I was standing there in the doorway, between the screen-door and the big, heavy wooden door watching my wife unpack groceries. She had just come home and I’d been in my workshop. My wood-cutting workshop; it’s a newish thing. Therapeutic. She looks over at me and there I am standing with the cat’s tail in my right hand.
“What is that?” She asks me. Although I am pretty sure it’s quite obvious what it is.
“The new table saw,” is all I say.
“Where’s the cat?” She asks me. All of her questions make so much sense, but I suppose that’s also due to her momentary sobriety. The doctors and well, everyone really, told us to take up hobbies when Linda died. I found woodworking and Nadia found marijuana. Until now my hobby had been the positive, productive hobby.
“I don’t know,” I say. Because I don’t know where the cat is.
Next thing I know Nadia’s just standing there, silent and not moving at all. She’s just looking at me, through me. It was denigrating.
She goes up stairs and I hear her bedroom door slam shut and I am sure she’s lighting a joint. That’s when I hear a car pull into the driveway. It’s our son. He’s a grown man now but can’t seem to wrap his head around that simple fact.
“We have to find that cat,” I tell him. I am still holding the tail and he looks sort of alarmed, but not enough. Living in the city has made him hardened to most things or at least that is the look he’s cultivated. There is a lot of blood, a trail from the garage to the kitchen.
“We do have to find the cat?” he says and starts looking. My boy: a real go-getter. They told me he was always asking the right questions; a wide-eyed way of looking at the world is what his sixth grade teacher told me. Nearly twenty years ago.
“But really, Seth, do you think it’s still alive? It’s been a few minutes and it’s lost a lot of blood,” I tell him.
“We have to try,” he says as he bounds around the house with his gangly body. It reminds me of when he was a teenager and ran around angry, knocking things over with his limbs. He knocked over my wife’s grandmother’s Waterford crystal once. She was so resentful; but I asked her: “what’s the big deal, you’re not even Irish?” She didn’t think it mattered. He looks everywhere, inside, outside. But then he goes upstairs to his sister’s room. The room has been left sealed shut for years and years; it hasn’t been opened all the way since she died eight years ago. There is no explanation for why it’s open today. Or it has been opened, but very, very occasionally. I think the cleaning ladies vacuum in there. Anyhow, Seth bounds in there too.
“Found her,” he yells and we scoop her out from under Linda’s bed. The cat looks alive, if barely, and its eyes blue are watery and unfocused. I look under the bed with him, she’s grey and white with those orange legs and her hair is looking matted, a little mangy. The cleaning ladies will definitely have to get in there next week. Seth reaches for her and she throws out a paw, claws and all. She hasn’t lost her edge.
“Fuck!” he shouts. “You reach in for her, Dad,” he tells me. And so I reach in there and the little bitch does the same thing to me. She lets out a yelp and I grab her whole body; it’s bonier than I remember. I have the impression that may have been her last yelp as I see all the blood leaving her and her nostrils flaring, her mouth opening searching for air.
“Of course she was here,” he goes on. “It’s where she was born. Remember the pregnant cat Linda brought home that summer. I wonder how many of the other kittens are still alive,” he drifted. He drifted away from the matter at hand as he has done his whole life.
“We have to go to the vet!” I was shouting at this point as I tend to when I get nervous. Also, I smelled weed.
I yell to my wife that we’re going and Seth says something like: “Mom, I’ll be right back, don’t get too high” and he looks at me and we give it a chuckle. He’s a nice guy, I think. That’s the impression I have, that people must like him enough. His hair is going gray. And very quickly. He also has a stomach ulcer. It might come from nerves or the heavy drinking. But he had to quit drinking. Probably comes from his mother with the joints.
My son and I get in the car to drive to the vet. It’s a haul to go to the animal hospital. We get the cat into some towels and I hold her on my lap while he drives. I throw the tail in a plastic bag on toss it onto the backseat. A few minutes in I wonder if it’s like an organ, or a tooth: does it need ice? Does it need to be in milk? We pass the clam shacks along the old highway.
“Look at the new shipyard,” Seth says.
“What the hell is this music?” I ask him.
“It’s noise,” he responds.
“Really?” I say. “You have CDs that are of noise? You’re throwing my balance.”
“You know, Linda and I picked out the cat together. You and mom wanted the bigger cat. You were afraid this one was going to die, weren’t you?” he says and keeps driving.
“She thought this cat would die. I didn’t. I trusted you guys,” I say. And I think, that is what I thought then, that I trusted them.
“I thought mom was going to make lunch,” he says to me. Always with the non-sequiturs. The doctor says he gets that from me.
“I know. But maybe it isn’t so bad if we let her go,” I say this but I don’t mean it. I want him to feel better, but if this cat dies, no one is ever going into Linda’s room again. Linda chose this kitten to keep out of seven kittens. She liked its marmalade legs is what she said. Slept in her bed. This cat was there when she died too; it was the sole witness. I’ve always been surprised she didn’t take the cat out with her.
“Do you have to dress like that?” I say looking at my son in his beat-up canvas shoes and black jeans.
“We’re here,” he says.
My son pulls into the emergency drive and drops me off at the entrance because this isn’t a small country veterinarian like one you might imagine on TV shows that feature this fine state. No, no. This vet’s office is like a shopping mall. So I, in the meantime, I’m standing there looking at the girl at the receptionist’s desk who is about ten years old, staring down at some device, fiddling, writing, I don’t know. She will not make eye contact with me and the harder I try the further she looks away and I am getting a bad feeling about this vet’s office. It doesn’t have what you might call personal touch. What will the doctor’s bedside manor convey?
“Do you see this cat here?” I am shouting and I ask her. I pull the cat out of its towels and hold her up for the girl to see. Blood is dripping down from that cat’s rear-end, where the tail ought to be. The cut is clean but gaping, raw. By now there’s plenty of fur messed in it but it’s not much different from a raw chicken wing. The small animal is limp now, dead looking.
“Oh my god!” the receptionist says and hangs up the phone. She picks it up again and soon enough we’ve got a woman veterinarian there.
She leads me to a small waiting room; everything is white and lime green.
“My son will be meeting me momentarily,” I tell her.
“Well, I’ll have the receptionist tell him where to find us. Please follow me,” she says and whisks me off to a small golf cart. We drive this contraption, cat in the back in a secured area, to another wing of the hospital.
“This is the avian wing,” she explains. “Obviously the feline wing is on the other side of campus.”
“Obviously,” I say.
We pass through the entire avian wing, through canine, through amphibians, through the gates that lead to work animals, but all the doors are closed. Lime green chairs line the corridor along the way. I hear my son rushing towards us. Sneakers on the clean white floors.
“Dad, wait for me,” he shouts from behind. I wave to him and tell the vet to stop. He catches up and sits beside the woman veterinarian and gets a good look at her and then he looks at me and rolls his eyes. I am not sure what it is he is trying to convey with this intimacy. I, too, think that she is attractive. But also, out of his league. Finally the golf cart stops. Dr. Rodriguez, she introduces herself now, takes the cat into an examining room.
“Can I come in?” I ask her but all she says is, “No,” and closes the door.
“What was that?” I say looking at Seth. “What the fuck was that, Seth?” I repeat. He looks up from his magazine, “What dad?” he says and looks back down.
“Just because you’re hot for Dr. Rodriguez don’t try acting nonchalant,” I tell him.
“You’re underestimating the cat in our family. You didn’t see your mother’s face. If I let the cat die, I’m afraid she’ll leave me,” I say
“She’s not going to leave you,” he tells me. But he tells me this as he’s reading.
“You don’t know anything about it, Seth. Nothing,” I say. He stands up and stretches up and down, straightens his jeans and looks me dead in the eyes.
“Hungry Dad?” he asks.
“I’m not a fucking diabetic,” I say.
“Why would you say that? I’m going to get a sandwich from one of the vending machines down there,” he says. The machines glimmered at the other end of the corridor. Six of them, humming away, bright and new.
“Ok,” I say. “Surprise me.”
He comes back from down the long hallway after a few minutes and I notice he walks like me; he has got a damn similar gait to mine. He has brought me a sandwich with some kind of vegetable spread he says is very trendy right now. To me it tastes too salty, too briney and I take some big swigs from the big slugger Mountain Dew he has set at his feet. The sweetness washes over the salt and I think this must be what it tastes like to sink to the ocean floor.
My wife writes me a text: she writes things I am afraid to tell my son. The screen has a long paragraph beginning: Piece of shit motherfucker. If that goddamn cat dies it’s your ass, cuntbag.
That is a new one I say to myself, not to my son; cuntbag. I slide the phone back into my pocket.
“Do you think your mother and I should have gone to therapy after Linda?” I say to him and this time he looks up. Mouth full of this bullshit sandwich, crumbs over his little pot-belly.
“Uh,” he makes a grunt and then waits and looks at me, “You did, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, but that was a state mandate,” I say but then the door opens and I pop up from my chair.
“I’m sorry,” says Dr. Rodriguez. My son is still sitting, looking like he’s about to cry. But I notice he’s still eating.
About now I go real ape-shit. “Not forty minutes ago”, I start yelling, “not forty minutes ago you said that cat would be fine, maybe a little wobbly, yeah sure, but very alive. What the fuck happened in there?”
“I never said that,” she tells me, but I really remember her saying that she’d help us, at all costs. For Linda.
“You said you’d do it for Linda,” I am getting louder and louder. I see Seth looking nervous, he stands up.
“Calm down, Dad,” he says.
“Who’s Linda?” says Dr. Rodriguez.
“Are you a real veterinarian?” I ask her. I ask her this and I give her a little push. I regret this immediately. She stumbles a bit and her eyes widen.
The veterinarian walks away. She walks down the hall and there is a desk with some secretaries and a guard near the door. He walks back towards us down the hall and she trails behind him. He looks so serious in a blue suit.
“Why don’t we all go get some fresh air?” the security guard says, taking me around the shoulder, leading me out.
“Don’t touch me!” I yell back and push him, only harder, more forceful than I push Dr. Rodriguez. He looked so big but he falls back on his ass.
And I am asked to leave. I am asked never to come back. I ask for the cat and the lady-vet responds that the cat will be available for pick-up in a week’s time. She says there is paper work at the receptionists’ desk but it can be mailed to my home address. She reminds me that most pet-owners choose to have their animals cremated. The guard is standing there between us, bearing over my shoulders as she speaks to me. He goes in to put his arm around me again and I slap his arm down. My son is still sitting like an infant munching on another soft triangle of sandwich. I wonder if it is my fault he has no instinct to protect his aging father.
In the car on the way back I decide we need to stop and talk, father and son. In our town there aren’t many places where people don’t know me. So I tell Seth to drive a little out of the way to another burger place I know.
“Can you believe they had the security guard there, ready for me?” I say to my son.
“That wasn’t a security guard,” says Seth. “It was Mr. Nagel. I dated his daughter in high school.”
“Maybe Mr. Nagel works there,” I say. “As a security guard.”
“No, he worked in finance. He’s retired now I think,” says Seth and puts on his headphones. Then he takes them out for a second.
“You blacked out I think, dad,” he says and puts the headphones right back in. He doesn’t even wait for my rebuttal.
My son still has his headphones on and it takes me a good while to notice this as I am talking to him. So I say it a few times until I realize he isn’t listening at all:
“Please can we get a hamburger your mother is keeping a kosher probiotic vegetarian kitchen these days.” I repeat: “Please dear boy, papi needs a little MSG.” I repeat: “Son, drive to the goddamn burger place on Elm.” I repeat: “You should have saved your sister from herself.”
I decide that is probably too much. Better that he didn’t hear that one. I yank the little white earbuds out myself. I tell him I want a large fry and a milk shake and a couple quarter pounders. Then I wonder aloud if there is simply a half pounder- god it has been so long. After school when they were little I’d bring them here for happy meals. It had been our little secret.
“Are you supposed to drive with those in?” I ask him.
“Yes, dad,” he says. But I don’t really believe it and I yank the steering wheel a little.
“What the fuck are you doing?” He says now. I’ve gotten his attention. I do it again.
“Pull the car over, I want to drive,” I tell him.
“You can’t drive, not allowed,” he tells me. I give the wheel another little yank. He pulls into a parking lot. It’s the town beach, but this time of year no one’s there. I’m thinking he’s surrendered, that he’s going to let me drive to the burger place.
We sit there in the lot and he turns to me and says, “Why don’t you get out and have a walk around. Just clear your head a little. Then we can get the food.”
He looks at me like he really wants me to do this, so for him and the burger I get out of the car. The waves are crashing hard, must be high tide. There are seagulls gathered around a trashcan nearby.
“Ahh, ahh, ahh,” I shout; they fly away and I get back in the car feeling a little better.
From the backseat, my phone beeps with a message. It’s in my jacket pocket. I lean back to grab it but I reach too far and touch the bag with the tail. The plastic bag is lumpy with blood and the once white fur is looking like Halloween. I stare at it for a second and then pull my jacket to the front seat. But then I see it’s a message from Nadia. I roll down the window and fling the phone towards the sea. I see it land in the sand as we drive away. Not even close to the water’s edge.
Allison Grimaldi-Donahue is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in The American Reader, The Diner Journal and The New Inquiry. A graduate of the University of Toronto Centre for Comparative Literature, she is currently pursuing her MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Bologna, Italy where she teaches English and American literatures.