Cezarija Abartis ~ The Next Day

Caroline drank her morn­ing cof­fee, its dark­ness fill­ing her mouth, coat­ing her teeth, tongue, palate, fill­ing for an instant, burn­ing, clos­ing off for an instant, clos­ing every­thing off. Anton let out a meow like a knife slice to the flesh. He was under the chair in the liv­ing room. Did he wake from a bad dream? He slunk out toward her and jumped on the kitchen table. He soft­ly nudged her hand and br-r-rt-ed. She released a breath. All was well. She didn’t have to wor­ry. He wasn’t going to die. She wasn’t going to die. For Viking funer­als, they also killed and burned the warrior’s dogs. Horrible. Worse than killing con­sent­ing humans, though who would con­sent? Widows in India had once leaped onto their husband’s funer­al pyres, she’d read some­where. She didn’t believe it. She smoothed the white vinyl table­cloth with its unmoored white flow­ers drift­ing ran­dom­ly, blankly.

Eric was gone. Not dead, but gone, vamoosed. He’d flown the coop. Bailed out. That ship had sailed. She was no Viking. She sipped her cof­fee, looked out­side onto the pil­lowy snow that bright­ened every­thing. She want­ed to feel toasty-warm, not fiery but cud­dled. Eric want­ed a dif­fer­ent law firm, where he would work for the dis­ad­van­taged, for impov­er­ished school dis­tricts which hadn’t received their promised funding–and like­ly him­self make small money.

She brought in more mon­ey as a com­mer­cial artist, though her next project was for char­i­ty, for the local humane shel­ter. On tele­vi­sion the tear­ful voice plead­ed for a dona­tion for ani­mals, as the cam­era panned over a pale, lethar­gic dog in a cage, a skin­ny, trem­bling cat. Her ad agency was plan­ning a dou­ble-sided insert to the local coupon fly­er with an eye-catch­ing red bor­der. She was work­ing on the layout.

The tem­per­a­ture had dropped overnight and there were snow crys­tals like barbed wire etched on the win­dow. She’d learned in her art class­es that the designs were rec­ti­lin­ear. They only appeared to be curved. Igloos were arched domes of rec­tan­gu­lar blocks, after all, and dark inside the sol­id white walls. She put down her cup. One frost line branched to the top of the win­dow frame, but most stayed at the bot­tom. What were the chances of suc­cess? Should she wait for him to return?

The barbed-wire snow chain could trap him, keep him, tie him down. And if they stayed in win­ter, it would nev­er dissolve.

Anton climbed into her lap and purred. He told her he want­ed pet­ting. He depend­ed on her. She could depend on Anton. The tele­vi­sion recount­ed the usu­al dis­as­ters: earth­quakes in Haiti, floods in Florida.

She should be watch­ing the com­mer­cials and learn­ing from the com­pe­ti­tion instead of lis­ten­ing to the sto­ries of dis­as­ters. The music quiv­er­ing under the deter­gent com­mer­cial was good; the act­ing, how­ev­er, was not–chirpy and implau­si­ble. She nev­er felt that way toss­ing their laun­dry into the wash­er, she didn’t want to sing and dance, she was no Ginger Rogers, and Eric was no Fred Astaire. They were more like Lucy and Desi or Burns and Allen, but not so fun­ny. Her grand­par­ents had enjoyed those shows. She and Eric were real­ly like a cut-rate Martha and George from Albee’s play. Just as well that Eric left before their par­ty got sad and drunken.

Still, peo­ple had hope. They had hope in the most unlike­ly sit­u­a­tions: they lost a job at forty-five when the Sears store closed and sup­posed they would get a bet­ter one; they worked for a spend­thrift ad agency own­ing a plane, for god’s sake–a plane–and imag­ined that the agency would sur­vive and pros­per and make mon­ey for every­one; they got pan­cre­at­ic can­cer and con­sumed apri­cot pits or focused on hap­py thoughts; they fell in love and sup­posed it was forever.

Eric was gone. He would come for his things this week­end. Yesterday he moved in with his para­le­gal. Caroline had nev­er liked Debbie. Debbie the Hard Worker. Debbie the empa­thet­ic one. The ani­mal lover. Miss Generosity. Debbie the under­stand­ing and unde­mand­ing one. Caroline snort­ed. Perhaps that was unfair: Debbie was pret­ty and patient and lov­ing. Red-haired Debbie sang and played the gui­tar at fundrais­ers for the Catholic food shelf. Debbie and Eric would prob­a­bly have cheru­bic, red-haired chil­dren. Eric once said Caroline lacked heart and imme­di­ate­ly he stam­mered and apol­o­gized for his cru­el com­ment. She had a lot of heart, real heart, she was big-heart­ed, feel­ing, empathiz­ing with every crea­ture, and peo­ple respond­ed to her, co-work­ers liked her, liked her pres­ence, want­ed to spend time with her, they took her out for drinks on her birthday.

That was inac­cu­rate and self-crit­i­cal. People liked her on more than her birthday.

She hugged Anton hard, enfold­ing him in her arms, lis­ten­ing to his purr. She opened her arms. He jumped on the table and slammed into her mug. It crashed to the floor. He leaped away and ran into the liv­ing room. He nev­er cared about break­ing things. She should be more like that. She soaked up the cof­fee spill with a nap­kin, tossed the shards into the trash can. It was her favorite mug, the one with van Gogh’s Starry Night–hokey, she knew but still liked it. She should find one with his self-por­trait in but­toned coat and fur­ry cap and his head ban­daged because of the ear he cut off, the wound­ed side turned to the view­er as he acknowl­edged what he had done and looked for­ward with pursed lips and sad gaze, clear-eyed but unafraid. Of course, there were no mugs with this melan­choly image, and she would have to set­tle for his Sunflowers.

She sat at the table, drummed her fin­gers, stood, shuf­fled in her slip­pers to the liv­ing room, with Anton at her ankles, tele­phoned her grand­moth­er. Ten rings, no pick­up, still sleep­ing prob­a­bly. Across the street, the fam­i­ly in the red brick house was prob­a­bly get­ting ready for work and the par­ents get­ting the kids ready for school. For a sec­ond she won­dered if Anton want­ed to move in with the fam­i­ly across the street. She shook her head with a laugh. Where did she get these ideas?

She called Paula, who said, “Hi, I’m run­ning late.” She sound­ed out of breath. “What’s up? Can I call you back?”

Sorry. If you’re going to teach, I’ll call you later.”

Performance anx­i­ety.” Paula’s voice was clipped. “Let’s meet for din­ner. Is Eric out of town? I’ll tell you all about my stu­dents. I’ll complain.”

Anton plopped down in the mid­dle of the car­pet and extend­ed a back paw to clean it. Elegant, pow­er­ful, direct. She should be more like her cat. Did he have fears? Did he have dreams? Of course. About mice, humane shel­ters, declin­ing ad agen­cies, Viking war­rior funer­als. Five years ago, Anton had tak­en up res­i­dence in the garage and fol­lowed Eric into their house and was named by her and renamed “Tony” by Eric, who said her name was too pre­ten­tious for a kitten.

She glanced toward the win­dow. “Let’s meet for din­ner. Yes.” Now snow was fill­ing the air, mak­ing every­thing misty, ghost­ly. She stared at the hap­py house across the street. Happy moth­er, hap­py father, hap­py kids, hap­py dog. She want­ed to talk. She want­ed to talk about Eric. She dialed Andrea’s num­ber. “Is this a bad time?”

Nope. Alan’s left for work. I’m just sit­ting here, drink­ing tea, watch­ing the snowflakes fall. So wispy and floaty.” Her voice was hoarse. “Everything so white and uni­form. If you didn’t know there was a line between heav­en and earth, you would think it was all one. Except for the bare black tree branch­es pierc­ing upward. Me, being poet­i­cal. Or maybe I read it some­where.” She sniffed. “Hey, I know there’s a dif­fer­ence. I was plan­ning to call you lat­er. My mam­mo­gram results came yes­ter­day. I have to go in again. Fingers crossed.”

Oh, hon­ey.”

No, don’t wor­ry. I’m optimistic.”


Well, my moth­er died of a res­pi­ra­to­ry infec­tion. My father of stroke. Lots to be hap­py about. No can­cer in the fam­i­ly. I remem­ber that my moth­er said she was tired, said she want­ed to leave life, that she used to go shop­ping and buy shoes–high heels, san­dals, vin­tage lace-up boots, and then no place to go, need­ing only slip­pers. At the end she said she just want­ed to rest. She coughed. What was the point, she asked. She thought the flow­ers in spring­time were just a dis­trac­tion from the worst that was pos­si­ble and it would cer­tain­ly hap­pen. But that was the pain talk­ing. She joked that death was God’s way of say­ing he loved you.”

I remem­ber her as fun­ny and strong.” Caroline thought that was fee­ble and gray and wished she had more con­so­la­tion to offer.

Yes. Mom could chew on rebar. And then she died.”

Caroline had nev­er heard Andrea speak with such despair. The voice went to the bot­tom of the world. “Oh, Andrea.”


Caroline imag­ined Andrea wip­ing her eyes gen­tly. She her­self would bawl in that sit­u­a­tion. “I don’t know what to say.”

Nothing to say. Monica’s com­ing home from win­ter sur­vival camp this week­end. She’s decid­ed to go into envi­ron­men­tal law.”

She’s only twelve.”

Her broth­er wants to work for Doctors Without Borders.”

Your kids will make up for all the drug deal­ers and plutocrats.”

Nothing makes up for those.”

Your kids are great.” Caroline wished she’d had kids, though now as divorce was com­ing up, how would the kids have been divid­ed up? And her emo­tions, how would she divide them up?

Listen to me, monop­o­liz­ing and whin­ing. How are you, dear? There’s sta­t­ic on the line. Can you hear me?”


Can you hear me?”


Was there some­thing in par­tic­u­lar you called about?”

No, noth­ing.” The line crack­led. “Just say­ing hello.”

I need to get ready for the scan,” Andrea said. “I have to go now. Talk to you later.”

Anton crawled back into her lap and purred. The snow flut­tered down like feath­ers. From angels, her moth­er used to say when Caroline was young. From dead birds, her moth­er said lat­er, the year she com­mit­ted suicide.

On the win­dow ledge bloomed the red gera­ni­um that Eric had bought for them on their anniver­sary three years ago. When he left yes­ter­day, he put a note by the plant: “I love Tony but I know you love him too. You keep him. Maybe I can vis­it him.” Across the street the two chil­dren from the hap­py fam­i­ly threw snow­balls at each oth­er, then dropped down to make angels in the snow. Their moth­er always waved to her and last sum­mer brought her a bag of red toma­toes, set­ting them proud­ly on the white patio chair.

And what if Eric came back, repen­tant, hat in hand, eyes down­cast, how would she reunite with him? I for­give you, she could mag­nan­i­mous­ly say. Or: You bet­ter nev­er do that again. Or: I’d like to reduce my hours at work, so I can prac­tice my art. Or: Go to hell, you fucker.

But maybe she could for­give him, and they could start over again. She could extend her hand gra­cious­ly and raise him from the mire of lust and shortsightedness.

In her yard jun­cos hopped on the ground and pecked at the spilled bird­seed. She would have to remem­ber to fill the bird­feed­er. Her leg was going to sleep. She rearranged her lap and Anton nipped at her hand. She smelled cof­fee and a whiff of dead flesh, prob­a­bly decay­ing mouse–somewhere in the walls or at the edges, which she didn’t want to exam­ine. In the past, Eric would nose out the tiny dead thing and put it on the lawn because he couldn’t bring him­self to toss it in the trash. She was going to have to do that her­self from now on.

Across the street, the two chil­dren were joined by a dog who frol­icked in the snow and put his paws on the chest of the one in the red snow­suit. Anton raised his head, all alert­ness as he watched the dog across the street and hissed. “He’s not invad­ing your house, Anton. You’re safe. It’s okay.” She mas­saged his head and drew her hand along his spine. He grunt­ed. The child in the red snow­suit ran in a cir­cle with the dog. The oth­er clapped her mit­tened hands until their moth­er opened the front door and called the chil­dren in. The dog romped inside after his bud­dies. Caroline smoothed Anton’s fur. He turned around on her lap, stared at her hyp­not­i­cal­ly, blinked wisely.

How did the vol­un­teers at the humane soci­ety per­sist? They saw the cru­el­ty, the caprice that ani­mals were sub­ject to. Their vet­eri­nar­i­an, a good guy, chub­by and round-faced, said when his pets died he cre­mat­ed the bod­ies and kept the ash­es; he intend­ed to have their ash­es buried with him.

The tele­vi­sion blared about for­est fires in California. She point­ed the remote con­trol and shut it off.

At the end of The Burns and Allen Show, George Burns would turn to Gracie Allen with his cig­ar in his hand and, smil­ing know­ing­ly, deliv­er the same sen­tence every week. “Say ‘Good-night,’ Gracie.”

She replied every week, “Good night, Gracie.” Her grand­moth­er loved the show, repeat­ed the line to her grandfather.

Anton jumped off her lap. She thought she must have been pet­ting him too hard.


Cezarija Abartis has pub­lished a col­lec­tion, Nice Girls and Other Stories (New Rivers Press) and sto­ries in Baltimore Review, Bennington Review, FRiGG, match­book, Waccamaw, and New World Writing, among oth­ers. Recently she com­plet­ed a crime nov­el. She lives and writes in Minnesota.