Even at 3 am, the sky outside was more gray than truly black. No stars were visible, beyond the yellow orbs of streetlamps high overhead and the hanging red, green, or amber traffic lights. Downtown was deserted, and I was alone save for the one being beside me: a young, slender tomcat whose nametag read ‘Daniel.’
“You know, this would all be a lot easier if you would let me pick you up.” I stopped, but the cat just stared up at me. His green eyes blinked twice, and then he trotted ahead up Locust Street.
“Alright. We’ll do it your way, then.” I sighed, resigning myself to shuffling around after a cat when I should really be heading home. To my nice, quiet house and daughter who would be asleep. I should probably be sleeping, too. But sometimes the night reaches in through a window and beckons. Tonight was one of those nights, and I just couldn’t resist the alluring finger of freedom. Stiff joints be damned.
Up ahead, Daniel was waiting on a street corner, looking back at me. His tabby stripes glowed orange in the light of the lamp. The image seemed rather familiar, sparking with the energy of something on the edge of memory. Probably I’d just seen something like this in some movie or other. When I got close enough to make out the pattern of his fur, he let out a little meow and ran around the corner, tail held high.
“Sheesh. You certainly seem to know the way well enough on your own. I wonder why your owners put that note on your tag. Do you know?”
Daniel’s tag read: ‘Daniel. Very friendly and loving support cat. Please escort home if lost.’ The back had an address, half rubbed off, and a long number that was probably some kind of code. Since I’d had nothing better to do, I thought it would be an easy return job. Of course, that wasn’t taking into consideration Daniel himself. He’d shown at several corners that he knew the way himself, and he had the air of a tour guide showing me the city at night. He stopped in strange places but always looked back, encouraging me to follow him.
It was all rather unusual, but with this corner turn it seemed obvious I was at least moving in the same direction as my house, so what the hell? Plus, it was nice to have a walking companion to share the early hours of day with.
“You know, Daniel, I feel as though I was worried about something before I heard you running up behind me. But I can’t quite remember what.”
Daniel meowed in response.
“I think it had something to do with a doctor, but I don’t really remember. And you know, it’s bugging me. I can’t even remember if the doctor was seeing me or my daughter. Or maybe I was visiting someone important. But it’s just… tickling, the memory. It’s tickling the edges of my brain.”
Daniel had fallen back to walk right alongside me. I wondered if his eyes would have an answer if I only spoke cat to receive it.
“You know, I think that’s been happening more often. The tickling memory thing.” I sighed, and Daniel meowed in response. “I knew it would, or I feel like I knew it would, but it’s still frustrating. It’s no longer just getting lost with names.”
A sudden memory came back to me: explaining away why I couldn’t remember everyone’s name at the card table on Thursday mornings. They were mostly seniors themselves, sitting in a church lobby every Thursday to play anything from 500 to Pinochle to Crazy 8’s. As long as he remembered how to play the game, they pretended not to notice he was slipping with more and more names. But he saw them glance sideways at each other, and it wasn’t hard to tell what they were thinking. They’d seen others go this same way before.
“I just thought I’d have longer.” I tell Daniel now, and again I feel memory tickling my brain. I feel as though I’m not just talking about the card group, which I’d officially quit last fall. “What else do I feel like I’m running out of time on?”
The cat only meowed up at me and started walking away, looking over his shoulder to see if I’d follow. I decided to just follow along and keep my confusion to myself.
Still, it grew and bubbled under the surface, and I found myself getting annoyed with everything. The night no longer seemed beautiful and tempting. The leaves rustling seemed to mock me, the gray of the sky frustrated my chance at seeing the stars, and the more annoyed I felt, the less things seemed to make sense. Which only made me more annoyed.
“What the hell am I doing following you anyway? You seem to know your way.” I growled, when the cat next waited for me at a street corner. In my annoyance, his name was lost, too.
It didn’t matter, though. Something big was going to happen to me. Tomorrow. That’s why I even wanted to take this walk; I knew it, even if I couldn’t remember what “it” was. But I should. Damn it. And what was that damn cat doing now?
He’d stopped in front of a small brick building with vines climbing up one side. A chill ran down the back of my spine. “Wait… This is my building.”
Frowning, I bent down to look at the cat’s—Daniel, that was his name—collar again. I didn’t remember the address, but surely, he had stopped at the wrong house. Maybe he smelled me in the yard here. I’d lived here for years, after all. Hell, I’d raised kids here. Maybe his home was just further down.
“Let me see that.” As I reached out for Daniel’s collar, I misjudged the distance between us. Too much of my weight slid forward, and I found myself free-falling for the sidewalk. As I fell, Daniel ran up the porch steps to the door, yowling like a banshee.
My wrist twisted while trying to catch my weight, but I barely managed to keep my head from hitting the concrete. “It’s okay, Daniel,” I muttered, hoping cats had super hearing like dogs. That he’d hear me and stop that crazy sound so I could have a moment of peace here on the sidewalk. I didn’t have a clue how I’d manage to get myself up, not with my wrist feeling as weak as it currently did.
Moments later, I could hear the front door opening. Then, a voice. “Dad!” I couldn’t twist my head around to see who was speaking, but something about the voice seemed familiar.
“Dad! Oh, no.” Hands were on my shoulders, and then arms were trying to pull me up. I could make out the corner of a white shawl to my left. It smelled like the same perfume my Clara had worn all the years of our marriage, but the voice and these hands weren’t Clara. Clara had died three years ago. I knew that.
“Who are you?”
“Dad, it’s Sam.” The hands didn’t even pause. “Sam, your daughter. Do you remember? I was born the same year you and Mom bought the DeLorean. Try to think about the DeLorean, Dad.”
The DeLorean crashed through the dog in my mind. I could see myself picking out this car, saving up for months. And then rushing Clara to the hospital in it, some of the water from her contractions slipping on the brand-new leather interior. But I watched it all happen from someplace outside of myself. It seemed like it was happening to some other Elbert and Clara. Not me. But I knew it was me. I’d driven Clara to the hospital, and seven hours later she’d given birth to—
“Sam?” Looking into the face of my daughter, I saw the same face of that little red-nosed baby. And all the faces she’d worn since then: in fifth grade, when she’d had the chicken pox, in seventh grade, when her smile held braces, in tenth grade when she started wearing eyeshadow and her nose slimmed out, and right now, her featured tired and drawn. And much older than it seemed like they should be.
“Yes, Dad. It’s me. Let’s go inside and take a look at that hand, huh?”
“Sam, wh-what are we doing out here?” But this time I remembered as soon as I asked.
“Daniel found you out wandering around again, Dad.” As if on cue, the orange tabby rubbed up against my leg and meowed. “Good boy, Daniel.”
Suddenly, the memory of the walk appeared next to the memories of the DeLorean and Samantha. “Oh, Daniel. Of course I remember you.” I knelt down, supported by Sam this time, and reached out to stroke his soft fur. “You look a bit different in the dark.”
Daniel began purring. He didn’t seem to mind that I’d forgotten him or misplaced the memory of what my own cat looked like. He was more forgiving than some of the people I’d met in that way.
By now, we’d reached the door. Sam let us in, and I shuffled into the kitchen. Everything looked the same as it had for the past forty years. And I was suddenly aware of just how much time I had put out of my mind during the walk with Daniel.
I sat down at the table, letting Sam examine my wrist while trying to keep all my memories in my head, even as I knew I wouldn’t. The exercise was as pointless as catching dust bunnies. The dust would just keep covering my brain. But I had to try. How long had Sam lived here? She’d been out in Michigan for a few years and earned her medical degree. Or was it a nursing degree? She’d come back to take care of me, but hadn’t there been some kind of job involved, too? I hoped it wasn’t just wishful thinking.
“Here, Dad. I’ll get your wrist wrapped up, and then you should really go back to bed.”
“Not yet.” I reached behind me for the deck of cards I knew I always left sitting on the countertop. “Play with me? While I… feel like myself?”
Immediately, I felt bad for asking. Something that tended to happen since I already felt like a burden all the time. Asking for anything above care to meet my basic human needs felt selfish; and all I wanted, selfishly, was to feel like I was doing something with my little girl. Before the dust bunnies could collect again.
But even though I couldn’t remember every memory on the edge of my expired brain, I did remember that tomorrow would bring a change. A big one, even if not a permanent one. I finally could remember what I’d forgotten on my nighttime walk. Tomorrow, I was going to an adult daycare tour of nursing homes and assisted living condos. And even though I’d booked it myself, months ago, I was a little nervous. On the possibility that one day other than tomorrow I’d actually wind up someplace like that. A place where I’d see her less.
Sam must have seen some of this in my eyes, because she just smiled and let out a little sigh. “Alright. Sixty-six or cribbage?”
I smiled watching my daughter shuffle and deal out the cards for cribbage. In my head, I turned the scene into a postcard. The old kitchen was beautiful in the dark, the light over the sink casting a warm glow just over our small corner of the house. The blue linoleum of the table seemed to glow, and the metal chairs with their blue padding had a special kind of sheen. There was a small houseplant in the window—probably a geranium. Clara had always loved geraniums, and the smell of them brought her into the moment with us. Daniel had settled under the table, curled around my foot and still purring up a storm. Sam’s auburn hair shimmered like fall, and was she wearing the T-shirt from our last family vacation to the Gulf of Mexico? The cards slid from her hands effortlessly, in a way mesmerizing to watch.
Nothing had ever seemed so beautiful to me as that kitchen.
Desperately, I tried to pin everything in that moment down and hold it in my brain, too.