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.”
“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.