When his cat runs out of food, one man must go out into the rain.
| I’m not an alcoholic, I crooned into my crystal martini glass. I just like to entertain the idea of being one. It was half past noon, and I had guzzled three or four glasses of the exquisite concoction: one and a half shots of Hendrick’s, six drops of dry vermouth, three green olives that I’d stuffed with organic blue cheese, and a few mere molecules of olive brine to keep me excited. No ice. No water. Neat as a priest on Sunday morning.
Perched atop the backrest of the couch, Mila Kunis glared at me with heterochromatic eyes, her ears twitching back and forth. She was not amused. She nuzzled my ear with her cheek, but I refused to stir. From the other room, Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat major poured through my muffled computer speakers. I’d set it on repeat three hours ago. If I listened closely to it, my eyes might start to water.
Mila Kunis hopped down, sat on my lap, and began to knead my face with her paws. Look at me. Pet me. Now, you ass. I tried to nudge her off, and she dug her claws into me.
“Jesus,” I said to her. She blinked and licked her hair-thin lips. “That hurt, Mila.”
I had picked Mila up at a shelter back in 2008, a few days after seeing Forgetting Sarah Marshall, in which the real Mila Kunis starred. I’d decided that I could claim to sleep with Mila Kunis every night if I named my cat after her. But Mila Kunis doesn’t even lie on my bed at night. She usually just sits on my windowsill, pawing at a dark world she’ll never touch.
I set my empty glass down and lifted the cat from my lap. My cheeks stung where she had dug into them, and I stumbled, half-drunk, to the bathroom to wash my face.
Beneath both my eyes bloomed a constellation of ruddy dots. I dabbed a wad of toilet paper with hydrogen peroxide and wiped my cheeks. The cuts fizzled and burned, and I bit my lip.
Mila Kunis wove herself through my legs, purring like a semi.
“What?” I asked.
“Do you need food?”
I dried my face and used toilet paper and spit to stanch the beading wounds.
“All right,” I said to the cat. “I’ll feed you. Just let me mix one more drink.”
The next martini that I made was not to my standards: I had somehow bruised the flavor of the gin. I blamed its predecessors for performing their job too well – for rendering me incapable of producing a quality cocktail. The world was dull about me, wavy and round. Chopin’s notes hung in the air, resonating and murky: muddled by the hollow aspect of my speakers, but all the more dismal that their potential should be lost upon a set of impotent electromagnets.
Mila Kunis’s bowl was empty.
“One sec, kitten,” I said in sing-song falsetto, banging open the cupboard that held her food. No dice. Shit.
Most of the decisions I've ever made have been derived from either love or spite. In this case, with my hungry cat peering at me through its predatory hawk eyes, its head cocked to the side, and its tail whipping, I wasn’t sure which of the two had incited me to venture out into the pouring rain.
I said goodbye to Mila Kunis with a clumsy pat on her head, and I left. When I got down to the street, I deployed my umbrella. The thunk it made upon fully extending jolted my arm and inspired a sense of tepid satisfaction to flutter in my chest. It was my aegis against the tumbling sky, my shield against the onslaught of a dreary day, and, if I needed it, a cane to support my unsteady stride.
A rainwater rill washed down the edge of the street, catching twigs, leaves, and loose asphalt as it ran downhill. I walked against it, uphill, toward the pet supply store.
The scent of rain perfumed the air, and it reminded me of the golden fields around my grandfather’s house in the springtime; lacking, however, was the pungent aroma of pipe tobacco and the curling clouds of smoke that peeled from between my grandfather’s cherry-red lips. I’ll see you soon, he had said. But then he was gone – on a rainy day, no less. And I’m sure that it smelled much like this.
A little over a block away from the pet store stood a statue of a soldier wearing the uniform of the Union. I’d noticed it, but never considered it, though I walk by it nearly every day. Until that moment, the statue had existed solely in the periphery of my daily commute. I knew, for instance, that globules of greasy bird shit usually peppered the soldier’s shoulders and cap, running down his chest and back in white dung tears. But it wasn’t until that day, rain having cleaned and darkened the statue, that I wondered who the man had been. Was he just some small-town hero, or had he been a man of great renown? And then: Does it really matter? The guy has a statue dedicated to him.
At the foot of the statue, a figure sat beneath an improvised cardboard lean-to, holding it up with one hand while its legs curled in beneath the saturated shelter. At once, I diverted my course. It was an old man with a long gray beard mottled with copper patches. He squinted up at me as I held my umbrella above him.
“Would you like a cigarette?” I asked, producing a crushed pack of Camels from my front jeans pocket.
“Please,” he said. His complexion was ruddy, and his skin, pockmarked. But his cherry lips looked familiar, though the teeth they revealed as they parted were uneven, stained, and foreign.
I fumbled to pull a cigarette from the pack while still holding my umbrella aloft – a feat hampered by the numbing chill of the autumn air and my clumsy, drunk fingers. Finally successful, I handed it to him and lit it once he’d pressed it between his lips. I performed the ritual again and lit one for myself.
“You wouldn’t happen to have any change, would ya?” the man asked.
“Sorry, father,” I said, shaking my head.
“Eh,” he grunted. “No matter. Thanks for the smoke.”
“Don’t mention it. Say, do you know who this man was?”
“This statue, y’mean?”
“Would you mind telling me?”
“Plaque’s on the other side,” the man said. “You could take a look at that.”
“I would, but I’d rather hold this umbrella above you so that you can smoke without having to keep up that cardboard roof of yours.”
“Right,” he said. The ember at the tip of his cigarette glowed hot as he took a long drag. “This here is my great-great grandfather.”
“Oh, really?” I asked, incredulous.
“Indeedy. A real Civil War hero. He an’ a few of his men distracted an entire company of Confederate rebels while the rest of his platoon retreated. They shot ‘im up pretty good. He was taken prisoner, an’ he died before the end of the war.”
I smelled cheap whiskey on the man’s breath, sour and rancid. “I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
“Don’t matter much to me,” the man said between puffs. “Never woulda met the guy, anyway.”
“I’ve got to get going,” I said. “But here, take this umbrella.”
If the man had grinned, I missed it beneath his scraggly beard, but he seized the umbrella as soon as I’d extended it toward him. “Thanks,” he said.
As I walked away from him, pelted by the cool fall rain, a car sped by, rap music blaring from the seams in its chassis.
“Ya know,” I heard the man shout after the vehicle, “today is a terrible fuckin’ day for music.”
The woman at the pet store gawked at me as if I’d just come from a clandestine meeting in one of the city’s more illustrious back alleys. I assumed that was because I reeked of tobacco smoke and gin, and I was soaked from head to toe in rain that clung to my body, no matter how much I shivered. It wasn’t until I stood at the checkout with my sixteen pound bag of Friskies Feline Surfin’ and Turfin’ that her curiosity won out against her sense of propriety.
“What happened to your face?” she asked.
“My – my face?” I stammered.
“It looks like you’ve been crying blood.”
“Oh,” I said. “Mila Kunis scratched me pretty good.”
And then I laughed so hard that it hurt my ribs, and it plunged me into a fit of alcohol-sweetened guffawing. Tears swelled in the corners of my eyes. I wiped them away with a drenched shirt sleeve, and my face stung anew as fresh scabs were brushed away, reopening the scratch marks on my face.
“No,” I said, finally, trying my damnedest to compose myself.
The woman, a golden tag on her breast revealing her name to be Charlene, furrowed her brow. I paid for the cat food without telling her who Mila Kunis was. It was my secret joke, and it was all the sweeter for it. I knew, as I exited through the door that, should I have turned around, I would have seen her bland doe eyes trying to pierce the surface of my skin, to the soul that quickens my heart. A final chuckle crept past my larynx as the door shut behind me.
On my way back, I noticed that the man with the scraggly beard had left. The statue stood alone once more. Again, I walked over to it, this time heading around to the other side to read the dedication placard. In Memory of Major Geoffrey Stanford, it read, War hero, Politician, Humanitarian. 1825- 1903. The rest of the dedication quoted an obscure lyric written by a local poet: Peter Hill, the placard read. And no more.
Mila Kunis rubbed her body against my shins the moment I crossed the threshold into my apartment. Chopin´s nocturne lilted from the other room. I fed Mila, washed my face with hydrogen peroxide once again, and sat down. I thought about mixing another drink, but instead I pulled out a pad of paper. I wrote down everything.
The nocturne reaches me from the other room, moves me and churns my stomach, touches me, even through the tinny timbre endowed by my old computer speakers. Salt bites at the cat scratches under my eyes. I recline on the couch, and Mila Kunis is immediately upon me. I write one last line: Today is a wonderful fucking day for music.