Abe remembered as he pulled into the rest area. Too late. Sixteen years of habit die slow. He rested his right palm on the frayed Navajo-style passenger seat-cover, feeling the faint prickle of Geordie’s short, coarse hair trapped in the rough weave. It felt like the spiky-soft tips of grass sprouting on the grave beneath the ash tree.
Killing the engine, Abe shut his eyes. Geordie always smelled like swamp water. For the first weeks Abe was convinced the pup snuck into things: drains, garbage cans, trash heaps. But patient stalking revealed no miscreance. The goofy mutt was just an eventual 97 pounds of slobbering, soft-hearted, small-bladdered stinker. Picked a winner, Hazel would tease.
He was though: loyal, tireless, curious, protective, the folds of his part-boxer, part-hound face arranged in a permanent tragicomic mask that could make Abe smile on the worst days. Of course, Hazel was the one who cared for Geordie weeks at a stretch. He wished he’d been there more.
Dusk was bleeding the day of its heat but remnants splashed Abe’s legs as he crossed to the cafe-slash-convenience store. He went to pee, more out of habit than necessity, then bought a bottle of Dr Pepper and a pack of beef jerky, not admitting to himself that would probably be dinner.
Gnawing a stick of dried meat, he paused short of his truck. Someone had pulled in at a 40 degree angle, the vintage blue Corolla’s bumper almost nuzzling his door. Faded Mississippi plates, long deep scratches above the rear wheel, a palm-sized patch of bare metal on the hatchback, no driver, a jumble of boxes and plastic crates stacked to the ceiling. Someone in a hurry all right. Abe could think of a few reasons why that might be, none of which he wanted to get involved with.
Hazel had laughed at his proclivity for rescuing things: Geordie, abandoned cats (usually pregnant), injured birds, hitch-hikers, drifters. But he was tired. He could climb in the passenger side and go.
“Please, Shooter, come on. Please.”
Abe froze then moved, one muscle at a time, to where he could see the other side of the Toyota. A woman, her face crimped with misery, crouched at the open back door, pleading: “Shooter, please, don’t be like this.”
Abe melted to his knees, body remembering long-ago military training. “Ma’am,” he whispered, “ma’am, are you okay?”
She twisted toward him, dropped one knee and put up her hands.
His body felt weightless, his mind clear and empty as a glass bowl.
“He won’t drink. He cried for hours. Now he’s just panting and panting. I don’t know what to do. Kittens dehydrate fast. He could die.”
The surge of suppressed adrenaline lifted Abe to his feet.
“A kitten? Sweet Lord.”
“I’ve never taken him further than the vet, which he hated. But I thought he’d settle…”
Abe propped an elbow on the car roof, heart hammering his ribs like a bailiff at the door. “Thought someone had a gun on you. Shooter. You named a cat Shooter?”
“Jennings, you know.”
“Jesus, ma’am. Hollering that in the wrong place could get you shot for real.”
“That’s what husband said. Not that I saw anyone to speak to. Just this kid and I.”
She unfolded, straightening with a motion that made him think of baby giraffes.
“How long since he drank?”
“Ten, eleven hours maybe. Do you know anything about cats?”
“Had a few.”
She gestured and Abe squatted to peer into the car. A pair of amber eyes peered through black spectacles. Two outsized triangles floated like sails above a small, pointed face split by a pink mouth. The kitten’s jaw hung like it was too heavy to lift.
“Hey there fella,” Abe said, disinclined to repeat its name in public.
“What am I going to do? It’s too far to go back and –“
“Where’d you come from ma’am?”
“Oxford. I thought he’d be okay once he got used to it. He’s so sweet and easy normally.”
“Cats hate being cooped up.” Abe stood up, knowing what he was going to say, wishing he wasn’t wired that way: “I live about 45 minutes up the road, little spread there. You can follow me and stop, let him out there. See if he’ll calm down enough to eat and drink.”
The woman pushed her hand through tight auburn curls shot with silver, carrying out – he assumed – the mental calculations a lone woman makes on receiving an invitation from a strange man. He wondered if the weather-lines around his eyes, the work-worn jeans and boots counted for or against him. “Thank you. Yes. If anything happens to him I’ll – I’ll follow you.”
Sunset illumed the sky: orange, gold, apricot, then receded, leaving a colourless container into which the night poured ink. The deepening hue revealed the hiding places of stars, which blinked at the sudden exposure.
Bumping along the drive, Abe realized he hadn’t smoothed and graveled it that spring, nor the year before. Another ritual lost to apathy.
She cradled the back plastic crate in both arms, like an infant. The silver streaks in her hair glowed blue under the bug light, which turned the circles under her eyes almost black. Her hips were level with his, he noticed, though the top of her curls only reached his cheek.
“Is everything shut? Windows? Doors?”
“If it weren’t, the place’d be full of flies.”
“Fair,” she said, and a flicker of a smile tugged at the corners of her wide mouth.
She plunked onto the carpet and opened the carrier. Shooter’s ears emerged first, followed by a long adolescent body. Abe set down a bowl of water.
The kitten gave its human a censorious look then started to drink. It was still lapping, when Abe returned with a trash-bag lined cardboard box full of sawdust. Shooter stretched fore and aft, yawned, then ambled to the box, squatted, and shut his eyes in satisfaction.
“Never knew what tom cats smelled like till we got him. He’s fixed, but for some reason, his presence incites company. Got up this morning one of his buddies had clawed through the screen. The house smelt like, I don’t know, skunk. Or a cross between old sneakers and musty basement.”
Abe held out a bottle of beer: “I’m Abe.”
She crossed her legs, rubbed the back of her neck: “Stella.”
He sat in an overstuffed brown velvet recliner. Like the matching sofa, it was draped in a handmade quilt, a star-burst pattern in bright blues and greens. An old-fashioned brick fireplace had been fitted with a black wood-burner. The coffee table’s tastefully mismatched legs betrayed it as a one-off; as was the wooden rocking chair with leather seat. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lined one wall, a series of framed Ansel Adams prints clustered on another.
“You’d make a mint if you could package this room and sell it on Etsy.”
“You know, the cutesy arts-and-crafts website.”
“Can’t say I’ve heard of it.”
“My husband says I’m afraid of paying too direct a compliment. I try to be clever and it comes out weird. You’ve got a nice place. It looks – loved.”
She was in her early 30s, he reckoned, grey hair offset by youthful skin. Her abruptness reminded him of the way Hazel would announce only the conclusion of her reasoning, leaving him to figure out the steps.
Stella drew an x and o in the thick dust on the coffee table. “You away a lot?”
“Work in the fields couple hours from here.”
“Oh. My husband works for John Deere.” She fixed her eyes on a cabinet full of china plates: Capitol building, Oklahoma City; State Capitol, Austin; State Capitol Building, Richmond; Capitol, Columbia…
“Hazel didn’t think that was the south. She was from Summerville, SC. My wife – ” he added, remembering she didn’t know.
“Proud of her roots?”
“She was. She passed on a couple years ago.”
“What happened?” Stella gnawed the side of her thumb, tasting the impertinence of her question.
“Cervical cancer. She didn’t like getting smear tests. Said letting someone poke around in you like that was undignified, unless it was for fun. Before she died, she couldn’t feed herself, or go to the bathroom. The nurse taught me to empty her colostomy bag.”
Stella sipped her beer, drawing figure eights in the grubby carpet with her left forefinger. Shooter butted his head on Abe’s shin then hopped onto the arm of the recliner.
“He likes you. Did she make the quilts?”
“Yep. And the coffee table, the afghans, the picture frames, the…”
“Picture frames? Never thought of people making picture frames.”
“She was creative, crafty, smart. Probably too smart for a working man like me.”
“How long were you married?”
Abe shook his head. She’d been 31, already divorced. He was 24, cocky, making good money on offshore rigs. They met at the bowling alley, him with his buddies – pounding beers, laughing too loud – her throwing clinical strikes. He was besotted; she wasn’t: I have my own place, my car’s paid for, I love my job and I don’t like kids. At first, he tried to persuade her. Hazel taught him you can’t make a woman to love you; just let her be, and be grateful if she does.
“Me either. Which makes me stupid. I’m too old to run off and start over. Do you have anything to eat? I forgot breakfast.”
Abe studied the blue and white linoleum as he waited for the microwave. When had it gotten so pitted and stained? He found a dishcloth, wet the corner, and rubbed at the months-old coffee stains on the counter. The tarry pot, dirty plates and bowls, were alien, as if placed by someone else. Without Hazel to share it, the backdrop of daily life had slumped into entropy, insignificant to the point of being invisible.
When the microwave chimed Abe retrieved two steaming plastic bags, split them open and tipped the beef-and-bean burritos onto plates. Three minutes later, he added a heap of rice to each, then a couple spoonfuls of salsa.
“She did most of the cooking. I guess we were old-fashioned like that.”
“I do too. Did.” Stella tore a gummy strip of tortilla, chewed, swallowed with difficulty. Abe was easy to talk to. Rather, she felt like he understood, before she’d said anything. “I love him, but I felt like my heart was breaking every single day.”
“How long you been together?”
“Two years yesterday. I celebrated by drinking a bottle of wine on my own while he had dinner at an agriculture convention in Dallas. With his friend Freya. They go way back.”
“Stepping out on you?”
“No. I mean, not like you think. We agreed from the beginning not to make monogamy the litmus of our relationship.”
“Wish you had?”
Abe set his plate on a beautifully worked end-table. Shooter sidled onto his lap, turned around twice, and wrapped himself into a tortoise shell.
“Rice is good. You could use mine to paper walls.”
“It’s not about sex. I could too, if I wanted. But other bodies make me lonely for him. That scares me. I used to do whatever I wanted. Then I met him and started to care. Got responsible. Got a day job. He travels; I’m at home. Groceries. Vacuum. Check the mail. Work. Go home. Eat. I can feel myself getting smaller and smaller. The only reason I know our next-door neighbour is because they were giving away kittens. Have you ever been to Oxford?”
“It’s beautiful, on the outside. White clapboard houses, porch swings. Big fenced yards with barbecues and splash pools. Flowers everywhere: magnolia, wisteria, azaleas, dogwood. In the main square, a white marble Confederate monument: ‘They gave their lives in a just and holy cause.’ Got so I couldn’t walk down the street without feeling queasy. The thought of all the sweat and blood underpinning those pristine white houses. Folks looking past my white skin to fix a suspicious eye on my kinky hair.”
“You’re a Yankee. How’d you end up there?”
“Via a sushi restaurant in the Atlanta airport. He was at the next table and asked to borrow my soy sauce. By the time my salmon maki arrived I’d decided to marry him.”
“Country boy, not far away. I guess it was the bright lights when he was growing up. He loves the house – bought it at auction, did it up, made it pretty. At first, I felt like Anne of Green Gables. But the longer I stayed the more it crowded me. Sweep. Mop. Set ant traps. Hang out the laundry. Mow the law. Scrub the shower. Spray for roaches. I’m a stay-at-home mama with no baby. It got so when he’s around I have nothing to talk about but what bills need paying and can he fix the squeaky door.”
“That’s part of marriage.”
“We used to be lovers.”
Abe thought of Hazel’s waking-up face, the pillow imprint on her cheek, the sour-sweet breath, and tangled hair. She stretched like a cat, twisting back and forth under the covers, arms and legs flung like the points of star.
“Then I turned into this anxious, frumpy, miserable house frau. Hair’s too short, tits too small, nails ain’t polished.”
“Did you talk to him?”
“What is there to say? He loves his job, loves the house, loves Oxford.”
“He loves you.”
“And I love him. But I stopped being the woman he fell for. I used to be fun and adventurous. I didn’t need anybody. Now, I want to cling with both hands. It aches, how much I need him. It’s too much.”
“You ought to let him be the judge of that.”
Stella buried both hands in her hair, clutching it like a balloon that might drift off. Moving slowly to not disturb Shooter he reached out to squeeze her shoulder. After a minute or two, he realized she was crying. Moving the cat gently, he slid to the floor and put his arm around her.
“Nothing’s broke you can’t fix.”
“I lost myself. I don’t have anything that’s mine any more. I’m bored of me. How must he feel? How do I need him and still be myself? I don’t want to change him, but if I stay I might.”
“If you love someone, you change.”
Stella raised her knees to her chest and hugged her shins, tear-sheened eyes roaming the room. “How did you change? How did she?”
“If I could do anything different, I’d change more, faster. Rearrange things. Worked offshore most of those years, until she got sick. Money, pride in the work, seemed so important.”
“You think I should go back?”
Abe resisted the temptation to speak. He hugged her closer.
“If I asked, would you sleep with me?”
Abe absorbed her warmth, remembering what it felt like to have another breathing, heart-beating creature next to him.
“Don’t believe so. It wouldn’t be fair.”
“What if I said I need you? Need you to help me remember what my body feels like when it’s new. And what somebody else’s body is like. My husband has ‘friends’ here and there, enough to keep it fresh. I’m stale. I appreciate you being respectful, but how about being less of a good guy, just this once?”
She was in earnest but they both laughed.
Abe rested his cheek against her hair. Her body was lean; he sensed strength in its wiry limbs. Her skin smelled of sweat and something sharp, citric; her hair like honey. He could feel her heart, fast but steady.
Abe felt it come on slow, not the old urgent rush of blood but suffusion, a blooming. He shifted to relieve the pressure. Stella slid her hand down his thigh and cupped the bulge in his jeans. “You and your body having a difference of opinion?”
“Not so much a difference as, maybe, an amplification of the conversation.”
“You’re a good man. You don’t need chastity to prove it.”
“Have you done this before – since your husband?”
“Some kissing, holding hands in the dark.”
“What if this feels wrong?”
“I trust you.”
The jasmine bush outside the bedroom window was in bloom. Crickets creaked. Stella turned on the bedside lamp, took off socks and jeans before shedding her sweater and tee-shirt, revealing a defeated-looking pink bra and no underwear. She watched, not offering to assist, as Abe unbuckled his belt and stripped. Her eyes journeyed across his body, the bush of pubic hair, erect penis, well-furred legs. He was conscious of her appraisal, and glad for the manual labour that had kept his stomach flat and muscles solid at an age when most men had succumbed to beer and barbecue.
She was shaved except for a golden tuft at the base of her pubic bone, the upturned nipples in her small breasts were pointed and surprisingly dark.
She took both his hands, pulled herself close and kissed him.
He hadn’t made love since Hazel died. Would this call her back? Another woman in her bed? Abe strained his senses but all he encountered was Stella’s body, alive, unmistakable, her skin, her breath – onion-tinged – all new.
They hardly spoke, didn’t hurry. After their mouths grew warm and familiar she dropped to one knee to taste him, sending a thrill up his spine. They pushed the light summer quilt aside – the sunbeam pattern Hazel favored – and stretched on the threadbare white sheets. He noticed, again, the length of her legs, their hips and pelvises aligned even though she had to stretch to kiss him.
He caressed her back, worked his way down, kneading her buttocks and thighs. She relaxed into his touch, melting against him. Abe massaged her vulva with gentle, circular strokes.
“I want you inside me.”
He wriggled down between her legs and spread her labia with his fingers, dipping them in the liquid silk spreading across her. “Tell me what you like, Stella.”
She guided him with whimpers and moans, quivers and jerks.
“Are you ready?”
In a fluid motion, he moved up and into her, shuddering with pleasure as she contracted around him. He knew he wouldn’t last long so he concentrated on going slow. As they kissed she dug into his hips, pulling him deeper.
Afterwards, he brought two glasses of water.
She gulped hers then snuggled beneath the quilt.
“How do you feel?”
“What are you going to do?”
Abe held her, listened to her breath, slightly longer on the exhale. When he slept, he dreamed they were walking through a field of waist-high grass, a blond child running ahead of them.
It took a minute to remember what happened, another to realize he was alone. Abe got out of bed, pulled on his boxers and went to the living room. Shooter drifted to him. The house was silent.
In the kitchen, he opened a can of tuna and tipped it on to a plate. Shooter thanked him with a purr. Rising, Abe spotted the note, pinned to the fridge by a Texaco magnet. Her handwriting was scrawled but legible.
“Abe. You helped more than you know. Shooter should be with you. If you ever get to Oxford look us up: 23 Laurel Cove. Love, Stella.”
At the sink, he turned on the hot water and began to do the dishes.