Cal's Last Call
Meg’s silver Jetta rolls into the space to my left, but she’s not driving it. She’s in the passenger seat, and she quickly waves at me before tucking her champagne hair behind her ear and turning to unclip her seatbelt. This is the car that I bought her just four years ago, that I haggled over at the dealership while she fidgeted and smiled apologetically because I was matching the salesman’s open aggressiveness, that I washed and put gas in and changed the oil for until she packed it full of her clothes and books and our fancy china that her mother passed down to us for our wedding and took off. Less than a year after she left, another man is driving my ex-wife in my ex-car.
Lizzie and Todd clamber across the seat and land, feet patting down the asphalt, eager to greet their mom. They knock on the window, and she can’t crack the door more than a few inches until they shuffle back, their bodies buzzing with excitement. I wait and turn my attention to the green pet carrier strapped into my passenger seat. Cloud, our sixteen-year-old, fluffy, grey cat squints at me. His cheek is pressed to the door, pieces of soft fur poking through the bars. His name was Meg’s idea. She saw a cat-shaped cloud in the big West Texas sky the day I proposed to her. She said she wanted to commemorate the moment, so we drove to a pet store and picked out the one that looked most like the cloud. It had to be our cat, she told me, because it was our moment. And because it’s our cat and neither of us will part with him, we share custody of Cloud, transferring him back and forth along with the kids once a month.
Except this month it’s twice. I’m returning the kids from an extra weekend. I was originally scheduled to have them next weekend, but Meg and her boyfriend have just moved in together and couldn’t wait a whole week longer to consolidate their things in a new house just across the Trinity River in Fort Worth. I had to beg her not to send them to her mother’s, and then, after Meg relented, I had to beg to get them for the original visit.
I join my family between our vehicles. Lizzie is wrapped around Meg’s torso like a koala, chattering as if it’s been months since she’s seen her. Todd is pulling his bag out of the back seat. Vince sees me and clears his throat. He ruffles Todd’s blond hair and then extends the same hand to me. I resist the urge to squeeze too hard. Then I move to Meg and place my fingertips at her hip. She turns to face me, swinging Lizzie away in a half-circle.
“Cal, I’m really sorry we’re late.” She sets Lizzie down and runs her hands across her khakis as she stands back up. “No excuses. We just didn’t time it right from the new place.”
I hate how she acts with Vince around. Like she’s afraid to acknowledge that we ever had a relationship at all, despite the obvious proof of our children and the fact that we’re standing here to exchange them. She steps out of chaste hugs and fidgets with her long, straight hair. I don’t make it easy on her now. I lean in and peck her cheek.
Her blue eyes dart to the ground, and she steps back. “Todd, you wanna put that in the car? Vince’ll pop the trunk.”
Vince does, and I watch him snatch my kids’ bags out of my 4-Runner. We’re at a Dairy Queen because every town in Texas has got one. We used to meet in Sterling City when Meg lived in San Angelo. Now we’re in Abilene because it’s halfway between Meg’s new place and our old home where I still live by myself, despite the fact that it’s a house for four, plus a guest or two. I hope the service at this Dairy Queen is faster than the Sterling City one, and I’m not sure why we’ve stuck to this choice now that we’re meeting in a town with plenty of other options. There was a McDonald’s and a Wendy’s – both have a reputation for faster service – within sight of I-20, but I guess we’ve grown accustomed to our Dairy Queen kid-and-cat exchanges, and Meg’s resistant to change. Except, obviously, when it involves leaving her husband and finding a new guy and moving four and a half hours away.
Meg, Vince, Todd, and I remain silent as we load up the Jetta and go inside. Lizzie tells Meg about the prairie dogs we saw during the drive here and stretches her neck up as she tries to balance on her toes in imitation of them. Finally, Meg crouches and smiles at her.
“I’d love to hear all about them, Sweetie, but we need to order. Do you know what you want?”
Even when she’s not talking to me, I relish the sound of Lizzie’s voice. She’s seven and the most talkative kid I’ve ever been able to tolerate. She takes after Meg that way. She’s always bursting with a story or an urgent question or a song, always curious, always wanting to share what she knows. Even when the stories drag on, the questions don’t stop, and the same melody repeats for minutes at a time, I hate to quiet her because the silent, empty house is all I’ve got now, save one weekend a month. Even though Meg’s right about our needing to order, I can’t help feeling the slow burning in my gut, churning up bitter words towards Meg and her boyfriend and the pimply boy working the register who doesn’t understand or care what we’re doing here.
Todd orders chicken strips, and my first thought is that it takes longer to cook chicken than anything else on the menu, which probably makes me a bad parent. The thing is, I’d like to extend this lunch with the kids. I’d even be okay with spending some time with Meg, just as long as she doesn’t talk about her new job, or her new house, or her new life. But with Vince here, I’m more than ready to hit the road for the two and a half hour drive back. Or to hurl myself across this table and tackle him to the sticky, greasy floor, abruptly ending this meal of torture.
I make a big show of insisting to pay because Vince is already reaching for his wallet before Meg has ordered. He backs down after I insist twice. He never would have scored the deal I did on that Jetta. We all sit and wait for our food. Vince seems to know to stay quiet. All I know about the guy is that he works in water sanitation or conservation, and his promotion has taken my family further away from me than they already were. He’s wearing a blue tie, and it bugs the hell out of me. Like he thought he had to dress up for this. I’m in jeans and a polo – weekend clothes. I’m not competing for some GQ metrosexual award. But his shiny blue tie catches the light’s reflection as he shifts in his seat across from me, and I feel like the material is mocking my coarse cotton shirt with the stupid red Pegasus stitched under the collar. His blue tie is the reason Meg’s sitting beside him instead of me.
Meg is the first to speak up. “How’s your mom?”
I pointedly eye her pale fingernails pressing into Vince’s tan skin before I answer, “You know Mom. She’s strong as ever. Never gives up.” Even as I’m saying it, I know that the stab is hardly veiled, but Meg offers a small smile and nods anyway the way people do when they don’t hear you but don’t want to ask you to repeat yourself.
Vince perks up, throwing a glance at Meg and then shifting on the hard booth seat, reacting on her behalf should she need the show of solidarity. She’s always come across as needing saving, even with her M.O.of self-sacrifice, giving in to everyone else instead of taking what she wants. It’s probably just that the willingness to take hits and never fight back doesn’t make sense to anyone else. Growing up, I always wanted to rescue her like a princess. She told me when she was nine or so that she was growing out her hair like Rapunzel so that a prince could climb up to the tree house in her backyard and save her when her brothers would tie her up there and leave. Sometimes they left her for hours, crying until dark. When I pointed out that she must have let them tie her up there, she explained that she wanted to be included. And anyway, there were times when she played with them and they didn’t do anything mean at all. When I was in high school and she entered junior high, it was bullies on the playground I wanted to save her from. Then, in high school, it was guys who wanted to sleep with her. By the time she started college, we were dating, and she was finally safe from all the bad guys who could hurt her. It wasn’t until recently that I realized she now thought of me as one of those guys after all this time.
Vince chimes in to smooth the moment of tension back. He says, “Meg tells me you have a big project at work.”
I’m still staring at her hand, and after thinking about all those instances when I was the good guy that I’m no longer getting any kind of credit for, I look at Meg and tell her, “I don’t think we should share Cloud anymore.”
Her bottom lip parts from the top. She blinks. “Why?”
I don’t know why I’m doing this. I know it will hurt her to lose that cat. I know it’s a petty thing to argue over. But I think I’ve got a point, regardless of my motivation for bringing it up. “He’s getting old. The drive is too long. He’s not moving as well anymore, and I think it’s too traumatic for him.”
Meg purses her lips back together and glances at Vince then back at me. “But we agreed, Cal. I . . . . You know I love Cloud.”
“There’s no question you love him. But, as I said, the drive is too much, and I don’t think it’s fair to make him suffer just because we want to share him.” I’m using the voice I use in presentations for my geology team to the reservoir engineers at work. I’m trying to sound as authoritative as possible so that she won’t ask irrelevant questions or misunderstand the information. It’s the only way I can do this to her.
Vince leans across the table. “Cal, surely you understand what this will do to Meg. And the kids?”
Meg. It’s my name for her, not his. “The kids can still see him when they visit me.”
At this mention, Lizzie looks up from the video game Todd is playing. “See who?”
I pat her leg. “You can still see Cloud whenever you come see me.”
This doesn’t seem strange at all to her, so she shrugs and leans back against Todd, who is ignoring the adult conversation altogether.
“You’re not just . . . .” Meg cocks her head to the side. She doesn’t want to verbalize her accusation.
Vince clears his throat, and I know he’s about to speak for her. This will absolutely drive me mad, so I jump in before he makes a sound. “I wouldn’t keep our cat just to hurt you. Is that what you think?”
She should be able to see through this, and she probably does, but her behavior since she started dating Vince has always suggested that she feels guilty or sorry for the divorce. She doesn’t make any of the accusations that are unquestionably true as well as deserved. She speaks quietly. She offers to meet closer to Midland instead of making me drive so far, which I don’t accept, of course. She uses an apologetic tone when she acknowledges anything regarding Vince or her new life. So I know she’ll accept my new terms, and she’ll act like they’re fair. Then Vince will be the one to hold her tonight when she breaks down about the cat she didn’t fight for.
“No, Cal. It’s . . . fine. Maybe it’s the right thing.”
Vince glares at me, and I realize that this is the way I used to intimidate the boys who teased Meg at recess some twenty-five years ago. I nod and appreciate the fact that I now have full custody of one piece of my former life, unwilling to let him tarnish the victory with his warning eyes.
Meg sighs. She shakes her head and says, “It’s just as well. Vince and I were—” She looks pointedly at the kids, and then she cups her hands about her mouth and leans across the table. She whispers, “We were talking about getting a,” and then mouths puppy.
She leans back against the seat, and Vince slides his arm across the back of the booth, palming her shoulder. “In fact, we sort of have one picked out already.”
Here I was thinking that I won Cloud, fair and square, but Meg’s ready to get rid of him anyway. She won’t miss a sixteen-year-old ball of fluff that doesn’t move until you pick him up yourself, not with a puppy in the house. How dare she potentially put our cat in harm’s way, anyway? If I didn’t offer to keep Cloud, would she even be able to protect him from a rowdy, teething, slobbering, pouncing Labrador? She’s letting me have Cloud because she knows she can’t reasonably keep him around anymore. She’s just exchanging one old, tired pet for a newer, livelier, memory-free one. Gone are the days of lying in bed with the cat stretched out between us. Gone are the days of finding dead mice as gifts by the back door. Gone are all the old days and all the old memories, and she’s skipped the mourning altogether, already replacing them without even the smallest crisis of conscious.
“Good,” I say. “Then I guess you won’t be needing Cloud anyway.”
She opens her mouth to protest but closes it without a word.
* * *
I have to hear about the school district, the parks, the attractions of nearby Dallas, and the easy commute for Meg before we finally get our food. I’ve fallen silent, letting Meg rattle on about everything I don’t want to know about because if I say one word, I’ll say too much. As I fill my mouth with burger, she chats and picks at her chicken sandwich, and Vince turns to Lizzie. I’m trying to look interested in Meg, trying to maintain eye contact – why I’m trying to be polite, I don’t know – but I see Vince out of the corner of my eye as he takes the glass bottle of Heinz ketchup and shows Lizzie how to hit the 57 on the side so it pours right out.
I cut Meg off with a dismissive hand and turn to him. “She knows that.” Then I look at my daughter. “Honey, you know that. I showed you that, remember?”
Lizzie’s eyes are wide and confused, but she shrugs and takes her basket back from Vince.
The table is silent.
Todd watches us stare at each other, holding a fry midway between his basket and his mouth. As the silence becomes nearly unbearable because neither Vince nor I will speak first, Todd pops the fry into his mouth and looks right at me. “Relax, Cal. He was just helping.”
My eyes hurtle a blunt accusation of betrayal at Meg, and hers skirt to Vince while everyone shirks the blame for my son calling me Cal instead of Dad for the first time in all his ten years. I clear my throat and excuse myself to the restroom, where I grip the sink on either side and stare at my tense features – clenched jaw, bulging vein in the forehead, lips sharply pressed in a stalemate, and squinting eyes that send deep lines straight up, dividing my thick eyebrows and reaching towards my graying hair. I hold my breath and stare, my mind grasping for some perspective. I never once called my dad anything other than Dad or Old Man – and that wasn’t to his face.
When I go back out, I mention the time and remind Meg that Cloud is in the car, and she asks if I’ll finish eating before I leave. I shrug. “Not really hungry, to be honest.”
She bites her lip, and I hate how hesitant she’s become over everything. Without Vince there, she would have insisted that I stay. Instead, she says, “It is a long drive, I suppose.”
Lizzie says her goodbyes as emphatically as her hellos. She scoots across the bench seat and stands on the end, reaching her arms out for me to grab. As I spin her around and pull her into a hug, I’m glad that she still lets me hold her like this. In fact, she expects it. Todd is all maturity with an extended hand, the other fishing deep into his pocket so I know not to hope for a hug. I shake his hand and ruffle his hair playfully, which he steps away from. He sits back down before I even leave the table.
“So, you’ll have them here Friday.”
Meg stands and nods. “Six-thirty on the dot, promise.” She reaches for me, and I know she’s praying for a quick hug instead of a too-intimate embrace. Despite the fact that I’m not in the mood to prolong this any more, I pull her in too tight for too long and let my hand fall to the waistband of her pants for Vince to see. She squirms after a second and blushes at me with wide eyes as we pull apart. “I’ll see you next week, Cal.” Her voice is stern this time, finally giving me an appropriate reaction, and it’s worth it after all.
The drive home is agony. It’s somehow worse than waiting a month to know that I have to do this again in less than a week. Yes, I get the kids, but watching Meg with Vince and seeing how much she and the kids have moved on from our old unit stabs me in the gut. It’s not just that they’re moving on. They’re moving on together. I’m the only one struggling. I’m the only lonely one. If I wanted my own female version of Vince, I could have her, easy. But I believed in marriage lasting forever, and I’ve never considered that it wouldn’t. Instead of getting even, finding Meg’s replacement, and moving on like the rest of them, I’m stuck, alone, with nothing but painful memories that used to be pleasant. And, now, our cat. I’m not even sure that Cloud can still recognize me. If he could, maybe he’d take off as well, if he could manage to.
The greenery outside fades into sand and rock the further I drive west. The roadrunners are racing across the road ahead of my car with more frequency than I recall ever seeing on I-20. Despite the relative calm of the environment with its rigid shrubs, hard earth, and immovable half-buried slabs of rock, the roadrunners and I are in a hurry. The sun has made its slow arc overhead, and I’m following it as it descends in front of me. I won’t get home before it’s gone for the day, and that seems fitting.
On my way into town, I pass by Heavy’s, where I used to be a regular. It’s better than the few downtown bars and the places that offer food and karaoke because it makes no excuses for itself. It’s a bar for drinking and nothing more. The geologists and engineers I work with avoid these kinds of bars. Heavy’s is the kind of place where mud-caked work boots and dusty carpenter pants leave their mark on the old wood stools. It’s a place where financially pinched fathers of six kids confess their failures with such shame that everyone else needs another drink to cope with the awkwardness. The owner, Ray, doesn’t stop serving until the poor saps are passed out, and then he lets them sleep it off at a table to the side, out of the way of the conscious, paying customers. I went there the first time after work one day, wearing slacks and a button-down and tie. My shoes squeaked on the floor as I approached the bar. Everyone turned and looked me up and down, and then an old man grumbled something about me being lost, so I loosened my tie and rolled up my sleeves. Ray told me to take a seat, and less than an hour later, that same old man was buying me a drink and laughing heartily as I related the bad day I’d had dealing with co-workers. I was accepted. I never felt accepted at any of the places downtown.
I’m past the bar now as I turn into my suburban neighborhood, but I can see the amber liquid as it pours into a thick, short glass and then slides across the wet bar top to me. I can see my hand cradle it and lift it so that the neon lights behind Ray play with its color, then I touch my lips to it and take it in. I can almost feel my taste buds perk up at the thought of mingling with the scotch. I stop at the intersection just before my street and consider for a long time going back and enjoying just a drink or two. My fingers tap on the wheel rapidly as I try to reason with myself and wonder when I ever developed such resolve against drinking. Of course, I know when. In order to ever gain custody of Todd and Lizzie – hell, just to keep my visitation rights – I have to stay sober. I have to stay out of the bars, go to AA meetings, and avoid all alcohol-related trouble for at least a year before the custody issue will be revisited. As it is now, I get tested periodically for drugs and alcohol, and I can lose all rights with one bad test. I’m just shy of ten months sober and not looking to screw it up, but I’m still stopped at the intersection looking for a loophole until a cop pulls up behind me on his way through the neighborhood. I sigh and let my foot off the break. It’s a good enough sign as any for me to go home.
There’s no hiding the fact that my drinking problem is the reason Meg left me. She had to watch me stumble in after hours of slouching over a bar top when she’d spent the evening with crying children. She had to worry about staying too long at parties and weddings if there was an open bar. She thought she had to worry about leaving me at home with Todd and Lizzie while she ran to the supermarket. She worried, on more than one occasion, if the late night call that woke her up from a fitful sleep was from a stranger at the hospital or me at the jail. I’ve broken tables, dented bumpers, and smashed fragile figurines on display in the foyer. I’ve slurred insults I’d never utter sober. I’ve started fights with strangers for looking at Meg in any way that seemed threatening to me at the time. She had to deal with a reckless, angry drunk. I can’t really blame her for leaving. I just wish she hadn’t taken it so hard to begin with.
Aside from the drinking problem, I was good to her. I made enough money that she never had to work if she didn’t want to. I’ve always been punctual. Never miss a day of work unless I’m in the hospital ready to die, which has only happened once, and it was a legitimate bout of pneumonia. I dress all right, except compared to Vince, who goes to Dairy Queen in a tie. I work out on my lunch break every day, do all the yard work myself, used to help out with the cooking if we were having steaks or kebobs. And I loved Meg. God, I loved her. I gave her the house she wanted, the car she wanted, the life she wanted. The only little thing I ever failed to do was stay sober, which seems like a small concession given the fact that she promised to stay with me until death do we part. She sat there across from me today, gripping Vince’s forearm with her tiny hand as if she might need his protection, but for the record, I never once raised a hand to Meg, and when the judge deciding our custody arrangements asked her if I’d ever physically harmed her or the kids, she had to admit as much, despite her attitude during the divorce that I was an irresponsible, reckless monster.
In the garage, I stare at Cloud, who’s asleep, and I wonder if he really would leave me if he could. He stays inside now that he’s so old, and I don’t know if he’d come back if he were free to go. I pet the sections of hair sticking through the cage door, and his eyes open in crescent-moon slivers. He resettles, pulling his face away, then finding no place for it and sticking it back up against the bars. When I open the cage door, he looks at me but doesn’t move.
“You wanna go?” I ask him. The light in the garage turns off, tired of waiting for me to get out of the car, but the light overhead inside the car is still on because the door is open. I slide out. “How ‘bout it, boy? You wanna go, too?” I pull the carrier into the driver’s seat and hold the little door for him. A few moments pass, and Cloud still doesn’t move, doesn’t even peer out of the cage. When the car light goes out too, I pick up the carrier and take Cloud inside.
I attempt to set Cloud free several times over the next few days. When I come home from work, I leave the door wide open for ten minutes. I even move him to the foyer so that he’s facing the great outdoors and all the freedom he could want, careful not to put him so close that his paws extend past the frame. If he’s going to leave, it’s going to be because he wants to, not because I’m forcing him. But he never budges, just stares and eventually falls asleep, and I have to pick him up and move him so I can close the door.
After testing him with the door, I start to test him in other ways. I want to know, if I slide him slowly on his side across the linoleum in the kitchen, will he spring to his feet and trot away? If I happen to drop a little bit of water on his paws with a turkey baster, will he shake them and glare at me? If I set down his food and pick it back up and do this over and over so that his head bobs up and down to reach it, will he grow frustrated and slink off? He puts up with every annoying thing I can think to do, and he never leaves. His total loyalty makes me swell with love for the little guy. He’s not going anywhere, and there’s nothing I can do to make him. That’s real love.
And because I love him now more than ever, I take Cloud to work with me on Wednesday. After all, why should I leave him if he won’t leave me? I pack him into his pet carrier, this time adding a fluffy blanket from the dryer, and I walk into work with a briefcase in one hand and a cat carrier in the other, both swinging gently at my sides.
Our secretary, Cheryl, follows me into my office, explaining that she has allergies and pets aren’t allowed in the building. I set Cloud on my desk and face her.
“It’s policy, Cal. You can’t have him here.”
“This cat is dying. He’s been nothing but loyal and loving for sixteen years, and soon he’ll be gone. Do you want to be responsible for him dying alone because you might just happen to sneeze when we come in the door?” I turn the carrier towards her. Cloud blinks innocently.
“Well . . . I didn’t mean that he should die alone.”
I stare at her steadily. “I’ll let you know when he’s dead and you can breathe easier.”
She leaves without another word.
I open Cloud’s cage and position it so that it’s in the center of my desk facing me. I have to move the keyboard over and set my inbox and outbox trays on the floor to accommodate him. He rests his chin on the raised part of the opening and falls asleep facing me. I’m not sure how much of my morning I spend watching him sleep and thinking about how things used to be, when we were both younger, when Meg loved us both and the kids were in awe of us – him for his thick, flicking tail and me for my security. They used to chase Cloud around trying to grab his tail, but he darted too quickly for them, only to return and swish it in their faces. They used to run circles around me and giggle as I reached out to tickle them, and they folded their arms tightly around my neck when I lifted them up and dipped them towards the ground head-first. They trusted that I wouldn’t drop them and breathlessly begged for more when I planted them back down. Now, Todd’s too old for all that, and soon even Lizzie will outgrow it.
I bring Cloud back to work on Thursday, and this time, my boss comes in to see about the cat.
“He’s sick,” I explain quickly.
“I sympathize, Cal, honestly, but you can’t bring your cat to work.” Phil is a tall, lean man with a red pen always clipped in his breast pocket. His hair is thick and curly, and it rises up on his head like the top of a muffin. He wears thin wire glasses that hang easily on his big ears. I could take him in a fight, and I’m willing to do it if he makes me take Cloud home.
“Don’t bring it back here tomorrow. Take it to the vet if it’s sick, or arrange for someone to cat-sit. You know I can’t make concessions for you or I’ll have half the people in this place bringing animals and babies in here.”
I nod, but I’m already thinking of how to charge over the top of my desk without knocking Cloud off of it as I go for Phil’s throat. He leaves before I figure it out.
The day goes by slowly. I don’t do anything that requires a surface to write on or my computer, which is roughly every task I’m responsible for on a daily basis. I get coffee in the kitchen and wonder if Jim from around the corner has anything to put in it. I saw him spike the punch at an office party once. It seemed juvenile at the time, but now I think he’s my only hope. It’s perfect: I can drink just enough for a buzz, sit in my office all day while it wears off, drive home sober, and never have to take a drop of booze into the house. Maybe even swing by an AA meeting on the way home. The only thing that could catch me is a random drug test. That, and if I ask Jim for his stash, he’ll know that I’m ruining my sobriety, and even though he won’t care, if he slips up to anyone else, it will find some way of getting back to someone who does care. Since I don’t really like coffee, I pour out my mug and return to my desk.
I rock in my swivel chair, tap my fingers on my knees and desktop, time how long I can hold my breath, pop my knuckles and then go through the motions when they don’t pop, slide the carrier to make Cloud wake up and pay attention to me. This is all I do for the remainder of the afternoon, and at a quarter to five, I take off early with Cloud at my side.
I’m picking up the kids tomorrow. All I have to do is make it to six-thirty to get them, and then I won’t need a distraction anymore. But getting to six-thirty the next night feels about as likely as Meg calling this whole Vince thing a joke. (“Psych! I really love you.”) Now that they’re moving in and buying a puppy, I realize she’s not going to leave him anytime soon. Not unless he suddenly develops a worse alcohol habit than I’ve got, but she mentioned early on that Vince doesn’t drink. In fact, he’s so into water, being in conservation or sanitation or whatever he’s in, that he drinks nothing else.
Instead of going home, I go to a drive thru taco stand and park by a dumpster in the back to eat. I have a schedule of AA meetings in my wallet, but I don’t need to look at it to know that there’s one downtown in a half-hour. I can make it there in five, but that would leave too much time to sit and fidget, so I decide instead to drive around the loop. I make a great circle through Midland for two hours, doing all I can to pass the exit towards Heavy’s each time I reach it. When I finally break down and take it, I pull over in the first gas station and will myself to turn around and get back on the loop. By my speedometer, I have a photo of the kids, Meg, and me that was shot three years ago, and I focus on it, hoping it will be a strong enough deterrent from continuing to the bar. But instead of helping matters, it reminds me of everything I don’t have. Even though the kids are coming tomorrow, they’re not staying. Meg’s never coming back at all. I’ve lost them, and the only thing visitation does is dangle my past just out of reach and torture me. If I didn’t have these visits, I might be able to move on and cut my losses. I’ve got Cloud at least.
I hit the gas and speed to Heavy’s. My mouth waters at the prospect of its first prickly mouthful of scotch; my throat constricts slightly, preparing itself for the initial burn. I unbuckle my seat belt before I even pull into the dirt parking lot. Without thinking, I snatch Cloud’s carrier and tuck it under my arm like any ordinary package. I pull the heavy wooden door open and survey the room. Men who have labored under the hot sun all day banging nails into beams and laying brick are reclined by the bar, some talking quietly, but most drinking alone, savoring their beverages before they have to face their families. I notice a few guys I’ve seen here before, and I nod at the ones who acknowledge me. When I get to the bar, Ray finishes up a conversation with someone at the end and then comes to greet me.
“Long time, Cal. I thought you gave this up.”
“You a bartender or a parole officer?” I mutter.
He raises his hands and shakes his head twice. “I’m no judge. How’s your kids?”
Cloud is sitting on the stool next to me looking at me through the cage. I glance at him and then back at Ray and shake my head. “You should know to give a man his drink before you start asking him questions.”
Ray chuckles. “Macallan neat?”
I nod and smile, glad I’ve not been forgotten in my absence. He steps away to pour my drink, and when he returns, I’m ready to explain that I’m just here to have a few drinks and then I’ll start my sobriety again tomorrow, but he stops me.
“Is that a cat in there?” He points at Cloud.
I place a protective hand on top of the carrier. “He’s dying.”
“It can’t be in here. Health codes and all that.” He holds my drink, clearly not letting me have it unless I get the cat out of his bar.
I squint at him like I can’t understand, but really I’m just so torn between the drink that I’ve wanted for ten months and the cat I’ve had for sixteen years, and I’m hoping he’ll make an exception for me.
“What can I do?” I ask with a smile. Maybe he’s just pulling my leg. After all, we’re friends. I came to this bar for years before I quit drinking, spent a lot of money at this place, sat on these stools for hours, shared personal information that only the best of friends share. “Maybe you could just stick him back there under the bar. He won’t mind.”
“I can’t have him anywhere in here. You understand.” He’s trying to be nice about it, but he’s not going to budge. When I hesitate, he takes the drink off the counter and sets it down on his side of the bar.
“All right.” I turn to Cloud. “Okay. No problem. I’ll just take him out to the car. Won’t be here long anyway.” I pick him up and carry him back out, and I avoid his eyes, which are wide with fear as he jostles with my step. I set him in the passenger seat and touch his face with my finger. “Won’t be long, boy.”
When I return to the bar, my scotch is waiting for me, and I don’t even sit down before I take the first sip into my mouth. There’s the sting that pricks up my taste buds. There’s the burn as it slides down my throat. My mouth is suddenly alive and greedy, and this drink is better than I remember it ever being. I try to savor it, to prolong the taste and swirl it in my glass so I won’t knock back the rest too fast, but I can’t stop myself. I’m asking for another one before I know it, and Ray obliges, happy to have me back.
By ten, I know I’m drunk. I know I’ve had much more than I told myself I would. One or two drinks have turned into six, and Ray’s got another ready for me as I tip back the last drop and set it down harder than I mean to. Two ladies, probably in their late forties, are listening to me with great interest as I tell them about the loyal cat I have that will never leave me. I’ve repeated the same phrases over and over, making sure I point out that his tail is the fluffiest I’ve ever touched and that he has a white mark in the shape of a heart on his back paw. They think that’s cute, and they think I’m sweet for caring so much about my cat. I don’t tell them about Meg and the fact that as I drink I’m risking ever getting to see my kids again without someone supervising the visits and inspecting my house for booze. I push that concern aside and continue on about Cloud.
“That little guy . . . is a cloud-shaped cat.”
“Right,” the one sitting next to me says, “hence his name.”
“He is a cat-shaped-cloud-shaped cat named Cloud.”
The woman on the other side of the first cackles at this and has to grab the bar to steady herself on the stool. The one next to me simply grins.
“And your cat is sick.”
“Listen,” I say, leaning towards her with my arm stretched across the bar, “the guy’s sixteen. He’s had a long life. He’s been loyal and fluffy and there for them all his life, and what does he get in return? He gets to be abandoned and trapped in a cage and replaced with a dog, and I’m the only one who understands this. I get him. He’s just trying to hang on, but they don’t even want him anymore.”
“Huh?” The woman points at me. “I thought he was your cat.”
“He is my cat. What are you talking about?”
She shakes her head. “No, you said his family doesn’t want him anymore, but you’re his family.”
I feel like she’s growing upwards as her chin rises and her breasts present themselves to me, but when my head touches the counter, I realize that I’ve been slouching and she’s stayed put. “That’s right. I’m his only family now. Poor guy.”
I can’t tell if the lights are flickering or if I’m blinking a lot, but I can’t focus on the woman as she asks me questions, trying to make sense of my babbling. I’ve been here before, drifting to sleep on this bar. In fact, I was passed out on this bar the night Meg moved out. Her mother got the kids, she got her stuff, and they were gone by the time I pulled into the empty two-car garage. Only, I didn’t notice that she was gone until the following morning when I woke up on the couch, having never made it to the bedroom. By the time I called her to find out where she and the kids were, she knew I had been gone all night without ever noticing that they weren’t around, and she wanted a divorce. I’m worried now, as the lighted portions of my vision dwindle in comparison to the dark ones, that Meg is waiting with all her stuff packed up, standing on the porch. I’m worried that she’ll leave at any moment, and if I could just get myself home, she won’t go. If I could just get up off this bar and steer myself home, all of this can be fixed, and I’ll lie in bed with her instead of making her lie there alone, maybe we’ll even make love, and then we’ll wake up together, and the kids will come in asking for pancakes, and Cloud will stretch his long legs before following us into the kitchen, where we’ll all live. Happily ever after.
Somehow, I find myself in my car. I’m staring at the ignition, looking for a button, and then I realize that I have keys for this reason. I manage to get one of them inserted and turned, and when I look at my hand on the shifter, the letter D is lit up, so I drive. I see red and green lights and feel confident when I glance up and see that the one above me is green. I’m slumped over the steering wheel, mesmerized by the yellow dashes as they appear to slide right under my left tire. I know I’m driving drunk. I know this is not supposed to happen, but I keep seeing myself, opening my eyes with my face smashed against the bar, checking the time, and deciding to sleep a little longer instead of driving home. I remember this as if it happened recently, and I think, vaguely, that it’s the reason Meg will leave me. By getting up and going home, I’ve got a shot to stop it, and I don’t care if I nearly die on the way. I repeat a mantra over and over, and the yellow dashes underline my words. “Please. Don’t. Leave.”
I open my eyes and see the pale blue pillow cover and a blurred version of the bedroom past it. At first, this seems right, and I close my eyes to go back to sleep, but then I realize that I’m hungover. And then I realize that I made it home, and I throw back the covers in victory. I made it home. I made it to the bed, and that means Meg couldn’t leave. Despite the fact that my mind is processing my surroundings slower than I’m moving through them, I manage to reach the hall and then support myself on the wall as I shuffle stupidly towards the living room. I fully expect to see Meg sitting on the couch, sipping coffee, maybe with a frustrated expression when she realizes I’m up, but that can be remedied. She’s supposed to be here.
But she’s not here. She’s not here because she’s been gone a long time already. She’s not here because I already didn’t make it home enough times for this one time to mean anything. She’s drinking her coffee with Vince, who doesn’t drink alcohol and doesn’t leave her at home to worry well into the night. And as long as she’s not here, the kids aren’t here either. Everything I thought I could salvage last night has been gone a long time.
I turn, looking for a gray mass of fur. He’s not anywhere in the living room, so I retrace my steps back to the bedroom. He’s not in the bed. He’s not under the bed. He’s not nestled in the pile of laundry. He’s not stretched out on the cool bathroom floor or behind the clothes in the closet. I search the house, aware as I open closed doors and call his name that he won’t be in any of these places. He doesn’t move.
When my eyes fall across the garage door, I freeze. Adrenaline surges into my chest and throat, and I have to swallow. I don’t want to touch the door knob. I can see it all in a flash as I park the car in the garage and run into the house to show Meg I’m here, so concerned with getting to her that I don’t even think about Cloud. As I stare at the door, I see poor Cloud, stuck in his cage, watching me leave him behind, mute and unable to reason with me. I see it clearly and don’t want to face what I’ve done now.
It takes me a minute to force myself to open the door. When I do, I discover that my car is not parked in the garage. It’s halfway on the driveway, the right headlight kissing the oak tree in the yard. My bumper is hugging the stump, and the hood is puckered in that corner. I see the top of the green carrier inside the car through the windshield. It’s chilly out. The door clicks when I open it. Chunks of fur are still sticking through the cage, and Cloud’s eyes are slits. He looks like he’s sleeping.
“Hey, boy,” I say softly. He doesn’t open his eyes. “Cloud,” I say louder. “Cloud, buddy, I’m sorry.”
I’m afraid to touch him, but I think maybe he just doesn’t hear me, so I force myself to pet him. I rub the ends of his hair between two fingers, and he still doesn’t wake up. I stick my finger into the cage and his soft coat, reaching for his tiny body, and I gently pet his neck. I pull my hand away, and he still doesn’t open his eyes. He’s gone. I can’t bring myself to open his cage, but I pull it out of the car, hold it to my chest, and carry it inside. I set it on the floor and slide to my knees, staring at Cloud’s fluffy, gray face. All I can think about is the fact that he died alone, that I was all he had left and even I abandoned him.
It takes me several minutes to realize that there are other, bigger problems to deal with. I have to move my car before anyone notices, particularly a cop. When I pull it away from the tree, the dent in the front and the cracked headlight cover are impossible not to notice. If Meg suspects anything, she can make a simple phone call, and then I’ll have someone poking around that tree and the tire track leading into it looking for an explanation. I’ve thrown away ten months of sobriety, ten months of building trust in a shaky relationship that wholly determines how much I see my kids. Forget modifying my visitation rights so I see them more – I’ll be lucky to see them at all without someone sitting there next to us, making sure I don’t endanger them. I thought once a month was bad. I thought I was missing them grow up over the past ten months. Now, I figure I’ll be missing a lot more. I may have had only small windows, temporary passes back into my family, but at least they were something.
I sit in the kitchen until four o’clock, waiting for the time to run until I have to face my consequences. I never call in to work. I just wait. And the whole time, I have no idea what I’m going to do. I can go to get the kids, maybe fit this last weekend in before anyone finds out what I’ve done, fully aware the entire time they’re with me that I’ll never have it this good again. Or I can skip the torture and do everyone a favor. I’m a drunk. I’m happier when I’m drinking, and they’ll be happier when they don’t have to count on me. If I just don’t show up, Meg will take the kids back home, and all they’ll be out is a few hours of driving. At least that way I won’t have to see Todd’s disappointment and Lizzie’s naïve confusion when they realize how I’ve ruined everything.
Without knowing the answer, I start the car and pull out of the driveway. My hands are shaking, so I grip the wheel tighter. The loop isn’t far, and once I’m on it, the exit out of town is just a few miles further. I have to drive past Heavy’s on the way. There’s no avoiding it. When I exit, I squint as if I might be able to see the bar before I get anywhere near it. Maybe if I see it, I’ll suddenly be repulsed instead of drawn in. I wait and drive, wondering what I’ll do.
And then I see it. The big sign in front is bigger than ever in the daylight, and the place looks abandoned without the cars parked in the dirt lot. I slow down and pull over on the side of the road across from it, contemplating. It’s open right now, even though it doesn’t look like it, and I could walk right in and take a seat, just like I used to. I could sit there all night, turn off my cell, and ignore Meg’s calls. She’ll start out wondering if I’m just late, then if I’m okay, and then her voice will take on a higher pitch as she reminds me that her kids are waiting to see their father. I won’t want to hear any of this, of course. I sit in the car, watching myself sit inside that building, and I shake my head at the selfish lush, always thinking of himself as the victim. I pull back onto the road and leave him behind to drown in scotch and wake up alone day after day, and I swallow the uneasy feeling rising into my throat as I head towards the Abilene Dairy Queen.
Meg is without Vince this time, and Lizzie is chattering at me instead of her mom. Todd starts loading the bags into my car right away. I haven’t considered how to deal with him calling me by my name, but as he takes care of the bags, I realize that he looks older. I realize that he’s grown up in my absence, and I’m strangely proud of him. Lizzie tells me about their new puppy, and even though it just reminds me of Cloud, her voice still warms me inside, and I close my eyes for a second to capture its sound in my mind. Even Meg lets me hug her without pulling away immediately. I can’t help but think, Maybe, if I can really stop drinking this time, if I can hang onto this feeling, I can be better. If I can just get one free pass on this last binge, maybe I can turn everything around. I’ll appreciate the little time I have with Todd and Lizzie. I’ll try harder to let Meg go, and lay off of Vince. I’ll go to meetings and never touch a bottle again. If I can just erase this one last mistake, I’ll be better.
We’re about to head in to the restaurant when Meg stops and turns. She walks around to the front of my car and looks at me. “Cal, what happened?”