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December 11, 2020 Fiction


Caroline Henley

Xenia photo

The holidays loom and I’ve got two weeks off work. Last Christmas was pretty quiet. Not much family left. Karen was the one with the big family. I enjoy the church service in the morning. The kids dressed up in angel wings, robes and long white beards. I watch them run around the pews during Coffee Hour. I help pick up the various pieces of costume that fall to the floor. Then I head home and put Star Wars on loop. Watching hours of low-fi lasers is the only holiday tradition I’ve got. I do the original trilogy Christmas Eve, skip the prequels. Christmas morning, I strap in for the gritty return. I’ve got two cats who don’t usually pay attention to the TV, but they’ll sit with me for a Star War, their little gray heads swiveling to follow the laser beams. I close the night out at my local dive, 40Knots. They throw a hell of a Christmas party.

But this Thanksgiving, I run into Mitzy at the supermarket. Mitzy’s Kitzies, she calls her cat-sitting business. I call out to her across the aisle, motion her to join me for a cheese sample.

“We’re gearing up for the big season. Understaffed!” Mitzy takes three toothpicks of gruyere and nervously chews.

“I’ll be around,” I say. “I could help out, if you’re overbooked.” 

Mitzy’s head shoots up to meet my eye. “Would you really?”

“Sure. I could take a couple of appointments off your hands.” Mitzy’s a little crazy, but she’s always been good to me and Karen. We relied on her service for years.

“I’ll be in touch,” Mitzy says.

I wheel my cart through the checkout and pay. Outside, I put my bags down to light a Camel Blue. On the three-block walk home, I gaze into the brownstone windows, admire their chandeliers, the toile wallpaper, the upholstery of their chairs. I used to tell Karen it was useless to lust over the wealthy, but this is how we walked the neighborhood together, and it’s hard to break the habit. Once I hit the waterfront, the brownstones make way for beer distribution trucks and the onramp to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

I climb my stairs and put the groceries away. My phone vibrates when I shut the fridge. Email from Mitzy. Then another. She’s scheduling me into her system, appointment by appointment, Christmas through New Year’s.

I wouldn’t say I love cats. Karen left Atlas and Titan when she left me. I consider writing Mitzy. Isn’t this a bit much? I agreed to an appointment or two. I click through the addresses. Mostly Brooklyn Heights. One is even on the Promenade. Some are miles away. The rate is $20 a visit, but how much is Mitzy’s cut?     

I write back, You sure know how to keep a man busy! I’ve seen Star Wars plenty. Why not see some swanky apartments? Brownstones trussed with green garlands. Roped-off antique chairs. Framed photos of sad children in elaborate silk dresses. Beats being stuck in my one-bedroom, eating stale pantry items, too lazy to venture outdoors. Her out-of-office bounces back. Mitzy’s Kitzies is booked for the holiday season. We cannot take any new appointments right meow.   

* * *

Christmas Eve I wake up early, head ringing from those shot combos at 40Knots. It’s the one bar in the neighborhood that’s held on to a little bit of edge. Karen and I would meet there for happy hour, bicker loud enough to get the bartender’s attention. I feel sorry for you two, Jen would say, and join us for a shot of whiskey.

Mitzy left a grocery bag filled with labeled keys in my mailbox. Here’s hoping walking up and down the neighborhood will make me a little more limber, energized for the new year ahead. My first appointment’s in a high-rise overlooking the expressway. Needles from a sagging Christmas pine litter the hardwood. I plug in the colored lights. There’s a crowded bookshelf and cat toys everywhere. An empty fish tank with a cracked spiderwebbed pane.

“Char-ming,” I say to the white cat staring up at me. I reach down to pet it. It arches, hisses, and skitters away.

An app Mitzy instructed me to install provides a checklist for the appointment: soak the wet food bowl, scoop the litter, refill the kibble. Then for fifteen minutes, engage the cat physically, emotionally, and mentally. I serve the wet food and circle a laser pointer around the room. I eye the books on the shelf. Mostly nonfiction, biographies. I check the profile: the cat is female, named Jinx. “Loves cheek rubs and cuddles.” Jinx rubs against my leg and I reach down towards her. She sniffs, then swipes at my arm.

I text the required update to the client before leaving: All’s well on Hicks Street! Saw your copy of The Power Broker—love that book!

The woman types back: Thanks! Can you send a picture of Jinxy?

Shoot. Forgot the most important part—the photo to prove their pet isn’t dead. I wrap some yarn around the cat’s body and snap my fingers. Jinx looks up and I get the perfect shot.

After the first six appointments, I doubt I’ll get to see the tony apartments I’d imagined. What I’m learning is that the people who book Mitzy’s Kitzies are all sort of strange. Their real estate might be pricey, but money can’t buy you class, as Karen says. Rooms are entirely devoted to their animals. Lit-up balls are scattered across the floor. Scratching posts tower. Armrests are shredded. There’s always a lingering smell of ammonia.

I figure I better get some grub around four. It’s that part of the late afternoon on Christmas Eve when businesses start closing for the next day and a half. It might be the last time I get to talk to a real person until Christmas happy hour the next night at 40Knots, which is closed tonight, unfortunately. I head south to the deli on Henry.

The store is empty besides an older man slumped in a chair behind the counter.

“Evening, sir. Merry Christmas!”

The man looks up and gives a small wave. I take my time studying the menu.

“You serve your chicken salad hot?”

He hoists himself out of his chair and walks over. “Chicken salad on a roll or a bun?”

“No, no. I didn’t want to order the chicken salad. I just wanted to know why you serve your chicken salad hot?”

The man stares at me, pen hovering.

“Seems a little strange, like putting a jar of mayo in the oven.” 

“What you having?”

I order the chicken parm.

The man leans over and picks out the ingredients from the display case, turns and heats the grill. He bats his spatula around, scrapes my chicken onto a wet-looking roll, and leads me to the register. “That’ll be $8.75.”

I take out three ones and a five and hop on my leg to feel for any quarters in my jacket. “I can make exact… change for ya.” I fish out two coins, stick out my tongue and continue the search for a third.

The man throws up his hands. “Trying to get home to my family, c’mon.” 

I hand him another dollar and he gives me change.

I unwrap the sandwich at the next apartment. I check in on the Mitzy’s Kitzies app, which sends a notification to the client. Then a light clicks on from somewhere on high. A camera is duct taped to the kitchen cabinet.

I try not to look directly at the nanny cam. I lean down and pick up the bowls and soak them in the sink. Two tuxedos scamper from under the couch to the back bedroom. I take a bite of my sandwich and my phone buzzes. Reminder, no shoes or eating in the apartment

I flip off the nanny cam, which I immediately regret, knowing I’ll have to be back here every day this week. Maybe they can make it up with a bar of Xanax or something, a Christmas treat. I rifle through the medicine cabinet and find nothing but empty toilet paper rolls.

* * *

Christmas morning, I wake up with a backache. Yesterday’s visits took all day, so I don’t dawdle. I could use a strong coffee and egg n’ cheese but all the stores are closed.

A long-haired white Persian greets me in the first doorway, and ushers me into a dusty studio. I take one look at him and launch into a sneezing fit. Maybe I’m allergic to the long-haired ones. I’m sneezing so much I can’t even see straight enough to judge the furniture. 

Outside the streets are chilly, quiet, not many cars on the road. I find the only way for me to get down the street with my sore back is to grasp a nearby black iron gate. A pair of elderly ladies in fur coats shuffle past me, avert their eyes from my hunched effort. They side-step ice and make their way up the stairs of a red-bricked Presbyterian church.

At Fredo’s, an orange Scottish fold, I refill the kibble, scoop the litter, and write Mitzy a stern email. Mitzy, my back has given out and it is difficult for me to get between all the apartments. Is there anyone on staff who can take over?

Her out-of-office bounces right back. Mitzy’s Kitzies is at capacity for the holiday season. We will not be taking any new appointments right meow.   

Fredo glares at me from an armchair. If I didn’t show, this poor guy would be left without food or drink for days. The owners are likely cross-country, visiting sick and aging loved ones. Followed by a well-deserved reroute to a sun-drenched beach. A rotting container of curry left in the sink indicates they may have even traveled east. Too far for me to cancel, for them to make it back in time to save this poor flat-faced kitten from starvation and/or depression. I’d have to be a psychopath to ignore all these needy animals.

I text the client. I’m here at your apartment! Don’t worry... I’m not a psycho.

The woman texts back right away. What? Who are you?

A sharp pain shoots through my lower back when I reach down for the feather toy. I am in no condition to engage this cat physically, emotionally, or mentally. I decide to text Karen.

Hey K—Merry Christmas! Got myself into a bit of a situation. Spending the next few days scooping cat litter for Mitzy. Still doing 40Knots tonight of course. You should swing by.

The client texts again. Who are you and why are you in my apartment?

I send her a picture of Fredo. She replies, Thanks! Can you bring in the mail?

If nothing else, this whole affair has put a face to customer service. I’ll stop insisting my items be double-bagged. I won’t track my delivery guy’s location on the food app. I take a note to tip Jen well later. Especially if she pulls through on those peppermint patty shots. 

My phone lights up again. It’s Karen.

Merry Christmas!

Karen’s probably out in Chicago, knee-deep in shredded tartan wrapping paper, holding someone’s baby. She texts again. And happy new year!

I’m beginning to doubt it will be possible to see eleven more cats today and make it to the bar. At 40Knots they’d be playing Christmas Songs by Sinatra. Jen would be in her Mrs. Claus costume, pouring peppermint patty shots into open mouths. There might even be free bagels.

I check out of the appointment and look up the next address. Finally—the Promenade. I shield my eyes from the icy wind to look up at a towering brownstone. I’m halfway up the stairs and reaching for the antique Victorian doorknob when I double-check the app and see the “Garden” apartment designation. A shadowy entry to a sub-basement waits for me below. A struggling fluorescent reveals a concrete, windowless studio. A twin bed is pushed into the corner—I actually own the same plaid comforter. A red felt Christmas stocking is tied to the stove handle by its CVS tag. The cat is nowhere in sight. There’s a stack of gardening tools and cleaning supplies by the door. I must have been hired by the building’s super.

The super even has a back brace laid out on the bed. I place the straps over my shoulders and buckle myself in. The app reads, “Xenia, female Russian blue. Doesn’t like to be touched. Requires penicillin injection each morning.”

Doesn’t Mitzy have a couple vet techs on staff? There’s a needle and jar on the table, ready and waiting for me on a spaghetti sauce-stained placemat. I watch a YouTube video of a chubby young nurse pinching a clump of skin on a gray cat that must be tranquilized, it doesn’t flinch or screech or do any of the usual cat stuff when she plunges the needle into its back. I re-watch the video, try to imitate how the nurse draws out the liquid from the jar, but I keep getting distracted by the white sliver of love handle peeking out of her scrubs.

I slide a bag of litter off a shelf and there’s the Russian blue.

“Come here girl. I know you don’t like to be touched.” Saying it aloud, I think of Karen and shudder. I cock the needle through the vial of penicillin, pull it back, and lunge. Just as my hand touches fur I remember grazing Karen’s hair that final night, bickering in our building’s hallway after one particularly drawn-out session at 40Knots. It was one of those lifeless evenings when we had nothing to say beyond ordering more rounds. I remember the precise moment I lost her. I was leaning on our hallway’s wall for balance. She was crouched one stair below me and swaying like a Street Fighter. I looked down to see I was holding a fist full of her hair. We locked eyes. I softened. I thought it was our one chance to turn the night around. Make up, cuddle on the couch and watch Bravo. But she doubled down. Squinted her eyes and curled her lip. I decided to go ahead and tug.

In my hesitation, Xenia turns and lands a deep bite on the side of my forearm, and the needle clatters to the floor. I sneeze and throw my back out again. The cat releases me and I fall face-forward, down to the ground.  

My back is burning and I can barely breathe with all the pain. I focus on stretching each vertebra straight along the cement floor. Xenia, perched on the couch now, watches me cry. I try and relax, think of that nurse from YouTube. I imagine running my hand down the back of her pink scrubs. My mind keeps turning back to the stairway, watching Karen’s brown eyes cloud over, never to light up for me again. She pushed me as hard as she could down the stairs. Shoved me into the second half of my life, a new era, marked with chronic back pain and a fresh divorce.

The nanny cam is now pointed at a lower angle than before, turned right down towards me. Did it move? The super’s Christmas stocking, tied to the stove, dangles above. A cursive “Xenia” is drawn in glitter puff paint along its white belt. I pull the stocking hard enough to break it off the stove handle, and Bonito flakes from an opened package confetti the air. The fishy pink flakes flutter for a few seconds, then come to rest around me like an outline at a crime scene. Xenia pitter patters right over. I pick up the penicillin and plunge the needle into the cat’s neck. I give her bony skull a kiss goodbye, pull myself up the basement stairs, and call a cab to take me to 40Knots.

* * *

“Where’s your wife at?” Jen asks. She’s wearing a tight green V-neck and her Mrs. Claus hat. The beer taps are draped in red tinsel. There’s a stack of free bagels at the end of the bar but I gave it a look and the plate looks a little picked over.

I launch into the Karen story. How I was always the one who kept life interesting. The one who signed us up for curling lessons, the one who rented the ZipCar to see the leaves turn. I was the one who booked the trip to Cancun to pet the dolphins. Jen nods but keeps rubbing the bar down with a wet towel. There are a few men dotting the bar, some a little grayer than me. Karen couldn’t get past one little fight. I told her she was likely suffering from a state of disassociation. A prolonged state of disassociation, one that she might have a chance to wake out of if she would just meet me for a goddamned drink at 40Knots on Christmas.

Jen pipes up. “Don’t you mean ‘dissociation’?”

I pay the seven dollars and hold my mouth open for a peppermint patty shot. Another young bartender comes up from behind me, planting her foot on a rung of my stool, and drops my chair halfway backwards to the floor. Jen squirts a generous amount of syrup into my mouth and the other girl rights my stool with force. The pair moves on to the next man down the bar. 


image: Aaron Burch