Libretto for The Dying by Fannie H. Gray

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My coffee cup lies in shards on the kitchen floor. Boutros Boutros Ghali licks his paws.

Can you at least feign remorse, I ask the cat. He blinks, yawns and lifts a back leg as he begins licking his hindquarters.

You are disgusting Boutros, I snarl. I prepare the coffeemaker and then retreat to the living room, where I select an album for our day.

In an ordinary time, I would walk to The Sunnyside Up and order a cortado. I would take my coffee, perhaps a pastry and end up in Laurel Run. There, I would sit on a park bench and watch young fathers teach their children to ride bikes. The mothers, arms linked like comrades, would stroll the park, complaining bitterly of office mates or lovingly discussing children, bestsellers, Peloton instructors.

This is not an ordinary time.

When the first wave of the pandemic washed over us, I had already lived alone for eight years. After the death of Gretchen, our only child, Roland and I drifted past one another as shades of our old selves. On an early Tuesday morning, 18 months after we had buried our daughter, I stubbed my toe on a single suitcase as I walked from the guestroom to the hallway bath. Roland stood in the doorway of our bedroom. I am only taking some clothes, he said. Perhaps I will be back. I’m not going anywhere, I replied. After a year, I stopped leaving the hall lamp on at night.

The second wave enveloped us, more ferociously, six months after the first. A week into it, I received a postcard from Santa Monica. Roland’s girlfriend had died suddenly from the virus. Might he return to convalesce? No, I wrote back.

Unmoved cars, furry with pollen, look like iron caterpillars dormant in driveways. Curtains are never drawn back. Newspapers stockpile on lawns and now have moldered, rotting in wet clumps on untrimmed grass.

A week after the third and most virulent wave struck, I opened my back door to take my trash to the fire pit. I almost kicked over a cat carrier. An angry Boutros hissed from within. A note atop read I will die tonight. Please care for Boutros Boutros Ghali. Stay well. Indira. I looked over at my neighbor’s house, trying to discern her health from the once-tidy Tudor, now marred by peeling paint and loose shutters. In the glare of the mid-morning sun, I could see the freshly painted black Xs on the windows. That is how I came to live with an insufferable cat named after a globally admired statesman.

Now, I am standing at the glass door in my front hallway, a fresh cup of coffee in hand. Madama Butterfly’s soaring heartbreak fills the house. Boutros has come to sit by my feet and we watch the collectors as they dolefully approach front doors. If I squint, in their white Hazmat suits, they look like a processional of pilgrims.

I finish my coffee. Cio-Cio San has already plunged her father’s seppuku dagger into her heart. The collectors are spray-painting Xs on the Johnsons’ windows. Boutros yawns. Pinkerton has discovered Butterfly’s body. His tenor wails. Do you hear him, Bou? Do you hear Pinkerton’s regret? I ask the cat. Boutros stands, arches his back and weaves between my legs. Boutros, listen, I say. The collectors are sealing the Johnsons’ door; their dog Suzuki lays next to the three orange body bags. The tenor warbles, wracked with guilt. I close my eyes. I see him standing over her lifeless body. Boutros, I ask, can you hear the lament?

Fannie H. Gray lives in Montclair, NJ with her husband, two children, Mac the Boston Terrier, and Neo the Tuxedo. Her poem The Trick was included in Beltway Poetry Quarterly’s Langston Hughes Tribute Issue. Her fiction can be found in The Tatterhood Review, Sledgehammer Lit, Sad Girls Club and K’in. She prefers coffee with chicory and a damn fine Rob Roy.

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