October 2020

I never cared much about cars as a kid—never cared much about anything Dad liked. The older I got, the more he and I argued. About school. Guys I dated. Hell, who ate the last piece of birthday cake.

My last clear memory of him is my 15th birthday. I’d let a pudgy gray cat follow me home—Nottingham, I think I called it. “I told you no pets, Kerry,” Dad yelled. “Your mom’s allergic, and I’m not paying the extra deposit!” He scooped up the cat and stormed out of the apartment.

Dad died a few weeks later.

I never saw that cat again.

It’s late, and I’m still at Dorsey’s Auto Repair, my place of employment. Dad’s place of employment. After he died, I got more interested in cars. I signed up for Shop class in 12th grade. Enrolled in vo-tech after high school. Cornered Dorsey the day after graduation, announcing I was ready to work. Dorsey was so flustered, he didn’t have the gall to say ‘no’.

Tonight, I’m on the creeper platform, wheeled under Mrs. Moritz’s 2008 Nissan Sentra: 3,000-ish pounds of steel, aluminum, and hand-knitted afghans. Sweet lady. Bad driver. This is the second time we’ve had to replace her catalytic converter because of ‘that ornery curb on Maple Street’ that always seems to jump in front of her car on her way back from the craft store.

I slink my arm behind me and grab another spring bolt. I slab some lube on it and work it into the converter. Two bolts left after this one, and then I can go home.

Something rattles from the storeroom. I jerk in the tight space, almost banging into Mrs. Moritz’s undercarriage. Mice. Dorsey warned me. I don’t usually work this late, so I’ve never heard them before. “Nothing to be scared of,” Dorsey said.

Funny. I’ve seen things that would scare Dorsey way more than mice.

I reach behind me and fumble for the two remaining bolts. I pinch one between my fingers, work it into one of the threaded slots, and tighten it with the torque wrench.

My friends ask if it’s… weird. They always put that pause before ‘weird.’ Is it… weird to work where my dad died? Do I work here out of… (that pause again) family loyalty?

But it’s not loyalty.

See, I’m a good mechanic. Could’ve worked anywhere. I picked Dorsey’s not because of my loyalty. I picked Dorsey’s because of my skills. And I don’t mean my car skills.

When I was seven, Uncle Frank died. At his wake, everyone cried. Everyone except me. I played checkers in the basement. With Uncle Frank. Just like we used to. A shimmering, flickering version of Uncle Frank.

Uncle Frank was the first of many.

Some people stick around the places they die.

‘Haunting’ is too strong a word.

I call it ‘holding.’

I call them ‘holders.’

It doesn’t happen all the time. I can go for months, once even more than a year, between holders. But sometimes… sometimes, I see them. Sometimes, I hear them, feel them. Sometimes, I even get flashes of their lives. Moments that were important to them, even if I don’t always understand the context. Like that girl in the Muppet Babies T-shirt; when she walked closer to me, I flashed on her, many years ago, sitting in a dirty kitchen, eating licorice. The woman with the scar; she whispered in my ear, and I flashed on her, her face smooth and perfect, crying over a torn letter. The young minister; he fumbled to take my hands in his flickering grasp, and I flashed on his church, watching him clutch his chest and keel over.

I don’t know if Dad’s a holder. But since I was 15 years old, I’ve needed him to be. Needed to see him again. Needed to understand why he did what he did. It’s why I started working at Dorsey’s. The place where he worked. The place where he died. The place where he took his own life.

I reach back and run my hand along the cold concrete floor.

The final bolt is gone.

I swallow hard.

I know better than to hope. Know how unpredictable holdings and holders are. Know I probably just knocked the bolt aside.

I whisper it anyway: “Dad?”

I slowly roll the creeper out and stand. I wipe my greasy hands on my coveralls, more routine than formality. Dad won’t care.

There’s a rustling in the storeroom. And a faint clinking.

Maybe it’s not mice after all.

I edge to the small room, peeking into the doorway. Inside, dead-center, batting around the bolt, is a cat. No. Not a cat. The cat. Nottingham. The tubby gray tabby I snuck into the apartment as a teenager.

The cat flickers, shimmers. It’s a holder.

I laugh. This is a first. “What are you doing here, Naughty Boy?” I ask, immediately remembering the nickname.

Head cocked curiously, Nottingham meows at me before rearing back on gray haunches and leaping onto a metal shelf. I watch, amused, as the holder-cat jumps between two shelving units, higher and higher. Nottingham stops at a cardboard box near the top, tail twitching, and turns to me, releasing a pained mew.

“What’s in there, Naughty Boy?”

I push over Dorsey’s footstool, step up, and pull down the box. Nottingham is back on the ground before I am.

I strip off yellowed tape and open the dusty box. It’s one of Dorsey’s junk caches. The cat head-butts the box, and I start unpacking items. Metal scraps. Bolts. Lugs.

But that’s not all I unpack. I see images, flashes—like the flashes I sometimes see from human holders, but softer, less focused. Dad petting Nottingham as he drives from our house. Dad making Nottingham a cozy bed in this very box. Dad hiding Nottingham under Dorsey’s nose all those years ago.

When I get to the bottom of the box, there’s something else. Seven somethings, in fact.

Because Nottingham isn’t a naughty boy. She’s a desperate mama.

Seven shimmering kittens, each of them holders, mew as Nottingham hops inside, nuzzling them. I see a flash of Nottingham giving birth one night, Dad watching over them, nervous but fascinated. He looks excited, like when he used to try to teach me about engines. But also… he’s about to cry. I don’t think I ever saw him cry when he was alive, but it’s like I know that look on him. Like I know him. He holds something in his hands. The vision is fading, so I struggle, concentrate, and I just barely make it out. It’s a photo. Him and me. That summer when I was eight and we went to Six Flags. He looks from the photo to the kittens and back to the photo again.

The flash dissolves.

I’m back in the present.

I know if I wanted, I could see more flashes—flashes of what happened to the cats, how they ended up as holders in Dorsey’s storeroom.

But I don’t want to. Don’t need to. Just because something ended—even ended horribly—doesn’t mean there wasn’t still goodness, still happiness, still gray-fluffball sweetness before that.

Maybe that’s enough.

I scurry to Mrs. Moritz’s car, grab one of her afghans, and return to the box. The babies knead their tiny paws on Nottingham’s belly. I whisper, “Good girl,” and lay the afghan around them.

I don’t know if they can feel it.

But I sure can.

Your thoughts?