The One Who’s Left

(Originally appeared in Portland Review.)

As the sun rose like a giant tangerine over Southeast Baltimore, Flo Pritchard peered through her kitchen window, beyond her square patch of a concrete yard and the wide alley separating East Street yards from the Fairmont Avenue ones. She glanced at the starlings and pigeons pecking away at crumbs in the middle of the concave alley, their necks thrusting to and fro as they circled a pile of breadcrumbs that someone had tossed there, but focused on the sight of the boy playing with his dog in the yard directly behind. The boy tossed a Pinky into the air, and the dog leapt, tail wagging, catching the rubber ball in its jaws.

Flo waited for the medium-sized mutt to knock him over, but the boy’s spindly brown legs held fast, his two feet moving backward and forward, his body upright, and under his backward baseball cap, his russet-colored face laughing as the dog licked him. The joy of the boy’s wide, white-toothed laugh annoyed her. Why should he be so deliriously happy with his dog when her cat was missing, thanks to that same dog?

“Good girl, Snickers!” The boy rubbed its sides, and the dog wagged its tail, barking a rough, high-pitched sound more suitable to a tiny lapdog or a fox rather than something that stood as high as the boy’s thighs. The barking and the playfulness—so sneaky—aggravated Flo until she couldn’t contain herself anymore. She pushed her black, cat-eye glasses, which had been slipping down her nose, back into place, threw open the window, thrust her gray head— dotted with bright-yellow curlers—through it and yelled.

“I still don’t forget your dog got my cat. I ain’t seen Juice around nowhere for a month now. Right after you brought that mangy dog into the yard.”

“Snickers didn’t get your cat!” the boy yelled back. He laughed at her, then lobbed the ball down the narrow side yard that led to the sally-port gate on Fairmont Avenue. The dog gave chase, caught it, and bounded back to the boy.

Flo humphed. “I wasn’t born yesterday,” she yelled.

Ignoring her, the boy turned his back to Flo, infuriating her further. The last time she’d eyed Juice, her 13-year-old orange tabby, he was sunning himself in her yard, sprawled longways over the wrought iron patio table, his usual spot, and the dog was jumping like a jack-in-the-box by the fence, bellowing threats at him. Juice didn’t like that dog either. He’d fluffed his fur; his tail expanded to the size of a raccoon’s. Juice had hissed and spit at the dog before settling himself back down on the table, this time facing the alley, facing the dog, pointing both ears— even the half-chewed one—forward, demonstrating he was on guard. Attack mode.

“Menace,” she yelled.

She could almost hear Eggy’s scratchy voice behind her, telling her to leave the kid alone, for Pete’s sake. Flo opened her mouth to answer and then shut it again. She’d forgotten for a minute that the voice would never come; sometimes she still expected to see him, her baby brother, standing behind her in his suspenders and red paisley bow tie, his egg-shaped bald head a shiny version of their father’s. Or hear him. She sometimes forgot that Eggy was gone too. Eggy, spry for his age, nearly a whole decade younger than Flo, had been sleeping on the sofa, watching the late-night news, with Juice cuddled on the small of his back when Flo came home from Wednesday-night Bingo and found him dead. That was a few months back—maybe six now? She couldn’t remember exactly, but she did remember that Eggy, always the soft one, gave people the benefit of the doubt, even when he ought not to, blind as he was to the snakes in the grass. Like the riffraff changing the neighborhood, bringing with them their loud boom boxes, loud cars, loud clothes, loud dogs, clouds of intrusive spices rising up in smelly cooking aromas, and outdoor drug markets. At night the streets didn’t feel safe anymore. She wouldn’t be surprised if the boy across the alley, with his oversized pants, backward cap, and mean-ass dog, spent a good portion of his time courting street trouble.

“Menace,” she screamed again at the boy.

The boy shrugged. Flo pulled her head inside and banged the window shut. “Menace,” she mumbled.

Flo fretted over the missing cat. She poured a half-cup of dry cat food into his plastic purple bowl in hope that the cat would come home, and now the cat bowl nearly overflowed. With an open can of the stinkiest cat food she could find, she had walked the streets daily for two—no, three—weeks, within in a six-block radius, searching for him, calling him. She’d never made it down to Patterson Park. The thought of walking her 79-year-old legs to and around the park and back again fatigued her just as much as the thought of clearing out Eggy’s things, still filling his closet and bureau drawers as if he’d gone out on an errand and would return any minute. She had only gone into his room once—to get his good suit for the undertaker. After that she’d shut the door and kept it shut. She knew Eggy wasn’t coming back—she kept his funeral card, showing him smiling brightly from his fiftysomething-year-old face, horn-rimmed glasses below his smooth, bald dome, laughing as if he’d just heard a joke. His name, Frederick Pritchard, was written above in bold, black letters lined in gold ink—and she was still mad at him. She was the older one, the one who was supposed to go first. “Lucky is the one who goes first,” Eggy used to say, “because nobody will be around to take care of the one who’s left.” Flo had thought he meant, for once in her life, she’d be the lucky one, and he’d be left behind alone. Flo believed he did it on purpose, flip-flopping the situation, leaving her behind. Alone. “It ain’t fair, Eggy Pritchard,” she yelled at the kitchen ceiling. “You hear me?”

If he heard her or not didn’t matter. He wasn’t coming back, but Flo held out hope for the cat, an animal that weighed more than 20 pounds because he never missed a meal; hope that the kitty would come around as he’d always done as long as she owned him. But something happened to him, as he hadn’t returned, and whatever happened was connected to that she-devil dog across the alleyway, the mutt that couldn’t stop barking at him. Silence descended on the house like a giant cloud; the house empty of Eggy, empty of Juice, made her feel antsy, unable to sleep.

“Stupid, old cat,” she said aloud. Her voice sounded hollow, no one else hearing it. She missed Eggy, who began every morning with a cup of black coffee, a piece of hard bread, the morning newspaper, and a walk around the block, “to get my blood moving,” before he pulled out his daily list of small chores that kept the house in shape. He’d follow his list, eat lunch, and then spend the afternoons playing chess or cards with his Patterson Park cronies. She missed Juice racing her to the kitchen every morning, meowing for his food and for fresh water in his bowl. She’d give him the water, while Eggy poured his food. She missed Juice sleeping on the upper left-hand corner of her bed at night. She missed him forming a warm feline “C,” like a cap around her head. She missed him sitting on her lap when she watched the six o’clock news, purring as she stroked him behind his ears. She missed his loud meows and the tiny footprints he left in her tub, where she kept the water running at a trickle so he could drink it fresh. She missed the way Eggy used to make him jump with a stick and a string.

Eggy’d make her laugh, saying he was training the cat for a circus. He had tied a doohickey to the bouncy string attached to a stick, and Juice would jump near three feet, trying to grasp it, his claws of his front paws extended like a tiny orange hand. The day she’d found him down at the park, a tiny, orange cotton ball with a surprisingly loud meow, Eggy had thrown a fit, adamant about not keeping “no damn cat” in the house. Keeping it had been her idea, but then Eggy adopted it. The man who hated cats became attached, so attached, he brought sardines home for Juice on Fridays. Flo smiled at the memory. Of course softhearted Eggy would come around. Didn’t he change to the graveyard shift at the factory to take care of Ma while Flo worked the morning one?

At the kitchen table, black magic marker in hand, she printed letters on a brown cardboard flap she ripped from the carton of bleach. Her hand no longer steady, an affliction that she endured so long now, she couldn’t remember otherwise, she carefully formed each letter and held up the sign for inspection. The sign could be better, but it suited.

“MELON and SNICKERS are MURDERERS. They killed JUICE.”

She made another sign saying the same thing and placed them in a shopping bag with dozens of similar signs. Flo examined the thickening shopping bag of signs, satisfied that she was accomplishing something for Juice. Outside, the dog’s high-pitched bark plucked her last nerve. Melon’s mother called him inside, and the back storm door slammed. Outside, the dog, panting and looking innocent as a lamb, stretched against the chain link fence in the shade provided by fig tree branches reaching over the fence from the yard next door, and a dagger of rage rose up inside her. She grabbed a couple of stale chocolates left over from the gift boxes people brought after Eggy’s funeral and, from her back porch, fired one at the dog. The candy hit its haunches and fell to the pavement. The dog sniffed it, picked it up in its mouth, and gulped the candy. She flung the rest of the chocolates at him like stones, wanting to hurt the animal, wanting the hard chocolates to bruise her haunches, sting her eyes, minor suffering compared to what Juice may have endured.

Maybe Juice lay wounded somewhere, bleeding from dog bites, unable to crawl home, and her eyes watered. The dog looked startled at first, sniffing the chocolates, and to her horror, she ate them, all of them—and wagged her tail, barking merrily for more. It infuriated her, the fur-faced jaws and claws. Flo banged her way back into her kitchen. Stupid dog. She spied the half-dozen oranges on her counter and pitched them across the alley, aiming for the top of the dog’s head. The first one fell short and rolled. The dog leaped for the second one—as it had for the ball—bit it and ate it in a single gulp. The third bounced off her head, but the dog lurched for it, snapped at it midair, caught it fast, and it vanished too. The mutt ran for the orange that fell short, sniffing it, wagging its tail, swallowing it, then barking and jumping happily for more. She could almost hear Eggy laughing at her, saying, “Whole lot of good that’s gonna do, sis.”

“Damn dog!” she muttered. At her kitchen counter Flo beat the butcher-block cutting board with a stainless steel meat mallet, wishing she could pulverize that stupid candy-eating, orange-gulping dog. Wishing Juice would come home. Wishing Eggy hadn’t been first.

* * *
Hair still wrapped in yellow curlers and covered by a red-and-gold kerchief, stockings rolled neatly at her ankles, well below the hem of her snap-button plaid housedress, pink mule slippers that clash with the dress’s blues and purples, house keys bulging in her front right pocket, Flo carried the shopping bag of signs in her left hand and a roll of gray duct tape and a pair of scissors in her right. She gripped the bag, afraid that her trembling hands would drop it. Determined to post the signs, she held the items close to her chest, and at the first traffic sign—a no-parking sign—she dug one of her cardboard signs out of the bag and taped it to the green pole. She taped another sign on the next vertical structure, a lamppost.

“You crazy?” said a man’s voice behind her. It was Pete, who stood in front of his stoop, three doors north of hers. “You got any proof? Better have a boatload of proof before you go accusing a kid and a dog of murder. Far as I know, cats and dogs never liked each other anyways,” Pete added. He laughed. Flo smirked.

“The boy can’t control that dog,” she said. “It got my cat.”

“Since when do you control your cat? Everybody around here knows the big, orange tabby with the chewed-off ear belongs to you. Juice ain’t a fancy house cat with a collar. He ran around all over the place, being a nuisance. You sure he’s dead? Maybe somebody trapped him and turned it over to animal control. Cats got nine lives, you know. Your old friend Mary Hawkins might be keeping him in her house just to rile you,” he said. He laughed again, louder, throwing back his head and opening his mouth wide enough for flies to go inside it. He repeated Mary Hawkins’ name on purpose, knowing the troubles she’d had with Mary Hawkins and that they remain on nonspeaking terms.

Pursing her lips, Flo remembered why she never liked Pete, with his fancy wire-framed glasses that made his serious-looking eyes appear enormous; and his pants with crisp creases, even though his wife’s been dead for an age now; and his worn, frayed belt circling his scrawny waist; and the book he always carried that made him look like some kind of Mr. Better-Than-You-Know-It-All Pansy-Plumber-Man, pretending his hands weren’t in other people’s shit all day.

Flo stared at him, stared at his crisp creases, at the book she was sure he never read, at his ugly, brown, rubber-soled shoes. “You sure it ain’t some other orange cat you saw?” she asked.
“I saw your cat with its bit-off ear at the park a little while after Eggy died.”

“It wasn’t my cat. Juice stuck around the house after Eggy died.”

“Maybe he went to find Eggy. Maybe he thought you’d forget to feed him, and, with Eggy gone, he went looking for a new home. Cats are smart that way. You’re lucky that cat didn’t go missing long before this the way you neglected it, allowing it to roam everywhere. Eggy made sure it got what it needed; he told me that hisself. That dog never runs loose like your cat. The boy always keeps it on the leash, and it don’t knock down trash cans like Juice did. You ain’t got no proof that the kid or his dog has anything to do with your missing cat. So maybe them signs ain’t such a good idea, Flo. Maybe you ought to leave well enough alone. Eggy wouldn’t like it if you were about stirring up trouble, now, Flo. And he ain’t here to fix things no more either.”

“Eggy ain’t here to butt in things no more. Juice is a ratter. He’s smart. Makes other cats look retarded. And he always comes home. Ever since that kid put his dog in the yard, Juice’s been missing. It ain’t rocket science,” she said. “So something happened to him. A set of dog teeth.”

“Remember the last time you got something up your crawl? Accusing Mary Hawkins next door of ruining your brick wall with her dryer vent? Said it was too close to your wall—even though it was in her own yard. You insisted she was steaming your brick wall to crumbling, remember that? Everybody tried to tell you bricks don’t melt, but you wouldn’t listen. You put up signs then too. ‘Mary’s Dryer Vent Cooks Walls,’ until her lawyer threatened to sue you, and Eggy threatened to put you away. Don’t you learn nothing? Best you keep them signs to yourself, Flo, especially with Eggy gone.”

Shaking his head, his shoes silent on the concrete like a ninja killer, Pete vanished into his house, shutting the large brown door softly behind him. “Fool,” she said to the closed door. “Pansy-assed fool.”

The next vertical structure sat outside the corner store, a lamppost onto which she taped another sign, surrounded by a group of boys. One read her sign out loud. “Melon and Snickers are Murderers. They killed Juice.” The rest laughed, taking turns reading it and emphasizing different words as if they were announcing it on the radio.

“MELON and Snickers are murderers. They killed Juice.”

“Melon and Snickers are MURDERERS. They killed JUICE.”

This stupid exercise reduced them to Silly Putty, and she wanted to smack them with her shopping bag upside their heads, each head covered by backward baseball caps, gold necklaces dangling from their necks.

“Smashed Melon. Candy Juice,” one boy said, snickering. “Juice MURDERERS.”

They all laughed. She wanted to hurl something at them, but she had nothing—no candy, no oranges. But she had signs. She slipped one from her shopping bag and pummeled the closest kid with it before moving on to the next. They covered their heads with their hands and laughed harder. “Crazy, old bat,” one said.

“Jingaling, jingaling,” said another, increasing their amusement and slapping each other five. “Jingaling, jingaling,” they all shouted.

“Crackheads. You all know nothing about nothing! Probably high off your rockers,” Flo yelled, frustrated that none of them considered it a serious crime: a vicious dog on the loose, a missing cat. “And you know nothing about respect. You don’t even respect yourselves; or you wouldn’t be wearing pants that show off your drawers.”

The group laughed louder at the word “drawers.”

“I see your ‘draaaaaaws,’” they mocked her.

“Ain’t nothing funny about a killer dog,” she shouted before crossing the street.

A backward glance told her one of those good-for-nothing bums was defacing her sign with a red marker. “Menace!” she hollered at the corner gang. If she’d had sons or grandsons, she’d order them to do a beat down on those thugs. But she didn’t and neither did Eggy, who at least got some respite from taking care of Ma when he joined the Navy. It surprised her when he came back to help her look after Ma, but he did without complaint. Not one word.

Flo marched onward, clutching the bag’s handles, the tape, and scissors, taping signs on traffic signs and streetlamps along the way. On her way home Flo saw that all her signs had been ripped down, snippets of tape the only hint that she’d posted the truth about a killer dog loose in the neighborhood.

* * *
Eggy’s and Juice’s absences felt as if someone had cut off her thumbs. Or pinioned her. She gathered her lucky trolls from the hall closet and fled the empty house for Saint Elizabeth’s nightly bingo game, two blocks south. She skipped bingo on Wednesday nights now, bad luck since Eggy had died on a Wednesday. At the church hall she paid for 20 bingo cards, found her usual seat next to Mookie, and nodded to her friend, who was lining up her cards in two neat rows. Flo did the same, lining the cards in two rows, and, above that, arranged her lucky trolls in their special order. Small, tall, red hair, pink hair, orange hair. She glanced at Mookie lining up her own lucky trinkets, which consisted of a series of pig figurines of various sizes and colors, beginning with a three-inch, burgundy figurine of a sow with three piglets, followed by a pig wearing smile and a sailor suit, following by a series of plastic, realistic-looking pig-farm pigs, and ending with a glamorous Miss Piggy figure.

“Juice back yet?” Mookie asked, the words chewed along with the giant gum wad in her mouth, outlined with garish, red lipstick.

“Dog behind me got him.” Flo stared at her friend’s red mouth, still chewing like a cow, and the sight irritated Flo. To hide her irritation she buried her forehead in her left hand and rubbed her eyes. Her hands brushed against the kerchief she still wore and realized that the curlers were still in her hair. She’d forgotten to take them out.

“You pack up Eggy’s things yet?” Mookie asked. “The church thrift store can sure use the donation.”

Flo grunted. Why did she have to bring up Eggy? She glanced at Mookie in between number calls, watched her rub her lucky pigs, and wished her bad luck.

“It’s been months now. Eggy’s things ain’t doing nobody no good stuffed away. Lots of people in the neighborhood can benefit, you know.”

Flo ignored her. And as the night wore on, Mookie won more games than she lost. She won at least four times, raising her jangling-skinned arm and shouting “BINGO” loud enough to wake the dead, while Flo won nothing, not a dime. A river of bile rose in her stomach and spilled out of her mouth. “Shake ’em balls,” she screeched at the number caller. Some players laughed, but she didn’t mean it in a funny way. “Shaddup,” she yelled when a woman across the room hollered “Bingo.”

“Flo, you wanna trade cards? I’ll slide mine over to you if you want,” Mookie said.

Flo refrained from knocking Mookie’s lucky pig trinkets off the table. “Thanks, but no thanks,” Flo said, fingering her trolls instead to keep her hands away from the line of pig figurines. No luck came her way. Ever. On any aspect of her life. Bingo and otherwise. If she didn’t have bad luck, she’d have no luck, she thought bitterly. At intermission she packed up her not-so-lucky trolls, slid her 20 cards toward Mookie, and left without saying a word. At home she lined up her unlucky trolls on the kitchen table and, with her sewing shears, cut the hair off every one, a rainbow of green, red, purple, yellow, and pink plastic hair wisps covering the floor.

* * *
The stupid dog barked all night. Every time Flo came near to dozing off, the barking started again, and Flo automatically reached out to the top of the bed to pet Juice, the magical cat who somehow always managed to help her fall asleep. Maybe it was his purring or his body heat or his four paws touching her arms or simply his presence, but whatever it was she’d always fallen asleep easily when Juice stretched in his spot above her pillow. Except she’d forgotten Juice wouldn’t be there, and the empty space startled her, reminding her of his absence yet again. Eggy would’ve been the one to yell for the dog to shut up since his bedroom was in the back of the house.

The dog barked her head off in the backyard. Flo padded to the back room, Eggy’s bedroom, where a whiff of his cologne surprised her, stopping her in her tracks. She sat on his tan bedspread, smooth and taut across the bed. She surveyed his belongings, carefully arranged cologne bottles in his dresser, the edges of the dresser mirror lined with snapshots: of Ma’s and Da’s wedding; of his First Communion; of some women she didn’t know; two of her younger self; three of Juice; a handful of his old pals in bowling outfits, in swimming trucks, in baseball suits; of his pals from his Navy days; the Patterson Park cronies. Another photo slipped into the crack between the mirror and the frame showed them in Patterson Park in the snow. She was pulling the old wooden sled they’d always used to careen down Dead Man’s Hill, and, red-cheeked, they both were laughing. Had to be before Da died and Ma got sick. Flo took a breath and set the picture on the bureau. A tie rack hung on the wall next to the closet, ties lined precisely by color from dark to light.

Outside the dog barked. And barked. Flo hated it more with every bark. She opened the window. “Shaddup! Goddamn it, shut the hell up,” she screamed as if the dog were a human who could understand her. “Can’t you get your goddamn dog to shut up in the middle of the night?” she yelled at the dark house belonging to Melon and his mother, who probably didn’t hear her anyway. Or care. Bastards were probably asleep, immune to the noise their dog was making. Excited by Flo’s screaming head hanging out the window, Snickers barked more—and louder— and jumped up and down.

“Shaddup! Shaddup! Shaddup!” she hollered, and the sound of her voice prompted the stupid dog to bark furiously.

Down in the kitchen Flo grabbed two onions—large as Pinky balls—onions, white and hard as softballs. Outside in her yard she hurled them with all the might she could muster at the dog, with a vicious rage in the hope of bruising the animal into silence. “Menace!” She rued the waste of two perfectly good onions.

The dog leapt and caught both giant onions and ate them, one gulp each, and they vanished down her throat. Flo could swear the dog laughed at her, dared her to send another edible thing. What the hell compelled her to throw food at the dog anyway? Flo swore and let the back door bang behind her. Maybe the boom would wake up the boy and his mother, even if the annoying barking didn’t. It sure did wake up everyone else. She noticed lights in all the other houses flickering on and off. The exertion of pitching onions at the dog—even if the stupid thing ate them—fatigued her. She crawled back in bed, put the pillow over her head to drown out the sound, and, gradually, she fell asleep. Without Juice. With the onion-eating dog barking on.

* * *
When the doorbell rang endlessly like a fire alarm the next day, Flo was napping in her TV chair. She ignored the bell, which progressed to a tapping on her front window. Between the dog barking and the doorbell ringing, she couldn’t hear herself think. Flo heaved herself out of the chair, stepped into her pink terry cloth slippers, and dragged herself to the door.

“Go away! Get the hell away from here, whoever you are. Nobody’s home,” she screamed at the door.

“Ms. Flo. Open up. It’s Demarco.”

“I don’t know no Demarcos. Get outta here,” she yelled, shuffling away from the door.

“Open up, Ms. Flo,” said a woman’s voice.

“It’s me, Melon!” said a boy’s voice.

She opened the door. A thin woman with a floozy, too-tight black skirt, red V-necked shirt, and red shoes stood on her stoop next to the boy. The woman held one of Flo’s signs. The boy held a large, brown cardboard box in his hands, his smile taking up all of his lower face.

“You bringing Juice’s body back to me?” She stared at him, afraid to look in the box.

“Snickers didn’t get your cat,” said the woman. “You better stop spreading lies about my son and his dog around the neighborhood. I ain’t happy with these signs you taped up all over the damn place. I spent half a day yesterday pulling them down.” The woman shook the signs at Flo. “I find another sign like this taped up anywhere around here, I’m calling the police or whoever I got to call to get your ass locked up where it belongs. The nuthouse. Jail, I don’t care where. You hear me?”

“I ain’t scared of you or your threats or your mean-ass dog,” Flo said.

“I ain’t asking you to be scared. I’m telling you, plain and simple: another bullshit sign like this, and you’re gonna wish you never met me. My son and his dog ain’t had nothing to do with your missing cat. Melon has something to say. Melon…go ahead.”

“I don’t want to hear nothing. This boy can’t control his dog, and now my cat’s gone.”

The woman threw one of the signs into Flo’s door in a way that it sailed like a Frisbee across the room. “I got the rest of them, proof for the police,” she said. “You gonna listen to my son, like it or not. Go on, Melon.”

“Snickers ain’t that kind of dog you think she is. She’s a friendly, nice dog. She never bit nobody. But I got something for you. Please open the door so I can set the box down.” He flashed that big-toothed wide grin at her, and Flo considered how it made him look like a used-car salesman. She hesitated but opened the door anyway. The boy pushed the box into the doorway.

“Look inside, Ms. Flo.”

A black-and-white kitten with pink lips, a pink nose, and pea-green eyes peered up at her. It gave her a silent meow. She melted inside and wanted to pick up the kitten, no older than eight or nine weeks, she guessed, hold it close to her, let it lick her face, but she wasn’t going to make it so easy for the boy to give her a blood offering to make up for the most probably dead Juice.
“It ain’t orange like your missing one, but it needs a home,” the boy said, pushing the box toward her. “There are a bunch of kittens in one of the yards three blocks down on Fairmont, in Mr. Clarence’s yard. He’s rounding up the kittens. This one can use a good home,” the boy said, smiling at her as if he was getting ready to snap a photo.

“Then you give it one,” Flo said, her voice harsh.

“You’re missing a cat. This here cat needs a home,” the boy said.

The skinny woman tapped her foot.

“You think one cat can replace another cat?” she said to the boy. “You think one kid can replace another kid?” she asked the mother. “You think I’m simple? Get off my stoop,” she said, but she didn’t shut the door. She thought about it and wanted to, but she didn’t. She froze and, in the moment of her hesitation, the boy shoved the box farther into her living room, and, like the two cowards they were, they ran down the steps, the mother’s heels click-clacking against the marble steps.

“Damn it!” she muttered aloud. She couldn’t leave the box with a brand-new kitten in it unattended. Damn hussy. Damn kid.

She dragged the box to the kitchen and filled a small saucer with two handfuls of Juice’s dry food. She set it in the box. She set another saucer of water there too.

Pinky in hand, the boy reappeared in his yard. He peered across the alley, into her yard, as if he were trying to see what she was doing inside her kitchen. The kitten didn’t have a loud meow like Juice. Juice, who talked to her constantly with his array of meows; Juice, who stepped in between her legs first and laid across her feet if she forgot to greet him when she came home; Juice, who had a distinctive personality that no other kitty could replicate.

She watched the boy from behind her blinds. Finally turning away, he tossed the Pinky to the dog, who leapt and caught it like a baseball player. She took the kitten with her to Eggy’s room and set it atop Eggy’s neat bed. She carried two of the cardboard boxes missing top flaps into the room and pushed them toward the closet. She didn’t pack anything into the boxes. Instead, drawn to the window, Flo watched the boy and the dog, like a TV movie, playing fetch, running up and down the alley, the dog on a leash, pretending to be racing. No friends joined the boy. Just Melon and the murderous dog.

* * *
The next morning, when the sun beat down the rooftops and heated the blacktop streets and concrete yards, Flo heard the boy shrieking. He screamed for his mother to come quick. She’d already started packing Eggy’s colorful ties into one of the boxes. Through Eggy’s window she saw the mother, wearing a different set of tight, floozy clothes, running in a pair of black click-clacky heels toward her son, his smile finally erased. Snickers wasn’t moving much. The dog gasped for breath. It had vomited all over the yard. Shit too. The boy’s lower lip jutted out, and he looked ready to cry. Like a baby. The mother ran inside and came out with a red blanket and covered the dog. She said something to the boy and disappeared back into the house. The mother drove her car down the alleyway and, tiny as she was in comparison to the dog, lifted the animal like an stevedore and, with the boy’s help, stuffed him in the back of the car. The boy climbed in the back with the dog, and the mother, waving a white handkerchief out the window and blowing her horn, tore down the alley like a wannabe fire truck on a call.

Later that evening, through the kitchen window, Flo spotted the mother in the yard, hosing down the concrete. She poured bleach over the areas where the dog had the diarrhea and vomited. The boy, looking downcast, sat on the porch stairs, his head in his hands, his cap still backward, his smile erased. Flo stroked the kitten, which she hadn’t yet decided to keep or not. She placed it back in the box it came in, and the kitten busied itself playing with one of Juice’s stuffed mouse toys.

Flo wondered what happened to the dog. She’d thrown food at it, and she wanted it to suffer. She’d wanted it to hurt it small ways, wanted it to whimper and smart, and she wanted it gone. Now it was gone. Temporarily, maybe. She threw open the kitchen window, thrust her head out, and yelled to the mother.

“What happened to that mean-ass dog of yours?”

The mother glared at her. “Since when are you interested in the welfare of that dog? Ain’t you the one who put up them signs everywhere saying she and my son murdered your runaway cat?”
“So what? I didn’t kill your dog. If anything, your dog killed my cat.”

“Bullshit too,” the mother said.

“What happened to the dog?” Flo repeated.

The mother considered. “She must have gotten into some garbage. Ate some onions. Ate some chocolates. Dogs ain’t supposed to eat onions or chocolate or garlic. Poisons them. Kills them.”

Flo gasped. “The dog died?”

“You happy now? You happy now you got your wish?” the mother said, with an edge in her voice. “You must be dancing for joy. Calling my child and his dog ‘murderers.’ You jinxed her. You better stay away from my boy.”

Trembling, Flo banged down the window. Outside the mother hosed the yard, while the boy sat without moving on the porch steps, a deflated balloon. Then the mother sat on the stoop next to her son, holding him as he cried, crying with him. Flo had wanted the dog gone—gone yes, but not dead—and contemplated how unlucky she’d always been, misfortune following her whole life like a five-o’clock shadow. The one who’s left. Who could have known about onions and chocolates and dogs?

The tuxedo kitten squeaked meows, whispery, gentle meows, a softie like Eggy. She lifted it out of the box, stroked it, and named it Fred.

THE END

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