He didn’t answer. That was what he did. Not that she was being ignored. No such mercy. Ralph went beyond listening. He absorbed – her thoughts, gestures, moods. Always discerning. Judgements compressed in the cylinder of his mind. They propelled him like the engine bringing them home. Judgements. That’s what got her down.
“Well what?” he replied as if nothing had happened.
No witness to corroborate the claim of either side. Hazardous. Discrepancies linger. Especially when one of them refuses to agree that anything happened. Who’s to say? Claire felt stranded at a station looking at weeds where trains no longer ran, leaving a matter of fact to the whim and weight of will. Like country music filling up the car, an interest it didn’t matter that she failed to share. Though she allowed as how “Crazy” by Patsy Klein struck home. Took her back to the feel of a time so far from her now it might as well have been someone in another life.
“What is your problem?”
“You don’t want to know,” replied Claire.
The fairgrounds passed, deserted now, the barn-high sign peeling to expose the weathered wood beneath, even as memories, tattered and torn, all those festive gatherings of family and friends that still somewhat replenished her, though left to wandered now between them as through ghostly rooms dusting furniture, far now from the consequential silliness that so diminished their interest in the origins of opera they took off to chance upon a carnival, the tangle of delighted awareness unraveling in an irresistibly familiar equanimity, like an echo from the other side of consciousness, never really lost, with which she drifted in and out of touch, as they made their way down this road, a leopard in her lap, that Spanish dancer doll seated in the back like the girl they never had. Whatever became of them, those trophies he once won for her, darts of luck popping off so many dangling sad balloons? Lost with the universe they once composed unto themselves, untouched by lights that beamed their way through drifts of fog, paired as they were, like headlights on their way from here to there, unpredictably inevitable.
At least she could deny Ralph the satisfaction of catching her in a furtive glance at the speedometer, thought Claire, as she recalled the many times his speeding led her to wonder how their orphaned son would get along. “How about a beer?” The words had just popped out as they passed The Dew Drop Inn.
The needle relaxed to 50 as Ralph turned to give Claire the full benefit of his displeasure at that fretful lack of candor. “Slow enough?” Asking him to slow down would only have caused him to accelerate, especially since she also knew that, despite pushing the envelope now and then, driving was one of Ralph’s more celebrated skills, along with sailing, though not one to evince pride in anything he did well. Never mind his passing up any chance to mention the fact that she had turned him onto sailing those many years ago. How was it that such trivial omissions come to verify a litany of personal disappointments? Like no-see-ems – the bite of twilight in the air.
It was then he hit the cat. Avoiding the glare Ralph turned on her about the beer, she’d noticed the cat crouching ahead on the road, assuming it would take oncoming cars into account. It had, in fact, but not that Ralph, returning his eyes to the road, in an unfortunately timed reflex, would swerve to miss the cat and thereby hit it. “We killed a cat.”
Ralph said nothing. When she wasn’t slyly indirect she was painfully obvious.
“We can’t just leave it there.”
“You went out of your way.”
“I meant the creature no harm.”
“I wouldn’t hurt thee for worlds, but thou standest in the way of where I am about to drive.”
“Hey lady, you can’t pin this one on me. It was suicide.”
Claire stuck her head out the window. The hot, moist air blasted her with about as much relief as there was fun left in his one-up-and-to-the-sidesmanship. Ralph took guilt as a useless self-indulgent impediment to honesty. Of that she was painfully aware. “Whether or not you meant to hit the cat you did. What if it isn’t dead?”
“Everything I say may be held against me.”
“You bounced it off like a bug.”
“That’s what you get for riding with a desperate man.”
Her turn to be silent. With hardly time enough for her to nurture this confirmation of his implacable nature Ralph turned abruptly onto the median strip. “The cat is dead. Long live the cat.” Retorts came, dry and tart with a subversive afterglow, savored as he would a wine.
Just like him to deny her the meager comfort of having predicted the tack he would take for the curiously less rewarding pleasure of appearing to have had some effect. And why couldn’t he have driven a little further and taken the overpass? No, he had to live dangerously, cutting into speeding traffic from the median. Better not to ask.
So this was it, the ultimate stillness toward which we speed, thought Ralph as they stood, anonymous mourners at the side of the road caressed by the whoosh of passing cars. The cat’s black fur shown gray in the dusty bright light, a little silver bell around its neck. A bird-lover’s cat, thought Claire, going on to imagine the pet death grief that would surely descend upon the house where it once purred.
“If you hadn’t been speeding this wouldn’t have happened.”
He left her with that bare thread she had chosen to salvage from the knot of causation to rummage in the trunk into which Claire declined to delve for all the junk. At least blame made the world comprehensible.
“Alright.” he announced, emerging triumphantly with his old army trenching tool, one small vindication of a packrat’s diligence. Probably the only reason he returned to the scene of the crime, Claire thought sourly.
“And what do you propose to do with that?”
Ralph started across the soggy soil of a grassy knoll and up the embankment. “Bring the cat,” he shouted as he made his way over the stone wall’s crumbled persistence.
“Sorry” wasn’t what she meant to say. Just came out as it often did much to Ralph’s dismay. Fortunately, this infraction of his law of “no apologies” was drowned out by an eighteen wheeler enveloping them in its exhaust with the great grayness closing in. Besides, there was nothing to be sorry about, thought Claire, not in the least abject, merely wearied of always feeling responsible as she scrambled up the embankment.
“Do you really think we ought to be doing this?” she brought herself to hazard, making her way, one arm outstretched to balance herself as she handed Ralph the still warm lump of fur.
“It’s the only civilized thing to do.” She had to admire the effortless command with which he held sincerity’s pedestrians at bay.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” boomed a voice from out of the trees.
“Burying a cat,” Ralph replied, as if the question came as no surprise, assuming a conversational equanimity born of delight at the absurdity of the situation.
“Not on my land, you don’t,” said the man from the woods, bearing his age with dignified care as he approached Ralph. “Not on my land,” he repeated, looking Ralph in the eye with a calm, almost tender authority. Kindness made him fierce. There was no getting around it. He didn’t need a gun.
As with most things, Ralph was passionately ambivalent about property. On the one hand he found excessive preoccupation with ownership distasteful. On the other he couldn’t help but admire the crotchety independence of staking out the boundaries of one’s home.
“We’re sorry…” Ralph shot a look the meaning of which was clear. “Well, I am sorry,” continued Claire, determined to acknowledge the indefensibility of their position. “You see, we hit this cat by accident.”
“We all make mistakes,” said Ralph.
The man took a closer look. “That’s no mistake. That’s the cat’s been a pestering our birds. Never got one though. Old cat. Smart birds. Know when they’re wanted. Bell helped. Still, don’t want it dead on my land neither. Least ways not so close to the house,” said the old man, casting an appreciative look in the direction of their derelict Dodge, its lose hood chained to the bumper, a vehicle Ralph preferred to simply call “transportation”, which the perverse pride of friends had christened, The Blue Shark, in recognition of the gap between the grill and the hood.
“Summer people?” inquired the old man, hoping they might be more local folks, taking in the woeful condition of their car. Rain began, softly at first.
“Yup,” said Ralph. Claire hastened to neutralize Ralph’s appropriation of the local dialect, saying she’d grown up not far from there. Ralph reveled in mimicry of local talk, not that he meant to condescend, but for the laconic humor it concealed beneath a patina of artlessly dower sense. But to imitate people where they stood hardly qualified as flattery. That she found to be hurtful to her mind.
The rain came now in larger drops accompanied by distant thunder and that sweetly earthen smell of a bygone day.
“No sense standing in the rain. How ‘bout a beer?” Something about the old man’s voice brushed the margins of Claire’s memory.
“We got some ways to go,” said Ralph, looking back through woods to the gray suggestion of a house, settled in, eventful as a rock, uncompromised by paint, held together by its history, its shingles in the grip of wisteria’s beautifully ruinous embrace, alongside of which a distant cousin of the Blue Shark was parked.
“Why not?” agreed Ralph without even a fleeting consultation of eyes, as if the whole expedition had been his idea..
“Name’s Jack.” The man extended a large, weathered hand, “Jack Brumble.”
“Ralph, and this here’s Claire.” Claire cringed again.
“Just set those muddy shoes by the door.”
“That you, Boe?” came a voice from within.
“Course it is. Who else would it be?” How often, thought Claire, those words must have been exchanged, customary as the screen door’s slam. Ralph thought he could detect a hint of stew in the comfortable scent of old smoke that hung about the room where he imagined embers of many a winter’s night had glowed in the fieldstone fireplace.
“Got some folks with me.”
“I can see that,” said the round woman pushing herself up with effort from the chair, taking in the visitors – Claire, still in her Monday-go-to-lawyer’s blouse, Ralph in his shorts and both in bare feet like kinsfolk in from down the road.
“Caught ‘em red-handed trespassing.”
“Can’t have that,” said Lucy, with that amiably factious banter, familiar as the carpet of moss on adjacent rocks, while she made her way uneasily, pressing the table for support.
“This here’s my wife, Lucy,” said Jack, explaining the presence of their guests with a satisfaction reserved for hunters of big game. “Killed the cat’s been pestering our birds. Looks to be Bertha’s Belle a’ the Ball.”
“That’s a blessing anyway,” sighed Lucy, lowering herself back into the chair. “No particle of sense – all them cats and this here one’s got to scramble all the ways up over them rocks – as if there weren’t no birds down there. Make your selves ta home, why don’t cha?” Claire perched on a chair opposite Lucy while Ralph disappeared in the pummeled comfort of the couch. “Well now, don’t you look like the blushing bride and groom,” chirped Lucy much to Claire’s incredulous surprise. Lucy must have thought it was their second time, maybe even third. Lucy’s adding, “Ain’t you the pretty one though,” didn’t help, especially since it was true, though Claire would be the last to draw attention to herself.
Lightning flickered behind leaf laced windows just as thunder thumped the roof, prelude to a load of hail.
“Perpendicular,” said Jack, pointing to locate the storm just above the house.
“Coffee then?” asked Lucy as Claire declined the beer, becoming convinced she didn’t know Jack.
“Don’t go to any trouble.”
“There’s trouble and there’s trouble.” said Jack, touching his raised, bushy, gray eyebrow with his little finger, keeping the middle three down, the thumb upright, as if the last “trouble” had some mysterious significance, the sort of quirk that would make Ralph’s day.
“I’d love a cup of coffee,” said Claire, assessing Ralph as he warmed up to their aging hosts, quite pleased with the unexpectedness of it all. Still, Claire viewed the scene uneasily. She never knew what to expect from the roiling just beneath the tectonic plates of Ralph’s nominal civility. Especially with strangers. Though exceedingly articulate and temperate when he chose to speak, something might just trigger an obscenely inappropriate remark, like a bolt intent upon some mischief made for mortals to endure.
“Killed the cat, did you?” said Lucy.
“We didn’t mean to.” said Claire.
“There’s meaning and then there’s meaning,” said Jack touching his eyebrow again as a hand is used to indicate a phone,
“I grew up not far from here,” said Claire.
“Did’ja now?,” said Lucy as if a cloud of awkwardness had just blown away.
“Did my senior year at Dunmore High.”
“Well now, if that don’t beat all,” said Lucy, “Same as Jimmy, Bertha Tugwell’s son. Married our Amanda, he did. Haven’t they been the ones to bless us with a passel of little critters.”
“Pesky bunch if you’s ask me,” Jack interjected with a grand-fatherly twinkle.
“Take after their grand-paw, don’t they Jack?”
“More like Jimmy, truth be told. ‘Member Bertha’s cat – chased up that Sycamore?” said Jack, throwing Lucy the ball of talk.
“Ol’ man Jenkins’s Doberman, near as I recall – scared that cat half to death – what with that big ol’ dog prancing an a pawing down there round the tree – barking an growling liken he got hisself a leo-pard. Well sir, before you could say, Jack be nimble, half the town got wind – wasn’t a one among ‘em didn’t have a way ta get that critter down – an’ there comes Jimmy on his Harley, kicking up dust – roaring round that crowd liken they was a herd a goats till he ups an’ says, ‘Shoot the damn cat, that’ll bring ‘er down.’ Well now, Robbie, didn’t much care for talk like that – near came to blows, what with them being brothers an’ all.”
“Now, Lucy, you knows there ain’t no way to herd a goat.”
“Mind you,” continued Lucy, undeterred, “ Robbie were a one to stand up for his mama’s cats. Come across them did you at school, James and Robert?”
“Must have been after my time.”
“More coffee?” asked Jack.
“Just a drop, thank you.”
“No Thanks, I’m driving,” replied Ralph, indifferent as to whether or not his ironical tone got picked up.
“They was always at it – specially over Bertha’s cats. No telling how many after the ol’ man died. Run-in with a bear they say. More like the drink, if you ask me. Jimmy counted twenty-eight. Last I was down to the house you couldn’t look but that a cat looked back – cupboards, tables, chairs. Couldn’t step but on a tail. And sit – nowhere but that you come down on a cat. If it weren’t a cat it were the hair. Covered every stick they had, like as if it were a quilt. An’ don’t come wearing black. Well sir, come that there fracas over the road – same as the road you come by – widened right through Bertha’s house. Damn near took ours into the bargain, didn’t it Jack?”
“Don’t think….” was as far as Jack was able to get, sorry now he got her started.
“Since they was moving anyways Jimmy didn’t want no cats in the house the dang Company put ‘em in down by the crick. Said they weren’t no earthly use anyhow. Made him sneeze. Kept saying they didn’t do mama’s health no particular good neither. But Robbie wasn’t having any. Life’s short enough, he says – and mama sure were partial to them cats.”
“Don’t think our guests would be interested,” said Jack, mistaking Ralph’s silence for indifference.
“Anyways, no one with the sense God gave ‘em wanted the damn road no wider than it were – what with the blasting an all. Had to tape the windows up. An ‘ them buzz-saws bringing down them trees – all the day like hornets they was. Scared them birds away – like time they brung that there pike right through grandpa’s stand. So Jimmy, being’s how the Fourth were a coming up, sets them rockets off – whole kit an’ caboodle – sputtering up – crackers popping like it were a war. Least ways must a seemed to them what knowed how fired up we was – right down there where they was a blasting at the crick. Sight ta behold, weren’t it Jack? No never-mind to where the buzz-saws dropped. Off them dozers fast as spit, big as they was – like the devil his-self were a snapping at their heel – yella hats a squatting ‘hind the same dang rock they just blowed up.”
Feeling left out, Jack turned to Ralph. “Getting on real good those two – peas in a pod,” only to be met again with no response. Ralph wasn’t much for casual comradery the obvious purpose of which was to leave the women out, she’d give him that. There were nights, after dinner with his buddies over wine, Claire took in stride, being an early-to-bedder, as much a habit as a need when it came to getting up for work. Though there were times in the wee hours when the distant murmur of men earnestly saving the world or souls or God knew what, when the banter of those boisterous boys, egos all ablaze, woke her up. Nights when Claire would lie there waiting for the next spasm of uproarness in which Ralph’s voice was seldom heard. Couldn’t recall last time she’d heard him laugh, the sort that comes up from the gut.
“Some kind a garden you got there,” said Ralph, finally taking Jack up on his opening, hoping to avoid the downhill rush of another embellished narrative, having had his fill of the colloquial repertoire.
“Keeps my hand in.”
“Best around,” said Lucy. “Corn, beans, radishes, beets, squash, carrots and some real fine tomatoes.”
“If the white flies don’t get to ‘em.”
“Or if God don’t get to you first for working like a damn fool. Just won’t let up. Don’t make no sense,” she added, hoping for support from Claire.
Claire thought of how from time to time she imagined growing old with Ralph, as she said, “Looks like more rain. Not that we need it.”
“Here for that were you? Never seen the like. Came near asking around about the ark.”
“Good greens,” said Ralph, looking through the screen door at such rain-weighted leaves as survived the hail to glisten in the sunlight steaming the rain away above the scramble of squirrels at the fallen feeder.
“Jack, show Claire and Ralph your collection, why don’t cha.”
“Oh, I don’t think…”
After the ritual coaxing Jack brought out a few of his favorite fanciful whiskey bottles: a lighthouse and two skunks on a log, one tail being the cap.
None of the world’s follies could leave Ralph in such a funk that the nooks and crannies of an authentic life, some unexpected novelty, wouldn’t bring him around all perked up. Such pleasure as Claire could muster at the display of Jack’s novelties – with which, as it turned out, she was familiar – came from the barely apparent gradient of Ralph’s delight at watching the Elvis bottle revolve to “Love Me Tender”.
“Had our own little what some here calls a dive – Dew Drop Inn – sold out now near ten years. City folks snapped it up. Moved it to the Mall. Thing is, Jack don’t even like the stuff, just these bottles. Prettied-up the place behind the bar, don’t cha know.”
Jack had Ralph’s attention now since he’d lately entertained just such an establishment for his retirement – a bar somewhere Downeast close to the coast where locals came to hang; a college town nearby to keep his mind engaged, a modest place off the track that tourists trod. Though his leisurely reconnaissance hadn’t turned up anything close to what he’d had in mind., the trip had been its own reward as Ralph recalled the overlook across a craggy bay, down to the dock below, where he surveyed the color of crabs unloaded there. Not blue enough to suit this initiate of the culinary arts. Shouting down through the seaside silence, “What kind of crabs you got there?” he was met with this reply, “Fucking crabs.”
“Don’t mean to pry,” began Lucy, sensing Ralph’s interest, “ just wondered what it is you did by way of work?”
Claire held her breath. This question was sure to tick Ralph off.
“I play with myself,” replied Ralph with congenial defiance.
“What’s cha play? Wouldn’t be country, would it?”
Ralph, eyebrows raised, pointed to Lucy with the exaggerated gesture of a game-show host in mute, mock acknowledgment as if to say, “You win the prize!”
“No business of ours,” said Jack, attempting to be stern.
“New friends here, Jack. No harm in being curious.”
“Killed the cat,” said Jack before he could catch himself. “Didn’t mean…”
“No harm done,” said Claire, reddened with fury and shame, relieved that Ralph had been so perfectly misunderstood, trying to imagine Ralph in a local dive cranking out the blues on a fanciful guitar. Still, flustered, snatching ambiguity from the very jaws of the worst averted, she blurted out, “He’s in a band.”
Lucy sat expectantly, waiting for the other shoe to drop. “A one man band,” she finally asserted, pronouncing the words with such authority as to preclude further discussion, though not without a touch of exasperation at Ralph’s obscenely obstinate reticence. It sometimes seemed there was nothing beneath his camouflage but another layer of camouflage like those Russian dolls, with the real Ralph encased somewhere within an infinite regression of identities. “Money in that these days,” offered Jack, not adverse to affecting knowledge he didn’t mind not having. Touching his eyebrow he added in tones reserved for things about which he could see no useful purpose in having an opinion, “That’s the way of it today.”
Silence followed like a prelude to farewells. Can’t have that, thought Lucy, least ways not until something she could only intuit as the roundness of the time had come to its rightful end. “Our daughter’s in business.”
“No such thing. She’s a beautician.”
“If that ain’t a business, Mister, tell me what it be.” Though tempted as Claire to cheer Lucy on, Claire sensed the bloom was off the rose for Ralph as he downed the last swig of his beer.
“Jack, why don’t cha get the photos out?”
“Lucinda, I don’t think…,” which is as far as Jack got before Lucy’s enthusiasm washed away any prospect of useful resistance. No need to read Ralph’s mood to know nothing would finish off a wilting rose like family photographs.
“There’s Amanda – wasn’t but a few days old.” Lucy pushed the book across to Ralph who glanced down at the bundle of pink flesh with a dismay he felt constrained to conceal as being too grossly obvious.
Putting her faith in Ralph’s saving grace as a go-with-the-flow kind of guy, Claire allowed herself to be drawn into the retrospective naivety of another family’s photographs, that collective past into which the present fondly disappears.
To Claire’s surprise she recognized something of the place from which, however briefly, she had come – the weathered face of an uncle there, a grandchild here, even the bottle-bright wall of the previous Dew Drop Inn where, she now recalled, she had been, but not with Ralph. No need to go there now – not that he would care. She was another person now, one that Jack had failed to recognize as she had him. No wonder. Many faces passed. Another person wondering how she would have looked on the lakefront dock among those faces smiling out of time, caught like characters in a play, fixed in the splash of youth, the bend of age, as if any part of a life contained the whole of it – photographs, nothing more, looking back at Claire in the futility of a captured happiness that spoke to her through the precious tedium of it all.
Seeing Ralph’s attention lapse, Jack offered him another brew.
“I’m good,” said Ralph, immersed in his immense distaste for the feckless celebration of one’s own kith and kin frozen in snaps of happiness as if the world began and ended with one’s own precious progeny; all these people, connected, held in place by sentiments attached to certain other people; all possessed by a specious belief in the unique value of endlessly propagating some semblance of themselves.
“And there’s Amanda’s Beauty Salon. Quite the place, wouldn’t you say? And there’s Bertha,” squealed Lucy, triumphantly turning the glassine page, “one of Amanda’s first and most loyal customers. And there’s Jimmy and Amanda feeding each other wedding cake – there be Robbie off to the left. Best man, don’t cha know?”
Despite his aversion to this solipsistic exercise, Ralph could no more resist a view of Bertha than he could the view of King Tut’s tomb. It was one of Ralph’s more endearing qualities that for him there were no absolutes, not even his own.
Claire leaned in to inspect the curl of black with its little bell in Bertha’s lap. Over her shoulder, Ralph marveled at Bertha’s nose, how it survived the sad excitement of cosmetic chemistry, rising with simple distinction like some volcano from a sea of paint. “How ‘bout the way Amanda done her up round the eyes?” said Lucy, her heavy arm reaching out to turn the page.
You never knew with Ralph, thought Claire, as he kept the page from turning. Robert J. Tugwell, it had to be. No mistaking that smile tilting up the left side of his mouth, morphing even then into a sneer; or that sloping frontal lobe even under hanks of high school hair, annotated in the yearbook, much to Ralph’s delight, as “most likely to recede”, a face even then trying to portray the confidence he lacked, “the bland man’s bluff”, as Ralph had tagged the captain under whom he’d crewed the month before. How could he have failed to pick up on a name like that? Too much of an improbable coincidence, he decided, the kind of gratuitous turn of events certain to unhinge the willing suspension of disbelief in any manuscript he might have otherwise enjoyed
“And the hair…,” began Claire, looking more closely at Bertha.
“Oh, that’s a wig. Bertha always wanted to be a blond. Knockout, don’t cha think?”
“Whatever became of Robbie?” asked Ralph. Claire knew the look. Ralph was keeping something to himself again. He kept so much the wonder of it was he didn’t just explode.
“Don’t rightly know for sure. Haven’t seen him in donkey’s years – making out real well they say – in New York City, would you believe? Robbie, out of all them kids come to be the one lands on his feet? Least ways that’s tha last we heard of him. Transacting or some such thing. Got himself a boat they say. Never pictured him the sailing type. Sees Bertha don’t go without, I’ll give him that. Least ways she’s always at the Mall shopping up a storm. Says she’s only collecting the bags so’s the cats can jump around in them.”
“Paid, he did, for that fancy medicine, don’t you forget. Damn near saved her life, what with that tricky ticker ‘an all,” said Jack.
“Now hold them horses, Boe – wasn’t I just about to get to that? But you tell me – Bertha feeling poorly – laid up come a month – them doctors crowding round – not a body there but Jimmy and Amanda. You tell me if you see’d him anywhere’s around come Christmastime – never so much as set his thankless foot inside her door all these years – down there a sailing round with all them fancy folks – ‘nough ta break a mother’s heart, I’d say. Plain truth an’ no mistake – that boy got one powerful lot a makin’ up ta do.”
Having kept his head down as if in prayer, Jack looked up at Lucy with a cautionary smile. “Don’t get yourself so riled up you come near fogettin’ folks we got right here.”
“They was asking what Robbie were doing,” said Lucy, somewhat chastened as she turned another page. “Ain’t that something though. Make a pair – Amanda an her dad a boiling the maple down. Yes Mam, we do some fine syrup – first prize, year come June, didn’t we Jack?”.
“Brumble’s Best,” confirmed Jack, lighting up with pride.
“Take home a jar, why don’t cha? – on the house cause’n you’s real good people. After all, you ‘bout to take that troublesome critter far as you can.”
“But shouldn’t you give Bertha a call?” said Claire. The question hung there in the air, a presumption Claire herself couldn’t help but marvel at. “After all, it was her cat.”
“Some might say, right thing to do. Still and all, a body needs be mindful of considerations,” replied Lucy looking up as if at a fly she meant to swat.
“There’s right and then there’s right,” said Jack, eyebrow up and pinky at the point. “Bound to blame us, don’t cha know – unnecessary upset.”
“There’s some might say, ‘With all them cats what’s the chance of missing one?’” said Lucy. “Truth be told, that there cat were Bertha’s fav’rite best since ‘fore the ol’ man died. Got to be a tender time. Now Jack, how about you just get these nice folks here a prime jar of Brumble’s Best?”
“New Yorkers,” Lucy was heard to say with some surprise, a shade of disappointment in her voice, as she looked at the book she’d had them sign on their way out. Hushed though Lucy’s voice had been it reached them through the screen.
The atmosphere, in which they had been for a time enclosed, faded with Lucy’s voice, like the smoky scent that clung there briefly to their clothes as they made their way through the tall wet grass into the brambles of a still and steamy afternoon. “Good people,” said Claire, stepping cautiously, Brumble’s Best held close to her chest, while the other hand repelled the occasional branch like a fullback in slow motion warding off what felt to her like the reach a sinister hand.
“Salt of the earth,” said Ralph, echoing her sentiment as if reflected from dark glasses upon which she could only see herself, while he remained immune to feelings as if they were some kind of moral fault. No, she thought, pushing away a branch that had snapped back at her from Ralph’s determined forward progress, he was chock-a-block with feelings, carried with such an intricate ambivalence they didn’t count. It chewed her up to think that she still let his vision of her become her own, each subsequent diminishment serving only to vindicate a perception to which he was predisposed. Come to think of it, no one asked what she did to bring the bacon home – the better part of it in fact. Even the prospect of the change she was about to make couldn’t quell the anger she felt welling up.
Emerging from the raspberry patch, somewhat the worse for the wear, they could see how far they were from the path by which they’d come. Having made their way along the wall they came to the cat. The car still parked there at the shoulder of the road across the stretch of soggy grass. Ralph pitched the shovel over the wall. “What about the cat?” said Claire.
“What about it?” Ralph replied, sensing a challenge well beyond the mundane disposition of the road-kill they were looking at.
“We can’t just leave it here.”
“What did you have in mind?”
Clearly, any proposal to accommodate the battered body of a stinking, fly flecked cat in the heat of the car would be a hard sell. She would have to make do with the first flimsy pretext that came to mind. “We could put it in the crabby bag and drop it in a dumpster on the way home. At least it would put that old bag to some use. After all, we promised the Brumbles.”
Ralph bristled at this tedious, implausible, manipulative rationale for getting him to do something that made no sense. On the other hand, Claire had raised the stakes. He was up for that. In fact, he would raise her one. Besides, that bag had been cluttering up the trunk ever since he’d filled it with those oddly colored crabs and stashed it in the trunk. He should have known the tavern he’d had in mind to reconnoiter would turn out further than he thought. And then, distracted by the sibling havoc of his sons he’d let those fucking crabs just slip his mind, a whiff of which still lingered after all these years in the weave of that recycled plastic bag as a tribute to their potency.
Far from condoning accumulation for its own sake, Ralph saw himself more as the custodian of oddments whose use in time would be revealed. This being so, he had to admit, retiring that otherwise indestructible memento of a dinner gone wrong had its appeal. The occasion required a gesture. The irony that nails you may not be your own, thought Ralph, briefly considering how quickly flies arrived, the hum of nature’s fastidious economy digesting death. Then, griping the pool of soggy, fly-fringed fur by the tail to the tinkle of its little silver bell, he raised it over his head, swinging it round and round with the ardor of an Olympian, until he let the sorry carcass go. Claire stood there transfixed by this unprecedented display of her husband’s bazar abilities no less than by the cat’s macabre trajectory as it hurtled well beyond the wall, landing with a thud upon the windshield from which it presently slid, coming to rest upon the Blue Shark’s hood.
“Was that necessary?”
“There’s necessary and then there’s necessary,” Ralph proclaimed with a serious approximation of Jack’s incomprehensible salute. The laugh escaped the way a sneeze sneaks up, overriding the part of her that still remained appalled. The more she tried to squelch the laugh the more she laughed. Ralph’s stoical demeanor only made it worse the way the sternness of librarians only aggravates the need to sneeze. Between the picture of this statuesque, athletic, beared paragon of gravitas and the sight of Ralph in full-fledged maniacal abandonment, there loomed an incongruity, a gap over which sparks of laughter leapt, even as Ralph accepted the jar of Brumble’s Best. Betting he would “see” her yet, he helped her up and over the rocks.
Delving into the hidden recesses of the this attic on wheels to ferret out the bag from miscellaneous tools and junk, Claire came across that Spanish dancer doll wedged under the seat these many years, its glamour gone along with its right arm. Hardly tempted to assume the doll survived on sentiment, Claire retrieved the plastic bag as an image out of the past occurred to her – their sons playfully tossing a compliant Palestrina back and forth. Soured thought again deliquesced into hilarity as she supposed that tossing cats might be a family trait. Thankful that the Belle of the Ball had mercifully out-flown her winged entourage, Claire worked her hands into over-sized gloves from the copious trunk. Catching her breath in an interlude of horrified sobriety, Claire dropped the limp, battered form into the bag and closed the trunk.
Since the cat came down on the passenger’s side Claire viewed the world through somewhat of a smudge. Here at least Ralph had met with only mixed success, thought Claire, seizures giving way to an intermittent laugh with the syncopated persistence of hiccups. Ralph’s impassively handsome face, that European look, with its barely perceptible hint of satisfaction, hardly helped. It wasn’t till they turned in at the Mall that Claire, almost reluctantly, regained her composure, mirth giving way to hunger and thirst.
They’d probably find a dumpster round back. First they’d have to wash up before siting down at The Dew Drop Inn, whose prominent logo beckoned from across the crowded parking lot. The car would be too hot for a dead cat. They would place the bag next to the car on the shady side. As a further precaution against the likelihood of flies, Claire placed the amputated doll over the cat, arranging its gown like a tent.
Despite its noisy ambience, the relentless thump of tuneless songs and baseball’s ubiquitous flicker, they welcomed the Dew Drop’s cool relief, refreshing as the first sip of a cold beer on a hot day. Washed up and settled in, Ralph immersed himself in the crossword puzzle while slowly sipping the Dew Drop’s own Autumn Amber – always the leisurely connoisseur. There were, of course, things she might bring up, but they could wait, thought Claire, glancing to observe one young couple conversing silently in what seemed to her some sign-language of their own. How could the nuance of a thought compete with a din like this, much less come to terms with the sorting out of hearts? Hard enough for her as she opened the book she kept in her purse.
It wasn’t long before Claire looked up beyond her salad to reflect upon a particularly horrendous passage in which the captive, at the mercy of besieged rebels, having been dragged through the Columbian jungle with its nasty ants and ravenous mites, forced, ragged and half starved, from one desolate encampment to another, only to be captured after her most recent failed escape, after which they chained like a dog to a tree. It was from this vantage point she examined once again the fragile remnant of her dignity. We cannot help, thought Claire, turning out more as well as less than we intend.
They had taken no notice, accustomed as they were to sirens, possessing as well, prodigious powers of concentration, until something said emerged from the ambient chatter to penetrate even their disciplined consciousness. Claire quickly closed her book, hardly ready to believe the words that startled her. Ralph, munching the last of the fries, on the verge of calling up from the depths of his mind that last twenty letter word beginning with “C” and ending with “ion”, had his attention commandeered as well by voices from the table next to them.
“Check this out,” said a boisterous youth, passing his phone around. “A doll in the jaws of a “84 Dodge.” There followed a smattering of “awesomes” punctuated by a “cool”.
“Black cat, bad vibes, duh!” came the high, shrill voice cutting through the loudness of the room like an adaptation girls acquired to be heard.
“Only if you walk on after they’ve passed across your path.”
“Where you there when the old lady went totally down?”
“Opened the bag and over she went.”
“Major TLC could make that baby hum.”
“Heat stroke, man, that’s what happens when like you get like old.”
“Bet a beer it’s Cardiac arrest.”
The waitress shouted after them, “You haven’t paid your tab!”
At the far end of the lot paramedics closed the ambulance doors, having just thrown in the shopping bag to keep the patient company. By the time they’d crossed the lot there wasn’t much to see but the blond wig where it had rolled under the car.
The utter lack of pretense on his face got to her as he winched the car door open and slipped into the seat. He had feelings, even if it took a stranger to bring them out. After all, hadn’t it been that very knot of ineluctable passion, among other things, that had drawn her to him? What was it that had intervened between the music, the care they shared for the written word, those gastronomical delights prepared for their family and many friends? Together all these years, albeit ever more precariously, like circling above an event horizon’s deadly gravity, a place not without its dangers, its frightful episodes, but rich withal – a life.
What if the other woman in his life had been instead the angel of death inviting him to that hypothetical place beyond in which neither of them believed? Like the fright that attended her the time he just collapsed in the green-market, an episode about which doctors didn’t have a clue, instilling apprehension daily chores suppressed despite the low-grade fever that followed him around, sometimes for months.
They’d passed a hospital some 20 miles from where they were. Nothing insurmountable. But what to say when they got there? Why say anything? Just find out how she is. Still, the staff would want to know who the hell they were. Their relationship to her. With proof. They couldn’t even claim that they were friends. Ralph turned off at the first exit they came to. “Now what?” exclaimed Claire.
“Nature calls,” replied Ralph, reverting to his old enigmatic self.
The waitress, quite pleased to see them and to accept the more than generous tip, inquired, were they Bertha’s friends?
“Acquaintances several times removed,” responded Ralph.
“Bertha was a regular here, you know, loyal to a fault.”
It was the “was” that troubled Ralph. “How’s she doing?” Claire took note of how these simple words conveyed his genuine concern.
“Haven’t heard. Hospital’s just down the road.”
“You wouldn’t happen to have the number…?” The waitress eagerly supplied the number and a phone.
There was that face again, the face of the man she’d married, stroking his mustache to conceal his voice. The nurse was adamant. “I’m sorry, sir, we can’t give out patient information unless you’re a relative, a close relative.”
“I’m her son,” said Ralph.
“I’m sorry, sir, but her son is here.”
“I’m the other son, Robbie, up from New York to see my mother,” said Ralph, once again impressing Claire with how well he could take a part that his heart was in. Why then, thought Claire, couldn’t he have been more of a father to their sons?
“Just a minute,” said the nurse. He hung on, with a sadness in his look as if he’d taken on the weight of that war-torn world out of which he’d come.
“Jimmy said he would like to talk with you,” said the nurse.
“Don’t have time… Broke down near the Mall. About to be towed. I’ll see him by and by,” said Ralph so convincingly that Claire almost believed him.
“Well,” said the nurse, “you’ll find out how she is whenever you get here.”
“Look, I know I haven’t been everything a son might be, but I’m here now and I just want to know she’s okay.” How was it, thought Claire, that this shame-faced artifice revealed humanity?
Another pause. Then a doctor took the phone. She had had some kind of shock. Resting quietly now. They would keep her overnight for observation. However, he was sorry to have to report that the cat was dead.
Ralph stood, looking at the front end of their car, picturing the doll in the maw of the grill, placed no doubt by one of those grotesquely imaginative kids, as an installation at the Whitney. Claire retrieved the wig from under the car. Then, yanking the doll from the grip of the grill, she threw it onto the back seat. “That goes into the dumpster.”
With Ralph at the wheel, Claire took on the task of transcribing. “Collectivization?” offered Clair. “Short by four. ‘A method of simultaneously holding mutually incompatible thoughts.’” Nothing annoyed him more than Claire’s helpful intervention. “Compartmentalization!” he finally announced in the matter-of-fact way he had of being right.
“What about poor Bertha left thinking Robbie’s come to see her from New York?” said Claire, overcome by a bout of extraneous empathy. “And Robbie, unaware that he’d showed up there like a ghost, not knowing that she’d think he didn’t care enough to make it to the hospital? We can’t just leave it at the cat.”
“Let sleeping cats lie,” said Ralph, wishing Claire would just this once leave well enough alone.
“We can’t just barge into other people’s lives and leave so many loose ends.”
“What’s life without a few loose ends?” replied Ralph, adding, on the off-chance his comment might be mistaken for an intentional profundity, “You heard it here first.” Still, a few miles down the road he considered the probabilities sure to follow from his presumptuous concern, consequences unintended though they surely were. Torn between Tugwell’s unappealing personality and the novelty of the conversation they would have he promised himself that he would call. Not that Ralph had given up upon his qualm, the troubled provenance still weaving in and out before him in the traffic of his mind, seasoning his thoughts like the pungent residue of off-color crabs for which no recipe would do – a conundrum only there for him to puzzle out even as the rhythm of the ride, his eyes upon the road, lessened his ability to remain ostensibly incredulous. After all his little qualm was nothing to the endless stream of unsettled aberrations in the news, the prevalent insanity so quickly chalked up in the public mind to some preordained mendacity, accepted with a shrug of cultivated ignorance as if all it came down to someone else’s history.
“We could look him up. Can’t be hard to find with a name like that.”
“All will be well.”
“Easy for you to say.”
“There’s easy and then there’s easy,” said Ralph, taking one hand off the wheel for the requisite salute.
“Must you always be oblique?” said Claire, determined not to be amused, sensing something there he wasn’t about to share.
“It’s my job. Scourge of the earth and all of the inhabitants thereon.”
Claire gazed away to consider Blake’s “Tiger, tiger burning bright in the forest of the night” and how their cat came by its name – paws upon the keys to strike the devil’s interval, that augmented fourth forbidden in Palestrina’s time, an instinctive sacrilege it then amused them to suppose. Still, what moved the cat to stalk her mouse with no apparent intent to kill, looking up by and by surprised her playmate had given up the game? What possessed a cat to pounce upon a string, no life in it but that imparted by the hand at the other end, a blatant deception that troubled the cat not at all?
Did the vulnerable crumble into fear, assuming culpability or anger as may be, open to anticipate the worst that fear invites to settle like a fly upon their marmalade? Claire tried to shake the sense that we were all puppets at the end of our own string. Ironical reticence was as much a part of Ralph as the hand that held the wheel, even as she sometimes felt compelled to imagine some hypothetical inadequacy, even as the mouse appeared complicit in its own demise.
No more of that, thought Claire, as she took another tack. How could they remain, with all they had in common, out of touch – tides under the sway of a mutual moon, breaking up on different shores, the wreck of hope exposed as the tides recede? Fractious continuity doled out as a kind of consolation prize? For a moment only, Claire stood witness to her world. So much wanting. Might-have-beens enthralling thought. Nothing there reprisal could redress. No way around his enigmatic dignity. Most of all the unalloyed joy his grandsons filled him with.
Not that there hadn’t been moments when the harsh wind of betrayal brought with it a glimpse of “Good riddance”, only to reveal in the stark clarity of the storm’s wake tokens of such value as to overwhelm the bitter edge left bare. The gift of a book with pages stained. Reviewing the day’s unlikely episodes Claire paused upon his gratuitous fling, her thoughts coming at last to rest upon the moment he betrayed his camouflaged humanity – the last doll in the nest. A modicum of faith took hold – not that everything would turn out well – too much beyond retrieval now – but that whatever happened she would not disappoint herself.
They were close enough now to pick up the station they preferred, in time for the last of Mozart’s Requiem. She would think more clearly about the day’s events in that quite time before the sleep that had of late eluded her. Smiling, Claire dozed off.
Berlioz accompanied Ralph barreling along the thruway of his own acerbic consciousness, propelled with an inertial conscientiousness even the ultimate start and stop of traffic couldn’t break as cars streamed in from everywhere, taillights in a glow of rows up hill and down, red ribbons stretching out in twilight’s waning haze. How many in those cars, struggled day by day, their future’s sleepy faces safely tucked away, while they grumbled, foot from gas to brake and back again, still content with themselves in the docile wisdom of their fatalistic mediocrity?
Lucky in the end to find a parking space, Ralph satisfied himself that the author of his life had come up with this stretching of coincidence to tip the dreamer off that all he had so patiently discerned was nothing but a dream from which he half expected to awaken.
Neither of these solitary souls took time exactly to reflect upon how in the end they had both been willing participants in the odd involvement of their improbable encounter, crossing into a world many a couple on their way home would have passed up as a bridge too far. There was, after all, no need.
David Ferguson, 411 West 22nd Street, New York, NY 10011
212 989-0519 Dferguson25@nyc.rr.com