march 8, 2023
hey stop trying after the second time. Ten weeks was hard enough, but eighteen—and they’d already told Tess’ parents and Bern’s mom. It’s too much. After just long enough that it doesn’t seem causal, though it is absolutely causal, they adopt a three-legged cat named Samson, a five-year-old orange short-hair with white front paws.
It’s the left hind leg that’s missing. The people at the adoption place don’t know what happened, only that the small clean scar is indicative of surgery rather than trauma, which in turn suggests some illness or injury in his past. This is enough to make Bern nervous (“Will we really want to go through all that again?” he asks, not specifying what “all that” is, not even conscious that he’s said “again”) but Tess has the cat in her arms and a certain look in her eye. “Little mittens, like the nursery rhyme,” she says.
Samson is still skittish, but settling, it seems, into the new digs. It’s been nine days now, or ten, Bern doesn’t remember, which itself is a good thing, right? To no longer be counting by the day. It is Friday afternoon and Tess is packing an overnight bag. She is a yoga instructor with a three-year A.A. chip and a burgeoning Instagram presence. Her first photo of Samson curled up on their couch garnered nearly a thousand hearts. This weekend she is leading a retreat out on the Oregon coast. Breath work and stretches. Sunrise swims and vegetarian lunch on the big back deck of the hotel. Extra-long savasana (corpse pose) to end the evening sessions. Many if not most of her clients will enjoy a glass of white wine while they take in the sunset on the cooling sand. She will not begrudge them this. She will practice mindfulness, which, among other things, will mean not picturing the tsunami that will appear eighteen minutes after the century-overdue earthquake described in that article that everyone was talking about last summer. People she’d gone to high school with and hadn’t spoken to since were posting it and tagging her, asking if she was okay, as though the disaster had already happened, as though it were happening now.
But if it were to happen, it is true that the coast would be the worst place for a person to be. A veritable death sentence: the tsunami zone. Forget all that. Tess will ward off apocalypse with simple thoughts articulated slowly, steady as yogic breathing: The sunset is pretty on the water, she’ll think. It is nice that it is cooler here than back in Portland. The theme she has chosen for the weekend is “Rootedness to the earth.” She’s complained to Bern that some of her Insta-fans have found this confusing. Why not “flow” for water, they ask, or “change” for shifting sand? She has had to remind them that sand and water too are parts of the earth.
She should have been on the road twenty minutes ago, she’s telling him now. She shouldn’t be the last one to arrive at her own retreat.
Bern and the cat are both in the home office. Bern’s working and Samson is curled up next to his laptop, having claimed the computer’s soft-sided case for a daybed. She kisses them each in turn—the cat on its head, Bern on his mouth—and admonishes them to stay cool, keep each other company, and have fun on their “boys’ weekend.”
“Ten-four,” Bern says, turning back to his computer, the afterimage of her kiss still tingling on his stubbly lip. “Lock the door behind me,” she calls from the living room.
The whole Northwest is having a heat wave. It was ninety-seven degrees when they got up this morning, hit a hundred at noon and still climbing. Numbers all but unheard of for this region, at least until these last few years. Bern and Tess have talked about what it means if this is the new normal. Would you even want to bring a child into a world like that?
Bern has all the shades down and the A/C blasting. When he next gets up he’ll make a pit-stop in the kitchen to double-check that Samson’s water dish is full.
Bern had wanted to change the cat’s name, indeed was going to make it a condition of his yielding on the question of adopting this cat rather than some other, healthier animal; and Tess had been about to give him the go-ahead (he’s sure of this) but then the lady at the shelter butted in to tell them how much better it would be for Samson’s “adjustment” if he had “continuity.” And that, naturally, was all Tess needed to hear. Well, Bern thinks, it does seem to have paid off insofar as Samson has adjusted. He slept at Bern’s feet last night, which fact Tess noted over breakfast. So effusively and at such length that Bern realized she was jealous.
Bern works in tech. He works from home and has a hard time explaining his job to people, but when pressed, which he rarely is, he will say that though he is not a programmer he speaks the language of programmers, serving as a sort of ambassador between their world of arcane jargon and higher math to that of the suits, the men—and they are all men—who think in broad, glittering concepts and want their products to work as if by magic, to be received as miracle, which Bern believes is precisely what most people believe that most technology is. He even allows himself to believe this, albeit in a limited, provisional way. The washing machine orders its own soap refill; his wristwatch knows his blood pressure and his name.
He’s finished with work for today, thankfully. Next item on the agenda is to receive the guy from the HVAC company, who is coming to give an estimate on replacing the house’s duct work, which is down in the crawlspace and all rusted out. They’ve been meaning to deal with this for two years now; it was on the inspection report when they bought the place, and has only gotten worse, but it was one of those things that always somehow got bumped down the to-do list (it’s not like you can see ductwork) until the confluent arrival of the heat wave and the cat.
Bern is thinking he might start calling the cat Samus, after the protagonist of the Metroid video game franchise, which he grew up playing and, occasionally, still plays. He has a Nintendo Switch console and there’s an online store where you can download classic games. Samus sounds enough like Samson that there will still be continuity—right? Tess should be able to live with that. Or maybe he won’t tell her. He finds himself drawn to this notion of a secret name.
It’s eighty-six degrees in the house despite the fact that the thermostat has been set to seventy-four all day. So thank goodness here comes the duct guy in his dark blue jumpsuit and steel-toed boots, strutting up the walk.
He lets the guy in. He opens the closet where the crawlspace access is hidden beneath a square of rug. He lifts the exposed panel by a canvas loop and then fixes the loop to a small hook on the back wall of the closet. The guy puts on a headlamp and descends into the hole. Bern sits on the couch. He checks his email, his Twitter, Tess’ Instagram, his email again. He texts something sweet to Tess, knowing she is still driving. The guy comes out of the hole. He names a figure. Bern nods. “But the thing,” the guy says, “is with all the, you know, this heat, how short-handed we are. So I’ll tell ‘em this is urgent, because it is urgent, but in all likely we are looking at some weeks, because there are little old ladies from here to Troutdale who we need them to not roast in their kitchenettes.”
“Sure,” Bern says. “Just give me the first opening you got.”
“You’ll hear from us,” the guy says. He turns to leave—has his hand on the doorknob—but then turns back, having clearly just changed his mind about something. “Is that a Switch?” he says. The video game system sits on the entertainment center next to the TV. He must have noticed it before he first turned toward the door.
“It is,” Bern says.
“You play that Breath of the Wild?”
“No, I mean not yet.”
“I do. I beat it a few times. I beat it and I start again. I love it. I love climbing the volcano and to catch that big horse. I search for herbs and monster parts to make new foods and potions. Hours sometimes, I can do this, like at night after my kid goes down or my day off, you know? I make the colors at the dye works and I do all my outfits. Or I look for korok seeds which, you know, it’s the one thing. My best is 580, that’s my current game, so there’s 320 left to find and I don’t even know where they could be. I mean I know this world. I know this whole world. The map shows you where you’ve been and I’ve covered every inch. The yellow line of me covering all of it, you know? And the prize for getting them all is just this dumb joke, classic Shigeru Miyamto joke or maybe it’s like a Japanese thing, you know, not him in particular but like generically Japanese. Their humor. I don’t know if I should say that. But what you win is a little trophy in the game that looks like a poop and it doesn’t do anything. No stat boost or open some door. I guess I’m a completist, but I’m not, I mean not usually. It’s more the you know meditative aspect, my wife says spiritual, of the searching, the yellow line of me all over the map —”
“Yeah,” Bern says. “I mean I don’t know. I haven’t, like I said, played it. I like the old games, mostly. You know, the classics?”
“This is a classic,” the guy says, indignant. “It’s the future, the fucking, you know, Shakespeare. But of Nintendo. Do yourself a favor, buddy. Why not see a legend while it’s still being made?”
“A legend,” Bern says, smirking—barely holding back a laugh—“of Zelda?”
“We’ll call you when we have appointments,” the guy says, his voice thick with injury. He really leaves this time. Just turns and goes.
Bern locks the door behind him, which he never did lock after Tess left. He goes back to the home office, opens the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet, reaches past old tax returns in hanging folders to the back, where, for two days he has been keeping a bottle of gin that he bought in preparation for Tess being out of town.
She knows he drinks. Indeed, Tess was insistent, when she made her own decision to stop, that he not stop on her account. He can even drink in front of her if he wants to, and if they’re at a party or something he often will, but they don’t keep alcohol in the house anymore, which Bern is onboard with—it was actually his suggestion—but this is a special circumstance. He’s going to order a pepperoni pizza, play Metroid, drink gin cut with zero-calorie mango-flavor CBD soda until he’s too fucked up to play anymore. After that his plan is to jerk off once or (aspirationally) twice to this body-positive OnlyFans he’s been into lately, then fall asleep to mild hallucinations abetted by an algorithmically generated playlist of ‘90s British jungle and EDM.
He’s not going to play the original 8-bit Metroid from 1986, nor any of the several sequels and reboots from throughout the ‘00s and ‘10s (though all of these are available for download via the game’s online store) but rather the 16-bit SNES one, the original sequel, so to speak, and his favorite: released in 1994, the same year as his Bar Mitzvah, a year before Goldie’s monumental debut Timeless LP, which he fully expects to hear pieces of on the playlist later, and not that he would’ve known about 90’s British jungle and EDM in 1994 or 95. In those days it was nothing but punk and punk’s dorky cousin ska (not that he knew it was dorky yet, not then). He loved Lagwagon, 30FootFall, Skankin’ Pickle, Less than Jake—anything that drove his parents crazy, basically, not that that’s what he was listening to the music for, but it didn’t hurt. He remembers his mother in his bedroom doorway, her head cocked, wearing (no other word for them) Mom Jeans into which were tucked a tee shirt from when she had used to volunteer at the summer day camp he attended; he can picture the pale-yellow fabric with blue text and graphics, the anthropomorphic Star of David grinning and making jazz hands below the clip-art banner that read CAMP KLIPPOT KETANOT 5750 / 1990!!!!, and the bafflement in her voice as sharp as the HVAC guy’s indignation just a minute ago when she asked him, “Can they mean for it to sound like this?” and how he had replied, without looking up from the game he was playing which may well have been Metroid if it wasn’t Street Fighter II: Turbo, “How should I know what they meant?”
He can picture her as she is now, too, as she must be, all alone in the big house, three thousand miles and three time zones southeast of here. He should call her, he knows that, but it’s already late there. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, he’ll call.
Back to his quote unquote bachelor debauch, which by the way Tess would one hundred percent support. She worries he works too much, says he needs to take more time for himself, to learn to unwind and recharge. “Constructive rest,” she calls it, another yoga term. The bottom line is that she would in no way begrudge him anything he’s going to do this weekend (up to and including the bod-pos OFans) and when she comes home on Sunday, or when they check in with each other tomorrow, he’ll probably tell her all about it and so none of this is secret, though it somehow enhances the experience to behave for the moment as though it were.
Bern takes the gin to the dining room and puts it on the table. The bottle is clear glass tinted blue and shaped like a tear drop. It’s the size of a delicata squash, the gin locally distilled and bottled by a woman-owned company that he can’t remember for sure but thinks is also POC friendly or advocative in some way, he thinks the tag said something about something about that, but he threw the tag away when he brought the bottle in the house so to be certain he would have to google it, which he is not about to do. Maybe it’s First Nations people the gin supports—that’s a big issue out here, people pay more attention to it than they do elsewhere—maybe with a scholarship or internship or profit sharing. Or maybe the tag had just acknowledged that the distillery sits on unceded land.
The flavor profile of this gin, which he has bought before, is frankly rather more floral than he prefers, but he likes to support all the stuff he supports by buying this gin, even if he can’t remember what that stuff is right now, and anyway all he’s going to taste is the mango-flavored CBD soda. He could have just as easily bought Broker’s or Gilbey’s or, for that matter, vodka.
He goes to the closet, which is still open, and closes the trap door to the crawlspace. He closes the closet door. He orders the pizza via an app on his phone. He sits down on the couch, picks up the remote to turn on the TV, but then decides he ought to feed Samus before he gets involved in the game. He puts down the remote, goes to the kitchen, gets the can of food out of the fridge and drops it on the counter. Metal on tile is a sound Samus knows. The cat will come bounding in any second, making remarkably good time with his one back leg, which the shelter lady told them had grown extra muscular to compensate. If he had lost one of his front legs, she’d said, that would have permanently screwed up his balance. To lose a back leg had been, in the scheme of things, a stroke of luck.
So okay where is he?
Bern picks up the can and drops it again from a little higher than before.
He’s already thinking about the crawlspace, but come on, he was in the room the whole time it was open and he shut it as soon as the guy left—or, well, almost as soon. He went to get the gin, of course, but that took what, thirty seconds. Even if Samus had been curious, he wouldn’t have just run over and hopped in. He’s probably asleep under their bed, way back against the wall. It’s one of his favorite spots in the house and on a day like today also a good place to beat the heat. Bern would crawl back there himself if he thought he could fit.
He heads to the bedroom. Here he is on his belly, almost doing the yoga move called “baby cobra.” Up goes the bedskirt: no cat.
The bedroom closet’s open so he checks behind the shoe rack that Tess has set up on the floor on her side. On his own side it’s a pile of dirty laundry and he can clearly see Samus isn’t in it, but he digs through the pile anyway to be sure. To be more sure than sure.
He goes one room at a time: bedroom, bathroom, guest room, office. He opens every drawer and closet, checks under and behind every piece of furniture, even the ones without spaces wide enough to admit his hand, much less a full-grown cat. He jams his eye against every crack and gap.
He checks the windows, confirms that none have been left open. None have. He did this right the first time, earlier, when he turned on the A/C. Waste not, want not. He did everything right. He did.
“I did!” he says. Hearing the petulance in his own voice escalates his fear a few degrees. It’s rising like heat. He checks the front door to make sure it was properly closed and locked after the duct guy left. It was, as he knew it would be, because he just did it. But what if Tess accidentally left it open? She said it was unlocked, but what if she also hadn’t pulled it all the way closed and Samus slipped through it after her, before Bern left the office? But that can’t have happened either; he’d remember if he’d found his own front door gaping open. And the cat was still dozing on his desk when he went to greet the duct guy.
He gets the bag of treats out of the pantry, shakes it like a maraca or a grager. Another sound the cat knows well.
Continuity, he thinks. His heart is filling with splinters.
Okay. Okay. So it is, must be, however impossibly, the crawlspace. He gets the travel flashlight out of the junk drawer in the kitchen, tests that it works. He lifts and drops the food can once more, just in case, from high enough now that he’s worried about cracking the tile on the counter. He goes back to the living room, opens the closet, once again fastens the trap door to the wall by its canvas loop. He gets on his hands and knees with the flashlight in his teeth, stretches his legs and lowers himself slowly with his arms (chaturanga dandasana) until he is flat on the floor, half in and half out of the closet, with his head in the hole. He takes the flashlight out of his mouth and sweeps it across the close, cool, gray-black space: the open grave over which they blithely live their lives.
He can see the rusted-out ducts, the holes at their elbow joints, but if there was a ten-pound animal in one of these flimsy aluminum pipes he’d be able to hear it moving, probably even see the pipe itself move. He points the light at the walls to check the vent screens. There’s one with an ominously large rip. So the theory, then, is what? Cat sneaks into the living room while Bern and the guy are talking, or else while Bern is in the office getting the bottle of gin. (Was the cat still in the office when he went back in there? He can’t remember. His mind can produce equally vivid images of the office both with and without the cat asleep on the laptop case. He has no idea which is true.) So the cat hops down into the hole and Bern unknowingly shuts him in, but doesn’t hear him crying to be let out—or maybe he doesn’t cry? Let’s say there’s a rat, likely the same one that tore the screen to begin with, and when Samus—goddamnit, Samson—gives chase it runs up the wall and through the torn screen and he jumps up and follows it (the jump’s only three feet, could he manage that? maybe) so he winds up in the front yard, at which point he spooks, or maybe is still hunting the rat—or squirrel, it could be a squirrel—and runs off. Goes exploring. Maybe does and maybe doesn’t know what a car is, maybe does and maybe doesn’t know how to get back to the house, much less inside of it, maybe does and maybe doesn’t know that this house is his home.
Bern pulls his head out of the hole, shuts the trap door, shuts the closet, runs back to the kitchen to drop the flashlight and grab the bag of treats. He opens the front door, steps out of the house and directly onto the pizza he ordered. The delivery guy must have left it here when nobody answered the knock, because Bern had paid in-app when he placed the order. He takes the pizza inside and sets it on the table, brushes grit from the caved-in lid of the box. He goes back outside, walks briskly up one side of the block and then the other, shaking the open bag of treats and calling the cat by both his real and his secret name.
Bern sees a cat turn a corner about a block up. The wrong color, but he breaks into a run anyway, makes the turn onto the new street but nothing is there. He probably spooked it. Idiot. Three, maybe four blocks down this new street there’s an ambulance parked in front of a house. Its siren is off but its lights are on, cherry-red and diamond-white, but pale, so pale in the blazing washout of the cloudless day. Heat lines are rising from the pavement and sweat is pouring down Bern’s forehead into his eyes. He stares dumbly at the ambulance, aware of time passing, wasting, but he's frozen, hypnotized by this vision of death. After all, that must be what he’s seeing, right? Lights without sound, the EMTs taking their time inside the house because there’s nothing left to rush for, nothing to do but clean up the mess and console the family, ease them into their new life with its gaping hole. The way that every moment of every day will be oriented by that absence, how they’ll race around its perimeter like dogs at a track. Could have been unexpected, a heart attack, or the bitter relief of a long fight with cancer finally ended, or an old woman roasted like the duct guy said. Could have been a toddler left unattended in a kiddie pool. I just went in to grab my phone, the anguished father cries, I wanted to take a picture of her playing to send to her mom. Bern, back when he thought he was going to be a father, always feared he would do something boneheaded like that: a tiny lapse in judgment, unretractable, shearing apart the family like lightning cleaves a tree.
And how else to describe the current debacle but as his deep fear finally realized, his nightmare come true?
You never said Kaddish.
The voice is his father’s, and that’s only one of several reasons why this thought is insane. Tess isn’t Jewish and Bern doesn’t practice, so there’s that. Neither did Bern’s parents when he was growing up. The Bar Mitzvah, well he did that, sure, but that was just this…thing that happened. He isn’t a member of a synagogue, doesn’t even know if there are any in Portland, though he assumes there must be a few. Obviously, he and Tess are not people who would believe that life begins at conception. The pregnancies they lost were lost potential, not dead children. And yet he thinks—or rather, he hears—the insane sentence a second time.
You never said Kaddish.
It occurs to Bern that his father must be talking about himself.
He feels the pre-heat of tears behind his eyes (such a different heat than the heat of the heatwave) and decides that if he’s going to lose his mind, he should text Tess about Samson before he does. He scatters a few treats on the ground, an offering to the vanished stray, turns away from the ambulance, walks toward home where his phone will be right where he left it on the couch cushion where he put it down after he ordered the pizza.
She’s going to leave you.
Not his father’s voice now but his own.
His own voice speaking the words now, and later again, with pronouns and tenses shifted—she left me—when he will have to tell his mother; the flash that will pass through her eyes right before her whole expression shatters: he can see it, how it will be, though they’ll be on the phone, not Zoom or FaceTime, when he tells her (she used to sat jokingly say that she would not bother to learn how to video chat until there was a grandbaby to wave at; she no longer makes the joke, but still hasn’t learned) and she’ll be standing at the side table where the cordless phone was sitting in its charging cradle before she picked it up, the empty cradle blinking blue (blue as his gin bottle) in the foyer of her big empty house where she raised a family and lost her husband and now lives alone, knowing she ought to sell while the market is hot, get something right-sized, a condo or independent living place, somewhere there’d be people around to talk to, or to call if she ever needs help. Maybe he’ll move back in if she suggests it, at least for a while. They’ll never say who was doing who the favor, or even what exactly the favor was.
He opens the front door to his house and steps inside and here is Samson on the dining room table, swatting at the delivery box. The bouquet of hot cheese fills the house.
Bern will discover Samson’s hiding place tomorrow. He’ll be reaching for a pair of pants on the high shelf in the bedroom closet. It’s a six-foot leap, higher than he’d have ever imagined that a cat, much less a three-legged cat, could jump. He himself can’t even see up there, he just reaches for whatever pair is on top of the pile. That’s why he didn’t think to check. What can he say? He didn’t know. But here are his good gray slacks coated in a layer of orange fur. It’ll be another few days before he'll catch Samson in the act of leaping up there, and another week before he manages to film said leap on his phone. He will forward the video to Tess, who will post it to her Instagram, where it will unexpectedly go viral. Five days and eighty-seven thousand likes later, Tess, Bern, and Samson will be the subject of a short feel-good video segment on the website of the local newspaper. Samson’s original owner will see the segment, wrongly assume that the cat is now very valuable, some kind of reality star, and convince himself that he was tricked into giving it up. He will attempt to sue the animal shelter, and after that fails, he will show up at Tess’s yoga studio, hollering about what he’s owed. Tess will have to stop class and call the police. She will feel sympathy for this pathetic and deluded person, but at Bern’s insistence will, reluctantly, take out a restraining order. Two weeks later, right when it will seem as though the drama is over and things are back to normal, she’ll fall off the wagon. Bern will have to pick her up from a bar on the other side of town, near the apartment they lived in before they bought the house. Bern will worry that this is a full-on relapse, but it won’t be. She’ll give up her chip and start over. By the time she re-earns the three year chip she will be seven months pregnant with their daughter, who will be born healthy but will turn out to be allergic to cats. Tess will suggest to Bern, jokingly, that they look up the former owner to see if he’d still be interested in having Samson back. They’ll have a laugh over this, but it will be sad laughter, and they’ll wish they hadn’t. Later that night, after Tess and the baby are both sleeping, Bern will look up the former owner, curious whatever happened to him, and it will turn out that he died a year earlier, a suicide, though the obituary won’t quite spell this out. Bern, for a moment, will see the silent ambulance brightly shining at the end of the sweltering street, like a light at the end of a tunnel that is also made of light. Ever since that day Samson went missing, Bern has associated this image with the horror of loss and the miracle of restoration, which is to say with the mystery of being and the grace of God, though of course he would never, will never, say this to anyone, or even articulate it in these terms to himself. It’s a knowledge beyond knowing, or perhaps beneath it, a secret untellable because it isn’t made of language, and even if you could name it, you would never speak the name. And he never does say kaddish for his father, though his wife and daughter will, eventually, at the daughter’s insistence, say kaddish for him.
But right now all Bern knows is that Samson is here, that he was in the house this whole time, and that Tess isn’t going to leave him. He tries to comprehend the scale of the disaster he has been spared—the vast, hauntological void of its non-incarnation—and all he can think of is that article about the earthquake and the tsunami, the one that Tess kept talking about last summer. He lets his legs weaken and bend, a controlled collapse into child’s pose, sobbing, his forehead to the hardwood floor, not thinking at all of the lost pregnancies—not even for a second—as the cat, having given up on the impenetrable pizza box, hops down from the table and sets himself between Bern’s outstretched arms. Samson sits waiting on his single haunch, and so when Bern lifts his face from the earth he finds himself eye to eye with the cat, who now—and only now—begins to purr and nuzzle him, to extend an exploratory paw (with claws retracted) to the side of Bern’s damp face. Little mittens, like the nursery rhyme. He can see himself reflected in those eyes, twinned in fact, a tiny brace of Berns like flies trapped in amber, only not amber and not trapped. Maybe game sprites then, explorers lost in the foreign gold-flecked green worlds of iris, and that green in retreat as Samson’s pupils go from slits to ovals with the warm black of want, and nothing is lost, least of all Bern, who sees himself adrift in that dilating darkness and allows it to welcome him home. ♦
Justin Taylor is the author of the memoir Riding with the Ghost, (Random House in 2020) as well as three books of fiction published by HarperCollins: Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever (2010), The Gospel of Anarchy (2011), and Flings (2014). His next novel, Reboot, is forthcoming from Pantheon in 2024. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Bomb, and Bookforum, among other publications. He has taught writing at the graduate and undergraduate level in programs all over the country, including Columbia University, N.Y.U., the University of Southern Mississippi, and the University of Montana. He is the Director of the Sewanee School of Letters. He lives in Portland, Oregon.