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Wildcat.

--with gratitude to Flannery O'Connor

Leon could smell the wildcat. The windows lay open at night and the ripe August air moved inside, carrying a trace of damp feline fur. He had smelled the cat every night this week. It came because of the deer, and the deer came because of the roses. They nosed the satin petals right off the stickery stalks. Leon had heard that roses were like ice cream to deer. These flowers, and other herbaceous treats, brought them out of the regional park and into people's yards. The wildcat followed.

"I smelled the wildcat again last night," Leon told his daughter while she made breakfast for Justin and lunch for herself. "I think we should keep the windows closed." He didn't really think that, he just wanted their reaction.

He was rewarded by a microscopic gasp from his grandson, so tiny it was audible only to him. His daughter would have missed it altogether. And even if she had heard it, she wouldn't have known it held awe as well as fear. In fact, that little expulsion of air expressed a perfect blending of the two. Meg missed it all.

She spoke too loudly, asserting, "The news said that Fish & Wildlife would catch it this week. It's too hot to keep the windows shut. Anyway, cougars don't come in houses. They want the deer."

Leon considered pointing out the tenderness of five-year-old boys, but thought that might be going too far. "I smelled him," Leon said. "He was in the yard."

His daughter made a huffing sound. The bank had been shedding workers all year, and now she had him to feed, too. She couldn't afford to think about a wildcat prowling the neighborhood. She had to close loans and proofread title papers. She had to make sure she was indispensible in her department. She had to hold onto her job at any cost. Though to his way of thinking, the cost had been very high.

Who needed the big city? The big bank. The clanging, metallic, tar-covered stench of it all.

He heard her slide the tuna sandwich into a plastic bag and drop this into her purse. There was the whiff of a soft peach passing from the bowl on the kitchen table into her purse as well. It would smash in there, juice up all her things. She was always in too much of a hurry. Her feet made soft puffing sounds as she walked across the kitchen floor in her fleece slippers, not unlike the sound the cat's paws made on the pavement outside at night, but lacking the grace and intention,

"Be good," she said to both of them. She kicked off the fleece slippers, and he listened to the clunk of her pumps fade to the door. Justin ran after her and slid the deadbolt. Meg's old Honda roared to life. She gave it way too much gas, like the scream she wouldn't allow herself. Off she went to work.

Justin was back in the kitchen asking, "Did you really smell the cougar last night?"

"Yes, sir."

"What does it smell like?"

"Trail dust. Wet hay. A slight bit of urine. Cat breath."

"Cat breath!" Justin squealed. "You didn't smell its breath! It didn't come that close."

He was right. Leon exaggerated. "Yes, sir. I did. I smelled that wildcat, from nose to anus."

Justin squealed again.

"I heard it, too."

Another small gasp. Leon didn't wait for the question. "Picture a regular cat's paw. Now think of one just like that, only the size of my hand." Leon spread his fingers and held up his hand, palm out. Then he pushed his open hand through two feet of air. "Hear that?" Leon was sure that Justin shook his head no. So he said, "Try again." He punched his open hand forward again. "The sound of air being displaced."

"Yeah," Justin breathed. "I heard it."

"Okay. That. And also the quietest possible mush sound. That paw stepping on the garden soil."

Justin was practically hyperventilating, so Leon let it go with, "Yes, sir. I smelled him good last night."

EVERY DAY THE grandfather and grandson ventured further from the house, despite Meg's explicit instructions to not set foot out the door. You can't cage a five-year-old boy any more than you can cage a 66-year-old man. The more rules she laid out, the stronger Leon's impulse to break them. You just can't cage a person.

That was something Meg would probably never appreciate. She was afraid. Leon understood that. He also understood that most likely he himself had created the problem, all those years back, when he left Meg, her brother Peter and their mother. Meg was only three years old, and Peter was Justin's age, five. Over the years Meg had kept in touch, but barely. Peter hadn't spoken to Leon in decades. Refused to. Leon knew his son lived in Stockton, and lots of times he'd considered going there and making amends. But how do you do that? Years were like sand. They slid and dispersed. You couldn't pick them back up again. Anyway, you can't cage a man, and that's how it'd felt, back then, like he was caged with two small children and a wife. Leon had been practically a boy himself.

It took guts for Meg to call him earlier this month. He'd hand her that. Guts and a big dose of desperation. He'd moved this spring when Gloria passed and her kids sold the house out from under him. But he was still in Pinedale, and Meg had found him. She didn't bother with hello, how are you, just laid out her situation. Scott had left in April. He had done the kind of leaving that doesn't include child support payments. Or even a divorce. The man was missing in action. Gone. She had the rent, groceries, health insurance and childcare. She needed Leon to come out and take over the latter. At least until Justin started school in the fall.

"Anyway," she'd said. "I heard you're alone now."

A fireball under his breastbone. He missed Gloria desperately. Yes, desperately. Her bellowing laugh. Her self-deprecating humor. The heavy cushion of her in bed beside him.

"I get by fine," he'd told his daughter, playing his hand, pleased that she needed something from him.

"I doubt that. I don't have a lot of space. You'd have to share a room with Justin."

As if she were doing him a favor, rather than the other way around. He knew the situation had to be acute for her to be asking for his help. In fact, he knew the word "help" in association with his name was, in his daughter's mind, pretty much an oxymoron.

But he was curious. He'd never met his grandson. He hadn't seen Meg in about ten years. And now Scott had left pretty much the same way Leon had. That had to be tough on the girl. Although, to be fair, Leon had always sent money when he had it. Not every month. Some years none at all. But when he could, he had. Now he had his social security, and though it barely covered the room he was renting, it was something. He could contribute to his grandson's upkeep.

Anyway, Gloria was gone now, and that hurt more than anything had ever hurt. He was sick to death of the fireball under his breastbone.

MEG AND JUSTIN fetched him from Pinedale, and as they drove back to the city, she observed, "You look like a hobo, Dad. You're a mess."

Leon wanted to argue. But the ghosts of Gloria's plump fingers smoothing his hair and brushing food off his shirt snuffed his anger. He gave in, saying, "True, that."

Meg sighed. He figured she was weighing what it meant to have an old man--and a blind one at that--on her hands now, too. Maybe she'd taken on a greater burden rather than lessening the one she had. That very first evening she lost her temper when she tripped over his cane, which he'd left propped against the couch, angling out onto the living room floor. He didn't like using the cane and had a habit of leaving it places. She told him he was in a new environment and that he had to use it. After recovering from her irritation, she placed the handle in his hand and for a brief moment closed her own hands around his.

Meg gave him a tour of the telephones, the cupboards, the bathrooms. She spoke with much clarity about her expectations. Regular and healthy meals. No daytime TV, but she would supply appropriate DVDs. She made both of them promise they wouldn't leave the house while she was at work.

"Okay," Justin said.

"Fine," Leon concurred. "Where would we go?"

So far they had walked down the street to the trailhead leading into the regional park. They had visited the grounds of the school where Justin would start kindergarten in the fall. They rode the bus downtown and got burgers, fries and milkshakes at the Foster Freeze. They caught the 67, which took them to the antique carousel in the park. That was the most fun day yet, and they planned to repeat it soon. It was a strain on the boy keeping secrets from his mom. Leon understood that. But a necessary strain.

That day of the tuna sandwich and soft peach, they snuck to the movies. The boy didn't read yet, but he knew what a movie theater marquee looked like. They got off the bus downtown, and Justin led the way. Leon felt a measure of integrity when he learned the theater offered a Disney picture. Never mind that they stayed for a second feature that included a healthy dose of sex. And healthy it was. The sooner the boy understood, the better.

"Is that fucking?" Justin asked as they rode the bus back up the hill that afternoon.

"Not so loud," Leon said. He thought the bus was empty, but sometimes he missed lurkers. "Yes."

"Can we see it again?"

"No." Leon was a bit nervous. It was already past 5:00. Meg usually got home around 5:45.

"What'd we do today?" Leon asked his grandson. It'd become their end-of-the-day drill.

After a long thoughtful silence, Justin said, "We watched the Shrek DVD. I made peanut butter and banana sandwiches for our lunch. Then we played catch with the wiffle ball."

"Good man."

"Because you can hear the wiffle ball moving through air. That's how you catch it."

"True, that."

The boy made a small sound of satisfaction.

LEON SMELLED THE wildcat again that night. Its timing was all off. The deer had already been through the yard at dusk, checking for new blossoms, tender greens. They had lifted their dainty hooves--there were two of them--as they stepped around branches and over large clods of dirt. Justin had watched them and given Leon the blow-by-blow report, each descriptive word expressing his hope that the cougar would soon follow.

"It will," Leon promised. "It definitely will."

"Don't lead him on," Meg called from the kitchen. "The cougar won't come into our yard, Justin."

"Actually," Leon whispered to his grandson. "People who have nice yards fence them off. What you got here is an overgrown tangle of weeds and leftover perennials. Am I right?"

"What are perennials?" Justin whispered back.

"Plants that live forever and have flowers. But the point is the tangle and the lack of a fence. Good cover for wildcats."

Meg had told her father that the landlord had given them a discounted rent on the condition that they take care of the yard. Scott was supposed to have done that, but he didn't, and now it was a veritable forest. The landlord had been threatening eviction.

That evening the wildcat came up onto the cement walkway, just under the open bedroom window, and lingered there, its scent filling Leon's nostrils. He slept in Justin's bowed twin bed, and the boy used a camping pad with a sleeping bag on the floor. Leon reached out a hand and felt for the soft down on Justin's head.

"Grandpa?" he whispered.

"What"

"You can't see the movies."

"True, that."

"You don't know what that man and woman were doing."

"Oh, yeah I do."

"How do you know?"

"I done it myself."

When the boy spoke again, his voice was high and girlish. "Fucking? You done that?"

"Of course," Leon said, now annoyed that Justin wouldn't just drop it. "You will, too, one day."

"But you can't see the movies."

"I don't need to see--" Leon paused and felt good about the word choice he made. "--intercourse to know what it is."

"Is the cougar out there tonight?"

"Yes, sir. Not 10 yards away, I guess."

Now silence, as it Justin had quit breathing altogether. He'd probably gone too far again, entirely terrorized the child. Nothing for it, though. The boy would have to work things out on his own, fucking and the wildcat both.

GLORIA LIKED FUCKING. She liked cats, too. Food and sleep. She liked just about anything that made her body feel good. That fireball pressed up through his chest again. Gloria, he thought. Gloria. No one could see him in the dark. So he let the tears fall out the corners of his eyes, slide down his temples, damp the pillow.

In the morning, after Meg left for work, Justin said, "Grandpa, let's find it."

Leon thought for a moment, knowing exactly what the boy meant, and then said, "That had been my plan for the day, too."

"Good man," Justin said.

"What I figure," Leon said, "is that the cat hangs out in the woods during the day. It doesn't want to get seen in broad daylight."

"Because Fish & Wildlife is hunting it."

"Exactly."

"So," the boy whispered out of sheer excitement. "We need to go to the woods."

Justin made peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches. He poured milk into small screw-top jugs. He packed these into the new book bag Meg had bought him for school. Then he handed Leon his cane and said, "Maybe you better take this."

Leon smiled, knowing the request came on account of their taking on a more ambitious adventure today. But he said, "Nah. It's just one more thing to keep track of. I got you to show me the way, don't I?"

"Um," in the high, girlish voice. "But--"

Good man," Leon said and headed for the door.

Holding Justin's pencil arm with its walnut-sized bicep was not easy. Leon had to stoop a bit. He imagined his grandson's face extra solemn with responsibility and concentration. All on his own accord, the boy started calling out changes in the terrain. "We're going off the curb here," and after a couple of blocks, "Off the street and onto the trail now. It's narrow."

"Good man."

"We're heading uphill now," he said, his thin little voice bulking up with authority. "There's trees on both sides. Big ones. We're in the woods now."

"I know that." The shade of the evergreen branches felt good, and so did the soles of his sneakers on the dirt path. He could smell the dusty blue sky. It was the happiest he'd felt since Gloria passed. He wished he could introduce his grandson to her.

"It's thick woods now," Justin said, and then Leon understood that the boy was describing for his own sake, not for his grandfather's. "It's cougar country, all right."

"True, that."

"Do you think he might be nearby?"

"Don't smell nothing yet."

"We should go farther in, then."

"Yep."

A rustling in the underbrush sent the boy nearly out of his skin. His thin arm flew out of Leon's grasp. Then the boy grabbed Leon's shirt with both fists.

"Look around," Leon whispered. "I don't smell nothing. What do you see?"

"Ha!" Justin squealed. "A bunny, Grandpa. It's just a bunny."

"Little white tail, I reckon."

"Yeah," Justin breathed hard with relief. "It's just a rabbit. I saw it run right across the trail."

"Keep going."

There were more rustlings. Other rabbits. The flapping of wings. The scratching of tunneling mammals. Justin reported a snake. They sat on a big trailside stone to eat their sandwiches and drink the milk. They walked on through mostly eucalyptus now, with an underbrush of blackberry. It was hot and purple. A slight breeze kicked up.

"Okay," Leon said in a very quiet and deep voice. "I smell it."

Justin said nothing, but Leon felt the pulse of blood through the boy's arm, as if his heart was pumping overtime.

"You know the term 'scaredy cat'? That comes from wildcats. They don't like to be seen. They're extremely private. Loners. They do what they want and don't do what they don't want. Most times they don't want people." "How close is he?" Justin whispered.

Leon sniffed audibly and then felt silly for the over-dramatization. "I'd say close. Otherwise I wouldn't be smelling him. I'd bet he's watching us. Deciding what to do."

"What are his choices?" the boy asked.

"You ever hear the expression, 'Curiosity killed the cat'? They like to look at things. So there's this conflict in every cat, this desire to see things, look at them, and that rubs against their desire for privacy, to stay hidden. He's got to choose which he wants right now."

Leon let go of the boy's arm and rested a hand on his little ball bearing shoulder. He felt a tensing there, a gathering of courage. They stood for several minutes in silence, waiting and listening. Then Justin said, "There it is. I see it."

The blue sky and dusty trail converged at a place in the center of Leon's chest. He felt suffocated by Gloria's absence, the confusion of his grief.

Justin said, "He's walking toward us. His tail is swishing. His eyes are bright and flashing. Can you smell his breath?"

"Yes," Leon said. "He had rabbit for lunch."

"He's not afraid of us," Justin whispered. "He's stopped and he's just looking. Curiosity won. He knows we won't hurt him. He knows we're not Fish & Wildlife."

Leon nodded.

"He's the best thing I've ever seen. He's tan with white and black tips, He's as big as you, Grandpa."

The clarity of the boy's imagination rang like a bell in his heart. The blue sky floated above him. The dusty trail held his weight. Leon took a quiet, long breath, and the fireball cooled. He smelled the wildcat all right. It was a few feet away, just standing there with its rabbit breath and feline sweat. A big musky grace. A presence so beautifully intense it made him feel almost whole.

"We should get going," Justin said in a regular voice and took Leon's hand, placing it through the crook of his elbow. "The path is wide enough here."

THAT NIGHT MEG slammed the door when she came in from work. She shouted, "I asked you. I specifically asked you. Why did I ever think you could be trusted? How stupid of me. How plain stupid of me."

Leon and Justin were in the kitchen making a salad. They thought they'd surprise Meg by making the dinner themselves. She dropped her purse on the kitchen table and kicked her pumps across the linoleum. "Regina next door is home with her sick baby, and two days in a row--two days in a row--she says she saw Justin marching off down the street with an old blind man. Today she said you were gone for over two hours. Where?"

Leon sat down in a kitchen chair. "Well, now, Meg. You just can't keep a boy caged. Especially not in the summer."

"True, that," Justin said.

"He's a little, little boy. And you're a blind old man. This isn't Pinedale, Dad. This is a big city. No one's looking out for you."

"Apparently Regina is."

"Where'd you go?"

"Just walking," Justin piped up. "We just walked."

"Go sit down in the front room," Leon said. "We're making dinner tonight. Everyone is safe. Food soon."

"You haven't changed one iota, "she said as she left the kitchen. Meg clicked on the TV news. A few minutes later, Leon and Justin brought in a dinner of spaghetti and salad on big plates. Meg turned up the volume.

When the anchor and reporters finished with the wars and economy, she hit the mute button and turned to her son. "You have to eat more than that." Justin had stirred the spaghetti and salad into one heap and set the plate on the coffee table. The little boy got up and sat next to his grandpa, taking the old man's hand.

"Great," Meg said, "This is just great."

"Turn it on!" Justin shrieked and grabbed the remote. He clicked up the volume in time to hear, "... just before dawn this morning. They treed the cougar here on Middlefield Road, where they attempted to tranquilize him with a dart. However, the cat was too fast for Fish & Wildlife. It crouched, poised for a leap from the tree, and an officer was forced to kill the cougar. No longer will this predator terrorize the residents in the homes adjacent to our city's regional park."

Leon heard Justin catch his breath. The boy snuggled close, his knees bumping into Leon's thigh, his fists against his ribs. The reporter went on to interview a neighbor who expressed his outrage at this encroachment of the wild.

Meg burst into tears. Her plate and fork clanked as she dropped them on the coffee table. She ran to her room.

Leon put an arm around the boy and pulled him closer. Gloria liked to explain any rush of feeling by saying that it was her hormones acting up. Leon wasn't sure men had hormones, but if they did, his were acting up. He thought, I'll protect this child. He thought, I'm sorry it took me sixty-six years to get here. He thought, I want to alleviate my daughter's stress. He felt the bright awareness of love in his chest.

That night the boy slipped into bed next to Leon. Bird bones under satiny skin. He heard a muffled chirp-like sob.

"Yep," Leon said. "I can smell that cat again tonight."

The little boy stilled. Tensed. Sat up and said, "But they shot him this morning at dawn!"

"Nah. They just had to pretend they caught him to calm the public. Didn't we see him ourselves, at midday, alive and thriving?"

A long pause of discomfort. Justin didn't want to correct his grandfather. "But Grandpa, they showed the dead cougar on TV."

The sky, the trail, the fireball. This bowed bed and the night air. The pressure on his chest. The goddamn welling behind his eyes.

"On the other hand," Justin said cautiously, somberly. "You can't believe everything you see."

"True, that," Leon said as everything eased once again. "Good man."
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Title Annotation:60th Anniversary - Flannery O'Connor Issue
Author:Bledsoe, Lucy Jane
Publication:Shenandoah
Article Type:Short story
Date:Mar 22, 2010
Words:4695
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