Ethan Hoffman sat in a white plastic chair on his porch, drank scotch from a mug with the words World’s Greatest Dad written in bright, bold letters across it, and listened to the electric chorus of a thousand cicadas. It was a Wednesday night, late July, the air heavy and still. He searched the tops of the towering maple trees for the insects’ vibrating abdomens and translucent wings, until his eyes were drawn to the light of Mr. Peterson’s bedroom window across the street. Ethan watched him take off his jeans, fold them carefully and lay them on top of his oak bureau. Mr. Peterson was 61-years-old, had retired too early, could no longer pay his mortgage and had recently watched his wife pack two flowered suitcases, get into a car with a man she met online and drive away. He sat on the edge of his king-sized bed, in a white t-shirt and loose jockey underwear, put his head in his large hands and cried uncontrollably. On nights like these – despite the fact Ethan hated his job, his 10-year-old son showed signs of Asperger’s, and he couldn’t remember the last time his wife had touched him—he felt fortunate. People he knew had divorced, lost jobs and houses, become addicts, hung themselves from trees in the college woods or jumped from the tops of parking garages in the city. At their funerals, as he stared at their distorted faces, he understood just how fragile their lives must have been.
He looked into Samantha Robinson’s bay window. The light of the television bathed the living room and her profile in a soft, blue light. He watched her bring a large wine glass to her lips. Her black Audi was in the curved driveway, her husband’s BMW absent, as it always was, on Monday and Wednesday nights.
He told himself that one day he would summon the courage to sneak across the street, duck behind the row of yellow roses around her driveway, slowly climb the three steps of her back deck and stand before the sliding glass door. He closed his eyes and imagined her turning to look at him from the couch with a mischievous smile. She would walk to the door, wearing a blue silk slip that rose and fell against her thighs, her red painted toes barely touching the marble, kitchen floor. He pressed a hand against the glass as she stood behind it. The thin strap from her left shoulder fell to her elbow; the top of her dark nipple peered out from the blue silk. The door would be unlocked and he pictured himself sliding it open, letting her lead him upstairs where…
A bird shrieked. He opened his eyes and looked down the front steps. On a broken, gray paver, sat Mrs. Heinrich’s fat, white cat, a house wren held in its jaws; the bird’s tiny body shuddered as it tried to free itself.
“Drop it,” Ethan said.
The cat’s tail swung like a metronome behind it. It smiled and its teeth pierced the skin of the bird. The wren’s black eyes shut. Its head drooped. Drops of blood stained the white fur around the cat’s mouth.
Ethan hated the cat. It killed songbirds and voles, left them in Ethan’s son’s sandbox, or in his wife’s flowerbeds. She screamed when she found them, stormed inside and would tell him to call the police.
“For what?” he always asked her.
“Murder, littering, trespassing. I don’t care. Just make it stop.”
Once, he went to Mrs. Heinrich’s house, knocked on the door, determined to tell her to keep the cat inside or he would call the police and animal control, but she never answered. In the ten years they lived next door he had only seen her a few times, just before dawn, in a white nightgown, planting bulbs in her garden or floating like a ghost past her upstairs windows. An old Buick that never moved sat in the garage and he had never seen anyone visit. She was childless, as far as he could tell, the cat her only companion. Each morning Ethan roamed the yard and collected the scattered bodies of birds and rodents in plastic grocery bags, cursing Mrs. Heinrich, her cat and his wife the entire time.
The cat stared at him with wide, yellow eyes, the dead bird clenched in its mouth. Ethan felt the burning rage he kept in his gut boil, spill into his veins and travel through his entire body. He threw the mug as hard as he could and watched it sail past the cat’s head and land in the rhododendrons. The cat sat perfectly still, even as Ethan walked to the front of the porch and picked up his son’s aluminum baseball bat. He raised it above his head, jumped over the four steps and brought the bat down as hard as he could. The cat dropped the bird, turned to run, but the bat crushed its back right foot. It screeched in pain and ran on three legs through the bushes to its own yard. Ethan let go of the bat and ran after it. The cat had almost reached the back steps of Mrs. Heinrich’s house when Ethan lunged, grabbed its tail and pulled it towards him. He knelt in the soft, wet grass, the cat beneath him, his right hand clenching the throat, that felt, beneath the soft fur, as thin as a plastic straw. The cat dug his nails into Ethan’s arms. He muffled a scream and tightened his fist until he felt his fingers dig into his palm. The cat’s eyes bulged, the nails retracted and when he finally relaxed his fist the cat’s body let out a slow, final breath, like a punctured bicycle tire.
A floodlight came on. The backdoor opened.
“What have you done?” Mrs. Heinrich asked as she stood at the top of her back steps.
She was wearing a long, sheer nightgown. Her white hair reached below her shoulders. Her fingers were long and thin, her skin so pale he could see the outline of her veins. He watched her long, slender breasts swing and brush against the light fabric as she walked down the concrete steps. She stood above him in the grass. The air around him grew cold.
“Give it to me,” she said.
Ethan stood, handed her the dead cat and wondered if she was going to call the police.
She took a step toward him. He felt her stale, dying breath on his lips and stared into her bright, gray eyes. Hairs rose from every pore on his body.
“I’m not going to call the police, if that’s what you’re wondering. You’ll be punished, every day, for the rest of your life, in ways the police could never imagine.”
“I was trying to save the wren,” he said.
“It was already dead.”
She turned around, cradled the cat in her arms, and walked up the steps into her house.
He stayed in her backyard until she turned off the light, then walked back through the bushes, sat in his chair and poured another mug of scotch. His hands trembled.
The next morning he looked out his bedroom window and saw Mrs. Heinrich, in the same thin gown, kneeling in her yard, digging a hole with a small garden shovel, the body of the cat next to her on the grass. He felt the familiar seeds of guilt sprout in his stomach and turn into vines that constricted his heart, just like they did each time he grabbed his son by the arms and shook him too hard or when he felt like hitting his wife.
That night, as he sat on the porch, Mrs. Heinrich stood before her bedroom window and stared down at him. As soon as he stared back she slipped behind the walls. Each night, as soon as he sat down on the white chair, she appeared in the window, reminding him of what he had done and each time he stared back, silently acknowledging his guilt and her sentence, she disappeared.
He was almost disappointed when, eight nights later, she wasn’t there.
“Have you seen Mrs. Heinrich?” he asked his wife the next morning as they sipped their coffee.
“I never see her,” she said.
It was a Sunday. The two of them looked out the kitchen window and watched their son, lying in the grass, pointing at the clouds, talking to some imaginary friend.
“I think she’s dead,” he said.
“Why would you think that?”
“I see her every night, standing in front of her bedroom window. She wasn’t there last night.”
“Call the police,” she said. “And tell them to take the cat too.”
He waited until his wife took their son with her to her sister’s, and then walked next door to Mrs. Heinrich’s house. He rang the doorbell and listened to the electric chimes echo through the rooms. He put his face against the glass oval and looked inside. The hallway walls were bare, except for a long, gray trench coat on a single hook. He checked the door, but it was locked. He walked around the house and peered into each window searching for any sign of life. All he saw were large pieces of furniture that looked like they had been bought at the Good Will.
He walked up the back steps, turned the doorknob and pushed the door open. He stepped into her kitchen. The air was cold and stale. Dust floated through a stream of light. Next to the white Formica and chrome table was a bowl of cat food covered in flies and a small bowl of curdled milk. The kitchen counter was lined with cat salt and pepper shakers and coffee mugs with pictures of cats, clichés written beneath them.
He walked into the dining room. The table was set for three, with white china, crystal glasses and silver. He ran his finger through the dust on a plate. He heard the song of a wren come from an open window upstairs and followed it up the steep staircase into a long, narrow hallway. He walked into the bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet. It was empty, except for a tube of toothpaste and a prescription bottle of Wellbutrin.
The bird’s song became a long, slow whistle that came from her bedroom. He walked down the hall. The air smelled fecal. He stood in the doorway of her bedroom and stared at her dead body, in the white gown, hands crossed over her stomach, her eyes straining to see the crucifix over her bed. Her jaw was open and her feet were purple. Her skin had loosened, fallen away from the bone and landed in small puddles on the white sheet. On the table beside the bed was a Bible. He thumbed through the pages and found a wallet-sized picture of a young boy, around eight-years-old. His face was pale; his nose long and thin like hers, the narrow lips forcing a painful smile. On the back was the name Michael, the dates 1971-1988.
He knelt next to the bed, took her frail, thin hand in his, and felt the echo of his pulse. He closed his eyes, saw his mother’s face, his son laying in the grass, his wife when she was younger and Mrs. Heinrich, carrying the dead body of her teenage boy up the back steps. He pictured himself there, dead, alone, what he realized then, as his greatest fear and what must have been hers too. And if the cat had been there, she wouldn’t have died alone. Her words that night no longer seemed like some predestined curse. It was a warning, from someone who must have understood loneliness better than anyone else he had ever known. He looked at the cross and asked for forgiveness.
A quadrangle of light came through the window and rested on her face. The wren chirped. When he looked over at it, it flew away.
“Thank you,” he whispered, put her hand back on her stomach, and covered it with her other hand.
When he returned home he called Mike O’Connor, the local police chief, and told him that Mrs. Heinrich was dead.
“Where is she?” Mike asked.
“In her bed,” Ethan said.
“How do you know she’s dead?”
“I went inside to check on her. I couldn't find a pulse.”
“Next time, just call the police,” Mike said and hung up.
He sat on the porch and watched Mike and the county coroner carry her body, wrapped in a white sheet, from the front door into the back of a van. His wife pulled her car into the driveway as the van drove away. His son got out of the car, ran up the steps, but before he could open the front door Ethan grabbed him, knelt down and hugged him. He kissed him on the forehead and told him that he loved him.
“Okay,” his son whispered and went inside.
His wife stood at the top of the porch steps and stared at him.
Ethan nodded, walked over to her, and took her in his arms. She stood perfectly still as he kissed her neck and whispered I love you too.
“What about the cat?” she asked.
“It ran away.”
She opened the door and went inside.
He forgave her for her coldness. Forgave his son for his lack of affection. They would never understand how much he loved them, and if it hadn’t been for the cat, Mrs. Heinrich or her dead son, he wouldn’t have either.
Three days later he came home from work and saw an older, silver Mercedes parked in front of Mrs. Heinrich’s house. Her front door was open. He walked up the front steps and knocked on the door. He heard footsteps upstairs.
“Hello,” he said as he opened the door and stepped into the foyer.
A man a few years younger than Ethan came down the stairs, stood at the base of them and glared at him. He wore too tight jeans, white sneakers and a perfectly pressed, white, button-down shirt. His hair was blond, styled to look like he just rolled out of bed. He had her thin nose and lips, her gray eyes, pale skin and thin bones.
“Can I help you?” the man asked.
“Are you Michael?”
“How could you know that?”
“There was a picture, on top of her Bible. I saw it when I found her.”
“My name is Ethan Harris. I live next door.”
“Why were you in her house?”
“I hadn’t seen her. I was worried. She died peacefully, in her sleep.”
“Are you sure?”
“She was in bed. Her hands on her stomach. She looked like she was smiling.”
“I suppose that is what most people would like to hear.”
“Will there be a funeral?”
“If there is anything I can do,” Ethan said.
“I think you’ve done enough.”
“Will there be some kind of service?”
Michael took a step towards him and narrowed his eyes
“Did you know her?”
“We were neighbors,” Ethan said.
“You didn’t know her. If you did, you wouldn’t really care if there was a service, or if she died in peace, which I’m almost certain, she didn’t. A truck from The Salvation Army will be here tomorrow. The house will be on the market by the end of the week.”
Michael grabbed his elbow and led him out the door. Ethan was too stunned to resist and stood speechless on the step as Michael slammed the door shut.
He walked down the front steps, over the cracks of the sidewalk and into his own house. His wife was on the couch in the living room, drinking Chardonnay, watching reruns of America’s Funniest Home Videos. Their son sat next to her, staring at the screen. A fat man fell through a trampoline.
“She had a son,” Ethan said.
His wife stared at him. His son watched a dog scoot in circles.
“Who?” his wife asked and muted the television.
“Mrs. Heinrich. He’s over there now.”
“Is he moving in?”
“Good,” she said and turned the volume back up.
Ethan went into the kitchen, grabbed his coffee mug from the cupboard and the scotch from under the sink. He walked between his family and the television, out to the porch as a cat played chopsticks on a piano.
He sat in his chair and filled the mug with scotch. He heard the front door of Mrs. Heinrich’s house shut. He looked over and watched Michael put a single box in the trunk, get in his car and drive away.
When Ethan’s mug was empty he filled it again. The sun went down. The cicadas started their nightly chant. He watched Mr. Peterson take off his clothes and cry on his bed. He watched Samantha Robinson bring a glass to her lips and change the channel.
He didn’t know how long he had been sitting there or how many glasses of scotch he’d had when he saw a white cat, sitting at the end of his walkway, staring at him. He stood up and walked slowly towards it. The cat jogged across the street, into Samantha’s driveway. He followed it through the rose bushes, into the backyard and up the steps of the back deck. The cat sat in front of the sliding glass door. He knelt in front of it and whispered, I’m sorry.
The glass door slid open. The cat ran into Mr. Peterson’s yard. Ethan looked up and saw Samantha standing above him, wearing a green silk nightshirt that came down to her thighs, the top three buttons open.
“Hello,” she said.
He stood up and faced her. He smelled the coconut shampoo in her long, dark hair and the cheap, red wine on her breath.
“Do you want a drink?” she asked.
“Okay,” he said.
She took his hand and led him inside, across the marble floor, down the one step to the living room. The television was large and bright. On the screen a pack of hyenas surrounded an injured wildebeest.
“You sit,” she said and walked back into the kitchen.
He watched her fill two large glasses with wine from a box on the counter.
She handed him a glass and sat next to him.
“To neighbors,” she said and held her glass in front of her.
He gently touched her glass with his.
“And windows,” she said and laughed softly.
He took a sip of wine. It tasted like fruit juice mixed with vodka.
“Do you watch me?” she asked.
“Sometimes,” he said.
“Do you think about what it would be like?”
“What what would be like?”
“To fuck,” she said.
“Do you really want to know?”
“Yes,” he whispered, but as she dug her nails into the back of his neck and put her large tongue in his mouth, he wasn’t so sure. She unbuttoned his shirt and peeled it off him. She bit his nipples, undid his belt, pulled off his pants and boxers, then took off his socks and threw them over her shoulder. She stood in front of him, curled her drunken lip, and pulled the nightshirt over her head. Her skin was light gold, her nipples large and flat, on top of breasts the size and consistency of too full water balloons. She put her hands on his shoulders, straddled him and slowly moved against him. Her pubic hair felt as coarse and stiff as a scouring pad. He was almost inside her when he saw flames in the mirror over her fireplace.
He stood. Samantha fell to the floor. He ran out the front door, across the street and up his front steps. Sirens wailed. Flames shot out the windows. The metal doorknob felt hot in his hand. He opened the door and a wave of smoke knocked him down. He smelled burning wood, hair and skin. He crawled back towards the door, screaming the names of his wife and child, until two EMTs grabbed his ankles and dragged him down the steps to a waiting ambulance where they covered him in wool blanket. He watched firemen enter the burning house with oxygen tanks on their backs.
His wife survived. His son didn’t. A burning rafter fell on her legs outside the child’s room. Crown molding, engulfed in flame, fell on the left side of her face. The insurance company hired investigators. It was an electrical fire, caused by the knob and tube wiring his wife had asked him, years ago, to replace.
They moved to a single story house on Westdale Avenue, on the very edge of town. In his spare time he built ramps and widened hallways for her wheelchair. In the summer evenings, when he pushed her down the street, a blanket over her thin, useless legs, the left side of her face as raw as a baby mouse, he heard the cicadas call, summoning the ghosts of cats, old women and children, who followed him with every painful step.