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written by: Carl Parsons
He’d been away a long time. Now he was home again—in the same town where he’d been born decades ago. But why had he returned? What was the good of it? Oh, there were gravestones to visit and touch, those of his family members—parents and siblings and grandparents and a few cousins—all now gone. But he hadn’t visited them before. No, he hadn’t returned for them. Something else called him, compelled him. Something important but still undone that must be finished before he joined his family on the cemetery’s sunny hillside. Something about himself and the town that had to be put right in his mind, even though he couldn’t name it.
He rented a small house, just four rooms and a bath with a carport; he needed no more. The owner allowed pets, his two cats, both calicos. He got them from the local animal shelter right after moving in. For the three of them, the house was a proper size, if anything a bit too large.
When his wife was still alive, they’d lived in another state and enjoyed modest financial success. They’d owned a large Tudor house with a yard and trees. Their children had grown up there, before climbing those trees to escape, or so it seemed. Away they went, the three of them in turn, off to their own worlds, linked to him now only by an occasional phone call and a few useless presents at Christmas arriving by UPS. He wasn’t sure they even knew his birthday anymore. He certainly had difficulty remembering theirs as well as their children’s.
Still, there had been successes—his education, his job as chief chemist in a large plant, the money he and his wife had saved. But even those years were riddled with regrets—his wife’s unhappiness and their children’s disaffection.
Now he’d returned to the place where it seemed to him, all his regrets began, recalling the time before he even realized what regrets were. One by one, they seemed harmless enough as they occurred. Easy enough to overcome, tomorrow or the next day. But he knew he’d allowed them to accumulate, all his life, like rubbish, until they stank of loneliness.
Each day he drove slowly about the town to discover what had gone wrong, like someone who goes to his high school reunion to discover why he hadn’t married this or that girl, wondering how his life might have been different if he had. He drove past the house where he’d grown up; now it was condemned and the tree he’d climbed to escape, gone. Past the schools he’d attended; the elementary school was being demolished. Past the fields, now filled with rubbish, where he and his friends had played ball. Past the places where he’d worked but hadn’t then appreciated what that work was trying to teach him. Past the homes of girls he’d liked but hadn’t dated and so had never kissed, and now never would, though he still imagined how soft their touches must have been for someone else.
Occasionally, he’d ask about his old friends. People would just scratch their heads and say, “Name does sound familiar.” Then they’d add that perhaps their grandparents might know and that they would ask for him. But none ever followed through. Not surprising. The town had shrunk, emptying itself of his generation long ago.
On days he didn’t ramble about town, he’d shop for groceries, buying less than he needed so he could return often, always at the same time and talk with the same cashiers. At the local discount store, he’d do the same. One day, mostly on impulse, he bought a second litter box and two automatic cat feeders. He thought it would be nice for each cat to have its own.
In good weather he’d walk to the coffee shop near his home, just a few blocks away. It was good for him, he thought. The proprietor now called him by name. “Good morning, Joe! Espresso today?”
“Yes, please,” he’d say and add his feeble joke, “Just a cup of joe at home, but espresso here.”
Each time when he returned home after one of his outings, the calicos would stalk about the laundry room and complain about being left alone. He’d hoped that two cats would not do that when he got them. But when he crossed the kitchen to the pantry, where their food was stored, they’d cease complaining and eagerly sit at his feet, mewing sweetly.
After eating, they’d all three resume their leisure in the living room, the cats on the small sofa he’d conceded to them—one, the curious one, by the window in the sun, often rising to look out when it heard some street noise, the other next to a large pillow at the sofa’s other end, sleeping soundly. Then, before he’d fall into his easy chair, he’d turn on the local news at noon, trying, while he watched, to understand what had happened to his town in the past fifty years. Then he’d doze.
He had neighbors, of course. In particular, there was Mrs. Rideout, a widow younger than he who lived next door. An attractive woman and very outgoing, she spoke to everyone. She’d wait each day to fetch her mail until, from her side window, she’d see him going for his. Then she’d fly down her front walk while calling, “Hello, Mr. Drear, how are you today—and those calicos? They’re such pretty cats.”
He wondered how she knew they were pretty cats, except that she seemed to know everything about the neighborhood. The coffee shop owner had told him that she routinely called the police to report minor thefts, vandalism, and drug use. Drugs were something completely alien to her but were becoming widespread in their town. And her reports were rarely wrong, the shop owner assured Joseph, rarely wrong.
She was especially vigilant about the young couple who lived across the street from her. The husband, when he drank, which was often, would beat his pretty wife. Mrs. Rideout, who had once been a very pretty girl herself, wouldn’t tolerate such a thing. “What has the world come to,” she’d ask, “when a man beats a woman like that?” Even the husband, once released and sober, would thank her, all the while praising his bruised wife’s beauty and forbearance, swearing never to abuse her again. “See that you don’t!” Mrs. Rideout would reply to him, before retreating to her observation post.
When she’d call to Joseph on her way to the mailbox, he’d nod and smile and mumble his own greeting, while staying focused on gathering his mail, most of it addressed to “Current Occupant.” Then he’d hurry back to the tiny portico that sheltered his front door. From there he’d watch for a moment or more behind the arborvitae that flanked the portico as Mrs. Rideout collected her mail. Still slender, he thought. She can’t be seventy yet! Sometimes she’d look up from the envelopes in her hands and wave to him a second time. Embarrassed, he’d hurry inside, imagining her laughing at his impertinence. And when he’d look outside again, she was always gone. Next time I’ll speak with her properly, he’d promise himself.
One spring day when the wind was especially strong and cold, he went for the mail, leaning into the gusts while trying to hold his hat in place. Suddenly, without so much as a sweater for protection, Mrs. Rideout appeared in a bright green dress with yellow sunflowers bordering the hem. It fluttered and flapped about her legs and blew back her long hair. But still, she smiled at him. He thought how nice it would be to drive her to the coffee shop. It would be good for them. But he didn’t ask, for she might refuse. Again, he simply watched from his portico as she returned to her house, harried still by the wind. Afterwards, he cursed himself bitterly, cursed until he was sick at heart. The next day he gave up his daily drive about town. There was no need to look for answers he already possessed.
One afternoon later that spring Mrs. Rideout noticed that Joseph didn’t go for his mail. She wondered about that, for his car was still in the carport. Then the next day, the same. So she went to his door and knocked. Nothing. She called the police.
“Yes, Mrs. Rideout, wife-beating again? At this hour!” asked the dispatcher, a young woman who by now knew Mrs. Rideout well.
“No, Cynthia, the elderly gentleman next door to me. He hasn’t gotten his mail for two days. I knocked at his door and he didn’t respond, but I can see his cats sitting in the window and his car is still there. I’m afraid he’s not well.”
“Maybe it’s just the flu, but we’ll check on him.”
Within an hour a police car arrived, and then another. One officer went to the front door; the other to the side. When no one answered their knocking, they forced open the side door. They found him, stiff and cold in his easy chair, the TV still on, two cats mewing furiously around his feet.