Albert Wachtel

Then the cat got fat. Not altogether fat. The most of it stayed lean like me, but its belly swelled.     “Sick cat,” Mom said between her special words over the rice. I thought she’d say, “Devil inside,” and take me out to brush off, but she wagged her bony arm with the ladle in it and said, “Cancer.”
    “Oh, please,” my dad blinked. “We know the folks.” Which we did. Whitey and Su told them about us, and we took their roofing job the same day. I carried the tools up and refills for the staple gun Whitey rented for us. It wowed the folks that a girl climbed roofs like I do. “We shingled their house,” my dad said. “They wouldn’t—”
    “Cat cheap, you say.” Mom sneered. “Cheap cat. Now know why.”
    My dad coiled away, smiled off center like he does, and said, “I don’t think—”
    “Yes. You not think,” Mom said. “Because stupid.” She pointed. “Cancer.”
    My dad twisted back, looked my way, and winked. “You’re right. What can I say?”
    What could we say? We waited till Mom finished her words over the rice and skittered out onto the porch to dust off. Then my dad winked at me. I winked back. He put his pointer to his lips, which he didn’t have to and, quiet as butter, I tiptoed across the room, fetched his floppy hat from the silent butler, and settled it on his head.
    “Thanks.” He picked the cat up, eased it around my neck like a scarf—a boa, he called it, but it was a cat, not a snake—and we sneaked out the side door to peek at Mom. She was done walking circles and squares and stood plumb in the middle of them, whacking her left ankle. We hung by the garbage cans till she shuffled back in and slammed the door. Then we took off.
    My dad opened my side of the Comet first as usual, then scooted around to his side and drove, the cat snuggled up and purring around my neck like a kettle starting to boil.
    At the vet’s it turned out there were babies inside.
    When we got back home, my dad glanced at Mom out of the corner of his eye and said, “Better than what we thought.”
    Mom slammed the table. “You buy cat,” she yelled. “We need food, rice. Give doctor money. No son. No fish. No speak Mandarin, Cantonese. No tea, soap, grease, gasoline. Now more cats.”
    In China it’s the mom’s fault if a girl baby gets born. Here it was my dad’s, but he was satisfied. He had a daughter. That was okay with him. And the folks paid more for the roof than we paid for the cat. Lots more. We were good on cash again.
    “Fifteen cats,” Mom screamed.
    My dad shrugged. “They said she was fixed.”
    “Was she broke?” I said.
    “Because stupid,” Mom snapped. “Sixteen cats!”
    But for a while there was just Goddess and her swelling tummy, which got bigger as you blinked. The kittens came later, when she hid behind the couch.
    “Stupid,” Mom hollered.
    Whatever happened it was because my dad was stupid. When we had to leave our last digs, he was stupid. When Mom saw our new address, he was stupid. “Bad number, bad place,” she said. “Everything dead.” He was stupid when the cat was fat from cancer, and he was stupid when there were babies inside.
    The dish Mom threw hit John Lennon, who looks like my dad, and knocked him off the wall. Yoko Ono, who comes from Japan but has eyes like Mom and Whitey’s Su, was sitting up in bed with John Lennon, and she fell too.
    “You waste money!” Mom said.
    The dish split in two, and as my dad picked up the halves, one of them broke again. Mom sneered, grabbed me by the elbow, and scooted us outside to dust off. Man, when she smacked it hurt, even if she was chasing devils away.
    When we got back, my dad had a finger on the picture glass. Before we framed John Lennon, my dad wrote, “All you really need is lov,” on Lennon’s pajama shirt. Then we set the frame in place and hung it over the couch. Whitey, who is my dad’s friend and my friend too, checked it out when he came to pick up the rent and by the period next to v wrote e on the glass. “All you really need is lov. e.”
    Whitey found us jobs, skipped the rent when we were short, and never charged for the tools he got us. “Your work and the girls’ rent are enough this month,” he’d say. The girls were our neighbors. My dad and Whitey called them girls, but they were women to me. Aida, the artist, who stayed home a lot, was the one that counted really.
    Whitey bought my dad his firewood ax and sometimes helped with the cording. He’s big, Whitey, real big. He can split a log with one swing. He has a big body, and his head is big. His nose is big, and he has big eyes, wide cheeks, and a forehead that never stops. If Whitey shakes hands with you, your hand disappears, even my dad’s hand, which is big too. Whitey takes your hand, and it’s gone, swallowed up in his palm. The only thing small about Whitey is his ears.
    He started life as a marine, same company as my dad. A million miles away and killing folks who didn’t want nothing but to live their lives, he said. “Then why did you kill them?” I said. Whitey shrugged. “Because I was dumb.” So Whitey was dumb too.
    Mom said he killed her folks, who were Chinese living in Vietnam, and Su’s. Maybe not Whitey himself, but that’s what she said: “He kill my people, and Su’s.” At least my dad shot in the air, she said. They made him a medic. But Whitey didn’t see how bad it was till later. Then he lost his hold on things and spun down. He scraped bottom and was crawling up, he said. Whitey lives with Su, but Mom said he hated her.
    If you didn’t look from the side, where you could see the spacing, his e looked natural. But now the cracked glass split that e apart. My dad shook his head. “Sometimes I get so mad I’m afraid what I’ll do.” He twisted this way and that, grabbed his hat, slipped my sweater over my arm, and we blew on out of there.
    It took awhile to calm down, but maybe half a mile from town, he eased off the gas. It was too bad about Whitey’s e, my dad said, but the picture was fine, and we could buy another piece of glass.
    “I understand why Whitey put it there,” my dad said. “E is for everything.” It was for Einstein, who we had a picture of holding a fiddle. It was for energy, entropy, anything you could name, and it all ends up in love.
    “What’s entropy?” I said.
    “Entropy?” My dad stopped at the light, pretzeled his arms under his chest, and puckered his lips. He looked like a duck sitting on eggs. “It’s big. I used to know, but I can’t remember now. We’ll have to look it up.”
    We let it go at big, stopped at the bakery, and bought a bear claw. At the park, I broke that bear claw down the middle, handed my dad his half, and split mine again. I threw some crumbs on the ground and scattered the rest of that piece near the lake, where the ducks could get them. From the far shore a stork watched us, like my dad watches me when I skate on the pond.
    When we got home Mom was quiet. Being mad with nobody to holler at had dried up her words, which was what we were hoping for. She had flat shut down, and we had peace for a while.
    Better than that, she let Goddess stay inside. She’d been telling my dad to put her out, and every time she told him, he cringed, said she was right, and blew her off. There are coyotes out there. Bobcats. Mountain lions roam the canyon. Even bears. Raccoons can kill cats probably. Goddess wouldn’t last a night in the wild, and lucky for us Mom wouldn’t touch her. She grabbed a broom sometimes, but Goddess hid behind the couch.
    Mom gave up the chase, scooted outside, and brushed off. When she told me to put the cat out, I acted scared to touch her, which Mom bought, though at other times I held and petted Goddess, and sometimes used her for a scarf, right before Mom’s eyes.
    The scarf thing didn’t last. Goddess swelled too big for my neck, but Mom letting her stay inside helped. Those coyotes wail something awful after dark. “She’s safe till her time comes,” my dad said, and it was mostly true. Mostly because sometimes Mom opened the door, put herself between Goddess and the couch, and chased her around until she did run out. Mom didn’t do it often, because open doors let devils in, but when she did, my dad and me had to hunt Goddess down.
    Mostly we found her snuggled up in our neighbors’ shed, the women my dad called the girls. Aida, the one that counted, called Mom “the crazy.” She was fat, Aida. Her bottom jaw stuck out past her uppers, so its teeth cupped the top. A jaw like that, if her neck wasn’t thick and ringed in fat, might tip her over when she stuck it out. Sometimes I wondered if it was hung on slides.
    Aida made statues out of clay and stuff. She hacked the chest out of a mannequin, set red-painted paper that was soaked in wet flour inside, and smushed it around till it looked like flames. Bleeding Heart, she called it. To me it was Heartburn. That’s what I called it, but Mom called it devil worship. Aida lit fat candles in her house. They flickered in her windows, and to Mom that was devil worship too. She said the fire in Heartburn was Aida’s insides burning up. “Bulldog,” she called her, because you could see the burning in a bulldog’s eyes. Mom spit on Aida’s door every chance she got.
    When Mom chased Goddess out, she hid in that shed, which was full of Aida’s pots. My dad would pick her up real careful and carry her back to the house, where we mixed milk out of powder and hot water from the faucet and petted her till she settled down. To keep Mom from chasing Goddess out regular, we emptied her litter box morning and night, and maybe that helped.
    “When her time comes, we’ll have to think,” my dad said. I didn’t know what her time comes meant, but when it came, I knew. Goddess hid in the corner where the couch elbows up to a standing lamp that never gets lit because the plug blows out. But when the TV is off, the lamp works. Before her time came we saw Goddess checking that corner a lot. “That’s where she’ll have them,” my dad said.
    Came a day when Goddess stuck out on either side like a dumbbell. I plopped down on the couch to read a picture book my dad bought me and heard a moan. I switched on the light, peeked behind the couch, and Goddess, leg up, bent double and calm as grass, was licking plastic off her littlest cat, which was wet, eyes shut, almost out, and number five.
    There was no number six, and five was weaker than the rest, so you can forget sixteen. My dad dipped his head, smiled off center a little, like through wavy glass, so what you see isn’t quite what is, and said, “We’ll keep just two of them.” He peeked up at Mom through his fluttery lashes that women who noticed said they wished were theirs. “The rest we’ll give away,” he sighed.
    “Nobody want cats,” Mom said.
    “We’ll try outside the supermarket.”
    “People buy food supermarket. You buy cat,” she yelled, “because stupid!” Which we both knew was coming. Then she pulled up her pants legs and howled, “Fleas!”
    Her shins were covered with bites that my dad swabbed down with witch hazel. He laid pillows outside between the washing machine and the dryer, and we set Goddess and her kittens real careful out there. My dad offered to spray the house, but of course that was stupid, because Mom hated chemicals. He said he’d buy a flea collar, but that was dumb too, so while Mom did circles and squares, we gathered eucalyptus leaves.
    The smell drives fleas out, but she disbelieved. Part way through dusting herself, she saw us coming back and screamed, “Stupid!” My dad dipped his head, but as we shuffled inside, we both winked. We scattered our way through the rooms, eased out again, and peeked at Mom, whose dusting this time lasted awhile. She was as mad as bees.
    When she minced back in finally, my dad and me lit out for the bakery, bought some bear claws, and fed the birds. We bought peanuts too and fed the squirrels, thinking to get back late to a quiet Mom. But she was flat out wild. She ran at the Comet like it was a horse she meant to tame. My dad turned hard right, and the outside mirror just missed her. If he didn’t hurry the window down, she might have broke it on him.
    “No cats!” Mom’s eyes were big.
    “No cats?”
    “Gone! Come see!”
    We hurried to the washing machine, and sure enough the pillows were empty.
    Mom pointed at the girls’ house. “Bulldog. Devil worship. Kill cats.”
    My dad twisted aside. “Aida? I don’t think—”
    “Because stupid,” Mom screamed. She started sputtering, too fast to follow, really. Spit sprayed from her mouth, and she couldn’t stand still. It was like all the fleas in the world were biting her.
    My dad looked at me.
    “What do you think?”
    “They’re not hurt,” I said. “There’s no blood around.”
    “The girls’ place?”
    “In the shed, probably.”
    Mom sneered and launched her squares and circles while we checked the shed. Sure enough Goddess had her kittens inside, all but number five, which was flat out gone. We picked up the four, one in each hand, and Goddess followed us home.
    “We got them, mostly,” my dad told Mom.
    “Can’t find number five,” I said.
    Mom’s face knotted up. “Sacrifice.” She pointed at Aida’s window. “Devil worship!” She thought Aida gave that last little kitten to some devil she loved. “Kill cat!” With me and my dad begging no, she spit on Aida’s door, darted to the shed, and started throwing her stuff around. Pots, cups, squiggles and twists of clay—she flung them every way she could. Then she ran out, grabbed the cactus and ivy planters that were hanging from nails in the eves, ripped them down, and smashed them on Aida’s porch.
    Aida heard the racket, opened the door, and got hit in the head.
    “What the—ow, ow,” she said. “What in hell’s going on?”
    “Devil!” Mom ran at her.
    But my dad grabbed her back. “It’s our cat,” he said.
    “Stupid, let go!”
    He grabbed Mom from behind, picked her up, and turned her away. “It’s our cat, Aida. Did you see our cats in your shed? One of the kittens is missing.”
    “Devil! Let go!”
    “Your cat?” Aida tasted her lip and felt her head, which was pouring blood. “I’m bleeding to death.”
    “I can fix that.” As my dad moved to help her, his grip softened on Mom, who grabbed Aida’s bloody hair.
     “No, Li.”
    He grabbed Mom’s hands, but she started kicking—not my dad, but Aida, who took a couple on the legs.
    “Press on it, Aida,” my dad managed. “I’ll fix it for you.”
    “My head, lip, or leg?” Aida wailed. “That’s my art in the dirt!”
    “It’s our cat,” my dad said, hefting Mom back. “One of her kittens is missing. Get something frozen and press it to your head, Aida. It’s over now.” But Mom kicked out and got his shin. “Ow, owww!” He hopped around without letting go and bent to keep Mom off. “Put ice on your lip,” he told Aida. “It won’t swell up if you do.”
    “Devil!” Mom screamed. “Stupid, let go!”
    When we got into the house, he said, “Keep her here, Linda.”
    “Me?” I looked at him, and he let go of Mom, shrugged, and put up his hands.
    Mom pulled back. I thought she’d be out the door right then, but she stalked to her chair in the eating part of the living room and crossed her arms. “Stupid,” she sneered. “Good,” my dad said—not about the stupid, about the sitting down. “I’ll be back soon.” He looked around. “Just stay there, Li.”
    Mom snarled, got up before he left, and walked to the window. From there she could see him at the neighbors’, and, when Aida let him in, Mom fixed me to my chair with an eye like a staple gun and stepped outside.
    I couldn’t move till she shut the door, and even then it took awhile. I thought she’d dust off or peek in Aida’s window, maybe, but by the time I was outside, she had our firewood ax and was crossing the yard.
    “No, Mom,” I said.
    She didn’t even look at me. Like a farmer stepping over stubble fields, she crossed our yard, passed Aida’s door, and stomped around to the statue side of the house.
    “No, Mom,” I hollered.
    I thought to put myself between her and Heartburn, then thought better of it, and it was good I did. Mom aimed for her chest, swung the ax back, and crashed it into the flames, yelling, “Devil, devil!” She hacked that poor statue till it split in half, and then went to work on the halves.
    Aida heard us yelling, or maybe it was the chopping, and ran out with my dad.
    “My statue,” she bawled, “Bleeding Heart!”
    She went to push Mom away, but Mom hauled the ax back, and Aida pulled up short. She looked at my dad. “She’s crazy,” she said.
    My dad slipped behind Mom, grabbed the ax with one hand and her with the other, and started dragging her off. “I’m sorry. I’ll fix it,” he said. “I got giant clamps.”
    But now that Aida was safe, she started screaming again. “She broke my Bleeding Heart.” She picked up the quarter of Heartburn with the head on top and hugged it to her. “She’s a destroyer of art!” she screeched. “That’s a felony.”
    “Devil!” Mom shrieked back. “Kill cat!” She knocked my dad’s hat off, and when he bent to pick it up, Mom broke loose and went for Aida with her fists. My dad handed me the hat and snatched at her.
    Lucky for Aida Heartburn’s head was in front of her. Before my dad reached them, Mom smacked it around something fierce.
    “She’s got to be punished,” Aida howled. “I’m calling the landlord. Crazy.”
    “Put down, stupid,” Mom hollered. “Devil!”
    My dad backed off with her. “Open the door for us, Linda.”
    He backed straight to our house, and when we were safe inside, put Mom down. She whacked at him, screaming, “Devil, sacrifice! Linda, shut door!” He twisted this way and that but it didn’t stop her.
    She saw my dad’s hat where I’d hung it on the silent butler and ran at it. I went to snatch it back, but she pushed me into the couch, which banged up my knee.
    I was worried more about the hat. Mom tried to rip that old hat to pieces, but whatever way she twisted, it went.
    “Stupid,” she yelled and flung it at my dad. Then she ran outside, slammed the door behind her, and did her circles and squares.
    My dad and me faded out the side door, thinking to take off till she calmed down, but she spotted us, ran up, and grabbed my arm. “Li, no,” my dad said. But she ran me into the circles and squares she had walked and started dusting me off. Her fists hit my shoulders at first, then my face. She swelled my eye shut and hit me one on the ear that put me on the ground. My dad ducked in and took a whack or two himself before he grabbed her wrists.
    Just about then Whitey and Su drove up. When Mom saw them she snapped her arms free, ran inside, and slammed the door. “What the hell,” Whitey said. “One of the girls called.” Su hugged me. “Linda,” she said. Her eyes filled with tears. She had on one of those dresses that go smooth over the hips, and her hug was like cream.
    Aida must have been peeking out through her mini blinds, because she ran out screaming. “Like a quartered chicken! The crazy broke my art!”
    “It’s our cat, Whitey,” my dad said. “Did you see our cats, Aida? Our cat had kittens, and one of them is gone.”
     “Was it the runt?” Whitey said. “Maybe she ate it.”
    “Your cats?” Aida pushed her jaw out and slapped her hands. “I found them in my art shed and thought they were strays. The one I could catch I gave to a friend of mine. The rest ran off, I guess.”
    “Is it a good home?” Su said.
    “She feeds it from an eyedropper.”
    Whitey shrugged. “Shoot,” he said. “What more can you ask?”
    Really that should have been okay with us, too, because we meant to give three away, but Mom came back out mad. “Our cat,” she screamed. “We buy cat.”
    “You bought a stray, Len?”
    “Three bucks,” my dad said. “To make sure we’d value it, they said.”
    Whitey reached in his pocket and pulled a fiver out. “Here.” He held it out to Mom. “A kitten is more valuable.”
    But Mom pulled back.
    “You take it, Linda.”
    Mom moved to stop me, but before she could, I grabbed Whitey’s bill and gave it to my dad. “Buy us a bear claw,” I said. “We’ll share it with Mom.”
    My dad twisted aside. “Thanks, Whitey.”
    Aida slid her jaw full out. “What about Bleeding Heart?”
    “Devil worship,” Mom yelled. “Fire inside.”
    Whitey set his arm between them. “We got to make peace,” he said.
    “Are the statues for sale?” Su asked. “Sometimes damaged goods make good art.”
    “They’re broken,” Aida said. “She’s a destroyer of art.”
    Whitey reached in his pocket and pulled a twenty out. “I bet you can fix them,” he said. He handed it to Aida, and Mom’s eyes flared.
    “Twenty dollar,” she sneered. “Give five back.”
    “Wait, Li,” Su said. “We’ll give you twenty, too.”
    My dad wagged his head. “We couldn’t take that, Su. Five’s more than we need.”
    Mom stamped her foot. “Stupid, give back!” And when he didn’t, she stomped back home and slammed the door.
    “It’s restoration,” Su told Aida. “Like Michelangelo.”
    Aida blushed. “I’ll try, but I want her punished,” she said. “If she isn’t punished, I’ll sue.” She tucked Whitey’s twenty between her boobs, adjusted her jaw way out there, and stomped home herself. Which left my dad, Su, Whitey, and me.
    “Punished. Sue.” Whitey shook his head.
    “Tell you what,” Su said. “We’ll match that five with a ten, and you can buy bear claws for all of you.”
    My dad waggled his head again. “One bear claw is enough for us.”
    “At least it’s over,” Whitey sighed. “Follow us in the Comet, Len. We found work for you. We’ll drive on over and set a price. It’s fencing, chain link.”
    “I got to get clamps to Aida. For her statue,” my dad said.
    “I can do that,” I said.
    Whitey laid a paw on my head. “Thanks. And keep an eye on your Mom, Linda.” Which I could also do. “Keep her in the house.” Which I couldn’t.
    “Say,” Su said, “why don’t we take Linda along?”
    I looked at my dad and Whitey and shrugged. “Nah, I’ll just hang here.”
    Su hugged me like it was hard to let go, and I watched them walk off together. To be honest I wanted out, but if my dad and Whitey asked me something, I tried to do it for them. I hung back while they drove away, Whitey and Su in their Land Rover and my dad in the Comet, dropping out of sight until even the exhaust settled. Then I set the clamps by quartered Heartburn and limped back to the house where, as I got near, Mom was peeking out the window at me.
    When our eyes met she let the shade drop down and disappeared. What was up didn’t register, but as I reached for the knob, the door sprung open. Then I knew. “Devils!” Before I could move, she grabbed me. “Make clean!”
    I swallowed hard. She walked so many circles and squares around me I lost count. I was hoping she wouldn’t stop, but finally she did, and I got whacked around. She bloodied my nose, hit my ear so hard I thought I’d go deaf. I had handprints, black and blue, on my belly for weeks. Then she shoved me out of the way, smacked herself around, and walked little steps back and forth to the girls’ house.
    “No, Mom,” I yelled.
    But she wouldn’t stop. She didn’t flinch till she was right at their door. That’s when I saw Aida at the window, peeking out like Mom. “She sees you,” I hollered, but it was too late. Aida disappeared as Mom got near, and when she spit on the door, Aida opened it. Mom spit again, right in her face, and Aida’s jaw slid out wide.
    With a scream, she heaved herself at Mom. There’s a lot of weight to Aida, maybe twice as much as Mom, and thinking she’d be hurt, I jumped between. It wasn’t necessary, really, because Mom ducked away. Aida grabbed me instead, and Mom took off for the woods, howling, “Bulldog, devil!”
    I clutched Aida’s neck, and she tipped over on me. It was like floating in a featherbed. Aida’s arms took the shock, and the rest of her shushed around me. “Oww!” She checked her dimpled elbows and then looked at me. “She beat you up,” she said.
    “It’s no big thing, Aida. I’m fine.”
    “Your nose is bleeding. I’ll call the police. Look at your eye, Linda.”
    “Thanks anyway.” I tried to unwrap myself. “I put those clamps by your statue, Aida. You can fix it now.”
    But she shook her head. “Where else did she hit you? She needs to be punished for this.”
    “Aida, please. I got to find Mom before she does something I’ll be sorry for.” I peeled her off, dragged myself up, and made for the woods. If I could find Goddess in there, I’d find Mom, I thought. “Please, Aida,” I hollered back, “just fix your statue now.”
    But I never found her. I searched the gravel banks near the creek, climbed up through the oak groves to the sandstone caves, shambled along the fir corridors and under the pines, with their cones all open and scattered, hoping for the best, but no Mom. I crossed paths with a bobcat on the way and two raccoons, and I saw the tail of a fox gliding away. Coming back I hit skunk scent and the skunk itself. It tipped its rear up at me. “Watch out; I can do you, too.” But no Mom. She’ll come out on her own, I thought. That or stay lost until my dad got back, and we’d find her then.
    Well, she was ahead of me. When I hobbled home, Mom was all scratched up, her dress bloody and torn, and she was dusting off, whacking herself hard. She didn’t think to grab me and had left the door of the house open wide. I was reaching to touch the welt on her cheek when I smelled boiling meat.
    “Devils.” Mom flinched. “Make clean.”
    The look in her eyes puckered my skin, like a horse with flies. My knees shook, but I made it to the open door and flung myself into the house. The place smelled of meat. From the couch, Goddess snarled, hopped up on the armrest by the standing lamp, and arched herself, fur and tail bristling, her round eyes sharp as slits. The rice pot, with flames licking up its sides, was pumping steam into the air. I turned down the burner, went to lift the lid off the pot, and burned my hand.
    When I used the potholder, a cloud of steam gusted up, cleared, and left four white bodies in the simmering pot. No heads, no fur, no feet. I blinked, couldn’t breathe. Everything stopped, and all I could do was see.
    When I turned back Goddess was gone. Breathing high and light, my face burning, I hobbled out to Mom, who was limp now, hands dangling, knowing she’d done wrong. I can’t say what I meant to do, because the blood on her knocked me back. Not sprinkles—blotches of blood, dried up pools. Too much blood for little cats. “You didn’t,” I said. She shook her head, no, but her eyes said, “Lie.”
    I took off for the girls’ house.
    Mom cried, “Linda, don’t go. Linda!”
    But I was already gone. I limped around to the statue side of the house, passed torn strips of newspaper on the path, and staggered. Heartburn, clamped together on a tarp with shredded and bloody maché scattered around, was holding Aida, who was hugging her back, our ax stuck deep between her shoulder blades. Mom snatched me from behind, screeching, “Don’t go, I say.” She shook me like paint in a mixing machine and dragged me away.
    About halfway down the drive, my dad and the Comet turned in. Mom headed us straight at them, and my dad whipped the wheel. The Comet skidded Momwards, and she shoved me away. I tumbled down one embankment. And Mom crashed down the other.
    “You okay, Linda?” my dad called.
    Tangled in an ironwood tree, hurting but not broke, I tried my arms and legs. “Yeah,” I said.
    “Need help?”
    “Nah, I’ll make it.”
    I struggled up to the drive and saw my dad scramble up with what was left of Mom. “We better call the police,” he said.
    It was his fault, the cops said, and he got charged with manslaughter. The judge said no bail. Whitey was mad. He had us fire the court lawyer and hired us our own. But the Comet’s outside mirror had a piece of Mom’s scalp on it, and that lawyer lost too.
    Whitey and Su helped me search out Goddess that night, and when we found her, they took us home with them. She was grateful to us, climbed my shoulders as I sat between Su and Whitey in the Land Rover, and curled like a boa around my neck.
    She drives with us that way to visit my dad, which is once a week, and sleeps on the seat till we get back.
    Whitey and Su are good to us. I can’t eat meat after that boiling pot, so Goddess gets all she wants while we eat broccoli, carrots, different kinds of tofu, anything that can’t bleed. Su’s got no special words for her rice, but it’s as good as Mom’s, and Whitey rides me shotgun all over town. He buys us whole bear claws and scones for the birds. When he’s out alone he comes home with danishes, one for him, one for me, and one for Su, which he splits with her, so I get two. They’re good on cash, Whitey and Su, and happy to cut you in.
    Still, I miss my dad. I hope he gets out soon, because it’s just not the same without him. Whitey and Su are good friends—know what I mean?—but my dad’s my dad. I’m keeping his hat for him.

Albert Wachtel is a professor at Pitzer College, one of the Claremont Colleges in Southern California. He is currently working on a novel and putting together a collection of his published stories on the aftermath of war. His most recent essay, about Ur Nammu, first king of the last dynasty of Sumer, has recently been published in Great Lives from History: The Ancient World.

“Goddess” appears in our Spring 2005 issue.