Trixie had been missing for nearly a week. My daughter and I made the poster together, using my computer and scanner and a photograph of Trixie as a kitten. The photo was a year old, but it was the most recent one we had. Fran, my daughter, wanted to write the words herself. I thought that was a nice touch. It caught the eye, added an extra layer of sympathy. “MISSING CAT,” my daughter wrote, in all capital letters. “Trixie is missing,” she continued, a true journalist. “If found, please call…” and here I relayed to her my cell number. “Reward ofered.” I didn’t fix the spelling, or even point out her error. I was proud of my daughter for the effort, and now wasn’t the time for fastidiousness. The message still came across. “We miss him.” That last part just about broke my heart, not because I myself missed the cat—Trixie had been an ongoing pain in my ass since we took him home—but because Fran had picked him out herself, had named him (she was a big fan of My Little Pony, and the fact that the cat was a boy didn’t make any difference to Fran), and because the cat had been one of my daughter’s only comforts after her mother, my wife, left us.
My daughter and I drove all over town together, putting the posters up on telephone poles and on grocery store bulletin boards. The whole ordeal felt embarrassingly cliché. Missing pet posters are something you always see, no matter who you are or what side of the country you’re on, but you never pay them any attention. They’re like those photos of children on milk cartons or on coupon mailings—the children who’ve been missing for twenty years, and they’ve even gone so far as to prophesy what they would look like today—when you and I and everyone else knows those kids are long, long dead. But my daughter and I put the posters up, dozens of them, and left the rest up to fate and the kindness of strangers.
I never lied to my daughter. It’s not the way I decided to raise her. When she asked me where babies come from, I told her. When she asked where we go when we die, I gave her the cold truth. “In the ground,” I said. No fairy tales. The mornings after her mother and I would have one of our fights, I would tell her, “Mommy and I had a fight, but it’s not about you.” And when my wife discovered she was the spiritual descendant of Gandhi or Buddha or John Lennon or some such motherfucker, and ran off with a bearded man who promised her eternal transcendence, well, I told Fran her mother had gone nuts and abandoned us.
The cat disappeared three months after my wife left. I don’t believe for one second the cat was loyal to my wife or anything like that. Like I said, the cat was a pain in the ass, and the only thing he was loyal to was being a pain in the ass. He held no allegiance as to whose ass he tormented. But Fran loved him, so I tolerated him. And now I wanted to find him. I couldn’t bear Fran losing anything else. A child can only stand so much loss.
Three or four days after we put the posters up, I got a call. It was around eight in the morning, Tuesday. Fran was upstairs getting ready for school. I picked up my cell phone.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hey,” a man’s voice said. “Saw your poster. I’ve got your cat, I think.”
“Oh?” I said. “Gray and white?”
There was a pause, as though he were checking. “Yeah,” he said. “Gray, with white stripes. Like, I don’t know, like an armadillo.”
“That’s him,” I said, a lift in my voice. “That’s Trixie. Where are you? When can I pick him up?”
“I’m in West Lime,” the man said. “Come down anytime you want, I’ll be here.”
“Great,” I said. “I have to drop my daughter off at school, but I can come by after. Does nine-fifteen work for you?”
“What’s the reward?” the man asked.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“The reward,” the man said. “It says on your poster something about a reward.”
“Oh,” I said. “Oh yeah, of course. Fifty dollars? I’ll bring a fifty for you.”
The man sniffed. “Fifty. OK.”
He gave me his address and his name, T.K., which isn’t as much a name as it is the suggestion of a name. Fran came downstairs as I was getting off the phone.
“Great news, Frannie,” I said. “Somebody may have found Trixie.”
Fran lit up. The way my daughter lights up, you can see her from space, I swear to God.
“I knew it, Daddy,” she said, running up to me and hugging my legs. “I just knew it. I heard your phone ring and I knew it was about Trixie. Are you getting him now? Can I come with?”
“You have to go to school,” I said. “I’m picking him up after I drop you off, before I go to work. He’ll be here when you get home. I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you.”
“Yes, I’m sure he will,” Fran said, looking serious. “He’s probably been so lonely.”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I’m sure he has.”
After dropping Fran off at school I went to the ATM and withdrew a fifty, then I headed out to West Lime. West Lime is only five miles from my home, but it’s like traveling back in time to centuries past. West Lime is a punchline, a schoolyard taunt. West Lime isn’t a place you visit. West Lime is a place you end up. I drove into town and followed the directions T.K. gave me. The streets were quiet. Peeling clapboard houses languished on dirt lawns. There were dogs in the road. I continued driving until I came to the address I’d written down. A waist high chain-link face guarded a brown yard and a squat, off-color house. The blinds in the windows were drawn, but the blinds had so many holes and gaps they looked like the mouths of ancient pharaohs. If you let it go long enough, a house will cease to resemble anything like house. It will begin to look like those photos of flooded neighborhoods, shelled towns, entire cities evacuated overnight.
My wife left a note the day she ran off. It was waiting for me on the kitchen counter when I came home from work. She said in the note that I could have the house, the furniture, the car, all of it. Where she was going, she wrote, she had no need for material things. “Earthly possessions,” she called it, as if she were a goddamn prophet and not a 40-year-old unemployed housewife from Central Oregon. What wasn’t stated outright in her note, but was implied, was that she also had no further need for our daughter, and was bestowing full ownership and responsibility to me. In her note, my wife requested I tell Fran a story, tell her her mother went on vacation and that she was going to write her letters and send her photographs and presents. I didn’t tell Fran any such thing. I called Fran into the living room, sat her down next to me on the couch, and read the letter aloud to her, every insane word, then I sat with her all night while she wept in my arms.
When Fran was born—as I watched her wide, green eyes sweep over everything, taking in this vast, mystifying world for the first time in what I hope to be a long and beautiful journey—I promised myself I would never tell her a lie. I would always be straight with her. I don’t claim to be the greatest father in the history of fathers. I can at times be ill-tempered or distant. I’ve raised my voice when I should’ve opened my arms. Being a single father to a young girl is not easy. I do the best I can and hope we both make it out on the other end all right. But the day I begin lying to my daughter is the day I admit defeat.
The front door opened before I reached the fence. A skinny young man in blue jeans and a faded Redskins t-shirt walked barefoot out onto the front stoop. He shielded the little bit of morning sun from his eyes with the flat of his hand.
“Good morning,” I called.
The man looked at me, then at my car, then back to me. “You the guy called about the cat?”
“That’s me,” I said. I was standing on the opposite side of the chain-link fence, waiting for an invitation to enter. One of the few things I knew about people from West Lime is that you don’t enter their property without being invited.
The young man walked down the front steps, and I noticed he was holding a can of beer in his other hand. I fought the impulse to look at my wristwatch.
“It’s around to the back,” he said, and motioned with his hand—the hand holding the beer—toward the back.
I took that to be my invitation. I opened the gate and entered the front yard.
“Thank you so much for calling,” I said. “You don’t know how upset my daughter has been. You T.K.?”
“Mmmm,” he said. “You brought the reward?”
“The fifty?” I said. “Yes, as long as it’s the right cat.”
“It’s the right cat,” T.K. said.
I followed him around the house and into the backyard. The back, like the front, was a kingdom of dirt. Cigarette butts like bullet casings. A blown-out car tire. A push mower, for no apparent reason. T.K. entered into a rusted, tin shed, and a moment later he walked out, carrying a cardboard box, the size of a television. He approached me with the box.
“It ain’t much to see,” he said. “But looks like there’s enough left to identify it.”
He handed me the box. Inside was the cat, curled up like a sleeping baby. A trail of something was coming from his mouth. The box was damp.
I looked at the cat, then I looked up at T.K. “He’s dead.”
“Well, I’m no doctor,” he said. “But I might agree with your diagnosis.”
“Christ,” I said. “You didn’t tell me he was dead.”
T.K. took a drink from his beer. “You didn’t ask, boss.”
I looked back down at the cat. It was difficult to determine how long he had been dead, but going by the smell of him I guessed it had been no less than a couple days. He didn’t appear to have any wounds or lacerations, at least none that I could immediately see.
“How did he die?” I asked.
“Beats me,” T.K. said. “Found it that way in the road.”
“In what road?”
T.K. wiped his hand on his shirt. “Road you come in on.”
I turned around and looked toward the road, as if to find clues out there in the street. The road was quiet. There was no traffic. The few trucks and cars parked at the curb were tombstones.
I turned back to T.K. “How did he make his way all the way out here?”
“That a joke?” he said. “Let’s see. He rode the number 14 bus. He hitched a ride. A skydiving accident. The fuck I’m supposed to know? Look, I found your armadillo-looking cat, and that’s all I know. And your poster, I got it right here, it says reward offered.”
T.K. reached into his back pocket and produced the folded-up poster. Trixie as a kitten. My daughter’s handwriting.
“The reward,” I said, “is offered for a living cat.”
He looked at the poster and raised his eyebrow. “I don’t see where it says anything about that. But maybe I’m not seeing the fine print.”
“It’s assumed,” I said.
“I’m not the type to make assumptions,” he said. “Now, are we going to stand here and philosophize all day or are you going to fulfill your end of the deal?”
I looked at Trixie. The cat, as I’ve said, had been an unceasing pain in my ass since its arrival in my home six years ago, but no one wanted it to come to this. This cat had been loved—had known the love of a young, kindhearted girl—and yet he was fated to end up here, in a cardboard television box in West Lime. There’s love for you.
T.K. took a drink from his can of beer. “So how about it, boss?”
I turned my wrist and looked at my watch. I had to be at work in five minutes, and I was fifteen minutes away. There was a time in my life I would’ve made this insolent cracker know the aftertaste of his own teeth. But things change when you become a father. A single father, especially. You make choices. You make compromises.
“Tell you what,” I said. “You keep the cat. Bury him, put him in the trash, whatever you want to do. But I’m not putting him in my car. I’ll pay you the money, but you get to dispose of him. That’s my offer. Take it or leave it.”
T.K. looked at the cat, no doubt considering how much time out of his busy day he’d have to devote to this chore.
“You drive a hard bargain, boss,” he said. “But you got yourself a deal.”
I set the box on the ground at our feet, reached into my pocket, and took out the fifty. I handed it over to T.K., who stared at it as though it were a rare and exceptional artifact. I turned and started back to my car.
“You don’t want to say goodbye or nothing?” T.K. called out.
“So long, T.K.,” I said.
“I meant to the cat,” he said.
A few weeks after my wife left, a mutual friend came into the possession of a mailing address. It was supposedly where she and the guru or whatever had shacked up, awaiting the end times. The address was somewhere in Northern Wyoming, which wouldn’t have been my first guess, but you never know with these people. I wrote a letter to my wife, asking her what she was looking for, asking if she was happy, asking her to come home. I told her I couldn’t raise our daughter by myself. What I didn’t tell her was how Fran had finally stopped crying herself to sleep at night, but only because she had begun to accept her mother was a lunatic. One week later, my letter was returned, with a note from the post office scribbled on the front of the envelope. “Address does not exist,” it said.
After work I went to pick up Fran from school. She was standing outside, in her normal spot. When she saw me she smiled and came running up to the car. I leaned over and pushed the passenger door open for her.
“Did you get him?” she said, settling into the seat.
“Buckle up, please,” I said.
Fran carefully clicked into her seatbelt. “Is Trixie home? How is he? Is he happy to be home?”
“I’m sorry, baby,” I said. “It wasn’t Trixie.”
Fran looked down at her shoes. “Oh,” she said. “So we’re going to keep searching, then?”
I pulled away from the curb and headed toward home. I wished with all my heart I could keep driving, past our house and out of the city, out to the very edge of the world, to a place where my daughter would be forever free from heartbreak and disappointment and loss. But if such a place exists, I wouldn’t even know the first place to begin looking.
“Yes,” I told Fran. “We’ll keep searching.”