By Matthew Dexter
I joined the bowling league around the time we moved into the new house. It was a wise decision for us to switch neighborhoods, my wife was happy to see me smiling again and it was nice to make new friends after losing our son in the war. The old house wasn’t the same since Jamie got his head blown off by an improvised explosive device on Easter Sunday. The shadows hung across the front lawn differently, darker and more ominous. The windows were never open; mirrors reflected the sunlight at strange angles that made my wife cry every time she gazed up the staircase toward Jamie’s bedroom. The house smelled empty and the seat at the table seemed to be occupied by a ghost. We never spoke during meals. The ghost preferred his silence.
Our new house was a few miles closer to the city, smaller and what my wife called, “Not a fixer-upper, but a quiet little place to die in.” I did my end to try to bring her back to life. Her eyes were empty, but bowling kept me busy while she painted portraits of Jamie and “searched for nineteen years of answers while drinking black coffee.”
One evening after bowling I was strolling back toward the house from my car when something caught my attention: three white kittens running across the neighbor’s yard, into the alleyway behind the houses where the trash is kept and kids go to practice French kisses. I followed the kittens. “Meow,” I said, as I chased them across the grass and into the alleyway, white fur shimmering like a blanket of fresh snow beneath the moon.
“You cats are really fast,” I said, gasping for air, one hand on a trash can, the other on my hip. The kittens didn’t wait for me to catch my breath; they rounded the corner and disappeared into the starry night. I looked up at the little dipper, pulled a half-melted Snickers chocolate bar out of my bowling shirt breast pocket, and cursed the Milky Way Galaxy for taking my son. I saw a shooting star as tears trickled down both cheeks and I licked them and mixed their salt with the nuts and chocolate. “Meowww,” I said to the moon, walking back down the alleyway toward the entrance in the wooden fence that connected with our cluster of houses.
The wife was sleeping with the lights on when I entered the bedroom. “Where were you Tom?” she asked. Strange shadows collected, dancing over the bags beneath her eyes. “It’s after midnight ,” she said, “I’ve been out for hours, bowling ended at seven.” Better to tell her that I was out on the porch smoking a cigar than chasing the cats through the alleyways. “I was smoking a Cuban,” I said. I turned off the lamp on the nightstand and brushed the chunks of chocolate from my bowling clothes. “Aren’t ya gonna change into your pajamas?” she asked. I told her I had already brushed my teeth and was too tired. I didn’t like lying to the wife, but she wouldn’t understand. “Listen to those damn cats meowing all night,” she said. I nodded in darkness, licking the chocolate from the corners of my lips, stretching my tongue into the deepest reaches of my gums, I feel asleep.
Weeks went by with no change. I told my wife after bowling I was going out with the boys drinking, but I was really using those three majestic evenings of the week to run with kittens, through the alleyways full of garbage and illuminated by the moon. Many nights I could keep up with the critters for hours, skittering from one trash can to the next, often a half mile of adventures separated one putrid plastic receptacle from the last. Yet on those darkest evenings when there was extensive cloud coverage or precipitation the kittens would be difficult to follow, like shadows on the walls of an elaborate labyrinth.
I took each night with a grain of salt, crying beneath the moon, my pockets full of chocolate bars to entice the kittens. “Meowwwww,” I said to myself, giving up and giving in, beginning to listen to the words of my son spoken through the mellifluous tongues of the kittens, before making the marathon walk back toward the house around midnight .
I could see a sparkle in the yellow of their eyes as they licked the chocolate from my fingers. It melted into my palms and the kittens purred as I fed them beneath the moon. I figured that when it rained they abandoned me because the chocolate melted from my hands and kittens couldn’t smell so well when everything was wet. I reasoned that on evenings when it was especially dark they could easily eat better things: rats and small vermin that could not protect their carcasses in the densest of darkness. The three white kittens controlled the alleyway, patrolling and showing me love, bringing my son closer to home each month. “Meowww,” they said. I listened for hours.
I fed the kittens beer and they took naps when they were finished talking. They led me to a new treasure every night: a half-inflated rubber woman covered with fresh peanut butter, a vintage bowling ball bag stained by blood, a headless mannequin which the kittens used as a perch to purr beneath the full moon. Jamie told me about the accident; details more specific than the Marines listed in their report. I could hear his voice in the kittens. Their meows became distant, and my son spoke as I drank Keystone Light and sat in the alleyways smoking cigarettes. Every night the kittens led me further and the pieces of the puzzle from Afghanistan were coming together.
One night while especially drunk I heard the final story. Clouds kissed the moon. Kittens licked the chocolate from my wrists, their tongues and whiskers touching in an embrace of Christmas affection. The alleys were illuminated; the neon madness of pervasive holiday fashion. People were laughing; only I was crying, as the kittens told me about the sniper: “Dad, it was hotter than hell that afternoon, but we saw him sitting there on the hill. His rifle barrel was sticking out of the boulder--shining in the sun--pointed at my mates. He blew Captain Katz’s head off. We took him out with grenades, while the gunman pumped the rock full of lead. He was dead and all was calm.” The kittens licked my lips. Carolers were singing, salt was dripping into our mouths.
Jamie continued to speak through my furry friends: “We thought the situation was contained after that. We prepared the body with dignity Dad, called for a helicopter. We were all waiting when a kitten approached us from behind the cliff, purring and drinking from our canteens. I chased him toward the mountain into the heat haze. How could I know there was an IED in such a remote location? I didn’t mean to trigger it--didn’t mean to follow the kitten to obliteration--didn’t mean to take two friends with me.”
Bullets filled the air with celebratory gunfire; a Christmas tradition. The kittens were startled and bolted down the alleyway. I lost them in the madness and minutia of festive florescence. For hours I walked through the alley alone, stumbled home around dawn. “Where the hell where you Tom?” the wife asked. “With Jamie,” I said. She held my head and we began to cry. “Why’s there chocolate on your face?” she asked. “It’s a Milky Way,” I said, falling asleep in her arms, like a kitten beneath the trigger of an IED in Afghanistan .
When I woke the warmth of late afternoon was making dust balls dance before the window, casting strange shadows across the bed. I hadn’t slept this late in decades, not since receiving my honorable discharge from the Marines after Vietnam . The wife walked into the bedroom. She was twenty years younger than me, but her face looked the same age, as if the last three years, especially the last eight months, had weighed upon her features in dog years.
“You’re awake,” she said. There was a sparkle of life in her eyes. I hadn’t seen it since she heard the news about our son. She took my hand and led me down the stairs through the open front door, out onto the grass. Sitting there drinking from a bowl of warm milk were three white kittens, different in the daytime, as if I could only remember their faces in a dream. I smiled, went inside the house to shave, take a shower before bowling.
Before going into my car I invited the wife to join me. She smiled. I placed the kittens in the bowling bag we discovered weeks earlier. They purred as I closed the zipper, leaving an opening for them to breathe. I kissed my wife’s hand and opened the passenger door. She slid into the seat. I placed the bag of kittens on her lap.
We drove to the bowling alley holding hands. The kittens purred and licked my wife’s wrist as she giggled like a schoolgirl. The wrinkles on her face were beautiful, like the topographic map of a mountainous poppy field in Afghanistan . I searched for the circle in the center and smiled like I did when I first met her. I parked the car and we kissed. She pointed out the moon as she carried the kittens in the bowling bag. I kept my ball at the alley so the kittens were all we carried inside. The wife placed the bag on the plastic bench and I bought her a beer and she watched me put on my bowling shoes.
“Shiny and sporty,” she said. I smiled and kissed her again, unzipping the bag to let the kittens have more air.
“Get a strike honey,” my wife said. “Hell, yeah Dad, get a turkey--Semper Fi,” Jamie said. The kittens said: “Meowww.”
I stuck my thumb, middle and index fingers into the white ball and rolled it down the center of the lane, knocking down all ten pins. The three kittens jumped out of the bag and chased it down the alley, into the gutter.