Had It and Lost It
I started to go for walks in the evening. The doctor said it would be a good idea, that it would help clear my head. And it worked at first. I took notice of the branches of beech trees reaching out over the roads, the evening sun filtered through their leaves. Sprinklers fawning over manicured lawns. Houses, still and strong, newly renovated with stained wood siding and ornamental gardens. I’d never taken the time to admire West End Halifax during our two years in the house. Its beauty nearly brought me to tears more than once during those first evening walks, as if it had only bloomed the moment I joined it.
But a quiet came with the neighbourhood’s stillness. I’d encounter a dog-walker, a small group of children playing in a yard, the cries coming from the soccer field a couple of blocks away. It was mostly quiet though, and I think that’s what started to chip away at me. You can only look at the same trees and houses and sunset so many times before they bleed into the background. Then the thoughts creep back.
This was one of those nights, after the thoughts had started rattling around my head again. I walked a path dividing the back yards of two rows of houses, lined up perfectly. My thoughts drifted back to the stuff I’d been avoiding at home, and all those duties that went with my job title, but weren’t my responsibility anymore. A cat flickered in front of me like a memory and disappeared just as quickly. I froze and studied the wall of hedges it had shot through. Not a branch out of place.
The hedges opened into one of the backyards, the cat lay flat on the lawn and watched a mosquito dance in its orbit. I’d become familiar with this lean Siamese thanks to posters strewn on lampposts across the neighbourhood. These posters claimed it answered to its name, but that name had gotten away from me.
The cat glanced at me and returned to the mosquito. The insect made a sudden, lazy dive and the cat leapt with its front paws stretched upward. The mosquito slipped past and floated on while the Siamese sat embarrassed in the grass. I stooped over and moved in closer. It tiptoed toward me and butted its head against my leg. I stroked it a few times and scooped it up. Just like that—I couldn’t believe it. I kissed the top of the cat’s head, brought the collar toward my face. The crown-shaped tag called him “Prince Charles.”
I wondered how I’d forgotten that name.
A little girl wearing a frilly dress with frilly socks and her hair perfectly braided opened Prince Charles’s front door. She squealed and called the cat by name. I handed him down and she squeezed him against her chest so his hind legs touched the tile floor. His front paws reached stiffly out toward me. The girl mashed her palm into his head.
“Bad Prince Charles!” she said.
I felt sorry for Prince Charles.
The girl’s father stood behind her with one hand on her shoulder and the other on the door. I strained to smile at him. He didn’t return the favour.
“Thank you,” he said, like he was trying to keep it to himself.
I nodded and put my hands in my pockets. The girl glowed while Prince Charles grimaced at me like I’d done him a real disservice.
“I suppose you’re wondering about the reward,” her father said.
“Oh no, that’s okay.”
“Well, good night then,” he said and closed the door.
The emotional peak of Prince Charles’s rescue had come and gone sooner than I’d expected, but I wanted to feel it again. I kept a constant eye out for posters after that, and if I saw a cat, I gave it a good once-over before carrying on. My walks began to extend well beyond my street as I searched for another one. A poster for a cat named Applejack appeared after a few days. A large tabby that sat perfectly upright in the photo, Applejack looked like he took himself too seriously. I hadn’t devised a strategy in the days since finding Prince Charles, and it soon became apparent that I would only ever land Applejack by chance.
I struck gold four days later, casing a neighbourhood a half-dozen blocks from my own. The sidewalk ran in front of a dense line of houses with no more than a few feet between them. I heard the siren scream of cats fighting and squeezed between two houses to follow the noise. A white longhair struck past me as soon as I came out into the backyard. Applejack remained in the middle of the green and yellow patched lawn, hairs standing straight as acupuncture needles on his arched back.
I stripped off my windbreaker and hunched over. He hissed and bared his teeth. I called his name in the next best thing to a whisper and he hissed again. I got in close, lunged forward and caught him with the coat just as he turned to run. My knees landed first. Then my face hit the ground. Not hard, but hard enough. Applejack broke free and kicked a clawed foot back at my cheek. He darted to the end of the yard, up around the side of a rock wall and into a row of trees. That’s when I found out I wasn’t alone.
A boy, twelve or thirteen, sat at the top of the rock. He wore a tucked-in button-down shirt and his legs dangled over the edge in brown corduroy pants. His argyle socks were buried in a dirty pair of Nike trainers, his heels drummed the rock’s face. I recognized him immediately, though I hadn’t seen him since he was a toddler. He looked like his dad.
“You’re Rory Stillman’s son,” I called up. He didn’t say anything, just took an unconvincing drag from a cigarette.
“I used to know your dad,” I added.
I didn’t really. Rory had always been something of a loser, and it sounded like his son had figured that out a long time ago.
“What’re you doing?” he said.
I got up and tried to brush the grass and dirt off my pants. My cheek stung where Applejack kicked me.
“That’s Applejack,” I said. “He’s lost and I’m trying to catch him.”
“For a reward?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I hadn’t let myself think about why I was standing in a stranger’s yard, breathless and shaking with adrenaline.
He stood up, brushed off his pants and pointed to the side of the rock wall. I reached the top with more effort than I wanted to show. He dropped his cigarette, stamped it out, and turned into the woods. We followed a barely discernable path. I warded off branches where he passed through cleanly. We hit a fork about twenty feet in. The kid stopped.
“What?” I asked.
I followed his eyes through the fog of brush. The second path opened into a small clearing, where Applejack sat licking his paw and tending to the cut above his eye.
“Give me your coat.”
The kid took it and crouched down below the height of the lowest branches. Applejack watched him move into the clearing. The boy draped the jacket to one side and the animal took a defensive stance. Too late. The jacket whipped down from the side and swept over Applejack. The cat wailed and struggled, but the kid held tight.
He came back through the small tunnel of brush, cat swaddled in the windbreaker like a furious baby. Applejack’s ears lay flattened back but he didn’t have any fight left in him.
“That was awesome,” I said. “Sorry, I can’t remember your name.”
“I never gave it to you.”
“It’s just, I knew you when you were a baby. Of course, you wouldn’t remember that.”
“It’s Eric.” Applejack squirmed and Eric locked his arms. “You’re not some sort of creep, are you?”
“What? No, of course not.”
“Okay, okay,” he said. “What now?”
A young couple answered Applejack’s door with a lot of gushing and even waved down to me at the curb. Eric came back with a hundred dollars in twenties and a tooth-shattering grin. I told him to keep the money. It felt good just to have shared my enthusiasm with someone else.
“Wow, thanks!” he said. I took another look at those five green fingers spread across his hand.
“Actually, give me forty,” I said. “What for?”
“A kid shouldn’t have that much money. And don’t spend that on cigarettes.”
I saw Eric again a few days later, his foot kicked up on a fire hydrant while he tied his shoe. He somehow managed to look both casual and deliberately posed. A cigarette dangled out of his lip, smoke lazily wafting from its tip. He’d become a veteran smoker in a matter of days. I hadn’t made half as much progress, either with the cats or myself.
“I hope the Applejack money didn’t pay for that cigarette,” I said.
“I don’t even buy them. I take them from Chad.”
“Mom’s boyfriend,” he barked. “I used the money on this. Some of it, anyway.”
He held up the new addition to his ensemble, a navy necktie with small green schooners peppered all over.
“I thought your mom made you wear those clothes.”
“No. She doesn’t know anything about style.” He scowled and I put up my hands in self-defense.
“I didn’t mean anything by it. I just don’t know many thirteen-year-olds who dress that well.”
“First of all, I’m fourteen. Second, If I’m gonna be a famous mathematician, I should look the part.”
“I didn’t know there were famous mathematicians,” I said.
“Well, I don’t know any famous cat catchers, do you?”
“No one’s ever heard of that guy.”
I couldn’t argue with him. I hadn’t heard the name myself until I’d dived head-first into the trade. Since then, I’d channeled most of my energy into absorbing Corbett’s work, only to find out that little of his knowledge of tracking man-eating tigers translated to the house cat beat.
“Are you going to fill me in on how this works?” Eric asked.
“How what works?”
“Finding lost cats. Isn’t that what you’re doing?”
“No trade secrets,” I said, “we’re doing it right now.”
It wasn’t much of an answer. I’d become an expert at giving non-answers. Eric kept pace with me and twirled an unlit cigarette between his fingers. We became business partners just like that, no contract, no handshake. I figured Eric was in it for the money alone, but I was happy to have the company. He made a good distraction.
“So, you’re good at math,” I said. “That’s amazing. I always sucked at it.”
“Yeah, that’s what everyone says,” he said. “I actually have a test tomorrow.”
“Shouldn’t you be at home studying?”
“I’ll be fine,” he said to his Nikes. I navigated the sidewalk for both of us. We walked around and talked a little more, but we didn’t find anything.
Eric tracked me down the next day before I’d even gotten started. He cut across the street, hand fumbling around the pocket of his nylon jacket. He dug a piece of paper out and unfolded it.
“I’ve been looking all over for you,” he said, handing the paper over.
Beautiful tortoise shell
BIG w/ green eyes
The black-and-white photo showed Tina lying out-stretched on a skateboard, one eye closed in a wink.
“Cash reward!” Eric poked the sheet again. “Where’d you find this?”
“By my school.”
“It’s a little out of the way,” I said.
“You gotta go where the action is. Besides, I’ve got this place all staked-out.”
Eric’s face beamed with self-assurance. He must’ve been thinking about the money. Or neckties.
“You’re the boss,” I said.
Eric wouldn’t tell me where we were going, told me I had to see it for myself. Houses got progressively smaller, more weather-beaten and less ornamental as we moved from my neighbourhood into his. They were houses for people to live in, not for others to admire.
Eric stopped at a power station surrounded by grass and a chain link fence. I counted a dozen cats laid out at one side of the lawn. Every one of them white, some of their coats powdered with dirt. A small house just beyond the fence had three more cats in its yard. A sixteenth cat appeared from an open window and stretched out on the ledge. A middle-aged man sat just behind the cat and glared at me through the
window screen. I barely raised my hand to him, more of a peace offering than a hello. He leaned in toward the window and lowered the blind.
Eric walked around to the other side of the station. I guess he still thought we might find Tina. One of the cats stood up when I approached the fence. It was missing its front right leg and it hobbled up and rubbed its dirty white head against the chain. I knelt down and stuck my fingers through. It rubbed its face on them and let me brush off the dirt as best I could.
“I think these cats belong here,” I called out.
“At the power station?” Eric appeared from behind the station and walked along the fence to meet me.
“At that house,” I said. “They’ve just spilled over.” He assessed the cats with a new eye. “That’s
messed up,” he said.
“Anyway, I don’t see Tina,” I said. “Let’s get out of here.”
Eric assured me that we’d caught hold of something. We spiraled out from the perimeter of the power station, but night had settled comfortably into place without any trace of Tina.
I went two days without coming across Eric. He’d become an essential part of my routine, and I felt myself slipping away again. It struck me that I’d never come up with a reason to look for these cats. It was one more question I didn’t hold the answer to. I was relieved to find Eric standing in the usual place the following evening. I hurried over to meet him, pushed myself to fall into our usual rhythm, with the hope that he’d pick up from there and carry us forward.
“I thought we’d check out the area around your school again,” I said. “You have to go where the action is, right?”
He took a couple of drags on his cigarette and flicked it carelessly onto one of my neighbour’s immaculate lawns. He started ahead for the junior high while I pinched the cigarette between two fingers and dropped it through a sewer grate. I caught up to Eric but he didn’t say anything or turn to acknowledge me. He kept on straight ahead, like he was trying to get away from something. It could’ve been school, or home— maybe something with that Mom’s boyfriend he’d been skimming cigarettes off. I didn’t want to intrude.
“Did you get your test back?”
“Yeah. I got a ninety-eight.” His voice was low and tight.
“Way to go, man!” I clapped him on the shoulder but he didn’t react at all, didn’t even pull away. I reached for my wallet and took out the forty dollars left over from Applejack.
“What’s this?” he said.
“You’ve earned it. I mean it, you should be proud. Anyway, I feel a lot better knowing you’re spending the money on ties.”
The rest of the way, Eric stayed focused on the two twenty-dollar bills and I tried to take in the scenery. Eric’s school, a rotting white block teetering on its grey foundation, had little to offer in that department. Graffiti framed the steel front door and a crack in one of its windows traced an ornate pattern. Kids played basketball on one side of the building.
“Where should we start?” I asked. Eric took a loose cigarette from his shirt pocket and lit it on the third strike. He let the cigarette burn between his fingers. A shot rattled the backboard.
“What’s up, Eric?” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“Is everything all right?”
He started to bring the cigarette toward his mouth, stopped short and searched for something in its ember.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” he said, “but I heard you lost it.”
I froze. A few steps later Eric stopped too. He turned back toward me, body tense, like he needed to be ready to take off at any moment.
“Lost what?” I said.
“I dunno. Your mind, I guess.”
I started to walk again. I didn’t have a clue how he would’ve heard this or who from. I felt betrayed, without the first clue who to blame. There was only this kid.
“It’s not like that,” I said. “It’s stress leave.”
“Too many things, all at once.”
“I’m not having this conversation with a ninth grader.”
“That’s not fair!” Eric protested. “Every day you ask me all sorts of questions about school and I go on answering them. You never tell me anything. Then when I ask you one question, you act like a prick.”
He took three straight drags from the cigarette.
“What do you smoke for?” I said. “What the hell’s the point? You don’t even inhale.”
“I don’t wanna get lung cancer.”
“Just don’t do it then. At all.”
He tossed the cigarette and picked up the pace. I hurried to keep up. I didn’t know what else to say, but I couldn’t let him get away without settling things.
“I gotta go,” he said. I reached out to grab hold of his arm and had to stop myself. His gait picked up and then he started to run. He sprinted across the street, up to the end of the block, and disappeared around the corner.
I stopped going for walks, avoided going outside altogether. I slept late and sat around the house. If my wife asked me to tidy up the living room or tighten the legs of the dining chairs, I’d do it without saying a word. She asked me to watch Ben one night and all I could say was, “Okay.”
“I need to run some errands before his birthday party tomorrow.”
“My parents arrive in the afternoon.” “Okay.”
I sat at the desk in my home office and fed papers into the groaning mouth of a shredder. I needed to destroy any record of my past life.
“I’m going back to work next week,” she said.
I fed another bunch of sheets into the shredder, felt it pull them out of my hands and cut them into perfect strips. Chloe leaned up against the door frame and let a sigh escape. I longed for her. Not for us to go back to the way things were, but for us to become the thing we’d imagined when we’d planned our life together.
“Do you want my mother to come watch Ben while I’m at work?” she asked. “Just at first, so you can keep working on feeling better.”
“It’ll be fine,” I said, but I didn’t know whether it was true. I wasn’t sure I’d ever really tried to get better, and Chloe wasn’t convinced either. That’s what this babysitting thing was all about: A try-out at fatherhood. I didn’t like the idea, but I didn’t blame her.
I sat cross-legged on the living room carpet in front of Ben, screened by the mesh wall of his playpen. He turned one tomorrow. He waved his teething ring at me with a baby’s stilted movement. Seeing him through the mesh seemed unreal, like watching a TV with bad reception. I leaned forward and reached a finger into his free hand. It was such a tiny hand.
“How are you doing, buddy?” I asked.
He didn’t know what to think of me. I didn’t know what to think either. I’d been on stress leave for almost two months and the only thing I’d figured out is that you can step away, but you can’t leave everything behind when you do. It seeps into the crevices of your life, can appear in the form of a burst pipe, or your neighbour’s new car. This realization hadn’t made coping any easier.
The doorbell rang three times. I took a deep breath.
“I’ll be right back, buddy. Hang tight.”
I grabbed the baby monitor and headed down the hall. The bell rang twice more on my way. I opened the door to find Eric under the porchlight. His clothes dirty, shirt untucked, sleeve upturned, pants torn at one knee. His hair a mess, dirt caked on his left cheek.
“How come you’re not out walking?” he asked before I could ask what happened.
“My wife had to run some errands, so I’m watching my son tonight.”
He drew a long breath.
“I thought maybe you were still mad at me,” he said.
I didn’t know if I was. I gave it a bit of thought.
No, not at all,” I said. “What happened to you?”
“It was Tina. I saw her over by my school. I went after her, but I tripped and fell down this dirt hill. It was pretty steep.”
“It must’ve been. Are you okay?”
“Man, you shoulda been there. We woulda caught her for sure.”
He took a step backward, turned around and sat down on the front step. I came out and sat beside him. It was the farthest outside I’d ventured in three days and the stone tiles felt cold under my bare feet. I sat the monitor beside me. Eric clutched his arms and winced. I should’ve been there to help. If I hadn’t been sick, I might’ve been able to do more for him.
“Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Yeah, I just need to sit for a minute.”
I let him catch his breath. It hadn’t been dark long, but my street had already settled down for the night. Cars slept in driveways or garages, basketballs rooted into front lawns, the dim glow of kitchen lights barely reached front windows.
“So, you have a son,” Eric said.
“Ben. He’s going to be one tomorrow.” “Huh.”
“Sorry,” I said, “I guess I forgot to mention him all those times I wasn’t talking about myself.”
Eric nodded, thinking hard about what to say next.
“Is that why you’re on stress leave?”
I wanted to ask him how he’d heard that thing in the first place—that I’d lost it. But it didn’t really matter—it was true in a way, even if that wasn’t a term the doctor had ever used.
“Sorry,” Eric said.
“No, it’s okay,” I said. “It is one of the reasons, a small one—probably the smallest. Really, it would’ve been exciting if it weren’t for the rest of the stuff.”
“What kind of stuff?”
“Work mostly. I don’t know. I did everything right—the way I was supposed to. Everyone agreed, my parents, my coworkers. My wife. But it didn’t feel right to me.”
“Does this happen a lot—like, adults realize they’re screwed up?”
I thought about Rory for the first time since the day I’d found Eric sitting up on that rock. There’d been something in his face that I connected to his father right away. Now that I’d gotten to know Eric, I couldn’t find anything of Rory in him, even the bare genetic minimum.
“I think so,” I said. “I mean I wouldn’t be surprised.”
He mulled it over and rubbed the dirt off his face, tucked in his shirttails and turned his sleeve down.
“Maybe you’re doing better than you think,” he said.
“I don’t know about that,” I said. “But you’re right in a way. Maybe I could be.”
We stayed like that for a while, sitting on the edge of the porch.
“I quit smoking,” Eric said.
“That’s great. You’re too smart for that stuff.”
Ben started to cry inside. My heart rate shot up, but I tried to take it easy in front of Eric.
“Come in for a minute,” I told him. “You could use a glass of water.”
Eric tugged at his clothes.
“I don’t want to make a mess of your house.”
“It’s fine, come on.”
“I don’t think so,” he said.
“I’ll be right back,” I told him. I went in past the door—I didn’t even stop to close it. Ben turtled at the edge of the playpen, fingers tangled in the mesh. I freed his hand and took him in my arms. Tears streaked down his reddened cheeks, snot glazed his upper lip. I wiped away what I could.
“Hey buddy, everything’s all right.”
I breathed as fast and heavily as Ben, held him tight and felt his head lift and fall against my chest. I panicked trying to think of what to do. It wasn’t until I started to pull at the clasps on his onesie that found him staring up at me, no longer crying. His breathing levelled-out and the panic left his face. It seemed like a miracle, I didn’t understand that my son had any reason to want to be near me. I stayed holding him that way for a few minutes, just to make sure.
The front door was still open, but only the baby monitor sat at the edge of the porch. I took Ben outside and saw Eric head up toward the end of the street, hands stuffed in his pockets. He kicked a pebble and then chased it and gave it another kick. I would’ve had to yell to get his attention, so I let him go. I sat down on the edge of the porch and held onto Ben, the two of us lit only by the porchlight. The warm night breeze gripped my shoulder.
“Looks like it’s just you and me,” I said.
Chloe would be home soon. We’d be fine until then.
Photo by Kristina Tamašauskaitė on Unsplash.