Because I no longer have a yard, at least not a yard that suits me (not like the one we had back in Wyndmoor), and because I am not the type, yard or no yard, to stay cooped up indoors—not on an evening where the summer heat has mellowed and the sun is orangeing—because of these things, I’ve been sitting out on the stoop these days, making it the place where I can undo my belt, slouch, and let my belly unfurl onto my knees. Where I can drink Bacardi and Diet Coke from the tiki glass that Lana abhors. Where I can stare down the cars creeping past, looking for precious street-parking while my station wagon sits in the middle of two perfectly good spots.
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At this time of day, little things happen all on their own: dirty rain water drips through a sagging awning, and the breeze scatters glass, wrappers, and other detritus to reveal skeletal forms in the filth. And the stray cat, the longest, thinnest cat I’ve ever seen, comes out from under my station wagon to rub shyly against my back before I let it climb into my lap.
“Hey you,” I say to the cat, rubbing my hand across it. “Hey cat. Hey puss. Hey kitty.”
The cat isn’t all that grimy for a stray. I’m not sure what to call it: it has that quality between an it and a she.
“Are you a Catrina or a Catherine?” I ask it. “Or do you prefer to be called Mrs. Cat? Or even maybe Dr. Cat?”
The cat meows. I like to imagine she was once gainfully employed in the cat world, as a college professor or a medical doctor. When she fell on hard times, she became depressed, and rightfully so. Given how introverted a cat is to begin with, she must have been real unpleasant, so her family put her out on the street. But she’s ready to turn a new leaf, so I give her the respect she needs to get back on her feet. I tell her about what I’m reading. We converse. After all, isn’t this why people keep cats in the first place?
“Tough times, huh? You want a snack?” I ask. “Wait here.”
Inside, Lana is preparing dinner. There aren’t enough hallways, not enough alternate routes in this townhouse; to get to the kitchen, I have to walk through the living room where the three dogs lounge like a plague. Why even have a sofa? Why not just spread some hay in front of the television and let whoever wants lay in it?
I rattle the ice remaining in my cup until Charlie, the pit bull, shoots his head up and begins to whimper.
“Is that you, King of The Street?” Lana calls. “How does everything look out there?”
I answer her question with one of my own. It’s not that I don’t hear her. That’s just how we talk nowadays.
“What’s cooking, Lan?”
“Don’t you want to guess?
“Quinoa salad and baked fish,” she replies.
I step into the kitchen, grab her bony hips, and watch her denude a ratty carrot over the compost bin. Then I go into the fridge and reach into the back corner for a slice of turkey.
“You’re not feeding that cat, are you?” she asks.
“Nope,” I say, putting the lunchmeat in my pocket and filling my glass with ice.
“Good. I don’t want it to think it can come inside. We’re dog people, now.”
Lana likes to say that. But we aren’t dog people by nature, and had never been when we lived in Wyndmoor. Dogs have conquered our new house, bit by bit. It all started when Lana adopted Charlie as a young pit bull from the animal shelter, where they’d told her that Charlie was the sweetest, most friendly dog, but good for protection too. And for the most part he was. But the day he was brought home, Charlie killed our cat, Bootsy, just killed her like there was nothing to it. He bee-lined for her, grabbed her in his jaws, and shook the life out of her like a plush toy. It was horrible. I had to wrestle Charlie to the ground, which got Charlie even more excited, and he started to lick my face with his bloody tongue.
“On second thought, there’s no point in us losing two pets,” Lana had said, after I had loaded Charlie into the trunk of the station wagon. The animal was circling around back there like an excited particle, pausing once in a while to look at us gleefully, his tail whacking alternately between seatback and windowpane. Not only did I blame Charlie for killing Bootsy, but somehow I blamed him for the fact that Lana, visibly, was not nearly as upset as I was. I started to hate Charlie that very day.
Charlie was soon followed by Megan the Weimaraner (a yuppie dog, grey, athletic, vacant—in other words, a yuppie herself) and George St. George, a shih tzu that I was allowed to name. I named him that way because he walked into the house the first day and stared down the bigger dogs into submission. George St. George is the one I dislike the least.
After dinner, we go for a walk. It’s dark now, and the breeze is refreshing. Lana walks all three dogs at once, pulled along like a warrior on a chariot, driving through the night. She gets ahead of me instantly, so I sneak a glance under the station wagon. A pair of marbly eyes tells me that the cat is there.
“More turkey when I get back,” I reassure it.
Lana pauses now and again to let one of the dogs shit. It’s a shameless show that they take turns stoically performing while Lana and the other two dogs watch on. Once the dog has finished, everybody is reanimated, and while Lana stoops to clean up, the dogs gambol about as if nothing has happened.
“Good doggie,” Lana says.
I lag behind on purpose, because I don’t want to get caught up in these chores of being a dog person. The upkeep of my own life is hard enough. Lana is good at it though—taking care of things, that is. We moved into the city because she wanted to be closer to the yoga studio, the farmers market, and the animal shelter, and because she was tired of taking care of our big old house. She wanted something cozier, cuter; wanted to be more active in a community. She said being active might do me some good too. But the only thing I was ever good at taking care of was the yard.
Thinking about our old house, I get uneasy. My buzz is wearing off and my belly starts to feel hollow.. I start to look around and see the cat slinking ten paces behind me (you see, if dogs gambol, cats slink). I want to tell it to shoo, but I like the idea of this unlikely parade making its way to the park. Besides, I know that it won’t follow us around the corner.
We cross through the park. Up ahead, Charlie and Megan are barking at a Rottweiler that belongs to some vagrant kids who smoke cigarette butts off the ground. George St. George starts to bark at the whole lot of them and Lana has to drag them away. I take this moment to turn around and see if the cat is still there, but it’s not.
“That’s right, fuck off, lady,” one of the kids says.
When I get up to where they are, the same kid asks, “Hey man, spare some change?”
I reach into my wallet and pull out a five-dollar bill.
“Sorry,” I say. I don’t know why.
The next morning, while Lana is out at yoga, I make a pot of coffee and go out onto the stoop. But the cat is nowhere in sight. So I go back inside, lift George St. George from the couch, and leash him up, relishing the look of disappointment on Charlie’s face.
“I’ll outlive you,” I promise him. “You too,” I say to Megan, who’s done nothing other than to watch dumbly with a plush toy in her mouth. It’s her failure to understand me that I can’t stand. In Charlie, it’s the opposite.
I walk George St. George to the park, where we throw the ball around. This is my attempt at being active. The other morning dog walkers are there and another shih tzu runs up to George St. George. They start to sniff each other.
“How old is he?” its owner asks me. “Is it a he or a she?”
“A he,” I say. “And I don’t know at all how old he is. I have no idea.”
She smiles behind her oversized sunglasses. She’s in her twenties and very fit, yoga-fit, but not yet all ropey like Lana.
“They seem to be getting along,” she remarks.
“Us or the dogs?”
She titters (women titter), and walks over to fetch her dog. Her pants cleave her ass like the cleft on a large peach, and while I know that I should find this arousing, I don’t. Through my pocket, I check to make sure my testicles are intact.
Suddenly a big boxer comes running across the lawn and starts bouncing around the shih tzus in a circle, barking. The shih tzus start barking back and backing up a little bit. I see the owner of the other shih tzu swoop in to break it all up, and at the same time I see myself standing by doing nothing, George St. George’s leash dangling in my fist like a lasso. What kind of dog-person am I? I wonder. Do I rescue my dog or let him fend for himself? Isn’t part of owning a dog having something that can fight and kill and die on your behalf? I decide then that I’m really a cat person—that what dogs do is none of my business.
The young woman shoots a stern smile at the boxer owner, and one at me too. She picks her shih tzu up and cradles it. I try to apologize with my eyes, whatever that looks like. Then I walk over to George St. George and put his leash back on.
We stop off at the grocery store so I can pick up some breakfast, and I tie George St. George up as loosely as I can.
“Don’t go anywhere,” I dare him.
When I come out balancing milk and eggs and bread in my arms (Lana’s on an eco-friendly kick, so I’m afraid to come back with a plastic bag), I see that George St. George’s leash has come undone, though he doesn’t seem to notice.
“Why didn’t you run for it, son?” I say. “That ingrate Charlie would run. He would run and never look back.”
There’s no point in taking the leash – George St. George leads the way back to the house and I follow ten paces behind. Back home, Lana’s just come out of the shower, and when she sees me with all the groceries she says:
“How come you didn’t bring a tote? It would have simplified your life.”
“Sometimes I forget to do the things that simplify my life,” I say, and head for the sputtering old shower, to let it lurch invectives of host rust-tinged water on me.
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That night, after Lana and the dogs have gone to bed, I lure the cat inside with lunchmeat. We go into the living room where I’ve set up a little spot for it under the bookcase with Bootsy’s old food bowl and litter box. The dogs are all upstairs—sometimes they take my place in bed and I don’t even bother to kick them out.
I sit down on the couch and watch the cat eating as if this food and being in this house were the most unremarkable thing, as if it were expected even. I’m reminded of Bootsy, and the way she stalked about the old house in Wyndmoor with utter nonchalance. Indifferent to the infestation we had, Bootsy used to stare blankly as we chased mice and roaches ourselves. It wasn’t for a lack of eyesight, because she would chase a ball or well-aimed point of light. I once went so far as to capture a mouse and dangle it live and wriggling in front of Bootsy’s face, only to prompt a lazy bath.
“Ok, kitty,” I say, kicking off my shoes and laying down now on the couch. “Time for bed.”
I tap my belly, inviting the cat to come sit on me. But it just looks at me from across the room. I close my eyes and try to sleep. Ten minutes go by. Still the cat has not come to sleep with me. When I open my eyes, I’ve lost it.
I get up and walk the perimeter of the living room, and suddenly there it is in the corner, quietly watching. I’m getting frustrated now and hot at the same time, and I’m remembering a Poe story or two where the narrator is spooked again and again by the indifferent gaze of his cat. They can scare the hell out of you when they want to. And once they’ve done it, you can’t help but think that, even when they’re friendly, there’s something removed and awful about them. Maybe that’s what Lana was glad to be rid of the day Charlie mauled Bootsy. Maybe that’s what she was glad to be rid of when she sold the big old lonely house in Wyndmoor. That indifference. Maybe I should have been glad to be rid of it too.
I sit back on the couch and silently will the cat to come over, maybe I even murmur a prayer. And finally it does, but only to the edge—it doesn’t jump up. I desperately want to take off my shirt and pants and sleep now, with or without the cat, but I don’t dare undress as long as it is in the house, watching.
I wake up the next morning, fully dressed. The cat has gone; I don’t know where. I spend the day out on the stoop and it doesn’t show up, not once. Evening comes and Lana charges out of the house with the herd and I watch them disappear down the street to go perform their shitting and playing spectacles in a more public place. The cars still creep by and the ice melting in my tiki glass gives off a pop. And I think, somebody is making these nice things for me. Somebody is composing this world in a way that it hasn’t been all year, for my enjoyment and my enjoyment alone.
McKenna’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Apiary,
Cartographer: A Literary Review, and First Stop Fiction, and he has
contributed essays to The Millions, Full Stop, the Journal of Modern
Literature, and Filament, among others. He works at the Kelly Writers
House in Philadelphia.