“I can’t find Rudy!” Lucy whined.
“Where’d you leave him?” I asked, barely paying attention.
“Well is he there?”
“Then you didn’t leave him there, Luce.”
“Go look for Rudy, hon. Your Dad’s busy.”
Lucy sulked out of the room. I wondered if it’d be a “good dad” thing to help her look, but I figured at some point the kid would have to learn not to leave her things laying around. Self reliance and all that. Like Thoreau talked about, but with more indoor plumbing.
“Found him!” Lucy shrieked from somewhere upstairs.
“Atta girl,” I called back. “Now c’mon down and finish Moana, then we’ll have some dinner.
“I don’t like Moana!” Lucy pouted. “She’s boring.”
“How do you know that if you’ve only seen the first twenty minutes?”
“I just do.”
Lucy stomped down the stairs with Rudy under her arm. I glanced at him. He definitely needed to go through the washing machine. Lucy’s a sleep drooler, just like her mom was. In the time Lucy’d had him, he’d built up quite a rind.
“I think it’s time Rudy gets a bath, Luce.”
She held him at arm’s length, studying him.
“No,” she declared. “He’s fine.”
“Bring him over and let me sniff.”
Lucy rolled her eyes and walked over. I still didn’t know where she learned that. I figured she’d be at least twelve before the eye-rolling phase. Lucky me.
I took Rudy and put him under my nose. He reeked.
“Yeah, no, sorry hon, he’s going in the washing machine. C’mon, let’s go downstairs.”
Lucy’s face darkened.
“I don’t like the basement, Daddy. It’s scary.”
“I know sweetheart, but I’ll be there with you, okay?”
“Mom never made me go down there.”
A frown crossed my face. When Rose, Lucy’s mom, was still with us, we’d have major arguments about our different parenting styles. Rose spoiled that kid rotten. If Lucy wanted something, she’d get it. If she didn’t feel like doing something, Rose would let the matter go.
I’m not like that. And, more often than not, it made me the bad guy in the house. I miss my wife terribly, but I’d be lying if I said her passing hasn’t done a lot to help Lucy grow up.
“Well I’m not Mom, Lucy. Let’s go, you can hold my hand.”
Lucy scowled, but I could see she was actively frightened. I wondered if talking about it might help her realize there was nothing to be scared of.
“What don’t you like about the basement?” I asked.
Lucy looked down and whispered something I couldn’t hear.
“What’d you say, hon?”
She looked up. “The cat.”
Well this was new. “Cat?” I asked. “What cat?”
“The mean one.”
“Luce, we don’t have a cat.”
“He lives in the basement,” she whispered.
“There’s no cat in the basement. C’mon, let’s go.” I held out my hand.
Begrudgingly, Lucy placed her small hand in mine and we headed down the creaky steps.
Okay, I’ll admit it: I guess if you’re six, our basement could be a little scary. It’s unfinished, the stairs are creaky, there’s two old light bulbs hanging from strings, and there are shadowy places behind piles of unused books and furniture. On top of that, the furnace and water heater will click on and off without warning, so if someone doesn’t know about that feature, they might get startled.
“Down we go!” I announced cheerily.
Lucy pulled close as we descended, nearly tripping me when her leg got in front of mine.
“Careful,” I warned, then pulled the chain on the first light at the bottom of the stairs.
“So, where’s the cat?” I asked, scanning the dim, musty cellar.
“I don’t know.”
“Okay then,” I said under my breath, and walked over to the center of the room to turn on the other light. The room brightened. The washing machine and dryer stood on the far side.
“Where’s Rudy?” I asked, noticing Lucy didn’t have him.
“I left him upstairs,” she replied.
I groaned. I hadn’t been paying attention. “Lucy, go get Rudy. Come on, I don’t have time for this.”
Lucy took off like a shot, bounding up the stairs and into the living room above my head.
“Guess she really wanted out of here,” I thought to myself, and started pouring detergent in the washer.
I heard Lucy walking around upstairs. She was taking her time, of course. I caught myself rolling my eyes. I laughed, realizing she’d gotten the habit from me.
“Let’s go, Lucy!” I called. “Stop wasting ti—”
I stopped. Something had moved over by the water heater.
“What the…” I muttered, and squinted my eyes. It really was dim down there.
“I’ll be damned,” I whispered. A cat was staring at me.
“Great,” I thought. That musty smell I’d noticed was probably cat piss.
Lucy stomped and clomped around above my head. She laughed and yelled to Rudy. How someone who weighs almost nothing could make so much noise was something I’d always found bewildering.
The cat stared from its spot on the floor, eyes glinting an ugly yellow in the light from the old overhead bulbs.
“C’mere, you little shit,” I grumbled, and walked toward it. At the same time, I called for Lucy. “Luce, I’m not gonna say it again, get down here with Rudy and we’ll take care of him. And I’ll show you something I found!”
The cat was small and spotted. Looked young. Cute. Healthy, too. God knows there are enough mice down there to keep it fed.
It had probably gotten in when we had contractors working a few months ago — right before Rose passed.
Lucy’s footsteps softened as I heard her approach the basement stairs.
“What do you want to show me?” she asked. There was a hint of fear in her voice.
“I found a new friend,” I replied. “Someone you and Rudy can play with.”
“Is…is it the cat?”
“It’s a nice cat,” I said, cheerily. “Once we take him to the vet and get him his shots, he’ll be part of the family.”
Lucy took a few tentative steps down the stairs. “But he’s scary.”
“How do you know he’s scary, hon? When have you seen him?”
“He used to live outside in the sandbox.”
I scowled. I remembered picking cat shit out of that sandbox a while back.
“I didn’t know that.”
“I didn’t know that, either.”
“When those men were fixing the house I saw him run inside and down the stairs. He hissed at me.”
“Is that why you’re scared, Luce? Because he hissed?”
Lucy had reached the bottom of the stairs with Rudy in tow. She nodded.
“I think he was just scared too, sweetheart.” I scooped her up in my arms, wincing as Rudy passed under my nose. I walked with her over to where the cat was watching. It didn’t run away.
“See how little he is? You’re so much bigger. You don’t need to be afraid. I think he’s a very nice cat and you can be friends. Is that okay?”
Lucy studied the animal for a minute. I felt her head nod against my cheek.
“Good. Now let’s get Rudy into the wash, then you and I can find a nice box for the cat and we’ll bring him for a checkup. How does that sound?”
“Can I give him a name?” Lucy asked.
“Of course, hon. What do you want to call him?”
“I want to call him Rudy.”
“But you already have a Rudy.”
“I know but I want one that’s alive.”
Her words stung. I felt tears welling up in my eyes. “I know you do, my love.” The dam was about to break, and I had a hard time stifling a sob. “I do too.”
I’d thought the passing of Rose would be the worst day of my life. I was wrong. The day after was worse. The day she delivered a stillborn baby.
We had a funeral for them both soon after.
That same night, when the ground was still soft, I snuck in and took our baby home with me. After a few days at my workbench, I’d fixed him up the best I could. He didn’t come out as well as I’d hoped, but he could still be the little brother Rose and I had promised Lucy.
I took Rudy from Lucy’s arms and studied him. He’d seen better days. The treated skin was starting to peel. The hair taken from dolls I’d bought from Goodwill was falling out. Stuffing poked from the holes I’d made to take out all the parts that might spoil.
The cat had wandered over and was rubbing against my legs.
“Look Luce, he’s friendly.” I placed her down. After a few tentative seconds, her hand reached out. The cat studied her for a moment, than brushed his head over her fingers. Lucy beamed.
“So that’s Rudy?” I asked, setting the washer’s most gentle cycle and placing my son inside.
“They’re both Rudy,” she declared, smiling her Jack-o’-lantern smile.
I brushed my hand against my daughter’s soft curls. “A pair of Rudys and a Lucy, huh?” I grinned through my tears.
“I think I can get used to that.”
© Max Lobdell, 2019. May not be reproduced in any format without express written permission.