The phone rang.
“Hey!” It was Felicity. “I’m coming to town this weekend. Are you going to be around? I got a bunch of family stuff to do, but Sunday work work for me. I’m driving back out after that.”
She’d settled in a small town in east Texas, within miles of the large-scale printing facility I’d discovered out in the country, where we’d printed the first issue of my magazine. That stretch of land, about 45 miles long and a couple of miles wide at its heart, was home to the original Texas oil boom, years ago. It was around this aggressively exploited area that new surveying continued, reaching out to touch other natural resources like natural gas and coal. It was that area’s strip-mining that my former roommates, the archeologists, had dedicated so many years of their life to protecting, when they could, and when they couldn’t they did their own sort of mining, preserving whatever artifacts could be retrieved in the time they had.
Felicity was also only not far from where my mother’s parents owned a patch of land — out amongst the pine trees, with a small horse and a couple of other animals to care for — and where I’d spent many weekends as a child. It sounded like it was a different place, now.
“Hello?” she said.
“Sorry, I was thinking about family.”
“Yeah — me, too. I’m coming in to help my mom with a bunch of stuff. She’s been in this storage unit forever, and it’s already cost way more to keep than it would’ve been to buy the stuff over again, so—”
“My granddad passed away,” I told her.
“Oh,” she said. “Oh—I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry, too. That’s why I’m not going to be around this weekend.”
“Oh. So the funeral is in a couple of days?” It was Wednesday.
“It’s Sunday,” I said. “Afterwards, I’ll say goodbye to everybody and head on back. When do you have to take off?”
“Mmm, three or four, if I’m going to get back at a decent hour.”
The funeral would be just after noon. I wasn’t going to define a sharp period of time that I thought it should take, but it would have to be at least an hour. Austin was about four hours away.
“I think I’m going to miss you this time,” I said.
“Oh. Well, here’s what you do: call me, when you know, and maybe I can wait for you.”
“I don’t think I’ll know. I just want to drive up, and be there for it, and drive back. I don’t want to think about schedules.”
“I’m—Sure, I totally understand. And I’m really sorry to hear it. That’s bad, and I’m sorry.”
“Well, thanks. He was almost 92 years old—”
“I know!” I sighed. “And his older sister died last week. She was 103, and she still had a really sharp mind.” I laughed. “It’s funny to wonder if he died because she’d died, because I don’t think he liked her that much, actually. He was the youngest of eight children, so they’d always called him ‘Baby’ — and I can imagine that after ninety years, that might start to get under your skin.”
She laughed. “Agreed.”
“I’ll call you,” I said.
On the drive up, I kept checking in to see how I was feeling. I wasn’t happy, though I’d be glad to see everybody, but I wasn’t sad, either. I’d hit a plateau of calm, somewhere, from which I looked out at the world through unselfish eyes.
Granddad had several people dropping by regularly to check in on him. Until his heart-attack, he’d still insisted on mowing his own yard. Every afternoon, he’d sneak out into the garage and smoke a bowl of damp tobacco in one of the wooden pipes he kept in a cigar box among all his power tools, neatly hanging from peg-surfaced walls. He hung saws on his peg-board; we’d hung modems from ours. Our worlds were not that far apart.
“They found him the next morning,” my mom told me. “One of the nurses, I think. He died in his sleep, at some point the night, with his cat.” She shook her head. “You know he loved that cat. He always had it sleeping on his chest, and that’s how they found them, your grandfather lying on his back and that cat curled up on top of him.”
I’d called Felicity that morning, before the funeral, and left her a message that I didn’t expect to be back before five, so I didn’t expect I’d be able to see her. I wished her well, and I told her we’d see each other another time.
We had a service in a church before we set him into the ground and said our words over him. It was the custom to present the dead to the living one last time, lying in their casket. I’d been in the antechamber in the back of the back of church, where the pall bearers, some of granddad’s older nephews and their boys, now men much older then me, stood somberly.
When I’d approached, the oldest of them had reached out to shake my hand, and I’d felt something funny in his grip, almost like he’d been trying to tickle my palm with his middle finger, or brushing the underside of my thumb with his — it was such a surprising flash of sensory input that it overflowed the cognition I had available. I wasn’t actually sure what had happened, though I did catch him quickly darting his eyes to some of the other men, who then bounced a glance around between them. The rest greeted me more formally, clasping my hand softly and simply.
And that, I thought, is how it feels to fail a secret handshake.
“We’re really sorry for your loss,” the oldest of them said.
“That’s kind of you,” I said.
“He’s a good man, Charlie was,” said another. They glanced around amongst themselves again. “A fine man.”
“Oh, son,” said the oldest, “I had a question for you.”
He pursed his lips, looking away, then down, then back up at me. His eyes looked different, sharper.
“Your grandfather belonged to a brotherhood, an order — he had for a long time.”
I nodded. “Yes. I saw the letter on his wall, saying he wouldn’t have to pay dues any more for the rest of his life.” I didn’t add how I’d thought they must have figured he could only live so much longer.
“Yes,” he said quietly. “That’s it.”
“I have a lot of respect for the Freemasons. I know my granddad was proud of it, and I always respected him for that.”
They glanced among themselves again. Some of their backs straightened.
The eldest nodded. “That’s good. So then you can keep an eye out, if you can, as you’re going through the things in his house with your family. There are some things Charlie had that would better belong to us. Some books. Some articles of clothing.” He formed a small halo with his hands over his head.
“I know what you’re talking about.”
“Good,” he said. “Good. We need it back. We’d like it. If you could get it for us, we’d probably even put it up on display, in a case, put old Charlie’s name on it.” His face grew serious again. “But the books,” he said, “we do need the books.”
“I will keep my eyes open,” I said, nodding gravely.
He licked his lips. “You know,” he said, “not anyone can become a brother. You must be vouched for by a brother of good standing. Or your father can be a mason. Or your grandfather.”
“I understand,” I said. “I appreciate that. I always respected my grandfather, so that’s a great comfort for me.” He seemed unsure that I might not have understood him. “Thank you,” I finally said. “I’ll let you know.”
He nodded, and then the organ music began. We turned, the group of us, to look through heavy velvet curtains as people arranged themselves to begin the memorial.
One of them said to the others, “So that’s one more?”
The eldest nodded. “One more. The end days are upon us, or will be soon.”
Another asked, “When will we see the New World Order here in the States?”
“It’s already here,” the oldest said. “But it won’t become visible to us until after the world currency takes over. First Europe and the Euro, then a short time after that it’ll be a single currency for all of us. Then the New Order.” He grimaced. Then to me, he said, “You better hurry up and head on down or you’re gonna miss the proceedings.”
Back at granddad’s house, after the funeral, I would be the one tasked with getting the cat out from under the side table granddad had set between the two recliners, across from the TV. He looked like an enormously hairy cat, until you touched him and you realized that no, he was just enormous. I’d never handled a twenty-seven-pound cat before, and I’d rather pass if I ever have to do it again. He clawed the hell out of my hands and my forearms, getting him out. The distant family out from Mineral Wells who’d offered to take him were doing him and us a kindness, so the least I could do was take the brunt of the animal’s fear. He’d spent his whole life with my grandfather. I think he knew what was going on.
The cat probably felt worse about the situation than any of us did. We were going to feel bad about it for a while, but gradually the bruise would fade and anything that eventually remained would be the new structures around the framework of our lives, invisible and unknowable. That cat would miss my grandfather every hour of every day for the rest of his life.
Washing my myriad wounds before daubing them with hydrogen peroxide, moments with my grandfather came back to me. How happy I’d always seen him with that cat. He’d loved him, truly he had. That cat was always getting choice scraps from the table — a practice he’d used on his dogs for so long that why not keep it up with a cat? Granddad would pull the heavy wooden handle on the side of his recliner, leaning back away from the ball game on the TV and kicking his boot-clad toes up in front of it, tipping his cowboy hat half over his face and tapping his chest, encouraging the cat to crawl up and get comfy on his chest.
My hands were washing my hands but my mind was no longer thinking about them. The cat. The twenty-seven-pound cat. That granddad had spent years fattening up. That he had trained to sit on his chest, over his profoundly congested heart. That he did not want an operation to save.
I came out of the bathroom, hands dripping. My sister saw me first.
“I-i-i-i-i-i-i-,” I said.
“What?” she asked.
“Motherfucker, motherfucker,” I muttered. “Jesus Christ.”
I took a breath. “It was suicide by cat,” I said.
She took a breath, glanced out the door where the cat had just gone, looked back at me, and a smile broke out over her face.
“Oh, my God,” she said, hands covering her growing grin.
Then we were laughing, then we were crying, and we hugged, and it was okay.
I drove back through the heat of the day, even later than I’d expected by several hours. I wondered more than once if I’d be passing Felicity on the highway, though I was relieved to think we wouldn’t be meeting up. I had a feeling it would be complicated.
Pulling into the alley behind my shack, windblown and calm, as the dust cleared I saw someone sitting on my front step.
“Hello,” Felicity said, standing up, straightening her skirt.