Casey McConahay is a Pushcart Prize-nominated author and a graduate of Miami University’s MFA program. He lives in northwest Ohio.
Months after he moved to the canyon, Sam heard a noise out his window. The faint, maybe-scratching sound reminded him of a branch scraping siding. He went to the door at the back of the house. The night was onyx-black and moonless as he reached for the light switch.
The bulb lit the patio in bright yellow light. At the dim place where light met darkness, he saw the lawn beyond the patio—the tawny grass on which a pair of rats stood unmoving, their eyes gleaming ugly with alarm.
They held scraps of paper from a torn bag of garbage that was spilled across the lawn. He looked at the rodents’ fat, mangy bodies and long, naked tails, and as he moved toward the door, he heard scratching.
There, on the downspout, he saw another rat—a smaller one. It stared at him, its nose twitching inquisitively. Its arms hugged the downspout, and its small, tack-sharp claws scored ragged lines in the metal.
Some movement on the lawn then. No longer transfixed, the rats turned away from light and scurried off to the bushes. A rustling betrayed their location.
The other rat stared from the downspout. Sam saw its sallow incisors and its quivering whiskers, but it was late at night, and there was nothing Sam could do about the rodents—no traps he could set; no poisons he could feed them. He went back in the house and made his way to his room.
In his bed, he could hear it—the scratching.
. . .
In the morning, he imagined that there was someone with him. One of his pillows was beneath his head. The other was beside him, and his arm held the pillow as though its shape were a woman.
When he remembered that he was alone again, he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. His sheets were on the carpet. He’d torn them from his bed in the night, so he reached for the sheets and put them back on the mattress.
The room was silent. He looked at the clock.
He dressed in sneakers and running shorts. He drank water from the tap. It was cool in the canyon yet, but the Texas heat would return soon. By the time he finished running, he’d have sweated through his clothes.
He opened the back door, but before he walked through the doorway, he shouted. The shout was sudden, involuntary, and he was startled by its timbre. He closed the door—turned the deadbolt. Then he went to the window. He watched the form on the patio—the long, toast-brown body of a mountain lion lying on its side.
The animal was turned away from the doorway. He could see the back of the mountain lion—the subtle curve of its spine, the bony crags of its shoulders—but he could not see its head. Better that it was turned from him, though. Better that it hadn’t seen him. Its body was man-length. The tail made it longer. It was sleeping—hadn’t moved when he shouted.
He called animal control.
—A what? asked the woman he spoke to.
—A mountain lion.
Silence on the other end of the telephone. Then:
—You’re sure? she asked.
—I think so.
He heard the woman’s fingers on a keyboard.
—Could it be a jaguar? she asked him.
—Are there jaguars in Texas?
—In zoos. Might have traveled from Austin.
Sam thought about it.
—It doesn’t have spots, he said. Don’t jaguars have spots?
—Are you sure that it isn’t a lion?
He took the phone to the window. Looking at the animal, he said:
—It doesn’t have a mane.
—But it could be a female lion, couldn’t it? Females don’t have manes.
—Yes, he acknowledged. It could be a female lion.
—And what is it doing now, sir?
He answered the rest of her questions and gave the woman his address. She said they’d send someone soon. In the meantime, he monitored the animal. There were children in the neighborhood—children who rode their bicycles around the cul-de-sac. If the mountain lion rose, he’d need to scare or distract it. He took a knife from a drawer in the kitchen.
When the animal control officers arrived, he left the knife on the counter. He met the men in the driveway, and the larger man—the one with the mustache—asked him:
—This the house with the bobcat?
—It’s a mountain lion, I think. It’s out back.
The man’s companion opened the door of the van and removed an aluminum snare, a cable looped on one end. Sam regarded the snare skeptically.
—Will that be enough? he asked.
—It should be, said the man with the mustache. See Miguel there? Miguel snared an alligator at Lake Travis last Thursday. Ever seen an alligator?
Sam had not.
—Nasty little devil. Thrashed worse than anything. Miguel didn’t flinch, though. Did you, Miguel?
—Maybe one time, said Miguel. When it bit me.
Miguel showed them the marks on his arm.
—See that? said the other man. Bit by an alligator but fearless. He’s not afraid of your tiger.
—Mountain lion, Sam told them.
—Where is it?
He led them through the house, and at the back door, the men crowded around the window. The mountain lion was on the patio yet, and as the animal control officers looked at the animal, Sam heard fragments of what they said to one another.
—In the back.
—If it cooperates.
Then they turned to him.
—When we snare him, said the man with the mustache, Miguel needs to lead him around front. If we can get him in the van, we’ll be done.
—And if you can’t?
Miguel pointed at Sam’s sneakers.
—If I can’t, said Miguel, at least you’re ready to run.
And the men laughed together.
They opened the door slowly. Miguel crept toward the animal, and the other man followed. Sam remained inside for a moment but walked through the open door just as Miguel moved the snare toward the head of the mountain lion—a round head with dark, pointed ears standing upright like spikes. Miguel tried to maneuver the snare’s cable beneath the animal’s chin. The man with the mustache watched the mountain lion for movement, and behind him, in his sneakers, was Sam.
Sam was leaning away from the men when Miguel withdrew the snare. Miguel frowned at his colleague and then prodded the mountain lion, pressing the rod against the shoulders, the spine, and the hindquarters of the animal.
—You see him move earlier?
—He just laid here?
Miguel gave the snare to his companion. He circled the mountain lion, and after staring at its body, he knelt beside the animal and placed a hand on its head. He touched its whiskers and ears and then moved his hand to the forepaw. Rubbing the pad on the paw’s underside, he spoke to his colleague.
—Dead, he reported.
Sam watched from the window as the men retrieved a tarp from their vehicle. He’d offered to help, but they’d told him that there wasn’t anything to do except to get the mountain lion in the van. They’d not brought the gurney they sometimes used to transport dead animals, so they put a tarp beneath the mountain lion and dragged its carcass through the yard. Boys on bikes happened by as the men hauled the cat to the street, and as the boys set their kickstands and gawked from the sidewalk, the men opened the rear doors of their vehicle. Working their arms beneath the limbs of the animal much as one would lift an inebriate, they raised the mountain lion from the ground and placed its body inside the van.
Sam went outside as they were closing the van’s doors.
—I didn’t know it was dead, he told him. I didn’t think to check.
The men had their hands in their pockets.
—Forget it, said the man with the mustache. Easy mistake. And anyway, it’s the first time we’ve seen one of those. Smaller than we thought it would be.
—Calmer, too, said Miguel.
The man with the mustache put a hand on Miguel’s shoulder. This was a signal, it seemed. Miguel stepped away from his colleague and spread the tarp on the lawn.
—We can’t say for sure, said the other man, but we think he was hungry. They’re in the hills, you know. Sometimes livestock go missing, and ranchers see tracks.
Sam glanced at the van.
—What killed it, though?
—Hard to say. Poisoned, we think. That’s what Miguel says.
Miguel was folding the tarp. He folded it as carefully as flags are folded, matching the corners of the tarp’s material and trying to straighten the folds.
—Poisoned how? Sam asked.
There were shrubs near the corner of the property—shrubs that looked desiccated during dry spells but were resilient and dense.
—Those shrubs, said the man with the mustache, sometimes rats like to nest in them. You have rats in this neighborhood?
On his lawn. On the down spout.
—Yes, Sam admitted. A few.
—You put out poison?
—I haven’t. Not yet.
More boys approached them. The boys had heard about the animal and hoped to see its cold body.
—Could’ve been anyone, said the man with the mustache. Any of your neighbors could have put it out.
He nodded at Miguel, who was nearly through with the tarp.
—Miguel says it could have eaten rat poison. Or rats. Maybe rats it ate were poisoned. Maybe that could have done it.
The tarp was the size of a cutting board then. Miguel put the tarp beneath his underarm and stood beside his colleague.
The man with the mustache shook his head.
—Shame it had to go that way. It’s not a good way to die. Not for rats, even. An animal like him—he should’ve died in the hills. Not with foam in his mouth. Not in anguish.
The boys went up to the van. They put their hands to their faces and cupped their hands against the windows. As Miguel whispered something to the other man, a boy shouted:
—Can we see it, mister?
The man with the mustache took some keys from his pocket. He gave the keys to Miguel, but before the men left, Sam asked:
—What did your friend say to you?
The man touched his mustache.
—He said that in the hills, they mostly die of starvation. He said it’s quicker, at least, if you’re poisoned.
And then they walked away. Sam watched from the sidewalk as the animal control officers opened the van doors and showed the children their cargo. He heard breath leave the children—heard gasps.
. . .
When he woke the next morning, his sheets were on the carpet again. He left them there. Before he grabbed his shorts from the hamper—before he searched for his sneakers—he went to the door to the patio.
There was nothing to signify that a day before, a mountain lion lay there. So he dressed in his running clothes. After he went outside, he locked the door to his house and hid his keys in the cold ash of the fire pit. He followed the path in the yard where the tarp had been dragged, and when he went through the gate, he started running.
Boys on bicycles saw him as he ran down the street. The children laughed and followed him, and Sam heard the chains on the spokes of their bicycles. He didn’t mind. He didn’t mind when the boys raced him, either—when a swarm of bikes hurried past him, boys’ bottoms raised from their bike-seats as youthful legs pistoned pedals.
When the boys were out of sight, he had a lane to himself. Cars passed occasionally, and Sam raised an affable hand to them. Sometimes drivers waved back to him. Sometimes they didn’t. It made no difference to Sam. He reached the end of the subdivision and kept running. He ran along the road that led away from the canyon, and after he came to an intersection, he turned and started back.
When he returned to his house, his shirt was sweat-damp and heavy. He stopped in the street. He stopped where the van had parked the day before, and with his hands on his knees—and as sweat from his face dripped in beads to the concrete—he saw the shrub at the corner of his property. He saw the faint rustling in the shrub that was wind or a bird or a fat-bodied rodent, but as sweat stung his eyes, he looked away from the shrub. To the house across the street. To a woman.
She wore sneakers and Lycra. She was stretching on the lawn. He watched her reach for her toes, and after her fingers grabbed her sneakers, the woman noticed Sam—smiled.
She came to him. She looked in both directions at the curb, and she waited before crossing because some brothers on bicycles had a race in the street. She let the bicycles pass. She put her hands on her hips. The sneakers she wore were fluorescent.
—I’m Elaine, said the woman. You’re?
—Sam, she said. Sam. Nice to meet you.
He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. Her hair was red like paprika, and strands of hair had escaped from her headband.
—That your house? she asked.
—It’s that one. The white one.
They looked at his house together.
—You’re the man with the cheetah problem.
—I think it was a mountain lion.
—Same thing, said the woman. And anyway, it could be worse. I’d rather have a mountain lion than rats.
—I have rats, too. Rats and a mountain lion.
—Do you have rats in your house, though? I have rats in my attic. I’ve heard rats in the walls since I moved here.
He vaguely recalled a moving van.
—Which was when?
—A month ago. Maybe a month. I don’t remember. I’ve been working so much. All the days run together. But today, I slept in.
—And you’re running.
She looked at her sneakers.
—These are new, she said. This is the first time I’ve worn them. It’s the first time I’ve run in forever.
—They look fast, Sam told her. They look like shoes you’d want to wear if lots of rats tried to chase you.
—God. What a nuisance. Those rats.
She turned toward her home.
—I liked the house, she said. The area. I didn’t know there were rats, though.
She put her hands on her hips then, and he noticed her hips. He watched her lips when she spoke—watched with longing.
—Maybe they’ll go away, he said.
—I hired an exterminator. He put some traps around the house.
—And you’ve caught some?
—I think. I don’t know. He comes to check every day or so, but I’m gone when he comes. I never check them myself. Imagine finding a rat in a trap. A dead one. Or a rat that’s been poisoned.
He remembered the mountain lion.
—And anyway, she said, they’ll keep coming. He sealed the hole in the attic, but the other rats—the ones outside—there are too many. He put out spring traps and poison, but he said he couldn’t get rid of the rats until everyone in the neighborhood got rid of them. Everyone has to put out traps. Do you put out traps?
She was looking at him. Her eyes were green and arresting.
—Yes, he said, lying. I do.
He couldn’t tell if she believed him.
—What kind of traps do you use? Do you use glue traps? The spring ones? Just poison?
—Poison, he told her.
—That’s good, she said. Poison is good. That’s what my exterminator said. He said that everyone is the neighborhood—everyone whose house he services—uses poison.
—Yes, he said again. I used poison.
—I’m glad to hear that. Rats are hideous. Hideous creatures. Don’t you think so?
He started to tell her that yes, he thought they were hideous, but before he could respond, she said:
—I’m sorry. I can’t believe this. I’m stupid.
She raised a hand to her face and looked away from him.
—For what? he asked. There isn’t anything to be sorry about.
—Carrying on about rats, she said.
—It’s okay, he assured her. I’m glad I met you. I’m glad we talked about rats.
She lowered her hand and then spoke nervously, rapidly.
—Would you like to go to dinner sometime? Would that be okay? I haven’t had dinner since I moved here—not a nice one. Would you have dinner with me?
—Yes, he told her. I’d like that. Maybe tonight, even. If you’re free.
—Tonight would be fine, she said. Tonight is good.
—And we can talk a bit longer.
—Not of rats. Or of leopards.
—Or mountain lions. Not about them.
. . .
There was a candle on the dinner table. It sat between them, its flame sputtering intermittently as it burned low on the wick and touched the well of melted wax.
—This is nice, she said. It’s pretty. I like it.
He looked at Elaine. He looked at the wine list. He looked at the flame of the candle.
—I like your dress, he told her.
The dress was black, tight, and strapless. She wore a necklace as well—a silver chain with a charm. When he’d met her at her house that evening and saw her in the dress and the necklace, he knew that he couldn’t take her to the bar in Round Rock like he’d planned.
She glanced at the tables that surrounded them and turned her glass by its stem.
—Have you been here before? she asked.
—I have. Maybe twice.
—And with me now.
—That’s right. This is three times.
She turned her glass again. Leaning toward the center of the table, she told him:
—They don’t have restaurants like this where I’m from. Restaurants where girls can wear dresses.
—Or with wine lists.
—Or with wine lists. Exactly. Listen—can I tell you something?
—Tell me anything.
—This dress, she said. This dress I bought a year ago. I’ve never worn it. I never had a reason to. I wanted one dress—one really nice dress—that I could wear to restaurants and parties and glamorous places. So I bought it. It’s spent a year in my closet.
Around them were other tables with other diners. Around them were candles with flames that wavered occasionally and waiters in black vests who carried dishes and drink trays.
—Is this glamorous enough? he asked her. Does it deserve a nice dress?
—At this point, she told him, I’d have worn this dress to a barbecue. I’d have worn it to an ice cream truck.
—We should leave. We should leave and get ice cream.
—And I’ll wear my dress, she said. And when the man asks me what kind of ice cream I want, I’ll ask for his fanciest flavor.
—In a cone?
—In something golden. A chalice.
Her smile was sublime in the candlelight.
—I like this, she said. I like you. I’m glad you brought me here.
—What if they don’t have ice cream?
—I’m glad you brought me here even if they don’t have ice cream. But I’m sure they do. That woman there is eating ice cream.
They looked at a woman across the restaurant—a gray-haired woman with a gleaming pearl necklace. The woman had a hand on the table, and the man across from her—a man with hair combed in wisps across his pale, balding head—placed his hand above hers as she ate.
Elaine was solemner now.
—I moved here for business, she said. I’ve never had a job before—a serious job. I thought if I could get to the office early, I’d make a good first impression. So I’m there before daylight. And I stay till it’s dark out. That’s the way my days have gone.
—For a month? he asked.
—That’s right. For a month.
She blinked her eyes—blinked slowly enough that he saw her eye shadow, her mascara, a strand of hair along her cheek.
—But it’s better, she said. Now it’s better.
He put an arm on the table.
—I came for work, too. From Ohio.
—Ohio? Really? I’ve never been to Ohio. I’ve never been anywhere.
—Is that why you came here? he asked. To go somewhere new?
She shook her head.
—Not really. That was part of it, I suppose. But not the main reason.
—What then? Why move? Just for work?
She reached for the charm on her necklace.
—It wasn’t that, either. It’s hard to explain. I don’t really—
She leaned away from him.
—I don’t mean to pry, he said. Forget I asked.
—No, she told him. It’s fine. It’s just a difficult question. I wanted to leave my family. That’s why. It’s a hard thing to say to someone, but that’s why I came here.
—Everybody does that, he told her. Everybody leaves their families.
—With me, she said, it’s different.
He was going to mention something else. He was going to ask about her work or about her rat traps or about the music she liked, but after a short moment’s silence, she said:
—My father made things difficult for us. For my sister and me. He wasn’t a good person.
He looked at her face in the candlelight.
—I’m sorry, he told her. I shouldn’t have asked. You don’t need to—
—It’s okay. Really, it is. It was a long time ago. We’re fine now—my sister and I—but it wasn’t a happy childhood. We learned things we weren’t ready for. We learned more about the world than we were ready for.
Hiding the charm with her hand, she told him:
—The worst part was that our mother didn’t believe us. We told her what was happening. We told her over and over. She never saw it, though. She worked nights at a factory. She was gone when it happened.
She paused then, and in her silence, he could hear conversations from the restaurant’s other tables. One couple discussed finances. Another talked about a trip they were taking to Singapore. Someone several tables away from them was celebrating a promotion, and a woman at the bar was on the phone with her daughter.
—My sister told her counselor, Elaine said. My sister is older than I am, so for her, it happened longer. But what bothered her the most was that she couldn’t protect me. We don’t talk about it often, but when we do, that’s what she says. She did protect me, though. When she told, she protected me. I was fourteen when they arrested him. Fifteen when the trial began. We both had to testify, which was terrible. Imagine sitting in a courtroom, and your mother is watching. And your father is there. And you tell them the ways that he hurt you.
She held the charm even tighter.
—It’s hard to say those things, she said. And to tell them to strangers. The words for it are ugly. And you know that you’re hurting your parents, but you have to do it because if you don’t, it won’t end. So we told.
She glanced at the table beside them and back again.
—He’s in prison still, so we don’t have to worry about him. But at home, we remember. Ordinary places—the high school, the movie theater, restaurants—it’s hard not to think about him. And not just about the bad times. There were happy times also. It hurts to remember the happy times. You wonder how someone could be so kind in public and then other times, when he was alone with us—
—Anyway, we both left. My sister left as soon as she could. I stayed for my mother, but after college—after I got this job offer—I moved here.
Here, at this moment, was a restaurant she wore a dress to. It was a restaurant where the murmured conversations at other tables discussed banal things and trifles. But banality had fled from this table, and in its place was something too immense to be answered. He looked away from Elaine and from the hand on her necklace, and then the flame at the end of the candlewick started sputtering. It burnt so low on the wick that it touched the wet wax. It was drowned by the wax and extinguished.
. . .
It was dark when they went from the restaurant. The moon, a bright billiard cue, dangled above them, and in silence, he drove Elaine home.
She touched her necklace and stared through the window.
When he came to their block, he parked his car along the curb. He opened the door for her, and he walked her to the house.
—Quite a night, said Elaine. And that moon—
Sam looked at it.
—It looks so big.
—Like it’s close. Like it’s falling.
As they pondered the moon, boys on bikes pedaled by. The boys had lights on their handlebars, and the lights darted rapidly as the bikes hastened past. The lights lit a few yards of concrete—hardly enough to be of use—and it looked to Sam as though the bike boys were rushing toward a curtain of night.
—I wish I were a child again, Elaine told him. I wish I was a girl on a bicycle, and I could ride down the street with my sister.
She asked him:
—Did you ever ride a bicycle?
—Now and then. With my friends.
—We could bike. You and I. We could race.
He looked at her. He saw her eagerness, her expectation, but he was removed from it.
—I run, Sam reminded her.
—We could run then. We could run from the boys on their bikes.
But the boys had disappeared. His car was in the street, but the road was otherwise empty. It felt for an instant as though they were alone in the canyon—as though it was them and the night and the moon.
She stepped toward him.
—I had a nice time. Thank you, Sam. Thank you for dinner.
—It’s nothing, he told her. You’re welcome.
She waited for him to say something more, but when nothing else came, she took her keys from her handbag. She looked at the door and then looked back again—focused on Sam. Her eyes were sad, like she knew. But she asked.
—Want to come inside?
Glancing toward his car, he told her:
—I can’t. Not tonight.
A few formalities followed. She thanked him once more, and they spoke vaguely, hollowly, of plans to meet sometime later. They said goodnight. She looked wounded. She was holding the charm. Then she turned, and she entered her house.
He saw a light through her windows as he walked from the doorway. A light-ring reached to the sidewalk, and he stayed in the light. It was difficult to move from it, but then he walked to the curb, and when he reached the place on the street where the mountain lion had been carried, he heard a sound in the darkness. He thought the boys on bikes were approaching him, but the evening street was vacant. The sound grew louder—a shaking sound. A sound that meant movement. And he searched in the darkness. He paused.
He looked at the shrub at the corner of the property. The shrub shuddered as though something was agitating it, and the longer he watched the shrub, the more it trembled. It roared in the night till the sound of the rustling shrub was within him—till it echoed and boomed in his ribs.
He didn’t move from the street. His house looked distant and strange. A nest of rats in his yard—in the bushes.