When my children were still young I’d bribe them into the double stroller with fruit popsicles so I could go on late afternoon runs. I lived in the country then, working as a consultant for a nonprofit that advised small farms on issues of sustainability and market strategy—don’t worry, this has nothing do with that—and the upside was that I was able to set my own schedule.
The popsicles would typically last the boys a mile, at which point they’d hand over the pink-stained sticks and demand their freedom. They’d ask to run beside me or to go see the horses or to stop at the bridge over the creek so they could drop rocks into the water. Instead I’d offer them other snacks—fruit strips or gummies or whatever—trying to buy myself a little more time. Two miles were about all I could hope for, which was actually a decent workout, pushing seventy pounds uphill. If the snacks failed to distract them I’d make song requests, and the older one would oblige, for at least a few minutes, while the younger one listened. Then I’d resort to games like I Spy.
They loved I Spy, but it was difficult to play on a country road where just about everything we saw was green or brown or blue. After a few rounds we’d be pointing at our own shoes or clothes—or, if lucky, at an oddly colored trash can parked at the end of a driveway.
“I spy with my little eye something orange,” the oldest would say.
I’d spot it, whatever it was, almost immediately, but would drag out the process, and thus my run, as long as possible. The youngest, who was not quite three at the time, was still learning the rules and liked to mimic his brother.
“I spy with my little eye, I spy with my little eye,” he’d say, “I spy, I see something mailbox.”
“Is it the mailbox?”
One afternoon we were nearly home when we rounded a corner, and up ahead in the middle of the road I spotted a mound of dark fur. This wasn’t so unusual. Foxes, possums, raccoons, skunks, deer, squirrels, turtles, frogs—all sorts of creatures routinely met their ends under the trucks and SUVs that came ripping around these mountain bends, kicking up clouds of gray dust and gravel. I was prepared to wheel the stroller around the roadkill without any comment whatsoever, but as we neared the scene of the accident its dark tail swished up into the air and then down again softly.
I stopped, hoping maybe a breeze had lifted the tail, but then it happened again, and I knew that the dead thing was not in fact quite dead.
“What is that?” my oldest asked.
“I don’t know, hold on a second.” I moved the stroller to the side of the road and locked the back wheels. “Wait here a minute.”
“What are you doing, Daddy?” he asked. He was five years old, his brain one big, loopy question mark.
“I need to check on something real fast,” I said.
Moving toward the animal I saw that it was a cat, black and white, its mouth opening and closing, perhaps reflexively, as if mewing in its sleep.
“What is it?” he asked.
I returned to the stroller and spun it around so that it was facing the opposite direction.
“Can I get out?” he asked.
“Not yet,” I said.
“Can I get out, too?” my youngest asked.
There was only one thing to do in this situation, only one possible act of mercy, but it wasn’t a pleasant task, so I won’t dwell on it; and afterward I disposed of the body in the tall grass.
Turning back I saw my oldest peering around the edge of the stroller—dark-haired, pale, eyes wide, a look on his face that I have not yet, still to this day, forgotten.
“What did you do?” he asked.
“There was a hurt possum in the road, so I helped it.”
“Helped him how?”
“It was in pain, and I made it so it’s not anymore. It was the right thing to do.”
The boy was quiet a long moment, which meant he was processing this information. I began running again. We passed the spot where I’d found the cat. My youngest, I realized, was dozing off. It was too late in the day for a nap, because if he slept now I’d have a hell of a time getting him down for bed after dinner. So I tried to rouse him, calling his name a few times and tipping back the stroller, but his head kept sliding sideways against the seat.
“That wasn’t a possum,” my oldest said, matter-of-factly. “You know how I know? Because possums are gray with long, pinched faces.”
“Oh,” I said.
“I know what he was, Daddy. He was a cat.”
“Yeah, I guess it might have been a cat,” I said, as if I hadn’t really noticed what it had been, as if that were a trivial detail, because, in a certain sense, it was a trivial detail. What did it matter if it had been a possum or a cat? Any hierarchy that valued one species over the other was a human invention. I’m expected to care more about cats just because we’d let them into our homes and trained them to shit in portable sandboxes? Fuck that. In a parallel universe—
“You killed him, Daddy,” my oldest said, with a tinge of sadness in his voice. A pretend sadness, maybe. The sort of sadness he forced into his voice when he was trying to make himself sad. “Why did you do that?”
I stopped the stroller so that I could crouch down in front of my son, so that I could look him in the eye. I understood that it was my job, as his father, to help him make sense of the cosmos—which is to say, to hide from him for the time being that very little would ever make true sense—and I considered this to be an important role, sacred even, and usually I took it very seriously. But on this particular afternoon, feeling the sweat dripping down my ass crack and wanting more than anything else to be sprawled on the cool kitchen floor with an oscillating fan and a beer, I was not the paragon of parental patience and wisdom. I was instead—and I’m not sure how else to put this—myself.
“Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do, OK? A car hit the cat, and the cat was going to die, so I helped it die. Do you understand?”
“Why was he going to die?”
“Because a car hit it, I already said.”
“But why did a car hit him?”
I could feel the muscles in my face tightening. “I don’t know, I didn’t see the car, it just happened, sometimes cars hit things. Let’s stop talking about it. Daddy doesn’t want to talk about it anymore.”
Before he could object I was behind the stroller and pushing again, faster than before. Against the sound of the wheels over the gravel his continuing questions became a faint murmur under the stroller’s hood. And as we slowed and then stopped in our driveway he was quiet once more, lost in his own thoughts. I assumed—falsely, because children never forget the things we want them to—that this would be the end of it.
My kids attended a preschool at a church in town three mornings a week, and about a month later we were at a fall fundraiser for the school when the head teacher, Mrs. Frankel, asked if she could talk to me for a moment. She was a very tough woman, very stern, and very serious about the school. In parent-teacher meetings it wasn’t unusual for her to throw around terms like “pedagogy” and “interaction patterns.”
We left the play area and walked into the parking lot. She cleared her throat and looked down at her black tennis shoes.
“I want to discuss something with you,” she said.
“At first I thought it was nothing, but it’s come up more than a few times.”
She cleared her throat again and explained that over the last few weeks my oldest son had been telling the other kids a story. A very detailed story. A story in which his father, me, killed a cat.
“Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry about that. I’ll talk to him.”
“He’s been telling the other kids that you held down the cat and smashed its brains with a rock.”
I was stunned. “He actually put it that way? He said I ‘smashed’ its brains?”
“I believe so. Maybe it was ‘beat’ its brains, I don’t recall exactly.”
“Well, it wasn’t like that at all,” I said, and told her about the run and the injured cat and what I’d done and so forth.
She grimaced and took a step back. “I see. I assumed he’d just made it up entirely. Or he’d seen it in some cartoon. Anyway, I wanted you to know. He’s a good boy. I don’t think it’s anything to worry about.”
We walked back into the play area, where some of the parents were orchestrating a giant game of tag for all the kids. I saw both my sons, running and laughing. Now wasn’t the time, I decided, for a talk. So I drifted over to the fence, where another dad was sitting with a lemonade. He was an architect with a thin, dark mustache and Japanese sneakers who’d moved down South from Brooklyn to live near his wife’s family. His wife—like my own—had grown up in the area, though he’d been there longer than I had, long enough that he was accepted as something like a local. Unlike me. After four years I was still an outsider. Not that the people were unkind, or rude, but I wouldn’t say they’d taken to me yet, either.
“Apparently my kid’s been telling everybody I’m a cat murderer.”
He nodded and smiled. “That’s funny, I think I heard something about that.”
“Yeah? Word’s spread?”
“Daphne’s mom—what’s-her-name—she was telling me about it.”
Other parents were standing in small clusters across the lawn, helping children up and down various pieces of playground equipment. A few seemed to be watching me. What I mean is, they seemed to be aware of me, of where I was and whom I was with. It’s difficult to explain, but I was definitely being observed.
I recalled then a relatively insignificant encounter I’d had with a mom a week earlier as I was dropping the boys at school. I’d said hello and asked how she and her family were doing, and she’d said, “Good,” but in a very clipped, almost snooty way, before continuing past me to assist her daughter up the stairs. Though I did have a tendency to overanalyze such encounters, to perceive slights where none was intended, I’d thought it odd, the way she’d said it. At the time I figured it had something to do with my wife, Claudia, but maybe she’d heard this ridiculous story about the cat.
Claudia and I—probably I should have mentioned this already—had separated earlier that same year. She’d moved into a house a mile up the road, and the boys were bouncing back and forth between us until we could figure out a better arrangement. Now that I was single again, or nearly single, the other moms acted differently around me. Some were friendlier, others more standoffish. I had a hard time deciphering any of it. Was the friendliness intended as flirtation or pity? Had the standoffish ones sided with Claudia or did they maybe think it wasn’t safe to be around me anymore or did they fear how it might look being nice to the single dad? It was exhausting, trying to understand what I represented to any of them, and now there was this new wrinkle, the murdered-cat story.
“For the record,” I said to my friend, “people don’t believe this story, do they?”
“I highly doubt it. I wouldn’t waste time worrying about it.” He sipped his lemonade and adjusted his sunglasses. “It’s funny, though, because I used to have this cousin, a real handsome guy, super polite, but back when he was a teenager he’d torture animals—cut them open and turn them inside out, for no reason at all. He had to see a doctor. I think he’s been on meds since then.”
“I don’t murder cats for fun. I was trying to do the right thing. I don’t want anybody to think I’m a sociopath. Maybe I should go talk to people about it or send out an email or something.”
He nodded. “Sure, you could do that, I guess. Small towns are peculiar that way, how people hear one or two crazy stories about you, and suddenly it’s who you are to them.”
“Is there another story I should know about?”
“ ‘One or two crazy stories,’ you just said. Is there another one going around about me?”
“Oh.” He crossed his arms. “I doubt it. I mean, nothing specific, if that’s what you mean, nothing you don’t already know.”
“I feel like maybe I don’t know.”
“Shit, man, I’m not trying to get into the middle of anybody’s business,” he said. “Personally, I don’t put any stock in any of that he-said-she-said divorce bullshit.”
“Jesus, stop dancing around it, and tell me what you heard!”
He looked up at me, wounded. “Well, it’s just that!”
“This! Your anger thing, or whatever you’d call it.”
“My ‘anger thing’? I’m not angry. If I was, trust me, you’d know it.”
“OK.” He sipped the last of his lemonade. “I should split. Kids haven’t eaten dinner yet. See you, man.” He began to walk away but then turned back to say, “We’ll grab a beer soon, all right?”
I nodded and went off in search of my own kids. Two mothers with their arms crossed looked the other way as I passed. I didn’t want to be there anymore. I found the boys at the swing set and said it was time to get home for dinner. When they complained I knelt down and told them, very evenly, in case I was being watched, to get in the car right now.
That night I waited until my youngest was asleep. As my oldest stood on a stool, combing his hair in the mirror, something he loved to do, inexplicably, I sat on the toilet lid and asked questions. Had he been telling kids about what happened with the cat? Did he want to talk about it? Did he understand that what I’d done was a kindness, in order to spare a poor creature from more pain?
His answers were vague and dreamy, and it seemed to me he was only half-listening.
“I need you to pay attention,” I said.
“I don’t like tangles.”
“Listen to me for a minute, OK? This is important.”
“I used to have a green comb, but I can’t find it. The green comb was my favorite.”
“Forget about your hair,” I said, snatching the comb. “I need you to look me in the eye and tell me you’re hearing me.”
He turned toward me with a very serious expression, but he couldn’t keep his eyes from flitting over to the comb in my hand. So I snapped it in half and tossed the two pieces into the bathtub.
His face went slack in that sort of pure disbelief only kids are capable of. Then he began to wail, and to thrash wildly, and I tried to contain him, wrapping my arms around him.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry, don’t cry. We’ll get another comb tomorrow. Please stop.”
He instantly calmed and pulled away from me, no sign of any actual tears in his eyes. “A green comb?” he asked.
He’d outmaneuvered me. I sent him to bed.
Downstairs I called Claudia, but she didn’t pick up.
Need to talk, I texted.
Busy now, she wrote back.
She was in Los Angeles for the week, taking meetings. For the last few years she’d been working remotely as an uncredited script doctor for low-budget horror and slasher films, and now she was shopping a television show called Drone Days, about a family trying to survive in a world where artificially intelligent drones have taken over the skies, drones that won’t stop buzzarding about overhead, keeping the populace in a state of nonstop panic. The series was set in a little Southern town much like our own. Maybe production could even happen nearby.
She’d already written a pilot script, in which the father character is a serial cheater whose many lies are exposed by episode’s end when a bomb is dropped on his paramour’s house. He’s wounded in the explosion, and his wife—the hero of the show—decides to nurse him despite his duplicitousness. She’d developed the idea after our separation and shared the pilot with a number of our mutual friends.
“Now they think I cheated on you,” I’d told her.
“Nobody thinks that.”
“Why’d you have to write him that way?”
“He’s not you. He’s a plot point.”
“Why can’t he just be standing in line at the post office when the bomb falls?”
“That’s not dramatic enough.”
“Bombs are inherently dramatic. Nothing’s more dramatic than a bomb going off.”
“Except for the moment just before it does, when it could still go either way.”
“That you’d make him a cheater, though, says a lot about your opinion of men, generally.”
“He’s cheating on her, then he gets hurt, but she decides to take care of him anyway, which reveals her as a good person. It’s just basic storytelling.”
I wasn’t sure how to counter that and so hadn’t. Probably the show wouldn’t get made in any event, so whatever. Most don’t, as Claudia was the first to acknowledge. Her television pitch, our separation—it was all part of a campaign, hatched in some secret chamber of her heart (into which I’d never been admitted), to reinvent the particulars of her life as a way of redefining herself and her purpose on this planet. She wasn’t a happy person, in other words, and she hoped to correct that by changing everything but herself. Or that was my take at the time.
Did you tell people I have anger problem? I texted.
Going around town I do??
???????!, I wrote back.
Sorry about to be in meeting. Later?
This is important!! Stop spreading shit about me.
Not spreading s, she wrote.
Three small dots appeared, indicating she was typing again, but after a few seconds the dots vanished. I threw my phone at the couch. It plunked hard against the back cushion and fell down into the seat. I picked it up and threw it again. Because have you ever just needed to throw something and not have it shatter into a million pieces? The world is so fucking fragile. Sometimes I felt like a very large thing—some kind of dinosaur or a cosmic force—that had been stuffed inside a human body. The body didn’t fit, though. The skin was too tight. The eyes bulged from the pressure. The brain swelled to the point of incoherence inside the rinky-dink skull.
My oldest made a noise on the baby monitor. He was tossing in his sleep. I watched him on the screen until he was quiet again, then popped open a beer, sat on the couch, and resumed texting. Probably she was in her meeting by now, so I wrote a longer note, choosing my words very carefully. I typed, deleted, typed again. I wanted to get this right. Finally I sent this:
I don’t have an anger problem. If anything it is a bad temper but it’s not that bad. Please do not tell people our problems. Not even Andrea. She has a big mouth. Ours is a small town and people get the wrong idea VERY easily. You know this! I have to live here too and it’s not fair. I would appreciate if you didn’t poison whole town against me. Good luck in your meetings. I hope you sell your show. Despite everything I want good things for you. I care about you! If a drone dropped a bomb on you I’d still take care of you, even if you were brain-dead etc. 🙂
When I went to bed, a few hours later, she still hadn’t replied.
The next day was a Saturday, and I took my sons to breakfast in town. They sat on the other side of the booth, eating the pancakes I’d cut up for them and drowned in syrup. When my youngest spilled orange juice all over his shirt I didn’t raise my voice at all. I just sopped it up with a napkin and said it was an accident and not his fault.
The waitress delivered our check, and I gave her my credit card. My oldest was stacking creamers at the edge of the table while my youngest crayoned the paper place mat. We were having a nice time. More than that, I was creating a nice time for them. I decided we should come back here every Saturday. It could become our ritual. They’d grow up, and this would be one of their primary memories of me, cutting their pancakes every Saturday morning in a sticky booth. And when they recalled these memories I wanted them to do so as happy and decent men. Men who could survive whatever was coming—ecologically, geologically, etc.—but also men that women wanted to be around.
I tapped the older one on the arm, and he looked up at me.
“What do you want to do today?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Play.”
“Can we go to BeBop’s house?”
BeBop was Claudia’s dad, Frank. He lived only a few miles from our own house and helped with the boys some weekends. Ever since the separation, though, he hadn’t wanted much to do with me.
“Maybe later,” I said. “Listen, I need to tell you something. I love you, and it’s my job to keep you healthy and safe and to help you navigate the world.”
“Like, figure out where to go, how to get there.”
He nodded and added another creamer to his tower.
“My point is, the cat. You saw me do something, whenever that was, and I’m afraid you got the wrong idea. A car ran over the cat, which is very sad, and I didn’t want it to suffer.”
“So you spun him around and around and around by his tail—”
“—and you threw him on the ground and you jumped up and down on his head a million times!”
“You know that’s not what happened.”
“What did Daddy do?” the younger one asked, tuning in, letting his crayon roll away across the table.
“Your brother is telling a crazy story,” I said.
Now that the older one had his brother’s attention he reported back the same story with even more glee. “Daddy stomped on the cat’s head until his brains came out, and then he threw him off into the woods, and a coyote came in the nighttime, and the coyote ate him, and she pooped him out in little pieces!”
“Stop it,” I said, reaching for his arm.
He pulled away from me, toppling his creamers.
“I don’t want you telling that story anymore,” I said, a little more harshly than I’d intended. “Do you hear me? That’s not how it happened, and it hurts Daddy’s feelings to hear you tell it like that.”
“But that is how it happened,” he said, a pleading quality in his voice. “I saw it!”
“It’s not, stop it.”
I regretted raising the subject of the cat again. I’d given it too much attention, blowing it up in his head to become something grotesque and sinister. Now this was how he’d always remember it, and no amount of pancake breakfasts would ever crowd it out of his memory.
The waitress returned with my card. Looking a little embarrassed, she slid it toward me and ducked quickly away.
The boys were rooting around in the dirt by the swing set, the older one giving the younger instructions I couldn’t quite make out through the open window of the bedroom where I was folding laundry. I took a stack of pants and shirts upstairs, to tuck into a dresser drawer, and on my way back down I heard the little one calling for me through tears.
By the time I reached them he was wailing.
“What happened?” I asked the older one.
“Something did. Tell me.”
The little one was in my arms now, sobbing into my shirt. He didn’t often cry, but when he did he could be inconsolable. I patted his back, trying to soothe him, though his face remained a twisted mess of reddened skin and snot.
“Tell me,” I said again.
“He just fell, I don’t know.”
I wouldn’t get the full story from either of them, I knew, but it seemed important, as the one ostensibly in charge, to press for more information. When I asked my oldest yet again he burst into tears, too, screamed something at me I couldn’t understand, and ran off around the side of the house.
After I’d finally calmed the little one we went looking together and found his brother swatting sticks against a front porch column, shattering them into even smaller sticks. He was no longer crying—he had a tendency to become very sullen after such outbursts—and when I patted him on the back, to indicate I wanted to be friends again, he didn’t react at all, which I found off-putting.
Time for the stroller, I decided, time for popsicles.
I slipped into my running clothes, and soon we were on the road. Out beyond the brim of the hood I could see their little feet kicking pleasantly as they sucked on grape popsicles. The air was cool, and sunlight glowed orange and yellow through the leaves overhead. Autumn was here, at last, and soon the holidays, which Claudia and I had yet to fully discuss.
So odd, autumn. It’s hardly a season at all. You get those endless, bright stretches of summer, and the long, colorless blocks of winter, but the time between is just a sliver: beautiful and sad and over before it’s even begun. That Thanksgiving would be our last together, though of course I didn’t know that then. I had no idea how completely we’d fall apart, no idea how difficult that winter would be for me as Claudia started dating again, or how the following summer, after spending a night in county lockup for reasons I’d rather not get into here, I’d take a job back in Indiana, where I grew up, and become a somewhat more ancillary figure in all their lives. Whether that was for the best, I don’t feel qualified to answer, yet I will admit it does seem silly to me now that I ever could have behaved as I did in those days. But maybe that’s what all men say when they’re full of regret, shame. My wife—my current one, I mean—believes that when you die you spend the first bit of eternity reliving your life from the multiple perspectives of everyone you ever knew, and if that’s true, God help me.
Still, that particular afternoon, it was nice. I guess that’s why I return to it so often. The kick of their feet, the sunlight, a quick but spirited game of I Spy as we wheeled past the spot in the road where the cat had been and I did my best to direct their attention elsewhere.
We returned home and drank water on the porch, then I fed them dinner. An hour later I delivered them to Claudia’s place. The boys ran ahead into the house, and she walked out to the car to collect their bags and water bottles. She looked good, not like someone who’d just taken a red-eye back east, and I told her so.
“You sell your show?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Probably not.”
“I’ve been thinking. I want to try the counselor again, what’s-her-name. I want to give it another go. I didn’t take it seriously before, and that’s on me, I’m sorry, but I’m ready now. Why are you—?”
She was shaking her head back and forth in what seemed like slow motion, her eyes opening and closing languidly. “No,” she said, “you had it right, it’s a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. I think it’s best if we just focus on the kids now. Let’s focus on them—and on you and me being friends, as much as that’s possible.”
“I forgive you, you forgive me, that forgiveness is conditional, and null, you see,” I replied, in a singsong voice, because this was an old half-joke between us—a line from a philosophy class we’d taken together in college—and I wanted her to remember that once upon a time she’d found me, if not funny, at least mildly entertaining. I also wanted her to remember us as we’d been back then, two dopey undergrads studying ridiculous things like Derrida and Foucault, our lives uncomplicated and carefree, our spirits untested.
But she didn’t smile at me in response, she wouldn’t engage, and it finally dawned on me that it might actually be over between us, that there’d be no reunion, no going back. I instinctively reached out for her. She sidestepped. I reached out again, for her arm, and she swatted me away.
“I hate you for this,” I said.
“Welcome to the club.” She wiped a tear from her eye. “I think you should go now.”
“And maybe I’ll never come back, how would that be?” I asked.
I’d threatened it before, but this was the first time I’d ever felt like I really might do it, like I really might just disappear.
“Whatever you do is up to you,” she said defiantly.
It was then that I noticed the boys behind her, their noses pressed flat against the storm door. The younger one shook the glass with his palms, the older one knocked on the metal with his fist, and Claudia turned and signaled that she would be coming to them. But first she looked at me again. I could see that this was exhausting her. That I was. If I’m being honest I was exhausting myself, too.
I looked beyond her, to the older one, and waved at him. He didn’t wave back.
“They’ve already brushed their teeth.”
It was the most normal thing I could think to say.