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 in an old lounge chair.
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 gum 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 as the sun’s golden crescent fell 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 stump 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 shouldn’t be, Roger. Why would you say that? It’s not your fault. It’s just a part of life; everybody… everything 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, ” 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 fucking 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 on the end of a dusty road. 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 on.”
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, and 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 yellow orb on the waters getting darker.
It was night 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 had sailed, and once with Ethel’s husband Richard, until he caught pneumonia and died. But Roger and Ethel continued to pick up cans every Saturday and 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. From Ethel’s front yard they 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 picked 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. They turned left at the end of Sinclair onto Spring St, the most bountiful part of town, because of the three bars on the road, trash everywhere, car parts, paper cups and plates, cans and bottles and newspapers stained in mud.
When Spring St was clean they turned right onto Main, in front of stores and restaurants and a dentist and doctor’s office. Roger dug through the trash barrels and asked people who worked at the stores for permission to take their cans.
The last road they went down was called Little Mountain; a congregation of men, the people of the town that embodied the character of a Southern gentleman, the good old boys and girls drinking around bonfires outside of town, fixing up their pickup trucks and john-boats on the weekend.
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 who, when a burglar startled him, bit off the burglar’s nose.
Strangers in pickup trucks gathered every night out there on Little Mountain to get hammered and Roger and Ethel usually got a lot of beer cans, but they walked that road to see the sights, to remember the faces. The road on both sides was a blanket of pine trees through which ran a winding gravel road into the country, a mile outside of town. Halfway down the road a river ran over the asphalt by an inch and people held their jeans when they walked through the water to get to the other side. Roger held Ethel’s hand as they walked over the water covered bridge. They walked to the end of the road where the boat ramp was and the turn around, a turn left would head back to town and that is what they did, it being almost three in the afternoon.
When they were done making their rounds, they went to a recycling factory a town over in Clinton and traded the cans and bottles in for money. Roger usually ended up with a hundred bucks, on a good day, and sometimes more. Roger liked going, and liked the money, and he bought a lot of books and computer accessories. They made fifty bucks a piece, but Roger got Ethel’s cash but didn’t know; when he found out, it shamed him.
With their route finished, they got into Ethel’s car and didn’t say a word on the way home. They didn’t speak much anymore, not like they used to, and when they did it was always related to the cans, the bottles, where they were and how to get them. They just didn’t talk like they used to. Ethel seemed distant and Roger was just as wounded, both of them wounded animals going through sad motions to remind them of a time when they were happier, when their loved ones were still there and smiling, at the table for Sunday dinner before they all started to die, as fewer and fewer people showed up at Christmas dinner, the sadness—the existential sorrow of one day no longer being, of one day not existing, caused Roger a great deal of anxiety.
Ethel went through the motions for Roger’s sake though she was in her eighties, and in poor health; though rain or shine she walked with Roger in the mornings.
Every weekend after they met, Ethel walked the same path with Roger around the town. They first met when he was a child with a stubbed toe on her back porch. Roger cried and cried.
His friend Dawn said her aunt Ethel could make it feel better. She left him crying on the steps. She disappeared into the house. Roger sat at the top of the steps in front of a screen door, through which was the laundry room and then the kitchen, and waited. It wasn’t long before Ethel opened the door and walked down the steps. She knelt in front of Roger and said, “If you tell me your name, I can make the pain go away.”
“No way,” Roger said.
“She really can,” Dawn said. “But she can’t tell you how she does it or it won’t work. All you have to do is give her your name.”
“Roger Solomon Manwell.”
Ethel held his little foot and blew on the toe for a minute and rubbed it with the palm of her hand and smiled. Roger looked at Dawn, who also smiled, and he smiled too; the pain was gone.
The day finally arrived when she was too sick to go. Roger walked alone, down every road along their path, and always brought back her share of money. The last time he got to talk to her was in the dark living room of Ethel’s house, lit by the faint glow of an old television. Roger’s face was covered with sweat and red from a day in the sun. Dawn brought him some orange juice and sat in front of the television with her legs crossed. Roger looked at the tubes running from Ethel’s nose to an oxygen tank beside the chair. She was still in her Sunday best, her Sunday best she wore every day, starched and pressed and ironed. She wore her pearls, had her hair curled and a perm; Roger thought, All dressed up to die.
“Tell me how you did it,” Roger said. “How you made my toe stop hurting. You said you would tell me…”
“All you have to do is get their full name, talk to them using their full name, and blow on the area that hurts. If they believe in you, it will.”
“If you never wanted money, why did you walk with me?”
“Just because,” she said.
She coughed into a napkin and dropped it into a trashcan beside the chair. She said, “I don’t think we’ll get to make our rounds anymore.”
“I will,” Roger said.
Three days later Ethel died. After the wake and funeral, Roger rode with his mother again, out to the boat ramp, with another boat made of paraffin and newspaper with a candle in it. His mother stayed in the car until the glowing candle disappeared from sight. She got out of the car, “It’s time go to, Roger,” she said. “It’s getting cold.”
Roger walked to the car in silence, always time to go, he thought.
He sat beside his mother and closed the door, put his seatbelt on. She asked, “How do you feel?”
“I really don’t know,” Roger said. “I’m sure I was happy at one time in my life. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if it’s just the gradual erosion of time, me getting older, or watching as friend after friend has died, or it could be the anxiety of my own momentary existence that depresses and overwhelms me. There was a time when I could wake up, brush my teeth, get dressed and go out, out to play on rollerblades or skateboards or anything but now, now I just wake up and pour over my typewriter, take my pills and cigarettes and now it’s a struggle, to relax, to maintain, to keep myself hinged and busy.
“Because, ‘cause if I was inert, my anxiety, this high strung feeling and insomnia would eat me alive from the inside out and all I’d do is mourn, I’d mourn until I blew my brains out. Instead I keep moving, I keep digging, digging around in my brain trying to understand myself, trying to hit the bottom so I can see the cause of my depression, to find the hobgoblin that roams the corridors of my mind ringing bells and screaming and stomping, deleting my happy memories. I don’t remember the first time I saw the goblin, but he was in my dream—and he told me that he’d hunt down every happy memory I had and erase it. He tries to drive me mad, until I’m old and burnt out, stomping around in the dark room of my imaginary castle looking for the troll who roams around inside my head, hunting down my happiness and killing it, looking for the happy child that I made up because a real one couldn’t be found.
“When I try to sleep, he rattles pots and pans and screams at me, until the child in me is screaming back, screaming hurtful words and visiting violence on himself, because a world of pain is all he understands, a world he’d sell for peace of mind, if only for an hour, if only for a moment, so he could see the life he remembered, or imagined, whichever, so he could see it long enough to feel happiness again—just so when the sun went down, at least he’d remember what it felt like to feel, to smile, so whenever he crawled back into the dark to feed the hobgoblin again, at least he could fake a smile as he watched the goblin eat his happiness. I study the faces of happy people—just so I can try them on at home to see if I can find one that fits. They never fit.
“Every time I see the possibility of happiness, the hobgoblin smashes it like a mirror, and I cry as I pick up the pieces and curse at God when I can’t get the puzzle back together. And if I do, I break it again, just to watch it fall apart. Sometimes I do it just to hear the glass shatter. It always breaks, and I always expect it to; when it doesn’t, I break it myself.”
They drove the rest of the way home in silence. They arrived just after dark. Roger was glad the house was empty and quiet. It took him a long time to get to sleep.
Roger still walks the same old route now by himself, raking up the cans, putting them in the shopping cart in silence, going through the motions, just because, as Ethel said. He remembered the song, some dance to remember. Some dance to forget.
Even though he walked alone, even though she was dead, at the end of the day Ethel got her cut.