The men have been here since before dawn, and they break for lunch well before noon. If it is hot, like today, they will find shade under the magnolia tree in the front yard. If it is cool, like it will be before this job is done, they fold down the tailgate of the work truck and sit side-by-side like birds on a rail.
They are men of indeterminate age, all brown from heritage or work, unclear until you hear them speak. They open their Igloo coolers in the shade of the tree and set out the items, eyeing their neighbor and judging the happiness of the home based on the content of the cooler. One man unwraps a wad of foil to expose golden, greasy, glistening fried chicken from last night’s supper. Clearly, he is loved. Bread and butter sandwiches and August’s tomatoes, thick slices of ham on white bread, wrapped in wax paper with neatly folded seams. A half dozen noses wrinkle in unison at tuna fish.
Peanut butter between saltine crackers and fried pies and carnitas and tortillas. Long draws from mason jars filled with sweet tea or glass bottles of coke. There is half a yellow cake with chocolate icing that one man pulls from his cooler like a magician. The paper plate it’s on strains and it looks like it might give way under the weight, but then it is safe on the ground. The bringer of the cake cuts it into generous slices and the men eat it with their hands in silence. It is likely the best cake ever eaten under a magnolia tree.
There are never leftovers. Wrappers are folded inside of wax, inside of foil, into packets and back into the coolers. The men never litter; they pack away trash with the same care their wives and daughters packed the feast. With gratitude.
Some of the men smoke. They take long draws on short cigarettes and pick bits of tobacco from their lips with their fingertips. Someone tells a dirty joke and, even though they’ve all heard it before, the men laugh. One of them leans back against a tree and pretends to sleep.
A young woman with a sharp face is jogging and catches sight of them. She makes quick judgments and crosses the street before she reaches them, being careful not to make eye contact. The men laugh, and she thinks they are laughing at her. They are.
Carolyn hated to run. She hated the tight feeling in her chest when it was cold, and the feeling of running through pea soup when it was hot. She hated her breasts smashed tight to her chest and yet still managing to bounce enough that she wanted to wrap her arms around them. She hated the swish swish swish of her thighs fighting each other with every step.
“You should take up jogging,” her therapist said. “It will alleviate stress! Release those endorphins!” The therapist was a whippet of a woman, not a day under seventy, with beef jerky skin and teeth that were too big for her mouth.
Because she knew that she had to do something to pull herself back from the edge, and because she was far too mundane to try sex or drugs, Carolyn started running. The therapist was right - for an hour every day, running emptied her mind of everything. She hated running so much, it took all her will just to get one foot in front of the other. She could concentrate on nothing more than the square of asphalt under her.
It was on this square that her eyes were focused when she approached the men. She glanced up for a moment and there they were; sprawled out on the lawn, brown and sweaty and laughing. Carolyn had split second internal battle between street smart woman who always crosses the road to avoid a group of men and liberal white privilege guilt dictates I should never judge based on stereotypes. In the end, fear overruled guilt and she cut hard to the right to cross in the middle of the street. She came off the curb awkwardly and stumbled, just missing a fall. She heard the men laugh and felt her face flush. She ran faster, silently shaming herself home.
She was nearly calm by the time she reached the front door of her apartment, though she knew she’d replay the scene over in her head countless times over the next week. It was a habit she couldn’t seem to break, even after all the therapy. Did I really do that? What do they think of me? Do they think I’m a bad person? It was an obsession that had cost her friendships, jobs, and countless romantic relationships. Apparently, constantly rehashing the most inane conversations is not a turn on.
Carolyn unlocked the door, went inside, and lay on the living room floor, exhausted. Her cat, Winchester, promptly walked over and sat on her chest. “I hate you,” she glared at the cat and he glared back. If cats were capable of getting a tiny middle paw finger to stand up, Winchester would be flipping her off. The cat had been another fantastic suggestion from the therapist. “A companion!,” she’d said, after Carolyn had mentioned a childhood pet.
The pet had been a dog and, as Carolyn learned approximately fifteen minutes after having the cat - cats are not dogs. Cats are, in general, assholes. The dog she’d had as a young girl had been named Velveeta, after her favorite cheese and seminal ingredient in most of her mother’s dishes. Velveeta followed Carolyn around the house and slept at the foot of her bed, and ran to the end of the driveway every day to meet her as she got off the bus from school. One day, Velveeta wasn’t there and her mother shrugged her shoulders and avoided eye contact. “She just ran off, honey,” was all she’d said.
It wasn’t until Carolyn’s thirtieth birthday that her mother sat her down and told her the truth.
“Mail truck, honey,” she’d said. “Poor Mr. Olsen ran over her and broke her whole back end. Your daddy had to hit her with the shovel three times before…”
“Jesus! MOM!” Carolyn burst into tears, “It’s my birthday!”
“Jesus! MOM!” Carolyn burst into tears, “It’s my birthday!”
She sat in her therapist’s office the next day, telling the story and crying until her nose ran. When the therapist suggested a pet it seemed like a perfectly wonderful idea (and a far better one than running). Carolyn went to the humane society and picked Winchester from the caged rows of desperate felines. The man at the desk had her hold the cat in one hand and a sign proclaiming, Going to My FUR-ever Home!, in the other, as he took a Poloroid. He blew on the picture and fanned it, then hung it on a corkboard with a hundred other such photos. In each one, the new owners looked excited and the animal looked relieved. In Carolyn’s picture, she looked scared and Winchester looked pissed. It was a harbinger of things to come.
The first night, the cat sat by the front door and wailed. Each time Carolyn tried approaching him, he hissed and scratched at the air. By three in the morning, she found her self lying on her belly, inching toward him with a palm full of tuna fish. “Here kitty, kitty, kitty. Here, you little asshole.” She inched closer and closer until the cat finally gave in and ate the tuna. He didn’t miss the opportunity to nip her palm when he was done. It was the most intimate moment they would ever share. Carolyn believed in forever homes - or furever homes - which is why, two years later, she lay on the floor with a cat’s ass in her face.
She pushed the cat off her chest and walked into the kitchen. There on the drainboard was one glass, one plate, one bowl, knife and fork. One spoon rested on a permanent brown stain on the counter by the coffee maker. They were the tools of a solitary person, never worth the effort to put away. She filled the glass with water from the tap, drank it down, and turned the glass over to dry. In the fridge she found some questionable Chinese food, three beers, and a hard boiled egg. She ate the food standing in front of the fridge and drank the beers on the couch while watching reruns of Full House. Not for the first time, she wondered how those homely little kids turned out to be such lovely women. Borderline ugly, really, she thought, then immediately felt guilty. She sat through two episodes and then turned the television off. It was Saturday - her day off - and shouldn’t she be doing something productive?
Shouldn’t she be out with friends? Or getting ready for a date? Or doing anything except getting half drunk with her cat? She stared at the door, willing someone - anyone - to knock.
And then someone did.