The kitten in the tree. The fire engine ladder. The pained faces of the neighbors. Luke Bernal, volunteer fireman, 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 long slow climb against a backdrop of crisp autumnal blue sky. The cheers and applause of a large gathering of ecstatically grateful neighbors rose to meet him, including Donna Lane, whom he'd just recently started dating, a slender, vivacious woman in her late thirties and dressed in her usual thigh high cut off jeans. She was hopping up and down, blonde hair bobbing, eyes wild with pride and clapping hands like a cheerleader. He paused to cast her a brief sideways glance, his bashful mouth set in a 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 belly flattened, his excited breathing stopped and the rubber coat pursed just enough to form a black funnel through which the squirming astonished kitten dropped, bounced once off his knee, struck its head against the ladder's corrugated steel step, pinwheeled dazed through space past a tableaux of autumnal leaves, birds, gasps, the distant miniature white cupola of City Hall, and, with a loud smack on the pavement, died.
Later, he listened to Donna's voice coming through on the answering machine but didn't pick up: "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, Luke—I have some hopes about this, for us, you know, maybe giving this a try, but I want to not do our date if that's O.K. for the go-cart rally today. I'm just too upset. I hope you're not beating yourself up..." Quite drunk, she spoke in a slow drawl.
His broad, dirt-ingrained thumb flicked off the volume switch. He sat back down to his journal: "...that I've tried and tried a thousand times—that time I tried to enlist for Desert Storm and they told me by the time basic ended the war would probably be over—the time I nearly pitched a shut-out in the softball league play-offs 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 near-misses—I'm not ashamed of who I am, but sometimes I feel bad enough to take down Mister Smith and Wesson from the closet and let God find some better use for this damned..."
He laid down the pen. It wasn't even that. It was the look on Judy McDaniel's little girl's face, Sally, when her kitten's brains stained the ground.
He couldn't get over the fact that she had seen the disgorged bloody mind burst from the top of its head, a volcanic eruption of intelligent vitality turned instantly into waste, like a turd or a dead leaf. Or 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 McDaniels girl. He must talk with her. The McDaniels were not at home. He tried the playground. Marilyn McDaniels' 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 McDaniels' 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 like a word with her." Marilyn McDaniels nodded without looking at him and 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, then another and found her in the third, sitting alone, cupped within the cement curve, in a kind of relaxed factual 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 gray blue eyes. Cancer had killed her father Jeff three years ago.
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 fidgeted in her lap, just like her mother, opposed feelings focused there.
"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 neighbors 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 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. Everything was 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, wouldn't have found the words. Too much loss had given her the wisdom but not yet a way to express that mindfulness is love—you don't drop the lives that matter to you.
He stood to his feet without a goodbye or acknowledging Marilyn McDaniel whose eyes followed his wounded exit from the 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 draw to them mothers, vagrants, children, 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 limits, walking by the side of Route 116, with big logging rigs blowing past like supersonic frigates of gleaming chrome and slaughtered redwood, disappearing into the dark deforested corridor of the south. He went north, walking on a strip of footpath demarcated 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 jacketless, drenched, shivering to the bone. He felt so miserably lost standing there, cars forging through the silver downpour. He told himself that sometimes there was nowhere to go. Sometimes the road led to nothing. Sometimes all one could do was to stand and let the rain wash you pitifully clean and start home again one more time. He turned back, caught up in thought, never saw the rig that hit him, water running off it in sheets so thick they made a kind of bridal gown.