by Dina Greenberg
Carl stood on the front porch at the Larkin place. He could smell it way out there. Cat shit and rotting wood. And all the other God-awful shit that was probably inside. He covered his mouth and nose with his hand and gave serious thought to leaving. The dispatch girl at Kwik Klean had told him to expect a mess. The old woman—Eva Larkin—had died in her sleep and the daughter was there now cleaning out whatever she could, but needed some extra help. All the dispatch girl had said was that he’d need lots of trash bags, the 55-gallon industrial suckers he had in the 4×4 now.
He rang the bell and, holding his breath, half-hoped the daughter wouldn’t answer. Almost instantly, though, a slim woman who looked to be in her forties opened the door. Her head was covered with a pale yellow bandana, the cloth holding back a tight mass of reddish-blonde curls that reached her shoulders. She wore faded jeans and a darker denim work shirt, the sleeves rolled up, over a black tank top. The cats—a black one with white paws, a gray runt, a fat one with orange stripes, and a few more that he couldn’t keep track of—intermittently rubbed up against the woman’s legs and darted beneath a coffee table piled with magazines and newspapers, tea cups and plates.
“Come on in,” she said, ignoring Carl’s hesitation. “It’s really not as bad as it seems.” She pushed the screen door wider so he could get past her and kept her eyes on the cats to make sure none of them made a run for it. “Just can’t do it myself. I need to be back at work next week. Right after the funeral.” She moved quickly and with a jauntiness that he instantly associated with the sorority girls who wouldn’t have given him the time of day during his first and only year of college. “When I called, they said you could stay as long as I needed you. I’m thinking together we can knock this out by Thursday.”
“Listen, what’s your name, anyway?”
“Carl, I um—”
“Carl then. Listen. My mother, she was a little strange . . . but, really, who isn’t?”
He fought back the nausea that reminded him of his last bad hangover, penance for staying out drinking all night with a couple of buddies. “I . . . uh guess I could work through Thursday.”
When the woman said nothing more, he followed her into the kitchen where she grabbed a stack of newspapers from a glass-topped dining table and started to bundle them with twine. Every time she touched something, a flutter of cat hair was set in motion. She stopped suddenly and looked straight into Carl’s eyes. “They’re paying you, right?” she asked. “The company, I mean. This is a job, right?”
“Yeaaah,” said Carl, the word drawn out and conveying every inch of irritation he felt. “I’m getting paid. Where should I start, uh . . . ma’am?” This last word he added hesitantly, but with enough sarcasm that the woman just shook her head, the curls falling gently against her face. He noticed the fine lines at the corners of her eyes as she smirked at him. The gray cat padded across the grimy floor between them. The smell had intensified. The kitchen’s the epicenter, he figured.
“Look,” she said, giving him an open stare that he couldn’t quite read. “If we’re going to be working together, let’s get one thing straight; don’t call me ma’am. OK?”
“Sure. Uh, what should I call you then?”
“Let’s try Lovisa.” She resumed her work with the newspapers, her voice a bored-sounding monotone. “My name,” she said with a forced smile.
“Cool. Lovisa.” He made his voice a little deeper when he said her name, thinking he sounded sexy and maybe older than twenty-seven. But then he found his mouth stretching into what he imagined to be a goofy grin before his hand instinctively moved to cover his nose again.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” she said, crossing to the window and pushing it open with little effort. “Come with me. You’ll start in the attic.”
He followed her up a flight of carpeted stairs. He saw that the same dirty mauve carpeting covered every inch of the second floor’s hallway and three small bedrooms, stopping only when Lovisa pulled down the attic ladder from the ceiling and he followed the enticing curves of her ass up to the wood-planked room. With the room’s sharply angled ceiling Carl could stand only in the center. The odor wasn’t nearly as bad up here, but the heat was stifling; he had already begun to sweat. He shrugged out of his coat and tossed it onto one of the cartons that clogged most of the floor space. He heard the cats meowing below them. They sounded frenzied, desperate.
Lovisa moved directly to the window and struggled with the rotting wooden sash. “Damn,” she muttered, putting all of her weight—Carl judged about 110 pounds—into the task.
“Here, let me,” he said, waiting for her to move aside. His first two attempts failed miserably and he felt foolish and annoyed. The woodwork was thick with layers of paint, caulk, and the remains of some old weather stripping.
“Jeeeez,” he grunted on his third try. “When was the last time someone actually opened this window?”
“Knowing my mother, probably never.”
The window came unstuck with a screech. A cool breeze blew in, rustling the pile of plastic bags, wrapping paper and ribbons that littered one corner of the floor. “Great, OK . . . so everything here . . .” she said, scanning the room. “Everything up here can go.”
“Like . . . all of it?” he asked uncertainly. “Don’t you want to . . . you know . . . to go through it or something?”
“This stuff? There’s nothing here worth saving,” she said flatly.
“You sure? I mean, didn’t you grow up here? In this house?”
She gazed straight at him, a know-it-all smugness coming into her blue eyes and twitching at her lips. “Hold on a second,” she said, taking a step toward him. “Who are you, exactly? I mean, are you some kind of expert on this sort of thing?” Lovisa’s voice hadn’t changed from its earlier monotone, but Carl’s gut told him that she was mocking him and scolding him all at the same time. He didn’t like it. He felt his face getting red. He was bothered again. Pissed even. He’d asked a simple question. A reasonable question, considering the job he was supposed to be doing here. Bitch, he thought.
Then he thought suddenly of his mother, how fast she could turn from hot to cold. How her voice would drop a full octave when she was angry, the edge sharp and vengeful. Her entire face would change, her mouth going slack like a flat tire. It was his father that she couldn’t stand then—her life with the bastard—not him or his brother, Carl had decided a long time ago. But once the switch was flipped, she’d go after any of them. Her digs weren’t as bad as the old man’s, but scary in their own way. Jeff was smart to get out when he did, Carl thought.
“What? Me, an expert? Nah. Just thought you might want to, you know, save a few things, is all,” he said now, squaring his shoulders and digging his hands into the front pockets of his jeans. He didn’t bother to keep the edge of nastiness out of his delivery.
Lovisa cocked her head and eyed him silently. Carl readied himself for another round. This time, though, he’d be ready. He wasn’t about to take any more shit from this woman. Who the hell was she?
“How about you just let me decide what to save,” she said.
“Sure.” He looked down at his boots and purposely not at her. “I get it. It all goes. No problema.”
When he looked up, he saw the smirk returning to her lips, but with the back of her hand, she tucked away a curl that had come loose from the bandana. The gesture reminded him that the woman’s mother had just died. But then, seeing the arrogant set of her jaw, the way she just stood there watching him, the thought vanished. “I’ll get the trash bags from the truck,” he said. “If that’s OK with you, ma’am?” he mumbled under his breath. He didn’t wait for an answer as he brushed past her.
Two and a half hours later Carl sat cross-legged on the attic floor. Eighteen 55-gallon trash bags were stuffed full and twist-tied at the top. A photo album circa 1980 lay open on his knees. He saw Lovisa here, beautiful and fresh-faced, her hair a near golden halo, and her shoulders bronzed beneath the pale blue halter-top. Her low-riding jeans revealed a slender waist and the same narrow hips he’d admired earlier. She looked like she’d probably been a nice girl. Sweet even. He figured the nastiness she’d dished out to him hadn’t even had a chance to take root yet. In another photo he saw her sitting primly next to a gawky, red-headed boy, and her parents, he supposed, the father tall and lean like the boy, the mother a pixie-faced, petite woman with short brown hair, standing behind them with their hands resting on their children’s shoulders. Carl wondered what sort of family they’d been. They looked happy, he decided. Normal. This thought tugged at him until he found himself tearing up. He felt ridiculous and ashamed. But then he slipped back into the familiar anger and this, somehow, seemed a little better.
Looking through the last of the photos, he felt a little like a low-life voyeur, like the pathetic peeping Tom they’d caught out near the university. But he also felt somehow justified. Vindicated. He knew he was right about this. This Lovisa woman couldn’t just throw away her past. Nobody could. He thought about the last time he’d been home. More than three years now. The old man had barely acknowledged him. His mom— trying not to rock the boat—had waited till his father left for his shift before she’d asked Carl if he needed anything. Then she’d pressed the bills into his hand. He remembered the way she’d looked at him then. There was love there in her eyes, but also pity. Had it always been like that? Carl wondered if she’d known that he’d only come back for the money. She probably hated like hell to have to admit that to herself, he figured now. He’d felt bad leaving her there all alone with the old man, knowing he’d find out eventually. Knowing that she’d bare the brunt of it, like always.
“Lousy bastard,” Carl said aloud. He stared down at the photo album and closed the pages. He placed the book behind one of the rafters in the slanted ceiling.
Lovisa hadn’t said anything yet about stopping for lunch, or even for coffee, but Carl decided it was time for a break. He slung down to the second floor landing the bags he’d already filled—lots of crap (boxes of old Christmas cards, a set of electric curlers, a bunch of old-time games like Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders)—most of which barely held his interest for the few seconds it took him to decide if it was recyclable or not. This was the only instruction she’d given him. From the second floor, he dragged the bags down to the first floor landing. He found Lovisa still working in the kitchen. Cold air was blowing through the windows and diluting the smell some.
“Hey,” he said. “I thought I’d take what I can from here, plus what I got up there, and head over to the dump.” His intention was to pick up some lunch on the way.
Lovisa assessed him coolly. She looked around the room, still a disgusting mess, but Carl could see that she’d made some headway. Several neat rows of bundled papers and magazines were stacked against the wall and she’d emptied the sink of crusted-over plates, pots, and pans. The refrigerator stood wide open, emptied of its rotted contents and gleaming white and clean. Only the gray cat and the fat one with orange stripes hung around now.
“Yeah, I suppose that makes some sense. We can free up some space for later when we start to move out the heavier stuff.”
“Sure,” said Carl. By the time he got the bags into the truck he was starving and had a slight headache. Lovisa marched out just before he was ready to take off. She handed him a twenty. “Can you stop at the market and get me a sandwich? Tuna on whole wheat. Lettuce and tomato. Get yourself something, too.”
“OK,” he said. “You want something to drink?”
Thank you, Carl, he mouthed at her back as she trotted up to the little house.
When he got back, Lovisa was on the phone, her voice sounding professional, no-nonsense. She was giving someone directions to the house from the interstate. She nodded at him to put the sandwich bag down on the table, held the phone to her ear and chin, her head cocked against her shoulder while she wrapped a bunch of fancy china plates and bowls in newspaper. Carl stood there, not sure what to do next. He wanted to ask her, but didn’t want another raft of shit.
“I’m guessing no more than six or seven,” Lovisa said into the mouthpiece, then after a pause, “I have no idea if they’ve been spayed or neutered. What difference does that make, anyhow?” She listened to whatever the person on the line was saying, simultaneously shoving the wrapped china into a cardboard box on the kitchen table. “OK, OK,” she said finally. “So your guy should be here by what . . . four? . . . great . . . thank you . . . thank you.” She hung up the phone and walked to the sink. She let the water run awhile then soaped up her hands and rinsed them, drying them hurriedly on her jeans.
“So what’s next?” Carl asked, shooting for a casual, friendly tone. The sandwich he’d eaten in the truck had taken the edge off his hunger as well as his anger. He reasoned that he just needed to get through the rest of the day with this woman, so he might as well make the best of it. He’d stop by at Kwik Klean in the morning to pick up his pay. They’d have to find someone else to finish up here because he wasn’t coming back.
“Well, let’s see,” she said, looking around. “How about the basement? God knows what she’s got down there. Let’s check it out.”
Carl saw that the door to the basement had been fitted with a cat flap and braced himself for the worst of it. Lovisa flipped the switch at the top of the stairs and the musty chill hit him hard in the face. The unmistakable stench of cat piss was ten times stronger here. Carl wondered again why he was even here. Yeah, his prospects weren’t all that great right now, but this was about as bad as it got. He thought about the forty bucks he still owed his buddy, Joey. “Fuck Joey,” he muttered under his breath. “He can wait for his money.” He told himself he’d finish out the day. No more, no less.
Lovisa led the way and Carl saw that oddly, aside from four litter boxes overflowing with mounds of cat shit, the basement held nothing out of the ordinary. The space was remarkably organized. A washer and dryer took up one corner alongside a deep, utility sink. There was a workbench and a decent array of tools, clipped or hanging to a pegboard on the wall, a bunch of baby food jars holding nuts and screws of all different sizes, and a nice circular saw that Carl thought he wouldn’t mind asking Lovisa about.
“My dad . . .” she began. Carl turned toward her, but she made a fluttering motion with her hand and stalked toward the back wall where a bunch of plastic storage bins were stacked high. She reached up on her toes and opened a small window. “Here,” she said. “Start here.”
“Uh,” he said, unsure of himself for about the thousandth time that day, “should I . . . look through this stuff? Sort it?” He had to admit it; the woman set him on edge. He couldn’t tell what she was thinking. Couldn’t figure her mood. But then he realized it was the same way he’d felt as a kid. He’d come home from school and never know what to expect. His mom could be sweet as pie or ready to let loose on him and Jeff. At those times, her words just got meaner the more the two of them would cry.
“It’s all junk,” she said. Don’t even bother sorting it. You can haul them out just the way they are.” She walked past him to the stairs without so much as a glance, but when she was halfway up the steps she turned suddenly. “Oh. I’m going to need your help when the Animal Welfare guy gets here.”
“What’s the matter?” asked Lovisa, smiling coyly.
“Nothing,” said Carl.
Lovisa’s fingers trailed the wooden banister lightly. “Alright then,” she said, still smiling.
“Just gotta tell you,” he added. “I’m not a real big fan of cats.”
“Really?” This information seemed to amuse her. “Are you scared of them?” She widened her eyes comically.
“No, I’m not scared of them,” he said, feeling ridiculous. “I just don’t like them, is all.”
“Well, neither do I, but as you can see, my mother certainly did.”
Carl thought he heard something soften a little in her voice. Maybe all that bitchiness was just a cover. Maybe she’d really loved her mom but just didn’t know how to show it. And now it was too late. He found himself feeling sorry for her. First she’d lost her dad. He wondered how long ago that had been. He thought he could tell—just from the way the man kept his tools—that the dad had been an OK guy (nothing like his old man). Maybe the mom wasn’t even crazy till the dad died. Maybe that’s what had sent her over the edge. Maybe now, he thought, Lovisa might cry. Maybe now she’d break down.
But she didn’t break down. She just kept on going up those last few steps.
Carl had finished hauling the bigger stuff out of the basement and was breaking up some of the more dilapidated pieces of wooden furniture that had been left out to rot on the tiny cement patio out back. He heard someone pull into the driveway and glanced down at his watch. The Animal Welfare guy was on time. He wondered about the cats and if the old lady had loved them more than people. He’d heard about people like that. Loonies, mostly. He wondered if the old lady had loved Lovisa and her brother. Then he shook his head and snorted a little laugh out the side of his mouth. He walked around the house to the front and saw a man pulling a bunch of cages out of the double doors at the back of the van. The guy looked like an old-timer, at least sixty-five or so. He wondered why they’d send someone so old. Feeling suddenly indignant, Carl figured he’d be the lucky SOB doing most of the work now.
“Hey,” said Carl. He stood with his arms folded, a few feet from the man.
The man eyed him nonchalantly. “Afternoon,” he said, continuing to unload the cages.
Carl wasn’t exactly sure why he was pissed at the old man; he stood there watching him, feeling antsy and uncomfortable.
“The lady of the house in?” the man finally asked.
“Yeah,” said Carl, relieved. “I’ll get her. Uh . . . follow me.” He waited for what seemed a very long time for the old guy to clip a jangling set of keys to his belt loop before he led him in through the front door. A few of the cats milled around a scruffy, pee-stained sofa, the fabric on the armrests ripped and clawed beyond repair. They scattered toward the kitchen as the men approached. He called to Lovisa and, when she didn’t answer right away, told the man to wait there. Again, he wasn’t sure what to do. He felt increasingly nervous, shy even. He pictured Lovisa holed up in her old bedroom upstairs. But again she surprised him, appearing on the staircase, her arms loaded with seemingly clean and neatly folded linens. She gazed evenly at both men, holding the stack of linens in place with her chin, then setting the pile down reluctantly on the dilapidated sofa.
“OK,” she said to the man. “I guess we should get started.” Carl thought she sounded almost cheerful.
“Can you get ’em all out here, ma’am? Shut all the doors to the other rooms?”
Ma’am again, thought Carl, suppressing a snicker.
“Yes. Of course.”
Carl noted her kindness. Gone completely was the smart-ass tone she’d used with him.
“We’ll set some food out here then,” he said, directing the request to Carl.
“Just check the rooms on the second floor,” Lovisa said to Carl. “I’ll take care of the food.” Then turning to the man, she said politely, “May I speak with you a moment?”
In the upstairs bedrooms, two of which seemed to have been preserved as shrines to the 1980s, Carl wasn’t all that surprised. The old lady had kept her kids’ rooms fixed just like when they were teenagers. For Carl, that was a time he hated to think about. His parents had been at their very worst then; his mom had even gone off to stay with his aunt in Connecticut. She’d cried and told him she wouldn’t be his father’s doormat anymore. She’d spit out the word “doormat,” making it sound filthy and filled with implications that, as a boy, he’d been reluctant to explore. He had been scared but also a little excited. He’d wanted to deck the old man, but when his mother returned two weeks later, she’d left red scratches on Carl’s forearms as she pleaded with him, forbade him, to cause any trouble.
In Lovisa’s old room, Carl checked under the bed, the mauve carpeting dusty but otherwise surprisingly clean and free of cat shit. He scanned the closet, the top shelf crammed with books and a milk crate filled with old albums. Two wooden tennis rackets rested in the corner against the back wall. He shut the closet door, flicked off the overhead light, and closed the door behind him.
The boy’s room didn’t look all that different from what Carl remembered of his own room when he was a kid— a shelf packed with baseball trophies and team photos; the perfectly worn-in glove smelling of linseed oil, leather, and sweat. Here, he shooed a couple of white cats from under a wooden desk and out into the hallway. As he shut the door, he wondered where the hell Lovisa’s brother was now. Why wasn’t he helping with all this?
The old lady’s room was every bit as disgusting as Carl had imagined, though he could see that Lovisa had already done a little work up there. One small closet was empty. The bed had been stripped and a pile of dirty blankets and sheets was heaped in the corner, the gray cat nestled on top of it. He approached slowly and put out his hand, though he had no idea how you were supposed to deal with cats. His family had never had one and, for some reason that he’d never given much thought to, cats kind of made him nervous. All that sneaking around; maybe that was it. Lurking best described it, he decided.
The cat regarded Carl calmly then darted under the bed. Reluctantly, he got down on the carpeting—the odor sickening—and tried out the psss psss psss sounds everyone made with cats. “Come on out now. It’s OK,” he heard himself saying. The cat just sat there and stared at him, its green eyes glinting back at him. He felt ridiculous, but found himself crawling on his stomach until he was eye to eye with the feline. He waited a little, just to see what it would do. Then he inched his hand out slowly and stroked the fur, which felt dry and cool to his touch. “Pssss pssss pssss,” he tried again. The cat began to purr loudly. He spent a few minutes stroking the fur. He felt peaceful doing this. He felt the warmth of the cat’s body beneath the fur, felt the vibration of the purring in his fingertips. The cat closed its eyes and seemed to drift rhythmically to sleep. Then, feeling a little guilty, he grabbed the cat with both hands and pulled it toward him. He felt the friction of the thing’s claws digging into the carpet as he struggled to crawl backwards from beneath the bed.
He stood up awkwardly—nearly tripping over his own feet—and unhooked the cat’s rear claws from his shirt. It fought hard, nearly thrashing its way out of his hands. He held the cat out stiffly at arms’ length. Then he stalked around the room—somewhat frightened even—trying to hold the writhing thing away from his body. “You gonna behave now?” he asked, sweating now. “You gonna calm down?” He paced awhile longer, muttering under his breath. And then miraculously, Carl thought, the cat began to purr again. He held it to his chest, walking slowly down the stairs. He felt the purring warmth of the cat against his heart.
Lovisa and the Animal Welfare guy had corralled the others in the living room; they’d stacked a bunch of cages and some of the filled cardboard boxes, blocking the entrance to the kitchen. The cats were eating from several bowls set out on the floor, meowing but not in that insanely desperate way like before. The man had put on a heavy quilted jacket. He motioned to Carl to put the gray cat down near the food. Again, he felt guilty, but gently set the animal down with the others. Lovisa stood with her hands on her hips, smiling now, several curls pasted against her sweaty cheeks and neck.
“Gimme a hand here,” the man said to Carl. “We’re gonna shove this bookcase over there and block the stairway.” Even emptied of books, Carl had serious doubts that the old man would be able to shoulder his end of the weight. This pissed him off. But then he remembered the dad’s tools hanging neatly in the basement; he admired the obvious care the man had shown them. There was something almost loving about it, Carl thought. Something honorable. And this old- timer here, he was just doing his job. So really, he reasoned, it was the same sort of thing. The man was doing what needed to be done. He was doing the right thing.
“OK,” Carl finally said, determined to kick in the extra muscle if need be. But when they tilted the thing on its side, it slid easily on the carpeting. Carl gave it an extra heave anyway when they righted it in front of the staircase. Brushing his hands on his pants, the older man reached into his pocket and pulled out a large plastic bag of cat treats. He squatted down and picked up the first cat within his reach. He held it gently and offered one of the treats in his open palm. Then standing, he brought the cat close to his chest, stroking it, just as Carl had done, and walked slowly over to the cages. He opened the door and flung the animal inside, just as the hinge sprung back in place.
“Your turn, now,” he said to Carl. “We’ll have this wrapped up in half an hour if we work together.” The old man scooped a handful of cat treats from the bag and gave them to Carl; he stuffed all but two into the front pocket of his jeans. Squatting down the way the other man had, Carl put his hand out to the gray cat. The cat instantly lapped up the treat and he felt the sandpaper tongue on his palm. The feeling unnerved him. The cat rubbed against his leg, generating a low, lulling purr. He reached into his pocket and gave it another treat, then lifted the animal and carried it to the cages. Sensing something, though, the gray cat began to thrash around in his arms. It hissed and emitted a long yowl that frightened him, so that by the time he’d gotten the thing inside the cage his heart was racing. He looked down and saw three identical red gashes on the inside of his forearm.
“Shit,” he muttered. “Goddamned thing clawed me.”
“They’ll do that,” said the man, chuckling. Then he calmly took a bottle of antiseptic and some cotton balls from a duffle bag and swabbed the cuts. “Occupational hazard,” he said, chuckling again. “You’ll live.” He peeled the backing from a large bandage and gently covered the wounds. Then he dug around in the bag and pulled out a pair of thickly padded work gloves. “Try these,” he said.
Lovisa showed no outward sign of concern; in fact, Carl thought he detected a hint of amusement again in those pretty blue eyes. She’d taken off the denim work shirt and he noted the smoothly sculpted arms and her small, pert breasts before he looked away.
With his own coat on, and with the gloves the man had given him, Carl worked as efficiently as possible at this ridiculous and, he thought, slightly sadistic task. The two men said little to each other. The collective yowling and whining of the caged cats made Carl feel like he’d been inserted into some low-budget horror movie. Finally, though, with what they thought to be the last of the animals behind bars, the two men began to transfer the cages to the van, all the while enduring the relentless crying Carl thought he’d never get out of his head. Lovisa hung back a little and when Carl glanced at her he thought maybe he saw something like sadness in her face. The streetlights had come on and the glow picked out the glints of blonde in her hair. Maybe now that the worst of the mess was behind her, the rest of it would set in. He’d only been to one funeral in his entire life—he’d been fourteen—and he still remembered the way his Uncle Pete had broken down as everyone took their turn praying at his aunt’s casket and whispering a few embarrassed words into his uncle’s ear.
The man walked over to Lovisa with a clipboard and now Carl hung back a little. He thought about the homely girl at Kwik Klean, the one he’d settle up his hours with, once he was done with this God-awful job. He calculated his pay and felt a little better. Lovisa signed the paperwork and then crossed her arms in front of her. It had gotten cold and raw, already dark, the denim shirt she’d thrown back on to come outside not nearly enough to keep her warm. Carl had the urge to wrap his own coat around her shoulders but squelched it. He’d just be happy to get out of here, he told himself.
“Well that’s it,” the man said as Carl joined the two.
“So, at least they’ll all go to good homes,” Carl said. He’d suddenly decided he needed to say something uplifting. Despite Lovisa’s bitchiness, he realized that he still wanted to help her out in her . . . her time of need; hearing the words in his head they sounded silly, but that was the way he felt.
“Oh, these kitties’ll be goin’ to their final resting place straight away,” the older man said. His tone wasn’t somber, but it also wasn’t insincere. He exchanged a knowing look with Lovisa.
“What? I thought the Animal Welfare place was a shelter, and people could go pick out their pets—”
“Or, they exterminate the animals,” said Lovisa. Carl watched the little puff of vapor she emitted along with the words.
“What do you mean?”
“Exactly what I said.” She stood with her arms crossed in front of her, a jaunty lift to her chin that made him want to smack her.
“That’s not right. You can’t do that,” he said.
“Sure I can,” she said.
Lovisa’s face was a mask of disinterest and this further infuriated him. Now he wanted to shake her.
“So you’re throwing away all the stuff in the house and now you’re putting down all these animals. Just like that?”
“Yes.” She enunciated the word with care.
“Just like that?”
“Yeah, just like that.”
Carl felt close to losing control and it scared him. He’d heard that sometimes people act crazy when a loved one dies. Maybe that’s what was going on here. Maybe Lovisa was crazy with grief. He remembered the way the gray cat had felt against his chest, how his heartbeat had been swallowed up in its purring.
Lovisa smiled then. “What do you want from me? Tell me, really. What would you have me do with all these cats?” Her cheeks were rosy now from the cold, her skin glowing under the streetlights. “What would you know, anyway? You’re an overgrown baby.” She seemed to grow calmer as she went on. “I’m a big girl. I have been for a long time. And I do things my way.”
The Animal Welfare man left them where they stood and headed toward the van. Without saying another word, Carl calmly followed. He easily overtook the older man.
“Hey!” said the man, watching Carl’s strides lengthen.
The double doors stood open. Carl unlatched the first cage and then the next and the next. The cats flew from the cages and disappeared into the darkness. He thought, in those first moments after their release, that he’d rather the animals fend for themselves than die under Lovisa’s coldness.
“Something’s getting saved today!” shouted Carl, but the rest he decided to keep to himself.
Dina Greenberg’s poetry, essays, short stories and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in publications such as Bellevue Literary Review, Schuylkill, Chronogram, Shatter Colors, Chaffey Review and in the anthology, Lalitamba. Her short story, “Stray,” is now available as an e-book at Books to Go Now, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. As a professional writer and researcher, she focuses on spirituality and medicine, health care access for vulnerable populations, and chaplaincy. She teaches English Composition at Camden County College. More about Dina at dinagreenberg.com.