The Halloween Project Day 5: Cat Scratch Fever
Dogs and Halloween just don’t match. Neither do parakeets, lizards, guinea pigs or hamsters. I’m sure someone could write a nice little horror tale about one of these semi-domesticated pets, but it is the cat that reigns supreme in late October. Cats have been mummified with pharaohs, stealthily crept around the cauldrons of witches, been walled away by Poe, and the black variety still brings a bit of a chill to many who unfortunately watch them cross their paths.
So, Why not. Every Halloween needs a good cat story. I’m not certain this one is good, but it does highlight a cat. Halloween Project Story #5 is dedicated to all the cats in the expanded Bosch family. Cats of the past, cats of the present, and cats who have not yet decided to grace our homes.
It was just a bundle of wet, matted and dirty fur leaning tightly against the coursing drainpipe. A low decibel mewl could barely be discerned above the city traffic just a few feet away. Pulling into itself in a feeble effort for warmth the eyes appeared too large and too wide set to be appealing. But certainly those green eyes were noticeable to the many passersby who glanced, then moved along, tightening their collars against the sleet that had iced the city for two nights and a day.
Jerome was rushing through the busy foot traffic of the lower East Side to get to his fourth floor walkup. His job, a bus boy at a third rate restaurant way up in Hell’s Kitchen, had just ended and the midnight crowd had finally dispersed. “Bus boy,” he mumbled to himself. “I’m 42 years old and I’m a bus boy.” The job paid shit but it was all he could get. Jobs don’t come easy for middle aged failures who had been in both prison and rehab, more than once, in any order. The only stroke of luck that landed in his sorry lap was that his parents owned a rent controlled apartment that came to him when they passed. He’d lived there forever, in between his stints upstate. It was big by New York apartment standards, not in terms of square foot, but there were a few rooms. He always thought that with all the gentrification that was happening everywhere he might sell it one day and move on. But then he’d think, “Where the hell am I gonna go? Passaic? Newburgh?” He’d just as soon stay.
What he really needed right now was something to make him feel better. To make him feel whole. To make him feel good. But he was fighting that feeling. Not too hard, but he was fighting. He’d settle for a bottle of something. Whiskey if he had enough in his pocket, wine if he didn’t.
Then he heard the cat.
He looked down and saw the kitten, hunched, with spikes of fur, either pressed or greased against its body. The green eyes that reflected, glowing, as the next cab passed by. Green, crazy, sad eyes. Jerome hunched down, slowly extended his hand. A walker, not seeing Jerome’s hunched shadow, bumped into him.
“Jesus Christ! You see me here!” Jerome shouted at the long coated man.
“Move your butt off the sidewalk you asshole! Find yourself a park bench!”
Jerome turned to the kitten who had not started or run as most would. He addressed the cat.
“Did you see that? That bastard thinks I’m a homeless person. I mean, I have been homeless… despite the apartment… sometimes I just couldn’t find my way home… but, hey, you’re homeless. Why don’t you come home with me?” and he extended a hand to the kitten. The frightened animal looked and then stepped out from the drainpipe into the sleet and the frozen evening. Jerome saw it was a calico, some white and black, touches of tan throughout. It moved toward Jerome’s hand, but stopped short, looking up at him with too green eyes. Eyes made to see in the dark. Eyes made to see much. It never purred.
After the long walk up the dim stairwell and back into the apartment Jerome placed the cat on the dingy, linoleum floor, grabbed a towel from a closet, tossed it to the floor, and opened a can of tunafish. He watched carefully as the cat previewed the food and walked twice around the can. It reached in with a paw and fetched a morsel of tuna flinging it to the floor and looking up at Jerome. After 30 seconds it reconsidered the tuna and ate.
”Well, holy shit, aren’t you a finicky little beast,” Jerome announced and the cat looked at him, long and carefully. “I gotta go out,” he told the cat, as if there was now someone to talk to. “I’ll be back later.” And then a moment, “What the friggin hell, now I’m talking to a cat.”
Jerome returned with a half empty bottle of Fighting Cock Bourbon. He had shared it with a couple of derelicts who he knew well in the pocket park down the block from the apartment. They had shared other paper bag items with him. When he pushed into his room, he called “Here, kitty, kitty,” like he was part of a domestic family scene. When the cat didn’t appear he yelled out with impatience, “Here, pussy!” The kitten slunk around the corner and watched him.
Jerome stared back, retrieved a small saucer from the shelf and poured a good portion of Fighting Cock into the bowl. The cat looked at him, long and green eyed, approached the bowl and lapped every droplet of bourbon.
In the cheap slanted blinds of the morning Jerome snapped into a clotted wakefulness. The cat sat on the end of the bed, watching. Despite the evening indoors and the warmth, it looked no better than it had the night before in the cold and sleety rain. Lumpy, spiked and mottled, Jerome had previously thought it to be a calico cat with colors mostly brindled with black and white, tan showing across its back in varying degrees. That’s what he thought last night. Now he realized that it was black, a steady cast iron black throughout and considered how he could have been so wrong the previous evening. He realized, really for the first time, that this was not a pleasant companion. Jerome dragged on his pants, and on this, his day off, was out to the streets to see what might present itself.
Jerome returned past six in the afternoon, the sun already waned into darkness as the local brownstones blocked both light and air. He entered slowly, reluctantly, untrusting. The cat emerged, stronger and direct.
“Hello cat,” Jerome stated, mostly drunk but with other chemicals aboard. Staring directly, both to and from, he noticed that the cat was bigger. Not fluffy or warm, just bigger. Sizeable. Bigger. Grounded. It sat, calmly and stoic, the green, green eyes deepening in their gaze toward him.
“What the fuck is goin’ on with you?” he asked.
The cat gazed steadily.
It was then that Jerome noticed that its paws were larger, expanded, well beyond the kitten he rescued the night before. He approached and the cat observed. He saw for the first time that the cat did not have five digits on each of its paws, not even six. Each limb, front and rear, had seven, a grotesque expanse of claws that splayed outward in a sharp display of feline power.
“What the…” Jerome barely finished.
The cat padded firmly toward Jerome and slashed him with its front paw on the shin just below the knee.
“Jesus!” Jerome yelled and hopped away.
The cat jumped to the countertop, reached up in a long stretching motion, extended its paw and opened the freezer. It stretched and dragged out a frozen pound of hamburger, dropping it onto the floor. Jerome’s shin bled strongly, soaking his sock, blood careening down into his cheap sneakers and pooling onto the floor.
The cat, green eyes moving farther apart on his head, sat and watched.
“Holy, Mother of God!” was all that Jerome could muster. He grabbed his coat, snatching the bottle of Fighting Cock and made for the door. “I’m getting the fuck out of here!” was all he could toss into the room as he ran.
Late, late in the evening, really the next day, newspapers not yet delivered to city stoops, Jerome returned to his apartment, lost somewhere between liquor and pharmaceuticals. He ascended the four flights of stairs slowly, each step an effort of will and survival. He turned the lock, pushed open the door an inch at a time and edged inside, pulling it tight behind him.
Looking across his narrow, grey hallway he saw the cat. It stood on its hind legs and gazed at him with those too green eyes, not with interest, but disdain. Jerome watched and it turned, slowly walking away, still on two legs, moving deeper into what Jerome called his living room.
It was now three, or perhaps four feet tall. Jerome had no options. He staggered in a drunken, stoned stupor into the room. When he entered the cat, upright and directly across from him, watched with the most intense, wide swept green eyes.
“Sit down, Jerome,” the cat said, “We need to talk.”