Winner: Cat Calls

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When Tyler drifted into consciousness, eyes still closed, there was a peaceful, dark moment before the stab of what he mistook for a hangover headache. A list of questions piled up: Where had he been and with whom? How did he get to his bed—or was this his couch—or somebody else’s?  As if he were tuning an old radio, voices rose and fell.

“Two hundred pounds at least, maybe twice that. An old eagle’s nest. If he’d been hit a bull’s eye, it would have killed him. But there was a big limb just over his head and the nest hit that first and broke up. He got hit by a pretty big chunk. He’s not in a coma, is he? We’re insured—J and J Tree Removal is insured. Shouldn’t he be up by now?”

A clipped, professional voice: “He’s sleeping. He’s been in and out. No damage to the skull or spinal cord. Just a concussion and the broken arm, which we’ve set. We’ll do more precautionary tests when he wakes up. An eagle’s nest?”

“It was the size of a kiddie pool, Doc, maybe bigger.”

These were answers, but not to Tyler’s questions—they only raised new ones. He’d been “in” before this? Broken arm—which one? He couldn’t bring himself to move. Eagle’s nest?

 

Gizmo was a Siamese. She spit and scratched. The kids hated her, but they cried when she ran off.  They hung up signs on telephone poles. My kids have kids of their own now. No cats, though.

 

Mr. J of J and J Tree Removal, insured or not, was obviously relieved when Tyler woke up for good. The tree-boss stood just inside his employee’s peripheral vision. Tyler had worked for J and J for only a day. The company was contracted to clear the land by the river for the new casino that was going to save the city. Tyler remembered staring up into the canopy of a huge oak on the bank of the river, the only substantial tree on acreage overrun with scrub brush. He didn’t remember getting hit.

“What part of ‘Stand back!’ didn’t you get?” Mr. J asked.

“All I heard was ‘Whoa,’ so I came to look.”

“Jerry yelled ‘Stand back’—that’s standard safety procedure. I heard him myself, even over the chainsaws and wood chipper. But you’re lucky. The doctor says so, too. Of course, it would have been luckier if you’d stood back.”

Mr. J shook a plastic grocery bag. “So guess what was in that nest—cat collars. When it hit the limb over your head it broke apart, and these cat collars went flying all over. We collected them to show you. The eagles were feeding cats to their babies. Cat food—that’s Jerry’s joke.”

A nurse fussed around Tyler’s bed. “Cat collars? Yuck. Poor little kitties.”

“Law of nature,” Mr. J said. He tugged a strip of blue cloth from his pocket and swung it over Tyler’s bed. “This one is special.” A rusty tag dangled from the filthy collar. “This guy’s name was ‘Mr. Lucky.’ Just like you.”

Mr. J might have been presenting the Medal of Honor or the key to the city. Tyler reached for the collar with his left hand—his right arm turned out to be the broken one—and he squinted at the tag crusted with dirt and rust. “‘Mr. Licky,’” he read. “Not Lucky. It says ‘Mr. Licky.’”

“What?” Mr. J snatched back the collar, “Licky? They spelled their own pet’s name wrong?”

“That’s a silly name for a cat,” the nurse said. “Mr. Licky” sounds more like a dog’s name.”

 

My first wife hated Fluffy. He left mice on her pillow. Another time he left a dead hummingbird —can you believe he actually caught one? It looked like a flower, the way it lay on the satin pillowcase with its wings spread.

 

The day Tyler left the hospital, he decided to wear Mr. Licky’s collar as a bracelet. The nurse made a face as she buckled it over his ID band. “Not very sanitary,” she said. The home he returned to was the cottage where he grew up. He inherited it from his mom when she passed, and he’d moved back because the things he’d tried in other places—jobs, women—hadn’t worked out. The house stood about two miles up the same river where he’d been clearing land for the casino with J and J when his accident happened.

His arm healed quickly, though after the cast came off it was pale and withered and not up to heavy lifting. Tyler got enough of a settlement from J and J’s insurance company so that he didn’t have to worry about a job for a few months. Soon he noticed that the collar, which he never took off, had a definite taint. He thought at first that it was his food that smelled bad when he lifted his fork to his mouth. His showering had rinsed off most of the collar’s visible crud, but who knew how long the thing had been stewing in cat blood and eagle shit? He decided that his Mr. Licky bracelet and the whole bag of collars he’d brought home from the hospital needed a thorough cleaning. Sprucing them up could be a hobby, something to do while he listened to The Price is Right and sports.

When Tyler unknotted the plastic bag, the rotten-meat stench nearly floored him, and he almost trashed his new hobby then and there. But he opened his window for some fresh air, and through the tree branches caught a glimpse of the river. It sparkled like somebody had scattered jewels across a black mirror—so beautiful he wondered that he’d never really noticed it growing up, even when he’d paddled on it or fished in it.

A fresh breeze blew into his room, and the sun through the maple trees tossed dancing leaf shadows on the uncut grass. By now the casino site would have been cleared and construction started. The big tree would be long gone. Tyler pictured an eagle soaring in the blue sky over his stretch of river, heading upstream toward a nest it wouldn’t find. Maybe a cat, still thinking of the mouse it had been about to pounce on, swung under the bird like someone riding a parasail.

He sniffed his Mr. Licky bracelet, then peeked back into the grocery bag and the tangle of filthy collars and tags. He could tolerate the odor.  A person can get used to anything. His bedroom walls were bare after years of moving out and back. If he cleaned up all the collars and hung them on a big board it might lessen the emptiness and make an interesting conversation piece.

A few of the collars disintegrated in his fingers, but fifty-two were salvageable— forty-four cloth, eight chain. Thirty of the collars had tags. He soaked the cloth collars in a bucket of detergent, then rinsed them under the bathroom sink faucet, one at a time, gently wringing out the soapy water. White vinegar loosened up the rust on the tags, chain collars, and buckles, which he scrubbed with an old toothbrush.  He picked the dirt out of the engraved letters and numbers with a pin, then shined up each tag with some Brasso metal polish. He found a piece of plywood the size of a movie poster in the basement and hammered rows of nails into it for hooks.

After a week, his project was finished. He hung all the collars on their nail hooks, propped the board on his desk, and looked at it—the cloth collars were bright stripes of color, like exclamation points, and the tags and chains gleamed. The neat rows of collars reminded him of the rows of tombstones in a military cemetery, but, as far as he could tell, he’d gotten rid of the smell of death. He felt a little like he’d memorialized the cats and resurrected them at the same time.

 

 No, you’re wrong. My husband buried Mittens in the backyard. He marked her grave with a little stone. It’s still there. Who is this?

 

The casino wasn’t due to open for months yet, but the community college had started a six-week certificate program in “Hospitality and Casino Management.” The cost was three hundred dollars, plus another fifty for books. Tyler’s arm was still not strong enough for manual work, so he signed up. The half dozen required courses had names like “Casino Operations Management,” “Security and Surveillance,” and “Gaming Rules and Regulations.” Each class met for an hour, five days a week. Mostly the classes were packed with kids ten or fifteen years younger than he was, all of them shimmery with hope, although the rumor was that the lion’s share of casino jobs would go to experienced workers brought in from other sites around the country.

The instructor in charge of “Gaming Rules and Regulations” lectured in a goose-honking monotone that made Tyler’s eyes water, and, assuming that everything would be in the textbook, he sat at his back-row desk, laced his fingers together like he was praying, and faded off into dreamland. His gaze dropped to his wrists. He looked at Mr. Licky’s tag, then at the arm he’d broken, and thought of his father, who he’d last seen when he was fourteen. His dad had been about to leave on a sales tour—he booked hotel conference rooms where he motivated smokers and the obese to buy self-hypnosis CDs he recorded at home.

Tyler’s dad’s last words to his son had to do with the boy’s wrists. His old man was lounging in his recliner, wincing at the TV news after a dinner no one but he knew would be the last he’d share with his family. As Tyler passed by, his father reached for him.

“Shake, buddy,” he said. He gave Tyler’s hand a quick, hard squeeze to let him know who was boss. He didn’t let go. He inspected Tyler’s arm.

“You know,” his father said, “it’s a well known fact that guys with skinny wrists have little dicks.” Then, with a frown of condolence and disappointment, he released his son’s hand. Tyler spent the rest of the night eyeballing his forearm under his desk lamp instead of finishing his homework. By morning, his dad was gone forever.

A voice from the next seat startled him.

“That’s a cool wristband. Is that your dog tag or something? Are you an Iraq vet? Afghanistan? Thank you for your service.”

The instructor stopped mid-sentence and peered between turning heads at the rainbow-haired woman who’d spoken to Tyler. She blinked big, pale-blue eyes. Tyler slid down in his seat and shook his head. “Shh,” he whispered. “Not a vet. It’s a cat tag, not a dog tag.”

“A what? ‘Cat tag?’”

“After class,” he hissed.

 

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Nadine was her name, and she picked a bar instead of Starbucks, where they sat on stools and drank beer and ate peanuts for lunch and decided to skip the afternoon sessions. Like Tyler, she was no kid, but in the bar’s amber light, she had a pretty enough face. Pastel shades of blue and green and pink streaked her blonde hair. While he told her about the eagle’s nest and the cat collars, she flipped the tag of his collar-bracelet back and forth, and he got goose bumps from her slim fingers being so near his skin. He told her that some people thought Mr. Licky was a dog’s name.

“Definitely cat,” she said. “Did you ever wonder if your Mr. Licky was trying to tell you something?” She leaned over and put her ear on the collar. Her cheek was cool and soft on his wrist. Tyler resisted an urge to pet her rainbow hair. “Your cat says, ‘Watch out for hungry eagles.’” She straightened up on her stool. There were faint crow’s feet around her eyes.

“I’ve got fifty-two collars,” Tyler said.

“Cool. That’s a lot of voices—cats have nine lives, right? Do they keep you up at night?”

Did they? Not really. “Nope. What I did is string up all the collars on a board. Like a collection.”

When Tyler told Nadine he lived close by, she asked if she could see the collars, and she followed his pickup in her rusted-out Sentra, waving whenever she saw him check his mirror. He felt excited, like he had once when a stray pup had trailed him home from school. But his father said they didn’t need a dog and had taken it to the animal shelter.

 

Mom’s blind. When Sebastian disappeared we bought her a substitute cat. She doesn’t know she’s on her third Sebastian. She thinks he’s forty and wants us to call Guinness’s Book of Records.

 

They sat at Tyler’s kitchen table, his display board of cat collars laid out flat between them. He opened fresh beers. It turned out he and Nadine had gone to the same high school, way back when, even been there at the same time. She told him he looked familiar.

“You too,” he lied. The bright afternoon sun lit up the kitchen. Nadine remarked on the view through the window; the glare from the river was as sharp as a knife and showed lines and hollows in her face then he hadn’t seen in the bar. He supposed his face looked more beat up to her, too. They swapped a few stories of their failures, the usual top layer of things. She’d gone out west to college, flunked out, waitressed, danced a little. Every few years she’d wind up back in the place she’d grown up, just like Tyler.

“Can I touch them?” Nadine asked about the collars. Some had come loose on the board.

“Sure. If you see one you like, you can keep it.”

“Really?” Her long eyelashes fluttered as she bent forward. He looked at her cotton candy hair, half-wishing to taste it. Her hand passed over the collars like she was working a Ouija board, then her fingers dove to a tag. “‘Peanut,’” she read. “What if one of the baby eagles had food allergies?”

“Survival of the fittest. I’ve got a few others with food names. ‘Cupcake’— the pink one with the bell. It doesn’t jingle anymore, too rusty. And ‘Oreo,’ over to the left—the blue with rhinestones.”

Nadine made a little sound. She gave Tyler a quick smile and flashed her pale eyes. “It’s hard to choose.” She handled several collars and read their polished tags. The lines in her forehead deepened with concentration: “Mittens, Gizmo. . . Angel—that’s appropriate.” She blinked at Tyler. “Do you ever think about what they looked like?”

“The cats? I guess. I match them up with their names. Like Oreo is white and black, and Mittens has white paws, and Tiger has stripes—had stripes.”

Nadine shook her head, her eyes fluorescent slashes. “No—I mean what the scene looked like—when they got to the nest.”

“Oh—sometimes. But I try not to. It seems disrespectful.”

One of the chain collars hung from Nadine’s fingers, and she thumbed it like a rosary as she read the name on its tag: “‘Oliver—’” She swung the glittery collar back and forth like she was a hypnotist, and he thought of the CDs his father sold on the road. He recorded them late at night, right at this kitchen table, while Tyler tried to sleep in his bedroom down the hall. “Listen to the sounds of your body,” his father said into his microphone, and Tyler would pretend his father sat on his bed, telling him a story.

“I’m taking this one, okay?” Nadine asked.

Tyler shrugged. “Sure. That’s a nice one.”

As she fastened the collar around her wrist, Tyler noticed a pair of raised red lines on its under-flesh that stood out like an “equal” sign. She drew the tag close to her face. “Oliver,” she whispered to it. “Ollie—I bet you put up one hell of a fight, didn’t you? I bet Papa Eagle was sorry he brought you home.”

 

Eagle? Yup. My brother and I were traumatized when it plucked Chauncey off the lawn, right under our noses. Then it rose up a mile high with him and disappeared. . . 

 

Their hips touched under Tyler’s sheets, just a reminder, nothing more, of the comfortable sex they’d shared. While they talked after, his eyes roamed the collar display he’d set back up on his desk. His gaze kept slipping back to Oliver’s vacated spot the way a tongue pokes into the hole left by a missing tooth. Just to hear Nadine talk— because it was nice to have a voice so close while his head was on his pillow—he asked her if she was worried that there might not be any casino jobs.

“There’s no point in worrying,” she said. “I don’t get my hopes up about anything. There are other jobs in other places. There’s always Vegas. There are lots of things you can do there.” She shifted, and her hip pushed away from his, and when he lost contact he was suddenly afraid to move, as if he’d just woken up and found himself lying on a diving board above an empty pool.

“There’s a story my mother told me,” Nadine said, “or maybe I read it in school. It was a about a guy who got a magic piece of donkey skin— he could make wishes on it, and they came true—he wished for fame and for riches and for women, and he got them all. But every time the magic skin granted a wish, it shrank. He wished and wished, got more and more stuff, and the magic skin got smaller and smaller. And when it disappeared, he died. So you don’t wish, and you don’t hope.”

Tyler lay quietly, wanting to feel her against him again, to reassure him that he wasn’t hanging out in space alone.

“Hey,” she said sharply, and he stiffened. Nadine was looking at the Oliver tag on her wrist. “Did you ever call any of these phone numbers on the tags? Maybe the people who owned the cats would want closure. Then again, all these collars are really old. They don’t make pet collars with metal buckles anymore. Now they’ve all got plastic clasps.”

Despite the time and care Tyler had given to cleaning the collars and tags, he hadn’t thought of either of those things. Of course Nadine was right about the collars being old—there was no plastic on any of them. The eagle’s nest might have been abandoned for decades. But calling the cat owners? Wouldn’t they have made peace with their losses after so much time had passed?

“I never thought to call.”

“Mmm,” Nadine sounded tired, as if her own thoughts bored her. “Probably you wouldn’t get in touch with too many people. Those phone numbers are probably all old landlines. Nobody has those anymore.” She yawned. “And people move. And they die.”

Soon she was breathing easily. Tyler kept still. He thought of Mr. Licky: he’d always pictured him as fat and yellow. What had the cat’s first moments in the eagle’s nest been like? When did he realize he was in trouble? Did he feel the beat of Papa Eagle’s wings behind him? Did cold-eyed Mama Eagle look him over while her giant chicks squawked for dinner? Maybe Mr. Licky glimpsed a few empty collars lying around the nest and checked in vain for an escape route. Tyler thought of the marks on Nadine’s wrist. Maybe she’d been fooling around with a chainsaw, accidentally lopped off her hand, and a brilliant surgeon had reattached it. And maybe Mr. Licky put up the kind of fight Nadine had imagined for her Oliver. More likely, the fat yellow tomcat just gave up, staking his hopes on the old wives’ tale about extra lives.

Tyler fell asleep. He dreamed he was sailing through the air, so high the river below looked like a thin black vein, the farmland like the old patchwork quilt on his bed. Wind rushed through his ears. Something held him by the shoulders, and he kicked his feet in space. A polished disc that shone like a mirror slapped his chest—a big tag. Its smooth surface reflected his frightened eyes. The tag was clipped to a tight band around his neck—a collar.

“Your collar is made of donkey skin,” a deep voice warned. “Don’t you dare wish for anything, or it will shrink!”

He woke up. Sunlight poured through the bedroom window. Nadine was gone. Tyler listened, hoping she was in the kitchen, but heard nothing. His hand rose to his throat.

 

. . . Did I say an eagle? No, the thing that got Chauncey was even bigger, more like a pterodactyl . . .

 

Nadine didn’t show up for any of their classes the next day, or the day after that. There was a rule about not missing too many sessions, and Tyler asked the instructors, one after the other, if they knew what happened to her. He didn’t know her last name. The instructors consulted their class lists and shook their heads. “No Nadines here,” they said.

 

. . . Come to think, that giant bird must have been a Phoenix, because it burst into flames, way up in the air. Chauncey burned up with it. There was a fireball, like a second sun, then it rained ashes.  

 

The Eagle’s View Casino opened on schedule. Its impact on the city was yet to be determined, but Tyler’s certificate from the community college program had landed him a job with security surveillance. He wore a tie and a blazer with the casino’s name and logo on the pocket. When he walked the red carpet with his headset, he scanned the faces of the patrons milling around the gaming table, ready to report anything suspicious.

Most of the time, he sat in an office watching a bank of monitors blink from shot to shot, exposing a hundred different interior angles: tables, slot machines, restrooms, bars, entrances and exits. He looked at a thousand faces a day. He’d been trained to ignore the hopefulness painted on them, to stare through it for something darker. But he knew that the patrons’ hope was really the thing that could strangle them.

Every ninety seconds one of the monitors flashed to the casino’s exterior. It captured the gigantic sign for Eagle’s Crest Casino perched atop a tower that loomed over the interstate almost a half mile away. On the sign the eagle wings of the casino’s logo flapped slowly in shifting colors. When they flashed yellow, they looked to Tyler like cat’s eyes, and often he would think of the big tree the casino replaced, of the nest, of the collar he never removed. On certain nights he watched the cars on the interstate pass under the casino sign—headlights approaching from the east, taillights burning red on their way west. Because he wanted to keep breathing, he tried hard not to think of Vegas.

 

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