Of all the houses on the block, they had to stop in front of his. Don Marietta glared through the blinds at the women on his sidewalk–moms in North Face jackets comparing strollers. His unlit Camel Light bounced a polka on his lip.
To ask them to move along would be rude, but to join them was unthinkable.
His pit bull mix, Jerry, flopped at his feet. Eleven years old and built like Carl Lewis, the dog was the most beautiful thing in the house. Don rubbed his pink plank belly.
“This is why people move to Montana.”
Don’s floor creaked. His knees creaked. At fifty, nearly all of him creaked. A disemboweled tube TV the size of a mini-fridge lay on his workbench by the window. His own TV murmured “Wheel of Fortune.”
At last the moms parted ways and yielded the sidewalk.
Don told Jerry “stay-stay,” claimed his porch and lit up. Those days, a smoke and some privacy was all he had left to take the edge off.
Jerry barked through the window. A dusty tuxedo cat shuffled down the walk, all bones, no collar, more ghost than animal.
“Whose are you?”
The cat turned to him drunkenly, meowed and collapsed. Don eased closer. Mucus dribbled from her eyes, and her stained teeth told her age. He looked up the block. Miss Pearl’s, maybe? No, even she’d take better care of an animal than this. This was no one’s cat, or as good as.
It was clear she’d come to him on purpose. It was her time.
He sensed eyes on him. There was no one out he could see, no strolling moms, no loopy Miss Pearl next door. Even so, he knew what he knew.
He brought her in past Jerry, who jumped up for a sniff.
“Be good,” said Don. “She’s a guest.”
A hot water bottle in a Kinney’s shoebox made her comfortable. When Don petted her, she still had the motor to purr.
He called the vet he used and reached a recording. “We’re open 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM.”
“Eleven hours.” He scratched the cat’s chin. “Eleven hours is a long time.”
Out of his jeans pocket, Don fetched his keychain. His Newcomer Chip dangled, raised letters rubbed bald. He pinched it like a worry stone.
Junkie scars pebbled the tops of his feet. Twice on tile floors he’d seen the world go black, soft and easy, and only realized what happened from the wet face that woke him.
Even in program he’d thought a hundred times there were worse ways to die.
He picked up his flip-phone and rooted his black address book out of the junk drawer. He unfolded the back page to reveal a column of nameless ball-point numbers. The bottom number was blacked out with Sharpie. He covered that one with his thumb. The rest he tried.
“Hey, is Gary there? My mistake.” CLICK.
“Hey, Mitchell. This is Don.” CLICK.
“We’re sorry. The number you have dialed–” CLICK.
He considered the second-to-last number. “Maybe this is a bad idea.”
Tux Cat gave a shuddering meow.
“All right,” he said, and dialed.
“Hello?” a woman answered. Her voice was airy and theatrically high.
“Hi, Sheila. This is Don.”
“What do you want?”
“I need to buy.”
“So you call me?”
“Please, Sheila. I need it.”
A pause. “Forty a gram.”
“Are you kidding?”
“That’s the Don price.”
“Fine. You in the same place?”
“Yes. Don’t make me wait. If you take more than an hour, I’m not answering.”
He bribed Jerry into his crate with a rawhide chew, pulled forty dollars from the cookie jar and went for a ride.
• • •
On autopilot, Don drove to Lynn Heights and parked the Taurus in the first cul-de-sac. There were no open blinds in the townhouse complex, no welcome mats, no planters, nothing but numbers to distinguish the buildings.
It took four rings to bring her to the door, same as ever with her prominent blue eyes, messy black fringe, and Dallas Cowboys PJ pants.
“Goddamn,” she said. “He shows his face.”
Inside sat the same white leather couch where they used to shoot, same big-screen television she never paid him back for, same patched drywall from the time she threw a lamp at him.
“Back in the saddle?” she asked.
“It’s for a friend.”
“Look at Mr. Social.”
Sheila took her time sorting it out, spewing stories about her brother (“back in gen pop”), her cousin (“insufferable”), her ex (“jealous”) and her car (“shitbox”). A wood clamp headache made Don rock on his heels.
“I mean, was I wrong?” she asked.
“Holy shit. You’re not even listening.”
“Can we not right now? My head’s killing me.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Mister Marietta. I’ll be quiet like a good little girl.”
“Here it goes.”
“The Sheila show.”
She poked him in the solar plexus.
He took a giant step back. “You know I hate that.”
“I don’t care what you hate. You’re an asshole, you know that? You got so much nerve–“
“I got nerve? Are you kidding? You still owe me four thousand dollars.”
She poked him again. He threw up a fist, pure instinct, and she flinched backward.
She saw he wouldn’t swing. “The money? Really?” She bared her teeth and pointed to a mismatched incisor. “That cost about twenty-five hundred. You want to break another one and call it even?”
“Jesus. Let’s just get this over with.” He brandished the money like a crucifix. “I need the works, too.”
“Fine. Get out.” She gave him a needle with the wrap and pushed him to the door.
They paused at the threshold, each one waiting for an apology. The silence turned sour and then sad.
“You’re not going to shoot by yourself, are you?” she asked.
“I told you. It’s for a friend.”
• • •
Laying the drug and works on the kitchen counter, Don pressed a hand to his pounding head. He couldn’t dismiss the charges against Sheila. He ran her tab to four thousand dollars and waited for it to make him feel better.
Unfolding the wrap, his skin got hot and his body complained, a feeling George in his home group called a “two-pint piss you can never take.”
Freed from the crate, Jerry padded the kitchen linoleum.
Don scratched Tux Cat behind her ears. She shut her crusted eyes. The ache in his head receded.
“Won’t be long now,” he told her. “You’re on the home stretch.”
He shut the blinds tight and ruined a good spoon. Vinegary stink filled the kitchen. Don stuck an unlit Camel Light in his mouth as a pacifier.
The vein in Tux Cat’s front leg felt flat and plasticky, but the one in her thigh had promise. He slipped the needle in and squeezed the plunger. Tux Cat’s eyes unfocused. She curled into a crescent and stayed that way. Right under his hands, the life went out of her, one moment living, next moment gone.
Her suffering was done.
Don shoveled her grave near the back fence. He folded his hands on the grip and, not having a religious bent, said, “Sorry, Cat. You deserved better. Hope you’re in a kinder place.”
He sensed eyes on him again. There was no one out but crickets.
“Jumpy night,” he told himself.
It took a Swiss Cake Roll, three smokes, and hugging Jerry till he squirmed to steady Don enough to go to bed.
• • •
“Last night I saw somebody that really triggered me.”
In the stifling cinder block basement, a circle of poker faces nodded at Don. The plastic chair made his ass itch.
“I hadn’t seen her since I got clean,” said Don, “and we got into it, and she really set me off. She’s a mess. Always was. Always will be. Small wonder the shit I got in with her.” He leaned back. “That’s all I have. Thanks for letting me share.”
As the meeting gathered for closing prayer, Don eyed the door. When the circle dropped hands, he executed his escape between Gary and Susan H into the balmy night.
A round man in a Carhartt coat caught up to him in the parking lot.
“Hey, Don,” said George in an aquarium-pump rumble.
“Hey, George. That old TV’s coming along. Gonna make a good donation.”
“That’s great news. Say. Little advice?”
“Do you have a sponsor?”
“Get a sponsor.” George crooked his thumb at the church. “And you might think about staying for fellowship some time.”
“I’m not really a people person.”
“None of us are, Don. That’s kind of the point.”
• • •
Don came home to a round-faced marmalade tomcat. The cat appraised him from the porch with golden eyes.
“Where’d you come from?”
The cat looped his shins, purring like a rock tumbler. Don tried to step around him. Gold Cat stuck tight.
“You got the wrong house.”
Don nudged the cat away with his foot. On the other side of the door, Jerry whined.
“Go on, cat.”
Gold Cat jogged down the walk, stopped and looked back.
“That’s right. Go home.”
The cat gave a fierce meow. Don, tired and beat and wanting a cigarette, turned his back and went inside.
When he let Jerry out, Gold Cat was waiting on the back fence. The dog wagged and play-bowed. The cat looked only at Don. Eyes level like a snake, Gold Cat meowed again, and it sounded like now.
“Go home,” Don said, dragging Jerry inside.
In the living room, Jerry dug into an empty peanut butter jar. Don watched the news, but outside the cat answered everything Dan Rather said. “Police made a disturbing discovery today.” Meow. “We go now to our correspondent.” Meow.
Don answered the door. Gold Cat waited at the foot of the walk, bristling with fury.
• • •
On foot, the cat led Don through the apple-crisp night toward downtown, under Business 40 and up Hill Street. One mile turned into two, and Don started to itch. He patted his empty pockets for the smokes he hadn’t brought.
In the tobacco district’s sooty brick block, Gold Cat ducked through a chink in a warehouse foundation. He stopped and looked back, filigree eyes glinting.
There was just enough space for a man to squeeze through.
Don crouched to his haunches on the crawl space’s dirt floor while his eyes adjusted. The place smelled damp and oddly clean, like a grocer’s freezer case. Inside, an army of cats paced in a quiet circle, a merry-go-round of upright tails and pointed ears. In the center sat one gaunt cat, gray with dirty white socks, upright but weaving. Socks Cat retched, ribs flaring through its fur. Flies buzzed its infected eyes.
Gold Cat threaded Don’s ankles. “Now.”
“I can’t get any more.”
“I’ll take him to the vet in the morning.” Don reached for the sick cat, parting the whirling sea of cats, but he bolted. Don squat-walked after him. “Come on, fella.”
Socks Cat surged away again, inches out of reach.
“I take Jerry there. They’re good people.”
Don peeled off his jacket for a net. The cat sea growled. They closed ranks between Don and Socks Cat to make a fanged, hissing wall.
“Isn’t that what you want?”
Gold Cat strolled up and put a paw on Don’s shoe, “Now.”
“My sources are shot, buddy.”
“I can’t get back in that life.”
In the corner, shielded by the cat army, Socks Cat coughed a plume of mucus.
“This is crazy.”
“I can’t promise anything.”
Don crab-walked back the way he came. Sleek shapes pursued him, calling Now Now Now.
• • •
In his kitchen, Don washed crawl space dirt off his hands and fished the address book out of the junk drawer. The only number he had left was the one blacked-out with Sharpie. Don angled the page to the light. Seven ball-point digits glittered to life.
He sent it a text–“FIRST AID 1000 mg.”
While he waited for an answer, he put the phone on the counter and played tube-sock tug-of-war with Jerry in the next room.
“He can’t be using the same number,” Don told the dog. “At least we can say we tried. Can’t ask for more than that.”
The phone buzzed. Don picked it up like it might explode.
The answer–“Salem Crk/40 BUS 2200 30.”
There was thirty dollars left in the cookie jar. All he needed now was courage.
• • •
Don street-parked the Taurus a half mile from the overpass. Ten o’clock. Public street. All the same, he took the cash and left his wallet in the glove box.
He walked, head on a swivel, through a vacant lot shaggy with dandelions. Under rushing overpass traffic, Don joined litter and truck tire shreds and a tundra of pigeon shit.
He checked his watch. Ten on the dot.
His neck itched.
He checked his watch again.
An Acura sedan purred past him. As it passed, it slowed, showing Don his reflection in ruby-tinted windows. Then it sped away.
Don turned to leave.
In front of him, a man in a quilted coat broke from the hedges to the sidewalk.
Another man in a baseball cap bookended him.
He crossed the street. They followed.
Don broke into a run. They chased. They grabbed him by the jacket, bounced him off the abutment, and pummeled him into a daze. They took his thirty dollars.
“Is that all you got?”
The Acura squealed around the corner to scoop them up.
Don rolled over and spat blood. He checked his teeth and his ribs and waited a good minute before daring to get up.
Gold Cat was waiting on the hood of the Taurus.
“Now,” said Gold Cat.
“I did my best,” Don told him. “You can’t ask for more than that.”
Don tried to shoo him off, but Gold Cat didn’t budge until he started the car.
• • •
Showered, bandaged, bag of frozen peas on his shoulder, Don lay diagonally across his double bed. He drew up the comforter and patted the space beside him, which was Jerry’s cue to jump up, circle twice, and curl up against Don’s legs. At least the day was over. His thoughts settled down and drifted.
A cat cry rang through his head. Funny how a long day can echo back like that.
It rang louder. Jerry sat up. It wasn’t in his head.
A second cat voice joined in. The meows dragged into yowls. Now a third. They pierced and blared. They ran up and down octaves.
There was no prayer of sleeping through it.
Don gave up, got out of bed and grabbed his flashlight. As soon as he set foot on the porch, the noise stopped. There was no trace of so much as a single cat.
“I can’t do it your way,” he told the empty yard. “Are you going to let me take him to a vet?”
“They’re good people. There’s no reason for this.”
He waited for an answer. When waiting got chilly, he went back to bed.
The moment his head hit the pillow they started again. Now now now. Like a Satanic canon, the yowls circled each other from rumble to shriek. Jerry paced the house, muttering disgruntled boofs. With no prescription stronger than earplugs and an herbal tea, Don strung together a few hours, bouncing between cat nightmares and cat reality.
At dawn the reek of ammonia woke him for good.
Piss stained the walk, tomcat spray enameled the front door, and beefy Tootsie Roll shit dotted the porch, the steps, and the azalea planter. Jerry gobbled two before Don could stop him.
Next door, Miss Pearl hobbled out her door and sniffed in horror.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Sorry, Miss Pearl. I got a cat problem.”
“Get it fixed!”
She hobbled back in and slammed the door.
• • •
In the morning, bruised and exhausted, Don brought the promised refurbished television to his home group’s fall yard sale. Once there, he carried trash bags of clothing to the corner, intending to sort them alone. George turned up and foiled his plan.
“What happened to you?” asked George.
“Tried to help a friend.”
“That’s not a good situation to get into.”
“You’re telling me.” Don yawned. “On top of that, a mess of cats were in my yard screaming all night.”
“I hate that. Dumb sonsabitches don’t fix their cats and don’t understand how math works. You got that pit bull dog, don’t you? Can’t he scare ‘em off?”
“Jerry’s a lover, not a fighter.”
“Ah, yeah. Well. That sounds really hard. You have a sponsor yet?”
“Get a sponsor.”
• • •
Don thought of George that night as the army of screams camped on his house again, standing his hair on end. He stole glances through the bedroom blinds and saw nothing, only heard the relentless Now Now Now.
Sleep deprivation stripped him of sanity. He tried the Motel 6 but they threw him out for “unreported pets.”
On the third morning, in dishwashing gloves, Don hurled his five-pound trash bag of shit on the porch, stormed inside, and fetched a Rite Aid coupon out of his jacket pocket. On the back was the last phone number he had left.
Good old George picked up on the second ring. “Hello?”
“I don’t know what to do. I’m losing my mind.”
“What’s going on?”
“I think I’ve got to see that goddamn woman again. But I’m going to put her through a window, or she’s going to pull a knife, or I’m going to use again. I know I will.”
“Do you have a sponsor?”
“Jesus, what does that have to do with anything?”
“You need one.”
“Fine. Will you fucking sponsor me?”
“Be happy to. But you’re going to need an open mind.”
• • •
“Looks like you got what was coming to you,” said Sheila, glowering over her security chain. “Find another dealer.”
“I’m not here for that,” said Don.
“Well, a little, but I’m mostly here to apologize.”
“You’re just sorry you’re not getting a fix.”
“You don’t owe me anything. You can let me in if you want to, but if you don’t, that’s okay, too.”
He looked down the row of apartments, feeling exposed. There was no other choice. Everything else he’d tried had brought him right back here.
“In my relationship with you,” he said, “I’ve been selfish, inconsiderate and dishonest. And I’m sorry. What can I do to make it right?”
The color in her cheeks flooded out and flooded back brighter. “You serious?”
“I don’t know.” She relaxed her grip on the door. “I don’t know how you make it right.”
“You don’t have to decide this minute. But you get to choose, when you’re ready.”
She took a step back. Backlit, bony, drowning in her giant shirt, suddenly Sheila looked as helpless as any sick animal.
Don’s heart broke for her.
She took the chain off the door.
Moments later, one hand on the wrap in his jacket pocket, Don strolled out of the cul-de-sac past a calico cat sunning herself on a stoop.
“Hello, there,” said Don.
She stood up, meowed and headed over. He stroked her beautiful back.
“Tell your boss I’m coming.”
She followed him with her eyes all the way to the car.
• • •
With wrap and works and flashlight and trash bag, Don watched the sidewalk from his porch. Only Gold Cat came at dusk, a smug look in his hooded eyes.
“If you’d let me take him to the vet, it would have been done already. There was no need for the mess you caused.”
Don opened the door to the Taurus. Gold Cat hopped in.
When they arrived, Don saw that Socks Cat was too weak to sit up anymore. Watching eyes ringed the crawlspace. Gold Cat coiled around Don’s ankles.
“Now,” said Gold Cat.
“I’m sorry I took so long.”
He tucked the flashlight between his knees and cooked. Vinegar stink clouded the cold crawl space. Socks Cat lay down for Don, and Don pushed the shot into his thigh, gently stroking his cheek until he was gone.
It wasn’t a good thing, but it was the right thing. Good was long gone as an option. Right would have to do.
With the colony’s consent, he wrapped Socks Cat in a trash bag and took him home.
In the driveway, Don stared at the small shrouded body in his passenger seat. Maybe there was a reason he’d burned so many bridges. Maybe there was a way to make amends to the universe.
He buried Socks Cat next to Tux Cat and said the same words.
In the morning Don set aside trash bag, flashlight and wrap in an old briefcase. Of course the thought crossed his mind to shoot it himself. He called George first.
“How did it go?” asked George.
“Really well,” said Don. “It surprised me how well.”
“It’ll do that.”
“Whatever’s next, I want to do it.”
“We’ll begin at the beginning.”
“I tell you one thing, George. When it’s my time, I don’t want to linger. Take me out and shoot me.”
“Jesus, Don. You sick?”
“No, no. But if it comes to that.”
“Sure. ‘Terminally Ill Man Slain in Hunting Accident’.”
Don laughed. “I bet the cops would understand.”
• • •
It was six weeks before Don saw Gold Cat again. By then the front yard grass had grown back, and Jerry’d stopped bolting off the porch for lawn snacks.
Don and Gold Cat took the Taurus to Sheila’s. Gold Cat waited in the car while Don handled the purchase.
“Been a while,” said Sheila. “You seeing someone else?”
“Never,” said Don.
As she weighed out his purchase, her shoulder creaked. She cradled it, grimacing.
“Torn rotator cuff,” she said. “Hurts like shit.”
“That sounds really hard,” said Don.
She saw him to the door. “You got a girlfriend?”
“I got Jerry.”
“A dog’s not a woman, Don.”
“I ain’t met the woman I like as much as Jerry.”
Gold Cat led Don back to the crawlspace. Another old-timer. Another kidney failure. Another garbage bag. Don petted the old-timer’s cheeks as she slipped away.
“It shouldn’t be like this. It should be easy. Peaceful. Some higher power should take care of these things. It shouldn’t be down to a nobody like me.”
Gold Cat blinked.
“How do you know when it’s time?” asked Don.
“Now,” said Gold Cat.
• • •
“Can you fix it?” asked Linda.
“Looks like a short in the CRT,” said Don, powering her giant TV off and on.
“George said you were good with these things.”
Her living room looked like a library and smelled like lemongrass. A January ice storm pelted the windows.
“Nasty out there,” she said.
“You mind if I wait this out a bit?”
“Not at all. You want some tea?”
Don didn’t, but he took some all the same. She was an apple-cheeked real estate agent with a sibilant Baltimore accent and adult kids. When the storm died down, Linda positioned herself beside the TV.
“I’ll help carry,” she said.
“I can handle it fine.”
“You see that ice? You’re not breaking your neck in my driveway.”
They set a date for him to bring it back by.
“I make a four-star steak,” said Linda.
“It’s a deal.”
She rented a World War II movie they failed to watch.
Don took his time, but Jerry had no poker face. When Linda came over, the dog gave her the full Gene Kelly tap-dance, and when the three curled up on the couch Jerry preferred her side to Don’s. Don didn’t take it personally.
The first night Linda stayed over, Don stroked her naked back and said, “There’s something I’ve got to tell you.”
“Let’s hear it.”
“I put down feral cats.”
She whistled and buried her face in the pillow. “Don’t scare me like that. I thought you were gonna say you were married.”
The weeks stretched to months. Once Gold Cat showed up at Linda’s. Don pressed his cheek to hers and pointed at the orange cat on her sidewalk.
“There’s my boss.”
“You weren’t kidding.”
“I’ll call if it’s going to be more than an hour.”
“Should I feed Jerry?”
“Don’t be late. I’m making burgers.”
• • •
One muggy June morning, Jerry stopped putting weight on his right front leg. Don found swelling in his shoulder and took him to the vet for the diagnosis.
“Osteosarcoma,” said the vet. “Not uncommon at his age.”
He called Linda. “I’m taking him back tomorrow. I got to do right by him.”
“I’m going with you,” said Linda. “Let me find someone to switch with me.”
“No, don’t do that–“
“Don’t be hard-headed, Don. How do you expect to drive home after?”
Even hurt, Jerry could still clear the peanut butter out of a Kong. Even slow, he could still hunt through dog park pine needles for the best sniffing spots.
In the wilting sun, Linda ran interference on the other dog-owners, their bright smiles, their sympathetic looks. Don watched from the shade and smoked a Camel Blue to the filter.
In the morning, Don held Jerry tight while the technician gave him the injection.
“My good buddy,” said Don. “I hope I was a good buddy to you.”
Jerry slipped away, easy, the way it was supposed to be.
Don grieved. Linda put a cool hand on the back of his neck. She tended the paperwork for him.
Don carried Jerry’s red nylon collar through the sweltering parking lot. He noticed a black cat resting under an abelia shrub. The cat sat up and blinked at him, paying her respects.
In the car, Don kept his head bowed and his eyes closed. Linda ran the air conditioner.
“He was a good old dog,” he told her.
“He really was.”
“You want to get married?”
• • •
They came home to Gold Cat on their porch. Don stepped out of the Honda, collar in hand.
“Hey, Gold Cat,” he said.
The cat looked at him, then Linda, and bolted across the yard.
He turned to stare at Don a moment, then disappeared under the hedge, shifty and skittish as any strange cat would be.
“That was odd,” said Linda.
“Yeah.” He took her arm. “I wonder what that was about.”
• • •
Summer bowled into fall. Strange cats jogged away from him now, never pausing for a chat or a pet. There was no sign of Gold Cat.
Married life was sweet, full of late night whispers and hot breakfasts, scalp rubs and all-day errands. She brought home gardenia-scented things that mattered to Don only because they mattered to her.
One Sunday Don surfed past a Cowboys game. It made him think of Sheila. He hadn’t seen her since Gold Cat stopped calling. She was bound to wonder where he’d gone.
He stood and stretched his legs. On the couch, Linda worked a crossword.
“I’m going to step out for a bit,” said Don. “I want to say goodbye to an ex.”
His wife looked up, cool as a Newport Smooth. “What for?”
“If I pick the time, it’ll be easy. If she picks the time, it’s gonna be hard.”
Linda considered this. “You’ve never given me a reason to doubt you, Don. As long as you don’t, I won’t.”
He slid in close and smooched her. “Baby, you know you’re the only woman I can stand.”
• • •
September clouds sagged low. Don picked up his pace to beat the rain to Sheila’s. Walking her row, Don caught an unmistakable whiff of ammonia and amber–cat piss.
He found Sheila trembling on her shit-covered stoop, circles under her eyes, spray bottle in one hand and scrub brush in the other.
“Jesus, Don, thank God you’re here. Somebody’s got it out for me. I’m going to get evicted. I don’t even have a cat. Why is this happening to me?” She pointed across the parking area. “And look at that fucker.”
Don followed her finger. Perched on a fence post, a marmalade tabby stared at them with hooded golden eyes.
“He’s been there every day for a week,” she said. “You ever seen a cat do that?”
Don looked her over, one raw nerve of a woman, old before her time. Was this what Gold Cat saw?
“He’s got a job for you,” said Don.
“What are you talking about?”
“Sheila, I want to help you. But you’re going to need an open mind.”
Tory Hoke writes, draws, and sweats in Los Angeles. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, LORE, and Three-Lobed Burning Eye, and she has illustrated for Strange Horizons, Apex, and Eggplant Literary Productions’ Spellbound anthology. Her Rare Words vocabulary comic updates weekdays at thetoryparty.com and on Twitter @toryhoke. “The Call of Gold Cat” was inspired by true events.