Ellen had forgotten to let in the damn cat again. Like most damn cats when left outside, it scratched at the front door. Strangely, it was a heavy tap with a drawn out scratch across the wood. The sound bounced up the stairs and around the corner into the master bedroom, where Keith rolled over in bed. The swiping sound continued for several minutes, perforated by small moments of silence. Somewhere between the sweaty frustrations of the sleepless night, the scratching sound assimilated into a dream about trains, and he dozed off.
“Up!” Ellen’s voice echoed from the tiled bathroom.
“What?” Keith rattled awake.
“Wake uh-up,” she sang. Always annoying.
At 6 a.m., his eyes were open, and a streak of sunlight made a stark contrast of light on the gray ceiling. The sun invaded the room, peeking in above the blinds, and forming a running pattern of slits of golden light across the bed. He put his feet on the floor and felt the warm fur of the damn cat drag across his leg.
“Hey, hon, you forgot to let the cat back in last night.”
“What?” She came into the bedroom with a red toothbrush sticking out of her foaming lips. “No, Bub slept with us last night, he wasn’t even out. He curled up right next to me. It was really cute.”
Keith replied in inaudible mutters as his mind brought up the autopilot menu for the morning. A secretarial part of his brain listed the mundane order of events: shower, shave, coffee, toast.
In the kitchen, Keith attempted to read an excruciating email from work as Ellen flipped the TV to local news.
She came up from behind him and put her fingers on the knot of his tie. “Please don’t wear this tie. Paisleys are so ugly. I’m going to get you another one, and you’re going to put this in the garbage.”
“Fine, but not that purple one.”
The news blared in the background, and through his mind’s morning haze, he heard the word, “spree,” and paid attention to an anchorwoman on the screen.
“…apparently the woman wouldn’t stop for a basic traffic stop and police pursued her for several miles until she crashed into the side of a local pizzeria. The woman got out of the vehicle, with a firearm, and began firing toward the policeman. She was killed by return fire from the police.”
Ellen came back in with a gray tie.
“Did you see there was a shooting last night? It was right around where Dave lives—just down the street from him,” Keith said, and sipped coffee.
“Some lady on drugs. I saw it,” she said as she removed the tie, and as promised, tossed it into the kitchen garbage.
“Hey,” Keith said in annoyance, “do you really have to throw it away?”
She wrapped the new tie around his neck. “I never want to see you in that thing again. Now put it on, I have to get Jayne ready for school.”
Keith thought about this Tuesday morning with dread, because on Tuesday morning, he had the Tuesday morning meeting, and at the Tuesday morning meeting, they talked about all the things that they talked about last Tuesday morning meeting, and then resolved to do nothing until the next Tuesday morning meeting.
He finished with the tie and walked down to their unfinished basement, where he picked up his half-smoked pack of cigarettes, and a lighter from one of the bare support beams beneath the stairs. Ellen knew he smoked, he knew that she knew that he smoked, and they came to an unspoken rule that he would smoke in secret. It worked. He slipped them into his jacket pocket as he walked back upstairs.
He yelled up to the second floor, “Hey, hon, Dave’s going to be here any minute. Is Jayne going to make her bus?”
“Yeah, come say goodbye!” she yelled from above.
Glancing at his watch, he walked up the stairs two steps at a time. “Okay, okay, where is she?” He walked around the corner of Jayne’s room and saw her blonde pigtails hanging in front of her face as she bent over, trying to tie her shoes.
“Hi, Dad, can you tie my shoe? I got one of them, but the other one is bad.”
“Let me see what I can do.” He knelt and puckered his lips out while bringing his index finger to them. “The damage to the shoe might be beyond repair.” He leaned in closer, by the tip of her foot, and put his ear to it.
“Daddy? What are you doing?” Jayne laughed.
Ellen turned, putting books in Jayne’s backpack. “Hey, can you go over after work to Dave’s and pick up that molding sample that his girlfriend was keeping for us? She said she was going to bring them over this weekend, but I need them tomorrow—before the carpet guys come. I really don’t want to entertain Dave and his flavor of the month this weekend. That girl bugs me.”
“Yeah, she does kind of suck. She said she was going to take all of us to the Nicks game—like a month ago, and then didn’t mention it ever again. She lies a lot. She probably won’t even have the molding, but I’ll stop by anyway.” He finished with the shoe.
“Yeah, she sucks,” Jayne repeated.
Ellen was about to berate Keith for his word usage, but then just said, “Yeah, she really does suck.” She grabbed a bright pink backpack and handed it to Jayne. “Okay, I’m going to take you to the bus stop, give Daddy a big kiss and hug.”
Keith bent down to let her kiss him on the cheek. “Bye, I’ll see you tonight.”
After Ellen and Jayne left, Keith finished his coffee, and waited for Dave. That bastard’s going to make us late again, he thought. Keith recalled once when they were in junior high, and he broke his arm, Dave was supposed to go run to tell his mom but had stopped off at the gas station first for a Flintstone’s push pop.
Such a jackass sometimes, Keith thought as Dave’s horn honked from the driveway. He walked out the front door and turned to lock it, but stopped. In the middle of the door, there were two series of scratches spaced a few inches apart, with wood splinters jutting out. It looked like claw marks with blood inside the grooves. One of the windowpanes in the door was cracked. He locked it and ran to Dave’s car.
“Hey, man.” Keith climbed in the seat and put on a seatbelt.
“What’s with your neighbor?” Dave asked, looking behind his shoulder.
“What, who?” Keith looked around through the windows.
“He still has that stupid Santa Claus dummy hanging on the side of the chimney.”
Keith looked out across his driveway and saw a long skinny Santa Claus hanging onto the top of his neighbor’s chimney, its legs dangled down the brick.
“Oh, right, I know. The Jacksons. The husband, Hank, or something, is the biggest prick you’ll ever meet. I swear, he’s just doing it to spite all of us.”
“Christmas in July.”
“Yeah, I know… Hey, I think someone tried to break into my house last night.”
“Yeah, there are a bunch of scratches on the door, and someone cracked the window.”
“You have a gun, don’t you?” Dave asked, checking his hair in the rearview mirror.
“Yeah, but I forgot the combo to it. It’s not like I would ever use it anyway. I think they hurt themselves and left, but there’s some blood on the door.” He put his hand into his jacket. “I’m going to call Ellen, real quick.”
He flipped open his phone and got Ellen on her cell. “Hey, did you see the front door when you left? It looks like someone tried to break in last night… Yeah, well I heard some scratching last night, but I just thought it was Bub… No, don’t call the cops. They aren’t going to do anything. Just lock up when you get back to the house. Okay, bye.”
“That’s weird.” Dave exhaled loudly. “So do you know when you’re going to get your car back?”
“They said Thursday, so just two more days of this. Thanks for all the rides. Let me take you and what’s-her-face for lunch today.” Keith produced his cigarettes from his pocket.
“No, not today. She came over last night, and she was drunk or something. I know that she’s kind of crazy to begin with, but she was acting really weird—Hey, gimme one of those.” Dave rolled down the windows.
Keith lit two cigarettes in his mouth and handed one to Dave, who hesitantly took it.
“Don’t, don’t light my cigarette in your mouth,” Dave said. “What?”
“It’s a little too intimate for me, almost like you’re trying to seduce me.”
Keith laughed. “If I were trying to seduce you, I would have just showed a little more cleavage.”
Dave gave out a little laugh and drew deeply from the cigarette. He gently patted his head to see how dry his hair was from the gel he had put in it.
“Yeah, she comes over last night, and doesn’t even say anything. She just sits on my couch and stares. Then I try to sit down next to her, and she just freaked out and started yelling. Then she apologized, said she felt weird, and then left. I called her this morning, and she didn’t answer, so I don’t know what’s up with her.”
“I’ve always thought she was a little off. Did she leave some wooden molding at your house for Ellen?”
“No, I don’t think so.” “That’s what I thought.’’
They pulled onto the freeway ramp from Kearny, New Jersey, and headed toward Manhattan. There was a car on the shoulder of the road with the backup lights on.
“What’s that guy doing?” Keith looked into the car as they passed and saw a man and a woman yelling and grabbing at each other. “Did you see that? There was a couple fighting in that car. It looked like the woman punched him right in the face!”
“Seriously?” Dave looked behind his shoulder but only saw a semi-truck blocking the view to the car. “Ah, I missed it. Married people.”
Keith flicked his cigarette out the window and rolled it up. “Hey, I saw on the news that there was a shooting just a few blocks from your house last night. Did you see that?”
“What? No, I haven’t heard anything.”
“Some lady wouldn’t pull over and just started shooting at the cops. I think they killed her.”
“It doesn’t really surprise me. There’s a lot of drug trafficking around there.”
Ahead of their car, dense traffic set on the freeway. The sunrise shone through the windshield into their faces as they simultaneously flipped down the sun visors. The downtown silhouette grew as they approached the city and pulled off onto their exit. They stopped at a crosswalk for a crowd of people who were exiting the subway.
The mornings brought out the masses of commuters into the city. Swarms of people crowded into coffee shops, newsstands, and elevators. The subway in the summer filled with sweating bodies from end to end, weighing the train down, with wheels screeching at all the stops. Traffic intersections teemed with people waiting to cross, where the sidewalks filled with throngs of strange faces that couldn’t be differentiated. One massive entity of flesh, hair, and shouting conversations ruled the streets.
Dave parked the car at their company garage, and they got out. The July sun weighed down on them, more so because they wore suits.
“Holy shit, it’s hot.” Dave took off his jacket and gently laid it over his arm, while Keith gathered his briefcase and jacket from the back of the car. They made their way to the crosswalk.
People collected behind them, and Keith felt as if he was in the middle of a concert mosh pit, waiting for the band to show up on stage.
The gel in Dave’s hair glistened in the sun, and it now looked like a hardened helmet of blond hair. He patted it with his hand, and his whole head of hair shook with the movement.
“What do you think of this tie?” Keith lifted up the gray tie for Dave to see.
Dave looked down, squinting. “Ugly.”
“Ellen literally threw my favorite tie in the garbage this morning.”
“The one with the paisleys?” “Yeah.”
“That tie was ugly too, and you wore it too much.” Dave looked back up at the crosswalk light. “You got anymore cigarettes?”
“No.” He had two more.
The crosswalk light turned and the crowd crossed together as one fluid body. Approaching their office building, dozens of people entered at once as they followed behind into the glorious air- conditioned foyer. Cramming into an elevator, Keith recognized a few people from their company talking about the Tuesday morning meeting.
“Hey, did you guys see that data from June?” one of the men asked.
Dave turned around to one of them. “No, when did we go over that?”
“Last Tuesday morning meeting, with Janice.” “Oh, that makes sense. I never listen to her.”
Everyone gave a small chuckle and exited the elevator.
The meeting was long. Janice conducted it with malice and pleasure. She wore a flower pattern dress that draped over her gigantic body. Every time she lifted her arm to point at the projection on the wall, half the room would look at the fat roll hanging from the back of her arm. She droned on and on about an advertisement campaign for a new client that sold cough syrup.
Keith drew a stick figure on a memo pad of a little man tying a noose around his neck. He sighed and thought about coffee.
She called the police anyway. The cop crouched in front of the front door, staring at the scratch marks. From his lower position, it was easy to tell that he had a hairpiece, but Ellen thought it actually looked pretty good. The other policeman asked the questions.
“Did you hear anything last night or see any movements outside? Any cars?”
“No, I didn’t even know anything about this until my husband saw the front door this morning.” Her arms were crossed, and she had to squint because of the sunlight striking her eyes.
“Have you had any recent workers in the house, like painters or lawn care, anything like that?” He jotted some notes down on a pad of paper.
“Uh, yeah, actually we have some flooring people putting some carpet in our basement, but they really haven’t done any work yet. They just came and took some measurements. They are actually coming by later today.”
“Okay, I see.” He turned to the other cop. “What do you think?”
“It looks like someone was definitely trying to force an entry here, but I don’t know. It doesn’t look like they tried very hard to get in. It could have been an animal, maybe a big dog.” He cleared his throat and stood, dropping his sunglasses down to his eyes.
“Okay, well, we have filed the report, Miss… ah…” “Mrs. Sanders.”
“Mrs. Sanders. We can’t really tell much from what was left behind, so just keep your doors locked, and maybe ask some neighbors if they saw anything last night.” They started toward their cruiser.
“Okay, thanks for coming by.”
“We actually have a breaking and entering report a few blocks away. If we see a connection, we might come back.” They got in the cruiser and drove off.
She reluctantly started toward one of the neighbors, the Jacksons, but hesitated while she remembered them accusing Keith of poisoning their dog, after an autopsy revealed the presence of a toxin. Who gets an autopsy of their dog? she thought.
The heat was heavy and the sun blared down the street. Oil spots on the driveway reflected sunlight into her eyes. She gave a grunt and crossed the lawn to the Jacksons. She knocked on the door and stared at her reflection in the window. No one came, so she knocked again. No one. Sighing at herself in the window, she walked back down the steps—when the door flung open, and a man wearing a tank top, shorts, and long black socks stood at the door.
“Oh, Hank, hey, you’re here.”
“Uh huh…” He stared down at her, with a cigarette between his lips.
“Um, there may have been a break-in over at our house last night. Did you happen to notice anyone, or a strange car in the area, last night?”
“No.” He stared with a frozen expression.
“Okay, thanks.” Always a pleasure, she thought, walking away with his gaze following her.