The Stevedore's Cat
by Erich Sysak
Through the glass front of the animal hospital he saw his wife Jenna standing inside alone. Nick expected more than the little strip of hollow storefronts, a crowd of cars maybe, warm signs with bandaged puppies. He did not know what was wrong with Alaska, but he was not going to let them test or even treat. It was what his father would have wanted. It was strange then to think of the cat as a brother, but in that way, yes, a brother.
Jenna stood with her arms held out as if they were still weighted with Alaska's wicker basket. Nick tried to say something that would fit, but found he could only listen to the footsteps fading down the
hallway, and the recognizable wheezing breath of Alaska.
"I found him like that," Jenna said.
"I know. You did the best thing." Jenna's blue eyes were small and dry. He watched her nose for wrinkles, her lips to see if the corners turned down.
"Did he hurt you," Nick asked.
She nodded. "You're gone so late, Nick. His breath was full of bubbles."
"I've been waiting for this. Go to the car," he said.
"No." She pulled a chair from the wall where above a row of cards had been stapled. Nick looked through the short letters of thanks and curled photographs of animals on blankets and beds and even backyards scattered with toys and garden hoses. Nick did not recognize the way the animals were treated. Alaska had always been the decider, distant from him, not even a cat, but a living small sculpture. He remembered taking Alaska while his father was still alive, the promise to keep
the cat as solemn as his father's wish to die soon and without the longing for the end dragging on.
"Did you see the doctor," Jenna asked.
"No, they'd already taken him. Have you been waiting long?"
"I'm sorry, Nick," she said and watched him stare out of the glass front of the animal hospital. Nick's head was strangely pinned next to the painted dog face in the storefront glass. "Are you thinking of him?" Jenna asked.
Nick turned. "Of course. Alaska is the last of him."
"I wish you wouldn't say that, Nick."
"You know he was a bastard," Nick said.
"You shouldn't talk about the dead."
Nick stood staring for what seemed a long while at the rain and the parking lot and their two cars there like boats side by side. "I can travel now. I could go to Paris," Nick finally said and slipped
his tie from his throat.
"Yes, you could."
Then Nick heard only the heater and a voice from somewhere deep in the animal hospital. He touched his Oxford shirt in the glass, his red tie, saw the metal glint of his gold watch, the one she'd just
bought for him a week ago. "I'm sorry, Jenna. Are you working?" he asked, turning to meet her response.
"Yes, I was working."
Nick sat next to her.
"We could go anywhere we want, Jenna." Nick grabbed her small hand. "You can finish the book anywhere. What do they care?"
For a moment her eyes opened, the blue irises tinted behind her wire glasses.
"It doesn't matter where I write, Nick. I just have to finish by February. You know that." She walked to the window. The window looked like a ticket booth at a bus station. "It's just the routine, Nick. I'm afraid if I leave and go to Paris, my god, Nick, Paris? What about your work?"
"Hemingway was there," Nick replied. "Joyce." He raised his voice while Jenna raised her palms.
Nick watched a ball of fur roll along the mopboard, as brown as coffee and thick with patterns in tangled fur. It seemed impossible to him.
"I don't care about my work," he said.
Jenna pulled her sweater close. "We don't even know what's wrong with him, Nick. It could be nothing," she said.
"Yes. But I see it coming. We've known it would soon," he said.
She looked at him once, then turned again to the window. "Someone's coming," she said.
Nick stood to face the closed door. A tall man with tousled dark hair, a stethoscope draped over his left shoulder, stood in the doorway.
"Mr. Carter," the man asked, looking at both of them. "I'm Dr. Winkler."
The doctor offered his hand to Nick and Nick took it, squeezing hard until he felt the man's pulse. Nick heard the name that belonged to his father in the doctor's voice. It mixed in with the imagined
shouts of the men in the snow-locked fish house in Anchorage where his father had talked him time and again.
Nick had imagined that dark room where no man could take his fathers' punches, not even the Danish sailors who'd boxed him one by one, until their money was gone and then, still standing after seven
fights, his father had asked in English who would fight again. Nick smelled the beer and wood and fish. He saw the red-glowing iron of the stove and the crowd of faces in the dark beyond it. Shake where you feel the pulse like an iron cable, Nick heard his father teaching.
Nick had listened to stories of men buried in fur jackets, wearing animal skins beneath, their blistered faces, squinting eyes, and of ships trapped in ice in hazy distances, and his father among them, oil in the corners of his eyes, an American stevedore.
"Winkler," Nick said, remembering who was speaking.
"Doctor Winkler," the man replied emphatically.
"Of course," Jenna interrupted. "Doctor Winkler. And this is what?"
The doctor glanced at the clipboard, then spoke to Jenna. "Pulmonary edema," he said, then paused. "Fluid in the lungs from an enlarged heart. But he's opposing me."
"And that means what," Nick asked.
The Doctor turned to him. "How old is Alaska, Mr. Carter?"
Nick did not want to answer. He caught Jenna looking at him. It seemed ridiculous, but it was true. How many times had he counted?
"Old," Nick finally said. "I know why you've asked. He's in pain."
"Alaska is twenty-six years old," Jenna said suddenly, as if it were important to her. Nick heard it. She was arguing for the truth of it.
The Doctor stopped writing, smiled and shook his head, "No, not that old," he said and paused. "But regardless, the prognosis is guarded. With his demeanor I can't get treatments, I've got to tap that fluid off his lungs; I can't sedate him. I can put him in oxygen and hope for the best. And yes, I think he is in pain. He can't breathe."
"He's drowning isn't he, drowning in his own blood and saliva," Nick said and sat heavily in a plastic chair.
He heard Jenna start to cry then felt the rush of her sweeping past him and then the door with its little bell jangling and the pressure of the door as it sealed shut.
The sound of the bell took Nick to the ship again and he thought of his father there among the men, Alaska curled deep inside that coat like a warm potato. Nick knew there was not always a ship or fog.
It was the way his father had helped him see it. Nick saw those ships above him, the men at portside like giants.
Then Nick noticed the doctor looking down on him with raised eyebrows, the fluorescent lights setting a glow to his blue eyes. "No cat lives twenty-six years, Mr. Carter. I have never even heard of it," the Doctor said.
He knew the Doctor would not understand. He did not want the Doctor to understand. Only he knew how Alaska guarded the urge to flee, to make mistakes he'd make like any man.
Nick stood to his full height. "How long will this go on," he asked.
The Doctor looked away. "A few hours without oxygen. A few more with."
"And you can take care of it quickly without suffering?" Nick felt his chest expand with the realization that his father would not agree. His father would think of it as cowardly because it was not difficult.
"I can do it quickly, Mr. Carter.," the Doctor said. "This is the right thing to do."
"This is," Nick said.
The Doctor wrote on the clipboard while making his way back to the door. "The technician will take care of the rest of it."
Nick moved toward the window, and tried to see Jenna through the darkness and the glint of rain and street lamps.
Nick climbed into the passenger seat of Jenna's car. It smelled like Alaska, humid, acidic, like oranges.
"We've got to talk, Jenna," Nick said and noticed Jenna had stopped crying.
"I know you did the right thing," Jenna said. "We don't need to talk."
"So we'll go home now. Jenna, about what I said," Nick started, wiping the rain from his forehead.
"No, Nick, look," Jenna said and pointed to the trees at the side of the building, pine and oak trees, dark in the rain and seeming like heavily-shouldered animals. "Beneath that tree, Nick, next to the
table. I can see his eyes."
Nick heard the excitement in Jenna's voice, the worry drained off it. He looked, and swore, if he turned his head the right way, two eyes, glowing red and fading with a sudden jerk, a cat dodging the
About the author:
Erich R. Sysak grew up in Florida and New Orleans, but now lives part of the year in the northeast of Thailand. He works a small mango farm, reads and writes crime novels and teaches. His novels, Dog Catcher and Stage IV, are both available through Monsoon Books, Singapore. You can visit his website at http://ersbooks.net.