By Halle Ruth
Featured Art: Chowder by Troy Goins
Donna forgot about the cat. She had promised to take care of it when her sister went on another one of her vacations. But the cat slipped to the bottom of Donna’s to-do list until he was barely hanging on, his presence barely noticed and left to his own devices, roaming her sister’s home on his lonesome. Donna did not want the cat staying in her own home, choosing to sacrifice the time it would take to drive to her sister’s to feed it every other day rather than let its fur coat her hardwood floors.
She woke early that morning and decided to take advantage of the rare combination of a day off and unusually warm October weather to tackle the overgrown landscaping surrounding the house. At the beginning of summer, she paid a neighborhood kid to pull weeds and lay mulch, but the upkeep fell to her, and she hadn’t been particularly diligent about keeping the crab grass at bay. Her husband suggested hiring the kid again, but Donna refused. Everyone else in the neighborhood either cared for their yards themselves or hired professionals who drove around in logo-covered trucks that hauled riding lawnmowers, hedge trimmers, and leaf blowers. None of them cheaped out and hired a teenager to do a half-assed job to save a few dollars. It was embarrassing that they even hired him in the first place, like they couldn’t afford to do any better than that. Ella, who lived across the street, would have never done such a thing. Donna was sure of it.
There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to do it ourselves, she said at the time. Then she left to shop for jeans for their son, who was currently (and temporarily, she insisted to anyone who might ask) living in a makeshift bedroom in the basement. Why his childhood bedroom was no longer good enough for him, Donna didn’t know. She didn’t change it that much when he left for college six years ago. Just new carpet and paint, plus she cleaned out his closet, tossing a collection of old T-shirts that smelled like dried sweat and something else she couldn’t put her finger on, something earthy.
It was muggy outside, more like July than October, except for the quiet that descends upon the street every year when school starts. One of her neighbors had a trampoline in his backyard and summer days were often filled with the sounds of children devising various games on the thing. While she tolerated the noise most days, and occasionally even enjoyed hearing children at play, she sometimes felt their shrieks and squeals driving into her eardrums and racing down her spine. One day, she shouted out to them over her fence to tone it down, please and thank you, but to no avail. If anything, they seemed to grow even louder until she was forced to abandon her chair on the deck and finish her book inside.
Today, however, she was off from work, unlike most of her neighbors. Donna had accumulated a lot of vacation days and when it became clear she and her husband weren’t going to Florida as discussed, she treated herself to a long weekend. She deserved a break from work. Everyone at the office had been on edge all summer, having lost the payroll manager. The air was even more uncomfortable as they worked their way into fall and all of the students returned, and teachers and staff arrived at the main office, panicked at the idea of not getting paid on time.
There’s no need to get all fussy about it, Donna thought. She had taken it upon herself to chip in and help with payroll. “It’s not like it’s rocket science,” she said cheerfully to the Finance Director who, Donna made a point of noting to herself, didn’t seem all that grateful for the extra assistance.
I’m the one who should be irritated, she thought as she squatted over the weeds in the backyard. She recently bought a bulk-sized bag of trail mix to keep in her bottom desk drawer for snacks, and invited her cube mates to share it. But somehow others found out about it too, and they helped themselves to generous handfuls whenever Donna stepped away from her desk. By the time she reached into the bag, there was nothing left but raisins and broken peanuts – all the almonds, cashews and M&Ms had been picked out. Her cube mates just shrugged when she shook the bag at them, asking if they had eaten it all or if they knew who did. She could hear them giggling as she fumed at her desk, certain they were laughing at her.
That bag cost me almost thirteen dollars. She dug a screwdriver into the ground, the closest thing to a gardening tool she could find. The least they could have done was offer a few dollars for their share.
The sun, which had felt pleasantly warm when she first walked outside, began to heat the air and the dirt she turned over in her hands. She could feel sweat pooling in the backs of her knees and sliding from underneath her bra to run down her stomach. I will take a water break soon, she promised herself, proud of her active and healthy morning. She’d even had a banana smoothie for breakfast, although she couldn’t bring herself to add a cup of spinach like the recipe called for. The recipe’s author boasted that Donna wouldn’t be able to taste it, but she wasn’t convinced. It was too experimental, in her opinion.
She glanced at the wooden fence surrounding the yard and determined it was high enough to obstruct the neighbors’ view. She pulled off her T-shirt to reveal an old black sports bra, faded around the armpits and fraying at the seams in the clasp. She kicked off her tennis shoes but left on her purple socks to prevent the dirt and mulch from chipping her pedicure. Donna enjoyed the small luxury of getting her hands and toes done, although after her last visit, she wondered if maybe she shouldn’t find some other place to go. The little Vietnamese man who owned the place had been very abrupt with her when she noted that he hadn’t yet changed the flower arrangements to something more fall-ish, and he still hadn’t taken her suggestion to repaint the wall where it had faded from over-exposure to the afternoon sun. (You do know, don’t you, she said to him while he massaged her feet just a little too hard, that there is paint you can buy that won’t fade? You know that, don’t you?)
She stabbed the ground again, sending bits of dried dirt across her knees. It hadn’t rained in a while, in spite of the humid air. Maybe she should have watered the yard when the rest of the neighborhood was out with their sprinklers and hoses. She should probably have some kind of special gardening outfit too, not an old sports bra and her husband’s orange running shorts. The kind of outfit Ella-from-across-the-street would wear while balancing on her tiny, personal-trainer defined legs and clipping hydrangeas for a vase somewhere deep in the recesses of her oversized home. At least, Donna assumed it was oversized – she had never seen the inside of it, even though they’d been neighbors for years.
A shadow fell across her hand and she looked up to see an orange cat sauntering along the top of the fence. The cat completely ignored her. Damn. Her sister’s cat. How long can a cat go without food? She suspected not for very long, and her heart wrenched at the thought of the poor kitty, wandering the empty house, believing it had been abandoned. Donna hated the idea of animal cruelty; she never could sit through those SPCA commercials.
Donna was not really a cat person, although she admitted they had their place. Give her a big-eyed, unconditionally adoring dog any day over a creature that dictated when you were allowed to show it affection. But dogs required a lot of work, and Donna knew that her son and her husband would never pitch in to help, and so she nixed the idea of pets a long time ago.
She jumped up, abandoning her T-shirt and screwdriver, and tiptoed across the deck, convinced a splinter would stab her foot through her sock. She reminded herself to tell her husband the deck needed a power wash and re-stained. Perhaps a little sanding too. He had already left for work. Her son was still asleep and probably would be for a few more hours. This was a problem for Donna, not just because she thought sleeping until the day was half over was lazy, but because she had allowed him to park his van in the driveway last night, and now it blocked her car. She debated waking him up to move it, or just wait. What’s a few more hours to a cat? But then she remembered she insisted on a spare key when he purchased the van. (Even though I told him not to buy it.)
She climbed into the van, pulling on the seat to move her closer to the steering wheel. She glanced down at herself, sighing when she realized she hopped in the car without her shoes or her T-shirt. I’ll just run over, run in, and run out. No one is going to even see me.
The van was as filthy inside as it was on the outside. Magazines and plastic grocery bags covered the floor, and she could hear empty cans rolling around the floor when she turned a corner. “I’m not paying for DUIs,” she said out loud, repeating it several times to emphasize different words before deciding on the version she would say to her son later. The passenger seat, faded to an indeterminate grayish-blue, sported several stains and a couple of cigarette burns. She was pretty sure her son didn’t smoke, she never smelled it in his laundry. She contemplated the marks and wondered what kind of girls he drove around in this awful van, what kind of girls agreed to ride in it. She would know if he’d ever bring any of them home to meet her.
Donna drove along the highway, thinking about sons and girlfriends and cats when the van went limp and the steering wheel stiffened in her hands. She instinctively maneuvered the vehicle to the highway’s shoulder and coasted to a stop. She stared at the fuel gauge, which dangled listlessly below the E. You have got to be kidding me.
She reached for her phone then realized she didn’t have her purse. It was sitting on the kitchen table, next to her own car keys. Shit.
She tried restarting the van, even though she knew it was a wasted effort. The traffic coming down the hill behind her was still thick, even though rush hour had long since passed. She wondered how long she would have to sit there before anyone stopped to help. A very long time, she wagered, especially in a car that looked like it belonged to a serial killer. She was definitely going to wake up her son when she got home, she didn’t care how mad he got.
She turned to look in the back and spotted a red gas can. She reached for it. Empty. Shitshit.
This was just like her son. Donna imagined he would give her some story about the fuel gauge being broken, but he wouldn’t have a reason — a good one, anyway, in her mind — for why he didn’t repair it. The real answer, Donna thought, was that he couldn’t afford it. But admitting that would lead to a discussion about employment, and his lack of it. Donna never heard him mention any job interviews, and the only thing he seemed to use his laptop for was playing Solitaire. He rarely emerged from the basement, not even to eat dinner, fending off her grilled chicken and rice pilaf with excuses about how he already ate or wasn’t hungry. No wonder, she thought, noting all the candy bar wrappers and empty chip bags in the van. In spite of not eating, he had gained weight since coming home, a bloated puffy sort of weight, like a water balloon.
It’s probably all this beer. There was a box on the floor behind the passenger seat and when she flipped the lid, she saw it was full of empty cans of Miller Lite. She searched the van for shoes, clothes and cash, and found a five-dollar bill and two dollars in quarters. No T-shirts or sneakers. ShitshitSHIT. The nearest gas station was just over a mile in either direction. She thought about letting the van roll down the hill to get a little closer to an exit, but the traffic zipping by told her that was not a good plan. She faced forward, counting the passing cars. At thirty-eight, she sighed and reached for the gas can. She had turned on the hazard lights when she first pulled over, but after wondering about the state of the battery, she turned them off. She was likely to return to a dead car if she didn’t.
Donna tried to walk with purpose, swinging the gas can and ignoring the cigarette butts and pebbles that bit into her feet through her socks. How did she ever let herself leave the house in such a state? You were concerned about the cat, she reminded herself, comforting herself with her compassion.
She had been walking for only a minute or two, the dirt quickly settling into a layer inside her nose and throat, when the first car sounded its horn. A second horn was followed by the howl of a man leaning out the passenger window, but whatever words he shouted, if they were words at all, were sucked away by the rushing air the car dragged with it. She kept her gaze locked on the ground just ahead of her feet.
She wanted to pick up the pace, but stepping around the debris slowed her down. Keep an eye out for glass, you know. She breathed heavily, opening her mouth slightly so that anyone paying attention wouldn’t see how out of breath she was. She had a gym membership once, but like everyone else with a gym membership, she let it expire. She was uncomfortably aware of her stomach bulging over her shorts and from underneath her bra, both of which seemed to have shrunk in size since leaving the house. Her underarms chafed against the seams. Her thighs rubbed together as she walked, forcing the legs of her shorts to ride up. Every few steps, she turned her leg at an angle to grip the shorts and yank them back down. She could feel her cheeks flush even brighter as another car honked just as she reached between her legs to pull on the orange fabric sticking to her with sweat.
Damn it, Shelley. None of this would be happening if she hadn’t let her sister rope her into another favor. That was all she ever did for Shelley, provide favors that were never returned. Their relationship was nothing but a long string of one-sided requests – meet the furniture delivery truck, pick up flowers, feed the cat.
She doesn’t even ask. Just calls me up to tell me what she wants me to do next for her.
How her sister could even afford to go on another vacation was beyond Donna. Shelley’s husband was a mechanic at a Chevy dealership, and Shelley had a string of jobs with long bouts of unemployment in between them. Just recently, she picked up a hostess job at some restaurant. Donna and her husband went for dinner after her sister was hired, but Shelley was not happy and accused Donna of checking up on her. Like always, she said. Donna insisted on her innocence; she didn’t even mention the length of Shelley’s skirt (a little short for her age), or ask if that big, hulking man standing at the bar with a bandaged hand and an apron that barely covered him was a cook. (I wouldn’t think anyone would want him preparing their food.) But none of her efforts mattered to Shelley, and dinner was a strained affair under the glares from the hostess stand.
She complained to her husband later how unfair Shelley had been, and that she was probably just trying to pick a fight because she loved drama, and given her propensity to drink a little too much wine, was working in a bar really such a good idea? Spotting a break in the stream of words, her husband shrugged and backed out of the bedroom, but not before pointing out that just because Donna wanted everyone to do things her way, didn’t mean they would all just fall in line. Nor should they, he tossed over his shoulder.
Everyone always defends her. People always wanted to do something, or be someone, for Shelley. Donna realized that at a very young age. Even their parents, exhausted by Donna’s chatter, showed brighter signs of life whenever Shelley spoke. She can do no wrong, I guess.
Donna was sure her sister had done plenty of wrong. Dozens of jobs and boyfriends. Three husbands, all of which Donna warned her sister not to marry, even the current one, who was by far the best of them. But he was obviously just as frivolous with money as Shelley. Three vacations already this year. What kind of people can afford that? Not Shelley, and Donna shook her head at the thought of what her sister’s bank account must look like, forgetting for a moment the dirt inching its way over her socks and up her shins, which were starting to throb. Another car passed, another horn honked.
Men. As if all that horn honking were the key. As if Donna would chase after the car, persuaded by unintelligible, cave-man howls. She wished she had the courage to raise a middle finger, like she knew her sister would. Shelley had always been the braver of the two when it came to anything regarding men.
Probably from so much practice.
In high school, Shelley had a new boyfriend every few weeks, and yet, somehow, she never earned a reputation. Girls hung around her for scraps, and the boys always forgave her for moving on. Donna once pointed out that Shelley was in danger of running out of boys to date, but she just laughed and moved on past Donna too.
Donna practiced ignoring all the comings and goings, until the afternoon Shelley mentioned she had a date with Andy Morrow. Andy was a senior, like Donna. They had advanced U.S. History together. He sat in the row of desks next to Donna, one seat ahead, giving her a good view of the back of his head. She would watch his hair creep down his neck, then every four weeks it would return to its starting point and begin again. She liked to observe the cowlick behind his left ear as it grew more and more unruly, then one day he would come in and it would have been tamed by scissors and gel.
On good days, Andy would turn around and talk to Donna. Third period was probably the best part of Donna’s day, full of hope that she might get a chance to make a joke or say something clever.
She cringed as she walked, remembering how she remained awake the night of the date, trying to decide how to casually corner her sister for details when she finally came home. She heard Shelley come in through the front door and call to the living room where their parents watched TV. The door to the shared bathroom closed and Donna listened to the water run for what seemed like a very long time. She waited, listening for the door to open so she could leave her bedroom and pretend a coincidence of timing brought them together in the hallway. But when she finally orchestrated the run-in, she found her sister in the hallway with her head down, doing her best to squeeze past Donna without looking at her.
“What’s with you?”
“Nothing. I’m tired.” Shelley entered her bedroom without turning on the light or closing her door. Donna followed her, flipping the switch to watch her sister wince in the sudden brightness, as if the light itself physically hurt her.
“Go away, Donna. I’m tired.”
Shelley crawled into bed at a snail’s pace, twisting up her face with pain. She made no move to turn off the lamp beside her; she still had on her clothes.
Donna was irritated. Whatever game Shelley was playing — and she was sure it was a game, one designed to maximize attention and slowly torture Donna, make her drag out the details — Donna wasn’t in the mood for it. She was tired of her sister playing the princess, playing the victim, playing whatever role most suited the scene in which she found herself. She had had enough of her sister’s dramatics, having watched them over the years (and over and over again). She was tired of being drawn into them, turned upside down by them.
“Why don’t you just skip over all this nonsense and tell me what it is you want to tell me?” she said, not even bothering to keep the exasperation out of her voice, and speaking more harshly than she ever had before.
“I don’t want to tell you, Donna, of all people, anything.”
“Of course you do. Otherwise, what’s the point of this whole show you’re putting on?”
An empty glass originally destined for the dishwasher flew past Donna’s head and landed with an unsatisfying thud on the carpet behind her. Donna continued to stare at her sister, who had pulled the blanket up to her chin and turned her face to the wall against which her bed was pushed, curling her legs until her knees were pressing into her chest.
It hung in the air, a heavy, many-fingered thing. The thing was a thing Donna knew was true. It was also a thing she knew she would refuse to admit it out loud. Even years later, even now, when women everywhere were standing up and believing in each other’s thing. Like a stubborn toddler, arms crossed over her chest in defiance, Donna decided to close her eyes to the thing, to leave her sister alone with it. She wasn’t going to beg her sister to help her. And maybe, after all, the thing wasn’t really a thing.
She finally, simply, left the room, turning off the light shining on her sister’s face as she closed the door between them, the latch bolt sliding into place with a padded click that she could feel tapping against her sternum, where it lodged itself into the bone. It was a sensation that would resurface occasionally over the years, mostly whenever she tried to negotiate one of her sister’s favors, tried to find a reason, a good excuse, to not do what Shelley wanted. But in the end, she would always give into the sensation, give into Shelley.
She reached the bottom of the hill, the exit ramp finally in sight, when she realized that once she filled the can, she had a much harder walk ahead of her – uphill, with weight, and this time, facing traffic. No way to avoid the hands and arms dangling from passing cars, or the tongue-filled O’s as men and boys hollered obscenities. She thought about the cat. Maybe she would bring it home. Maybe Shelley wouldn’t want it back, she didn’t seem all that enamored with it anyway. It could sit in her lap while she pet it, and sleep at her feet at night. Maybe it wouldn’t leave too much fur on her floors.
Her feet. She had almost forgotten how much they hurt. She imagined they were bleeding through her socks, although a glance showed her they just covered in dirt. She would get shoes and clothes at Shelley’s house. Shelley wouldn’t mind. That’s what sisters are for, she would say, with that weird half-smile Donna could never interpret, as though she were missing the joke. Donna was always missing the joke, missing something. She tried not to. She devoted much of her time and energy to finding completion, to crossing tasks off her “to-do” lists, and events off her calendars. Conversations left her thinking she should have said more. She spent hours crafting emails, worried that her words weren’t enough to convey her meaning. Her husband and son usually ended talks with a sudden OK and a turn to leave the room, or else they would pull out their phones, and she would be left there, with a handful of unfinished thoughts.
The gas station was cool and cleaner than she expected. The kid at the register barely looked at her when she entered, which surprised her. Surely she was an odd sight, how could he not notice? She moved to the back of the line to pay for gas, waiting for one of the four or five people ahead of her to comment on her shoeless feet.
No one paid attention. It should have been a relief – she had wanted nothing more than to be invisible as she walked the shoulder of the highway. Instead, she found herself with the sudden urge to scream at all of them – the kid at the register, the man buying a Coke, the woman scanning the scratch-off lottery tickets. She wanted one of them to tell her that yes, she was having a horrific day and they were sorry for her bad luck. It wasn’t much, just an ounce of sympathy. How could they all just ignore her, while giving her sister their full attention? Her heart began to pound and her head began to spin as she stood there, her body ringing with the need to be seen.
No one turned. Everyone remained focused on his own transaction, and she was left to pay for and pump her gas alone.
Maybe she deserved it, she thought, this strange, silent treatment. Maybe today had chosen to treat her cruelly for a reason. But she’d have to think about it later, after she was home, showered and resting on the couch with a glass of wine in her hand and the cat in her lap that she was definitely bringing home. She imagined herself there, cool and clean, delicately sipping at her glass, contemplating without any of that strange, fuzzy static that she knew she gave off most of the time and still couldn’t control, even at her age. It made for a pretty picture, especially if she pretended she were thin in it.
Later, she told herself. She’d think about it all later. For now, there was a cat counting on her, waiting to be saved.
Halle Ruth previously dabbled in library sciences, retail sales, the airline industry, radio broadcasting, and magazine publishing before turning to fiction writing and baking. She lives in Kentucky with her husband, where she plies him with desserts and story ideas. She is very much a cat person.