This is the first chapter of my long-awaited novel, Cat In A Box. Okay, it hasn’t been long-awaited. No one has been waiting on it.
A good friend of mine often reminds me: even with today’s technological advances, the cornerstone of communication is still the written word.
I suggest you name your cat when it’s a kitten.
They’re not nearly as cute once they grow up.
If you want a name like “Mr. Whiskers” or “Cuddles,” it really only works when they’re tiny.
Sooner or later we all lose the cuteness.
I live in a city I hate, in an apartment I steal, with a cat that could die any day.
Lived here all my life. At least the part I can remember. My parents moved to New York City when I was three. 1972. I live exactly three blocks from where they set up shop that year. Dad opened a bakery he called “Popo Breads.” The only good thing to come out of that shop was the smell of fresh bread baking every morning. I still get a waft of bread fumes every now and then when I wake up. Something in my brain, I guess.
Mom was in a wheelchair after my birth. I don’t even know why. Dad would talk about the way she’d dance around the room “before you came.” I felt much too guilty to ask if it was my fault. What difference would it make, anyway?
They both died on the day I turned 17. That I do know. Dad was driving back from Cleveland when a milk truck hit them head on. For the longest time I wanted to make a joke about everyone crying over all that spilled milk. I never found the right time.
So my uncle Ethial looked after me until I graduated high school and found a job, where I still work.
He was the nicest man I’ve ever met, and I suppose I would have turned out much different if he had raised me.
Funny how you can consider how small things might have changed your life. Why do we think of such? If your lunch had been served just five seconds later yesterday, what would you have missed? How would your day be different? There’s no sure way to tell. Dreaming of things as these only wastes our time.
I used to read these choose-your-own-adventure books as a child. Decision making was tough for me. When other kids made a choice and turned to the appropriate page, my mind forced me to investigate the consequences of each choice (by peeking) and then choose the best one. When friends would ask which choices I had made in the last book, I’d say, “all of them.” It was fun for me, but no one else seemed to get the point.
People outside the city are usually surprised to learn that I don’t know how to drive. The truth is, I’ve never had to learn. New York City eats up cars like styrofoam peanuts. I get where I need to go using public transportation. This creates a large amount of conflict in my life, because I have a general dislike for being around people. I find most of the public to be ignorant and selfish. Middle-age men in business suits talking on cell phones, young women screaming to each other with fake smiles. Who are these people? How could you waste one day of your life on such silliness?
When I said I had a job, I lied. I haven’t worked in six years. The driver of the milk truck which killed my parents was found to have more than milk in his thermos, and the company offered a large settlement to me. A drunk truck driver caused me to never have to work again.
I spend most of my days watching people out of my apartment window. I like to pretend I know them. “There’s old Albert. Late again. Look at how fast he’s walking. He’ll never learn. The boys at the firm are gonna get tired of it one day, and that will be it for Albert.”
“If Shirley doesn’t get some new shoes, she’s going to ruin her feet. Look at all that clomping. Like she’s on a trampoline. If she’d stop spending so much time with her loser boyfriend, she could get her priorities straight.”
Truth is, I don’t really have any good friends. When Ethial died, I figured he was the last person on Earth I could stand being around. Oh sure, I know people. But they only know what I want them to know of me. Like the lady downstairs – Maude. She thinks I work at Martin & Shulsin Publishers. When she asked what I do there, I smiled and said, “try to keep people from publishing awful books,” then I let out a roaring laugh and nodded to her, as if she should know exactly what I mean. She smiled and never asked again.
The young man next door thinks I’m on the mayor’s staff. No one messes with someone who knows the mayor. That keeps him out of my hair.
My landlord knows me as Shane Weebler. When I moved in after Ethial died, I told her I was caring for his estate. “I’m not a lawyer, I’m an attorney,” I said. I didn’t offer to explain the difference, since I wasn’t sure there was one. I explained that I would be going through Ethial’s things and clearing them out. After two months, she proposed a deal where I could stay if I would handle any legal matters that come her way. I pretended to think about it and agreed four days later. If any legal matters do come her way, I’m fairly certain I can learn what I need to know at the public library.
Ethial left me his collection of vinyl records and his cat. I never as much as thumbed through the box of records. The cat, which he had named Briarbook, was 14 years old when I inherited him. Now he’s 20, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t anxious for him to die already. Twenty years equal two lifetimes for a cat. He’s had a grand time; it’s time to cross the finish line.
There’s one man who passes by each day I like to call Kevin. A short, fat pile of a man. I watch him walk the entire block each weekday, stressing back and forth in a waddle-like fashion, his suitcase flailing about from his puffy hand. I used to wonder why Kevin would put himself through that, when there is surely a bus connection near his workplace. I finally settled on the conclusion that it’s worse for a fat man to be seen taking the bus than to be seen making the effort. He’s a good man for that. There’s also the possibility that he might have gotten lodged in the narrow doorway of a bus, and has avoided the situation ever since.
Last week was Halloween. I had planned well in advance for my costume and had gathered all the necessary components a month ahead. In a science fiction universe I fancy myself a vampire: distant and unaccepted yet smarter and stronger than everyone else. There was no other natural choice for my costume. I started preparing that afternoon, applying makeup to my ears, then face. This turned out to be a poor way to start the transformation, since I soon found white fingerprints all over my black cape. Two hours into the mess, I was severely close to looking like I just stepped out of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. To make matters worse, the moment I turned around, Briarbook let out a screaming hiss, turned his end to me and sprayed my black cape with warm urine. After disposing of the cape, I realized this was a good sign for me; my costume was so convincing even the cat didn’t recognize me.
Indeed the costume proved to be the best part of the evening. After stepping outside cape-less (I had tested a bed sheet after the cat incident, but the sheet was far too long), I realized I had nowhere to go. After a few trips circling the block, I headed back inside and climbed the stairs to my apartment. I never take the elevator – it’s too noisy. I like for my comings and goings to be silent.
Opening the door sent Briarbook into another frenzy, hissing and running towards me. My quick instincts allowed me to shut the door before he could reach me. I had few choices. I came up with an easy story and walked to my neighbor’s door. Clearing my throat, I gave a firm rap on the door. Knocking on the center of a door creates the lowest, most masculine pitch. A friendlier knock would bear from the left side, near the upper hinge.
Two locks rattled above the doorknob and light poured from the room into the hallway. There stood a gaunt, frail frame, with a thick sweater hanging from pointy shoulders. His head looked as though it was carefully balance atop a thin neck.
I stared at him, tried not to blink, and waited for him to speak.
“Would you mind if I used your bathroom? It seems my plumbing is out next door.”
“Yeah, sure. Come on in.”
The room smelled of stale coffee. There were books piled up everywhere – on tables, on chairs, piles on the floor. Under a crooked lamp one book lay open, one page waving hello at me. I imagined it saying, “Come in. We’re just getting to the good part.”
“The bathroom is in the back,” the man said as he headed toward the open book. He grabbed it, sunk into a chair and squinted at a page. I high-stepped over a few piles of books and found a light switch inside the bathroom. There was no door.
The hot water knob squealed as water started from the faucet. My sink made the same noise. I splashed warm water on my face, added soap, and reached for a towel. Dabbing my forehead and nose, I pulled back the towel to see it was covered with white face paint. There was a time when I would have felt guilty for ruining his towel.
Once all the paint was off my face I stuffed the towel into a drawer. Moving back through the room with the books, I thanked the man and opened the door.
“Sure,” he whispered, still squinting at the book. I closed his door behind me and stood in the hallway, happy to again be alone.