By Deb Vlock
One night in the slow, hot crawl of late summer, our cat spontaneously combusted. This was a few hours after I spied hundreds of cicada shells heaped in a derelict pile amongst the previous autumn’s leaves, over by the garage, and the air shimmered with insect calls – cicada sex, or maybe the anger of the females when the males dug in and droned about and did not help with the larvae. Kitty-Kitty slipped out the back door into a darkness so stifling you could feel it pushing against you, and as he was a black cat with only the tiniest white coin on his chest – Small Change, my father liked to call him – we could not find him and bring him in before going to bed.
The next afternoon my sister Alisha and I found a pile of silvered charcoal stuff behind the garage, when we went there to admire the heap of lacquered shells: a round hump of ash with a long bone, like a cat’s arm, sticking out of it. There was a faint trickle of ash on the other end that looked like the remains of a tail.
Alisha screamed and ran to find Dad, with me close behind. He was rolling and smoking joints in the upstairs bathroom. (Add the sweetish-burnt scent of pot to this story. It wound around us like snow pea creepers, drifting up into our nostrils. Most of the time, our hair smelled like herbal shampoo laced with weed.) Roll one, smoke one. He was about as wasted as you can be and not be dead.
He got up reluctantly from his perch on the closed toilet and followed us out back.
“Look,” urged Alisha, standing a few feet away and pointing at the chalky pile right where the garage wall met the earth.
Dad followed her finger, gazed upward for a brief moment at the Adirondack peaks on the horizon, and refocused.
“Do I wear glasses?”
“Because if I do, now would be a good time for you to go and get them.”
“You don’t wear glasses,” I assured him. “You’re just stoned.”
“Oh,” he said, and then he leaned in closer. “What IS that shit?”
Dad started laughing and couldn’t stop. He laughed so hard he sobbed.
“Bastard!” growled Alisha.
I added, “Shut up!”
“That,” said Dad, after a disoriented moment when he looked around for a chair and sat down hard on the grass, “is not Kitty-Kitty. That is a vast, right-wing conspiracy.” When Dad was stoned, everything was a right-wing conspiracy, and everyone was a fucking CIA operative.
Alisha slapped the back of Dad’s head, not hard, and he grabbed her shirt but she broke away. I hovered over him for a moment or two, and when I realized he was not out of breath but crying, I knelt beside him and tried to hold his hand. He smacked me away.
“Goddamn fascists did it,” he sobbed. “Poor old Kitty-Kitty.”
Kitty-Kitty sashayed through the cat flap at dinner time that evening. Alisha and I jumped up from the table and chased him through the house, trying to catch him.
Dad looked up from his pork chop and bellowed, “Leave that animal alone! He never gets any peace.”
Dad’s idea of improving Kitty-Kitty’s life was exhaling marijuana smoke in his face. A few minutes later he passed out backwards in his chair, head lolling, mouth wide open. Alisha called up to my mother, who was in their bedroom talking to Aunt Jo on the phone, and she told us to take our food somewhere else and leave him to his fly-catching. He could’ve caught a dragonfly in that trap, she said.
Mom spent dinner time on the phone with various people – Aunt Jo, Grandma Ida, Mrs. King next door. She was on a tomato juice diet and didn’t appreciate the sound of the rest of us chewing – especially Dad, who was a smacker. So far she had lost only seven pounds in eight weeks, so I suspected she was sneaking down at night and eating Little Debbies.
The mystery of Kitty-Kitty’s combustion and re-incarnation was solved the next day by Dad, who vaguely remembered dumping the detritus from the Weber grill behind the garage. This was the first happening of consequence that morning. The second: My mother, forever trapped inside an ecstatic dream about Woodstock she had as a teenager in 1984, was driving, with me in the car, to a cottage on the outskirts of town that looked like someone’s Nana’s house but was secretly a head shop. The Nana who lived and worked there was actually a middle-aged podiatrist named Al. Al sold chokers with peace signs on them and a rainbow of colored pipes no one ever seemed to buy, and a cardboard box of bongs stowed discreetly under his kitchen table that some people did.
A block away from Al’s cottage, Mom blissed out on Neil Young and ran a stop sign. Of course there was a cop across the street, and of course he pulled us over. I sniffed my shirt on the sly, because there was a scent of B.O. in the car. What I smelled when I pulled the fabric away from my body was not B.O., just the musky odor of a hormonal teenager. It must’ve been my mother who smelled like sweat.
The cop walked in slow-mo to the car. I liked his swagger. He had receding hair like a middle-aged man, but he was young, maybe twenty-five.
He rapped on my mother’s window with his knuckle and she cranked it without looking at him.
“Hello?” he said.
She stared straight ahead and said, “Yes?”
He leaned in to examine what he’d bagged. I flicked my hair nervously, but he wasn’t looking at me.
My mother was wearing a purple sundress with little silver mirrors sewn onto it and moist half-moons where the cotton met her armpits, and she was braless as usual. This was not such a big deal; her breasts were even smaller than mine. Still, I could see him leering at them. I did what I could to attract his attention, sliding slightly forward in my seat and opening my knees a little bit until I remembered the illegal thing nestled against my left ankle inside my sock, and had to close them up again. I crossed my ankles tight and crossed my second toes over my big toes, as fingers would be too obvious.
He ignored me anyway.
“You know why I stopped you, ma’am?”
His hair was the exact blond of the sand at Emerald Lake.
“I ran that stop sign?”
“Yeah, you did.”
“It’s because I just picked up some Ativan. My son Alby is having a nervous breakdown at home. I’ve got to get to him, Officer. Fast.”
Alby? This confused me, but only briefly. I looked down at my knees, tore at a slub in the denim. Then I picked at the scabby cuticle of my thumb.
“Your husband at home?”
I dropped my head back on the headrest with a clunk and closed my eyes. I wasn’t going to get the choker I’d been promised if I agreed to stash that small bag of weed in my left sock. That was a dumb idea in the first place, because who wears jeans and socks in the summer?
“No,” said my mother. “Alby’s by himself. Well, with my older daughter.”
“I better come with you, in case he needs to go to the hospital. What’s the address?”
“4545 North Main,” I blurted, before she could answer. She elbowed me and gave him the correct address. He made a gun out of his right hand and pointed it at my nose. “You’d better watch it,” he said. Then he walked away and slid into his cruiser without bothering to tell her that if she kept going in the direction she was headed she’d be in the mountains around the same time Alby’s nervous breakdown peaked, and Ativan would be beside the point.
We followed him back home. My mother said nothing the whole way, just sweated some more.
I trailed Mom and the blond-haired cop up the weedy bluestone path to our weedier house, and when we reached the front door she turned to me and said, “Go in and tell Alby to take this pill and stay in his room.” She fished an aspirin out of her purse. “Then have Alisha drive you two to the movies.” She handed me twenty bucks.
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to ask this officer to help me with Alby.”
“Jesus,” I muttered, strung halfway between shamed and aroused.
The cop said, “You heard her. Get your sister and go to the movies.” I happened to know of a video, starring men and women with improbable names and stashed beneath my parents’ bed in a canvas bag, that had a plot line similar to the narrative unfolding here.
But the plots differed, in that here there was Consequence, in the form of an infant, born nine months and a couple weeks after we got pulled over. He had blond hair and blue eyes. Dad figured that meant we came from Scandinavian People. I guess his brain had finally gone up in smoke – everyone knew the people on both sides came from neighboring shtetls in Eastern Europe.
One year later: Emerald Lake, the air electric with the buzz of a million plucked guitar strings. “Barry,” said my mother, pausing to drag on a roach, “the girls want to swim.” They were both smoking, and their joints, side by side, glowed fiery like the eyes of a mountain lion.
We were camping. We had gone to the woods to celebrate Alisha’s graduation from community college and mine from that flop house, Unionville High, and it was eleven o’clock and pitch black – you could not see more than two inches in front of you. Neither of us had mentioned swimming.
“Actually,” I said, high on second-hand weed, “I want to read in the tent. Where’s that flashlight?” I had brought a quasi-pornographic romance novel with me and wanted a little alone time with it.
“Alby’s using it.”
“He’s afraid of the dark.”
“He’s a baby. He doesn’t use anything. Besides, he lived in the dark for nine months and did just fine.”
“Let him have the flashlight,” growled Dad.
I threw a stick on the campfire in disgust and stalked over to my parents’ tent. Alby was fast asleep in a little nest of towels, the flashlight laid next to him and illuminating the canvas behind his head. It made him look like those paintings of Baby Jesus with a halo. He stirred and nursed the air. He had a blunt face, round as an iceberg lettuce, and he had the most beautiful smell about him, like milk and lotion. Sometimes I slipped my pinky in his mouth and he gummed it like he could drink out of me. Sometimes I loved him so hard it felt like if I could just drink the sweetness out of him I would be a better person. I reached for the flashlight but stopped myself before my fingers closed on it.
I walked back to the fire and turned away from my parents, adjusting myself so I was facing the west. I bit my sore cuticle. I felt such a pull toward the left side – toward away from here. I imagined everything was clear and well-defined out there by the Pacific – the air dry, the moon sharp-edged, no monsters hiding out in forests or under the sea. UCLA was out there. I’d been accepted, early decision, but Dad said I couldn’t go to Los Angeles as I was the sanest member of our family and needed at hand. That made me hate Alby a little, in spite of the way he nursed my finger, because I knew they wanted me home weekends to babysit. So I was looking at Binghamton, and Binghamton was not all that much to look at.
“Can I have a toke?” asked Alisha. “As a graduation gift?”
“You know you girls aren’t allowed,” said my mother, trying to pour some powdered iced tea into her canteen. Most of it landed in her lap.
“Kitty-Kitty gets it all the time,” I remarked glumly.
“Kitty-Kitty’s allowed,” said Dad. “His race enjoys a good doobie now and then.”
“Barry,” giggled Mom.
“What? It’s a proven scientific fact. Which the right wing would like to suppress. It’s called freedom of expression, Mar-go.”
“You’ve lost some brain cells, Barry. I think you should cut back.”
He moved closer to her, until he was almost on her lap, and put his arm around her. When he thought we weren’t looking, he cupped her right breast.
Alisha glared at each of us in succession. “What the fuck,” she fumed. “I’m going to bed.”
“And I’m going down to the lake,” I announced to no one in particular.
“Be careful,” my mother warned. “You do not know who’s lurking in these woods.”
I had every intention of stripping down to the bikini I was wearing under my shorts and T-shirt, lurkers or no.
I sensed stuff was happening under the surface of the water. It was just this weird feeling that I was not alone. I reminded myself a few times that sharks did not live in Emerald Lake, just to stoke my courage, and pulled off my shirt and my shorts. The air was cold against my exposed skin, and the water, when I waded in up to my ankles, was at first even colder.
My eyes couldn’t penetrate the water so I looked up instead. The black sky faded to a washed gray where clouds clung to the horizon. I thought, in my half-stoned state, that that was about the coolest thing I’d ever seen – gray sky at midnight. The moon was a large white coin – not small change, not in the least – and bright enough to illuminate the broad brow of the lake. Even so, I felt wrapped in darkness, an unlit infinitude behind me, before me, over my head. I wished I had my pad and pen so I could write a poem about the terror and the thrill of it. I liked writing, especially poems. But I was going to Binghamton in a month to learn how to be an accountant. It was my dad’s idea, because one time he’d blown a crapload of money out his ass. And a little bit my idea too, because the clarity of numbers was the exact opposite of us. Maybe I could write poems about ledger books, or whatever they used nowadays to add up one plus three.
A little wind over the water stirred a filmy recent memory in me. I was asleep the night before we went to Emerald Lake and was woken by a feather-stroke on my cheek. It felt the way a baby’s breath might feel, only less moist, but there was no baby in my bed that night – my parents were parenting him, as it turned out, and I had fallen asleep early, steeped in my own rage. When this lilting breath woke me in the last hour before sunrise, I raised myself an inch on my elbow and scanned the darkness, but there was nothing to see except a picture in my own head: downtown Binghamton, looking exactly like every other downtown in upper New York State.
I was considering returning to the camp when I heard voices in the woods. They grew sharper as the people approached.
At first I thought I heard an argument, and that the arguers were my parents. The voices were cutting, and they jousted with enough violence that I assumed Dad had found out he wasn’t Alby’s father. Either that or he was complaining again about the Rosenkranz Situation. I could hear Alby faintly shrieking, though, and I wasn’t sure my mother would just leave him back at the campsite like that. I stood still and listened. And then the fighting people must’ve taken a different path, because I could no longer hear them.
I pulled my shorts on and made my way back to our tents. The sweet smoke had dissipated, but Dad’s angry voice swelled through the trees.
“The goddamn Rosenkranz operatives returned my letter unread. It’s my cousin Chuck, Margo. I know it. He’s always had it out for me.”
I entered the clearing and saw him, sprawled out on his back near the fire, looking at the sky. My mother was absently burping Alby between sips from the canteen. I blinked hard and long, a feeling of ashes or drowning gnats in my eyes. When I focused again, wetly, at my family, the fire gave a little leap. I imagined for a moment it was going to leap itself right onto Dad’s left shoulder.
“Alby’s gassy,” my mother remarked.
“Did you hear me, Margo? I think Chuck has it out for me.”
“Chuck is not a Rosenkranz either.”
“He’s a fucking Fucks.”
“Isn’t it Fuchs?” I snarled, plopping down between them. I stuck my cold feet on the margin of the fire to dry, and I did it with fuck-you overtones to hide the fact that I was crying.
“His mother was my mother’s sister.”
“We’ve heard this a few times before, Barry,” said my mother, sounding bored.
“And neither of us got The Name. But they let him into the circle.”
“Maybe because he’s not crazy?”
I closed my eyes and breathed the scent of the humid moss that crawled up the trees around us, counting down to the explosion, but Dad only farted through his lips and said, “Hannah, pass me a joint out of that can over there.” I picked him a winner.
“Hey,” I said, and already I was beginning to forgive him. I was not a good hater. “Screw those guys. Seriously.”
“OK,” he agreed, flicking his burnt doobie into the fire. “They’re in bed with the right, anyway, so fuck ‘em.”
“You learn your politics at Harvard?” my mother laughed.
“I learned my politics at the University of Hard Knocks, Department of Political Crapitude. Believe me, Margo, I know more about political economy than Dan Rather, Karl Marx, and Ed McMurray combined.”
“Edward R. Murrow?” I rolled my eyes, a gesture wasted where there was no light.
“Oh my God, Barry. Just get into the tent!”
“Right behind you, sweetheart. Doggy-dog style, and I promise it’ll be fast.”
I stared at my bare feet, which meant staring at nothing because of the dark. I would have hitched a ride with anyone who offered, even a creep, if it meant I could get the hell out of there. The problem was, where would I go?
I stood outside their tent for a few minutes, not knowing what to do. Soon enough, the old, angry story erupted: Rosenkranzes, department stores, huge wads of cash, and a seventy-two hour cocaine-induced mania in 1990, when at hour thirty-six Dad gave away his share of the booty to the United Garment Workers Union.
“Fuck that,” he said, beginning to weep, and the dingy canvas walls of my parents’ tent were unable to contain his anguish. “Goddamn varmint workers. Worst decision of my whole fucking life.”
Alby cried too, until my mother picked him up and brought him out to me. She jiggled him and kissed his head but he still looked mad, so I blew raspberries on his belly until he squealed.
“What were you looking at?” she asked, and I pointed mutely up into the trees above us.
We stood shoulder to shoulder but not touching. She scanned the treetops with hands on hips, and when she could not discern anything of note amongst the branches, dark on dark, she physically deflated, taking care to hold herself just taut enough that we did not make bodily contact .
“I don’t see much,” she said after a moment.
“Look hard. There’s a really cute guy up there, just sitting in that tree.”
“Honest?” She gazed more intently into the pine heaven.
“Made you look!”
After a pause, she said, “Hannah, you have hurt my feelings.” She turned around and walked back to the tent. The part of my mother I knew best was the back of her: narrow shoulders, pear hips, flat ass. Usually, but not always, walking away from me. Messing with her now and then took some of the sting out of that. Some, but not enough.
It turned out the arguing couple set up camp within hearing distance of the tent I shared with Alisha. I tried to sleep but those two kept sniping at each other. Alisha was so still I worried she might have died, but when I pinched her she flailed and smacked me on the nose. I groped around the tent for some Kleenex, and when I couldn’t find any I grabbed a T-shirt to stanch the blood.
The couple continued to fight. His girlfriend was going on and on about the way he had drooled at some girl in a bikini. After a while I came to think she might be talking about me.
I got up and left the tent. I lingered around the cold campfire for a few minutes, wishing the guy would come out of his tent so I could catch a glimpse (based on the voice I was guessing tall and blond, Scandinavian-like) and when he didn’t I went down to the lake. It was one in the morning; everyone except me and the arguing couple was asleep. In my adrenalized state of romantic readiness – if I was lucky the guy would be that guy I’d been waiting for over the past six years, at least – I felt strong and invincible.
This time the lake was glass-like and silent, except for an almost imperceptible lapping of the water against the shore. There were definitely no sharks afloat here. No guy materialized, either, so in the interest of finding something else to pass the time, I pulled off my shorts and shirt, untied my top and slid off my bottoms, and set about waking the creatures that were trying to sleep in there.
I was ready to dive under when I heard someone shout, “Hey!” I turned around and saw him. He looked nineteen, maybe twenty. He stripped off his shirt, preparing to join me. From what I could tell he had the physique of a French fry, but on the other hand, he had that voice.
I figured he couldn’t see I was naked if I stayed in up to my shoulders, so I just stood in the neck-deep water and waited.
He waded in slowly, not caring for the cold water on his stomach. “I thought it would be warmer,” he remarked, not to me but to himself. I focused on his chest as he drew near. I could just make out that it was pale and hairless, and also that he had a curly head and an exaggerated Adam’s apple. He looked less like a French fry at close range. Even though he could easily reach bottom, the guy paddled the water with his hands, like a young kid might do, as he approached me.
“I noticed you before,” he said. “In your bikini.”
I crossed my arms over my chest, even though he could not possibly have seen below the water’s surface. “Your girlfriend’s mad about that.”
“Yeah. She sure is.”
“Why do you fight?”
“You heard us?”
“Duh! You’re not invisible, you know. Or inaudible. Or invincible.” I laughed at the silliness of everything, and then I started shivering. I clenched my teeth to stop their chattering.
“Yeah,” he said. “Well.”
“I thought I might swim across,” I told him, hoping to divert his attention from my shakes. I scanned the horizon, trying to separate the darkness of the lake from the darkness of the sky. The wash of gray was gone.
He said, “You’re nuts, right? It’s three miles across, at least.”
“I was kidding, Christopher Columbus. But thanks anyway for the navigational tip.” I think he smiled.
“Where you from?”
“Everyone’s from somewhere,” I said. “You can’t pull that crap with me.”
“That’s true,” he conceded. “Meco. Meco, New York.”
“I never heard of that.”
“It’s an embarrassment. I usually just say New York, let ’em think I’m from The City. I’ve got a cousin on Staten Island. I give out her address. Hey, I bet anything your lips are blue,” he added. “With that degree of shivering.”
I was naked in a lake while the rest of the world slept, talking through blue lips to some strange guy less than three feet away from me. It occurred to me I should be nervous about this situation, but I wasn’t.
“You’ll have to close your eyes while I get out,” I said.
“You skinny dipping?”
He grinned. “It’s not like I can see that much. But I will if you tell me your name.”
“Frederick,” he said, holding out his hand. I hesitated for a second, then raised my hand for a high five. I was shorter by about four inches and mostly underwater, which made the logistics of a handshake kind of awkward. Then I caught his eye and we laughed. We laughed until I thought I might pee, and that shut me up. He grabbed my right hand and pulled me toward the shore. I let him.
“Close your eyes,” I reminded him, and he covered them with his free hand.
The night air nipped me all over. Fortunately, he had brought a towel, and he offered it to me without looking. I wrapped myself up.
“I should go to my tent and change,” I said.
“Not yet,” he urged. “Just talk to me.”
We sat down on a fallen tree and talked about what we liked and what we didn’t, and our favorite foods, and where we were going to college. He tried to kiss me, and I said, “Not with your girlfriend over there in that tent.” I couldn’t tell if it was the cold or lust, but my teeth started rattling again.
“OK,” he sighed, running his fingers through his curly hair, and I could tell he was frustrated. I thought about Alby’s father, the cop who pulled my mother over, and what they’d done while Alisha and I were at the movies. Then I leaned over and kissed him. The smell of him turned me on. It was better than lotion and milk. We made out and got busy with our hands until I had this panicky feeling we’d already gone farther than we should have.
An animal cried out in a cat-like way.
I pushed him off me. “Was that a mountain lion?”
He pulled me back. “That was just a tomcat,” he murmured, his face in my wet hair. My heart made such a racket I worried he could hear it. The more I focused on that chaos in my chest, the more I gave in to my frantic thoughts.
And that’s when I remembered. “Kitty-Kitty!” I said, standing up so fast the towel fell and left me naked. I grabbed it in a flash and covered up as best I could. My heart was pounding.
“My cat. We left in a rush. I don’t know if he has food and water. I don’t know if he’s safe!”
“Are you kidding me?”
“I’m all he’s got, and I just drove away and forgot him.” I sat back down on the tree and covered my face with my hands.
“It’s OK,” he said, putting his arm around me like he was a mother. “He’ll be all right.” I peeked through my fingers. He was so enrobed in night I could not read his face to see if he meant it.
I started to cry.
“How far is Unionville?”
“Hour and a half,” I said, wiping the snot off my nose with the back of my hand.
“So, let’s go.” He pulled me up and the towel slipped again.
“Let me put my clothes on,” I said. “Turn around,” I added, which was kind of pointless considering how much of me he’d already felt. But he waited patiently, facing the woods, while I struggled with my bikini and pulled on my clothes once again.
When I’d finished I tapped his shoulder and he turned to face me.
“My car is in the lot,” he said. “We gotta go the long way around; I don’t want to pass by my tent.”
“You’re just going to leave her here?”
“We’ll be back, won’t we? She won’t even know I’m gone.”
I hesitated, glancing toward the camp. His girlfriend, Mom and Dad, Alisha and Baby Alby. We were going to drive away, and I didn’t even know this guy. Not beyond the taste of his mouth and the feel of his shoulders and the back of his head. I hadn’t even touched him where it counts.
“Why don’t you tell her you’re going and you’ll be right back?” I suggested.
“Why don’t you?” he said.
I considered this. That was one conversation I didn’t ever want to have. Still, I hesitated. “Should I tell my parents?” I asked.
“They’re sleeping, aren’t they? What do you want to wake them for? C’mon, your cat’s waiting!” He squeezed my hand.
I thought I knew why he was so impatient to go. Those woods could squeeze the breath right out of you. The mountains that flamed orange and yellow in October could crush you in the final, heavy weeks of summer.
And he wasn’t even a little bit creepy.
“OK,” I agreed. “Let’s go.”
We cruised into the driveway at three-thirty. The streetlight in front of my house flickered, went out briefly, and beamed again. I got out of the car and whistled. There was no answer.
“Kitty-Kitty?” I said. And to Fred, “He must be in the house. It’s probably fine.”
We walked around to the back door, and there was Kitty-Kitty, huddled on the steps. Locked out. No food or water bowls in sight.
“Small Change,” I said contritely, and he rubbed his broad, hungry face against my calf. I picked him up and pressed his head against my neck.
“I hear him purring,” said Fred. “He must have been scared, all alone in the dark.”
I kept quiet and stroked the cat, trying to make amends for what I’d done to him.
“Would you want to take a ride to nowhere?” asked Fred, suddenly and tentatively, like a guy who’d been bitten once or twice by the word “no.” He pressed his hand on my shoulder for a brief moment.
I glanced sideways at his hand before he took it off me. His fingers were long and bony and kind. He was alternative in a way I really liked, with his thirty-dollar MP3 player from Target, and a car so old it was cool by default – the same used-to-be white Ford Fairmont my friend Julia’s grandfather drove, I was pretty sure. His cell phone was a dumb-phone, a freebie with a two-year contract.
Nowhere sounded like the place to be.
“Just a sec.” I handed him the cat and entered the house, which smelled bad because Dad had neglected to take the trash out before we left for the lake. I went into the kitchen and grabbed a couple cans of cat food, a bowl and a can opener. I took a milk carton from the fridge, dumped the remaining milk out of it, and filled it with water. I filched five twenties from the envelope stashed in the plate cupboard. I was crazy; I was hungry. I needed to keep moving.
Fred and Kitty-Kitty were sitting on the back steps, Fred rhythmically stroking the cat’s head. I handed Fred the cat food and water and scooped up Kitty-Kitty.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said. I should have thought about the sheer lunacy of slipping into a car with a guy I did not know, beyond the very basics – a college sophomore, just the age where all they think about is sex. But I didn’t even consider that. He’d been with me when I was naked and had not touched me until I said he could. My mother had touched me exactly once that whole summer, when she noticed a horsefly on my back and slapped it dead.
Nowhere sounded better and better.
“Oh, damn,” said Fred. “I don’t have a cat box.”
“You mean a litter box or a carrier?” I asked, and he said, “I don’t know. Either. Both.”
“No worries,” I told him. I held the cat to my heart and climbed into the passenger side of his rusty old workhorse, with its stained sky-blue upholstery.
Around Herkimer I began worrying about Dad, whether he was going to get stoned before they all piled into the Vanagon to search for me, and crash into some deadly thing. I thought about Alisha and Alby, and how one of them was aimless and the other a little fat-legged puker who smiled lovely smiles when he wasn’t puking. I thought about Mom and the cop and realized that, while I was not a college sophomore like Fred, I was eighteen, and thinking a lot about sex myself.
I held Kitty-Kitty tight and told him a cat story, all the while glancing at Fred’s thighs pumping the brake and the clutch. Fred remarked that I was cute but a little screwed up.
It seemed we’d been driving for hours, and my left hand only roamed his right knee once or twice because I had Kitty-Kitty to hold onto. But we’d barely gotten as far as Utica, not very far at all. Fred had that dumb-phone on him, and I had nothing because my parents Did Not Support the Wireless Industry. I kept looking at the phone until he noticed and said, “Wanna make a call?”
I did. I wanted to call my dad. But it was four-thirty in the morning, and anyway, how would I reach him? Cell phones were a fucking capitalist conspiracy, and they gave you brain cancer on top of it.
I asked Fred, “What’s your girlfriend’s name?”
“You think she’s scared now?”
“I think she’s pissed off. Don’t worry, she’s got a phone – she’ll call home. Her Dad’ll probably hunt me down and kill me.” He laughed. “You think your parents’ll be mad?”
“My dad’s mad at his family. They’re really rich and they don’t acknowledge him.”
“That’s not what I meant. You think he’s mad at you?”
“He’s stoned all the time. Too wasted to notice me more than a couple times a week. My mom is, though. I said something kind of mean, back at the camp.” Kitty-Kitty made a sound like murrrp? and slipped out of my arms. He settled down in the back seat, which was filled with all kinds of junk – old college papers and soda cans and candy wrappers, a pair of dirty socks. A half-eaten Slim-Jim, which he found and dispatched in about three seconds flat.
Fred didn’t ask what mean thing I had said. Probably he had some unreal notion of who I was. I don’t think I knew who I was, either.
He stabbed the radio buttons until he found something he liked. Zeppelin. I liked it, too. He sang along, tapping his right hand on the steering wheel. He sang badly. I sang with him, a little less badly. I was nervous, but I was brave, too. I had smelled humid moss, and I had noticed the sliver of gray wash that marked the point where down here erupted into mountains and met up there. I had swum unclothed in a lake with no sharks. I had gotten into a car with a guy I did not know and was not afraid. I was ready for nowhere.
We stopped on a gritty Syracuse street and impulsively, I let Kitty-Kitty out of the car. We were parked in front of a sleeping Citgo station on a wide avenue on the broken side of town – 2,500 miles east of Los Angeles, more or less, although I had not, until this very moment, considered it.
“Let’s see what he wants to do,” I said. He streaked out of there in the general direction of the darkling University.
“You will not see that cat again,” said Fred.
I shook my head. “He’ll come back,” I told him.
We waited in the car until it was approaching daylight – alternately kissing, talking, peering out the windows at nothing. Occasionally my fingers brushed against his, but the fingers and the kisses were muted, and they were enough.
While I was staring out the window I thought again about the mystery of the gentle wind in my hair, and the memory deepened to include a burnt, sweetish scent. And then I knew that the little wind was my father’s hand brushing the hair off my face while I slept.
My eyes filled, and my heart, too, until I thought I might drown. What the hell was I doing? While I was trying to keep my face above the swelling waters, and Fred was dozing, I heard a faint meow outside the car.
“Hello, Kitty!” I half sobbed, and when I opened the door he jumped in. He had a burr in his tail. I ran my hand down the length of him, from his head to the burr. I noticed suddenly that all around us the seventeen-year locusts were singing – a noise I thought we’d left behind in the Adirondack forest. They had followed us here, more than two hours from home. Now I heard in the cicada chorus a wistful command. Gohhhh, they droned. Gohhhh.
I wiped my eyes and poked Fred. He startled awake the way Alby did when you sneezed too close to his crib. “Go,” I told him, and my voice only shook a little.
He rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Then he looked straight at me and nodded. “Where to?”
“There,” I said, pointing to the west-most horizon. Just ahead a few blocks sat a sign that read:
New York State Thruway
An arrow pointed the way.
“There,” I repeated, gesturing in the direction of the arrow, and of the diurnal moon. I would use his phone to call the campsite office in an hour, when my parents were sure to be awake, but we wouldn’t drive back to that breathless place.
Fred started the motor, and Kitty-Kitty motored, too. The old Fairmont growled like its muffler was rusted out, the one broken car on a lonely, broken street.
We made our way onto the Thruway. We drove until the darkness lifted. “Open the windows,” I said. Fred cranked them down and we made a mighty wind as we rushed toward the farthest place we could get to from where we’d already been.
Deb Vlock writes short stories and essays, usually for adults and usually, but not always, about fairly heavy stuff (e.g. Nazis, mental illness, medical illness, and other melancholy topics). She less often delves into matters like parental pot smoking and teenage rebellion, but she enjoyed writing “Small Change” so much she’s considering doing more of it. Deb lives just outside Boston with her husband, two teenagers, and one extremely cute Keeshond. For the record, there are no pot heads or rebels living in her household – Barry, Margo, Hannah, Alisha, and Alby are figments of an overactive imagination. No comment on Kitty-Kitty. To read some of Deb’s other work, visit her website at www.deborahvlock.com.