Most mornings I awaken sweat-soaked and coverless. A lumpen heap of pillows and blankets amasses in the vacancy where Patrick, my husband, used to sleep.
I go to the kitchen, followed by a menagerie of animals I began accumulating shortly after the quarantine, a few days after Patrick’s death. The thought of being alone has always terrified me. Asked the ubiquitous question as a little girl, what do you want to be when you grow up, I always answered, married. Perhaps I was a halved zygote and have yearned a lifetime to feel completed.
Three once feral cats, a possum recovering from a headwound, and a one-eyed dog follow me into the kitchen. I fill five bowls with Kibble and then sit contentedly amongst the animals, drinking coffee that I boil on the range. When the animals are done, Walt, our dog, follows me into the pantry and we discuss which pasta we should have today. Penne? Walt barks. Excellent choice, I tell him. Soon, the wineberries on the back fence will be ripe. Fresh fruit pleases everyone. Occasionally, Walt gets a wild hair and eats grass, but he always regrets it.
Later, I open the wooden front door, and we six sit behind the glass stormer to watch for any weary souls who might venture out. We wave at the masked citizens who look up while plodding along. There have been fewer coming out. Last week, an angry mask-less young man gave us the middle finger and grabbed his crotch. He took a menacing step onto the front walk, but Walt bared his raggedy teeth. The possum and I laughed as the miscreant ran away.
Sometimes, the power sputters on for a few minutes. Lights and fans, blinking clocks, once the blender I forgot I was using, upsetting itself on the counter. We rejoice, run around the house turning lamps off or on. Music for the masses, I will yell and we gather in the study to dance to Lucinda Williams.
Not long ago, perhaps on a Tuesday, there was rain. A menacing sky lowered to the lawn and Walt refused to go out and relieve himself. The possum and the cats morphed into a fuzzy ball on the sofa. I stood alone at the bay window and watched the rain wash down the abandoned street. A single child – sized shoe sailed down the gutter. I suppose that is when I got the idea.
Before Patrick died, before anyone was sick, when power was a given and socializing was normal, we had electric outlets installed on the façade of the house so we could light it up at Halloween and Christmas. Our house was a beacon for trick-or-treaters and carolers.
So, the day after the rain, I find every power strip we own. I plug outdoor extension cords into the exterior outlets. Then, I gather the lamps and the portable fans, the digital clocks. I pick up the blender and the food processor and set both to On. Walt, the only family member allowed outdoors, follows me into the yard. The cats and the possum watch dutifully from the storm door. Walt chases his own tail as I plug the appliances in, but I know he keeps his eye wary for any strangers. When I am finished, I sit on the front stoop, as Walt rolls on the walkway, and survey my handiwork. We have a veritable barricade of electronics ready for our defense. I ask Walt to come inside and then I let the gang know about my surprise. The animals wait politely at the door as I run down to the basement. He is a little unwieldy, but I manage to get Santa up the stairs. Patrick, who dabbled in welding, made him a few years ago from chicken wire. I painted him and wove the fairy lights into his form. For good measure, I grab a holiday stocking cap Patrick used to wear and mash it down over Santa’s chicken wire hat. The animals step aside, and I muscle Santa onto the front porch, where I plug him in. There, I say to my assembled furry family. Walt barks and the possum smiles. The cats never really have much to say but one weaves in between my legs so I interpret that as applause.
It is while Walt and I are picking wineberries and gathering dandelion leaves in the backyard that we hear the ruckus. The possum, whom we have decided to call Elmo, is scratching at the screen door, smiling at us. Walt and I enter the kitchen, following Elmo who makes his crooked little way to the front of the house. All three cats are poised on the back of the sofa, fixated on the scene in the front yard.
Every fan, lamp and clock has roared to life. The blender, in a buzz of activity, has fallen onto its side. Santa is divine. Even in the bright, hard light of the midday sun in summer, sheltered as he is between the rhododendrons which flank the front porch, Santa is alive in his electric glory.
Here is the interesting thing though; if I had thought I was constructing a barricade, I was indeed quite wrong. It turns out our assemblage of appliances has beckoned our dormant neighbors. Little clusters, pods of families and friends who hunkered down together, have gathered in the street. Walt makes happy yelps and Elmo and I wave as everyone marvels at our display. Most wave back. A few brave children break away from scolding parents and run up to Santa, tap him to make sure he is not an apparition, I suppose.
After 30 minutes, most of the groups have dispersed. It seems the power is back on for good. I turn off all my toys, unplug them and bring them in. Except for Santa. Walt and Elmo agree; Santa should remain to remind everyone that faith and love are electric.
I adore this piece and am indebted to Goat’s Milk Magazine for first publishing it in July 2021.
It is 97 degrees outside, and it is only April 30th. The bright, new green leaves are wilting in the heat. A wavering haze hovers over the valley below as we wind through mountainous roads. Our car is in a dead zone with no radio reception; the silence is stifling.
I turn my body halfway in my seat so that I am facing Seth as he drives. I remind him that when we met, I told him I would bring no good luck. It was our joke; a bad fortune from a cookie on our first date. He doesn’t respond. If the radio was on, I would wonder if he has even heard me. He is lost in a thought he isn’t ready to share.
I pivot my body to the passenger window, surveying the valley. When did these people come to this place? What were they looking for? Were they running to or were they running from? The mountainsides are dotted with rhododendrons, mountain laurels, wild phlox. The beauty is undeniable, but it is marred by the hardscrabble little towns, tucked like scabs in the bends of the river, in the crevices of the mountains. Abandoned factories are covered in graffiti. Train cars sit idle on defunct tracks. We pass a child’s bike, missing the front tire, on the side of the highway. Rot, I think.
I begin to bite my nails. Seth places a warm hand on my thigh. Don’t, he entreats. He knows I bite my nails when I am anxious. I don’t want to attend this funeral. Aside from Seth, I will not know anyone here. Because I need you with me to do this, is what Seth says when I ask him why I should go. I flip the mirror down on the visor, look for lipstick on my teeth. Seth tells me I am beautiful. I wonder if a person should try to look beautiful for a funeral.
The dead person is Seth’s best friend from high school. I cannot imagine a teenage Seth. Acne and greasy hair, begging girls for hand jobs. This is how I remember boys from my high school.
Before last week, he never mentioned those years. I know his parents are dead and he does not visit his hometown. I think I just figured if there was anything important from Seth’s youth, he would have shared it with me. I look at him now, studying his face for acne scars. Was his ear ever pierced? He feels my focus, reaches for my hand, and kisses my fingertips. Placing my hand back in my lap, he pats it, as a grandmother might there, there an upset child. He turns the radio dial. Dead air.
You had a best friend, I say. He nods. Most people do, he tells me. And your parents are dead, I state. They are, he says. He locks his hands at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel. A small vein at his temple pulses. Getting off now, he says. I realize we have reached our exit. The car begins to descend into one of those little valley towns, all shanties and convenience stores, pickup trucks, and roaming dogs. It did not occur to me that Seth would be from one of these places. We talk about Camus and struggles with students. We talk about where we want to be if money was no object. Home is not a topic.
The town’s name is Depass. There is a boarded-up mechanic’s shop, an abandoned veterinary hospital, and a brand-new Sheetz. People will always need coffee and gas to get far away from places like Depass. The radio roars to life. ABBA extols the dancing queen.
We turn left onto a gravel road called Little Hoary Holler. Seth turns the radio off. He lowers his window and the air is thick with the smell of honeysuckle, river water, recently cut grass.
Seth makes a right turn into what appears to be a pasture. He turns off the ignition, settles back into his seat and looks at me. In a voice I have not heard him use before, Seth tells me there is ruin in him. He tells me he has known it his whole life, like the way some people just know they hate asparagus even if they have never eaten it. I tell him I love asparagus. When he smiles, it is weary, and I know I should not have made the joke. I take his hand into both of mine. I tell him that I was never very good at math, but it seems that between me bringing no good luck and him being ruinous, perhaps our two negatives create a positive.
As I am wondering if these words are enough, I notice there are many other cars in the pasture. All the license plates are from other states. I am about to say something about how Sheetz will make a mint off all these people, but there is a gathering that turns my attention. The soldiers and truckers, the nurses and schoolteachers, the friends of Seth’s dead best friend. They are walking to the river; someone is singing American Pie. I reach for the door handle, but Seth stops me. He tells me it is enough to be here, we don’t have to go any further. I am about to ask him about the people here, were they running to or from. Seth puts the key in the ignition and lowers my window. He tells me his friend never wanted him to come back here, that she would’ve left if she could have. I ask him why we have come then. He tells me if you don’t say goodbye to a place, you are bound to carry it with you. I think about this. Say goodbye to ruin, I tell him. He smiles and turns the key. Taking my hand, he says he already has.
This piece was first featured in The Dillydoun Review in July 2021.
My coffee cup lies in shards on the kitchen floor. Boutros Boutros Ghali licks his paws.
Can you at least feign remorse, I ask the cat. He blinks, yawns and lifts a back leg as he begins licking his hindquarters.
You are disgusting Boutros, I snarl. I prepare the coffeemaker and then retreat to the living room, where I select an album for our day.
In an ordinary time, I would walk to The Sunnyside Up and order a cortado. I would take my coffee, perhaps a pastry and end up in Laurel Run. There, I would sit on a park bench and watch young fathers teach their children to ride bikes. The mothers, arms linked like comrades, would stroll the park, complaining bitterly of office mates or lovingly discussing children, bestsellers, Peloton instructors.
This is not an ordinary time.
When the first wave of the pandemic washed over us, I had already lived alone for eight years. After the death of Gretchen, our only child, Roland and I drifted past one another as shades of our old selves. On an early Tuesday morning, 18 months after we had buried our daughter, I stubbed my toe on a single suitcase as I walked from the guestroom to the hallway bath. Roland stood in the doorway of our bedroom. I am only taking some clothes, he said. Perhaps I will be back. I’m not going anywhere, I replied. After a year, I stopped leaving the hall lamp on at night.
The second wave enveloped us, more ferociously, six months after the first. A week into it, I received a postcard from Santa Monica. Roland’s girlfriend had died suddenly from the virus. Might he return to convalesce? No, I wrote back.
Unmoved cars, furry with pollen, look like iron caterpillars dormant in driveways. Curtains are never drawn back. Newspapers stockpile on lawns and now have moldered, rotting in wet clumps on untrimmed grass.
A week after the third and most virulent wave struck, I opened my back door to take my trash to the fire pit. I almost kicked over a cat carrier. An angry Boutros hissed from within. A note atop read I will die tonight. Please care for Boutros Boutros Ghali. Stay well. Indira.
I looked over at my neighbor’s house, trying to discern her health from the once-tidy Tudor, now marred by peeling paint and loose shutters. In the glare of the mid-morning sun, I could see the freshly painted black Xs on the windows. That is how I came to live with an insufferable cat named after a globally admired statesman.
Now, I am standing at the glass door in my front hallway, a fresh cup of coffee in hand. Madama Butterfly’s soaring heartbreak fills the house. Boutros has come to sit by my feet and we watch the collectors as they dolefully approach front doors. If I squint, in their white Hazmat suits, they look like a processional of pilgrims.
I finish my coffee. Cio-Cio San has already plunged her father’s seppuku dagger into her heart. The collectors are spray-painting Xs on the Johnsons’ windows. Boutros yawns. Pinkerton has discovered Butterfly’s body. His tenor wails. Do you hear him, Bou? Do you hear Pinkerton’s regret? I ask the cat. Boutros stands, arches his back and weaves between my legs. Boutros, listen, I say. The collectors are sealing the Johnsons’ door; their dog Suzuki lays next to the three orange body bags. The tenor warbles, wracked with guilt. I close my eyes. I see him standing over her lifeless body. Boutros, I ask, can you hear the lament?
This short work, influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, was first published in (mac)ro(mic) in July 2021.