“The Home Visit”

best short stories 2024

The following is a story from The Best Short Stories 2024: The O. Henry Prize Winners, chosen by guest editor Amor Towles and series editor Jenny Minton Quigley. Collins’s first novel, Horse Latitudes, was published by Dzanc Books in January 2019. Other fiction and poetry has recently appeared in or is forthcoming from Subtropics, Pleiades, Gulf Coast, The Chattahoochee Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Iron Horse Review, and The Florida Review among others.

It was time to adopt a cat. After months of his decrepitude and vomit and wild shitting, of screaming in confusion at the ceiling, and then settling down to purr in the bathtub or behind the toilet or headfirst like a doltish sphinx against the bare wall, in places that would have been funny if they weren’t a sign of some kind of feline dementia, we acknowledged that our old friend, the glue—“Don’t say glue,” my wife wept—that held our marriage together, was failing. So we went to the shelter that was attached to the animal hospital where we had recently spent a lot of time and basically all of our disposable income—fifteen years earlier, at twenty-two, we had not considered pet insurance, or anything else—to find his replacement. There was only one cat available.

“Slim pickings in the cat department,” said the woman who helped us.

It’s important to make a good impression during the rescue process. I remembered that from the last time, and from the horror stories of friends. “It was harder to adopt my poodle than my fucking kid,” Stacy, a friend of ours, had said recently when, over drinks, we admitted that we were beginning, in the most hypothetical of ways, to discuss our next cat. For ages Stacy had been the last of our friends without children. But then: her adopted infant Rebecca. “It’s crazy,” she said, “but I think she’s beginning to look like me.” A moment passed; we all stared into the infant’s blank and baffled, sticky face; we all smiled, though she didn’t smile back. Then I said, “On that note, we have to get home to give the cat his meds.” Stacy downed her wine. “You left him alone when he’s sick?” she said. “The shelter people wouldn’t like that. They’re very judgmental. They get off on, like, the power.”

The woman before us—Sarah, according to her name tag—wore a nose ring and big circular glasses and did look kind of judgmental. And a little older than usual for the shelter staff. Like, not twenty-four. Not our age either, but closer to it.

“We’ve had a run on cats recently,” she said. “Cats, cats, cats. Everybody wants cats.”

“Why do you think that is?” I asked.

“Loneliness,” Sarah said. Beneath her glasses her eyes were wide and unblinking as a lemur’s. “These are very lonely times. Actually,” she said, “it’s something I have to be on the lookout for. A lonely home is no home for a cat.”

“No worries there,” I said, and put my arm around Alex, pulling her in kind of chummily, like a coach. “We’ve got each other.”

Alex tried to smile. She hated making impressions of any kind. “Yeah,” she added. “We’re married.” It was a slightly weird thing to say, but we don’t wear rings and Alex, whose idea that was, felt uncomfortable about it in official situations.

“Sometimes that can be worse,” Sarah said.

We met the one unclaimed cat. It was not exactly a kitten, or not as much of a kitten as we had hoped, but certainly much more of a kitten than our old guy, who, when we’d got him, was so small we brought him home in a shoebox. That very first night he crawled into our bed, a futon that doubled as our couch, and nestled between us. It was summer and we had the mattress directly under the open window, deep enough against the wall so that the streetlight was not in our faces but shone through the fire escape onto our stomachs and legs in a lattice of shadow and greenish light. A few nights before, we’d made love facing the other direction, so that the luminescent bands, crosshatched across our faces and arms, seemed to be binding us together, and because sex makes everything literal, I’d believed for the first time that our lives were interwoven, converging in a way I had not, at twenty-two, expected, and I felt suddenly adult and real, and the next morning, in celebration or in search of some ceremony of permanence, I suggested that we get a cat. The night we did, when he crawled into bed with us, Alex sat up a little, into the light that softened her face, glazing it with the kind of awe you imagine on people who are just about to be abducted by aliens. “Come here, baby,” she said, and the kitten trotted into her arms. Sometime later I woke and saw them sleeping with their foreheads touching, and it was beautiful, a vision of the future I knew for sure I wanted, a new family I was both outside of and more in than ever before, and I lay like that for an hour, just beyond their shared affection, afraid to enter or ruin it by moving.

After we finished meeting the new cat, Sarah took us into a little office to ask us some questions. Primarily the office contained a lamp and a corkboard full of pictures of Sarah—wide-eyed, staring directly into the camera—posing with animals. There was no desk, but there was one chair facing two chairs, so we sat in the two chairs.

Sarah slumped into the other one. She put her head in her hands and then looked up, at us, and made a big show of sighing.

“Is everything okay?” Alex said. Again, she did not like feeling judged, especially unfairly, and seemed, I felt anyway, about two seconds from breaking her chair across Sarah’s face.

“It’s sad to see them go,” Sarah said.

“You must get attached,” I said.

“They get attached to me,” she said. “Very attached. It can be hard for them. Some families ask me to visit.” She pointed her thumb back over her shoulder at the pictures of her in what, I now realized, were other people’s homes with their pets.

“I bet they do,” I said.

“It can be a burden. At times,” she said, “I have had to arbitrate.”

“Arbitrate?” Alex said.

“During divorces. Just me and the lawyers. Cats aren’t babies, I tell them. It’s not like King Solomon. You can’t cut them in half.”

“You definitely cannot cut a cat in half,” I said.

Sarah was sitting up much straighter, her chin actually raised a little, her head tilted back and to the side, like those pictures of Napoleon surveying something that must not have been the Russian winter, and her eyes, convexed in her round glasses, wobbled with what I could only assume was pride. I thought to myself: Alex, don’t.

“Solomon didn’t cut the baby in half,” Alex said.

“She was just making a point,” I said.

“But that is the point,” Alex said.

Sarah said, “I think I’ll have to make a home visit.”

At home, furious as usual, Alex said, “This shit would never happen in Pennsylvania.” Alex was from rural Pennsylvania, but not so rural that her town wasn’t filled with unused train tracks or meth. She was petting our old guy while she talked, sort of dropping her palm on his forehead, pushing down, and then pulling back along his bony spine so that he splayed and flattened against the floor like a bearskin rug.

“Don’t pet him when you’re mad,” I said. “He knows you’re mad, but doesn’t know why.” I often felt the same way.

“He’s fine,” she said, and we both looked at him where he lay there, bony and pancaked, under her palm.

“In Pennsylvania,” she said, “they would have just given us the fucking cat. They would have been like, ‘How many cats do you want? You want cats? Here’s five cats. This one’s a fisher cat, which is a giant carnivorous weasel, but take it too. It’s great with kids as long as they’re not pussies.’”

I wasn’t sure that this was a better system, but then again I wasn’t in any way certain that I even wanted a new cat, or a new anything. What I wanted was the past, or a life that, like a dubious uncle, pretended to be in some way related to the past, that appeared to derive from the past other than by way of slow loss or grotesque diminishment. A new cat seemed to be giving up on the cat I had, though to be fair, the cat I had—flat, bad smelling, in several ways oozing—was at present doing a really accurate impression of roadkill.

Outside the shelter there had been a guy shouting about how animals would not be allowed into the Kingdom of Heaven. He held up a sign on which he had painted: hey millennials: jesus not puss puss. I think his point was that instead of getting pets, people should be fruitful and multiply.

“What about that guy at the shelter?” I said. “Should he get a cat?”

I don’t know why I said this. Or what point I was trying to make other than that what upset Alex wasn’t the right thing to be upset by, even though I was upset by it too. I mean, I might not have wanted a new cat but I knew I was deserving of one. Although the last decade had revealed my limitations in ways that were shocking to us both, ways that made me sometimes seize up with a feeling of incomprehensible disappointment only to—as I had in youth—lurch toward my wife for reassurance and find that she wasn’t expecting to have to arrange her face at the speed of my longing. Instead, I’d see her own surprise at what I’d become echoed there, as if she were the heroine in some German nightmare who realized that she had married her beloved’s evil doppelgänger if that doppelgänger wasn’t so much evil as anxious, a klutzy, indecisive doppelgänger, a vaguely weepy, know-it-all doppelgänger whose ability at twenty-three to make a perfect Manhattan had appeared like a token of possibility, but was in fact an end point, not a sign of the future but the future itself, its full expression and limit, with the one exception, surprising to us both, that I took really good care of our cat.

“Don’t worry,” Sarah said. “This is customary.” She was standing in the doorway to our apartment, holding what looked like a medical bag in both hands against her chest.

“Is it?” I said.

“Not really. But it happens.” She stepped inside. “I was expecting a house. Or at least something house-ish.”

She sat in the middle of the floor, in our living room, next to the coffee table, on our Persian rug. Moving very slowly, as in yoga, she shifted onto her hands and knees and arched her back. She started, quietly, under her breath and to herself, to meow. “Pretend I’m not here,” she said.

We were still in the doorway, Alex and I, in collapsing postures of welcome, and one of us would have to say something.

“We have chairs,” Alex said, pointing at all the chairs—two armchairs, both leather and both with ottomans, and the couch. In truth we had more available seating than was, or had been recently, entirely necessary, since most of our friends now owned homes and children and Alex had gotten us kicked out of our book club.

“Getting a cat’s-eye vantage,” Sarah said, “can be very instructive.”

“Our cat likes to sit in chairs,” I said.

Sarah stood abruptly and mashed her glasses back on her face. “Are there other cats in this home?”

“No,” Alex said.

“Yes,” I said.

“Sort of,” she said. “For now.”

“This is Derek,” I said, and pointed at Derek where he sat in the corner, only a few steps from the door, beneath the hat rack, facing the wall. “He didn’t used to do that,” I said.

“What is that?” Sarah asked.

“That’s Derek,” I said. “He’s just kind of flat right now.”

“No,” Sarah said, “the thing he’s under.”

“It’s a hat rack,” Alex said.

“Oh, I thought it was like, art.”

“It is like art,” I said. “Because we don’t have any hats.”

Alex used to have many hats, so many hats that she bought a vintage teak hat rack to hold them. Fedoras, borsalinos, fishermen’s caps, two berets. At one point hats were Alex’s look. And then she started getting rid of things that reminded her of herself. But we kept the hat rack. A lot of our apartment was haunted like that.

Sarah said slowly, “Derek?”

We finally managed to encourage her into an armchair. From her medical bag she produced an oxblood leather journal—“This is Moroccan,” she said—and a pencil. “So I can change my mind.”

On his own, Derek made his way out from beneath the hat rack. “Good boy,” I said, at which he looked up at the three of us, trotted forward into the room, stood in the middle of the rug, and began to vomit. This was not unusual in terms of frequency, but there are some events, like orgasm, that never lose their ability to command the senses, that in their occurrence compress all consciousness into a monomania of sensation, awe, or queasy witness, and Derek’s projectile vomiting was such a marvel, as he erupted with a startling ferocity, the power of each expulsion heaving him around like he was an automated lawn sprinkler on a swivel.

Alex was up and singing “Motherfucker motherfucker motherfucker” as she ran to the kitchen to grab our reserve of paper towels, sponges, and carpet cleaner. She returned arms full and got down onto her hands and knees.

I wanted to say that she should let it dry first but remembered, just, that suggesting this to my wife, wrist-deep in barf, let alone with Sarah watching, would be socially unacceptable. Meanwhile though, because there’s no truly functional implement for lifting wet cat vomit from a deep-pile Persian rug other than your hands gloved by quickly disintegrating paper towels, Alex was having a really bad time—especially since she had just tried to scrub one portion of the circle’s arc with her right hand while plopping her left hand in another.

“So, why do you want a new cat?” Sarah said.

Finally settled again, after a longish interval of silence while Alex recovered and began to drink (I expected) in the kitchen, we were all back as we had been.

“Will you name the new cat Derek as well?” Sarah asked.

“Why would we do that?”

“It happens more often than you’d think.”

“We are not trying to replace Derek,” Alex said.

“Derek,” I said, “is irreplaceable.”

“We are simply preparing for eventualities.”

“The Buddhists have a saying about that,” Sarah said.

We waited.

“It was something about flowers.” She began writing at speed in her notebook.

“You control what you can control,” I said.

“Which is why you might call him Derek.”

Alex seized her armrest. We all watched her pretend that she hadn’t. “We did that because of his paws.”

Sarah looked up and squinted. “His paws?”

“The way they’re white.”

“Isn’t it just fur?”

“While the rest of him is black. That’s why we named him Derek.”

Sarah opened her mouth and then closed it again.

“Like a domino,” Alex said. “Derek and the Dominos.”

“I opted for Eric,” I said. “Eric Catton.”

Alex hated puns and took classic rock very seriously and she mimed tugging at her leg and then pretended to throw up into what must have been a boot. She had definitely been hitting the vodka in the kitchen.

“Overruled,” I explained.

Sarah flushed and she was gripping her pencil sort of like a dagger. “I don’t understand anything that you are saying to me,” she said.

In life so much is inscrutable. But not everything: the house visit, barely begun, was not going well.

“Would you like a drink?” Alex asked. She was always asking people if they wanted a drink at inappropriate times, which also certainly affected how things went down with the book club, but she was already standing and leaning toward the kitchen, she had already clearly made the decision for herself, and it was too late to undo it, and there I was, scrambling to find a way to make a joke of my wife’s suggestion, to clean up another social situation, to correct, if I could, what had already occurred, which was both impossible and what a lot of my life felt like.

“Yes, please,” Sarah said.

“The problem is loneliness,” Sarah said over her second martini.

“The cat won’t be lonely,” I said.

“The cat won’t be lonely,” Alex added, “because my husband”—she pointed at me with a cocktail stick—“works from home.”

We all heard the way she said works.

“I do not mean the cat,” Sarah said. “I mean in the home. Loneliness about the home. A general loneliness.”

“When I enter my apartment,” Alex said, “I sense alternately good taste and clutter. There’s really no fucking room for loneliness.”

“Loneliness is an internal state,” I said.

“If we lived in a house and had space to ourselves, perhaps I could get in touch with my internal states,” Alex said.

“I was expecting a house,” Sarah said. She had gulped the first martini in two or three quick pulls, but Alex had made a pitcher.

“Home is a feeling,” I said. “Love is a feeling. A family, when you get right down to it, is a feeling.”

“A cat makes a family,” Sarah said.

“We agree,” I said.

“Bullshit,” Alex said. “A family makes a cat. It’s all in the name—a pet. What’s a cat without people to pet it? Nothing good.”

“Actually,” Sarah said, “there are many theories that it’s humans who have been domesticated by cats, not the other way around.”

Alex shouts when she drinks. And swears. “Have you ever fucking seen a barn cat? I grew up with them. Yowling. Pissing everywhere. Killing constantly.”

“You grew up with barn cats?”

“In Pennsylvania,” I said.

“It was just killing,” Alex said. “Twenty-four/seven killing.”

I had always wondered what to do when things start to get bad. Against uncertainty Alex had made an entire pitcher of martinis. But how often do our efforts to protect ourselves become the next problem? And what now? After all, it had been this kind of thing that had gotten us kicked out of our book club, which I whispered to Alex, as best I could, from across the room, but Alex did not like being whispered at in public. I knew this.

“I got us kicked out? All you did was drink whiskey and say, ‘It’s best not to theorize.’”

It’s true. I had felt, at the time, that, faced with the lives of others, who could know anything? And yet, some things are discernible, some things allow precision, as in: we got kicked out of book club because Alex gulped her wine, looked across the string cheese at our host, and called her a dumb cunt.

“You looked straight across the string cheese and called Marlee a dumb cunt,” I said.

“Well, she was a dumb cunt.” Alex glared up from her drink. “Was she not a dumb cunt?”

Marlee always frowned before she spoke, as if her own opinions displeased her, which they should have. The book we were discussing was Portnoy’s Complaint. An odd choice in many ways. Marlee had frowned and said, “I was expecting some Jews, but not so many. Maybe I would have liked it more if there had been fewer Jews.”

“Wow,” Alex had said. “You’re a dumb cunt.”

The room gaping, aghast. Between us all, tension and string cheese. Everyone’s gaze, oddly, on me. The group expected me to stand up for, or discipline, or explain, my wife.

“It’s best not to theorize,” I said at this, the last of our social functions.

At some point, maybe halfway into the second pitcher, Derek wandered back into the room. As a kitten he was friendly with all guests, anyone who might pet or feed him; then, as he got older, he was friendly with no one except us and began to hide at the sight of strangers, which was a philosophical position for him, considering that some of these people he had been cajoled out from under the bed to meet—while they pretended to care—upwards of thirty times. Consequently, his emotional life, like our own, seemed to wane, until eventually, also like us, he stopped seeing other people altogether. But now, in his enfeebled dotage, he had become friendly again, gentle and calm—when he wasn’t emitting fluid or lost or yowling—and he sat before us, upright on his hind legs, with his head cocked to the side, staring at Sarah, sweetly befuddled.

“There he is,” I said, as if reminding us all, including Derek, that Derek was still here. At the vet—despite his frantic panting, his shedding and nervous farting—he was widely acknowledged as “handsome.” Maybe it’s what they say about all male cats, but I still took a weird pride in the way that the vet techs, after donning protective sweatshirts and rubber gloves and looking at us recriminatorially, as if on past occasions we hadn’t adequately explained to Derek how to behave at the vet, they’d lift his sweaty bulk from the cat carrier and croon, always, “What a handsome boy!”

Sarah put one hand over one eye and leaned forward. “Not much time left for him,” she said.

For a few years when Derek was still a kitten, Alex and I lived in a three-story house in Baltimore. It belonged to her aunt, who had married and moved to Virginia, but the market was not right to sell, and so she’d let us rent it for almost nothing, and it was one of those big old houses, surrounded by wisteria and creepers, that remind you that Baltimore is a Southern city. The houses in our neighborhood all sagged with a kind of stately disrepair, listing verandahs looking down over patios strewn with pinecones and windfall leaves, flower beds dug through otherwise unkempt yards pocked by stagnant frog ponds and divided by azaleas. Though our place was smaller than many around, we had a bench beneath a cherry tree in the front, under which we often read, and a kitchen that opened onto a back garden walled in by hedges and live oaks where Alex used to put Derek in a harness and leash and take him on weekend afternoons. That he resisted this, that he writhed against any limits on his movement, was both frustrating to her and deeply relatable. “He’s like me,” she said. “He doesn’t want to be controlled,” she said. “He’s my cat,” she said, as a joke but always in the same context, watching his squirming anxiety, and speaking to me as if I couldn’t quite understand the peculiarities of their discontent, as if our household were divided into two teams, she and the cat and I and the leash, which was unfair to me but not to her because she did find herself frustrating and frustrated, always twisting against a harness she could never quite identify but suspected might be the limited ways I knew how to live, and though Derek loved the backyard, its smells and insects and the grass he was determined to chew, and didn’t actually want to wander, was content to stay by our side like a tennis spectator, looking left and right as sparrows swooped overhead, it was almost as if he wished he wanted to do more exciting things and blamed the leash, still slack, for his timidity and turned on it, this thing he was always at first so excited to see, and from which we’d soon have to untangle him and carry him back inside before he strangled himself. Then we’d return to our books and sit there, feeling young, and drinking fantastic amounts of Pikesville Rye out of the plastic handle, or blearily inventing cocktails that Alex named after authors she liked, all of which we topped with cheap prosecco, or listening to crickets, or smoking cigars with friends around the fire pit, while Derek remained inside, at the back door on his hind legs, pounding against the glass, desperate to join us again. And now, sitting here in our living room, a participant in and observer of our diminishment, I understood that he’d be leaving soon, half of a team that didn’t include me, and wondered if, when that happened, alone and sideless, Alex would go too.

“How do you know when it’s time?” I asked.

“It’s time,” Sarah said.

“Don’t say that,” Alex said.

“When they are no longer themselves,” Sarah said.

Suddenly it was dusk and the dusk had become melancholy. Martinis can do that. They start as a silver benediction, glimmering and fresh and absolutely healthy tasting, and end with nostalgia and doom, and we were together on their wavelength now where we didn’t have to verify our subjects. Or we were just boozy enough to say the obvious.

“Maybe that’s right,” Alex said.

“It’s terrible not to be yourself. Or not to be able to be yourself.”

“Exactly,” Alex whispered.

“I’m not sure,” I said. “Everybody changes.”

“But not to that.”

Alex was thinking what I was thinking—which was of Derek panting at the ceiling, or howling with his eyes closed in the corner, or falling asleep in his litter box and then not knowing where he was when he woke.

“He’s so afraid of the vet, though,” she said. “It terrifies him. It terrifies him and there’s nothing we can say to make it better, to explain or give him comfort. I don’t want his last moments to be like that.”

“We can do it here,” Sarah said.

“You guys do house calls?”

“No,” Sarah said. “Of course not. But I carry the serum in my bag. Just in case.”

“Just in case what?”

“Roadkill. It’s a magnetism thing. Animals are attracted to me. Look at yours, staring. And it gives my life meaning. Profound meaning. But it’s a liability on the road. They actually run at my car. Afterward, I always stop and often they’re not dead. Have you ever tried to put down a baby possum with an ice scraper?”

Sarah like some kind of murderous mix of Saint Francis of Assisi and Dr. Kevorkian, dispatching roadkill along the interstate—this was not an image for the fourth martini. She rummaged around and pulled out two glass medicine bottles and two syringes. “The first puts him to sleep. The second does the other thing. Over in the blink of the eye. Super humane. We can do it right now.”

One of my problems, Alex often said, was that I never wanted to make any decisions about the future. My fixation on the past was a kind of pathology that kept me—kept us—from moving forward. But my sense was always: forward to what? The future was not a destination to be enthusiastically anticipated. And even if a new cat was something we could look forward to, murdering our old cat was not the same as a getting a new one. Which Alex knew, of course, but for Alex the trick was to tear the Band-Aid off, no matter what it was holding on. Once she was anxious about something, it became all she could think about, and she began to nod and encourage Sarah, to ask questions about the process, how to do it, how painless it would be, the many ways it mimicked mercy.

“But I don’t want to just throw him out,” Alex said.

Sarah agreed that we couldn’t throw the cat away. Not, she suggested, in an apartment with shared trash bins.

I was watching Derek, who was watching the wall as if the wall were watching him.

But there was a beautiful place, Sarah was saying, a place she knew, a clearing in the forest, dotted by wildflowers, near a creek, shady, sunny, dappled, fragrant, secluded but easy to find, not far away. It would be the perfect spot to bury him. We could go there now.

And then she was standing and on the phone. “We need a ride,” she said to someone abruptly, then hung up. A few moments later, a beep from downstairs.

“Maybe bring the cat,” Sarah said, and Alex scooped him up and threw him over her shoulder as she’d done when he was kitten, a position he liked, half-climbing on her back, looking behind her as she walked, and we were on our way, as easy as that, or maybe it was just the drunken compression of time, but we were in the apartment talking and then we were together, all of us, in a Jeep driven by a woman with pale pigtails who didn’t turn around when we got in. From the front seat Sarah said, “This is my coworker, Jennifer.”

“I brought the shovel,” Jennifer said.

I can only say, to explain how I let any of this happen, that it felt like a dream I had once: driving down a country road in the dark, Alex and I with Derek, sleepy and curious between us, heading somewhere quietly, without upset, but with a growing sense of loss, a sense that I was in fact alone, which is a feeling I often have in dreams and must be how Derek felt when he awoke in his litterbox. But the streets were empty, the sky was muddy with clouds and ambient light from somewhere else, and Alex was rubbing the bridge of Derek’s nose while he closed his eyes and purred. Soon we were veering left off the highway onto a gravel road. I knew there was a ski resort near here, about twenty minutes outside of the city, but it wasn’t popular because these weren’t really mountains, just a seam of hills where people biked or four-wheeled in the summer. But Jennifer turned the beams on high and we rolled down a lane of deserted ski cabins: uniform black triangles shaded against the spruce forest behind them, the branches closed and shimmering under the headlights like the wings of a sleeping bird.

The road ended at the last cabin. Jennifer parked and reached over and touched the inside of Sarah’s arm, briefly, and they got out without looking back at us and we followed them and left Derek in the Jeep.

“This is the place,” Sarah said.

The cabin was like all the others: a tin A-frame roof sagged over small rectangular windows and a mossy porch. Sarah and Jennifer set off, walking around the side to the back, where, amid the patches of mud and grass, wooden stakes like the kind you’d tie saplings to stood in geometric rows, so that the place looked less like the lovely clearing in the forest that Sarah had described than the ruins of a tree nursery.

“Just listen,” Sarah said. “Can you hear the creek?”

From beyond the treeline came a moist sort of seeping sound, as if the forest were leaking.

“I think I can,” said Alex.

“It’s just so fucking beautiful,” said Jennifer.

“Whose place is this?” I asked.

“Nobody’s,” Sarah said.

Sensor lights had illuminated the front porch when we drove up. The wall of the night dissolved into moths and midges scrambling in their glow and I thought, I don’t want to bury my cat around all these bugs.

“It’s clearly somebody’s,” I said.

“Technically my father-in-law owns it,” Sarah said.

“Ex-father-in-law,” Jennifer said.

“He lets me use it,” Sarah said. “He has to. It was part of the deal.”

A door slammed. “Sarah, is that you again?”

A man stood on the back deck with a child, maybe eight years old. They were both wearing tank tops and porkpie hats.

Sarah did not turn around. “Go back inside, Gene.”

“We want to watch,” he said.

“Who is the kid?” I asked.

“If you watch,” Sarah said, “you have to be solemn.”

Alex and I had been hanging back and the man turned to us. “Cat or dog?” he asked.

“What?” I said.

“You don’t look like horse people.”

“Centaurs,” said the kid in the matching hat.

“Take it easy,” the man said.

“Go back inside,” Sarah said.

I was trying to find a way to tell Alex that all those stakes in the yard were people’s pets, but did not know how to do so without making it sound exactly like it was.

Alex said nothing. She was concentrating. She was probably still listening for the creek, like if she could hear it, everything would be okay, and I remembered the day she brought home the hat rack. Though she wouldn’t say it like this, Alex believed that she was enchanted, trapped in a spell, but that the right moment, if curated or recognized, the right piece of furniture or clothing, the right painting seen at the right time, even the right person, could free her, let her discover herself again as she wanted to be: awake and unsnared in the world. There were years when she thought that I was the charm and clung to me with the desperation of a pilgrim who expects, just by touching, to be saved, and I—happy to be sacred and happy to be touched—believed I could be a piece of magic furniture, a mirror in which, when she looked, she’d see herself as I did: brilliant, beautiful, still becoming, but whole—and we had both watched with disappointment when that wasn’t the case. By the time she turned to hats neither of us was expecting it to work and in fact, as with each of her attempts to rediscover herself, the failure of the remedy started to feed the problem: soon hats were everywhere, they accumulated in piles, odd shaped, absurd, disorderly, and her mission to reveal her life’s contours again devolved into a simple domestic task—the struggle to neatly manage what was fragile and strange. She tried everything, uniform boxes she bought on the web, stackable shelving, nails in the wall all along the ceiling so that, with the little stepladder required to access them, our bedroom looked like an antiquarian library for haberdashers. And then one day she found the vintage hat rack: tall, teak, enormous. “It’s perfect,” she said. She was relieved and happy, she took my hand and pulled me into the bedroom to gather and sort hats on the bed before it all began again, and now, watching her, I saw she was pushing herself toward the same edge, listening for that creek as if hearing it would protect us from whatever we were losing, and I realized that I would not save her, I would let her live this way because I wanted her to think that we were not what was wrong, that the charm was out there, the solution to how to live, and maybe that meant I had to let them do this thing to our cat.

“We’re staying,” the man said. “It’s my land and I get to watch.”

“Go get him,” Sarah said.

Alex wiped her face and took a step back toward the car and I reached out and caught her wrist. She turned sleepily to me. “Let’s not do this,” I said.

She nodded, but started to pull away.

“We’ll call a cab,” I said.

“A cab won’t let you bring a cat,” Sarah said.

“Cabbies have rigorous standards,” the man said.

“I’m not sure if that’s true,” said Sarah.

“When it comes to cats.”

“I have a ferret,” the kid on the porch said. He was making fists and the man reached down and tapped the brim of his hat.

“Enough of that,” he said. He looked over at us and shook his head. “He does not have a ferret.”

This will be something we look back on, I thought. Look back on with wonder. Remember that night, in that hard middle season of our marriage, when we got blitzed and almost killed Derek and buried him in an enthusiast’s pet cemetery? We’d laugh and shake our heads, finding ourselves still together on the far side of this moment. It’d be a story we told to friends over drinks in our apartment or someplace else, all the chairs filled.

“I’ll get him,” Jennifer said, and trudged off toward the Jeep with her shovel over her shoulder.

I imagined Derek sleeping in the back seat. For some reason, when we left him, he wasn’t afraid. He wouldn’t know what was happening. But when do we ever? A week ago Alex and I had had a terrible fight. We actually hadn’t talked to each other much since and, though we never used to go to bed mad, that night she had stormed off and passed out. When I went to check on her she was asleep on top of the covers and my anger was gone. I couldn’t remember what we’d fought about or why it had seemed to matter, or how under the speed of our lives our tenderness washed away from us and everything became brittle and precarious and I wanted to walk in and touch her cheek and wake her up and take her in my arms. I was like her in this way, I guess, to think that there was always a fix, that if I could cut through the tangle of thorns to where she slept and cradle her back into our first days, then this, just this, our touch, would be enough to save us. By now I knew it wouldn’t work, that she’d still be mad when she woke, but still I lifted the sheets and covered her and stood in the room, waiting, with a little bit of moonlight falling through the window, cooler and paler than that light outside our apartment in New York all those years ago, hoping she could—even in her sleep, a little warmer now, a little more protected—feel my love. And then the cat started crying.

I found him lost, facing the wall, behind the hat rack. He was upset, the hair on his back was up in hackles and his ears were flat. He was staring straight ahead and yowling at the plaster. I said his name—once, twice. He heard me, even recognized my voice, and cried out. Alex groaned in her sleep. I said his name again. He quieted and listened. All he had to do was turn around. Simple enough, but no one can do it.


“The Home Visit” first appeared in Subtropics. Copyright © 2023 by Morris Collins. Reprinted by permission of the author.

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