On a very sad night—sad because Donna leaves early the next morning and that is exactly the kind of thing I’ve become less and less able to bear with any grace—I sit hunched forward in the recliner in the guest room like someone’s memory of a gargoyle playing sentinel over what it believes to be its own window, its own lawn and avenue. A kingdom.
Memory: don’t let anyone tell you it gets easier to relax your grip. I look out. Big moon framed by curtains, I love it. Look down. There are my feet, waiting for God knows what. My face flames up, burns a hole in the floor. Whatever’s under there, under the carpet and floorboard says go back.
My office at the radio station had a cigarette machine. I remember the sound it made.
The house is quiet, inelegantly wallpapered but warm. I love it here. It feels new but it can’t be. Donna is dreaming in the next room. The night is not empty. Is whispery. Donna?
I open the Saturday Evening Post in my lap. What folksiness! And what else? The revolver is in the nightstand next to her. I want to go remind her about it, about my radio show, anything, but I hear a motor. A truck creeps up the street, a little shocking for the hour. Too early for her sister to arrive. It stops at the end of our driveway and waits. I cannot see who is inside. Then the window rolls down and long, blue-gloved arms push something out onto the pavement, something small and dark I can’t make out. The truck rolls onward and the red glow of its taillights disappears. I squint at whatever it is with no success and I wipe my eyes with a damp cloth, try again.
I busy myself right there in the recliner with the business of forgetting it.
Maybe ten minutes or two hours go by and I look up from the article about someone’s precious little grandmother and then, shit, I regard with surprise the small, still shape at the end of the driveway. What the hell is that? It could be a pillow case full of fishing lures, a small shelf for a child’s encyclopedias. A dolly in a sailor suit. (I loved being out on the boat at night, with lanterns along the shore reflecting in shimmering streaks.)
When exactly did I stop smoking?
I used to be a radio announcer. I did everything from car wrecks to the weather. I met Donna mid-career. She is snoring softly in the next room as previously described, finally getting a little sleep before she leaves me, poor thing.
Poor thing? Who’s poor and who’s a thing in this situation? I laugh and, even at a low volume, the sound of me makes me cringe. I sound like I’m made of plywood and springs. The doctor took my radio. No, he took my radio voice. I did drive-time, told baritone jokes, played everything from Kajagoogoo to Haircut 100.
The thing in the driveway moved a little, I think.
Just so you know, traps in general can be divided into six types: foothold traps, body-gripping traps, snares, deadfalls, cages, and glue traps (which often do not work on spiders because their legs end in pin points). We’d pick and we’d choose if allowed, but that’s really not the disposition of any trap I’d heard of.
It does not seem to move again. I want to touch it. I was a curious child.
I go down the stairs and out the front door, where a chill mist slaps my face as if to say, go back. I walk the driveway anyway like a gang plank. There, just beyond the edge of the streetlight’s fluorescent dominion, is what appears to be a recently deceased or near-dead cat. It’s mouth is open, two big yellow eyes stare at me, deep-set in a smooshy, flame-colored face. A dead cat, I think. I scoop it up and hold it to my chest, its mouth wide open in what looks like a snarl or a scream. Dead. The eyes, yes, my startled, unfortunate face is reflected in them.
The surgeon really did a number on me.
Kajagoogoo. Haircut 100. I loved the beat, the callers. Free tickets: Monster Mud Jam.
Its body is cold and that sends a shiver of both revulsion and sadness down my spine. This is the kind of thing my job in radio has not prepared me for. Ugly things you can’t make fun of. Dead pets. Assassinations. Missing daughters. Daughters who disappear right when you think they’ll stay forever. Obituaries. Okay, but Donna always says I’m fixating on the bed. The bad.
Radio. That is the job I had, I’m sure of it.
The lanterns, the fireflies, my house, my little family.
I imitate the cigarette machine sound—chthnnnk!
I stand there under a big bright-yellow balloon-moon holding a dead cat and then I see the light sputter on upstairs. Donna’s silhouette rises and stretches and busies itself with the final details of packing before her sister arrives. At this point, whether it is wise to leave me alone or not has become immaterial to the physical world, in which there are needs and yearnings and lost objects that will not be ignored. I blow hot breath into the cat’s face. its fur is wet and stiff.
Headlights creep up the street and Cindy’s big silver SUV soon rounds the corner. Suddenly a little embarrassed to be naked under my robe with a dead cat in my arms, I hustle deeper into the yard and pitch it into the bushes along the side of the house as she pulls into the driveway. I wipe my hands on my robe and wave and she steps out, dressed as impenetrably unremarkable as Donna will surely be, too. Urban camouflage they call it. She pops the back hatch and motions me over, asks quiet so the neighbors won’t be woken, “Gary, it’s about drive time. You’re up early? What are you doing up so early? You sure you’re going to be okay?”
Some recent (I think) medical appointments went sour on me.
In the window above, Donna peers out and waves to her sister.
“Of course,” I say, “this was inevitable.” Ugh. My voice.
Cindy evaluates me with something approaching pity, her mouth a straight, hard line in plum. The moon is huge above her. Every big moon lately seems to have presented both a problem and a gift. The trick seems to be determining which is which.
Donna steps out the front door, shakes her head when she sees me.
“Seriously, Gary, what is the point of being awake for this?”
She is trying not to glower at me. She pushes my hand away when I try to help her with the suitcase. We’d argued at dinner about the usual thing but a little harder. I’m fine!
I get in bed where Donna had warmed it and I sleep, dreaming of someone’s daughter at the bottom of a pool. In the afternoon, I read the Saturday Evening Post and from the recliner watch a slow parade of non-entities: a blocky young woman struggling to walk her recalcitrant, leash-biting Malinois; triplets throwing rocks at each other and crying out when struck; nice cars with hooded, masked or otherwise unseeable occupants going too slow or too fast. I think of the sound of the cigarette machine and wonder how people are able to walk out the door and busy themselves with all these dangerous things out in the open. But I am at least brave enough and safe enough to take my pills with a glass of gin and microwave a block of frozen lasagna (ding!) until the drastic nature of my empty embrace fills every corner of the kitchen.
To be plain about it, that cat is not dead. It finds its way into the house while I am on the phone with Donna. Her voice is a taut monotone in my hand, describing their progress as if she were a reporter on some distant island announcing dismal news to which no one will listen: the places they’d passed through and who they had spoken with. What they ate, where they slept. How Cindy tripped and fell outside a Waffle House but is fine. She’s fine.
In the kitchen, on my laptop, I trace their path with my finger on an online map. Tornado coming. Another drink.
Something scratches at the door, pushes it open and strides perfectly royal into the room. It is the not-dead cat, its fur splendid and fiery. It comes to me and nuzzles its head against my bare ankle.
“We made it just south of Tulsa…”
I put the phone down on the table. I hear her small, muffled voice say, “…and we met a man at a shelter downtown that said she was there not even a week ago. We said are you sure it’s her? and he said just like the photo.”
I told Donna I had to go.
“What?” She sounded surprised.
I am always so hungry to speak with her and I count the days until Cindy pulls into the driveway and Donna emerges, crushed, from the passenger side. And I know it gives her some pleasure to call and remind me about my pills and, of course, share any details relevant to the ongoing search for our daughter who has been missing from her apartment over the garage (from her job and from everything and everywhere else) for seven years this summer.
Donna, Rhonda and Gary.
But Donna will be back in a few weeks, likely again without Rhonda and right now, for this moment, I have a dead cat playing at Lazarus in our hideously wallpapered kitchen. He mews at me and I get a little bowl of milk for him and set it in front of him and I feel pretty great watching his tongue dip in and out like a little pink machine, so perfectly useful.
Marc Tweed’s short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in the 2022, 2023, and 2024 editions of NOON Annual and he has also published fiction in New World Writing Quarterly, Juked, The Normal School, Cleaver, X‑RAY, and many other literary journals. His story Mean World was longlisted for the Wigleaf Top 50 of 2022. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a technology writer.