Congratulations to Bob Thurber of North Attleboro MA, the recipient of the Penn Cove Literary Arts Award for October 2013.
by Bob Thurber
One hot, airless Saturday, just weeks after the one year anniversary of our mother’s death, I found my brother behind the garage, shirtless and wet, his feet tangled in the garden hose. He was oozing blood from a crosshatching of cuts and scratches covering his chest and forearms. Nearby, practically at his feet, was a silver-gray tabby licking itself beside a sopping wet towel. It was an adult cat, mangy and thin. My first thought was to just walk away. But I was already an accomplice; Dad had put me in charge of the little retard.
Though Andy couldn’t tie his own shoelaces, he’d somehow managed to bathe, shampoo, and double-knot a pink ribbon around the cat’s scrawny neck. He had already named the damn thing. Socks. Short for Socrates.
All he really needed me for was to paint iodine on his wounds, then march inside and ask the big question: “Hey Nora, can we keep an ugly stray Andy found?”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him he was bleeding for nothing.
Andy broke into stuttering: “She likes you ba-better. Sa-say you fa-found it.”
I was eighteen months older, but no less afraid of our new mother, a chunky Irish woman Dad had hired to help with laundry and ironing after Mom stopped getting out of bed.
I got Andy to stop picking at his wounds and listen while I rattled off ten good reasons why Nora would say no, and five reasons why Dad wouldn’t overrule her. But you can’t talk sense to a twelve-year-old. Especially one who had popped into life feet-first, a deadly shade of blue. Grandma said Andy’s umbilical cord had twisted around his neck, blocking oxygen flow to his brain. The right word was “delayed.” I’d gotten into fistfights with people calling him anything else.
My plan was don’t ask and don’t tell, and see how far that took us. Together we smuggled Socks into our room through a window. We fixed a box of sand for it to piss in. There were a couple close calls but we kept the animal hidden for weeks. We fed it tuna fish and table scraps. It stopped hissing at us and gradually put on weight.
My guess is Nora was snooping, not cleaning, the morning Socks surprised her. Her shriek woke me. I shot out of bed in time to see her use her broom like a hockey stick to swat Socks into a wall.
Then Andy was screaming as loud as Nora. Dad stomped in. He cornered the cat and trapped it with a blanket. “Get a pillow case,” he said. “Hurry up.”
He stuffed Socks inside and twisted the top into a knot.
“Get in the car, both of you!”
Still in our pajamas, we drove the shaded back road down to the reservoir. Socks rode in the trunk. On the way Dad talked about rabies and fleas, and how he was going to teach us “proper procedure” so we’d know what to do if we came across another stray.
Near the water he added a few rocks to give the sack weight, but he must not have knotted it very well because seconds after it hit the water the pillowcase unraveled. As it sank, Socrates paddled toward the opposite shore.
“Look! He can swim,” Andy said.
I jabbed an elbow into his side, but it was too late. Dad had already turned to see the cat cutting the surface.
“Swims good,” I said.
“Like a rat,” my father said. He gripped the rail, poised like he was planning to jump in.
Andy whistled though his teeth. “This way, Socks. Turn around. We’re over here.”
Dad clamped his big hand on Andy’s shoulder, which put a cringe on my brother’s face. Though I don’t think the hand was meant for anything except to keep Andy from falling in.
The three of us crowded against the rail and watched Socks climb onto the opposite shore, , then leap-hop into the woods.
“Goodbye,” Andy said.
I thought about my father’s .22 in the trunk and how he could nail that cat running full tilt through heavy brush. Then I watched my father’s eyes to see if he was thinking that, too.
Andy kept waving a pathetic little baby wave, looking like he was about to burst into tears.
“It’s God’s cat, now,” Dad said, and started back toward the car.
“Goodbye Socks,” Andy said, still against the rail.
He didn’t look like he was going anyplace, so I stretched my neck and spit into the water to check the current. I leaned until I could see my face reflected in the water. I wondered how deep the pillowcase had sunk.
“Nora’s waiting,” our father said. Then he said, “Quit pressing against that rail before god takes you too.”
I stepped away but Andy stayed put. “We’re leaving, retard.”
While my head was turned the little brat sucker-punched me. My ear throbbed. I thought I’d been stung by a bee, then I figured it out. I swung at him and missed. He took off running, whimpering like a wounded hound.
“Where’s he going?” my father said. “Andy!” he called. “The car’s this way, son.” Then he shook his head at me. “Don’t stand there like an idiot. Grab him before he falls into a well and breaks an ankle.”
I tried to focus on which way he was pointing.
“Move your feet, boy. Last thing Nora needs is anything on crutches yelping to be soup fed.”
But I just stood there rubbing my ear and gazing at a wrinkle of sunlight playing on the water. Maybe it was my brother’s sucker-punch, or some small defect in me, or something to do with missing my mother so much, but for nearly a minute I couldn’t decide if the old man meant for me to bring back Andy, chase down the cat, or retrieve some part of something else that had somehow gotten away from him.