Cat in the Car – New Fiction by Sancia Milton

Joint Winner of The Letter Review Prize for Short Fiction

I have never been the kind of woman to worry about men, except when they’re over seventy-percent ugly. Then, I’m in trouble. 

It’s always been that way, since the first greasy boy made his hunched-backed debut in my elementary school, and there was no growing out of it; I get intrigued by them—it’s uncontrollable—I catch myself staring, talking, walking over to his booth or barstool like a beetle to lamplight—

Men like Henrich. 

Two years ago, at 12 p.m. on a hot Saturday in August, I walked into Bartee Jim’s Diner, settled myself at the biggest table, and ordered pancakes for five. I dug elbow, hand, and chin into the mountain of syruped carbohydrates. I was alone and thought, in that ‘trying-not-to-think’ way, about how I had once ordered the same thing for three kids and a husband; it tasted different in those days. The table was not so big.

Then, in walked a mediocre blond man who was too tall to be full-ugly but otherwise had a thin neck and a complexion of summer-time sauerkraut. He held the door open for a gnarled old couple, and he smiled as they passed. He was pinked with an Arizona sunburn and his skinny arms were discolored in patches. I bit my lip. Chewed it like uncooked pancake.

He complimented the waitress on her hair—that sad mess of brown on her unfortunate forehead—and he sat at the table for two nearest to me. He ordered a black coffee and stared out the window like a large, panting dog. I bent over my pancakes and took another bite.

“Anything else I can get you, Ms. Kat?”

“That man’s name,” I said.

The waitress looked down at me with her little-girl eyes. The man looked up.

“I can’t do that, Ms. Kat—”

“Hey Haagen-Dazs, what’s your name? Don’t be shy, you know I’m talking about you. You’re the only hay-haired giant in this place.”

He was watching me with those awfully blue eyes.


“Right,” I said, and I sneered at the waitress. “See how easy that was. Customer service my ass.”

She walked away and I put my money on the table. I walked over to that cowering potato salad and slapped his arm.

“You should come home with me,” I said. “I can show you around the States. Got a Costco card and a pretty decent lawn chair and everything. The real American dream out here. So why don’t you let that coffee go because you know you don’t want it anyway, and we’ll get out of here. You got a car?”

Henrich never stopped staring at me. Those eyes again. Sharp like nails on a chalkboard in my head—my lip curled.

“I’ll finish my coffee first.”

I raised an eyebrow. 

“If that’s what you’re calling coffee, that’s fine, whatever, go for it. Can’t imagine anyone’s ever finished a cup of Bartee Jim’s black coffee before.”

I walked out of the diner and into the hot light of the afternoon. Everything was dead then, and everything is still dead around here two years later. The light in Arizona will always fall flat against the roads, like a bad joke. 

While I waited for Henrich, I leaned back against the dusted wall of the diner and stared at the heat waves around me. I thought about Margie, Ted, and Blue in their swampy kiddy pool. I thought about the water guns and slip ’n slides and other junk that a good parent would probably buy them in the summertime, and I wondered if Ed had thought to buy them anything like that. If they had enough food in the fridge for breakfast this morning. If he was taking care of them at all. 

I shook my head. I thought instead about the little white fuzz on Henrich’s upper lip, like a small strip of cat fur, and how I’d like to wax it off. 

I was never the sort of woman to worry much at all, but I know a thing or two about semi-ugly men, and I know a thing or two about myself. Three kids who you can’t see and six months in jail will teach you things like that.


It has been two years since I met Henrich. I’m driving my boss’ cat to Provo, Utah, because he was sharing custody of the animal with his ex-wife, and I need the cash. We’ve been at war (the cat and I) for the entire ride—the shriek of its indignant screaming against my spotty radio heavy metal. 

I pull over for a sandwich in the hot wind of Fillmore. When I climb out of the car, I slam the door hard. That fucking yowling skunk.

The gas station has walls like dry knuckles. When I open the door, it lets out a whimper. I approach the balding man at the counter and purchase a pre-made B.L.T. There is an empty table by the window with a single chair (all the tables here have single chairs), and I take a seat with my company of six varied condiment packages. I slather both pieces of bread in mayo and mustard, inadvertently painting my nails with the stuff. I push the sandwich into my mouth with all ten fingers. 

A sauerkraut man walks in, and my heart stops for a moment because I swear to God it’s Henrich, it’s Henrich, but then he turns. I spit and hang my head. I fall uncontrollably into memory.


Standing outside the diner, I inevitably became bored and began to walk away.

“I thought you were going to wait outside,” Henrich said from behind me.

I turned and there he was, his skin washed-out like a ghost in the afternoon. Sweat was already beading around his tiny eyes.

“Where’s your car?”

“I do not have a car. I’m Haagen-Dazs, yeah?”

“Well, then what are we going to do?”

“You were going to show me around.”

I huffed.

“You won’t last in this heat. I’ll have to fireman carry your melted body back to Bartee Jim’s.”

“I can go back inside, then.”

I crossed my arms.

“Follow me.”

We walked for a mile down the street, until the buildings began to shrink away into sparse and wavering homes. I still remember how it smelled, like sweat and beat-up trucks.

“Let me ask you something,” Henrich said, looking up at the sky. His eyes were so clear and blue that it seemed like the sky was looking at itself.

“Only if I can ask you something first.”

“That is fine.”

I looked up into his face, all the soft lines of chin and cheeks.

“Why are you here? What goddamn kind of monster brought you here?”

 He shrugged and said, “Vacation.” 

“That’s a load. Even the dumbest, cheapest sucker in the world wouldn’t spend their vacation hours on a place like this hot armpit of a town, I can tell you that. So, who died? When’s the funeral? Or you on your way to Vegas? Get lost looking for Hollywood? ’Cause let me tell you, you’re a long way off, schnitzel-man, but if you start walking now, you might make it by Oktoberfest.”

Henrich looked at the sky thoughtfully. I looked up, too, but there was nothing to see. I glanced back at him, and he was still neck-back and staring at all that blue.

“So? What—” 

“I think it is beautiful here. Don’t you?”

I choked. 

“Beautiful? There is nothing here, and definitely nothing beautiful, unless you like shrubs and diabetes. Nothing but a soul-sucking heat and a few dull, complacent people—that’s what the heat does to you. It takes the soul straight outta you, turns you to a raisin.”

“A raisin?”

“Yeah, you know. A dried grape. Evaporates the fucking life out of you.”

But he was shaking his head.

“No, no I don’t think so,” he said and wiped sweat from his forehead with a thin hand. “It is so empty, and so there is much room to think here. I am stopping for a few days before I catch a bus to visit my brother, and I have liked it.”

We walked. I had always wanted brothers. Sisters, too. And kids and cats and maybe a rabbit, that would be nice, and people to visit in the summer. I had always wanted to say, I am stopping for a few days before I catch a bus to visit ___. 

“Where is your brother?”


Henrich was talking long, slow steps down the sidewalk. He was so thin everywhere, except for the little kangaroo-pouch of his stomach. I wondered things about him.

“Do you like him?” I asked. “Your brother?”

He stopped walking, just for a moment. He looked me full in the face.

“He is my brother.”

I continued to walk.

“Well, I don’t have a brother or a sister, so I wouldn’t know,” I said. “I had step siblings, but they were so much older that it wasn’t the same.”

In my periphery, I watched him inspect my face. I kept my expression empty. Over the last year, I had gone about methodically draining all emotion from my body, and by then it had mostly left my face for good. And so, my eyes were lingering dully over the horizon when he said—

“You were lonely?”

I could no longer look away. I met his eyes—those hard, tiny eyes, like a bird through the window. I squinted into them.

“What are you, a fucking shrink? See, you don’t know the first thing about Americans, so let me tell you, we don’t talk like that. Say stuff like that, you know, the stuff that means something, because this is a democracy and that means we’re all politicians, here.”

We walked. I remember the way our footsteps hit the pavement, completely off-beat with one another, like two children playing drums. It was a stupid sound.

 “You will show me the town, then?” 


We continued down the street, and my breath was coming in ragged huffs. My shirt clung wetly to my lower back. I looked up at Henrich.

“So, what do you want to see here? The gas station? The Starbucks?”

“What do you do for fun?”

“Here? We don’t—”

I stopped. We were at an intersection, and on the corner across from us, there was a young girl, skipping, her small hand nestled in her father’s. 

“We don’t—” 

I tore my eyes away. Henrich was watching me.

“Sorry,” I said and hated the word.

“You have kids?” he asked. 

We waited for a truck to moan past us, our hands shielding our eyes from the dust.

“I did.” 


“Look, we really don’t got anything for fun here, in case the sand and the goddamn sun didn’t make it clear enough, but why don’t you come back to my place. I think you and I can think of something fun to do.”

He was looking down at me again with his bird-eyes and his ugly, melting face. I wanted to put my hand to his forehead and wipe it dry.

He shrugged.

“Where is your home?” he asked.

“Follow me.”


Three years ago, I lived in a different house. At Christmas time, Ed and I bought a cat for the kids—a good present, considering the decrepit, dysfunctional way we lived. Ed and I almost looked like proper parents with the way we wrangled the cat into a fat, red bow and coaxed it into a wrapped box on Christmas morning. Margie wanted to name it after herself, but of course Ted started whining, and so Blue said they should name it Juno-Edward, after Ed and me, instead. Margie said it was too long, so Blue said that they’d call it JunE, with a capital E. Ted used to laugh every time he said it—JunE—and let me tell you, that fucker has the best laugh you’ve ever heard.

Three years ago, I came straight home from work on a Tuesday afternoon, as I always did, and Ed was drunk in the yard with that friend of his, Jonas, as he always was, and they were shooting beer cans off the fence, as they always did, and the cat was dead in front of them. Sprawled on the short, brown grass, about a foot away from the kiddy pool. I remember the way its little mouth gaped. The dirty, red hole through its chest. I remember the flies on the lawn above it, how they hovered like little buzzing angels above its paws and soft ears.

“What did you do, Ed?” I said, and he didn’t hear. He was handing his friend Jonas a beer. Their heads rolled back in ugly, slurring laughs. 

I remember thinking about little Ted, and how he would never laugh about that cat’s name again, and how Margie would sob louder than any girl you’d ever heard, and how Blue would try to comfort them all and cry to himself after the others were asleep, and how there was nothing I could do to stop it. Ed didn’t even realize what he had done. What he was about to have done to Ted and Margie and Blue. I thought about the cruelty of it all—the guttural, inescapable awfulness—and something in me simply tore off. Some innocence, some hangnail dangling off my girlish heart—simply gone. And I would never see it again.

I went into the kitchen to get a trash bag. I bagged up that furry body, while Ed and Jonas continued to shoot beer cans and laugh with their hands over their swollen stomachs. I thought about Ted. Margie and Ted and Blue. I laid JunE in the bag and carried her small body high into the mountains. I walked for hours to the sound of my children’s names—Margie and Ted and Blue and Margie and Ted and Blue. Behind me, I dragged that black bag like penance. I walked and thought about Christmas, thought about the empty, blue iris of sky around me, thought about nothing. I buried JunE in the brush.

That night, after I put the kids to bed and told them about the coyote that killed JunE and the certain existence of heaven and the special place where all the good cats go, I found Ed at the bar. I found that motherfucker at the bar, and I grabbed the front of his sweat-through shirt, and I screamed into his vacant, gray eyes, and I pounded my fists into his temples, yelling in the deepest, loudest tenor of rage, digging my nails into the rough skin of his cheek, howling at this despicable body of a man, this loathsome excuse of a father, this pathetic, drunken fuck, the kind of creature that only the worst sort of woman would marry, the sort of woman who would later try to tear a hole through his fat, empty chest, try to gut him through, try to make him feel all the unspeakable things she felt, until his friend Jonas pulled her away, and until his friend Jonas became a man in a blue uniform, and until her screams faded into sirens, into silence.   


“You believe in God?” I asked Henrich from across the mattress. His bare feet were hanging off the end.


“I don’t. I believe in a homemade B.L.T. and myself. Two things that I can control.”

He thought about this. 

“I do not think we can control ourselves, though. That is why I believe in God. So, we are the same; we believe in what controls us.”

I rolled onto my side and stared at that soft, pink face. He was an awkward-looking man, a mediocre lover. There was a smudge of lipstick down his cheek. I wanted to move closer to him, to rub that red smudge off his skin with my thumb, gently.

“If you believe in God, why fuck a rando in the middle of Arizona? Just being in this hellhole has gotta be enough of a sin.”

He shook his head, beginning to smile.

“And anyway,” I continued. “The whole idea of sin is just crap to make people feel guilty for being the monsters that your so-called God created in the first place. And I don’t know about you, but I sure hope there’s no floating, magic man who woke up one day and willfully created us—as in, humanity—knowing the kind of bullshit we’d come up with.”

I glanced at Henrich across the empty expanse of mattress between us, and he smiled wider.

“Is that really what you think of the world?”


But he had begun to laugh, and I felt my face growing hot.

“I mean—”

His laughter. His teeth flashing white in the dim, shuttered room.

“Don’t laugh at me, you fucking bratwurst,” I said. “Don’t—”  

“You are so funny. You think so much, about all the wrong things.”

“I do not! I—”

“But I like it. You are honest.” 

I looked away. My face felt feverish, like it did so often when I was a girl. 

“Is something wrong? Honesty is good. It is a compliment. I like you.”

“No, I get it, it’s just—” 

But then I turned back to him, and his hand was running toward my shoulder, and the space between us was becoming smaller, and smaller, until we filled it entirely with each other.


It was our third day together, and Henrich’s bus to Phoenix was not leaving for another few days. We woke up slowly, and between kisses. 

“Did you sleep well?” he asked, his fingers twisting in my hair.

“Like a fucking boulder. Did you?”

“Oh yes,” he said, and then he smiled. “Do you know, you have the most beautiful hair. Like—how do you say it—the women in the sea?”

I looked down.

“You mean a mermaid?” 

“A mermaid, yes, you have hair like a mermaid. It is so bright.”

“It’s going gray.” I looked up at him quickly. “Did you have any dreams last night?”

“Dreams?” he said, tilting his head. “I do not think so. Did you?”

“No. Not really, no.”

He smiled softly.

“You are very beautiful,” he said in a low voice.

“That’s nice of you,” I said and looked away again.


“When will you get a table?” Henrich asked. We sat on my futon, eating scrambled eggs.

“When I need one.”

“But what if people come over? Where will your friends sit?”

“It’s not like that around here—people don’t just come over. They sit on their assess and watch minor league baseball and threaten divorce when they get bored. Entertaining guests isn’t part of that fucking life.” 

“It is all so sad,” he said.

“It’s just Arizona.”

He shook his head. “I do not understand why you hate this place so much. But still, you must find people who will come over. Your family, at least. People make things better.”

Then, he began to smile. “Maybe I am the first one.”

“The first person to come over to this goddamn dump? God, what politician did you kill to deserve something like this?”

He tilted his head at me. “I do not understand. I like this place, and I like you. I have told you.”

“That’s a load,” I said, putting my plate on the coffee table and retreating back into the bedroom.

“You do not believe me?” He was following.

I turned around and rolled my eyes. 

“Look, you can tell me that you like me before you fuck me, I get it, it’s what men do, but there’s no need to say it now.”

“You think I am lying to you? Just to have sex with you?”

“Look, I just—” 

I looked up at him. Those blue eyes, and the translucent streaks of his eyelashes, the dark patch in his right eyebrow. 

“Sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. Look, do you want to head out? Come and get groceries with me? I’m always out of something.”

There was a long silence, during which I thought about all the blue lakes and morning glories that God let die so that he could bury them in Henrich’s eyes. I wondered what it was like to have something so beautiful right there in your own head.

“Okay,” he said at last. He brushed my hair behind my ear and smiled.


That afternoon, we were sitting on my bed, a deck of cards on the mattress between us.

“I do not understand,” he said for the tenth time. I was explaining the elaborate rules of a card game that Ted had come up with, which involved a mix of poker, go-fish, and wrestling. Henrich was massaging his forehead with his thumb and forefinger.

“C’mon Einstein, even I figured it out quicker than this.”

“Well, you are a smart woman, and I am sauerkraut,” he said. 

I grinned—what a funny sight that must have been.

“Since when do you tell the jokes around here?” I said, and he chuckled. “And besides, I’m not even a little bit of a smart woman.”

When I glanced up from the cards I was shuffling, he was looking at me oddly.

“You are a very smart woman. A smart, funny, beautiful woman. You keep saying things—you say that you do not agree, but it is all true. I see it all. You are so smart, and still, you cannot see all these good things—why?”

He reached his hand up to my cheek. 

In my memory, his fingers are still hanging there, suspended in the tense air an inch from my face, and I am about to close my eyes against the touch of them. In my memory, I am a beautiful woman, sitting on a mattress, waiting with my eyes closed in the slanted light of the four o’clock sun. But memory is faulty in heat like this, and when Henrich reached for me, my head snapped back like whiplash, and the playing cards flew outwards, and I nearly tumbled from the mattress, mumbling, “You should go. You should go, I think—”

Henrich’s arm hung in the air between us like a dead branch. His startled eyes were so beautifully blue as he looked at me, but there were things that I could not undo, and there were uncontrollable events that I could not stop myself from continuing, and there was an inevitability to it all that no amount of beauty or ugliness could change. His expression began to fall into confusion.

“I do not understand—”

“Get out.”

A look of misunderstanding—no, a look of sadness.

“I said, get out, you fucking bratwurst, get the fuck out of my house. I think you can understand that fucking English, right? Get the fuck out. Get out, get out!”

A pillow hitting the wall, a swarm of playing cards taking flight, a man standing up and blocking the sun. The white breath of sheets thrown cruelly into the air. 

“You’ve seen enough of goddamn Arizona, right? Seen what we do for fun here, seen the American summer, seen it all, yeah? So why don’t you fucking move on, go on and get out of this place, like every other fucker with a half a brain? Why don’t you get the fuck out of here?”

He was stumbling to gather his things, his eyes as wide as a boy’s.

“Why don’t you get the fuck out,” I said between what must have been tears.

His shirt was crumpled around his belly. His hair was unwashed and sticking up like tiny mountain peaks, and I had no right to want to smooth it down.

I sat on my mountain of sheets and playing cards, and I screamed. Cracked myself open from the jaw outwards. 

“You never should have come here!” I spat. “You never should have come here, you fucking lager, you fucking schnitzel—you fuck!”

When he had all his clothes and his things collected in his arms, he looked back at me from the bedroom doorway. He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it. 

“There we go, take your fucking lederhosen, and get on your fucking bus, and get the fuck out of here, like everyone else! Get out of here like everyone fucking else!”

His eyes were awfully, awfully blue when he left. 


On the way to Provo, sitting in the gas station, I continue to eat my B.L.T. long after the man-who-was-not-Henrich purchased a soda and left. I hunch, rodent-like, over my food, and occasionally steal furtive glances out the window. Filmore is desolate around me, so I return to my memories of the tall, ugly man who lived with me for three days in August.

Three peculiar, singular days, which are imprisoned now within the tight jar of my nostalgia. We went to dinner together the day we met and spent an hour or so arguing over our favorite children’s movies (something German or The Lion King). The next morning, we woke up late and he made eggs. I brought him outside to the hole in my fence, and we took turns pressing our cheeks to the wood, watching the hummingbirds at my neighbor’s feeder. He told me that I should buy a feeder for myself, but I said I didn’t need to, my neighbor had a nice one, and anyway, it would just be another thing to fill up, take care of, look after—

My eyes fly open wide. Shit. I’m taking care of my boss’ cat, shit, I’m taking his cat across Utah in August, and I’ve left it shut in a car like a turkey in an oven, and here I am drooling over my memories and a B.L.T.—I bang my knee on the table fly back to my car and yank open the door and grab that mass of fur and press the meowing thing against my Target tee shirt and collapse, cursing. The cat yowls, very much alive. It wriggles free from me and scratches a long red line down my forearm as it scampers back into the car.

“Fucking hell.”

In the shade of my parked car, with my hair knotted up by the wind, I sit back on my heels and think of a man with a strip of cat fur over his upper lip. A strange, hot feeling rises through me, up into my eyes and onto my cheeks.

A woman in an ugly dress approaches me.

“Are you alright, Ma’am?”

“Fine. Just had to make sure my damn cat was stayin’ alive.”

“Your cat? Does it need some water? I work right over—”

“It’s fine, we’ll be fine. I’m just learning how to take care of things is all.”

She gives me a funny look.

“Are you sure you’re alright Ma’am?”

“You ever taken care of something? Like really taken care of something, you know, treated it well, been good, done all that? Isn’t easy, that’s for damn sure. It isn’t easy to be plain good.”

The woman begins to walk away, slowly, nodding as you would to a wild animal. 

“Right, well, I’m in here if you need—”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake.”

I stand up and get in the car, and the cat and I drive toward Provo in silence. 

When I go home again, I will collect the money from my boss and buy a big, beautiful dining room table. Something the kids will like, someday.

Sancia Milton is a second year undergraduate at Duke University, where she is studying Biology and English. She is from San Diego, California, and she spends her free time going to the beach, reading, and walking her two dogs. She has written short stories and poetry for years, and she hopes to continue to do so post-graduation.