Something Coming To Meet You,
by Alan Kaufman.
Volunteer fireman Luke Bernal cupped his big hand under the kitten's warm,
pink belly, lifted it into the safe enclosure of his fireman's yellow striped
black oilskin and began the climb down against the backdrop of the crisp
autumnal blue sky, to the cheers and applause of a large gathering of
ecstatically grateful neighbors. Donna Lane, whom he had just recently
started dating, a slender, vivacious woman in her late thirties and dressed
in her usual thigh high cut off jeans, was hopping up and down, her blonde
hair bobbing, her eyes wild with pride and clapping her hands together like a
cheerleader. He paused only briefly to cast her a quick sideways glance, his
mouth set in a bashful, boyish hero's grin that in some ways he had been
practicing his whole life to wear at just such a moment as this. Their
sparking eyes caught fire. And in that instant, his sucked in breathing
stopped and the rubber coat folded out just enough to create a black funnel
through which the squirming, astonished kitten dropped, bounced once off
his knee, struck its jaw on the ladder's corrugated steel step, pinwheeled
through space, past a tableaux of autumnal leaves, shrieks, birds, gasps and
the distant miniature white dome of City Hall, and with a loud smack hit the
Later, he listened to Donna's voice coming through on the answering machine
but didn't pick up. Quite drunk, she spoke in a slow drawl: "I'm sorry I ran
away this morning. I know you could have used me there, but at that
moment it was just too much. I think you know that I really like you
like---I have some hopes about this, for us, you know, maybe really
giving this a try, but I want to not do our date for the Go-cart rally
today. I'm just too upset. I hope you're not beating yourself up..."
His broad dirt-ingrained thumb flicked the volume switch off. He sat back
down to the letter: "...that says to a man 'it's O.K. to stop now, you've
tried and tried a thousand times to be a just plain hero's hero---that time
you tried to enlist for Desert Storm and they told you by the time you
finished basic the war would probably be done - the time you almost pitched
a shut-out in the softball league championship game' until that barrel-bellied
guy smashed it out of the park and then one after another his team rallied --
I don't mean to list down here every near chance like a laundry list of
failure--I'm not ashamed of who I am, but maybe it's time to call it quits
and let the universe find some better use for my dust..."
He put down the pen. It wasn't even that. It was the look on Marilyn
McDaniel's little girl's face, Sally, when her kitten's brains stained the
None of his options seemed very good. He wasn't going to jump, not after
what he'd seen happen to the kitten. The gun in his closet: wasn't that a
kind of fall from a great height, only something coming to meet you instead
of you plunging down to meet it. The result would be: like the kitten again.
He couldn't get over the sight of its disgorged bloody mind burst from the
top of its head, a volcanic eruption of intelligent vitality turned instantly
waste, like a turd on a dead leaf. The way the crowd dispersed, no one
offering to remove what only a second before they had prayed and
cheered to survive.
He rose and left the house to find the McDaniel's girl. He must talk to her.
The McDaniels were not at home. He tried to playground. Marilyn
McDaniel's normally wide open expressive face clouded when she
saw him and her eyes peered away uncomfortably. It hurt to witness
her struggle to meet his eyes.
"Luke. How are you?"
I thought about calling but Sally...you can guess."
He nodded. "I thought I might have a word with her."
Again, Marilyn McDaniel's eyes looked down and away. "Do you think
that's such a good idea?"
In her lap, thumbs met in a gentle stand-off and butted several times
as he tried to think of what to answer but all he came up with was
"I'd just like a word with her" and Marilyn MacDaniel nodded without
looking at him.
He walked over to the yellow-striped black barrels where children on
hands and knees crawled in and out over the sand, shrieking war cries,
instructions, protests. He peered into one barrel, then another and found
her in the third, sitting alone, cupped within the cement curve, in a kind of
relaxed fetal posture, her raised sneakers braced against the wall.
She was a very muddy little eight year old girl, with bushy brown hair and
a teardrop face with great blue eyes. Cancer had killed her father Jeff three
He sat down cross-legged near the mouth of the barrel and said: "Sally."
She looked his way and said crossly: "You're in the light."
Astonished, he moved aside a little. "better?" he asked.
She didn't reply.
"Sally," he said again.
"Stop saying that!" she snapped.
"Go away, please."
"You know," he said quickly "I went up that tree to save your kitty. I
didn't mean to drop it."
Her thumbs met in her lap, just like her mother, opposed feelings focused
"You didn't care about my kitty," she said finally. She seemed very sure.
"Of course I did" he protested. "I went up that tree, didn't I?"
"That's your job," she said coldly.
"Not really. I'm a volunteer. I want to help people, not hurt them."
"The kitty was safe. You should have left her there. If you hadn't come,
she'd be alive."
"Didn't you call the Fire Department?" he asked, surprised.
"No. Some neighbor did. You should have left her there. You didn't care
about her, so you shouldn't have tried."
He didn't know what to say. It's true that he hadn't cared for the kitty,
per se. He cared about doing his job well. You couldn't care for everything
that was out there needing you. Wasn't it enough that he showed up?
He was shaking his head, again at a loss for what to say. He glanced around
him at the children climbing the monkey bars, flying skyward on swings,
spinning the carousel, the chatting parents with strollers, clustered side
by side on the benches. It was all so pleasant.
"You've got to move on," he said "So do I. Try to forgive me." And for
emphasis, added again: "Try" as if repeating it would somehow make the
word's meaning more apparent, though when speaking it he had the
sensation that, really, he was addressing himself.
She looked at him. Her direct gaze seemed to clarify to an almost mystical
intensity through contact with his eyes. "You only cared about Miss Lane. I
saw. You were showing off to her when you dropped my kitty. But I was
watching my kitty every second, from the time you picked her up to the time
she hit the ground, because I loved her..." Two great tears emerged from the
diamond bright intensity. "I loved my kitty. That's how I know. When you
love something..." Her voice broke. She couldn't have finished her sentence.
And even if she could have, wouldn't have found the words. Too much loss
had given her the wisdom but not yet a way to express that awareness is
love--you don't drop the lives that matter to you.
He stood to his feet without a goodbye or acknowledging Marilyn McDaniels,
whose eyes followed his wounded exit from with park with more satisfaction
than she felt proud of feeling. He walked on Calveriss Road which adjoins
Thompkins Street and that whole row of little elm-shaded municipal pleasures
which drew to them mothers, children, vagrants and the elderly every weekday
afternoon: public libraries, playground parks, the Veterans Hall and Public
Rec. center. He kept his face to the ground, watched his sneakers walk and
had no idea where they were taking him. Soon he was beyond the township's
limits, walking by the side of Route 116, with big logging rigs blowing past
like supersonic frigates of gleaming chrome and slaughtered red wood
disappearing into the dark deforested corridor of the south. He went north
walking on a strip of footpath demarked by a flaked yellow stripe painted on
the road's now oily black top and looking up, he noted that it had begun to
rain, hard, and that he was drenched and shivering, jacketless, to the
bone. He felt so miserably lost standing there, cars forging through the
silver downpour smashing into his face. Sometimes there was nowhere to go,
he told himself. Sometimes the road led to nothing. Sometimes all one could
do was to stand pitifully to let the rain wash you clean and start home again
one more time. He turned to walk back, caught up in his thoughts. He never
saw the rig that hit him, water running off it in sheets so thick it made a
kind of bridal gown.
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