After Chloe’s last suicide attempt, the one with the grapefruit knife, her father, Greer Burton cleaned out the storage space above his garage. He horsed an exam table destined for scrap off the University Hospital’s loading dock and bumped it up his back stairs with the hospital’s dolly. He purchased a cut-rate x-ray machine from a shady Russian named Yuri over in Las Cruces and then conned Phyllis Trincado from Invidrogen into letting him demo the rest of what he needed. Two of the four chairs from his dining room were taken hostage and placed next to a coffee table he’d found at Goodwill. The magazines that he fanned out there were mostly old and mostly his dead wife’s.
Small animals and exotics were examined upstairs. Anything large or bleeding, Greer motioned into the vacant stall next to his Buick LeSabre.
One afternoon, as he hosed matted horse fur from the floor of his garage, three Mexicans drove up with a longhorn steer bumping around in the payload of their pickup.
“You that vet?” the driver of the truck yelled over the idling engine.
Greer looked over at Chloe. When she was upstairs, he handcuffed her to the radiator. When she was down here, he shackled her to the door handle of his car. He knew how bad it looked, but things were exactly this bad or worse. Something had unraveled in his daughter and keeping her close was the only way he thought he everything in her might be spooled up again.
“You the vet?” the man asked him again.
“Sure,” he said. “For now.”
For the first month it was all word of mouth, this impromptu animal husbandry of Greer’s. He’d taken a leave of absence from his immunology research at the University to take over Chloe’s corporeal care. When money ran short, he’d let slip to a select few that he could take a look at their pets to make ends meet. He hadn’t expected much more than the occasional dog or cat, but then people began to show up on his doorstep at all hours.
A Flemish rabbit with ears the length of Greer’s entire arm. A yellow lab that had swallowed a ziplocked bag of weed. A man holding an entire pickle bucket full of angry white rats.
Whatever they brought, Greer did what he could. When he could not anything he took some horse tranquilizer from his lockbox and made these animals very comfortable.
“You are just like a regular vet,” everyone told him. “Except that you are way cheaper.”
* * *
One Sunday in June, Greer’s neighbor, Randy Wright, rolled up Greer’s driveway. Greer watched from the dormer as Randy pulled an antique birdcage out of the passenger seat of his Jeep and lugged a large blue bird up the stairs.
“I bought him from a street vendor two weeks ago,” Randy said. “Thought the damn thing would be better company than a radio.”
Chloe was sitting on the floor across the room. Her handcuffs clinked over the door handle of the refrigerator whenever she shifted her body. The meds that Greer forced past her tongue each morning were giving her nosebleeds and the two wads of Kleenex she had shoved up her nostrils protruded like small tusks. She wore one of Greer’s old cowboy shirts with pearl snap buttons and a pair of his chinos that had faded to the color of twine. In the last few weeks most of her clothes had been spattered with blood – what her psychiatrist, Dr. Gupta, called “an unfortunate side effect of the side effects” and now Greer had begun to raid his own closet, dress her in clothes he himself hadn’t seen fit to wear in years.
“Gretchen says hola,” Randy told Chloe.
Gretchen was Randy’s daughter. She was the same age as Chloe, a rail-thin girl who before Wright’s divorce Greer had often saw driving on the dirt road into town, her hands set rigidly on the wheel at ten and two. Gretchen had played on the same volleyball team as Chloe before Chloe started to stab and cut and swallow anything she could to help her depart the earth.
“Then tell her hola back,” Chloe snapped.
Randy flopped down on the couch in the waiting area, pinched a mint from the candy dish.
“I’d apologize for Chloe’s manners,” Greer told him. “But it would just make it worse for both of us.”
Wright nodded knowingly. The men had been semi-decent friends when Greer’s wife, Cathy, was still alive. They had once gone on a golf junket in Myrtle Beach and gotten wasted enough one night to run naked into the ocean together. Since Cathy had died and Randall had split with Lisa, neither of them had made much of an effort to remain friends.
Greer took a tongue depressor from the drawer in the exam table, pried open the bird’s mouth.
“How long has he been like this?” Greer asked.
“Couple of days I guess,” Randy said. “He’s usually a funny son of a bitch. He knows a bunch of jokes. Before all this, I used to sit on the porch with a beer and have him tell joke after joke to me. Damn thing really cheered me up.”
Since Greer had opened this clinic, he had a sense that he’d missed his calling, that he had wasted his time in the lab with all of the bubbling Erlandmeyers and multi-channel pipettes and all those damn grant applications. He was much better with live animals. Science was exciting when he was younger, but now there was too much unknowable for him, things were too theoretical, there was too much idle chatter about whys and wherefores. His last few years in the lab felt like he was fumbling in the darkness for light switch and that even when the light got turned on, it was disappointing and sad, too dim to even make the roaches scatter.
Greer took a package of saltines from a cabinet drawer and set a couple in front of the parrot. The bird ambled toward the cracker. It poked his beak into a chunk of it and leaned its head back and swallowed. After he finished the cracker, he opened his beak and whispered something. Greer leaned in, but what the bird said was too low and breathy for him to hear.
“What the hell is he yacking about?” he asked Randy.
“Hell if I know,” Randy told him. “I can’t figure out anything he’s been saying lately.”
Greer got up and walked over to the corner of the room. Before he’d turned this into a clinic, before Chloe had begun to attempt suicide so often and in so many various and creative ways, her band, the Whorphans, had used it as a rehearsal space. All of their equipment remained behind — Cassidy’s drums stacked under a tarp in the corner, Erica’s keyboard tipped on its end along the south wall. After a month or two of requisite concern from the bandmates after Chloe’s first attempt, they’d both stopped calling.
Greer plugged the microphone into the amp, put it up to the bird’s mouth. The animal was a goner, he knew that for certain, but there was something else, a look in the bird’s eye that said he wanted to relay something very important to them before he passed on.
“What?” Greer asked the bird. “What’s so goddamn urgent?”
Greer noticed that Chloe was staring at the bird, waiting to see what he would say. The shirt of his that she was wearing slipped down off her shoulder. She removed the Kleenex from her nose and a small stream of blood trickled over her lips and into her mouth.
Greer stood and watched the bird. The parrot opened his beak, but instead of anything cogent what came out was a bunch of unintelligible hiss and crackle. It resembled words, but words that were missing their vowels.
“I am going to find that street vendor and kick his ass,” Randy said. “That’s my next move here.”
Greer stared down onto his driveway. He watched another car drive up and a man pull a small bear on a leash out of his back seat. Greer was already a little drunk and assumed that his eyes were playing tricks on him, that it was probably, in the end, just a fat brown dog.
He passed Randy the bottle of Jim Beam that he always sipped on while he worked out here. Randy took a long pull, wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
“Love him while he’s alive to love,” Greer told him.
* * *
Greer had hired a Dutch woman named Inge Hammaart to watch Chloe on Thursdays. Greer played in a dart league with his former co-workers from the university. Inge came highly recommended from a colleague, Doug Wentz, who’d hired her for his wife, Beverly, who could not stop drinking rubbing alcohol. When they met the first time, Inge handed Greer a business card that read, “Inge Hammaart, Sober Companion.” According to Chloe it might as well have also said “Shadowing Bitch.”
“She makes me shit with the door open,” she told Greer. “I have to push and grunt right in front of her fucking butter face.”
Tonight on the way home from darts, Greer stopped off at the convenience store and bought ice cream sandwiches. When he got home, Chloe was curled up on the couch under a blanket. Greer sat down next to her and slid his fingers into her short hair, something she had, up until a couple of months ago, loved, but now like everything else, she either ignored or railed against.
“How was she tonight?” he asked Inge.
“The same,” Inge told him. “I try to play cards with her, but she never picks up her hand.”
Inge went into the kitchen to gather up her purse and her coat. Chloe pushed Greer’s hand out of her hair. She sat up and took a swallow of water. There was no calming his daughter now, she fought both affection and anger.
“I hate that fat dyke,” she said. “Why would I play cards with someone who stares at my snatch when I take a piss?”
Greer unwrapped Chloe’s ice cream sandwich for her. He sat down in the recliner next to the couch and while he ate his, he watched her chew and swallow. She’d gained weight in the last few weeks, had grown a little potbelly that paunched over his ancient pair of ancient sweatpants, the ones that he’d worn all throughout grad school. Her belly was a positive thing, wasn’t it?
“Maybe she’s turning it around,” he’d suggested to Dr. Gupta on their last visit. “She’s eating better.”
“More than likely that she’s trying to lull you to sleep before another opportunity presents itself,” Gupta told him. “That’s what she’s all about right now. That’s what she’ll be about for a long time.”
After Chloe finished eating, she got up and walked into the kitchen. Greer rose from his chair and followed right behind her. They were basically tethered to each other now. When her personal space had disappeared, his had too.
“She’s the opposite of MacGyver,” Inge had told him the other night. “Instead of saving herself by making a knife out of a bed spring, she’ll use it to stab herself in the heart.”
In a CD player by his bedside, Greer had the only recorded music that The Whorphans had ever made, this tinny sounding CD of three songs that were recorded at Scooter’s — a teen club in town.
Most nights, after he crawled under his sheets, after he’d strapped Chloe into her bed with the leather straps he’d bought from a man in Ohio in an online auction, he popped the disc into the CD player.
“Maybe you could pick up your guitar later,” he said to her now. “Maybe your guitar would help.”
* * *
Another Saturday, a couple of weeks after the parrot, a man named Karpus showed up wanting to connect a pair of hawk’s wings to his cat. The hawk was dead, his cat was not. He cradled his cat in the crooks of his elbow. It would meow for a bit, but then it would cough. Greer thought the coughing sounded bizarre. It sounded nearly human, like some old codger with late stage emphysema.
“Are you kidding?” Greer asked. “Is this some sort of joke?”
Karpus took the dead hawk out of his briefcase and set it gently down on the exam table.
“This bird’s been dead about 15 minutes,” Karpus said. Greer looked at the hawk. It had a tread mark running along down its abdomen, but the wings were still intact. Karpus could certainly see the reluctance in his Greer’s face, reluctance was something that Greer had never been good at hiding.
“If Whiskers could talk he would tell you that this was his dying wish,” Karpus explained. “To be able to finally fly.”
This line even got a chuckle out of Chloe. She was paging through a magazine and Greer turned around to look at her just in time to see her roll her eyes.
Undeterred, Karpus spread out fifty crisp one-hundred dollar bills on the operating table. Greer tried not to look at the money, but then Karpus picked it up and waved it in front of Greer’s face. Whenever Greer saw money lately he immediately thought about how much Inge cost, how his mortgage was killing him, how much Chloe’s meds ran every month, even with the co-pay.
“You understand that this is never going to work,” he told Karpus. “You know that, right?”
* * *
Greer knocked the cat out, made a small incision above his shoulder blade. He’d thought this procedure over for about a total of about ten seconds. He knew this was not going to work, the cat would die within the week, either from trauma or infection, but Greer was just drunk enough not to care.
Karpus sat down across the room. He looked over at Chloe sitting there with her wrist handcuffed to the refrigerator. She had dozed off, had her mouth wide open, a bead of drool in the corner of her mouth that extended all the way to the floor.
“What’s with the girl?” Karpus asked him. “You a kidnapper too?”
Greer ignored him. He took a sip off his bottle and took a scalpel and sliced off the wings off the hawk. He trimmed the wings back until he thought he had what looked like viable tissue. He began to suture the first wing, weaving a needle in and out of the opening in the cat’s back.
Whiskers looked dead, his tongue flopping out of the side of his mouth, his hips splayed wide open. His breath was soldiering on though, his little cat stomach moving up and down nice and regular. After he’d attached the second wing, Greer closed up the cat, wrapped and taped the down the wings to his torso.
“If he’s breathing in two weeks,” he told Karpus, “then bring him back.”
* * *
During the next week or so, Chloe seemed to improve. Greer didn’t know if it was her new round of meds starting to find their way into the dark recesses of her brain or if she was honest-to-god feeling better about life and its prospects, but a couple of nights after he’d operated on Whiskers, Chloe went over and picked up her electric guitar, tuned it and then strummed out a few chords.
“Are you taking requests?” Greer asked her.
“It depends on what you request,” she said.
“How about ‘Crush All the Venture Capitalists?” This was Greer’s favorite Whorphans song. It had a driving guitar and pounding drums and Chloe’s piercing voice screaming over the top of all of it.
She brought her guitar up and strummed a few chords slowly, searching her brain for the rhythm. She paused for a second, but then suddenly she jumped right into it. She thrashed out the chords and then screamed out the first verse. When she was just about to get to the chorus, Greer’s favorite part, her voice trailed off.
“That’s all I can remember right now,” she said.
The color that she’d had in her cheeks a moment ago had drained away. Greer saw a trickle of blood start snake out of her nostril. He handed her a paper towel and she wiped it away.
“Maybe you can try again later,” he said.
She slumped down on the couch and closed her eyes. She wrapped her arms around her body and sat there holding herself, like there was a leak inside her body that she was trying to stop.
“Maybe,” she said.
* * *
Karpus showed up two weeks later with Whiskers. He was still alive, but barely. Greer had wrapped Whiskers’ wings tight to his body and when he cut away the tape the cat’s new wings flopped out flaccidly and hit the floor. The stitches looked like they had actually taken root. For a minute or two they all stood there and watched Whiskers walk around. It was clear that the cat couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on. He spun in a tiny circle trying to get a good look at his new wings.
They all watched the cat lurch around the room for about 10 minutes, his wings dragging on the floor. But then Greer saw them move. It was just a quick uptick, just up a millimeter or two, but once Whiskers did it, once the wings lifted off the floor, his cat lips pursed into what Greer could have sworn was a goddamn grin.
“I told you!” Karpus yelled.
Chloe had been watching all this. She stood up and pulled at her handcuffs to get closer look at the cat. Greer went over and unlocked her and she stood next to Greer and they watched the cat move around the room, each time lifting his wings a little higher.
“I want to go out to your roof,” Karpus said. “I want to go now.”
Greer wanted to argue, he waited to tell Karpus to wait until the cat got stronger, or find some other place, a high cliff or the roof of a tall building, but he knew Karpus wouldn’t listen to him. Greer realized that they were too far down this road to do anything other than take the cat up to the third floor of his house and toss him off and see what happened.
“I suppose you want to go up there too?” he asked Chloe.
Greer knew that she was going to try to jump, that those wheels were moving in her head. He could not see her face where she stood, but he imagined it trying to hold back the glee.
“Fine,” he told her. “If that’s what you want.”
Karpus picked up Whiskers and all of them walked through the house and up to the third floor. Greer opened his bedroom window and Karpus carried Whiskers out onto the flat part of his roof.
After Karpus climbed out, Greer followed. When Chloe came out there, Greer wrapped his arms around her, locked her in a bear hug.
“I’m fine,” she said. “I promise I won’t do anything.”
Greer wanted to believe her. He wanted to let her body go and close his eyes and he wanted her to be there when he opened them, but he knew that this would not be the case.
He and Chloe watched Karpus say his goodbyes to Whiskers. Karpus brought the cat right up to his face and planted a kiss right on the cat’s mouth.
“I know this will make you happy,” he told the cat. “But that doesn’t make it any easier for me.”
Greer thought Karpus was going to keep talking to the cat for a while, reminiscing about good times and good fun, but suddenly Karpus tossed Whiskers up into the air.
“Go!” he yelled. “Fly!”
Whiskers fell toward the earth. Greer was certain that the cat was going to splatter on the front sidewalk. He watched the cat tumble toward the hard earth, but just before he hit the ground, Whiskers spread his wings and swooped upward. It looked strangely natural, Greer thought, like the cat was remembering something that was embedded deep inside him, some sort of DNA coded from years long past.
As Karpus jumped up and down, cheering the cat, Chloe began to struggle. She reared back and kicked Greer in the shin with her shoe, then reached back and tried to push one of her thumbs into his eye.
“Quit,” he told her.
But she did not. Whiskers grew smaller and smaller in the evening sky, a tiny speck on the horizon and Chloe kept struggling. Every once in a while she would wriggle one of her writhing arms free and Greer would have to patiently gather it back in and flatten it back down against her body, hug her harder.