Karl leaned in close to Michaela’s ear and brought the lobe between his lips with his tongue and sucked on it like a forbidden, life-giving tree of paradise.
“I love you,” he said, a whisper over the wet spot where her earring would normally cover and dangle with the turquoise beads and wooden accents or the ones like golden tassels.
He remembered, in that particular moment, feeling at sublime peace with himself and all of reality. The sun cut through raining mists of dust particles hanging in the air and cast an ethereal glow on the dark cedar covered room. The closet in the corner, reeking of Mack’s pee and full of Michaela’s clothes and her home away from home dresser, seemed to suck in all of the light from there.
“So fluffy so sweet, puppies and kitties,” he whispered. Their code.
“Puppies and kitties, meow meow,” she said, and rocked in his arms, and rested.
This, his face said as he smiled, is the happiest moment of my life. I am complete, he said, but nobody was listening, not even her.
“Dude. You’re daydreaming again. Give me the hammer dude.”
Karl put his hand on his neck in a gesture of resigned embarrassment and handed Dan the cheap ball peen hammer and looked on, bewildered, as he removed another one of the small nails from between his chapped lips and drove it into the small makeshift coffin.
“How much longer do you think it’s going to take Dan?”
“I don’t know. I have to sand it I think, and then I might stain it. Although I don’t think Mack would care much either way, seeing as he’s dead.”
“No. I agree.”
Karl swirled his iced coffee in an elliptical motion and scrubbed some waxy residue from the outer surface of his ear until he had a satisfying amount on his fingernail and flicked it away. He tapped his foot nervously, unsure of whether or not he was impeding on Dan’s progress by standing there watching him. Dan took another nail and drove it into the wooden box, not much larger than something that could house a baby or doll.
Karl walked away temporarily, leaving Dan in the parking lot behind the apartment building by himself. It didn’t much matter—the man was immersed in his work and had a mission. Everyone seemed to have something to do except for Karl himself, though whether this was a function of his only being Mack’s godfather or not, it was hard to say. He rang the bell twice at the back of the stairwell; Dan was meticulous to the point of being in that liminal space between conscientiousness and pathology.
“Hey Karl,” Ruth said, opening the door and whisking back a shock of braided blue hair behind her head.
“How are the invitations going?” Karl asked.
“Fine. I’m still working on Zora’s veil. I should’ve just bought one.”
Karl followed Ruth up the creaky and stain-starved stairs that had borne witness to countless hordes of young (and poor) people who’d moved borrowed couches and mattresses and crudely repainted wardrobes up its steps. Ruth moved quickly through the kitchen, past the table with Dan’s neglected hookah and the white board with the groups still unpaid bills written across with each housemate’s name under the gridlines.
“Hey. You guys still owe me for that last month of NStar before I moved out,” Karl said, as Ruth emerged from her room immediately with a stack of folded little cards that looked like table settings.
“I know. I have your check made out,” she said, and handed a crisply folded check to him tersely.
Karl pocketed the check and folded the invitation over in his hands, looking at the blurry still of Mack licking Zora on the face, and beneath it, an inscription:
“Join us in our day of mourning for Mack, beloved mackerel tabby, lover of mice, emasculated coward, and cuddly prince
“Wow,” Karl said, stifling laughter, and then letting it out.
“You know,” he started again, eyeing Ruth, “this is actually pretty funny. In a way. It’s elegiac, but it’s funny.”
Karl walked away from Ruth and felt the Indian Summer sweat percolate under his armpits. He wanted to see his old room.
Not much had changed. In the months that he’d been out, they hadn’t found someone to sublet the place. There was still an imprint in the dust on the mantle against the wall where his stack of vinyls had laid, The Pixies, warped and scratched Neil Young records and forgotten basement .45s from Aunts and Uncles. Michaela didn’t really like The Pixies that much, he remembered.
He got down on the floor, Indian style, which wasn’t comfortable for him at all. He couldn’t even sit half-lotus really. But sitting there with his shoes against his knees evoked those weeks in the summer, now long gone, when Michaela had returned from Israel but was home in New York, sure, a few states away, but in cell phone range. Yet something strange was going on; she didn’t seem to be that easy to get a hold of. The stress built up inside like a spring winding, and it was in this pose on this floor that he’d sat listening to his Pixies records going around and around on the cheap and wobbly Crosley turntable that his father had bought him for his 25th birthday (and he’d been too prideful on behalf of his father to return, although goddamn, the needle was shitty and scratchy). On and on he listened, and sat on the floor with a candle or incense burning and thinking of his little sweetie that he missed so much.
“Puppies and kitties,” maybe he said to himself a few times, with a lonely tear rolling down one cheek like a scorching rivulet of oil coming off a fajita pan. It was hard to remember if that actually happened, or if it was just a feeling. In a way, the whole breakup was like that.
Karl got up from the floor and dusted off his Levi’s. He hadn’t done the best job of cleaning the place out, and in light of the primary motivator for his vacating the apartment (debt) he hadn’t bought the supplies he’d alluded to for fixing the place up ( a few coats of paint here and there, some caulking, maybe patching up the holes from infinitely re-used Big Lebowski posters from college). He balked out of the room into the hallway and stared at the empty space, imagining that he’d shucked off the shell of his summer self like a piece of rotten, dried up corn.
Dan was still out in the driveway nailing the coffin together when Karl came back out with his coffee, still brushing dust off his knees where he saw collections of grey powder and lint.
“And how’s it going now?” Karl asked, standing about ten feet away from Dan, a lanky and sweaty mess, looking greasy and pallid and worn out by the surprising heat of the day.
“I think,” he said, stepping back from his creation, “that it’s done. I think we’re ready.”
The ride back to town was quiet—Karl took his Honda and followed behind the others in a kind of stoner, idiot caravan. Dan’s parents would surely be at home, but they were the only other ones coming, to his knowledge, though Karl didn’t know who Ruth had invited or who else heard about the cat funeral through the grapevine. 93 was a mess, and a giant rusted out Lincoln had cut him off from following Dan’s Cherokee, and he dropped back on the highway a bit and looked at all of the signs and landmarks he remembered.
The road was an aggregation of memories that were hard coded into his DNA, capitalism that pock-marked his childhood and provided frames of reference for him to flagellate through reality, like dropping popcorn to mark his way.
He remembered cigars at 7/11 as he took the exit for North Reading, the plaintive longing for women that they could not have, the painful wounds that could not be assuaged. How do you even talk to them, they wondered, bewildered, and gulped down Slurpees and counted their bills in their pockets to see how much residual bounty was left over for (god forbid) condoms or maybe…just maybe, the next Halo game that was coming out.
When did that come out, Karl thought to himself, and he could almost taste the acrid, sweet artificial taste of slurpees and cheap cigars on his tongue, almost feel brushing his puffy pubescent face and praying for a beard. He marveled, as he turned the wheel onto Main Street sharply, how odd it was, this energy that allowed him to revert back a decade, and almost made him look less developed in the rear view mirror. It was as if by coming home, there was some sort of dark matter that turned him into that boy he hated, that boy who was impotent and powerless, watching from the sidelines with a hand in his pocket and another anxious one on the nape of his neck.
He pulled up to Dan’s parent’s McMansion and parked along the curb right next to the mailbox. Dan, Sam and Ruth piled out of Dan’s Cherokee and onto the slightly wet driveway, Dan’s dad standing there in a pair of Ray Bans washing his boat and smiling. Petrochemical runoff from the soap mingled with the light of the sky and produced iridescent swirls that whirled towards his Vans sneakers, and he stepped to his left to avoid it.
Dan turned around and waved. He was holding Mack’s carrier and had elected to not store him in his home-made tomb. Sam came out from the passenger side and opened the trunk, grabbing the coffin from atop a piece of cloth. Darren pulled up in the driveway near the street, and Dan’s dad started smiling and went to turn off the hose. He sauntered off towards the edge of the house and came back with a beer (did he have a case over by the shade near the hose—why?) and enigmatically leaned against the rusted basketball hoop like he was the pink panther or something. He would strike poses like that.
“Now what,” his father said. He’d seen it all from him.
“Mack died,” Dan remarked, and tucked the crate closer to him and walked past his father. Dan and his father were close in a strange, brusque way—Dan’s dad would ask him to come home for help with fixing a computer or burning CDs, and Dan would yell at his father on the phone and chide him for his technological ineptitude and eventually cave and help. Sometimes not though, and the strain that Karl could almost hear through the other end of the phone, and read in the tough marks forming on the sides of Dan’s face like fault lines disturbed him whenever this occurred.
Dan walked right down past the side of the house to the backyard and put the carrier in the middle of the lawn and began pointing at the trees around the perimeter of the yard as if marking them for execution.
“What are you doing?” Karl asked, coming up from behind him while the others remained behind with Dan’s father and caught up in the driveway. Darren, a college friend, hadn’t seen his parents in many years.
“I’m picking just the right spot.”
“How?” Karl asked.
“I don’t know, man” Dan said, and just kept pointing, and then came to rest his hand on one tree at the far edge of the yard that created the most substantial piece of shade and where the downward gradient of the verdant rear lawn petered off to a flat area.
“Duh,” Dan said, and walked over with the crate. This would be the spot.
The others came down from around the front of the house, and Sam was holding his phone in his hands and laughing like a madman. He covered the side of his face with one of his big tan hands and motioned for Karl to come over to him over by the shade of the enclosed and elevated porch attached to the big deck. Swamp mosquitoes buzzed annoyingly near his sweat tipped ears and he batted them away, smiling at Ruth and noting Zora the other cat, resting softly in her arms like a small, feckless child.
“Dude,” Sam leaned over. “You’re not going to believe this. I can’t even believe this.”
“What?” Karl asked, and rubbed his sweaty hands over the fronts of his jeans above his quadriceps. “What is it?”
“It’s Michaela, she must’ve seen it online or something, but she texted me and asked if she could come.”
“She didn’t text me.”
“Haha,” Sam said. “Well, I wouldn’t either if I was her.”
He was right. So what did she want, he thought? The whole thing was so broken and bizarre that it almost brought back the see-saw of psychic pain he’d fought all throughout the end and its accompanying metaphysical drama: inability to trust others, to trust women, to trust reality, to have faith that things are good, that people are good, that things are what they seem. And here were two reminders, Mack dying and her knocking at the door.
So to speak, he thought. Luckily she wasn’t here. Yet.
“Well,” Karl replied, “I’d really rather her not come.”
Things progressed quickly once Darren got settled and a few other stragglers showed up. Dan had snuck off while people were chugging ice cold beers that Dan’s father had lugged out in a sun-faded and cracked cooler, but then emerged with Mack in a small, almost perfectly fitted tuxedo. He had a bow tie perfectly snug under his neck, and his fur had been meticulously combed and had lines running through it like a vacuumed rug.
“Okay,” Dan addressed the small gathering, and put his hands together like some kind of young priest who shopped at whole foods and played ultimate Frisbee.
“I think it’s time that Tyler get up here and say a few words. Tyler?”
Dan laid Mack in the small coffin that was now resting on the ground under the tree he had picked out, with his paws and face pointing up towards the canopy of the tree line. He had little cuff links on at the end of his sleeves that gleamed against the light occasionally when the trees above rustled with the wind and let in some slivers of light.
“Thank you all for coming to Mack’s funeral,” he said, and a few people stifled laughter.
Dan’s father looked on, bewildered, and continued drinking beer, though he loved Mack as much as anyone and had once given Dan a small framed print of his cat as a Christmas gift.
“This was a special cat, and he will now be interred in this hallowed soil in his final resting place. He will chase mice no more; he will no longer impotently try to use his ball-less undercarriage to penetrate Princess Zora. Our friend Mack is being sent home. Please join me in remembering his legacy and let us join together in surrendering him to mother earth.”
The crew clapped in surprising unison, some with one hand against a beer can, but eventually they all joined in applause and Tyler walked away. Dan walked up next to him with a shovel and slammed it as hard as he could into the ground, pulling up a chunk of dirt the size of a basketball and chucking it backward over his shoulder. Tyler joined the rest of the group and Darren put his arm around him, and Dan struck the ground again, this time hitting a rock that made a sound like iron hitting a bell buried in concrete. His glasses flew off the back of his head from the shock that ran up the shovel and through his body.
“Ahh,” he said, and grabbed his hand, taking his hand off the shovel for a moment, but quickly getting back to his work. Everyone now looked on in silence, Tyler and his girlfriend shooting a few should we say something glances around. Dan was furious hitting the shovel into the ground and dirt was flying up all over his David Bowie shirt and maroon colored cotton pants.
Finally, he stopped, appearing satisfied, and backed away from the hole in the ground and dropped the shovel. He closed the top of the lid for the coffin over Mack, almost leaning down to kiss him, but quickly thinking better of it. Melinda, one of the girl’s we’d lived with on Fisher Avenue, came down next to Karl and held his hand. He immediately started to feel clammy, but then relaxed, and his hand went limp and warm as he watched Dan place Mack into the sizeable hole in the ground and begin kicking dirt back in over the hole.
Dan motioned for the group to come over with his left hand as he used the shovel to place dirt back over the coffin, and they came over to him.
“Pair off and come up in groups, two at a time, and pour a little dirt on top of it. Man and a woman would be good, and I guess Zora should be last.”
Karl almost burst out laughing, and Dan smiled, and then he walked up first with Melinda and reached down to the earth for a handful, letting it sift through his fingers like forgotten sand dripping in an hourglass and looking at the now covered hole in the earth. Where joy had been, he thought, and saw the dirt slip out of Melinda’s right hand, and he held her left. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Death to puppies and kitties, he thought, and smiled at her. How strange life could be, how strange the years could turn on us and kill people and take people away. And yet we had no choice but to look on, Karl thought. Was the only kindness that we at least got the space from the meat grinder in our heads? That we had this private space to ourselves?
And he did look on. He backed away from the hole in the ground and watched others fill over the spot while he drank a beer. Melinda’s sun dress blew up slightly in the back, and he felt the blood filter through his body.
He was alive.