Gemini Magazine
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 4x4 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

“Uh, well—”

“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

“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

“This stuff? There’s nothing here worth saving,” she
said flatly.

“You sure? I mean, didn’t you grow up here? In this

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

“How about you just let me decide what to save,” she

“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

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?”

“Iced tea.”

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

“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

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

“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

“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
; 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

“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
by Dina Greenberg