Post Road Magazine #19


Charles McLeod

The strays will not leave me. I remember them first now. I remember them before the drive west from Nebraska, the climb in Wyoming, the maddening drop into Salt Lake's odd city and its long lazy flats before reaching Reno, Sacramento, and Oakland, and crossing the Bay not the way I had wanted, over the Golden Gate Bridge, but instead by the Bay Bridge, which you deemed pragmatic—we'll have to save money, I'll have to work hard.

I was to sit there. It rained forever. It rained more days than it did not. And you chose the Mission because you felt it was needed, that we needed it and that it needed us, that as transplants we had no right to the suburbs—we wanted bombast, the cursing in Spanish, the packed, dirty sidewalks, the streets choked with cars. I remember the smell of wet beans in tacquerias. I remember the dive bar just off of 15th. I remember your pea coat, your tortoise-shell glasses, your sweaters of lambs wool, crew-necked and earth-toned. Your chic leather sneakers of recycled rubber. You wore them down quickly. You were gone nearly always. The back of our building looked out on an alley, a long flight of stairs that led down three stories. We got the good sunlight, of which of there was little. We had the top floor.

The first cat was a white cat, white with black patterns, a long pond of black from its shoulders to tail, twin dots of black on both its front paws. He showed up on the back stairs your first week of employment. I never went with you, and maybe I should have, taken the CalTrain down to the Valley, you liked the palm trees, they have lots of palm trees, I thought that they only had palm trees down south. The stray's eye, its right eye, was covered in pus. I made kissing sounds as I stood in my bathrobe. A shirtless man watched me three buildings down. He stood in his window, Korean, mid-forties. When I shifted my leg, the cat turned and ran off.

In Sydney, Nebraska we bought sodas and licorice, and used the black ropes of candy as straws. In Cheyenne, we ate burgers of bison. In Elko, we fucked in the back of the car. You'd taken your bra off but left on your snap-up. The tiny round buttons were mother-of-pearl, and with my head jammed against the armrest of our butter-colored Volvo, I reached up and pinched the snaps on each pocket. Does that turn you on? I asked. We're fucking, you told me. But I knew it was funny. I pinched and I pinched.

The work that I did, once I had to work, once it was work or go crazy, was drawing these puzzles for games for computers: find all the things in this verdant green jungle or here, in this airplane, or here, in this church. I hid pencils on sink drains, bologna on ceilings, glyphs grapes and slippers on marquees of stores. I'd done the same thing when bored in Art History. Pissarro bored me. Morisot bored me. During Monet and Manet, I didn't show up. In the Mission, I stared out our window for hours, the big streetside window that looked down at the stop for the BART. I'd think about one thing then lose it completely and try to locate it and then find something else. The lights for the traffic wept during rainstorms. The building was old and the wiring faulty; we would lose power for hours upon hours, but by the time you got home it was always back on.

The stray showed up again a week later, while things were still decent, while you and I still went to the shores of the beaches, the benches of parks. The new modern art building was designed to patina, the metal already rusting to green. We took the Volvo over to Oakland and hiked in the hills there, the redwoods prehistoric, our noses turned pink by the sun. The cat sat at the bottom of our long narrow stairwell; it was a kitten and from what I've learned since then around ten weeks old. We didn't have kibble or anything like that, didn't even had bread—we always ate out. But we had cereal and milk for our coffee and I dripped the last little bits from the slim cardboard carton into a jade green porcelain bowl. It was six in the morning, a Monday or Tuesday; the Korean man was dancing in the frame of his window, under the bright colored lights of a small disco ball. He saw me and stopped and then kept on dancing. The stray stared at the bowl. I made warm sounds then crouched, the cat turning the front of its body but keeping also and somehow its head turned toward me, as I edged down and over the lip of the steps. The cat blinked its eyes once—its eyes are emerald—and I set down the bowl and pushed back off the railing and stood on the landing, hope big in my chest.

You worked for Google, the biggest of giants, the tyrant of tyrants, the word and the thing that made all things happen. I don't know what you did there, after the CalTrain, understood no specifics save for dress code, and when we'd go shopping, an act I found demeaning, you would always make me buy something—some new and striped dress shirt, thin-legged blue jeans, the recycled sneakers just like those you wore. You have to have something for special occasions, you have to be ready to look more mature. And we kissed most mornings and fucked on some weekends, but arriving so quickly was roadblock or impasse, the maw of our silence gaping like chasm. Back home, in Nebraska, your mother was making a quilt. She called us often, asked what were doing, had we been to North Beach, had we been to that island where they had that jail. She said she'd been reading about microclimates, about how where we lived had pockets and pockets of variant weather, that it could be almost freezing one mile from where it was warm. I talked to her weekly, more often than you did, your purse on your shoulder, your eyes rolling upward, your hand making a mouth. At night, by the TV, your legs tucked up under, your shoes stacked at angles on the worn hardwood floor, I'd dream it was snowing or humid, Nebraska, the green fields of soy plants, the heave of the shocks as the car left the pavement for gravel, for dirt.

The first time that I saw the all-black one was the first weekend that you didn't come home. The back staircase, our staircase, had a fence at its bottom, a gate with a padlock that we had no key for. On top was barbed wire. Dealers dealt drugs there, back in that alley, and sometimes were busted, the blue and the red of the lights on our apartment's clean walls. The black one was tiny. One leg had been broken or sprained very badly. You told me overtime, then a convention. The fur on the cat's belly was filthy. The fur on its belly, once washed, shone and shone. It stood poised at the lip at the jade porcelain bowl, its body stretched out, its eyes looking upward while I stood steps above it. Its brother, the white one, was lapping and lapping. I cooed love words in a tone I didn't know that I owned. The Korean man watched me through his telescope. The device had shown up the week prior. He'd crouch at the lens and then stand up and bend forward, his nose inches from the pane of the window. Whenever I waved, he shut the blinds quickly. The all-black stood posed, its eyes salamander but with more yellow to them, and speckled with brown. Others, before me, had been there and shooed them. I would be different; the cats understood this. The all-black lowered its nose to the bowl.

I hid lamps in car tires, lighters in cupcakes, undersized zebras on rolled-up newspapers. I was to finish one puzzle a week, but finishing these only took me a morning, and I would go out and wander the streets: up from the Mission and into the Castro and then over to Haight, where I never saw hippies but saw lots of stores that sold all the things that hippies made famous: patchouli and patch dresses, incense and bongs. I'd sit in the park on days it wasn't raining and watch shirtless black men play big steel drums. I'd get up and walk west, past Outer Sunset, the modest row houses painted in bygone pastels. I'd walk to the beach and I'd stop. Out on the water were surfers in wetsuits. The waves were too small and the surfers just sat there, bobbing like buoys. I found this disappointing. I found this to be poignant: all these people doing, but doing nothing at all. Some nights I sat on the sand until evening—the walk home in the damp air was over an hour, and there were times you'd arrive back before me, your eyes wide or greedy as I walked in the door, your mind asking questions but your lips unmoving, your cell phone on silent while texts were arriving and I'd walk to our bedroom and hear you click buttons as I shut the door.

There was Oceanfish Dinner, Mixed Grill in Gravy, Chicken and Salmon and Liver and Cheese. There were two preparations, Pate and Wet Bits. The Pate was a block and needed some dicing. The Wet Bits were shredded and sat in thick gravy. The cats came each morning, on weekends, and nightly. They hung mute on the landing. They knew to be silent. They understood boundary. They waited and waited. Hope can have reason. Think angel and angle. I bought them two blankets that I stacked on each other and set by the porch's back door. A small single window looked out at the staircase, high enough on the wall that you never looked through it. Nights I couldn't sleep, after I'd set out the blankets, I'd stand on the balls of my feet and peek out of it, and the first night I saw them there, sleeping bundled, the white one's paw over the runt's tiny shoulder, my heart weighed nothing at all.

You were promoted. Your workdays got longer. We set the clocks forward. The streets sprung to life. I was at Wal-Greens, buying more cat food. The man from the window, the middle-aged Korean, tapped me on my shoulder, while I was waiting in line. In his red plastic basket were two frozen pizzas. He pointed at them; he didn't speak English. He jerked out two shakes, his chin snapping downward. We walked to his building. The apartment was two rooms with a pullout divider. The disco ball hung from its spot near the ceiling. The shag carpet was thick and maroon and well-worn. On his bedside table was a small and black phrase book. He walked over to it and opened its cover and with it in hand walked into his kitchen. He came back with a pizza, the phrase book still open. He said words aloud in his own native language then nodded his head and flipped through the pages. He had on pleated khakis cuffed at their bottom; he had on a white undershirt. His hair was cut short on the sides and in back but longer on top. I sat down on the carpet, succumbing to the weight of the oddness. Oven, he told me. Need Help. Please Cook. The man held out the wrapped pizza to me. Need Help, he told me. You Help. Please Cook.

The dive bar on 15th was called The Nebraska. You and I went there a lot our first summer. The floor had on it sawdust; the stool legs were fashioned to look like cattle prods. There was a booth in the corner, a big brown vinyl booth that looked at the front door, but also sat at an angle where those walking in could not see the booth until they were well into the bar. The game firm I'd worked for had begun downsizing: one more week of projects, then no projects at all. I was sitting at the booth tucked away in the corner when you and the man you'd been seeing came in. He looked your age, perhaps a bit older, in his mid-thirties, young but not so young, young but not me. He wore a chic and form-fitting pea coat. He wore on his face a blond, patchy beard, the sort of beard common to white men in the Mission, as though they might hide, underneath it, the amount of their paychecks, the names of their schools. I liked the fact that he didn't seem nervous. I liked the fact that he pulled out your stool.

Our lease was up on the first day of August. The summer was boxes and absence and silence—you'd moved across town, to posh Noe Valley, its sidewalks cleaner, its rent more expensive. All of your neighbors looked just like you. On Bastille Day came a note: Stuff 's out. Thx for cleaning. Deposit is yours. The sofa was gone, the rag rug and the nightstand. In the bedroom, you'd taken the frame and the box springs and left our bright mattress there on the floor. The strays loved the mattress. They set their claws to it. They scratched at its corners and left their fleas in it. I had bites on my forehead. I had bites on my arms. You'd changed your address but I hadn't changed mine yet, and arriving by mail in the heat of late summer was your mother's quilt. I took it out of the box it was shipped in. The background was mint green and on top of this background were sixteen squares of fabric and on top of these squares were small scraps of fabrics sewn on to the squares, slivers of cotton in plaid and in herringbone and in pink, brown, and blue. Together, these scraps summed to blossom; on each square of quilt was the head of a flower, a thing in full bloom.

There was a night in our only fall there, coming back from a Thai place just up the hill. You remember this night, yes? The three men in beanies? How they stopped walking toward us and paused on the sidewalk? Their black Raiders sweatshirts? The tattoos on their hands? I don't know what it is you thought of in this moment but what came into my mind, as the thugs looked me over and then spoke in Spanish, and I, Xicana, and called out as just that, as a Mexican guy walking with a blonde and white girl, was a quote from Picasso, past seventy years old now: The value of the work resides precisely in what it is not. I talked my way past them, the men that would rob us, gave you my wallet once we were downhill and nearer to our apartment, turned back around and insulted the big one, told you to run. I got home perhaps ten minutes after you did, my eyes puffed like I'd been stung by some insect that harbors in it a strong and quick poison. I had a rib broken, two of my fingers. You put ice in a towel. You were crying. One of your shoe's heels was gone. Sitting on the table was my brown leather wallet, the top of my paycheck peeking out.

It's not that a stray is anything, really, it's that a stray is not something it should be, and for this we mourn.

It was my last week there. You'd taken the Volvo. I'd bought a plane ticket back to Nebraska, to the state that had paid for all of my schooling and had given me the money to sit in a class on Art History, in which I'd met you. A day passed, then two. The strays didn't show up. I'd walk out to the landing and click my tongue for them. I'd bend at my knees and then clap my hands. Nighttimes I set food out by the blankets but for three mornings running, the food was untouched. I was collecting this food when I saw the sign in the Korean man's window. The sign said, COME OVER. The man's blinds were drawn. The man's name is Hyo. He met me downstairs and we walked up three stories, and inside, on the carpet, were the two cats, play-fighting, the all-black, so tiny, balanced on his hind legs, pushing a front paw out at the white one. They collapsed down together, rolling over the carpet. You never once saw them. This matters only to me, not to you.

My dad worked on a soy farm outside of North Platte. My mom worked in a kitchen in town. Both are long gone now, back down to the City, always chilangos, both then and still. My wife is white, a bit shorter than you are. We both teach high school. On the roof of the building that the strays both still live in, Hyo built for them an enormous playground. He'd rigged chicken wire along the fours sides of the rooftop, made tunnels to crawl through from old milk cartons, bolted beige scratching posts to the tarred roof, the walls. There were tennis balls, stuffed toys, towers for napping. There was a home made from almost nothing at all. When I boarded the plane to fly back to Nebraska, I took a seat by the window, and as we flew east I looked down at the city, hoping, though I knew the act folly, to see the cats playing in the bright and warm sun. Hyo still sends me pictures of them in emails. The cats are past five now. The cats have grown up.

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