. She had come to me, one day in June, asking, “Can’t we, John? Oh, please can’t we try?” Her voice reached a pitch of wanting. She tugged at her blouse, and the fabric made a tight ball. Her liquid eyes carried across the kitchen — over the stove, the toaster, the sink, the cupboards, the roach motels in each corner, and back to me. I got up from the table, slowly, and paced beneath the hanging pots and pans. I counted the spices on the spice rack: thyme, rosemary, sage, parsley, etc. I went to the refrigerator and stuck my head in it, letting the cold air fill my lungs. I took a deep breath then sighed. I sniffed a head of lettuce. I ate a grape. I grabbed a lumpy apple. I sat again, facing her. I knew what she wanted. I read it on her face. But I didn’t know how to respond, really. My eyebrows lifted. I said, “Ellie,” and chewed on the soft fruit. It’s all I could do.
“Please, John,” she said.
I raised my hand and stopped her. I reminded her how many times we tried, counting for her on my fingers. She shook her head, defensively, before I could make it to my toes. She said, “I know. I know. You don’t have to count for me. I know,” and a look of dejection swept across her face. She began opening and closing cabinets, taking cans out then replacing them. “There’s so much soup,” she said, “enough to feed an army.” Then she opened the refrigerator. “And oranges, how many do we need, really.”
“Ellie,” I said.
“I know. Don’t think I don’t know.”
“Well,” I began.
“Want any juice? I’m having a glass.”
I said sure, hoping I didn’t have to think about it anymore. It’s a hard thing, I tell you.
Ellie poured me a glass. Then she sat at the table, across from me. First she folded her hands. Then she crossed her legs, as if the matter hadn’t been decided. “Have a cigarette and think about it.”
“Please, John. Just one more time.”
I pushed the glass back and forth, around in circles. I made rings on the table.
“Do you need a coaster?” she said.
“No,” I said. I stamped out the cigarette and closed my eyes. I pinched the bridge of my nose. I was quiet for a while, thinking. I said, “I don’t want this to be one of your dreams, Ellie,” and pulled my finger through the ash in the ashtray. I dug around and made a face. I couldn’t tell whether it smiled or frowned. All I knew was at any moment it could blow away. “I don’t want this to be any dream of yours, because dreams end. You wake up, Ellie.”
“I know. I know. I promise not to dream.” Ellie got up and moved around the table. “Give me your finger.”
I did, hesitantly.
She hooked her finger around mine and said, “I promise,” then batted her blue eyes. She bit her bottom lip then puckered it. She leaned over the table. Her mouth floated just shy of our tangled pinkies. She said, “Cross my heart and hope to die,” then kissed each finger, singularly.
I said, “Okay,” and stood, looked her in the face. “Yes, we can try.”
She said, “Oh, John,” then kissed me full on the mouth. “This time will be different, I swear it.”
And it was.
Ellie called it our miracle baby. She said, “God’s given us a gift, John,” and “We have to be careful with this one. We can’t just sit around. We can’t twiddle our thumbs and stare at the ceiling. We can’t think we’ll have it easy, because nothing’s easy, John. We have to prepare ourselves. John, this is something very special we have going for us, so we need to keep a close eye on things.” Ellie said things. She said, “We have to be in this together, all right, through sickness and health, through thick and thin. We have to work together, John. You and I.” She asked if I heard her.
I said I had.
She said, “Sit down so you can digest all of this. I know it’s hard for you. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. Nothing’s easy,” she said again.
I said, “Okay,” and poured myself a drink and sat down in the living room, next to the TV. I didn’t say anything at first. I stared at the floor — at the carpet, at the dust gathering between the floorboards, at knotholes and divots and nail heads. I said, “What do you want me to do?” and stood up, facing her. I put down my drink and squared off in front of her.
Ellie said nothing.
I turned and pulled back the curtains and, believe it or not, there was this boy — sun full on his face — and his fingers were going. Like little sausages they were. He mouthed, “Here is the church and here is the steeple,” and made his hands out to be a kind of cathedral, if you can imagine such a thing.
I didn’t know what to make of it, really. I let the curtains go and said, “Open the doors and here are the people,” and turned and faced Ellie and took her by the hand.
“What was that?”
I said, “Oh, nothing,” and “Just something that popped into my head.” I placed her hand around my waist and told her to follow me.
She said, “John, you have a say in this, too,” and pinched the back of my shirt into a neat knot.
I said, “I know,” and kissed her cheek and then her forehead. Like porcelain her skin is.
“John, tell me what you want.” Ellie placed her chin on my shoulder. She nibbled my ear. “Just tell me, okay. It can be anything in the world, really. I don’t care if it’s light fixtures you want — tell me.”
“I want you to follow me,” I said, taking her for a spin. I did this little foxtrot number I learned years ago in the service, when I was young. She asked me where I was taking her. And I told her to shush. “Please be quiet, please,” I said, whispering into her ear. “We’re dancing.” I took her one step to the left and then another step to the right. I spun her under my hand. Then I dipped her and said, “What about the extra room?” and our noses touched. “What do you think about that? How about it?” We glided across the living room floor, knocking into the couch, the rocking chair in the corner, and then the TV.
“Watch out,” she said. “You’re making a mess of things.”
“Now imagine it,” I said, turning her once and then twice. I told her I could paint it blue. I told her I could paint it pink, that is, if she wanted me to. I said, “Or, I could paint it yellow if we decided we don’t care to know.”
Ellie turned her head side to side, reflectively. “Don’t you think it’s a little too soon to be thinking about what color the room should be?”
I told her I didn’t. “It’s never too soon.” I touched my belly to hers. “We’ll have ourselves a nest, with a bassinet and all.” I dipped her once more and said, “How about it? What do you think?”
Ellie smiled, touched her cheek to mine.
“You know what else?” I let her go. She stood in the middle of the room, her hair resting on her shoulder. “I’ll put up a playhouse, just in the backyard.” I stretched my arm out across the room and then clapped my hands. “I’ll do it.” I turned and went to the kitchen and picked up the phone. I said, “I’ll get someone on the line right now. I’ll call up the boys down the street. They’re selling wood, I know they are.” I returned the receiver to the cradle and then went to her. I wrapped my arm around her shoulder. I pushed her hair behind her ear. I held her close.
“Please, John, don’t stop.”
“I’ll build a playhouse, Ellie. How about that? Would you like it if I build a playhouse?”
“It sounds wonderful, John.” She blushed.
“Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”
“I know you will, John.”
If you really want to know the truth, first thing is I don’t want to go into it. The more I think about it, the less willing I am to spill the beans. But, to tell the truth, I should come out with it. Now, I don’t want to go into any details, but I’ll tell you what I was told. She fell, some way or another, and that’s it.
I had been with her, in the hospital, since that afternoon. The doctor, a burly, bespectacled man, said, “She has a mild concussion,” and “She’s suffering from shock,” and “There was vomiting.”
“But is she fine?” I said.
“There might be fluid in her lungs, but that’s no cause for concern. We’ll have a look in time and, if we need to, we’ll pump it out.”
“But is she fine?”
The doctor looked at Ellie’s chart. He went down the sheet, considering each line. He licked his finger and turned the page. He pushed his glasses up his nose. He nodded and his mustache twitched. He said, “Well,” and looked up. Ellie’s reflection flashed in his lenses. A sheet was pulled up to her chin. The bed seemed to swallow her whole. “Mr. Miller,” the doctor said, and there was a moment of silence. “There was some bleeding,” he said, flatly. And before I could say another word he told me to go home for a while. He told me to take some time to rest. He said, “Sleep,” and “Have a bite to eat,” and “When you come back then we’ll talk.” Then he stepped out of the room.
I sat in a chair, holding Ellie’s hand. “Ellie?” I said. “Can you hear me?”
She said nothing. Her eyes were closed.
“I know you can hear me. Do something — anything so I know.”
Ellie didn’t move.
“I’m going to leave for a while, okay. The doctor said it would be fine. I don’t want to, really, but I think I should. I’m afraid if I stay much longer I might go insane. I might tear my hair out. I might have a heart attack, or seizure. I might die because of all of this, Ellie. I can’t sit here much longer, with you not saying anything. I can’t stand the silence. I can’t stand to see you like this, really.” I stood and leaned over her. I put my finger in her mouth. “Bite me if you understand. Bite my finger if you can hear me.”
I took my finger out of her mouth. I kissed her forehead and on her cheek and I lifted her hand and kissed that too. I let go and said, “Okay,” and “All right,” and “It’s in God’s hands now,” and after, I closed my eyes and said a little prayer. I asked God to keep and eye on things. I said things. Then I left the room, closing the door behind me.
Now, I know how this might sound, but let me come out with it. I didn’t leave right away. I went past the bathroom and the nurses’ station and down the hall, looking for the stairwell. At the end of the hall I turned left and found this little waiting area, a place of worship, really, with vending machines lining all sides. Coffee percolated in the corner, with a TV flashing daytime soaps just above it. Like a church it was, bald lamps casting scant light on the splintered pews. The Jesus figure stood dead center. All laid out on the cross. The crucifix, I mean.
A man, hunched over and mumbling, sat at the foot of Christ. Around back, his hair made a perfect horseshoe. Heavyset and bald this man was, I’ll say that much. Sweat stained the back of his plaid shirt, down the middle. His jean pants made rolls around his mud-stained shoes. If I didn’t know any better I would say I worked with the man. I don’t know why. Dirt and grit gathered under his fingernails. His hands, craggy and bruised, came together like two baseball mitts hugging one another.
I didn’t say a word, just sat right down beside the man, in front of the cross and next to the Pepsi-Cola machine. I bowed my head, touched my chin to my chest, hands together. I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth. “God,” I said, “watch over Ellie.” I didn’t know what else to say, really. I figured God knew the score. So I sat there, peacefully, staring at Jesus. General Hospital reflected off his sunken face. And in his abs a patient was dying. I said, “Jesus,” and coughed. I didn’t mean to cough, really, a reflex or something. Anyhow, the man turned, regarded me with a sense of trepidation.
He said, “He’s not listening,” and sniffed his cratered nose. His eyes, the sunken things, welled when he talked. They were way back in his head, like peeled hard-boiled eggs but smaller. They were wondering eyes, small and black and staring.
“Who’s not listening?” I said, straightening in the pew.
The man said, “He’s not,” and pointed his thumb at the cross. “I haven’t heard a peep out of him all day, like He’s forgotten all the small people.”
I said, “I don’t think He forgets people. I think some of the time He’s only thinking. I bet he’s cooking up something real nice for you, sir. You just wait. You’ll see. I’m sure He’ll get back to you real soon, whatever it is. He always does, one way or another,” and then I added, “God works in mysterious ways.” I didn’t bat an eye. And though I thought I might have sounded a bit glib, even trite, I assured the man. “God, wherever He is, He’s looking out for you. He hears everything you say.”
The man got up. He went to the coffee pot and poured himself a cup. “The one thing they do right,” he said, fixing on the TV screen above him. I couldn’t tell whether he meant the coffee or the TV. And before I could ask he said, “You know,” and turned and considered the room — the vending machines full of Snickers and Paydays, the coffee pot again, the magazines stuffed between the pews (People, Time, Newsweek, etc.) — and then faced me. He looked me up and down. He held the cup out in front of him but did not drink from it. He said, “You know, most people don’t think about dying. It’s too far for them, like their birth. It’s only when death comes and bites them in the ass do they really begin to think about it.”
I didn’t know what to say. So I shifted in my seat. I thought about Ellie. I said, “My wife,” but was interrupted.
“My son has the cancer,” he said. “He’s a patient here. His head’s as bald as mine.” The man pointed to his head, up and down. “Scars all over it. I pretend not to notice but they’re there. Like a quilt his head is. All stitched together. I don’t know what to say or do about it, either. So I bring him a baseball cap everyday I visit. He’s got twenty or so of them, just sitting at the end of his bed, all stacked nice and neat. And you know what? The boy won’t wear a single one of them. He says what’s the use. The boy kills me half of the time, not covering up.” The man got teary eyed. His eyes began to swim. Tears ran down his face, past his chin. “And you know what else?” he said.
I nodded my head. I couldn’t stop the man. And to tell the truth, I don’t think I wanted to, either.
“This morning some nurse had the gall to tell him to make a portrait. You know, one of those self-portraits. She said it would do him some good. She called it ‘Art Therapy.’ What in the hell is Art Therapy?”
“Oh, I think,” I began.
“I’ll tell you what it is. It’s a nurse handing out these little cakes of paint. Green. Black. And yellow. It’s a nurse telling my boy to paint the sun. It’s a nurse telling him to paint a field of grass. And it’s a nurse telling him to paint himself, with curly black hair.”
I didn’t say a thing, only nodded.
“And you know what my son did? He told her he couldn’t. That he was taught not to lie. My son wouldn’t make any curly hair because he was afraid of lying. Now, isn’t that something?”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You know how I know He’s not listening? It’s because my boy can’t lie. He won’t. He can’t paint even the simplest of things. That’s how I know. I know because no matter how many hats I bring him he won’t wear a single one of them.”
I don’t know why I said it but I did. I said, “My wife’s sick too.”
The man finished his coffee. He crumpled the cup then threw it in the trash. He sniffed his nose. Then he thumbed his finger at Christ and said, “Every day I pass this church. And outside there’s a sign. The sign says if God’s your copilot, switch seats. Do you know what I think about that? I think it’s the most moronic thing I’ve ever heard. If God’s driving then let me out.”
To be honest, the rest is a blur. Even now, looking back on it, it’s hard to see. I’ll do my best, so help me. God, help me.
I drove home from the hospital in the dark, street signs but streaks flashing in the rear view mirror. Billboards big and bright, signals burning red.
I pulled up to the house, tires whining, and parked and got out, gravel beneath my feet. I opened the front door and went into the living room and turned on the TV and lit a cigarette. I stood and stared at the flickering screen, at some nature channel documenting the habits of chimps. To be completely honest, if you really want to know the truth, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Like caught in a pair of headlamps I was. I smoked and stared as this monkey, under the watchful eyes of doctors, stuck his furry little paw through some hole in box, which they had made for that specific purpose. The size of a small apple the hole was. And, now this is the kicker, there was this banana on the other side, just sitting there, waiting for that poor animal to put his hand inside. So the monkey reached for it, closed his fist around it. And when he tried to pull the banana out he couldn’t. (Each doctor feverishly scribbled this down, you see. To their delight the poor bastard got stuck.) The monkey tried and tried but the hole was too small for him to pull the damn thing out. He kept tugging and pulling, but nothing. He gritted his teeth, even licked his lips. He squealed real loud, but nothing still. He couldn’t get the banana or his arm out, and he nearly beat his brains out because of it. It never occurred to him to let go. I thought it was the saddest thing in the entire world. Sadder than, say, when a bird’s heart stops, goes ka-put, does it fall out of the sky, or does the sky just eat it up? (Seriously, now, it’s one of those things I think about — where birds go when their hearts stop beating, because I’ve never seen a dead bird lying on the ground, ever, not in my entire life.) My eyes started to swim. I turned the TV off, finished my cigarette, snuffing it out in the ashtray by the rocking chair in the corner, and went into the kitchen and poured myself a drink. I drained the drink then sat at the table and smoked another cigarette, slowly. I closed my eyes, sucked my two front teeth, and thought of the bald-headed boy and the portrait he couldn’t/wouldn’t paint. I wrestled with the thought of him opening his fist and letting go of the idea of curly black hair, of lemon yellow suns. I fought the idea of him seeing but a hole in the earth. I don’t know why, just did, and it saddened me to the core, really.
I got up and went around the table and picked up the phone and called the hospital, but the nurse said she had no new news. I said, “Stupid,” and slammed the phone down. I tore open the cupboards and looked up at all the cans of soup Ellie and I had collected over the months. She had said, “It’s good to have enough,” and “We can never be too prepared,” and “Wouldn’t it be nice to not have to go out and shop whenever we need something. We’ll have it all right here, just waiting for us. All we’ll have to do is grab it.” I said, “Jesus,” and grabbed one can, wrapped my fist around it and turned it over. I cursed the chicken broth. I carried it over to the trashcan, which sat between the dishwasher and the refrigerator, and threw the damn thing away. And after I stood in the doorway of the baby’s room.
Ellie and I hadn’t decided yet what to paint the room.
“Buy the paint,” she said. “We’ll figure it out sooner or later.” She kissed my forehead and my hands.
“All right,” I told her, and bought the paint. I stacked the cans along the side of the room, where every morning we stood and stared and imagined what the walls would look like when the baby arrived. She would say, “And we could have the stars. You know the ones I mean, the glow in the dark kind. And we could paste them along the ceiling, where every night we could point out all the constellations. Oh, John, we’ll have ourselves a little astronomer, or an astronaut.”
“But,” I said, “I have it hard enough when it comes to the Big Dipper let alone Cassiopeia.”
“Well, we have our hands full then. Our work’s cut out for us if we’re going to be masters of the universe.”
I dropped to my knees and stared at the ceiling. I closed my eyes and cursed myself for not having painted the room. “Stupid,” I said. Then I settled beside the stack of paint cans that lined the wall. I pulled one down and pried it open and dipped my finger in it. I made a star in the palm of my hand. (What’s the use, seriously? Wish upon a star and you’re a thousand years too late. The damn thing’s extinguished, long gone.) I got up and went into the bathroom and ran the faucet over my hand. I had already washed my face and shaved when the phone rang. I hurried to pick it up.
“She’s coming around.”
(God are you listening? If you’re listening, I have so much to say, really I do, and I want to begin at the beginning, you know, fill in all the blanks. Fill in what I’ve left out, the small things. But where is this beginning, anyhow, really? I want to say everything, you know, without leaving out any detail. But what is everything, really? All I know is what happened, how I saw it. That’s all I can do here, now. God, forgive me. Is that so bad? Am I a horrible person? Is it wrong to leave out what I can’t remember, or what’s too hard to say? Is it wrong, God? Are you listening? I can’t tell if you’re listening or not. I have so much to say, but I don’t think I have it in me to say it all, really. Is that wrong? God, am I a horrible person? Why can’t I remember some things? God, are you there? God, if you’re there and listening I’ll do my best. I’ll fill in the blanks as best I can. God, I want you to understand. If you’re listening, God, I know you’ll understand.)
Some things I remember, others I don’t. This is what I remember:
I had already arrived back at the hospital a little after eight o’clock when the doctor told me about it. He scratched his chin and rubbed his cheek. His mustache twitched. His chest heaved. His eyes were distant; they shifted from side to side. He said, “Mr. Miller,” and took off his glasses, held them at his side for a moment. Then he brought them to his mouth and fogged them with a breath. He wiped them on his shirtsleeve and said, “There’s no easy way of putting this. We ran into complications. We did all that we could do for her. Mr. Miller, we were too late. Her body couldn’t handle the strain, the stress put on it. It was too much for her. She lost the baby.”
I shook my head. I said, “No,” and “No.” I dropped to my knees. I shook my head again and again. “No,” I said, craning forward. I grabbed the man’s leg. I pulled on his trousers, made a fist. “What do you mean she lost the baby?” I beat my hand, pounded the floor. Heat swelled in me; stomach turned, eyes widened. I crumbled.
The doctor bent forward and patted my back. He said, “There. There,” and took me by the armpit and helped me to my feet. I stumbled but stood, shakily. He said, “Mr. Miller,” and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Believe me when I say I understand this must be hard on you, but, it’s just that, we were too late. There was nothing we could do. Her fall must have been terrible.” I shook the man by the shoulder. “I know she fell. Don’t tell me about that. What about the baby?”
“Mr. Miller, get a hold of yourself. The baby is gone.” I let the man go. He said, “Your wife has had a miscarriage.”
“Where is she?” I said, not knowing if I could stand to see her like I was.
Ellie was sitting up in bed, a cold washcloth wrapped around her head. Colorless she was, if you can imagine. A chair sat in the corner, empty. I sat in it. I said nothing, only stared out the window. A black fly beat against the glass pane. “John,” I heard. Like a rasp it was. I looked up. Ellie was reaching for me. Tubes ran down her side. I got up and went to her. I touched her, took her hand in mine. Held it to my chest. Kissed it. Rubbed it against my face. I said, “Yes,” and “Shush,” and “I spoke to the doctor,” and “It’s okay,” and “I know.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. She closed her eyes. She opened them. “I’m so terribly sorry.”
“For what,” I said.
“For everything and nothing. I don’t know. John, I don’t know what happened, really I don’t.”
I said, “You fell,” and “Please be quiet, please,” and “Save your breath.”
“I can’t. I won’t. I want you to know I’m sorry. I’m sorry for this.” She touched her belly, rested her hand there. I put my hand on hers. I grabbed it and wouldn’t let go. Our fingers twisted and coiled. Her eyes welled. The heart monitor beeped.
“Don’t,” I said. “Leave it be. It’s all right.”
“It’s not all right,” she said, pulling her hand out from under mine. Tears came. She wiped her face, her eyes. “Nothing’s all right. Look at what I’ve done.” Her voice rose. It cracked.
“You’ve done nothing, Ellie. Things like this happen. It’s okay. I’m okay. We’re okay.”
Ellie turned her face away from me. She stared at the wall. “A boy,” she said.
“We had a son.”
“I named him.”
“We had a son?”
“You know what I called him?”
I said nothing. I couldn’t say a word. My mouth opened but nothing came.
“Kitty,” she said.
“Ellie,” I said, but was interrupted by one of her sobs.
“I know it’s stupid, but that’s what I called him. When he kicked, John, he purred.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I don’t know. I thought you might think I was stupid or something.”
“I don’t think you’re stupid, Ellie.”
She looked up, met my eyes. “So you like it?”
“It’s a fine name, Ellie.”
“I’m sorry, John. I’m sorry for everything and nothing at all. I’m sorry, John. I’m sorry for the bedtime stories you’ll never read. I’m sorry for the proms, the homecomings, the first heartbreaks, the . . . the. I’m sorry, but I’m not. I’m sorry for the stars.”
I opened my mouth but nothing came. My lips dried. My throat strained.
“John, do you trust me when I say I’m sorry.”
“I-I trust you,” I said.
“Oh, John, say something right now. Say something sweet. Tell me something so I don’t die right now.”
She wanted to know if I loved her, because that’s all anyone ever wants. She wanted to know if I was there, right there, if I was with her, because that, too, is what everybody wants — to know they’re not alone.
I said, “Only humans kiss with their mouths,” and leaned forward and kissed her full on the lips.
“Oh, John, you won’t leave me will you? You’ll stay right here with me, won’t you? You’ll be here when I fall asleep and when I wake again. Please, John, say you’ll stay. Please say you’ll hold my hand.” She put her hands all over me. I let her, like I understood something I couldn’t explain. I wrapped my pinky around hers, held it tight to my lips and said, “I promise.”
I wanted to cry, let me tell you, but I didn’t cry. I would have drowned us both. I would have filled the whole damn room with my tears. It killed me to know we had a son. It killed me to know he purred. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t cry, just held her hand. I couldn’t/wouldn’t let go.
We spent the next few days settling in, shopping for groceries, if you can believe it. “I’ll teach you how to cook,” Ellie said, picking a few items for onion soup. That night we had ourselves a little cooking lesson. “It’ll be good for us,” she said. And this is how it went:
You have six onions, olive oil, sugar, two cloves of garlic (minced), chicken broth (not beef), a cup of dry vermouth (because Ellie prefers it over dry white wine), a bay leaf, thyme, salt and pepper, eight slices of toasted French bread, and grated Parmesan cheese.
Okay, I said.
In a large saucepan you sauté the onions in the olive oil until well browned (not burned); you do this for thirty minutes (no longer or else you’ve ruined it). You add sugar; carmelization it’s called. You add garlic and sauté for another minute. You add your stock, vermouth, bay leaf, and thyme. You cover partially the pan and simmer. You want your flavors to blend just right; this takes about thirty minutes.
Okay, I said.
Then you season to taste with your salt and pepper. You toss the bay leaf; you do this because the recipe says so.
To serve you pull out a large bowl and then two smaller bowls. You ladle the soup into the two bowls. You cover each with sliced French bread and then Parmesan cheese. You broil the two until the cheese bubbles and is slightly brown.
Okay, I said.
Ellie placed both bowls on the kitchen table. She and I sat.
“Are you crying?” I said.
She picks at the stack of napkins between us and puts one to her face. “It’s the onions,” she said.
I didn’t want to press the issue so I nodded my head.
“I’ve been thinking,” Ellie said, spooning the soup into her mouth.
“About what?” I said, holding a spoonful out in front of me.
“I think I want a dog.” She shoveled another mouthful.
“A dog?” I said. I didn’t know what else to say, really.
“I don’t want a puppy or anything like that, something I’d have to clean up after. But, yes, I think I want a dog.”
“But, Ellie,” I said.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to have a dog running around the house? Sometimes, when you’re at work, it gets so lonely around here. You don’t know it, but sometimes I have nothing, nothing at all to do. What am I supposed to do with all that time? One can watch only so much TV. So I was thinking, I mean, we haven’t had a dog, ever. Don’t you think we can handle a dog around here? Let’s look for a dog, John. What do you think about that? What do you think about having a dog?”
“But,” I said.
“I don’t know what I want just yet. I won’t know until I see it. We can look in the paper if we need to. We can have a look at the local pound, you know, save one. I don’t know what I want, but, yes, I think we should have a dog.”
“Can we handle another mouth to feed?”
Ellie looked up at the cupboards. She looked to the refrigerator. She said, “Of course we can handle another mouth, John. If you don’t remember,” and she stopped short. She put her spoon in the bowl. She was quiet for a while. Tears started down her face. And I knew it wasn’t because of the soup.
“Okay,” I said. “We can try for a dog.”
“Oh, John, thank you. Thank you. I promise I’ll look after him. You won’t have to do a thing.
About Kitty, if you really want to know the truth, first thing you should know is I don’t want to. You see I was in bed when it happened, pajamas and all, smoking a cigarette. And that’s when I heard it, the sound. “It’s just the dog,” Ellie said. And I said, “Wouldn’t want him digging up Jim’s lawn again,” and got out of bed and went to the window and looked out. I said, “I wouldn’t want him to make a mess of things,” and traced my finger on the windowpane, making out constellations.
Ellie said, “Oh,” and “Well, Jim’s a kind man; wouldn’t say a thing.”
I said, “Wouldn’t want to cause a thing, either,” and fogged the window with a bagged breath. I dotted the glass with the end of my finger. Then I wiped it clean and looked out it and said, “I just know that dog’s up to something. I know it. He’s a good dog, but he can get into some trouble some of the time. Don’t you think?”
She said, “Sure he can, but he’s a good dog.” Then she folded the paper and flattened it across her lap. “Why don’t you go and see,” she said. “Wouldn’t hurt if you had a look.”
I said, “All right, then,” and “I will,” and “I’ll see what all the fuss is about.”
She said, “I think he’s at the door just now. I heard scratching.”
I went to Ellie and kissed her forehead. Then I patted her on the shoulder and said, “Okay,” and “I’ll have a look at what he’s done.”
“He’s a good dog,” she said again.
I said, “I know it,” and opened the closet door and pulled out a pair of old wool socks. I scoffed at the pair. “Look at these holes,” I said, holding up the pair so Ellie could see. She only nodded. Then she said, “He’ll rip into anything that’s just laying around.”
“Seems like it,” I said.
“Oh, and John.”
“Put on a coat. It’s cold out.”
“I was going to,” I said. And I did.
I opened the back door and a rush of cold air barreled past me. I said, “Phew,” and shivered. I pulled on my lapels, wrapped myself tight. I stepped outside and whistled for the dog. I turned my head and whistled again and again. Like a canary I was, whistling this show tune ditty. “Here, Kitty. Here, Kitty,” I said. And the wind kicked. Leaves rustled and turned. The mark of paws scrambling through brush. A bark. Another bark. “Here, Kitty,” I said again, teeth chattering. “Come here boy. Come on.” After a minute of me going through another show tune the dog came into sight. Bounding he was, like a jackrabbit. “Hey, there,” I said. “What have you been getting into, boy?” The dog looked up at me, eyes partly shaded by tufts of hair. Like doll eyes they were, glassy and black and staring. His terrier coat was a mixture of brown, black, and grey. A strip of white ran down his chest. His mouth was open, tongue hanging out. He lapped at the cold breeze. He sat on his behind and stretched, his front legs out front and his tail high in the air. I bent down to scratch the dog on his nose. He shook me off. He put my hand in his mouth. “No,” I said. “No bite.” He settled down and wagged his tail. Like a child he was. “So,” I said, “what have you been getting into. Is it garbage?” I took his muzzle into my palm. I roughed him a bit, because he liked that sort of thing. He began to purr. I went down to a knee and he jumped up into my lap. He was wet all over, kind of muddy. It had drizzled, I figured, or he had been rolling in the leaves. He yawned in my face, teeth pearl white. “Jesus,” I said, smelling something terrific on his breath. I let him down. “What the hell is that? What have you gotten into?” I said. And he ran off into the night. “Come back here. What was that? Get over here.” I didn’t know what it could be, truly. I had no idea.
I had been whistling for him to come when, suddenly, he came galloping back. I could tell he had something in his mouth. I said, “Give that here,” and wrestled the thing out of his mouth. It was a tattered mess, I’ll tell you, furry and sticky. Kitty jumped for it and pulled it away from me. He shook his head from side to side. The poor thing made a whap-whap sound. I grabbed for it and tore it away from Kitty’s mouth. He growled a bit, but let go. And that’s when I saw it, the head. “Jesus!” I said, something like a clamor.
“What is it?” I heard Ellie say from inside.
“You’re going to want to see this,” I said. I turned the poor thing over in my hand.
“Oh my God,” she said. She bent beside me, went to one knee. First she took my elbow in her hand. Then she hugged my side, rested her chin on my shoulder. “It’s-It’s,” she said.
I said, “I know,” and “It’s Jim’s cat.” I held the body out so she could see. Limp the body was.
“You don’t think he,” and she stopped short.
I said, “I don’t know,” and “I just don’t know.”
She said, “He couldn’t have,” and “What are we going to do?”
“I just don’t know,” I said.
Kitty barked. “No!” I said. He jumped up and down, and went for the cat. “No!” I said. He stared at me, his ears high on his head. He whimpered. “Get!” I said. Kitty turned in a circle. His tail went between his legs. His ears fell flat. He whined then ran past me and into the kitchen, where he hid under the table, between the legs of a chair. His tail wagged. “No!” I said again, this time in a more serious tone. His head lowered. He eyes too.
“What are we going to do with him?” Ellie said, closing the back door.
“I just don’t know. What I do know is we have to do something about this cat.”
“What else is there to do? He’s dead, John.”
Kitty barked outside out bedroom door. “Can’t you hear him?” Ellie said.
I said, “I hear him. Don’t think I don’t hear him.”
“Well,” Ellie said, “let him in. I can’t think with him crying. He probably thinks he’s done something wrong.”
“Don’t you think he’s done something wrong, Ellie? Don’t you think he’s gotten us into trouble?”
“We’re not in any trouble, John. Jim will understand. I know he will.”
“What makes you think Jim will understand? Our dog has killed his cat, plain and simple. There’s no dancing around it.”
“Oh, John, I’m sure it’s not as bad as you think.”
“It’s bad, Ellie. Why can’t you see that it’s bad?”
“Well, what are we supposed to do?”
“There’s only one thing we can do. There’s only one thing left to do.”
Ellie sat up in bed. She pulled the sheets off of her. “Don’t say it, John.”
“I don’t want to, let me tell you.”
“We don’t have to, John.”
“If we don’t, Ellie, someone else will. All we need is one person to catch wind of this and they’ll be out for him. They’ll call Animal Control, and then what? They’ll be at our front door in no time. The whole damn street will be out for blood, Ellie. No one wants a cat killer living next door. I don’t want to, but it’s what we have to do. It’s better we do it ourselves than anyone else.”
“No buts, Ellie. I don’t want to. I know you don’t want to. But, it’s just that, its better this way. We’ll have control. It’ll be on our terms. He’s a good dog, Ellie. We know that.”
Ellie got out of bed, wrapped herself in her bathrobe. She hugged her belly. She said, “Oh, John,” and dropped to her knees and settled next to the bed. She rested her elbows on the mattress, closed her eyes, and put her hands together. Like a steeple they were. “God,” she said, “forgive us for what we’ve done and for what we’re about to do.”
“He’s not listening,” I said.
Ellie opened her eyes. She got to her feet. “Why would you ever say such a thing?” She paced between the bed and the bedside lamp. She went to the door and put her ear to it.
“Don’t you think, if He was listening, we’d have it easier than this.”
“Nothing’s easy, John.”
I was quiet for a minute. Then I said, “Ellie, we have to put him down.”
“Can’t you hear him? He’s crying.”
“Don’t think I don’t hear him, because I do. It’s just that, Ellie, we have to.”
“I know it,” she said.
In the kitchen, I poured myself a cup of coffee and looked out the back window. Kitty ran back and forth between two junipers. His leash kept him close. He chased his tail then lifted his leg and made water on Ellie’s azalea bush. He sniffed the ground then turned and kicked up a plod of dirt. He barked and growled. His ears perked and stood straight up. His tail wagged. And he yipped. He went for the line around his neck. He took it in his mouth and wrestled it. He shook his head from side to side. I said “Damn dog,” and lit a cigarette. I sat at the table and picked up the paper. I read the headline: “Perils of Everyday Life.” I coughed. Smoke spilled out of my mouth. I turned the page over and folded it. I couldn’t read any more. I got up and made breakfast for Ellie. I put two pieces of Wonder bread in the toaster. I opened the refrigerator and pulled out a grapefruit. I split it in two. I plated both the fruit and the toast and sat at the table again. “I’ve made breakfast,” I said. “Come and eat.”
“I’m not hungry,” Ellie said from the living room. The TV was on.
I said, “What are you doing in there?” and “We should eat,” and “An empty stomach is a horrible, terrible thing.”
The TV turned off, and Ellie made her way to the kitchen. She stood in the doorway, her hand on her belly. She said, “I don’t think I can.” She made a fist, took her blouse in her hand and made a ball.
“Pull a chair up and we’ll have ourselves something to eat. Ellie, we need to eat.”
Ellie pulled up beside me. She rested her ear on my shoulder. She said, “I don’t think I can. It’s not in me. I just, it’s just, I don’t think I can.”
“Eat and your appetite will come.”
“No,” she said. “I don’t think I can.”
“You know we have to,” I said.
Ellie lifted her chin, her head. Her eyes opened and closed. She turned and stared at the side of my face. “Look at you,” she said. “You’ve lost all your color. You’re as white as a ghost. What’s wrong, John?”
I said, “Nothing,” and “Everything,” and “Let me eat something, okay.”
She said nothing, only stabbed the fruit with a fork. She moved the food around on her plate. She drank the coffee I had poured her. Then she said, “You’re not going to make me do this alone, are you? You’ll be there, won’t you?”
I said, “I called in sick,” and “I wouldn’t do that to you, ever.”
“Because I couldn’t imagine doing this alone, John, really. It’s not in me to do this alone.”
I didn’t say a thing, only stood and stamped out my cigarette in the ashtray. I stuck my finger in the ash and blackened my finger. I found a napkin on the table and made out a word. The napkin said, Ready? And Ellie shook her head, hesitantly. I said, “Okay,” and “Get the dog,” and “I’ll clean out the car so he has somewhere to sit.” Ellie shook her head again, and tears rolled down her cheek. She wiped them away with the napkin. Her face turned black, but I didn’t say anything. She nodded her head and said, “Okay,” and “Kitty’s a good dog, John. Really, he is.”
I said, “I know,” and opened the front door and stepped outside into the cold. I folded my arms, hugged my sides, and looked up at the sky. Not a cloud in sight. The sun shined bright. And a bird sang. I said, “Shut up,” and “Please be quiet, please.” My head sunk. My chin rested on my chest. I said, “Jesus,” and opened the car door. I pushed newspapers aside. I threw empty coffee cups in the back.
“John” I heard.
I looked up. Jim was standing there, his hand waving. He’s a tall man, I’ll tell you that much, with broad shoulders; and chest too. His corduroy pants cut off at his ankles. His plaid shirt stopped at his wrists. If you really want to know, the first thing is he’s an older man — eighty, maybe. Fought in the Korean War, if you can imagine. He smelt of leather, believe it or not.
I said, “Oh,” and straightened, closed the car door.
Jim walked up to me, kind of limping. His right leg wasn’t so good, so he had told me some time ago. He said, “Hey there,” and pulled a hankie from his pocket and wiped his hands. Greasy they were. Calloused too. “John,” he said again, dabbing his brow.
“Jim, I really can’t talk right now,” I said.
Jim clapped me on the back. Friendly he was. “What’s time, anyway?” he said, sniffing his nose. “I was just in the garage.” Jim took a breath. “Tinkering. You know. And I heard you out here. I thought I might stop by. To see how you were doing.”
“Well,” I began.
“How about this weather, huh?”
“I haven’t noticed,” I said, shading my eyes.
“Anyway,” he said, wiping his nose with the hankie. “I only came over. I mean. Boy. Do I have a story for you.”
“I’ve been meaning to,” I started.
“You wouldn’t believe. It’s science fiction.”
“Oh,” I said. I stared at the old man. My hands began to shake. I shoved them in my pockets. That did no good, so lit a cigarette. I said, “I really don’t have the time,” and let out a ring of blue smoke.
Jim said, “Well,” and “Let me tell you.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “You wouldn’t guess what I found this morning. Just on the back step.”
“Really,” I interrupted.
Jim waved his hand. “Well. You see. I was having a cup of coffee when I thought to get the paper. So I went out back. I do that now. The front door doesn’t work so well. I’ve told you that. Has this whine to it. Needs some oil. Just haven’t gotten around to it. Is all. Anyway. You wouldn’t guess what I found out back. Go ahead. Guess. I’ll wait. You’ll never guess.”
I knew exactly what he found, but I didn’t want to say it.
“My cat,” he said. “I found my cat there. Dead as doornail.”
“Oh,” I said, shaking my head. “I’m sorry. It’s just that, well, umm.”
“The strangest thing,” he said. “The thing’s been dead for a week, now. I buried him myself. Just out back.” He thumbed his finger. He sucked his front teeth then whistled. “All of sudden he’s there. Just at my footstep. All bathed and combed, like someone came along and gave him a bath. Scrubbed him clean. Isn’t that something? Someone’s gone and dug the poor thing up. Washed him. And set him on my step.”
“Sure,” Jim said. “Damn thing’s been dead a week. Old age I suppose. And now someone’s gone and dug him up. Cleaned him off. I thought it was a ghost at first. You know. Just back from the dead. But, no. He’s still dead. Just cleaned a bit. You know.”
“Your cat’s been dead a week?”
“Sure he has. The wife found him. Came home from grocery shopping and found him. You should have seen her. Heartsick she was. Cried to sleep that night. Bless her heart. Never did see someone so attached to an animal. Like a baby it was. Like she lost a child or something.”
“Jesus,” I said.
“You’re telling me,” he said.
“Jesus,” I said again.
“So,” he said. “What’re you doing out here? Going on a trip or something?”
“I’m doing nothing,” I said, nearly tripping over the words.
“Oh. Well. I guess I’ll let you get back to that. Just thought I’d come over and share that with you. Thought you might get a good kick out of it. The strangest thing, don’t you think? Funny, really.”
I said, “Yes,” and “Real funny,” and “Thank you, thank you.”
“All right. All right. Well. You have yourself a fine day.” He looked up at the sky. “We won’t get another one of these for a while. Winter’s just around the corner.” He sucked his front teeth and whistled. “God, the weather’s fine.”
“It is,” I said. “I think I’ll go and tell Ellie about it.”
Jim said, “You do that son,” and went back to his garage. I watched him limp away.
I went inside. Kitty was there, waiting. He barked and yipped and whined and jumped up and down. His tail wagged. His ears went backwards and forwards. He licked his lips. He went down and stretched, his tail in the air. I bent over, and he put my hand in his mouth. I scratched his nose, behind his ear too. I picked him up off the ground. He squirmed, and I spun him around. I took him for a little dance, bumping into the coat rack, the door, then the umbrella can. I said, “Good boy,” and nestled my nose in his fur. “That’s my good boy.” And he licked my cheek, my nose. He made water on my shirt, but that was okay. “Where’s Mom?” I said. “Where is she?”
Ellie came around the corner. Black stained her face. “I was only watching a little TV,” she said, “you know, before we had to go. I didn’t know what else to do, John. Really I didn’t. You were gone so long. I thought you had left me. I got a little stir-crazy. I had to put on the TV to calm me.” She tugged at a strand of hair that had fallen across her face. She wrapped it around her finger, made a curlicue. She pushed it back, behind her ear. It bounced, twisted around her lobe. She folded her arms, held herself. Her head turned. She looked away, stared at the floor.
I said, “I’ll never leave you again,” and put the dog down. He jumped onto the couch then onto the rocking chair in the corner. He jumped down and turned in a circle. His tail wagged. He whined. He weaved between my legs. I picked him up again, held him tight to my breast. He purred. “That’s my boy,” I said. “That’s a good boy.”
“John,” Ellie said, “Don’t make this any harder than it has to be. Put him down. Let’s just go. I don’t want to, but lets just go.”
“I have something to tell you, Ellie, but first follow me.”
“Oh, John, I don’t think I can’t move any more. I’m so very tired.”
I told her to follow me.
I lead her through the kitchen, past the refrigerator, the cabinets, the spice rack, and the toaster. I opened the back door. I let Kitty down. I said, “Go ahead.” Kitty stared at me. He scratched himself. Then he looked at the yard then back at me. “Go,” I said. “Go play.” The dog ran off, tumbled in the stack of leaves between the two junipers.
I said, “No,” and “Let him play.”
I said, “Shush,” and took her hand in mine, made a fist, and told her about it. We hugged, and she kissed me full on the lips. She rested her chin on my shoulder. She nibbled my ear. “Oh, John,” she said. And I said, “You know what I was thinking?” and put my arm around her side.
“What?” she said. “Tell me. Say something sweet.”
I leaned forward and whispered in her ear. “I can get on the phone right now, call up the boys down the street.”
“What are you talking about?” she said, pulling away, holding me still by the shirt.
“They’re selling wood, Ellie. I know they are.” I pulled her close. Her face was black. I licked my thumb and wiped away the ash. “I’ll build a doghouse. What do you think about that?”
“John?” she said, resting her ear on my chest.
“Yes,” I said.
“Can there be a skylight?”
I put my chin on her head. I combed her hair. “Sure, there can be a skylight. And when it gets warm again we can lay in it with Kitty. We’ll point out all the constellations.” I wrapped my pinky around hers, made a fist. I said, “Promise,” and didn’t let go.
By Benjamin Roy HostetterBenjamin graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University, earning his bachelor’s degree in English. He lives in Stafford, VA where he writes everyday with his dog, F. Scott Fitzgerald. His work has appeared in Apocrypha & Abstractions, 69 Flavors of Paranoia, and 580 Split.