Issue 21 | Winter 2019

The Lives I Save Are Never My Own

I often think about a stranger I helped—if he made
it home or to the hospital, if he still breathes.

It was the hottest summer on record in New York City.
In the bar where I worked, I watched weathermen

on the news fry steaks on the sidewalk. One morning during
rush hour, on my way home from the late shift, a man

collapsed in front of me on 57th Street. Unconscious, he splayed
out crucifixion-style. People circled around, gathered on the sidewalk

for a spectacle. No one budged, they just watched him writhe
in pain, gasping. I knew this was a heart attack, stepped forward,

knelt beside him, loosened his collar. I dipped my open lips down
to his dry mouth, counted kisses, breathed into his maw. My eyes

focused on his yellow tie’s polka dots, calculated my air bubbles
to its circle pattern, and I beat his chest in time, one two three four five

compressions—ten breaths for every five pumps. And when he finally
coughed up froth, his eyelids twitched open with the confused

expression of a wild animal displaced. He foraged my young face
for answers. I had none. I re-fluffed his silk pocket square as he sat up.

The crowd clapped, and I was myself again. I scurried away then,
embarrassed by my sweat-doused uniform, by all the attention,

hurried to make the train so I could change for my day job.
An ambulance siren’s keening softened to a moan as I descended

the stairs into the urine-dank station. Soon after, I moved away.
And today, I’m trying to rescue a semi-feral kitten who’s more

teenage gawkiness than lithe adult. She’s fetched a lizard and brought
it inside, and I can’t find it under the couch, but the reptile’s tail

has detached—a tricky distraction for predators. The separated appendage
flails on the carpet, hopscotching across the Oriental pattern.

It’s a soulless, lonely thing. As the cat drinks from a water bowl,
her back against the wall, I guess she’s stowed a litter somewhere,

and I think about that man I saved. Now, the feline’s eyes, black
rimmed and wary, dart up with suspicion, her gaze catches on mine,

and all is still in that moment when we gaze into each other, understand
as two species might comprehend one another. She paws at the front door,

wants no part of my safe world, and I crack the exit. Florida’s humidity
vines around my bare legs as the cat nudges through the opening,

then sprints like hell back to her own hot place.

Filed under: Poetry

Cate McGowan

Cate McGowan is a fiction writer, essayist, and poet. She won the 2014 Moon City Short Fiction Award for her debut short fiction collection, True Places Never Are, which was also a finalist for the 2015 Lascaux Short Fiction Collection Prize. Her work appears in Norton’s Flash Fiction International, Glimmer Train, Crab Orchard Review, Crab Fat Magazine, Barrelhouse, Shenandoah, Into the Void, The Louisville Review, Vestal Review, Tank, Unbroken, and elsewhere. A native Georgian and current, reluctant Floridian (Heat! Hurricanes! Alligators! Faulty voting machines!), she is an Assistant Fiction Editor at Pithead Chapel. Her novel, Thirty Men, Not One, will be published by Gold Wake Press in Autumn, 2019.