“We could always just run it over,” Patricia said.
I wasn’t paying much attention. The November sun was smudgy white against a harsh gray sky, and I was thinking how very lonely the sun looked, how barren eons of existence must be.
I said, “What if inanimate objects have feelings? Or souls?”
She went on about the raccoon.
“Squash it. Quick, painless. A carrion eater will finish the rest. Circle of life.”
The Outback trembled as though she’d teased the pedal. Her middle-aged face was serene, if impenetrable, yet I thought those bluest eyes flickered with excitement.
That chunky raccoon waddled along the berm.
“She’s pregnant,” I said.
“We have cats, remember? A raccoon momma with its back up will gut a cat.”
Patricia pretend-slashed me.
“Wait — it’s a miracle she’s even pregnant this time of year.”
If not being able to have children still mattered to Patricia, nothing showed.
“You really want miraculous trash pandas around the cabin, breeding miraculous offspring of their own?”
She changed gears and gunned the engine.
I closed my eyes, waiting for that sickening ga-lump to signal a misdeed done. In the end, all I felt was a quick, awful start and then gliding along the road as if forever. When I opened my eyes, I saw the BP station at SR-50.
“Seriously, Len,” she muttered, “what kind of fucking monster do you think I am?”
“Anthropomorphizing is a projection of loneliness,” I informed her one night, Dancing with the Stars numbing my brain.
Our television lit her in zigzag blues and blacks.
“The all-knowing Internet tell you that? How glorious that porn, manifestos, and diagnoses of pathology are but mere clicks away.”
“I guess we’re mocking each other now. That what we’re doing?”
She gave me one of those looks. Then she relented.
“We need a trip. Drive to where there’s actual color on trees.”
The mantle clock was dubious.
Patricia’s solution to weathering our heretofore temporary periods of marital friction — black swan events, my fracking geologist wife called them sarcastically — was always to drive somewhere. What she didn’t understand or perhaps wouldn’t accept was there might not be anywhere far enough anymore.
“Think I’ll take a walk.”
“At this hour?” She glanced out the window. “It’s pitch black.”
I started to reply but changed my mind. I found my parka.
“At least take a flashlight,” she yelled as I shut the door to an unapologetic cover of “Celebration.”
I’d walked this trail a thousand times, probably more, but to the Boxelders and Chestnut Oaks tonight — to their craggy bark folds, their tawny rustling leaves — I might as well have been a stranger. They observed my wandering, indifferent.
Eventually something padded up to me. I turned with the flashlight.
Mingo, our ever-clever orange tabby, chirped. He was joined by Patricia, a huffing locomotive.
She grimaced, catching her breath.
“Don’t be an asshole. You know I don’t want you out alone.”
“I’m not alone.” I gestured. “These woods are lovely, dark and deep.”
“They’re dead as disco.”
“Only if you can’t see.”
That look again.
“Give the bullshit a rest already, Len.”
“It gets me through the day, dearest.”
“It gets you moping around like an unemployed, over-the-hill college dropout.”
I wanted words that also landed a blow. The best I could muster was, “Class move, Patricia.”
“It’s been seven months.”
“Maybe I don’t want to work.”
“Maybe you should.”
“Maybe I don’t want another meaningless job in the middle-of-nowhere. Maybe I’m all used up.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t have—”
“What, my love? You shouldn’t have what?”
She pursed her lips.
“Forget about it,” she said, heading back to the cabin. “Stay here and freeze your ass off for all I care.”
Mingo purred, circling my ankle. He stopped and stared into the shadows.
“He sees something.”
Patricia didn’t bother to look.
I sighed and told Mingo, “Come on, buddy.”
Instead, he bolted.
Leaves crackled underfoot. Then nothing.
The next morning, Mingo gifted us a bloody, frightened raccoon baby.
“For fuck’s sake, Mingo,” Patricia said. “Bad cat!”
I searched the bedroom for something to lay the baby in. All I found was a wastebasket.
“Are you nuts, Len? Put that down. It could have rabies.”
Patricia was a farm girl, thick-limbed and hard-edged, but occasionally she made the 150 city-bred pounds of me seem more country.
I looked into pained eyes.
You want to live, don’t you?
Hope rose there. I saw it. Unmistakable.
“I can save him.”
“It’s a goner,” Patricia said plainly.
“I have to try.”
She studied me. Her voice wasn’t hostile when she said, “Suit yourself.”
I got to cleaning his wounds. I wrapped him in a towel, fed him warm milk, made a bed of newspapers in a shoebox. He whimpered but drank from the eyedropper, clutching my hand. A fighter. It was endearing and terrifying at the same time. Once I thought the little guy strong enough, I raced 45 miles to the animal hospital in Parkersburg. We were going to make it.
He died as I eased him out of the car.
When I returned, Patricia took off her readers, set down the report on slurry rates or mechanical integrity or whatever she was writing.
I didn’t want to talk. She didn’t make me.
I went to bed but didn’t sleep. I imagined my face — skin loose, eyes puffy and so very old — and tried to remember what it was ever like to delight, to love.
I felt formless as the dark.
The porch light came on. Soon, Patricia was digging at the forest edge.
She had the shoebox with her.
I saw the familiar curl of her back, those strong arms working the shovel with deliberation. A machine. Finally, she stood for the longest, loneliest time. I couldn’t see her face but knew she was crying, too.
Stephen Kyo Kaczmarek is a writer and educator in Lewis Center, Ohio.