Abbi struggles to keep the damp cloth on baby Willy’s puffy red cheek. Her cat, Miner, watches. Since slashing one of his claws into Willy’s chubby face, the cat hasn’t moved from the center couch cushion, but his tail is swishing and his feline eyes are pinned on her. Is she going to avenge it?
Willy convulses, cries, and jerks his heavy head away from the cloth. Abbi holds Willy with one arm while her free hand goes for the basket of folded laundry. She dumps it in the cat’s direction. He bounds over the couch and out the doggy door before she can shout you better run, which she stops herself from doing. Willy’s screams are petering out into slow, heaving laps the way a tsunami eventually subsides. He finally accepts one of his pacis and the distant-sprinkler sound of his sucking calms Abbi down.
“Better run, Miner,” Abbi whispers, patting Willy. “Graff’s going to be home any minute. And who knows what he’ll do.”
Though after she says it, Abbi realizes Miner doesn’t need to worry about what Graff will do. The cat should worry about what Graff will want Abbi to do.
Above Willy’s whimpers, Abbi hears Alexa playing the NPR afternoon show. The hosts report on a virus popping up somewhere in China. At least they’d moved on from discussing the starving masses in Venezuela and Yemen. Or the migrant masses trying to salmon-ladder themselves into a better life, the jaws of the cartels and the gangs behind, the xenophobic gears of the Trump government ahead. Hearing about those people reminds her of her former ESL students. She wonders how they’re doing. And if they’ve been deported. She strokes Willy’s thicket of dark hair and tells him that the cat didn’t mean it. “He was just scared. Kitties do strange things when they’re scared. All animals do. People too. Daddy will be home soon. Shh, awhile Wild Billy Willy.”
Jacob Graffmiller takes off his toque blanche and leaves the Regailus Pub and Bistro an hour before the dinner rush and heads home to see Willy before Abbi puts him to bed. The Regailus is one of a handful of new ventures investors are betting on in the little mountain town of Lady Luck. Since the mines dried up, Lady Luck languished as a pitstop for families headed to Leavenworth. But it’s becoming more popular for its cheap lodging and quaint offerings: a mining museum, interpretive trails through homesteads and early worksites, the downtown belltower restored with recovered pine planks. All low-key day-trip excursions that apparently work up an appetite. And thanks to Graff’s delectably crafted menu, the Regailus satisfies and has been thriving to the point where the owners accede to their star Chef’s new-dad requests, for which Abbi is grateful, especially since most of his requests have been hers.
It will snow, Abbi thinks as she watches the sky darken into a foreboding, silent mauve. The freeze in the air coaxes out the smell of wood smoke. Abbi feels the coming snowfall in her joints. Your witch’s elbow, her mom says.
Willy’s whimpers dim to little tremors as he catches his breath.
“Won’t snow be fun?” Willy can’t understand yet but needs to marinate in the soft soundscape of language, and Abbi needs to feel less alone. So she talks to him.
“Now that you can walk, you’ll like it more. Maybe Daddy will get off early, and we can make a snowman.”
“Daddy,” Willy echoes.
“Yes, sweetie. He’ll be home in a minute.”
Abbi loves everything about Willy. The serious way his brows knit together when inspecting one of his elaborate toy car line-ups. His torrent of giggles that come and go like storm systems. The two little moles he’s grown on his lower back equidistant from his spine, the ones he doesn’t like anyone to touch; Abbi calls them his factory screws.
Cute as he is, Billy Willy isn’t the easiest baby. He doesn’t look at Abbi much and only comes to her for a cuddle when there’s a problem: if he’s hungry, tired, or in pain. Is that normal? Abbi wants to ask her mother about it but doesn’t want to trouble her.
Willy usually prefers to play alone. He likes to create a single-file gridlock of his Micro Machines.
He has, however, always enjoyed the cat. Hearing Willy coo and giggle at the cat’s every move brought Abby so much joy at first. Miner didn’t seem to mind. If Willy ever crawled too close to Miner, the lithe Maine Coon could slink away, unperturbed. But when Willy lifted himself up and started cruising around the couch after the cat, Abbi knew he could end up pushing the cat’s patience beyond its limits. When Willy started walking last week, Abbi worried, but she told herself and Graff that she’d stay extra vigilant. Clearly, not enough.
With his breathing having regularized and the puffiness around his cheek subsiding, Abbi sets Willy down on his haunches and refolds the laundry.
From the back window, she sees Miner skulking at the base of the cedars, his shaggy pelt making him look part wolverine. Though she’s furious at him, watching him outside still gives her a sense of relief from the stifling feeling their gray, low-ceilinged little rambler has always given her. It’s as if with him slinking wild out in the woods, a part of her is too. A thought that helps her come to terms with “The Bunker”, her nickname for the house.
He feels her watching him and locks eyes with her, his tapetum flashing iridescent in the winter gloam of the late afternoon. He gives her one of those slow blinks, a sign of affection. He sniffs the air before continuing his grimalkin’s prowl, seemingly unaware he’s about to be banished from coming into the house. At least for a while.
Graff will demand that at least, if not more. But locking Miner out won’t be so simple. Abbi knows if she locks the doggy door, Miner will paw and yowl the second the first snowflake falls. What to do with him then?
It bothers Abbi that Graff leaves her to execute the hard decisions all by herself. The breast-feeding plan, the sleep training plan, the potty-training plan (pending). Keeping an eye on Willy to make sure he doesn’t annoy the cat (failure). Pre-Willy birth control plan—another failure. But a failure they embraced. A falling apart together, just like sex. A self-emptying act that paradoxically confirmed their identities and clarified their way forward. Had she taken her birth control on time and not had Willy, Abbi and Graff would have dated aimlessly for a decade before drifting apart.
Though she has to do the heavy lifting with household plans, Graff is a good listener. Her sounding board, her emotional pack mule, he listens with indomitable patience, only speaking when she asks him what he thinks or when she’s run out of things to say.
“Here’s an idea,” he’ll begin, though usually, his ideas are just reminders of her own impressions that have blurred together in her mind, cluttered at times by the spin-cycle of daily demands.
But in terms of Graff ever originating a plan for anything non-work related? In their time together—just shy of two years—she can’t picture it. In the face of a domestic problem, she sees him ignoring it until a woman in his life fixes it for him.
She likes the freedom this dynamic gives her but hates how the lone responsibility exposes her to blame when she fails. Like now. Willy is leaning on the couch—his new favorite pose, his legs swaying less and less under his weight with each day, the dimples around his joints distending. She distracts Willy with his Forest Friends finger puppets and inspects his cheek. The scratch is a child’s drawing of a smiling mouth— jagged and bold and red.
While keeping the finger play going, she sinks her face into a throw pillow to suppress an open-mouthed sob.
With her eyes shut into the pillow’s darkness, Miner’s face flashes in her mind. She wishes she could hold the cat. Or hear his girlish mew. Or brush his fur, the massage of the tines on his gray scalp sending his paws into a pleasure-filled kneading rhythm, his claws catching and ripping at their couch. He would be what he’s always been: an uncanny salve. But the cat can’t comfort her now.
Miner was the first new friend Abbi made in Lady Luck after she moved back. It was a Sunday; the town square was deserted. The noon bell rang. It tolled from the restored wooden bell tower erected in the square in remembrance of all the miners lost to the fathoms beneath their feet. Startled by the bell, a wiry Maine Coon scrambled out from the structure. With some sardines she bought at the corner store, Abbi coaxed the cat out from underneath a dumpster. In return, he rubbed his chin against her heel as she led him around the base of the bell tower.
“See, silly. It won’t hurt you.”
She looked up at the bell, perched like those birds of prey kept at the zoo. Like that trophy Eurasian Eagle Owl a bird keeper had brought into her ESL class. Qadir wrapped his mouth in his jacket so as not to shout. Amadi and Pierre, so unsettled by the raptor backed up to the rear of the classroom, climbing on top of their desks. “Owl, a bad sign,” Pierre confided. “It won’t hurt you,” she said to them and, two years later, she said it to Miner. Yet Miner, like her students with the owl, remained wary of the bell. It was as though he could sense some disquieting forecast that she was blind to. The cat trotted after her the four blocks home. When she moved into the Bunker house with Graff six months later, Miner followed.
Looking back on it, Abbi wishes she wouldn’t have done it all so lightly: taken Miner in, assumed responsibility for him..
Before the baby, Graff loved Miner. He’d complain about his shedding fur and putrid breath even as he cuddled with him and bought him toy mice. During the week he was laid up with a bad burn, Abbi came home from the store to catch him asleep on the couch with Miner curled up on his chest. It was also Graff that introduced Fancy Feast. He brought the cans home to coax Miner into the crate for a vet visit. But the cat scarfed up the wet chunks and refused to eat anything else from that point on, other than the rodents he caught on his nightly prowls.
During the pregnancy, Graff’s attitude towards the cat shifted. He had always been an animal nut, donating spare change and dollars to animal activist organizations around the holidays. But fatherhood set off a chain reaction in his attitude toward pets. He started reading this book about how wacky people’s ideas around pets were. He started spouting off theories about how keeping wild animals indoors was not only speciesism, but a form of domestic animal enslavement.
“They should all be let loose,” Graff said,“Back into the wild.”
To Abbi it sounded like an ornate justification to save a few bucks for his pet project, to buy a house—an ambition he was convinced was stymied by their (her) spending habits. Chief among their odd-and-end expenditures keeping them poor, Graff claimed, were Miner’s Fancy Feast, World’s Best Kitty Litter, and the rolling panels of vaccinations. When Abbi reminded Graff the Fancy Feast had been his idea, Graff said he wasn’t blaming anyone. I’m just acknowledging a reality.
Meanwhile, during her pregnancy, Abbi’s bond with the feline doubled, then triple-corded. While Graff prognosticated about how the cat would hurt the baby, Miner kept Abbi warm company in her swollen 9th-month hell. She talked to him about her maternity plans while Graff was at work. Miner’s purrs lulled her into a fit-full and dream riddled, but warm, sleep.
The dreamscapes Miner’s purring induced seemed important somehow. Like this one: waves swirled around a small, rocky island. People flailing in the waves, dog paddling, drowning. A tornado of things whirling around—siding, tires, rings, paintings, pacifiers, bells, pets, trash. Yet the island held its own, its rocks unmoved.
“Too bad your mom can’t take him,” Graff said.
Connie’s pet allergies were one of life’s great ironies. The woman loved animals and would get choked up about every lost dog poster and swoon over every tattered glove of roadkill they passed on the road. But one step into a room occupied by an animal would send her into pitiless sneezing fits. Her face would puff up more than a war widow on a Veterans Day parade.
If only Connie could have a pet. Or a man. Some diversion from the harsh reality that her store, Foreman’s Keep Antiques & Gallery, wasn’t doing well, despite Abbi’s help. And more than ever, Connie held onto every slight, every canceled order, every window shopper who peppered her with questions before leaving empty-handed.
“Well. What about one of her friends?” Graff persisted.
Abbi flipped through a mental Rolodex of all Connie’s friends. They all had strict ‘no-outdoor’ policies with their cats.
Miner was a young, healthy cat with all his shots. And could live another ten years. What kind of life would he have cooped up inside?
Besides, Abbi had taken Miner in. He was her charge, and she didn’t feel right pawning him off on her mom. She had moved back to Lady Luck to take care of her mother, not the other way around. Abbi gripped her independence with a flagger’s nerve. Despite Graff’s nudgings, she was confident the baby and the cat would get along.
Graff’s big hyperborean body draws itself into the living room. He’s all dark hair, imposing brows, full beard, furry arms, formidable barrel chest, and, despite the chill, only wears a long-sleeved flannel button-up. Heat from the Regailus’s kitchen still conducting along his skin.
“Daddy!” Willy totters over, hands outstretched. The two little white chicklets of his teeth gleam.
“Oh. My. God.” Graff drops the bags of takeout he’s brought home for dinner.
Daddy’s not smiling back! Something’s wrong! Abbi feels each one of Willie’s thoughts tiddlywink into the other. Willie’s eyes disappear inside ripples of skin convulsing in surprise; his lip quivers into a morose frown and he begins to cry.
Graff kneels and gloves up with a spare pair of black latex gloves from work. He touches the gash along Willy’s cheek.
“I’m calling the doctor.”
“I’ve already done that. Nothing to worry about.” Abbi turns to Willy. “Daddy’s just worried. It’s okay!” She hates that she has to console both of them.
Graff dabs Neosporin on the cut.
She’s already done that too.
Graff goes to lock the doggy door to find it already locked.
Graff settles into the couch, gathers the still wailing Willy in his arms, cooing, patting, and rocking him.
When Willy calms, Graff pulls out what must have been the hundredth Micro Machine that month.
“Car!” The word peaks in the middle as Willy’s vowels warble with an odd musicality.
One of the line cook’s kids has outgrown his vast collection of cars and has been ferrying them off to Willy one by one via Graff. Willy delights in lining the Micro Machines up across the hallways of their little house. Abbi inevitably trips and steps on the cars, biting her lips to keep in the swear words that Willy would inevitably echo in his mockingbird way.
Car in his chubby hand, Willy’s brow furrows as he inspects it. His mouth purses, pressing out the tip of his tongue. Satisfied that it meets his mysterious criteria, he begins rolling the new car back and forth along the couch, then the floor.
Graff eyes Abbi and his eyes widened as if to say, Well???
Abbi relays how she was distracted with the laundry when Willy cornered the cat.
Graff removes his rubber, gun-metal gray wedding band. He squeezes it and rolls it through his fingers.
“Why rubber?” she asked him once.
“To remind me to stay flexible and light. I don’t ever want to be hard or heavy with you on anything.”
She smirked, but when his face stayed earnest, she let go of the opportunity for innuendo.
She likes him hard and heavy on top of her. A position he doesn’t care for.
“I feel like I’m going to crush you.”
“Crush me,” she’ll answer back.
And he would but prefers her on top. Granted, she got off better on top, but it was also more work for her and colder. Wherever his hands weren’t, her body felt chilled and exposed to a vacuousness above and behind her, when all she wanted was to be smothered for a minute, contained and safe.
“Plus,” Graff continued about his rubber wedding ring. “If I lose it, it’s no big deal.”
Abbi pursues the Miner issue. She’s penitent. She realizes having Miner in the house isn’t possible for now.
Graff wears a poker face.
Abbi will keep him outside from now on. Until Willy’s older and can learn to control himself.
Graff rolls his rubber wedding band back on. He offers no ideas, commiseration, or soothing. A long, hard breath dragon-blasts out his nose. “Let’s eat.”
He picks up the fallen bags of food and starts plating up their meals. Abbi refolds the rest of the tossed laundry. Fallen laundry, fallen food. The order holding up their lives buckling and all their things cascading down. One strong grasp after another failing to hold. These impressions press upon her like waves.
Graff tends to Willy—washing his hands, cozying him into his highchair, and portioning up fries and bits of burger for him to gnaw with his couple of Chicklet teeth.
The butter-bloated restaurant fare excites Abbi less than it once had. She’s put on weight again. Breastfeeding had slimmed her down, particularly in the rear. She’d been slimmer than ever. But a bad bout of mastitis ended breastfeeding two months ago—about six months earlier than she’d planned. The infection felt like a bolt of lightning had struck her left breast, coursing electric shocks through her body stemming from the nipple. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t think of letting Willy feed, no matter what all the blogs and nurse practitioners said. Her pallor grayed and she lay moaning for three days until the antibiotics thinned the infection out. By the time the fever broke, she rose to find Graff serving Willy up some cows’ milk. Milk from the same cows that, via extension of Graff’s new logic, should also be set loose into the wild. Milk which Willy guzzled. Abbi wanted Willy to drink non-animal bioproducts to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions! Another failed plan.
After they eat and Willy is distracted with his new car, Graff holds Abbi’s hand.
His eyes close. “He’s going to have a scar on his face for the rest of his life.”
She shakes her head quietly. She considers telling him about the couple of headlines she’s scanned about the elasticity and resiliency of the infant epidermis but decides not to.
“He might,” she says. “But we all get scars. It’s just part of…”
Graff’s eyes open and though his tone stays soft, his tightened jaw over-extends each syllable, showing his teeth. “Please don’t ever let me see that animal in this house again.”
It doesn’t snow. The sky withholds like a cruel parent.
With Willy asleep, Abbi cries for a while. She opens up a keepsake box from teaching days. Runs her fingers over her students’ faces in the end-of-the-year photos: Muzamil, Josue, Kengie, Sahel, Imanni. Where are they now? She reads and re-reads their goodbye notes thanking her. All in the face of the cyclone of red hatred spiraling out of the White House and along the border. The children locked in cages, the guards mocking their cries. If she’d only been nicer to her students. If she could love them still, somehow.
When she can’t stand it anymore, she numbs out with a movie. Some big-budget disaster flick. Somehow watching a tidal wave engulf each coast feels right. While carnage ensues across the usual locales—the Chrysler building, Golden Gate—Abbi tries texting Maribel, a potential friend. Maribel’s husband, Arturo, is Graff’s best buddy and line cook at the Regailus. Arturo claims Maribel is shy because she no habla mucho. Abbi is undaunted. She can understand broken English spoken in any accent. But Maribel no responde. Her loss, Abbi shrugs.
The real draw to Arturo and Maribel is that their baby, Jacinta, is the same age as Willy. On Graff’s day off, Abbi arranges playdates. While the guys fish or brew beer or watch sports, Abbi herds the cross-eyed cats of Willy and Jacinta’s attention. The two are quite content to play around each other, and they’re so cute, Abbi doesn’t mind just watching them. Whenever she meets Jacinta’s dazzling gaze, Abbi feels like a pair of probes are descending into her. Jacinta would trounce the competition in a staring contest.
Willy never makes that kind of eye contact. Another thing she wants to ask her mom about. Did she avoid eye contact as a baby? But she cringes thinking about how Connie will glory in the spotlight, gabbing about what a wonderful baby Abbi was. Which Abbi thinks is more about Connie’s superior ability to mother.
Sans social outlet and with another hour at least until Graff gets home, Abbi descends into the soul-sucking pendulum swing that is social media. A classmate’s having her third—a girl—and posts photos of her two boys, four and two, nursing like pups from her amply-portioned chest. Someone else glam-posts from her store—a stationery boutique in Spokane. She’s posing with Jeff Ament from Pearl Jam who’s buying a V-day card for his wife. Another classmate is second author on a research paper about Autism entitled: Echolalia Across Ethnicities. A culinary performance artist who bakes cakes that look like roadkill. An enchantingly eccentric boy she’d dated for a week gives an award-winning TED Talk on the odd behaviors indoor-only cats develop. A colleague wins teacher of the year in her old district. A colleague she’d shared her units and lesson plans with when they were just getting started.
Abbi is so nauseated by her own chagrin, she punishes herself with doom scrolling headlines on her feed: a female Mexican journalist decapitated by gangs, the Taliban seizing towns all over Afghanistan, droughts in the southwest tripling the price of almond milk.
Around 2 am, Graff slips into bed with the surprising grace of a sea lion into the surf. And by this point, she’s about ready to delete all her SM accounts. Again.
“You okay?” he asks.
She rolls over to face him, “Yes.”
“You know I’m so grateful for you. I… didn’t think anyone would ever want to marry me.”
She hugs him. She thinks about telling him that the feeling is mutual. That she sees a Plain Jane when she looks in the mirror. A turkey-breast colored spinster with freckles, a big, fleshy nose, gray-green eyes, skin-tone lips with no cheekbones to speak of.
Her high school reunion had been at the Regailus. Graff reserved them the bistro’s banquet room at a discount. He was chummy with somebody in her class. Among the twenty or so Lady Luck grads, there wasn’t anyone Abbi wanted to talk to. So she found herself helping Graff set up chairs beforehand and taking them down afterward. Then came the chorus line of drinks and a night at his place.
“I’ll talk to my mom about Miner tomorrow,” Abbi says. “She has to have an art friend who can take him in.”
Abbi’s father, Dean, ran a successful mid-size trucking business, the logistics of which had taken his nights, days, and weekends for the better part of his marriage to Connie. All of Abbi’s memories of Dean were old photos reenacted as silent movies in her mind. Dean asleep with baby Abbi drooling on his naked chest, his orange trucker hat still on. Dean smiling at the camera while Abbi ‘yee-hawed’ on the mechanical pony outside the drug store. All confabulations. Except for this one when she was three:
“Daddy,” she cried, as she toddled into his sunroom office. She dragged her blanky behind her, clutched her owl stuffy in the crook of her arm and sobbed. “Daddy gonna go. Daddy gonna leave.”
Dean’s face twisted and he made a sound like she’d hurt him. Which made her cry more. “I got to hon. I’m so sorry.” He said some other things that Connie told her later. One of his drivers had called out. It was a big shipment. He couldn’t trust anyone else to do it. He had to. He had to provide for them. “I got to. It’s for the nest egg, hon. You’ll see one day. I promise.”
The look of terror on his face made her look over her shoulder. Had he seen some monster behind her? There was nothing but the night. Then her memory goes blank.
Dean died that night in a fatal trucking accident.
The nest egg had been ample. His life insurance alone paid for Abbi’s college. The rest continues to keep Connie’s store afloat.
Connie’s store, Foreman’s Keep, occupies a corner space in a complex of small shops built on a boardwalk in Lady Luck’s downtown. Though the boardwalk is in view of the belltower and a thoroughfare for foot traffic, because of the raised nature of the structure, the insides of the shops all feel hollow-floored. When Abbi enters them, she’s reminded of her grade school’s portables and that perplexing feeling of perpetual impermanence.
The front of Foreman’s Keep houses the Antique Consignment showroom which specializes in garments and furniture. The trestle table from the So-and-So’s that had been in their family for x generations. The chifforobe from the Whoevers lost until it was found at a garage sale in the early aughts. The rolltop desks, the galvanized washtubs, the hurricane oil lanterns, the tiffany lamps…No matter how many lavender candles her mother lights or sans serif feature cards her mother designs, the place still smells and feels old and irredeemably bygone.
Abbi avoids the showroom of Foreman’s Keep and enters through the back via the gallery.
She sees her mother hanging a new showing of paintings on the gridwall racks. At her age, she should have Abbi do that. That’s why she moved home, afterall. But since Willy, Abbi’s only been able to work weekends and Connie wants the paintings ready to go before the weekend “rush” of ten to twelve idle browsers.
For this “rush”, Connie has Abbi as her secret weapon. “People love coming in and seeing you and Willy.” Abbi manages the till while Willy plays around the reg area behind her, though this arrangement is becoming more and more challenging as Willy becomes more mobile and inquisitive.
With her back turned to her, Connie hasn’t noticed Abbi come in, which makes Abbi think about leaving. She can just hide Miner in the woods somewhere…But having finished hanging a painting, Connie turns around.
“Oh hi, sweetie…” Her voice always sounds on the verge of crying and indeed, she often is.
Abbi hugs her mother, feeling her bones.
“What do you think?” Connie gestures to the new showing. But Abbi knows Connie’s question is rhetorical in the sense that only one response is desired.
“It looks great, mom.” Abbi obliges, turning her voice up two octaves and drawing out her words the way she would for Willy.
Willy’s scribbles—which she has to bribe him with treats to attempt—would, in Abbi’s opinion, be more evocative than the paintings she sees on the gridwall before her: more Andrew Wyeth pastiches from Gina Tibet. Gina’s a local heiress who paints to pass the time, pawning her facsimiles off on Connie, aglow in the presence of small-town prestige.
Connie’s so busy basking in the meager attention Gina bestows on her that she forgets about her own work: haunting black and bronze sculptures posed in uncannily recognizable gestures that trigger a viewer into a state between dream and nightmare. Unlike Gina though, Connie listens to her critics.
“Realism is dead,” Connie scoffs. She’s quoting a rival art dealers’ recent jibe. “They sell!” Connie motions again to Gina’s paintings.
And sell they do. All sorts of monied locals buy Gina’s paintings. Another reason why Abbi keeps her mouth shut. At this point, encouraging her mother’s art might just cause more pain. This isn’t Seattle. Or even Spokane.
“How’s everything, honey?”
Abbi wants to tell her mother everything. About Willy’s scratch. About Graff’s edict to discard Miner. Abbi wants to cry in her mother’s arms. But worries that if she does, her mother will enjoy it too much. This enjoyment, Abbi feels, wouldn’t give her mother strength but sap it. Connie might feel strong for Abbi in her presence, but the strength would flag minutes after Abbi leaves as Connie considers how her child isn’t yet strong enough to stand on her own. Connie would then call Abbi up crying. I’m so worried about you honey! I just want you to be happy.
“Things are fine.” Abbi rubs her mother’s arm.
“He treating you alright?”
Connie commands Alexa to turn off and looks around needlessly. The store is empty as ever during the midweek lull. “Did you hear what President Pussy Grabber said this time?”
Abbi suppresses an eyeroll. Each ridiculous thing the real-estate-grifter-turned-toxic-politician says or does sticks in Connie’s consciousness. Associating refugees with rapists. The comment about the shithole countries. The assertion that the murderous, torch-wielding racists in Charlottesville were basically good people. His bullying the vulnerable new Ukrainian President (so handsome!) to dig up dirt on Joe Biden’s floridly troubled son. Connie seethes to Abbi about each gaff.
It was fun at first. Mother and daughter connecting over the orange bigot’s buffoonery. They joined forces with fervor, extinguishing his vulgarity with their compassion and logic. But as Democratic challengers have risen and Republicans have tightened their cult-like embrace around their oddball Führer, Abbi has become more disquieted. It’s not fun anymore, even in the morbid way it was before. It’s just scary now.
“I don’t want to talk about it, Mom,” Abbi says.
Connie does what she does anytime Abbi draws a boundary. “Whu…Why? Did Graff say something?”
Graff didn’t vote in the last election. He said they were both awful and refused to choose between two evils. Since Connie agrees with the Silence-is-Violence mantra, she assumes the worst about Graff’s inner leanings.
“No. It’s just….”
“What is it? You look pale! Is everything okay?”
“It’s winter, Mom.” Abbi says, trying to laugh off her mother’s concern.
“I wish you would let me help you, hon. You never let me do anything for you.”
Abbi wants to say, you’ve done it all for me, mom. But she knows her mother will reply that that’s what a mother’s supposed to do, isn’t it?
“I just came by to ask you…”
“To ask me what honey?”
Abbi feels a black wave wash over her vision, though her eyes remain open. She sees Connie foisting Miner onto some reluctant neighbor and buying out Leavenworth’s Mud Bay of cat toys and kitty beds to prepare her neighbor’s home for Miner, only to have Miner soil their alpaca wool throw blankets. She sees Connie wringing her hands anytime the neighbor lets Miner out to roam and complaining about his weekly disappearances. I just can’t deal with the thought of him being wolfed down by some coyote! The thought stresses me so much I haven’t been able to work.
Meantime, as she frets about the cat, drapes hood her half-finished sculptures while from her farmhouse-style mansion, Gina Tibet fills the world with more paintings of shadowy fields and dilapidated barns.
“I just came by to ask you if…”
“If what, hon? Did someone say something about me? Call the shop outdated? Call Gina a hack? Tell me! I know you’re not crazy about Gina, sweetie. But she’s been this shop’s biggest break. You must see that. I think people make too much of the Wyeth influence. And let’s face it. People just hate her because she has money.”
Abbi wishes she could grab her mother’s boney hands and shake them while asking her to let it all go! All of it. The credenzas, the tiffany lamps, the snipes from competitors, the disappointments. Let it go, mom!
“I just came by to… ask you…if,” Abbi breathes deep. “If I could take you out to tea on Sunday after work. Graff can take Willy to the park while we have some girl time.”
A teary-eyed Connie spends the next few minutes swooning over what a wonderful daughter Abbi is. Abbi gets a word in edgewise warning her mom that it feels like snow.
“Well, your witch’s elbow is never wrong. I’ll dress warm. And take out my toboggan. Now go give that handsome boy a kiss for me. Willy I mean.”
Abbi forces herself to laugh along with Connie at the joke, as if Abbi would have thought Connie was referring to Graff.
“Oh! And here are some yum-yums for that scruffy scoundrel,” Connie says and proffers Abbi a bag of kitty treats.
The scent of the fish-smelling tidbits lure Miner into the crate. The brown paste is thick enough to hide the chalk of the tranquilizer tablet.
“Kitty,” Willy says, seeing the cat slink in. Graff holds Willy, who looks small in his arms.
Graff’s taken the afternoon off to give Abbi time. He doesn’t say anything, but in a quiet, small voice, he asks Willy to say goodbye, and Willy echoes ‘bye-bye.’
Miner curls around himself, nestling inside the cold, hard plastic shell. While Abbi drives, she steals glances at Miner’s serene gaze at the trees and the bruise-colored clouds, engorged with a wintry payload.
They pass a hump, a carcass that could have been a raccoon. Its belly opened by birds to resemble a ruptured sausage casing, undercooked and overstuffed.
She breaks down in the car outside the vet’s office. When her eyes clear, she sees the blue-gray steering wheel of her Taurus—yet another token of Dean’s nest egg’s beneficence. She slams her open palms against the wheel and curses the nest egg. She thinks she can feel its snowball inside her center where she wants her father’s love to be. An irony made colder by how she and her mother have depended upon it.
The veterinary staff usher Abbi into a back room. Abbi doesn’t see their wan faces.
Behind a wooden, trifold partition, Abbi settles into a cold leather couch facing the silent, still sky. She lets Miner out. She coaxes him onto her lap with another tranquilizer-hearted morsel. She strokes the soft mane that unfurls from his face like a beard. Tranq-dazed, Miner’s eyes open briefly.
A glum guitar track broods from a stereo and Miner’s head rocks a little as he dozes to the sound of his own purrs. He’s so conked out from the sedatives, he doesn’t even look up when the nurse comes in, shaves his paw, and slips the IV into his veins.
“Let me know when you’re ready,” the nurse says.
The sky churns. The room groans beneath the wind. It starts to snow.
Are you ever ready to lose a friend? Especially one who doesn’t know he’s about to lose himself, be folded into another world. Especially considering how Miner’s breath grants her one last vision. A vision, in the face of which, the road flares of her sentimentalism and nostalgia die, their stubs becoming cold, leaden pipes she’s holding aloft into the night when her arms are tired and needed elsewhere.
The room fades. Abbi doesn’t see the nurse, nor Miner’s drowsy face. She doesn’t hear the dirge-like music. What she feels more than sees is that a storm is coming in which much will be lost.
The strange virus from central China floats from person to person carried by their effluvium from Wuhan to Seattle to Lady Luck. The cases rise from 1 to 20 to 500 to 3,000 in days while pundits on both sides of the political aisle gnash their teeth. Face-shielded and masked health professionals tend to bodies lining hallway after hallway of hospitals and community centers and shelters. Graff rushes into the door of their home, two jumbo packs of toilet paper under his arms, face sober with fear. Particleboards seem to fly onto window frames of downtown shops as if magnetized; business after business fails. And snow! Snow flurries for days. The snow forms drifts up to the eaves of the abandoned storefronts. Graff trudges through the snow and past the boarded-up shops, delivering gourmet takeout at a discount to Lady Luck residents to keep the Regailus afloat and spirits up. And Dean’s nest egg giveth. “It’s for the nest egg, hon. You’ll see one day. I promise.” Connie gives up the store. She takes the time to complete a pandemic sculpture cycle of the politicians and their disease-stricken subjugates. Either because of her preoccupation with her art or out of an age-inspired letting go, she stops paying attention to politics.
With Abbi’s help, Connie hosts a sold-out online showing of her sculptures and makes a killing on the sale of each individual figurine. Meanwhile, across the country, white people snuff out the lives of people of color with less regard for their dignity than an animal’s. Protests ignite in flames across cities. Infections skyrocket. President Pussy Grabber loses the election. His armed followers march to the order of his belching screed. Smoke erupts outside the United States Capitol and the vandals pour in.
Willy begins rocking on his ankles, rocking up and down, up and down while humming like a cartoon character careening down a bumpy hill on a wild ride. The poor eye contact. The lining up the cars. The echoing. Abbi sees it all in an instant. The diagnosing, the coaching, the insurance haggling, the growth, the pain, the wonder out from which he emerges as his own person, uniquely human and hale.
She sees that in the disastrous years that are coming, she will only have strength to clutch to the essential things and that all else must go.
“Let me know when you’re ready,” the nurse says again.
Abbi gives a nod, the nurse depresses the plunger, the pentobarbital courses in, and Miner’s eyes slowly open, never to close. His eyes will remain open inside Abbi forever.
When Abbi comes back to the Bunker, Graff is startled to see her returning without her friend yet dry-eyed.
She puts her hand on his shoulder and says, “We’re going to be okay.”