STRAY CAT STRUT (O WHAT A THRILL, part II)
My February 3 entry contained the beginning of a short story called "Strange Behaviour," now called "Walk Like A Panther." I had started the story at home, but had continued it during the first Stolen Sweets gig. I went back this past Wednesday for the second night of their two-month residency, and though I had been unable to come up with any direction for the story in the week inbetween, I wrote twice as much while at the bar. I am starting to think there is a hex on this story and I can only write it there. I'll have to keep going back until it is finished. Not really a bad thing, as I enjoy the music. They were looser this week, and had more fun. They're a great band.
The second section is below. Note that the guy in the leather pants who Jean pissed off at the club now has a name. He is Greg.
The text is also not yet proofed.
"Walk Like A Panther" installment 2
Jean had a friend named Grady who worked at a joke shop. His last name was Grady, actually, and no one ever asked him his first. The store was populated less by items for pranks than it was posters for cult movies and ironic T-shirts advertising products that hadn't been made for three decades. "A lot of the kids that buy them," Grady told him, "they aren't old enough to know what they are. They have a nostalgia for something they never learned to remember."
Jean had most of his early afternoons free. He worked the three o'clock shift doing janitor work at a small private school in his neighborhood. As the kids cleared out, he cleaned up. Days at the shop were generally slow for Grady, and obviously it was the same for Jean, so Jean would wander down and hang around.
"Do you ever get any different postcards with Cary Grant?" he asked. "I always see the same ones. Every place I go, they have the one from North by Northwest where he just got his picture taken. You know, with the murder weapon in his hand."
"We once had one when he was getting old," Grady said. "When he started to look like a tree with the super tan and the wrinkles."
"Cary Grant never looked like a tree," Jean said. "Bite your tongue. You know that when Cary Grant walked into a room, he totally owned. The guy was a jungle cat, and he ruled the pride, if you know what I mean."
"Speaking of, nice ears."
"You think? What with all the piercings and alterations people get, I wonder if I can make them permanent?"
Grady opened the cash register and pulled out a five dollar bill. He folded it neatly and slit it in the breast pocket of his shirt. "You know, if they keep raising taxes on smokes, I'm going to have to steal a lot more."
Jean wasn't sure what to make of that. He was starting to wonder if Grady was the right friend for him, because he was starting to think he didn't understand Grady and was reasonably sure Grady didn't understand him.
"You really shouldn't--" Jean started to say, but Grady was out from behind the cash register and moving across the store. He had a "Back After These Messages" sign with a picture of Rod Serling on it in his hand. He took down the Huckleberry Hound "Open" sign and replaced with that.
"Come with me to get cigarettes," he said. "I have something you should see, what with the mood you're in."
Jean followed without thinking. He was more occupied with the fact that Grady was wearing leather pants. He hadn't seen them when the counter was in front of him. When had Grady gotten them? Were they giving leather pants away somewhere?
When they went into the convenience store, Jean peeked to see if the clerk had a pair, as well, but he didn't. He was wearing a long apron and what appeared to be boxer shorts. They had dark orange and red grapefruit bubbles on them. Jean bet he had a girlfriend and she bought the underpants for him. No guy would want to wear them on his own, but a woman would think he should. Jean's most comfortable pair of boxers had little trumpets on them. If he ever wore them around a woman, he was all prepared to joke, "I like to toot my own horn." He hoped after all this time he could make it sound spontaneous.
Once Grady had his cigarettes, he beckoned and Jean followed him out to the parking lot. Grady was beating the pack against the back of his hand. It was an annoying habit. They crossed the street and headed away from the shops and into the houses. "It's just up the hill," Grady said.
The concrete crested. Jean was feeling winded. Grady finally stopped beating the pack and cracked it. Jean thought of that word because the peeling of the cellophane sounded like an eggshell being broken. Grady hit it some more to make one white cigarette slide out. "A few more nails and this coffin will be paid for."
The house they were looking for was two stories high with a pointed roof. The top of the house was painted brown, but it gradually faded and chipped away into white as it reached the ground. Jean heard some meowing, and he saw several cats wandering around the yard. An orange tabby was lazing in some overgrown grass, a Siamese yawned on the porch, a black and white one with ears that were yellow like a banana.
"It's a cat house," Grady explained. "The lady that lives here, she has, like, eighty of them."
"No way. You're exaggerating."
"Maybe. I did say like."
As they watched, more cats appeared. A white one with a grey top that had black stripes running through it leapt off a windowsill and attacked the happy Siamese. Jean was pretty sure he saw one of those hairless cats peering out from an open cellar window.
"It's amazing," Jean said.
Jean watched the Siamese and the other feline wrestle. Maybe the attacker was the top cat.
"You think a real cat has ever worn fake cat ears?"
Grady snorted. "I dunno. Think about it. Did you ever see a human wearing fake human ears?"
"What about rabbit ears? Could you put rabbit ears on a cat?"
Jean had a quick flash in his brain of himself in the dead of night, shoving the top cat in a pillowcase. He jumped in a cab, and there were bunny ears on the seat. "Step on it, driver!" And they were away.
The hairless cat retreated into the dark, as if he could sense Jean's kidnapping plot.
"Do you know that guy Greg?"
Jean thought Grady sounded guilty, like maybe he'd been caught and was too shocked to do anything but opt for the simplest lie. Could Grady and Greg have formed their own pride? Jean thought he was Grady's dominant male, but maybe another had usurped him. He knew he could probably handle things on his own, but is a lion ever a lone wolf?
* * *
Work that day began relatively normal. At least one kid vomited each day at the school, and Jean was always pointed in that direction first. The other janitor, Paul, gave him a funny look when he told Jean where to go, like he could still smell the puke, even though it was on the other side of the building. As Paul walked away from him, though, he kept looking back over his shoulder, giving Jean the distinct impression that it was he who had the offensive odor. He put it out of his mind and pulled on his blue jumpsuit and grabbed his mop.
On his way to the mess, Jean passed the principal in the hall. Mr. Bernard (pronounced "Bur-nerd") was nearly bald and oily strands of hair that remained made Jean uneasy, like they were infectious and his own mane would start to wither. He tried not to look when Mr. Bernard was near, and Jean put his head down when the man approached. He nearly jumped into the wall of lockers when the bald principal grabbed his shoulder. Mr. Bernard pointed at Jean's head, zapping him with that finger. It, too, was greasy, and there was a dark comb over on its joint.
"What's that?" the principal asked.
Jean put his hands to his head. He was relieved that his hair was still there, but also surprised that so were the fuzzy ears. That must have been what Paul was reacting to.
"Oh, I forgot."
"Did you also forget you can't wear those?"
"You have to wear the uniform."
Jean motioned up and down his jumpsuit. "I am!'
"Kitty ears are not part of the uniform."
"I can wear a hat."
"Those aren't a hat."
"They're like a hat."
"Take the ears off."
Jean considered this order. He considered taking the ears and putting them on Mr. Bernard's head, to give the little man a little more dignity.
"No," Jean said. He was firm.
"In a word."
The principal didn't like this response, and his face turned a blazing red and the top of his scalp got shinier, as if the anger caused him to excrete more oil. He demanded that Jean leave the premises at once, which jean thought was a bit of an overreaction and a little bit out of range for a man of this character. It's normally the mangy felines that are expelled into the wilderness. What kind of blackboard jungle was he in?
Jean threw down his mop, and it made a loud clack that echoed through the empty halls. He saw Paul again on his way out, and the man still gave him a queer eye. In his head, Jean roared.
* * *
The girl worked in an office building downtown selling ad space for animated displays they installed over urinals in public bathrooms. Jean had nowhere else to go, so he walked down there and staked out a spot across the street. She should be getting off soon, and she'd come out those big double doors wit the gold handles. But would she see him? A blue jumpsuit, his ears, were they enough? He wanted her to notice him. Then he could assert his will.
There was a bike shop a couple of doors down. He went in. "Do you have a green light?" he asked them.
"No," they said. "We just have red."
"Like for the back of a bike, so drivers can see you at night?"
"You don't have green?"
"Not unless they got here while you were asking me."
Jean bought a small red light. It was plastic and battery powered and it had a canvas cat with Velcro ends. He took it with him back to his spot and wrapped the strap around a lamppost before starting it up. The light blinked every couple of seconds.
He waited. Eventually, people began spilling out of the building. He looked for her, kept looking at the light to make sure it was on and then back to the crowd, still waiting for her. She should have been in with them, but if she was, she didn't see him and he didn't see her.
Eventually, he took the light off the post, threw it in the gutter, and stomped it with his foot.
* * *
On his walk home, Jean swung by the joke shop to see if Grady was there, but the owner was working the counter now. Jean thought it best not to go in and ask if he knew where Grady had gone, even though his cat ears didn't look out of place there.
Instead, Jean went across the street to get a slice of pizza. As he approached, he saw Grady through the window and thought his luck had improved. Only, Grady was sitting with someone, and that someone was Greg. He knew that bastard had been lying! Grady thought the leather would camouflage the scent, but the stink of the pants was its own admission of guilt.
Current Sountrack: DJ Shadow, Endtroducing (you gotta dig it back out every once in a while; it doesn't age)
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2004 Jamie S. Rich