Two Cats

By Bud Smith

Essay

Good Luck: Episode Thirty-Two

 

Three in the morning, the back door opens, four people enter the dark house. Black jeans, boots, jackets, gloves, ski masks. Nothing said. They’ve been here before. The moon is full, but so what.

A screened in porch, dim blue light. Kitchen sink dripping. One of them shuts it off. They part a beaded curtain and step into the bedroom, where the editor of this column is sleeping beside his girlfriend.

They surround the bed, staring down at the sleepers. Two cats watch too. Silence. Then breathing, the sounds of the night, bugs outside, frogs, wind. Each time they come back here like this, they stay longer.

One of the cats jumps off a chair and knocks over a pile of books. The editor gasps, sits up, “Goddamnit.” His girlfriend says, “What?” He tells her the cats are pissing him off.

He pulls the covers back, gets out of bed. The people step back, press against the walls. He doesn’t have his glasses on. He walks past, goes into the bathroom. The yellow glow of the light under the door. Both cats sit on the dresser, eyes wide. The toilet flushes. The editor walks back into the dark room. Gets back into bed. “Every goddamn night these goddamn cats.” He settles back into bed beside his girlfriend. The people push off the walls, resume their positions, looming over the bed in the dark.

At 7:15, the editor wakes up. A dog is barking in the yard across the street. The room is full of sunshine. The cats are perched on the top of opposite dressers. He puts his glasses on and says, “I wish you were dogs.” He gets out of the bed, goes to the bathroom again. On his way back to bed, he stops to pick the books up off the floor. Stephen Dixon all bent up. Pages ripped out of Dennis Cooper, the way it landed, cat claws. He carries the books out of the room, puts them back in the bookcase in the hall, fills the kettle with water, puts it on the stove. He goes upstairs, takes a shower. When he comes down the stairs again, the kettle is whistling. He pours it over the coffee, gets it brewing.

Back in the bedroom, he sits on the edge of the bed, looks down at Ashleigh sleeping. She starts to wake up. “What are you doing? You looking at me?” He tells her don’t worry, he’s not a creep, if she doesn’t believe him, he can produce a letter testifying to his character, his good nature. She says, “Oh yeah, who is writing this letter?” He says, “You’re mom of course, she’s my only friend in this town.” Ashleigh howls with laughter. The cats run out of the room.

The editor says, “Seriously what’s with those cats lately?” and she says, “I don’t know, Joey, they’re just weirdos. Please don’t get on me about getting rid of them.” He says, “Come on, I don’t want to get rid of them. I’m sorry I showed you that article,” and she says, “You probably wrote that article, part of your master plan,” and he laughs and says, “Yeah but no, there are parasites in cat shit that make people suicidal, just not me, I’m fine, and I didn’t write the article.” They fall back into bed, tell jokes and make fun of the cats, and say how good the day is gonna be, they can tell. They’re both twenty-five, college graduates, one has a car, the other has a typewriter, neither own a gun.

In the kitchen, he fries up three eggs, boils more water for the instant oatmeal. An egg and a half for him, egg an a half for her. They sit at the table and eat breakfast together, oatmeal, and toast with the eggs. They drink the coffee. A record plays in the living room. The music bleeds down the hall. Pablo Casals, cello suites of Bach. Joey is looking for the salt and pepper but can’t find it. He stands up and looks in the spice cabinet even though it’s left out on the counter most of the time. Stumped, he gives up, sits back down at the table.

Ashleigh reads her email. “Oh, this is good news, they accepted that story.” “What story?” She says the name of it, he’s so happy, that’s his favorite story of hers.

The story is about a country girl from Woodland, North Carolina, who goes away and gets her MFA in the city, but when she comes back home, she feels estranged from her kin, maybe they think she’s uppity for going off and studying poetry and sentences and naked statues and so on. After college, the girl moves back to Woodland and gets a job at an insurance company, but at night she is lonely. One day, she reads a story on the internet and she likes it, so she writes an email and sends it to the author. He writes back. She writes back. He lives in San Francisco, works at a bookstore. He asks for her address, he wants to send a postcard. She’s weirded out, but thinks it’s foolish to be paranoid. The rest of the story is her asking all the people around her small town if she should be worried about giving her address to some guy in California. What if he is in a gang? What if he is a Blood or a Crip? The story gets funnier, each time she asks a gas station attendant or a waitress or a cousin for advice they name a more obscure gang he could be a member of, starting out with Latin Kings, and running through MS-13, Sureños, the Vatos Locos, and ending up with suspicion from the clerk of the hardware store that the guy is a member of Yakuza, the Japanese crime syndicate, all because he’d written to the girl saying he’d like to read The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea. The story ends with her not only sending her address, but saying he should come and visit, she’d like to show him around town, people would get a kick out of it.

The record ends. Joey gets up and flips it. More Bach cello. Back in the kitchen he notices something on the table. A mark carved down the middle, whole width. “Did you do that?” “Did you do that?” “Did the cats do that? No the cats couldn’t have done that, that’s deep. Are you sure you didn’t do that?” “No! No I didn’t do that.” “Well I didn’t do that. Maybe we didn’t notice it?” “I think we’d have noticed that. Can you turn this record off, it’s giving me a bad feeling.” “I’ll turn it off, yeah it’s giving me a bad feeling too.” They stand looking at the mark. It looks like it was done with a knife. “All our knives are dull.” The kitchen sink is dripping. Ashleigh shuts it off and has to get ready, she’ll be late for work. He cleans up breakfast. She gets dressed, scoops the cat litter. He feeds the cats, eyeing them suspiciously, looking at the big one’s claws. Deep, but not that deep. If some cat was determined enough, maybe.

He drives her to work. They kiss. She gets out of the car, goes inside. He drives to the pharmacy, parks. Ten minutes early, so he reaches in the backseat for his book. He’s reading a biography of Neil Young called Shakey. He finds his place mark, reads the page, turns to the next page and sees it’s been ripped out. He turns the page again and sees the page after that has been ripped out too. He flips through the whole book and sees that it alternates like that, every other page ripped out from the book. He hadn’t noticed that when he bought the book used, and he thinks he might call and complain, but he knows what it’s like to work at a bookstore. There’s no use calling, it’s the customers who are usually crazy. He gets the paper sack with his lunch, steps out of the car, walks towards the back door of the pharmacy.  He hides the paperback under his arm so his coworkers don’t see it and assume he is going to read at work, even though he is going to try. Then, remembering the ripped out pages, he chucks the book, like a frisbee, into the dumpster. He presses the doorbell. Someone in a white coat lets him in. He goes inside, puts on his white coat too.

He clocks in at the computer near the register. He walks to the secret place where the money is hidden from the previous day, counts it all out. Happy the cash adds up, he fills the register. The pharmacist puts a line of baskets on the counter. There are pill bottles and slips in each basket. Joey scans the slip in each basket into the computer, then hangs the bags alphabetically. That done, and time before the store opens, he reheats his morning coffee, drinks it while he checks his email. An email from me is waiting. I’ve sent a short story about a cloud. Joey reads the story, writes to me with his suggestions. Still with time to spare, he reads some submissions for The Nervous Breakdown. One of the stories, sent from someone with an obvious pen name, is about a writer who feels like he shouldn’t have been rejected for a previous story he sent. The title is, “This is the Last Story You’re Ever Going to Read Motherfucker.” In that story, the narrator pours a jug of gasoline over the staff of a big fancy literary magazine. Joey thinks the story is really funny. It’s tough to pull off satire nowadays. The narrator refers to the staff of the magazine as “pearl earring cucks.” The story ends with the staff burnt to death and the narrator kicking the ash off the skeletons. Joey is about to send an acceptance email for the story when someone starts pounding on the glass double doors of the pharmacy.

He yells, “We’re not open yet. We open at 9:30.” The person outside pretends to be surprised by this information. The pharmacist sighs and asks Joey to open the door. Joey turns all the lights on, opens the door, lets the customer in, gets their opioids, they leave. In that short time he’s been busy, he sees he’s gotten another email from the person who sent “This is the Last Story You’re Ever Going to Read Motherfucker.” The author is pulling the story from consideration.

Now he counts pills. He counts pills all morning while classic rock plays on the radio. He keeps checking to make sure he isn’t giving someone the wrong medicine or losing his count. The bell jangles, someone walks in the store and wants to buy Viagra. Someone else comes in and buys Tootsie Rolls and toilet paper and Robitussin. He drinks more coffee and puts more pills in more bottles. The caffeine starts to get to him. Jitters. He checks the clock, time drags. He eats a bag of cashews, then he eats a yogurt. The bell jangles. He goes back up front. A man dressed in black is standing in front of the counter, grinning. “Can I help you?” The man shakes his head, keeps grinning. “What’s up?” The man stops smiling, “Do I know you from somewhere?” Joey shakes his head, “I’m new in town.” The man nods slowly, “I know where I know you from. You’re an editor.” Frank Zappa is playing over the speakers. The pharmacist likes Frank Zappa and likes telling Joey that he likes Frank Zappa. Joey says, “Sure, oh that. Yeah.” The man lingers for a while but doesn’t buy anything. He keeps browsing. The pharmacist tells Joey about a college basketball game, but Joey just stares at the man in black in the security mirror. He relaxes when the man leaves. At one o’clock he’s out in Ashleigh’s car, eating leftover spaghetti, nervously looking out the window, then eating a crisp apple, wishing he had a book to read, crunching tortilla chips, noticing a tall woman smoking a cigarette, leaning against the brick wall across the street from the lot. She’s wearing black gloves. Finishing her cigarette, she lights another. He waves, she bows her head, takes another drag.

After lunch, a golf cart pulls up in front of the pharmacy. Two fat men in camouflage shirts get out and walk inside, leaving their shotguns in the cart. The bell jangles, Joey looks up from the computer. The men wave, walk immediately to the rack and pick up the new edition of the local paper. It only comes out twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays. There’s not enough news for a daily paper. Since the only cop in town quit, they’ve become self-appointed vigilantes. They usually come in the pharmacy and read the crime section. The paper has local sports coverage, articles honoring the military, write ups about plates of barbecue sold to raise money for someone’s fight against cancer, bible meetups, and so on, but the vigilantes only really care about the crimes. They walk up to the register, say to Joey, “Seen anything funny around here?” He shrugs, he can’t tell them that they are funny, but he wants to. They ask him again to do his duty and hand over the list of dope heads. One says, “Everybody knows the trouble we got starts and ends with the dope heads.” The pharmacist tells them loudly, “Now you know we can’t and won’t do that.” The vigilantes say no harm done. One of the men buys blood sugar test strips, pen needles, and lancets. The other buys three cups of ice. He goes on and on about how it’s the best ice in the county, maybe even the best in the state. Joey is used to people raving about the ice machine, he hears it every day from someone. The vigilantes leave.

The store is quiet. Joey makes a pot of Folgers coffee for himself and one of the pharmacy techs. When it comes to shitty coffee he prefers Folgers over Maxwell House, but all there is in the pharmacy is Maxwell House, so he makes that.

At five-thirty, he walks out to the car, starts it, leans around to look behind because he doesn’t trust the rearview. Sitting on the top of the back seats he sees them. Salt shaker, pepper shaker. One on the passenger side, other on the driver side. Perched there. He taps the brakes, they tumble over.

On the way to pick up Ashleigh from work, he passes the vigilantes in their golf cart. He waves, they wave back. The nearest police station is twenty-seven minutes away. When he sees Ashleigh, he doesn’t say a word about the salt and pepper shakers, or the pages ripped out of the book. He pretends like everything is all right.

They go home, let the cats out into the yard, watch them bound and play though the twilight. He lies flat on the grass, his feet hurt, she lies down next to him on the grass, head on his shoulder.

They turn on the lights in the house, every one. It’s her turn to cook. She grills chicken in the cast iron, lets it cool on the counter. He gets his laptop and puts on the baseball game. He’s been watching the Giants again, with the same enthusiasm he had when he was twelve. He puts on his Giants cap. The chicken is cool now, she puts it on top of the romaine, olives, red onions, tomatoes. They eat with the game on in the background. Looking for the salt and pepper, he remembers and walks out to the car. “Why’d you have them out in the car?” He says, “I didn’t.” She looks at him funny. “Well, whatever that means, my god, give it here. This needs it.”

The sun goes down. The cats are still out there somewhere. Ashleigh stands on the lawn calling for them but they won’t show. All she sees are lightning bugs. She yells, “Suit yourselves!” She comes inside. He is on the couch, hand editing a copy of my cloud story, and on the laptop, it’s the bottom of the seventh inning. She tells him the cats are missing. He puts my cloud story on the table, pats the seat next to him on the couch. “Sit down, watch this with me, we’re losing, and Bumgarner could really use your support.” She sits down, leans forward, watches someone else strike out.

When the game ends, she says she is going to go look for the cats in the dark. He tells her he’ll do it, they’ll listen to their father. She goes upstairs and sits in an empty room with just a little desk in it. She is writing a new story about a family who is killed in a flood, though they were warned time and time again that the waters would rise and they should leave.

She can hear the editor of this column out in the yard. He calls to the cats, telling them they should be afraid of him, when he gets his hands on their tails they’ll be sorry. Then she hears him apologize, he tries a different tactic, he tells the cats, wherever they are that they aren’t in danger, he isn’t going to hurt them, he’s gonna cuddle them and love them. When that doesn’t work, he changes tactics again, says he loves them and he supports their decision to stay out all night again, but don’t be surprised next time they come home and find out everything is a nightmare. He says, “I’ll get a dog.” He says it over and over, “I’ll get a dog.” He starts to make playful woofs and barks until it makes him laugh, then he goes back inside the house and reads the tattered and bent Stephen Dixon novel.

An hour later, Ashleigh comes down the stairs. She’s finished the first draft of her story, and is upset. The family died in such a gruesome way, and she knew it was just going to get more evil in the next draft. That’s how things always work. She stands in the doorway, and watches him for a moment. He looks up, smiles, puts down his book.

Together, they check for the cats one last time. Hand in hand, looking up at the moon. It’s waning. The nights are getting warm, it’s nearly summer, of course those cats would want to stay out, wouldn’t you? Mosquitoes can’t bite through cat fur, or can they? Last summer, they wouldn’t come in either. Should be no surprise.

They shut the house lights off, one by one, and go through the beaded curtain, into their bedroom. He sets an alarm. They lie down. They close their eyes, say good night. Both are awake in the darkness for awhile, listening to the sounds of the night. Bugs. Frogs. The dog barking across the street. Trees blowing around, leaves shaking. A sound like a footstep, upstairs. Then another. The house settling into sleep.

 

 

BUD SMITH lives in Jersey City and works construction. He is the author of the novel Teenager (Tyrant Books '19), among others.

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