Decent Treatment , by Harvey Sutlive.
Celia felt like moving anyway. She felt like starting a new life. She had Cash, from her divorce. Marais she decided... might be good. Marais had mountains, and a college, and a whitewater river. She rented a condo just outside town she thought it would be nice to live in the country.
She got a dui two weeks after she arrived unfortunately, and they took away her driver's license. Anyway she bought a bicycle. She had a strong skinny body, she felt, and good reflexes. She got into bicycling, and taking taxis.
Celia was standing by her living room window. She could see herself in the window glass. She was drinking a cup of coffee. A light cold rain had fallen during the morning but now the sun was out. The sun was drying the ground. An almost warm wind pushed stray leaves across the parking lot.
Celia stared at the parking lot. Her sister Bette was driving up from Cassina to see her. Pine trees surrounded the condo complex. Celia was glad the sun finally came out. Thousands of blackbirds in a mass suddenly flew over the parking lot Celia pressed her face to the window to watch. But that position was too uncomfortable, so she sat in an armchair. She slurped her cup of coffee.
There was an open grassy space, fenced pastureland, across the road from the condo complex. The blackbirds flew over there.
A big scruffy yellow cat walked up to the trash can on wheels on the sidewalk in front of Celia's condo. It sat down and licked itself and blinked. Its head twitched a little. Celia frowned deeply... but Bette's car was rolling down the condo access road turning in the parking lot the yellow cat crept under the trashcan.
Bette parked and pushed open her car door and stood up in the parking lot. She was a short cheerful person with thick hips, and a pinched jowly face, and too-large breast implants. She squinted at her car keys which dangled in her hand. The wind blew a few leaves against her ankles.
The noisy hyper Marchette kids two doors down in the condo block recognized Bette. They ran over and yelled hello. Bette was afraid of the Marchette kids. She backed away without saying anything and opened her car trunk and yanked out a cooler. She started for Celia's front door. The cooler dragged down on her short arms.
Celia sipped her cup of coffee. The Marchette kids shouted and pulled on Bette's shirt. They pointed at the scruffy cat under the trash can. Bette made it to Celia's front door she thumped the door hard with the corner of her cooler.
Celia stared across the road. She sucked the final sludgy cold bottom tablespoon of coffee out of her cup. Specks of blackbirds in a mass bigger than a dirigible made cape tricks in the airspace over the pasture grass over there. Bette hammered the front door with her cooler. Celia set down her cup and rose and allowed Bette inside.
The motion of the opening front door spooked the cat under the trash can it ran across the sidewalk and crawled under Bette's car.
Bette shoved through the door with the cooler. The Marchette kids yelled Celia's name they pointed to the trash can and to the pavement by Bette's car Celia hooked the front door with her foot and slammed it in their faces. She followed Bette into the condo kitchen.
Now Bette was happy. She loved visiting Celia. Finally she had arrived. She put her cooler on the kitchen counter. She threw her arms overhead, hiking her overlarge breasts somewhat, and stood on tiptoe, and stretched. "It's cold up here," she said cheerfully.
"It's in the mountains," bragged Celia.
"I saw some cat out there with those fucking kids," said Bette.
"God," said Celia.
The Marchette kids loved the nasty yellow cat they wanted to catch it and take it to the vet for a checkup. Celia even helped them once or twice, but the cat hissed and swiped at her whenever she came close. It scratched her back door at night and ran away if she opened it. It made noise and prowled the parking lot. It climbed inside her trash can on wheels.
She called Marais Animal Control and asked them to come catch the cat and euthanize it. But Animal Control operated inside Marais city limits only.
"You're more'n half mile out," the Animal Control lady said. "It's an insurance thing."
Celia explained the cat's appearance and behavior to the lady at Animal Control.
"Don't let him scratch you," said the lady.
"Thanks," said Celia.
"We'll work with you any way we can," said the lady apologetically.
Bette ran tap water on her hands. She splashed her chubby face. Celia opened the refrigerator and took out two beers.
"The place looks great," said Bette. The sisters hadn't been together in over a month. Bette snapped the cap off her bottle expertly. She took a long pull and sighed. That sound caught in the neck of the beer bottle made a bell tone.
"Did you fix the back yet?" Bette asked.
Celia thought she would get rid of the tin storage shed behind her condo and put in a portable greenhouse she hadn't done anything yet though. Bette opened the back door. The big yellow cat was hanging halfway up the door screen it was biting the aluminum screen molding.
Celia grabbed an omelet pan and rushed past Bette and swatted at the body of the cat. The pan clonked on the cat it jumped away Celia struck again she tore the screen badly. Bette yelled and pulled Celia back and slammed the door.
"Fucking THING," screamed Celia.
Bette grabbed the omelet pan out of Celia's hand. "Jesus Ceely," she said. She looked around the kitchen - she patted the cooler on the counter. "Look at this Ceely," she said. "SHRIMP." She flipped the lid open.
"Yum," said Celia.
In the season their favorite fish market in Cassina froze shrimp in two pound blocks, and sold it like that through the winter. Bette always brought seafood when she came up from Cassina. "Looks great," said Celia. The inside of the cooler smelled like the ocean.
"Twenty pounds," bragged Bette.
Bette thawed two blocks under a trickle of water and for dinner they had as much boiled shrimp as they could eat. Celia made rice and a salad. They stacked the rest of the shrimp in Celia's freezer in the shed behind her condo.
They cooked dinner, and ate, and cleaned up. They drank beer with the shrimp and wine afterwards. They raked everyone they knew in Cassina over the coals at least twice. After that it was ten or eleven o'clock in the evening. They were sitting in the condo living room.
Bette brought a giant photo album from Cassina she was sitting on the sofa with the album in her lap. She was flipping the pages of the album. Celia filled her wine glass and Bette's wine glass and went to the kitchen for a new bottle.
Bette named people in the photos in the album: their parents again and again, Celia, herself; everyone they knew, all their relatives.
Celia in the kitchen spun a corkscrew in the top of a new wine bottle. She levered out the cork. A nice smell floated from the top of the wine bottle. She took a long swig straight from the bottle.
In the living room Bette gave little narratives, for her own benefit mostly, based on random pictures in the album. Names accumulated in the airspace in the living room. Celia sat on a stool in the kitchen. She stared at the refrigerator. She drank more wine.
"Leaving Cassina has been a disaster for you hasn't it Ceely," said Bette. She had noticed finally that Celia was not in the room.
Celia slid off her stool and checked her grip on the new wine bottle and sailed to the living room. "Cassina has cockroaches on the sidewalks," she said. All the lights were on full blast in the living room.
"I saw Toby day before yesterday," said Bette.
Celia sat in an armchair and stretched out her legs. She felt... fit. She'd skipped on rice during dinner. She was biking every day. At her dui hearing the judge was attracted to her she could feel it.
"Toby says the strategies we learned to survive childhood don't work for us now that's because we're adults," said Bette.
"Toby," said Celia. She braced herself and did leg lifts. Exercise exercise that improved a person's brain function. The bottom of her brain glowed like a toaster. She loved leg lifts. She had a solid coordinated body she felt.
"My councilor Ceely," Bette was saying. "He thinks emotions aren't real. God I told you a lot about him."
"He sounds full of shit," said Celia.
"You haven't done anything in a year Ceely."
"God Bette I divorced Scotty," said Celia. "I moved away from Cassina. What have you done in a year?"
"Let's talk about when we were kids," said Bette. She rattled the photo album in her lap.
"When we were kids was living in a leper colony," said Celia.
Bette snatched a postcard off a pile of mail on Celia's coffee table she slapped it in the photo album to mark her place. She slammed the album shut. She pressed her lips in a line.
"It was fucked up. Like lepers are fucked up," said Celia ruthlessly.
"Toby says I'm the one that's integrated my experiences," said Bette. "I can enjoy my childhood."
Celia stared at Bette who after three or four seconds folded her arms over her chest and started flushing. "Oh congratulations," said Celia.
"You're not the boss you just think you're the boss," said Bette rapidly. "Toby says that."
"Mind your own fucking business," warned Celia.
"Toby says you need applause constantly," said Bette.
"Is Toby a real person?" demanded Celia.
"Oh you think you're So Put Together," said Bette.
"He's like your imaginary friend is that right?" said Celia.
Bette flipped her photo album open. "What difference does it make," she hissed. The postcard place marker fell on the floor on its face was a drawing of an electric meter.
Celia stared at the album. The picture images were upside down. She noticed the postcard on the floor.
"Christ," said Celia. "Give me that."
Bette stared at the photo album. She kicked the postcard it slid across the rug.
Celia's rural electric company sent her a postcard each month. She was supposed to read the meter on the back wall of her condo, then record the settings on the postcard, then mail the card back in.
Bette's face was aimed straight down, at the photo album, but her eyeballs were hiked up through her eyebrows - she was watching Celia examine the postcard. She was interested in anything that bothered her sister.
"God damn it," said Celia. The postcard was overdue two weeks. Celia lurched
out of her chair and turned and aimed for the kitchen. She motioned for Bette to follow her.
"Let's do it in the morning," said Bette. She flipped a page in the photo
"Come on," said Celia.
"I want to talk about when we were kids," whined Bette. Celia was already in
the kitchen. She was searching the kitchen drawers for a pencil.
Bette drifted into the kitchen. She stared at Celia's back. She grabbed a spoon
and opened the freezer part of the refrigerator and stood on tiptoes - she scooped a big spoonful of ice cream out of a carton in the freezer. She stuffed the ice cream in her mouth.
"Here's a pencil," said Celia.
"Ow my fucking fillings," Bette mumbled. Ice cream was running down the corner of her mouth.
Celia swung the back door open. A scrubby pine forest pressed close to the condo block. Celia's back door light shined into the thin trees. Heavy rusty axles and lengths of track and cast iron gears and sprockets lay smothered in pine needles in the forest floor - the condo complex had once been the site of a lumber mill.
Her electric meter was screwed to the wall siding near the back door. To see the dials more closely, for better elevation, Celia stepped on a clump of bushes by the steps. She held the step railing and braced herself and stared into the meter.
In the woods past the back light's range of illumination, the scruffy yellow cat jumped from the carcass of an old pickup truck. He padded to the edge of the woods. He crossed over to the condo block and huddled against the building underpinning.
"Shit it's cold," announced Bette. "Toby says it's not really conflict it's loneliness that kills you."
"Shut up," said Celia. "The first number is 2." Bette squinted at the card and made a mark.
The thick glass of the meter cover reflected Celia's face. She let go the step railing and brushed back her hair. "God look how wrinkled my FACE is," she said. She wiggled and got a better footing in the bushes.
"You look great," said Bette.
"GOD," said Celia. She was looking at herself in the meter glass.
Bette dashed inside for her glass of wine. The yellow cat, panting slightly, threaded its way along the building.
Celia studied her reflection in the meter cover. She should get a light for her bicycle and ride into Marais at night. She could meet more people. She rode in during the day but not usually at night. Divorce was such a shitty thing.
Bette returned with her wine and sat on the steps. "What's the next number," she said.
Celia tried to see the dials more clearly. The bushes beneath her feet were flattened from earlier readings and they crackled when she tiptoed and peered through the glass. What a hassle, she mumbled.
I'm scared and I don't know if this is right, but... I don't want us to stay married anymore said Scotty when he left her. Celia blinked and shifted her weight and stared at the numbers inside the meter. She slipped on the bushes and half spun and swatted her head on the condo siding. Bette laughed.
Frowning and cursing and trying to balance on the mostly crushed bushes Celia called out three more numbers Bette marked them on the card. Celia jumped down.
"Scotty called me... a couple of weeks ago," said Bette. "He's not seeing that Teresa girl anymore. She moved to Florida."
Celia's heart started thumping. "Interesting," she said grimly.
"He moved back to town. He found an apartment."
"What tragedy happened with Teresa," sneered Celia. Teresa was a hippy girl from the beach in Cassina Scotty had thought he was in love with her.
"She's seeing somebody in Florida now."
"What does this have to do with me?"
"Nothing," said Bette. "I wasn't even going to tell you." She handed the electric company postcard to Celia.
They stood on the back steps together. Celia always wondered if Scotty would want her back eventually. She looked at Bette. "I love you," she said.
"I love you too," said Bette warily.
"We've got to stick together right?" Celia blurted. "It's just the two of us." They both started crying.
"Yeah, basically," sobbed Bette.
The big cat hopped on Celia's bottom step. It blinked and jerked its head and rubbed the length of its body against Bette's ankle.
"There's that cat Celia," yelled Bette.
"Jesus Christ don't touch it!" Celia yelled back. She kicked at the cat it ran off in the woods. Celia and Bette hopped inside and slammed the door.
"All right fuck it go get your pistol," Celia told Bette. Bette carried a pistol in her car glove compartment. Eyes bulging she hustled out front to the parking lot.
Celia scraped a fistful of shrimp heads and shrimp shells out of the trash and packed them in a cereal bowl. Bette came back with the pistol it was a chunky short-barreled revolver, imbedded in a thick leather holster Bette had never learned to use it. Celia took the pistol. She handed Bette the bowl of shrimp shells.
"Put that outside under the light," she said. She pried the pistol loose from the leather holster. Bette tiptoed to the edge of the woods, set the bowl down, and scampered back inside.
"Turn out the lights," said Celia. She propped open the back door and dropped to the floor and sat cross-legged.
Celia steadied the pistol in both hands. She stared out the open door. Bette half squatted then fell backwards into a sitting position behind Celia. The cat emerged from the pine straw and machinery in the woods. It padded to the shrimp heads in the cereal bowl. It put down its head and started eating. Celia aimed and fired the pistol.
The cat tumbled upside down its legs scrambled in the air for several seconds. It laid there without moving.
Celia handed the pistol to Bette and jumped up to look for a suitable cat container. A large clothes-soap box in the broom closet was nearly empty she shook the rest of the soap in the trash and gave the box to Bette. She found a pancake turner in a drawer. They hustled out the back door together and stooped over the dead cat Celia prepared to shove it in the soap box with the pancake turner.
But when she touched the dead cat it jumped up and ran away into the woods she and Bette yelled and dropped the detergent box and the pancake turner. Bette handed the pistol to Celia, but there was nothing to shoot at.
"It'll die out there and save us the trouble of burying it," Bette said loyally.
Two doors down the back door of the Marchette kids' condo opened. Noise, the Marchette kids yelling and asking questions, fell from the door. Hugo their dad stepped out. "What's going on," he said. He was a thin hollow-eyed man with dyed black hair.
"I tried to get the cat Hugo," said Celia.
"Do you need my shotgun?" he asked politely.
"No it's OK," said Celia. Without saying anything else Hugo closed his door.
The next morning Celia carried the detergent box, now wedged full of trash and wine bottles, to her trash can on wheels on the front sidewalk. The sky was blue and alive. Celia felt crazy and lost from drinking so much wine the night before. The racket blackbirds make when they roost in trees rolled out of the pines in back and over the top of Celia's building.
The scruffy cat was leaning against her trashcan. It was breathing hard there was a bullet hole in its ribs. Celia dropped the soapbox and ran to her front door and called for Bette.
Bette was drinking coffee in the kitchen. She was eating peanut butter and jam on toast, and a bowl of corn flakes, and she had chopped the leftover shrimp in the refrigerator and mixed it with mayonnaise and made a spread to go on crackers.
"Christ we need to get this thing to a vet," said Bette when she got outside. Celia and Bette stared at the cat. Pity overwhelmed all their other perceptions.
"This is ridiculous," said Celia after three or four seconds. She went inside and took Bette's pistol off the top of the television.
"Shoo away from the trash can you piece of shit," she said to the cat when she returned. She didn't feel like having bullet holes in her trash receptacle. She nudged the cat with the toe of her shoe.
She picked up the detergent box and rattled it. The cat stared straight ahead. It seemed in shock. Celia gave the pistol to Bette. She emptied the detergent box into the trash can on wheels. The cat seemed not to hear. Sniveling out loud now from pity and irritation Celia folded the top of the detergent box wide open, and leaned forward, and slammed the box over the cat and trapped it inside.
"You got it," gloated Bette. She shoved the pistol in her pocket.
Celia blinking and crying now and cursing Animal Control in Marais tilted the box one way, then the other, and poked its flaps shut under the cat. She picked up the now heavy box and carried it behind the condo block into the woods behind her tin shed she set the box down by a huge rusty old pulley wheel.
"You watch that," she told Bette.
She rooted in her tin shed for a shovel she was supposed to have two shovels neither was there she found a green army-surplus folding shovel vaguely she recalled Scotty showing her this shovel once telling her he had it when he was a kid. She gave the shovel to Bette.
"Dig a hole with that," she said.
Bette took the shovel and began chopping the ground. The damp hard earth was difficult to turn with the little shovel.
"This is hell," said Bette. She was crouching and hacking at the surface of the ground. Her heavy breasts swung in time with each shovel stroke.
"You're doing great," said Celia. She watched Bette dig. Disturbed blackbirds flew overhead in random-seeming patterns.
She spaced out while Bette worked. She wondered if she should... move into town and... get back in school. She didn't have enough money to do nothing forever. Should she get a degree and if so in what. And anyway would they accept her. Her grades in college before... weren't that good.
Bette tossed aside a bolt and some chain links from the hole she was digging. "The dirt in Cassina is sandy," she panted. "This dirt is hard."
Biking was fine except when it rained. If she got back in school she should move to town. The Marais taxi company was pathetic they picked you up but they picked up other people. You drove with them. You waited your turn to get off.
In a few minutes the blackbirds settled in the pine trees again. Bette had a hole wide enough for the box.
"Should I... move back to Cassina?" said Celia.
"We've got to get the box deeper in the ground," said Bette. She was through the packed top layer of clay she was making better progress. "Something will dig it up if we don't."
"Do you think I should go back to Cassina?" said Celia.
"Because of... Scotty?"
"Not necessarily but maybe."
"That might not be good. He might be.... seeing somebody else," said Bette. She was holding the shovel. She was stooped over the hole but not digging and not looking at Celia.
"So he's already fucking somebody else? Is that what you're saying?"
"He's not fucking anybody. He and I... have been talking about a few issues."
"He's fucking you?"
"I hate that word," said Bette. She started shoveling again
"God Bette you're such a slut."
"You've been... divorced... more than a year," grunted Bette. It was hard for her to talk and shovel at the same time.
"Scotty's just fucking you. He won't stay with you," said Celia.
"Your brain works only when you're angry," said Bette.
Blackbirds creaked and squawked in the trees in one solid ragged voice. Celia noticed that dirt was sliding back into Bette's hole while she dug she scraped some of it to one side with her foot.
Now thin scratching noises came from the inside the box that made her feel sick. The hole seemed big enough finally.
Celia slid the box into the bottom of the hole. Bette threw in a shovel-full of dirt. The dirt struck the box it caused more scratching noises.
"What's that," said Bette.
"That's the cat Bette what do you think," said Celia.
"Let's get this over with," said Bette.
"We can't bury it alive," said Celia. "It deserves decent treatment at least. Hit it with the shovel."
"I'm not hitting it with the fucking shovel Celia," said Bette.
They stared at the bottom of the hole. More noise came from inside the box.
"Give me the pistol," said Celia wearily. Bette dug the pistol out of her pocket and handed it to Celia.
"Where is it," said Celia.
Bette tapped the edge of the box with the shovel there was more scratching and the surface of the box bulged slightly in the lower right corner.
"God," said Bette.
"Get out of the way," said Celia. She fired four bullets into the lower right corner of the detergent box the blackbirds in a long shuddering rush took off from the pine trees. The light changed for a few seconds while the birds emptied from the treetops. Celia bent down low and thumped at the box with the shovel nothing happened.
"That's the best we can do," she said. "Fill it up." Her face was white. She started kicking dirt in the hole.
They filled the hole in a few seconds. Crying hard now they moved back and forth across the disturbed space. They stomped the ground again and again. Making circles, jostling each other, hating each other, they pounded the dirt til it was packed tight.
Harvey Sutlive's fiction has appeared in Offcourse Issues #20, #18, #17, #16 as well as in many other print and online publications.
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