A Novel of Loss and Deliverance

Chapter One

Killing Charlene’s Cat

 

Sierra Vista, Today

The damned cat was just about the only thing of Charlene’s left around the place these days. All her clothes and jewelry and doodads were gone. She had taken care of most of that and the few things she didn’t take care of, I did.

And now I was going to kill the damned cat.

I’m not a cat person but cats seem to like me anyway. Oh, I’m not one of those guys who runs over a cat every time they get a chance. I just prefer dogs. Trouble is, our dog died of bone cancer earlier this year and I just didn’t have the heart to get another one. Charlene loved that dog. She used to tell our sons that Turk was their brother by another mother.

Now it was the cat’s turn.

I finished off my peanut butter and jelly sandwich and set the paper plate on the front steps next to me. I downed the last swallow of beer. Truth is, I’m a pretty good cook, but with nobody to cook for, I had gotten sloppy. Maybe I’d even gotten lazy. The house wasn’t up to my standards of cleanliness anymore either. I hadn’t planted a garden like Charlene and I had planned.

As I tossed the empty beer bottle from hand to hand, I let my eyes wander over the unkempt acres of Roadrunner Ranch. OK, “ranch” is probably a bit grandiose for four acres outside Sierra Vista, Arizona, but Charlene and I had always lived on the high side. What the hell. When I was in the First Infantry Division in Vietnam, the accepted nickname was The Big Red One. The unofficial motto was, “If you’re gonna be one, you might as well be a Big Red One.”  We had lived our lives at full throttle with that motto in mind.

We weren’t like regular people. We did things. We raised two successful sons, we travelled the world. We lived on a boat and we lived in an RV. Charlene rose to national prominence in her chosen field of hospital administration while I changed careers like other people change shirts.

But these days I didn’t do much of anything. I collected my military pension, sat around looking at the birds and talked to Miss Kitty. I had a growing fear that I might become “eccentric” if I didn’t find someone to talk to besides the cat. In the year since Charlene went away I had become a bit of a hermit.

And now I was going to kill the cat. Who would I talk to after that?

The cat was 20 years old. She wobbled when she walked. She wouldn’t eat and her gray and white coat had become matted and dull. Her kidneys were failing. This was a problem I had avoided for way too long. I had an appointment with the vet later this afternoon.

I mentally calculated how much work it was going to be to spruce up the grounds so it actually looked like somebody lived here. The resulting sum was depressing so I groaned to my feet, feeling every one of my 65 years, and walked back into the house. My footfalls spooked a dust bunny that scurried under the couch as I entered the living room. Guess I should get out the broom one of these days.

Charlene and I had amassed a small collection of prints over the years. They looked a little out of place on the walls of this modest mobile in the desert but these days I had few visitors to notice. I stopped to admire the wildly inappropriate colors and blocky shapes of Marine Aux Nuages, by Marcel Mouly, the French fauvist. Without thinking, I reached out my finger and wrote “clean me” in the dust that had accumulated on the glass. I guess I’ll have to clean it now, won’t I?

Ciel Rouge by Emile Bellet and Performances by Linda Le Kinff were in a similar state. In addition to the prints, there were several of my own photos on the walls. I had achieved a little success as a fine art photographer since retiring from the military. I did landscapes and nature stuff, mostly. Now they rested in a luxurious coat of dust.

I fled to the deck at the rear of the house to survey the back half of my empire. A weathered broken-down wood fence enclosed a bit of a yard where several fruit trees struggled to stay alive in this place they were never meant to be.  Beyond the stunted fruit trees was what I liked to call the natural area. It was actually a dry wash with about two acres of weeds and mesquite trees. It was a haven for wildlife. Rabbits and birds loved it. Rattlesnakes loved the rabbits so it paid to watch where you put your feet. I even found mountain lion tracks out there once.

Looming over the mesquites was San Jose Peak across the border in Mexico. Roadrunner Ranch was between the border and the border checkpoints. One night I ran across a man dressed in black carrying an assault rifle and talking on his cell phone. I didn’t know if he was one of the good guys or one of the bad guys but since his assault rifle trumped my .45 pistol I chose to mind my own business. Roadrunner Ranch was peaceful but it was never boring.

 

“Bring her into room number two, Chuck.” Her name was Kate and she was a strikingly handsome woman in a wholesome, outdoor way. Her jeans showed off a trim figure and her dark hair was pulled back in a sensible pony tail. I could visualize it down about her shoulders. I noticed there was no gold band on her left ring finger. Someday, perhaps, I’d ask her about that, but now was not the time. As I placed the pet carrier on the table I felt as if I were offering up a sacrifice.

Kate had been my vet for two years now. I hoped she didn’t smell the whisky on my breath. I wasn’t sure why I had felt the need for a generous dollop of Jack Daniels before bringing Miss Kitty into the vet. After all, it was Charlene’s cat. It wasn’t my cat.

Kate reached into the pet carrier and gently removed the cat. “Come on, Miss Kitty. I guess it’s the end of the line for you, Baby. You’ve had a good run, though. You’ve had a good Daddy. “She looked up at me as she held the cat. “You’re not having a very good year are you?” She was referring to the fact that Miss Kitty would be my second pet to die this year. Kate had put Turk down for me six months earlier.

I shrugged. “Last year was worse.”

She nodded. “I guess it was.”

I held Miss Kitty on the table and the she turned and licked my hand. I could feel the tiny heart beating so fast inside the bag of bones that was Charlene’s cat. Kate administered the shot. The tiny heartbeat spiked and then it stopped. Miss Kitty’s heart just stopped. Charlene’s cat was dead.

Kate reached out and touched my forearm. “I’m sorry Chuck.” She had tears in her eyes, I was surprised and touched. I had tears in my eyes, too, but I had worn dark glasses so she wouldn’t see them. After all, I was a genuine, certified war hero with the medals to prove it. I couldn’t be seen bawling over a damn cat.

“Thanks, Kate. I’ll take her home, now.”

I finished digging the hole under the mesquite tree. I placed the tiny body in the hole and covered her. I covered the grave with rocks to make it more difficult for the creatures that might try to dig her up and feast on her remains. Suddenly I felt like I should say some words over her. Let’s get real, here! It’s just a damned cat. It wasn’t even my cat. In the end, I just said a simple good-bye and walked away.

I worked my way between the Santa Rita prickly pear and a mud hole left by the last thunderstorm that had marched down the valley. The rains had brought weeds and the weeds brought grasshoppers that got fat off the weeds. The grasshoppers brought Curve-billed thrashers and cactus wrens that got fat off the grasshoppers. A Cooper’s hawk relentlessly hunted the thrashers and wrens. It was a busy place.

Was it my place? Did I belong here? Were there just too many bad memories associated with this place for it to be home? “Hell with it,” I said out loud. “I’ll decide all that some other time.”

I walked back to the house and sat on the front steps and nursed a beer, my third for the day (or was it my fourth?). I sat there for a long time. The porch faced north and the thunderstorm came up from the south so it took me by surprise. It was nearly silent. Only one crack of thunder just as it arrived. It was getting late in the year for a monsoon storm in southeastern Arizona, but it had been that kind of year.

The rain came on gently enough, then suddenly, the wind went to full-roar and the rain began to move sideways. I was soaked to the skin in a matter of seconds. I ducked inside and watched the rain for a minute before stripping naked and tossing my wet clothes into the hamper in the bathroom. While I was there I stepped on the scales. 172 pounds. Cool! I had come all the way down from 220 pounds in the last two years.  I remained naked. It didn’t matter.  There was no one to titillate or irritate with my nakedness and that sucked. Here I was all dressed up and no place to go.

I stood staring out the front door screen at the rain. It was a real storm, alright. Soon the water was running several inches deep across the lawn. I thought again about the drainage plan I had conceived and never implemented. The unfinished project was just another turd in the punchbowl of life. There were a lot of turds in the punchbowl these days.

The storm spent itself and moved on across the desert floor. I missed the drama immediately. Absurdly, I wished it would turn around and come back. I felt the tears rising, again. What the Hell? It was Charlene’s cat. It wasn’t my cat.

On the MP3 player John Gary was asking “What now my love, now that you’ve left me? How can I live through another day?”

I couldn’t answer the question.