It Would Never Be This Clean Again

Fiction
Charles Rafferty


Photo Credit: Brian Ford/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Christopher and his new wife, Molly, had moved into the tree-filled neighborhood two days before. They had always lived in apartments and didn’t know a thing about yards. It was April, and as they stood at the picture window, feeling the sunshine warm their faces, Christopher realized he would have to cut the grass.

“Look at that big bird,” said Molly. A turkey buzzard hopped along the border of the woods and lawn. Then she saw another.

“I think they’re vultures,” said Christopher. “Something must have died.”

When he opened the front door to investigate, the birds looked over at the sound of the whiny hinge, but they weren’t ready to abandon whatever they had found. They ignored his approach until he was halfway to where they stood. Then they looked at the sky and took off. The birds were ungainly. It was like watching two copies of the Sunday New York Times trying to take flight.

When Christopher reached the spot where they had been, he saw what they were after. A black cat was lying in the grass.

The cat must have been struck by a car. It wasn’t broken in any obvious way, but the buzzards had made a couple of preliminary tears into the cat’s asshole. Christopher looked up into the April sky. One of the buzzards was wheeling above the street; the other had settled on a branch two houses down.

The cat wore a pink collar with a brass tag. It belonged to the people across the street. Its name was Paws.

*

Molly sat at the kitchen table, pouring out wine for both of them.

“You can’t just leave it there,” she said

“Why not?”

“Because no one wants to come home and find their pet getting eaten by vultures,” she said, rolling the wine dangerously close to the lip of her glass. “You have to let them know.”

He watched Molly walk to the window. The two birds were in the tree just above the cat. It was plain that others would follow.

“What am I supposed to do? Dig a grave?” He finished his wine and put the glass down on the stone counter with a clink.

A minute later, the first bird dropped down, and Molly handed Christopher a Hefty bag. She told him to get the shovel they had just purchased at Sears. When the birds saw Christopher coming, they each took another bite before setting sail above the neighborhood. He heard their wings beating at the flowery air as they departed.

Christopher had trouble balancing the cat on the shovel, so he picked it up by the collar, dropped it in the bag, and knotted it. The dead weight of it swinging as he walked felt indecorous, so he asked Molly to find one of the moving boxes they hadn’t taken to the dump yet. He wrote “Paws” on the side, then tried to scratch it out. Dissatisfied with the result, he asked Molly for another box.

“I guess I’ll bring it over when they get home from work,” he said, placing the box at the end of his own porch, as if the UPS man had just delivered it.

Back inside, Christopher broke a head of lettuce apart under a running faucet. He felt the grit of the sand as the water sped over his fingers. Deep in the folds of the romaine leaves, he found a caterpillar stuck to the browned hole it had eaten through. He folded the leaf against the caterpillar, smashing it on the stainless steel of the sink basin, and washed it down the drain. He did not tell Molly about the caterpillar.

*

The grill was a housewarming present, and Christopher was pleased he’d been able to hook up the gas on the first try. He lay the thin, marbled steaks onto the pristine steel and regretted, for a moment, that it would never be this clean again. He thought of the grill he’d grown up with, coated with rust and chicken grease, and wondered how soon this one would become like that. Christopher checked his watch and went inside.

“They just got home,” said Molly, pouring herself another wine.

Across the street, a man in his fifties got out of the car and carried a briefcase into the house. He looked old to Molly and Christopher, successful. “Get over there before he opens a can of cat food,” Molly said.

“The steaks,” said Christopher. “Three minutes a side.”

“I’m on it,” said Molly, and then took up position by the picture window to watch the hand-off of the dead cat.

Christopher lifted the box and carried it birthday-cake style across the street. It was heavier than he thought it would be. He considered whether to cut across the lawn or walk up the driveway. He kept to the driveway.

Christopher placed the box on the porch railing, his left hand resting on top of it as he knocked. When the neighbor opened the door, he had a drink in his hand. It looked like scotch. Christopher explained that he lived across the street, and when David (that was his name) opened the door to shake hands, Christopher had to step away from the box and it tumbled into the bushes.

Christopher smashed a couple of tulips as he clawed the box out of the shrubbery. He handed it to David with some ceremony and explained that it contained Paws, that he had found him on his own lawn earlier.

David put his scotch down and pulled open the box. When he found the bag, he looked up.

“Vultures,” Christopher said.

David tore open the bag, and the sight of Paws overtook him. He began to weep. Christopher would have backed away, but his exit was blocked by David, who was now on the porch, boxing him in against the railing. David explained they’d had the cat for fifteen years, that they got him when they moved in, that now they were splitting up, that Paws was a point of contention.

“Where’s your wife now?” Christopher asked.

David wiped his eyes and stood up straighter. “Sucking cocks in her new apartment,” he said. “That’s why I threw her out. I caught her sucking cocks.”

Christopher could see he’d said the wrong thing, and he knew it was beside the point, but he kept thinking about “cocks.” Had he caught her with two guys at once? Or had he caught her with different men on different nights? Or was he merely using the plural for effect?

“I would have done the same thing” was all Christopher could think to say.

Christopher stayed there with David until he was fully composed. It took a long time. David recounted how the cat had taken care of the mice that sometimes wandered into their home. He told Christopher how Paws had kept his feet warm during the winter months. Then Christopher helped David get the bag back into the box. He clapped him on the shoulder and worried that David might break down again. Eventually, David backed into the house and shut the door.

As Christopher headed over to his own house, he saw Molly staring at him from the front window. He could tell she’d been watching the whole time. She gave him a thumbs-up sign as she took a sip of her wine, which even from that distance appeared to be fully replenished. He wasn’t sure if she was being serious or if she was poking fun at him for having dropped the cat into the bushes.

Behind their new house, gray puffs of smoke were billowing off the porch, and Christopher could tell that Molly had never turned the steaks, that the dinner they had planned was not the dinner they would eat.

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Charles Rafferty’s most recent collections of poems are The Smoke of Horses (BOA Editions, 2017) and Something an Atheist Might Bring Up at a Cocktail Party (Mayapple Press, 2018). His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, O, Oprah Magazine, Prairie Schooner, and Ploughshares. His stories have appeared in The Southern Review and New World Writing, and his story collection is Saturday Night at Magellan’s (Fomite Press, 2013). He has won grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, as well as the 2016 NANO Fiction Prize. Currently, he directs the MFA program at Albertus Magnus College and teaches at the Westport Writers’ Workshop. Email: cmrafferty[at]yahoo.com