The Valley of the Cats

Name’s Paul Magner, by the way.

My work, my house, and my wife, Kate, rest within a five-mile radius. I am an editor/writer at a trade publication for doctors who become businessmen, the people who run health insurance companies. I am also a great undiscovered genius, or at least I tell myself that when staring at an empty screen that dares me to produce a story or a novel or anything that any publisher will want. So far, no go.

Kate believed in me.

Since she’s gone, I have not changed. I am a creature of routine. I usually go to Core Creek Park on my lunch hour and do a quick two-mile walk.

So I do not know what draws me here now in this October twilight: restlessness, loneliness, or just disgust with the amount of time I’d been blankly staring at the TV. Maybe I am looking for inspiration (a weakness no true craftsman would ever admit).

The sun dapples fields of corn stalk that wave in the wind so that light throbs from the ground up and the world in this moment shakes loose from time’s pall. I half expect Native Americans to step out and greet me with trinkets and maize, maybe this time seeking to get the better of the deal.  

“I have a rough patch each day,” I tell people who ask how I am coping.

This day’s patch spreads further than usual. Halloween looms in a week, and the trees air their glory shamelessly. Kate’s favorite time of the year.

The winding walkway at Core Creek Park skirts Lake Luxembourg which, despite the exotic name, sits about seven miles outside of Philly. I stride through a tunnel of tree branches, where the light shines as if through stain glass. Then into the Valley of Cats. Not the official name, but apt, nonetheless. Wild, feral critters that people feed and for whom they’ve constructed little homes in the brush — plastic crates or even those carriers for cars. They leave bowls of water or cream, and piles of kitty chow to the side of the walkway, or deeper into the woods. There’s nothing killing off the cats except time, hunger, the elements and perhaps a hawk who’s feeling lucky. In summer, the Valley gives off a heavy stench. I am not necessarily a cat hater. I am cat neutral, having outgrown a childhood allergy.

Since Kate’s death, though, I’ve approach the Valley of Cats with irrational anxiety. I explain my problem in two words: Funky Winkerbean. Remember when the character Lisa Moore got breast cancer? It caused quite a furor, such a heavy topic for a newspaper comic. Lisa “died” on Oct. 4, 2007. Her husband kept up a dialogue with an imagined cat that represented the deep depression he’d fallen into. It gave me chills; I’d wanted so much for Lisa to live, even though I’d remind myself, “She’s less than fiction. She’s trivial. She’s a drawing.” And then exactly four months later Kate was diagnosed with uterine cancer.

Kate lasted six years, about five of them good. But that devil. It comes back and comes back and … fuck it.

As I approach the Valley of Cats, streaks bound into the brush, although two younger ones — identical browns — stand in my way, forcing me to walk around them. Seeing that I bear neither food nor fondness, they too dart off, something I catch with a quick backward glance.

“Excuse me, sir?”

That’s not my imagination.

The shadow of an arm waves beyond the trees. I can barely make it out.

“Hello?” I say, wondering if I’d been caught talking to myself, something I do lately.

“I need help.”

A woman’s voice. Still, I hesitate. I remember while driving somewhere seeing another motorist pull over for a gorgeous hitchhiker only to have two of her pirate friends appear from behind a bush and jump into the car as well.

“I can get a ranger,” I say.

Rustling.

“Shit!” Said more to herself than me.

“Are you hurt?”

“My ankle. I could use help getting to my car. I’ll drive myself to the ER.”

Her left ankle then.

I find a trail and walk toward the speaker, but instead of bringing her more into focus, I lose sight because the angle of my odyssey places trees in my line of vision.

“I think I rolled it,” she calls.

I step off the deer path, follow a tributary as wide as a tightrope. Branches and leaves snap underfoot. Sunlight tiptoes upon the tops of trees and I feel almost lighthearted; I am rescuing a woman again. It brings me back to Kate, a reminder that I helped keep her alive against tough odds. For a while, anyway.

I pivot around a big oak and there she is. This woman, who I guess to be in her mid-30s, leans against a tree, one hand grabbing a branch as if she might at any moment scamper to the heights. She looks nothing like Kate; Kate with her long, curly hair, and cupid smile, and bright eyes telling you that there was no one else she’d rather see. Kate, who had such an air of the flower child.

This girl exudes an acrobat’s showmanship and willpower. A disciplined line of jet-black bangs frame a pair eyes the color of coal and which, like coal, hold the promise of ignition. They glimmer at me with a mixture of embarrassment and hopefulness. A tight dungaree jacket stops at a pair of tightly fitted matching jeans. A bombshell. Too good to be true, in fact. I glance about quickly for any sign of a partner who might conk me on the head. She registers my caution and laughs. Though calculated to put me at ease, the chords strike a bit of music that probably opens many doors for her.

“First time this ever happened,” she says.

“How do you want to approach this?” I spread my hands, let her know that she’s in control.

She uses me as a crutch, wrapping her arm around my shoulder. She’s tense and strong. We take short steps toward civilization.

I haven’t been this close to a woman I am not related to in four months, five days, and 15 hours. I’m a bit infatuated, but I am an editor, after all, and mentally draw a red line through that emotion. She is not in my league. I am 57. I’ve got about 20 years on her, at least. Plus, there’s Kate. I am not through with her, yet.

“Thank you, so much,” she says, as we step out onto the walkway.

“Feeding the cats?”

“Oh, God, no. I hate cats. Just working my way toward the creek. In fact, a cat jumped in front of me and that’s how this happened. I like dogs.”

She puts a little weight on the foot, grimaces.

“I could carry you, if you want.”

“I’d break your back!”

She wouldn’t at all. She’s light, strong, young, sinewy.

“You are a gentleman, that’s for sure,” she says. “Your wife is a lucky lady.”

I will always wear my ring. I glance at her hand on my shoulder, but it’s not enough of a view for me to be able to spot any clue of her marital status. There’s a man somewhere, no doubt. At least one.

“I could drive you to the hospital,” I say.

Her arm around me feels almost proprietary, as if she’s giving advice.

“Do you have children, you and your wife?”

“A daughter.”

“Ah.”

“She just graduated from college. She’s moving out soon.”

“So you’ll be empty nesters then. What are you going to do? Travel? Ballroom dancing?”

“Work keeps me busy.”

“Your wife works as well?”

She is not going to let this go.

“My wife passed,” I say.

The sun is nearly set and soon the rangers will be making their rounds, shooing people as they close the gates. The woman turns her face toward me. If I do the same, we’d be close to kissing. I note her solemn reaction in the corner of my vision.

“I am so sorry,” she says.

“Me too.”

I sigh. The infatuation, attraction, interest, excitement and anything else I felt or had begun to feel for this woman scatter. Kate is more solid than the world.

“When?” the woman asks.

“About four months ago.”

“You don’t need to talk about this with me, a stranger. Over there.”

We’ve reached the parking lot, and she motions to a red Mustang. She fumbles in her pocket for keys, unlocks the doors.

“Please let me drive you to the ER,” I say.

“Oh, I can drive. Could you….”

I open the door, grab her hands as she eases into the seat.

“You should call your husband.”

Her smile sparks like a lighted match.

“My ex, and no, I won’t be calling him.”

“Your significant other, then.”

She shrugs, turns the ignition.

“I am like you. Taking a break. Divorce is a sort of death.”

“Sort of,” I say, not at all believing it.

And how does she know that I am taking a break? People just know. Correction: Women know. It’s going to be a very long break, perhaps one that never ends. Because when you get beyond what makes a woman great initially — the excitement of discovery, the sexual enthrallment that promises immortality — no one could possibly compete with Kate in the things that matter. No one will ever be as brave, kind, noble, thoughtful, giving, selfless, and just fun to be with.

“Children?” I ask.

“No. One of the few stable decisions we made.”

I say, “Take care of yourself.”

She is not done with me, though. Holds the door open, holds me in place. I tell her my name. She tells me hers: Angela McCabe.

“I am doing my thesis on grief and resiliency,” she says.

“You want to put me under the microscope?”

“I wouldn’t call it that. I like to think I’d be doing a service.”

“It would be an interview?”

“More than one, probably. I’d need access to your medical records, records from a counselor, if you’re seeing one. I’d need to sit in on a bereavement session, if you’re attending them.”

“Isn’t that all anecdotal?”

“It is. You take an anecdote, surround it with a lot of dense data, mix in some jargon and stir. The anecdote becomes a case study.”

“I don’t know.”

She hands me her card.

“Putman Pharmaceuticals,” I read. I’ve heard of it. A biologics start-up just begging to be gobbled by one of the big drug companies.

“I am their blue-skies division.”

“Just you?”

“So far. A friend got me in. For once in my life I’m making money.”

“Blue skies.”

“Technically, it means work on anything you damn well please.”

I know what it means, but I let Angela go on. Her voice lingers in the twilight, then floats off. It is one of those soft noises that cuts through cacophony; a voice the ear seeks in a crowded room.

 She is saying, “I just do thought experiments, play with the data. Play is the first step of anything that ever changed the world. But when they saw the topic of my research….”

“So a pill might come out of this?”

“Years down the road. A pill that makes mourners more resilient.”

I step back.

“No,” she adds quickly, “you would still mourn. It would be constructive mourning, the way I envision it.”

Just then a ranger van swings into the lot and pulls up next to us.

“Hope you’ve enjoyed our park,” he says.

“We were just leaving,” I say.

“Take your time.” He means don’t take your time and get the hell out.

He adds, “Everything OK?”

“My friend Paul here helped me to my car. I sprained my ankle.”

“You sure you’re OK, miss?”

This jolts me, but then I decide that he’s talking about her injury and not asking whether I am a stalker. 

“I’ll get an X-ray, but it’ll be a big nothing,” Angela says. “They’ll tell me to ice it.”

As I head to my car Angela calls: “Consider my offer!”  

Now, let me not tell you about my Kate. Everybody who’s ever been in love and created a life with someone whom he or she loses tries and fails to describe the connection. Love is love. What makes a couple click rests in that corner of merged identities that only God or Darwin can touch. I simply relate scattered facts.

We met at night school at La Salle University in a class called “The Ordeal of Total War” — fodder for jokes as we held each other late at night. Actually, in the first years of our marriage, we worried that we got along too well. Hardly any fights. Never experienced make-up sex because we never needed to make up. (This, before the baby came.)

Kate noticed me right away when I walked into that class. I worked in the school’s cafeteria for tuition. Beard, torn painter paints, sneakers with holes in them. It wasn’t a pose. I didn’t consciously dress as a working class hero; I just didn’t have any money. I guess that’s Step 1: The other loves you when you are only potential that may not pan out.

I certainly noticed her. Beautiful, curly brown hair that bounced on shoulders when she walked, or turned around, or did anything. It framed an open, friendly face. Was there really a glow? Or is that memory? A true Colleen, as my forebears might say. She never used cosmetics because she didn’t need to. Her shyness and smile attracted me — she just had a way about her. When I cut classes, I asked to borrow her notes. That’s how it began.

I was living in a rodent-infested apartment in Logan at the time. I wasn’t eating much, just the free food from the cafeteria. I came home one night and there outside my door was a bag of groceries and a tome on Winston Churchill that I’d been paging through in a bookstore when we were out together, but couldn’t bring myself to buy.

“I want you to have a Buddha-belly,” Kate’s note read.

She would say later on that she wasn’t creative like me or our daughter, but she appreciated and sought out beauty like no one else. As we aged, as our vessels reflected the dings and indignities of time, we only grew to enjoy each other’s company more. We always had fun. It was no more profound than that. We liked going to movies or plays, watching interesting television shows, and reading books and magazine articles. And hell, did we love to party. Beer for me; Woodbridge chardonnay for Kate.

Kate was always the most interesting person in the room because she was the most interested. But there was nothing phony about her. She could not be anything but honest; yet even if her honesty brought to light something that might make the listener squirm, she was so loving that the person appreciated her feedback.

She taught in Catholic schools her entire life in the inner city: Philadelphia, Newark, Trenton. A lot of blacks and Hispanics came to her funeral. I am leaving so much out. When she died, I put on her gravestone one of her favorite sayings: Be Here Now.

Her death. The real test for everybody will be how we face that moment. I will probably never meet another person more noble than my wife in this regard. When the recurrence of cancer came, she said, “I am willing to take this bullet for my family.” It wasn’t a pose. It was truth.

She was that brave and giving. When I made that 3 a.m. decision to put her on hospice, she nodded and placed her hand on my heart. I had believed that we could beat the devil until that point when I accepted — finally — that we couldn’t. We just couldn’t.

“I will try to be strong,” I said. “But I don’t think I can ever be as strong as you, girl.”

At some point in the bedside vigil I fought through the sadness and stood.

“We had such tremendous fun together,” I began. I reminded her of the good times and told her how much I’ve loved and cherished her. How excited we were when she got pregnant. About Christmases when our daughter was little. All the great places where we’d meet on Fridays and gossip about our crazy coworkers.

“You’ve made me the happiest man in the world,” I said. “And now you’re making me the saddest.”

Then the others testified: her family, her friends, our daughter. One by one reminding her of the special moments, of the kind and beautiful way she’d touched us. Though her eyes were closed, she smiled. It went on like that; holding a wake that Kate could witness until the morphine took over.

I kissed her lips on her second to last breath, asked for forgiveness. I was going to save her, you see. I kept saying in those last weeks, “Somehow, someway, I am going to get you through this.”

“I know you will, Paul. I believe in you.”

Angela now says: “But you did get her through it, Paul. Just not the way you thought you would.”

“Am I resilient?”

We are sitting in a place called Crossings in Yardley on a dusky December afternoon that’s ceding to night. The restaurant overlooks a Delaware River that shimmers like a skating rink. The threat of snow all day is fulfilled, a few flakes drift by the window like ghosts floating into darkness. I am a little buzzed.

“You’re in pain, but you function,” Angela says. “That is resiliency.”

It is our first meeting since Core Creek Park, both of us trying to figure out if I am right for her thesis. She’s just come from an office Christmas party and wears the legendary little black dress. When we enter, the head of every man in that restaurant swings toward her, despite the glare of spouses and girlfriends. The guys just can’t help it. What the hell was her ex thinking? What is she thinking?

When we had discussed possible rendezvous spots, I threw Crossings out as an afterthought, adding that it’s a BYOB. Angela had specifically said drinks over dinner.

“Perfect,” she said. “You bring wine. I bring beer.”

When we got there, she unveiled her own concoction — home-brewed.

“But you drink wine,” I said.

“Beer for Eagles games,” she said.

The perfect woman.

She pulled out a bottle, poured like a pro smiling at me the entire time. Was she flirting? Shit, it’s been so long I wouldn’t know.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I told myself.

I was not on her radar. I was her psychological specimen.

Angela watched as I tasted.

Whoa!

It really happened just like that. The beer slid directly into my veins, placing me in the corner of a cozy in Ireland. It hugged and held me warmly from within.

“Damn good,” I said, as I placed the pint carefully back on the table.

“It’s high-octane, I should warn.”

I swallowed again, felt the warmth flow in and out. I kid not: I left my body, and looked down. The restaurant shined in light that doesn’t come from any bulbs. I saw myself staring ahead, a bit stunned.

“Nice wine,” Angela said. She watched me with a detachment that would have made me self-conscious if I wasn’t being knocked about by her beer.

“It’s Woodbridge chardonnay,” I said. Did I slur?

I took another swig, and this time I sat by the ocean, felt the eternity of ebb and flow in the soles of my feet. I overheard a conversation about light and water, being and nothingness, and realized that the whales were talking.

Angela touched my hand.

“You don’t want to drink this too fast,” she said.

I put the glass down.

“I certainly don’t.”

I nursed two through the meal. She ordered a vegan dish; I got steak. Snow danced in the broadening streetlight glow, and in search beams skirting the river.

“What’s in that beer?”

“Grandma’s secret recipe.”

“Here’s to Grandma.”

“We both should get coffee. Driving might be a bit tricky.”

So we drink coffee as I tell what life is like without Kate.

“You will be happy again,” she says.

“Will I?”

“What would Kate want?”

“Kate keeps a saying on our refrigerator by Meister Eckhart, the philosopher. ‘If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough’. The best way to guarantee hell on earth is to be obsessed with your own happiness. Kate was concerned with the happiness of others.”

“I love that saying, too. So Kate read philosophy?”

“In summers, she read. Not during the school year. Teaching is exhausting. Actually, that saying she saw in the comic strip ‘Mutts.’”

“I love ‘Mutts!’” Angela leans forward, makes a shelf of her hands where she rests her symmetrical beauty. “Tell me more about Kate.”

I pull back, take one last swig.

I think, “What gives you the fucking right? Leave her alone.”

Totally irrational, I know, but it’s reflex — the attitude I developed throughout Kate’s ordeal; my reaction to incompetent care, idiotic scheduling, ineffective drugs, distracted technicians, and the disease itself. Suddenly, I feel as exhausted as I did when sitting by Kate’s deathbed, before I finally fought myself into a standing position to tell her how much she meant to me. This time I stand to leave.

“We’re going?”

“My resiliency tank’s empty.”

She’s disappointed. I help her into her coat, realizing for the first time that she comes from money. Kate and I never gave a flying fuck about money.

Outside, the snow has already cushioned the hard edges of the world. I brush a curtain of white off Angela’s red Mustang.

“The holidays are difficult, I know,” she says.

“Am I a good case study?”

She steps back.

“I wish I could give you medicine that could make the pain go away.”

“Well, that is the project, right? The resiliency drug? Was that in that beer?”

The snow lies on her hair like a veil women wore to church before modern times.

“I do call it ‘Resiliency.’”

“You should call it ‘Beer Brains.’ Corner the blue-collar market.”

I extend my hand, and she looks at it as if it’s a present that she’s not thrilled about.

“You’re OK to drive?” she asks.

“Two 16-ounce beers over an hour in a 245-pound man. I don’t care what you put in it. I’m fine. Resilient, remember?”

“Till next time, then,” she says.

I watch her pull out of the lot, knowing that we will never meet again. I clean my car with a few deft swipes, but I do not leave. Instead, I walk across the street to the river. I try to take in the beauty as Kate might have.

Snowflakes spin above the current in the spotlight and then shoot into the shadows. I cannot tell if the river still moves as slowly as it had over dinner, but I take comfort that it changes like a living thing.

The snow stings my face a bit but I welcome it. A surprise that all the Dopplers in the Philadelphia region missed.

“Chaos really does reign,” I think.

The wind twirls a twister of whiteness into the trees.

“Paul!”

I swing about, but no one’s there.

“Kate?”

A chill floods my bones, and I shake. What did Angela put in that beer? I turn 360, searching the woods, the river, the road, the restaurant. I must look a little mad.

“Paul? Where are you?”

It is not my imagination. The voice trails off, but I know in which direction. I hurry back to my car and though I’ve hardly exerted myself, I am winded.

I purposely do not drive too cautiously because that’s the best way to get a cop’s attention. Just a regular guy, in his regular car, searching for the meaning of love in a squall.

The roads are icy by the time I pull into Dalton Court. Such a quiet neighborhood. People might wonder what a strange car is doing parked on the corner. Tough. I grab my little flashlight, cross the street, and head toward the path into Cork Creek Park. Before I enter the woods, I glance back at my footsteps, which are already disappearing.

I am not an outdoors person, and even with the flashlight, visibility in a nighttime snowstorm is limited. I fall into a stream that I don’t know is there. My pants begin to harden, my feet go numb. The second time I fall it’s on the park’s main road. I break the impact with my hands, and hell does that hurt. I roll onto my back and lie for a moment, taking inventory as the flakes kiss me. I bleed from somewhere on my face, the blood runs into my mouth. My right knee aches and hints that it might pop on me. I am exhausted, fighting for breath. I almost apologize for disturbing the sanctity of the woods.

“What the fuck am I doing?”

She is gone and this is just the beer working on grief. I decide to turn back, but I hear Kate again.

“Paul? Where’s Paul?” Sounding like she did in one of our trips to the emergency room.

“Right here, sweetie!” I call. “I am not leaving you!”

I lift myself, stand, walk, go on. When I reach the Valley of the Cats, I lean against a tree near where I first met Angela. Two of the residents approach, wondering if I bring food or warmth. I turn my flashlight on them — light but no heat — and they back away. I sweep the encampment with my beam, catching glints in eyes watching from shelters.

The wind that shakes the branches conjures Kate’s voice one last time.

“Paul? I love you, Paul! I really love you! And you are good!”

“Oh, Kate!” I cry. “I am so sorry! But you’re dead and you need to rest! And I am not your hero! I couldn’t save you! I wanted so much to, but I failed! Please forgive me!”

Under grief runs a current of objectivity. I think about the cats, now trapped by winter in some purgatorial netherworld. Despite the efforts of the people who leave food on their wooded doorsteps, some will die from exposure, hunger, injury, or even loneliness. The remainder will creep out of the thaw in a few months — a testament to resiliency.  

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