An Ugly Cat Named Call (Part 1)
A short story.
Something woke him. He hated it. Whatever it was. The light that spilled through the vinyl blinds hung hazy in the apartment and the noise came quickly after. Cars, voices, steps on the stairs outside. He grunted and instinctively swatted at something by his head. The fuck was that? It was heavy. It hit the floor with a thud. He tried to close his eyes but he knew, just that easily, that it was time to wake. No, that wouldn’t do. The world was a ruin. He hated this place. Most of his sheets were on the floor but the heat of it was still oppressive and his head ached. Reaching, he blindly pawed at his nightstand and ignored the change he knocked onto the carpet. He ignored his watch as his fingers crawled over it, his phone, a glass. Was that? No. It wasn’t. Where was it? The ache in his head pulsed hard then, insistent. Find it. Find it. No, an empty pack of cigarettes. He didn’t smoke and his heart hurt then. He brushed them off the table and grunted.
What was that smell?
“Fuck.” He said. Groaned. They were the same.
Leaning, he pawed at the ground and found what had fallen. The bottle was smooth under his fingers and when he lifted he was distressed by how light it was. His eyes squinted as he lifted, turning the bottle into a sliver of the light that pressed into his bedroom. Amber fluid sloshed, barely a finger’s worth, at the bottom of the bottle. He passed the pad of a thumb along the rim and drank it steadily. A bite, a burn, he felt his face pucker and let the bottle fall. Not enough. But his headache softened some. How long had it been this time? His phone wasn’t dead. A blue light flickered on the side. He saw the name and checked the text. He had 5% battery left. He’d only lost a day, probably. Two at the most. But probably just a day.
“Alright.” He said to his phone, plugged it in and dropped it onto the nightstand as he rose.
More important than the text was the time, 8:40am. It was Saturday. The bodega was open but he couldn’t get anything of use for another few hours. He pressed from the wreck of his bedroom. The walls were a cool, neutral blue. The trim white. The carpet a soft, pleasant beige. Clothes were strewn everywhere. The air heavy and stale. Mail thrown across the dressers, magazines, a few ties. It was a hurricane. Empty drawers hung barely in their cradles as though the place had been ransacked. There was a comfortable lack of expectation about being in his bedroom. A man could indulge sloth without judgement or worry there. He stepped into his hallway and closed the door behind himself.
The rest of the apartment was immaculate.
“Fuck you.” He said into the place. It greeted him with austere silence. His bare feet moved across the hardwood until he reached the blinds and he drew them back, opening the apartment to the city below. Brooklyn was indifferent. It was alive. Movement and colors, light, flooded his space and he recoiled from it some. A labor of appearances. An old habit. He skirted the couch and went into the kitchen. There was no liquor in his cabinet but he checked anyway. Learned Optimism, it was called, and he felt a crazy sardonic smile tug at his face before the space of counter infront of him exploded with movement and the empty space was filled.
It’d been a cat once, he thought, but he wasn’t convinced. It acted like it’d always been exactly what it was. It’d shown up on the fire escape one night and never left. He’d never fed it and he’d never paid it any mind until it’d returned one night a ruin. It seemed impossible for it to have climbed eight stories with its back legs broken but that’s what it had done. A stray, he assumed, it was missing an ear and large tracts of fur along its left side. The tail was bent permanently at an unnatural angle. A car, he figured. Maybe a bike. Maybe some sicko lived in the neighborhood and the cat had escaped. Anyway, it had looked like it was about to die and didn’t have any complaints about it. It just laid there on its side, breathing, staring at him with lantern green eyes. A mottled coat of brown, black, and tan. It reminded him of chocolate peanut butter ice cream in the gallon container down at Carvel’s. But it didn’t meow at him. It didn’t hiss. It just watched him through the glass.
He’d always hated cats. But the damned thing was out there suffering and so he’d brought it in and fashioned a carrier for it out of a towel from his linen closet. He had meant to go down to the store, anyway, but the vet wasn’t more than two blocks over and soon enough he was there. They’d done what they could, the Vet had said. But it wouldn’t walk again, they didn’t think. Not without a serious limp, anyway. But they’d given it the shots that it needed and shaved down the places where it had mange and bathed it and on the whole it still looked like shit — just slightly warmer and cleaner. Owen hadn’t let them put it down. He’d adopted it, forking over the money he’d brought for booze, unsure why he’d adopted a stray cat that he didn’t even like. The cat had never made a sound. Just watched him. They’d amputated the top four inches of its tail. The rest of it, wrapped in gauze, had flicked lazily as it stared.
“What are you going to name him?” The girl had gauges in her ears which immediately ruined how pretty she could have been. She was watching him with a warm smile.
“What?” He’d answered, distracted by signing some of the forms with a hurried, scribbled signature.
“What’s his name?”
“Oh.” He had replied. And looked at the cat in the carrier they’d lent him. It stared at him through the bars. “I don’t know.”
“He’s handsome.” She answered like she hadn’t heard him.
And he had saw her for the first time then. Maybe twenty years old, strawberry blonde hair. Some university student, maybe. Or maybe a working class kid that merely aspired. She was neatly dressed. And she really was cute. Too young for him to mess with, mind you, but cute all the same. He imagined more than a few men would be fortunate enough to know her in the biblical sense. And seeing her softness with the cat, reaching in to scratch his nose through the cage of the carrier with a delicate finger, he abruptly felt the greatest sadness he’d ever known settle over his heart. The kind of sadness that came when you were thirty-three and the world had really pulled back its lips and shown its fangs to you enough times for you to finally get it. The kind of sadness that came with seeing a good heart that hadn’t gone through that yet and having to sit there knowing that one day it would and that easy tenderness in her would probably not survive it without being tainted by mistrust or resignation.
“What do you think?” He had asked her.
“Call.” She’d answered.
“Huh?” He’d said.
“You should call him Call.” She’d answered him before looking back to him.
“Call?” He had been confused. Generally, he’d felt confused every day for the three years prior the cat and three years after. Still, he’d been especially confused by her proclamation of the name Call.
“My dad read a lot of western novels. You know, cowboys?” She said then and settled back into the rolling chair behind the desk. “Call was his favorite character. Quiet and tough.”
Woodrow Call, he had realized. He knew it. Knew it well. It was a stupid fucking name for a cat, he thought. The cat sat silent as it had been since he’d taken it off the fire escape. The chopped tail had curled and swayed. A stupid fucking name for a stupid fucking cat that he didn’t want. Nothing about the night had gone the way it’d supposed to. He had intended to get proper drunk in his apartment with –her- and then they’d fuck and find jesus, and then they’d fall asleep and for a little while he’d feel alright with the world. They’d wake up and she’d drink coffee on the balcony with her legs crossed and one small foot swaying to whatever thoughts were rolling through her head. And she’d say something like, “I don’t know if there’s a place for me in this world.” Or “I don’t think I’ll ever get it.” And he’d assure her that she would with earnestness because he loved her and saw her the way she couldn’t see herself. And she’d demure, accepting his words without ever taking them to heart, and they’d make love in the morning before she went to work. But the cat fucked everything up.
“Call.” He nodded to the girl and she’d beamed at him. It hurt him then and it hurt him thinking about now. If she’d only known what the world would eventually unleash for her she’d not give so easily and humor so readily. Still, back then, he was less bitter than he was now and she’d gotten a smile out of him.
Call had recovered. And he hadn’t just walked, he’d walked without a limp and eventually come to run and jump. All the grace had returned that a cat should have. Now, he stopped remembering the first night with the cat and scratched its head instead. It turned its head into his fingers and he scratched at the scar where its left ear had been. It still made no sound. It still had lantern green eyes. And it was here. And it had only loved two people that he knew and it had loved –her- most of all. He did, too. The dark hair with grey streaks. Eyes like the ocean he’d never seen.
Call stared at him now and settled there, all his fur had long grown back. He was older but it was hard to tell. The cat was otherwise still. Big eyes unblinking. Stop thinking of her, the cat seemed to say. You know what happens. You know where this goes.
“Don’t.” He said to the cat. They talked often. “I know.”
He felt the cat’s anger and turned away from it, splaying his hands on the opposite counter. The apartment out here was immaculate. It smelled fresh and clean. There were a pair of women’s shoes on the floor in the foyer that were hers and he caught sight of them in the corner of his eye and his heart ached again. She’d left them a long time ago. God dammit. Fuck. God dammit. He’d only himself to blame but the desire to get angry and blame everyone else was strong. He just couldn’t take that step so, usually, he got drunk and swung hard on the other way. It was easier to beat yourself up than it was to go on. It was easier to tell yourself that the only reason your life was devoid the thing you wanted most was your own bullshit. It gave you the illusion of control. It gave you the feeble hope that if you smoothed out that rough place the thing you wanted would come back. The only thing that he feared more than his own faults was the idea that they didn’t matter. The idea that she’d have left him if he’d have done everything right. The thought that even without his mistakes she’d have chosen to go because she did not want to stay. He eyed the clock like it’d betrayed him and then got up and went to shower.
— — — — — — — — — — — —
In the mirror he looked at himself and saw the telltale signs that he was building towards a proper fucking bend. His eyes were alert, but dark circled, and his skin had cleared up and some of his youth had returned. It was when he was just starting to feel alright that the urge usually came on and the darkness slipped over him like a warm blanket. He was already choosing which vice to lose himself in. It was a revolving door of darkness. But he’d things to do. For now. It was time and he grabbed his watch and strapped it on to his left wrist and took his phone and his keys from his end table. Call watched him, expressionless, briefly lingering before vanishing around the edge of the bed.
He bought the bottle at the bodega and then he went to the bar down the street. The door said closed but opened for him, anyway, and inside he was relieved to find the place almost entirely empty. The man behind the bar was easily 50 and white-haired. He had a bit of a belly, broad shoulders, and massive hands. Still, his face was round and pleasant, and his eyes were a warm green and brown.
“Jesus, Kid.” Sal said as he dragged a rag over the immaculate counter top. His face said the rest.
“Not this morning, Sal.” He brushed him off. The bottle was set with his coat. If Sal saw it he decided not to say anything. Owen rubbed at his eyes and tried to push the fatigue and ache away. He had ice in his belly. He didn’t want to be here. He wanted to be drunk or working on it. He pushed all of that aside. “So, what’s the word?”
Sal measured him for a moment and then nodded. The good humor between them faded. The tone shifted. Business always came down to focus. A brown paper bag was passed to him over the counter of the bar and Owen took it down into his lap and looked inside. He was satisfied.
“Alright.” He said and turned back to the door. Sal was already putting his coat and bottle beneath the bar.
“Hey, O’.” Sal said steadily. “People have noticed you’re reliable.”
“Tell Alicia that.” He said bleakly.
And then they both laughed and the tension slipped from the room. Owen considered the weight of the bag and thought briefly of her, all the same, even as the laughter came and the bar’s warmth wrapped him up. This was home, in a way, and the only inclination of family that he’d ever known had come from here. He’d been a kid at the counter so many years ago. Sal had been younger then. The bags that Owen had been given had been lighter. The work easier. But Alicia had hated it all the same. It was the kind of thing she liked to read about but never come near. The truth of it held a dark edge that frightened her. The icy pit in his belly remained.
He went onto the street and took a cab uptown. Closer to her neighborhood than he’d have liked. The address for the thing was still several blocks away but the familiar streets and buildings spoke to him and his memories. They whispered sweet passings and drove needles into his heart. The pain flared white-hot and certain. He left the cab a half-block from the address and went to the house. A narrow driveway cut around to the back of the building. It was a squat brick duplex, a two family home that was working as a single. The yard was squat and small with a chain link fence that was at least twenty years old and rusted. Warped. He took the revolver out of the bag. A big-framed, snub-nosed .357 with tape along the grip. He wore gloves, anyway. He rolled the cylinder of the pistol open and checked the rounds. He rotated it back so that the hammer rested between chambers. The gate was open in the back and he went into the yard.
He’d been ready to break the slider to get in but it was unlocked. Small favors. He drew it open quietly and went inside. The kitchen was neat, tidy, and well-used. Empty. There was a TV on in the living room and nobody there. The room could have easily belonged to anyone. There were pictures of kids on the walls. Movement upstairs. There hadn’t been more than one car out front, Owen knew, and so he went up. In his belly the ice remained. He clung to it now. This dark in him was a powerful thing. In many ways it was like an old friend. Lingering. And he brushed his way forward with it wrapped around him. His heart was steady and often he hated himself for that reason more than any other.
Anthony Graciano was a heavy-set Italian man in his 40’s. And he was not to be trifled with. But dumb luck had given Owen the drop that he needed and the man’s back was to him. He was bent over. In a white-wife beater and grey boxer shorts. Rummaging through a large travel bag. Owen was right on him before he straightened and brought the gun down hard in a savage arc. He was strong and the frame of the weapon was steel. It caught Anthony in the soft spot at the very top of his head and the big man went right down to his knees, chest on the bed. The sound that left him was a low, wobbling uhhhh.
There were different ways to go about this kind of work. Owen had done them all. But he preferred the ones that left the fewest questions and pointed the fewest directions. Anthony shifted some, not entirely out, and so Owen hit him again. This time the pistol was swung sideways in a sweeping arc. The snub barrel and frame struck just above the heavier man’s ear with a dull, audible thud. The impact knocked Anthony to his side on the floor where he landed heavily. His mouth opening and closing like a fish. Owen felt himself kneeling on the man’s back and gathering his arms behind him. He jerked a lamp off the end-table and snapped the cord out of the back. Used it to tightly bind the man’s wrists.
“W-wrong house.” Anthony stammered. It sounded like he was drunk. Owen stripped a pillow case from the bed and pulled it over the man’s head.
He didn’t answer. His eyes tracked the house. A burglary was a fairly typical thing. He had time, but not much. Owen’s eyes swept to the bag. There, laying within, were stacks of hundred dollar bills wrapped in rubber bands. Too easy. Just too easy. He was so shocked he nearly laughed out loud. The cold certainty of how this was all going down stopped him. He’d known men who felt nothing when it came to this kind of work. He was not those men. But that didn’t mean he hadn’t learned the mechanisms by which you coped. Life was a precious thing but it was also an awful one. In a way he could have argued that every moment like this one was a mercy onto that which he visited. In the end he valued his own life enough to not be foolish. He was thorough for his own behalf. But also for their own. Men didn’t suffer at his hands.
“No, Anthony. It isn’t.” He said finally. The man on the floor went abruptly, entirely, still. It was like the air went out of him.
“Owen?” The pillowcase puffed out from the shape of his head where he was breathing. Out and in. Out and in.
“There’s almost a hundred thousand dollars in the bag. There’s thirty thousand more in the floor of the closet. Take it. Go. I’ll get out.” Anthony was speaking fast. His voice was strong but rapid now, full of fear.
He was silent in answer.
“Fuck.” Anthony said miserably. His words nearly a whine. “How’d he find out?”
“I don’t know.” Owen said quietly as he moved around the room. A Rolex on the end-table was tossed in the bag. A bracelet. Jewelry from his wife’s Jewelry box. “Anything I shouldn’t take?”
“The pearls. They were her mothers.” Anthony managed. Stammering. “Glad it was you.”
Owen felt his stomach drop. He’d heard that before. Glad it was him. It was the little considerations. The world was a shit show. So much of it circumstance. Wrong place, wrong time. It didn’t matter if it was work. Some kids born to go to college. Some kids born to the hood. Some lucky in love. Some missing it by moments. A collection of accidents and stumbles leading to one invariable end. There was no meaning greater than the small kindnesses he had known. The world had never felt like a place worth loving as much as he was capable. The compassion and cleanliness of his work was something that had also spared him from some of the uglier business of the family. Owen wasn’t the one they used when they wanted a message sent. They knew he envied the dead in a way.
“Didn’t think it would be.” Anthony’s voice coming from the pillow case was calming. Owen looked to him, considered him, shook his head gently. And knelt down.
“Listen, Anthony. I’ve got to do it now. I know you probably want it in the chest but you’re a big guy. I think I can do it so I don’t ruin your face. But you have to be still.” Quietly, he laid a gloved hand on the man’s shoulder. The big body beneath trembled. Helpless. Some part of Owen broke. He thought briefly of the ocean. Hurricanes. A storm in his apartment. A life he would never live. The ice in his belly came back. He focused on it. “It won’t hurt.”
“She’ll come back, Owen.” Anthony said then. Sucking in air. Steadying his voice. It reached out and hit Owen like a hammer blow.
“Stay st-…” He began. Off balance.
“Just listen to me.” The voice from beneath the pillowcase said. The big body on the floor with its hands bound said. “She’ll come back. It’ll take time. You know why? Because it’s ugly out there. And you two were beautiful. And women are suckers for beautiful things.” There was a nervous, sad laugh then. “You gotta get out of this life, kid. You gotta find a way. Because she’ll come back. But if you don’t change she won’t stay. And next time it’ll be for good.”
“It’ll be OK, Anthony.” He said. He was crying. The tears ran down his cheeks. The ache so fierce. He almost hated Anthony then. The pistol wavered. He lifted it. Dropped it. Lifted it again.
There were small considerations you could give a man. Owen knew this. And he’d not known Anthony would have reached to him in that way but he had known him. He was not a bad man. He’d skimmed. Taken too much. Greed was something inherent in criminals. It lived and breathed in their hearts. Even his own, for all its differences, was not immune. She’d told him once that being different was simply a choice. Making a choice. Anthony’s words hung in his ears. A ploy? A game? He cried silently and decided it didn’t matter. He cried silently.
He laid the barrel of the pistol over the shape of the pillowcase, just above the back of the man’s ear, and squeezed steadily. –BANG!- and the pistol bucked in his hand. It was a loud, explosive crack in the bedroom that scented the air with cordite. The body gave a jerk and went still. The .357 round had punched a small, black hole in the pillowcase and into the man beyond. Blood was spreading from beneath him rapidly. –BANG!- Owen fired again. There was no movement this time. Just another neat hole. More blood. He tossed the pistol in the bag with the money and went to the floor. A square cut in the carpet, deep grooves. He pulled it up and within he saw what Anthony had promised. A few pistols. Wads of money. He gathered them into the bag and left the house.
He walked two blocks before he caught a cab and went down to arena. From there, he caught another cab and went to the waterfront. The bag was tightly closed and he carried it with him. Along the waterfront he walked, waiting, until in a quiet place he could pitch the pistols. Each one slipped into the water with a plunk. Vanishing. And that was that, really. That was all it took. This was the end. And still, instead of going directly back to the bar, he rode the cab crying with the bag on his lap. Wondering if it was true. Wondering if she’d come back.
And uncertain how he’d ever find a way to be anything else than exactly what he was.
(Posted without edits or proof-reading. The mechanics of writing seem daunting and stifling right now. So, I’ll keep shooting from the hip.)