From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

A Stray

Jim Delaney’s doctor said he didn’t need to hide away in total darkness even if one of his symptoms was photophobia or extreme sensitivity to light, said the side effects of his medication might include nausea, heartburn, moonface, and dancing feet, said pregnant women or women who might become pregnant should maintain a decent distance no matter if they were carrying ten foot poles or not which was why Jim was ignoring his doctor and blackening his windows and self-medicating with the good stuff he got from a guy he liked to imagine was called “Guido” by his gangster friends. Jim had googled uveitis, his eye disease, and had discovered that cocaine was just the thing the doctor would have ordered if it had not been illegal. Either that or cocaine was what caused it in the first place. He kept getting stuff like that mixed up.

But wait, there’s more.

Sometimes you hunker down tight in your head, and sometimes it’s like you’re looking down on the movie of your life.

Side effects include buzzing noises, flashing lights, and impossible cats.

Jim was spraying black paint on the last of the windows when he saw the cat emerge from the hedge of arbor vitae at the back of the yard‑‑an unusual tortoiseshell cat with a wild mix of reds, blacks, and browns in its fur. All the confusing colors distracted for a moment from the fact that the cat’s head was missing.

Jim blinked a few times, thinking surely the head was turned away or tucked in, or maybe the effect was a trick of the early morning light, but then the cat picked its way across the dew-glazed lawn and onto the patio, and there was still no head.

The headless cat walked right up to the glass doors and sat down on the mud-stained mat. Where there should have been a head was a gaping hole, filled with a yellowish spinal cord, pink muscle tendons, and pulsing blood vessels. There should have been blood everywhere, but there wasn’t. Still holding his can of black spray paint, Jim knelt down for a closer look.

The empty space where the cat’s head should have been shimmered, like the horizon on a hot day, and then there was the head. It was as if the head had arrived late after the rest of it was already there. The fur around the cat’s eyes was a golden brown like a mask, a familiar mask. Jim realized he had seen this cat somewhere before. He couldn’t say where, but he remembered that furry face.

The cat looked up at him and put a paw out and touched the glass. Jim stood up and slid the door aside. The cat came in.

He didn’t have much to offer the cat—no milk, no tuna. He found a can of chicken noodle soup and opened it, poured it into a bowl and set it down on the kitchen floor. The cat sniffed at the soup and then ate enthusiastically.

No collar. Probably a stray. Maybe it would decide to hang around and be his cat.  It would be nice to have a cat. No one else was talking to him. Now that he had moved back into the house where his father had shot himself all those years ago, even his mother was off in a snit. He could say he hadn’t realized it was the same house, but it was pretty hard to forget an address like 123 Fourth Street. Even though they had not lived there since he was four when his father had left the planet, the place kept popping up in talk like a haunted house. He told Claudia about it early in their relationship.

Later he accused Claudia of waiting until he was going blind to leave him. Just like Newt, he’d said. The first remark had bounced right off her, but the second had struck home. Calling liberal Claudia a Newt had been more than she could stand.

But hadn’t she already been on her way out the door? He couldn’t be sure. Things had been so sparkly and blurry just then. What did it matter? She was gone. His mother was gone. He’d be losing his job any day now. And he was spraying the windows black and feeding chicken noodle soup to a sometimes headless stray cat in the house where his father had killed himself. What else could go wrong?

The cat finished the soup and looked up at Jim. Then it turned away and walked back out into the backyard. It had already disappeared by the time Jim got to the sliding glass door.

***

He finished closing out the last of the light. The house felt smaller now that it was dark all the time. This was a world where even the cats left you alone to go blind by yourself.  Maybe his father’s ghost would show up. Maybe he already had. Maybe he was standing over there in the shadows or maybe he was in the refrigerator. Yikes! That bright light. No, his father’s ghost was not in the refrigerator. There was nothing but beer in the refrigerator. He wandered back into the living room and picked up the phone and then put it down again while he found the yellow pages and then picked it up again and called the grocery store two blocks over and asked if they delivered. Of course, they did. For a fee. Read us your list. He should have made a list first. He would just have to pretend he had a list.

“Cat food,” he said. “The good stuff in little cans. And eggs. Bread. Yeah. You know, the whole grain stuff with nuts and twigs. Cans of soup. A dozen. You choose. A nice variety. Cheese. Swiss, sharp cheddar, pepper jack. Frozen peas. Frozen green beans. Frozen burritos. Vodka. What? Okay, never mind. Bacon. Everyone needs bacon, right? Potato chips. Popcorn. Not too heavy on the butter. Oh, and I need butter—a package, sticks, they’re called sticks. Did I say cheese? I did. Okay.”

When the doorbell rang, he thought, hey, that was fast, but he used the peephole and was grateful that he had, because instead of seeing someone delivering groceries, he saw his mother on the other side of the door.

She gave the bell a couple of rapid fire rings like she was jabbing the button with an accusing finger to the chest. Jim froze, barefoot on the cold brown linoleum, and waited.

A few more seconds passed, and then she knocked on the door. “Jimmy?” she called.

He didn’t answer.

“Jimmy, I know you’re in there,” she said. “Come on, open up. It’s cold. I want to talk to you.”

She tried the handle, which alarmed him, but still he didn’t speak. He’d locked the door. If he spoke, he knew he’d lose his resolve, but he could remain strong so long as he could pretend he wasn’t home.

“I know you’re in there, Jimmy,” she said. “I can see the light under the door.  I saw it change when I walked up. Open the door!”

He gritted his teeth.

“Martha Harnell left a message on my machine,” she said. “I heard it as soon as I got back from L.A. She said you haven’t left this house in days.  Jesus, Jimmy. This house? What are you thinking?”

Jim listened to the rain.

“I told you to see someone, didn’t I?” she said. “Didn’t I tell you to see someone? Do you seriously think this is any way to win Claudia back? Is that what this is about? Or are you just trying to punish me? That’s it, isn’t it? You get a divorce, and I go to see the Stones, a trip I’ve been planning for months, maybe my whole life, and you want me to stay and be mommy, but I go on my trip with my girlfriends and you’re mad and this is your way of sticking it to me! How could you buy this house?”

Not a bad question, he thought, but not one he was going to try to answer.

“Well, it’s not going to work!” his mother yelled. “I’ve moved on a long time ago, and it’s not going to work. You hear me?”

He could tell she was crying now. He knew she wanted him to know she was crying. He was not falling for it.

A moment later, she said, “I’m leaving, Jimmy. You need to see someone. You really do.”

She stomped off the porch. A car door slammed. Her old van rattled and wheezed and rumbled away.

***

The cat came back the next morning. He could hear it yowling and scratching, and when he eased the blackened sliding glass door open a few inches, being careful to turn his head away from the stabbing sunlight, the cat came right in.

“So, you’re back,” he said.

The cat didn’t bother to answer. It walked directly into the kitchen and was standing there looking up at the counter when Jim caught up with it. So it wanted to be fed. No problem. He was prepared. The grocery store had delivered his stuff. He opened up one of the cans of fancy cat food and put it in a plastic bowl. It said tuna flavoring on the side of the can, but mushy pink stuff didn’t smell much like tuna. It smelled more like raw chicken. The cat didn’t seem to mind. It leaped up on the counter and pushed its face into the bowl.

If they were going to be friends, he couldn’t go on calling it “the cat.” Was this a girl cat or a boy cat? He lifted one of the back legs. A boy, definitely, but neutered. The cat looked back at him, and Jim let go of his leg.

He wanted a unique name for this guy, but nothing dumb. Claudia had her cat named Skinnysticks, and he didn’t want anything like that at all.

“How about Irv?” he said to it. “Sound good to you?” It sounded good to Jim. He was thinking of Washington Irving and The Headless Horseman.

After Irv had eaten and slept for a half an hour in Jim’s lap, he wanted to be let out again. Jim opened the door just enough for the cat to slip out.  Then he spent a few hours working on an excuse to call Claudia. In the end, he just dialed her number. But she sounded so impatient when she answered that he hung up without a word. She probably had caller ID. She’d probably turn him into the phone company as a crank caller or into the police as a stalker. Why had he tried to call her in the first place? He didn’t really have anything to say to her. She was unfinished business. He couldn’t leave her alone. He opened a beer and turned on the TV. The picture hurt his eyes, and he turned it off again.

He finished his beer and spent the rest of the evening with his eyes closed practicing moving around the house blind. He’d already spent some time with the machine that read handwriting out loud, and gotten somewhat good at it, but it was a lot harder when his eyes were closed. That was the real trick. Everything was harder when you did it with your eyes closed. When you brush your teeth blind, he discovered, you squirt the toothpaste directly into your mouth. One of these days, when he got tired playing the blind game, he would say to himself, okay, enough of that, open your eyes now, and he would open his eyes, and that would not change anything.

***

When Irv came calling the next day, he was wearing a collar. Jim thought someone had forgotten to take the tag off the collar, but when he looked closer, he saw there was a note rolled up and attached with a rubber band. He got it open and smoothed it out. He fetched his magnifying glass and read, “Stop feeding my cat whoever you are. Can’t you see Donald’s fat enough as it is?”

Donald? His father’s name even if everyone had called him Don.

What a load of crap. First off, the cat didn’t look fat. Maybe a little on the heavy side, but that wasn’t the same thing. Claudia’s cat Skinnysticks had been obese, the vet said so, the lazy pile of fur couldn’t even see his own feet, but this cat was not even in the same league. Second, how was he supposed to know the cat belonged to somebody if it went around most of the time without a collar? And surely the cat was not well watched over if he sometimes lost its head? Jim knew there was a distinct possibility that this last fact was all in his own mind, but he was feeling indignant, and as Claudia always said, when he was indignant he was usually irrational. There was also the cat’s name. Who named their cat Donald? Was that after Donald Trump? Donald Duck? Irv had probably run away from home just to get away from someone calling him “Donald.”

He found a pen and wrote his own note on the other side of the one the cat’s owner had written to him.

“Be nicer to him, and maybe he’ll stay home!”

He attached the note to Irv’s collar, fed the cat, and after he had eaten, shooed him back outside.

***

Later that evening, the phone rang, and Jim made the mistake of answering it. He was sitting right next the phone in the living room, reading the latest Newsweek with his magnifying glass, and he reached for the phone without thinking. The word “Hello” was already out of his mouth before he remembered that whoever this was, he probably didn’t want to talk to them.

“Jimmy, it’s your mother,” his mother said.

He wasn’t sure if he could get away with hanging up. He heard the Grateful Dead playing in the background, the steady thump thump thud of the base.

“Don’t you dare hang up on me!” she said.

“How did you get this number?” he asked.

“From Claudia,” she said. “How else? Caller ID? Are you thinking at all these days?”

“No, Mother, I haven’t got a thought in my head.”

“I’m only calling because of Claudia,” she said. “I wouldn’t bother you otherwise. You’re obviously trying to hurt me, and I’m not going to let you hurt me. You can’t control my emotions, Jimmy. My aura is immune to what you’re doing here. Claudia asked me to call. She said you need to stop calling her. She said you’re being obsessive and it’s not helping.”

Jim tightened his hand on the receiver. He hated that Claudia was calling his mother. “I haven’t even talked to her once,” he said.

“You’ve been calling her all day. And hanging up. She saw your name on the call waiting.”

“I called her maybe twice. Both times it was an accident.”

“She said it was at least twenty times.”

“That’s an exaggeration,” he said, but he knew she was probably right. Claudia was always right when it came to anything involving numbers.

“Well, whatever. I’m just telling you what she said.”

“Well, you can tell her. . .”

“I’m not your go-between, Jimmy. You call her yourself.” She paused, and he knew she was waiting for him to point out that she’d just told he’d been calling too much and now she wanted him to call again. Well, let her wait for it. He wasn’t going to bite.

“Hello?” she said finally.

“I’m still here,” he said.

“Jimmy, what are you doing there? I don’t understand. That house, of all places. There’s no good karma for you there.”

He thought about saying, “Because I’m going blind, Mom.” The look on her face might be worth it, he thought. He hadn’t told her yet. And it was obvious Claudia had kept her promise not to tell her, or she’d be treating him completely differently now.

“It’s hard to explain,” he said finally.

“Well, I guess,” she said. “Honey, let me give you the number of my therapist. I know you’ll never call her, but it’ll make me feel better.”

“Okay,” he said, and she was right, he’d never call her.

When his mother finally hung up, he got up to go do something, but he didn’t have anything to do, so he picked up the phone again and dialed Claudia’s number.

“What is it, James?” She already sounded exasperated.  She was the only person who had ever called him James. It was like she was trying to elevate him, make him be all that he could be.

He clenched his teeth.

“James, for god’s sake,” she said, “I know you’re there. Don’t be infantile. Just say whatever you have to say so you can stop calling me.”

You loved me once, he wanted to say. “You called Mom,” he said.

She sighed. “Yes, I did. You know why.”

“Did you tell her?”

“Did I tell her what?”

“About my problem.”

“No, James. I didn’t tell her.”

He was still seething, but he couldn’t think of any other ways to attack her. He needed to say something, though, so he blurted, “You must feel real good about yourself divorcing a blind man.”

There was a long pause, and he thought maybe he’d really gotten to her this time, that he had really managed to hurt her, to make her feel at least a shred of guilt. Strangely, he didn’t feel any joy at this. He felt guilty himself.

Finally, she sighed, and it wasn’t a guilty sigh or a remorseful sigh, but the sigh of a woman who sounded like she just didn’t feel like sighing any more.

“I didn’t want a divorce because you were going blind, James,” she said. “I wanted a divorce because you couldn’t see. At least not me, anyway.”

Before he could manage to think of something else to say, she hung up.

***

Irv came into the world head first this time. There was a shimmer, and then there was his head, ah ha! He grabbed at a butterfly, missed, oh well, hunting in parallel universes had its ups and downs, and pulled the rest of his body into existence. Jim had been watching for the cat all morning through the plastic binoculars he used to watch TV these days, not that he watched much TV, but when he did he needed the binoculars, and they were just the thing to scan around the backyard from the gloom of his cave.

When the cat got close, Jim could see he had another note attached to his collar. This time, the words were, “I don’t see why you insist on interfering with our lives. Can’t you see you’re just causing trouble for everyone?”

This was really too much, he thought. Just look at that—two uses of the word “see.”

Could Claudia be the person on the other end of the cat?

How would that work? Claudia is seeing a mad scientist or a rogue doctor, yes, who experiments on cats and who has found a way for a cat to run around without a head, or without a body, or both, and there are two cats, twins, and Claudia gets the mad scientist crazy doctor dude drunk one night in his hidden laboratory after having sex on the lab bench pushing all that chemistry glass off onto the floor with a crash so they keep their shoes on but nothing else and afterwards the drunken naked (except for his shoes which would be black with those little holes in the toes) mad scientist cat butchering doctor passes out on the bench and Claudia makes off with the twins—one headless, the other looking perfectly normal, Donald and Irv, yes, that made some sense. And what about the butterfly? Never mind about the butterfly.

So, she gets a house down the block and sends headless Donald over to freak him out, to make him think he’s losing his marbles, going round the bend like the little engine who can’t, and spook him into seeing his mother’s therapist—his mother must be in on this, too.  In fact maybe it’s his mother who sent the headless cat.

How in the world Claudia is getting Irv to switch places with headless Donald so smoothly is a big mystery, but when you’re figuring stuff out, you shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t figure it all out at once.

And why would they be doing all of this? Because they wanted him to “see” whatever in the world they might mean by that. What a cliché. What his mother meant was that he should be like everyone else. He should blend in. If you were looking at a crowd of random men standing around talking about stuff and drinking beer, you should not be able to pick him out. He should not be the one that jumps out of the picture at you. You should not be thinking hey look at that weird bastard. If he were going to excel at anything, it should be something ordinary medicine maybe. She would not have minded if he’d become a famous doctor just so long as he had not grown Einstein hair or married someone from an unknown island in the South Pacific.

And what did Claudia want him to “see?” That was a much tougher question.

He invited Irv in and fed him, fed him a little more than he would have if the unknown note writer had not been on his ass about the feeding in the first place, and while the cat ate, he sat down at the kitchen table to formulate his response to the little essay on “seeing.”

He might have told her the jig was up and that he knew she was Claudia (or his mother), but if she were not, in fact, Claudia that would just be baffling, and he would lose points. He might have asked her who she was, but that gave her an opening to ignore him in that famous if-you-don’t-know-I’m-certainly-not-going-to-tell-you gambit. No, he needed something short and sweet that would get him info that might help solve the mystery. After a moment he wrote the following.

“Where do you live?”

***

The cat didn’t come back until the next day.  It looked like some kind of mutilated stuffed toy. Jim was pretty sure the effect was due to his eye condition, but felt a little frightened at what he might touch as he leaned down with his hand out the way you do when you want to reassure pets. As he got closer, the headless cat (the one he was thinking of as “Donald”) became the cat he had named “Irv” the one with the head, blinking green eyes and all. The cat pushed his head into Jim’s hand, and Jim scratched his ears. When he had had enough of that, Irv pulled away walked between Jim’s legs and into the house.

Was there a note?

Yes, there was note.

He really didn’t want to read the note. He wanted the cat to be Donald or Irv, one or the other, and these little notes were just making it all more confusing. He didn’t mind having a cat, but if he was going to have a cat, he wanted it to be his and not part of shared custody with some crazy person. A cat was probably a good pet for a blind person, since it was furry, making you want to pet it, and when you pet it, it often purred, which was a pleasant sound all by itself but it would also help you know where it’s head was in the dark. Assuming it had a head, of course. Most blind people with cats didn’t have to worry about things like whether their cats would or would not have heads at any given moment. Claudia always said people don’t own cats at all. Cats own people. So maybe it was up to Irv to decide if he wanted to stay Irv or if he wanted to be Donald. The note really had nothing to do with it, then. Reading it would only make him angry and he had enough to be angry about, thank you very much.

So Jim fed Irv another bowl of tuna cat food. He would just leave the note alone. But then the cat was done eating and had crawled into his lap and when he reached to scratch Irv behind the ears, he accidentally bumped the note with his thumb, and the folded piece of paper just fell off the collar, and, of course, once it was off he couldn’t just leave it there so he put down the cat and picked it up and unfolded it and read it.

“So. You’re looking for a fight? Fine with me. I live at 123 Fourth Street.”

He’d been thinking of the note writer as a woman, probably a woman at least as old as Claudia, maybe even of his mother’s generation, but the threat of violence said male, and then there was the address. What could it mean that the guy would give Jim’s own address? Maybe he was living in the attic? Jim laughed out loud. Right, the attic. He tore up the note into tiny pieces, then tossed them into the air and watched them float down like snowflakes.

Then he picked the cat and tossed him outside.

“Go home,” he said. “Just go home.”

***

Jim was watching I Love Lucy through his little binoculars when the mail came. He loved Lucy—the way she always got into so much trouble! He could identify. Letters, probably all junk, sputtered and fluttered through the mail slot like the drunken door was losing its lunch. The doorbell rang once.

Jim got up and peeped out but there was no one there. He opened the door and found a package on the mat.

From his mother, of course. Her note said, “Jimmy. I hope this reminds you of happier times. Love Mom.”

Inside the package he found the family photo album. He took it back to the couch and sat down and opened it in his lap. He picked up his magnifying glass. Yes, here were pictures of them all as a young family. Here were pictures of him as a baby, fat and naked, and as a toddler in ridiculous costumes. And his young mother with long straight hair and bright eyes and trusting smile.

Looking at the way they were was not making him feel any better. Why would it? He flipped through the pages quickly, and just as he snapped the album shut, he saw an image that stopped him cold.

It was a faded Polaroid, a picture of his father. He lifted the album close to his eyes. His father was sitting in the open sliding door that led to the backyard of this very house. His father wore jeans with holes in the knees. No shirt. His chest was very hairy, maybe it was the old photo—he might have been a gorilla, and there was little Jimmy sitting on his lap and wearing nothing but a diaper and a goofy grin.

A boy and his father and a cat stretched out under the chair beneath them. An unusual tortoiseshell cat, its fur a wild mix of reds, blacks, and browns. The cat was partially hidden behind his father’s legs, but that face was unmistakable. It was the very cat that had come to him, the one he’d named Irv, the one who was called Donald when he was headless or bodiless, coming or going or whatever. Jim had no doubt about the cat in the picture being the same one he’d been feeding. What could that mean?

If his father’s cat had come from the great beyond to visit, then it must be his father at the other end of the notes. Would his father know he was exchanging notes with Jim? Well, of course, he would, what with his father being a ghost and all. Jim smacked the album closed and stood up. If any of this were true, he’d made a big mistake. He’d sent the cat away without a note.

***

Jim threw open the blacked glass doors to the backyard, and the sun stabbed him like a couple of stooge fingers to the eyes, and he stumbled back into the darkness and closed the doors again. Next he used a butter knife to scrape a little hole in the black paint so he could peek out and watch for the cat. He couldn’t look long even switching from watering eye to watering eye.

The cat would probably never come back. That was the way the universe worked. If you were not bright enough to recognize the one chance it gave you, you could go screw yourself.

He poured milk into a bowl. He put cat food on a plate. He slid both the bowl and the plate out into the sunshine on the patio. He got the door closed and peeked back out into the backyard. Yes, there was something, moving, moving, no. Not the cat. A squirrel. Jim jerked open the door and screamed at the animal and it disappeared. He should get his little binoculars. He would need to scrape another hole in the black paint. He went back to the kitchen for the butter knife. He stopped for binoculars on the way back. There was a Japanese man jumping up and down on a trampoline on TV. He found the remote and turned it off.

Back at the glass doors, he got down on one knee and used the binoculars to measure where the other hole should go.

Before he could make his second scraping, he heard a tentative meow from the other side of the glass. His heart raced suddenly, and he grabbed the door and slid it open.

The cat walked right in like he owned the place.

Jim snatched him up and searched the collar for a note. There was no note. Okay, okay. That made some sense. It was, after all, Jim’s turn. His father had sent the cat back so Jim could make his reply to the last note.

He followed the cat into the kitchen. Hey, wait a minute the food and milk were out on the patio. Did he want more? Jim put the can of cat food down on the floor and sat down himself at the kitchen table. He needed to concentrate. What was he going to write? This could be a very important note. What was the one thing, the perfect thing, that would make up for years of anguish, of wondering why, why Dad, why did you have to leave us, but then Jim realized that he didn’t just want to write a note. He wanted to see his father again. He wanted to stop him from killing himself and a note wasn’t going to do it. He didn’t know if it was possible but that’s what he wanted. They were occupying the same house, just at different times, so there had to be a way. The cat and the notes were crossing over. Why couldn’t they?

Maybe the note itself could make it happen, he realized, and an idea occurred to him. What time was it? He peered close to the digital clock on the oven and saw that it was just after ten o’clock.

“Sure, I’ll fight,” he wrote on the paper. “I’ll ring your doorbell at midnight. We’ll see if you’re brave enough to answer the door.”

Then, before he could change his mind, he attached the note to the cat’s collar and sent him on his way.

***

It was good that he sent the cat out immediately, because Jim did wonder if there might be a better way. Maybe he should have just used the direct approach, written hey Dad, it’s Jimmy, and we’re time traveling in a weird way with this headless cat as our messenger, but his father would never believe it, especially because he always said those sci-fi comic books Jim kept under his bed were just trash. Maybe he should have chosen a neutral meeting area, maybe the park down the road where Jim had skinned his knees as a boy when his father was teaching him how to ride a bike and just gave him a good push even though Jimmy said no I’m not ready don’t let go. But Jim had the feeling the house was important, that if they were going to meet it had to be here.

It really was the best way. Ask his father for a hug and there’d be no answer. Tell him you wanted a chance to punch him in a face and he’d be there for certain.

He put on his tennis shoes, then sat there in his rocking chair, looking at his watch every thirty seconds or so. Only, as the minutes passed and midnight approached, he began to have second thoughts. On the surface it seemed that stopping his father from committing suicide was the best thing to do, and it would certainly change things, but would it change things in a good way? His mother always said his father was trouble. His mother may have been difficult, but she had made a good life for them after his father was gone, quitting drinking, starting her business selling those crystals, and who knew what would have happened otherwise. And Jim would probably still go blind. It was likely genetic, the doctor said so.

But maybe it would be like Claudia said. Maybe if Jim got to know his father, he’d be able to see in different ways.

A few minutes before midnight, he stepped outside, closing the door behind him. He wore the binoculars around his neck. The night was cool, and he shivered, but he didn’t want to go back inside for a jacket, afraid that would mess up the whole system. He still wasn’t sure what the system was, but he was sure that going back in the house for a jacket would screw it up. He glanced at his watch. Under two minutes.

Leaves skittered across the asphalt and a few dogs barked at one another down the road. He smelled freshly mowed grass and blooming wildflowers. It was nice family neighborhood and he imagined nice families inside all the dark houses, asleep in their beds, dreaming of all the things that nicely families dream. He was thinking this when he heard the distinctive rumble of his mother’s dilapidated van. She screeched to a halt in his driveway. He glanced at his watch. Under one minute.

He turned and looked through his binoculars, hoping he was wrong, hoping it wasn’t his mother. But it was, of course. She got out, jeans and tie-dyed t-shirt and lots of beads. Then to his astonishment, Claudia got out from the other side of the van. She was wearing a shiny black dress, her little black dress, in fact, as if she’d just come home from a date, maybe they’d been to an opera, probably a fancy dinner before or after, drinks at his place, no instead of that, she was here with his mother. What could that mean?

“What is this, some kind of intervention?” he asked.

The women moved in on him.

He took another look at his watch. Ten seconds. He turned back to the door and put his finger on doorbell.

“Don’t!” his mother called.

“We’re here to help!” Claudia said.

He pushed the button.

He heard the bell deep in the house. It was an old sound, the sound of the bell from his childhood. He looked back at his mother and Claudia, but they were not there. He thought that blocky shape in the street was his mother’s van, but now that the women were gone, he could not be sure.

He reached for his binoculars to look, but then there was some activity on the other side of the door as if people were pulling on robes and cursing, maybe asking who in the world would be ringing the bell at a time like this.

Jim was on the outside wanting to be let in, but he was also in the inside wondering who was ringing his bell in the middle of the night.

There were several ways this might turn out, he thought.

Jim on the outside standing in the dim porch light expected his father to answer the door. His father would be a young man. His mother would be back on the stairs asking who was that at the door, and young Jimmy would be looking down to see, too. He’d be holding the all-knowing cat. Jim at the door would say to his father look at your family. How do you think they will feel when you blow your brains out? His father would look back at his wife and young son and the cat, and then he’d turn back to this strangely familiar stranger at the door and say, “Oh, yeah, you’re totally right. What a fool I’ve been. Thank you so much for pointing out the error I almost made!” And the world would shift and his father would have never killed himself, and Jim would have benefited from a lifetime of good advice, and he would know what to do to make Claudia happy, and when things starting getting dim, leaving him would not even occur to her.

Jim on the inside knew that it was his mother at the door. He’d open the door and she’d be standing there holding the cat and looking hurt and worried and Claudia would be standing behind her looking indignant. And there would be a couple of big guys, one black one white, both with weight lifter arms and a lot of experience with guys like Jim, and the whole group would push inside, and the big guys would grab him and throw him into a chair and everyone would be in his face until he broke down and cried and admitted yes, yes, I need help, help me, you’re right, you’re right.

It was Schrödinger’s cat all over again. The cat in the box had lost its head or it hadn’t. He wouldn’t know until he opened the door and looked.

Did it really have to be one or the other?

Maybe there would be someone else entirely standing on the porch, a blind woman with dark glasses and a white cane, or maybe she was standing inside, because it was her house and not his. She’d be holding the cat, and as soon as Jim had her picture in his head, he would finish going blind himself, and she would speak and her voice would let him know that she had had it up to here with the cat and the notes, such a nice voice even so, and he’d tell her he was sorry, and she’d speak again, and her voice this time would be lilacs, and the flowers would pull him forward, and he would grope out and take her hand, and when they touched, some kind of cosmic circuit would close, and sleeping birds would rise up and sing to them. The sun would come up again, and while neither of them could see it, it would warm their skins and make them smile.

swc3_smScott William Carter lives in Oregon with his wife and children. His debut novel, The Last Great Getaway of the Water Balloon Boys, is due out from Simon and Schuster in 2010. More than three dozen of his short stories have been published in a wide variety of places. Find him online at www.scottwilliamcarter.com.

ray1Ray Vukcevich’s fiction has appeared in many magazines and anthologies and has been collected in Meet Me in the Moon Room from Small Beer Press. His new collection Boarding Instructions will appear from Fairwood Press later in 2010. Find out more about him at http://www.rayvuk.com.

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