By Nolan Devine
He’s been nailing cats to trees, or so I’ve heard. At night, in my second floor makeshift bedroom, I’d sometimes hear a pounding coming from the rickety house next door that belonged to this guy, Bon. At first it was a delight, those cats ate the frogs in my cucumber garden out back, but now I‘m not so sure. My wife’s taken to branding me a potato, so many eyes on a neighbor, but humane is humane, and surely this is not. Many times I’ve slipped on my shoes to go over, and many times my wife has stuck the peeler in and plucked out another eye — a reprimand for intrusion. Not my business what a dirty rat digs itself into. Or so I’ve been told.
Bon’s house has no front door. He’s long since removed it, and the cats keep all hours. So now as my feet stick to his front porch I’ve nothing to knock, no bell to ring. Holes in the porch floorboards allow me to see through to the ground. It looks and smells as if this is where he dumps the cat litter. I call out his name as a courtesy. Bon, you home, Bon, but only hear the rat-a-tat skittering of claws. Cats tromping on broken wood, living between the walls, pissing on the silverware. Even though his house is the only other inhabited place on a street now abandoned, I’ve only been here once before. Once to see if he was okay after some kids broke out his windows. He hadn’t even noticed.
I step in. The preparatory measure of making a t-shirt mask does nothing to stop what I now smell. A thousand toilets overrun, a nest of rat eggs aborted, transmuted into gas. For me to breathe. For the cats to suck in. Sticking in our lungs like dried semen.
So many cats, all so fat yet groomed and healthy. They climb on the sink and perch there like kings. The fridge shelf acts as a bed where one lays on its side next to mustard. None approach me or even take notice. My invisibility, though a common occurrence, excites me. I don’t find Bon in his bedroom, but hear noise below.
The single room basement is dark and clean, nearly spotless, except boxes have been heaped to the ceiling. They fill most of the large room, all the way to the ceiling, as if some kids had built a fort by throwing a hundred scraps of cardboard atop one another with no precision. It’s a pyramid, an animal’s cage. It looks as if it could collapse, but when I reach out to touch it all the cardboard stays in its place. What is this?
I call Bon’s name again and from within the boxes I hear his voice, so confident.
“Ret is that you? Come in, come in. Ride the subway.”
There’s a cave like entrance at one point on the floor of the box mass, a cardboard tunnel that speaks to me with Bon’s words.
“No thank you, Bon. How about you come out? We have some business to discuss.”
“Oh that would be impossible right now.” His voice is soft and mumbled. He claps and again asks me to join.
I should cut this thing up, a child’s fort, but I get on my hands and knees to burrow. With my size the tunnel narrows, and the cardboard scrapes my spongy thighs. It’s only a dozen feet or so, and with a turn I discover Bon’s hidey-hole. Lamplight reveals a patchwork fur mound from which Bon’s small feet emerge, wiggling. Cats are piled on him, then piled on each other, a pyramid that shifts and breathes.
There’s enough clearance for me to stand, to stretch my arms even. But I remain on my knees as I take in what Bon has constructed. The ground is flooded with sand imprinted by a hundred paws, and a crude ocean backdrop has been painted behind the huddled mess that is Bon, that is cat, that is alive. I’ve never felt interest for the beach, yet the décor makes this hole almost desirable. As I rise up I nearly land a foot in a litter box placed at the entrance. Within the box are dildos. One of them is green like the cucumbers I grow. They stand like pillars of some great building whose body long ago crumbled into dirt, now anchoring that which it once rose above. Even if the dildos stand detached from everyone, their refusal to crumble with the rest of the world seems noble.
“Bon, would you come out from there?”
He tells me he was napping on the beach, fur lapping against him like waves and sun on an easy day. The memories of a body nestled to me are distant ones, yet the distance is pinched and for a moment I think of what it means to have a warm lover to lay against.
I ask him if he’s been neglecting his cats, tell him I’d rather sort it out between the two of us, that I don’t want to call animal control. I know he loves his cats, and heck, they love him. He shakes, and recognizing the command, the cats dismount with grace. His eyes are closed. He’s my age, but so much shorter, narrower. He’s handsome, he’s filthy. He opens his eyes slowly, as if emerging from meditation, and stands. Gesturing to the cats, who are now tunneling out en masse, he asks how creatures so flubby and loved could possibly be neglected. I tell him we’d heard a rumor. He sighs, then crawls into the tunnel on all fours. Again the tunnel speaks with Bon‘s voice, this time asking me to exit back into the basement.
I follow him outside to his backyard which is sparsely wooded. The grass has all died, suffocated under the weight of piss and disuse. Beneath a diseased tree is a fresh little mound that’s adorned with a cross. Bon fishes a long bent nail from his pocket. It’s stained. He holds it to my face, his hand trembling. “They did it with this.”
That night I dream of an infestation of cats in my house. I chase them around with an ice cream pail. I get near one and it scales the wall, then begins to dance across the ceiling. The plaster breaks from its weight and when the chub cat hits the ground I drop the bucket over it. The cat’s tail sticks out and twitches like a madman. I call for my wife, I got one babe, I got one! She walks into the room and says to prove it. I lift the bucket and it rattles. Underneath is a stack of pennies, the tail still attached, still wagging. The tail asks why am I doing this, it thought we were friends. My wife can’t hear this. My wife she says I can’t go unpunished for telling a lie. She takes the peeler from a pocket and with disinterest twists it into the back of my leg.
I wake and shudder away from my wife before remembering that she wouldn’t be there. I get off my cot and head down into the attached garage. I want a safe place in my life but don‘t yet have one. In the garage I find buckets of paint. But I need something else. For the third time ever I visit my neighbor. He gives me a box. A giant box.
A few weeks later I’m out on a walk, even though it’s a wet day. My house is on a dead end avenue full of yellow mud and dying trees on the far edge of town. Besides my place and Bon’s, the few houses left on this street are fading away due to vandalism and disrepair.
Sometimes I tour through these old houses, try to remember the neighbors I barely knew who moved out a decade before. This was to be our retirement village, but they left me alone to fend for myself. I’ve always needed someone or something to prop me along. I sit with the imagined families and listen to the talks they might’ve had years ago. Sometimes they can be quite funny and I’ll catch myself laughing in an empty room.
I’ll listen to the mice scatter as I step through these places; hear them retreat into the walls. I’m like them and I’m not; I retreat, so despised, but I know I’m not filthy. Sometimes I think about Bon’s cats and whether they come over to these broken houses to hunt, to nourish themselves. I like the idea of their sustenance coming from the vermin of the world, eating intruders, impostors of life who only seem to want to tear down a household. I’ve come to realize in my life that there’s no more time for these impostors, that sustenance of a different kind is needed. But I can’t simply eat my way through the verminous world I’ve spent an entire life constructing based on flawed notions of loyalty and human connection.
There is a thumping, and it is constant. The thumping is coming from one of the abandoned houses, perhaps a heart left beating in something long dead. Approaching I can hear a murmur, maybe laughter. I feel myself drawn to the warmth of the sounds. Perhaps a friend has come back. I stand in the mud of the lawn, seeing something through the window, then its glass sprays in my direction. A murk of a figure spins and glass shoots again. It’s a kid with a hammer. Behind him more faces appear as light pours in. Teenagers.
“Hey, what do you kids think you’re doing?” My shout carries no power.
There’s a pause in their ruckus as they all see me, but soon they laugh more as two of them drive the legs of a chair into a wall. The hammer flies at me and sticks into the ground. They disappear and in seconds are out the front door, surrounding me. I wince in anticipation of my punishment as the boy who broke the window leans to my face.
“Hey old man, old fatty, why you gotta steal our hammer?”
“What were you kids doing in there? That’s…that’s private property, you know.”
I tell them they need to leave immediately or I may call the police. The kid pulls his hammer from the dirt. He’s as thin and hard as the thing he’s holding. His friend starts to talk, as if I weren’t even there.
“Hey, Neck, was it before or after you dropped acid that she sucked your cock? Because that is important in the timeline as to when we get scrambled eggs.”
The kid with the hammer mock-thinks and then tells his friend it was before, and they circle me tighter. I warn them again, this time holding out my hand as if to say stop, proceed no further, I will issue a warning ticket. They start hissing. One kid breaks off and starts to kick the side of the house while smiling back at me. His foot goes through the siding and the hammer kid motions for his friends to pull the kid out.
I look at hammer boy. “Neck is it? They call you Neck?”
“Yeah, wanna know why?”
“I bet your friend Mr. Cat might though.” He cocks his hammer back. “Because that’s how I did it — right through the neck.” He swings the hammer forward into the air and imitates a cat shrieking.
I start to back away and someone pushes me, then my ass hits the muck. So wet.
Neck points his hammer down at me. “Doesn’t your friend buy rats dipped in yogurt and shit?” They collectively laugh and Neck rallies them with a few circle swings of the hammer. “Boys, it’s time for eggs.” They run off. I sink into the mud.
My wife spots me as I sneak in through the garage. “Ret, what unholy did you do to those god damned pants?”
The pants are old and have been shot for years. I say I slipped on my walk, that I’ll clean them. She gives me an eye roll and says I indeed had better not expect her to wash the filthy things.
My cucumbers are coming in great, this is their peak time. With my pants already muddy I go out to tend to them. I pick up each one and check it for bugs, discoloration, mushiness. I stroke each while singing it a song. They look up at me from the dirt. They are absolutely tip-top, the product of months of care and observation. Since I retired my cucumbers have become my occupation. I provide for them, and in return, they anchor me.
Even with the tranquility that a cucumber imparts, my mind’s been having flashes of Bon’s basement. I can almost hear the cats calling me every time their tongues lap milk. I go over there and walk through the kitchen. A cat walks out of the oven and passes through my legs. Mud smears onto its fur, then crumbles off. The brushing of its flesh against me, for as fleeting as it was, gives me a moment’s pause to be thankful. The mud sits there on the floor inert, no longer a bother. I make for the basement.
The tunnel speaks to me and I crawl back in. There is Bon in the familiar heap; the heap breathes as one organism. The ocean he has painted into the wall looks so real now. Several of the dildos have been batted over, sunk into the ruins, never to rise again.
I sit down, and though I can’t see him, Bon begins to whistle. Slowly the sounds of new cats’ claws echo against the subway tunnel. They walk onto the sand and sit before their master’s feet. Bon doesn’t speak, but motions his foot towards me and the cats swirl my body. They don’t mind the mud. They sit on my pants, my chest, my arms. Their weight brings me down to a lying position; this mass bears the diffusions of love and intimacy. I can feel them climbing on top of one another, but there is no struggle for position or hierarchy. Soon they cover my head and I breathe out through a pocket of air, my eyes closed. At last it seems the mound is in place and they have completely weighed my body down, but it feels so assuring to give yourself over completely. Bon whistles again and something magnificent occurs. The cats begin to purr and purr and purr. I relax. I close my eyes. Their fat bellies vibrate against me, and I purr back.
I don’t know how much time has passed, but I feel as if I‘ve begun a transformation. I give a shake and the cats step off, their fur stroking against my bare skin and making me tingle. Even after they’re off, their warmth sticks to me. The cats all look at me; even if one blinks there’s so many glowing eyes that their stare remains unbroken. It’s as if I’m their master now. From beneath his pile Bon says “I told you so. They call me a loon, but where else can you achieve paradise so easily?” His feet wiggle.
Back home my wife is doing aerobics off her workout tape, the lights down. She rolls from side to side on our old worn out brown carpet with the floorboard coming through. Her feet kick. For a moment she looks perfect. Her legs rise and spread out. She rocks back and forth. I kneel between her lap and put my hands on her thighs. She opens her eyes and flops back, kicking a leg into my thigh.
“Honey, I have some really fantastic…”
She cuts me off, “Ret, what is wrong with you?”
“Don’t touch me. You’re filthy.” She looks at her pants and picks a tuft of fur off herself. “How many pants do you need to ruin today?”
I stand up and try to straighten my clothes out. “But honey, I was with Bon.”
“I told you to leave him alone. That man is sick and you don’t need any encouragement.” She finds more fur. “What’s with this honey bullshit?”
“I uh, his cats are, they are, oh you aren’t going to believe it.” I’m smiling and holding out my hand to help her up. She crawls back even more, then around a corner, and I hear her pad away. I look in a mirror. Fur is on my everything. I’m cuddly.
Later on I grab a loaf of bread for a sandwich. As I look for peanut butter I become aware of a murmur outside. Then the murmur turns into a single scream. I run out there and see kids stomping in my garden — the kid with the hammer exploding my cucumbers.
In the middle of the garden Bon is laying still, but his foot twitches. The kids notice me and shriek with joy. They’re excited I’ve come. They pick up dirt and cucumbers and fling them all at me. I take mud to the chest. I still have the loaf of bread and start to whack the kid nearest me with it. I scream that they’ve ruined my garden. The kid goes into hysterics and his laughter only makes me hit harder. The bag tears open, and when it swings into his face, slices fly everywhere.
“Hey old man check it out.” The hammer kid is standing over Bon and in one motion strikes the teeth of his weapon into the back of Bon’s leg. “Nice garden, ya fatass.” He swings the bloody hammer round in the air, whoops, and the kids run off into the dark.
I fall down to Bon and shake him. He won’t wake. Blood bubbles out of his leg. I pick bread from the mud and press the slices against his wound. My wife comes out and casually mentions that she’s called the police. She looks at me stooped over Bon, holding onto him, and seems disgusted. She goes back in and slams the door.
I put my hand on Bon’s chest and feel his heart beat, so rhythmic, his skin warming my cold hand. Don’t die on me, old buddy. The bread gets red and soggy, and as I’m kneeling before these ruins, dozens of cats begin to circle us. One by one they crawl on top of Bon. I stand back and watch as they mount his body. I know they form an equilibrium with his body — both man and cat acting as pillars to support their own shared, created structure. The cats purr. Bon wiggles his foot and starts to whistle back.
The police told me Bon was hospitalized and would be put in a nursing home. Apparently the kids didn’t do much other than drag him from his house and knock him dizzy, because besides his leg, he wasn’t really hurt. But still the authorities were ripping him from his life and not letting him come back to his family.
A crew from the city begins dismantling his house the next day. I receive a verbal reprimand for never reporting the conditions he’d been living in. I spend most of the day watching them take out the cats in crates, endless crates, but they’ll never find them all.
I think of Bon and what he has done to me. Even though he really had no people, he had more kinship with something than most. Albeit he could only find a meditative state when beneath the fur, but giving yourself over to tranquility in old age seems to be the most sensible thing. Once you reach a certain age you either realize you’re simply too withered to be loved, or stop maintaining the appearances of false living when they only ruin you; where warmth comes from doesn’t matter so long as you can discover it in your life, even if only in temporary, fragmented doses.
I look back out at the workers tearing down Bon’s kingdom; the only semblance of joy on this city block is about to go under a match, become pollution. As they burn up the cardboard I watch the painted waves of the ocean melt into themselves, then evaporate. I choke on the smoke but still keep my mouth open, inhaling Bon and all his love into me. I feel the diffusions of new life wrapping around my lungs. Now only my house is left.
That night, after I’m sure my wife is asleep, I go out to my pitch black garage and uncover the giant box Bon gave me. I push its open side against the garage wall I’ve prepared and squeeze in through the tiny gap I’ve left for access. Close it back up. In looking at my new cardboard surroundings I wish there were instructions scrawled across them. Everything is pitch black.
I undress completely. Turn on my lamp and the new ocean I’ve painted is before me. To my side is the pile of dirt with the least damaged cucumbers rising up from it. To my other side is the cage of living fur. I take the cat out and set it in front of the rolling waves. The cat tries to walk out of the shell and so I grab it by the scruff and throw it into the ocean but the water bounces it back. It bites me until I yell. Use my foot to pin the cat against a swell. It starts to shriek. Scratches my leg and feet until blood is drawn. It keeps attacking. Red drops mix into the water and I sense a predator is near.
The garage door creaks and light flickers on, crawling under where my box meets cement. My wife’s voice is asking if I’m in there, and the cat’s shrieks help her pinpoint where we are. She begins to knock on the box, says she can hear me. She tries to rip it away but I grip an edge and won’t let go. I say don’t do this, that we’re supposed to be friends. She starts kicking the side of the box. There is a thumping, and it is constant. The cucumbers, one by one, begin to topple. Just me left now.
“Ret, get out god dammit.”
She leaves and comes back a minute later with her potato peeler and begins to stab through the side of the pod. Peers in on me through these new eyeholes. Blood bubbles from my foot and rolls down in thick trails against the fur like a brush dipped in color. I think back on my lessons. Pin the smeared, batting cat against the wave even harder. Cover my crotch from my wife’s view. Is this it? Is this how I do it? The cardboard doesn’t voice an answer. The holes grow bigger as my wife tears them open with her hands. Big bright gapes expose me. When this new light begins to pour through I wonder if I should let the cat go and use my foot to paint in a sunset. And so I do.
Your Humble Author, GABFRAB:
P.S. I live in Minneapolis now. It’s pretty fucking awesome. Let me know what you thought about the story. Also, cats make me go achoo. I do not like them.