Roger was alone in his grandmother’s basement with Elmer’s glue, liquid paraffin, and a copy of the New York Times. Dark Side of the Moon Breathe in the air played on his father’s stereo as he worked on the crossword. Finished, he folded the paper into the shape of a sail and glued it to a group of taped Popsicle sticks, reinforced by four others on each side, stuck in a block of chewed gradually becoming hard, securing the sail upright on the paper hotdog box.
He carried the little ship into the den where his mother sat. She was still crying. Someone in the room behind Roger said, “It’s just a cat… I don’t see what the big deal is,” Roger tapped his mother on the shoulder. She jumped, startled, and looked at him with expectant eyes, “Yes, dear? Are you hungry? There’s some pork chops in the fridge. I could heat ‘em up for you if you’re hungry.”
“No, I just want to take this boat to the river.” Roger held it up to show her.
“Why?” she asked. “Is it because of…”
“Just because… I don’t know. I think I saw it on TV or read about it but it’s something people do when a family member dies. I want… I have to do it.”
Roger’s mother smiled. “I’ll get my coat,” she said. She stood and walked across the room. Roger looked at his brother, at the white glimmer of a tear in his left eye bright. He nodded to him. His brother nodded back. Roger gestured to the boat and door. His brother shook his head.
“Tell mama I’m going to wait in the car,” Roger said. Ok, his brother replied.
Roger walked into the harbinger of night the sun’s golden crescent falling behind the hills. He stood for a moment on his aunt’s front porch, carpeted the color of fresh grass bright green. There were three old cars in front of the house, covered in rust, aged and decrepit looking. Roger got into a red car with Entae’s footprints on the hood and trunk mud in streaks below the doors that creaked when open the tired sigh of elderly metal. His mother walked through the front door and the fence locking it behind her sat down in the car and said, “You ready?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Roger said. “It’s just a cat.”
“She was more than that,” his mother Adina said. “She was our family too.”
“That’s not what that Melody B said at the house just a cat what’s the big deal. That’s what she said. I hate her.”
“Don’t hate her, Roger. She just doesn’t understand. It’s okay. We’ll set your boat out and when we get home we can arrange a headstone for her.”
Roger thought about where she was buried, under an under and a stump in shallow ground in a pink towel wrapped a glass umbrella on the stomp to save her from the sun.
“I remember when we first got her,” Adina said. “She was the run of the litter, the only black calico I’d ever seen with a little white spot on her nose. She was always gentle and kind… I’m going to miss her too, Roger, but don’t punish yourself because of this.”
“I should be punished,” Roger said. “It’s my fault?”
“No, you’re not, Roger. Why would you say that? It’s not your fault. It’s just a part of life; everybody has to die.”
“I’ll tell you how it’s my fault,” Roger said. “Every night when I stay up late with her she usually wants to go to the bathroom and I let her out whenever she stands by the door. I let her out this morning and had I not let her out, she might not have died.”
“Don’t think like that, Roger,” Adina said. “It was something we’ve done a thousand times before. She always wanted out when the sun came up you know to go to the bathroom then find a place in the shade and nap… That’s why we buried her under the pecan tree—where she always went in the summer time you know that big tree behind the house she used to sleep there every day.”
“How do you think she died?”
“She was dead when we found her,” Adina said. “When you finally went to sleep we got some people together to try to find her and we couldn’t. This morning Joyce called saying she’d found our cat, dead in her tomato garden. We think she was poisoned.”
Tears swelled up in Roger’s eyes, “If I ever found out somebody poisoned her I’ll kill them. I’ll F’ing kill them.”
“She might’a ate some rat poison in Margret’s shed. You shouldn’t think like that, Roger.”
Roger turned on the radio and turned up the volume, looking out the window. The car finally slowed to a stop at the turn around. Roger got out of the car and walked to the end of the road, where the boat-ramp was.
When they arrived, Roger got out of the car and walked to the end of the road, the boat ramp—a gradual incline into the river—and he sat down just before the water overlapped the concrete. He scratched R.S. Manwell was here into the chipped grey asphalt with his father’s pocketknife and sat the paper boat at the edge of the water. He lit the candle and gave it a shove. His mother stood behind him in a blue dress saying, It’s time to go, Roger. Come one.
He turned around to face his mother again, then turned his head to the sky at the sound of a buzzard calling.
“What is it, Roger?” she asked. “Are you okay?”
“Look,” Roger said. “The buzzards…” He pointed to an empty patch of sky, shook his head, smoothed his hair, exhaled. No buzzards. He looked at the sky again, cloudless the color of television static. He sighed, turned to face the dwindling candle on the boat a muted orb on the black waters getting darker.
It was dark when he sat beside his mother. They put on their seatbelts and turned around at the end of the road, heading back to their house in Laurens.
“I don’t think I can be happy again,” Roger said.
“You’ll feel better,” his mother said.
“But I don’t want to,” Roger said. “I’d feel guilty.”
Silence. Large forests pine trees dark blue almost black went by the window, the car looked like a glowing bicycle rider projected on the wall of pines.
“So what are you going to do tomorrow, Roger?” his mother asked. “Are you picking up cans with Ethel?”
Ethel was aunt to a friend of his, his only friend, a girl three years his senior, and every Saturday and Sunday, when everybody went to the white church on main, Roger and Ethel collected cans for five to six hours a week. They once walked with a cat, whose ship Roger sailed into the river with his mother behind, and once walked with Ethel’s husband Richard, until he caught pneumonia and died. But Roger and Ethel continued to pick up cans every Sunday.
The next morning Roger met Ethel in front of her house. It was early and the sky was pinkish crimson red and cloudless. Roger wore a t-shirt and jeans. Ethel wore her pearls and beige dress. They met in front of Ethel’s house and from there turned onto Washington St, a street in the shadow of an abandoned textile mill in ruin, a place where half the town once worked. They took Heron avenue at the end of Washington to the left, to comb the gutters by the local stores and markets, then a small trail through the trees to clean the beer cans and bottles from the creek, a place where teens go to get drunk and cool off in the summer.
After Heron they turned East onto Sinclair avenue, Roger picking up the cans as Ethel raked them into a pile. He picked them up and put them in her shopping cart, a cart with two black trash bags filled to the brim.
Off Sinclair, a long street, onto Spring St, a three bar road with a dead end turn around dusty. It was the most bountiful spot in town, overflowing with cans and bottles and glass and garbage along the windswept road where trash bags blew by, hanging on the wind to glide.
The people of the town embodied the character of a gentleman and lady, good old boys and girls drinking around bonfires outside of town, fixing up their cars to race on the four lane heading out of town. The small town was the type where everybody knew everybody—or at least everybody knew the name of everybody, and there were practically no violent crimes since Roger’s birth in ’85. Coincidentally the only person to commit a violent crime in sixty years was Roger’s father when a burglar startled him and, in the ensuing scuffle, the man’s nose was bitten off.
When they were done they went to a recycling factory in Clinton and traded the cans and bottles in for money. It usually ended up being one hundred bucks on a good day, and Roger bought a lot of books and computer accessories with the extra money. They
Made fifty bucks a piece and Roger didn’t know Ethel was giving him her money the whole time until he went back, ten years after she died with another little boat and candle.
10 years later
Roger hadn’t watched the moon rise on Galilee in ten years, when he was eight and his mother stood behind him in a blue dress saying, Roger, it’s time to go. He’ll be back. It’s time to go. It’s always time to go. The memory disappeared.
Roger gathered his notebooks and pens, his copy of Eliot’s Middlemarch, and flask of Vodka; he packed them into his typewriter case. He put the bag in the trunk of his car and slammed it shut. His initials R.S. MANWELL he wrote when he was a child in stone had been pulled into the sea along with his initials in the loose sand washed away. He stopped for a moment before he got into the car and lit a cigarette, looked at the cloudless sky, the color of television static, he sighed. His once bright blue eyes were dark, his eyelids colored black by insomnia, and his face, though young, was covered in wrinkles. Buzzards circled overhead, something somewhere dead; he walked to the edge of the river again to see the boat. Instead he saw the memory:
Gulls circled overhead and his mother called him. He turned to face her expectant glance. His sand colored hair covered his Galilee blue eyes.
He shook the image of and threw his cigarette to the ground and stubbed it out. He walked up the hill with the bag over his shoulder, sandy blond hair covered eyes the blue of Galilee, a white sun falling in the sky making way for night. The boat made its way across the sea, made with Elmer’s paper Mache and cardboard with a candle burning steady, a candle and a crushed can. Night fell and the muted halo of the sun died on the water as Miss Luna rose to scattered blurred slits of golden light through the trees and limbs.
“Come on, Roger,” his mother said. “You know aunt Ethel is waiting.”
The car started and they pulled onto Herron avenue, turned down Washington street, pulled into a big gravel driveway at a house on Sinclair avenue, two houses owned by the same family of elderly women.
Roger met them through his first friend, a girl named Dawn, who lived with the old sisters. Ethel sewed and made her own quilts, Margaret made her own clothes, and Maybelle chewed snuff and liked John Wayne; just three old Southern women who all ate together on Sunday and sometimes Roger went. They didn’t go to church but they read from the Bible and said grace before they ate. Ethel answered the door with her trashbag and her rake in crimson-purple ankle length dress.
“You hungry?” Roger’s mother asked. “I’m sure I could find some wings and vodka around here somewhere.”
“Nah,” Roger said. “That would only make me happy.”
He slammed the door behind him when he got back to the car. His mother waited a moment before getting into the car, seeing Roger’s anger scared her, so intense and emphatic, so distant.
His mother opened the car door put her seat belt on and said, “Put your seatbelt on.”
Roger did so.
Silence. Roger’s leg rocked back and forth. His mother started the car, put it in reverse, and pulled away from the boat ramp, where they’d went to send off the ship and vigil.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Talk about it? What good is that going to do? She’ll still be dead. Talking about her isn’t going to reanimate her body.”
“How did you meet her, then?”
“I was a little kid when I met her. I was friends with her granddaughter Dawn and she went with me and Dawn picking cans in the morning during the summer, when school was out, and when we’d picked up all the cans we’d go to a place over in Union to recycle them and they’d give us money. We picked up cans every Saturday.