Smokey the cat died the year after my Elna. The first time Beagle dug up the cat and dropped her at my feet while I cleaned the carburetor, it was endearing. But throughout the fall, the dog delivered Smokey to me almost weekly. By then the cat had begun to decompose. Though Beagle was always careful, ears down flat against his head, tail still and low, his mouth half open as he tasted Smokey before he lifted her, the cat eventually lost a leg in late October as the first snow fell across the Twin Cities.
Smokey had died a normal death, an old age death like Elna, though 66 wasn’t nearly old enough. I’d found the cat under the bed as if she was sleeping, so that when I buried her under the maple, she looked peaceful. But after each of Beagle’s exhumations, the cat’s hardened body evolved into contorted shocks like lightning bolts. Into November, her shoulder blades misaligned, her neck broke, and her head lolled with each prancing step Beagle took to bring Smokey to me. “I know Boy. Weren’t done with our girls yet.”
Abe wouldn’t have told me about what he’d done except that the last time we were at our family land, we went to the Legion after a hard day of reinforcing tree stands to drink off the aches in our muscles and watch the replay of the hockey game. We walked past the pull tabs and dart boards, nodded to the regular bartender, and took a seat at a table in the corner near the TV with the Wild game on it. We ordered a Heggies pizza and slugged beer.
All proud he’d brought me two bags of zucchini and tomatoes he harvested from his garden before the first frost, and with most of the first pitcher under his belt, maybe Abe thought that’d be enough to let him off the hook for what he was about to tell me. He used to be able to drink his big brother under the table, but now his lips have gotten loose as his bladder.
“I got something to tell ya,” he said.
I looked at him and poured the rest of the pitcher into his glass.
“I put Ed in the swamp.”
“I put my father-in-law, old Eddie, in the swamp.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“Wife wanted me to spread his ashes. So I put him in the swamp.”
“Yep,” he said and took a long gulp of his Premium.
“Why the hell’d you do that?”
“Get back at him.”
“You put that ass in our swamp?”
Abe’s jaw hung. “Hell, I didn’t think you’d care.” With his palm he wiped sweat from his glass off the table, then wiped his hand on his jeans. “Figured you’d think it was funny.”
“Funny that asshole’s ashes are mixing with our swamp?”
“The wife asked me to get rid of him for her. Said it was too hard for her to do it. Figured it was my way of getting him back.”
“You’re a sick bastard.”
True that Abe’s father-in-law never approved of my brother, but that’s no different than a lot of people. I’d kind of assumed Abe could be the bigger man, forget the way Eddie’d harass the shit out of him for working at our cabinet shop and not getting a “real job,” telling him he’d never make it in the “real world.” When Abe and I decided to sell the company after Mom and Dad died, Abe thought Eddie would finally shut up. But by then Eddie’d gotten good at getting under Abe’s skin, and so he kept on, telling Abe he’d wasted his life and in the process, Eddie’s daughter’s life too.
I fumed for a full beer until someone put on one of those old time country songs that makes a bar go drunk. Gerty was at the jukebox, swaying her meaty hips and flipping her hair. I left Abe at the table and danced with her. She nodded into my neck, and after the song she went to the bar and made eyes at me until I finally swung my seat around so I could watch the replay of the Wild game instead of looking at her mooning at me.
I asked Abe, “You tell Beth?”
“Hell no. You crazy? She’d beat the piss out of me.” He watched Gaborik miss a pass, and even though he already knew the Wild won the afternoon game, he said, “Send that boy back to the minors.” He flagged the waitress, pointed to our empty pitcher, and said to me, “That dog of yours still digging up that cat?”
For me, Smokey and Beagle and Elna were enough. Of course now that I’m just left with Beagle, it’s a little harder. I’d thought Abe, Beth, and me could put the old sibling scraps behind us, find a little common ground, but the hooks of the family cabinet business and the crap that went down around us must have gnarled things up worse than I thought.
Beth, her husband Sil, and two grown kids came to Elna’s funeral, and it was good they were there. I asked them to come back to the house, even her husband, and Beth looked at me sideways. “Really?” she asked, cocking her head like Beagle. When I said sure and told her I’d make venison stew, she just cocked her head further. It’s been over a year now and still she hasn’t come.
Too, I thought we might all go to our land together, trudge around the swamp, relive the old days and crap like that, but that hasn’t happened either. Abe and I have been there together twice, and he says he’s invited Beth, but she hasn’t come. I might invite her this time.
Especially now that Abe defiled it with Eddie’s ashes.
By the time most of the leaves fell from the trees and the tamaracks started to drop gold needles, Smokey’s remains were losing tufts of hair. Bugs had eaten out her eyes. I had reburied her up at our land after the fourth time Beagle dug her up and brought her to me at home. Now as soon as we pulled into the driveway on our land he howled, and not only did he continue to find the cat every time we went there, but he also had me going at every squirrel or raccoon he chased because he howled then too.
When Beagle brought Smokey to me the last time, I was tempted to chuck her into the swamp. But I didn’t want her to spend eternal life with Eddie, and so I buried her where the old pig barn used to be.
I couldn’t help but think of Elna and the way she fawned over the cat. I’d never really understood it till Elna was gone. Then Smokey climbed on my lap since her preferred lap was gone. She’d bat at my cheeks with her clawless pads until I laid her down on her back and rubbed her belly just like Elna did. The cat purred and nearly smiled, and it felt good to take care of something again.
Late fall, hunting season, I said to Abe, “You know it’s bad karma to have put Eddie in there.”
“Bad karma to be a prick to me. I was the one who took his daughter off his hands,” Abe said.
I didn’t bring it up again.
Beth called. It was January and Smokey was frozen under a foot of snow where the remnants of the pig barn stood and Eddie was hardened ice muck in the swamp. She said, “Do you know what he did?” and because I knew Beth would say, I stayed quiet, still hearing the echo of the phone’s ring off the wood paneling in the living room and wondered when the last time someone called other than Abe.
“He put Eddie in the swamp,” she said. “Now he’s all frozen in there and wrecking it. Did you yell at him?”
“I did,” I said.
“What’d he say?”
“That I didn’t understand.”
“That’s what he said to me, too,” said Beth. “Let’s nail him.”
Here I didn’t wait, because this Beth, the one who was interested in retribution, died about the time she married Sil. “Come on over,” I said, “or I’ll come there.”
She said she’d be over later in the afternoon, which gave me just enough time to straighten up the place. I vacuumed Beagle’s wads of hair, wiped down the sink and counters, and put some venison in the crock pot in case she’d eat with me. When I wiped the dust off the tables I made for Elna, sure to wipe the pools of dirt collected in the ferns I had chiseled, I tried not to think of Beth’s husband Sil and the way he stole the one good idea I’d ever had. At first my tables were just for Elna, but when one of our clients came into our family’s cabinet shop, saw my work and wanted to buy it, I made a couple and earned some decent money for the business on it. When Sil showed Dad drawings for his own tables, practical designs with minimal carvings made of pine and therefore less than half the cost, Dad let him give it a run. Two years later, without waiting for the cancer to finish Dad off, Sil stole the table making business and a batch of clients too. After a month on his own, he started in on cabinets. At Dad’s funeral, Beth and Sil stood next to me in the receiving line, but I never looked at either one of them.
While I washed dishes, through the window I watched the blue jays at the birdfeeder, and beyond that at the tree line, the crows harassed a red tail. I shook out the mats, and though the wind howled, I opened the windows for a cross-draft for a few minutes, and let the tight, icy air take the smell of dog and old man out with it.
By the time Beth arrived, the house looked better than it had since Elna was still here, but Beth kind of sniffed as she walked through the door and sat taut on the kitchen chair while we ate venison. I told her it was good to see her and she said the same. I even asked how Sil was doing, but stayed away from business talk, and it was civil, and not that I believed in that kind of crap, but I wondered if Mom and Dad could see us getting along.
“Why do you think he did it?” Beth asked.
“Hated Eddie. Hated him.”
“So? He’s full of hate. Always has been. Remember how he mowed over that nest of birds?” Beth asked.
“He was eight. He didn’t know they were there.”
Beth moved on to other events, stuff I’d forgotten, Abe adding a cup of bleach to a girl’s shampoo bottle, smashing the principal’s car window, stuff I couldn’t believe she still remembered. As if she cared a little. Carefully I said, “But you haven’t been to our land. Have you?”
She stopped chewing and said, “Just cause I’m not there when you guys are doesn’t mean I don’t go. I need to get away too you know.”
I nodded. So there was a little of my Beth left yet. “So you have an idea?”
She shared with me the plan that made me forgive her for marrying Sil.
After eating, we threw every bucket in my garage into the bed of the truck and got in the cab with Beagle between us. “He smells,” said Beth. I nodded as we headed out of the cities and then west on 94. We listened to the Righteous Brothers and then the Wild game until we pulled off the highway, and then we listened to nothing, just watched naked trees stenciled on January.
When we got to our land, Beagle took off howling and racing with his nose in the snow. He scurried along the frozen crust, made a beeline for Smokey.
Beth said, “Grabbing shovels and the ice chipper from the shed.”
I nodded and watched as Beagle tore off toward the swamp. Just watching that dog made me smile.
I opened the cabin, breathed pine tongue and groove, pulled shades on the three windows in the living room but left the bunk room closed, started a fire in the woodstove, and found the fifth of Beam I’d left three-quarters full last time. Beth came in and said the fire smelled good. Once the flames raced, I put the Beam in my coat pocket, and we headed out the door, stopping by the truck to grab tools and buckets.
Once we had the snow cleared, Beagle came back, tongue to his knees, his eyes smiling with the chase. “No Smokey?” He ignored me and went to hunt under the red pines. Beth and I had both unzipped our jackets, overheated from hard physical work that neither of us did much anymore. We took turns jamming the four-foot steel ice chipper into the swamp, the metal cold through our gloves, the noise raucous against the silent snow. The ice broke easily despite the hard freeze of the shallow water. We guessed the swamp was only two or three feet deep where we stood. We tossed swamp ice chunks into the bucket and occasionally took quick warming pulls of the Beam. The top couple inches of ice just smelled pewter cold, but as we chipped deeper and bits of reeds and decomposing leaves mixed with the sooty ice, an organic warm smell like spring rose. A couple inches deeper and we broke into chunks of black muck, smelling rotten and hoary. I wondered how much of Eddie might have been in those chunks and looked close to see if I could see a layer of ash, a geology of Abe’s hate.
We filled all eight buckets, the last much slower than the first for all the stopping and stretching of our backs, and finally lumbered up the hill with them two at a time, leaning against the truck while we caught our breath and took another shot of Beam. When the work was finished, Beth replaced the tools, I went back to the cabin to stoke the fire, and we sat in shirt sleeves in front of the flames.
Beth said, “Faster than I thought.”
I agreed. We killed the bottle, and I damped down the fire and said, “Let’s get out of here.” We hadn’t needed the fire to keep us warm after all.
As I locked up the cabin, I called to Beagle. Dusk highlighted the winter fields, and I listened for paws over the frozen crust.
“Where is he?” asked Beth.
I shrugged and tossed her the keys. She started the truck and still no Beagle. I trudged down to the swamp, called into the pines, then looped back up to the old pig barn. Beagle lay next to the place where I’d buried Smokey. He looked up at me with his dopey eyes and wagged his tail once, not a bit of the snow around him disturbed.
The swamp stayed frozen in buckets in the bed of my truck for two days until we knew Abe’s wife Mary would make him go to church with her. Beth met me at my house, and on the way to Abe’s, I drove slow and careful, somehow nervous. Beth must have felt it too because when we pulled down the tree lined driveway, she whispered, “Key still under the front mat?”
“Course,” I said and eased on the brakes so they wouldn’t squeak.
We closed our doors quietly. I walked to the back of the truck and began hauling buckets to the backyard where Abe’s vegetable garden stood in summer. The snow was only a few inches deep here, the most recent storm having missed town. Beth walked up the shoveled path, got in the door, and by the time I had four of the eight buckets lined up at the garden plot, she was carrying out the first steaming pan of water, wary of the icy patches on the patio. The vapor rose in long streaks like her hair used to be and she looked young and pretty through the haze of condensation. “Shit,” she said when she slopped some of the water out as she put the pot down.
When I brought the last two buckets of swamp around, she carried a teapot and a large saucepan of hot water. “We’ll have to refill,” she said, “but should be enough to start.”
I figured we’d just dump the buckets over the general area of the garden, but Beth wanted to be sure the swamp covered every corner. With her gloved hands, she laid chunks of swamp out so they touched like incisors, the biggest slabs in the middle. “It’ll spread once it melts,” she said more to herself than to me. When she was satisfied, she handed me one of the pots that had stopped steaming but still felt warm through my gloves. We splashed the garden and ice and watched as not much happened.
I said, “Need lots more water.” We made a bunch of trips to and from the kitchen sink. We didn’t look at each other much, at least one of us concentrating on not spilling the water, but when we did, it was just like the old days when we stole mice in formaldehyde from the science lab and dropped them in teachers’ mugs or found some road kill and planted it in the library shelves. I hadn’t felt so good since before Elna died.
“Feel kinda bad about doing this to Mary,” said Beth as she dumped another pot of water.
I shrugged. “Not like he’s going to tell her what it really is.”
By the time we finished, the garden was a soupy mess of mud and ice. In places, it already began to refreeze in lopsided paisleys. Beth knelt down and scooped a chunk of gloppy snow-ice a few feet inside the garden. She inspected the lump, then showed it to me, saying, “All the way down to the ground. Won’t matter if he clears all the snow. Eddie’s already sinking in.” She always was good about the details, making sure Mr. Rick’s sophomore class hadn’t finished with the Civil War essay before putting the carcass in between books on Bull Run and Gettysburg or sneaking the mice’s empty jar into the teacher’s lounge.
I grabbed the snow shovel from the front of the house and walked backwards with it to cover our tracks while Beth cleaned up the kitchen and put the pots away. I waited in the truck for her as she latched the door and replaced the key under the mat. She got in and we crept out of the driveway just as we’d crept in.
When we got back to my place, she stayed for tuna fish sandwiches and a congratulatory glass of Beam. While we watched the bird feeder, she said, “I should have come after the funeral.”
I stared at the blue jays battling it out with the crows and swallowed the faint burning that still warmed the back of my throat.
Beth said, “I didn’t know how to make it right between you and Sil.” She sighed. “I didn’t see it before. You and Sil don’t have to be friends. I stay married. Two separate things.”
I nodded and poured us another drink.
In a little voice, a noise like a cat at the door, Beth asked, “Forgive me?”
I said, “Course,” and wished I could give her noogies like when we were little. And then I did, and she squealed almost like she used to though now her hair was short and bristly and still a little damp with sweat from the work at the garden.
She was still there when Abe called, and as I held the phone from my ear, she covered her laughing mouth with her hands, just as she’d done when a sophomore showed the librarian the run-over skunk.