Part 1 of a story I’m working on & currently revising.
I was always kicking something as a kid. I’d find a rock on the sidewalk and stay with it. Half listening to whatever my friends were saying, I focused on kicking that rock. I liked rocks. Cans are too noisy and I didn’t like to litter. I was a kid who obeyed the rules. Rules made me nervous. I was too scared to try breaking them.
When I got older, it was the brass pole under the bar. Sitting there with my drink. Looking around. Kicking the pole or the wood with my boot. Or my heel kicking back against my barstool. My knees are always bouncing when I try to sit politely. I wipe the side of my thumb across my upper lip as a habit. I’m nervous. Jumpy. I’m never sure what I’m supposed to do. I like knowing what’s expected of me. Give me the rules. Give me a script and I’ll follow it.
Some of us need to be boxed in a little. Some of us need something wrapped around us a little tighter than the rest. I needed her warm hands on my face making me look her right in the eye. “Hush,” she’d say, “I’m here.”
I liked working hard and not talking. I worked in the yard. I hauled orders to the waiting pickup trucks. Bags of cement. Stacks of plywood. 2x4s. I came home smelling of wood. Sap stuck on the hairs of my arms. Early spring meant railroad ties and the smell of creosote. I hauled the loads and set them in the backs of waiting pickups. Laid everything out nice and neat. Stacked it all perfectly. Nodded to the customer when it was all there and walked back for the next load.
I didn’t have a girl at home. I didn’t have a girl waiting at the bar for me. I didn’t know how to find one. I went home alone. Ate alone. Opened a beer in the cockeyed metal chair outside my front door. And then another. The street light was right off my porch and shone too bright. I could see the raw skin on my hands. Too rough. “I look older than I am,” I thought, “I feel older than I am.” I didn’t mind. That’s just how it was. I felt old. I was pretty much done. And like I’ve said, I didn’t mind.
My story isn’t sad. Not to me. Don’t think I was sad. I knew what it felt like. Everything. All of it. I knew and that was enough. I didn’t want to bother with anything less. I’d tasted it. I would never forget that. She was everything.
I met her when I nearly ran over her kid. I was in my truck, cutting off work for the day. I rounded a corner and slammed on the breaks when I saw this kid, maybe 5 years old, standing in the middle of the road looking down. He had his back to me. I jumped out with my adrenaline racing, angry. I scooped him up roughly and tucked him under my arm to carry him over to the sidewalk. As soon as I let him go, he kicked my shin and ran back to the road. It was then that I saw the cat lying there. Dead. “Poor kid,” I said out loud. I walked over, more gentle this time. “Hey,” I said, putting a hand on his shoulder, “That your cat?” He nodded. “Okay,” I said, “I can help you out. Go get your mom.”
He ran inside and I grabbed the shovel out of the back of my truck. He came back with his mom. She stood there with her hand over her mouth. She was already crying hard. Gulping air. “I’ll take care of this,” I said, “We can bury her in the back.” “Him,” her boy said stubbornly, “That’s a he cat.” She put her arm around her boy and they headed around behind the house. I waited until they were out of sight before scooping the stiff cat up with my shovel. I went back to my truck and found an old towel to wrap him in. I left my car there in the road while I carried the sad little bundle of dead cat around to the back.
It was quick work. A shallow grave under a half-dead tree in their back yard. I stood off to the side, out of earshot, as they said goodbye. The boy ran over and hugged me after. I stood with my hands up in the air like someone had a gun pointed at me, not knowing how to comfort him, not feeling right about it. He ran inside and his mom wandered over to me. “Thank you, stranger,” she said. “My name’s Cyd,” I answered, “Don’t call me a stranger anymore.” She looked me right in the eye for a long time after that and I didn’t look away. It was different for me right from the start. I’m taller than I should be and tend to shuffle my feet and stare off in the distance most of the time people talk to me. But not her. I looked her straight on that day. From then on, she always made me look her in the eye. It wasn’t easy.
I remember that first day in crisp detail. What follows gets a little blurry. And the end is totally lost to me. But that first day swims in front of me like a movie sometimes. An old favorite.