A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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Peter sprawls across the floor of my living room, which is also my kitchen and dining room, and talks to me about my life. He smells like alcohol swallowed too fast. The cat is under the coffee table, eyeing him with distaste.
“This time,” Peter says, “I’ve got you figured out for sure. I know what your problem is, and I think we can fix it.”
I’m still in my pajamas, which are really my boyfriend Carl’s pajamas, which were pajamas his father was given for Christmas but didn’t want.
“My problem,” I say, “is these pajamas, and that I don’t think I can deal with you at 6:30 in the morning on just one cup of coffee.” I get up to pour myself another.
“You don’t like me because I’m honest,” he says. “I’m the only honest opinion you’ll ever see in your life. Can I have a cup of coffee?”
“No,” I say. “You can have half a cup, that’s all that’s left.”
“If you want me to leave, just say so.”
“Leave,” I say. “Get out. Take a long walk off a short pier.”
“That’s what your problem is,” he tells me. “You never say what you mean.”
I comb my hair with my fingers and twist it into a long braid. He watches with the look of a priest. “All women should have long hair,” he says.
“That’s sexist,” I say.
His eyes flicker over me. “Why on earth do you wear those pajamas?”
“OK, how’s this for honest?” I say. “I have to get some sleep. You can’t wander in here whenever you feel like it. I worked until 11 last night.”
Peter shrugs, unoffended. The cat stretches hard and comes out from under the coffee table. She walks over to him in her peculiar, stiff-legged way. “Poor Emily worked last night,” he tells her too sweetly, “and now she’s tired and cranky.” Sunlight catches the strands of his beard; his chin swells upward like a peach.
“God, Petey, what’s wrong?” I say.
“Call me Moonfeather,” he says. “I am a new man.”
“Why were you drinking, my dear Moonfeather?”
“Because, my dear Emily.” He lowers his voice and hisses, “I have seen God.” Then he laughs a laugh that frightens the cat back under the coffee table. “That’s your problem. You know what your problem is?” He closes his eyes. “You’re just too serious. Everyone’s too serious.”
It’s winter and the room is cold. I pick up my coffee mug; the heat bites my palms. “What do you mean, you’ve seen God?”
“I’ve seen everything that I want to see,” he says thickly.
“So what?” I tell him. “Find something else.”
“There is nothing else.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” I say. I gulp at my coffee, and Peter chews at his fingers like a child.
The cat comes back cautiously, her tail puffed up like wind. She sniffs the air and frowns. She cries.
“Hey there, Meatball,” I say, “Hey there, crybaby,” and she comes and knocks her head into my ankles.
“Meatball,” says Peter. “Ball of meat. We are all just balls of meat.”
Meatball leaps over him and onto the windowsill. She stares hungrily out at the morning.
“He wants to go out,” Peter says.
“She,” I correct him, “and she can’t. She’s an indoor cat.”
“She’s stupid,” I say. “She’d never find her way back.”
“That’s an excuse,” he says. “You just enjoy keeping a prisoner. People like you enjoy control.”
“What on earth’s the matter with you?” Then I yawn. I can’t help it; it just comes out.
Peter sighs and rolls to his feet. “Never mind,” he says. “I have to go. You’ll have to work these things out on your own.” His face is dark as an anvil.
“Petey, what’s wrong?”
He says, “I can’t take this much longer.” Meatball scuttles around his feet, sensing, the way cats do, that a door is about to be opened.
“Go home,” I tell him. “Get some sleep. Give me a call tomorrow.”
Peter bends down and strokes the cat; hard, yearning strokes. “Poor kitty,” he says. “Can’t go out. Gonna die between four walls.” Then he hugs me and I hug him back.
“Let her out,” he says. “Do me this favor, would you?” He holds my braid like a chain. “Let that poor cat out.”
Some kids find Peter’s body at Herrington Beach. I don’t hear about it for several days, and by then he has been flown back to his parents in Virginia. His death is a slap that makes everything unsteady. Tiny figures whirl into my head. They kick their pointed feet and scream. It hurts and only one thing helps and that’s TV. I watch TV for hours. I feel stupid and numb. I want someone to explain.
“So what are we supposed to do?” I ask Geoff. Geoff is Peter’s housemate. He has stopped by to return some tapes that Peter borrowed months ago. I put the tapes carefully on the table. I will want to examine them later; things that Peter touched. The TV blares.
“Don’t know,” Geoff says. “There’s no way I can go to Virginia.” He won’t come in and he won’t take off his coat. He stands nervously by the door. I know that the slightest thing will make him leave.
I say, “You’d miss the funeral anyway.”
Geoff traces a path to the window with his eyes. Meatball is sitting on the sill, and she solemnly returns his gaze.
“Do you want to watch TV?” I ask.
Geoff stiffly shakes his head no.
The figures in my head stomp and wail. “There’s got to be something more than this,” I say, and I’m holding my voice between my teeth. “There’s got to be something else.”
“Emily,” Geoff says, and then ducks swiftly out the door. I call after him, but he’s hurrying down the walk, head tucked in, arms swinging. Meatball lunges after him, and I barely manage to catch her by the loose scruff of her neck.
I turn up the TV. I decide I’d better cry, but then I can’t. I decide not to go to work, but then I go anyway. I don’t know what else to do. Everything is the same. Only the tiny figures are different, and after a few more days they disappear and I turn the TV off.
A week later Geoff and a group of friends hold a memorial service at Herrington Beach. No one’s quite sure where the body was found, so we meet at the north end by the parking lot. The water shines with ice. We’re an odd collection, a modern collage: me, Peter’s landlord, his housemates, some friends from work, some artsy friends from school. Peter’s all we have in common, and it seems we each knew him in a remarkably different way. We stare at each other uncertainly, and no one talks much. A brief argument breaks out about how old he really was, but the voices snap and crumble away because nobody knows for sure.
A shy-looking woman appears to be in charge. She wants us each to say a few words about Peter; something we remember, something we’d like to share. She points to people at random, asking them to speak. Everyone talks about Peter’s intelligence, his wry, quick sense of humor. They describe him as someone crisp and clean-cut and wonderful. No one says that he was critical. No one remembers that he could be cold. When my turn comes I want to tell about the time we made beer in my bathroom. The apartment stunk for days afterward, and Carl was annoyed about the smell, and Peter was pleased when he found out that Carl was annoyed. That would be honest. That’s how Peter really was.
“Peter stopped by last week,” I say instead. “Early in the morning. I was tired.”
The gulls laugh like women grown old with their laughter. I realize I am sounding stupid. “That’s all I have,” I say, and everyone nods and understands. A woman in a black cape, blue circles painted under her eyes, suddenly starts to sob. Nobody knows what to do, so everyone ignores her. After a while she stops and stares quietly into her hands. When it’s her turn to speak she has nothing to say.
After the service she comes to me and she is angry. “You’re lucky,” she spits. “Nobody else had seen him for weeks.” Her eyes are an accusation. I back away, afraid of what else she might say. I find Geoff by the water; he is searching the beach for flat stones.
“I didn’t tell you I saw him last week,” I say.
Geoff lets a stone fly and it arcs lightly over the waves, dropping down here and there to touch a toe into the water. Gulls instantly gather, watching his hands.
“He was drunk,” I say. “I was tired. I sent him home.”
Geoff says, “None of us knew where he was,” and another stone rockets from the tight web of his fingers.
“I told him to get some sleep. I thought he was just drunk.”
“How drunk?” Geoff wipes off his hands and digs them into his coat.
“Not that drunk.”
The gulls snicker overhead. I want to push my hands into Geoff’s coat, find his hands, push my hands into the heart of them. “Did he really kill himself?” I say. “Couldn’t it have been an accident?”
Geoff gives me a look of frank amazement. Then he stalks away, a cold crippled heron with hidden wings. A flat stone catches my foot, and I pick it up. The gulls dip eagerly, but I put the stone back. I never was any good at skipping stones.
When I get home, I clean the apartment. Then I go out to the market. I buy whole-grain bread, grapes, cheese, and a bottle of apple wine. I tell myself I’m celebrating and I force myself to get pleasantly drunk. It’s over, I say firmly, that’s that. My words are like a march, keeping me in line. The days are pulled by, and somehow, I’m pulled along with them. It’s a stiff, otherworldly feeling.
But the cat always seems to be watching me. I sit down to read the paper and she stares. She follows me into the kitchen and watches while I eat. At night she shares my pillow, her face inches from mine, her eyes petal-smooth and alert.
On sunny days she cries in front of the door. “What’s wrong?” I ask her, and she rubs her nose against my legs. I pretend I think she’s hungry. I pretend not to notice she wants to go out. The weeks pass by and she stares at me and she cries.
“What’s with your cat?” Carl finally says.
Meatball is perched on the back of the sofa. She cries.
“She’s spoiled rotten,” I say.
“She’s restless,” Carl says. “Maybe you should let her outside.”
Something cold hits a memory I’ve tucked far away. Peter is sprawled across the floor, his eyes catching hard against my hair. I wonder what he’s thinking. I wonder if it’s something that I should have seen.
“I think I’ll change her name,” I say. “Meatball is a stupid name. Ball of meat. Peter said we’re all just balls of meat.”
“That sounds like Peter.”
“I can’t let her out,” I say. “She’s not smart enough to find her way back.”
“Sure she is.”
“Peter wasn’t,” I say. “Look what happened.”
“Emily,” Carl says.
“Peter couldn’t find his way out of a paper bag,” I say angrily. I want it to be someone’s fault, so it won’t be mine.
After that I call her Kitty. I buy her a little green bird filled with catnip. She kisses my hand and cries. I brush her. I buy her cat treats with ridiculous names like Kitty-Yums and Pussy-Drops. Carl doesn’t understand.
“That cat has a wild nature,” he says firmly. “It needs to have some freedom.”
“She’s not an it,” I say. She’s sitting on the windowsill, her eyes fixed to the glass. She cries.
“Let her out. It doesn’t have to be for long.”
“Emily, you’re being selfish,” he says. “This has nothing to do with the cat.”
“She doesn’t want to go out.”
“This isn’t about the cat at all.”
“You never liked her anyway. You think cats are snobs.”
“Emily,” Carl says. He is bewildered and vaguely afraid. I’m missing Peter terribly. Kitty cries and cries.
The weather warms in April, and Kitty becomes frantic. She loses fistfuls of hair; she stops eating and her eyes grow flat and sour. At night she scratches at the front door, wanders from room to room. “Kitty!” I call and she comes into the bedroom and jumps up on my bed, bumping her head against my forehead.
“I have to get more sleep,” I tell her. “I work nights until 11. You can’t just wander in here anytime you want.”
I let her out the first of May. She scoots out the door without looking back, running awkwardly, as if on tiptoe. She stops at the edge of the lawn, and puts one shy foot in the grass.
“Go on,” I tell her. She raises her nose to the breeze. I close the door and sit in the kitchen; I listen to the clock work out its time. I want to tell Peter how awful it’s been. I want to tell him that he had no right. I’m not God, I say to the air, I can’t read minds. You could at least have said something, you could have let me know. I am tired of thinking about it so I clean the apartment instead. By evening, everything shines, and Kitty has not come back. After twenty-four hours I start calling the local animal shelters. Then I call the not-so-local ones. Finally I call the police. No one seems too concerned; they tell me to wait a few more days.
It rains. The apartment rings in my ears. I go to work and I come home; the rain keeps on with a ragged wind. I post signs at the laundromat, on telephone poles, on the bulletin board at the junior high school, and I wait as I’ve been told.
On Saturday the sky is overcast, but the rain has blown away. I put on boots and a heavy sweater, and tramp up and down the side streets, searching. I walk through the vacant lot on the corner. I go down behind the service station at the end of the street and hunt through the weeds.
“Kitty!” I call, but then I remember she doesn’t know that name.
“Meatball!” I holler, louder, feeling like a lunatic. I know this is pointless. I know she is gone. I’m so certain of this that I almost walk past her. She is slumped in the weeds and shaking. Her fur is braided with burdocks and matted to her sides. Her eyes are fierce.
“Meatball?” I coo, trying all of a sudden to become very small. I move slowly. I am innocent as an angel. “Come on, sweet girl. Come on, crybaby.” I seem to be floating toward her. She flattens herself into stone, and the moment is caught and held in my throat.
Somehow I catch the brief end of her tail. She whips herself around and we do a swift, violent dance through the weeds. I fall on top of her, pinning her down. There’s a deep gash in her forehead and part of one ear is missing. She looks like a pirate gone to seed.
It is a long walk home. The streets and weeds and walks are reflected in her eyes, and I know that I’ve somehow been left behind. In front of the apartment, she sinks her teeth into my thumb, then flies down the street like a hard-thrown stone. There is nothing I can do. The arms at my sides are helpless as prayer; useless as ornaments.
A. Manette Ansay