I TRADED YOUR HEART FOR MINE

 

We’d been driving around all night, hollering loony tongue click click clicks and here kitty kitty kitty sounds out into the streets. The next stop was Cal’s place. It was my idea so at least I was somewhat prepared. Sometimes you’re exhausted just enough with the world or the unnerving heat or the same news reports about suicide bombers that the even most awkward situations seem logical. Desirable even. And when you fail at simple tasks, you need to know you can still do hard things.

We knocked on Cal’s door softly at first. What if he went to sleep at nine o’clock at night now and got up early in the morning to train? What if we woke the neighbors’ preschoolers and started a community Armageddon? What if Cal was in the shower or had his headphones up the way he used to when he wanted to drown out my presence?

We waited a good two or three minutes, then knocked loud like we were the landlord or the police. “Hey, Cal,” Bernie was saying in his best baseball manager’s voice. “Open up, will ya? Maximillion’s gone missing.” We thought that Maximillion could’ve made his way back across the city to Cal’s. Cats are unpredictable at best. We’d already looked everywhere in our immediate neighborhood, under every deciduous hedge and raised front porch and parked car. Now we were trying to outsmart him.

When Cal finally opened the door, looking as innocent as anyone could after a breakup like ours, I felt embarrassed enough for all of us standing there.

“We would’ve called but I didn’t have my phone on me,” I said. The truth was that I’d deleted Cal’s number four months ago when I swore I’d never utter the name Cal Raymond Lewis or use the number 17 (his jersey number in the minor league) for any important document or password again. But I figured Cal didn’t need to hear this coming out of my mouth. He knew I hadn’t once returned his calls.

“Nope, sorry. I haven’t seen him,” Cal said out the side of his mouth. We were still standing in the apartment hallway. The way Cal’s cheekbones and eyes sank into his whole head like berries in a muffin, I thought he looked more miserable than the day I moved out. “You’re welcome to look out back. Check some of his usual spots.”

“Thanks, Cal,” was the best response I could manage. He didn’t shut the door on us all the way, then, only said something like, “Wait a minute,” or “Just a minute,” or something about only having a minute. Cal returned with a heavy-duty flashlight and one of Maximillion’s old catnip jangle bells. He handed them to Bernie. They’d been decent friends before Cal and I busted up. “Just leave the flashlight under my car when you’re finished. I’ll get it in the morning. I’d help look but we’re flying to Springfield before sun-up for the playoffs.”

“Not a problem,” Bernie was saying. “Hey, good luck out there. Play your heart out. We’ll be routing for you.” He shook the jangle bell like it was made to cheer a baseball team on.

Bernie was overdoing it on account of me. If I could’ve said something, anything really, besides, “Thanks, Cal, it’s kind of you,” Bernie wouldn’t have had to ramble on like that. By the time we’d drawn out the awkwardness long enough and finally left, I’d changed my mind about Cal’s appearance. He looked great, really. Sounded great. Looked like he didn’t mind answering the door and seeing me on the other side with someone he used to drink with in a cellar bar every other Friday.


After turning up diddly-squat that night, Bernie and I spent the next week stapling flyers to every telephone pole in a two-mile radius of our apartment. We ran the flyers off in full color at my receptionist job at a greenhouse that distributed plants to offices and corporate buildings. Office plants aside, the greenhouse made their real money from Christmas. You couldn’t miss their handiwork: every Styrofoam Santa in department store windows; every cotton-swab winter wonderland that lined the restaurant lobbies on the main strip; every stuffed or industrial-grade plastic reindeer centerpiece in the mall atriums and on the tallest buildings’ roofs. Everything commercial Christmas in a 100 mile radius—this is where the magic happened.

I was hired as the receptionist to do receptionist-type tasks. But lately they’d put me to work wiping down plant leaves with a damp cloth. The plant “technicians” and, I kid you not, “elves” were too busy with the flood of new customers, my supervisor told me. It may have only been September, but Christmas orders had exploded. They needed all hands on deck, so therefore my hands were better spent sponge-bathing peace lilies and bromeliads than filing invoices or answering phones. I didn’t know how to say no. This was the first job in the city to give me a regular paycheck. For that reason alone I was afraid I’d get caught running off the full color flyers. I did exercises by the copier while I waited—simple things like calf raises and quadriceps stretches. I figured if anyone happened to appear at the copier when I was there, they’d be too distracted by the reps I was doing to notice what was coming out of the machine.

I must’ve ran off three hundred copies altogether and stuffed them in various colorful file folders to transport them inconspicuously home in small batches. Bernie and I used up the first hundred quickly, then returned to the same telephone poles days later after a thunderstorm came through and washed out the paper or ink on a good number of them. For weeks after that, Bernie and I spent our evenings walking up and down the city blocks, perfecting cat-calls down the alleys between the row houses, stooping low to peer under every porch that looked inviting to furry things that travelled on all fours. On the few nights when it was too rainy or windy or depressing to search for Maximillion, Bernie would come home from the only job he’d been able to get—delivering auto parts for a warehouse off the interstate—and lie facedown on the bed. Without that cat around, Bernie didn’t want to do anything. Even things like watching a new CIA suspense movie or making his favorite comfort foods like homemade tomato soup and grilled pepper-jack cheese sandwiches felt unfulfilling. Without that cat Bernie was incomplete. He’d gotten attached fast, is all. So fast, you’d think Bernie was the one who’d raised him instead of me. 


One night someone phoned who saw Maximillion strutting his stuff on the corner of Grove and Boulevard. We dressed and drove there with the windows down, our hearts racing. I slid my hand over to Bernie’s knee to keep it from throbbing like an ocean buoy. When we spotted a gray cat that looked just like Maximillion, but who we instantly knew wasn’t, we sat down on the sidewalk to let the disappointment sink in. The cat who wasn’t Maximillion wandered off. Minutes later a man about our age came walking up. “You the couple who lost the cat?” he asked. “I’d seen him for days around my trashcans. Then I saw your flyers. He’ll be back.”

We explained that the cat wasn’t ours, that his ears were more isosceles than equilateral, that his meow was too high-pitched and authority-stricken to be our Maximillion. The man wasn’t really having it. “Well if you can’t find yours, why not take this one anyway? Seems to need a home. I call him Bilbo but you could certainly call him whatever you want. I don’t think he’d care.”

This man clearly didn’t care for any pets of his own so there was no point arguing. We only stood and got back in our car, but not before Bernie said, “Thanks for calling. Really. We might be back.”

                                                                                                                 *

We got many phone calls after that. Someone had seen Maximillion holding court next to their neighbors’ birdbath every morning till noon. Someone had seen him crossing the street back and forth late at night and ducking under cars whenever someone tried to approach him with food or water. Someone had seen his gray body in a heap on the Nickel Bridge when they were driving to work; when they went back that night to find our flyer and call us, someone else had already beaten them to his corpse. We followed every lead. Called every shelter in the city at least three times a week. None of the cats we encountered were ever Maximillion. Two months went by and we had no choice but to verbally give up hope. We stopped re-flyering after it rained. We didn’t go jogging on the weekends. We cooked bland dinners and ate in front of the TV without even bothering to mute the commercials. 

I avoided ever talking about Maximillion’s disappearance at work, mainly because I figured someone would find one of those full color flyers jammed in the copier from months back and would put two and two together and I’d be in for it. I migrated between the plant warehouse and my reception desk for eight hours a day, avoiding all conversations that lasted more than three sentences. 

“Mighty fine weather we’re having.”

“Heard the fried potatoes at the Cuban food truck are to die for.”

“Saw ‘Dirty Dancing’ at Midnight Madness this weekend for only a dollar.”

These were the kinds of things I was comfortable saying aloud at work. They led nowhere. They were dead ends. 

But with Thanksgiving nearing, I was letting my guard down more and more each day. One of the lowest paid elves who was just as creative as the others, Donna Pinedale-Rogers, eventually became my go-to woman. As she showed me how not to ruin your nails when turning large Styrofoam blocks into stunningly wrapped Christmas presents, she proved an exceptional conversationalist. She could talk well about anything, really: holidays, berry pies, donuts, salons, ladies’ clothing, baseball. She gave me a lot of good advice, in the end, about where to eat, where to shop, socialize, etcetera, since my typical talking point at the plant company always stemmed from my recent breakup with the shortstop for the Flying Squirrels and my move across the city to live with Bernie. I paid careful attention to the info Donna gave me, though, because I knew these were the places I’d avoid in the future, when I no longer worked at a job I was embarrassed of citing by name.

When Donna and I moved from wrapping fake presents to applying fabric cleaner to the reindeers’ fake fur coats, I needed a verbal distraction to keep me from overanalyzing how it was my hands were doing what they were doing. Loss was on my mind so I told her about Maximillion. “Cal and I would always let him run around in the neighborhood. He’d go out at night and do whatever cats do in the dark. And then sometime around dawn he’d scratch at the screen door to be let back in. So when I moved in with Bernie, I figured Maximillion would be OK. That he’d just adjust his old routine to the new apartment complex. And at first that’s what he did. He went out at night, roamed free, let loose, then clawed on the screen door when the sun was coming up.

“But now he’s vanished,” I said. For the first time I really I meant it. “I don’t think he’s coming back.”

Donna was listening to me intently as I spoke. Every now and again she gave off a forlorn whelp. She kept her face in a pouty way, even after I stopped speaking. 

“There are stages of grief for people, you know,” she finally said. “Cats can’t be much different. You’ve got to start somewhere. You’ve got to throw out Maximillion’s stuff.”

For all her work decorating fake animals, Donna may have picked up something true and honest about the real ones. I told her I’d talk to Bernie.

Bernie and I tried to establish new routines. Instead of cooking dinner every night, we began cooking enormous amounts of food on one or two nights a week. Stews, pot roasts, four-quart containers full of potato salad or pasta salad or pinto beans and rice. We ate the leftovers for dinner the rest of the week, then took walks immediately afterwards to help it all digest. In truth we were both still looking for Maximillion. We both kept our eyes and ears attuned to our surroundings, pausing constantly to find the reasons for the leaves’ rustling or origins of the small whimpers or cries in the distance. Yet we’d stopped calling out into the night. We stopped putting words to a situation we couldn’t change.

Many times I almost brought myself to pack up Maximillion’s catnip jangle balls and stuffed mice-on-strings and tuna-flavored treats. I often felt that I wanted to do the thing that Donna said about grief. I wanted to feel different. But then I’d look at Maximillion’s empty food and water bowls and think instead that I wanted to fill them and set them out till morning. In case he came back. In case he changed his mind and didn’t want to be lost anymore. In case I could go to sleep at night and wake up to things as they always were.


Bernie and I hadn’t checked Cal’s team’s scores during the playoffs. We hadn’t even thought about checking the scores until the series was over. But I later saw Cal on the local news when the city was honoring the team for its national victory in the minor league. The only thing different about him was a shaved head and the way that television makes people look unreal to those who actually know them. Like they’re their own doppelganger. I couldn’t help but wonder how Cal felt, then, being there on TV, having the whole city proud of him for just doing what he’s paid to do. He probably really enjoyed it. And probably taped the interview to play later for his mom. Cal’s mom always loved it when anyone she knew was on TV. She said seeing a familiar face like that gave her goose bumps.

I thought about calling Cal after I saw him on TV that day. I could say something like, “Congratulations, Cal. I saw you on Channel Eight. They got your good side for sure.” Or I could start off with something more apologetic, like, “I know I should’ve returned your phone calls before now, but I just didn’t know what to say. I’m calling now because I know what I want to say. Congratulations, Cal. I’m calling to congratulate you.” I figured the call would be awkward no matter what I said, but after showing up with Bernie to his place unannounced, I knew that the awkwardness was something I could tolerate. Toleration wasn’t the real problem after all. It was logistics why I couldn’t call—that is, Cal’s number was still deleted from my phone.

The day that Maximillion came back into our lives began as a joyless day. I went to work at the plant company like I always did, stopping to get an egg and cheese burrito and coffee from the Cuban food truck on the way. Bernie went into the auto warehouse late, mainly because he’d stayed up till past three a.m. drinking with our neighbor (he’s a sous chef downtown) the night before. Bernie got a call sometime around noon from a maintenance man in an apartment complex across the city from ours. He said he’d found a gray cat months before in the laundry room and had just now seen our flyer on a telephone pole on his way to run an errand in the city. Did we ever find our cat? he wanted to know.

Bernie drove to the apartment complex on his way to deliver a box full of car headlights. He said he didn’t believe what he saw at first. The cat looked like Maximillion, meowed like Maximillion, crouched low to the floor like Maximillion. But after all this time, could it really be him? Bernie brought the gray cat home and set him on our bed, waiting to see if the cat curled onto the far edge and fell asleep on his back like Maximillion always did, creasing up his front paws like monkey wrenches. 

I came home that night to an apartment full of laughter and a dinner of halibut and seared asparagus strips with walnuts and jasmine rice. My stomach fell below my waistline when I saw that furry critter sound asleep on the edge of the mattress. Bernie and I couldn’t stop smiling all night. We skipped our evening walk. We sat on the bed for hours, petting our furry friend and putting our ears to his belly to hear him purr. 

The next day I felt renewed. I felt different. And by five o’clock at the plant company I’d let the difference get hold of me and root. I gave Donna Pinedale-Rogers a whopping hug and told her to take care of herself and make sure nobody put a red nose on more than one reindeer in each dozen they sent out. I walked into my supervisor’s office and told her thank you, I appreciate the opportunity but I quit. I drove home without caring what kind of job I’d get next, since I knew I could do anything, within reason. Even jobs that required me to prepare six months a year for Christmas or those that tasked me with chores I didn’t know people ever got paid for doing. It wasn’t about the details. Not this time. It was about getting back some of the self-respect I’d failed to keep.

I found Maximillion in the kitchen when I came in, eating to his heart’s content. I told him about my day, about my decision to quit working a job that made me feel tiny and afraid. I practiced my lines till Bernie came home. Before I could even speak, there was Maximillion under our feet, rubbing up against our legs—and when I looked up from the cat to Bernie, I saw we were already looking at each other with the mischievous smiles it takes to reinvigorate life.


Michelle Dove’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in New South, The Southeast Review, Passages North, Barrelhouse, PANK, and elsewhere. Her work received the John Steinbeck Award for the Short Story and the Fiction Prize from Style Weekly. She lives in Washington, DC.