They Didn’t Mean To

by Carleton Whaley (2016)

The Old Man had a perpetual hunch to his shoulders, which was only accentuated as he chuckled at the cat sitting across from him. His shoulders rose and fell quickly, and at their height they nearly touched his bat-like ears, the same ears that the cat would swat at late at night while the Old Man sat on the couch and watched cable.

But it was only morning now, so the tortoiseshell cat sat on the small table and pawed at the Old Man’s coffee cup as if trying to push it toward him.

“Ah, good beastie, helping an old man you know, but I think I can take it from here,” the Old Man winked at the cat before continuing, “Or maybe it ain’t manners, but you waitin’ for something, eh?” The cat’s eyes followed as the man lifted his donut up from its napkin. It pawed in place on the wooden table, watching as the Old Man dipped his donut into the black coffee, broke off a piece of the moist cake, and held it above the steaming mug.

“Ah, you see? I think you care more about food than you do me, girl. You know most folks wouldn’t spoil you like this, or if they did you’d run off to ‘em as soon as I was-” the Old man stopped and gave a coughing laugh. He shook his head and set the piece of donut in front of the cat who immediately began to gnaw on it. “Ah, forgive me, beastie. I meant nothing by it, sure it’s just what we do every morning, and should I-should I, um. Don’t know where I was going with that. Alice always did say I read into things. Or was it that I don’t?” He let loose another laugh, startling the cat and nearly knocking the table and coffee over.

“Oh that’s the good thing about being old I guess. Who cares? No one really knows you all your life, then by the end even you don’t! Oh beastie, that’s a nice thought. Sure there’s them memories we push away, but there’s them that just slip by on their own, so what’s the matter?”

Several quick, pounding taps sounded from the door, and the cat leaped from the table and darted under the sofa in the other corner of the small apartment.

“Hold on, hold on!” the Old Man grabbed his cane and hobbled toward the door, then looked back at the dank, dim apartment. Everything had an amber tinge to it, whether it was from the incandescent light or simply the patina of old age, the Old Man didn’t know.

“Aren’t you going to greet our guest, you little urchin?” His eyes flashed between the couch and table, and he realized that the piece of cake the cat hadn’t finished was no longer there. She must’ve jumped with it, he thought. He imagined the cat flying through the air, donut clutched in her fangs, eyes wide with panic at the sound of an intruder, someone who might take her prize from her.

He started to laugh as he unlocked the door and pulled it open. A woman with short red hair stood in the doorway, scowling as she peeked around a bag of cat food almost as big as her. She strained as it rested in her hands, her palms up like an offering, her arms each weighed down with bulging plastic bags.

“Sweetie, you gotta see, you shoulda seen, jeezus it was-”

“You gonna let me in, Dad? I don’t have a lot of time today.” Had she dyed her hair? There had been spots of gray in it before.

“Oh, here, let me help with-”

“I got it, Dad, just let me get around you, ok?” She had definitely dyed her hair. She looked just like Alice now, strange how time works.

“Alright, alright, don’t trust my old bones, but while you’re doin’ that, you gotta hear, the cat was just on the table, you know how we always-”

“Dad, my arms are about to fall the fuck off. Ok?”

The Old Man shuffled to the side and said, “Watch your mouth.”

The Daughter stomped past him. It had been snowing outside, and her boots left a layer of slush that the Old Man tried to ignore.

She heaved the cat food onto the couch, then gingerly set the plastic bags onto the floor. Her hands were red from the constriction, and she rubbed her forearms to pump some life back into them.

“Now,” she said, unzipping her long green coat and hanging it on a chair back, “what were you trying to tell me?”

“’S not important.”

“Dad, you just-” she stopped and pinched the bridge of her nose, just like her father did when he was holding back from saying something, then said, “Let’s start over. How are you?”

“Oh, I’m good. You know, I mean, you know how it is,” the Old Man said, trying to smile. She was probably having a bad day, he thought. Not that her fat husband made things easier.

“Anyway, um. The store ran out of the cat food you like, so I got something different, but it’s just as good, I read reviews and-”

“Oh! Oh, I forgot to tell you, that Russian woman grabbed some for me the other day.”

“Who?”

“You know, that old Russian Jew who lives in the next complex over. The one whose husband kicked it last year. Her name’s Katya or something, so I call her Kat.”

The Daughter stared at him, so the Old Man continued.

“They’re all named Katya or something. Kinda funny, Kat getting cat food.” He gestured with his cane at the slightly open closet where the litter box was kept, then said, “I forgot to call you, I didn’t know when you’d be coming over.”

The Daughter stared at the Old Man, then furrowed her brows and pinched the bridge of her nose again, before saying loudly, “That’s fine! Now you have extra! I gotta go, Dad, I have to pick up the boys.”

“Oh, of course. Do you want any coffee before you go?”

“No thanks, but- Dad, how much coffee do you drink? You know Jim says-”

“Oh, well if Jim says-”

“Yes, Dad, he cares about you. He actually likes you for some reason.”

“Well I don’t know why, since I don’t come around to fix the pipes or the roof anymore! He must have to do things around the house now.”

“Dad!”

The cat sprang out from under the couch and hopped onto the peak of the Old Man’s back before he could say anything, and the Daughter just stared at the two of them. After a minute, she pulled her coat off the chair and put her arms through it.

“I’m sorry Dad,” she said, “but I don’t have time for this right now. Enjoy your coffee.”

“I will.”

A corner of her mouth curled upward as she looked at her father, then she turned and picked up mug from the table. Steam rolled up from the black liquid as she breathed in deeply, then sighed. She sounded tired.

“What was that about?” the Old Man asked as she put the mug down and walked around him.

“Just checking.”

“What? I’m old, what do you care if I take a drop in my coffee?”

“I didn’t say anything, Dad.”

“I know that look!”

“You don’t need to yell.”

“And you don’t need to bring groceries anymore! Don’t you worry about me. I’ll find someone else, or I’ll just die and make things easier for you. Here, this will help, won’t it?” He had lurched over to the table and grabbed his mug as he talked. His eyes glared wide at his daughter as he gulped the coffee down, steam wafting past his face and clinging to his eyelashes, the bitter smell tinged with the sour notes of whiskey.

She looked from him, gasping as he finished the cup, to the cat, who had leaped from his back to the table. Her hand rose up as if she was about to grip the bridge of her nose, but instead it brushed through her hair. She looked at the both of them again, the Old Man and the cat, and turned away.

“I don’t know how you’re still alive,” the Daughter said as she closed the door behind her.

‘Was she talking about me or the cat,’ the Old Man wondered.

As the quiet crept into the room, it was easier for the Old Man to hear all of the small sounds around him. The creaking of the apartment, the wind outside, the hum off the refrigerator, the soft breathing of the cat.

He went to make another cup of coffee and glowered at the sleek machine. He had always liked the time it took for a full pot to boil, to listen to the hisses and bubbling for a few minutes as he waited eagerly, but when his Daughter had moved him in, she got this single cup, automatic monstrosity. He pulled a small plastic cartridge out of the drawer and popped it into the machine.

‘What did she mean?’ he wondered. ‘What’s wrong with some coffee, damnit?’ Smirking, he opened a cabinet and reached into the back for his bottle of Walker. He had drank this same whiskey for years. Since before his Daughter was born, jeezus. There was that one time that- well, maybe she meant the cat. Maybe she meant him though. Would that have been better? She shouldn’t still worry about that, shouldn’t be worried about the cat, the Old Man thought, and remembered.

She was only six, do they still remember things from that young? Well, maybe eight. Maybe older. Whatever it was, it wasn’t that big a deal. They had lived on a farm. She had been around animals all her life.

They had sat at the table together, the Old Man and the Daughter, back when neither of them were so old. Alice was in the hospital that night, but someone had to feed the Daughter. Someone couldn’t leave her and all the other animals to themselves on the farm.

“What’s wrong with her, Daddy?”

“Ain’t nothing wrong with her, sweetie. She’ll be better soon, and that’s all that matters, so no need to worry what’s wrong if it’s not permanent, eh?” The Man always tried to explain things like this. Don’t make her worry. She’s been free of worry for so long, and there’s plenty in life to worry about later. Don’t let her see the scans that the doctors can read, the black and whites that paint a picture of how hard a life could be.

He threw back the rest of his whiskey, then reached for the bottle to pour while the Daughter stirred the food on her plate. Alice didn’t like when the Man drank at dinner, but she wasn’t here right now.

“Why aren’t you eating?” he asked.

“Not hungry.”

“Did I ask if you were hungry? You know how lucky you are to have food in front of you?”

“Yeah.” She continued to prod at the venison with her fork.

“Then what’s the problem? You think I’m rich? That I can just pay all of these bills and then run to the store when you’re hungry? Fine, that’s fine!” He tore the plate from her and set it on the counter. “We’ll just salt it, how about that? That’s what my father did, he hunted just like me, only he didn’t pay electric bills for a damn fridge, for a damn freezer, damn hospital bills and property taxes and-”

“Daddy I-”

“Don’t interrupt me! You’ve got it good and don’t even know it, just push your food around not knowing a damn thing about the world and how it works, and that’s fine, that’s fine, that’s fine, that’s fine,” he repeated over and over, turning away from his Daughter and clutching his face. There was just too much to say. There had always been too much to say. The Daughter got up and walked out of the dining room.

“Excuse me!” the Man spun around, eyes red, “Where do you think you’re going?”

“My room.”

His boots thudded behind her in fury. She sprinted away, ran from him to slam her bedroom door behind her as he slammed his fist into it.

“Ya kidding me? I’ve taken it eashy on you, gave ya too much rope! Ya know what my Pap woulda done to me if I wouldn’t eat, if I left the table, holed myself up in my room like a brat? I spoiled you good, didn’t I, that’s where thish coming from. Open thish goddamn door! I. Said. Open it!”

He pulled his leg back and kicked the door, snapping the wood near the door handle and sending it swinging into the Daughter’s room. She was huddle on her bed in the corner, arms around her calico cat, eyes wide as the Man stomped into her room and swung his head blearily side to side. He pointed a finger at her then, and tried to speak slow past the slurs.

“You should be so grateful. We give you everything, and you don’t even know it. Shelfish, that’s. That’s. And this damn cat.” He stood towering over her now, pointing from her to the cat bundled in her embrace.

“I bought thish goddamn cat, and all it ever does is sit in your room. The damn thing isn’t any good, it won’t come near me, it doesn’t act like a grateful animal is s’posed to.”

The Daughter screamed as the Man wrenched the cat from her arms. He held it by the scruff of its orange neck and muttered to himself as the cat twisted to get a claw into his skin. ‘Teach you a lesson,’ he thought, ‘teach you a lesson. Don’t worry about anything, don’t want her to worry, but if she doesn’t worry then she’ll get selfish, won’t she? Teach her a lesson.’

His footsteps echoed with the weight of dread. His Daughter tore at him, screaming something now and pounding the small of his back with her tiny fists, but nothing slowed him as he went to his workshop. The room was cold, with a concrete floor and a single light hanging from the ceiling.

“Dad!” Her scream echoed off the walls as he pushed her away from him. The cat might have bit him a few times now, but he didn’t care. He reached for a wrench, found the heaviest and pulled it from its hook on the wall.

In his apartment, all alone, the Old Man remembered his Daughter’s screams as he held the cat under his boot and brought the wrench down. Again. And again. And again.

The coffee had finished bubbling, and the Old Man reached for it with his thick, clumsy knuckles. He pushed the bottle of whiskey away. He stood there for a while, staring into his black pool of coffee as all the quiet sounds around him grew in volume. He always joked that his ears worked better than his memory, which is why Alice needed to repeat herself so much. He had hoped, at least.

The cat meowed and shattered the still air, and the Old Man yelled and dropped his mug, which shattered at his feet and splashed boiling coffee onto him. Reeling around, he tried to steady himself on his cane, but slipped suddenly on the puddle and he fell with a crunch.

“Sons’a bitches!” he yelled before his lungs overtook him with coughing. He hacked and wheezed on the tile, inhaling coffee as he gasped face down in the mess. It felt like his ribs were curling into bony, broken fists, wringing his lungs out like a soaking rag. ‘Dear Lord jeezus that hurt,’ he thought, tears flowing down over his bulbous nose and wrinkled cheeks.

His clothes were soaked by the time the Old Man could calm down and roll onto his back. His shoulder hurt like hell, and it hurt his chest to breathe.

He stared at a brown stain on the ceiling that he had never noticed before. For a second he wondered if coffee had splashed all the way up there, after all that stain couldn’t be old, could it? Then again, it had been a while since he could look up, what with the hunch in his shoulders.

From a far corner, a small mewling sound crept into the Old Man’s ears.

“Betrayal, eh beastie?” the Old Man forced a laugh out from his ragged throat. No, can’t make the cat feel bad, it didn’t mean a thing now. “Never mind, never mind. It was a good trick. No TV tonight, I’m afraid. Just stay close, eh beastie?”

The cat nuzzled with the Old Man, and the two of them waited while the coffee cooled and the sun went down, and the groceries stayed unopened.

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