Cats and Dogs
“She was telling her daughter about the period in her life when she killed cats.”
Lillian was telling her daughter about the period in her life when she killed cats.
“I had a system going. I would bait a Have-a-Heart trap with a bit of sardine on a saucer and put it out in the yard just before retiring. In the morning, I would hurry out in my bathrobe, and if I was successful, which I almost always was, I’d place the trap with its disbelieving victim on the step at the shallow end of the swimming pool and in less than thirty seconds, maybe twenty, that would be that.”
Toby was barely listening to her. She was looking at her mother’s permed hair, which resembled molded plastic.
“Most of them seemed pretty blasé in the moment before I dunked them,” her mother said. “As though they’d been in Have-a-Heart traps before and expected delightful and challenging futures, a refreshing change of venue, maybe the country, or even the challenges of a shopping center. My last cat, though, looked much like the first. Nothing changes them. That’s their nature. I began to feel I was catching and disposing of the same cat over and over. I lost the necessary ambition. I wasn’t getting anywhere, you see.”
“You shouldn’t keep telling that story, Mama,” Toby said. “Aren’t you afraid there’s going to be an accounting?”
“Oh, you,” her mother said vaguely. “You’re just needling me.”
“You want to go over and see Daddy? Let’s go over and see Daddy for awhile, then I have to go.”
“My first stroke,” her mother said. “I remember it as though it were yesterday.”
“Well,” Toby said, “it wasn’t.”
“There was a sound like cloth ripping. The thing zigged through me just like that and then I was on the floor for no one knew how long before anybody came.”
It was Halloween in the twin assisted-living facilities; her mother was in one, and across the courtyard her father was in the other. Both buildings were decorated with orange and black bunting, and cardboard witches and ghosts tacked to the walls. There was a mound of plastic pumpkins by the receptionist’s desk. What a place to be observing Halloween! Staff was crazy in here. That’s what they called themselves. They wore stupid pins on their smocks that said Staff. They were undoubtedly hitting the pharmacy day and night in order to maintain their gay demeanor.
“Where are you now,” Lillian asked. “Whatcha up to?”
Toby sighed. “You don’t know who I am, do you?”
“That is not entirely true,” Lillian said. This woman before her who suddenly seemed angry was like everybody, anybody who had ever lived.
“I told you before, Mama, if you keep not knowing who I am, I’m going to stop coming here.”
“You’re my child,” Lillian said. She hoped she didn’t sound bewildered. She wanted to sound affirmative, torrentially affirmative, like a great artist.
Toby was not appeased. She felt distracted by Staff, who was spraying cobwebs from a can onto the windows.
“I sold the house today,” Toby said loudly. “I just closed on it, right before I came over here.”
Her mother frowned. “We’ve discussed that,” she said. “Was it fun?”
“A young couple bought it.”
“Why did a young couple buy it?”
“Let’s go over and see Daddy before you drive me out of my mind.”
Toby nudged the brake off the wheelchair with her sandaled foot and they proceeded down the corridor and into the courtyard. There were several benches, unoccupied, and two trees whose limbs looked smooth and severed like human stumps, with the skin drawn tightly forward and folded over into a tight tuck. Yet on the tips of these eerie branches were lovely white and still fragrant flowers. And these trees were not at all uncommon at this latitude.
Toby had made a good profit on the house, the last one her parents had lived in together. She had capitalized on something legally exotic. Her mother and father had been in the house less than six months when they learned from a neighbor that a murder had taken place there, just one, but involving almost every room, upstairs and down, in what could only have been a long, drawn-out process. Toby took advantage of a gray area in the law and sued the realtors for selling them a stigmatized property. The lawyer had been delighted by the largeness and grayness of the area. The house appeared to be making every effort to be charming and forthright, but in a court of law it was considered psychologically impacted and the real-estate company was found liable for not informing the buyers of its past. The money involved was not considerable but it was still amusing to have. After her mother’s stroke and her father’s tumble, Toby had put the house on the market herself with full disclosure and it sold eventually to a couple who’d had a loved one murdered (the relationship here was blurry) and required intensive counselling. Now they could put sudden and untoward death in a place far, far away. They made their money in video.
They signed all the papers at the house on the hood of the couple’s car. It had been hand-painted with images of fish, following one of the customs of the town to fancifully paint old cars with complex, detailed scenes of virtually vanished worlds. The fish had inaccessible startled faces and curving silver bodies. Each scale, carefully delineated, shone. It was all carefully, glowingly done, the water was rendered crystalline. The vehicle itself, however, had bald tires, a cracked windshield and a dragging tailpipe.
“Video pays the bills,” the girl said. Her name was Jennifer. “But it’s our nutty money that makes life worth living. Boyfriend sells his sperm to fertility clinics. He has the highest IQ in the business, practically.”
“Of course the doctors make a lot more,” the boyfriend said.
“I can’t believe people would freak out just because this lovely home hosted a sad event,” Jennifer said. “People get so unnecessarily freaked. We’re on this earth with a part to play but instead of playing the part as an actor does, some people think the part is really them and they freak out all the time. Listen, you can hear the ocean from here.”
“That’s the freeway, I think,” the boyfriend said.
“It sounds OK, though. I mean, if they can make a freeway sound like an ocean, so much the better.”
Toby had never lived in this house. It meant nothing to her. Even if she had lived in it, its sale would have been of minor significance. She didn’t consider a house as a large cradle or nest. For the last several years she had moved around a number of properties her father had bought for back taxes at the courthouse when the owners could not be located; he had busied himself in his retirement by acquiring houses in this fashion. They were all dumps and Toby was in the process of disposing of them in an accelerated manner. She was at present occupying an oddity built decades before that had never been remodeled. Its roofline was angled like wings. The ceilings were crazed and water-stained, an avocado green shag covered the plywood floors, the bathroom wallpaper depicted toreadors and bulls—rather a single toreador and a single bull over and over again. The wood was biscuit-colored and flimsy, the rooms small, the foundation cracked, the malfunctioning kitchen appliances a grotesque shade of ruby. The yard was large. There had once been flower beds, all in ruin now, and a small pond was spanned by a concrete arch from which a concrete fisherperson “fished.” The place was a hoot, though Toby felt it worsened her sinus condition.
This house, though, her parents’ last house, was proper, formal, clean, and patient, even though it was unlucky. It was aware that it was unlucky. It had been sold with all furnishings, dishware, linens, even the Oldsmobile in the garage.
“What’s the first thing you’re going to do,” Toby asked.
They looked at her blankly.
“To the house.”
“Oh, tear it down,” boyfriend said. “We really wanted more of a yurt.”
“He’s kidding,” Jennifer said.
“It’s entirely up to you, of course,” Toby said.
“Maybe we’ll slap some paint on the Olds, though. Birds of the Everglades.”
“Pretty, pretty, pretty,” Jennifer enthused. She carried a child’s lunchbox as a purse and from it she pulled a money order made out to the full purchase amount as well as three small cupcakes with orange frosting, which she distributed.
Toby swallowed hers without thinking, then said, “Oh, I . . . is there something in this?”
“Just a little celebratory weed,” boyfriend said.
“Chink, chink,” Jennifer said, swallowing. She flung her arms wide, almost clipping Toby with the lunchbox. “I’m going to plant stuff all around here. My grandad had a wisteria vine and he said that when he went out to look at it it would lean forward and lay its head on his shoulder, it liked him so much. That thing was huge. Once, when he wasn’t around, I hit it with a croquet mallet. I was pissed at grandad because he put my favorite sweater in the dryer and ruined it. It was, like, the size of a chinchilla’s sweater.”
“A chihuahua’s, I think,” boyfriend said.
“Kids today would’ve taken the mallet to grandad,” Jennifer went on, “but I took it to that vine—oh, did I. It flew away in big green and purple chunks and never came back. I was such a bad girl then, a demon!”
“But then you found Jesus,” the boyfriend said.
“You found him?” Toby said. “Where?”
“What he means is Jesus found me,” Jennifer said kindly, “and I take comfort now in knowing, knowing, that in my grandad’s heaven a wisteria vine grows.”
“That is so unlikely,” Toby said.
“Unlikely,” Toby said. “Doubtful. No way.”
Jennifer removed her sunglasses and looked at Toby coldly.
“Maybe you should leave now,” the boyfriend said.
“Certainly,” Toby said. She felt somewhat woozy from the cupcake. “Our transaction is complete,” she said, in a simper she was aware was taking up entirely too much of her face.
“She can still pack a heck of a wallop,” the boyfriend warned her.
So had the sale ended on its awkward note.
Still, the cupcake had managed to whisk her in gleeful transit to the convalescent home—a distance of some twenty miles through normally aggravating traffic—before it dumped her without warning behind her mother’s wheelchair on the back of which some impish Staff had affixed the sticker This Is Not An Abandoned Vehicle.
“Look!” Lillian cried. Her heart was beating eagerly, stupefied. “Look!” But she then realized it was no more than water from a lawn sprinkler fanning lightly back and forth across the grass.
“What!” Toby said. “You’re not going to get wet. Are you afraid of getting wet?”
Lillian remembered a green umbrella, furled, in the vestibule when she had been young. She feared umbrellas. “I’m afraid of umbra . . . umbra . . . umbrellas,” she said shyly.
“Don’t be foolish,” Toby said.
They found Robert in the reading room, alone at a large table, staring at a book on ancient Egypt. Here was her father, Toby thought. She waited for the next thought but nothing immediately arose.
“Hi, Daddy,” Toby said. She always expected something, but what?
He ignored her and addressed his wife. “Are you aware of this Osiris?”
Lillian studied the highly illustrated page. “Well, that’s not him, the one with the jackal’s head, he doesn’t look like that.”
“She was always the smart one, your mother,” Robert said. “Could always count on her.”
Toby scanned the text. Sibling drowned Osiris. Then chopped up body into fourteen parts and scattered them all over the place, all over Egypt. Someone found everything except for the penis, which had been eaten by fishes, then put him back together again and made him king of the underworld.
“They shouldn’t have books like this lying around here,” Toby said. “Here, of all places.”
“Those Egyptians had to worry that their own hearts might testify against them after death,” Robert said. “Isn’t that something? That was one of the things those people had to worry about.”
“They worried that their own hearts would turn them in?”
“That’s right, Mother.”
“Like they were criminals?”
“I don’t understand,” Toby said without curiosity.
Robert looked at her with disapproval, though he had harbored no preference for a son. They’d had Toby when they were quite along in years. She was their wan surprise.
“You’re the one who said there was going to be an accounting,” her mother reminded her.
“I nearly said that,” Toby admitted, “but I never did.”
They sat silently around the table, the great book of Egypt open before them.
“What are you having for dinner, Daddy? What are they serving?”
“Some sort of meat you can eat with a spoon,” he said moodily, “and orange sherbet. It’s Halloween.”
“She never liked Halloween,” her mother said. “She was never formidable enough for it.”
“Ahh, Mama,” Toby whined.
“What’s the weather out,” her father asked.
“It’s . . .” Toby couldn’t remember. What difference did it make. The days were mostly bright as blazes, this being Florida.
“We had a good life together, didn’t we, Mother?” Robert said.
This could go either way in Toby’s experience, and she wasn’t about to hold her breath.
“I don’t think so,” Lillian said. She was choosing not to be torrentially affirmative at the moment.
The reply, whatever it was, usually marked the moment when Toby would look at her watch and express dismay at the lateness of the hour. It was just a little sign she had taken to relying on.
“All right, Mama, Daddy, I’m going to leave now. Mama, why don’t you have supper here with Daddy, and Staff can take you back to your own room afterwards.”
“Leave me here, leave me here,” her mother said. “It’s perfectly all right. I’m just waiting my turn.”
Toby sat on the porch of the next house she was about to unload and looked at the street. There would be no trick-or-treaters. It was a bad neighborhood and many of the kids were undoubtedly in jail. No one had infants here. Half-grown rollicking figures in baggy pants and jackets were produced, some of whom drove low, bullet-shaped cars with tricked-out axles that allowed them to bow, tip, and curtsy like circus horses. One of these vehicles rolled by now without performing. A man laughed and a can of beer shot through the air and struck the rotting steps. It was unopened, however, thus indicating to Toby a modicum of goodwill.
She had no admirers at present. Since leaving her parents’ home at eighteen she’d experienced two brief marriages—one to a Ritalin addicted drywaller, the next to a gaunt, gabby autodidact, brilliant and quite unhinged, who drank a pound of coffee a day, fiddled with engines and read medieval history. After their parting, he flew in a small plane he had built to Arizona and found employment as a guide in a newly discovered living cave. Daily, he berated the tourists by telling them that every breath they took was robbing the cave of its life, even though each of them had gone through three airlocks and were forbidden to touch anything or take photographs. People didn’t mind hearing they were well-meaning bearers of destruction, apparently. According to him, he was the most popular guide there. She was amazed to learn that people liked him. She certainly didn’t.
She sat rocking slightly in an old roof-hung swing. One chain looked just about to snap but it had looked like that for some time. A big orange moon labored up the sky.
A limousine longer than the wretched porch drew up to the house and stopped. The inhabitants were probably seeking the gin palace several blocks over, Toby reasoned. There were often singers and bands performing there. But no request for directions was forthcoming. Instead, an immense woman emerged, dressed in red and drenched in strong perfume. The limousine pulled away.
“Are you the present owner of this property,” the woman asked. “I hope you are.”
Toby narrowed her eyes and did not reply. The woman was her own age but striking, tremendous.
“I was a little girl in this house!” the woman announced. “This used to be the only house this side of the street. Next door there was nothing but a pretty field with a shed on it and the family the next street over would raise veal calves in that shed, it was a calf hutch. The man wouldn’t let his own kids play with those calves, he didn’t want them to make pets out of them and then get sad, but he let me play with them. I loved those little calves so, each one was dearer to me than the one before. On hot nights like this I’d take my sweet pillow and lay on the little bridge out back. Oh, how many wondrous nights I spent sleepless and singing my little songs of praise beneath the great wheel of heaven as I laid on that little bridge.”
“You lived here,” Toby said, uncharmed.
“Sister, I did. And I want to come home. I want to buy this precious property.”
“I’d consider selling it,” Toby said, she hoped not too eagerly. She hadn’t invited her up on the porch and didn’t think she would.
“What’s your price,” the marvelous woman asked. Her dress was remarkable—a divine, shrieking crimson.
Toby paused, then named a figure which made her blush, it was so unreasonably high.
“I’ll pay you $20,000 more. I have money. I’m a success. I say this in all modesty, believe me.”
“It needs some work,” Toby admitted reluctantly.
“We all need work, Sister. We’re all a work in progress. And no one knows in what guise the end of the familiar will arrive. We’re like darling veal calves in that regard.”
“So they used to farm around here,” Toby said. “It certainly is different now, I don’t have to tell you that.”
“Nobody farmed, Sister. It was just that one mean cracker who ran a calf hutch for the restaurants in Sarasota.”
Toby felt corrected and did not care for it. She brushed a mosquito off her knee and said, “Is this a serious offer you’re making? Because I’ve had some interest and I’d have to let these other parties know. Of course they don’t appreciate the place as much as you do.” She would concede that much to the imaginary.
“I’ve already agreed to your price and more, Sister. I do appreciate it. And my mother and father, they appreciate it too. They’re right out back there. Probably just about given up hope that I’d ever get back to them.”
A moment passed and Toby said, “What do you mean, ‘out back there?’ ”
“This is our story, Sister,” the woman said, straightening her smooth brown shoulders and causing the red dress to strain and shine. “They were the finest people you’d ever have the luck to meet. They were Edenists, my loved ones was, they truly believed our days are spent in Eden, that Eden was here and now. They were good and they were grateful and one afternoon just this time that year they were taking a neighbor boy out for a driving lesson. They’d promised to teach this boy, Billy Crawford, how to drive in our Chevrolet truck so he could get his license. It was just a kindness on their part. My daddy was a builder and his tools, his boards and paints and such, were in the old truck’s bed. He sat in the middle on the bench seat with Billy Crawford behind the wheel and my mother by the window appreciating the breeze. She’d go for a little ride at any opportunity. Why my daddy took on Billy Crawford on as a student, we’ll never know. You couldn’t tell him nothing and he never wore his glasses as he was supposed to, for he was vain. He was driving, he wasn’t speeding, speed was not a factor. But what he did was he ran over this fellow’s dog. Knocked him down with the tires, didn’t even see him, and it was a big dog. From all reports, the man who was standing beside the dog, whose dog it was, became a threatening figure right away, fearsome in his grief, for who knows how long that dog had been his only friend. He was dressed in so many rags they looked like robes and he started screaming and hammering on that truck and wouldn’t be comforted or listen to reason, not that there was any reason involved, it being an accident. Billy Crawford, who might have been following my father’s directive or not, put his foot back on the pedal and commenced to drive away. But the man, his name was Rockford Wiggins, clung to the truck and hauled himself into the bed, where he continued screaming and baying, and now that he had boards and cans and tools to do his hitting with he began to beat on the window that was all that separated him from them, from Billy Crawford and my dear ones. There was a can of turpentine in the back as well and it wasn’t long before death, triumphant, placed it in Rockford Wiggins’ hands. He drenched himself and all those rags were like a hundred wicks so when he set himself off with a packet of matches, the whole truck went. I was told that it looked like a parcel of hell burning, in the manner that hell is popularly pictured.
Well, Sister, they all of them died, burnt to the bones. And a professional reduced my dear ones further to ashes because that was getting to be the trend back then. And I took those ashes and made them into bricks, for there was no one to tell me not to and no voice was raised against it. I knew some things since my father had been a builder, as I said. It was necessary to add something—it’s three parts sand, one part lime and clay—but now the fundaments of those bricks are my dear ones. I mortared them into the base of the little bridge we built ourselves in the days that we were Edenists. And then I had to leave, Sister. I had to go out in the world and make my way and fortune.”
“You’re saying there’re two bricks out back there that aren’t just bricks,” Toby said.
“I didn’t mingle the ashes. If I was to do it today I would’ve mingled them all, poor Rockford Wiggins and bratty Billy Crawford and the big dog too.”
Toby smacked at her knees. The bugs were really getting to her. “What I don’t understand is how you could imagine that anyone who bought this dump would have kept things as they were.” She smiled to show that she meant no offense.
The woman smiled back. It was the sort of smile the terminally ill might realize they’d been receiving as the days wore on.
“I’m just saying that you took quite a gamble. This isn’t a graveyard. No one’s under any obligation to care for what’s here.” Toby said. Or what isn’t, she might as well have added.
“My broker will call you tomorrow,” the woman said.
“I’ll need a few days to make arrangements.”
“In three days, then,” the woman said.
“You can come back in three days, then—no, better make it four,” Toby said.
The woman nodded and turned. The limousine appeared like a liquid poured from the shadows. She addressed Toby once more before she stepped into it. “It’s perfect here!”
Her eyes were certainly dishabituated to reality, Toby thought, if she believed this crummy locale to be perfect. She pushed herself off the swing and went into the house, opening and shutting the warped door with difficulty. She sat down at the kitchen table, an old pink Formica and chrome thing, and turned the pages of a phone book until she found a listing of demolition contractors. She copied down a number of names. She would call them all in the morning. She wanted everything torn up and down. The job would go to the one who could do the work most quickly. A great devotional emptiness swam up in her. She was doing the woman a favor. It had probably just been a prank anyway. There would be no call from a broker. She sneezed sharply from the mildew and held a tissue to her nose. Some people’s behavior was simply inexplicable. They outlasted their lives or something.
The great moon was now obscured by clouds. Toby picked up a flashlight and went outside, stalking across the lost but unforgotten garden to the little bridge. She bent and studied the blocks that supported the foolish thing. No two bricks were different from the rest—all pitted, common, unparticular, of uniform size and texture.
On her knees, she held the light against them. “I don’t believe you,” she said.
Robert had brought the great book of Egypt to dinner, and before it could be removed from his grasp had spilled milk on it. He was scolded at length. Lillian had been returned to her room and was being trussed up by Staff in preparation for her personal night. She felt compelled to speak of the cats again, although in this way her thoughts could no longer be reflected.
There was the trap and the pinch of food on the chipped china saucer. Never too much, not that it seemed wasteful, it just wasn’t right. And the saucer—it had to be a chipped one. A perfect saucer would have conferred something else entirely. She had meant no real harm. What if everything one did mattered. Thank God, it could not.
This story is taken from the collection The Visiting Privilege by Joy Williams. Copyright © Joy Williams. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
More in this series
“Yes, there are still whales, there are still haddock, crabs, seals. Their hearts beat, muscle and sinew unaltered by steel scale or steam-powered fins. For now, anyway.”