December 15, 2020 by The Citron Review
by Ashley Lewin
Twenty minutes passed between the call to pick up a stray cat and arriving at the address. A young man, wearing a button-up shirt tucked into belted jeans, waited in front of the house with two shovels at his feet. He squinted through wire-framed glasses, the sun burning his freckled cheeks a deep red.
The concrete of the driveway was pale and smooth, indicating a recent upgrade. Seams of newly-laid, lush sod ran perpendicular to the driveway. Newspaper articles called the area “trendy but affordable” and “up and coming.” Five years ago the neighborhood streets were filled with older station wagons but now sporty two-doors dominated.
No sign of the summer storm promised by local weather forecasters marked the sky, making the evening sun more punishing. I slid down from the driver’s seat of the truck with my clipboard of paperwork.
“I’m here for the cat. Please, fill out this form.”
“The cat’s stuck in the French drain. I need your help.” The young man pointed to the clay pipe peeking from the earth against the brick of the house and connected to the downspout from the gutters.
“That’s not big enough for a cat.”
“The end in the ditch along the street is bigger. I hear the cat by the house.”
Training for the job hadn’t covered this possibility. The animal shelter’s executive director said to get gas at the station down the street, the shelter’s credit card was hidden in his desk, and a signature of surrender on the form was imperative.
I laid my clipboard on the driveway and the young man handed me a shovel. When the landlord arrived, an hour later, he leaned against my truck and crossed his fleshy arms. We were over a foot deep into the ground, a pile of ripped up sod on the driveway. Our shirts were soaked with sweat. The young man’s blonde hair slicked down against his forehead. The landlord wore stiff denim overalls with a sleeveless t-shirt and spotless work boots, as though the outfit equaled labor.
“Should’ve filled in that drain years ago.” His scowl matched the heavy clouds gathering above us. “But, won’t do to have a dead cat. No one wants to smell that.”
Clouds crowded over our shoulders to survey the hole, jeered at our progress with rumbling thunder. Metallic air filled my nose. The landlord held the flashlight from my truck, training the beam at the black mud. Warm raindrops licked the back of my neck. The young man’s shovel finally scraped the surface of the drainpipe.
“Rain’s about to pour. If we don’t hurry there won’t be much point,” said the landlord from the driveway.
A light but steady shower rinsed the sweat from our skin as we chipped at the clay pipe with the shovels. The cat, long silent, began to yowl in low, haunting cries that drifted from the pipe into the downspout.
“Damnit.” The young man stomped toward the house. He gave several awkward kicks to the downspout, wrenching it away from the French drain. Water ran from the metal to puddle on the mulched flower bed.
Shattering pottery echoed from the bottom of our trench. I tossed my shovel aside to drop to the ground, stretching out on the sod, bending my body to the opened tomb. Water soaked into portions of my clothes the rain hadn’t touched, my socks, my bra, my crotch. I reached for the shards of clay and thought I heard a hiss.
“I need light.”
The young man took the flashlight from his landlord and squatted next to me. With the hole illuminated, I grabbed the shards and flung them over my back. The cat blinked. Two mud-caked paws wedged under a tiny chin were framed in a circle of clay pipe and hung over a black pool. Resigned yellow eyes stared up at me, slivers of pupil adjusted to the brightness. Its mouth emitted a squeak.
“Rain’s picking up,” said the young man.
My fingers grazed the dome of the cat’s head. Its fur felt warm and gritty. The cat didn’t resist as my fingers pressed down to slide under the broken edge of the pipe. In the space behind its thin neck, before its back hunched to fill the pipe, my hand curled into a fist full of dirty fur and flesh. I pulled. The cat panted. Rain pounded on the truck, drumming out all other sound. The forms on my clipboard swelled with water, tore into pulpy islands, and floated down the new concrete into the street.
The landlord’s boot nudged my ribs as he tried to peer into the hole. One hand pulled the cat while my other sank into mud. My shoulders became burning coals of strain that sparked into my neck and back.
“I’m sliding!” Water ran into my eyes and nose. Cold sludge closed around the wrist supporting me. The young man and his landlord grabbed the belt loops and pockets of my jeans. The pipe slurped as though trying to suck the cat deeper.
We screamed in unison as the cat shot free. The men helped me to my feet, grimey hands clutched in my armpits as they cheered. The cat, an exhausted pelt, hung limp from my grip of scruff, mud and clay running off its fur in the rain.
I wrapped the cat in a towel and tucked it into a ventilated compartment on the back of the truck. Its eyes now gazed appreciatively from folds of donated terrycloth.
“Thanks.” The landlord waved, yanked his car door shut, and drove away.
“Thank you.” The young man handed me my empty clipboard as I climbed into the driver’s seat. I reversed down the driveway, leaving him alone in the rain with the sod pile. Rivulets of black earth ran down the new concrete shining in the floodlights on the garage.
Ashley Lewin is originally from Nashville, Tennessee and has lived in several states. Her writing has been published in Sky Island Journal and Toasted Cheese Literary Journal. She taught literature and writing to college freshmen after spending 15 years as a vet tech. She now writes and farms in Belen, New Mexico.