Hand Me Up, Hand Me Down | Jody Lisberger

From the moment Peggy tries it on, she loves the T-shirt. The three gray dancers, stick-figures, leaping across the white front. The high cut sleeves accentuating her muscular arms. The swooped neck curving right under the ridge of her collarbone. She can’t help but admire herself as she stands in front of her bedroom mirror. “I’ll take it,” she says as if someone were watching her try on clothes from the pile her teen daughters don’t want anymore. Hand-me-ups, she calls them.

A week later she has on this shirt when her ex David pulls up to deliver his alimony check. Must be his upcoming wedding to Maggie, Peggy figures, that makes him forget the check isn’t supposed to be delivered by hand but put into Automatic Deposit. She smiles anyway as he hands it over, and pretends not to see him staring at her shirt.

Later that day she tells her daughters how much she loves this T-shirt. How lucky she is to get their hand-me-ups.    

“Oh, don’t thank us.” They laugh. “Thank Maggie.”  

For a second Peggy stands very still. Maggie? This is Maggie’s shirt? She’s fallen in love with Maggie’s shirt? She’s going to wear Maggie’s shirt all over town? For a moment longer she stands stunned, knowing this is the proper time to say, “How nice, but on second thought I don’t think it fits me right. See how it tugs against my arms?” But her resilience, or maybe it’s her defiance, takes over. A shirt is just a shirt is just a shirt, right? She should be able to wear it if she wants. Plus, she loves the dancers. The scooped neck. The soft material that makes her feel sexy. (Why did Maggie hand it down to the girls in the first place?)

But Peggy tucks this question deep inside. No desire for answers now, or maybe ever. Better to hold on to the promise she and her “amicable” ex have made to do everything they can to ease this turn of events for the girls: David’s declaring six months ago in private to Peggy that he no longer loved her. She worked too hard. Never took a vacation. No mention until the looming June wedding date of the woman he met at the gym a year ago. “More loving” was the way he put it. Which is probably true, Peggy has to admit, knowing her part in the marriage, ever since her promotion, has been less “loving,” though the word she would use isn’t less “loving” but less “worshipful.” Or maybe less “compliant.”

But Peggy will say nothing of these details to the girls now. They’re in eighth and ninth grade, facing their own struggles. What’s over is over, she admits, doing her best to sound cheerful when the girls complain about taking on more chores, or when they ask, full of worry, about a possible half-sister or brother. Her job is to ease this transition for the girls, she tells herself, knowing that “Ew, if it’s Maggie’s, I don’t want it” isn’t an option.

But even more, she hears herself thinking, why should she let Maggie stand in her way?

 

A week after the wedding, when David and Maggie arrive at the house in David’s old Camry to take the girls for the day, Peggy is just getting out of the shower. She throws on a bathrobe. After all, in their twenty years together, David saw her in much less. Or so she tells herself, not wanting to admit the odd pleasure she feels at the prospect of making David and Maggie squirm in their seats. Nothing like a little discomfort to remind them they aren’t as free as they think.

“We’re taking our car to the shop,” Maggie calls out the open window.

Peggy sees the lipstick on Maggie’s mouth. The beautiful curl of her long hair. The pale blue T-shirt that V-necks with a slight stretch and curve over her ample breasts. But more than anything else, Peggy hears that word. Our.

“After that I’m taking the girls to the Mall,” Maggie says, full of cheer. She glances toward David. He thrums his long fingers on the steering wheel and nods.

Peggy feels herself catch her breath. The girls going off alone with Maggie. (Didn’t Maggie just buy them new dresses for the wedding?) But at least Maggie has gotten something right. The girls. So true, Peggy wants to remind her. Not yours. Mine.  

“Wonderful,” Peggy manages to say as she watches the girls get into the back seat. They keep their eyes down.

“Which do you prefer?” Maggie asks Peggy. “Tommy Hilfiger or Trixxi?”

Peggy feels David’s gaze on her face. Or maybe it’s on her bathrobe.

“Whatever the girls like,” Peggy says, not wanting to admit she knows nothing about Hilfiger or Trixxi.

Hours later, the girls bound into the house with their shopping bags. “You did great, talking with Maggie, Mom,” they say as if they’ve spent every one of Maggie’s dollars worrying about Peggy. Then they strut around the house in their new high-heeled shoes and tube dresses.

That night, the girls curl up in their nighties on the big bed with Peggy and together they take turns reading aloud from Goblet of Fire. “Don’t worry, Mom,” they say as they kiss her goodnight. “We’re still your kids.”

Now that Peggy has had time to ponder Maggie’s presence in her life, you’d think she’d stash the T-shirt deep in a drawer. Or burn it, for starters. But for some perverse reason, she wears it with even greater delight. Not just because people keep complimenting her. You look great in that shirt. But because she often finds herself feeling most daring, maybe even scandalous, while wearing it. Imagine. A present from Maggie.

She also feels herself moving forward in her life. Could it be because of that shirt? She asks her partners at the architecture firm for fewer projects. She starts taking Lindy lessons on Tuesday nights when the girls are at David and Maggie’s. (Their new baby isn’t due until February.) She signs up for a two-week August vacation with the Sierra Club in Yosemite to help them make and clear trails at the highest elevations, far away from everything. (“Mom, go off and do something for you,” the girls urged.) As she studies the online videos of the huge clumps of trees blown down across the packhorse trails, she sees the smiling men and women hefting the two-man crosscut saws over their shoulders then together sawing their hearts out. At work, she starts going to the gym, pushing metal, and running on the elliptical to get her heart pumping hard. No desire to have her lungs or muscles fail her on this trip. Or, at those high elevations, to see blood pouring out of her nose, her ears.

Her children, bless them, say nothing about her wearing the shirt. Maybe they’re too busy to notice she has it on. Or maybe her easing them through all this, loving them fully, is keeping their pain, like hers, from coming out.

“Because I am loving,” she sometimes hears herself whispering under her breath.

 

A few weeks later Peggy is wearing that shirt when Jill, one of her long-time reading group friends, bumps into her at the grocery store. “Hey, Peggy, I hear you’re going to California for a few weeks. Wanna take a cat?” Jill explains that she’s moving across country and needs to get her big old cats out there to leave with friends. “United won’t let me carry both of them at the same time. Wanna travel with one—please?” She sounds breathy with desperation.

“But why moving?” Peggy asks, not expecting Jill to thrust forward her left hand and flash her new rings. “Me and Joe got engaged last week. And married,” she says as she laughs then blushes. “We’re gonna start a whole new life in California. I’m flying out to leave the cats then flying back so Joe and I can drive across country. You know, the honeymoon thing?”

Peggy isn’t sure what seizes her, but she says sure. Glad to help out the newlyweds. What’s a measly cat under her seat, anyway, she tells herself. Not like she’s transporting a snake. Or a baby.

 

The morning of her departure, as she gets dressed, she’s still deliberating if it’s wise to bring her favorite T-shirt up into the mountains where she’ll be digging water bars, clearing prickly bushes, and sawing apart tangled trees. The shirt might get irreparably stained. Or maybe just a big old hole. But she loves wearing this shirt. The dancers. The scooped neck. The white against her bronzed summer skin. The way people keep saying she looks great in that shirt.

By the time Joe pulls into the driveway (Jill left yesterday) to give Peggy a ride to the airport, Peggy can’t wait to heft her backpack into the trunk and get into his Prelude. “Hey, nice shirt,” Joe says as she fastens her seatbelt. Then he points to the carrier in the back seat. Exactly as Jill described it. Nice soft case. Cat zipped in tight. All you have to do is carry it onto the plane and off. I’ll be there at the other end.

Peggy smiles, feeling suddenly buoyant. Isn’t it odd how getting divorced has made her feel so free. And isn’t it funny that instead of traveling with children or a man, she’s traveling with a cat, of all things. She doesn’t even know the cat’s name. But who cares. It isn’t her cat. Moving ahead seems so easy. Especially when Joe stops at the end of the driveway, takes out a little plastic canister of pills, and hands it to her. Is she sure she’s okay with the whole arrangement, he asks. As if she can say “no” now?

“Not a problem,” she says. “And if worse comes to worse—” she raises the little bottle like a toast, “I’ll take one of these.” Joe throws his bald head back and laughs.

Maybe it’s his laughter, or her shirt, or the joy of being out on the empty road with the Charles River widening alongside, the sunlight glinting off its glossy surface, that makes Peggy feel giddy at the prospect of this trip. Such a new adventure for her. No children in tow. All she has to do is carry the cat onto the plane and off. So easy.

Until they round the first highway curve and the cat mews.               

“Oh, be quiet!” Joe says.

“Don’t worry,” Peggy reassures him. “I don’t care if he cries.” (Is it a he?) “I’ll just tell people he’s not mine.”

But the longer they drive, the more the cat doesn’t just mew. It mewls. Screeches. Caterwauls. Terrible howls.  

“Be quiet!” Joe pleads, clearly knowing something Jill hasn’t mentioned.

Peggy begins to worry. Has Joe remembered to give the cat a tranquilizer before they got in the car? She knows how hard it can be to ram things down a cat’s throat. Those sharp little teeth. That raspy tongue bucked in the back. Can she ask Joe if he remembered to give the cat a pill without hurting his ego or making him feel incompetent for life?

When they pull up at the United Terminal with the cat still screeching, Peggy can’t hold back. “Of course, you gave him a tranquilizer earlier,” she says, trying to sound ultra blasé. Like, duh, you made the hotel reservations. Or paid the bill on time. Or used a condom, right?

“Oh, yes,” he nods vigorously. “Shoved it right down Joe’s throat. Saw it—”

“What?” Peggy can’t help but interrupt. Did he say Joe?    

Joe throws his head back and laughs. “She didn’t tell you that’s the cat’s name, too?” He nods in an exaggerated way, like he’s explained this overlap a million times.

“Ah,” Peggy says, doing her best to take this in. “So Jill named the cat after you?” she asks. Isn’t it funny how people show their love.

“Oh no,” Joe says over his shoulder. He’s already gotten out and flipped his seat forward to reach for the cat. “This Joe was before my time. Pure coincidence,” he says as he pulls the carrier off the back seat, maneuvers it out the door, and comes around to where Peggy stands waiting for him to unlock the trunk. She can’t help but notice there’s no “Sweet kitty, nice kitty, how I’ll miss you, kitty” from him as she hoists her backpack onto her shoulders, pulls down her shirt where it’s bunched up, and takes the cat, not expecting him to feel like a boulder in a bag. A clunker, indeed.

Empty-handed, Joe (the man) is instantly all smiles. “Thank you. Thank you.” He bows a little. “You’ve made our honeymoon possible. Did Jill tell you? We got engaged—and married!—all in the same week. Can you believe it?” he says, backing off like a man who sees the getaway car coming around the corner. “Hey, have a great—”

For a second, hearing his booming voice, Peggy thinks he’s going to say “life,” but all he says is “trip.”

 

As she walks through the terminal, Peggy tries to ignore the lopsided weight of this beast as she repeats her mantra. All you have to do is carry the cat onto the plane and off. I’ll be there at the other end. At the ticket counter, she hoists Joe as if he’s as light as a feather. Compared to childbirth, she reminds herself, this task is easy—an airport drill she’s done a million times. She sets her backpack on the scales, smooths out the front of her bunched-up shirt, and gets ready to answer the agent’s questions. Your cat? You betcha. Good old Joe. Your mesh carrier? Nobody else gave it to you? Nope. And look. She unzips one of the cute little side pockets as if she’s zipped and unzipped it a million times and pulls out the $50 bill Jill told her would be there for Joe’s ticket. Sedation en route if you need it? Who, me? But she doesn’t say that. She simply assures the agent that Joe has been tranquilized an hour earlier. Very convincing until Joe mewls for the first time. Then again. And again. “Nice, Kitty,” Peggy whispers near the little mesh window, her lips barely escaping the swoop of claws that reach out faster than you can say “I do.” Fortunately the agent can’t see her end, or at least has the kindness to pretend he doesn’t.

As she pulls back, she notices something else sticking out of that cute little pocket. A Ziploc Baggie, which she pulls out as if she put it there herself. Inside are some more eency pills and a note from Jill written in her scrupulous print. AFTER 3 HRS, GO TO BATHROOM, LOCK DOOR, GIVE JOE 1 PILL. WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T LET THE CAT LOOSE. Dandy, Peggy thinks, envisioning herself scrunched into that tiny airplane bathroom, the huge mirror recording each step of her progress. Especially when she clenches the cat by the scruff of his neck and forces that little pill down his throat. She’s so intent on her mission she almost doesn’t hear the agent speak as he hands her the boarding passes. “Nice shirt,” he says with a smile.

Maybe his comment is why, as Peggy cruises to security, she feels her buoyancy, her stride, come back. All she needs now is to keep walking, she tells herself, throwing her shoulders back, loving the softness of her shirt, the dancers leaping across the front, the way they remind her how she’s taking a new direction in her life. People in the crowd eye her. “Look at that woman,” they call out, pointing at the carrier. Or is it her shirt they’re admiring?

 

At the security check, she puts her purse on the conveyor belt like someone who knows exactly what she’s doing. She holds onto the carrier, though, sure they don’t want to run Joe through that machine. But the guard is shaking his head. Pretending to cradle something. “Take your cat out,” he says, as if she can’t read his signals. “You need to carry your cat through the arch. He is your cat, isn’t he?”

Peggy hesitates. Swallows her disbelief. Or is it her terror?  

“Of course,” she says, nodding as she sets the carrier down on the table, knowing full well what she better not say. My cat I’ve never seen before. My cat whose color I don’t even know. Whose body I wouldn’t recognize—dead or alive—if he came out of an x-ray scanner, Kodak moment, microwave, meat processer, or Looney-Tune steamroller. Yes. My sweet little honeymooning cat. She takes a deep breath and scratches her nose as if her delay is natural and not a hope she’ll still have a nose when this process is over. Which zipper to unzip?

“Hey, Joe,” she whispers, deciding not to open the side zipper where he might dart out, but the top one, which might give her a moment longer to grab the scruff of his neck and watch his legs curl up the way cat’s legs will automatically do if you grab the scruff sternly enough. She opens the zipper a little, thinking she’ll be able to sneak in her hand. But already Joe is pushing the top of his head (gray) through the small opening, along with his ears (gray), face (gray), and neck (gray), the scruff of which she clamps in her fist so hard that as she pulls him out, indeed his bottom (gray) curls up.

She does not laugh at the coincidence of this gray cat dancing through the archway with her. Or so she hopes as she holds Joe close to her body, her other hand gripped under his bottom, her muscles clenched. WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T LET THE CAT LOOSE. She grins at the guard while she waits her turn to go through. Nice kitty. My kitty. Held-him-a-million-times-kitty. Never-spring-out-of-my-arms-kitty.    

The man in front of her takes his time emptying his pockets. Key chain. Nail clippers. Coins. Wad of bills in a money clip. Tobacco pouch. Paper clips. Pipe tamper. Pipe. Cell phone. Q-tips. White handkerchief. Fishing line. Lead weights. And from his finger, one big fat gold ring, which he’s determined to add to the collection even though the guard says he can keep the ring on. Still the buzzer buzzes every time the guy goes through. Maybe it’s the screws in his leg, he says as they run the metal detector up and down his body. As Joe squirms in Peggy’s arms, she can do nothing but hold tighter, grin harder. Nice Kitty. There, there.

When it’s finally her turn to walk, she knows exactly what she needs to do: Stride forward with her honeymoon cat cradled tight in her arms, not letting him push with all his might, spring loose and leap, make her and everyone else end up on their hands and knees chasing him throughout the whole goddamn terminal. The thing she doesn’t expect is for him to twist and dig his claws into her belly and neck. To dig deeper and deeper. But she holds on tight, refusing to cry or cry out as she wonders whether biting a cat’s ear, or maybe twisting its neck, wouldn’t be the easiest solution.

At the other end of the conveyor belt, where the open mesh carrier awaits her, she stuffs Joe headfirst into the cage, shoving him in with the vehemence of a butcher filling sausage. To the guard who points at her shirt and says, does she know she’s bleeding?—in two places she realizes as she swipes her fingers along her collarbone and down near her waist—she says nothing. Nothing when he smiles and says, “Too bad. It’s such a nice shirt.” Nothing but a pinched “thank you” as she grabs Joe’s cage and turns to walk down the ramp toward the women’s bathroom where she sets Joe on the floor, washes the scratches where she’s bleeding, and decides she’ll never tell her daughters how she can’t wait to get this shirt as bloody as hell on this trip, to fill it with stains and holes, to stuff it into a trash can as soon as she comes down from the mountains.

————
Jody Lisberger‘s stories have been published in Fugue, Michigan Quarterly Review, Confrontation, Louisville Review, and Thema and have also won prizes at Quarterly West (finalist) and American Literary Review (third). Her 2008 story collection Remember Love was nominated for a National Book Award and received excellent reviews in the national press. She is currently revising a novel called You Don’t Know the Half Of It. She is on the fiction faculty in the low residency MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University (Louisville). Jody lives in Rhode Island where she is also an Associate Professor in Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Rhode Island.

 

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