Patricia Ann McNair's story collection, The Temple of Air, was named Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year, a Devil's Kitchen Reading Awardee, and a finalist awardee by the Society of Midland Authors. She is a recent winner of the Solstice Literary Magazine Short Story Prize, and a finalist in the American Fiction Prize. Her work has been published in a variety of places, including American Fiction: Best Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Writers, Prime Number Magazine, Fourth Genre, RiverTeeth, Superstition Review, Creative Nonfiction, and others. She directs the undergraduate program in Fiction at the Department of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago.
Patricia Ann McNair
The power had gone out. And I’d lost my keys. That’s the kind of day it had been.
The city is crazy dark when the power goes; my headlights made ghost tunnels down the street, gauzy, glowing columns. In my periphery, I saw movement, or thought I did. Shadows wavering, black against gray. Candlelight here and there in the windows of buildings. Flashlight.
Mel was a week gone, and I’d only just got out of the apartment after days crying under the blankets, mascara and snot streaking my pillowcase and his, what used to be his, the one that still held his smells—sweat, garlic, coffee—even though he’d packed his bags and a few boxes and taken the French press and left. Left me, left Kitty.
And it was Kitty that finally got me out of bed, out of the apartment, because she was hungry, we’d gone through the cans of meat for cats, of tuna when the meat was gone, the bits of fish and cold cuts and cheese and yoghurt and milk that were left behind in the fridge. Things Mel bought because I didn’t cook and sometimes forgot to eat and had charmed him in the beginning of things (when we fell in love at the park where I walked Kitty, so small then, a dozen pounds and just to my knees, on a lead every morning) by confessing that my favorite meal—breakfast, lunch, dinner—was microwaved popcorn.
We were even out of popcorn.
Kitty had climbed on me fetal-folded in the bed, on Mel’s side, where I imagined his skin cells, miniscule flakes of them mixing with mine and clinging to me like flour on a dredged chicken breast. And maybe, after four days without food and cried out I was hungry, too. Like Kitty. When she moved, the bed dipped and I rolled toward her, and I loved the feeling of her ribs expanding under my palms, her fur, her warmth. She put her muzzle to my face and made a sound like a snarl and her breath was bad, fetid, sour milk and dead things.
The power was still on then and I walked to the bathroom and Kitty padded along beside me, nudging my hips with her noggin like cats do, licking my fingers (for the salt, I suppose, poor hungry girl) and the backs of my knees. I showered and dressed and went out with wet hair and no makeup, in jeans and a hoodie, because, really, what did it matter? And the drive to the store was easy and quick, the sun sinking on the horizon, the sky going gold, then purple. At the store the aisles were empty (Monday night football) and when I got back to the car it was dusk and I couldn’t find my keys.
I shifted the bag (heavy with cans and a cooked chicken in a plastic tray because Kitty would like that) from hip to hip while I searched my pockets and the ground and went back in the store where no one had found them and everyone (clerks, customers, the homeless guy selling papers near the door, the men in oil-stained pants who always sat on the bench by the parking lot) shook their heads sadly and looked at me with big wide eyes shining with pity. My chest ached. My face burned. I felt a buzzing across my scalp.
Good luck or bad, Mel lived a block from the store and I knew he had keys still because he hadn’t left them when he left me, left Kitty, and I hadn’t asked for them because—well, just because. Hope, I guess. And I hoisted the bag and the chicken smelled greasy and good and I thought I would call him, but I’d gone out without my phone. I could picture it on the bedside table next to the tissues in the box and in soggy balls, next to the water glass that Kitty drank from more often than I did, the phone’s little green eye staring back at me when I checked it again and again for messages, for texts, for missed calls, and found none.
So I stood on Mel’s stoop and rang his bell and imagined his surprise when I said into the intercom, “It’s me.”
“Uh,” he said, or that’s what it sounded like and I waited for the buzzer to open the door, but instead here he came down the stairs in bare feet and jeans and buttoning his shirt. I watched him through the door glass and even from there I could see the scratches on his face, on his neck, welt-y and red, and I swallowed hard when he pushed back his hair like he always did, first thing in the morning and last thing at night.
“My keys,” I said when he opened the door. “I’ve lost them.”
“Okay,” Mel said. And he waited there with the door open but not wide enough for me to come through. Up close I saw how the skin puckered around Kitty’s marks.
“Um,” I said. “You still have a set.”
And he looked puzzled, his forehead lined, and nothing in his brown eyes.
“I think,” I said. Even though I didn’t just think, I knew, I knew. I knew because he hadn’t left them, he’d taken them when he left, and I wanted him to know that, to have done it on purpose, left but not gone, the keys a way back. To me. To us. To Kitty.
“That cat,” Mel used to say, but not in a good way. And Kitty, stretched long between us in the bed, paw to foot, eye to eye, her meaty foreleg across my neck, would snarl a little at him and hiss. “Some day,” Mel used to say, “you’re gonna have to choose. Me or her.”
But I never thought he meant it until he did, after she ripped his bathrobe to shreds, standing on it and tugging the arms out of their seams while he watched from the bathtub, chest-high in water. And she bared her fangs when he stood up, dripping and shaking and naked. And there they were when I came home that day two weeks ago, Kitty on the bath mat, her three-foot-long tail swishing, her eighty pounds of fur and muscle vibrating, her purr audible from the front door, a motor in a barrel. And there, too, was Mel, blood on his face, on his neck. Naked still and cupping his privates, protection, I guess, his skin a little pale, a little blue.
“I’ll look,” Mel said and left me on the stoop for a minute, then five, and the evening was warm and full of football-on-the-television noise and talk and cheering and booing, and it smelled like burned leaves (and greasy chicken.)
“They were in a box,” he said when he came back down the stairs. “I guess I was in a hurry.” And he dangled them on the chain with its tiger eye marble medallion we’d bought at the zoo. Apartment keys, car keys. Everything I needed.
“Thanks,” I said. And I smiled at him (because he always told me he liked it when I smiled) and wished I’d put on makeup and a sexy blouse, the one the color of a panther, maybe, with the deep slashed collar.
He nodded and we stood there on either side of the threshold.
“Which one’s yours?” I said. “Apartment, I mean,” I said.
“Second floor. Front,” he said.
And I stepped back some on the stoop so I could look up to the window and there it was, bright and open, with blue curtains that moved a bit, then closed, and someone was in there and my heart hurt and a cat, a little one, a kitten really, palm-sized, leaped up onto the sill and tilted her golf-ball head toward me and opened her teeny-tiny pink triangle mouth and meowed, only I couldn’t hear it, a silent meow.
“She followed me home,” Mel said when he saw what I saw. “So I let her in.” And the heat rose in my forehead and stung my eyes from the inside and somewhere, at the edge of things, everything went dark.
One block had lights and another didn’t, and then another didn’t, and then another. And I drove around for a while seeing only what my headlights showed me but knowing there was more.
I parked finally, two blocks from home because that was as close as I could get. And the sidewalks were ink-dark and there weren’t even stars and the bag was heavy and I could hear things in the grass, in the trees, and my face was wet, but I tried not to sob.
Behind me, footfalls. Not steps exactly, but more like the sound of Kitty prowling at night in the hallway—up and down, back and forth—and around the bed. And breath. I heard breath. A wheeze. A purr.
I walked faster and he (she? It?) did too, and I opened the door to my building and climbed the stairs (five flights, elevator out) in the pitch black dark and on the landings I swear I could hear lips and tongues together, on skin, the sounds of love making or eating. And behind me on the stairs, breath still, and climbing.
She followed me home, Mel had said; I could hear that, too. Still.
At my door I leaned my forehead to it and said, “Here Kitty, here Kitty,” quiet, like pillow talk, and I could hear her in there, paws, claws, on the other side, as high as my throat.
The climbing behind me had come to a halt, but still there was breath. And the cans in the bag rattled when I turned the key (Mel’s key) in the lock, and the chicken in its plastic tray made a sound like a slap.
“Here, Kitty,” I said again, into my unlit apartment, and I stepped inside and felt something soft underfoot, a shredded rug, I think, the stuffing from the couch.
I turned back toward the breath and it came closer and it stank, like garlic, like coffee. Like Mel.
“Come in,” I said, and I felt Kitty’s tongue, (like love) heavy and wet and sandpapery on my elbow. “Please,” I said again to the breath in the dark hall, “won’t you come in?”