On Halloween Eve, while Rick littered his front lawn with mock foam tombstones, his former neighbor Chuck stopped to visit. They shook hands. Chuck was close to 50, his once brown hair now peppered with gray. Rick hadn’t seen him in years. “What’s up, man?”
“Well, I was driving past and saw this cat.” He pointed to Rick’s black cat, Midnight, who was rubbing against the markers Rick was putting up. “He brought back a memory.”
Rick invited Chuck inside as he sank the last headstone into the grass: “ORSON WELLES – All’s well that ends Welles.” In the kitchen, he opened a couple of longnecks and handed one to Chuck. They clinked bottles in a silent toast and drank.
“Now, this is funny –”
“What? The beer?” said Rick.
“No. Twenty years ago, one of my construction workers shot your cat,” he said.
“What?” Mouth agape, Rick stared at Chuck. How for one second could Chuck think such news would set off any kind of mirth?
Noah, Rick’s cat, had been a family favorite, a dark striped tabby and a bit of an evolutionary freak with two extra toes on each paw. Noah was also a formidable hunter who had looked scruffy but was also a little noble with his pure white fur bib. His ears had several nicks from healed war wounds. He had loved people; he just didn’t like other cats.
Chuck continued. Rick heard genuine jollity in the guy’s voice. He was clearly oblivious to Rick’s displeasure. “Yeah, I didn’t tell you before because of your temper. I thought you might kill the guy, but that cat rubbing up against those tombstones in your yard reminded me of your dead cat.”
Rick paused for a moment to take in Chuck’s confession. He set his beer down hard, stood straight and pushed off the counter. Rick leaned forward. He was inches from Chuck’s face. “What do you mean he shot my cat? Is this some BS trick or treat joke?”
“No,” said Chuck. “I heard from the other workers that the guy was just getting in a little target practice. He usually shot birds, but your cat was out in the field that day.”
“What’s his name?” asked Rick.
“That’s not important, especially after all these years,” said Chuck with a shrug. “Besides, I don’t remember.”
“I want the cat killer’s name,” Rick demanded.
Chuck sat his beer down. He rubbed his wet hand on his jeans. He avoided eye contact with Rick. “He was just some kid named Kevin; I don’t remember his last name.”
Rick realized that he and Chuck shared no real connection. In fact, he’d come back to haunt this Halloween Eve. Chuck shrugged and said he’d hired the kid to help build his brother’s house across the street from Rick’s house. “I didn’t see the shooting take place, understand. Another worker told me about it.”
Rick fought to swallow the red rage he felt. “Was my cat – did Noah die instantly?”
“Don’t know.” Chuck shrugged again. “None of us went to go check after Kevin shot him. He said he’d hit him.”
“Are you for real?”
“Look,” said Chuck, backing away and putting his hand on the refrigerator door. He toyed with the magnets on it. “The guy was a good shot and I was probably behind schedule.”
Rick glared at Chuck. He seemed genuinely caught off-guard by Rick’s reaction to his news. As he started to leave, he stopped at the kitchen entrance and looked back. “Hey, look, I saved you from jail, Buddy.”
Rick stared at him, but didn’t answer. Chuck waited in the kitchen doorway for a minute or two. He looked like he wanted to say more. Then he looked at Rick and said “Bye.” He reached forward and grabbed his coat off the kitchen chair, but didn’t take time to put it on. It was not a friendly parting, and Rick didn’t walk Chuck to his car as he usually did with guests; instead, he grabbed another beer from the fridge.
He sputtered, “He has balls telling me he saved me from jail.”
Lily, Rick’s wife, entered the kitchen.
“That prick,” yelled Rick. He shook his head and swore again. After taking a couple more swigs of beer, he continued, “Like I would risk jail over a cat . . . I might have slugged the punk, but I didn’t have the chance to act . . . who knows what I would have done.”
“That’s why I didn’t tell you about it,” said Lily.
“What? You knew?”
Rick stepped closer to his wife. His stance was challenging. Lily’s tone was nonchalant. “Come on Rick, you know you’re a hothead and you’re sensitive. I didn’t know what you’d do.”
Lily asked him to move and started to unload the dishwasher.
“Why? How could you keep such a thing from me?” Rick demanded.
“We had kids and a mortgage,” said Lily.
Rick watched his wife. She didn’t bother to stop putting away dishes. “It was years ago, Rick. Can’t you let this go?”
Rick walked past his wife, out of the kitchen, and stepped outside to be sure that Chuck had left. Yes, he had a temper, but Chuck’s rationale seemed a bit self-serving. He wondered what reaction Chuck had expected from him after such news. Had he really mellowed?
Lily interrupted his thoughts. She spoke through the screen door. “Okay, Rick, let’s talk about this.”
“Lily, I’m not interested. Chuck’s one thing, but you’re my wife. You knew I loved that cat. I can’t believe you’d keep something like this from me.”
“Let’s not get all dramatic,” she said.
Rick stepped off the porch. The late October air was brisk; he took a deep breath, walked over and sat in the Adirondack chair with his beer in hand. Tail in the air, Midnight came over to join him. Rick gave the cat a pat on the top of its head and remembered that at the time of Noah’s disappearance, he and Lily and their three kids were visiting his dying mother in Maine.
He’d always felt safe in this Connecticut neighborhood. He provided a good setup for his kids, Jane, Ted and Mark: a pool table, an outdoor inground pool and a variety of yard games, from croquet to horse shoes. Rick would have been plenty angry about Noah’s death, but guessed that rather than pummel the cat killer himself, he would have called the police and had him arrested.
Of course, he wasn’t 100 percent sure that’s what would have happened. Maybe some of his Army combat training would have short-circuited his professional airline pilot instincts to make him go after the cat killer.
The front door opened. Lily came outside and joined Rick. She sat in the other Adirondack chair that he’d made. “So, do you think you would have just called the cops? I doubt it.”
“How long have you known?”
“How long?” Rick repeated. “I need to know.”
“Chuck told me when we got back from your mom’s in Maine.”
Rick counted back to when his mother died. “She died two days after we got home. You mean you’ve known for twenty years, Lily?”
“You’re a real witch,” he said. “I can’t believe you kept this from me and the kids.”
Rick pulled his eyes away from the Styrofoam “O.J. SIMPSON – May as Well be Dead and Buried” headstone catching waning sunlight on the lawn.
“Enough,” said Lily. “I’m not going to sit here and let you insult me.” She stood, but waited. Rick ignored her and drank from his beer.
“I’m wondering what else you’ve kept from me,” he said.
“Fuck you, Rick,” she said.
He didn’t take the bait.
“It doesn’t matter, I guess,” he said. “The point is that Chuck had to wait twenty years to tell me what happened. You see, either way – if Chuck told me and I went after the guy or if I just called the cops – they would’ve gotten involved. But you, you, I don’t understand.”
Lily threw her hands up. “Why go over all this? It’s not helping.”
“Helping, helping . . . I need help in understanding your actions,” he said.
“Well, I’m going inside. Why don’t you sit out here and cool off.”
Rick didn’t respond.
“Listen, they lived behind us for four years,” said Lily. “They were our friends. Don’t you remember that Chuck helped us out with a loan when we needed money back then?”
Chuck was a successful builder, or ‘contractor’ in today’s lingo. He and the rest of the Bownur family were neighbors whose antics provided Rick and his family with an anthology of stories. Chuck’s youngest son, Jim, was a toddler when Rick saw him drag an icicle through cow manure, put it in his mouth and suck on it. Years later, when Jim was a young teen, Rick and his family were all sitting on the deck eating dinner one warm July evening when Jim’s mother started screaming, “Jim, get off that tractor right now!” There was more yelling and Rick and family watched Jim jump from the moving tractor. It rolled forward a few yards until it hit a tree before coming to a stop. Jim wasn’t hurt, though. Such events took place daily in the Bownur family. Maybe it was the way the wind blew, the way the house was positioned on the property, but it seemed that Shelly Bownur, Chuck’s wife, liked to yell, especially at her four kids.
Rick also remembered the construction of Warren’s house. Warren was Chuck’s older brother and had moved across the street from Rick and Lily. He lived alone and hired a married reading tutor, from two streets down. Warren’s reading and self-improvement was a topic of discussion and interest among many adults in the neighborhood. The tutor’s visits lasted for hours and started a phone chain in the area. It was either Lily dialing or answering the phone – being across the street, she had the best view of the house and tutor’s car in the driveway.
Whether they were strong readers or not, the Bownur brothers had a successful building business. They had built most of the houses on the street: Rick’s house, the Goldsteins’, the Putneys’, and the Wordsworths’. They each lived in the houses they built, supposedly “for themselves” for a couple years before selling them and moving on to other neighborhoods.
“I thought Chuck was a friend,” said Rick. “Now I can’t stand the thought of him.”
“How about me?” asked Lily. Her tone was sarcastic.
“I’m disgusted,” said Rick.
“Why?” Lily challenged. “I did it to keep our family together.”
“The way I see it is that you and Chuck let Noah’s death go unpunished. I mean, Chuck’s kids used to swim in our pool with Noah lounging on the hot slate nearby, remember?”
Lily nodded. “Sure.”
“Noah was always close to any outdoor activity and people,” Rick continued.
Lily chuckled. Rick jumped. He looked over and realized she was reminiscing. “He was a real people cat, a real sweetie.”
“I need some space,” said Rick.
“No problem,” said Lily. “I’m not interested in your drama.”
Rick threw the beer bottle across the lawn. It hit a large oak and made a thud before dropping to the ground.
He had liked Chuck, at least until now. Such news instantly wiped out memories of good times, he was learning. No, not wiped out. But memories certainly shifted. Chuck let a cat killer disrupt their safe neighborhood and had no remorse for the loss of his family pet. And Lily’s keeping it a secret, that shocked him. Who knew she’d be so cold and emotionless? It wasn’t even an hour since he’d heard the news and the space where thoughts of friendship used to reside were now filled with thoughts of Chuck’s lack of sophistication and his being a high school dropout. The more Rick dwelled on it, the more Chuck’s guise of protecting him seemed weak and unconvincing. At least focusing on Chuck kept him from thinking about Lily.
“I hope I see him again,” said Rick aloud. No one was around to hear him. Midnight sat curled in his lap purring.
Rick heard the screen door shut. “A peace offering,” said Lily. She held out a beer.
“No, thanks,” he said.
Lily sighed. “I kid you not, it was hell not telling you what happened. I remember that the kids were upset for weeks.”
“It was hell not knowing,” said Rick.
“I’m going in, it’s chilly out here,” said Lily.
“Lily,” Rick started, “Chuck wasn’t at all remorseful today. Was he back then?”
“I guess,” she said. “I mean he didn’t show up with a kitten or anything, but I’m pretty sure he said he was sorry.”
“Should we tell the kids after all these years?” asked Rick.
“Of course not,” said Lily. “Let them remember Noah as a sociable cat that had no need to fear humans.”
“I guess that’s easier for you,” he said. “They might feel deceived. I know I do.”
“Okay, this time I’m staying in the house,” she said. “I’ve had enough theater for one afternoon.”
Rick didn’t want to let it go. He sat facing the field of tall grass where Noah had been shot. It was late October now, but the wildflowers from May through June were calendar worthy. The field filled with lightning bugs at night. It had also been prime hunting ground for the mouser Noah. He was a generous gift giver and liked to leave presents at the front door (usually a mouse head and guts). Rick wasn’t mythologizing; Noah was a fun cat, with just enough affection and aloofness to make him entertaining. Noah used to rub across the back of Rick’s calves, especially when he was opening a can of cat food. Rick was an early riser and the one who fed the pets in the morning: there was Zipper after Noah, Godzilla after Zipper, and now, Midnight. He remembered that the electric can opener had been music to Noah’s ears.
Whether Chuck ’fessed up out of guilt or because he had a warped sense of humor, Rick knew it wouldn’t bring Noah back. The tombstone closest to him read: “SHAKESPEARE – To be or not to be is no longer the question.”
He saw the first trick-or-treaters heading down the street. New families had moved in, and the little ones usually came around early. Rick headed inside. Lily was standing in the foyer adjusting her white wig. She always dressed up for Halloween. He wasn’t amused by this year’s granny costume.
“Still mad?” she asked.
“Yes, I’m mad,” said Rick.
The doorbell rang and Rick heard kid voices call out, “Trick or Treat.”
He stood leaning against the hall closet, arms folded across his chest, and watched Lily hold out a large black bowl to the kids. There were squeals. The bowl had a rubber skeletal hand standing inches above the bowl’s center. The kids each picked their candy and were stomping down the porch steps when Lily turned to Rick.
“Can you watch the door? I’ve got to go to the bathroom.”
“No,” he said. “I’m going out to get Midnight. “I want her inside tonight.”
“Oh come on, Rick. You’ve got to let this go – don’t be mad,” she said. “You love Halloween.”
“Not anymore,” said Rick. “Not after today’s tricks.”
He looked back at the woman he’d married and still loved. Very much. And yet, he fought telling her that she should’ve dressed as a witch instead of granny this year – but she was right. Enough was enough. Except for the cat, of course.
He stepped outside and called for Midnight.