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Gary and Henry
Fiction

     Waking up long after his wife had gotten out of bed, Gary found the cat sleeping between his legs, head resting on his groin. Opening his eyes, he felt around beneath the covers and got a handful of loose fur and bones. There wasn’t a lot of meat left on this mongrel cat, and his breathing was labored too, no longer a purr, something akin to a rattle. They’d gotten Henry almost twenty years ago when the kids were still kids and, pulling back the covers to find him crumpled like a tiger-striped dishrag against his boxer shorts, Gary wasn’t sure what troubled him more. Was it the fact that he once again hadn’t been able to pull himself out of bed before eleven a.m.? Or was it that every morning since he’d retired two months ago he’d woken up to find Henry under the covers with him like he was looking for a peaceful place to lie down and die?

     Gary had promised Bridget he’d take a bike ride this morning. Not with her, as they’d done when they were courting forty years ago but by himself to get some exercise. Riding a bike, even as a boy, never held much interest for him, and given how blue he’d been lately he didn’t even have the energy to picture himself riding one now. Bridget had bought him the bike as a retirement gift, as much as to say now that you’re not working and doing nothing more than sulking all day long it might be helpful to get out into the sunshine once in a while.

     Taunting him further about getting out of bed this morning to take that bike ride, their ancient and infirm cat had now roused himself to stretch wearily and get out of the bed before Gary could, hitting the floor and crumpling into a pile before restacking his limbs, and torso. It made Gary ashamed of himself. This cat – who was clearly on death’s door – was still finding a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

     Getting up, Gary went down to the kitchen where he found Bridget on the phone with their eldest son, Raymond. Henry was down there now too, sitting by Bridget’s feet. He wondered if the cat might be expecting that Bridget was going to try and hand feed him. It was Gary who’d begun the practice when they couldn’t get him to eat any other way – cooked chicken, bits of barbecued beef, a tiny shrimp or two. Though, since he’d retired, seeing Henry nosing at the food in his palm trying work up the desire to eat had made him so sad that Bridget had taken on the task.

     Pouring a cup of coffee from the pot Bridget had made, Gary caught her eye. Not breaking stride in the conversation she was having with their son she began circling her index finger in midair. When Gary did not respond, she placed her palm over the bottom half of her phone, and mouthed the word “Bike.”

     Lacking the energy to fight with her, Gary put down his mug and headed into the garage. Watching him leave, Henry gave out a tiny squeak, which only made Gary feel worse about not having fed him himself.

     It was swelteringly hot outside and by the time Gary had gone three blocks on the bike he was nearly spent. This bike his wife had gotten him was a good one – broad tires, shock absorbers, titanium frame – but right now he was most thankful for the fact that the bike had fifteen gear speeds. He thumb-clicked the gear flippers on the handlebars until he got the bike into its lowest gear whereupon he could spin the pedals without resistance. Of course, the bike was barely moving now. Judging by the traffic speeding past him, he couldn’t have been going more than a couple of miles an hour. Someone strolling on foot would have been moving faster.

     He squinted at the road ahead. Municipal buildings, a restaurant or two, and there, a block away, the Catholic Church that they had attended every Sunday until the kids started to balk about going. He hadn’t been in the church in years, but what caught his eye as he got closer was the sign offering confessions every Saturday from noon to three. Today was Saturday. And it was just past noon.

     What if he pedaled over there and went to confession? What would be the harm? First, it would get him off this bike and into the shade of the church. And second, talking to someone, and a priest at that, about how he lately hadn’t been able to motivate himself to do much at all (a fact he might frame up as a sin of laziness) might do him some good.

     Within seconds, he’d gotten himself committed to the idea. Clicking the gear flipper to get a bit more purchase on the street, he pushed down hard on the pedals. But when he did, the chain slipped and looking down to see it he did not realize that he was drifting off the bike path.

     When the panel truck hit Gary, his first thought was about how this was going affect the rest of his day, and then his week and then what would have been left of his life. He didn’t have many more thoughts after that. But he did have one final half-conscious thought before he passed and all his thoughts stopped. He thought about Henry and how he hoped Bridgette would remember to feed him.

 

     Father Louis had by his count heard more than eighty-five hundred confessions in forty-three years as a priest. From time-to-time as he was listening to someone drone on endlessly on the other side of his confessional box he’d do the math. The new total he’d just come up with as the woman behind the screen detailed her sins was somewhere between eight thousand five hundred and eight thousand seven hundred and fifty.

    “Go on,” said Father Louis. He hadn’t been listening and had lost track of her story.

     “I mean, I don’t have to shoplift,” she said. “We have plenty of money. It’s just that it makes me feel so . . . alive.”

     The younger priests might have gotten a kick out of this kind of thing, but he sure didn’t.

     “Are you going to do it again?” He asked.

     “No father, I promise, I won’t.”

     He was in the midst of figuring out what prayers to assign as penance when he heard the tires screeching and the crash on the street followed by people yelling from the road.

     “My God,” said the woman on the other side of the screen. “What was that?”

     Opening the door to his side of the box, Father Louis saw that the people who’d been sitting waiting their turn for confession had left their pews and were headed outside.

     What was the protocol in a situation like this? Should he close the door and finish hearing the woman’s confession? Or should he go outside and see what he could do in the face of whatever had happened on the street?

     Before he could make up his mind, the woman whose confession he’d been hearing opened her door. She could have been someone’s perky young mom, nicely put together as she dropped off her kids at school.

     “I’m sorry, Father,” she said. “Maybe we . . .” She pointed at the door of the church.

     He nodded and she ran out. It was probably just as well. He was still struggling with the penance he would have given her. God help him, but handing out a few prayers to someone like this woman to undo her sins when sinning was based on human desires that prayers alone would never undo had stopped seeming practical to him a long time ago.

     Bridgette was taking some cooked hamburger out of the fridge when her phone rang. Henry had been lying down at the foot of the refrigerator, and she doubted he would eat the meat. Though he did look to be willing to give it a try if only for her sake.

     After Gary left for his bike ride, Bridgette had finished talking with their son, and then dialed her daughter’s number. Not getting her, she’d left a voice mail and so when the phone rang she was sure that it was just her daughter returning the call. She’d let it go to her voice mail now and call the kid back after she’d tried to feed Henry.

     Henry had always been an extraordinary cat. Bridgette herself had never been a cat person, but Henry had slowly won her over. In the cage at the shelter where they found him at five months old, Henry had nosed the bars and drooled over the kid’s outstretched hands, purring so loud it made the kids giggle. When her husband Gary got curious and put his face close to the cage, Henry actually nudged his mouth between the bars, placing his nose against Gary’s lips. It was all over after that. The kids and Gary were carrying Henry out to the car even before she finished writing the check.

     Across the years, Henry had lied in bed with them when they were sick, followed them when they got up to answer the door and even sat by patiently when she and her husband were arguing, like he wanted to be there should they require an arbiter or just a friend. It had taken her some time at the beginning to warm up to him, but Bridgette now didn’t even really think of him as a cat anymore. She found herself thinking of him as more of a person who had loved them unconditionally for twenty years and who instinctually knew what was in their hearts.

     Henry only nibbled at the meat when Bridgette sat cross-legged on the floor to feed it to him. But he did crawl into her lap where he tilted his face toward her. “Maybe later,” she said as he laid his head on her thigh.

     When the phone rang yet again, she thought about letting it go to voicemail a second time. Henry had his eyes shut and she didn’t want to disturb him. Eventually, she did get up, but by the time she got to the phone, it had stopped ringing.

     The first thing she noticed when she looked at the phone was that it was not her daughter who had called her twice. It was a number she didn’t recognize. But it had gone to voice mail and when she listened to the two messages her body went cold, and her heart began to pound in her ears. She flashed back to how she had peevishly mouthed the word “bike” at her husband just under an hour ago. Thirty-five years of a good marriage dissolving into a single bossy moment that she would replay over and over for the rest of her life.

     Two cop cars were already at the scene when Father Louis jogged across the lawn of the church and into the road where the truck had hit the man on the bicycle. The first thing he noticed about him laying there across the center divider was that he was not wearing a helmet. Or maybe he was and it had come off. But no, there was a crack of blood on the man’s forehead, rising up his balding pate and if he’d had a helmet on that wouldn’t have happened. Would it?

     For some reason, no one was trying to help the man. Maybe he was dead, but how could anyone have known that if they hadn’t gotten close? The driver of the panel truck was sitting on the curb with his face in his hands and any bystanders were being kept away by the police. Two cops in short sleeve uniform shirts with faces like stones, one of them looking through what looked like the man’s wallet. They may have gone to the body to get the man’s credentials, but now they seemed to be absolving themselves of all medical or human responsibility.

     Watching these two cops doing crowd control while a man was likely dying (or maybe he was already dead) began to eat at Father Louis. He elbowed his way through the crowd and then brushed past the cops who had been standing a few feet away from Gary and his mangled bike. Before anyone could stop him he knelt down on the ground a few inches from the body.

     Up close Father Louis could see that this was not a man you would have called fit. He was overweight and his skin was sallow. He was not someone who’d been getting outdoors much.               “Father.” One of the cops called. “We have to wait for the ambulance. Dispatch is getting in touch with the next of kin . . .” Father Louis gave the cop a withering look. Turning back toward Gary, he knelt in close and put his fingers on his neck to feel for a pulse. Placing them there he brushed the stubble on Gary’s face. The way he had let the hair grow all the way down his neck and up his cheeks told him that this wasn’t a guy growing a beard he was carefully shaping. This was an otherwise respectable person who’d decided it wasn’t worth shaving all that often any longer.

     And he was dead too. At least he thought he was. No pulse that he could feel.

     He thought about going back into the church to get his kit to give Gary the last rights, but he could hear the ambulance sirens and by the time he’d gone to get the kit and pulled out the holy water sprinkler, the ambulance would be there, and he’d never get near the body again. Reaching across Gary’s chest, he put his outstretched thumb on Gary’s forehead, swiping down and across. Then he did it a couple more times, signing the cross, until he could picture the electrical charge of Gary’s spirit rising from his head through his hand.

     “In your hands, Oh Lord, we entrust this man. In his life you embraced him with your love, deliver him now from every evil and bid him eternal rest . . .”

     One of the cops tapped him on the shoulder, cutting off the recitation. “Father . . .” said the cop. “Father?”

     The ambulance had arrived, and the paramedics were getting out.

     Before he could think about it, Father Louis rose and pushed his hands out toward the policeman.

     “I’m staying here,” he said, and the cop nodded.

     No one wanted to fuck with a priest at a death scene.

     When the paramedics arrived he watched them attend to Gary: chest compressions, breathing apparatus, defibrillator paddles. They likely knew he was dead, but they were doing what they had learned to do. No less than what he had learned to do in praying over this body.

     After the paramedics put Gary on the stretcher Father Louis followed them toward the back of the truck. He’d been picturing himself on the stretcher and if it was his body being carried away, he’d want someone with him to console his loved ones at the other end. Neither these cops nor the paramedics were going to do that. “I’d like to ride along,” he said to one of the paramedics who looked at his partner. After a second they nodded and Father Louis climbed in beside Gary’s body.

     No one fucked with a priest at a death scene.

     On the phone when she called him, Raymond had begged his mother to wait at the house for him and his sister so all of them could go to the hospital together. But now his mother didn’t appear to be home.

     He had called upstairs to no avail and was opening the door to the garage to see if his mother’s car was there when he heard his sister come in the front door.

     “Mom?” Abby called out.

     “She’s not here,” Raymond shouted back. “Her car is gone.”

     “What happened, Ray?” Abby had on a pair of gym shorts and a t-shirt. “Is Daddy going to be okay?”

     “They wouldn’t tell mom anything. She barely told me anything but I don’t think it’s good. He was in some kind of accident. On the bike.”

     Raymond took out his phone and dialed his mother’s number. As he did, Henry, who’d been lying on the floor in a pool of sunlight saw Abby and began to stretch beside the patio door. Abby walked over and picked him up before he could walk to her.

     “Voicemail,” Raymond said putting his phone in his pocket. “She’s not answering.”

     Abby sat down on the couch, Henry bundled into her arms, her face close to his body.

     “He’s daddy’s cat,” said Abby, tearing up. “He was always Daddy’s cat, wasn’t he?”

     “Jesus, Abby. I don’t know. Come on we’ve got to get to the hospital.”

     Loosening her grip on Henry, he extended his claws and dug them into the waistband of Abby’s shorts so that when she tried to pull him away he clung to her.

     “He wants to come with us.” She said it mournfully as Raymond looked at Henry.

     Yes, Raymond thought. There was no doubt that this cat knew what was going on.

     Before he even saw her, Father Louis heard the woman screaming at the triage nurse.

     “Don’t you dare tell me one more time that I can’t see my husband!”

     He had gone as far into the emergency unit as the doctors and paramedics would let him and was doubling back toward the waiting area where a wide assortment of human suffering was on display. From a small boy whimpering under the anguish of an arm swollen in extremis with bee stings. To a grown man in coveralls crying in agony over his naked foot twisted and flopping sideways on the floor like a piece of purpling meat.

     The woman adding her own misery to this scene, the one he could see falling apart at the desk in front of the nurse, had to be the wife of the man on the bike. Or maybe she wasn’t. Though he figured he had little to lose in trying to find out.

     At first, she probably thought he was someone the hospital had sent over to deliver the news to her. Father Louis would have thought it himself the way the triage nurse pointed at him as he approached Bridgette. It was clear this nurse was happy to be able to turn the woman over to someone else, someone with a priest’s collar no less. What a coward.

     Facing him, Bridgette didn’t seem to know what to say. So he filled in the gap.

     “Sorry, I couldn’t help overhearing . . .”

     She interrupted him. “They called to tell me my husband was being taken here.”

     “Was he on a bicycle?” he asked. She nodded. “There was an accident,” he said.

     “I know that.” She said curtly. “Is he alive?”

     “I’m not a doctor,” said Father Louis, dithering over how or if he should tell her. “I really can’t say.” Who was the coward now?

     “Is he dead?”

     She sounded less angry this time, though it didn’t make him feel any better about not being able to tell her the truth.

     “It’s not good,” he said.

     Before he could say anything else, the boy with the bee stings began to scream and both Father Louis and Bridgette turned to see what had happened. His mother had been trying to rub something onto his arm and this had turned his whimpering into a wail.

     “Poor kid,” said Bridgette. She wasn’t so much looking at the boy as through him. “Our son got stung all over his body once. It was horrible. My husband had to give him oatmeal baths to calm him down, the cat keeping them company on the edge of the tub . . .”

     She trailed off and walked away to sit in a chair.

     This woman was probably in shock. it was one thing to be ready for death. Quite another to have it thrust upon you. He walked over again to the nurse at the desk.

     “You need to let that woman see her husband,” he told her.

     “I’m sorry, Father, but we have a protocol for accident victims.”

     “What exactly is that protocol?” He said. “Is it protocol to keep a woman suffering until some doctor can find the time to tell her that her husband is dead?”

     That was exactly the protocol. He knew it, and it had always made him angry.

     Behind him somewhere he heard Bridgette begin to rant again. “Get out of my way. I’m going to see my husband.”

     He turned to find Bridgette trying to push her way past a security guard to get into the ER. He left the desk and moved toward the scene but before he got there the doors to admitting area slid open and Bridgette’s children ran in to intercept their mother.

     Putting his arms around her, Raymond pulled his mother away from the guard.

     “Mom, stop.” He waited until she made eye contact. “Haven’t you seen him yet?”

     “No, they won’t let me.” She looked at the guard.

     “Is he going to be okay?” Abby touched her mother’s arm.

     Father Louis was watching this when Bridgette glanced at him before turning back again.     

     “Nobody’s saying anything for sure,” said Bridgett flatly to her children who, still in all, had to be wondering why she’d looked at this priest hovering nearby.

     “He’s going to be okay, though, right?” asked Abby.

     It was just a few seconds after that when the doctor finally did come out to speak with them, pulling Bridgette and her children aside into a room off the triage area. Father Louis thought about going in with them but then thought it better to steer clear until the doctor was done. Standing outside the door to the room he leaned against the wall, thinking about his purpose for riding along with Gary’s body.

     Honestly, so far he hadn’t been any consolation at all to that woman in the room and he was having serious doubts about his ability to do anything for her once she came out again. From the way she had spoken to him, she did not appear to be the type who wanted a priest around to console her in her hour of need. He’d seen lapsed Catholics before and if he had to guess this woman had once been a believer but was now well past it.

     A bit of doubt was not a bad thing if it led you to some answers. It was when you couldn’t find those answers that things got dicey. He thought about the husband of that woman in the room, that man who had died on his bicycle. The stubble on his face told the story of a man who wasn’t getting many answers on his own.

     When they came out of the room with the doctor, the daughter and son were weeping but the mother was dry-eyed, haunted looking, and detached from her children as she watched them sob. At one point she began picking tiny hairs off the front of her daughter’s T-shirt. Cat hairs.

 

     “It’s Henry,” said the daughter sniffling. “He’s shedding so much all of a sudden?”

     “Yeah,” said Bridgette, pulling the hairs and letting them float away. “There’s almost nothing left of him anymore.”

     Father Louis pictured the cat he’d heard about on the edge of the bathtub watching over the boy. What a gift God had given to animals, the faith to accept things as they were and not as they hoped them to be.

 

     In the room where Gary’s body had been laid out, Bridgette did not see her husband. Sure, that person on the bed looked at Gary, right down to the mole on his temple she’d been asking him to get checked. But that body could not be Gary’s. The Gary she knew was alive.

     And why was that priest still pacing out there in the hallway by the vending machines?

     Her children were on either side of the bed, each holding one of their father’s hands. The nurses had cleaned up his head wounds and washed the dirt from his body but the road rash from the accident was still there, tattooing his face, arms, and legs. . Bridgette walked to the bed and ran her hand along Gary’s cheek across a row of abrasions that looked like skid marks. This couldn’t have happened. It just couldn’t have.

     “He was only trying to get some exercise,” she said to no one in particular.

     He’d been having such trouble getting out of bed in the morning. And she hadn’t known what to do for him. All those years he’d been looking forward to a little peace and relaxation only to get sadder and sadder each day leading up to his retirement and every day since. Maybe it was the thought of having to work, not for money anymore, but just to keep himself going now that the kids were grown and gone, his responsibilities negligible and his best years likely behind him. Christ, she’d only bought him the bike because she thought it might offload some of the heaviness she saw him carrying around. And how had that plan of hers worked out for him?

     “We’re going to have to make some arrangements, Mom,” said Raymond.

     “Someone should call Aunt Joan and Uncle Liam,” said Abby. Gary’s brother and sister, approximately a thousand and three thousand miles away respectively; two siblings Gary never got along with and whom, as far as she could see, never gave Gary much comfort in his life.

     Then again, she hadn’t been much of a comfort to him lately either. Not with her niggling him to get out of bed or ride his bike or stop his moping around. Honestly, the only one that seemed to have given Gary any solace in the last few months was poor Henry with whom Gary seemed to have some kind of deep, unspoken bond, the cat and her husband forever intertwined now into a kind of existential oneness.

     “Mom?” Abby was tapping her on the shoulder. “Mom.” Looking up, Bridgette saw that the priest had taken that moment to enter the room.

     “I don’t mean to interrupt,” said Father Louis. Bridgette stared at him. “I just thought you might want to know that I was with him at the end.” She could see how uncomfortable he was as he gestured toward Gary on the bed. “I’m pretty sure it happened quickly,” he said. “I don’t think he suffered much.”

     Bridgette didn’t want to hear any of this.

     “Thank you,” she said, taking a step toward him, intent on shooing him out of the room.

     “If there is anything I can do,” said Father Louis.

     She wanted to tell him that there was nothing he could do, that no one in her family had been in a church for more years than she could count, and that they really didn’t want a priest here now.

     But before Bridgette could say anything, her daughter Abby started sobbing anew and Father Louis walked over and put his arm around her. Soon Raymond was sobbing and Father Louis pulled him in as well. What was this, some kind of group hug from God?

     If so, what she needed right now was not the secondhand hug from God. What she needed was to have her husband again. And in case God cared to know, she’d be happy to have Gary back alive in this world anyway she could get him. She’d put up with his moping, let him ignore the bike without browbeating him, overlook the fact that he’d been sleeping till noon, Henry under the covers with him giving him the consolation she herself could not seem to give him at the end of his life.

     In case God cared to know.

     When the front door opened later that day, Henry recognized three of the people who entered the house but not the fourth. The fourth was a man in a black short-sleeved shirt with a black collar that had a square of white at the center of it. Seeing the man from where he was lying on the sofa, Henry dropped to the floor and – drifting past Bridgette, Raymond, and Abby – he sidled up to the man’s feet, sniffing his shoes.

     “I’ll only stay a minute,” said the man.

     His shoes smelled of the outdoor air, the sticky sidewalk and night grass, the dog shit that Henry had learned to avoid but still somehow pined for along with everything else in the outside world that he hadn’t experienced for some years now.

     “Can we get you something, Father?” said Abby.

     “No thank you,” said Father Louis “I just wanted to make sure you got home okay.”

     Henry had picked up a faint scent of Gary in the shoes. He brushed against Father Louis’s leg and the scent got stronger. He hadn’t thought about Gary since the sun was on the floor behind the couch where he had been going to lie down.

     “I’m only just around the corner, anyway,” said Father Louis. “And who’s this?” He had spotted Henry at his feet.

     “That’s Henry,” said Raymond.

     Henry looked up at Father Louis’s face.

     “He’s been with us a long time,” said Bridgette.

     Bridgette had stayed further away from the priest than had Abby or Raymond. In fact, she was way over on the other side of the room.

     “He’s quite the old man, isn’t he?” Father Louis bent down and scratched Henry under his left ear.

     “Do you like cats?” asked Abby.

     “Never been a big fan,” said Father Louis. “Though there is something about this one.”

     Henry put his paws on Father Louis’s knee. Stretching upward, he extended his head and spine so that Father Louis’s immediate reaction would be to tilt his face down to meet him. This always worked for Henry, and he had no reason to doubt it would now.

     “He wants to kiss you,” said Abby, and Father Louise bent down to let the cat bump his nose into his lips.

     “First time I’ve ever done anything like that,” he chuckled.

     Continuing to stretch so that Father Louis might lift him up, Henry felt the pains in his body growing stronger. These pains were almost always with him now except for when he was asleep. He thought about the bed upstairs where he slept soundly under the blankets that covered his and Gary’s body. Sleep had begun to occupy more and more of his life, and he had an inkling that it would soon be all that was left of his life. Endless sleep. No matter. He had no opinion or worries about this one way or the other.

     “He’s so light,” said Father Louis lifting Henry into his arms. “He barely eats anymore,” said Bridgette, stepping toward Father Louis.

      Soon her children walked over too, all of them circling the priest with Henry in his arms.

     “My father loved this cat so much,” said Raymond.

     “I can see how easy that would be,” said Father Louis.

     Henry began to purr, that soft purr that no one had heard in a long time and after a moment of listening Bridgette began to cry. Henry had never seen her do this before. He tried to climb from Father Louis’s arms, but he was too feeble to get free. So he managed what he could, reaching out and putting a paw on Bridgette’s chest.

     “I think he’s trying to tell you something,” said Father Louis dryly. With that, he loosened his grip, and Henry took that opportunity to wave his other paw out toward Bridgett until she took him in her arms wherein he closed his eyes.

     Listening to the sounds of the room around him he heard Bridgette’s weeping subside and then he listened to the farewells and the opening and closing of the front door followed by the whispered mutterings that sounded like home to him.

     In these moments, like all his moments, Henry was not obsessing about the past or the future. He was not thinking about what might happen to him, or where he would be tomorrow, or even if there would be a tomorrow. Most importantly, he was not thinking about when or if he would see Gary again. There would be time enough to greet Gary whenever he returned.

     Unlike God’s lesser creatures, today was enough for Henry. And he was happy.

Tony Taddei is a writer who lives in New Jersey and whose stories have appeared in publications including Story Magazine, The Florida Review, New Millennium Writings, The Funny Times, Pif Magazine, The Blue Mounain Review, Animal Magazine, and Voices in Ialian American Journal. Tony a recipient of the New Jersey Sate Fellowship in Fiction, and a graduate of the MFA Fiction Program at Bennington College where Tony worked closely with writers such as David Gates, Amy Hempel and Jill McCorkle.

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