Difficult Terrain by Steven LaFond
We scalped your mother’s lawn before the sun had time to thaw the topsoil. Athena was still in the cab of my truck, wrapped in a pink beach towel. She had lost her heat and breath over an hour ago, her last exhale sometime between your sobs of, “She wasn’t moving,” and the vet’s long sigh when the stethoscope picked up no heartbeat. We had to stop at my grandmother’s house for shovels.
“They charge over a hundred bucks to take the cat,” I said.
“Did you ride in the cab with it?” she asked. “You could get sick.”
“I’ll return the shovels and we’ll eat lunch together,” I said.
When the time came to move from home, we both ran from the woods of Candia to Boston. Fifty-eight minutes away. Your mother treated the state line into Massachusetts like the ocean, impossible to cross without great effort, fraught with danger. She wasn’t at home when we arrived, Athena cold on your lap. I had to navigate the dirt driveway carefully, past the rusted husks of a washer and dryer, narrowly avoiding a hill of bottles that threatened an avalanche of glass. Familiar clutter, the kind our friends see on their televisions and ask us, Can you imagine?
Of course we can.
After the first four inches, the earth was easily broken up and moved. It had been a warm winter and there was no snow on the ground in New Hampshire, except under the shade of trees or behind the big rock where your mom buried her dog, Mickey. I hated Mickey. We were never alone in your room without him howling so much that we would have to get dressed before your mom opened the door. Your beard glistened from the condensation of your breath. You dug like a dog, flinging black dirt here and there. I piled mine neatly, the way my father taught me. You were a country boy, too. Did you really forget everything when we moved?
“Scrape a bit more on your side,” I said.
The hole was uneven. My own side was dug almost rectangular, three feet deep about a foot wide. Your side was a gash that became thinner and shallower toward one end. Athena needed to lie evenly.
“I’ve done this before,” you said.
“Okay,” I said. But you lied. You were horrified when we were kids and I confessed one night that my dad made me bury every pet myself. I looked over my shoulder at the debris that took over your mother’s lawn and strained against the desire to shake my head in disgust. Your mother justified keeping these things with, “because you never know.” Never know what? That her son would have to bury a cat and we’d need something heavy to place on the grave to keep coyotes away? She hadn’t met your new boyfriend. You said you weren’t ready to show him where you were from. I married a girl who knows about you and me. She’s fine that we’re still friends.
Sometimes, I wish she wasn’t.
I didn’t move my shovel to help you with your side because I knew it was trespassing. Since we moved away, new lines were drawn between us every day. You finished your side and went to the truck to get Athena. You cradled her body and brought her to the hole, eyes wet and looking up, not down.
“She’s so stiff,” you said.
You placed her by the grave and opened up the towel. For the first time in years, I wanted to touch you. Kiss you. Maybe it was the cold, uninviting air of our hometown. I wanted to be your life raft again. You ran your fingers through her fur. I felt it on my neck. We finished burying her. There were no stones to place on the grave. We spent fifteen minutes rifling through the junk in the driveway until we found a few cinderblocks and arranged them on the gravesite as best we could, and I was grateful I didn’t like the way facial hair tickled my lips. Because you never know.
Steven LaFond is a writer that lives in Arlington, Massachusetts with his wife, Jessica. He received his MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. When not writing, he announces roller derby across the country under the name “Pelvis Costello.”