The Family Tree’s Final Apple
It’s the first Tuesday of October when he finds her on his porch.
Sheltering herself, really, from the rain. It’s the first time it has rained since that big storm in July that knocked the power out down his street and the next and even the one after that. And even then this storm is nothing compared to those roaring winds and booming thunders; this is the kind of rain that blends in – the kind of spitting rain that feels more like his late Aunt Julie’s accentuated P sounds in close proximity. There were many things his family disliked about Aunt Julie, but he never found a reason for their distaste. After all, her Christmas hams weren’t nearly as dry as his late Grandpa Henry’s.
He doesn’t pay her any mind at first. Her fur is a matted tabby orange that fades into an angry red mark of some sort and back again, and her eyes are the kind of piercing green that would make F. Scott Fitzgerald jealous. Still, he spares her little more than an assessing glance, hefting his hardware store bag into his left hand while he digs for his keys in his right pocket.
And then she mewls at him, like she’s demanding something. Like she’s clearing her throat into a microphone at yet another funeral, like she has already done the dirty work of dredging up something nice to say about the man in the coffin – or him, about to be – and is waiting for the dull murmurs and quiet sobs to simmer. That had always been his least favorite part. The wait.
He shoots her another look – this time with more intent of scaring her off than anything. She’s sorely mistaken if she thinks he’s in any shape to take on a stray; he hardly has his own life strung up right. But she doesn’t budge, simply sits up from the lazy sprawl she had adopted on the corner of his welcome mat, and bats a lazy paw in his direction. The gesture reminds him of when he managed to teach his childhood cat Mittens how to shake, and she would go around to everyone in the house and try to shake hands with them. Then, if she was lucky enough to get a handshake, she’d meow incessantly until she got her reward for doing so.
Everyone else had hated him for teaching her that trick, but he’d just laughed, watching his family begrudgingly tromp to the pantry to retrieve Mittens’ snack. He’s not laughing now, though; the cat treats in the pantry have been there since Turtle’s death almost four years ago. Perhaps he should finally throw those out – but then, what would he give to orange strays that sit on his porch and demand attention? A piece of bread, also stale and probably moldy? He doesn’t want to make a bad name for himself in the neighborhood stray cats’ club.
What would it matter, anyway? He hasn’t plans for leaving any lasting impressions on them.
A part of him cries out for heartlessness, to just once leave his black suit in the closet, but another, larger part of him can’t help the lump swelling in his chest at the way this cat so closely resembles Mittens’ actions. He knows, certainly, it isn’t Mittens – Mittens had a black, sheen coat with little white caps on her paws – but still he opens the door wide to her. And she meows in appreciation, like she has been going door to door posing as some sort of Jehovah’s Witness trying to sucker someone into sparing her a roof to sleep under and some kibble to munch on.
This cat – Orange, he settles for calling her, because it’s impersonal and stupid and he won’t feel bad if little miss Orange runs out the door the moment the rain stops – settles herself on his side table, nearly toppling the lamp while she sniffs at the miscellaneous keys littering his key bowl. She sends up a weak plume of dust that he only sees because of the drawn curtains and the single floor lamp lit in the corner. His sister, Helena, had a point about him living the life of some bookworm hermit; he sighs and passes by her armchair, given to him when he hadn’t shown up to her estate sale. Orange tromps up just behind him, and he hears the lamp rattle, ready to give way. To hell with it. The thing’s a plastic piece of junk he nabbed off his ma just before she got diagnosed with lung cancer and tried to give away everything that didn’t reek of smoke.
The light flickers a moment in the kitchen when he flips the light switch, and a vague part of him hopes that the power goes out. More impactful, he thinks, recalling every early romantic horror novel he’s ever read. It would be a real “It’s Alive!” moment, one to rival Frankenstein’s declaration, but imagine the reader’s surprise when it’s not alive at all!
He no longer has Helena to chide him for thinking those things. No, he hardly has anyone to chide him anymore – which is precisely why he settles himself down at his overcrowded dinner table with a bowl of months-old cereal for dinner. He hasn’t the stomach for it, but he forces it down anyway, because the last thing his father asked him to do was to take care of himself and his mother. And damn it all, he’ll do one of those things right up until the very end.
Orange peruses her new surroundings with all the sass of a clever cat. A little sleuth, she is – might as well wear a deerstalker cap and waltz around with a pipe in her mouth, and a monocle attached at the collar. She finds a path to the dining table and lands squarely on his overdue rent bill, and she mewls again. Hungry, he presumes, and hungry for his own cereal if her sniffling around the bowl is any indication.
Ah, what the hell. His pa isn’t around to chide him anymore, either.
He leaves Orange in the kitchen to wander the house again. The storm still tows the line between a shower and a misting, and though he hasn’t in months, he decides to pull back the curtain and watch. In the distance he catches a moment’s flash of lightning against an ever-darkening sky, but it’s far enough that he hears no thunder. He wonders if it’s coming this way; he wonders if he’ll have a perfect thunderstorm to rumble through the room when someone finally finds him.
A bitter laugh leaves him. Who’d find him today, anyway? It’s late – he’d barely made it to the hardware store before closing, and even before he’d left he’d had his headlights on – and there isn’t a soul on this block that knows his name. Hell, he forgot it himself. He’s “that lanky guy in Unit Twenty-Four” or “mister librarian, sir?” (only when he’s on the premises, of course) or, once, “that guy who sat and watched a bird for almost an hour straight. Yes, an hour. No, it wasn’t doing anything fancy – except being a bird, I suppose.”
Maybe Leeman hounding him for money, or Janice down the street with the four cats already. Maybe miss Orange (still lapping at the milk in the kitchen if her muffled tonguing is anything to go by) is really her cat and not a stray at all. But he knows that’s untrue; Janice dresses each of her cats to the nines, and Orange would certainly not be allowed to leave the house without a collar, a bandanna, and a bonnet to match. It draws another laugh out of him, thinking about the time Mr. Whiskers’ bandanna blew away while Janice walked him around in a baby stroller, and it feels good to laugh. It might be the thing he misses most, after all.
Lightning flashes again, and though he can’t tell that it has gotten closer he hears the rumble of thunder some ten seconds later, distant and lulling like a funeral drum. He knows the sound all too well – the memoir saved for closed-casket funerals. He wishes he could say he’s seen less of those than he has of open casket, but he lost count of either long ago.
He wonders if his funeral will be open casket. He wonders if his face will turn a permanent shade of purple, or if his neck will snap in such a disarming way that even the funeral dressers can’t arrange it quite right. He has seen open casket suicides before – his brother Jacob’s daughter Sophia, just after her sixteenth birthday. They made a valiant effort stitching her arm back together. In the end, they covered it with a long-sleeved dress that she always wore to church.
He had liked Sophia. She was one of the only children who really understood the value of books. Said she wanted to be an author someday, and he had told her with all the confidence he could muster that he would put any of her books on his library shelves. Perhaps if he’d had an ounce more confidence, she would be the one finding him.
The reminiscing only makes him sad, and he had promised himself before today started that that emotion wasn’t in his vocabulary anymore. He had even made an effort to stash away every sad book he owned, stuffing them into an already overfull basement that killed every book it touched with how damp the atmosphere was. Still, as he idly passes his bookshelves by one last time, he finds one last novel he had missed – some young adult sob story about a girl who commits suicide that he only read because Sophia recommended it, and soon after he realized why she recommended it – and he plucks it from the shelf like a family tree with one final apple. The basement door is open and he throws the book down the steps without precision, listening to it thunk on three separate steps before making it to the cement floor. He doesn’t stop to look whether it has landed flat, or if its pages flail out around it.
He had purposely left his bedroom with the chair in the center of the room for this moment; had he not, he feared he’d put this off another day. Tomorrow will be better – a mantra he has been reciting since the moment he lost his mother, and every day since has been another plea to the angels above that he recognizes by name. And it has taken him decades to finally realize that there is no such thing as better without them here with him. He has no better. He has no family; he hadn’t married, and when Helena had first gotten sick he had taken on her children part-time as if they were his own. And then Helena died and her husband filed a restraining order and Sophia killed herself and the funeral march of thunder only grows louder and Mama smoked in the living room and the couch caught on fire and Jacob killed himself in the front seat of his truck with a shotgun and he cleaned up the brains and he cleared his throat into the microphone and it sounded like thunder and—
Orange meows from behind him, and he realizes how much dimmer it has gotten. Her eyes glow up at him, round and unmoving, and when he looks down at his hands he finds them grasping the doorknob to the basement. He steps back, finding his breath once more. And still Orange stares up at him, expectant of something but he has nothing left to give. The room lights up briefly from the lightning, and in that moment he sees her ribs through her matted fur. What kind of person would he be if he left her here to starve?
Think about this logically, he tells himself, padding across the room and back to the kitchen. Rent has been due for three weeks, now. Leeman starts getting angry at around four weeks. That means he needs a week’s worth of food to leave out for Orange. And cats don’t eat as much as dogs – he learned that the hard way when he was left home to care for his childhood dog Sparky and the poor thing starved to death because he’d been so used to Mittens’ diet. That makes this easier on him. He pulls out the only cereal bowl without chips or cracks (as though Orange will really mind) and that same bowl of far too old cereal, and he fills the thing to the brim. She’s set, then.
But under the sound of the cereal he hadn’t heard her join him in the kitchen, and when he catches her in the doorway she still watches him in that same way, eyes unmoving, nose twitching with intrigue. Water, of course! Should he leave the tap running for her, or is that too much? Will the house flood? Will she drown if he does? And what if she falls into the sink, can she get back out? He opts for his next-finest cereal bowl – the one with a slight chip from only the Lord knows when – and fills it to the brim.
“All set, then,” he murmurs, his voice raspy as though it wasn’t his mother but him who smoked for four decades of his life. He clears his throat, and on instinct his hand reaches up to tap a microphone that isn’t there. Thunder rumbles in the distance.
He grabs for the hardware store bag once more, somehow forgotten amidst the chaos of inviting a stray into his house, and nudges his bedroom door open with his foot. The latch has never fully tightened on that door, and he supposes now it’s a good thing; even knocking will shove it open, and no matter how softly Leeman attempts to knock, he’ll find him. It’s that peace of mind that has him grabbing the bundle of rope from the bag and tying the noose using a tutorial he had found on a cell phone app Helena’s son Julian had showed him years ago now. He had been practicing on funeral belts and funeral ties – had even thought about using one of those instead to save them the trouble of fishing one out of his unkempt closet – and the noose comes together easily, like the neat little bowties Janice sometimes ties around her kittens’ necks.
And though his back is only turned from the chair for a moment, it is ample time for his bedroom door to slide open; and as he distracts himself searching for an intruder, Orange perches herself on that chair, that same blank expression on her face. She wears a little milk mustache on her face and it reminds him of Jacob when they were younger, and it reminds him of Helena and Sophia and Julian and sitting around a Thanksgiving dinner table feeding scraps to Jacob’s dog Zeus. And it reminds him of slurping glasses of milk so obnoxiously because Mama hated the sound of it, and it reminds him of when everything had been right. And it reminds him of the morning of Mama’s funeral, of wiping Julian’s chubby cheeks with a washcloth and explaining to him why he couldn’t wear his favorite red sandals to church. “But Mama loved those shoes,” Julian had argued, and he had a hard time saying no to the pout on that face. He had a hard time saying no to anyone.
And perhaps it’s the hurt which has kept him from this point for so long – on a precipice, an apple dangling from an outstretched limb and awaiting the plummet. Does the fall taste as sweet as the climb had? Does it taste as sweet as apple cider around a fireplace the night it snowed on Halloween and the kids bailed on trick-or-treating? Does it taste as sweet as apple pie on Thanksgiving?
All the while Orange watches him, her head cocked to one side and occasionally backlit by the dull snap of lightning behind her, sending her into shadow and back again. And he flicks on the bedroom light, and as he does she lifts her paw, ready to shake his hand, to remind him that sad novels have a purpose, too.
“Tomorrow will be better,” he whispers, and he shuts out the light again.