Following Vincent, I smelled the chaparral and sage, the scent of a southern California hillside.
Below, I saw a faint glow, a fire or flashlight, that Vincent approached. Someone called to him. My black fur picked up burrs.
I followed, less certain of myself with each step, and thought a few weeks back. We were both new to the house. I was then the adopted alley cat and Vincent marked the return of the prodigal son, which happened shortly after I settled in. Vincent knew his father wasn’t well. Nor was he, by his appearance. I remembered when he showed up at the door at night looking—if you’ll excuse the expression—like something the cat dragged in.
Of course, I knew all about desperation and destitution. I knew it in the months after the professor died. He taught ethics for many years, and when he was alone (with me) he would often mumble aloud, for after his retirement and widowhood he had neither college class nor wife to talk to, and so he talked to me, the cat—I shall not divulge my silly name—not knowing of course that I understood. They never do. His hobby horse was persistence, its ethical dimension, which he even grafted on paper for me. He drew a curved line between poles that bent according to the pull of good and bad, an x and y axis that charted a gravitation/ethical wavering. As he spoke, his breath smelled of alcohol.
He died on a Sunday. They found me perched on his chest. The notion that I was going to begin to feast on his face is unfounded. I was merely biting and chewing to test the resistance of flesh, the possible blood flowing inside. I was tapping into the professor’s knowledge, his insights. Something I’d done just before he died. “You drew blood,” he said, laughing even as his breath rattled, “you little rascal.”
I drew a little bit of you, I replied by that nuanced response that humans call a meow.
He died of a stroke. A sister came from out of town and they put me in a shelter. I fought with other cats and got my own cage. I was briefly adopted for someone who wanted an older cat, but another death, after a fall, led to circumstances that left me wandering the streets. The professor’s lessons of persistence kept me going. I kept seeing myself between opposing poles, not good or bad but life and death. There were furtive meals, close misses. I was getting desperate and thin.
Chased by dogs, I passed by the house atop the cul-de-sac and below it was a slope in whose recesses I spent a nervous night. The howls of coyotes frightened me. That morning I entered the house’s backyard and licked some melted ice for breakfast. Finished, finding no other suitable food, I was about to leave when Patches, as I learned was his name, gazed at me through the glass of a sliding door. We communicated instantly, mind to mind, something that didn’t happen with all the cats at the shelter.
Patches kept coming back to the sliding door. Eventually it opened as Finca, his jeans-wearing hostess—as I like to think of female humans—had enough. After entering, I was given kibble, bed, and a sandbox in the same room with Patches, whose name suited the dark blotches on his fur. He gave me (by grunts, gesture, and telepathic communication) the lowdown on the house. Finca (born on a farm in South America, hence the name), was the daughter of an old man up the stairs.
Soon, I wasn’t the only new arrival to the house. A week later Vincent appeared. He and his father were estranged for years.
I don’t like him, Patches said, his eyes flashing. He was the one that made the old man declaw me.
I was at first inclined to reserve judgments, especially the way Vincent went to his father as if to amend for past differences. I remembered, however, something shortly before the old man died. I had jumped to a window and was thinking about my past, the things that brought me here, when I saw the sliding door open below me. It was Vincent. Looking at me, he saw only a stupid cat but I saw something suspicious. He slipped around the fence and went below. No one would crawl down that treacherous slope by night unless they had to. A light flickered in the distance. He returned an hour later. In his hand was a small bag.
The old man soon passed. Finca, crying, grabbed her phone and called 911. Meanwhile, I went upstairs. The old man lay on a sheet. It was the dead professor all over again. Even the way the slack flesh slid away from the lifeless bone. I couldn’t resist a bite. It was research.
I tasted skin and a little blood before I heard voices below. It was Finca and Vincent. I heard him laugh. As footsteps came up the stairs, I jumped down, crouched by the door, and when Finca entered, now talking on her phone to the paramedics, I slipped down the stairs. At the bottom, Vincent kicked me. “What are you, a spy?” he laughed, little knowing.
In the next few days, I understood Vincent’s situation. It was desperate. He got phone calls from people to whom he owed money. “Gambling,” Patches told me. “The mother spoiled him, for what I heard from Douglas. No discipline.” This Douglas being an old collie who’d been around for years. How Patches could befriend a dog I didn’t know; they were anathema to me.
Apparently, Vincent had no perseverance, either. He dropped out of college once, changed jobs many times, and dumped two wives. A stint in jail was in there, too. I thought of him on the professor’s X and Y axis, imagined that it flared up beginning in the Y axis of hope and possibility and then—when that looked too hard—turned down to the X axis of deviant behavior.
He wasn’t happy when the will was read. “He was expecting much more,” Patches said. Finca remonstrated when he said he deserved more. “You were never here for him,” she said.
That night, drifting off to sleep, I recalled the taste of the old man’s flesh. Faint images accompanied that memory, of seeing Vincent with something liquid and toxic-smelling balanced on a spoon. A drop fell into the old man’s mouth.
The next night, they repeated the argument. Finca couldn’t and wouldn’t change the disbursement of the father’s funds. It all came to her.
“Then sell this house,” Vincent said. “I get half,” he added, like they were two kids in a sandbox.
“You get half when it’s solid. But the will says I can stay here ten years. Besides,” she added, “I like it here. I can see the canyon below.”
“See what?” he asked, suspiciously. “See people?”
“Friends of yours?”
“Naw,” he said. “And not yours, neither. You don’t have any friends but those damn cats.”
“And your friends?”
“Never mind that.”
Patches told me later, “He used to run with riff-raff, not people who’d fallen on hard times, but real ruffians.” I saw Patches widen those rheumy eyes. “Evil people!”
For a cat to say someone is evil, that’s something. We tend to the practical and nonjudgmental. And yet I felt it too. It was the taste of the old man’s flesh. It told me, in an apprehension more of spirit than true recollection, of a tasteless substance Vincent dripped into the old man’s mouth. He might do the same with Finca, now that it was clear she was getting the lion’s share of the estate.
This suspicion was confirmed while Patches slept and I went to the window. Again, I saw Vincent slip outside, only this time he was making a phone call. “Yes, I’ll have the money and you’ll have the stuff. You know what I want, the leaves-no-trace stuff.” He pivoted toward me, and just before he looked my way, I withdrew. “Oh, there won’t be any problem. That was just a misunderstanding. I’ll have the money.” I poked my head forward. He stepped toward the back wall. There were faint lights below. “Yes, I heard you, yes. Ten on the dot. Okay.”
“One meeting is an accident,” the professor once said to me, “two is a negotiation.”
Vincent went inside the house and sat beside Finca. He watched TV or pretended to. He kept glancing past her at the purse she tucked under a chair. “Why don’t you go make some popcorn or something?”
“Okay,” she said, and something in her voice told me she was eager to make some kind of reconciliation.
When she left the room, he sneaked over and opened her purse. He got out her handbag; a quick motion extracted bills. He quickly returned the bag to its place before she stuck her head in the room. For a half-second, she looked a little confused and maybe suspicious over his standing where she had sat, but she let it pass. “Do you want salt on yours?”
“Hell yeah!” he said, “and some butter too!”
I knew what was going on. He was stealing the money he’d need to put in progress the means to kill her.
Later that night, I saw Vincent putting on a jacket. I needed to follow him.
I waited in the dark by the back door and when he opened it, I ran out between his legs. He tried to kick me and missed. He pulled out a gun and waved it at me. “How would you like a bullet up your backside,” he snarled. He pointed the gun at me and made a clicking sound with his tongue. I ran away. “Damn black cat!”
He went out the back gate. I followed him down the path. Persistence, I told myself. I needed it, for after a few weeks of being an indoor cat I had no love of being outside. Maybe a backyard beside a pool (beside, not in) but definitely not this sloping terrain. As I followed him down, I heard the distant howls of coyotes, a sound that seemed to go right down my spine and the burr-gathering tail. I kept thinking of the professor and his X and L axis of persistence. I was on the X axis, the vertical one. I felt myself pulled downward toward an encounter I didn’t want but might need. If Vincent killed Finca and took over the house, it was probably back to the streets for me and the knackers for Patches, who might end up on a tennis racket.
Persistence was easier to have when gravity was working with me, or maybe against me. With each step I took down I wanted to take two up, but the slating terrain encouraged my fading resolve.
Where the slope flattened, I saw two men in a hostile position, though I gathered this from their voices because I kept my distance, at least at first. There was dust and alcohol and tension in the air. I sensed a situation I should avoid. But this time I couldn’t run. “Sometimes persistence is not moving forward but simply staying where one is,” the professor said.
It was hard to avoid that impulse to flee. But something of a longer perspective made me stay. I realized I needed this exchange to go bad.
“You got the money?” someone asked.
“You got the stuff?”
“The price just went up.” I crept around a bush and peeked. The speaker was a tall man with a rickety form, as if he’d been nailed together from scrap wood. His eyes in the firelight had an eerie glow. Perhaps he was part cat. “You got the cheap stuff because you only wanted to kill an old man who was going to die anyway.”
“You just couldn’t wait,” said the companion. He was short with a smear of beard on either cheek. “Couldja?” he added with a snort of contempt.
“You never said a thing about the price!”
“Yeah,” said the rickety man, “but since you’re about to come into some money that’s gonna affect what I charge. Simple capitalism.”
“Robbery, you mean,” Vincent sputtered. I saw him touch the pocket that held the gun. I sensed the tension ramping up. Something was needed to make the mood spill over into violence.
I acted. My blackness blended with the night as I neared Vincent from behind and sprung. I jumped high, claws extended, hitting him on the back of the thigh. He screamed and pulled the gun as I hit the ground. I don’t know if the two capitalists saw me, but they saw Vincent pull the gun from his pocket. I felt a pain in my shoulder and an answering crackle from the men in front of me.
When Finca found me the next morning in the back, I was more dead than alive. The bullet Vincent fired had taken out a chunk of flesh, and how I made it up that hill in the night I’ll credit the professor, his voice in my ear. “Persistence,” he said. I spent 48 hours in the vet’s before I came home.
Patches licked my neck and bit away the remaining burrs. He gave me the lowdown. They found Vincent shot dead below. It turned out he was wanted for criminal activity back East. “A lot of it,” Patches said. He spit a furball. “As it turned out, he came home to die,” he added.
Home, I thought. “Home is what we strive for,” the professor said. And I hoped I had finally found it, high on a hill.