by John McNally
When Mark Timbers awoke in the middle of the night and opened his front door for some fresh air, he saw through the fog-laden light of the streetlamp a dog carrying a cat side-long in its mouth. The cat was dead. The dog, walking toward Mark’s house, struggled to keep the cat clenched in its jaws. It was unclear whether or not the dog had killed the cat. It was possible, Mark supposed, that the dog and cat lived together, that the cat had escaped, and that the dog had gone out in search of the lost animal, only to find that it had perished. Even sleepy, barely able to keep his eyes open, Mark didn’t consider this to be the most probable scenario. More likely, the dog had found the cat already dead and was bringing it home to its owners as an offering, a bestial expression of gratitude.
In the end, who knew? Life had begun presenting itself to Mark lately as a series of unanswerable questions. Six months ago, his wife of eighteen years had left him, taking only one suitcase full of her belongings. He hadn’t heard a word from her since. No messages on their answering machine. No postcards from faraway cities. Nothing. Where did she go? Why did she leave? Other questions bubbled beneath the surface of obvious ones. How long had she wanted to leave? And what was it about him that had inspired her to pack up and go?
The dog stopped in front of Mark’s house. The fur on both animals, the live one as well as the dead one, had wilted from the soupy air. Mark wasn’t sure of the dog’s breed. A Rottweiler with maybe a little German Shepherd mixed in. The dog met Mark’s eyes. It arched its neck to get a better grip of the cat, then shook its head several times, growling, as if the cat were a stuffed animal.
Mark shut the door and returned to his bedroom. When he awoke in the morning, he hoped the incident with the dog had been a terrible dream, but an hour later, while drinking coffee and digging through a shoebox full of old receipts, the phone rang. At the sound of the ringer, he spilled coffee on the table.
“Hello?” he said.
“Mark? It’s Jimmy. Next door. Hey, you got a cat?”
“Well, there’s a cat on your lawn outside. A dead one.”
“Thanks,” Mark said. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Yeah, I wasn’t sure if you had one or not. I didn’t think so, but I wouldn’t have put money on it one way or the other.”
“Thanks for calling,” Mark said. “I appreciate it.”
After hanging up, Mark walked to the living room and opened the front door. The cat’s eyes were still open but unfocused. Was this a gift from the dog to Mark? Would Mark understand the gesture if he himself were a dog? Mark, sensing that he was being watched, pivoted abruptly and saw the dog waiting at the corner. It must have been sitting there all night.
“What the hell?” Mark whispered. The dog wagged its tail, four slow swipes across the concrete. Satisfied that Mark had returned, the dog stood and turned around, crossing the empty intersection without looking for traffic.
* * *
Two months after his wife had left him, Mark Timbers gathered up all their old wedding presents and mailed them back to the friends and family who’d brought them to the church all those years ago. It was a time-consuming chore, but Mark didn’t feel in good conscience that he could keep them anymore. Inside each box, he placed a short note: Sorry but things didn’t work out between me and Jennifer. I feel guilty keeping the enclosed. I hope you’re still able to get some use out of it. With sincere regret, Mark Timbers.
Fortunately, Jennifer had kept a detailed list of who had given them what. The Mulcaheys had given them the Sunbeam iron. The Robinsons, the toaster that could accommodate four pieces of bread at once. Gregg Winston, an old college buddy, had purchased bedding from their gift registry. In the unfortunate instance that a gift-giver had died, Mark returned the item to the next of kin. He mailed nearly fifty packages back, and for those who had given money, he sent a check for the amount, plus interest.
He couldn’t bring himself to replace any of the things he’d returned, and so his clothes, in need of a good smoothing out, remained wrinkled now. If he wanted toast, he placed the slices of bread on a rack in his oven and used tongs to flip them over. At night, he lay on the mattress without blankets, shivering. In the long history of suffering, Mark really wasn’t all that uncomfortable. He’d made no bed of nails for himself. There would be no self-flagellation occurring inside his house. The sacrifices he made were small ones. On the morning of the dead cat, Mark searched the basement for his shovel. He distinctly remembered it because the handle was too short for his height, and his lower back always pulsed afterward, as if he’d been stabbed with a searing hot spear. He searched all the obvious places. When the shovel failed to materialize, he pulled all the boxes away from the basement wall, but this yielded nothing but ghostly balls of dust and web. There was only one logical answer. His wife, who had taken virtually nothing with her, had taken the shovel. But why?
Outside, Mark dragged the stiff cat by its rear paws around to the back of his house. His next door neighbor, Jimmy, walked from window to window, watching Mark’s every move. Jimmy’s shades were always up, lights blazing. It was as if the house itself were a living, breathing thing that never slept – a hulking beast of brick and glass that watched Mark’s every move.
From what Mark had pieced together, Jimmy had moved to town in the early 1980s to attend college but never finished his degree. For twenty years, he’d cobbled together an income from minimum wage work in bars, used record stores, and thrift shops. When he wasn’t at work, he stayed home and smoked pot. The town was full of Jimmys, thirty- and forty-something year-old men who somehow managed, by expending the least amount of energy possible, to remain sheltered and fed. You saw them everywhere, floating through town like shabby superheroes, powerless but oddly indestructible.
After draping a beach towel over the small corpse, Mark stood up and waved at Jimmy. Momentarily frozen in that timeless gesture of a man trying to light a joint – head tilted, eyes almost shut – Jimmy raised his lighter-clutching hand and returned the wave.
* * *
Before noon, Mark finally found the receipt he’d spent weeks looking for. It was for a piece of artwork that Mark had given Jennifer for their wedding, an impractically large reproduction of Georges Seurat’s famous painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Mark had always thought it was too big for any of their walls, but Jennifer loved it and wouldn’t hear of taking it down. She had spent one college summer working at the Art Institute in Chicago, where the original was on display, and had wanted a reproduction of it ever since. And so Mark had purchased one at Lockhart’s, the last remaining locally-owned department store in town. He’d gone to the mall that day to buy hiking boots but came home with the Seurat instead. Mark’s brothers hung it in their living room while he and Jennifer were away on their honeymoon. But it sat on his floor now, facing the wall – reprimanded.
Mark tucked the receipt in his wallet. He lifted the Seurat and carried it to his pick-up truck. He hoisted it over the truck’s side, wincing when it clanged against the bed.
Driving to the mall, Mark considered the possibility of making do without a shovel. Maybe he could use his hands to dig a hole for the cat. Or maybe he could scoop dirt out with the large no-stick pot he used for boiling water. But no: he would be able to go only so deep with those options. He probably wouldn’t even be able to dig a shallow grave with his hands. Why had his wife taken, of all things, the shovel?
“Goddamn her,” he said. He hit the steering wheel with his palm. “What’s she trying to do to me?”
The mall’s parking garage was already filling up. It was Saturday, almost time for lunch. Mark dragged the Seurat over the truck’s side. He balanced it on the ground before hoisting it up and carrying it toward the mall’s entrance. The damned thing was so large he couldn’t see where he was walking, and twice he was nearly plowed down by drivers taking the parking garage’s corners too fast. When he scraped the door of a parked Mercedes with the sharp corner of the frame, he muttered, “Shit,” but kept walking, fearing the extent of the gouge. At the mall entrance, he hit the wheelchair access button and waited for both doors to mechanically open.
Taped to Lockhart’s windows were several “Going out of Business!” signs. Other signs announced, “Up to 80% Off!” and “The Ultimate Liquidation Sale!” The part of the store that took returns looked ransacked. Piles of ticketed bras lounged on the counter next to a gutted box for a DVD player. Empty hangers bloomed from shopping bags, and a mannequin, looking more alien than human without clothes, stood guard in the corner, staring at Mark as though silently challenging him.
A woman eating French fries from a grease-stained sack glanced up but said nothing as Mark approached. Her nametag identified her as Justine. She looked about Mark’s age, give or take a few years.
“I need to return this,” Mark said.
Justine reached into her sack and pulled out a few more fries. She put them in her mouth and chewed slowly. “Don’t mind me,” she said. “I mean, what’re they gonna do? Fire me?” She rolled her eyes. She looked down at the Seurat. “Hey, I like that one. What’s it called again?”
“‘A Sunday Afternoon at...’”
“That’s right, that’s right,” Justine said.
Mark produced the receipt. Justine picked up a returned halter top and wiped her hands, then took the receipt. She studied it a moment before squinting and holding it closer to her face. “You bought this when?”
“Eighteen years ago,” Mark said.
“And now you want to return it,” she said flatly.
Justine laughed. “You’re kidding, right? This is a joke?”
Justine took a deep breath. “I was afraid of that,” she said. “Like most stores, we have a return policy.” She pointed to theirs. It hung behind her – an enormous hand-painted sign. “It’s even a generous one, as you’ll see. But, sir, we can’t take back something you’ve had for eighteen years.”
“This is an extraordinary circumstance,” Mark said.
“Mister,” Justine said. She gave Mark a tight-lipped smile, nodding. She even shut her eyes. She sighed. “I’ll be honest,” she said, opening her eyes. “We’re closing our doors next week. I’m losing my job. I’ve worked here for eighteen years. I probably sold this freaking thing to you.”
“May I speak to a manager?”
“A manager,” Justine repeated. “Sure. Why the hell not? I’ll go get her.” Justine left the counter. She took the bag of French fries with her.
Mark waited over fifteen minutes. When it was clear that no one was coming, he retrieved his receipt and lugged the Seurat back through the store. He looked around for someone exhibiting even the remotest shred of authority, but the new rule of law in the store’s remaining days appeared to be anarchy.
The mall was full of running children, mothers with strollers, and sullen teenagers who wouldn’t think of moving out of Mark’s way. Mark collided with a stationary couple he couldn’t see and then banged into an old man who was inexplicably walking backwards from the food court.
As soon as he stepped into the parking garage, someone called out to him. “Hey! You with the painting!”
Mark spun awkwardly around. It was Justine. She was sitting against a wall with the crumpled French fry sack cupped in her palms.
“The manager never came,” Mark said.
Justine nodded. “Yeah; I know. You don’t have a cigarette, do you?”
“I don’t smoke. Sorry.”
“What’s your name?”
“Well, I was thinking, Mark. I’ll just buy the damned thing from you. What do you say?”
Mark set the frame down. His arms were starting to kill him. “I don’t know,” he said. “The point is to return it.”
“Don’t take this question personally, okay, but have you quit taking your medication?” Justine tossed the crumpled sack toward a wastebasket but missed it by a good yard. “Oops. Hey, listen. I’ll give you my number. Mull it over. Chew on it. All right? But don’t think we’re gonna take that back and give you a refund. You’re deluding yourself if you think that’ll happen.” She reached into her pocket, pulled out a napkin, and said, “Got a pen?”
Mark, knowing he didn’t have a pen, patted himself down. He shrugged and sighed, miming futility. He was about to leave when Justine touched the side of her head and then removed a pen from behind her ear.
“I knew I had one somewhere,” she said and smiled.
* * *
Mark took a detour on his way home. At least once a day, he made a point of crossing the intersection of Oak and Illinois. He wanted to view it in every possible weather condition: rain; dry and gray; snowy; or, like today, clear and sunny. He wanted to see every possible angle of shadow, every blind spot, every conceivable arrangement of pedestrian and auto. He expected, he supposed, for that day eight years ago to recreate itself, for the same configuration of cars and child to appear. Maybe then Mark would finally be able to understand what precisely had happened.
It had been raining that particular day, rain that would later cause local meteorologists to warn of flash flooding, and Paul Timbers, Mark’s son, was wearing a yellow rain slicker with the hood up to keep from getting wet. He was nine. He collected stamps and made everyone he knew scissor theirs off envelopes. His favorite was an old ten cent “First Man on the Moon” stamp that featured the drawing of an astronaut climbing down the ladder of his lunar capsule. In the background loomed Earth.
On the far south side of town lived a man named Terrance Ipsley, who worked at the Tru-Value on Market Street. He was forty-four years old and had never been pulled over for a moving violation. He was on his way to work that morning when he ran the stop sign at the corner of Oak and Illinois and hit Paul, knocking him clear off the road. Eyewitnesses, mostly other children walking to school, claimed that Paul was still alive after the accident, but he was not alive by the time either Mark or Jennifer could get to St. Luke’s. With so much bleeding in the brain, there wasn’t much the doctors could do. The brain continued to swell, and Paul died.
That was eight years ago. Jennifer, who had to be sedated for the weeks that followed, eventually carried on as though nothing had happened. She wouldn’t talk about Paul; she wouldn’t go to his grave or acknowledge his birthday; she wouldn’t revisit the site of the accident. Mark, on the other hand, couldn’t stay away. Hadn’t they told Paul to look both ways? Had they not stressed the importance of safety? How could his death not be the result of Mark’s failure as a parent? Mark could no longer remember when it became a daily part of his routine, but not long after Paul’s death he began driving out of his way to cross that intersection. Some days he wasn’t even planning to go there, and yet there he would be, like a somnambulist behind the wheel, a man being pulled by forces beyond his control, driving up Oak while slowly approaching Illinois. Terrance’s story never added up. Here was a man who took the exact same route to work every day. Surely he would remember, if by instinct alone, to stop at the intersection. And yet, on that particular day, he didn’t stop. Why?
Back home, Mark parked the truck and carried the Seurat inside. Just as the frame touched the floor, the phone rang. It was Jimmy, his neighbor.
“Dude. You want to come over? Watch TV or something?”
“No thanks, Jimmy.”
“I’ve got cable. Whatever you want to watch. You make the call.”
“I appreciate it, but I’m pretty much in for the night.”
“All right, man.” There was a pause. Then: “Hey. How’s that cat?”
“Bummer,” Jimmy said and hung up.
* * *
Mark showered for the second time that day. He’d worked up a mean sweat carrying the Seurat back and forth, and he thought he could smell vestiges of the food court on his clothes. Still clinging to the shower wall was one of Jennifer’s hairs. It was long and squiggly, and looked, from a certain angle, like the feeble attempt of a child writing cursive for the first time. When Mark initially discovered it months ago, he had aimed the shower head directly at it, but the hair wouldn’t budge. He wanted to believe that a supernatural force kept it there, but it was probably just soap scum. Mark could have eased his nail under the hair and pried it free, but he feared, having done that, that he wouldn’t be able to dispose of it. And then what?
After his shower, Mark called Justine.
“Do you still want to buy the print?” he asked.
“Where do you live?”
Mark gave her his address. “Bring a shovel,” he said, “if you’ve got one.”
“Oh,” she said. “It’s that kind of party. All right then. I’ll add ‘shovel’ to my list.”
Justine arrived sooner than Mark expected. She, too, drove a pick-up truck, but hers was smaller and older. A long, diagonal crack ran across the windshield, and she was missing a headlight. She had changed into jeans and a T-shirt. She must have had pins in her hair earlier because it was wild now, even slightly exotic. She took a shovel from the front seat and lifted it into the air at the sight of Mark like some kind of medieval warrior greeting. Clutched in her other hand was a bottle of wine.
“Lockhart’s told me not to come back. Apparently, they have enough people to wrap up their goddamnned going-out-of-business sale.”
“You’re unemployed then,” Mark said, walking toward her.
“I’m liberated,” she said. “Tomorrow I’m unemployed.” She handed Mark the shovel. “What are we digging up?”
“We’re not digging anything up,” he said. “We’re burying a dead cat.”
“Where is it?” she asked.
They walked around to the back of the house. Mark could see Jimmy hoisting himself off his sofa, where he’d apparently been watching TV, and then following them from window to window. When they reached the cat, Jimmy lit a joint.
“What’s its name?” Justine asked.
Mark stuck the tip of the spade into his lawn then forced it deeper into the ground with his foot. “I don’t know,” he said.
Justine said, “You don’t look the cat type.”
“I’m not.” Sweat had already broken out across Mark’s forehead, and his shirt, normally loose, was starting to cling to him. He paused shoveling and asked, “What’re you going to do about work?”
“Good question,” she said. “Last check is in two weeks. Rent’s due in three.” She smiled. “Got any leads?”
Mark shook his head.
“What do you do?” she asked.
“I work in Admissions at the university.”
“Good for you,” she said. Mark had expected sarcasm, but she sounded sincere, maybe even a little impressed.
Mark was about to explain what it was he did when Jimmy started knocking on his window. He held up a finger, urging them to hold on. A moment later, Jimmy was standing among them, holding a flashlight.
“It’s getting dark,” Jimmy said. He tucked the flashlight under his arm and re-lit his joint. He passed it to Justine, who took a hit.
“Here,” Justine said, nudging Mark.
Mark shook his head. “Thanks, but I’m fine.”
“Just take a fucking hit,” Justine said, and Jimmy smiled.
Mark pinched the joint away from Justine and took a hit. He hadn’t smoked pot since college, and the first wisp to touch his lungs felt like battery acid. He leaned against the shovel and coughed until his eardrums hurt.
Jimmy said, “Don’t drop it, dude.”
Justine crouched next to the cat and stroked its stiff fur. She said, “To cure illness in a family, wash the patient and throw the water over a cat. Then drive the cat out of doors, and it will take the illness with it.”
Jimmy said, “Whoa! Where the hell did that come from?”
“It’s a superstition,” Justine said. “You want to hear another one?”
“No,” Jimmy said, laughing. “You’re freaking me out! Is she freaking you out, Mark?” He took another hit from the joint and, in a strained voice still full of smoke, said, “She’s freaking me out!”
* * *
Inside Mark’s house, Jimmy and Justine sat on the floor and flipped through Mark’s old record albums. The cat was buried. Justine had even gone so far as to assemble a grave marker out of stones and chipped glass she collected up and down the street. After going inside Mark’s house, the three of them smoked another joint and finished off Justine’s wine.
“I can’t believe you still own albums,” Jimmy said. “You’re so ’70s. I love it!”
“Look,” Justine said, holding one up. “The Jackson Five. Can we play this one?”
Mark nodded then excused himself. The way the house had been built, he had to walk through his pitch-black bedroom to reach the bathroom. He sat on the edge of the tub and put his head in his hands. He was going to be sick, he thought. Smoking pot! Drinking wine! What the hell was he thinking? He looked up and saw the squiggly strand of hair on the shower stall. With a little imagination, it almost looked like the word ‘overall.’ But what would that word mean in this context? Was the message the first word of a summation? But summing up what? His marriage? His life?
When the nausea finally passed, he returned to his bedroom and clicked on a small reading lamp. He kept a phonebook in the bed-side table’s drawer, same as a motel. He searched the white pages until he found him: Ipsley, Terrance. The phonebook was an objective document. It did not say killed child next to Terrance’s name. But who knew what the other people listed in this book had done? This single page probably represented the full spectrum of earthly woes, from marital transgressions to torture. Mark picked up the receiver and dialed Terrance’s number. The phone rang three times.
A man said, “Yellow.”
“Hello?” Mark asked as if to clarify the greeting.
No one said anything. The volume on the man’s TV, which was playing some indiscernible sporting event, finally lowered.
“Terrance, please,” Mark said.
“You got ‘im.”
“This is Mark.”
“Mark? Mark who?”
“Mark Timbers?” There was a pause. “Do I know you?” There was another, longer pause. Then, “Oh God. Yeah; yeah. Mark Timbers.”
“Do you have a minute?”
“Sure, sure,” Terrance said. “I’m glad you called, actually.”
“Good,” Mark said. “This is okay then?”
“Absolutely,” Terrance said. “You have no idea how many times I was going to call you, but then I’d chicken out. It’ll be nine years in March, right? March the tenth. Nine years,” Terrance said, sighing. “Where does the time go, Mark? Nine years. Good Lord.”
* * *
It was after midnight before Mark and Terrance finished their call. They had talked for so long that Mark had sobered up. The phone call had been the right thing to do, but he was drained now – drained to the point of nearly-paralytic exhaustion. He needed a glass of ice water, a few aspirin, maybe even a bite to eat, but when he forced himself to walk the few feet it took to reach the living room and saw Justine and Jimmy making out, he decided to call it a night. He crawled back onto his mattress and curled into a ball to keep warm.
At two thirty in the morning, he opened his eyes. It was the same time he had gotten up the night before and witnessed the dog carrying the dead cat in its mouth. Why had he been awake in the first place? Why had he needed fresh air? Would the dog have continued walking if Mark hadn’t gone to his door and looked outside?
Mark didn’t open his eyes again until morning, and he did so only because he could hear people outside talking. He wasn’t certain, but he thought he heard someone say his name.
In the living room, Justine and Jimmy were crouched together and peering out the front window. Jimmy turned back to Mark. “You’ve got to see this, dude.”
“What is it?” Mark asked.
“I don’t know, but they’re looking for you.”
Mark took one step then paused. There was something about where he was standing in relation to Justine and Jimmy that reminded him of his conversation with Terrance. There was a couple, Terrance had said, standing off to the side of the intersection. The rain was coming down so hard that the images he saw were indistinct, fuzzy. “Splashes of color” was how he described it. He saw this couple, and for a second, through the blur of rain, he intuited something about the way they were standing, and he was certain one of them was about to do harm to the other. It was a flash through his brain, maybe not even a fully-formed thought, more of an impulse, really. He had taken his foot off the gas and begun riding the brake in order to get a better look.
Mark, walking toward his front door, tried putting himself into his son’s mind, seeing the scene through his eyes now – a nine-year-old boy crossing the intersection, walking to school. Maybe he was thinking about his friends and what they would be doing later that day. Maybe he was thinking about a homework assignment he had failed to complete. Maybe he was thinking about his stamps – the astronaut putting the first footprint on the moon. The hood on his slicker would have been up, tunneling his view. As Mark Timbers walked in the general direction of the surrogate couple, Justine and Jimmy, he saw how it all could have happened: the slicker’s hood creating a cocoon for Paul; Terrance, who’d argued with his wife the night before, distracted by the wrong thing.
Mark opened the front door. Outside, on his lawn, stood several people he vaguely recognized but couldn’t place. Each was holding something different – a toaster, a set of silverware, an iron, goblets. There were at least a few dozen people; their cars were angled up and down the street. Mark stepped outside for a better look. “Oh my God,” he said. These men and women, they had all been guests at his wedding, and now they were here holding the gifts that Mark had worked so hard to return.
Mitchell said, “You okay, buddy?”
Roscoe Robinson said, “I called Larry to see if he’d heard from you, and then Larry called Pam.”
“You had us worried,” Mitchell added.
Pamela Garrett, who had been the maid of honor, walked up the front steps and kissed Mark on the cheek. She was holding a sterling silver serving tray. “It’s cold out here,” she whispered into his ear. “You should invite us inside.”
“Absolutely,” he said, and then he called out, “Come on in! Please! Come in and make yourself at home!”
One by one, Mark greeted his old friends, shaking their hands or hugging them. Ginger Selman, whom Mark had not seen since the wedding, brought a shopping bag full of bagels and cream cheese. Harry Lindquist carried in two thermoses full of coffee. Before going inside and joining them, Mark saw a flicker of movement out the corner of his eye. It was Jimmy and Justine; they were inside Jimmy’s house now. They must have sneaked out Mark’s back door, stepping over the cat’s still-fresh grave. Mark wanted to wave them over – he wanted them to meet everyone – but neither one noticed him. Justine sat on Jimmy’s couch and stretched her arms out, draping them around the shoulders of two imaginary friends, while Jimmy walked from window to window, pulling down the shades, as if the house were finally – mercifully – closing its eyes.
John McNally is author of six books, most recently After the Workshop (a novel) and The Creative Writer's Survival Guide (nonfiction). His story "Return Policy" was the lead story in his collection Ghosts of Chicago.