A few rays of the sunset shone through leafless trees, the shadows traveling along the sparse grass and outlining treetops on the back of a cabin. At the wood’s edge, Ethan drove his shovel into the ground and scraped rock. He heaved the bite onto the pile of earth and stone he had created, making the hole deeper, wider. It had to be deep enough. It wouldn’t be good for animals to dig it up later. Leaves rustled somewhere in the distance, and he paused, glancing through the trees. He wiped his forehead. As the sunlight faded, he dropped the shovel at his feet and fixed his eyes on the garbage bag next to the hole.
Two days earlier, Ethan had sat on the arm of his recliner, hands on his knees, watching green eyes stare at him from the floor. The two vertical slits didn’t move as they regarded him. Ethan grabbed a plaid tie from his chair, looked at the blank ceiling and walls, and tied the tie around his throat. The cat licked its paw.
Ethan seemed to hear Mia as if she were still standing across the room. I’m so tired of this.
As Ethan stood, he smoothed the front of his wrinkled, white shirt and tucked it into his slacks. He glanced at the cat sitting on the hardwood floor. The animal had moved on to cleaning the peculiar white spot on its chest, the only white among the patches of tan and black covering the rest of its fur.
I’ll be back for my stuff in a few days.
Ethan sat, this time in the seat, and slipped on his loafers. The cat hurried over to be petted. It rubbed against Ethan’s pant leg, purring.
You can keep the stupid cat.
Ethan nudged the cat away with his foot. “Get off,” he said, brushing the hair from his leg and glancing up at the clock. He cursed and ran to the bathroom, kicking a to-go box on the way. As he entered, he put his hands on the marble countertop, knocking off a few pieces of mail. He picked them up. They were some bills and an invitation to his ten-year high school reunion. He tossed it in the trash by the toilet.
Ethan looked himself over in the mirror. Even through his glasses, he could see the circles under his eyes. He turned on the tap. Water trickled into the porcelain sink, and he splashed his cheeks, rubbing the warm water into his eyes under the glasses. His stubble itched, but he glanced at his watch and sighed. He pulled the hair from his face and smoothed it back with a damp hand.
Ethan opened the mirror and pulled out an orange container. He popped a pill from it into his mouth, washed them down with a swallow of water, and turned off the tap. He left.
When he arrived at work, Ethan rode the elevator to his level. Row after row of identical gray cubicles lined the floor, each with space only for a chair and desk, each desk crowded with only a monitor, planner, and pencil holder. Workers scurried passed him as he crept to his cubicle, trying to remain unseen by his supervisor. He didn’t feel like being yelled at again for coming in late. Twice, he had to double-back to make it through the confused aisles. As he fell into his seat, he glanced around to see if anyone important had noticed him. Satisfied, he leaned back in his chair and began his morning routine of staring at the wall.
“Car trouble, Mr. Wilson?”
Ethan flinched. “No, sir. Just running a little late this morning.”
Mr. Stewart leaned against the outside of the cubicle wall facing Ethan. As always, the overweight man sipped from his coffee mug. The steam fogged his thick glasses as he brought the drink to his lips, and when he lowered it again, coffee coated the bottom of his black-and-gray mustache. A thick drop landed on his monochrome business suit.
He licked the liquid away before responding. “Maybe you could enlighten me, Mr. Wilson, as to when you are supposed to report here in the morning.”
“Eight o’clock, sir.”
Mr. Stewart grabbed Ethan’s arm and glanced at it. “Looks like your watch is right.” He paused. “Don’t let it happen again.”
He began to walk away but stopped. “Ethan, I haven’t received your report for last week. Do you have it?”
Ethan stared at his desk and answered through clenched teeth. “I’ll have it to you by the end of the day.”
“Good. You did get the memo about deadlines, right?” Ethan jerked the memo from a drawer in his desk as Stewart sipped his coffee. Ethan took a breath and relaxed his jaw, continuing to stare at the particleboard in front of him.
“Well, get it in today,” Stewart responded as he walked away.
Ethan crumbled the memo into a ball—smaller, tighter, harder. He closed his eyes, took several more deep breaths, and dropped the wad into his trash bin. Reluctantly, he turned on his computer and started to type.
Line by black and white line, he went through the software code. Whenever he found a date, he changed the year from a two-digit number to a four-digit one. East Tulsa Computing had received more contracts than any other firm in the region. The company kept him busy. They didn’t want the world to end. By lunch, Ethan saw white numbers even when looking away from the monitor. He clocked out and, with sack lunch in hand, walked to a park three blocks away.
The park was a large rectangle of nature enclosed by metal. A few deciduous trees and picnic tables spread out across it, while skyscrapers rose on all sides. In the center of the grassy field sat a circular playground of sand.
Ethan plopped onto the top of his usual table, his loafers on the splintered bench. A soft breeze carried newly fallen leaves across the lawn in front of him. He closed his eyes as it reached him, filling his lungs and bringing a smile to his face. He pulled out his ham sandwich and chips and began to eat.
Across the expanse, some fifty yards away, a few children played on the playground. A wiry-haired, blonde boy of about three laughed as his pudgy body slid down silver metal into his mother’s arms. Two young girls in flowery dresses gripped their knuckles white as their father spun them around faster and faster on the merry-go-round.
Ethan chewed and stared. He watched as their bare feet danced through the sand, as the mother helped her little one across the monkey bars, as the girls beamed up at the man’s smiling face. Ethan glanced down at what was left of his sandwich and tossed it in the trash barrel a few feet away. He lit a cigarette for his walk back to the office.
He returned to work five minutes late and began typing, more black and white lines, more 99’s into 1999’s. He didn’t bother to turn his report in to Stewart before he left at the end of the day. As he walked to his sedan, his cell phone rang.
“Ethan, are you off of work yet?”
He sighed. “Yeah, Mom. I was just leaving.”
“I was wondering if you would be a dear and take me to confession on your way home.”
He shook his head. “Mom, you know the church isn’t on my way home.” He stared at the sky.
“Well, I’m sorry for asking. I just gave birth to you and raised you. Totally wrecked my vagina, if you wanna know.” Click.
Ethan sighed, got in his car, and drove, irritated. It had only been two weeks since his last stint as cab driver.
When he had pulled into her driveway, she had been sitting on her front step, waiting, and she looked dressed more to tempt than confess. The neckline of her black blouse plunged a little too low, and she wore her blue jeans tighter than most other women in their fifties. Bright color covered much of her face—pink on her cheeks and lips, light blue above her eyes. She wore the same curls—stretching several inches from her head—that she had worn for the last twenty years, though they had been out of style for over a decade.
She hurried to the car, and the pair drove away. The silence in the car lasted only long enough for Ethan to light a cigarette and Jean Marie to get settled in her leather seat and gather her thoughts.
“So how are things?”
Ethan exhaled a puff of smoke. “Fine.” He glanced at her as he cracked the window and knocked the ashes from the end of his cigarette. She stared at the dash in front of her. “Just ask the question, Mom.”
“How is Mia? Have you popped the question, yet? What are you waiting for? Two years is long enough. You don’t need to let a girl like her get away.” She said, in one breath.
He took several puffs of his cigarette. “She left.”
“What? Why? What did you do?”
“Nothing.” Ethan knocked off some more ash. “I didn’t do anything. She got bored.” He took a few more puffs. “I think she was seeing somebody else.”
“Why that hussy!” Jean Marie threw her purse into the cluttered floorboard. “I always said that my baby was too good for her. Truthfully, Ethan, I don’t know what you ever saw in that woman.”
He crushed out his cigarette in the ashtray. “Yeah, me either.” He blew smoke at the windshield.
“I’ll tell you what you need to do, honey. You need to get back out there. Meet a nice girl…” She reached into her purse and pulled out a paper clipping. “…and stop that smoking, so she’ll actually want to be around you.” She extended the papers to him as he exited the freeway. “Here, I cut out this article on Big Tobacco I read in the paper.” He took the paper reluctantly, and she continued. “I really wish you’d quit.”
Ethan slowed to a stop in front of the church. The archaic gray pillars at the building’s four corners reached like outstretched arms towards the sky, and its roof came to a point between the pillars, topping the excessive designs in the brick. “We’re here.”
“You’re not coming in?”
“It’s been a long time since I was an altar boy, Mom.” He lit another cigarette. “I’ll wait in the car.”
Ethan had driven into the parking lot facing the front of the church to wait on her—like he did now. As he killed the ignition, a cab drove in front of the building and let her out. His eyes followed her until she entered the building.
As he sat in his car, he stared up at the circular stained-glass window covering much of the building’s front. The colored, triangular pieces of glass formed the image of a dove, olive leaf in tow, with a rainbow stretching across the window’s diameter in the background. On the ledge surrounding the window perched several pigeons, occasionally sending offerings to the cement below and likely the occasional church patron. Ethan watched as they cooed and bobbed their heads, their only apparent purpose being to huddle together and cause churchgoers to curse having just left the confessional. Agents of evil, they were.
In fact, Jean Marie had to dodge a watery bullet as she walked back through the heavy doors. She hurried back to her waiting cab and left. Ethan stared down the road even after the cab was out of sight.
He pulled into his driveway an hour later. His cabin in Okay lay far enough from civilization that his closest neighbors lived over a hundred yards away with nothing but trees between. The house was built top to bottom with horizontal logs, its only distinguishing feature an enclosed porch protruding in the front. Ethan wanted to eat dinner, watch some television, and then go to bed, so he could do it all again the next day.
He walked to the mailbox before unlocking the front door. As he entered the living room with his mail, he spotted the cat raking its claws across the arm of his couch. Scratches along the rest of it suggested that the cat had been busy.
Ethan marched to the couch and backhanded the animal from its perch. He cursed as the cat ran into the kitchen. Ethan fell into his leather recliner, across from the sofa. At least it wasn’t the recliner. A few minutes later, he stood and walked to the bathroom to read his mail.
After work the next day, Ethan drove straight home, but instead of eating ramen or watching television, he paced his living room. His feet moved him from the sofa to the recliner and back, over and over again. Finally, he paused, stared at the front door, and left.
He drove into the theater parking lot in Muskogee fifteen minutes before show time, his stomach growling. Multicolored neon lights and massive movie posters proclaimed the newest releases. Ethan took his place in the unusually long line and began scrutinizing his options. For a place that had over ten screens, there didn’t seem to be anything worth his time. He picked an independent film where one of the current A-listers tried to show acting ability.
Ethan walked through the glass doors and stood at the end of the concession line, feet away from the entrance. Ten minutes later, he paid several dollars more for his drink and popcorn than he had for his ticket.
As he walked briskly to his theater, a woman’s laugh made him falter. A second laugh erased his doubt. He was sure. He squinted toward the entrance. Some guy was holding her hand. She looked the same as she had before—same shoulder-length, blonde curls, same petite build—but something was different.
Ethan stared at the smile on her face. He had forgotten what it looked like, how it curved slightly upward, dimpling only her left cheek. He stood there staring even after the couple walked out of view. Finally, he dropped the refreshments in the trash next to the counter, lit a cigarette against the protests of a nearby attendant, and walked back to his car.
Ethan didn’t bother to check the mail when he arrived home. He walked straight through the living room and turned right into his bedroom. He wanted to get to his bed and sleep.
As he entered the room and stepped over a pile of dirty clothes, he noticed the cat lying curled up in the center of the queen bed. Ethan walked to the bedside and sat on its edge, intent on ignoring the animal. He removed his glasses, laid them on the nightstand, and dropped onto the bed. He immediately sat up and felt the side of his face and then the wet pillow.
Ethan picked up the creature by the back of the neck and pointed the animal’s face at the discolored circle on the pillow, which trailed into a bigger circle on the sheets.
“Bad!” He held the animal up and swatted it on the hindquarters before dropping it to the floor. It ran out of the room.
Ethan yanked the sheets from the mattress, threw them against the wall, and then added the pillow to the heap. He hurried to the bathroom to wash his face and then began to pace. He didn’t want it here. It was her cat. He’d given it to her. He’d tell her to come and pick it up. Yeah. He didn’t want to look at the damn thing, anymore. It was hers. He’d tell her what he thought of her. He didn’t need her. He could get along fine without her. He stormed out the door and drove toward her house.
Ethan switched off his car lights as he turned onto her street. He parked a couple houses away, against the curb opposite her house, and stared along the quiet neighborhood to her front yard. Darkness peered back at him through the windows of her suburban home. A nearby street lamp gave an eerie glow to the perfect sod and empty driveway. He cracked the window and pulled out a fresh pack of cigarettes.
Filter after filter fell outside his car door as he waited, creating a small pile of burnt paper and ash on the rough asphalt. Eventually, an SUV turned onto the street and into her drive. The man Ethan had seen at the theater exited from the driver’s-side door and started unlocking the house. Mia came up behind him and ran her arm along his waist.
Ethan crushed his cigarette in the ashtray, got out of his car, and began walking toward them. By the time he reached her yard, the couple had gone inside. He strode up the concrete walkway to their door. As he raised his fist to knock, a cool breeze blew across his face. He closed his eyes.
Ethan saw the two auburn-haired girls, white-knuckled, spinning on steel. The woman to his left had her back to him, helping the pudgy boy across the monkey bars. Ethan couldn’t see her face.
“Faster,” the girls yelled at him.
He opened his eyes. Two silhouettes sat just inside the window, kissing. Ethan lowered his hand and left.
When he reached his home, he walked straight to his bedroom. The cat lay on the bed again, asleep. Ethan tried to gently push the animal away, but it woke and bit his hand.
“God, what’s wrong with you?” He picked it up by the back of the neck. “You’re just mean.” He swatted it on the hindquarters. “You mess everything up. Everything.” He threw it across the room. “God, I hate you!”
The animal flew awkwardly into the wall. He lay dazed against the floor trim for a few seconds, gave a couple of pathetic meows, and limped out of sight. Ethan heaved a few breaths before falling onto his bed. After much tossing and turning, he fell asleep.
As he went around the house getting ready for work the next day, he glanced around for the cat. The animal wasn’t in sight—not on the window ledge, not hiding under the bed, not waiting by his food bowl as Ethan poured fresh kibble in the kitchen.
“Here, kitty, kitty.” Ethan waited by the cat food, but there was no other sound in the house. He glanced at his watch and went to work.
When Ethan returned home, he searched throughout the house for the animal. He found it sprawled in the back of his closet.
The sun had passed the horizon when Ethan placed the bag into the shallow hole. As his eyes adjusted, he stared into the black opening he had created. His breathing became heavier and more rapid as he knelt and began to drag dirt onto the bag with his bare hands. Slowly, his shoulders started to tremble. His fingernails dug into the fresh grave as he began to weep, his open mouth tasting the disturbed earth. Only the occasional chirp of a cricket and rustle of leaves accompanied his quiet sobs. He knelt there for a long time before going inside to sleep.
The next morning Ethan stood in front of his bathroom mirror. He could still see the circles under his eyes and the stubble on his jaw. As he stared at his reflection, his cell phone rang.
“Ethan, this is Mr. Stewart. I know it’s Saturday, but I need you to come in today to finish up your report and do some other work around the office.” He paused. “So, I’ll see you in about thirty minutes?” There was more silence.
Ethan squeezed his eyes shut. “I don’t think so.” Then, he felt himself smile, if only slightly. “In fact, I quit.”
Before Ethan snapped the phone closed, he heard Mr. Stewart choke on his coffee.
R.C. Neighbors is an Oklahoma expatriate who received a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from Texas A&M University and an M.F.A from Hollins University. He currently serves as a Lecturer at the Texas A&M Higher Education Center in McAllen, TX. He lives with his wife, four kids, two dogs, and a photo of himself with the head of hair and motorcycle he used to have. When possible, he enjoys sitting alone, doing nothing and not being bothered. His work has appeared in Tampa Review, Barely South Review, Found Poetry Review, and elsewhere.