Winner of the Boise State University President’s Writing Award, 2013
from “Women Who Sleep With Dogs”
When did this happen, this stone-weight beneath her breastbone that felt like winter? When did the ghosts come back? When did the waiting begin to feel like a bone-deep lament she couldn’t quite remember?
Cat chewed the end of her pen and then wrote:
“There was a certain quietness to names carved in granite—
gray, red, or like this—mirror-black.”
For awhile, everything worked and the ghosts were quiet. She and Christian ran a successful construction business, and the melancholy ebbed. Then she didn’t dream of the dead as though they’d never left, didn’t wait for the moment she would turn and see them, touch them, and bring them back to her. Until it fell apart. The economy collapsed, and the construction business evaporated. Christian went on the road. Loneliness seeped into each windswept, prairie day until Cat could almost finger the sadness that clogged her throat, and feel its shape, a cold desperation that was hard like stone.
The house phone rang. The caller ID said Resort Recovery.
Cat stared at it, the words of the poem lost, her reverie shattered.
Damn it, she thought. There’s no money. When will it stop? I can’t fucking pay the mortgage, how can I pay maintenance fees on a vacation week I’ll never use again?
It was easy, and seemed sensible at the time, to pay cash for twenty years of two weeks a year in Cabo. It was a guarantee of life and two weeks, at least, of happiness. The fishing was overpriced and not as good as the Oregon coast, but Christian liked it. Now the annual maintenance fees were impossible to pay—another barb to remind her how fleeting the affluence was. When did twenty years become inconsequential?
She turned back to the poem.
The house phone rang again: the caller ID said Verizon. She ignored it. Cat went to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. The phone rang again. In her mind’s eye she pictured ripping the wires out at the outside box. She vetoed that. Cat was disconnected enough now that she couldn’t afford to drive anywhere; she couldn’t rip out the internet. Systematically she went room to room, picked up each handset, and shut off the ringer.
What good is the damn phone if I can’t call my mom? Cat wondered.
Before she died, her mother called everyday, disappointed over her life, angry that she was old, and that her boyfriend kept leaving. Katherine used gin to ease the disappointment, even after her kidneys failed. She wasn’t even a shadow of the fey and dazzling Hollywood designer she’d been; the only remnants of Cat’s mother were her difficult nature and the beautiful things that surrounded her. The disconnect of their conversations became a lump Cat couldn’t speak around, a call she couldn’t take.
The last Christmas in the Sedona house left a mental imprint of dust, broken things, and regret. The house was an artwork of tile and adobe perched below an impressive red cliff. The patio had a real fountain that no longer worked. Lots of things in her mother’s house had quit working. The Christmas tree was a cactus with lights on it; a Night Blooming Sirius that surprised them on Christmas Eve with seven giant, white blooms, like moons rising. Katherine’s long-time boyfriend was there, a man thirty-five years younger than Katherine, and they drank far too much gin and argued until Cat’s inner light leaked out like unspooling thread. Katherine stared at her a long, long time as if trying to remember something, or maybe who Cat was, then said one, final thing to Cat.
“You were such a funny, happy girl. When did you become so serious and dark?”
Cat didn’t want to be dark and serious. She didn’t want to be in charge of a funeral.
She agonized over what to do with the accumulation of broken pottery on the bench in the patio; she touched them, turned them over, and hesitated. The two broken Navajo pots and the broken chair in the laundryroom were more problematic because they were ancient and tragic, like the dead birds wrapped in plastic in the freezer. Beneath her mother’s easel chair she’d found the impossible box—a shoebox filled with ashes, her sister’s name, “Annie,” penciled on the gray cardboard.
Is this how things become forgotten in a world that discards what’s no longer useful, what is old, Cat wondered, all the broken things lie here collecting dust until the next generation throws them out?
What should she have done with Annie’s ashes?
Cat went back to her big, untidy, office library.
Her cell phone said “Pick up the phone, your brother is calling.”
Blue never knew Cat’s mom. Or his unfortunate half-sister, Annie. Or Cat’s tiny, half-brother with the faulty heart. Or Cat’s husband, Tony. Or Cat’s hero son. She found her half-brother, Blue, after all of those people who had been important in Cat’s life were gone. The distance between her and her brother was her father’s doing. She fixed that when her father died.
“You didn’t answer your phone,” Blue said.
“I didn’t hear it ring,” she said.
“Are you outside? Fixing fence or something?”
“No. I shut off the ringers. I can’t stand it anymore. The bill collectors—I can’t even think. It’s endless.”
“Christian send any money?”
“Hell no. He barely makes enough to pay for fuel. Last payday, the company charged him for the repairs on the stupid truck he leased; the check was minus $278.”
“Why doesn’t he quit?”
“He says he can’t get out of the lease. He doesn’t call anymore. All we do is argue.”
“I’m sorry. You got the garden in yet?”
“No… no this isn’t Oregon. It’ll freeze here in May.”
“You getting ready for the Farmer’s Market? When does that start?” Blue asked.
“Two months. The first week of May. I don’t even have a mixer that works anymore, so making the bread will be a bitch. I’ve gotta get the honey, get the mustards and jellies stocked up.”
She sighed, felt overwhelmed. Her eyes stung.
“I don’t care anymore.” Her voice broke. “I don’t even care if I live past today.”
“No no no no no. We have to fix that. Are you going anywhere? I’m gonna come to see you,” he said. “In two weeks, or three. Don’t go anywhere.”
She laughed at the irony. She couldn’t afford fuel to go to the grocery store.
“Why are you coming here?”
“Landscaping is dead here. I’m going to North Dakota to check it out. But I’m bringing your honey. To help you out.”
“Jeez Blue, that’s great. But I don’t know if that’ll help. I’m too old to start over. The economy may not recover soon enough.”
“You’re gonna get through this.”
“I don’t know, Blue. I’m so lonely. I don’t want to be alone.”
Blue came through Idaho the first week of April and delivered blackberry honey from his orchard for Cat to sell with the eggs and Artisan Breads at the Saturday Farmer’s Market. Blue packed the honey into mason jars because nothing says homegrown like a mason jar. She’d gotten the garden tilled, the seeds into most of the rows and was working on the water system. Blue walked through the rows while Cat explained what she’d planted and why.
“I love the squash and sunflowers because they’re yellow and easy. My customers like ‘em.”
When they got to the tomato row, Blue pulled a tiny plastic zip bag from his shirt pocket and placed it in her hand.
“Soak these until they sprout. Then put one seedling between each tomato plant,” he said. “You can hang red Christmas balls on the plants when they get bigger.”
Cat peered at the package. It was full of round seeds the size of glass pin heads.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Pot. Good shit, sweetheart. This is better stuff than the old days. This is called Red Dirt. It’s perfect. Grow a little of that to help you get through the year.”
He looked at her sideways.
“If you don’t go to jail,” he laughed.
“How do you grow it?” Cat asked.
The blood beat at her throat sped up. This felt… momentous.
“Just like tomatoes. But trim it more. Take all the big leaves off. If any of the plants get white flowers, those are males, you don’t want them. Pull the whole plant out and toss it.”
“How will I know when it’s ready?”
“The tops turn reddish and get sticky.”
She turned the packet over in her fingers.
Huh, she thought. How crazy is this?
It was the first interesting thing in a succession of faceless days.
Cat sprouted the seeds, and planted the seedlings. She felt like Jack growing the Beanstalk, except she hadn’t traded a cow off for the magic beans. Nine plants sprang up between the tomatoes, surrounded by sunflowers. The Red Dirt plants were vigorous and stinky, the smell particularly strong in the mornings. She worried someone coming in the gate would get a whiff of their musky, skunk odor. But Cat never saw anyone except when she went to the Farmer’s Market on Saturdays. It was just her and the dogs, and all the chores. Christian had only been back to Idaho once since February. And now, they couldn’t even talk on the phone without getting angry.
The anger surprised Cat the most—she was angry when people talked about their jobs, their significant others, even fishing. It didn’t matter if the talk was good or bad, it simply angered her they had things to talk about. She was angry about everything. She’d never been an angry person—sad maybe, a little too poetic and dramatic most times, but never just outright angry. She was angry she was old. And alone. Cat withdrew from her friends; they didn’t want to hear about her problems—shit, she didn’t even want to hear about her problems.
Except for Indy. Every Saturday, Indy came to the Market to buy eggs and bread and hang out for a bit—she brought Cat coffee and joked with the customers. Indy had a laid back, acidic view of the world, and a tongue-in-cheek sarcasm that made people laugh. She was wild and beautiful, and had recently hooked up with a rock-band drummer named Sticks. Lately she was smiling a lot.
Why can’t I be young and in love? Cat thought, angry with herself for envying Indy, her most loyal, and beautiful friend. The worst part was, she didn’t imagine it would get better. All the fixes were terminal.
“What’s the matter girlfriend?” Indy asked.
It was going to be another hot, July Saturday. Indy set a pair of Brevés on the table and flopped carelessly into the other chair. Cat loved Brevés as much as Indy did, but could no longer share Indy’s guiltlessness over cream.
“Nothin that wasn’t the matter last week, or last month,” Cat replied.
She took a five dollar bill from a customer who bought a sourdough loaf.
“We love your bread,” the woman said.
“Thank you so much,” Cat said.
“Try the coffee cake,” Indy told the woman. “It won an award from Better Homes and Gardens.”
The woman took a sample, looked surprised, said, “ummm, that’s good,” as if good was something she hadn’t expected, and left without buying a piece.
Cat waited until the customer left before she said, “I have a life without Fs. Got no friends, no family, no food, no fun, no fishing, and no fucking. It’s all work.”
“Go down to the Boise Mission and adopt someone.” Indy said flippantly. “I saw a guy at the gas station with a sign said he’d work for food. He might like fishing. And…”
“Seriously,” Cat said, trying not to laugh.
“You’re too uptight. You should smoke some pot and chill out,” Indy teased.
“…got some of that,” Cat replied quietly.
“I have some of that,” Cat repeated.
“Really?” Indy studied Cat’s face closely. “Pot? Seriously?”
“Yeah in the garden. Something called Red Dirt. I don’t know if it’s ready though. Don’t know much about it. Pulled two out with white flowers and tossed em.”
“Huh. Too bad Sticks is in Australia, he could look at it. Hey, I’ll come see,” she volunteered.
“Okay. That’d be cool.”
They went out to the ranch after the market. The garden was full of languid light. Tall, yellowfaced sunflowers leaned over the plants, guarding them like soldiers. The rows were canyonlike, carpeted with a mulch of lawn clippings.
Cat slipped her shoes off at the edge of the garden to walk barefoot down the rows, and Indy did that same. Indy ran the leaves of the plants through her hands. The dogs, JR and Sprite, made a big deal of checking beneath each plant as Indy touched it. Then they found something in another row that interested them and got busy checking under the squash plants. The resin smell of the cannabis was powerful and the plants had a sharp, lambent energy. Their stout growth was dense and dark; Cat cropped their tops every couple of days to keep them from growing taller than the tomatoes. The serrated, deeply cut leaves of the weeds reminded Cat of an art nouveau print.
Indy tasted a top leaf.
“I don’t think it’s ready,” she said, chewing.
Indy’s sunburnt chestnut hair caught the light and haloed her face. She looked like a sunflower goddess.
Cat wondered what “ready” tasted like. To her, it tasted musky—like it smelled. The tomatoes were growing better than they ever had; branches of red fruit laced festively through the weed—like strings of red lights. It smelled like she had a skunk in the garden though. Cat worried it might flavor the tomatoes; a skunk had done that once, when he sprayed in her garden.
“I have a friend here in Boise,” Indy said. “His name’s Danny. He knows his shit. Mostly the other end of the growing cycle, you know, the finished product end, but he knows when it’s good. Sometimes I get stash from him. But hey, now I don’t have to, I can get it from you. He could probably sell some for you. He would know when it was ready. I’ll call him.”
“Okay. That would be cool.”
As Cat finished setting up her booth, she glanced toward the park. She saw them cross the parking lot. It had to be Danny with Indy. Shock paralyzed her arms and legs. Danny was so familiar—the way he squared his shoulders, the way he carried himself, the way he turned and gazed her way as Indy pointed—that her heartbeat banged in her ears. He was one of the ghosts. She knew him. Air socked out of her. She began to tremble.
“Cat, this is Danny-Boy,” Indy said.
She set three coffees on Cat’s table and appropriated a chair, waving Danny into the other.
“I mentioned him last week. He’s interested in your garden.”
Danny’s lazy smile was brilliant with perfect teeth. His baseball cap was pulled so low she couldn’t see his face well, but the unshaved cheeks and lines around his mouth said he’d spent a rough Friday night and was paying for it. She smelled him—cigarettes, booze, and something familiar, something that spun her with a welcoming sensation in the same way coming home did after spending too long away.
“Hi, Cat,” he said.
Smoke-rough, and deep, his voice made her throat clog.
Her voice failed. Words wouldn’t rise past the overwhelming tightness in her throat.
Who is he? she wondered frantically. Which ghost? Who had finally come back to her?
All at once she had a flood of customers. She handed people their selections, but her hands shook and she dropped their change. She tried to hitch the apron down over her butt, conscious of Indy and Danny sitting behind her. When the slug of customers left, she turned and leaned against the table, unsteady. Sounds swirled around them, snippets of conversation and laughter. Movement and colors fluttered. Her head was reeling. Indy was staring at her oddly. She couldn’t look right at Danny, fearing he would recognize her panic. Then he grinned and she could breathe.
“Thought I could come by later,” he said. “Are you busy?’
Cat smiled, suddenly and brilliantly as if at a joke, and she saw his double take. Felt it, like a spark. Hope rinsed her, even as she wryly wondered what someone who didn’t have a ranch did with a workfree Saturday afternoon.
“I’m a Ranch Girl. The chores never end. I’ll be there,” she said dryly.
“I have to go into town, and then I thought I’d come by—check it out. You know.”
“Yeah, sure,” Cat said.
She gave him directions, uncertain he heard them. He was wan and his skin was drawn tightly over the fine bones of his face. He stood up quickly.
“Cat, Indy,” he said roughly, “I’d love to hang out with two beautiful ladies, but maybe another time. It’s been lovely. I’ll see you later.”
He flashed Cat another smile, hugged Indy, and was gone.
“Oh wow,” Cat remarked.
This must be how it feels to be struck by lightening, she thought.
She subsided into his chair with a sigh, reached for the coffee, and spilled it all over herself.
Indy glanced at her sharply. “What just happened?”
“I don’t the hell know,” Cat said. “How old is he?”
“My age—a couple years older I think.”
“I know him.”
“I know him.”
“I heard what you said,” Indy said impertinently, “but I’m rather vague on what that means.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Cat said slowly. “His voice, his energy. I know him.”
“Maybe you’ve met him somewhere in town. Maybe he’s been to the Market before,” Indy said, mystified. “Maybe he reminds you of someone.”
“No. It’s a different kind of knowing.”
What Cat didn’t want to say to Indy was that she’d been waiting for that voice, that presence all her life.
I know him, Cat thought …from somewhere more important than all this.
“Well,” Indy said in her most cheeky voice, “then you know not to front him anything.”
“What does that mean?” Cat asked.
“It means pretty boys with empty pockets and big appetites get what they want. And I see the girl in you suddenly all smiley and fumble-fingered. Danny has a way with the women, especially BBWs.”
“What are BBWs?” Cat asked.
“Big Busted Women,” Indy said with a laugh. “I’m one of them. So I’ve heard it.”
“Don’t be silly,” Cat said indignantly.
But she felt the creep of heat into her face.
And what about pretty girls? Cat thought regretfully. Pretty girls get what they want when they’re young and… BBWs.
Cat knew how that worked. Once upon a time that worked for her too.
Cat scooped the piles of mail off the buffet, shoved the bread pans into a cupboard and the dishes into the dishwasher. She ran the dust mop over the floor to get up the dog hair and made sure the toilet was clean. His rusted mini-pickup had a yellow light on the top, listed to one side, and stuttered to a halt like the aged grandmother of an ATV. The dogs met him at the gate and she watched him drive in carefully so he wouldn’t run them over as they dashed around his truck. Last light drifted in the garden as she led Danny out through the sunflowers. He gripped a beer and stumbled over the corrugates. He found the plants without her help.
“Wow, they’re skunky” he said, touching them reverently. “Aren’t they something? Have you seen how the leaves look close up?”
He ran them through his palms. There was paint on the back of his hands and freckles of it misted his forearms. He’d shaved and trimmed his beard and mustache in a thin line that defined his mouth and jaw. Cat wanted to touch him, to see if where her finger met his skin would set off a spark.
“It isn’t ready yet,” he said.
He tasted a small piece he took from a top, feeling the branches with his fingertips. He took the branch and held it.
“Feel this right here,” he said.
When she did, he nodded.
“These need to feel stickier.”
He took her fingers and touched them to his and then drew away to test the stickiness.
It didn’t spark.
“See?” he asked.
“Oh,” Cat said, disappointed.
“A couple more weeks. It’ll be sweet then. Before it freezes. It smells green still, like homegrown. Smells good, though, don’t you think?”
His crooked smile was dazzling. He broke off a small, fat bud and handed it to her, his amber eyes slow like thick honey.
“Dry that for a couple days and then we can try it—see if it’s any good.”
Cat was dumbfounded. The backwards hat had a punk swagger—bespoke a defiant, rebellious disposition. His hair feathered the collar of his tie-dye T-shirt. She was burning.
Would his hands feel hot or cool on her skin? Blood pulsed harshly beneath the skin of her throat. She wanted to touch him. Would he be worth the awkwardness and the risk for that sensation—the feel of skin? The feel of skin. She couldn’t remember wondering that for—she couldn’t recall how long. How long had it been since she’d felt skin slide against hers?
Self-consciously she pulled her shirttail down. Then Cat remembered that she was old—it occurred to her that she probably looked like an eccentric old women to him. The thought cut at her like grief, like a widow’s knife, and something dark and hungry slithered at her throat. It wasn’t one of her ghosts, and was far more lethal than loneliness.
“I don’t smoke,” Cat said. “Christian did, before he had to get a job elsewhere.”
“Yeah. My girlfriend doesn’t smoke and doesn’t like it when I do. It’s not cool.”
“That seems like an odd relationship,” Cat said.
“Yeah. It didn’t seem odd at the time. She’s mean when she drinks. I liked mean women—I married two of them. But I’m not so sure I do anymore.”
Get used to that idea, Cat thought sourly. I’m not sure I should have put the shoebox with Annie’s ashes into the foot of mom’s coffin. I’m not sure about anything anymore.
“Why don’t you smoke?” he asked. “I heard you’re a writer. Doesn’t it call the muse or something? Make your writing better?”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “Don’t think I have a muse.”
“Maybe you need to get one. Maybe you should find out if it works,” he suggested. “You got a beer?”
“Sure,” she’d said, hoping she did.
He opened the beer and stood at the kitchen counter while he drank it. As she moved around the kitchen, his eyes lingered on her like curious fingers. When his phone went off a third time, he left.
Everyone leaves, she thought.
She was angry that she even cared.
They smoked the dried bud the next week; it made her head feel like hot lava was running upward into her hair roots. Danny said it “wasn’t bad” but for someone “who smoked a lot” it wasn’t the strongest. She remembered why she didn’t smoke pot; the hunger was a gnawing, physical thing that she couldn’t differentiate from raw sensuality. It heightened her emotions and senses. She resisted the urge to touch him. She wanted sensation, skin, sex, and in the absence of that, food. When he left, she raided the refrigerator. Being alone and hungry was far worse than just being alone.
She pulled the plants before the frost and hung them in the shed; he found a couple buyers. He helped her clean it and smiled impishly when he set aside a piece for himself that looked especially good. His eyes gleamed when he looked up and found her scowling at him.
“Three for them, one for Danny,” he quipped. “Glary Cat-eyes.”
Cat laughed. He made her laugh a lot.
With the money, Cat caught up the power bill, and bought hay. Indy always needed some, and her older women friends bought a little now and then. And her Pot Buddy—Danny-Boy. He went through a bag in a couple of days. For Cat, it was fuel and grocery money, anyway and bought the chicken feed.
When the moment came that Cat fronted Danny a bag, Indy’s words echoed in her head. It was like the peanut butter cookies she gave the dogs—a bribe so he’d visit gracefully. She was angry with herself that she was that needy.
February was warmer than usual. A year ago her boyfriend, Christian, left to drive truck. Cat had unplugged the water tank heaters because the tanks weren’t freezing up anymore and the heaters were costly to run. But, it froze during the night and there was two inches of solid ice on each tank.
Do fish look up and see the stars? she wondered, as she removed their frozen vistas.
The pieces shattered on the ground in a glitter of sound like a broken windowpane.
I am like them, she thought. I am the broken glass I peer through.
Faded prairie grass was dazzled with frost—the green flash of spring was still in a holding pattern. Com trails brushed a thin sky. She tossed hay to the young horses first so they wouldn’t paw the feeder; she would have sold the buckskin and the black one easily before the price of hay doubled. Now, as she threw them feed she imagined tossing dollar bills into the garbage disposal.
Her nose ran from the cold and she rubbed it against her glove. She stopped abruptly and stared at her gloves. Wasn’t it just three weeks ago that both gloves were covered with blood?—badger or dog, it was hard to tell which since both dogs bled profusely after the battle. She turned her hands over; the yellow leather was polished from use, but no hint of blood remained. Last week, she’d picked up two dead chickens. And the week in November when it got so cold and the mare had died—she wiped the foam from the horse’s mouth and nose. The same gloves picked up the dead mouse she didn’t want Sprite to eat.
Cat unzipped her chore coat and wiped her nose on the inside lining. Her nose ran when it was cold, or when she opened the bales of alfalfa. She was allergic to the dust in the hay and the chicken grain. How easily she forgot the awful places those gloves had been when her nose was running. Whoever said you died from germs had lied. She hadn’t died. The pioneers hadn’t died. She wondered how many germs she inhaled, or tasted, or ate every day, or every week—every lifetime.
When Christian left, it took her three months to quit moping and another three before she could lift the bales and fifty pound bags of feed. It was up to her to fix the tractor and haul the dead horse to the rendering plant. She’d pitied the person in the car behind her, having to stare at that frozen horse strapped to the flatbed, legs sticking straight out. She was supposed to call Deadman to pick up the carcass, but she could see the rendering plant across the prairie—it was that close. Why should she pay them $160 when she could haul it there in ten minutes? As it was they charged her $20 to take it off the truck.
You even have to pay to die, Cat thought. It should be easier.
No. She probably wouldn’t die so easily.
Really, Cat thought, I don’t want to live long enough to know how I die.
Like my mom did, she thought.
Like my mom.
She pulled off a glove and blew her nose. JR was certain there was something under a barrel and Sprite believed him. They were muddy nose to tail and grinned at her hopefully. She turned the barrel on edge and JR caught a mousie. She picked it up before Sprite could eat it—JR never ate anything Cat hadn’t cooked first and so far, they hadn’t had to resort to cooking mice.
I’ll remember that I used the left glove to pick this up, Cat thought. This time, I WILL remember.
The dogs would have to be washed before they went in. Washing took dog cookies. A bribe so they’d do it gracefully. Cat closed the chicken shed door and brushed the hay off her chore jacket. She’d lost another five pounds and the jacket hung loose.
When did I wash this coat last? she wondered. She couldn’t remember one day from the next because nothing defined her days. Except Danny.
Cat wiped her nose with her gloved hand.
“Damn it,” she said when she realized she’d used her glove again.
Why didn’t she die? she wondered. All those nasty things on her gloves. Whoever created anti-bacterial wipes was just conning the whole world into thinking germs killed you. Or maybe that you wouldn’t die.
I have got to get new gloves, Cat thought.
Her cell phone played Dylan’s: “Rainy Day Woman.” It made her laugh when she heard his ring.
“Hey,” Cat said.
“What’re you doin?” Danny asked.
“… chores,” Cat told him.
“Thought I might drop by…”
“I’ll be here.”
She smiled. The smile bloomed from the inside, small, happy bubbles of zeal rising from her guts to her skin and face.
He smoked a lot to be out of stash already. He owed her money for the last one. She was going to tell him he had to pay her. She was going to be firm. She wasn’t going to let his pretty smile talk her out of anything—after all, she had a few regular customers—older women who didn’t want to deal with riff raff to get high. She’d be mean. He liked mean women.
She was in her office writing when he finally showed up. He was driving his girlfriend’s car these days because he didn’t have insurance on his truck. He wasn’t happy about it. Lately, he and his girlfriend didn’t seem to be happy at all. Still, the girfriend’s imperative phone calls kept the leash tight. Still, he never stayed long.
But you asked for it, Cat thought, envious that he had someone he saw every day. Someone to be there when the dreams were too dark.
He paid for the bag he got last week, and asked to owe for another. Of course she said okay. Instead of standing in the kitchen, he followed her to the office.
“You never take me in here,” he said. “I want to see…”
“It’s a mess,” Cat said. “It’s my space and it’s a mess, but I like it.”
He looked up, admired the bookcases that went all the way to the ceiling.
“How do you get the books?” he asked.
“I climb on the counter if it’s a lower shelf. If I want something off of up there,” she pointed, “I go get the big ladder.”
“What, do you put your least favorite authors up there or something?”
“The books I use the least anyway.”
She reclined in her high-backed chair and put her feet on the desk. She was herself in that space, ageless, guiltless, and powerful. He stayed standing.
“Let’s smoke a bowl,” he suggested.
“Only if you sit down,” Cat said.
He sat on the edge of the other chair. He filled the pipe from what she already gave him. After a few minutes he sighed.
“I feel like I’m in my professor’s office,” he said. “Now you’re going to talk to me about my essay. Maybe I’m in trouble.”
“I’m myself in here,” she said. “Like when I’m cooking.”
“I cooked Thanksgiving dinner for my girlfriend and she complained about the stuffing,” he said with a laugh.
“You cook?” she asked, surprised.
“Yeah, I like to cook.”
“Why do you cook if she doesn’t like it? And this is February, why are you still thinking about it?”
“Wow, now I feel like I’m at the shrink’s. I need a couch and a cigarette if you’re gonna analyze me,” he said. “I fixed dinner last night—soaked the Cornish game hens in lemon. She said she didn’t like the lemon.”
He paused. Finished the pipeful.
“I need a cigarette. I don’t think I like it in here.”
“We can go somewhere else,” she said.
“Like where?” he asked.
His eyes darkened and fixed on her intently.
Oh, she thought. Oh really? Cat knew that gleam of speculation.
“Kitchen,” she said. “You can cook dinner. I won’t complain. No one ever cooks for me.”
They stood at the island and smoked another bowlful. She got him a beer. His smoky eyes lingered, as if her simple passage of the kitchen was a hypnotic dance. Finally, he took two steps and caught her around the waist, spinning her around. He took her hand and raised it, and they fumbled into a two step, giggling at their dancing gracelessness.
“Your eyes are like winter,” he said. “Smarter though,” he laughed. “You could make me stay after school, teacher.”
She brushed her fingers lightly over the scar on his forearm.
“You said you got that in a bar fight. What happened?” she asked.
“I always say that. I got it when I wrecked my truck.”
“Oh. Oh I see.”
She touched the scar again. The scent of the Camels, his skin, the beer was an alluring mix of memories of her father, and the ghost she hadn’t identified. She softened into him. He let her go and stepped back.
“I have to go, Cat,” he said. “I’m sorry. I have to get the car back.”
She went back to the office to finish the last chapter of the book. Cat kept visualizing him cooking in nothing but shorts and an apron. It was distracting and girlish. She was old enough to be his mother. She’d watched her own mother metamorphose from a vibrant, creative force into an old woman drowning in a gin-soaked relationship with a younger man. Her mother never aged inside—she just became brittle and disappointed. Angry. Her mother’s anger had alienated Cat, and made her afraid and sad.
From here on it didn’t get better.
She couldn’t shake the mood. Cat was too distracted to edit. Instead, she picked up her poetry journal and went to bed to write. There were little pearls of mud on her feather bed. She brushed them off. JR was asleep on her pillow, and Sprite curled on the down comforter. There was mud everywhere. She laughed and moved JR. It was like sleeping with her gloves—she didn’t want to think about where they’d been. She tried to brush the dirt out, and shook her quilt.
A little dirt wouldn’t kill her apparently. She’d hated it when Christian ate in bed—it made crunchies. But look at her now. Why would she imagine anyone but the dogs would want to climb into her bed? No wonder Christian went on the road—no dog hair. It was better she was alone. It was disappointing, but maybe it would be more disappointing some other way. She wondered if she’d ever know that feel-good-breathless moment again, or if this was it. Danny wanted that feeling—bought it for a momentary high. She didn’t want to feel good for only a moment—especially not for a moment, because it made the loneliness that followed even harder. She wanted to find that high feeling all the time, from the inside. And that feeling wasn’t there anymore. Everything was so different than she planned. So disappointing.
This is how things become forgotten and useless. They just get old.
How did it come to this? Cat wondered.
She chewed the pen. She read the unfinished poem she’d started… how long ago now?
“There was a certain quietness to names carved in granite—
gray, red, or like this—mirror-black.”
“She reached out, touched her reflection in the stone
his name beneath her fingertips.
Cold shocked a small surprise of breath.
She stared back from the granite—lost—”
Yeah, Cat thought. I’m lost and broken. Like glass. I am the glass I look through.
Do fish look up and see stars? Do the ghosts look up and see me? Am I waiting for them, or are they waiting for me?
She turned off the light and closed her eyes. What would she would dream about? Her dreams were so restless, so hopeful, haunted by the still-living ghosts, as if they’d never left her—never died. They didn’t let her sleep peacefully. They demanded her presence. Made her afraid.
The phone played “Everybody Must Get Stoned.”
Breathless, she found it and opened it.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“About to be sleeping,” she laughed.
She heard him breathing, realized he’d been drinking.
“Uh,” he said. “…can I come over, Cat?”
“And do what?” she asked, heart hammering.
“Stay the night with my beautiful friend,” he said.
She felt like a diver, standing on a high cliff, feeling the wind, looking down. Unfathomable water and rocks. She took a deep breath.
“Yes,” Cat said, hesitant.
“…you sure?” he whispered.
She knew him. Someone who’d left long ago. Someone she’d loved. Someone who loved her.
Which one? she wondered.
It didn’t matter. She’d been waiting. Interminably. She loved him still and again.
He’d come back. The relief was a thawing from fear. A flood of warmth began in her center and rinsed even her fingerbones and hair roots.
But she sensed the ground open, like a lusting void. She would slide in, inevitably. They waited. The stones were chiseled with their names. They whispered her name.