The Writing Disorder



New Fiction

Le Café de la Chatte Noire

by Patrick Thomas Henry

      On the wind Ewan Walker feels it: the death of summer. With the lapels of his tweed blazer lifted up to block the autumn chill from his neck, he ambles down the alleyway toward Cherry Alley café; avoiding Market Street, he dodges Lewisburg, obscures himself from those—Bucknell professors, fellow English literature master’s candidates, his own students—who immediately recognize him by his particular idiom: the jacket, the tartan tie, the herringbone cap, the canvas satchel slung over his shoulder, the Hibernian auburn of his beard: a young writer too seriously devoted. To what: Walker spits into the wind. He roots in his blazer’s pocket for his notebook, sighs, and releases it. Nothing to write. At the alley’s mouth several blocks away, he observes two silhouettes leaning into each, twin darknesses blobbing into one, as plumes of their cigarette smoke and their breath condense white in the air. A black cat, mousing in a nearby bin with her ebony paw, slaps some wrappers over the can’s ledge and, at his approach, halts her labor; she raises her head and studies him, her irises oceanic, algae green, and her black pupils coin-slot thin. Walker mouths to her: —Mreow. The cat winks back at him in reply—first one eye, then the other. And Walker sighs, breath spiriting from him, and wonders: How must he look to her, from her trash can perch, what must she think of him.
      Black cat this alley prowls; cateyes at intruder narrow, catclaws extend retract extend, ripping plastic, as cat detects mansmell, young man eyeing her still, whiskers twitch to warn him off: mansteps tap on gravel: black cat, alone, arches spine, purrs.
      Walker proceeds down the alley and, as he paces away, salutes the black cat with a touch of his fingers to his cap. Like Marion’s cat—coal-dust black with fur oil sleek. Walker thrusts his hands in his pockets, ponders his solitary months: How long without a friend’s company. How long without somebody else’s voice. Nothing but nights spent reclined on a futon with a novel opened against his easeled thighs. How long—but he stops himself, remembers the golden burn of his nightly panacea, several frigid tumblers of Glenlivet shining on the rocks, which washes him into a numbness, a soulless levity, that drowns out his other reflections: such as drives through the Pennsylvania countryside, with trees enflamed with reddening leaves and mountains cast purple with dying foliage, to visit his friend Marion, to walk down her traffic-less street with her and to pass the austere wood faces of barns, the air heavy with the earthy dankness of tilled fields and manure, clouds blanketing out the sun, until they retire to Marion’s parents’ house and chat at the table over cups of lukewarm tea, Marion’s black cat Summer nested into a tight curl on her lap. Walker feels a slight spritz on his skin and holds his hand supinated toward the sky; rain tickles his palm. Always: lonely and alone: the rain. Unaccompanied, Walker takes the remaining steps to Cherry Alley’s backdoor. He inhales in quick, hurried breaths. The air in Lewisburg: tasteless. He folds down his lapels, almost discovers himself whispering to the sky a prayer for a phoenix rebirth of a warm wind. But summer has departed, whisked away on autumn’s wind. He enters the café, orders himself a mug of Earl Grey, and settles himself at a table for an afternoon of reading.
      But he is not, perhaps, alone: The black cat has watched Walker’s processional through the dreary alleyway. With a fluid stretch of her spine, a scrabbling of her claws in the trashcan, she leaps to the ground, her form flowing black as a creek coursing in a lightless night: Catclaws click click clack against gravel. Wind ruffles hair tufts in ears; cat twitches ear. Cat white-fanged yawns: “mrrrowk.” Cat stalks camouflaged in darkness. Cat crunches grass and dirt underpaw.
      The two forms that Walker has seen from a distance—a townie boy and his girlfriend, both flannel clad and the girl crowned in a knit cap—meander past the black cat and share a cigarette, which embers red in the cool air.
      Humans walk past. Laughter peals and cat huffs. Humans breathe out smoke. Humanlungs: fire. White cloud of humanbreath catlung-searing in the air. Black cat against wall hacks. Humans stop. Humanfingers point at black cat; black cat hisses. Humans go, gone. Cattongue clicks: “trrk”: alone. Catnostrils flex, pull in fishsmell, pulleys cat along cinderblock wall. Fishsmell an invisible trail to a door. Cateyes blink. Fish and ice. Catmouth waters. Door clicks open; man leads child by hand. Childsmell gentle, fresh; mansmell oily, sour. Ice and fish. Scenttrail leads through opened door. Black cat weaselsneaks along doorjamb as door swings shut. Doorclap tugs from tail a cathair: cat white-fanged hisses: “kheeesh”: cat pushes beyond red curtain, catbody rakes inward. Like catclaws shredding through paper. Catbody languid pours around wooden moulding: cat-as-liquid seeps undetected: cat flows into pooling darkness in corridor between sofa and wall. Human footfalls tap: synchronized to catheart: duh dah, duh dah, duh dah. Floorboard creaks counterpoint to catpulse.
      Cat twitches nose, inhales scent: fish thawing dripping droplets saturated with salty fishtaste. Catclaws protract. Catmemory flashes: cat-at-river fishsnatching, catclaws rending fishscales from fishflesh: black cat paws razing water and slapping airborne fish, light breaking in rainbow across fishscales: catclaws clap and pierce fishscale armor: black cat fangs sink into fishspine and pull ashore. Green cateyes blink open. Humanfeet pass. Black cat peers around couch edge into room: humans sit at tables, humans cross feet at ankles: old woman scratches something against crinkling sheet: young man thumbs through book. Cat cleans paws, sandpaper rough tongue pares dirt and grime; black cat white-fanged tugs out matted dirt between toes. Catpaws bat whiskers: whiskers twang: whiskers shimmer white.
      As if in the corner of his eye—but it cannot be the corner of his eye, because he sees it over the top of his book—Ewan Walker glimpses something, a silvery glimmer streaking toward a flash of black, a sight dark as a spark of antimatter or an untimely blink, a loss of time and space as broad and as audible as a click of his fingers. Walker marks his place in the novel, Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, with a faded Barnes & Noble receipt and lays the book on the table’s edge. In the book, Toru Okada’s wife leaves him shortly after their cat vanishes from the house; while he searches the neighborhood for the missing feline, he encounters an inexplicably strange—yet wise—girl. Walker props his elbow on the book cover, rests his chin on his knuckles, and looks to the sofa at the back wall, the couch’s shadow angling oblong over the red curtain that blocks the back entrance to the café. At the darkness fringing the space between sofa and curtain, Walker espies a glint of green eyes, white whiskers flashing white as they reflect the light, and a quick swipe of the black cat’s pink tongue over her flat nose. Walker glances down to his book as a barista enters the dining room with a smoked salmon-and-bagel plate; the cat tracks her with those hunting green eyes and draws her claws against the couch’s upholstery.
      Cateyes emerald gleam as tongue scratches nose. Joints compress; catlimbs poise to spring. Man studies cat; hatbrim shadows eyes. Cateyes narrow: paws pad in retreat: cat steals behind couch, fur ruffle static spark against upholstery. Creaking sofa spring: weight on furniture shifts: catfur riles rises stiff.
      From his table, Walker watches the cat slide into the narrow space between sofa and wall; the tip of her ear, a little nick of white cat flesh, remains visible to the light until the cat creeps around its edge, peers out into the café and lowers her head in a furtive prowl. Her head bobs forward, and she lifts a paw to her mouth, extends her claws, runs her tongue swift and pink like a whetstone to sharpen those natural feline weapons into razors. She turns her head, a shard of eye blinking jade as light ripples white across her iris. Paw raised, she flares her nostrils and returns Walker’s gaze: maneki neko: beckons him: come forth. Had he a saucer of milk, he would find a way to clandestinely leave it for her. But that was just a cliché, cats drinking milk; ninety-nine percent of adult cats—so he’s heard from his Marion—are lactose intolerant, and at best he’d make the next few hours miserable for the cat. She blinks. Walker tilts his face, cheek pillared against fist, and winks at the cat.
      The cat murmurs: “wrmrrr, wrmrrr, wrmrrr.”
      Walker raises his eyebrow at the cat, warns her. If she can communicate through silence, through the arching of her back and the blinking of an eye, then— No, mustn’t mouth any words. If anybody were to see, they’d think. Well, whatever they’d think. The cat blinks again, licks her paw, and rubs her saliva-moistened claws against her ear, as if she dabbed at earwax with a Q-tip. Must’ve snuck in, innocently enough. Don’t want anyone noticing her. Walker’s eyes flick right toward the sound of denim scuffing against the couch’s upholstery; a brunette wearing sorority letters shifts her weight on the sofa, her too-tight jeans bunching into peaks along the seam at her hip. She whispers to her companion, a blonde girl who intermittently consults her fingernails, as often as an impatient man regards his wristwatch, and grazes with her fingers the handle of a canvas tote bag, the sorority’s letters sewn onto its face. Sisters. Of a kind. For a moment he envisions himself alongside them, the three ambling and chuckling their way through Bucknell’s hillside grove; they share pokes and jabs, some stories about professors, and rumors—Enough. To them, he must have all the transparency of Saran wrap. He sits hardly ten feet from him, and yet he remains invisible to them, their banter a partition more solid than a wall. Walker ruminates on his lip and squints, glasses lenses and narrowed vision magnifying his sight, which he aims like a telescope at their lips.
      Years of practice, for his own intellectual survival, and now this knack of the half-deaf child—the reading of lips, as he would lines of text—has lost its innocence and placates Walker’s need to study and observe and absorb like a security camera mounted in a corner. No intention of doing anything with what’s seen, unless it’s necessary. So very different, from a former self who sits in a desk at the back of Walker’s memory: a child completely deaf in his left ear, tormented by a prankster clapping hands over his left shoulder, young Walker glancing right and staring across the aisle at another student. The teacher snaps Walker’s name at him like a ruler pandied on a desk. He turns to the front of the room and eyes her mouth, her lips flexing and bending around vowels, her tongue clicking consonants against her teeth: Walker forces himself to shape from those movements a sentence, a structure of words and logic that emanates from the silence.
      Walker pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose, and the black cat churls as she tucks her forelegs underneath her, nests so that her scruff and her chest plump out thick as a raven’s plumage. He strains his eyes open, resists the temptation to blink and miss in a second any twitter of a sorority girl’s lip. Brunette takes Blonde by the wrist. They sit, knees angled toward each other, like sitcom characters blocked to reveal themselves to a studio audience. Walker presses his teeth into the flesh of his lip as he studies Blonde’s face, her mouthing fumbling for words. Sent the check in, she says. No. Vent just kicked in?
      Catpaws pinioned under body: catspine tension rachets as springs creak, wooden beams groan, cloth rubs raw against upholstery: sound grazes into catears like claws slicing grooves into fabric. Tail picks up faint ripple of vibration, couch pushed toward wall, tail-as-antenna sends signal along catspine: catbrain winds sensation into curls, coils of meaning: movement, humans shifting weight: catbody contracts missile sleek: black cat harbors behind couch, catfur bristling as vibrations of human voices shiver through couch, tremble upon whiskers and eartufts and into catbrain: darkness resonates, hums, black cat shadow- and sound-cocooned, black cat growls accompaniment: “wrmrrgh, wrmrrgh, wrmrrgh.”
      Walker observes forming on their lips the hints of a conversation:
      —Did a vent just kick in?
      Brunette seizes Blonde’s elbow. —Please. Need to talk to you about something.
      —Ross, isn’t it. It’s Ross.
      —He prefers “Roscoe.”
      —He’s a douche.
      Brunette dabs at the corner of her eyes daintily, with her ring finger, as if to pad away forming tears. —He’s helped me find God.
      Blonde slumps back against the couch. —The fucker.
      —Should’ve known. You’d never get it.
      Blonde pats Brunette’s knee. —Okay, dear. Tell me what Baptist boy has done.
      Walker nibbles at his lip to stifle a laugh. He sees the cat blink, her eyelids closing as a casually as a lowering curtain at a performance’s end. Yes, Walker thinks, oui ma petite amie, ma petite chatte noire, je le vois aussi: I see it, too: if things with Roscoe the Baptist boy last. In some front hall, thirty years from now, Brunette stands with her hair dyed blacker than it ever was in her youth, and she crosses her arms under her breasts as she looks through the glass plates of the front door; Brunette stares through a translucent reflection of herself, her jeans and cardigan faded from age, from repeated washings, from daily errands. All that passion for the God of Abraham and Isaac and Roscoe, a desire to change her ways, and there she waits in a front hall—it doesn’t matter for whom, husband or child returning home or mailman or FedEx deliverywoman or that orange tabby that tears out the petunias every spring—or maybe she is not waiting, maybe she has already abandoned waiting, like a childhood promise forgotten to maturation. As she fingers the row of buttons on her cardigan, the muscles in her shoulders and arms cord tight, her passion fading like Christ’s into a suffering, as if she supports a weight lashed behind her neck and to her wrists, a timber’s heft burdening her soul: all of it psychological, but not enough for Mel Gibson to warp into a gory spectacle of anti-Semitism: The Passion of the Brunette.
      —I’ve found God, the Brunette says.
      They whisper; Blonde sighs and moans, exaggerated exasperation. To his back, Walker hears the scritch of a pencil against paper; he turns, gawps over his shoulder, and eyes an old woman busying herself at some puzzle in The Daily Item, some crossword or wordsearch with banal pop culture solutions—which Desperate Housewives character is played by an actor who also appeared in some other program—or perhaps a Sudoku puzzle, numbers arranged in columns. Who accompanies her, if not the constant wittering of the television personalities that never hear her as she, reclined in her armchair, mutters advice back at them. What conversation puzzles or excites her, if not her pencil scrawls in the squares of newspaper games. Walker scratches the tip of his nose and lifts his book from the table.
      Cateyes narrow claw-thin, vision razoring into young man. Maneyes scrutinize the couch. Cattongue grazes over teeth: white-fanged gleam: light like a threat shines from catgrin. Black cat wriggles nose, smells nothing new, huffs: “mhrhmmph”: manstare sterile, scentless: catnose no image forms: pheromonal flags of human attraction not flying: manstare unproductive. In searching humangaze, black cat recognizes in young man feral feline wanderlust. Fingertips tap against tabletop: humanbrow furrows: thoughts fold inward toward humanbrain: young man treads multiple lives, no foot padding from his own. “Mrgrak”: cattongue clicks, cat white-fanged yawns. Catnose scries young man’s woolen coat, catsmell rising from fibers: black cat othercat envies: othercatclaws shredding wool strand-thin, othercat nesting legs tucked under chest coiled warm on rended cloth: othercat kneading young man’s thighs mew: “mrrrewn, mrrrewn, mrrrewn.” But othercatsmell: aged. Othercatsmell: evaporates: othercat not present. “Rvrmmmrvrm”: black cat contented purrs. But young mansmell: catbrain weaves odor tendrils into pattern, colors thread from spools of cateye observation of young man to catmemory: black cat rushes piercing tumbles down embankment waterbound, catclaws protract retract prepare to pierce fishscale plates, knife soft fishflesh: black cat halts, brown dustcloud vision hazing, catfur rises provoked: mansmell at water’s edge. Moonlight ripples like cateye glare on water. Catlimbs ratchet spring-tight tension: nightbreeze young man’s jacket ruffles, blazer vents tailfeather flap: young man watches light shiver across glassy water. Squirrelbark chirps into catear: black cat flicks gaze branchward: cattongue cleans lips. Splish. Black cat turns to water: young man ankle deep in river. Splish. Young man steps back. Humanspeech soliloquy soft: young man addresses the wind. Black cat through rushes retreats: young mansmell stored as picture in archival, instinctual catbrain.
      Walker notices the sudden retreat of the black cat—“hrramph”—behind the couch as a barista steps toward Brunette and Blonde; the barista mumbles a comment—Here’re your drinks, something to that effect—as Brunette and Blonde crimson, from the cheeks up. Blonde chirps, voice tinny, about faith, sex, God, and a lost North Face jacket; Brunette’s neck blushes, down to her clavicle, and she lowers her head so that her hair hangs in a brown curtain over her eyes.
      Secrets: Those Walker collects like old men gather misprinted, off-color stamps. Black cat nesting behind the couch as the red curtain covering the door fritters and tickles her whiskers, Roscoe the Baptist converting Brunette, the fun Brunette and Blonde used to have, the hum of cat grunt groaning vent-like from behind the sofa, a Sig Ep party where Blonde stashed her brassiere in her jacket’s sleeve, Brunette muttering inconsolably as her hair shakes as if to indicate: No, no more. Walker presses his finger to a line of text in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. Toru Okada, the novel’s protagonist, searches for his estranged wife’s missing cat: “Cat hunting,” Okada says, “had become a part of my daily routine.” Tocking his tongue against the roof of his mouth, Walker slides the receipt-bookmark, its text a barely legible violet, over the page. On the Barnes & Noble receipt, a computer has reduced the entirety of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, with no slight intended to its six hundred and seven pages, into an ISBN (978-0-679-77543-0) and a sale price (U.S. $16.00 CAN. $19.95). And those girls: so much visible in the quivering of lips, the trembling of a hand, the quirking of an eyebrow. And the black cat, sa petite chatte noire, a blurred dash of darkness shadowed behind a sofa.
      The black cat: he has seen her, since she first settled in the café, her presence in the room a rumor that he has sequestered in his rambling musings. Let the proverbial cat out of the bag and there would be an actual cat, nose deep in trouble, as the whole café erupts into a torrent of frenzied action cut straight from the reels of recurrent cartoon tropes: baristas brandishing brooms and chasing after this feral cat while Blonde shrieks and jabs a finger at the darting black cat, feline body sleek and svelte as Walker watches over her, turns his book over in his hands, thumbs the jagged and nicked corners of the paperback’s cover. Blonde squealing, “There’s a cat! There’s a cat!” while Walker sips his tea and reads the blurb on the back cover as he considers some witticism, something as trite as (since he possesses no desire to be [a.] outdone in stating the obvious or [b.] adding a cliché to the frenzy) snarkily muttering, “No shit, Sherlock.” Baristas, brooms hoisted like claymores overhead, pursue the black cat, while somebody, perhaps the old woman (at present, penciling letters onto her newspaper), mistakenly hears Blonde shrieking “There’s a rat!” or maybe “There’s a bat!”; the old woman clambers onto the seat of her chair, crosses her ankles, and ducks her head under arms crossed into a helmet over her hair. Brunette drops to her knees, clasps her hands, and bows her head as she prays for a seraphic intervention to save God’s creature, this little black cat. Blonde scrambles onto the back of the couch. Walker scratches at his eyebrow with his middle finger and turns the page. The baristas cleave the air with their brooms, bristles swatting after the cat, who churls as she skitters, claws clicking on the floor, away from her assailants. Brunette prays, her exhortations now audible, and still the door remains closed. The old woman atop her chair tumbles as the black cat—“A rat!”—whisks under the table; the baristas grind their heels into the floor, feet sliding to a halt, but the old woman collapses, and they break her fall, all plummeting to the floor in a clatter of chairs and brooms and bones. As the baristas struggle to push off the old lady, Walker marks his place with the faded receipt. Brunette sobs; Blonde swears an oath to call the health department and lurches forward, fingers claw-curling like the mechanism of a crane game as her hands hook toward the cat’s scruff, a vain and jerking gesture intended to grapple the cat and hurl her from this chase. Walker pushes off from his elbows and slides his stool away from his table. Damn tumult. No sense to any of it. Brunette cries to her Jesus Lord and Savior. Where is he? (No Lords or Saviors were injured or harmed in the production of this film.) Walker trots toward the red curtain cordoning off the door, parts the sea of fabric to grasp the knob, and tosses open the door as Blonde tumbles face-first from the couch, her elbows smacking with a clap against the hardwood floor as the black cat deftly salmon leaps past the pushed-aside cloth and through the open door. Cat claws down a gravel alleyway click, click, tick like the passing of seconds into silence, as the café rights itself: baristas gripping the old lady under the arms and hoisting her to her feet, Brunette and Blonde embracing and crying, Walker holding the door open as wind buffets his face and billows the curtain cape-like behind him.
      Walker dabs at the daubs of sweat on his brow with the pad of his thumb. If only. No. Better it didn’t happen that way, or at all. The cat still hiding behind the couch: only the occasional flick of a silver-white whisker to betray her. Brunette and Blonde still whispering: their breath hisses like the static from the speakers mounted at the ceiling’s corners. Bead-eyed, Walker squints, examines mouths molding into mumbles, mumbles into messages: —Prune dove, Brunette appears to say. No: —True love. And the old woman, still scrawling letters or numbers or maybe word-long slashes on her newspaper. Maneki neko: paw waves from shadows: flags to Walker her secret den behind the café sofa: human eyes meeting hers in the dark.
      Ice and fish: catnose twitters: cateyes blink wide and open pupils dilated inkpool black.
      Walker drums his fingers against the cover of Wind-up Bird. The cat, black and in shadow camouflaged, lurks until she can scurry toward freedom. What of her? Her body slinking against the doorjamb as she stole into the café, her claws clacking against the slats of hardwood flooring. Her cat eyes, pale and vibrant green surrounding a well of inky pupil, blink and intake whatever light fringes the purplish static of shadow. Patient, her tail taps out in metronome clicks the beats of quietude until she can move again. Humans: They get bored, eventually. Turn out the lights and leave. Then alone, the black cat prowls, stealthily. And until then, not even a purr—
      What brings a cat into a café?
      Walker snaps to attention and nearly elbows his book off the table as a cough echoes through the room. Brunette and Blonde seem unfazed; Walker does not turn to regard the old woman at her paper. From around the corner, a boy with shaggy hair and a stubbled face, his flannel shirt sagging on his thin frame, escorts a quivering girl who quite childishly hides her hair and ears under a knit cap. They pass him; he tilts back his head, sniffs the air. The boy’s fingers alight on the small of the girl’s back. She shrugs off his touch. Walker cradles his chin between thumb and forefinger. That much flannel and yarn, they’re either coming from a Decemberists concert or were just listening to the Decemberists on an iPod. His, probably. Silver or blue, the color. These townie kids sharing a pair of earbuds and leaning against each other as they walk, babysteps so as not to yank the little white speakers out of an ear canal. Walker breathes deeply, holds the air in his mouth, lets its aromas condense dew-like on his tongue. Yes, there it is. Under the café’s earthy coffee smell, that salty and dank stink of fish.
      Aren’t you a regular Sherlock Holmes, Ewan Walker.
      Fish and ice: catnose twitches: cold wet raw meat flaking and shredding in white-fanged bites.
      He rubs the bridge of his nose and pinches his nostrils shut, clothespinning them between thumb and forefinger. The smalltown hipster boy and the girl in the knit cap sit at a table near the front windows, as if to put themselves and their sullen, frequent sighs on display as they wait for a barista to come around with their drinks.
      Walker leafs through the pages of his book and stops, reads, paragraphs at random and in no particular order: page 211 of Wind-up Bird: “But no, this was the continuation of reality. A subtle trace of cologne I had spilled still floated in the air.” Enough. He rests the book facedown on the table and waits for the cat to move: chatte noire to queen’s rook four. But she does not oblige him; there is no play timer, clicking away the moments until she must move. He doffs his cap, riffles his hand through his hair, and rests his forehead against the paperback, a makeshift pillow. Too long since he’s had tea with anybody. Or coffee. Or anything. Whatever twenty-three-year-olds drink. Probably not scotch. Walker props himself up on his elbows and wipes the weariness from his eyes with the backs of his hands before masking his palms over his vision, extinguishing the café’s light in the dimness of his imagination. And in there is Marion, standing at his sink, a manuscript in one hand and in the other an upended bottle of Glenlivet, neck tilted downward toward the drain as single malt scotch whiskey trickles liquid gold through his pipes and into sewers: Marion, snapping —Here’s your problem. But it is not her, and Walker slides from his eyes the blinders of his hands. Not her. Just images, simulacra: a construction: mind building from bricks of impulses a moment he has wished for. Yet it had never happened. Has not happened. Imagining a friend: simple enough. Waiting: being inert: easier yet. Walker looks to the sofa, to where the cat shuffles and worms out, the white wedges of ear barely discernible. He lifts his hand, fingers curled into a paw: maneki Ewan: beckoning her: la petite chatte noire: come forth: come out, black cat: slink over here and take a seat.
      Let’s talk.
      Brunette and Blonde lean back into the couch; Brunette tucks her hair behind her ear while Blonde stares into her mug. The old woman raps her knuckles on the table as she scratches her pencil over the newspaper. This hipster couple remains silent, the girl crossing her arms on the tabletop as the boy fingers her elbow. A dishboy with a grease-stained apron, its tie undone in the back, ambles through the room, gathers a plastic tub of mugs and plates and flatware, which chime and clink together as he carries the tub back to the kitchen.
      Shimmying, the black cat military crawls, pulls herself along by her forepaws from behind the couch. Walker peeps over his shoulder to the young lovers, then glances to the curtain hanging before the café’s back door.
      The black cat flops on her side, tucks her head under her paws, which sleepmask over her eyes for a moment, like Marion’s black cat—Summer—curled and asleep on her lap as she and Walker sit at the dining room table in her parents’ house. An unfolded copy of The Centre Daily Times serves as a tablecloth; brown circles surround their teacups on the newsprint, the paper streaked black with running ink and yet translucent from tea; Walker sees the table’s grain through the smeared text of an article. Curio shelves on the wall support dozens of antique peanut butter glasses; Walker surveys the room, the fragile glasses tiered and monitoring him as he nods to what Marion says. Muscles at the nape of his neck pinch tight as his eyes flick toward the walls, the peanut butter glasses, the curio shelves mounted to the walls with screws that catch the light and bend it silver-blue. He nips at the inside of his lip. If he bumps a shelf with his shoulder, or if Summer clambers into his arms and leaps? If he were to—?
      And what does she say to him, as they sit there? As if it matters. When he wants to remember their conversation, he finds himself watching a silent film of memories projecting mutedly against the silver backdrop of fantasy, images flashing without so much as a tremolo of incidental music, no more noise than the chuffing rotations of an old film projector. And no subtitles, either. No way to see the rapid flexing of their lips: it is as if the celluloid, in each and every frame, has had vinegar dropped from a pipette over their mouths, the weak acid distorting and warping the film. And yet so much he knows: Summer purring “wrmrrrgh, wrmrrrgh” as she nuzzles at Marion’s lap, Walker leaning his chin on his fist, Marion picking at a hangnail on her thumb as she talks with a bead of blood welling up alongside the thumbnail, the warm light of the ceiling’s sixty-watt bulb glancing in arcs off the line of her bifocals—someone Walker’s age wearing bifocals, who could believe that. But there she is. A movie schedule, yes—that is the leaf of the newspaper they spread across the table as an impromptu cloth. Perhaps they plan to see something. Maybe. Marion scratches Summer between the ears, glances down at her little black cat. What have they said? Anything? Even something banal—“What do you think Summer dreams about? Mice and hunting and playing?”—even something quotidian to shatter like a sheet of ice underfoot this muffled memory.
      Walker listens pour la petite chatte noire as he casts a glance over his shoulder at the hipster boy and the girl, who seems to have pulled her hat even farther down. Now the hem of the knit cap obscures her eyebrows, nor can Walker see her earlobes. She bats her eyes at the hipster boy, who stares catatonic through the café’s plate-glass front window. Idly, he touches her elbow in a series of short pulses, as if touching out a communication to her in Morse code. And the girl looks away from him, her eyes lancing toward Walker, who consults his paperback and, shielding himself behind Haruki Murakami’s words, deflects her gaze. But for a moment, as he casts his eyes downward, their visions graze against each other, glance together like the wings of raptors squabbling in the air, and Walker sees doused in her eyes the dissipated heat of her time with the boy. Hours back, the townies are not this quiet, this solemn; they moan, breathy whispers hot against each other’s ears, flesh warm and slicked with a gloss of sweat, their clothes bundled together on the floor: sleeves and pants legs and socks and underwear tentacle around each other, a coital heap of clothes begetting a tangle of fashion nightmares—flannel with corduroy, mixed denims, black with brown. The sheets pour to the floor; she digs her heels into the bed, claws at this shoulders, rakes his skin with her nails as he grips her hips, bruises her with the force of his hands clamping her in place. And after they spend their passion, they lie—only their fingers touching—and suffer each other’s silences, quietude a miasma as suffocating as the stale bedroom air and sweat that like a sauna’s cloud steams around them.
      There is the slight scritch of claws against the doorjamb, and Walker pivots in his seat to see the cat needling through the space between the curtain and the door. That he hears, and yet he has to watch girls’— Never mind that now. He gathers his book and carries it in the crook of his arm as, hands in pockets, he follows the black cat to the door. He pushes the curtain aside, a wall of coolness striking him and his breath condensing silver on the door’s glass. The black cat mews: “mrrewn.” Walker twists the knob; the door springs open, and the cat slides against the jamb and then scurries around the wooden fence cordoning off the air conditioner or the generator or whatever that rumbling machine is, its turbines growling constantly and emitting invisible vapors that hiss into the atmosphere. Nothing stops a Trane. But it goes nowhere fast. Walker proceeds toward the alley.
      When his oxfords crunch against the gravel, the cat has already gone. He shrugs. Would’ve been nice to follow her. Speak in half-whimpers, growls, churls, grunts. See, maybe, if Marion had sent out an ambassador of sorts. La petite chatte noire black as Summer. Walker’s breath ghosts white on the cool air. Broken glass, dusted pixie-powder white at the base of cinderblock walls, reflects sunlight in diamond sparkles. A Coke can pirouettes from underneath a green dumpster, the aluminum can perhaps tossed by a quick gust. Stones stick in the tread of his shoes and scuff against each other as his feet strike earth. Sighing, Walker kicks up a grey cloud of dust and dirt. Cigarette butts and strips of newspaper scurry tumbleweed-frantic down the alleyway. Hands thrust in pockets, he proceeds, beyond a wall where some protestor has stuck up paper squares depicting in life-sized relief the silhouette of the Abu Ghraib victim. Beneath the image, the protestor has bannered, “END DETAINMENT IN GUANTANAMO.” No wonder their politics are in a back alley—can’t even get their affronts against civil liberties correct. And then: a crude line-drawing of a woman in a bikini, her ribs stacked like ladder rungs, and that drawing points to an admonition in spray paint, that “queen bee be da #1 gangsta heah.” He examines the ground, searches for any sign of the black cat: a pawprint, lines in the dirt, a mew or a chirp. He reaches into his pocket, withdraws a pinch of lint, and tosses it like confetti into the sky.
      Black cat under green box lurks: cateyes blink at leather-wrapped humanfeet. Humanfeet hammer earth: smoke cloud rises: fire in humanstep, humanlungs: fire seeping from pores. On them scent of smoke and exhaust, cloying catsenses. Catclaws scrapple through gravel, paws padding soft over jagged rock. Shoelace flicker like mouse tail: cateyes trail: consider pursuit. Catnose twitches. Ice and fish. No—not here. Black cat strokes whiskers. Inside. Fish and ice. White-fanged cat yawns: “mrrrowk.” Water stocked with fish, vision of catclaws slashing watery glass and knifing into fishflesh red and wet. Black cat slips from under green box, stretches catbody accordion lithe, slinks against cinderblock wall and prowls to the river. Warm sun spark orange glows red, reflected on emerald cateyes as pupils contract.
      Hearing a scuffle of gravel, Walker turns and studies the alley. Just dust and graffiti watching him, and crushed glass and cigarettes flanking his path as he walks. No matter, then. She’s gone. It must be just the wind.

Patrick Thomas Henry is a graduate of the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University and has also earned a MA in English literature at Bucknell University. Currently, he is enrolled in the MFA program in Creative Writing at Rutgers University. His essays have appeared in the journal Modern Language Studies, and he is also the author of the critical head notes in the second edition of Tom Bailey’s On Writing Short Stories (2010). He blogs about literature and related topics at

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