She had written the letter on pretty pink stationary and folded it into perfectly creased thirds. Each penstroke was precise, her handwriting as uniform as a font. It was so type-A, so her, that he felt fond even while he wanted to throw it away and pretend he’d never read it.
All the same, he waited a day before climbing into the car with his stomach tied in knots. The letter included all the things you didn’t want to hear from an old friend: terminal, not much time, wish I didn’t have to write you. And then there was that one thing you didn’t want to hear from an ex-girlfriend: You need to come take him. My sister and my mother can’t take care of him, and he’s yours too.
Ben had laughed. “Be glad, man! She could have spent the last thirteen years garnishing your wages, and instead you just have to put in five years of dad duty.”
Ben had not been invited along for the trip to Sheboygan.
The problem with visiting a terminal ex-girlfriend to demand a paternity test — other than the obvious — was the four-hour roadtrip with no company but his thoughts. In the first hour he planned an angry rant. What business of hers was it to keep this from him, and then demand he step in when she was unable? She had always been selfish. His needs had always taken the backseat.
In the second hour that faded into sympathy, and a strange longing he hadn’t felt since their break-up was about eight months old. He imagined her heavily pregnant when he had finally finished up mourning and gone out with Cynthia or Cindy or Candi. If he had known she was pregnant, he would have mourned at least another few months. If he had known she was pregnant, he would have tried harder. (Probably. He wanted to believe it, anyway.)
They had argued about children toward the end, locked in a disagreement of you’re too irresponsible and you’re too uptight. But he would have been a real father if she’d given him the chance. He should’ve sought her out instead of letting her leave while he licked his wounds.
The third hour was all about the child, the mysterious he. No words as to what kind of kid he was. Was he smart like his mother? Did that mean he was bossy and uncompromising like her too? Who would he look like? Would he be angry that his father was demanding proof of paternity? Was he fat? Raising a fat teenager seemed like a more daunting task than any the rest of it. His brother had been fat growing up, until he blew his brains out at 23 in their grandmother’s garage.
By the fourth hour he was sick of himself and his life and his imaginary son. He listened to podcasts on his phone instead of thinking.
The sun hung low in the mid-evening sky when he arrived at the address on the letter. My mother is taking care of me. You’ll find us there. He paused at the doorstep, eyeballing the perfectly white wicker furniture. The house was silent, but her mother’s house always had been tomb-like. The woman didn’t own a TV. Listening to the radio was something of a special treat for Mrs. Cardozo.
He went back to the car to get the envelope from his glove box. It was the right address. He brought it back with him and worked up the nerve to knock.
The door opened almost instantly. Her mother was still thin and narrow, with shoulders like corners on her short frame. She stood there in her immaculately pressed slacks and wrinkle-free blouse, with a tissue in hand and puffy red eyes. Somehow, she still managed a glare for him. “Alan.”
“Mrs. Cardozo.” He held up his envelope, as though that might explain everything. When she didn’t speak, he said, “I got a letter from Delia about — ”
“She is dead now.”
The post date on the envelope was just two days past. When she said there wasn’t much time, he had assumed she meant long enough for closure. ”Wow. She really waited until the last minute to tell me.”
Mrs. Cardozo’s stare could have withered plants, and he considered himself much less hardy than most household greenery.
“I… Is he here? She said you can’t take care of him.”
Mrs. Cardozo nodded. ”She was correct. Follow me.” She stepped aside to let him in. Her home was immaculate at ever, though the signs of recent sickness showed. Pill bottles on the distant kitchen counter, an IV rack in the hallway as he followed her to the back of the house. “I kept him in her room.”
“Where she died? You can’t just leave him there!”
“He did not want to leave her. Edite and I are both allergic. I cannot have his hair all over the house.”
He stopped short as she opened the door. “Allergic?”
The cat looked up from a bed that had been stripped of the linens. The room smelled exactly like a hospital, but there were pictures and flowers all over the bedside tables, and a book with a marker three-quarters of the way through.
Never before had he experienced rage and relief at the same time. It manifested as an odd hiccup.
“I’ll get his things. I expect you will not stay for her funeral?”
Fucking right I’m not staying for the fucking funeral, he almost said, as he remembered how much less stressful life was without her in it. “This isn’t my cat.” It looked as prim and ill-tempered as his former owner, though it had the most forlorn little meow when their eyes met.
Mrs. Cardozo stepped past him into the room, and plucked one photo from the nightstand. She held it out without comment.
They had been so young, now that he looked at them together. He hadn’t kept any of their photos; he had expected her to burn hers as well. Though he could see why she kept it. They had also been happy, and she held the little furball of a kitten as proudly as any new mother.
He looked at the cat again. He had named their kitten Mr. Fuzzy before putting it in that little birthday box, because he had devoted more of his time to drinking than being clever in those weird post-grad years. He hadn’t thought more than a few days in advance, let alone that the thing would live 13 years with a name like Mr. Fuzzy. ”That thing? I picked him up at a pet store. I didn’t think — ”
“You never did,” Mrs. Cardozo said.
He texted Ben from the car. I had forgotten how goddamn serious Delia was. With that done, he buckled the cat carrier safely into the passenger seat.