"Sunday Wash" is part of a short story collection I'll be working on with the support of the NEA. I'm thankful for the fellowship and hope to use the time to write more stories, revise, and so on.
from "Sunday Wash"
Once, Jody's parents had taken him to a holiday party - a grown-up party - where kids played in the basement, while the parents danced above. Jody sat on the basement steps and watched three boys play a kind of Ping-Pong game where the loser had to stand against the washing machine while the others lobbed Ping-Pong balls at his crotch. When one of the shots ricocheted up the stairs, the tallest boy spotted Jody, and Jody was afraid they were going to make him play, too, but the boy only scooped the ball and asked, "You know that word 'duh'?"
"Well," the boy said, "I invented it."
Upstairs, Jody found his mother in the kitchen, talking with women who said right, right, right and held squat cups of wine like pet mice. He liked the way they laughed when his mother said funny things, enjoyed the feeling of passing through their laughter like a held door. He entered the living room; his father was not there. Men questioned him about Ping-Pong, school, Christmas. He used the bathroom, which had lit candles in it. He found his father in the guest bedroom, sitting on a bed piled with limp coats, petting a gray cat. Jody spotted him from the hallway, but waited, watching. His father had always been a quiet person, drawn to newspapers, long walks, and dim rooms. On Sundays, he preferred not to speak. Instead, he listened to Bach with a sofa cushion propped beneath his head, hands clasped atop his stomach, his fingers marking time, eyes closed. When the music finished, he put the cushion back into place, then brushed carpet lint from his legs.
"There's something wrong with this animal," he whispered, motioning Jody closer. He put his head to the cat's stomach. "Listen."
"Do you hear that?" He rubbed the cat's ears, increasing the sound. "See?"
Jody watched him, and felt a kind of sorry he had never known before. "Dad," he said, "it's just purring."
His father looked at him. "Do you think so?"
"Yeah," Jody said. "Cats do that."
"Right," his father mumbled. "I mean, of course. Purring." He stopped rubbing, and the cat gave way to a silent yawn. "I guess I'm not what they call a 'cat person.' Although I don't especially like or dislike them. I guess I'm not what anyone would call an 'animal person,' am I?" He looked at Jody, and Jody wanted to bury his head in his arms.
"Purring," he whispered, like it was an alien word, a medical condition or nautical phrase.
"Yeah," Jody said, petting the cat again. "It's weird."
And this was the moment he'd turned over and over again, at his father's funeral when he so badly wanted to cry - needed to cry - but couldn't. He thought of his father's hands down the cat's back, the movement of his fingers, his expression. There was a part of the conversation lurking just beneath this remembrance, a part that would allow him to grieve, but he could not find it again. It was when they'd stood from the bed, and the cat had jumped to the floor, scurrying away.
"You know," his father had said. "I was afraid he was dying."