Short Fiction – COCKTAIL WEENIES AT SEVEN

“Let me tell you something about old miserable bastards, Honey. Once, they were young miserable bastards.”

“It’s a drink, it’s some finger food, it’s neighborly.”

 “But I don’t want to be neighborly, he’s a prick.”

“We don’t know that for sure. He gardens, you can talk to him about that.”

“You can tell just by the way he gardens, he’s a prick.” 

“Let’s change things up a bit. Maybe he just needs someone to ask him over. You know, to get through that tough façade. From what I gathered, he hasn’t socialized with anyone since his wife and child died and that had to be—what?—thirty years ago.”

We must’ve been gathering in totally different places, because from what I had gathered, there was nothing beneath the façade worth seeing, just a lot of spalled brick. I had heard that from the day Hank Berensen moved to City Island in early 70s, when the IGA would’ve been the City Island Theater, he associated with no one, drank. A year after they’d moved here, Hank’s little kid had died in a traffic accident because the one day Hank’s wife was too sick to walk the child the two blocks to the school bus pickup, Hank, hung over, had sent the kid out alone. Hank never talked to the neighbors about it, drank. I wonder if he ever talked to his wife about it even; if not, a year later that opportunity was lost when she took an overdose of pills leaving, presumably, no note. Ghosts don’t leave notes, and since her child had died she had been nothing more than that in her own home, a ghost, the neighbors say. Hank never discussed his wife’s death, drank.

“Please,” Sheila said. “We’re new here and don’t really know anyone yet, and he’s old here and doesn’t know anyone. It seems right.”

I sighed, got my cap, and gave it a good Gielgud. “Joffries, they’ll be one more for nachos and Coors Lite tonight. Yes, sir, quite, all right, sir.” 

She called after me, “Be sure to ask if he’s okay with gluten. And if he’s got any food allergies.”

I walked up the block to Hank’s, passing the missing cat sign I had posted to the telephone pole. I had already completely dismissed the notion of saying the term gluten-free to Hank; he would probably think it was a gay sex act. And he probably lived on cans of Dinty Moore and boxes of mac and cheese anyway. I would ask about allergies, but Sheila was not the type of hostess to forego a double check on something as important as that.

I stopped to survey Hank’s front yard. It was so regimented you knew the Shasta daisies and the ox-eyes on the right side of his house didn’t ever co-mingle, never shared a cigarette or a secret. On the other side of the concrete steps leading to his front door, around an old oak, he had four concentric rings, each larger than the previous, of tulips, yellow, then orange, yellow, then orange, and in between each of the circles was a grape blanket of muscari which didn’t rise above the tulips because they were under strict orders not to do so. It would be pretty, but the well-orderedness of it all was unsettling somehow, unnatural.

“Hank? Hey, Hank!”

He stopped his puttering with something metal that I couldn’t quite make out because he was standing in the sloped driveway next to his retaining wall. He came over to the fence walking through a flower bed without looking down and somehow without stomping anything to death, a few of those non-dangerous bumble bees buoyed around his head. Something caught his eye. Right along a line of pachysandra abutting the cement to his front door he had placed black-dyed mulch. Terrible stuff, particularly for the stray cats always roaming around City Island and the occasional off-leash dog with a nose for discovery. He grabbed a handful from a bucket and filled an offending mulchless gap. He wiped his hand on his white tee and it made a little black V at his neck.

“Talbot.”

“You just got mulch on your shirt.”

“It’s my gardening tee, it’s okay.”

His wardrobe was regimented, too. Did he have a tee for lunch, a Nascar tee, if he knew it was his last day on the planet, did he have a Death tee at the ready? I got down to it.

“The wife—and I—would like to have you over for a drink, food. You busy tonight?”

“Short notice. Most Sundays I have dinner in front of the TV. Mac and cheese night.”

“What do you do the other six nights of the week?”

“You ask a lot of questions, Talbot.”

“It was the one, I think, but anyway, come over around five if you want. We’ll be on the porch anyway, with finger food and drinks, with or without you, no pressure.”

“Cocktail weenies?”

“I don’t know about that,” I said, “but if we have to slum to accommodate, we’ll see what we can do.”

He surprised me: “Alright, Talbot,” he said. (He was probably out of mac and cheese. Or maybe his mac and cheese tee was in the hamper.) 

We shot the breeze for another thirty seconds, which I think was way over both our limits, and then I walked away, saying, “And, oh, please, Hank, you’ll be our guest this evening, so feel free to call me Mr. Talbot.”

He chuckled at my back. I went back to our house, with a bit of an odd feeling for some reason—what had he been fiddling with back there in the driveway?—and patted the picture of our tuxedoed puss Crowley on the telephone pole as I passed.

#

He was calling her Sheila, but kept calling me Talbot. 

We were sitting on the wraparound porch and on our second Blue Moon’s Pumpkin Ale (Manly ale there, Talbot, Hank had said), and Sheila was in the kitchen prepping her homemade egg rolls and mixing wine and corn starch for the fondue. And then he was telling me even though the neighborhood’s not as nice as it once was (“the blacks”), he still leaves his front door unlocked because he has his shotgun right next to his La-Z-Boy recliner. It was nice that we were sharing bigotries and firearm predilections on the cusp of a beautiful Sunday dusk, but I changed the subject and asked Hank what he had been tinkering with and he told me: an animal trap. 

“Gotta keep the raccoons and possums from digging up everything I planted. Goddamn raccoons, right?” I kept silent on the subject since Sheila had gotten into a habit of feeding one of the friendlier ones pretzel rods. “Got a cat caught in it two days ago. The stray cats are nearly just as bad, pissing over everything, ruining my grass.”

“Ah, what did the cat look like?”

“What am I a caricaturist? You want me to draw a tabby driving in sardine car?”

I explained that one of our cats had been missing for the last couple of days.

He shrugged. “Black and white.”

Ah, hell. “And what did you do with him?”

“I called Animal Control, what do you think?”

“You didn’t think he was somebody’s maybe?” Sheila said, she was suddenly behind me with the fondue and an assortment of toasted stale breads, carrots, and apples. “That he belonged somewhere, Hank, that didn’t occur to you?”

He sipped his beer. “Those thoughts don’t usually occur to me. He certainly didn’t belong in my yard.”

She put the tray down, the glass coffee table rattled. “But didn’t you see the signs we have up? There’s three on this block alone.”

“I don’t put much study at missing cat posters, Sheila.”

“Wouldn’t want to be misconstrued as being neighborly, right?”

“You’re getting a tad insolent over a tabby. I won’t tell you I’m sorry, if that’s what you’re fishing for. My days of offering apologies are long gone.”

“Yeah,” I said, “I bet you were a real apology enthusiast in the day.”

We looked at each other. I knew I was right about the goddamn spalling…

“Harry, focus.”

And I did. “Animal Control? Off Lexington, in the Hundreds?”

“Around there somewhere. That’s where he probably is if they haven’t gassed him yet.”

I got up. “I’ll call.” I went off the porch and headed for the phone.

“Will they even be open?” Sheila said, “It’s Sunday.”

It turned out they were open until 8. And the woman I spoke to had a cat matching that description found in our vicinity. It had to be him! I hung up and I had another odd feeling and hoped it wasn’t more prescience on my part. There was something about the voice of Animal Control woman that had made the hair on my neck stand on end.

I went back to the porch and looked at the old bastard—he was the one who needed to be in a cage. I grabbed my jacket, and said, “Time to hit the road, Berensen.”

“I guess the party’s over,” Hank said. “Didn’t even get one of those infamous eggrolls of yours.” He smiled at my wife. “Next time I’ll just order gook from home. It’s a little more filling from the actual gooks—for an hour. A lot of emotion over a cat when it looks like you got four more by my reckoning.”

Sheila said, “Hit the goddamn road, Hank.”

Hi smile dissipated. He didn’t budge.

I looked at her. She smacked my arm. “Go go go.”

I didn’t want to leave them alone with each other. “Are you sure?”

Hank said, “You heard the missus, Talbot. Go go go.”

“Go,” she said calmly, pushing me. “I’m sure.”

#

It was just as well she hadn’t come with me because I wanted to curse Hank out all the way down the FDR—and did so. I found the place on 110th between First and Second. I had an hour to spare. I went up to the front desk. I saw the burly woman’s name tag was, and, Oh God, Constance, and she was the woman I had just spoken to on the phone, oh God… Constance the Rabbit Woman. 

“Can I help you?”

“I called about the cat. From, um, City Island?”

“Right, give me a couple of minutes and I’ll bring you into the next room. Hey, you sound familiar.”

Oh, no, I thought; she actually remembered. “We spoke a couple of months ago, I think.”

“About a rabbit you wanted to adopt out, right? City Island, I remember.”

“Yes, listen my wife is quite worried. About the cat.”

The rabbit had been my brother’s and he was unable to take care of it anymore what with his fleeing criminal prosecution and all and he had asked me to find a decent home for Sam. And it had turned out Constance at Animal Control had had a rabbit named Sam, too, the best rabbit in the whole world, the sweetest, kindest, gentlest soul of souls rabbit, and Sam had died far too young. And Sam’s constant companion, Brownie—they had practically been married!—had never been the same afterwards. And I had said, It’s terrible to lose a beloved pet, and Constance had said, in a resounding breath/whisper of psychosis, What did I know about her Sammy-Baby and love? I had said nothing in response because I had already hung up. I didn’t know what I was going to do with the rabbit after that, but I had left the window next to its crate cracked, and that had been February, and in the morning Sam had gone on that big Easter Egg Hunt in the sky.

“Well, what happened to your Sam?”

The “your” kept her memory intact, unblemished: the nut. “I found him a good home.” (Sanitation pick up is on Mondays in our neighborhood.)

“Well, that’s all that matters, isn’t it? Well, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Constance. That’s all that matters.”

Constance finally took me back to a room lined with cages upon cages, my eyes bypassing all the contained cats, the oranges, the grays, and the just blacks, the just whites. 

She stopped, I stopped. She pointed, I peered. 

“That’s not our cat,” I said, looking in through the crate’s grate, then turning on her, irritated. “That’s not even a tuxedo, that’s just a big-headed black and white tabby. You work in this place and you don’t know that?”

“Don’t yell at me! I know what a tuxedo is!”

“That’s right, surely Brownie must’ve worn one for the wedding to Sam, right?”

“Oh, you’re a meanie! I’m sorry it’s not your cat. I know what a tuxedo is, but plenty of the people who come in here toss that term around to describe anything black and white! They, they, misread, I mean misuse, the term, applying it to all black and white cats. So many people say they know their pets, say they’re a member of the family, and half of them wouldn’t even know what sex their cat is unless their vet told them, or their dog’s unless its balls were bouncing off the linoleum!”

She started to cry and leaned against a stainless table. 

I sighed and leaned next to her. I took her hand. “I apologize, Constance. It’s just…” I started to tear up now. “I don’t know if I really know him, but we both like to watch the sunrise together in the morning. And sometimes, he’s out—because he’s an explorer—not like me at all—and I’ll see him on the neighbor’s roof, watching the sunrise without me, and I’m afraid for him up there, and I’m also wishing I was on the roof with him. And I’m worried now. And…”

“He’s your kitty.”

We hugged each other before I left. Her hair smelled like rhubarb and Snausages.

#

I broke the news to Sheila over my cell phone. I didn’t want to do it that way, but the sooner the better, I figured. She started to cry. I told her it meant Crowley was still probably out there, and would come back when he was damn well ready—which I didn’t believe at all.  

She said it was the not knowing that was the most upsetting.

The neighbors were milling about when I got back. I asked Joe Landsfield what the commotion was and he said they had taken Hank away in an ambulance, he was having some sort of attack.

“I suppose it wasn’t a crisis of conscience,” I said.

Joe looked at me blankly. The bridge to the Bronx mainland is just a stone’s throw away from the island side, but I sometimes wondered about inbreeding over here. I went home.

She had been crying. “I was so pissed off at that old man. But then I thought, well, I’m getting my Crowley back, so I can forgive him. So I brought him over a batch of the eggrolls anyway. And here I was, ready to run around the neighborhood and rip down the signs. What’s the matter?”

“They just took Hank to the hospital. Sheila, I did tell you he had a peanut allergy, right?”

“No, you didn’t. But what does that matter? He had eggrolls, fondue, and some liver pâté. No peanuts.”

I was hungry. I let it go. Sheila makes a mean liver pâté. 

#

Hank had a heart attack when they got him to the hospital. He was in intensive care for week, and it was touch-and-go, but he was a resilient, strong guy, and he came out of it. Between the attack and his recuperation, it was about three weeks before he came home.

He had been admitted, I had heard, in anaphylactic shock.

Sheila was doing a plate of her eggrolls again. I hadn’t gotten any the last time around. She said she discovered the trick to making them even better. Frying them up a second time. We were going to sit out on the porch again, but she’d forgotten to bring out a couple of plates. As I pulled some down from an Ikea shelf we were using until we could afford new kitchen cabinets, I looked at her big container of vegetable oil. And then my head tilted and I saw her much smaller, nearly empty bottle of peanut oil next to the cutting board. I put the plates down, picked up the container, unscrewed the cap, and dabbed a little on my tongue.

I returned with the plates. I stood there, one dangling from either hand.

Reading my face, she said, “What’s wrong? Are the parmesan crisps burning?”

“Peanut oil doesn’t taste like peanuts.”

She sat down.

“That cat wasn’t our cat, but it might’ve been somebody’s,” she said. “And now it’s probably dead.” She sighed and her shoulders shrunk away. “I’m the one who called the ambulance for him, by the way. I went back to get the plate, and maybe because I suddenly felt guilty, and his door was open, just like he said it always is. And there he was, twitching on the floor, like an animal hit by a car, and left to die all alone. I called right from his house. I said I was his wife. That’s going to confuse people—or maybe not. Maybe no one will care. And I was careful when I left, no one saw me, I was like a ghost. I’m sorry. But it seemed the right thing to do. And now that I know he’ll live, I’m sure it was. And I’m not going to feel guilt about it ever again. And it turns out peanut oil is absolutely wonderful for deep-frying.” 

She stood up, she was done talking about it, maybe forever.

And it made me uneasy, but I really agreed with her. But…

“Sheila, you promised me we wouldn’t have any more trouble like you had in Charleston. That’s why I took you here.”

“I know, I know.” She hung her head, cried. “But that other poor cat.”

She was crying over a stray. But that’s Sheila. I couldn’t cry over a stray, ever. 

“I called the shelter,” I lied to her, reached to her, and pet her hair. “They found it a good home.”

“Oh, that’s good,” she said with a faint smile, wiping away a tear.

I had forgotten napkins. She went to get some.

Really, I think she had felt no guilt at all and only went back for the plate, but how will I ever know? I picked up an eggroll and took a bite. They didn’t even need dipping sauce, they were so good.

#

It took Hank just a week of being out of the hospital before he was drinking again, and not speaking to anybody. Old habits die hard, harder than some people.

Well, that not-speaking-to-anybody part is not entirely true. 

One night, Sheila and I walked by his house, and he was standing on his stoop, and he nodded and said, “Harry, Mrs. Talbot.” 

And you could tell, that it wasn’t a façade at all that he had up, at least not anymore, it was more a curtain wall of glass, and you could finally see through the glass, and you knew there actually was something there—maybe not much, but something—and that he meant exactly, no more or less, than what he said with due respect: Harry, Mrs. Talbot. 

Who knew?

He died suddenly, a couple of weeks later, he never saw that school bus coming, everyone said, but only he knows for sure. The day he died, I stood in front of his house, gliding my hand over his pachysandra, which were always so hardy, resilient. Sheila had told me to make gardening small talk with Hank for the last year, and I remembered that pachysandra is derived from the Greek. It means thick male.

“What tee were you wearing, Hank?”

I plucked a handful of assorted flowers from his yard, disarrayed them to next Sunday, and left them on his stoop.

And the day after he died, I led my wife out to the porch, with her eyes covered.

“Come on! What is it?” she begged.

“It’s a riddle,” I said. “What’s black and white and misread all over?” 

And then I removed my hands, and she saw that her—our—Crowley had come back to us, after being missing for well over a month.

 “Crowley! Crowley!” She picked him up and hugged him, crying. “And Daddy thought you’d never

cat sitting on window sill

come back!”

I had never said that, but it was true.

“Oh, my God, he’s so thin!” 

“I’ll go get a can of Bumble Bee.” 

“Where do you think he’s been?”

“Only he knows for sure.”

“And the cat’s got his own tongue, doesn’t he?” She looked from him to me. “And after we feed him now, tonight we’ll need to have a celebration! His favorite dish!”

I nodded, I understood. People and their pets. “Okay, dinner for three, sevenish.”

“Crowley! Crowley! Crowley!”

She spun him around until his black and white blurred only into black.

I went down to the freezer in the basement because I knew she wouldn’t, she thinks there are trolls down there. My wife, I love her to death, and if I ever have to serve her with papers I’m going to make damn sure I’m on a different continent when I do so. I got the cocktail weenies from the freezer, went upstairs, and put them in the fridge to thaw.