story a week

Salinger’s Cat

Posted in Fiction by clachnit on January 31, 2010

The cat started acting weird on the Friday after Salinger died.

Franny was a black domestic shorthair, eight years old and a bruising 18 pounds. But he purred at the slightest touch, cuddled in Jasper’s lap and, aside from a propensity for marching across the computer keyboard when Jasper was trying to write, he was a sweet and comforting presence in the apartment. That was particularly true when Jasper was alone, and crushed by writer’s block, as he was now.

The cat’s howling is what woke him up. Cats will howl in the middle of the night sometimes, for no apparent reason. So Jasper didn’t get out of bed at first, but when Franny took a deep breath—Jasper heard the inhalation, and that was weird in itself—and started in on a second yowl, Jasper scrambled from bed and lurched into the hall.

Franny was an enormous urchin of black fur, crouched on all fours, his tail bristling like a bottlebrush. He glared up at Jasper, his eyes flashing a milky green in the sudden light. He bared his teeth, hissed, and took another breath: “Oweoweoweoweoweoweowt.”

“Franny? Are you OK?”

“Ouwwwwt.”

Jasper straightened up.

“You want to go out? Buddy, you’re a housecat. You don’t go out. But you want to go out? ” Jasper talked to Franny. Who else was he going to talk to?

Ana had moved out three months earlier, fed up, she said, with a writer who couldn’t–- or wouldn’t—write, but seemed disinclined to do anything else that might actually bring in money. Jasper was using up the end of the savings from an advance, and had started working as an at-home reservation agent for Jetaway. It fit into his writing routine—or, more correctly, his non-writing routine. He figured it would make him enough money to keep him going until he could get past the dry spell. Until he could convince Ana to come back.

“Nowwweoweow,” Franny intoned, still crouching and glaring.  Then, looking a little tired, as though the performance had exhausted him, he sighed. Jasper didn’t know what else to call the sound, other than that. And he relaxed onto the floor with his usual elegance. His tail regained its languor. He started washing his belly with slow lapping motions.  Jasper made a sweep of the apartment, looking for hairballs. Finding none, he staggered back to bed.

On Saturday, between calls, Jasper started rereading Catcher in the Rye. He did that when some famous or famously obscure writer died, particularly if it was a writer whose work he’d meant to read but had never gotten around to: Bellow, Updike, Bukowski, Wallace, Ballard. He had read Catcher in the Rye before, of course. It had been required at least twice during his education but he didn’t think this copy was his. It probably belonged to Daphne, an ex-girlfriend, and fellow writer.  Franny had belonged to her, too.

Daphne proclaimed herself a student of Salinger’s work, and had even made the pilgrimage to Cornish, trying to spot him.

Jasper pointed out that if she was so up on her Salinger, she’d screwed up with Franny. He was, despite being neutered, a male cat.  “You should have named him Zooey,” he’d said.

“That’s one of your problems, Jasper,” Daphne said. “You’re too literal.”

They broke up a short time later, and Jasper was pretty sure Daphne had left Franny behind to punish him in some way. He hadn’t really liked cats back then. But Franny turned out to be unlike any cat he’d known, and it turned out he liked Franny more than he did Daphne.

Right around the time Holden had his encounter with Maurice and Sunny, Jasper put the book down to take a call. When he looked up again, Franny was curled on the arm of the sofa, one paw resting on his nose.

“Big night of caterwauling really took it out of you, huh?”

Franny opened one green eye. “I wish to hell you’d get out. I told you that last night.”

Jasper felt as if the apartment had telescoped suddenly and he’d been yanked into the wall behind him. The words were absolutely clear. Franny, who Jasper was reasonably sure came from a litter born in Missouri, had a shade of a New York accent, and he spat out his words fast, as if he had somewhere to go, other than back to sleep.

“Franny?” Jasper whispered.

“Brrr,” the cat replied.

For the rest of the afternoon, whenever he wasn’t taking a call, Jasper watched Franny. He even let a couple calls roll over to the next agent, which he shouldn’t have done.

Franny went about what seemed to be his usual routine: eat, sleep, pee, sleep, crap in the litter box, dig his claws into the carpet-covered scratching post, sleep. But Jasper felt sure the cat was avoiding him.

He wouldn’t look Jasper in the eye. He wouldn’t come when Jasper called him—not even for canned tuna. When, as an experiment, Jasper pulled up the book he had not been writing and tapped the keyboard, Franny glanced vaguely in Jasper’s direction, jumped down from the sofa and ambled into the kitchen. Franny lifted his tail, the better for Jasper to get a good look at his asshole. It went on like that for hours, with Jasper stalking and Franny ignoring.  Jasper found it exhausting after a while, looking for any little hint or variation in Franny’s behavior. Finally, Jasper fell asleep on the sofa.

He awoke to four paws pressing into his chest and upper thighs. Franny was staring down at him, unblinking. Jasper put his hand out to pet the cat, but he pulled back and sat down, all 18 pounds resting on Jasper’s belly.

“I honestly think it would be better if you moved out,” Franny said. His tone was a shade less disdainful than it had been the night before. He furrowed his brow, and Jasper tried to recall if he’d ever seen a cat do that before. “I need my space.”

Jasper sat up and made a grab for the cat, but Franny jumped from the bed.  Jasper could hear claws clicking against the hardwood floors, and the clink of Franny’s bowl as he pushed it into a corner of the kitchen: The cat finally was eating the tuna.

It went on that way for a week. Anyone else would have said that Franny was a normal cat. He ate, eliminated, slept for at least 12 hours a day and ignored the human who ministered to his needs. But Jasper could see that the animal had changed. The affection was gone. The playfulness, too. He merely stared at Jasper when he dangled his favorite furry mouse in front of him.

He didn’t seem sick—he ate the food that Jasper put down for him, and he watched the occasional sparrow outside the window, crouching and giving voice to the dry clicking noise that cats reserve for the birds they would dearly love to shred. But he wasn’t Franny anymore.

Jasper took the cat to the veterinarian that Ana had used when Franny had abruptly stopped eating for several days a year earlier. Franny heaved a martyr’s sigh but padded into the carrier. There was no doubt about the attitude he had been copping with Jasper. Talk or no talk, the cat was fed up with him.

Dr. Chang listened to Franny’s heart, took his temperature and weighed him.

“Still 18 pounds. He could stand to lose a little weight,” she said. “But he seems all right. What’s the problem? No appetite?”

Jasper shook his head. “He’s eating.”

“And no change in his litter-box habits?”

“All that seems to be fine,” Jasper said. He couldn’t tell Dr. Chang that the cat had talked to him. That was obvious. “It’s hard to describe, but I don’t think he likes me anymore.”

Dr. Chang pursed her lips and considered Franny, who was washing himself and purring softly.  “He’s withdrawn?”

“Well, yeah. He’s avoiding me. He won’t let me pet him, and he won’t sit in my lap.”

Dr. Chang nodded. “And how is he with…” she checked the chart. “Ana?”

“Ana is—away for a while,” Jasper said.

Dr. Chang nodded again. “Well, maybe that’s it. Sometimes cats don’t like a change in their environment. He might be missing her a little.”

“He hasn’t…” Jasper stopped. He certainly couldn’t say that Franny hadn’t said anything about missing Ana. “Maybe that’s it.”

Back at home, Jasper put the carrier down and Franny walked out of it, looking over his shoulder and—Jasper was sure he wasn’t imagining it—rolling his eyes. He sauntered into the kitchen.

“Hungry, Franny?” Jasper tried on a friendly, nonchalant voice. He wasn’t trying to make him talk—he actually wished that would never happen again, ever. But he wanted to make up for whatever was wrong.  He wanted the old Franny back.

Franny sat down next to his food bowl. “Don’t.”

“Don’t what?”

“Pull that phony crap with me. Nothing’s changed. Call Ana.”

“Call Ana?”

“Are you deaf? Christ.” Franny licked his paw with something very like irritation and passed it over his face. “Tell her to come back.”

Jasper sat down on the floor. “This is the most you’ve ever said.”

Franny hunched one shoulder. “It takes a while to find your voice.” He stared at Jasper. “That was a joke.”

“She won’t do it,” Jasper said.

“She won’t come back to you. Who would?”

“Then I don’t…” He stopped. “What do you want?”

Franny lapped some water from his bowl and delicately licked some drops from his lips. “Jesus, Jasper. How many times do I have to say it?”

She came on Sunday night, after dinner service, still in white blouse, black skirt, black tie and low pumps. Her hair was pulled up and swirled into a bun. She smelled a little of the restaurant’s steak frites.

Franny greeted her at the door, brushing her legs with his head and trailing his tail around one calf. As soon as she sat down on the sofa, he jumped into her lap. He curled up there, purring loudly.

“He seems OK to me,” Ana said, scratching Franny behind his ears.

Ana asked Jasper for a beer. There wasn’t any, so Jasper walked to the wine store on Colorado and came back with a six-pack of Amstel Light. He bought some Spanish cheese that Ana like, and some bread. They’d had indoor picnics, back in the good days.  All that took about a half hour.

Ana met him at the door. “Listen, Jasper: I’d been thinking about it, even before you called.  I’m going to move back in.”

“Oh my God, Ana. That’s great.” He moved to hug her, swinging the six-pack awkwardly to make room for the embrace.

She stepped away from him. “I mean, I want to live here again. But not with you. My name is the only one on the lease. I should have done it this way from the start.”

Jasper didn’t say anything for a moment. “It’s him, right?”

“Who?”

“Franny. I don’t know what he told you, but…”

“Franny?” Ana shook her head, as though she couldn’t have heard him right.  “I don’t get this obsession with Franny. First you want me to come over to see him, and now you think he’s talking to me?”

Jasper laughed. “Little fucker. That’s what he wanted the whole time.”

Things turned chaotic after that, and Jasper wasn’t quite sure how it all happened. He shouted for Franny to come out and explain himself. Then, when he saw the cat lurking in the corner of the living room, he pushed over the chair that stood between them. Ana yelled for him to stop, and called the police when Jasper grabbed a butcher knife from the kitchen and went after Franny with it. The cops exchanged looks and got out the handcuffs when Jasper said he’d gone for the knife because the cat had been smirking at him.

He made bail the following day. Ana was the one who had paid it, once she had the temporary restraining order in place. Some of Ana’s friends brought his things to her place, a one-room granny flat behind a house on Loma, and moved her things to the apartment.  Jasper couldn’t think of any alternative, so he stayed.  He let work know his new number. He tried to write, but that was more hopeless than ever.

In time, he decided he’d lost his mind a little in those weeks. That was the easiest way to deal with it. What he thought he heard, what he thought happened wasn’t possible. He’d had some kind of nervous breakdown. He needed a new start, and he got it.

He walked by his old building now and then. A couple times a week, actually, after the restraining order expired. He was across the street one day, watching the window where Franny liked to sun himself, when one of the neighbors, Mrs. Grimaldi, came downstairs with a bag of trash. She hadn’t been there on the day the police came, and she said hello, nicely.  So he asked about Ana.

“I never see her,” she said. “I don’t think anyone does.”

“Not when she’s on the way to work, or coming home?”

“She quit her job,” Mrs. Grimaldi said. “Right after you moved out. I mean it–nobody sees her. I see the Pink Dot guy bringing groceries, and one day I asked him, is she OK? He tells me that he doesn’t know. There’s money waiting for him when he brings the order, so she must get out to the bank, but it’s got to be at night sometime.”

“What about friends?”

“All I know is I don’t ever see her.  I knocked once, last week, when I heard the typewriter. Ana wouldn’t open the door. Just said they were fine, not to worry. She sounded OK. She said she was getting a lot of writing done.”

“Writing?” Jasper tried to wrap his mind around the image of Ana, jittery, always in motion Ana, writing anything other than an order for duck a l’orange.

Mrs. Grimaldi shrugged. “I know. I thought you were the writer. But anyway, she said she didn’t really have time to talk. That she and Franny were fine, just busy.”

“She and the cat were busy?”

“People and their cats. Anyway, I told her she was turning into some kind of hermit. She just laughed.”

And for a moment, Jasper had that sensation of vertical motion, like being in train going backwards into a tunnel. He looked up at Franny’s window. But there was nothing, and no one, to see.

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Last Rites

Posted in Fiction by clachnit on January 24, 2010

I can’t remember the last time I was in a mortuary chapel for a viewing. Whenever it was, I do know there was no flat-screen television with photos of the deceased streaming and fading and rising in an infinite loop. There might have been was music at my mother’s viewing, probably something ethereal and Catholic. Panis Angelicus, maybe. That was a far cry from this crunchy speed metal, with a chorus that rhymed “motherfucker” with “coked-out trucker.” But this was the deceased’s song, after all. She had a right to have it play her out of this world.

A viewing is a perfect name for this ritual. It seems designed to assure everyone that the dead person is really dead. Or that the body in the coffin really is who everything says it is. When it came to Tricia, I wanted assurance on both counts.

I watched the loop play through a couple times. Baby. Kindergartener. Theater geek (a short phase). Alt-band backup singer. Tortured, mascara-dripping rocker in a Weimar-era bustier that barely covered her nipples as she hung, glowering, over her bass. Someone—presumably Tricia—flinging herself across a stage in what looked like a knitted body bag that sprouted dreadlocks of dryer lint. This from her performance-art phase.

Finally came her last incarnation: a surprisingly unexotic-looking exotic dancer. Topless though she may have been, in her dirndl and white patent-leather platform maryjanes, she reached out to the camera with such innocence that she might have been holding  on to a maypole.

I was in a couple of the high school pictures, and one from a concert. (At Linda’s Doll House. A lifetime ago.) But nothing after that. She lived the last 15 years seeing me–not that she hadn’t tried.

Finally, after hanging around in the back of the chapel, looking for people I knew, and didn’t want to explain anything to, I walked up to the coffin. Tricia. No question. She was in a silky, pale mauve dress. Her hair was long and, for once, blond right to the roots. She had a rosary wrapped around her hands. It was carved coral, and I recognized from the days when–good little shock-rocker that she was–she wore it entwined with another string of glass beads. These she had carefully painted with images of angels and devils engaged in all manner of vile sexual congress.

I knew Tricia was 35. We were born just a few months apart. But in the repose of death, she looked 10 years younger. Tricia had good genes—her mother was unwrinkled and dark-haired until she was well into her 70s–but there was something else going on here.

Tricia wasn’t called Tricia by many people in the last few years. She’d been Patricia, Patrice and probably Patrick, too, if she felt like tweaking her audience. When I came across the story on the Web site of an alternative paper that I didn’t read much anymore, I didn’t actually know the article was about her. It just sounded perversely interesting: “Singer and performance artist found dead in Fullerton motel.” I thought two people had died.

If the story hadn’t shown her picture, it would have taken me longer to figure it out. The deceased—just one person—was someone called Cianna Saturday. A perfect stripper name, actually, and it didn’t surprise me that much to learn that’s what Tricia was doing at the end. Her performance-art gigs apparently had dried up, and she had slipped down a rung. The article speculated that she was working out new material. It was a kinder, but less likely, explanation.

The story had said she was dancing regularly in a bar called the Crank Case. I knew the place. Friends of friends, before they got sober, hung out there. It was perfectly named, too, full of irritable, meth-fueled guys. I thought a few of the very thin, bad-teeth cases in the back pew of the chapel might be customers, or employees. Sober or twitchy, they all looked teary-eyed and glum. For all her shortcomings, Tricia knew how to get people to love her. It certainly worked with me, for a long time.

After that last time, when she took my car and abandoned it between Camarillo and Oxnard with an ex-con rhythm guitarist named Riley O’Reilly asleep in the back seat, I decided I’d had enough. I only kept track of her through the phone calls. Rather, she kept track of me.

She would call me with an apology that turned into a plea for money, sympathy or a place to crash. I was nothing more than her cousin by then, and not even her favorite one anymore. A call meant she was pretty desperate, because she knew there was very little chance I’d help her.

Our mothers were sisters who once loved each other but who’d fought and finally, too exhausted by the past, gave up and lapsed into mutual silence. But they were both dead now. Not even obligation kept me linked to her, by whatever name she was using to shed boyfriends, bills and the occasional warrant.

I usually knew when it was her. The calls came late, from numbers that weren’t in my phone and from area codes I didn’t recognize. I didn’t even answer after the I got the hang of her method. She was using other people’s phones, hoping to catch me off guard. And she didn’t leave messages. She knew when I was avoiding her, and that if I did call back later, she probably would have pissed off the phone’s owner by then. So what would be the point?

Looking down at her—an angle that made my heart contract for a moment–I don’t think it was mortuary skill that had freshened her. This wasn’t just the work of someone painting a canvas that only had to look good for a few hours. She looked—normal. Not starved and breakable. Her hair was thick again, with the wave that she didn’t like, because she couldn’t control it. Her hands were smooth, the cuticles neat and unbitten—a first. The skin of her face and throat was as fine-grained and translucent as it had been when she was healthy and clean.

The cause of death wasn’t clear, the story had said. The body portrayed no signs of violence, nothing to make the police suspect foul play. I’d smiled when I read that. She wanted to call her first band Foul Play, for about 20 minutes one day, before an early gig. Her band mates didn’t like that so much. They picked something else—it might have been Angel Food. That had been the name for a while, before they briefly settled on Llorona. Later bands were Medea and Euridice. She had Dido, for a while, until that led to confusion with a better-known artist. Then finally, Gash, the band of the bustiers and angry lyrics. The  CD sold well enough and the band had some club success, but Tricia never liked the name. She preferred a little more subtlety, along with her myths and legends and wordplay. Another good thing about her.

And then the mortuary manager was hovering at my side. I don’t know how long I’d been standing there. They had turned down the music and people were filing out. I signed the book and walked out into the night, where the eucalyptus were rustling in the first gusts of a Santa Ana wind.

On the way to the car, I checked my cell phone. I saw that there was a missed call, something I hadn’t noticed before. It was a week old, from a number I didn’t recognize. I thought about calling back, but what would have been the point?

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Driving Range

Posted in Fiction by clachnit on January 14, 2010

Lying there, with her eyes closed, what she heard was what you’d expect: traffic and a sparrow chirp from time to time. She was waiting for the other sound: In a Sunday’s stillness, every now and then, with no particular rhythm, the thwack of a club hitting a ball.

After a while, she opened her eyes and stared up at the pink-champagne fabric that lined the car’s interior. The pattern was something floral, which would have clashed with the tan and brown hound’s-tooth upholstery if it had been more pronounced.

Thwack.

She sat up and looked out through the windshield. The golfers were lined up along the edge of the grass, each one with a club and a bucket of balls. They’d twist and hit and watch the ball arc into the air and then out of sight.  Sun glinted on the clubs. A thwack, a laugh. And then quiet.

She leaned forward and saw that her mother’s eyes were closed, but she was not listening to anything, it seemed to her. Wrapped in a Kelly green coat with three-quarter-length sleeves, her mother was breathing fast. Her chest shuddered. It might have been a kind of sob, but she made no sound.

At night—at three o’clock in the morning–silence was nice, and she was thankful for it. It would have been a relief, then, when she was trying to sleep, to hear nothing, rather than the tenth replay of “Red Rose for a Blue Lady.” Her mother loved that song, and played it over and over, singing along at full volume, a water glass of Tyrolia in hand. Why the neighbors never complained, she had no idea.

But here, in the car, after Mass, when they should be home having breakfast, this silence made her stomach hurt. Her mother hadn’t said anything since they’d pulled over and parked here, at Sunny Acres.

After about fifteen minutes of sitting there, with no explanation, she had asked her mother:

“Can we go home now?”

“In a little while.”

Her mother hadn’t said anything else. She asked a couple times more during the first hour, and then her mother stopped answering. Stopped hearing, maybe. So she stopped asking. There was no point in making her mother mad.

But if her mother did get mad, winding up like a dust devil until she was spewing all those words, familiar, but still sharp, how useless a girl she was, and fat, and not nearly as smart as she thought, maybe someone would notice. Maybe someone would finally wonder why this woman in a green coat and a little girl in a pink skirt and sailor-collared blouse had been sitting in their Chevy Impala at this driving range. For three hours now.

Why a driving range? There was nothing for either of them to do. They didn’t golf. She didn’t, anyway. Maybe her mother had once. She seemed to remember a picture of her mother, on a golf course when she was young, with a man her mother said was named Warren.

She had no books, no transistor radio, none of her usual defenses. Sleep was another thing that worked, sometimes. She had tried that in the second hour, without success. She lay back on the seat again though, listening. Bird. Traffic. Thwack. Then a sharp inhale from the front seat, and the click just before the engine started.

She sat up. Her mother slapped the gearshift into reverse and the car lurched out of the parking space. Somebody honked.

The car bumped down the hill. Her mother braked hard. A right turn, a couple miles along Redondo, then a right and another left, and they would be home. Her father was probably awake by now.

The car idled there. A honk behind them. She recited the directions to herself: right, right, left. Home.

Another honk behind them, more insistent this time. Her mother flicked the turn indicator and pulled out, taking a fast, wide left into the street.

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A place to start

Posted in 1 by clachnit on January 9, 2010
  • When you haven’t written anything for years but e-mails, comments and tweets
  • When your sole creative contribution has been changing “puffery” to “inflated” in someone else’s copy
  • When it would be easier to learn to drive a stickshift all over again than to slide without a lurch into that place where stories start.

Where do you start when you’re in place like that?

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