First Christmas

 

Dec19 advent-wreathIt’s still dark out when Annie wakes. She didn’t mean to fall asleep. She meant to stay up all night, or at least long enough to hear reindeer hooves on the sloping roof of her house. The chimney is closest to her room—she eyeballed it Christmas Eve morning, just to make sure. If only she could’ve stayed awake. She imagines how the reindeer might have sounded. Little pitter-patters, like rain.

Her clock says five a.m., squarish numbers glowing in the dark. She sits up, keeping her puffy comforter close around her so the cool draft only hits her back, and peers out the window near the foot of her bed. It’s getting lighter, isn’t it? It’s not her imagination, the dark sky is starting to fade to silver-gray. Morning is here. It just needs time to catch its breath. Soon it’ll be here for real, and they’ll all be downstairs, her and Joel admiring the Christmas tree while Dad makes pancakes and Mom—

A soft knock comes at her door. Then Joel’s voice, hushed: “Annie?”

She scoots out of bed, the comforter wrapped around her like a princess cloak, her favorite stuffed lamb tucked in the crook of one arm. “Coming.”

#

Joel sits next to Annie at the top of the stairs. The staircase leads down into the dim grey shadow-light of too-early-for-Christmas-presents. Joel wishes it would hurry up and get lighter. Beside him, Annie stirs under her pink-striped comforter. “I wish we could go down now,” she says. “I want to see Santa!”

“He’s not there.” Joel wishes he’d brought his own comforter, with the baseballs and mitts on it. His bathrobe doesn’t feel warm enough, even though he can hear the bump of the furnace kicking on. “Santa starts at the North Pole, remember. He covers North America first. We’re pretty early on his route.” He tells himself this every year, to banish the sneaking dread he doesn’t dare confess to his little sister. She’d laugh if she knew he was scared of Santa Claus. No self-respecting twelve-year-old boy should even still believe in Santa, and most days this year, he didn’t…until he woke up this morning just before five, and heard the subtle little noises their old house always makes, and couldn’t shake the sudden conviction that the Jolly Old Elf was lurking around downstairs. Jolly. Hah. What’s jolly about a guy who knows what you’re doing every minute, and you can’t even spot him?

Santa is the spirit of giving. That’s what makes him real. The thought comes in his mother’s voice, clear and sweet and so vivid it’s almost audible. He huddles deeper into his bathrobe, tight around a cold empty feeling he doesn’t want to admit to. Annie holds out a corner of her comforter. “You can share my princess cloak,” she says.

“Thanks.” He drapes half the comforter over himself. Annie nestles in, like a puppy. Sadness washes over him, and he shuts his eyes tight. Annie shouldn’t see him cry. She’s only six. This Christmas, this first one After, will be hard enough for her. He’s her big brother. Mom asked him to look out for Annie, and he will. Right now, though, it feels like his little sister is looking out for him.

#

Annie leans against Joel, both of them wrapped up warm in her princess cloak. She can hear the house talking to itself, see the dimness downstairs ebbing like waves on the lakeshore in summer. Mom used to take them to the lake, Before. But now it’s After, and Mom is gone. The thought leaves a hole in Annie’s heart where Mom used to be. Sitting here now, with her big brother next to her trying hard not to cry, she has a glimmer of how—maybe—to help him out.

She nudges his shoulder. “Race you to our stockings in…what time is it?”

He swallows hard, opens his eyes, checks his watch. “Five-thirty.”

She screws up her face, trying to remember how long it is until six a.m., the earliest they’re allowed to go downstairs and start Christmas. “Half an hour?”

He looks at her, with a grin that’s almost like the one she remembers, even though his eyes are wet. “Sure, Annie Banannie. I’ll race you.”

“Don’t forget ‘on your mark, get set.’”

“I won’t.” He ruffles her hair. “I won’t forget anything. I promise.”

She finds his other hand beneath the comforter and slips her own into it. He squeezes and keeps hold. Together in the silence, they wait for Christmas Day to begin.

 

Cross-posted at The Write Room Blog (http://www.thewriteroomblog.com/?p=3574)

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American Mythos

just can't quit you

just can’t quit you

On the Bill Press show this morning (WCPT in Chicago), the commentators were having fun with a Washington Post movie critic’s attempt to weigh in on the recent mass shooting in Isla Vista. Anne Hornaday’s target was the “frat-boy comedy,” a movie genre known for sniggering sex jokes, adolescent humor, and a consistent trope in which the schlub ends up with the hot girl. Male fantasy fulfillment, right? The arrested adolescent who’s not good-looking, not rich, not cool—the guy who wouldn’t know commitment, personal responsibility, or (often) personal hygiene if it walked up and slapped him—turns out to be the Nice Guy who at heart truly cares for the way-out-of-his-league object of his affections, and in the end he wins her over.

On the surface, Ms. Hornaday’s piece held this fantasy up as a potential contributing factor to the rampage at UC Santa Barbara. The perpetrator, she argued, was taught at least in part through the frat-boy comedy myth that “nice guys” (which he saw himself as) deserve to get the hot chicks. When this didn’t happen in real life, the movie fantasy became just one more bitter disappointment fueling the gunman’s rage: one more conveyor of, as she put it, “the toxic double helix of insecurity and entitlement that comprises Hollywood’s DNA.”

The commentariat promptly landed on her for suggesting that frat-boy comedies caused a young man with serious mental-health issues to turn homicidal. And Ms. Hornaday, to my mind, missed the actual point of the frat-boy movie, which is that the schlub changes before he wins over the girl. He doesn’t become handsome, or rich, or outwardly cool; instead, the change is an inner one. The commitment-phobic perpetual child is forced to take on responsibility, and finds he likes it; the no-zing sap who lusted after the hottest of hot chicks finally notices the sweet-hearted sapette waiting in the wings, and realizes she’s a much better romantic deal because she genuinely cares. So the movie critic missed her target, but I wish the people mocking her for overreacting to a generally harmless American myth were instead discussing her larger and more valid point: the peculiarly American tendency to buy into myths as if they’re reality, and to lash out when reality won’t play along.

The myth that does this most powerfully, enduringly, and lethally, is our ongoing love affair with the gun. Not the gun as a tool for adding to the larder, and occasional self-defense. Not the gun as a weapon for a true citizens’ militia back in the days when America had no standing army. The gun as the Great Equalizer, the enforcer of “respect.” The attention-getter, demand-maker, instant conveyor of unearned power and authority. From the Old West (also a fantasy) right down to the Bundy militias and crazed (mostly) white-boy shooters of the present day, the biggest common factor is The Gun as mythic totem. I am become Glock Semi-Auto, Destroyer of Worlds. Do what I want, be what I want, or I’ll kill you.

Troubled people who fancy themselves powerless in an unforgiving world latch onto this myth because it promises them power. Irrational government-haters who imagine themselves the only real-and-true-Americans latch onto this myth because it lets them be the heroes of their own private action movies instead of the liars, cheaters, or frightened little folk they are. Other countries have violent pop entertainment. Other countries have gun ownership (see Canada). Other countries have troubled souls among their citizens. Yet only America has mass shootings so often that we’re surprised when a month, even a week, goes by without one. Why? What is it about the mythos of the gun that we can’t let go of, even though it’s killing us?

I don’t have an answer. I wish I did. We need to find one, collectively groping our way toward some kind of light on this issue, before any more innocents are drowned in the blood from American gunfire.

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I Am an April Fool

crocusToday in Chicago, as of not quite 2 p.m., the temperature has finally cracked 45 degrees. After much of the past week–let alone the past winter!–I was beginning to think it never would again. The sky is this strangely beautiful color… blue, I think it’s called. I have vague memories of it from somewhere back in the Long Ago. Then again, they might be impossible dreams. And did I mention the big glowing yellowy thing, high up in that blue, blue sky? So bright you can’t look straight at it–you can only guess what color it is from the soft, golden tint it lends to the air that doesn’t hurt your face? I used to know what that glowing thing is called. The name escapes me for the moment, but I’m sure I’ll remember. Eventually.

April is that kind of month. The first one that, in my universe, truly counts as spring. Oh, sure, March has the spring equinox–the official kickoff date for the year’s most welcome change of season–but if you’ve grown up on the shores of Lake Michigan, in the city whose winters are legendary for snow, cold, biting wind and a whiplash-worthy changeability that in many ways is the hardest burden of all, March is a poser. The ass-end of winter masquerading as spring’s debut, laying its claim on the dubious strength of an astronomical phenomenon (say that ten times fast, I dare you!) that doesn’t even occur until 21 days in. Do the math. March, 11 days of “spring.” April, 30 days. April wins.

Yet April is also the “cruelest month,” or so the poets say. Hereabouts, it’s true. I mean, really. An April-fool of a spring day on the 1st, followed by three days of raw damp cold where we were lucky to get out of the 30s? Chill winds, rain, muddy slop and wet, all presided over by skies so thick with gloom that we might as well be back in the depths of February? Where the hell did my spring go? April is supposed to be spring! I was promised spring by now, dammit!

Well, my back-order finally came. Today the gloom is gone, the knife-cutting cold wind turned to a gentle breeze. I even went outside without my winter coat. Without a coat at all, just long enough to find a treasure in my back flower bed–the first brick-red tip of a peony bush, timidly poking up through the wet black dirt like a child peeking out from hiding, checking to see if it’s finally safe to come outside.

You can come out now, peonies. And crocuses, and day-lilies, and hyacinths, and the chives in my herb garden that not even the polar vortex could kill. It’s April. Not April cruel, but April kind. And after that comes May, and June, and summer, sure as tomato-planting time. (Which I can’t wait to get to. Sun Sugar cherry tomatoes eaten straight off the vine–there is no surer definition of heaven.)

It’s been a long time coming. But it’s here.

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It’s A Chick Thing

Dorothy Parker, renowned "lady writer"

Dorothy Parker, renowned “lady writer”

So now “lady mayor” is a thing. Thank you, Haley Barbour, fount of real-‘Murican wisdom, for setting us straight on that one in your reference to Mayor Dawn Zimmer of Hoboken, NJ. She can’t just be plain old “mayor,” because the default model for any such Important Occupation is clearly male–hence the need for the “lady” qualifier. Which got me thinking–if Dawn Zimmer is a lady mayor, then I must be a lady writer. An unusual creature, unexpected in the grand scheme of How The World is Meant to Be, rather like a talking poodle. Or perhaps a fluffy kitten that somehow manages to walk upright and discuss weighty intellectual subjects like “pro-growth economic policy” and “making tough choices” while tossing back pricey scotch with other Masters of the Universe in smoky back rooms.

So just what is a “lady writer,” and what is the lady-writing process? Clearly, us ladies doing important things out in the world, like writing or governing, is an anomaly. Mysterious creatures that we are, unable to control our libidos without help from “Uncle Sugar” and so deeply un-thoughtful that we have to have pregnancy and fetal development mansplained to us by statute lest we make the wrong choices about our own fertility, we can’t possibly do things the same way as men do them. Men and women are not, after all, fundamentally just human beings and therefore pretty much the same. No, us ladies are different. With a capital D. Therefore, I thought I should take a little time to woman-splain how us lady writers do what we do.

First, we get an idea. I know, I know, that sounds just like how writers (meaning guy writers, of course–see “default model,” above) get started. But bear with me.

Once we have an idea, we think about it. Write it down. Kick its tires a little, take it for a test spin to see if it has staying power. (After all, if you’re going to write a 300-plus page novel, your idea better be big enough to sustain that structure.) Our idea can take many forms–a theme, a character, an incident in our lives that stuck with us, something we read someplace that sparked a “what-if” moment in our brains. We do have them, in case you were wondering. Brains, that is. And guess what–they function pretty much like guy brains do. Except maybe we’re a little quicker with words than you gents. But that’s at the broad-brushstroke level, a predisposition so general it becomes meaningless once you get down to individuals.

So, the idea. The initial think-it-out, write-stuff-down steps. Then we kick back, have a manicure or pop a birth-control pill or go shop for shoes, or something else us ladies love to do. Because we can’t handle bothering our pretty heads for too long about anything that doesn’t have to do with clothes or boys or sex or maybe recipes. Amirite, Mr. Barbour? Mr. Huckabee? Anyone who’s been shooting off his mouth about “ladies” lately, without engaging what passes for his brain first?

Okay, I’m snarking. There is no “lady-writing” process. Just like there are no lady mayors, or “lady” anything else. There are mayors, and writers, and all kinds of other things, and some of the people doing those things are women. Others are men. All are human beings, with the same capacity for intelligence, thoughtfulness, competence, creativity, hard work, and everything else us humans have in common.

So I guess there’s only one thing I may still need the Haley Barbours and Mike Huckabees of the world to mansplain to me. Why do they find this simple truth so hard to understand?

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A Whisper of Wings, Part 3

Cover for 1st edition of the score, by Adolfo Hohenstein

Cover for 1st edition of the score, by Adolfo Hohenstein

No one answered the ad, and Nora felt glad about it. She discontinued the ad after three weeks, though part of her wondered what in heaven she thought she was doing. “You’re a hostage to fortune,” she told Rodolfo over dinner, carefully saving aside a generous piece of chicken skin for him. He loved that almost as much as he craved tuna. His answer was a cheerfully insolent meow, the feline equivalent of “So what?”

“Okay,” she said, “but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

That night, she dreamed of Nicholas. Not as he’d been during his illness, but the way she remembered him before: lounging in his favorite easy chair, feet propped on the ottoman, listening to opera and conducting with one hand while he petted the cat in his lap with the other. At first the cat was Guildenstern, but when she looked again it was Rodolfo, eyes shut in pure feline bliss as Nicholas’ graceful fingers stroked the top of his head. The last thing she recalled as the dream faded was Nicholas smiling up at her, all the love in the world reflected in his eyes.

That smile stayed with her when she woke to faint purring and a too-familiar absence on the other side of the bed. An expected wave of grief rolled over and through her and then ebbed. A touch more quickly than she was used to, she thought, although it was hard to tell. An uptick in the distant feline rumble and a slight give at the far end of the mattress announced Rodolfo’s presence even before he managed a head-butt to her shoulder. “All right, I’m awake,” she said sleepily.

He leaped over the mound she made under the blankets, padded toward the head of the bed, and butted her chin. His whiskers tickled the underside of her jaw, and she laughed. Really laughed, as if for that moment there was nothing weighing her down. “Good kitty,” she said softly. “Nice, good, sweet, silly kitty.”

He touched his nose to hers, and she was briefly overwhelmed by tuna breath. She waved him away and sat up. “Okay, okay. You’ve made your point. Breakfast.”

She talked to Rodolfo as she dished 9 Lives Tuna-n-Egg into his bowl and then made herself oatmeal with fresh blueberries and a sprinkling of cinnamon. Nothing important, and of course he couldn’t really understand her… but there were moments, when she glanced down at him and caught his feline gaze, that he looked as if he did. After breakfast, when she took the morning paper into the living room and curled up in a corner of the sofa with it, Rodolfo trotted after her. In typical feline fashion, he waited until she sat down and opened the paper before jumping up into her lap. The thin newsprint crinkled as he settled his furry bulk onto it. He looked up at her, blinking, innocent cat’s eyes demanding that she pet him.

“Off,” she said, in a gentle tone that let him know she didn’t mean it in the slightest. She tugged at the paper, eased it out from under him, folded it and set it aside. One hand reached out to chuck his chin, then scratched around his ears. His motorboat purr started up, like a rumble of friendly thunder. Clearly, they were here for the duration.

After a time, she told him about the dream. Then more about Nicholas. How they’d met at a cocktail party thrown by a friend of hers, on the day after Christmas in 1955. How drawn she’d felt to the handsome dark-eyed stranger who listened so completely to every word she spoke. How they’d gone to their first opera together not even a week later, and couldn’t stop talking afterward: about the music, about books and films and art and philosophy and so much else. About his proposal seven months after that, with Fourth of July fireworks as a backdrop, and how she’d cried for sheer happiness. “Poor Nicholas, he looked so shocked, but I couldn’t get a word out at first. Not a word, I was that overcome. He was sure I was going to say no.” At some point tears welled up and spilled over, but Rodolfo kept purring and listening, and somehow this time the tears didn’t come with a bitter edge of anger. God, but she’d been angry. At the doctors for not making Nicholas better. At herself for how little she could help him. At Nicholas, for getting cancer and dying in the first place.

She ran out of things to say eventually, and simply sat in the silence with the cat in her lap. She felt wrung out but oddly rested, as if she’d set down a burden.

She leaned over and plucked a Kleenex from the box on the coffee table, wiped her eyes and blew her nose. Then she eased a grumbling Rodolfo out of her lap, stood up and went over to the bookshelves that lined the far wall. One portion of them was devoted to CDs, mostly classical recordings plus the odd one out here and there: flute music of the Andes, Irish folk songs, an original cast recording of Hair. The one she wanted was halfway down the row. She slid it out, went to the CD player that stood on a cherry-wood side table across the room, and popped the disc into the slot. Then she went back and sat on the sofa, where a disgruntled Rodolfo favored her with an injured look.

“Come on,” she said, patting her lap as the music spilled into the air. Tosca, the RCA recording with Placido Domingo and Leontyne Price. She hadn’t listened to it since the first night of the last hospital stay, when Nicholas talked her into going home for some real sleep. When they thought he’d pull through again, be out in a day or two, three at the most.

She closed her eyes and listened, drifting on the music while Rodolfo settled in her lap. Thinking of Nicholas, how he’d smiled at her in the dream, how precious were her memories of him.

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A Whisper of Wings, Part 2

Author’s note: So I erred last time. Looks like there’ll be a Part 3 forthcoming, as soon as my subconscious tells me what it is.

Lithographic print, Adolfo Hohenstein. Source: art.com

Lithographic print, Adolfo Hohenstein. Source: art.com

She hadn’t intended to keep the cat more than a couple of weeks, or however long it took for the torn ear to heal up. Dr. Hepplewhite, the vet, pronounced the stray fit and healthy apart from the ear and some fleas. “He can’t have been out very long,” the vet said. “Even his teeth are in good shape. Either he’s lost, or someone dumped him recently.” He chucked the tabby under the chin. “You’re a big strong boy, aren’t you? You just need to go home. Or find a nice new one.” He gave Nora a look as she nudged the stray cat into Guildenstern’s old carrier. “You might try putting up a few posters, or an ad in the Evanston Review. If no one claims this fellow, I’d say you’ve got yourself a pet.”

Two weeks became three, then a month, then six weeks. No one called her number from the posters she’d put up, or dropped by her door to claim the stray. The cat’s ear healed up nicely, and he was vocal in his demands for food every time she used the can opener. Tuna was a favorite, she discovered—the real stuff, not the catfood kind. “All right, keep your fur on,” she chided him gently as he twined himself between her ankles, caught up in feline ecstasy at the prospect of tuna shreds in his bowl. He bolted for it the second she set it down, and she watched him eat with the closest thing to a sense of well-being she’d had in quite a time. It was nice, having the cat around to talk to. Though no mere animal could fill the hole Nicholas had left.

She told Father Joseph about the cat, and Sarah, who was delighted at the newcomer in Nora’s life. Yet she still hadn’t given him a name. She had no idea how old he was. Dr. Hepplewhite had said he was healthy, but animals were like people—illness could strike at any time. Her throat ached as thoughts of Nicholas crossed her mind. Seemingly healthy one week, the next in terrible pain from what turned out to be bone cancer in his spine. No, she thought, watching through blurred vision from her seat on the sofa as the cat cleaned his paws, she was best not getting too attached. Anything could happen. The cat could get sick, or escape from the condo when she went out to get the paper and run into the street where a car might hit him. It wasn’t worth the risk.

She should advertise, see if someone wanted a cat. Healthy male, sweet disposition. Fixed. Why did people always describe it that way, as if a cat with its reproductive parts intact was broken? She could almost hear Nicholas asking that question, a smile in his voice and on his face. He would have loved this cat. Called him “Fleabag,” grumbled when the beast woke him, but taken every opportunity to cuddle and pamper him like a baby.

As if aware of her scrutiny, the cat looked up. He ambled over and head-butted her legs, then jumped into her lap and settled there. “You’re a big marshmallow lap cat, aren’t you?” she said, smiling in spite of herself. His fur was soft, with a subtle musky scent. The cat started purring. A soothing sound. She felt her muscle tension ease, the ache in her throat slowly subside. “A lover, not a fighter,” she murmured. “I’ll call you Rodolfo. The poet from La Boheme.” She chuckled at herself. As if the cat knew or cared about Puccini. Still, the name fit him. His purring grew louder as she scratched around his ears. “I’ll put an ad in the Review next week. See if anyone answers. Until then, Rodolfo, consider yourself at home.”

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A Whisper of Wings

A two-part story, inspired by my parents and a line from the Yom Kippur liturgy.

earlyspringPart 1

The hardest thing, Nora thought, was the silence.

She thought this many times over the course of a day. She thought it when she woke and the other half of her bed was empty. She thought it when she made her solitary breakfast, when she sat with it at the table and tried to interest herself in the front section of the New York Times. She thought it when she came in from grocery shopping—for one, now—or from a doctor’s appointment, or anywhere else she happened to spend time away from the condo. Church, a friend’s house, her daughter’s. Time away was good when she could manage it. But she always had to come back.

Fifty years, she thought now as she slowly dressed for Sunday morning mass. She found herself listening for the small sounds she’d become accustomed to over five decades of marriage, even though she knew she wouldn’t hear them. The faint creak of floorboards under Nicholas’s slippered feet, the running of water in the kitchen sink as he washed up their breakfast dishes, his slightly off-key voice warbling along to an aria he’d found on WFMT. They both loved music, especially opera. Nicholas, a pack rat of epic proportions, had amassed a huge collection of recordings: Jussi Bjoerling, Giuseppe di Stefano, Frederica von Stade, Maria Callas. Aria collections and whole operas, both. She could listen to them herself, of course. That would break the silence. But it wouldn’t be the same.

She eyed her reflection in the mirror, hairbrush in hand. Her hair needed tinting again. Just long enough to cover her ears, it had paled over the years from dark auburn to the color of straw. Only the barest copper hint lingered, like a washed-out watercolor. Her eyes were too bright in her flushed face, and she blinked the brightness away with a flash of irritation. Nicholas wouldn’t want her moping. He’d understand it, but hate himself for having caused it. If he were here now, he’d… That thought produced a shaky laugh, a mirthless sound. If he were here, I wouldn’t be feeling like this.

She took a deep breath and slowly let it out. She looked like what she was: eighty years old, alone and grieving and wishing to God she was neither. She gave her hair a last touch-up and went into the hall to fetch her coat.

#

The walk to St. Anne’s got her blood moving, the brisk spring air invigorating and the sounds of Sunday morning—passing traffic, birdsong, the echo of church bells—a welcome relief from the empty quiet of the condo. A cat trotted across the lawn of the rambling Victorian house at the corner of Lake and Maple. Well-fed and with a collar, it clearly belonged to someone. “You should get a cat, Mom,” her daughter Sarah had said last Thursday when she came over for lunch and to help clear away the last of Nicholas’s things for donation. “I know how much you and Dad missed Guildenstern. Maybe it’s time for another.”

“Cats just get old and die,” she’d said, in a tone meant to warn Sarah off from further persuasion. She meant well, Sarah did. But she had her husband, her two boys, her work, to fill all the hours in her day. She didn’t, couldn’t, understand.

Mass was a comfort, the familiar songs and prayers wrapping around Nora like a favorite sweater on a chilly afternoon. Father Joseph made a point of greeting her afterward, a gentle smile on his moon-round face and his blue eyes full of sympathy. Just enough, not so much as to be overpowering. How long had she and Nicholas known him? Ten years since he’d been pastor here? He had a soft spot for old movies, evidenced by the “Nick and Nora” joke he’d made when she and Nicholas introduced themselves after Father Joseph’s first mass. Nicholas had let it pass without even an eye roll. She knew Father Joseph missed Nicholas too. It helped, a little.

“Getting by all right, Nora?” he said now, hands briefly clasped around hers.

She attempted a smile. “Well enough. Some days are easier than others.”

“If you need someone to talk to…”

She knew what he meant, though she couldn’t see the point of it. Talking wouldn’t bring Nicholas back, or fill that damned silence. She’d never been that kind of talker, anyway. Things happened, you acknowledged them and then you got on with life. Her motto. Get on with life. It had always worked before. “Thank you, Father, but I’m not sure that’s what I need.” I need Nicholas, she thought. I need to turn back time to when he was well and we listened to Tosca and planned trips to Venice and Florence. Foolish thoughts. She smiled good-bye to Father Joseph, walked slowly down the church steps to the street, and headed toward the condo. With only herself in it, it was hard to think of it as home.

#

She stopped off at the grocery store for milk, and was halfway up the front walk with her purchase when she heard a rustling in the bushes nearby. Ornamental evergreens, they lined the walkway and were home to various forms of wildlife: birds, mice, even a fox she’d once seen darting beneath them. She thought the rustling might be the resident family of cardinals, and went closer to see if she could spot them. No flash of red, though, or any bird sounds. Instead, a frantic shaking of branches and a flash of brownish-grey.

Rat? was her first thought. She set the milk down and half-crouched, as much as her eighty-year-old knees would let her, for a closer look. If they had rats, she would need to call the city so Animal Control could take care of the problem. The brownish-grey shape was hard to see beneath the dark green. Keeping her hand well out of potential biting range, she grasped an evergreen branch and eased it aside. The shape of a head came clear for a moment, then the flash of an animal face as the creature glanced up. Not a rat. Feline, green-eyed, one ear badly torn.

The cat hissed and retreated further under the bushes. Nora let the branch go and straightened slowly. Animal Control, definitely. The poor beast had clearly been in a fight, got bitten, was probably carrying heaven-knows-what. She picked up her milk and headed inside to make the necessary call.

Indoors, she put the milk away and went to the phone. And stood there, hands in her coat pockets, while five seconds crawled by. She turned, went to the cabinet that held everyday dishes. Took a saucer from a short stack. Set it on the kitchen table, got the milk back out of the refrigerator, poured a little into the dish. Then carefully picked it up and went outside.

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