Lost Pet Found Please Call
by D.W. Davis
Taylor saw the poster on the telephone pole and knew immediately what had been missing from his life. He’d initially thought he could fill the hole with a new car, or a new job, or even a bigger television. He’d tried the job; that was the most affordable. It hadn’t worked, but he was stuck there because he wasn’t sure he could get hired on anywhere else in this town, in this economy. In a couple of months he’d be able to afford the new TV, but the car remained a faint dream for some point in the distant, unreachable future.
However, when he saw the black and white eyes of the two-tone feline staring back at him, stretched slightly as the paper wrapped around the pole, he knew how to right the ship. He’d been feeling alone since the breakup, never mind that the breakup had been over a year past and decidedly friendly. Hell, they still talked. But he missed the companionship, he missed having someone to communicate with on a regular basis. Maybe a cat couldn’t talk back to you, but there was a level of attractiveness in that.
The photograph was crude, taken by a cell phone, most likely, but the phone number had been typed. Taylor pulled out his phone and dialed. A woman answered, told him she still had the cat, yes, he could come pick it up that afternoon. She’d be waiting.
He showed up at her door in a run-down area of town he hadn’t been in for several years. She answered on the first knock, a freckled, blond girl a couple of years younger than him in ripped blue jeans and a Bob Marley tank top. She smiled at him and said, “I wondered if you’d actually show.”
He glanced over her shoulder into a cluttered little room that he knew was the biggest in the house. He didn’t see a cat, but he figured a cat could be anywhere in that mess.
“You’ve got some nerve,” the girl said and took a step forward.
“Sorry,” Taylor said, trying to smile. “I was just looking—”
“The real owners picked him up yesterday,” she said. “They had a photograph and everything. What do you have?”
Taylor blinked at her. He glanced over his shoulder at the Civic sitting at the curb. He jingled his keys in his pocket, wondering the impression he would give if he just turned and ran. He wasn’t a graceful runner. He didn’t present a very good image in motion.
“No,” the girl said and poked his shoulder. “You look at me, man. Answer my question.”
He faced her again. Her eyes were so clear and blue that he thought they might crack like ice. She had her hair tied back, pulling the skin on her face taught. She was thin, but he thought maybe her clothes were just baggy; she seemed like the kind of person who ran, not for exercise, but to burn off energy.
“I just thought,” Taylor said, and he had to look away because her eyes widened, and he thought they might swallow him up.
“No, you didn’t,” she said. Another jab of the finger, so hard it might’ve bruised. “You’re an asshole, you know that? That family had a kid. That cat was some kid’s pet, and you were just going to take it for your own, make that kid go the rest of her life missing her pet. Why, huh? What the fuck is wrong with you?”
Taylor’s mouth went numb, his tongue swelling. Knees trembled as something warm and achy burned through his veins. The girl took another step closer, that finger darting out, and Taylor recoiled, left foot reaching back, except instead of finding solid ground, it encountered nothing but empty air. He reeled backward, the girl’s face giving way to weather-faded siding, which changed to leafless tree limbs, which finally settled into an overcast October sky, as something hard whacked the back of his head, and something else, or maybe the same thing, scraped his elbows.
“Oh Jesus,” the girl said, from somewhere very far away. He thought about asking her to come closer, didn’t know why she’d try to have a conversation with him from across the road, across the neighborhood. It seemed like a silly idea, truly. They could just talk up close, like normal people. Work this out.
Then her face was over his, her hand on his cheek. One finger tangled in his hair; she struggled to pull free, and the pain made his eyes water. He gasped and tried to sit up.
“No, don’t,” she said, holding him down. “Jesus Christ, don’t, okay? Just lay there. I’ll get an ambulance.”
“Please, no,” he told her, except even he couldn’t understand the mumbled obscenity that issued forth from his lips. It sounded like the time he’d taken too big a hit of his cousin Blake’s bowl, couldn’t speak right for three hours, teeth tripping over his tongue, Blake telling him to bite into it, get the swelling down, and Taylor too afraid of the taste of blood to do anything but grunt his frustration and cry.
“Stop laughing,” the girl said, even though she was smiling. “Please, stop laughing. It’s not good.”
“It’s okay,” Taylor said, and realized he could understand the words.
“No, it isn’t,” the girl said, but her smile widened. One of her front teeth was chipped. Very slightly. Taylor didn’t think he would’ve noticed from any other angle.
“I think,” Taylor said, and he pushed himself up into the hand she held against his chest. “Yeah, I think I can sit up.”
She let him, but bit her lip and said, “What about concussions?”
“I don’t know.”
“You should see a doctor.”
He shrugged. “I’m okay.” He glanced at her stoop. “It wasn’t a long fall.”
She helped him to his feet. He brushed off the back of his jeans, thankful it hadn’t rained earlier that day like all the forecasters had predicted.
The girl glanced at her open door. “I can get you a water,” she offered.
He shook his head. His vision didn’t swim when he did so, so he shook it again. “I’m fine. Really.”
“Okay.” She didn’t look at him for a moment, just stared back into the house. Finally, she said, “You really shouldn’t have done it.”
“I know. I just saw the picture and…”
“You can adopt from the shelter. They’re pretty cheap.”
“Just don’t do it again.”
He drove home and put ice on the back of his head just to be sure. He watched a MacGuyver rerun, then another, then a baseball game, even though his team was done for the year. A little before seven, he heated up a frozen Philly cheesesteak, and halfway through, he pulled out his phone and redialed the last number.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hey.” He paused. “We spoke earlier today. You pushed me over.”
He met her Friday night in the Denny’s parking lot. She hadn’t dressed up much, but neither had he and the waitress sat them at a table near the window, where they could watch the traffic meander by if the conversation lulled. Taylor thought it a good tactic and wondered how long someone had to be a waitress before learning to tell when a couple was on the first date. He figured it took some time. People could be hard to read. Even when you thought you had learned the signs, you still didn’t know any better. Maybe you never did. Maybe it was just a guessing game, and some people got lucky more often than others.
On the phone, she’d told him her name was Aimee, with an “i” and two “e’s,” and that she was allergic to shellfish, the latter a pointless remark because, as far as affordable dating establishments went, they could choose from either Denny’s, Pizza Hut, or the Mexican place. Taylor chose Denny’s because he hadn’t been there since the breakup. Nothing to do with the breakup; he just hadn’t been there. He ordered a burger. So did she.
“I’m not here because I feel bad,” she told him. “I mean, I do, sort of. I mean, I guess you had it coming, or you had something coming, for what you tried to do. So I don’t feel too bad. But that’s not why I’m here. I don’t do pity dates. Ever.”
He told her about his first pet, a Boston terrier named Sammy, after Sammy Davis Jr., even though the two looked nothing alike. “Maybe it was a racist thing,” he said, then told her of the time Sammy got stuck in the doggy door, and they had to lube him up with dish soap, and he spent a full month scratching at his fur before they realized the soap had given him dry skin.
“Which was when I learned that animals have skin under their fur,” he said.
“I wasn’t allowed to have pets,” she said. “My mom said she was allergic. I don’t know how anyone can be allergic to guinea pigs, but my mom swore she was. I think she believed it, too, like she went into sneezing fits that no way could she be faking. I got a cat when I moved out. It only lasted seven months, though, and I can’t bring myself to adopt another one just yet.”
Their food came, and they didn’t talk very much, which Taylor took to be a good sign. They spoke more afterwards, over coffee, mainly about her because Taylor had never enjoyed talking about himself. He didn’t like looking people in the eyes, either, but he had no trouble meeting Aimee’s, perhaps because he’d already seen the anger they could hold, had already learned the depths to which they led. He liked her voice: a few notes shy of being chirpy like she was full of pep but knew to keep the volume turned down. He could picture her leading her high school assemblies, shouting “go team!” in an orange and black cheerleader outfit. Probably the same size she was now; she’d probably been this size from a very early age. He wondered what it would be like, never to grow bigger. To reach your body’s potential early and stop. One day, you’re the most developed among your classmates; the next, you’re left behind, with no hope of catching up. Your soul has filled its mold; your shape is sealed until gravity intrudes and begins to pull you back into the earth.
The night outside was crisp. She lit up a cigarette. He wasn’t surprised she smoked, but she seemed surprised when he shook her off. “Most people I know smoke,” she said. “One thing or another.”
“I did once in college,” he said.
She laughed, and touched his arm. He couldn’t feel her skin through his windbreaker, but he imagined he could. He liked it.
He walked her to her car, even though they could both see it from where they stood. Her smoke drifted across his face, but he didn’t cough. She opened the door and said, “I’ll think about whether or not I want to do this again.”
“Okay,” he said.
“You don’t have to be offended.”
She smiled. “I know. But maybe you should be?”
He sat in his Civic and watched as she drove off. He thought about her mother’s name, Marlene, and how old-fashioned and yet sturdy that name was. He’d always thought about naming his daughter Marlene, mainly because he’d gone with a girl in high school by that name. Well, not gone with, really, she’d let him feel her up during a football game, the crowd cheering around them, his hand snaking its way across her navel, her bra strap. Only the kid sitting next to him noticed, and gave him a wink and a smirk. Marlene saw it, too, and gave the kid the finger. Taylor had laughed, then hated her for making him laugh because the feeling that’d been growing down in his loins vanished when he did so. He continued to touch her because he knew he’d never get another chance, but the moment had been spoiled, and the memory left a bitter taste in the back of his mouth. He became embarrassed whenever it crossed his mind. Even alone in his car, watching Aimee’s taillights pull out onto the main road and turn in a direction that did not lead to her house, he blushed and closed his eyes, giving his head a brief shake. Marlene drifted back into yesterday, but her incorporeal presence managed to taint the night nonetheless.
Taylor went to bed too early and slept fitfully. During his waking periods, he thought about his dreams; when he dreamed, he yearned to be awake. The alarm roused him in the morning, some shadowy image plaguing his mind. He thought it had claws or maybe tentacles. He thought it might be a girl he’d known once, or maybe the one he’d just met.
At work, Taylor took a service call from a woman whose modem was giving her fits. After listening to her babble for a minute, Taylor knew there was nothing he could do. Her problem was above his pay grade. But he couldn’t tell her that; he’d done so once before, on one of his calls that happened to get audited, and he’d received a lecture. He’d tried explaining his side: how he felt it his obligation to the customer, to be honest. Management had felt otherwise, though Taylor hadn’t followed the explanation. He hadn’t needed to; he wasn’t expected to understand, just comply. He hoped most jobs were this way and not just his.
“Have you tried unplugging your modem?” Taylor asked during a lull in the woman’s soliloquy.
“Yes. I told you, I tried that already.”
“Please try again. Ma’am.”
She did; she protested, but she did because Taylor held the cards, and she knew it. She could rant; she could rave, and technically, he couldn’t hang up before her, although he did so frequently. But he was in charge. She believed he had what she needed, and he wasn’t permitted to tell her otherwise.
“I’m still not showing a signal,” Taylor said, as he tapped his computer screen for emphasis, even though he had nothing pulled up other than her membership information and a game of Minesweeper. “I’ll arrange to have someone come to your house on Tuesday.”
The woman ranted some more. Taylor closed his eyes. He tried to picture Aimee’s face, but Maureen’s kept intruding. He felt he needed to see a picture of Aimee’s mother. Maybe then he could push the old Maureen aside. If the name was to be brought up frequently in the immediate future.
What had happened to Maureen? He didn’t know. He had never wondered; not even on the few occasions, he thought of that night. She had simply ceased to matter to him as he supposed he had to her. Her and a lot of others. People flicker into your life, then they wink away like burnt-out Christmas lights. Sometimes, Taylor thought of this when he couldn’t get to sleep. He would usually try to masturbate after this if only to find a new train of thought. It didn’t always work, and what was supposed to be a moment of happiness—the most joyous a man can feel if you believe what they tell you, and Taylor really tried to—became instead a brief pinprick of desperation. But he usually slept well afterwards, which he thought restored balance to the universe.
A week later, Aimee allowed him to pick her up. “You’ll wait outside, though,” she told him. “My place is a fucking mess. My cleaning lady smokes too much pot and doesn’t do shit.”
They went to a restaurant in the next town over, a newer place that Taylor had never been to because he’d heard it was too expensive and he never had anyone to go with. They ate in a far corner, but after the meal moved to a table closer to the bar. Aimee ordered a long island, a classless drink, and Taylor seconded her. It was strong but edible. He liked drinks that reminded him they were alcoholic. He preferred his food honest.
“I’m thinking of moving,” Aimee told him halfway through. “That neighborhood is a deathtrap. You ever been there before?”
“Exactly. Why would you? You’re from here, right?”
He’d told her so the previous week, but he just nodded politely.
“So you’re from the south side, I’m guessing. At least south of the tracks. There’s like a couple of blocks north of the tracks that’re decent, but the rest is shit. I live in the shit.” She pulled out a cigarette and rolled it between her fingers. She said, “I hate the fucking smoking laws in this state.”
“Oh, you nonsmokers.” She grinned at him. “Trying to tell us we’re all pounding nails into our own coffins. I don’t care. I never did. I could die any time I get behind the wheel of my car. Quickly, slowly, I’m going to die. At least I’ll die with a cigarette between my lips. You can’t say that, can you? None of you can.”
She went on, but he thought about the philosophy she’d just intoned. Wondered if it matched up with his. If it was better than his. Wondered if he even had a philosophy. Should he? Did most people?
When he regained focus, she’d ordered them both another round. “Just last week,” she said, “some black kid half my age tried to rape me. Or, I think he wanted to rape me. Maybe he didn’t know how. But he was catcalling me, half-rapping, and I don’t care if that makes me racist, and started following me. I reached into my purse, pulled out my wristlet. Guess he thought it was a Taser ’cause he just took off.”
“That happen often?” Taylor asked.
It was her turn to shrug. “More or less. They aren’t always black, though. I don’t mean to imply that. They’re all assholes, skin color doesn’t change that.”
He let her smoke on the ride home. She kept her face close to the open window, grinning at him from the corner of her mouth. “Such a gentleman,” she said. “Most guys try to save my life by asking me not to. You, you don’t care if it kills me. So refreshing.”
Taylor parked in front of her house. He left the engine running while she opened the door until she said, “Well, come on,” then he turned the car off and followed her. The house was a mess; she was as honest as her beverage of choice. When she kissed him, he tasted tobacco and sweet ‘n sour. She was undressed by the time they reached the bedroom, which he figured was a good thing since he didn’t see much free space for her clothes to land.
She slept a little afterwards; Taylor, to his surprise, couldn’t. He stared at the ceiling, waiting for a roach to crawl across, though one never did. After a while, he felt her stir beside him. She sat up, holding her head. She turned to him and said, “Hey.”
“So.” She pulled the sheet up over her chest. “That’s the last time, okay.”
He sat up too. He’d left his shirt on. Socks, too.
“I’m not trying to be a bitch,” she said. “But I’ve been thinking. Before, even. About that family. About that little girl. And I think I’d think about it every time. If that makes sense.”
He nodded. It did.
“I’m not sorry,” she told him. “About what happened or about this. Okay?”
He dressed and said, “Okay,” then showed himself out. He stumbled a few times but managed to get outside just fine. She must’ve followed him through the house because as he stepped off her porch, he heard the lock turn.
He walked to his car, but as he fumbled for his keys, something rustled to his right. He turned. The cat stared at him, mostly hidden by foliage and shadow, but its eyes radiated in the moonlight, along with the light gray fur on its face. Black and white, just like the picture, but sharper and in focus.
The animal stood just a few short feet away from him and showed no sign of retreating. Just curious. Two creatures out in the night. Taylor struggled for something to say, not sure what but aware that something was expected of him. Or would be, if anyone were watching. He knew the cat expected nothing. The cat wanted nothing, except maybe the freedom its family kept trying to take from it.
Taylor sympathized or thought he did. Except he wasn’t sure who was taking what from him. Maybe it was something he’d never even had.
“Hey,” he said, and as though summoned by his voice, he heard footsteps behind him and felt a sharp crack against the back of his skull. He didn’t lose consciousness, not completely, but when his vision became solid again, the monotone kaleidoscope solidifying into concrete and grass, both the cat and his cash were gone. He still had his keys and his car, so he unlocked the door and sat inside for a while, maybe an hour, until he drove home and fell asleep. When he woke up, the sun had slipped through his bedroom window, and he thought he saw the cat in the corner, watching him, but it was just the ache in his head and his imagination.▪️
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