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Tomcat Blues

Joe Buckler

It wasn’t much to look at, the tomcat, just a common street tabby with matted fur and pupils that opened wide like gaping holes in a green sea. It would flick its tail and take to the crumbling walls of downtown one paw at a time, stalking the squirrels that teased him from high branches just out of reach. Oz Delane would watch it with great fascination, sometimes at dusk and sometimes at dawn, but, more often during those fluid moments in between when it curled up in lonely patches of moonlight like a relic left over from a forgotten time, the last vestige of a deity long denounced—an honored survivor that had let go of more lives than it had kept. The tomcat was proud, and Oz respected it, maybe even admired it. He had seen the way it hissed at the tourists or turned its nose up at the drunken college girls that bent down low on loose heels, tisking their tongues and calling out in high, nasal tones. Oz saw something in the stray that no one else could. He knew, in his heart, that they were two of a kind.

One night, Oz took a short trek to the corner gas station and bought a bag of fish-shaped cat treats that were guaranteed fresh and smelled like a paper mill through the plastic. By the time the cat appeared, he was already waiting on the stoop, grinning, his trembling hands cupped and overflowing. The cat did approach him, as Oz had predicted, but only to rake his arms in a silent flash, leaving two red-hot gashes like freshly forged tracks down his arm. Oz, blood-soaked treats falling from between his fingers, remained, hunched, confused, reeling as the tomcat disappeared into the alley. That should have been the end of it, but a few days later there was a can of solid white albacore waiting at the bottom of the stairs with Oz watching, more confident, from behind a nearby hedge. The cat’s response was similar, if less violent, and the tuna was left untouched until the ants got wind of it and stormed the tin walls. Oz’s guess-and-check system went on for some time and the cat, if anything, grew bolder with each of his failures, making its presence known just to taunt him, absently licking itself with the compulsion of a junkie picking at scabs.

One gin-soaked morning after a week of embarrassing defeats, Oz had laid himself out on the concrete, his face buried in his hands, as the first few drops of a summer rain began to fall. He begged the tomcat for a second chance, tears rolling down his cheeks, spouting promises he knew he couldn’t keep—an unlit cigarette draped over his dry, cracked lips. The tomcat had the decency not to humiliate him any further, though it remained without pity, impervious to Oz’s grief. Oz fell asleep that way, curled up on the sidewalk, face down in himself. When he awoke, he was alone. After that, every new effort was just a shot in the dark, always seeming to end the same way, at the same moment, when Oz duck-walked past the invisible barrier only the cat could see and its apathy transformed into mouth-spitting wrath. Its fur would raise to the stars like praying hands and off it would go, darting into the enveloping night, destined to return, but sometimes not for days. On these long, absent occasions, Oz could only visualize the tomcat lying dead in a gutter, mangled, alone, with no one there to mourn it. He would wait, terrified, until it returned.

It wasn't until one late night, after a howler of a thunderstorm, that Oz finally found a small glimmer of hope. He had been waiting out the weather at The Shelter, a neighborhood pub, the same place he waited out most nights, and more days than not. For hours, the wind battered the wood shutters and screamed through the entrance way, throwing the door open and then slamming it closed like the ghost of a Friday night. Oz was alone at the bar except for the bartender and a few permanent fixtures that stood outside, huddled beneath a wide awning, chain-smoking cigarettes, and shaking like plastic bobbleheads. Inside, they kept their distance, knowing better than to cross Oz when the devil was driving. Close to midnight, when the lights began to flicker, Oz ordered another beer and watched with good humor as the other regulars balanced their way out into the downpour. The chances of Oz knocking off early were as likely as the storm peeling off the roof and taking him with it.

Oz did leave, though, not with the storm, but with the chiming clock. Last call had come, as it always had, just one drink short of a miracle. He fled into the night, the rain calmed but not dissuaded, and crawled, with both hands, across the brick walls that led to his one-room studio. The night was cool and refreshing, a welcomed relief to the humidity that had been beating down the door all afternoon, and Oz felt a kind of relief that he was a part of it. It was in this elevated mood that he found the old tomcat, its eyes glowing like embers through the gloom, sitting rigid at the front door of his building. Oz, more liquor than man, wiped the water from his brow, lowered clumsily to his knees, and made his stand just as the clouds opened and the sky lit up from the waning moon. He knew, deep down in his heart, that the time had come when he would finally be accepted. The energy in the air was raw, charged, and he could feel it flowing between the tomcat and him like electric tendrils. Oz looked into the stray’s eyes and saw the spark of recognition he had been looking for.

“It’s about time we put down our guns,” he said. “Let’s meet on level ground.”

The tomcat shifted its weight as Oz inched closer, still insisting that he meant no harm, still begging for a resolution. Water poured off his fingertips as they stretched, coming close enough to move the fur around the cat’s scrawny neck before, without warning, the stray howled and turned into a violent blur of claws, stripping the flesh from wherever it could find purchase.

“You son of a bitch!” Oz yelled, holding his bleeding hand to his chest. “You god-damned son of a whore.”

Oz kicked wildly at the air, neither hitting the cat nor managing to chase it off, merely persuading it off the steps and into the circular, yellow glow cast down from a lone street light. It licked its paw, its chops, and then settled down to watch Oz as he cursed it, himself, and God, his anger boiling over into the empty, rain-soaked street. He had seen the cat for what it really was; another disapproving face on the bus, another whisper behind his back another woman sitting alone at the bar, her eyes wandering, looking for a friend to save her from the drunk, pathetic old man who had been sitting there since before she could lift a bottle. Oz grabbed the nearest thing he could find—the metal lid of a garbage can—and threw it toward the tomcat with every last ounce of his energy. It clanged harmlessly into the alleyway, the tomcat watching it roll away with indifference. Oz shattered, he fell against the adjacent brick wall, first sobbing and then, soon, crying as honestly as he ever had in his adult life. He slid down to the pavement, his face glistening with rain and tears, the drops beading like mercury on his skin. With one final, defeated bout of anger, he kicked the topless trash can over in front of him, spilling its contents before the impending dawn.

Oz awoke sometime later, not from the sun, but from the loud, throaty roll of distant thunder. His eyelids fluttered open, fighting the approaching light, and met the wide, burning eyes of the tomcat, who lay in front of him only a few inches away. Oz pulled into himself, knees to his chin, bracing for a second attack, but the cat simply waited. What Oz had misheard as thunder was, in actuality, a boiling, urgent purr that shuddered though the cat in a series of long, drawn out tremors. Its mouth and cheeks were damp, coated with a thick, ambiguous slime. It casually flicked its tongue, taking the time to savor every tiny remnant, before starting on its paws, which gleamed with the same substance. Oz held his breath, motionless, unsure of how to continue, before the reality of the situation started to sink into his sobering mind. He considered his options and saw no other avenue. Slowly, painfully, he rose to a seated position, never taking his eyes off the stray, worried that any minute movement could set off the hair trigger that nestled deep within it.

“It's okay,” Oz cooed. “We're okay.”

The cat stood, stretched, and approached Oz, who was walking backward on his hands, trying to disappear into the wall behind him. With no place left to go, he tucked his face into the crook of his arm and shielded himself by extending an open, blood-stained hand in front of him. The cat sniffed at Oz's fingertips for a long, breathless moment, before running its cheek down the entirety of his forearm, over and over, back and forth, mewing like a kitten. Oz sat petrified, confused, needing to run up the stairs and through the door, but unable to make the move. The stray moved in slow circles, noticing the wet spot on the cuff of Oz's jeans that was left over from the puddle of garbage he had fallen in, and began licking at it with grim satisfaction. Oz did not stop it, but, instead, waited patiently for something new to transpire. After a few minutes of the tomcat sleeping soundly in his lap, Oz took it upon himself to lay a wounded hand on the filthy nape of the cat's neck. It remained there without issue.

“You're just a mean, old Dumpster-Cat, aren't you? DC?” Oz asked with a breaching smile.

From that moment on, Oz and DC were inseparable. Every night when Oz staggered home after last call, DC sat, waiting patiently at his doorway, eyes bright, and tail curled into a question mark. They greeted each other like old friends, Oz opening the ceremonies by lifting the lid off the trash can and angling it for the cat's consideration. Once its hunger was satiated, DC would climb onto Oz's lap and together they would carefully consider the somber world between late night and early morning. If the weather was pleasant, Oz would even leave the window open in his bedroom where DC would occasionally come to lay just outside on the ledge, never venturing inside, but content with its new lot in life. Oz would tell it stories, some of them true and others close enough, delighted to be able to speak out loud without the haze of judgment hanging over his head. For the first time in a long time, he felt a connection with something outside of himself. Something that was a part of him, but in its own, separate way. From where he slept on the floor, he could watch the rise and fall of DC's belly, matching it in time with his own.

“We found each other for a reason,” he would tell DC in the dark. “Out of all the stray cats and stray people in this city, hell, in this world, us two came together and beat the odds. If you got to be alone, it’s better to do it with someone else. You understand?”

DC never had much to say, but Oz took his silence as acceptance, further proof that relationships didn’t always have to be built on a pile of words. Sometimes, Oz started to think all that mattered was that when the world decided it was your turn to decorate the gutter, someone would be there to wish it didn’t have to be. As long as you had someone in your corner, all the horrible things that could take a man and hang him low would suddenly lose their power and shrink back into those dark corners of the world from which they came. He told DC about everything he’d seen, all the pain and suffering that ran through the streets like gray water from a broken sewer line, and how people waded through it without even noticing. He would talk until the sun rose over the river, long after his eyes had closed, but before he would finally fall into a fitful, dreamless sleep. DC would sometimes stay to listen, but, more often than not, the stray would slink away quietly into the night long before Oz took notice.

Things went on that way, as things often did, until the day it all changed. Oz had left The Shelter early one night, only two sheets to the wind, the third yet hoisted, with childlike anticipation. He had a present for DC. The bartender was suddenly imbued with a kind of appreciation for Oz as the story of his new companionship made its way around the neighborhood. What was previously viewed as unsettling about the old drunk suddenly became eclectic. What was strange began to seem endearing. Oz even received a drink on the house, his first ever, to go with DC's surprise; a dripping bag of chicken gizzards left over from the pub's weekend cookout. The brown, paper sack, hidden carefully behind him for full effect, sloshed in his hand as he hurried over to his building. When Oz rounded the corner, he couldn't stop the smile that pulled at the corners of his mouth or the color that seemed to pour into his pale, stubbled cheeks. DC was in his usual spot, sitting up on the stoop, tail flicking side to side. He perked up and readjusted his footing as Oz sat down in front of him.

“Hey there, old man,” Oz said. “I got something for ya.”

It wasn't until he had dropped down that Oz had noticed something strange, a puff of orange fur bobbing up and down just behind the tomcat's shoulder. When he shifted his view, he could see that DC was not alone, that another cat—orange and soiled—had joined them. A black, crusted hole dug in where there should have been an eye and, from the state of its ragged, patchy fur, it was clear that he ran with a rough crowd. Oz was suddenly lost, the stage being set differently than he had anticipated. He stumbled over his words, trying to understand what had changed, wanting to ask DC in private how this had happened, all the while aware that he was acting like a fool. The two cats were indifferent to his rising anxiety, their eyes studied, instead, the bag of leftovers as it swung side to side in Oz’s grip. 

“Oh,” Oz said lamely. “I see you got a friend there. Is that right, DC?”

The two cats stared through him, three eyes fixed intently on his right hand, noses flaring with the breeze. Oz did the only thing he could think of—he opened the bag and let the cats get their fill. He even overturned the garbage can for dessert. The two ate greedily, in time, not a jealous growl between them, leaving Oz to wonder if they were siblings from the same litter. Maybe that was all. He watched and waited. It wasn't until the orange cat sauntered off, belly bulging and firm, that Oz could breathe a sigh of relief. He sat down on the stoop next to DC and let the cat settle into its favorite spot on his lap. The night was still young, but Oz felt the weight of it pushing down. He stroked the cat's neck and together they watched the streets fill, swarm, and finally die. Oz never mentioned the orange cat to DC, but he could feel the words boiling up in his throat until, suddenly, the air was crisp and he was alone. He stood up, confused, an early morning light coming up over the buildings, and made his way inside to his empty room.

The next few days were more of the same, DC and the orange one, attached at the hip, waiting patiently at the stoop, their cat chops groomed and eager. Oz performed his duty, keeping them satisfied, but the luster of his previous endeavors had rusted thin, leaving behind the dull, iron finish of habit. He spent more time at The Shelter and less time with DC, not wanting to meet the orange cat's complacent, uneven gaze. It wasn't long before impatient howls could be heard at his approach, the siren wails of feline disappointment. He followed them home, moving slowly, each foot forward like a betrayal to something bigger than himself, something that he had barely glimpsed. When the third cat joined the pack—a thin, bony thing—Oz fed it too. And the fourth and fifth got the same as everyone else. He stopped bringing treats, only mechanically upturning the garbage pail once a night, giving the newly formed throng the sweet release of the day’s bounty before hurrying past them into the building. He found that his lonely studio, which he had once viewed as his prison, had become a place of security. He watched the frenzy from his window, the lock firmly latched, as the cats grew in number from seven to eight to twelve. The sounds of their feast drowning out the summer cicadas in its urgency. On the nights he slept, he dreamed of that dead, empty eye.

Oz sat and stewed often, his glass of gin never far from his mouth, thinking about DC, until one evening the bartender that had once given him the bag of gizzards urged him strongly to move along. She had a phone in her hand, finger poised over the 9. Oz did as she asked without a squabble, helping himself to the door. It was fine timing, the plan he had been preparing all night had grown resolute, finally, in his mind. He moved toward home, stumbling, cursing, calling out into the night. In the bottle he had found a sense of pride, a call to arms against the injustice he felt had befallen him. His fists tightened around every corner, pulsating like a pair of beating hearts. The night darkened with his mood, street lights blinking out of existence, leaving dead, black holes in the night sky that tracked him like the bottomless socket of the orange cat's mangled eye. The moon, caught beaming through the alley, saw Oz coming and sidestepped quickly behind the nearest cloud. Oz's righteousness bled into anger. His pain filled every pore of his body until it ran down his skin like hot, thick oil. From a block away, he could hear the insane meowing and scratching of fur like the swelling of an approaching hurricane. He braced himself, put out his chest, and sucked the warm, humid air deep into his lungs. He would bring war upon them.

When Oz reached his stoop, he was greeted by the swelling mob, a layer of cats thick enough to walk across. They moved like an ocean current—rogue waves breaking against the curb. At the head was DC the betrayer—the heart breaker. His second command, with one eye roaming, was set firmly at his side. When they looked up at Oz, a hundred other expectant stares followed them until a field of glowing, green orbs stretched out across the concrete, blinking in and out of existence like noxious, alien stars. Oz stood his ground and focused on DC, their eyes meeting over an army of forgotten lives. At once, the starved, desperate yowls from the crowd erupted, deafening, their tails swaying in the still, night air. They grew tense—all but DC and the orange cat, who mirrored each other’s stoicism. They waited patiently for what they felt they deserved, but Oz’s anger knew no bounds, even as the words he had prepared, the declaration of war he had practiced all night on his bar stool, dried up in his mouth. Nothing came from between his lips but a sharp, feline hiss. DC rose up on his haunches, but did not retreat.

“I thought you were different,” Oz managed. 

DC’s eyes darted back and forth between Oz and the still covered trash can that sat beside him. The stray licked its lips as the orange cat moved forward, putting himself in between the two. In that moment, as Oz stared into the hard, dry well of the cat's mutilated eye, his last strands of humanity pulled thin and slipped away. He fell into a black hole. He fell into darkness. He floated above a pin-prick of light, a small window into the alley, where he watched himself rocket forward, with all his strength, and kick the orange cat into the adjacent wall. There was a sharp crack like a breaking branch as bone met brick, its spine shattering on impact. The orange cat lay motionless, a thin trickle of blood coming from its nose and the corner of its mouth. The incessant mewling of the stray cats had ceased, and all that could be heard throughout the alley were the gentle, childlike sobs of Oz Delane as he tucked his head to his chest and strained to breathe. He fell to his knees before DC, who was considering the lifeless mass of orange fur that leaned against the stained wall.

“I'm sorry,” Oz cried desperately. “I'm so sorry.”

DC turned his back to Oz, who lay clawing at the ground, pulling at his hair, and begging for forgiveness. Oz moaned when the cat walked away, moving through the parting crowd of his followers, and disappearing into the same void from which he had come so suddenly. The rest of the stray cats, still starved, without their torchbearers for guidance, turned toward Oz with hungry, wretched eyes. They rushed forward, shoulder to shoulder, the full width of the alley, and cornered Oz against the wall. He kicked the air and yelled out helplessly for DC as the cats pushed forward, swarming like locusts. Panicked, Oz went for the only thing within arm’s reach, the trash can, still overflowing with the day’s filth, and quickly overturned it in the path of the approaching horde. It stopped a few, but they were nothing more than drops in an ocean. The flow of hungry mouths pushed forward and broke against Oz, wave after wave of claws and teeth, tearing him to pieces, until there was nothing left but scraps of clothes and stripped bones. It was only after every belly was full, and the cats had returned to the shadowy corners of the world in which they slept, that DC returned to lick up what was left.

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