There’s a gang, or pack—Jesus, what do you call a slew of wild housecats?—of three-legged feral housecats that terrorize the neighborhood trashcans. Five cats. Each with a different leg lopped off except for the fifth, of course, which is missing its tail. They prowl the driveways on trash night, setting all sorts of commotion going, what with their missing legs making them tippy and the way they rub against the cans to knock them down. The neighborhood’s lit afire: the Westies jump out of their sleeping-nests and onto the sofabacks, yapping in their front windows; the Airedale gruffs on his chain; our collie paces the backdoor.
Noreen, a little old lady across the street feeds the cats. Not out of pity; these things are beasts. I’m not sure why but she lures them onto her drive with dollops of mayonnaise which, apparently cats like very much. When Meg and I see them, their whiskers glisten from so much fatty oil and licking.
Meg and I are old—nearing fifty—and trying not to get fat(ter) so here we are tonight, it being Thursday, out walking the neighborhood when Noreen calls to us, “Oh lookee, lookee!” She’s at the Weber and shaking a spatula and tongs in the air. Truth be told, Noreen is the one person we pray we won’t see on these post-supper walks. Maybe what I can’t stand are the orange and yellow plastic dahlias in pots that line the pathway to her front door, or the porch swing coated and overcoated in rust-bubbled white paint. Or maybe it’s just her.
Before I can take hold of Meg’s arm to gently keep her in the road, she’s off neutral ground and is heading up Noreen’s driveway just like the cats.
“You two are simply charming, the way you go out walking,” hollers Noreen. “When Richard was alive, we liked The Wheel. Now I can’t even spell right since he’s gone.”
“You miss him, don’t you?” Meg’s good at stating the obvious in a way other people find comforting.
“But where is Ann tonight?” says Noreen, not minding a few flare-ups from the fire. “I loved to see her ride her little blue bike around with you.”
“That was twelve years ago, Noreen. Ann’s nearly seventeen now,” I say. “She zips around in a car now.”
“I’m not a dingbat,” she says, “I was just saying how nice it was seeing you all together. What a happy family you were.”
Meg shields her eyes against the rim of orange light sinking behind Noreen’s roofline, says, “Ann’s swimming with a friend tonight.”
Maybe. That’s what she told us when she asked to stay out late. This is June. School’s done so she’s been staying out late with friends all week and I’m beginning to wonder if we haven’t lost some essential grip as people who matter to her in the least. She leaves the house before we get up in the morning and comes home after we’re deep asleep. She phones periodically to check in, get approvals. I miss her. I haven’t said that to Meg because she’d been saying she couldn’t wait until senior year came and then college so we could have the house and our love life back. Me, I’m a little scared Ann will go and never look back.
I’m not Ann’s real father—a fact I’m the only one remembering around here. And that’s big of them, maybe. But a little disorienting, too—like if you just believe a lie hard enough, it’s the gospel truth. Kind of makes you wonder what’s wrong with lying if it can be undone so easily.
I suppose I need to explain a bit. It used to be that Meg hated her mother with such fury I thought I could feel the prick of fangs when she kissed my neck. Meg didn’t want kids and that was the only thing her mother ever talked about. By association and probably because it was easier to believe I was the bad guy instead of her own daughter, her mother hated me. For ten years it was like that. Then Meg got pregnant and I thought I’d go. I thought so, planned so, had moved out long before she was showing, but there was some chance it was mine, right?, so when Meg phoned panting, I went to the hospital. And when I held Ann, Annabelle, when I smelled Meg’s blood in this baby’s hair, I came back, completely.
You don’t believe that, right? Too easy? Or too hard? Maybe if I’d been nineteen, twenty-six even. But thirty-one was different. I’d been with Meg ten years and realized I could walk away with nothing, nothing to show for that third of a life. Still, she’d broken me. Another man inside her—all that shit-thinking that goes with it. But once Ann was out, while the doctor stitched up Meg’s third degree tear, I went with the baby to the bassinet, to her first weigh-in, first temperature, heel inking, and first bath. She didn’t cry just yet. She peed on the doctor in an arc impressive for any girl. Then she hiccupped. And throughout all of this, her gooey little fingers held one of mine.
Too schmaltzy, right? That’s all I’ve got. The smell of her dirty in blood. The swoop of eyelashes. The tiny spasms in her throat and how when I blew lightly over her face, they stopped long enough for her to purse her lips and flutter her eyes. It didn’t seem so hard then, or different, than any morning a man wakes up and truly is a father. I figured choosing it was about the same as it choosing me. There wasn’t going to be a phone call to the other guy—because Meg swore Annabelle was mine and because, I suspect, she didn’t know his last name or number. We’d had a rough patch, that’s all. No matter, while the doctor stitched up Meg, I chose.
Ann’s sixteen now and almost disappeared from our lives entirely. Meg and I haven’t seen Ann, actually seen her for days and days.
Peering down into the grill, Noreen shrieks.
“What is it?” calls Meg. She looks back, says, “Be nice, Frank,” and we walk the rest of the way up the drive.
“I believe it’s ruined,” says Noreen.
Meatloaf. On the grill. Which, of course, has fallen apart in eggy glops down through the rack. She pinches the tongs together and slips them through one of the side holes in the grate.
“Watch it,” I tell her as she scoops bits out of the coals and packs them together on a be-ketchupped platter. “That for the cats?” I say.
She holds out her arm where one slim stripe of flesh is pinking up. “Look here,” she says. “Damn it to hell.”
“Can we get you some ice for that?” I offer, though it’s not much of a burn at all.
“Noreen, your fingers!” says Meg, and sure enough they’re all pricked and scratched, both scabbed over and freshly raw.
She pulls back her hand, tucking it into the bitty front pocket of her apron. “The kitties are a bit shy,” she says, shaking us off and heading for the kitchen only to return a minute later with tuna chunked in a heap, the new centerpiece of her ketchup moat.
“You shouldn’t be feeding them,” says Meg. “They’ll just keep coming around. They’ll grow to depend on you.”
“It keeps them out of the trash,” she says, and from the way she’s positioning a sprig of mint she’s torn off the bush at her side door, I see this really is for the cats and she’s making quite a production out of it.
“Noreen,” I say. “Seriously, you’re not keeping them out of anything. They come prowling around every night.”
She’s walking down to the end of her driveway and we follow her. “There,” she says, setting the platter in a spot of grass already mashed down. “We’ll have meatloaf another time.”
“They probably prefer tuna,” says Meg.
“She shouldn’t do this,” I say to my wife but there’s no point in repeating it. We leave Noreen and head home. The corner lamppost flickers and I mark it, intend to call the cityon Noreen’s behalf. “Do you think she’s all right?”
“She’ll be okay,” says Meg.
We keep walking and I can feel her heartbeat in my hand: a little quiet but steady. Please don’t dislike her. She broke my heart but maybe that’s not the end of the world we all think it is.
We reach home, the walkway, our door, the dog—aforementioned pacing collie, slowed by her nap and hip dysplasia, comes head low, wagging and blinky. Winnie’s old now, too, and the vet says no more long walks or her hips will give out for sure so we either sneak out when she’s sleeping or pretend we’re getting in the car. But I think she knows. She presses her head against my knees and I rub her bony neck.
Ann hasn’t come home yet. Meg’s gaze falls to the bowl by the back door where we all toss our keys. I don’t say anything. Ann’s coming off a breakup with a boy we all liked. Meg says give her space, so we’re officially giving her space by letting her come and go as she pleases.
We begin our nightly rhythms: Meg tidies the kitchen while I open the freezer and deliberate over what to thaw for tomorrow’s supper. We head to the bathroom where I strip and Meg leans over the counter to study her face in the mirror. She touches her left cheek, touches it again. She’s unhappy with something there, the beginnings of a spot maybe. I squeeze in beside her, take the toothpaste and my brush, give her hip a nudge with my own. “It’s nothing,” I tell her, “a freckle maybe,” but she goes on touching that same place on her cheek.
Finally she flosses, smiling while she drags the thread down and back up around each tooth. It’s a practice thing she does, smiling, to keep her face from becoming a natural frown. I go for a good long piss and look at her, at the side seams of her panties, the silky strap of her camisole slid down one shoulder, and I want to touch her back. Just that, her back. Not to interrupt her progress from top molars to lower bicuspids. Not to get a kiss out of her or start something sexy or deep. Just to brush her skin and know she is there despite where she went all those years ago with Ann’s father.
I go to bed, lie there still and drifting.
“Is she home?” I say.
“There was a note. She’s staying over at Samantha’s.” Meg pulls the covers off of me. “Come on.”
Winnie noses around us to be first out the back door, but Meg takes her by the collar and sends her back inside. She leads me to the garden wall where spent clematis vines are twiggy and full of the pin oak’s crisp leaves. Meg points. “Up there,” she says. “Hear it?”
I don’t, whatever it is. The night’s quieter than breathing.
She drags over a patio chair. Where there isn’t any bird shit, it’s yellow with pollen.
“What?” I ask. Though the air is just shy of too warm, we stand clutching our sleep clothes closed at the neck, whispering in just the barest glow of light from the back porch that reaches around the side of the house here. It feels like a secret.
Meg uses my shoulder to get herself up onto the chair. Then I hold her hips while she rummages around in the vines.
“Meg,” I say. “Be careful. What are we doing?”
Then I hear it. A quiet chirp, raspy and trailing.
“There,” she says.
“It shouldn’t be cheeping at night,” she whispers. “At night is bad. At night means mom’s gone, dad’s gone, and nobody’s coming back.” She turns around with the nest in her hands now.
“Probably the cats—”
“Of course it was the cats.”
“What should we do?” I say.
“We don’t leave it to die.”
“What if its parents come back?”
“They’re not coming back,” she says. “Only the cats will be back.”
“The shelter’s closed now. What time is it do you think?”
Meg has saved birds before and I know that’s what she’s thinking of. There was a mourning dove with an eyeball hanging right out of its socket. A neighbor cat attacked it and Meg tried to chase off the cat by screaming at it. When that did nothing but get the cat to flick its ear over and over at her, she scruffed the cat and hurled it in the air. Then she scooped up the bird in a towel and drove to the Humane Society with the bird on her lap. They put it down the second she handed it over and they saw the eye. But humane death was still a saving and she felt better even if she threw up all afternoon.
I try to reason with her tonight. “Why don’t we just situate the nest back against the trellis, safe at the back, and we can come get it in the morning? That’s the best thing, right? Aren’t they always saying that about wildlife: don’t move it unless you have to?”
Her eyebrows bunch and her mouth gets all pinched like a tantrumming two year old. She shelters the nest against her stomach.
That’s when the cats come. Or maybe they’ve been here in the bushes watching. They don’t wrap around my legs or even the legs of the patio table. They aren’t that kind of cat anymore. Their spines are constant bell curves, the fur at their shoulder blades is practically moussed that’s how spiky it is. They hiss and their mouths stay open to show their teeth. I would jump up on another chair if they weren’t so pathetic looking without their fourth legs (and tail). They’ve all acclimated pretty well to their amputations—all but one of which is from being hit by a car back when they were pets. There are rumors about the fourth and what the Pietrowski kid did or didn’t do to his own cat with a lighter and some chewing gum. No one in the neighborhood recognizes or knows what happened to the tabby without its tail, but watch the cats a while and you’ll see him lick and nibble that stump so long you come out the other end pretty certain he ate it himself.
“Do something,” says Meg, kicking her bare toes at that tailless one standing on its two hind feet to get a better sniff of what Meg is holding. I swear I see the cat lick his lips. I go for the door, let Winnie out but she barrels through me and limps right past Meg and the cats.
“Jesus, Meg, I don’t know,” I say, already my allergy is kicking in. I sneeze twice and want to rub my eyes. “Can’t you just put down the nest? Put down the nest! Or throw it maybe!”
“How can you say that?” The bird goes chirp again, right on cue.
The white cat without a front paw jumps up on the table. He starts rocking back and forth the way cats do just before a big pounce.
“Frank, get some tuna or something!”
“We don’t eat tuna,” I say, fully aware of how stupid it sounds. “I’ll find something.”
Inside, I open the cheese drawer of the fridge. We have salami but that doesn’t seem right. Dogs love cat food, so I get Winnie’s kibble. That’s not right either, though. I keep grabbing really stupid boxes or cans of things so that by the time I notice light coming from underneath Ann’s door, I have quite a collection of idiotic jars of olives and bread crumbs on the counter.
I knock. “It’s Dad. You still up?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she says.
“I need to ask you something.”
She doesn’t answer, which is teenager for all right, fine.
“Ann,” I say, putting my hand to the knob.
“I’m not opening the door.”
“Mom’s out back,” I tell her. “There’s a bird and those cats. Don’t go out there, okay?”
She only sighs.
“I need the broom,” I tell her. “I can’t find it.”
She opens the door but hides behind it. Out comes the broom.
I take a second longer than necessary here with her arm. I haven’t seen it in a while. Meg says things are fine but Ann goes out swimming or studying or at a movie every night and all day long. She doesn’t eat with us. She doesn’t talk to us. And she’s doing just fine. When I ask Meg about it she just says, “I hated my mother for all of high school, all of college, and then some,” and that’s that. Okay, so Ann has reached the stage of hating her mother. But why am I implicated in that? And why hate Meg, who has made every decision pertaining to Ann solely on the reverse basis of what her own mother would have done? And then she not only does the opposite but does it double. Like when Ann wanted to see Panic at the Disco play Cleveland on a school night, Meg not only said yes, but made her and her friends a hotel reservation and gave her $35.00 to help with gas. And when Ann was fourteen and said she’d had enough of the color purple, which was part of a larger patriarchal oppression as a gender-pre-approved color for girls, Meg not only replaced all the towels in the hall bath with baby blue, she also donated her best purple wraparound skirt to Good Will. That’s Meg: everything her mother was not, so that Ann would never hate her the way Meg grew up hating her own mother—and for nothing really. It’s inevitable, I guess, no matter what a mother does.
That’s what the Cosmo in my dentist’s waiting room says. I’ve been having a lot of work done and spent several mornings this week taking the quizzes and reading mother-daughter squabble articles while waiting for the Novocain to kick in.
So Meg thinks things are fine and I can’t really tell her otherwise, but standing here outside Ann’s door, seeing her thin arm and the delicate knob of wrist bone, I touch her hand, say, “We can talk anytime. I’m your dad.”
I take the broom and head back out to save Meg from the drooling, circling kitties. The littler two scare off right away when I wave the broom. Then the white one and a calico dart when I slam the broom on the flagstone. But the tailless one is actually up on the chair, standing against Meg, reaching up for the nest.
“I kept kicking but it didn’t matter,” she whispers, holding perfectly still. The nest is safe beneath her chin.
I swing the broom hard and the cat rowls and hisses but it falls off Meg’s thigh, off the chair, and when Winnie comes back around the corner of the house and gives a big, deep woof, the tailless cat finally slinks off.
“That was something,” I say, helping Meg down from the chair.
She wipes her eyes one by one. “Wish you’d come with the broom sooner.”
“It’s okay. You’re okay.”
“I don’t care about me—but it was almost up to the nest. I didn’t know what I’d do then.”
“I know, I’m sorry.”
“At least I saved it.”
“Ann’s home. I got sidetracked,” I say, putting an arm around her. I can see the bird now, featherless and leathery, a head (all beak and eyeballs) bobbles whenever it tries to move. "What now?”
I follow Meg inside, watch the nest when she sets it on our bed. She rummages in the closet. Birds have rare bird diseases they like to give humans, right?
“Here,” she says, pulling out the fancy heels and tissue. She hasn’t worn those in years. “I wish we had something to feed it. I’ll take it to the shelter in the morning.” Meg unballs two pairs of my sweat socks and cozies each around the nest to hold it steady. “You mind?” she says, glancing up. The bird’s beak snags on a twig of the nest and the head lolls a bit.
“By all means.” I don’t want to get back in bed yet. It’s strange falling asleep when no one else is. I pick up the Life section of the paper I didn’t read this morning because I was finishing “Big Breakups and the Lonely Girl” in the Cosmo I brought home after my crowns were done. I am an expert now on the importance of throwing oneself back into neglected friendships and job. I suppose the advice is universal: teenaged girl, single working woman, middle-aged man living with his wife and the daughter he used to fail to recognize among the crowd of other people’s children pouring out of school when he went to pick her up. Now she drives herself.
Winnie gets us up at her usual 6:15. I follow her down the hall like a blind person, both my arms out at my sides, touching the walls to be sure. When I get to Ann’s room, I expect it to be empty and the door open. It’s not. I stop and listen for her. “Ann?”
The door opens. “I can’t tell Mom,” she says.
She’s been crying. Her face shines sticky and tight. Her hair is tangled.
“Annabelle,” I say. She is breaking my heart.
She hands me a brochure rough and billowed by tears. Same sad teen silhouetted in a window seat as the brochures for all parental nightmares: drug use, suicide, std. But this girl has a hand on her stomach, so of course it’s the clinic on Twelfth Street. This is really happening.
“You have an appointment here?” I ask my daughter.
She shakes her head. “I already went.”
I don’t quite know how to express what I feel, the weight of losing what didn’t exist ten minutes ago—not to me anyway. And how can nothingness feel like the world? But it does.
So I pull her onto my lap and hold her, stroke her hair like she wants and when she is finally done feeling little and afraid, she says she wants to go to a friend’s and Meg has already left for the shelter, so I watch Ann back down the driveway in the Corolla Meg bought her last year.
I go walking along Pitt Street. Hips be damned, Winnie comes, too. We take each side street up and back on the way, but inevitably arrive at Noreen’s front porch. It’s early, she has no reason to be up, so I wait on the swing. And after sniffing out the yard, Winnie comes and lies with her snout on my feet.
The morning is cool, the sun’s not yet a part of the air. Cottonwood seeds come drifting down like summer snow. I think about the cats and where they go in the daytime. I think of Meg up on the chair, cradling the nest against her body, kicking away the nose of the tailless cat. I love her. Even if I think more about touching her than I actually do, I still know what her skin feels like, I still know her spotted cheek against my chest, the way she sometimes goes giddy at night, in bed, when I want to sleep and she wants, not to talk really but, well, I don’t know. I never have figured out what it is she wants then. Just some form of closeness, some little noisy wordlessness like when you’re first with someone and nobody knows who you are and you don’t know who they are and all you want is to eat up that other person and every single little thing they do.
Cosmo says you never get that back with someone once it’s gone.
Maybe that’s what she wanted from me. Maybe that’s what she went looking for way back when. And maybe she found it. I used to be afraid in the nighttime that she was dreaming of that man.
“Frank,” says Noreen. She’s bending for the newspaper when she sees me here on her swing.
Winnie manages to get upright without bending her back legs. It’s an ordeal every time and I hate it, but tell her, “Stay.”
“I’ll make Crystal Light,” says Noreen. “It’s peach iced tea. Delicious.”
I wait at the dining table, watching her move in the kitchen. In the past five years, Meg’s body has become her mother’s and what must be nearly every mother’s for it’s just like this old woman’s: small waist, a swollen belly—what Meg calls ‘the front butt’—and a little extra skin that creases at the base of her neck.
“Stop, okay?” I say, “Please.”
She doesn’t hear me or doesn’t care, so I let her go on with the Tupperware pitcher, ice cubes, and powder scoops.
Finally, Noreen comes to sit. “Is it Meg?” she says because there was a day like this Ann’s lifetime ago, when I came here to Noreen and told her I was leaving. Why, I don’t know but she’d said I was right to go but insisted I tell Meg myself at the hospital. She knew what she was doing. We haven’t talked like that since and I wonder if she even remembers and mostly have hoped she doesn’t. “She loves you,” says Noreen. “You know that.”
“I think Ann’s had an abortion,” I say.
She doesn’t speak, just puts a hand over mine.
“I know she has,” I say.
“Is she all right?”
“Ann told me,” I say. “There’s a brochure. She was crying.”
“There was a boy she liked, Adam.”
“I met him once,” she says.
“Okay, right,” I say, though I can’t imagine how she could have. “Ann told Meg he broke up with her. A while ago. She thinks he was gay.”
“Boys change their minds. You tell her that.”
“She did things in front of him, all sorts of things—things Meg wouldn’t even tell me—and nothing, this boy did nothing.”
“So there’s somebody new. He’ll be nice. Trust Ann. You need to trust her.”
“And then he moved to Fort Worth. So it’s not him. It’s someone else, Noreen. Someone we’ve never even met or seen and probably never will now.”
“She’s taken care of this. Trust your girl.” She stirs her glass and watches the golden water move.
“Who even knows who it is,” I say.
“It doesn’t matter to her, I guess.” I push my glass at this woman. “And that’s the thing. It doesn’t seem to matter to anyone. Who they screw, who they don’t.”
“Oh, Frank,” she says, squeezing my hands. “Don’t mix things up.”
“I don’t understand them! I don’t know how it is they feel love and loyalty in all the wrong places.” Meg’s off saving a goddamned baby bird while Ann goes and kills one.
“Go home, Frank. Tell Ann to come home.” She peels back a bandage on the tip of her thumb, checking on the cat scratches, then presses it back into the adhesive. “This is her sadness,” she says. “Let it be hers.”
I see the dishes piled high in the kitchen behind her. For such a little woman, these must be a week’s worth. I hadn’t noticed a smell, and still don’t but I cover my nose and mouth.
“It doesn’t mean anything to me, does it?” I say. “Not a damn bit. And that’s the trouble, is where am I in any of this?”
Noreen drops her spoon into the glass. “You’re a little beside the point,” she says, “but you knew that going in.”