SHE DOESN’T SOB, but as I listen on the phone I imagine a few big tears tracking down the square-cut lines of her cheekbones, turning the curve to her neck, disappearing under her blouse. I remember past times wishing for her to cry, not because I wanted her to hurt but for the sheer, discomfiting gladness of getting even a single moment with her heart. For so many years we passed like ships in the night, signaling only cautionary beams through the fog. A cry is a brighter signal that someone is out there.
I’ve lost track of how many years it has been since she last called me. I begin to count them but set that aside to give her my attention. She won’t likely give me many opportunities to show her I can listen. So often she told me I didn’t when I thought I was. Looking back, I think she may have been right at least some of the time, when I was certain I was going to lose her.
Her tears are for Chester, her cat, who for a short time was ours. I know she wouldn’t have called me for some private pain from the days after our time together, but that she would for a loss that is mine, too, even that I never expected.
“I thought he had gone outside to die,” Maggie says, “but there he was, just bones on a box.”
“A box? Where?”
“In the crawl space under our…the bedroom.”
“Ohhh,” I say.
“You were so good about burying MoBo. Do you remember?”
The memory swoops through my stomach like a dip on a roller coaster. Now, from afar, I realize that I, too, had set sentiment aside as if all we had shared was the unexposed gulf that grew between us. Ex post facto, we are being intimate.
“How long ago that was,” I say.
“You picked such a nice place for her grave, Sankey.” I remember the soft earth in the hollow of a backyard grove of pines where we buried MoBo in a distant town. There we spent the emptiest years avoiding the conversations that probably would not have saved us.
“You arranged her blankets,” she says. “You covered her.”
“Her motor purred even on her last day, Maggie.”
“That sure was MoBo. Now Chester is just bones on a box,” she repeats. I wonder if that is how she will remember him. “Can I tell you about it?”
I stretch the phone cord to the dinner table. I must sit down for this. “Sure,” I say.
“He is lying on the box of your grandmother’s goblets.”
“You found them? I figured they never made it from my old house.”
“You never got through all your stuff. I really wish…” She stops, and the phone line is thick with silence. I don’t fill it with what I am certain she is thinking. Finally she continues. “All those boxes you stored for your old tenants. You were so sure they’d come back for them.”
“Were you looking through all that stuff for the goblets?”
“No. When you…back then, I was trying to separate our stuff under there. Maybe I moved the goblets to my side by accident. You were in such a hurry.”
I wanted to say that we were both in a hurry to get it over with, that it was her choice, but time made it my choice, too. Ex post facto, I think again. How successful time can be at changing things when you let it and even when you don’t.
“It’s time you had the full set,” she says.
It is time, I think, and also for something more to pass between us, something that could complete our story in a place of greater repose. After all these years we had not done that. In acts of desperation we had cut ourselves out of each other’s lives, cleaving our past from a bright future we once expected, leaving wounds to scar in hindering ways, at least for me. Now, from a distance, it seemed that time might have dissolved the armor we had worn to guard ourselves from each other. In currents passing through telephone wires, or is it pure space, I really don’t know, it seemed we now had the chance to bless the changes like welcoming the rain after a drought. I had always thought Maggie would prefer to let the past slip away, forgotten. Now it seemed that she might need more and, to my surprise, had made the choice to try for that before I did, in her own way.
Only her way. Without words. In a shared deed about more than dishes or bones on a box.
Time now, then, to nurture this chance. If I were measuring her right.
I punt. “It just occurred to me that you said Chester is on the box. Not was. Did I hear you right?”
Maggie sighs, and there is almost a laugh in her voice. “You did.”
“How long, Maggie? Since you found him?”
She sighs again. “Couple weeks, Sankey. Maybe a month.”
“How long had he been gone?”
“Oh, couple years. For months I tried to find him in the redwoods beyond the pasture. I figured he’d gone away to die.”
“And he was right under you.”
“Close but respectful. Remember how tiny he was? He really was. Such delicate little bones.”
“Is he…how does he look?”
“Oh, he’s lying there with his little skull on the little bones of his feet. Like he always did only he’s just bones now. Patches of fur. He’s still beautiful.”
“Have you picked a place for him?”
Maggie pauses, and a silent choke makes it through. “To move him his bones would fall apart. Even with the fur.”
“Maybe you could…”
“Sankey, would you come out here and get the goblets and whatever else is yours? Maybe look through those other boxes? Some of it is from your old tenants. What were their names? Chuck Sweeney and Sandy Something Or Other?”
“Sandy Marks.” I pause. “Maggie,” I say, her name still so sweet on my lips it unsettles me. “We’ve got to move Chester.”
“I suppose,” she answers.
“We need to bury him.”
“I don’t want him to fall apart.”
“I’ll slide a flat-bladed shovel under him. Very carefully.”
“You’ll do that?”
“And get your grandma’s goblets? And the other stuff?”
“You’d like them gone, wouldn’t you?”
“I didn’t call to twist your arm, Sankey.”
“You’re not. It’s time now. I’ll come up on a Saturday. Dig the hole. You can lay in Chester’s blanket. Is it the same one?”
“Will you put him on it?”
“I’ll do that. Maybe you’ll be there. Like last time.”
“Will you help me load up the stuff? I’ll decide what I might want and take the rest to the dump.”
“What would Chuck and Sandy think?”
“They’ve not come for that stuff in twenty-five years, Maggie.” I didn’t want to stop using her name.
“It’s about time for it to go,” she says, her voice hinting another smile.
“You’ve got that right, Maggie. Let’s pick a Saturday. I’ll borrow Kit’s truck.”
“Yes,” she said. “Let’s.”