The Cat’s Pajamas, Part 2

I’m stalking the ledge, staring into The Alley below. The sun’s going down and I can hear the kittens mewing for supper. Furball is tired from the climb up here. He’s not as spritely as I remember.

“How long have I been gone?” I ask.

“Long enough,” Furball says. “The Alley’s different now–there’s order to things. It’s not like it was before.”

“Your ear says otherwise,” I say, nodding towards the bald stump on Fur’s head.

“I knew you’d go there, Tabs, I knew you’d say something about it,” he says casting his eyes back to The Alley. It’s going to rain. Furball should get back to his where he’ll be dry and warm. “Look… accidents happen, y’know? But, Boots is fair most of the time, alright? Yeah, he’s still… like, got issues or whatever. Yeah, sometimes he calls in Puma and Puma’s got his maulers, but it’s The Alley. That’s how it goes in the Alley.”

“How long have I been gone ?” I ask again.

“In cat years or human years?”

“Either.”

Furball doesn’t look at me when he says: “I stopped counting.”

“Sounds like things haven’t changed that much,” I say.

___________________________________________________________________________________________

I still remember the way down: hop from the ledge to the window sill, zig-zag until the fire escape is within distance. Drop quietly. From there: the lids of the trash cans make a good landing spot.

I keep my tail moving like Poppy taught me. I can already feel the eyes around me: yellow and black slits peeking out from the dumpster, the trash can lids, the cardboard boxes.

I move forward. The Alley has two openings: one way leads to the street, with its cars and trucks and a sure-fire way to get your belly crushed. The other way is to the vacant lot. Judging by how even the kittens are scrambling for a shelter, Boots probably had Puma and the maulers drag every halfway decent shelter back there, set up a nice manor.

I jolt as a little white and silver Ocicat dashes out from under some newspaper. He cuts a swath of brightness through the dark. He’ll tell the first mauler he can find that I’m back. They’ll come for me.

“Oh, Bast,” I hear Furball say. “This is bad, Tabs, real bad.” He must’ve followed me.

“Get to shelter, Furball.”

“Oh, Tabs, you should just go. Maulers’ll be here soon. They don’t like you. They don’t like anyone.”

Furball’s a German Rex. He’s small and can hide anywhere. But he’s not moving. I look over my shoulder. He’s standing on the closest fire escape. No dogs through the window that I can see but he still shouldn’t be talking.

I’m half-thinking I should hop up there with him. But I don’t move. I keep my tail calm, like Poppy said.

Then I hear: “Well, look who’s back in town.”

Poppy used say: To win a fight, you need to know two things: 1. Get the other cat on the ground.

I know this cat, but can’t remember his name. He’s a Havana Brown and last I saw him his coat was luxurious and dark–to the point where you’d forget that he wasn’t pedigree. Now, he’s more scar than fur: bring pink streaks across his back are the sure-fire sign of a mauler. He’s missing claws on his front right paw and his tail is little more than stomp, but it still twitches like a deranged snake.

“For an Alley Cat, you are, paws down, the worst slinker,” he says.

I force my tail to move again. Side to side. Nice and calm. The Havana moves closer and I wait. Poppy taught me to wait.

“What’s the matter? Silent treatment? What’s the matter? Cat got your–,”

I see it. I see it just like Poppy taught me. His tail stopped twitching. He’s scared.

And if he’s scared then I’ve already won.

To win a fight: get the other cat on the ground. I bound up to a dumpster, and right back down, tackling the Havana, pinning him. My tail doesn’t break its rhythm: side-to-side. Match my heartbeat.

I step on the Havana’s throat and extend a claw so he can feel it on his jugular.

“I need to send a message,” I say to the Havana. “I need Boots to know.”

The Havana stopped squirming. From this close I can tell he’s nipped out of his head.

“What? What do you want?” he says.

Poppy used say: To win a fight, you need two things: 1. Get the other cat on the ground.

And 2: don’t let him get back up again.

I extend my claws completely into the Havanas throat and pull.

The rain starts. It will wash away the blood.

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The Cat’s Pajamas, Part 1

Cats like to brag that they don’t get lost.  Never, ever.  If a cat wants to go missing, he goes missing.  Doesn’t stop posters from going up.  “Help Us Find Sophie/Princess/Mittens.”

Strays don’t have homes, but, that’s okay.  We’ve got The Alley.  The Alley Cats.

Poppy used say: The less you speak, the more power you have.

I try to follow what Poppy told me.  I don’t brag.

But strays can get lost.  I am lost.  Right now.  I don’t know where I am.  It’s dark and wet and smells like cardboard.  Cardboard and dog.

“Who’s this then?” I hear a gruff voice say.

“They call him Tabs,” another, equally gruff voices says.  Dogs, definitely.  Their heavy tails keep knocking against the cardboard box.

“Never heard of him.”

“Me neither.  But, he’s an Alley Cat.  Least, he used to be.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.  Besides.  Chief said to grab him.”

The first dog grunts and says: “Pop the lids.  Let’s see this puss.

Like Bast calling to me from the great beyond, light blinds me.  This light isn’t natural.  A massive Newfoundland pokes his snout over the top.  How such a cumbersome beast got the drop on me, I don’t know.  I must’ve nipped more than I thought.

“Come now, friend,” he says, softly.  Dogs always do this.  Talk real quiet, so as not to disturb the volatile cat temperament.  Most cats lash out no matter what, striking out with whatever they have.  More than a few mutts bear the signature of claws.  But the dogs win.  Always.  One way or another.

I am not most cats.  I stay calm, like Poppy taught me.

He takes the back of my neck in his teeth and lifts me onto the hard floor.  For the first time I get a sense of everything: a human hasn’t used this room in years and the dogs have long since claimed it.  Cages.  Cages everywhere.  Some of the steel wires on the cages are mangled so as to be improper instruments of imprisonment.  The majority, though, hold mangy, starved, scarred creatures.

I’m looking at two big monochromatic dogs.  The Newfoundland’s fur is so black he looks cut from a swath of midnight.  The other is a snow white Shepherd.  How he stays so clean in a city this dirty is beyond me.

“Terry,” the Shepherd says, “he’s a runt.  What are we going to do with a runt?”

“Murph, I’m telling you.  This is who Chief wanted.”

The Shepherd shakes his downy head.  “Chief is too old.”  But then: “Let’s see if the old dog has learned a new trick.”

I follow the two dogs down a hallway.  It’s dark and dirty.  We come to a door at the end.  The glass on it is grey and cracked.  Pieces are missing and the remaining words simply say: “Dr” and “Chief of”.  The Shepherd enters first and says something.  The Newfoundland and I wait.  He can’t be that fast.  I think about running.

Poppy always encouraged being still.

I keep my tail and paws calm.

The Newfoundland nudges me into the room.  There’s a wooden desk with a black stool near it.  The Shepherd directs me to hop on it.  I resist the urge to play with the puffs of stuffing showing.  It’s a cat thing.

On the desk an old Bulldog sits like a king.  Chief.  He’s predominantly grey save for brown paws.  The way he sits, I can see that he was once a powerful dog, ferocious probably.  It pains him to sit atop the desk and pains his pride even more that his joints have betrayed him.  There’s a big, warm doggie bed in the corner.  That’s where he would rather be.

When Chief speaks he says: “Boots runs The Alley, but he’s careful.”

Silence.  He has not asked me a question, but takes my lack of response as affirmation.

“He’s very careful.  And quiet.  In fact, save for  an occasional body we pull from the sewers, the cat doesn’t draw attention since he took over.  It’s no secret that we want The Alley back.  It’s no secret that this Boots character operates with a flagrant disregard for animal law.  These are both true things.  When dogs ran The Alley, we did what was necessary, but we provided order.  Were mistakes made?  Yes.  Had I wish we had been more understanding?  Sure.  But, we weren’t warlords.  We weren’t savages.”

Dogs.  Always talking.  Feel like I’ve used 3 lives just listening to him.

“Dogs and cats have learned to live peacefully elsewhere.  Why not The Alley?” asks Chief.

He cocks his head, waiting for a response.  There’s a lot to be said.  There’s a lot of arguments.  I’m not the one that will make them, but there’s a lot.

Chief continues: “Poppy speaks highly of you.”

I try to maintain my calm, but my perked ears give me away.

“Yes.  Poppy.  That Poppy.  Your Poppy.  We go way back–to our pup days.  Sure, he’s a Schnauzer, but he had his whole thing.  You know what I’m talking about.  All his little sayings.  A good teacher.  You… you’re pretty unique.  Poppy always swore he’d never teach a cat his ways.  But.  I guess he changed his mind, didn’t he?”

Poppy used say: Your tail is your tell.  Control it, say nothing, and give away nothing.  I keep mine moving slowly, hypnotically, softly swishing side to side, side to side.

“You’re pretty unique, Tabs.  Most of the Alley Cats think you’re dead.  The rest think you lost it.  Went crazy.  Or how do they put it?  Oh, right, right: ‘the cat’s pajamas.’” All three dogs chuckle.  “Little puss codes.”

Side to side.  Side to side.

Chief slowly, painfully, pulls himself to his feet and steps to the edge of the desk.  Our noses practically touch.

My tail doesn’t change.

“Here’s what it is: I don’t care.  You’re alive, which means I can use you.  If you’re pajamas, fine.  But if you’re half as good as your rep, you’ll get me what I want.  Kill Boots.  I want The Alley.”

My tail stops.  They expect me to offer a rebuttal.  Or maybe run.  “Betray my own kind?  The Alley is my home.  I’ll never!” is what most cats would say.

I am not most cats.

My tail resumes its clockwork rhythm.  I say one word.

I hop off the stool.  Terry and Murph step aside.

The word was: “Gladly.”

The Cat's Pajamas

These Guys

I’m cooling my heels in lunch detention, the junior high equivalent of solitary confinement.  The room is drab and me and the other rejects are sitting at these desks that look like voting booths.  I know why I’m here: I’m here because of a pip squeak named Brendon Del Platano.  I’m here because I’m the big kid.  And, in a way, this is all because I wanted a trenchcoat.

The best gift for my 13th birthday would have been to be David Boreanaz from the TV show Angel.  I had a veritable man-crush on the guy, but it wasn’t his incisive cheekbones or perfectly coifed hair.  It was that long flowing coat of his.  In terms of sci-fi and fantasy, the longer your coat is, the more badass you are.  All the confident heroes from my favorite works donned their trenchcoats like capes: Angel, Neo from The Matrix, Mulder from X-Files.

I wanted the confidence they had, but I was an overweight, new-in-town kid with curly hair that looked like something a homeless clown would have.  So, I retreated to my room, where I listened to Smash Mouth and read comic books.  I loved my comics, especially the really pulpy, morally dubious ones.  All that good-guy-wronged stuff–that was for me.

Two weeks before my birthday, my mom and I drove to an outlet mall, where I promptly flocked to the London Fog store.  I tried one on and Mom looked skeptical as the oversized khaki material dropped to the floor around my feet.

“Pet, you look like a rectangle,” she said.  “You really want one of these?”

I didn’t hear her, so marveling I was at the mirror.  “This.  Is.  So.  Badass.”

I wouldn’t have even gotten to wear the coat to school, since we had to wear uniforms, which my friends and I fucking hated.  As a nonviolent protest, we invented a game to help us scuff up our ill-fitting polos.  We used a PowerAde bottle cap as the puck and our feet as sticks and called it “foot hockey.”

Brunch was only 15 minutes and once that cap dropped, nothing else mattered.  Rules were sparse and points were tallied randomly.  Kick the cap and don’t scuff up my Vans.  It allowed us to exorcise some of adolescent rage-angst without resorting to piercing things.

We weren’t the smartest (none of us made the cut into honors classes) and we weren’t the most popular (that distinction went to the boys who lazed about on the grass quad and, miraculously, accepted hugs from girls like it wasn’t an earth-shattering deal).  We were the outsiders and we liked it that way.  We were the kids who headbanged to Limp Bizkit, debated Star Wars minutiae over cans of Cactus Cooler, and had sleepovers which amounted to marathon gaming sessions.

And then Brendon Del Platano showed up.

Brendon was the first friend I made in Southern California.  He was small for 13 and his size gave him a weasel shape, which is maybe why he acted so much like a weasel.  We were pretty close for about a year but one day he stopped talking to me.  His return to our makeshift foot hockey rink surprised me.  So I talked him.  “Hey,” he said, “want to come hang out with me instead?”

If this were a Judy Bloom novel, I would’ve hesitantly said yes and then learned an important lesson by the end.  But it’s not.  I knew who my friends were.

“No, man, it’s cool.  I like these guys.”

Brendon looked shocked.  “These guys?!  These guys!  Really?  You know if you stick with these guys, you’ll never have a girlfriend, right?”

Even if Brendon and I didn’t know the right words, “these guys” was the most accurate way to describe us: we were the outsiders, we were the different ones, and we were among the first group compared to Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris when they brought automatic weapons to Columbine High School.

On April 20th, 1999, I just wanted to see if Korn make it into the top 2 on Total Request Live.  But when I got home, the TV hurled images a high school massacre: students crawling over chain link fences; kids with bleached hair and No Fear sweatshirts balling their eyes out; and grainy security camera footage of someone walking through a hallway with a gun.

I couldn’t look away.  The shooters listened to shitty rap-rock, like me.  They spent a lot of time on their computers, like me.

And they wore black trench coats–just like one I had been begging for.

My friends and I knew things had changed.  Before Columbine, we were left well enough alone, save for the occasional yard duty who would smile and wave.  Now, foot hockey had a regular spectator in the form of Bill–a mustachioed, burly gentleman who had the calm-but-intimidating demeanor of an off duty cop.  After Columbine, we were banned from eating near the bike rack in back of the school.  No students were allowed to have lunch anywhere except the quad.

We tried to stick to a shadowy tree and continue our usual intense analytics of Pokemon biology.  But, before we were outsiders in a nerdy way–now, it felt like people thought we were an actual threat.

My birthday came and went.  I didn’t get the coat, nor did I want it anymore.

The May 31st issue of Time ran the cover story: “How To Spot a Troubled Kid.”  One of the main features was a centerfold-style chart which explained how disturbed your kid was, based on their web browser history.  At the bottom of this list was hate group websites, which Klebold and Harris were known to frequent.  But the second to worst?  Porn sites.

I watched porn,  which means, according to one of America’s major news outlets, I was only one way step away from being a “troubled kid.”

We were still allowed to play foot hockey during brunch and even started to open up our circle, allowing a few 7th graders to join in.  After a while, Bill, the yard duty, moved on and we hoped it was a sign that things were returning to normal.

Out of the corner of my eye one day I noticed a small figure.  Brendon.  He looked remarkably less weasel-ish than before.  For some reason, I felt bad for the guy.

“Hey, man, you want to play?” I asked.

“That gay-ass game?” said Brendon.  But after a second: “Yeah, all right.”

We dropped the cap.  Game on.  This little 7th grader, Tyler, had some skills punted the cap right past Brendon and into the goal.

“You’re a fucking dick!” yelled Brendon, loud enough to make us stop playing.  “This gay-ass 7th grader stepped on my hand!”

“I did not!”  said Tyler.  “And if anyone’s the gay-ass it’s you!”

Brendon, small and fast, suddenly grabbed Tyler.  Shoving, name calling, a lot of flailing.  Brendon grasped the back of Tyler’s neck and flung him.  The kid’s face connected with a metal pole.  Brendon strutted away.

Tyler told his teacher.  Word got passed up to administration.  I was summoned to the main office and sat across from a scowling assistant principal.

“What happened?” she asks.

“Bredon threw Tyler into a pole,” I say.

“Just Brendon?  No one else?”  She seems skeptical.

“Yeah, we were just playing foot hockey.  It’s a game.”

“Fighting is not a game!” she says with barking intensity.  “Brendon told us it was a brawl.  That ‘foot hockey’ game is violent!”

Before I can protest, she hands me the lunch detention notice, tells me that my parents should expect a call.

So here I am: in lunch detention.  I look around but don’t see Brendon anywhere.  I hope he got suspended.

When lunch detention is over, I have two minutes to slam back a Cactus Cooler and I see Brendon, who is smiling this big douchey smile.  The kind that makes you know he’s going to grow up to be a failed DJ.

I ask him: “They gave me lunch detention for what you did, you know?  What’d you get?”

His smile gets even bigger: “Nothing.  They just wanted to talk to me.”

I knew why I was put in lunch detention for a crime I didn’t commit — I was an outsider and now they had another angry alienated teen to deal with.  I wanted so badly to fight this Brendon kid.  I wanted to pummel his unblemished face until his lips looked like two fat slugs.  I wanted to feel his larynx crush in my hands.  I wanted to wear his teeth on a necklace.

But I thought of Klebold and Harris.  I couldn’t be like them.  I couldn’t be a “troubled kid.”

I did the very un-badass thing and walked away.

I went home and furiously typed three single-spaced pages.  I wrote the only thing I knew: a pulp fiction story, like the ones in my comics.

It was about this guy who goes to work one day, but forgets something.  Upon arriving home, he finds his wife fucking the gardener.  He flies into a rage and promptly caves in the gardener’s face.  It was everything I wanted to do to Brendon but couldn’t.

One person read this story and although she’d been watching all the same Columbine stuff I had–all the news reports about disturbed teens and warning signs and how it was all the parent’s fault–she still had the best reaction.

“I love the details, pet.  It makes me feel like I’m right there,” my mom said, because she is fucking amazing.  She reminded me of why I liked being different in the first place.

I saw Brendon throughout high school–he was always bouncing among social groups.  He grew his hair long and started listening to techno.  The next week, he’d be wearing Dickie shorts and black socks.  Then, a trucker cap and snap-button shirts.  Cheesy as it may sound, I don’t think he ever found a place that actually accepted him.

A few years into high school, someone stabbed Brendon with a pencil.  By this point, Brendon had such a low reputation that people actually circulated a petition to get the kid who stabbed Brendon un-expelled.

I’d like to say that that I had learned that being outcast is an adolescent universality–like acne and creative excuses for all the tissues in the trash; that I had become more sensitive to the plight of kids who didn’t fit in; that I forgave Brendon and let it all go.

But, really, I signed it twice.

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