My hand clutched a black bag as I climbed the steps. An orange tabby weighed down the mesh, and approaching a door, I set the animal down, fumbling with pocket, keys. Then, from the next door, a figure appeared. He was older, nearly sixty, ill-dressed like Vegas: short-shorts and a beater; hair spiked in a sort of perpetually moussed state; old arms chiseled from years of iron- and steel-lifting; bulging eyes, rolling round his face. He looked at me in a sort of knowing daze. He spoke first. He spoke with an east-coast accent, nearly Bostonian. He spoke mainly in questions, many rhetorical, or answered by the interviewer. And he spoke loudly, in one constant volume, as a man yelling injustices.
“Hey, you moving in?” he asked. “What? Are you a student? I’m a student here at UNLV – an undergrad. Mental Health and Addiction. I’ve got one year, man. One year. Then graduate school. I gotta get in, just gotta get in. I wanna start my own practice – I don’t wanna work under anyone! Oh, you have a cat? I’ve got cats, man. What’s his name? Say there’s a great cat-grooming place just over there.” (His ands rolled with his bulging eyes as he pointed.) “A hundred bucks. They do the fur and the claws and the teeth, you gotta do the teeth.” (He showed his, some were fake.) “Say, how old is your cat? You got to clean his teeth. What’s his name? I’ve got cats man. Taylor and Rocky. You should take him to that grooming place. A hundred dollars. Just right over there man. Hundred bucks a cat. They do everything. What’s your cat’s name? I’m Cephas,* by the way, nice to meet you. Glad you're moving in.” We shook hands, and I entered my door.
In this world, some men root like live oaks, sinking deep into soil and place. They root as part of their nature. Death alone uproots them. Others, are rooted more like rocks. They may lie anywhere, but they do not move themselves. Circumstance and Time move them about. Cephas is of the second type. He does not own a vehicle and lives, basically, within a one- to two-mile radius. But Cephas, like most here, is not from Vegas. He has seen the world. But I suspect most of his moves weren’t his decision. Like some rock tucked in a child’s pocket, then tossed aside, so Cephas wanders the world.
I often see Cephas in the late afternoons, when I stroll in from work or the gym. He may be sitting on the bottom stoop, or standing along the paved cement, enjoying the cool Vegas breeze when we have it. He’ll let his two cats out and watch them walk and sniff. We chat, and I answer his barrage of questions. I eventually ease my way to stoop and door, and as I enjoy the peace of home, reading or writing, I often hear Cephas yelling for his cat, Rocky. Often, when the sun sets and a calm sets in, the Andover Place Apartments are awoken by the cry of “Rawckay! Raw-ckay!” ringing and echoing through homes.
Last week, at twilight, I heard a knock on the door. I looked through the keyhole and saw nothing, but when I opened the door, Cephas popped into view, short-shorts and shirtless, teeth missing. He needed help with something on his computer. I sauntered over and vainly offered assistance, as his two cats looked at me, wide-eyed with wonder. Like good neighbors, we afterwards sat and chewed the fat. His cat, Taylor, sat atop my chair, and I petted her between Cephas’ questions. Rocky, meanwhile, roved the apartment, or ventured out to the dark porch, his black spots disappearing, his white glowing. But we chewed the fat, just two men, thirty years apart, observing humanity’s most primal ritual: story-telling. When the apocalypse destroys modern man’s toys, he will once again act like a human. He will once again swap stories with his neighbor.
So we chatted, of his two cats, my class, the weather.
“It’s friggin’ hot man,” Cephas said, raising his two hands and looking upwards. “Say – have you ever – the other day I was riding my bike home and I saw one of them pigeons having convulsions or something. Right in the middle of the friggin’ road man! I stopped, and its chest was heaving like it was having convulsions or something. Like this – ” Here, Cephas ceased his dialogue and again raised his two hands like two mighty wings, his mouth curved into an oval and his chest rose and fell. His two eyes bulged and he imitated the pigeon’s “Huuhuh-Huuhuh” noise while flapping his two wings. “Have you ever seen that? It must’ve been having convulsions or something. Have you seen that? Like with dogs. I see dogs doing it all the time. You seen dogs do that? Anyway, so I helped the thing across the road, but it must have been having convulsions or something. Friggin’ hot man.”
We began to exhaust our topic, and Cephas’ eyes widened. He looked at me, and in his own way asked, “Hey, wanna see something? Here, come on, I wanna show you something.” The human stood on his two hind-legs, rising, walking toward the bathroom. I trusted my neighbor enough by now. He had two cats that he took good care of; he had watched the orange tabby for a week while I was away. The man was a down-to-earth, simple man. No surprises. Thinking this, subconsciously, I followed. He flipped the bathroom light and crouched, opening the sink cabinet. The light bred terror. A raccoon, or possum, or skunk had apparently crawled into Cephas’ apartment. And the human was proud of it, grinning widely, looking at me, encouraging me to look. So, I looked closer. The two bulging eyes stared at me through the dark of the nether-sink. Then, slowly, its shape formed. Cephas, impatient, crouched down and pulled the creature out. And I saw the fattest, chocolate-colored cat I’d ever seen.
“This is Smoky,” Cephas explained, trying to hold the beast. “Touch his fur. He’s like a bear! He gets so scared – every time someone comes in here, he runs under the sink. Every time. Don’t let the office know. They think I’ve only got two cats. Look at ‘em. Isn’t he huge? He eats so much! He’ll start eating Rocky’s food sometimes, then Taylor’s. He just runs under that sink. Every time. His name's Smoky.”
It struck me, then, as I watched the man fumbling with this large cat, that I had several times entered that apartment, sat, and talked, even of his cats. The three litter-boxes, the three food-dishes, all now made sense. But in all the times we had visited, in all the times we had discussed his cats, Smoky had never once been mentioned, never once appeared. It struck me, then, that in each prior visit, a cat, the size of small bear-cub, hiding in a dark cabinet, eaves-dropped on my speech. And as Cephas spoke and fumbled with this same cat, I wondered how many other cats were listening or even watching, wide-eyed, through the cracks of cupboards or vents.
The Jolly Mariner – Rochelle Ave
Las Vegas, Nevada
August 3–6, 2016
Painting: "A Pigeon"
By H. L.
Oil on canvas, 1906
*To protect the man’s identity, I have given him a pseudonym.