She had crawled under the front porch toward the back where we could barely see her, just her green eyes glowing in the low beam of flashlight. She’d been crying all morning—not heavy distressed sobs, but long plaintive laments. Forrest judged she’d been hit by some kind of vehicle, probably during the night.
“You’ll have that,” said Rob the Deck.
I swatted the flashlight with my fist. Nothing happened.
“What you gonna do, Ed?”
“She’s half dead already,” said Rob the Deck. He whacked a porch step loudly with a broken Whiffle Ball bat. “I say we put her out of her friggin misery.”
I got down on my hands and knees and peered under the porch. “She’s going to the vet,” I said, “if I ever get her butt out of there.”
Forrest sat down beside me, cradling his legs. “Do you have any idea what a vet costs, Ed? We took our lab to the vet and he wanted five hundred bucks. We had to put her to sleep. Fifty bucks, it cost us.”
“You’ll have that,” said Rob the Deck.
It was the week after Christmas and every sidewalk, every leafless tree and every automobile was smothered in a thick ice frosting. My mother wouldn’t be home till six o’clock. Earliest.
“It’s just a stupid cat,” said Rob the Deck. “How’s about I fetch my brother’s .22?”
The ground beneath the porch was littered with musty mouse remnants and the dry bones of dinner birds. The dirt wasn’t like real dirt either. It was like nothing you’d ever seen, gray and fluffy and stale smelling. “Here you dumb cat,” I cried, but the orange cat wasn’t having anything to do with me.
I had no choice but to go in after her. Only she didn’t want anyone coming near her and hissed hotly at me.
“That cat’s in a bad way, Ed,” said Forrest, peering through the porch boards. “I never seen a cat in such a bad way.”
She hissed again and took a full-clawed swipe at me. This time I threw my flashlight at her and scrambled backwards like a crawfish. I dove and cracked my head on a crossbeam.
“Here she comes!” cried Forrest.
The orange cat sailed straight through Forrest’s legs and into the waiting hands of Rob the Deck. She dug four sets of claws deep into his arm. “GAAA!!!!” he cried.
I took hold of her by the scruff of the neck and set her down in her cardboard box and covered it with a beer cooler lid. Then I went inside and dug up an old bed sheet to keep her warm. When I returned Rob the Deck was licking his wounds and Forrest was squatting next to the cat box gently stroking the orange cat’s chin.
I took up the box with the cat inside. “Who’s going with?”
“Not me,” said Rob the Deck. “I need serious medical attention.”
Forrest said, “I’ll go, Ed. I ain’t no sissy, ba-dee, ba-dee.”
The streetlights were buzzing on as we came upon Main Street. As usual the sidewalks were piled high with dirty snow. Some places the snow was as high as my kneecaps and I was considerably taller than Forrest, who was really having a battle keeping up.
“What’re you going to do for money, Ed?”
I shook my head. “If they can’t fix her, I don’t need any money.”
“What if they can . . . fix her, I mean?”
I shrugged. “Guess I’ll worry about that when the time comes.”
We were waiting for the light to change at Seventeenth and Main. Forrest was trying to see into the dark windows of Tony’s Tavern. “I’ll bet my dad’s in there.”
“If he ain’t he’s probably down at the mortuary getting embalmed.”
Forrest paused as though weighing a great matter.
“Bet if I went in there he’d buy me an RC and some Snaps.”
I shrugged. So what? I never asked him to come along in the first place. “Well—what are you waiting for?”
We waited for the light to change. I shifted the box to my other arm.
“I guess I better go, Ed. I can’t feel my toes.”
“You’ll have that,” I said, in my best Rob-the-Deck voice. Trying to sound stupid. “Go on, sissy.”
“I ain’t no sissy, ba-dee, ba-dee.”
The light changed and I moved on across the street.
The Animal Clinic was further than I remembered, but the orange cat behaved well. She’d poke her head out from under the sheet and ride along with her hairy little chin on the rim, watching the automobiles slush by and the old people stare at us. Sometimes they pointed and smiled a “that’s cute” smile. But it wasn’t cute to me. You got to be really old or really stupid to think a half-frozen kid and his half-dead cat are “cute.”
A girl was locking the doors when I walked up.
“We’re closed,” she said flatly.
“Come on, ma’am. I’ve been carrying this dying cat for an hour, and it’s freezing cold.”
She wouldn’t even look at me. “We’re closed.”
She let out a deep, exasperated sigh. “Jesus! Well, go on in.”
The vet, an irritated, preoccupied guy with badly thinning hair wanted to know where my mom and dad were. “My mom’s at work,” I said. It was none of his damn business where my dad was. Anyway, I had no clue.
The vet frowned and told me to follow him.
I carried my cat box into the examining room and set it on a table. The vet went to work immediately, gazing into my cat’s eyes like an oriental cat hypnotist and feeling around on her belly. Then he handed the orange cat to a very pretty Asian assistant who took her in the back for X-rays. I waited in the examining room and tried to stomp some life into my feet and watched the second hand twitch back and forth on the wall clock. Fourteen minutes and twenty-three seconds later the vet came out and told me my cat had severe internal injuries that would require costly surgery and even then her chances were only fifty-fifty. “I recommend we put her to sleep,” he said, suppressing a yawn.
“Putting her to sleep?”
“Oh . . .” He sounded disappointed, like he’d really wanted to put my cat to sleep. He waved his hand dismissively. “Five hundred.”
Five-hundred bucks? I’d never seen more than twenty-five dollars in my whole life. Tops. I turned to the Asian nurse for help or sympathy or something, but she only looked away, biting her lip. I asked the vet if I could leave the cat overnight while I tried to raise the money. He didn’t seem too thrilled, but a dark look from the nurse seemed to change his mind. The nurse took my cat, smiled in a friendly oriental way that made my blood heat up a few degrees, and disappeared into the back room.
The vet turned to me and sniffed. “Well . . . better get on that.”
I was standing on the snow-covered sidewalk in front of our house staring up at a big, blood-shot moon balancing on the steeple of St. Mary’s Church. It was dinnertime and the lights were on everywhere but in our house. The driveway was empty too, so I hoofed it down the block to Leona’s. Leona was the old lady I did occasional yard work for, like the previous Sunday when I was supposed to scrape the ice off her sidewalk, only I didn’t because it was too cold and besides I hated scraping ice off sidewalks, which, if you get right down to it, is no different than scraping concrete off sidewalks, if you know what I mean.
Another reason was that during all the time I’d worked for Leona I’d never gotten a kind word from her. She was all business. She’d hobble out like some retired Nazi commandant and inspect the job I’d done on her yews and hollies and point out all the picky places I’d missed and I’d have to go back over them—every time.
Leona lived alone in an old urine-stained bungalow with her fox terrier Roger (both of them apparently had bladder control problems) at the dead end of our street. Compared to her neighbors—compared to my family, anyway—Leona was loaded. She owned a little shop on Main Street that sold religious stuff: candles, Bibles, crucifixes, priests’ vestments.
If anyone had five hundred bucks she didn’t need it was Leona. I hoped she’d loan me the money and I could work it off scraping her sidewalks or what-have-you. I figured I could work it off in about . . . oh, a hundred years.
I mounted the icy steps and knocked on the front door and waited, my teeth chattering like a room full of women. I could hear Roger out back raising hell, but inside it was quiet as a morgue.
I went round to see if Leona’s Town Car was in the garage.
Roger was waiting for me at the back gate, looking oddly happy to see me. I gave him a pet then I went through the gate and up the sidewalk toward the house when something caught my eye.
There was something I couldn’t quite make out wedged between the screen door and the door jamb. Roger went up to it and put his nose to it and began whimpering. “Jesus,” I said. I went hesitantly up the walk, my heart in my throat.
It was her all right. And I could tell from the way she looked--cold and sapphire blue—that it was too late for heroics. I looked on helplessly, a maze of dark thoughts and confused emotions. Then Roger’s whimpering brought back to me why I’d come in the first place.
The orange cat.
“Why don’t you shut the hell up, Roger?” I hissed.
I was angry—angry that my cat wasn’t going to make it because some stupid dog didn’t have the sense not to jump on an old lady as she was climbing some icy steps. Probably she’d fallen and broken her hip. Her backyard at night would have been like deep space. Nobody would have heard her cries for help.
Sure I felt bad for Leona, but that didn’t change the fact that my orange cat was counting on me. And she at least had a fifty-fifty chance.
I averted my eyes and stepped over Leona and went on up the stairs into the lighted kitchen, gagging on the heavy urine smell. A purse lay on the countertop and I went through it finding a checkbook and a total of two hundred and ten dollars and forty-seven cents. I didn’t know anything about checks, so I left them behind. As for the cash, I figured Leona wouldn’t be needing it where she was going. So I had no call to feel guilty. I was saving a cat’s life, for Christ’s sake. I was damn near a hero.
I held my sweater to my nose and dug through the cookie jar, searched under the mattresses, everywhere my mother hides money, but I didn’t find another dime. While rifling through a chest of drawers, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. It shook me. Now there was a desperate and disturbing image. (For a moment I even mistook my image for someone else.) The last thing I needed was to get caught in Leona’s house looking like I’d bumped her off and robbed her place. I pocketed what I had and went quickly home.
As usual my mother was no help.
“Are you stupid?” she said. “Two-hundred-and-eighty dollars for a cat? The power company’s about to shut off our electricity and we’re all going to freeze to death in our beds, but you want two-hundred-and-eighty bucks to fix a cat! Go pick up your room.”
I had two hundred and five bucks and ten cents left the next morning when I showed up at to the Animal Clinic.
“Not enough,” said the vet. “I can put her to sleep for fifty. She won’t feel a thing. Promise.”
What about me? I thought. Don’t my feelings count?
The vet waited impatiently. “You don’t want her to suffer, do you?”
I’d thought we had a chance. Pitiful little kid with a dying cat and two hundred and five bucks. But years of gassing puppies and kittens had obviously hardened the bastard’s black heart. I peeled off fifty skins and left without saying goodbye to the orange cat.
I still had a hundred and forty-four bucks that afternoon as we watched the paramedics load Leona’s body into the back of the ambulance.
We sat on a crumbling brick wall that surrounded her yard watching the snow come down and waiting for the ambulance to depart so we could all go home.
“I’ll bet that dog knocked her on her ass and broke her hip and she froze to death in the snow,” said Forrest. “I’ll bet that’s what happened.”
“You’ll have that,” said Rob the Deck.
The ambulance pulled away slowly without fanfare. We watched it silently turn the corner and disappear from view. Roger wobbled over to us and whimpered softly.
“I wonder what they’ll do with him now?” said Forrest. “Nobody’s going to want a dumb old dog like that.”
“I could put him out of his misery,” said Rob the Deck. “Bam! One shot to the head.”
I reached into my pocket and brought out what remained of the money. “See this?” I said, turning to Forrest. “I’ll give you all of this—almost a hundred and fifty bucks—if you take that dog home with you.”
Forrest’s eyes grew round as basketballs. “Jesus, Ed, where’d you get that—?”
“I’ll do it!” said Rob the Deck.
“Forget it, Freddie Kruger.”
It felt good to be rid of all that cash. In a way. And if I could help someone, even a worthless dog, that alone would be worth it. That’s what the old woman would have wanted, I told myself. I owed her that much.
“I’m not sure what my mom will say,” Forrest said. “We already have one dog.” He shrugged and began to count the money carefully.
“What about me?” cried Rob the Deck. “Hey, Ed!”
I left them there sitting on the wall, fighting over the remnants of my thievery, while the wind pushed me down Nineteenth Street toward the fences and the flickering TV screens and the empty houses filled with lonely old people and their ghosts. The snow was coming down good now, but that was okay. I had a key to the back door.
Anyway, I’d had enough grief for one day, though I suppose you’d never think that, looking at me.