A Trace of Dampness

“You can love something, and still be afraid of it.”

Seagulls flying over a beach at night.

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I watch them in every season, but they inspire me most in winter. On this steel-cold February morning, they descend on the garbage cans with a madcap shrieking, wing beats snapping time to their plucking and gobbling.

Standing outside McMillan’s Deli, waiting for my bones to chill, I enjoy their fervor. Their table manners are atrocious, but they are survivors. There is beauty in that.

A man steps up beside me.

“I hate seagulls,” he says.

“Herring gulls,” I say.

I recognize him. He is new in town. A retired commodities broker. We used to be a community of plumbers and fishermen. People who worked until they fell over dead. This man is not yet fifty. Brown fur wraps the wrists of his gloves.

He gestures at the shredded donut wraps and greasy paper plates as if commanding them to round themselves up.

“Look at this mess,” he says. “It’s disgusting. Stupid, useless birds. We need to find a way to get rid of them.”

Left alone without a credit card you wouldn’t last two days.

“They’re survivors,” I say.

He turns up the collar of his jacket.

“If that’s what it takes to survive, I’ll pass,” he says.

The birds jostle and peck at each other in the brittle gravel. I wonder if the floor of the Stock Market looks any different.

He takes his leave wordlessly. The door chimes as he steps inside the deli.

My bones are well chilled, but I wait outside just a touch longer. Along the roof line, the rusted rain gutters sag under a five-day garnish of ice. This winter has been unseasonably cold. The ice catches the light of the rising sun and sparkles like tinsel. I take a deep breath of sharp, salt-laden air.

The Caterpillar hats nod as I step through the door. Behind the counter, Jennifer graces me with her prize-winning smile. Lord, a young girl can light up more than a room.

“Top of the morning, Mr. Udall, so nice to see you,” she says, as if she hadn’t seen me yesterday morning and the morning before.

I stand for a moment, enjoying the warmth. It’s why I wait outside. No real pleasure without pain. The heat creeps about me, like a lover’s perfectly planted kisses.

When I step to the display case, Jennifer leans close. She only wears one earring. A tiny silver dreamcatcher. I find this fetching. Piratical. For months now I have been working up the nerve to tell her this. But I worry what she’ll think. What happens to us when we get old? I’ll tell you. We become poster children for hesitation and doubt. You’d think with the end looming, we’d run naked in the street.

Instead I shuffle my feet.

On the other side of the counter, Jennifer leans close. Her eyes flick piratically to her left, where Mr. Scrooge sits alone in a booth.

“My last customer told me you were crazy.” She winks. “I told him we’re all here because we’re not all here.”

No one has winked at me in eight years. Even a wink can fill a heart.

“You are wise beyond your years,” I say.

It will have to do.

“Tell that to my chemistry professor. The usual?”

Jennifer waits a beat, as she always does, as if I might actually order something different.

I think about it. I really do.

Eggs benedict and two mimosas, please. One for me, one for you.

She is already turning. She truly is wise.

“One black coffee and one raspberry donut coming right up,” she says. “And a trash bag for you back in the kitchen.”

“I thank you. My feathered friends thank you.”

“You’re birds of a feather,” Jennifer says.

She stands at the coffee machine, her back to me, but I only half see her.

I think, Are we?

 

When Marlene was alive we visited an island off the coast of Los Angeles. The island was small, less than one square mile. In those times we walked effortlessly, hiking the island’s perimeter took less than an hour. The island was nothing but beating waves and shrieking sea birds. We went for the birds. Well, I went for the birds. Marlene went for me. She was a slave to all animals, but Marlene’s feelings for sea birds were mixed.

The island was sun-blistered and wind-blasted, and, on the rare occasion when the wind eased, it smelled like a giant guano belch. But as we walked the paths through tawny grasses, my wife smiled and laughed and squeezed my hand. Birds were everywhere. The guide book I carried informed me that the island was home to house finches, horned larks, peregrine falcons, orange-crowned sparrows and even barn owls (“The owls fly silently out from the mainland to dine upon the island’s succulent deer mice,” the author wrote). But all we could see was a vast army of sea birds. Brown pelicans, black oystercatchers, ashy storm petrels and cormorants; in the sun-bleached grass, on the bald escarpments of rock, on the ledges of dark, plunging cliffs, they smothered the island. But mostly there were Hunnish hordes of gulls. Western gulls, to be exact. Many of their nests rested alongside the trails. As we approached, they rose in screaming clouds. Before we got back on the boat, we rinsed our ball caps in the ocean.

On the return boat trip I started a conversation with a ranger. He was heading home after a week-long stint on the island. He was fortyish, and spoke so softly I could barely hear him over the thrum of the engines, but he was kind. He politely answered my questions. When I asked him about the myriad litterings of delicate bones I had seen, assembled in small circles like the aftermath of some horrific Lilliputian battle, he smiled. Chicken bones, he said. Extricating gnawed chicken bits from garbage cans on the mainland, the adult Western gulls gulped them down, flew across the water, and regurgitated them for their young. The gulls also spat up onions, spaghetti, casserole, carrots, chips, dog food and mince. The ranger told me this with an endearing trace of pride. When I said I knew few human beings willing to traverse thirty miles of ocean for a half-eaten chicken wing, he laughed. I told him that, of all the sea birds on the island, the Western gulls were my favorite.

He regarded me through several engine thrums.

“I’m not joking,” I said.

“They’re my favorite, too,” he said.

That night in our Los Angeles hotel room, Marlene stood silent in front of the floor-to-ceiling window. From where I sat on the edge of the bed, I could see her sober reflection in the glass.

The air conditioner purred. In the room above us, a television broadcast the sound of gunshots and screaming. On television, people who are shot have an inordinate amount of time to scream.

Marlene turned to face me. Sequin city lights framed her slender body.

“You don’t know everything,” she said.

“I don’t.”

“I hated every second on that island,” she said.

I almost said, I know.

“All those birds,” she said. “I felt like they could turn on us and there would be nothing we could do.”

She turned back to the window.

“Did you hear it?” she said to the glass.

“Hear what?”

“The sound the gulls made when they first lifted into the air. Right before all the godawful noise.”

“No.”

In the room above us, more people were shot.

“Their wings made the loveliest rustle,” said Marlene. “Like a bag of sand lightly shaken.”

She stood so I could not see her face.

“You can love something, and still be afraid of it,” my wife said. “Sometimes you’re afraid of it because you do love it.”

I understand her fear fully now.

 

Sometimes late at night in my lonely ranch house on the far edge of Long Island, I see Marlene standing in front of the sliding glass doors to the patio. She is not silhouetted by city lights. The woods behind her are dark. But there is light from somewhere. Possibly, my heart.

“Marlene,” I say softly, “thank you for always holding my hand.”

My wife looks out to the woods.

“That’s what love is,” she says to the glass.

 

Marlene was ambivalent about birds, but she loved cats with every fiber of her soul. The last of her housecats still resides in our home. Luther is named after Martin Luther King. He is midnight black. Perhaps this is politically incorrect, but it seemed straightforward when Marlene named him.

I have one last cat at home, but I have seven out on the windswept point at the northernmost tip of this island. Marlene and I have cared for a waxing and waning group of feral cats for thirteen years. Well, I have cared for them for thirteen years. Marlene cared for them for eight. It began as a temporary job, filling in for Mrs. Simmons when she went to visit her son in Orlando for Christmas. But people die. So we took up the torch, Marlene and I, caring for the cats dumped in the woods or left behind at summer cottages. On a resort island living is easy for feral cats in summer, with brimming dumpsters and soft-hearted tourists. In February, the tourists are gone and the dumpsters are often frozen shut. The wind howls off the Atlantic like a sodden freight train. The thickest fur isn’t always enough. A frozen cat is the queerest thing. For some reason they are often stretching out at the last. These renders them a little like a boomerang. I confess, I have side-armed a cat or two in the direction of the burlap bag I carry in winter for such exigencies.

The glen where the feral cats live is ten miles from my home. Every afternoon I drive my Ford pickup up the long, empty rises with their vistas of gray, green and blue sea. I look out the windshield, but often I don’t see the road at all.

The glen is pretty and peaceful. After a snowfall, the bare trees preside over the white silence like respectful monks. Sometimes bright sun sparkles the snow, and trilling blue jays hop between the branches. Other days, bruised clouds rule the sky, their shadows passing like dark sleighs over the snow. The cats pad over the ice-crusted snow like furry butterballs. But not always. In my zealousness, I fear I have overfed them. Now and again they plunge through the crust. When this happens there is a wild clawing flurry, and snow flies everywhere. Eventually the cat emerges with a small toupee of snow. I imagine they give me an affronted look. Perhaps they want me to build elevated walkways.

After thirteen years, I still don’t pet the cats. They are wild. They have absolutely no affection for me, though I believe they felt some small affection for Marlene, as almost every living thing did. The cats see me solely as legs ferrying buckets of food. They hear the chunk of the truck door, and they meet me at the opening to the woods. As I carry the two green painters’ buckets, each containing stacked paper plates of dry cat food, the cats follow their wheezing Pied Piper as he makes his way along the narrow path. But when I come to a stop and put the buckets down, behind me the cats ooze away into the woods like the outermost edges of a smoke ring. They don’t trust people. I do not blame them.

Their homes in the glen are simple structures. This is partly because I built them, but mostly because simple is all they require. Plywood roofs rest atop bale walls of hay. The bales, in turn, rest upon a plywood floor. The floors are lined with straw. Straw doesn’t freeze like rug fragments do. More important, straw dries quickly. Cats can stand a lot of cold, but they can’t stand wet and cold. Even on the nicest winter day, a trace of dampness attends the sea. Before Marlene and I learned the difference between straw and rug, we lost several cats. I never tossed one when Marlene was around.

Winter is hard on the birds too. Sometimes a bird will light down on a plate to help itself to dry cat food. Sometimes a cat will take the opportunity to indulge in a two-course meal. It took us only a short time to settle on a solution.

Every day of winter, except for two, I feed the cats the same thing. On Christmas and New Year’s Eve they get chicken liver and hamburger. The extravagance was Marlene’s idea. She also hung tinsel in the trees. One Christmas she decided to put out catnip mice. She stood very still as the cats awkwardly nudged the tiny sacks.

“They don’t know how to play,” she said, and I saw that her eyes were wet.

She kept putting out the catnip mice, along with the tinsel. On Christmas and New Year’s Eve we’d bring hot chocolate and fold out chairs and sit in the glen as evening turned to night, the tinsel catching the moonlight as cat shadows padded about. Women make the world beautiful.

I always feed the birds right after I feed the cats. Keeping them at the truck keeps them off the plates. When Marlene was alive we would make our way briskly back to the empty parking lot. Marlene would get back in the truck. There she’d sit, with the window rolled up, smiling at her husband enveloped in a clamoring cloud of birds. Five years later, I still look over at the truck.

 

I think about this, and the hundreds of other feckless things that make up a life, as I drive along the empty undulating road to the end of our island. On this afternoon, dark clouds, ragged at the edges, scud across the dishwater sky. At the top of the rises I can see the spread of marsh and the gray Atlantic. From inside the truck I can still smell the sea. I shift in the seat. My back hurts a little. I carry the hefty bag of leftover bagels and bread out the kitchen door and across the parking lot. But always, I must lift the bag into the bed of the pickup. I will accept a sore back over asking Jennifer for help.

At the height of their civilization, Marlene and I cared for nineteen cats. Damp, time, and the occasional road misadventure have seen to the whittling. I do not wish to saddle someone else with the burden. Sometimes I imagine myself peering up into bleak faces from my deathbed. Promise me you’ll feed the cats. But we had no children, and I have no more family. I have no idea who might peer down at me. Perhaps their faces will be bleak only because they fear being asked to care for uncaring cats. But I don’t worry too much about the cats. Like the birds, the cats are tough cusses. The toughest will find ways to survive. I suppose, at any time, I could have just stopped, but I am part of a generation cursed with the inability to quit. And we become creatures of habit. It’s why I brought the hefty bag. I look up into the rearview mirror and smile at my folly.

 

When I park the truck, I walk around to the back. Leaning over the hatch, I open the bag, carefully rolling back the edges. It is my mimosa.

I do not turn to look back at the truck.

When I reach the glen, I lay the plates out quickly and efficiently. You would expect nothing less from someone who has done this roughly two thousand times.

But this time, when I finish distributing the plates, I don’t leave. I find a spot far enough from the plates, and I sit in the snow. The cats eat warily. Their eyes never leave me.

I look at my watch, as if I have some appointment later this evening. A small part of me wishes I was standing in the parking lot in front of McMillan’s, where, after a time, I might step inside to warmth and the brilliant smile of a young woman who doesn’t really know me, but is kind to me nonetheless. I know this will sting a little, but I also know it will pass. Youth is resilient and has its own concerns. Maybe it won’t pass entirely, but that is okay too. Even on the brightest days, a trace of dampness attends life. But maybe that makes things sweeter. Like stepping into a warm, welcoming deli.

I realize now that, once night falls, a neighbor might notice that none of the lights are on, a small oversight on this preoccupied day. But my dark rancher likely won’t matter. Most of the homes in our neighborhood are no longer ranchers, just as the neighbors are no longer plumbers, fishermen and friends.

It could be a chuckle. It could be my teeth clack slightly.

I lay back in the snow. From this position I cannot see the cats, but I know they watch me as they move among the skeletal trees. They will not come close for a long time. They are survivors.

But sometimes there is no joy in survival.

I don’t have to wait long for my bones to chill.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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