I first see the cat on my way out to the Super Fresh to pick up Portobello mushrooms. He’s lying on the other side of our one-way street, a single lane narrow enough to be an alley really, a place where he never would have lain normally, smart stray that he was. I didn’t look for long, only enough to confirm that his body had been crushed, though not which part, to acknowledge the red pool spreading slowly beneath him, the flies already buzzing inside the mouth that the car wheel had forced open.
I look up and down Pierce Street and see that I’m alone. There’s no one around to fill me in on what happened, no one but me and this dead cat. It’s a hazy summer night in South Philadelphia. Air conditioning units whir from first and second floor windows. It isn’t much of a decision, really. I’m strapped for time, with a friend due to arrive for dinner and my new backyard grill not even fired. I keep moving, toward my Nissan, which beeps cheerfully when I aim the keyless remote toward it.
I squeeze my car around the cat, turn the corner and wave to the two old ladies sitting on beach chairs in the next alley. They smile and wave back. We’ve been on better terms lately. Our relationship, which even now consists solely of smiling and waving, has evolved slowly. At first they were content to stare as I drove past them on my way out for the evening. I forced the issue, though, making eye contact and waving when I was in a good mood and staring straight ahead when I wasn’t. The inconsistent approach didn’t exactly loosen them up, but now we have the routine down: I nod and smile, they smile and wave.
This brief interaction doesn’t help my mood, though. I make my way through a grid of streets in the gray summer night, pondering the reality of my neighborhood, a place where cats are hit by cars that keep driving. Where a friend of mine called the morning after my housewarming party, insisting that I move immediately after she had witnessed a gang of kids beat up another kid over on Washington Avenue on her way home. Where the people next door, a family that I knew would be trouble not long after I had moved in, once put a bullet through the center of my front picture window.
I was out for the night, having dinner at my parents’ house south of the city, in the now-suburban countryside where I grew up. It was dusk when I returned to find police tape separating my row house and the one next to it from the small crowd that had gathered. A group of women and children, some whom I vaguely recognized, pointed me toward the cop who stood nearby guarding the crime scene.
I didn’t ask for an explanation and the cop didn’t provide one, although I heard the story plenty of times in the weeks to come from Norman, the boy who knows everything there is to know about what goes on around Pierce Street. His face would light up and his glasses flash as he recreated the scene, the domestic dispute that erupted in the house next to mine and spilled out into the street. How the old lady’s son went after the guy nobody had ever seen before, how everybody scattered — adults, kids, everybody, including Norman — when the old lady gave the gun to her dear boy so he could start shooting. He didn’t get the guy, Norman said, his narrative slowing in disappointment. But I should have seen how the cops came running, he said, speaking breathlessly again. They must have been right up the street to get here so fast after everybody started using their cell phones to call 911!
At first the cop wouldn’t let me past the tape, but he changed his mind after a few minutes, with a warning not to touch anything until the detectives showed up. As I unlocked my front door, I took a closer look at the window. The hole the bullet had made was small and perfect, except for single cracks on each side that extended from the hole to the frame, like blood vessels in the eye of someone who is tired or stoned.
Inside, I turned on the light next to my sofa. Everything in the living room looked as I had left it, except for the tiny shards of glass on the stereo and carpet, and the hole the streaking bullet had made in my ceiling. I looked at the one in the window and the one in the ceiling and made a quick calculation: even if I had been standing right in front of the window, watching the fireworks, I wouldn’t have gotten hit. A broom that wasn’t mine was lying out on the patio, a stray projectile from the earlier rounds of the fight next door.
Later, I sat on the sofa watching the NBA Finals, as a detective stood on the chair I had lent him and poked a thin metal rod with a circular catch into my ceiling.
“Who’s up?” he asked.
“ Lakers by ten. Third quarter.”
“ Looks like their year again, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Too bad.” He nodded, concentrating on extracting the bullet. “Having any luck?”
“Nope,” he said, grunting as he stepped down from the chair. “That’s okay. We’ll have enough to nail him without it. Better call your landlord. Give him this when you see him,” he said, handing me his card.
The cat is still lying there when I get home. The street still seems deserted, but then I see Bobbie peering out her screen door and shaking her head. She looks distressed. I don’t know her well but I like her. Her face, perpetually tanned, is weathered enough to suggest someone in her late forties. Childless, she and her husband live in the house directly across from mine. Every night she spends ten minutes with the hose watering the plants on the sidewalk, a lit cigarette dangling from her lower lip. Her garden is a dazzling array of color, all in ceramic pots, and the only sign of natural life on Pierce Street. She smiled and said she would help when I told her I intended to start my own right across from her, but that was a few weeks ago and the last time we spoke.
“I’ll go get a box,” I tell her.
Her expression changes from one of concern to one of resolve. “I’ve got one,” she
“Then I’ll go get gloves.”
She lines a cardboard box from her SUV with a green trash bag and gives it to me. I find that the only way to pick the cat up is to not think about it too deeply, not speculate on the life it might have led, a life I never considered that often on my way to and from my car every day. This must be the attitude anyone must have who confronts what violence does to the flesh for a living, I tell myself. The head sags and the flies scatter as I wrap my hands around the broken body, the blood smearing against the dried soil of my gardening gloves. Bobbie grabs her hose and aims a jet stream at the small pool still in the street. I hold on to the box, unsure of what to do with it, deciding finally to put it on the sidewalk in front of the house where the cat was hit.
Just then Milanya comes out. I have been wondering where she’s been. It is she who has been putting out the styrofoam bowls of dry food that were eaten every day by this stray and two others. Her attempt to domesticate one of the others, a feral kitten that I once found curled up on my doormat as I left for work on one of the coldest mornings of the year, has become a mini-drama recently. So far her efforts to catch Buster and take him to an animal hospital have been unsuccessful. She had gotten as far as coaxing him onto her lap, but last week I came out to find her sitting on a nearby stoop, sobbing, three fresh scratches running up the inside of her arm. Buster stared at her from the other side of a locked gate that protected his alley. She wasn’t crying from the pain, Milanya explained, but for all the days it would take to earn the cat’s trust again. So far she has ignored my sister, a lab tech at a veterinary hospital whose advice I solicited, about getting a cat trap instead.
When she sees the box and realizes what’s inside, she throws up her hands and paces back and forth, not sure what to do with herself. For someone in his late thirties, I feel like I’ve had surprisingly little experience consoling others after a loss. I can see, though, that it doesn’t require much practice: assume what you hope is a sympathetic expression, and nod with conviction at everything the mourner says, whether you agree with it or not. Keep controversial opinions, like your feelings about whether or not one should feed stray cats to begin with, to yourself.
“Who the hell could run over a cat like that and just leave it to die in the street?” Milanya asks. “And I’m sorry, but he’d have to be driving pretty damn fast to hit one in the first place.” While I agree with the first comment and act like I do for the second, I find that I have a hard time empathizing with Milanya’s hysteria. She is choosing to see what has happened as a crime against the cat. And in one way, I agree. All this just confirms something I don’t like about my neighborhood, reinforces my belief that ultimately I’ll never stay, will live here for now because the rent is cheap and the location convenient, but never buy, something that separates me from Milanya and Bobbie and most of the other residents on Pierce Street. But in another**, the cat’s death is just the law of averages kicking in, a probability that Milanya, through her daily bowls of cat food, inadvertently increased. **Not clear; maybe “But in another way,…”
She goes inside to see about having the cat cremated (“My God, we have to do something, we can’t just throw her in the trash!”). I’m about to as well – I’m wasting time and my friend should be arriving any minute now – when Lisa opens the screen door next to mine and says hello. She and her husband Mark moved in after the gunslingers left and the landlord gutted and renovated the place. He works in pharmaceuticals outside the city; she is five months pregnant with their first child. They’re a nice couple and a sign that gentrification, for better or worse, may finally be arriving here on Pierce Street.
We strike up a conversation about my job. She knows from some previous exchanges that I’m an English teacher, and asks me if I know someone she once had in high school, a Catholic parochial school for girls not far from our neighborhood. I don’t know the guy, explaining that private schools like mine don’t interact much with the archdiocesan ones.
“Was he a good teacher?” I ask.
“Oh yeah, he was great. I had him for AP English. He’s taught there for like 35 years.”
“It’s great to have one who really mattered, huh?”
“Oh yeah. He was like, the only good thing about that place.” She smiles when she says this, although the pain of the memory breaks in on the innocence of the smile.
“So what else is going on?” she asks.
“Oh, not much … oh, well, actually, it’s too bad, one of those stray cats just got hit by a car.” I try to adjust my tone to something more serious but it’s too late. Lisa’s face goes blank with confusion. Just then Milanya comes back out, still beside herself.
“Milanya?” she asks. “Which one?”
“Muggsy,” Milanya answers, wiping her eyes. “The one you were worried about.”
“Is he?” Lisa’s eyes darken and soften as she begins to comprehend. “Will you excuse me?” she asks, not really conscious of who I am anymore.
I can’t make out the muffled words behind her front door as she tells her husband the news, but I can hear clearly what comes after that: the sounds of her sobbing uncontrollably. Mark comes out a minute later. “I’ve never seen her so upset,” he says quietly, lighting a cigarette, and I nod with real empathy this time, keeping to myself the unexpected gratitude I feel for the high-pitched gasps I can still hear inside. Someone is doing what none of us had been capable of on this hot July night in the city. Someone is grieving at last.
Matthew Jordan grew up in Delaware County and now lives in South Philadelphia. A graduate of Albright College in Reading, PA and the University of Pennsylvania, he is finishing a Master?s program in English and Creative Writing at Rutgers-Camden. He teaches literature and writing at a private high school in Bucks County.