Issue 20 / Winter 2020
They found her planted on the porch glider, shivering yet serene on some stormy November night, tail rings of alternating black and taupe, salmon droplet edging one nostril. Their first instinct was shoo—but when this flea-ridden kitten raggedly mewed, the kids came wending out the door to its call. Caterwauling is contagious; soon both children were swearing to delouse the thing, to buy her litter and vittles. So on.
Not so fast. Dad accused both children of inch-deep altruism, citing hidden costs of pet adoption. Didn’t you want to go to ballet camp? he posed to his daughter; and you, bicycles don’t just buy themselves. Mom claimed a kitten would be a pox on her sinuses. An outdoors cat then, the kids countered, collecting washcloth scraps to prove devotion, swaddling her inside a cardboard manger closed on three sides.
The standoff dragged for days. It’ll leave leavings, Mom said. Poop and pee, Dad clarified, before adding how cats brought dead offerings to doorsteps. Bugs, mice, birds. The parents never passed on a chance to make this scrawny creature sound like an insidious hobgoblin, capable of ruining entire living-room sets and waking all who slept in a two-mile radius of its howl. Plus, other cats will chase her back here. Why? The kids wanted to know, and Mom, not wanting to get into heat, estrus and all the rest, simply pointed to her nose: scent. Boy cats will chase her for her scent; it’s perfume to them.
And one of those chases, added Dad, will probably end with her run down.
Tactical error: now the kids wanted kitty all the more to rescue her from hypothetical hit-and-runs, to protect her from slinking toms. Whiny desire gave way to fluorescent Florence Nightingale routines as the kids transformed the house into a rococo notion of a hospital, pinning Band-Aids of every shape and stripe to walls and filling each corner of their bedroom with blankets, gauze, and hot-water bottles.
The parents sighed deep, nebulous sighs. Still, they saw how the feline could be a buffer, how taking her into their home might ameliorate the fact that they soon might not have a stable home to offer. They had been bandying terms of separation, discussing the whole thing freely, even proudly, in therapy: how exuberant they were, describing their marriage’s lack of vigor! Ten days shy of Christmas, they still needed to get the kids a big gift. This cat could do the trick: it was relatively cheap, with no assembly required; it held the kids’ attention, and brief spells of impishness followed by van Winkle-esque slumbers in sunbeams, like a toy with batteries continually being pulled. Taking on a live asset at this stage of the game would be sticky, but…
…in the end they broke down. The overjoyed kids were so grateful, they ceded naming rights. A not entirely welcome honor, as Mom and Dad worried selecting the pet’s name would only brew more rancor. But they settled on one—Helsinki—quick. They liked calling for Helsinki while stroking her chin and conjuring false impressions of a city the two had long wanted to visit together, and now knew they never would.
During divorce proceedings, Dad, not at first fathoming why, asked for Helsinki. It wasn’t his lawyer’s idea. Given his job’s travel load, he saw the custody terms on the wall. Perhaps he imagined the cat as a deterrence for his own future loneliness, but more likely, he imagined it as a living lodestar for his kids’ companionship. As long as Helsinki was here and his, wouldn’t the kids want to be here and his, as well?
Soon after the dissolution was final, Dad came back to his new condo from six soggy days spent in Osaka’s plum-rain season, with an enormous case of jetlag and a small pouch of dried squid. Its flakes were mixed in the food bowl and dancing on Friskies, but Helsinki did not come for them. When a few floated up in an air current, Dad saw a window left wide open: stupid, stupid. While there was no break-in, there had been a breakout. Helsinki was gone. He should’ve kept her at a kennel, asked his pothead neighbor to keep a bloodshot eye on the lookout, or relented to getting the microchip.
He rifled the condo and listened for mewing, looking for gleaming eyes beneath couch crevices or atop linen lumps. Nothing. This space now held nothing more than his purchases; it wasn’t one he held any purchase on. Several airport lounges were currently more familiar than his bedroom. Each “airy” touch filling the condo—half-walls, grated catwalks, door-unadorned walkways—meant to make it feel fluid and modern, but instead they made him feel aged and fractional. “Good morning, this is Cat Tales,” played his lone phone message, “We have your new tag, ready for pickup.” Right: since he didn’t share his ex’s allergies, he had let Helsinki roam the condo unbanded, had taken his sweet time in replacing the collar with one featuring his new address in the engraving.
The next morning Dad cast a wide GPS net, hitting any humane society boarding any retrieved cat more-or-less matching Helsinki’s markings. By the afternoon, his kids coming over for the weekend in hours, stubborn hope gave way to groggy pragmatism. He returned with to-go gumbo in one arm and a replacement kitten in the other. He offered the rest of the powdered squid to this new (male) arrival, who nibbled at, then stared into, his inherited bowl, nibbling then staring, as if he couldn’t believe the luck.
After the kids arrived and spent a few minutes exploring all the rooms, raiding the refrigerator and speed-flipping through the TV remote (Dad sprung for way more channels than Mom, and stocked the pantry and shelves with much more fun food), they shifted focus to New Helsinki.
“You miss us, cat?” asked one.
Dad assured them they couldn’t measure how much.
Tail cocked like a hammer before a nail, New Helsinki sized up the strangers, whose scents he’d made faint acquaintance with only hours ago via another stranger’s jacket. The cat seemed more charmed by the kids’ shoelaces than the kids themselves. Dad’s jaw clenched. The sight sent him back to a moment during divorce negotiations, Mom laying out a litany of misgivings, which in turn had sent him back to college and Jeff Nilder’s urgent request to be transferred from the suite they shared. It had been the same stab—an embarrassing revelation in the campus housing office, his wife detailing to lawyers why she didn’t want him for a roommate anymore. And if his kids got snubbed here, that sharp stab would once again…but then New Helsinki brushed his tail along the crouched daughter’s face, and everyone grinned and giggled. It was good to have this cat; they needed it. This condo was foreign, unfilled with friends or even potential friends. The kids had to sleep in cots instead of beds. They had no saddle swings or sandbox, no fig tree to play Simon Says beneath—the closest thing being a recycling Dumpster that smelled like pickled socks. Helsinki softened the rupture of this new arrangement. They’d owned her as a family, before everything changed, which meant Dad could never tell the kids—not anytime soon—that Helsinki him/herself had changed.
During after-dinner ice cream, New Helsinki hopped onto the table, hungrily circling the son’s dish. “Get down,” chided the boy, more than a little freaked by this wild-eyed summit.
Why wouldn’t he be? Old Helsinki had been demure about food, had respected boundaries. What was Dad thinking, bringing in a male cat instead and having no clue of its temperament? He was able to see, even at first glance, that its new markings were slightly off, and he had expected the swap to go smoothly. It was a deception like putting up a torn mainsail in bad storms: maybe it comforted you, but the wind would not be fooled.
Both kids let the table hop slide though, reloading spoons with chocolate cherry.
The wet weekend kept the kids listless, indoors, in pajamas, and wanting nothing more than to play with New Helsinki, who appeared eager to prove how little his behavior shared with his predecessor’s. He showed zero interest in the iridescent mouse and fishing-pole pet one had flipped for, but he was happy, on the other hand, to let the kids roll him and rub his belly, whereas Old Hel would’ve dashed away like a shot. “Must want to get,” Dad covered, “every moment he can out of you”—a remark he thought up nervously, said sadly, and reflected on with mild panic, aware of his gender slip. But the kids let this slide too; they didn’t remark on the ersatz cat’s belated mewing (which came, when it finally did come, in short bursts, not a trill), or how New Hel drank directly from faucet spigots and ignored the litter-box to leave indiscriminate scat on the heating and cooling grates.
The children commented on none of it. Seemed to notice none of it.
Dad returned the kids with kisses Sunday night, beat. He wanted to kick off his shoes; only, the idea of undoing their laces seemed too great a struggle. This was his couch, and sinking ignominiously into it was warranted. This life episode was going to rerun, he saw, each week: empty-nest syndrome striking early, and often, along with the fatigue of steering a bond between your own kids which had harmoniously sailed on its own accord for so long, then dropping them off and heading for bumpy, lonely reentry. And the peculiar tragedy of reheated burritos. The condo was cold: again he left the window open, but New Helsinki hadn’t fled. He waited by his bowl, face tilted casually upward. “You did well this weekend,” Dad said, not altogether kindly. “Had them fooled.”
Dad tossed his car keys into a wooden bowl Mom won in some raffle, and somehow foisted into his side of the settlement, one of a thousand useless things he’d agreed to take—and this one, twice. The cat rubbed against Dad’s pants, tail parallel with inseam, swishing back and forth like a flexible metronome needle. “You don’t wanna play with my car keys? They’re resting where you like them, on the…” He caught himself. “No, right. That’s the one you replaced.” New Helsinki bleated at his dish. “Knock it off. You had plenty this weekend! Spoiled rotten, and it wasn’t even you they loved.”
Terrible dreams iced Dad’s night, coming in a rush, never fully allowing him to slough consciousness. When dawn finally broke, he was unsure whether he’d endured one long, serial nightmare or slivers from several braiding more tightly each time he turned in his bed.
In the one that finally fetched him awake, he was attending his kids’ graduation, watching them walk, donned in robes and mortarboards, inside a packed arena, collecting diplomas and singing along to “Pomp and Circumstance.” “I’ve heard the original,” an audience member conspired in Dad’s ear. “This version sounds nothing like it.” And when the graduates filed out, two kittens trailed them, upright tails flaming at the tips like living acolytes. He spotted his children at the banquet afterward, no longer children, fighting over who had more ice cream but laughing and eating crust-less sandwiches. He poured himself a cup of punch, courage draining as he approached. “Hello, you two. You may not be able to place me, but I’m…” He’d stooped over his drink, in a fedora, unable to summon his own name. “But I…”
“We know who you are,” the son said, clasping Dad’s hands.
His sister nodded. “Absolutely, I remember you.” She removed a photo from her purse. “You’re in this picture with us, the one Mom hung in our hall. Here we are.”
“Here we are,” he’d agreed.
Dad tried to do everything on his Monday morning treadmill—shower, kitchen, newspaper scan—with gusto, as though seizing back routine was identical to losing yourself in it. He read about aftershocks of the 6.4 in Turkey, but instantly couldn’t recall how many were missing and how many presumed dead, and he read the science section—a Caltech team calculating the weight of all things on top of Earth, that weren’t composed of earth itself—but this couldn’t keep him from ceaselessly toying at the dream strands: his kids graduating on the same day, never mind their three-year age gap, and the fact the diplomas were trophies, or the idea of grads humming Elgar after their walk. Did “Pomp and Circumstance” even have lyrics? And a fedora—what the hell was he doing in that? He hated hats, barely wore them even when the weather insisted, for the way they misshaped his hair.
When New Hel leapt in his lap, it took all Dad could to not swat at or box its ears. Instead, he boxed his own. Here he was, cataloguing a dream’s improbabilities to avoid head-on impact with its piercing truth. He thought about how his ex had left him all generically marked “his and hers” stuff. When he’d told her, mildly irritated, to at least keep the “hers”, her response—“But I’m not your hers anymore”—stunned him. She still felt like his hers; he’d vowed not to date anyone, post-divorce, for at least six months. Sure, he’d sized up women in bars or at meetings, practicing silent approaches, but as soon as he caught an attractive eye, images of his ex cut off his view. He kind of liked that, honestly: fidelity to a failed relationship continuing to track him down. It wouldn’t last forever, though. Soon enough a face would emerge, sharing glances and stories containing surface charm, that also did the work of tamping out old, vivid memories. She already wanted to tamp down, not wanting to wipe fingers on towels that triggered thoughts of him; she wanted to wash her dry hands of him. This distancing would work at his kids’ memory too, bit by bit, until the day he became Dad II, Old Helsinki.
It is jarring to have your fate clarified through the damn face of a cat.
Dad grabbed a jacket, gloves, and umbrella (plum-rain season had pursued him back West) and assembled the collapsible kennel. The cat hardly looked concerned by this mini barn raising, didn’t look like he knew he was about to be deported from habits he’d just grown familiar with. “Wanna go on a trip, New Helsinki? Find a new home?” New Hel mewed: tone off and octave wrong, but Dad understood he was going to recall its warbling long after the mew Old Hel made faded. “An original life. I think you’re owed that much.” Scooping his un-pawed keys from the wooden bowl, Dad bent down to collect this piece of his past, then lose it all over again.
Matthew Pitt grew up in St. Louis, lived in various points and ports of entry around the country, and is now Associate Professor of English at TCU. He is author of two story collections: These Are Our Demands (Engine Books), a Midwest Book Award winner, and Attention Please Now (Winner of the Autumn House Prize). Individual stories appear in Best New American Voices, BOMB, Oxford American, Cincinnati Review, Epoch, Conjunctions, and The Southern Review, and are cited in numerous Best of volumes. His work has won awards from the New York Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Mississippi Arts Commission, Bronx Council on the Arts, and the Bread Loaf, Sewanee and Taos Writers’ Conferences. Additionally, Pitt is Editor of descant, and Associate Editor for West Branch. “Absolutely, I Remember You” first appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review and is part of Matthew’s collection, These Are Our Demands.