From the Archive: Renée Hartleib (CAROUSEL 18)

Staff/ August 6, 2020/ Fiction


Cat and Mouse

Brenda imagined awful things. Chronically predisposed to what a friend called “catastrophizing,” she often awoke in the middle of the night with her heart racing, sure that she had heard a noise, sure that someone had broken into the house to rape and kill her. She was suspicious of wrong numbers. She checked for people following her. She startled easily.
      Brenda was, however, shocked the day she came home from work and found a man sitting on her front porch. She’d been walking with her head down, thinking about the telephone conversation with her mother the previous night. It went as it usually did: her mother acting as the voice piece for her father, while he paced the living room behind her, nursing his scotch. It was like Brenda was actually talking to her father, although he refused to get on the phone. He didn’t like phones. Phones could be bugged and were in the same category as Internet banking. Not to be trusted.
      “He’s just trying to help, dear,” her mother said, when Brenda sighed.
      “I know that. But I’m fine. Thank you though. Tell him thank you.” Brenda could hear her father muttering in the background.
      “Your father thinks it’s a good idea.” Her mother was using her “please just let him get his way” voice.
      Brenda felt the familiar heaviness, like her chest was in a vise, and she pushed down the urge to raise her voice. She had yelled at her father only once in her life. He had smirked at her and suggested therapy for her “little outburst.” This from a man who put psychotherapists in the same category as daytime talk show hosts. She had felt ashamed, like she’d broken an unspoken rule. “Just take it. No emotions allowed.” She never made that mistake again.
      “No,” Brenda said firmly. “I appreciate the offer but I’m fine on my own.” Her father had asked for a key to the house, “in case of emergencies,” and Brenda knew enough about her father to say no.
      She was remembering this conversation as she walked home from work, reciting it verbatim in her mind, as she tended to do after conflicts of any kind. She carried her worn leather satchel in one hand and an umbrella in the other. It had started to rain, but she hadn’t noticed, until a raindrop landed on her eyelid, making her leap in mid-step. She absently began to open her umbrella and realized she was at the foot of her street. She looked up, past the convenience store on the corner to her little sky blue house.
      Each time she came around this corner and caught the first glimpse of it, she was flooded with a feeling of instant comfort and also relief that it was still standing. To have the house burn down in her absence was exactly the kind of thing her father expected, what he was waiting for. And she would have to trudge back, defeated, to her childhood home, which reeked of the American cigarettes her father smoked and Lysol, her mother’s attempt to cover up the smell.
      “We’re saddled with her,” her father used to say to their neighbours. “She knows when she’s got it good.” This because Brenda had lived at home until she was thirty. What her father didn’t know was that she had made an internal pact, a cut-off date: if she was not married by the time she reached thirty, she would move out on her own. When she finally did, her trump card had been the element of surprise. Her father didn’t know what hit him.
      Brenda resented the fact that her father acted as if the big things in life, like buying a house, were completely out of her league. He always made them sound disastrously complicated, fraught with traps and snares at every turn. In fact, Brenda had found the whole process relatively easy. The hard part had been keeping the fact that she suddenly had a real estate agent and was actively looking at houses a secret. Her agent only called her at work and Brenda invented a needy friend to visit every few nights. “She’s quite depressed, the poor dear,” she told her parents.
      Brenda relished the look on her father’s face when she told him she’d bought a house. She actually had to repeat “a house.” The look contained confusion, an emotion her father never admitted feeling and this made her giddy. But it also contained betrayal and for that she felt guilty. But the look itself had lasted no more than a moment before morphing into fury and disdain. How dare she? And without even consulting him. Of course she must have been ripped off and the place would be a dive and a sinkhole. But it wasn’t. It was a beautiful old two-storey in an established, safe neighbourhood, a neighbourhood even her father, when he had been a cop, had said was one of the best in the city.
      In part, Brenda chose the location because it was clear across town – a twenty-five minute drive from her parents’ house. She hoped the drive might dissuade her father from visiting often. Her plan, when she moved out on her own, was to be both independent and a good adult child. This meant inviting her parents over for dinner once a week but declining her father’s requests to help her.
      He still couldn’t admit that she had chosen well or secured a good deal on the house. No, he was onto the next thing now. He walked around her house, shaking his head. “Why don’t you just put a sign on the door,” he exclaimed. “Welcome, all thieves!” He rattled a basement window. “Just look at this!” he said to no one in particular. “It’s a goddamn firetrap too.” He acted like the house would fall apart without his help.
      Brenda wasn’t all that handy and had resigned herself to the fact that other people — not her father — would do the work when the house needed it. She had the house painted within the first few months, choosing a time when her parents were away. It was the summer of their bi-annual trip to Ontario in which her father who refused to fly — “it’s like cattle being herded to slaughter” — drove halfway across the country to visit his last remaining relative, stayed for three days and turned back. Brenda had hated this trip as a child.
      She hired an artist friend, Lois, to paint the house. She knew her father would not have approved of a woman doing the job and would have been over every day supervising. Lois was someone Brenda knew she could trust, someone who wouldn’t rip her off. But Brenda still surprised herself by watching Lois every step of the way. She couldn’t believe the things that would go through her mind when Lois was up the ladder. Should I have hired a man to do this? Shouldn’t she be more careful? She’s an artist, for God’s sake, what does she know about house painting? In the end though, Lois did a superior job and Brenda loved coming around the corner and seeing the colour, which looked like a summer sky and was the brightest house on the street.
      The man on her front porch started to talk to her before she was close enough to hear, before it even registered that there was someone sitting on her step. The shock of this made her legs rigid and she gripped her satchel tightly in case she had to swing it to protect herself. “I’m sorry?” she asked, very politely, as if he wasn’t sitting on private property; as if he wasn’t sitting on the bottom step of her house, on her street, in what she had believed until that moment to be a safe neighbourhood.
      “Can I bum a smoke off ya?” He was obviously drunk. She could see the pint of Captain Morgan sitting just inside his coat. He had a grizzled beard, an ugly red rash on his neck, and a wandering eye. The smell of him made her almost retch on the spot. Sweat, rum, and urine flattened into the filthy creases of his pants. His head wobbled.
      “I’m sorry. I have somewhere to go just now.” And she walked up the steps past him, fumbled with the lock and entered her house. Slamming the deadbolt in place, she dropped the chain three times before she got it hooked. She stood for a second with her back to the door, her heart thudding, and dropped her satchel and umbrella on the floor. Then she ran into the kitchen to make sure the stick was still in place in the sliding glass doors of the back patio. Her father had suggested the stick for extra security.
      She sat on the edge of a kitchen chair and stared into the backyard. Oh God, she thought, what if he walks around the back? She quickly pulled the sunny yellow curtains, which she’d chosen because they were so cheerful, across the patio doors and then scurried into the living room. She crawled to the front windows, so he wouldn’t see her if he was looking in, and pulled the cord on the blinds. They shuddered their way down, lurching to a stop half way, one end sloped towards her. She gave up tugging at it and crawled to the stairs.
      Out of sight of the windows now, she bolted up the stairs and then fell to her knees again outside the front bedroom, which looked out over the street. She lifted herself slowly to peer up over the windowsill. The breath caught in her throat. He was still there – she could see the top of his head, a few dark greasy looking hairs covering a wide bald patch. She ducked back down and then grabbed the curtains by their hem and yanked them across the window.
      She realized, as she sat there on the floor, that the thing she was most worried about was her father seeing the man. She fervently hoped this wasn’t one of the days her father decided to take a walk in her neighbourhood. He had started doing that — driving across town, parking at the corner, and patrolling the streets around her house. Sometimes Brenda’s mother called with a worried message: “Daddy was by your house this morning and the curtains weren’t open. Are you sick?” Sometimes he came to the door, sometimes he didn’t. The pattern was unpredictable. Probably just the way he wanted it.
      Brenda automatically chided herself for suspecting her father planned these things out. Her mother would be horrified that she imply a sinister motive. But it did feel that her father was often playing a game of cat and mouse with her, wanting her to fail, wanting to catch her in a mistake, wanting to prove that she couldn’t really take care of herself.
      He had always been like this, never letting her be too free. When she was ten he finally let her have a bike, but then he wouldn’t let her ride it off the street. He insisted on walking her to her friend’s house a few blocks away, or worse, driving her in the squad car. And the scrutiny only intensified when she reached puberty. He wouldn’t let her go to school dances. He listened to her phone calls. He read her diary. He always thought she was up to something, accusing her of “sneaking around.” He even followed her when she said she was going out with friends to see if she was really meeting a boy.
      On the phone last night, when her mother asked if they could help her out by keeping a key to her house with them, she had instantly recoiled. Her father was over often enough as it was; she wasn’t about to give him a key. She knew she should be kinder, that he was growing into a bored old man who needed things to occupy his mind, but it meant she never really felt at ease in her own house. She still felt like a child who needed checking up on. She often contemplated telling him he needed to call first, but she didn’t know how to say that to him. Her father having a key would be the last straw. She could just see it. She’d come home from work and there he’d be, smoking a cigarette in her living room. “Where have you been?” he’d ask, sporting a knowing and perverse smile.
      Brenda raised herself up to the windowsill again. The man was still there and he wasn’t moving. She looked at the incongruity of it all; the green well kept lawns, the tidy little houses all around and on her porch, something that definitely didn’t belong. Across the street, curtains moved and she felt panic surge through her. What would the neighbours think? What was she going to do? She knew she should get up, walk out the front door, and ask him to leave but she couldn’t. She felt paralyzed and stuck and not capable of dealing with it. This happened sometimes. She perched there at the window, her body tight and barely breathing, willing him to go away, until eventually he did just that, ambling down the street in a weave.
      She let herself collapse into a small ball on the floor and found herself chanting in a murmur, “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.” But it wasn’t okay. When she finally got it together enough to go back downstairs she found herself unable to do anything but pour herself wine and stalk the perimeter of the house from the inside, peering out each window. She did this until it got dark. Then she turned on all the lights in the house and took the bottle of wine up to her room. She couldn’t even think about eating.
      She had a fitful sleep that night, full of dreams she couldn’t remember save the last one. She dreamed of hairy, brown, scurrying spiders that looked innocuous enough, until they crawled over her hands like zealots on a terrible mission and burrowed their way under her fingernails. The person she was with – she couldn’t remember who – seemed to know what was happening, understood its magnitude. They shouted “Oh no!” and explained in an escalating staccato that these particular spiders were poisonous. Once they got into your bloodstream, you died instantly. Dead meat. At that moment in the dream, she began to feel the most excruciating pain in her hands and knew there was nothing to do. The spiders were in, vanished, doing their busy work. She awoke writhing, clutching her hands. In the dream, as she died, the other person who was clearly smarter and knew more, looked at her as if to say, “What a terrible way to die — out of sheer stupidity — how could you not have taken any precautions?”
      The same friend that told Brenda she had a tendency for “catastrophizing,” was also fond of saying that it was Brenda’s nervous nature and her fear of doing things wrong that held her back in life. Brenda supposed this could be true. She had not pursued teaching as she thought she might when she was getting her undergrad. Instead, she became an administrative assistant. The work was uncomplicated; she simply followed someone else’s instructions. She worked from 8:30-4:30, half an hour for lunch, and seldom had to work over time. She was proficient at talking on the phone and typing at the same time. Flowers arrived on her desk on secretary’s day with a note thanking her for another year of service. Service, she thought often, that’s what I’m good at.
      On her lunch break, the day after the man appeared on her front porch, Brenda called her neighbour, Denise. She had to look up the number in the phone book because they didn’t know each other well.
      “Denise? Hi. It’s Brenda from across the street. Listen, the strangest thing happened when I came home from work last night…”
      Denise interrupted her. “I know,” she said emphatically. “He’s out there again today.”
      Brenda gasped involuntarily. “What’s he doing?”
      “Well he’s just sitting there. I don’t think he moves too fast. Do you know him Brenda?”
      “Good lord, no. He’s just sitting there?”
      “Phil says he’s probably harmless but I don’t like it. I worry about the kids.” Denise ran a day care from her home. “Are you sure you don’t know him?”
      “Of course I’m sure. I’ve never seen the man before in my life.”
      “It’s kind of weird. There’s twenty other houses on the street.” Denise sounded dubious.
      “And believe me,” Brenda said. “I have no idea why he’s picked mine. Listen, can you keep an eye on him this afternoon?”
      “Fine. But if he’s still there tonight, you’ve got to do something.”
      Brenda agreed, hung up, and could feel sweat trickling down her sides from her armpits.

She power walked all the way home, rehearsing out loud what she would say to the man. She practiced keeping her voice low and authoritative; her speech clipped and to the point, ending with, “and if you don’t get off my property at once, I’m going to call the police.” She turned the corner with butterflies madly charging in her stomach and he wasn’t there. She slowed right down, relaxed her grip on her satchel, and smiled. Of course he’s not there, she thought. Phil’s probably taken care of him. Denise’s Phil. Thank God for men like him, he’s a real problem solver. She felt dizzy with delight.
      And then she saw him. Lying on her tiny green lawn, beside the lilac hedge in a crumpled dirty heap. He looked dead but as she stealthily approached she could hear him gently snoring. Before she knew what she was doing she had tiptoed past him in a run and dead bolted herself into the house again.
      The phone was ringing. She looked out the window and made sure he was still there, not faking sleep only to marshall an attack against her, and ran for the phone. It was her mother. Oh God, Brenda thought, Dad’s seen the man.
      “Your father wants to know if you put a new battery in that smoke alarm upstairs. He heard it beeping when we were over for dinner the other night.” Fire alarms were routinely tested in her father’s house and they had evacuation procedures and drills. Sharp knives had been outlawed when she was a child, even to carve the Halloween pumpkin. Brenda got to draw the face, her pencil sinking into the soft orange flesh; her mother scooped the seeds out and baked them; her father cut. The same with Christmas tree lights. No touching allowed. Her father quoted statistics of people electrocuted in their own homes.
      “Dad already changed the battery for me, remember? He did it himself, after dinner on Sunday.” Brenda had been angry with herself for not stopping him, for letting him think she couldn’t change a battery herself, for letting it beep during dinner.
      “I know dear. I told him that.” She added in a whisper. “He doesn’t remember.”
      “That’s alright. Tell Dad everything’s okay.”
      “She says everything’s okay, Hugh.” Brenda could hear his voice rumbling in the background. Her mother sighed into the phone. “He wants to know if everything else is okay.”
      “Everything’s fine, Mom.” She cut off the call before anything more could be said.
      Brenda hung up the phone and stood with her hand on the receiver for a few minutes, biting her lip. I could call the police, she thought. I could just call them and get this over with. But she worried that one of them would tell her father. Even though he’d been retired for years, he still had friends in the force. He found things out.
      I’ve got to handle this, she thought sternly. She marched to the front windows. The man was gone. Maybe he was just hiding. Maybe he was around the back. She resisted the urge to crawl again and walked to the kitchen. She stood, feeling naked and exposed, in the afternoon sun of the patio doors. She couldn’t see him anywhere. This is ridiculous, she thought. She forced herself outside.
      Touring the perimeter of the house, her heart pounded in her throat. He was not hiding in the bushes at the back or near the roses at the side or sitting on her front porch or asleep on her front lawn. He was gone. Why did he seem to wait until she came home and leave? And why had he picked her house anyway?
      “Brenda!” She leapt a little even though she knew the voice. Brenda turned and Denise was striding across the street towards her, her ponytail swinging from side to side. She had a no nonsense look to her that always made Brenda feel confused and heavy.
      “Did you talk to him?” Denise asked.
      “Well, no. But he’s gone again.”
      “I think you should call the cops. That’s two days in a row.” Denise folded her arms over her chest. “You’ve got to do something. This guy’s got everyone worried.”
      “Everyone on the street.”
      “Have they talked to you?”
      “I’ve had a few calls today. Melissa, Pam, Anne.” She counted them out on her fingers. “We’re worried because of the kids.” Denise looked at her in a pitying but repulsed way because Brenda was obviously middle-aged and wasn’t married and didn’t have kids.
      “Why don’t they call me if they’re worried?”
      “You’re new on the street.” The meaningful glance that accompanied her words seemed to say: “You don’t seem the type to trust. Would you trust you?”
      “I’ll take care of it. Don’t worry,” Brenda said, straightening her shoulders and trying to look Denise in the eye.
      Denise did not seem convinced. “It’s all so weird isn’t it? Nothing like this has ever happened here.” She turned to walk back across the street. “Didn’t you say your Dad used to be a cop? Couldn’t he help?”
      “I’ll take care of it,” Brenda repeated.

When the alarm went off the next morning, she was already wide-awake. Brenda coughed a number of times in order to make her voice hoarse. She left a message at work telling them she was sick. She felt guilty about this because she rarely missed a day and was sure her boss would be angry.
      She was too nervous to even drink her morning coffee and attempts to read yesterday’s paper were unfocused. By eight thirty, when she’d normally be settled behind her desk at work, listening to overnight phone messages, she was staked out on the floor by the front windows, behind the couch. She wore her shoes and a light coat. When he arrived, a little after nine, weaving up the street, and plunked himself down on her porch, she took a deep breath and marched out the front door, shutting and locking it behind her. She could see Denise standing with her hands on her hips in her doorway.
      “Excuse me.” She sidled past him on the steps and came to stand in front of him. “What are you doing here?” Her voice shook.
      “Oh.” He seemed to be collecting his thoughts. “Um, can you spare some change, ma’am?”
      “No. Why are you sitting on my porch?”
      “It’s a good porch.”
      “Yes. But why mine? Why not hers?” She pointed backwards to Denise and Phil’s and then next door. “Or theirs? Why are you here?”
      “I’m just doing like I was told.” He reached a shaking hand inside his coat pocket for the pint of Captain Morgan.
      “Who told you?”
      “Some old guy. He paid me to come down here. It’s like a real job, he says. 9 to 5 you know? Just wants me to sit here. It’s a long walk though. I ain’t doing it anymore.”
      “Oh my God.” Brenda gave the man ten dollars to go back downtown. “The next time you see him, you tell that old bugger to fuck right off,” she whispered, mindful of the children in the neighbourhood, as she put the bill in his outstretched hand.

Renée Hartleib is a writer and writing mentor based in Halifax, NS. Her work has appeared in Descant, The New Quarterly, The Fiddlehead and elsewhere. More:

Cat and Mouse
appeared in CAROUSEL 18 (2005) — buy it here

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